WHEN he saw the cobra coming toward him in his dark cell, its hooded head swaying and its tongue darting menacingly, Jan strained at his bonds until he was bathed in perspiration, exerting all the strength of his powerful young muscles.
Presently a strand snapped, then another and another, and his hands were free. By this time the serpent was almost upon him. There was no opportunity for him to unbind his ankles, but he rose to his feet and sprang back just as the serpent struck, avoiding death by a mere fraction of a second.
There ensued a race around the tiny cell, which apparently could have only one outcome, Jan hopping backward with his ankles bound together, while the serpent followed, striking again and again at his unprotected legs.
Presently Jan thought of a plan which might give him some respite. Suddenly crouching, he leaped for the narrow barred opening in the ceiling.
He caught hold of an iron bar and drew his legs up out of reach of the enraged snake. But the bar was old and rusty, and illy supported by the ancient mortar in which it was embedded. The strain was too much for it and one end tore out of the groove.
At this Jan caught hold of another bar which seemed to be stronger. The first had come out in his hand. Now he was no longer defenseless, but armed with a weapon which would at least give him equal chances with the serpent. The cobra was coiled directly beneath him, its hooded head raised threateningly.
Jan thrust the bar into his belt, and untied the bonds which prisoned his ankles. He swung his body back, then forward in a long leap which carried him into the far corner of the cell. Instantly he turned to face the cobra, which promptly started toward him.
When the snake was nearly within striking distance, Jan lashed out with the bar. The reptile dodged the blow and struck back, but with cat-like quickness, the jungle man eluded it and brought down the bar on the reptile's head. It writhed on the floor for a time while he beat that venomous head into a mass of bloody pulp.
Then as he flung the still squirming reptile into a corner, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps on the stairway outside. A guard bearing a torch in his hand had heard the commotion and was coming to investigate.
Quickly Jan resumed his recumbent position on the floor, laid the rope over his ankles and held his hands behind him. The guard unlocked the barred door and entered the cell. He spoke rapidly in a language which Jan did not understand and the latter made no reply, so he came and bent over him to see if his bonds were in place.
Instantly Jan tripped him, and before he could rise, brought the heavy bar down upon his turbaned skull. He went limp without a sound, and the jungle man knew that he was unconscious for some time, if not dead.
Jan realized that it would be impossible for him to get across the temple enclosure without a disguise, and although this guardsman was slightly smaller, he believed he would be able to get into big uniform.
It did not take him long to possess himself of the man's clothing, turban and weapons. He also helped himself to his jailer's keys, and took the precaution of locking him in the cell before leaving.
Since the sole light which came to him was from the flickering cressets within the black temple, and since he had slept for an unknown time, he did not know whether it was day or night. So after he had mounted the stairway, he was relieved to find that the sun had set, and therefore felt confident that his disguise would be effective, as his face was sunburned to the brownness of a light colored Hindu.
Imitating the self-important swagger of the temple guard, he walked through the garden toward a tall tree, the spreading branches of which overhung the roof of the low buildings constructed against the wall of the temple enclosure. If he could reach that tree undetected, he felt sure that he could make good his escape, after which he would find some way to return for Ramona.
BUT it was his misfortune to blunder directly into the path of the little wizened, lynx-eyed Thakoor. The priest, who knew every temple guard, instantly saw that this youth, whose long arms and legs and swelling chest were very poorly covered by the clothing he had purloined, was the prisoner intended for sacrifice to Kali.
"Ho, the guards," he shouted, "the jungle man is escaping!"
He leaped in front of Jan, who thrust him out of the way and ran for the tree which had been his objective.
In the dim twilight his flying figure was not an easy mark to hit, and though rifles were popping and bullets whistling all around him, he managed to reach the tree unscathed.
He scrambled up into its protecting branches, dropped to the tiled roof of the building and ran across it to the edge of the wall, from which he sprang into the jungle.
When the maharaja of Varuda arrived at the Black Pagoda he was met at the gate by Thakoor.
"Where have you confined this wild jungle man?" he asked Thakoor, the priest.
"Alas, highness, he has escaped," Thakoor replied.
"What! How did that happen?"
"It appears that a cobra got into his cell and so frightened him that he broke his bonds. He is as strong as ten ordinary men, you know. Having broken his bonds, he wrenched out an iron bar, slew the cobra and brained a guard who went to investigate. He took the guard's clothing, and was crossing the enclosure when I saw and recognized him. I shouted, and the guards fired at him, but with no apparent effect, for he climbed a tree, went over the wall, and escaped into the jungle."
"Fool! You had things in the hollow of your hand. Now you have bungled them. You should have slain him at once. Now we don't know what to expect. Well, there is only one thing to do. I must either marry this girl at once, or let her be devoured, so that no trace will remain of her when the sahibs come. For surely they will come, now. And if they find her here an unwilling guest, my kingdom is doomed, this temple is doomed, and you and I are dead men."
"To feed her to the Black One at once would be the wisest plan, highness," said Thakoor.
"We will let her decide that point," said the maharaja, "but she will have to decide quickly. Where is she?"
"In the apartment your highness has set aside for her. She is being prepared for the ceremony—for either ceremony."
"I'll go and have a talk with her."
The maharaja found Ramona being prepared for the ceremony in which she was to be an unwilling participant. Slave girls anointed her with sweet smelling unguents, stained her fingers and toes with henna, and draped her with jewels.
When she looked up to see the maharaja standing in the door, she noticed that he was no longer attired in semi-European costume and that he had dispensed with his monocle. Now he wore the ceremonial robes of a High Priest of Kali.
The slave girls hung the last string of jewels in place and departed noiselessly. Then the maharaja spoke.
"I have come for your decision," said he.
"I have already told you what it would be," Ramona replied.
"You must think this over carefully," he urged, "for it rests entirely with you whether you will live to be a wealthy and pampered maharanee, or whether that fair body will be torn to pieces and devoured by the Black One."
Ramona rose and fixed him with a cold glance.
"You may rest assured of one thing," she said, "and that is I will never marry you."
At this the iron calm of the maharaja suddenly broke. To Ramona's astonishment he flung himself on his knees before her—abased himself.
"Ramona," he said, "if you have no pity on yourself, then have pity on me. There are a thousand beautiful women I might have for the taking, but it is only you I want—only you I love. I have been married before, yes, many times. What man in my position has not? But until I looked into your eyes I never knew the meaning of true love. I never knew the tortures and heartaches, yearning and loneliness that separation from one's beloved brings. If I cannot have you, then life will not be worth the living."
"And you would feed me to a tigress!"
"I shall feed you to the Black One, yes. But ere another week is past I shall sacrifice my own body to the same Black Mother. Oh, Ramona! Have pity on me! Can you not find it in your heart to love me just a little?"
"I can find pity, yes," she replied, "and a considerable measure of loathing. But no love. You speak of love, but do not know the meaning of the word. To you it is mere sensuality. To me, love is spiritual. It is unselfish. It seeks to protect its beloved rather than to destroy. You say you love me, yet because I do not willingly come to your arms, you threaten me with a horrible death. Do your worst, maharaja of thousands, but base slave of your own passions! I defy you!"
Slowly he rose to his feet. It seemed that his face had aged ten years in as many minutes. His usually square shoulders had a despondent droop as he turned wordlessly, and departed beneath the brocaded curtain which the slave girl obsequiously held back for him.
He crossed the temple enclosure without looking to the right or left, walked up the steps, and entered the central room where the blood-smeared multi-armed black monstrosity looked down at him. Seating himself cross-legged in an attitude of meditation, he remained there in long silent supplication to the Black Mother.
All his life, the maharaja had been pampered. When he was a child his parents pampered him. And as soon as he was elevated to the throne, his subjects had pampered him. Very soon after his accession to the throne, numerous subjects with lovely young daughters had presented them to him for his zenana, hoping to curry favor with their young sovereign. Neighboring potentates had sent him beautiful dancing girls. Presently as he grew older, he had set himself up as a connoisseur of beautiful women. That was his sensual side. But he had also a religious side. By inheritance and tradition, he was a devotee of Kali, as his ancestors for untold generations had been before him. A remote progenitor had built the Black Pagoda, which to this day was maintained by a considerable sum set aside from the revenues of Varuda. His ancestors and many of their subjects had been Dacoits, Thugs, to whom the commission of all forms of crime, and especially murder, was a religious obligation. Thuggee had been abolished by the British, but the criminal caste remained, and practiced many orgies in secret of which the British Raj never dreamed.
However, he had had an occidental as well as an oriental education. He was an Oxford graduate. And the facts and philosophies he had learned in England had also become a part of his being. He had learned the English ideas of love and chivalry—the Christian code of moral ethics—and it was the conflict between these two opposite codes which was now taking place in his soul.
HE had spoken the truth when he told Ramona she was the first girl he had ever loved. Previous to his meeting with her, women and girls had been mere toys, to be played with and dismissed. But genuine love had come to him unbidden— really unwanted. And since he had had no legitimate way of appeasing it, he had taken the Dacoit's way—the way of his criminal caste—to force Ramona's capitulation. Had she been of the orient, this method might have proved successful, as it might have even with many occidental girls of a certain type.
Now, with Jan at large, with almost certain exposure facing him, he realized the enormity of the crime he had committed, and the price he would undoubtedly be compelled to pay. Only Ramona's willing assent to marriage with him could save him. He had failed in securing that, and now there was but one alternative. She must disappear from the face of the earth, in order that no trace of his crime would remain. To accomplish this end, the means was at hand—the black tigress. And for him to employ any other means after going this far, would be to lose caste with his bloodthirsty followers and fellow worshippers.
He went through a hell of torment as he sat there, contemplating the ugly, blood-smeared face of his black goddess, whose features seemed at times to actually move in the orange light from the flickering cressets, and whose red eyes stared down at him unpityingly through the drifting haze that rose from the smouldering incense.
Presently he was aroused from his unpleasant meditations by shouts, and the sound of shooting. He rose and went to the door.
"What has happened," he asked the nearest priest.
"A band of Sepoys led by sahibs is attempting to force the gate," replied the priest.
The maharaja shouted for his captain.
"Ho, Rajam," he called. "To me."
The captain came running.
"Who is at the gate?" asked the maharaja.
"Whitaker Sahib with his Sepoys, and two other sahibs," replied Rajam. "Thakoor refused to let them in, and they began shooting. I ordered my men to return the fire, and they retreated into the jungle."
"Keep them out at all costs," ordered the maharaja .
As the captain hurried away to carry out his instructions, he entered the temple once more and signaled to a priest, who struck a tremendous gong a single resounding blow.
"It is time for the sacrifice to begin," said the maharaja. "Form the procession and bring the white dove."
Once more he resumed his seat and his attitude of meditation.
Presently there appeared a long procession of priests, dancing girls and musicians. The latter, seating themselves at one side of the room, played a barbarous melody, and the dancing girls, led by "Little Earthquake," went through the temple dances of sacrifice to Kali.
During this time Ramona was held by two priests before the door of the cage, which was still empty, but she heard snarls and thunderous growls issuing from the enclosure beyond, and knew that the black tigress was thirsting for her blood.
At this moment there came the sound of a fusillade of shots from outside the temple. Thakoor slipped up beside the maharaja and whispered in his ear.
"They have returned to the attack," he said. "Shall we go on with the ceremony?"
"Our guardsmen can hold them off until the end," said the maharaja. "We will continue."
The musicians struck up another plaintive minor air, and the priests joined their voices in a chant that pealed upward and reverberated from the temple dome.
Louder and louder grew the chant, and louder and louder played the musicians, while thunderous blows on the huge temple gong added to the tumult.
The maharaja took a last, lingering look at the lovely regal little figure before the cage. "What a maharanee she would have made for me!" he thought. But he did not speak. Instead, he raised his hand.
At this signal, two dancing girls stripped the jewelry from Ramona. An attendant opened the door of the cage, and she was thrust inside.
As the door clanged shut behind her the one in the rear of the cage swung open. Two glowing red eyes peered out
"Farewell, beloved," groaned the maharaja.
Then the black tigress sprang for her victim.