RAMONA followed the old Brahmin through the jungle blackness more by sound than by sight, though she caught an occasional shadowy glimpse of him each time a break in the forest canopy let in a little light. Presently all sounds of conflict from the camp died away in the distance, and these two were alone in the comparative silence of the jungle—an aged brown man and a young and beautiful girl of the white race. But though the jungle was comparatively quiet, it was far from silent, and there were many strange noises which frightened the girl.
The old fellow seemed to sense this and reassured her again and again as they went forward.
"That noise is only made by a tiny insect," he would say, or, "This tremendous clamor is simply a night bird trying to attract the attention of his prospective sweetheart. The really dangerous beasts make little or no noise. If the tiger stalks you, the chances are that you will not hear him until his teeth and talons have pierced your body. Even the mighty elephants can move through the jungle without noise when they wish to do so."
And so they pressed on in this manner until a flicker of yellow light ahead told them that they were approaching a camp.
The cautious Brahmin said, "Wait here. I will go forward to investigate."
"But I am afraid to stay alone in the jungle," the girl replied.
"Why, then come with me and we will both investigate, my child," he replied.
They approached the camp warily and saw that two men were seated beside a small fire smoking cigarettes and chatting. Near the tiny fire was a huge heap of firewood, and lying on the ground nearby were a number of tents packed ready for loading, as well as bales of rugs and other camp equipment. A dozen horses were tethered to the trees not far away.
The old Brahmin squinted thoughtfully at the two men for a moment. Then he said, "They are Pathans—wandering horse traders. We need not fear them. Come!"
He led the way into the circle of fire light.
At this one of the Pathans sprang to his feet, rifle ready, and spoke in Urdu, which of course Ramona did not understand.
"Who are you," he bellowed, "and what are you doing here?"
Then his eye caught the alluring beauty and seductive curves of the girl who stood revealed in the fire light, and his look softened.
"Bismillah!" he said to her with a smirk. "Welcome in the name of Allah."
Ramona did not understand a word, but she noticed that his fierce look had suddenly grown friendly, and gratefully accepted the proffered seat on a small rug before the fire.
The Pathan, whose name was Mutiur Rahman, again spoke to the old Hindu. "Are you the servant of this lady?" he asked in Urdu.
"Nay! I am the servant of no mortal who walks the earth," the ancient one replied, "but I have been traveling with the party of his highness, the Maharaja of Varuda."
At this Mutiur Rahman turned to his companion with a slight wink and said:
"Come, Ismail, let us attend to the horses." And, politely to the old Brahmin, "Excuse us for a moment and make yourselves comfortable. We will be with you shortly."
The Pathans walked over among the horses, and as soon as they were out of earshot of the two who sat unsuspectingly beside the fire, Mutiur Rahman said:
"I have a suspicion, Ismail."
"And what is that?" the other asked.
"Is it not strange that these two should be traveling together through the jungle at night, having left the camp of the Maharaja of Varuda?"
"Subhanallah!" exclaimed Ismail. "So it is, and the girl—can it be that she is the one our men went forth to capture?"
"Sh! Not so loud or they will hear you," cautioned Mutiur Rahman. "That is exactly what I suspect. Let us return to the fire now and be friendly. But if they attempt to leave we will see that they do not get far."
THEY returned to the presence of their two unbidden guests, but in accordance with the Muslim custom of not eating or drinking with those to whom they intend possible harm, they made no offer of food or refreshment.
If the old Brahmin noticed this he gave no sign, but sat staring into the fire as if he were looking through and beyond it into another world, his skinny legs crossed beneath him and his wrinkled, bony hands resting upon his knees.
Presently the rumble of many hoofs caused him to look up apprehensively.
"Were you expecting some one?" he asked Mutiur Rahman.
"Our leader and my comrades rode forth some time ago and should be back by now," the Pathan replied.
The clatter of hoofs swiftly grew louder, and the camp was suddenly clamorous with stamping, neighing horses and loud-voiced men.
Ramona and the old Brahmin sprung to their feet in alarm when they saw that these men, obviously Pathans, ripped off Rajput costumes and huge false beards, which they flung onto the pile of wood nearby.
The Brahmin caught Ramona's hand, whispered, "Come," and attempted to lead her into the darkness. But he was too late, for a huge hawk-nosed, red-bearded fellow, with a fierce battle-scarred countenance rode up, clove him from crown to chin with a single sword stroke, caught the fleeing girl by the arm, and swung her onto the saddle before him. She kicked, scratched and struggled with all the strength at her command, but found the powerful muscles of her captor unyielding as steel, and only succeeded in making him roar with laughter.
"So! my pretty one, my little white dove," he chuckled. "You saved me the trouble of bringing you to my camp. Mashallah! It was well done, indeed, and I thought I had lost you." He turned and roared commands to one of his men who stood beside the pile of wood, clothing and false beards, now reeking strongly of the petrol which had been emptied over it, a blazing brand in his hand.
"Light the fire and we will be off," he cried.
The man flung the fagot to the base of that great pile, which instantly flamed up, lighting the jungle with the brightness of day for many feet in all directions.
The eyes of Zafarulla Khan fell on the body of the aged Brahmin, which still lay bleeding on the ground.
"Fling that carrion into the fire," he ordered. "It is the funeral he would have preferred, anyway, and we don't want to have a corpse here."
As soon as this command had been carried out, the Pathans gathered their tents and equipment, loaded them onto their horses and fell in behind their leader. Then the entire force galloped away into the night.
PRESENTLY exhausted by her futile struggles and frightened by the predicament in which she found herself, Ramona went limp and swooned away. Nor did she regain consciousness until the first golden shafts of the morning sun smote her face. Her first glimpse of the rugged countenance of her abductor caused her to scream and renew her struggle. At this he held up his hand and called a halt.
"It seems, my pretty one, that I will be forced to bind and gag you," he said, "as we will soon be on a public highway and you are becoming troublesome."
He bound her wrists together with a silken scarf, her ankles with another; a handkerchief was forced into her mouth and a second bound over it to keep it in place. Then wrapping a shawl about her so that she was completely disguised and even her face was hidden, he mounted once more, holding her on the saddle before him.
Presently she heard the hoofs of the horses clattering on the paved roadway, and from time to time she heard and caught glimpses through the aperture in the shawl of passing wayfarers. There were carts drawn by bullocks, some empty and some loaded with produce, and all apparently driven by natives of the peasant class. There were automobiles of many varieties, elephants going forth to work in the jungle, haughty, black-bearded Rajputs riding sleek and richly caparisoned horses—a continuous cavalcade, that picturesque hodge-podge of humanity which makes up India.
After a ride of less than an hour on this busy highway, Zafarulla Khan suddenly reined his horse to a halt.
Peering through the folds of the shawl, Ramona saw that they had stopped before a red shrine in which was enthroned a grotesque god, with the head of an elephant and the multi-armed body of a man.
The hawk nosed leader addressed a few brief orders to his men in Pashto. They clattered off down the road, but he turned aside and rode down a narrow path almost at right angles to it.
Ramona judged that they must have covered about five miles when the Pathan again pulled his horse to a halt. She was uncomfortably warm from the shawl which wrapped her slender body and was therefore relieved when he removed it, as well as the gag.
"You may scream as much as you like now, little dove," he said, "for there is none to hear you except him with whom we keep rendezvous."
She saw that they were on the bank of a broad river and that a man who wore the yellow robe of a priest was propelling a boat toward them.
Zafarulla Khan gave the girl a drink of water from his canteen and permitted her to rest in the shade of a spreading tree on the bank. Then he shouted to the approaching boatman in Urdu, which she did not understand.
"Who are you, yellow robe, and what do you want?" he asked as the boat approached the bank.
"I am Thakoor," was the reply, "and I have come to purchase the white dove."
"Wallah tayyib! By Allah, good!" exclaimed the Pathan.
The prow of the boat slid up on the sloping bank, and the priest—an old man whose parchment like brown skin was a network of wrinkles—stepped out and dragged it higher.
Zafarulla Khan pointed to Ramona.
"There is your white dove," he said.
The old priest scrutinized the girl for a moment in silence.
Then he said. "This must indeed be she, for generations have come and gone since I have seen another as lovely. Here is your gold."
He extended a heavy bag, which Zafarulla Khan hefted suspiciously.
"To what amount," he asked.
"Five thousand rupees," the old one replied. "Will you count them?"
Zafarulla Khan undid the strings of the bag and examined its contents.
"Nay! This seems to be the correct sum," he said, "and I may not linger. But if I find that it is short by a single rupee I will fetch my men and slit the throats of you and all your idol worshipping brethren."
"You will find the sum correct," said the old priest calmly, apparently unimpressed by the threat of the Pathan.
Then he turned his attention to Ramona, untying and unwinding the scarf which imprisoned her ankles.
"Come, my daughter," he said. "You need not fear old Thakoor. He means you well."
He helped her to her feet, leaving her hands bound, but when she flinched and drew back from him, he said, "Come child, be not afraid. Great happiness and undreamed-of honors are in store for you, and I am but the humble instrument of the great gods who order your destiny. Let me help you into the boat."
"If you are friendly why have you left the bonds upon my wrists?" she asked suspiciously.
"An oversight," he hastened to assure her, still propelling her toward the boat. "I will remove them in a moment."
When she was seated in the boat he pushed off and was well out in the stream before he removed the scarf from her wrists. Then he paddled steadily towards the opposite shore.
She looked about her and had a wild notion of diving into the water and swimming away, but the sight of several ugly crocodile snouts caused her to quickly change her mind. For the present there was nothing for her to do except to resign herself to her fate.
As they drew near the opposite bank of the river, several other yellow-robed figures emerged from among the trees and dragged the boat up onto the bank. Again she had the notion of trying to escape, but instantly realized that it was useless, for many of these priests who now stood around her were young and powerful looking men. The old man led her up the bank and through the trees, where a donkey with silver-mounted trappings stood patiently, saddled and waiting.
The weary girl mounted and one young priest led the beast away, while old Thakoor walked beside the girl and the others brought up the rear.
The path they followed led first through the trees which lined the river bank, then across a level place covered for the most part with tall jungle grass, and presently once more entered the dense and seemingly impenetrable jungle, in which a walled and roofed path had been hacked with knives. Here moisture dripped from leaves and branches and the brightness of the morning sun was replaced by eerie eternal twilight.
From time to time they broke into open glades where brilliantly colored butterflies flitted about equally brilliant jungle flowers which scented the humid air with their sweet, heavy perfume. And at frequent intervals the girl caught the flash of brilliant bird plumage or saw curious monkey faces peering down at her. There were myriad bird calls, from the twittering of the tiny Java sparrows to the raucous cries of peacocks. And the chattering and scolding of monkeys were audible from time to time.
PRESENTLY the path widened and they broke out into the sunlight. Before them was an arched gateway in a high wall of black stone, in which were set two massive bronze gates green and corroded with age.
Old Thakoor shouted something which the girl did not understand and the gates swung open.
When the party passed through Ramona saw that they were in a garden laid out in exquisite taste, with pools, fountains, flowers, shrubbery and fruit and shade trees. Surrounding the garden, which was laid out in the form of a huge rectangle, were many low buildings, constructed against the high wall which encircled the enclosure. But in the very center of the garden was an edifice which simultaneously aroused both her wonder and disgust. It was built entirely of black stone in the form of a pagoda, which rose skyward, tier upon tier, to a dome supported by square cut, close set pillars. Architecturally it was beautiful, but the creator of this strange building had not stopped with mere architectural adornment, for it was decorated with hideous and disgusting carvings and statues so monstrous that the girl after her first look quickly averted her eyes.
"What is this place? Where are you taking me?" she asked Thakoor.
"You are on holy ground," he replied. "This is the temple of the Mahadevi, the great goddess, Kali, the Black One, and shelters her living reincarnation."
He helped the girl to dismount but did not lead her toward the central building. Instead he conducted her to one of the low buildings against the outer wall of the enclosure. Here a number of girls and women, some chatting and laughing, some quarreling, and all busy with sewing, fancy work and beaded work, looked up at their approach. All conversation ceased on the appearance of the old priest, and he signaled to an ancient and toothless hag, who put down her sewing with apparent reluctance and, rising, came forward.
After she had received brief instructions from the old man, which Ramona did not understand, the old trot took the girl's arm and led her into a building.
Once inside and out of earshot of the priest the old hag cackled toothlessly, "Heh! Heh! Heh! Old Marjanah has been ordered to look after you because she can speak English. Are you hungry?"
"I have not eaten since yesterday," Ramona replied.
"If I were in your place I should not eat anything unless it were deadly poison," mumbled the old hag. "Once I was brought here as you have been brought, and look at me now! It was either this or the teeth and fangs of the Black One."
For a moment fear showed in her eyes and she shuddered as if the very name of the Black One struck terror into her heart. Then she resumed her toothless grin and added, "Come, I will find you something to eat."