DRIVEN back from their position before the temple gate, and with a possible flank attack by the approaching horsemen imminent, Trevor, Don Francesco, Whitaker and Jan took council as to their next move.
Whitaker insisted that the maharaja would not have dared to order his men to fire upon British troops unless he was positive that none of the party would escape alive.
"Why it would be suicidal for him," said the British resident. "He might be able to prove his innocence on the charge of kidnaping. For all we know, he may be the victim of a plot engineered by the priests of Kali. But he can never beat such a charge as this if one of us escapes alive. The conclusion is obvious."
"Whether the approaching horsemen are his men, or others," said Trevor, "we can do Ramona no good by waiting here. We must force our way into the temple somehow, and quickly, if we are to save her."
"I doubt that he would dare to go so far as to sacrifice the girl to his hideous black goddess," said Whitaker. "Why, if he should—"
He was interrupted by the booming of the huge gong within the temple.
"What's that?" Trevor asked.
It means that there is to be a sacrifice made to the Black Mother, sahib," a Sepoy replied.
"In that case we must get inside quickly," said Jan, "for Ramona is in deadly danger." He turned to Whitaker. "If you will keep the marksmen above the gate occupied, try to crash through with Malikshah."
"We can keep them occupied for a while," said Whitaker, doubtfully, "but I don't know how long."
"I'll ride in with you, my boy, and shoot from the elephant's back," said Trevor.
"I, also," cried Don Francesco. "It is my little daughter, my beloved baby, that these demons would torture and slay."
Swiftly, with the help of Sharma, Jan bound a pad on the forehead of the huge bull. Then he mounted to Malikshah's neck. Another pad was strapped on the elephant's broad back, and on this Trevor and Don Francesco took their places, repeating rifles in their hands and pistols holstered at their hips.
At a word from Jan, the giant bull plunged forward.
"Commence firing," cried Whitaker.
Spurts of flame leaped out from the surrounding jungle as the eighteen remaining Sepoys went into action.
Malikshah charged up to the gate, the jungle man crouching on his neck and urging him forward, while Trevor and Don Francesco coolly picked off such turbaned heads as came within their line of vision. The elephant applied his head to the gate, and pushed. It was a strongly built gate, but could not resist the tremendous weight that the big bull hurled against it, and crashed inward at the first onslaught.
At this moment, the riders who had been heard at a distance some time before, and whom the British Resident had suspected of being the Maharaja of Varuda's men, came charging up, yelling and waving their rifles. They were Rajputs, and at their head rode Abdur Rahman, Maharaja of Rissapur.
As Malikshah went crashing through the gate into the temple enclosure, the Rajputs stormed in after him, deploying to the right and left, and shooting down guards and priests alike.
Jan guided the elephant straight across the gardens and up the steps of the temple. Straight through the great arched doorway he charged, and into the midst of a startled throng of priests, musicians and dancing girls.
Jan instantly caught sight of Ramona crouched against the bars of the cage, with the tigress springing toward her. Leaping to the platform, drawn sword in hand, he came up behind the girl just as the tigress reared up to seize her. He thrust his sword through the bars, straight at the black furry throat, and the black tigress, taken by surprise, sprang back with a snarl of pain and rage.
Jan did not bother to go to the gate—indeed, there was no time for that. Instead, he gripped his sword with his teeth, and seizing the two bars against which Ramona leaned half aswoon, he bent them apart, exerting the terrific strength which his splendid physique and jungle training had given him, caught the girl as she fell, and pulled her clear just as the tigress leaped for the second time.
THE Maharaja of Varuda had risen and rushed toward the cage at this unexpected interruption of his bloody ceremony. As the tigress sprang out of the cage, he shouted:
"Slay them, O Black Mother! Rend their bodies and drink their blood! Show them the power and the might of Kali!"
The tigress, attracted by the sound of his voice, turned, then suddenly sprang straight for him, seized his face in her huge jaws and bore him to the floor.
Harry Trevor whipped his rifle to his shoulder and fired two shots, one through her head and one through her heart. Without a sound she sank lifeless beside the body of her victim.
The Sepoys and Rajputs had meanwhile broken into the temple, striking down the priests and guards who attempted to halt them, and taking all others prisoners. The musicians and dancing were huddled into a corner like a flock of frightened sheep.
Trevor seized the dead tigress by the scruff of the neck, and dragged her away from the head of the maharaja. His face was gone—completely bitten away.
"God!" exclaimed Trevor. "God, what a sight!"
"It is a judgment upon him," said Whitaker with a shudder. "He besought Kali to turn her might against us, and it was turned upon himself instead."
The maharaja seemed trying to speak. There was a movement from the place that had once been his mouth, and a few bloody bubbles issued from the gaping wound. Then he shivered from head to foot and lay still.
"He's dead," said Don Francesco. "May God have mercy on his black soul."
Suddenly there was a cry of "Fire!" from one of the shrill voiced dancing girls, and a billowing cloud of smoke poured from the rear of the temple. In the battle which had just ended, some one had evidently knocked down a cresset behind the great black idol. Once started, the ancient, seasoned timbers burned like matchwood.
Still holding the senseless form of Ramona in his arms, Jan shouted a command to Malikshah. The huge beast lifted the two of them to his head, and led the swift exodus from the burning temple.
In the garden outside, the prisoners were herded together, and the warriors once more mounted their horses. Soon the temple became a roaring inferno of flame, which cast such a terrific amount of heat that it was impossible to remain within the temple enclosure.
In orderly array the Rajputs and Sepoys rode out with their prisoners. Pausing at some distance from the gate, they watched the progress of the fire for a time. It soon spread to the buildings constructed against the wall of the enclosure, and the leaping flames lit the night sky in the vicinity with a lurid radiance.
Abdur Rahman, Trevor, Don Francesco and Whitaker stood in a little group, watching the conflagration. Sharma, the better to see the fire, had retained his seat on the neck of Rangini.
Jan and Ramona sat together on the pad which had been strapped to the broad back of Malikshah. Her head was resting on his shoulder and his face was very close to hers.
"Can you forgive me, Ramona," he asked, "for even thinking that night on the boat that it was you who tried to kill me?"
"Of course, beloved," she replied.
Their lips met, and the sly old Malikshah, who had lived among men for a hundred years, and had seen many generations of lovers, flicked an appreciative ear.
Trevor nudged Don Francesco.
"It seems that the love birds have made up their quarrel," he said.
"That is the way of all who truly love, amigo," replied Don Francesco. "We should congratulate them, but perhaps it will be best to do so later. One should not interrupt the course of true love at a moment like this."