In the depth of night, when all were sleeping, Kunda Nandini opened the door of her chamber and went forth. With but one dress, the seventeen-year-old girl left the house of Surja Mukhi, and leaped alone into the ocean of the world. Kunda had never set foot outside the house; she could not tell in which direction to go.
The dark body of the large house loomed against the sky. Kunda wandered for some time in the dark; then she remembered that a light was usually to be seen from Nagendra's room. She knew how to reach the spot; and thinking that she would refresh her eyes by seeking that light, she went to that side of the house. The shutters were open, the sash closed. In the darkness three lights gleamed; insects were hovering near trying to reach the light, but the glass repelled them. Kunda in her heart sympathized with these insects. Her infatuated eyes dwelt upon the light; she could not bring herself to leave it. She sat beneath some casuarina-trees near the window, every now and then watching the fireflies dancing in the trees. In the sky black clouds chased each other, only a star or two being visible at intervals. All round the house rows of casuarina-trees raising their heads into the clouds, stood like apparitions of the night. At the touch of the wind these giant-faced apparitions whispered in their ghost language over Kunda Nandini's head. The very ghosts, in their fear of the terrible night, spoke in low voices. Occasionally the open shutters of the window flapped against the walls. Black owls hooted as they sat upon the house; sometimes a dog seeing another animal rushed after it; sometimes a twig or a fruit fell to the ground. In the distance the cocoanut palms waved their heads, the rustling of the leaves of the fan palm reached the ear. Over all the light streamed, and the insect troop came and went. Kunda sat there gazing.
A sash is gently opened; the figure of a man appears against the light. Alas! it is Nagendra's figure. Nagendra, what if you should discover the flower, Kunda, under the trees? What if, seeing you in the window, the sound of her beating heart should make itself heard? What if, hearing this sound, she should know that if you move and become invisible her happiness will be gone? Nagendra, you are standing out of the light; move it so that she can see you. Kunda is very wretched; stand there that the clear water of the pool with the stars reflected in it may not recur to her mind. Listen! the black owl hoots! Should you move, Kunda will be terrified by the lightning. See there! the black clouds, pressed by the wind, meet as though in battle. There will be a rainstorm: who will shelter Kunda? See there! you have opened the sash, swarms of insects are rushing into your room. Kunda thinks, "If I am virtuous, shall I be born again as an insect?" Kunda thinks she would like to share the fate of the insects. "I have scorched myself, why do I not die?"
Nagendra, shutting the sash, moves away. Cruel! what harm you have done. You have no business waking in the night; go to sleep. Kunda Nandini is dying; let her die!--she would gladly do so to save you a headache. Now the lightened window has become dark. Looking--looking--wiping her eyes, Kunda Nandini arose and took the path before her. The ghost-like shrubs, murmuring, asked, "Whither goest thou?" the fan palms rustled, "Whither dost thou go?" the owl's deep voice asked the same question. The window said, "Let her go--no more will I show to her <em>Nagendra</em>." Then foolish Kunda Nandini gazed once more in that direction.
Oh, iron-hearted Surja Mukhi, arise! think what you have done. Make the forlorn one return.
Kunda went on, on, on; again the clouds clashed, the sky became as night, the lightning flashed, the wind moaned, the clouds thundered. Kunda! Kunda! whither goest thou? The storm came--first the sound, then clouds of dust, then leaves torn from the trees borne by the wind; at last, plash, plash, the rain. Kunda, with thy one garment, whither goest thou?
By the flashes of lightning Kunda saw a hut: its walls were of mud, supporting a low roof. She sat down within the doorway, resting against the door. In doing this she made some noise. The house owner being awake heard the noise, but thought it was made by the storm; but a dog, who slept within near the door, barking loudly, alarmed the householder, who timidly opened the door, and seeing only a desolate woman, asked, "Who is there?" No reply. "Who are you, woman?"
Kunda said, "I am standing here because of the storm."
"What? What? Speak again."
Kunda repeated her words.
The householder recognizing the voice, drew Kunda indoors, and, making a fire, discovered herself to be Hira. She comforted Kunda, saying, "I understand--you have run away from the scolding; have no fear, I will tell no one. You shall stay with me for a couple of days."
Hira's dwelling was surrounded by a wall. Inside were a couple of clean mud-built huts. The walls of the rooms were decorated with figures of flowers, birds, and gods. In the court-yard grew red-leaved vegetables, and near them jasmine and roses. The gardener from the Babu's house had planted them. If Hira had wished, he would have given her anything from the Babu's garden. His profit in this was that Hira with her own hand prepared his huka and handed it to him.
In one of the huts Hira slept; in the other her grandmother. Hira made up a bed for Kunda beside her own. Kunda lay there, but did not sleep. Kunda desired to remain hidden, and therefore consented to be locked in the room on the following day when Hira went to her work, so that she should not be seen by the grandmother. At noon, when the grandmother went to bathe, Hira, coming home, permitted Kunda to bathe and eat. After this meal Kunda was again locked in, and Hira returned to her work till night, when she again made up the beds as before.
Creak, creak, creak--the sound of the chain of the outer door gently shaken. Hira was astonished. One person only, the gatekeeper, sometimes shook the chain to give warning at night. But in his hand the chain did not speak so sweetly; it spoke threateningly, as though to say, "If you do not open, I will break the door." Now it seemed to say, "How are you, my Hira? Arise, my jewel of a Hira!" Hira arose, and opening the outer door saw a woman. At first she was puzzled, but in a moment, recognizing the visitor, she exclaimed, "Oh, <em>Ganga jal</em>! how fortunate I am!"
[Footnote 11: <em>Ganga jal</em>--Ganges water; a pet name given by Hira to Malati. To receive this at the moment of death it essential to salvation; therefore Hira expresses the hope to meet Malati in the hour of death.]
Hira's <em>Ganga jal</em> was Malati the milk-woman, whose home was at Debipur, near Debendra Babu's house. She was a merry woman, from thirty to thirty-two years of age, dressed in a <em>sari</em> and wearing shell bracelets, her lips red from the spices she ate; her complexion was almost fair, with red spots on her cheeks; her nose flat, her temples tattooed, a quid of tobacco in her cheek. Malati was not a servant of Debendra's, not even a dependent, but yet a follower; the services that others refused to perform, he obtained from her.
At sight of this woman the cunning Hira said: "Sister <em>Ganga jal</em>! may I meet you at my last moment; but why have you come now?"
Malati whispered, "Debendra Babu wants you."
Hira, with a laugh: "Are you not to get anything?"
Malati answered, "You best know what you mean. Come at once."
As Hira desired to go, she told Kunda that she was called to her master's house, and must go to see what was wanted. Then extinguishing the light, she put on her dress and ornaments, and accompanied <em>Ganga jal</em>, the two singing as they went some love song.
Hira went alone into Debendra's <em>boita khana</em>. He had been drinking, but not heavily; he was quite sensible. His manner to Hira was altogether changed; he paid her no compliments, but said: "I had taken so much that evening that I did not understand what you said. Why did you come that night? it is to know this that I have sent for you. You told me Kunda Nandini sent you, but you did not give her message. I suppose that was because you found me so much overcome; but you can tell me now."
"Kunda Nandini did not send me to say anything."
"Then why did you come?" replied Debendra.
"I only came to see you."
Debendra laughed. "You are very intelligent. Nagendra Babu is fortunate in possessing such a servant. I thought the talk about Kunda Nandini was a mere pretence. You came to inquire after Haridasi <em>Boisnavi</em>. You came to know my design in wearing the <em>Boisnavi</em> garb; why I went to the Datta house: this you came to learn, and in part you accomplished your purpose. I do not seek to hide the matter. You did your master's work, and have received your reward from him, no doubt. I have a commission for you; do it, and I also will reward you."
It would be an unpleasant task to relate in detail the speech of a man so deeply sunk in vice. Debendra, promising Hira an abundant reward, proposed to buy Kunda Nandini.
At his words Hira's eyes reddened, her ears became like fire. When he had finished she rose and said--
"Sir, addressing me as a servant, you have said this to me. It is not for me to reply. I will tell my master, and he will give you a suitable answer." Then she went quickly out.
For some moments Debendra sat puzzled and cowed. Then to revive himself he returned to the brandy, and the songs in which he usually indulged.