THE Maharaja of Varuda rode out of Rissapur in the howdah with his two male guests. Shortly after they had passed the city gate they met the maharaja's followers, some on pad elephants and others on foot, bringing up the camp equipment and baggage.
The maharaja ordered them to fall in behind and proceed until they had come to the red shrine of Ganesha, when he ordered a halt and dismounted from the howdah.
"Since we are faced with so difficult a problem," he said, "I am going to make an offering at the shrine of the God of Wisdom and will remain here some time in meditation. My men will conduct you to Varudapur, where I will rejoin you."
He signaled to the mahout of one of the smaller pad elephants and ordered the baggage the beast carried removed and distributed among the others. Then he commanded its mahout to remain and signaled the cavalcade to proceed.
As soon as they were out of sight in the dust of the roadway he mounted the pad elephant and told the mahout to follow the path which turned off from the highway beside the shrine. A ride of several miles took him to the bank of the river at the point where Zafarlilla Khan had met Thakoor, the priest, on that same morning.
As soon as the maharaja appeared on the river bank, the two yellow robed figures emerged from the jungle on the other side, tumbled into a boat and swiftly headed across the stream in his direction. As they drew near, the maharaja recognized the wrinkled features of Thakoor in the front of the boat.
"The white dove was brought this morning, highness," said Thakoor as the boat grounded.
"Good!" the maharaja replied, stepping into the boat. Then he called to the mahout.
"Wait here," he said. "I will return shortly after sunset."
On the opposite side of the river a prancing horse was saddled and ready, held by one of the temple guards. Six other guards sat their mounts nearby and immediately fell in behind the maharaja as he galloped off along the trail to the temple. Thakoor also mounted a horse and followed.
When the cavalcade reached the bronze gates of the temple enclosure they were instantly swung wide and attendants sprang forward to seize the maharaja's bridle as he leaped from the saddle.
He waited impatiently until the aged Thakoor came up.
"Where is the white dove?" he asked.
"I have had her installed in the apartment which your highness ordered prepared for her," replied Thakoor, "and have set old Marjanah to watch her."
"I will see her at once," announced the maharaja , starting toward the women's quarters and not deigning to notice the obsequious salaams of priests, attendants and laymen all around him.
The guard opened the door of the apartment at his approach, and he entered a tiled hallway where Marjanah, the old hag, sat cross legged on a rug beside the curtained doorway.
"The white dove is within," she croaked, and springing up, drew the curtain aside.
The maharaja strode into the room. At the far end Ramona reclined upon a magnificently upholstered divan, amid soft, silken cushions.
Her khaki clothing had been replaced by a scanty oriental costume which revealed every seductive curve and line of her slender, youthful figure. Jewels glittered from heavy wristlets and anklets. Her jet black hair was coiffed in the oriental manner and covered by a web of strung pearls, and her satiny skin exhaled the rarest and costliest of perfumes.
With a start of pleased surprise she sprang to her feet at the sight of the maharaja.
"I don't know what magic you employed in order to find me so quickly," she said, "but you are most welcome."
"I must admit that I encountered considerable difficulty in tracing you here," the maharaja replied, smiling ingratiatingly.
"And now you will take me back to my people at once?" she asked. "What of my abductors? Have they been captured?"
"No, but my men are on the trail. As for returning you promptly to your people, there are forces at work with which I am going to find it most difficult to cope."
"But you are the Maharaja of Varuda," she said. "Is not this temple within your territory?"
"That is true," he replied.
"And are you not Varuda's absolute despot?"
"I am the temporal ruler," he answered. "But this is holy ground. In this enclosure the High Priest of Kali is ruler. If I were to attempt to cross him in any way I would have a bloody revolution on my hands and would be sure to be dethroned, if not assassinated."
"But surely you can reason with him," said Ramona, frightened at this amazing revelation.
"I have already attempted to do so," the maharaja replied, "but he is adamantine. He claims that he paid five thousand rupees for you this morning and that you have already been consecrated as a sacrifice to the Black Goddess."
"Sacrifice!" she exclaimed in alarm. "What do you mean?"
"Come and I will show," he told her.
He clapped his hands, and the old hag entered the room with a silken shawl which she draped about the shoulders of the girl. Then she held the curtain aside, and as the two walked down the tiled hallway the guard opened the door and salaamed.
The maharaja conducted Ramona across the garden and up the stone steps of the Black Temple, where two more guards saluted. Within its portals the air was pungent with the smell of burning incense. But there was another scent, so acrid and powerful that even the sickening sweet incense did not hide it—and though she did not recognize it, it brought to the girl a strange foreboding which she could not shake off.
At first she saw only a gigantic black idol of most hideous aspect.
"It is the image of Kali, the Black One," said the maharaja.
The Black One was a most fearsome sight. Her eyes were red, and her breasts, face and four giant hands were smeared with blood. One gory hand held a sword, one a trident, one a club, but one a shield. Her hair was matted and unkempt, and the tongue which protruded between her projecting, fang-like teeth, dripped blood. She wore a necklace of skulls, earrings of dead bodies, and a girdle of serpents, and stood upon the body of Siva.
"Can it be possible," said Ramona, "that human beings actually worship such a hideous object?"
"Some people, yes. They worship the symbol instead of the reality. We enlightened ones worship the great goddess herself and her genuine incarnations."
"You believe, then, that Kali once lived in this horrible form?"
"That is right," the maharaja replied. "She takes and has taken many forms. She is a necessity to earth and to all living creatures, for we require not only to be created and to be preserved for a time—the respective functions of Brahm and Vishnu—but it is equally necessary that we be destroyed again and again in our various reincarnations until we have attained that unutterable bliss and grandeur, incorporation into the body of Brahm. So, like Siva, her husband, Kali carries out the important work of destruction so necessary to all living things in order that they may be advanced toward Nirvana."
"And what would it profit a living creature to lose its identity and to merge as one of the tiny soul cells with the spiritual body of Brahm?" Ramona asked.
"Ah! That is a part of our philosophy which you of the West find it difficult to understand or appreciate. The loss of all personal consciousness by absorption into the divine and the extinction of every personal desire and passion leads to the attainment of perfect impersonal beatitude. In that condition we are no longer men; we become gods."
"I am afraid that I could not appreciate a loss of my personality or individual consciousness," said Ramona. "It seems to me that your Nirvana amounts to nothing more than oblivion."
"That is what our early philosophers called it, though they used another term," said the maharaja . "They spoke of it as the 'blowing out.' The human soul, they said, when it attained its last reincarnation was blown out like a candle. Thus all cares and tribulations of the many lives through which we are compelled to pass are lost in the sweet oblivion of oneness with Brahm."
"I can see now why a destroyer is necessary in your system of philosophy," Ramona said. "You spoke of sacrifice. I believe you said that I have been brought here as a sacrifice to Kali."
"That is true," the maharaja replied. "Since Kali is a destroyer she loves blood—wallows in it—drinks it." He pointed to the black idol which towered above them. "Look at the blood on her hands, smeared upon her breasts and on her face! See the gore that drips from her tongue! Every life snuffed out through a human agency is a sacrifice to her, which will bring manifold blessings upon the one who makes the sacrifice. And the great goddess is especially pleased at the sacrifice of handsome young men and beautiful women."
"Then I was brought here to be slain to appease this monstrosity?" Ramona asked.
"To please the great Black Mother," the maharaja corrected. "She has been especially gracious to her devotees in this temple as she has appeared to them in living form."
"You mean in the form of a woman?"
"No, I will show you."
He led her closer to the pedestal on which the giant idol stood, and she noticed for the first time that it consisted of a cage, the sides and front of which were iron bars.
There was a barred door in front of the cage, and at the rear a door of bronze was set in the black stone wall. It was from this cage that the powerful and acrid scent which Ramona had noticed on entering the temple emanated—the scent of a great cat and of partly decayed flesh. On the floor of the cage lay part of a gnawed spine, a slender brown finger tipped with henna and a fragment of a human skull to which the black hair still clung.
Closely watching the effect of his words on the girl—for he had a definite plan in telling and showing her all this—the maharaja smiled as he noted the horror in her eyes. Now for the climax!
HE drew back a lever at the side of the cage. The bronze door in the rear swung open. For a moment a pair of slanting eyes gleamed redly in the darkness behind it. Then a great black cat sprang out into the cage. Not a leopard, but a huge tigress whose glossy fur was black as jet—one of the rarest color phases of this animal.
Ramona involuntarily drew back with a gasp of dismay as the tigress upon sighting her emitted a roar and sprang furiously at the bars through which the girl peered. The maharaja flung a supporting arm around her as she seemed about to faint.
"Come," he said. "I did not mean to frighten you, but you were curious to learn the fate which had been prepared for you and I thought it best to show you."
He led her out into the sunlight once more, where she conquered the vertigo which had assailed her. But she could not shake off the feeling of horror which the sights in that black temple had engendered.
Having returned her to her apartment, he said, "I must go now, though you may rest assured that I will do all in my power to save you. However, the decision as to whether you will be saved or not rests with you."
"How is that?" Ramona asked.
"If I were to claim you as my bride, my maharanee , and furnish a slave girl to take your place, the priests would be compelled to consent to the exchange."
Ramona looked at him searchingly for a moment.
"A light begins to dawn on me," she said. "I have observed how every one in this temple, even the high priest himself, regards you as his lord and master. It is you who had me kidnaped and brought here—you who staged this horrible display in order to frighten me into marrying you. I tell you now once and for all that rather than marry you or any other man living except Jan Trevor, whom I love, I would voluntarily walk into the cage with that black tigress which you pretend to believe is a reincarnation of your ugly blood-thirsty goddess."
The maharaja bowed calmly. "I see you have determined to misunderstand me," he said, "and at the moment I have no time to argue the point with you. Suffice it to say that the truth will make itself manifest in good time. Your sacrifice has been set for some days hence, so you will have ample time to reconsider if you care to do so. If not, just as sure as there is a sun in heaven, Kali will claim you for her own, and neither I nor any power on earth can save you."
Screwing his monocle into his eye, he again bowed formally, and turning strode out of the room.