PROMPTLY at sunrise, the morning after their arrival in Varudapur, Trevor and Don Francesco in cork helmets, khaki and shorts, met the maharaja in the courtyard of his palace. The latter was a picture of sartorial splendor with his immaculate turban, eyeglass, and white tropicals, and was smoking his inevitable cigarette.
“The gods have favored us with a beautiful morning, gentlemen,” he said. “I trust that they will smile on us as we make our search to-day.”
“Let us hope so,” Trevor replied, fishing out his pipe and tobacco. “They have frowned continually, lately. Shall we be off?”
“Always restless, always impatient, you Americans,” said the maharaja. “But in this case, you have a most excellent reason. Yes, let’s be off. I have divided my eighteen available elephants among the three of us. So we will each have six, as well as a party of spearmen on foot. You, Trevor Sahib, will search the territory which lies toward the northwest. Suarez Sahib will search toward the southwest, and I will search toward the northeast. The best plan will be for each party to spread out in as wide a line as possible, the leader’s elephant at the center of the line, and the others spaced at regular intervals on either side, with spearmen in between. By following this plan, we should be able to comb Varuda from one end to the other in a couple of weeks, or less.”
“An excellent plan,” said Trevor. “Which is my elephant?”
The maharaja raised his hand, and one of three elephants equipped with ornate howdahs and standing at the other end of the courtyard, came forward. The beast raised its trunk in salute, and the attendant lowered the ladder.
Trevor mounted, and the maharaja called up to him.
“Your party awaits you at the northwest gate,” he said.
Suarez mounted the second elephant, and the maharaja the third. Georgia Trevor and Doña Isabella, who had been watching from the balcony, waved farewells and wished them success, as they rode away.
The maharaja had been very careful to see that neither of his guests should ride in the direction of the Black Pagoda. Also, the territory which he had assigned to himself was that which not only included the blasphemous Temple of Kali, but the one in which he thought it most likely that he might find Jan. The men who rode on his elephants were secretly armed with rifles, and he carried several himself, ostensibly for big game. But their real purpose was to make sure that the jungle man should not again escape.
As soon as his forces had spread out in a skirmish line, the hidden rifles were brought out. They hunted until mid afternoon without a trace of the man they sought. Then the maharaja called a halt for rest and refreshment, at his pleasant summer place in the hills, midway between Varudapur and the Black Pagoda.
They had taken but a brief rest, when a temple guard arrived. The maharaja was strolling about the camp, smoking a cigarette, while his men loiled in the shade. Among these men was Kupta, the hillman. The latter pricked up his ears as the temple guard approached the maharaja and waited leave to speak.
“Well, what is it?” snapped the maharaja.
“Thakoor sends great news, highness,” the guard replied. “The young sahib of the flaming hair has been captured.”
“Where is he now?” asked the maharaja.
“Confined in a cell beneath the House of the Black Mother,” the man replied. “He cannot escape.”
“He shall not escape,” the maharaja rasped. “I’ll see to that, personally. We leave for the temple at once.”
He turned to Kupta.
“You are a good runner, hillman,” he said. “Go, back to my palace and tell the memsahibs I go to the Black Pagoda to beseech the Mahadevi, the great goddess, for the safety of the young sahib and memsahib. Your ears have heard nothing else—your eyes have seen nothing else. If they betray me, you will part with them at our next meeting. Do you understand?”
“Yes, highness,” repied Kupta.
“Then be off!”
Kupta caught up his spear and sprinted away.
Babu Chandra Kumar, whose activities had been curtailed by his wound, was reclining at his ease in his quarters, chewing his quid of betel and discoloring the rim of his brass cuspidor, when Kupta slunk in as silently as a shadow and squatted on the floor.
“Back from the hunt so soon?” the babu asked.
“I bore a message from his highness to the memsahibs,” the hiliman answered.
“What was the message?”
Kupta repeated it.
“Hum,” reflected the babu. “So he has gone to the Black Temple. Did a messenger come from the temple first?”
“That I am not permitted to say,” the hillman replied.
“So! There was a message from Thakoor!” He adopted a wheedling tone. “Come, my friend. We have no secrets from each other. You and I are comrades—bosom friends. What was the message?”
“I am not permitted to tell either what I have heard or seen,” was Kupta’s dogged reply.
“Well, there are other ways,” smiled Chandra Kumar, blandly. “Come here.”
Kupta advanced and helped himself to a quid of betel which the babu proffered. Then he seated himself beside the brass cuspidor.
“You cannot be punished for anything I think, can you?” asked Chandra Kumar.
“That is true,” replied Kupta, mumbling contentedly.
“Now assuming that you are me, and you know there has been a message, what would you guess that it contained?” asked the babu.
“News of great importance,” replied the hillman. “Any fool would know that.”
“Right,” agreed Chandra Kumar. “And the news of the greatest importance to his highness at the moment would be the killing or capture of the young red-headed sahib, let us say, by temple guards. If you were me, which would you assume were the case?”
“I may not answer,” said Kupta, doggedly.
“Well, then, we’ll put it in still another way, in which there will be no harm in answering,” wheedled the babu. “Which would you assume was not the case?”
“That he had been killed,” replied the simple Kupta.
“Ah! So the maharaja is hurrying to the temple to see that he will be killed!”
For some time the babu considered the situation, and what possible profit there might be in it for himself. He had been absent from his home in Howrah for several months and was very anxious to return. Furthermore, he was not deceived by the maharaja’s promise that he might make him his deewan, as he knew the potentate held him in considerable contempt.
While this bothered him not at all, for he was accustomed to being held in contempt by pompous princes and nabobs, it obliterated any slight sense of loyalty which he might have toward his employer. So he decided it was high time for him to collect whatever money might still be obtained from this venture and leave for Howrah. Accordingly, in the late afternoon he rode forth on his donkey, accompanied by the faithful Kupta, in the direction from which he expected Harry Trevor to return. Knowing the man to be a millionaire, he felt sure he would pay a huge sum for the information which the babu had to offer.
Presently he saw the string of elephants coming along the road, and hailed Trevor as he came up.
“Salaam, Chandra Kumar,” Trevor replied. “What brings you here in such a hurry?”
“Have very importantly news for Trevor Sahib alone,” Chandra Kumar answered. “Will sahib condescend to dismount and speak with this less than insignificant person in private?”
Trevor signaled his mahout. The ladder was lowered from the howdah and the American descended. The babu led him off to a side of the road.
“Humbly servant is very poor man, sahib, with extremely large and hungry family in Howrah,” said the babu. “Would Trevor Sahib be willing to pay this very inferior person for information as to whereabouts of the memsahib, as well as his son?”
Trevor looked at him suspiciously. “Do you mean to tell me that you know where both of them are?” he asked.
“Know for positively honest-to-golly where both can be found,” the babu answered, “and for lakh of rupees will divulge information. Cannot do so for less as tremendous personal risk is involved. This babu takes life in hands to even whisper of such matters at all.”
“From whom would you be in danger?” Trevor asked. “The Rajputs?”
“No, sahib, that I will not say or any more until the money is produced.”
“Why, I haven’t so much money with me,” Trevor told him, “but I can give you a check.”
“Check will do,” the babu answered. “Make it out and will divulge information. If not correct and as humbly servant has said, sahib can have this babu arrested for swindling”
Trevor hesitated for a moment. He did not trust this wily Bengali and yet after all, what was a lakh of rupees or a thousand for that matter, compared to the safety of his son and Ramona Suarez? He got out his check book and fountain pen.
“Make out check to cash, please,” said Chandra Kumar, but at this Trevor demurred. “The check must be made out to you and endorsed by you,” he specified, “since I will have no other receipt or guarantee of your integrity.”
“Very well, sahib. To me, then,” he answered.
Trevor wrote the check for a hundred thousand rupees and held it until the ink dried while the babu looked on.
“Well, he said, “the information.”
“Memsahib was abducted by order of the maharaja himself,” the babu said, “and was taken to the temple of Kali, hidden in the jungles to the northwest of Varudapur.
“A man named Thakoor is the nominal high priest of the temple, but the real high priest is the maharaja himself, and it is said that he makes many bloody sacrifices there each year. Am not worshipper of Black One and never attended ceremonies, so that part is only hearsay to me. However, believe that the maharaja intends marrying the memsahib, and know positively that he will order the young sahib sacrificed to Kali.
“If you would save them, go to Mr. Whitaker, the British Resident, organize rescue party and start at once.”
Trevor was dumbfounded, and yet the more he thought of the various phases of the case, the more he was convinced the babu was telling the truth. It was clear to him now that the maharaja had lured the two white men away from the camp in order that it might be left unguarded for the raid. It explained also the fact that the guns left for the women had been loaded with blank cartridges, and that the supposed Rajputs were not Rajputs at all, but others in disguise.
He also had heard the rumor of the impending amalgamation of Varuda and Rissapur and knew that one of the two monarchs would have to be deposed, so it did not take him long to determine the motives back of all the maharaja’s actions.
He suddenly extended the check to the babu, and turning, hurried to his elephant.
“Back to Varudapur quickly!” he told the mahout as the ladder was drawn up. “This is a mission of life and death!”
He stopped at the residence of Mr. Whitaker, and fortunately found him in; the latter having just completed his afternoon siesta.
Swiftly he explained the situation to the Englishman.
“Really, this is most extraordinary,” said Mr. Whitaker, “most extraordinary, indeed. In fact I am inclined to doubt the whole story. However, since the safety of your son and the daughter of Don Francesco is involved, I will do my best to make an investigation.
“I have a guard of twenty Sepoys who will be ready to leave in half an hour. We’d better use horses in order to save time. I will lend you one of mine, and will also have a mount for Don Francesco if he returns in time.”
As soon as the babu received the check from Harry Trevor, he rode for Varudapur as fast as the donkey could carry him and made for the stall of one Ishaak el Yahudi, a Hebrew money changer of his acquaintance, who did quite a flourishing business in Varudapur.
After a violent argument with the Jew, which lasted nearly an hour, the babu succeeded in cashing his check for what he insisted was a ruinous discount of ten per cent. This transaction concluded, he rode to his own quarters, packed his suitcase, and remounting his donkey, made straight for Rissapur.
He reached the capital of Abdur Rahman’s little kingdom in the evening, and immediately sought audience with the maharaja.
The latter, who was entertaining guests, at first said that he would not receive him until to-morrow, but the Bengali sent back word that his news was very urgent, had to do with the memsahib who had presumably been kidnaped by Rajputs, and could not wait.
Upon learning this, Abdur Rahman said, “Conduct the babu to the reception room. I will see him there.”
The Rajput maharaja made excuses to his guests and said he would be gone but a few minutes, then entered the reception room, where he found the babu waiting.
The latter was hot, tired and dusty from his long, grueling trip, and quite pale from the illness induced by his wound.
He waited for the ruler to address him, as was customary.
“Salaam, babuji,” said the maharaja. “If you have an important communication get it over with quickly, as I have left my guests in order to receive you.”
“This babu stands before your highness, a wounded, ill and impoverished man,” said Chandra Kumar, “all because of working for the Maharaja of Varudapur in a clerkly capacity, but not remaining in his employ because of his nefarious plots.”
“Eh! What’s that? Plots did you say?” asked the maharaja, pricking up his ears.
“Humbly servant will be glad to reveal all to your highness for a small sum of money to defray the expenses of return to Howrah, where large and hungry family awaits him,” he said.
“What do you mean, a small sum of money?”
The babu considered for a moment. He knew that Abdur Rahman was not especially wealthy, as maharajas go, and was afraid he would defeat his purpose by asking too large a sum, as he could not expect to get as tremendous an amount of money as the fabulously wealthy American had paid him.
“For ten thousand rupees will reveal all, highness,” he said.
“The sum is ridiculous,” Abdur Rahman replied, “and how do I know that your information will not be worthless?”
“It is information that will preserve your highness’ kingdom for you,” the babu answered.
“Why, then, if you are the custodian of such information I can call the guard,” said the Rajput ruler. “There are other ways of obtaining information from you besides paying you for it.”
The babu cringed. “Nay, do not call the guard. Am very sick man and must get on train for Howrah at once in order that may have nursing of family.”
“I will give you five thousand rupees,” the maharaja said, “provided your information is what you claim it to be. You have my word of honor on that, so speak now and do not detain me longer.”
“The raid on the camp of the maharaja of Varuda was planned by himself,” the babu said, “and the raiders were not Rajputs but Pathans in the pay of his highness, disguised as Rajputs.”
“Ha! I suspected as much,” said the maharaja. “Who was the leader of these villainous Pathans?”
“None other than the notorious Zafarulla Khan,” the babu replied.
“And what was done with the girl?” the Rajput wanted to know.
“She was taken to the Black Temple of Kali.”
“What of the red-headed jungle boy?”
“He followed her there and was taken prisoner. He is to be sacrificed to Kali, and the young memsahib forced into marriage with his highness.”
Abdur Rahman clapped his fist upon his palm.
“Wallahi! I see it all now,” he said, “and I am convinced that you speak the truth.”
He clapped his hands and a servant appeared in the doorway.
“Tell my treasurer to fetch five thousand rupees at once,” he said. “Order my horse saddled and tell my guardsmen to divide into two parties, one of which I will lead myself. The other party, under the lead of Mahmood, will immediately start out in search of that Pathan villain, Zafarulla Khan.”
The babu waited only long enough to receive his money from Abdur Rahman’s treasurer. Then he hurriedly took his departure for the railway station, which was a mile and a half from the city of Rissapur.