|I||Against Moslem and Hindoo|
|II||Maurice Begins a New Life|
|III||The Interference of Antonio Silva|
|IV||Perils of the Jungle|
|V||Mervanji the Thug|
|VI||The Flight in the Ravine|
|VII||The Last of Fazl Khan|
|VIII||How the Fight Ended|
|IX||A Marvellous Gift|
|X||Bobbili of the Jungle|
|XI||The Sowars of Seranghur|
|XIII||A Cry in the Night|
|XIV||The Escape of the Panther|
|XVI||The Flag of Truce|
|XVII||The Cage of Serpents|
|XVIII||The Beginning of the End|
|XIX||Silva and the Tiger|
|XX||A Swim for Life|
|XXI||A Frightful Retribution|
|XXII||The Camp by the Nullah|
|XXIII||A Jungle Mystery|
|XXIV||Orders for Assam|
|XXV||A Chain of Adventure|
|XXVI||Ambushed by Nagas|
|XXVII||Skipper of the "Mary Shannon"|
|XXVIII||Deeds of Darkness|
|XXIX||The Bridge of Darkness|
|XXXI||Gunga Ra the Pilot|
|XXXII||A Crash in the Night|
|XXXIII||The Man With the Yellow Face|
|XXXIV||The Rampacious Rhinoceros|
|XXXV||A Stage of Siege|
|XXXVI||A Battle Royal|
|XXXVII||On Broad Waters|
|XXXVIII||Furies Set Loose|
|XXXIX||Shot and Flame|
|XL||Birds of Prey|
|XLII||Snatched From the Flames|
|XLIV||A Hot Chase|
|XLV||A Thrilling Discovery|
|XLVI||Light on Darkness|
Maurice ordered Sher Singh and Chandar to return to their old position, lest the enemy, knowing the weakness of the place, should make a counter assault there.
"That's right, lad," commented the sergeant. "It leaves only six of us here, but we'll give a good account of ourselves. Watch sharp! they're coming."
A burst of ear-splitting yells from without the camp, and the report of several muskets, was followed by a sudden deafening crash. The heavy cage that blocked the passage, pushed on from behind, had been toppled clear off the truck. Its position was not materially altered, though the barricade was now three or four feet lower. At once the fanatical tribesmen clambered to the top of the fallen cage, ready to leap down on the inner side, and as quickly the rifle-fire, Maurice giving the word, dropped them as a scythe cuts ripened corn.
Some fell backward, striking those who were attempting to scramble up, and others reeled forward to the ground, to lie squirming and shrieking in agony. A few desperate fellows leapt into the camp, full of life and mischief, and advanced into the teeth of the leaden hail until all had been hit. At intervals, as the volleying slackened, the splutter of rifles could be heard in the rear, telling that Sher Singh and Chandar were also in straits. No relief could be spared them at present, for the hill-men were still hotly storming the barricade.
"Keep it up, men," shouted Campbell.
"Faster! don't waste a shot," cried Maurice. "They can't stand much more of it."
Crack! crack! crack! The murky night blazed with jets of red fire, and a pall of smoke hid the heavens. The roaring of wild animals blended with the howling of tigerish and infuriated men. At last the barricade was clear, and none were trying to mount the cage. One lonely savage, who had toppled into the camp, went down before Maurice's unerring aim. That was the final shot. The bloodthirsty foe retreated, beaten off for the fourth time, and slunk away to the jungle. Seven or eight dead bodies were strewn at the base of the defences, and no doubt as many more lay on the other side. It was a severe loss to the enemy.
Comparative silence followed, and it was held to be a good sign that the rifles of Sher Singh and Chandar were quiet, though no message came from the two Hindoos. The plucky victors stretched their cramped limbs, and looked at one another in the smoky gloom. They promptly reloaded their weapons, and filled their cartridge-belts from the ammunition box, which was close by.
"Any one hurt?" Maurice asked, in a husky almost inaudible voice.
"Not seriously, lad," replied the trooper. "Sri Das here has a spear prick in the thigh, and a bullet clipped my left ear. The rascals had very little chance to fire at us. I believe we have settled them for good and all this time."
Maurice made a hoarse attempt to laugh. His head was throbbing and dizzy, and crawling to the water-bucket he took a deep long draught, the others gladly imitating his example. Meanwhile Sergeant Campbell hastened up the camp, and returned a minute later with favourable news.
"All snug in that direction," he announced. "The enemy tried to get in by the weak part of the hedge, but the Hindoos forced them to retreat."
" Is Sher Singh wounded," inquired Maurice.
"Not a scratch on either of them," was the reply. "One of the hyenas in yonder cage is dead though. It must have been right in the line of fire."
"It is not our loss," said Maurice. "The hyenas belonged to Silva. I think it would be best to move the tiger's cage to one side. You see hullo! what does that mean?"
As he spoke the lad pointed eagerly to a white object, faintly fluttering in the breeze, that had suddenly appeared over the top of the barricade.
"I'm blest if I know what it is," muttered Campbell. "Some devilry or other, I'll bet a rupee. It must be --"
"Flag of truce," interrupted a loud voice in fair English from beyond the barricade, thus completing the sergeant's sentence.
The white object rose a little higher. It was a native kummerbund attached to the head of a spear.
"Don't shoot, you there," the voice went on. "If you are civilized you will recognize the flag."
"That sounds well from such a pack of scoundrels, doesn't it?" growled Campbell. "What do you want, anyway?"
"I want to talk to you," was the reply. "Will you grant me an interview?"
"I've nothing to do with it," the sergeant called back. "What is your answer, lad?" he added, in an undertone.
"Shall I talk to him?" asked Maurice.
"I think I should," advised Campbell. "It can do no harm, and it might lead to some good."
"That's the way I feel about it," said Maurice; and raising his voice he shouted ; "I am willing to give you a brief interview. Show yourself without fear."
There was a moment of silence, and then the head and shoulders of a man slowly rose above the barricade. The light, though dim, was amply sufficient to reveal the crafty features of the Senor Antonio Silva.
"Chandar will keep safe watch, Sahib," he whispered in the lad's ear. "I came because I am anxious to hear what this treacherous dog will say."
Silva held up both hands to show that they were empty.
"I wish to talk to your leader," he began, in his sleek and oily voice, "a lad named Maurice. My business is with him alone."
"I'll speak for him, you scoundrel," Campbell exclaimed impulsively, as he fingered his rifle. "I am Sergeant Campbell of the Fusileers, stationed at Seranghur, and I know all about the dirty trick you have played on the Raja and the magistrates. Nothing you can say is going to help you any. You'll be sorry enough when His Majesty's government gets hold of you, and I only hope I may be with the troopers who run you and your hired assassins down."
Silva laughed an insolent, mocking laugh that stung his hearers to the quick.
"My friend, you speak boldly for a rat in a trap," he said. "I must see the English lad, Maurice, and none other. He has the lives of all of you in his power, and you are lost if he refuses me an interview."
"Pay no attention to him, Sahib," entreated Sher Singh. "He is not to be trusted."
"No more than a hooded cobra," added the sergeant. "His brain is plotting treachery, I'll swear."
"But it may be to our advantage," protested Maurice, "and besides, there is no danger while the truce lasts."
With that he separated from his companions and advanced a few feet towards the barricade, holding his rifle carelessly in one hand. The others kept a vigilant watch on the Portuguese, ready to fire at the first sign of knavery.
"Well, here I am," said Maurice. "What do you want?"
"The surrender of the camp," replied Silva, "and the return of my animals, cages, and other property. If you will agree to this I promise to spare the lives of all, and to take nothing that is not my own. Also I will forgive the personal wrong you have done me."
"Forgive?" Maurice cried wrathfully. "Senor Silva, you are the most impudent rascal that ever drew breath. The interview is at an end. I shall hold the camp at any cost. If you want your possessions, appeal to the proper authorities if you dare."
"Wait, lad," exclaimed the Portuguese. "Do you understand what a refusal of my terms will mean? I have three score of desperate savages left. After each attack to-night I withdrew them. I was merely testing your strength. Now I shall unleash them bid them do their worst. They will make one rush upon the camp, and, at the most, perhaps you will shoot down a score. The rest will have you at their mercy. And such mercy! It will be a great revenge. Do you still refuse my offer?"
"Yes, I refuse," declared Maurice. "You can't frighten me with such talk. And now --"
Crack! With lightning like rapidity the Portuguese had whipped out a pistol and fired at the lad, the ball passing within an inch of his head, and narrowly missing his companions. Campbell and Sher Singh instantly returned the fire, but Silva had dropped behind the cage. The kummerbund fluttered for a moment, and then disappeared.
"Are you hit, Sahib?" Sher Singh demanded anxiously of Maurice.
"No, but I had a near thing of it," the lad replied. "I wasn't looking for such treachery."
"The yellow ruffian shall pay dearly for it," vowed Campbell. "Back all of you. This is a dangerous spot just now."
The sergeant's warning was timely, for the little group had barely moved aside and taken shelter, when a discharge of musketry, accompanied by a shower of spears, was directed at the spot where they had been standing. These hostile demonstrations quickly ceased, however, and the jungle beyond the barricade became silent.
"Silva's threats about rushing the camp were only bluster, of course," said Maurice, rather uneasily.
"That's all," replied Campbell, "else he would not have been thrown into such a rage by your refusal to surrender."
"But he will try hard to do what he threatened," put in Sher Singh. "There is very grave peril, Sahibs. Moreover, if the Portuguese has three-score of men left --"
"I'm a little doubtful myself, I admit," interrupted the sergeant. "If they had only made one more charge during that last attack, I'm afraid we should have been snowed under. Suppose we despatch a messenger to the cantonments at Seranghur. There is a chance for one to slip out of camp now, and if he gets through all right we'll have a squad of troopers here by noon to-morrow."
The suggestion called for no argument. It was immediately approved.
"Silva will be neatly trapped if he keeps the siege up long enough," exclaimed Maurice.
"If he continues to attack us as he has been doing," muttered Campbell, in an undertone, "the sowars will not be likely to find us alive when they come."
Sher Singh nodded meaningly, and there was an expression of alarm on his face as he glanced at Maurice.
"If it wasn't for the cages and the wild beasts which he means to get possession of Silva could have routed us out at any time by means of fire," the sergeant added. "But what about that messenger?"
Two of the Hindoos volunteered for the perilous journey, and no doubt both were mainly actuated by a desire to escape from the doomed camp, as they believed it to be. The choice fell to Tara Mir, the younger. He was a fleet runner, and, moreover, was familiar with the road to the cantonments. Having received his instructions he slipped noiselessly away in the darkness, towards the rear end of the camp. A slight rustling and scratching was heard as he squeezed through the hedge, and not a half minute later a terrible shriek rang on the air, followed by a couple of exultant yells. Words could not have told the story plainer. The luckless messenger had been butchered by the foe.
His friends, powerless to avenge his death, were at first struck dumb with horror, then thrown into a bloodthirsty rage.
"Just wait," cried Campbell. "We'll have a chance to pay them for this."
"I wish it would come now," vowed Maurice, "and I hope Silva will lead the next attack."
"Speak not rashly, Sahibs," urged Sher Singh. "Since Tara Mir has been slain, there is no aid to be expected from Seranghur. We must hold out till the enemy are wearied of the siege --"
"Or until the worst happens," added the sergeant bitterly.
A few minutes passed silently, in harrowing suspense. Of the bold little garrison but seven remained -- seven against three score. The five had been sent to their posts, and Maurice and Campbell were patrolling opposite sides of the camp, with all their senses on the alert, when the lad paused briefly before a long, shallow cage that was not mounted on trucks like the others. It stood about seven feet from the ground.
"Here is a weak place," he told himself. "The savages could swarm over it in force without much difficulty. I wonder that they have not discovered it."
The inner side was covered with close wire-netting and the interior was divided into three compartments, in which, amid grass and sand, dwelt a colony of serpents. A score of venomous cobras occupied one of the compartments, and in the next were various other reptiles, almost equally poisonous. The third contained a large and very ill-natured python.
It was a strange coincidence that just then, as Maurice moved slowly on, the neighbouring jungle should have echoed to the rustling tread of many feet. As quickly the thorn hedge was torn apart, and the savages came with a dash against the serpent cage. Failing to move it, or turn it over, since heavy stakes had been driven in front of it, they leapt to the top of it with fiendish cries, some hurling spears and some discharging muskets.
The defenders were promptly on the spot, and a deadly rifle-fire greeted the foe. Meanwhile a keen watch was kept on the entrance to the camp, and several of the party were ready to speed in that direction at the first sign of a counter-attack. But Silva appeared to have concentrated all his men at one place, as he had sworn to do. With utter contempt for the hail of bullets, the fanatical wretches surged over the low cage and jumped down into the camp.
"Drive them back," shouted Maurice. "They are coming faster."
The defenders themselves, however, were compelled to fall back a few paces, still firing incessantly. With rage and dismay they saw half a dozen of the savages looming near, almost face to face. Others were dropping from the cage, to trample their dead and dying comrades.
A number of spears were hurled, and the Hindoo next to Maurice, pierced from breast to backbone, fell with a gurgling cry. Only six were left now.
Campbell's voice rang hoarsely above the tumult; "Give them another volley! If more get in we're done for. Fire, men, fire!"
The rifles vomited flame and lead. Here and there dusky wretches fell, biting the ground in their death agonies. But they were instantly replaced. It was impossible to stem the rush.
At this critical and desperate moment, when all seemed to be lost, a frightful disaster befell the assailants. The top of the cage, which was of thin planking, suddenly gave way with a crash and precipitated eight or ten of the foe among the serpents. Promptly discovering their horrible position, they fought and scuffled like madmen, with blood- curdling screams, to escape the certain doom. In their frantic struggles the cage was overturned, and reptiles and savages swarmed out together among the half-score of hill-men who had gained a foothold within the camp.
No tongue or pen can describe the ghastly, awful scenes that followed. The bravest of human beings are likely to meet, some day, with a peril that will turn their oft-tried courage to wax. And so it was now. The fight for the camp was forgotten, ignored, in the presence of the horde of hissing, venomous creatures.
The snakes, roused to anger and terribly active, sprang and bit right and left at the half-naked bodies of the savages. Every nip of the sharp, poisoned fangs meant speedy and certain death. Wails of agony, and shrill cries of panic, rang on the night air. One by one the victims fell, clutching at their bitten limbs, through which the venom was swiftly coursing. Some staggered away from the fatal spot before they reeled down, and a very few escaped entirely, fleeing unmolested across the camp and climbing over the barricade. The alarm spread to those who lurked in the jungle behind the upset cage, and fearing for their own lives, they scurried in haste from the infected neighbourhood.
The worst was at an end in a very short time. The moans of the dying grew feebler and fainter, and there was less movement in the squirming heap of bodies, from which, here and there, a trembling form could be seen crawling painfully and slowly over the ground. One poor wretch, with a cobra fastened to his naked arm, bit the reptile in the throat and then dropped dead. Another, about whose leg was twined a thick, green snake, leapt by a desperate effort almost to Maurice's feet, and lay there screaming with agony.
Help for any was out of the question. The little handful of brave men -- they had withdrawn to a safe distance -- had their own safety to look after; and, amid all the sickening horrors, their first thought was for the preservation of the camp.
The serpents were now spreading. In every direction the hideous, scintillating creatures went hissing and gliding through the trampled grass. A cobra reared its head within three feet of Maurice, and was struck lifeless by a blow from Sher Singh's rifle. A second was, at the same instant, ground to death under Campbell's booted heel.
"Back with you," cried the sergeant. "We can't stop here any longer. Death lurks at every step."
"We've got to take our chances with the reptiles," exclaimed Maurice. "The camp must be protected, for it may be attacked again at any minute."
"And at least two score of the tribesmen are left, Sahib," reminded Sher Singh.
Cautiously the group retreated for a short distance, and then, pausing in anxious indecision, they watched all sides of the enclosure. No one observed the python dragging its thick coils over the heap of dead and dying savages; indeed, the existence of the big snake was for the time being forgotten. He had just crept out of the cage, where he had been lying stupidly during the whole scene, and now, thoroughly aroused, he was hungry and ill-tempered. His wicked eyes sparkled as he glided towards the unsuspecting party of men.
Suddenly there was an awful yell from Chandar, and his horrified companions scattered right and left as they saw him caught in the embrace of the slimy monster. Two coils encircled the unfortunate Hindoo. His bones cracked with a sickening sound, and his screams ended in a throaty wail. The python's head darted to and fro, hissing and spitting.
With an exclamation of rage Maurice reversed his rifle and sprang forward, watching a chance to strike.
"Back, Sahib, for your life!" warned Sher Singh.
"It's too late to do any good," cried Campbell. "Out of the way, lad, and give me a chance to fire."
Maurice was confused by the shouting of his friends, which threw him for a moment off his guard. Then, quickly the python's tail slid alongside of him and whipped about his legs, at once jerking him to the ground. He uttered a frightful cry, and realizing what had happened, he gave himself up for lost.
"Help! help!" he intreated, as he struggled vainly to escape from the merciless coils that were tightening on his limbs.
Meanwhile Sergeant Campbell had dashed to the tent, whence he promptly returned carrying an axe. Approaching the python, he attacked the thick body midway between the two victims. Thud! thud! Each stroke told in spite of the fearful contortions. The axe fell faster and faster, until finally the monster dropped apart, cleft fairly in twain. Its vitality was destroyed, though its two bodies were still feebly agitated.
With a cry of satisfaction the sergeant staggered back, panting and exhausted, and with eager hands Sher Singh tore Maurice free. With the exception of a few bruises the lad was absolutely unhurt, for the snake's muscular power had been mostly concentrated on the luckless Hindoo. Chandar had already breathed his last, and was so tightly wrapped in the coils that he could not be liberated.
With one or two inarticulate words of gratitude Maurice swooned away, but a dash of water on his head, and a sip of brandy to follow, speedily pulled him round. He felt better at once, and soon was quite recovered, though his nerves were badly shaken by what he had gone through.
All were depressed by the tragedy, and the black, sultry night seemed to whisper of worse misfortunes to come.
"Five of us left," Campbell said huskily. "We're no match for that fiend of a Portuguese. I've little heart, lad, to fight on against such overwhelming odds."
"But the luck has really been on our side," protested Maurice, with a show of cheerfulness. "The savages have been compelled to retreat every time, and they will scarcely muster up enough courage to attack us again."
"Not of their own free will, perhaps," assented the sergeant. "I grant you that. But as long as they are in the mind to obey Silva's orders there is no telling."
"Look, Sahibs!" shrilly interrupted Sher Singh. "There at the end of the camp."
All eyes followed the Hindoo's outstretched arm, and they beheld an ominous and alarming sight. A ruddy glare danced above the barricade, and it was evident that dry grass had been piled against the far side of the cage and set on fire.
"We must put it out," cried Maurice, dashing towards the spot. "Quick! there are several pails of water left."
"It's no use, lad," declared Campbell; but nevertheless he ran with the others.
They secured the pails, and fearlessly approached the barricade. Just then a mass of forked flame leapt out of the dense yellow smoke, hissing and crackling about the woodwork of the doomed cage.
"It would take a reservoir to put that out," cried the sergeant. "It's all up with the camp now. And it's more than doubtful if we'll be able to save our lives."
"I'm afraid you're right," said Maurice. "The camp is surrounded, of course. Well, it's hard to die like rats in a trap. And all my fault, too."
"If it comes to the worst we'll sell our lives dearly," vowed Campbell. "But a bold, determined rush may carry us safely to the jungle. Are you ready to try it?"
There was no reply, No one stirred. They stood for a moment in dazed and bitter despair, reckless of their exposed position; for all around them was a lurid, red glare.
The roaring flames spread, dancing higher. The poor beasts, imprisoned in their cages, screamed with fright as they sniffed and saw the oncoming death. But as yet, strange to say, the enemy had fired no shot, hurled no spear, at the clearly-defined little group. Nor was there any sign of life outside; apparently the jungle beyond the barricade was deserted.
"By heavens, I know why the rascals are so quiet!" Maurice suddenly cried, in a voice of alarm and consternation. "They are keeping at a safe distance, and no wonder, either. That burning cage belonged to Silva, and among the contents are two large tins of powder --"
"Powder?" shouted Campbell. "Are you sure?"
"Yes; because I opened one of the tins. I had forgotten all about them. But Silva remembered, you may be certain, and that is why he started the fire."
"His object is to blow the passage free," added Sher Singh. "That accomplished, they will rush in."
"God help us!" cried the sergeant. "The cage is now wrapped in flames. At any moment they may reach the powder. Back -- back for your lives. It is death to linger here."
At that instant, and before the warning could be heeded, there came a tremendous explosion that seemed to rend the very earth asunder. A sheet of fire and flame-lit smoke rose heavenward, and as quickly the air was filled with shattered timber and wheels, iron bolts, clods of earth, and a shower of smaller debris.
The force of the explosion dashed the occupants of the camp to the ground, where they lay, stunned and bewildered, while the wreckage dropped around them and the fumes of smoke were drawn into their lungs.
Fortunately, however, the little band had been far enough away to escape serious injury. A vague sense of peril impressed itself on their reeling brains, and rising dizzily they stared about them, at first scarcely comprehending what had happened.
Where the barricade had been was now a huge black rent in the ground. The cages immediately to right and left of the passage had been destroyed or partially so. In one a mangled leopard was screeching with agony, and from the shattered timbers of the other protruded the dead bodies of the two hyenas ; one of them had been killed before the catastrophe. The inmates of the remaining cages were making a fearful din, and the whole scene was radiantly illumined by fragments of burning wood.
The space of time during which Maurice and his companions stood gazing stupidly about them was in reality very brief, though to their minds it seemed long. They were roused from their stupefaction by a burst of angry yells, and through the demolished barricade streamed a horde of savages. Silva's figure, lean and bearded, towered among the foremost.
A single glimpse showed the impossibility of resisting such a charge.
"Run for your lives!" exclaimed Campbell, setting the example.
He made off towards the rear of the camp, the others following as rapidly as their staggering limbs would take them. Hot in pursuit pressed the hillmen, merciless and bloodthirsty, hurling spears and firing a few shots that failed to have any effect.
"Faster! faster!" panted the sergeant. "We've a bit of a chance, maybe."
The fugitives were now in deeper gloom, and if they could hold out a little longer they would be safe, provided no foes were lurking ahead to cut them off. Campbell, Maurice, and Sher Singh were slightly in advance of Sri Das and the remaining native, whose name was Gunput.
Suddenly Sri Das uttered a piercing yell. A cobra had fastened upon his ankle, and as the stricken man reeled with agony, a musket-ball penetrated his brain and mercifully ended his sufferings. As Sri Das fell Maurice imprudently slackened his speed to glance behind him, and at the same instant Gunput, by a swift spurt, gained the lad's former place between the sergeant and Sher Singh.
Seeing that Sri Das was beyond help, and that the clamorous savages were very near, Maurice lost no time in speeding after his companions. But he had not made three strides when his foot caught in a patch of tangled grass, and down he went, striking his head so violently on a knotty root as to partly deprive him of consciousness.
In the murky darkness and the excitement of the moment Campbell and Sher Singh naturally did not discover the substitution of Gunput for the lad. They pushed on at full speed, fearful of being overtaken and butchered, and reaching the verge of the camp they tore the hedge apart and crawled under the nearest cage. They fought ahead through thorns and scrub, bleeding and lacerated, until, when they were some distance within the jungle, they for the first time became aware that the lad was not with them.
Meanwhile, having been roused from his semi- stupor by naked feet trampling ruthlessly over him, Maurice found himself in a most unenviable plight. Smarting with pain, he struggled to rise, and had barely succeeded in doing so when his arms were firmly pinned to his sides from behind. Twisting around he discovered to his horror -- a couple of torches shed a strong light -- that he was in the grasp of Antonio Silva himself.
The lad promptly realized that he was lost, and the thought of what his fate might be gave him a cold shiver. Weakened by his bruises, unable to offer any resistance, he was like a child in his captor's grip.
"Ah! this is unexpected good fortune," snarled the Portuguese. "I have kept my word, boy -- you are in my power. It was you I chiefly wished for, and I am glad now that my pistol-shot failed to kill you. I will settle old scores in a much better fashion."
"You will be sorry if you do," said Maurice, as he looked vainly for his friends. "Would you dare to murder me?"
"Dare?" sneered Silva, with an evil laugh. "Back, you dogs!" he shouted at the fiendish savages, a number of whom were swarming about the two. "Leave the prisoner to me. I will glut your thirst for vengeance soon enough."
The hillmen doubtless did not understand a word, but they sullenly withdrew and went yelling across the enclosure after their comrades. An instant later Silva was joined by two other Portuguese the same who had been present when Tearle's party had the fight hi the ravine. These ruffians, Castro and Pereira by name, were every whit as sinister-looking as their leader. They fixed ferocious glances on Maurice.
"You see I have the lad," said Silva. "That satisfies me. His companions have escaped to the jungle, and it is useless to seek for them."
"It is a pity," replied Castro. "They will hasten to the cantonment at Seranghur, and put the sowars on our track."
"That is true," Pereira assented, uneasily. "We had better get away from here as quickly as possible."
"Cowards!" exclaimed Silva. "However, you are right. But first I will have my revenge. Call back the savages, if they have been stupid enough to chase the fugitives beyond the camp. And be quick, for I need your help."
"The wretches are beyond control," they declared. "They won't listen to us."
"Never mind them now," Silva cried angrily. "I'll wake them up when I've finished with the business I have on hand. Here, take the lad. It will cost you your lives if you let him give you the slip."
Turning Maurice over to the two Portuguese, he snatched a torch from one of the savages and hastened across the camp.
"This way," he shouted a moment later.
Castro and Pereira promptly took the prisoner to Silva, who was standing before the cage that contained the tiger. The great animal was moving restlessly up and down, growling in a low key. He was clearly in a bad temper, and this was aggravated by the clamour of the other beasts and the glare of the torches.
On Silva's face was a smile of venomous hatred and satisfaction ; his white teeth gleamed through his parted lips.
"What do you think of my revenge?" he asked of Maurice.
The lad, suddenly realizing the awful fate in store for him, was chilled and stupefied with horror. Beyond a doubt the Portuguese meant to throw him into the tiger's cage. He first made a desperate and futile effort to escape, then hoarsely begged for mercy, appealing to each of his captors in turn. His courage was unequal to such a fearful test, and little wonder.
From dread of possible consequences, and nothing else, Castro and Pereira glanced doubtfully at their leader. But Silva had no difficulty in allaying their scruples.
"It will quickly be over," he said. "And there is no one to tell the tale. Who would believe any statement made by those uncivilized wretches yonder?"
"If you are determined to kill me," implored Maurice, "let it be in some other way. Why do you wish to torture me?"
The lad appealed to deaf ears and merciless hearts.
"Ah, you shudder!" cried Silva. "You quake with fear. This is a sweet revenge, indeed. You will be a dainty morsel for the hungry brute. Behold, his jaws are open and waiting. The great teeth will slowly crunch your bones and devour your flesh."
Beckoning to the two Portuguese to draw nearer, he stepped close up to the bars. Half a score of the savages approached, and gathered about the spot with fiendish and noisy delight. The tiger backed to the rear of the cage, where, dropping to his haunches, he snarled incessantly and ominously. His eyes were balls of fire, and his tongue dangled from his blood-red chops.
"Be quick," urged Silva, with an oath.
Rapidly, in spite of his frantic struggles and pitiful cries, Castro and Pereira forced the lad on. With one hand Silva fumbled at the fastenings of the cage and in the other he held a blazing torch, with which he menaced the animal and kept it at bay. Inch by inch he drew the sliding door open.
"Now!" he cried. "Throw the lad in."
As Maurice was lifted off his feet by the two Portuguese he uttered a loud scream, and by a desperate effort wrested himself partly from their grasp. Silva. swore fiercely, and in his rage and consternation he let the torch fall to the ground. As quickly the tiger seized his opportunity, and leaping forward with a thunderous roar got half-way through the narrow door, where he became wedged fast for a moment, struggling and twisting for liberty.
The disaster was so startling, so unexpected, that all lost their presence of mind. Silva sprang to one side and tripped over backward, while Castro and Pereira, promptly dropping the lad, started to run for their lives.
A smashing, ripping noise, a clatter of splintered woodwork, and the enraged tiger was free. With a deep roar the beast bounded over and beyond Maurice, and pounced upon Pereira. Shaking the luckless man as a terrier shakes a rat, he dashed lightly across the camp with him and disappeared.
Confusion and clamour followed. Maurice rose to his feet, dazed and trembling, and immediately Silva's evil eyes were fixed on the lad. He reached to his belt, whipped out a revolver, and levelled it with deadly aim. But just at this critical moment there was a shout close by, and then, from underneath the tiger's empty cage, burst Sergeant Campbell, Gunput, and Sher Singh. The latter instantly seized Maurice and pulled him down in time to escape Silva's bullet, while the other two opened fire on the Portuguese and the frightened savages. Castro was the first to fall, shot in the chest, and a second or two later Silva was seen to drop, though whether purposely or from a wound it was impossible to tell.
The heroic little handful of rescuers stopped short of imprudence. Directly they perceived that the tribesmen were rallying for an attack, Campbell gave the word to his companions to retreat. They dived beneath the cage and back through the broken hedge, taking Maurice with them, and safely reaching the jungle they sped on in the friendly darkness. Sher Singh's faithful arms lent strength and support to the lad, whose courage ebbed back as he listened, with overpowering joy and gratitude, to the husky clamour of the foe growing fainter and fainter in the distance. That he had been preserved from such an awful death seemed too good to be true.
"That's enough about the past," said Campbell, when the shikaree had finished. "I don't like to think of it it makes my blood boil. It's the future that we've got to reckon with, and unless we hurry a bit those murderous wretches will slip ahead and lie in wait for us at the river ford. Gunput, what sort of a hand are you at junglecraft ? Can you guide us straight to Seranghur?"
"Yes, Sahib, I can do it," vowed the Hindoo. "I need neither sun, moon, nor stars."
"Off with you, then, and we'll follow. I'm fairly itching to start the Raja's sowars after Silva and his band before they escape to the hills. And I want to see Silva caught and punished unless he's dead, which I doubt."
"What about the camp?" Maurice suggested anxiously.
"There won't be much left there worth saving," replied the sergeant. "The scoundrels will likely burn everything. Though I trust for your sake that they won't, lad."
Maurice's heart was heavy as he trudged with his companions through the jungle. He know that he was not in the least to blame for the disasters that had happened that he had stuck to his duty even beyond the limits of discretion; but nevertheless he looked forward with dread and dismay to the news that he must break to Tearle and Carruthers.
These feelings wore off after a time. There was too much else to be thought of, for the fugitives were by no means out of danger yet. With weapons ready for use, clinging to one another for fear of becoming separated in the darkness, they crept along in single file, with Gunput at their head. It was not an easy task to pick a course through the fastnesses of the jungle by night. The Hindoo made frequent halts, in spite of his boasted assurance, and twice he branched off in the wrong direction, being recalled to the right path by catching a glimpse of the stars between the matted foliage.
Thus precious minutes were lost, and the flight had lasted for an hour and a half, at the least, when finally the gloomy coverts dropped away and the misty river was seen swirling towards the sea. The little group stopped in perplexity at the water's edge.
"I don't recognize the spot," declared Campbell. "This is surely not where Captain Rogers brought us across."
"The ford is a quarter of a mile farther up stream," replied Gunput, pointing to the north. "Come, Sahibs, I will take you to it."
"Hold on," said the sergeant. "It is just as well, perhaps, that we've struck the river here. We had better not venture above, for as likely as not our wily foes have reached the fording and are watching it."
"But the water is deeper here," protested Maurice. "We shall have to swim in places."
"And there are crocodiles," added Sher Singh.
"I'm not afraid of your old muggers," vowed Campbell. "Besides, we stand a better chance of keeping them off by swimming. We can splash and kick with our feet, and scare them. If we wade, that is impossible."
"The Sahib speaks wisely," said Gunput. "And look ! yonder log will serve to support our arms while we swim."
He pointed to the bare and whitened trunk of a tree, about eight feet in length, that lay near the edge of the shore.
"Right you are," approved the sergeant. "That will be a considerable help to us in crossing. Once on the other side, and we'll be safe. Daylight can't be far off now."
He was dragging the log to the water, with Gunput's assistance, when Maurice uttered a hasty exclamation.
"Wait; I have just thought of something," he cried. "There should be a boat concealed in the bushes about twenty yards above the ford. Tearle bought it from some natives for the use of Chandar and Gunput, when they wished to cross the river."
"It should still be there, Sahib," Gunput reluctantly admitted. "I had forgotten it."
Evidently from his manner, the Hindoo was not anxious to remember.
"A boat?" exclaimed Campbell. "That alters the situation. No use to run the risk of muggers when we can cross in safety. And there is a risk, I suppose?"
"A grave one, Sahib," replied Slier Singh. "At times the crocodiles are very hungry and bold."
There was a brief interval of hesitation and uncertainty. The danger of falling into an ambuscade was not imaginary, for there was sound reason to fear that Silva and his bloodthirsty allies might be hiding by the ford. Gunput flatly refused to stir, and urged the others to swim over by means of the log.
"I will fetch the boat," Maurice finally declared. "It will be easy to slip up-stream without making any noise, and when I get near the ford I will make a detour around it."
"I will go with you, Sahib," said Sher Singh, in a tone of quiet determination.
Campbell gave a dubious assent to the plan.
"I don't like it," he said. "I am as clumsy as an elephant, or I would go with you myself. But the savages would hear me fifty yards away. However, be off with you. Gunput and I will wait here."
"We shan't be long," promised Maurice. "We will paddle out into the stream, and then lie flat in the bottom while the boat drifts down. In the darkness it will look like a log. It is only a clumsy dug-out, anyway."
Without further delay the two intrepid volunteers slipped noiselessly up the shore, keeping under cover of the reeds and bushes. They made good use of eyes and ears, and were prepared to fire at the first sign of an enemy. Maurice knew the exact spot where the boat was moored by a tree.
The jungle back of the river was intensely quiet, and there was no sound of bird or beast, which to Sher Singh's experienced mind were ominous auguries. All went well until the fording-place was about twenty yards distant, when Maurice veered off at right angles.
"We must cut around now," he whispered. "I don't believe there is any danger, though."
"But it is not certain, Sahib," replied the shikaree. "Let us make no noise."
Side by side they crept through the strip of grass reeds, and scrub that extended half a dozen yards from the water's edge, and next came an upward slope of fairly open ground, on top of which began the jungle. Maurice was the first to mount the rise, and just as he planted his feet on the level above, a dusky figure started up in front of him, not three yards away.
Frightened out of his self-possession thereby his life was probably saved the lad lost his balance, and slipping backward rolled down the slope; while at the same tune, colliding with Sher Singh, he bowled that individual clean over. In hot pursuit sprang the savage, brandishing a long spear. He bounded past the prostrate Hindoo, and sped after Maurice, who had promptly leapt to his feet on reaching the bottom of the incline. As he had dropped his rifle, and dared not pause to look for it, he dashed straight towards the river.
At this critical moment, when the savage was about to cast his spear with unerring aim at the lad, a shadowy thing flitted out of a patch of reeds and was as quickly launched against his naked chest. Maurice, hearing at his ears the cry of terror and the deeper sound that blended with it, stopped and looked back. The man was down, feebly kicking underneath a huge, tawny animal that snarled ferociously as he bit and mauled his victim.
"A panther!" hoarsely exclaimed the lad, who was standing knee-deep in the river. "He'll be turning his attention to me next."
Meanwhile, Sher Singh having risen to his feet, -- only a few seconds had elapsed -- he was confronted by a crisis that gave him no opportunity to think of his companion; for two more savages had suddenly appeared at the top of the slope, and were in the act of plunging down upon him. The Hindoo's rifle cracked, and he had one foe less to deal with. At such close quarters it was impossible to fire again, so, with a lightning-like movement, he timely knocked up the second man's spear, and then let him have it with the butt of the firearm. The wretch dropped with a shattered skull, and lay quivering at the shikaree's feet.
His foes thus disposed of, and no others being in sight, Sher Singh hastened towards Maurice just as the panther bounded away and vanished, leaving the savage to all appearance dead, for he neither moved nor made any sound. At the same instant, a few yards to the left, loomed indistinctly a boyish shape that Maurice immediately recognized.
"Bobbili!" he cried.
There was an incoherent response, and then the slight figure ran off and was lost to sight.
"Did you see him, Sher Singh?" exclaimed Maurice.
"I saw nothing, Sahib only the beast."
"It was Bobbili's panther, and I saw the jungle-child plainly. This makes the third time he has come to warn or to aid me."
"You are greatly in his debt, Sahib," said the Hindoo. "He must have followed us from the camp. But it is unwise to linger here, in such a dangerous spot," he added. "I have slain two savages," pointing towards the slope, "and others must be near at hand."
The words recalled Maurice to a sense of peril, and Bobilli and the panther were for the present forgotten. He ventured forward to recover his rifle, and for a moment the two stood watching and listening alertly. At first they heard nothing, and concluded that the three dead men had been posted as sentries, occupying an isolated position. It quickly became evident, however, that many more of the tribesmen were lurking in the vicinity of the ford, and that the report of the rifle had roused them. The night rang with blood-thirsty shouts and yells that rapidly approached.
"Run, Sahib," urged Sher Singh. "The boat is lost to us. We must hasten back to our comrades and swim across the river."
With that they sped along the shore, leaping like deer over grass and scrub. The tumult behind seemed to keep pace with them, telling of a dogged pursuit. When more than half the distance had been covered the fugitives were met by Gunput and the sergeant, who had pluckily started to the rescue. Brief explanations were given while the four hurried on to the former rendezvous, where they delayed no longer than was necessary to discard their heavier articles of clothing.
"Ready?" said Campbell. "Here we go."
They waded eagerly into the water, pushing the log in front of them. Its top was partly flat, and afforded a doubtful resting-place for their rifles. Soon they were swimming diagonally across the current, clinging with both hands to the half-sunken mass of wood, and kicking vigorously with then' legs to frighten off the crocodiles.
The next instant, with fierce cries, a number of savages swarmed down to the shore. Afraid to venture into the water, they sought vent for their rage by hurling spears and discharging matchlocks.
The fugitives swam on unharmed, growing more con- fident of safety and escape with each second, until they were close to mid-channel. Then, pointing suddenly up-stream, Gunput uttered a shrill exclamation.
"Look, Sahibs!" he cried.
Though the night was dark and moonless, the gloom that rested on the river was not so opaque but that Maurice and his companions could pierce it for a considerable radius. All turned their eyes in the direction indicated by the Hindoo, and above them, at a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile, they vaguely distinguished a bulky, black object on the water.
"Driftwood; that's about all it is," vowed Sergeant Campbell. "There was no occasion to give us a fright, Gunput."
"It is more than driftwood, Sahibs," calmly asserted Sher Singh. "It is the boat that we failed to reach. The savages have discovered it they must have done so while we were in the vicinity of the ford and now warned by the noise of our escape, they are paddling in search of us."
"I won't believe it," said Maurice.
Yet as he spoke a chill of terror struck to his heart, and Gunput and the sergeant lost their doubts as quickly, for just then was had absolute proof that Sher Singh was right. A burst of cries from the savages on shore was lustily and promptly answered by their comrades on the water. The boat was seen to increase its speed, and the dip and splash of paddles could be faintly heard.
"Courage," exhorted Campbell. "It's a bad scrape, but we needn't despair of outwitting these scoundrels again, as we have done before. Don't stop splashing, though, or the muggers may grow bolder and make short work of us."
"The sound will bring the foe straight upon us," protested Gunput.
"I'm sure they have seen us already," replied Maurice. "We can't expect to remain invisible. Our only hope is in speed."
The fugitives swam on and on with the log, kicking and splashing more vigorously than ever; but unfortunately, owing to the strong current, they drifted four or five yards down stream for every one that they gained in the direction of the opposite shore. They were now beyond the middle of the river, and consequently safe from the tribesmen on the rear bank. These, however, ran along at a pace that held them parallel with the log, and continued to yell fiercely, to throw spears and to fire their clumsy matchlocks.
By this time the boat was straight up-stream from the fugitives, and was drawing steadily nearer through the murky gloom. The hoarse, bloodthirsty cries of its occupants told that they had sighted their intended victims and were ravenous for slaughter.
"They are bound to overtake us very soon," exclaimed Maurice. " I don't see any hope."
"Shall we abandon the log and swim, Sahib?" suggested Sher Singh.
"No use," replied Maurice, with a despairing glance at the yet distant shore. "The current is so swift that we wouldn't make any better headway than we are doing now. The wretches probably have no weapons except spears," he added, "unless Silva is with them."
"And we have four good rifles between us," exclaimed Campbell, divining the lad's thoughts. "Lucky we kept them dry. Suppose you and I climb out on this clumsy float and straddle it, and open a lively fire on the rascals before they can get near enough to use their spears. I'll warrant you they will sheer off in a hurry as many as we don't end to the bottom."
The sergeant's timely suggestion revived hope and courage.
"Will the log bear us in that position?" Maurice inquired anxiously.
"Yes, the two of us," assured Campbell. "Sher Singh and Gunput will swim alongside and support it, so that it can't turn over with our weight."
The plan was feasible enough, but, as ill-luck would have it, it was destined to be shattered by an unforeseen disaster. A crocodile suddenly thrust its ugly snout above the surface of the water, twenty feet distant, and Gunput pointed to it with a shrill cry of fright.
"A mugger!" shouted the sergeant. "Splash! Splash for your lives!"
In the wild panic and kicking that ensued, the stream becoming violently agitated, too much one-sided weight was put upon the log; and all of a sudden, without warning, it rolled entirely over. The four were compelled to let go, and the next instant, when they had regained their holds and were splashing furiously again, the ominous result of the catastrophe dawned upon them.
"We have lost our rifles," Maurice cried bitterly. "They have gone to the bottom every one. And now we are at the mercy of the savages."
"The boat is coming, Sahibs," said Sher Singh. "It is gaining on us fast."
As he spoke triumphant yells floated over the water, and were caught up exultantly by the savages who were still racing along the shore; the vengeance they thirsted for was nearly within their grasp.
"Hark to them," muttered Campbell. "They know it's all up with us -- that we are tight in the toils. It's bitterly hard to be butchered like helpless dogs, unable to strike a blow in defence."
"It is fate, Sahib," Sher Singh told him, with the quiet resignation of the Oriental. "There is no chance of reaching the shore, since we are less than two-thirds of the way across. We must speedily face the end."
Gunput's fortitude deserted him, and he uttered howls of terror as he clung frantically to the log. For a moment or two none spoke. They continued to kick and splash they could not have told why as they swam slowly on towards the shore that they would never reach.
The fiendish yells rang louder on the night air, and the pursuing boat was now within thirty yards. It was long and narrow, and rudely constructed. Its gunwales rested low on the water, and little wonder that they should, for the craft held eight half-naked savages. Three were paddling from the stern and the others crouched well forward towards the bow, armed both with spears and matchlocks.
The intervening distance lessened to twenty-five yards to twenty. The doomed four still kept on swimming, and in the presence of this greater peril, giving no thought to the crocodiles, they used their legs for powerful understrokes instead of splashing.
"They will be opening fire on us directly," said Campbell. "They are surely within range already. Another five minutes and we could reach the shore yonder."
"What wouldn't I give for a rifle, and a chance to use it," groaned Maurice.
An instant later, from the excited and watchful group on the rear bank of the stream, came a shout and a loud command; "Kill all but the lad. A hundred rupees if you take him alive and unhurt. Spare none of the rest."
The fugitives recognized Silva's voice, and it stung them to impotent fury to learn that he had not perished at the camp, as they had hoped.
A reply was speedily sent over the water;
"It shall be done as you wish, Sahib. The dogs are in our power, and we will slay all but the lad."
This speaker was also identified. The voice was that of the treacherous native Ramput, and he could be dimly seen crouched in the bow of the boat.
"Heaven help us!" said Campbell.
There was a brief interval of silence. The log drifted on with its human freight, and from over- head the stars shone coldly and pitilessly down on the scene. A look of grim determination, of des- perate and fixed resolve, suddenly appeared on Maurice's face. His eyes flashed and he clenched his teeth. His companions did not observe the change in the lad, for it was too dark to read his features. The boat, driven by the swiftly-beating paddles, swung within ten yards of its prey. It slipped nearer and nearer, a vague, shapeless monster in the gloom. Gunput, whimpering with fear, splashed to the farthest end of the log.
"Why, what blind fools we are," Sergeant Campbell cried eagerly, at this critical moment. "We have a chance, comrades more than a chance and I wonder we didn't think of it before. Quick! let us abandon the log and swim each of us in a different direction. The boat can pursue but one at a time, and three of us will probably escape."
"They are wise words, Sahibs," exclaimed Sher Singh. "I will draw the savages after me thus;" and he snatched off Maurice's cap and put it on his own head. "They will believe that I am the young Sahib," he added. "I will swim down-stream while you --"
"Stop!" interrupted Maurice. "I won't allow you to sacrifice yourself for me, Sher Singh. It is my fault that we are all in such sore peril. Had I listened to Sergeant Campbell's advice it might have been different. I have an idea in my head, and if I perish in trying to carry it out, that is no more than just. But if possible I will save your lives."
As he spoke, before the Hindoo or the others could realize what he meant to do, Maurice had let go of the log and dived under water. It was so deftly and quickly done that the foe perceived nothing of it. The sergeant and his companions, half-persuaded that the lad had committed suicide, stared in mute horror at the spot where he had been only a second before. Sher Singh uttered a cry of grief, and would have slipped from the log had not Campbell seized hold of him.
In the meantime Maurice -- nothing was farther from his purpose than self-destruction -- was swimming straight up-stream at a depth of two or three feet beneath the surface. It was an accomplishment in which he excelled, being long-winded. When his breath was nearly spent he struck lightly upward until his eyes and nose were out of the water. To his surprise and chagrin the boat was not visible, and turning partly round he saw it several yards below him. He instantly dived again, and swam hard with the current.
When next he came to the top the stern of the boat was directly over his head. He reached with one hand for an upper hold, and with the other he gripped the low-lying gunwale. Now, setting his teeth, the daring lad threw all his power into a swift, strenuous jerk.
The heavily-laden craft lunged and dipped, letting in a rush of water. Then, without warning, it completely capsized, and the surface of the river was strewn with frightened, howling, splashing savages. Maurice had already dived, quick as a flash, and he swam some distance to the left before he ventured to rise, when, with lusty hand-over-hand strokes, he glided down the current and gained the log, to which his companions were still holding. What a welcome he received! Sher Singh and Gunput lavishly poured out their praise and gratitude, and Campbell gave him a hearty clap on the back as he hauled him to a place of safety.
"It was a brave deed, lad," he cried. "I don't know that I've ever seen a braver. You ought to be in the service."
"It was nothing," modestly vowed Maurice. "I am a good diver and swimmer and the rest was easy."
But all the danger was not yet over. At a distance of no more than twenty feet the savages were floundering about the capsized boat, which was so heavy that it barely showed above the surface. All were able to swim, apparently, and they were trying hard to turn the craft right side up. Few, if any, had succeeded in retaining their weapons. Those on shore were of course aware of the disaster by this time, though they were ignorant of its cause. Above the frenzied tumult Silva's voice rang in shrill and unintelligible commands.
For the better part of a minute, while Maurice recovered breath after his exhausting effort, the fugitives drifted on at an even distance from their enemies. Then the latter abandoned their futile attempt to right the boat, and while three clung to it the other five started to swim in pursuit of the log. They progressed with slow, determined strokes, uttering bloodthirsty threats. The traitorous Ramput was a yard in the lead, bent on earning the hundred rupees offered by Silva. His greedy eyes sparkled, and between his teeth was a long-bladed knife. Three of his companions carried spears in one hand as they swam, and the fourth was provided with a paddle.
It was a critical moment for the fugitives, and with undisguised alarm they watched the stealthy advance of the five savages.
"Are you all right, lad?" Campbell anxiously inquired. "Fit for another swim?"
"Quite fit as far as you like," Maurice declared.
"Then we'll abandon the log and strike for the shore," said the sergeant. "That offers the only chance of outwitting these wretches. Quick! they are nearly upon us."
But just then a terrible thing happened. Ramput, now within ten feet of the log, uttered an agonizing scream and for a second or two fought desperately, his arms threshing the air. Then he swiftly vanished from sight, and the spot where he had been struggling was slapped into bloody foam and waves by the tail of a monstrous crocodile.
Maurice and his companions were horrified by the well-deserved fate of the traitor and not a little alarmed for themselves as well while the four swimming savages who were left naturally fell into a panic. Fearful of meeting the same end as Ramput, they turned about and struck with might and main towards the furthermost shore, where their friends were gathered. The three clinging to the drifting boat released their hold and swam in the same direction.
However, the band of would-be assassins were not to escape so easily; for other crocodiles were hovering in the vicinity, and the scaly monsters, made ferocious and bold by the taste and smell of blood, promptly seized the opportunity of gorging themselves.
Here and there among the swimming men a pointed snout broke the surface or a sharp-toothed jaw opened wide. Two victims were seized at once, their death cries ringing on the air, and the next instant a third was dragged under and mangled. Truly a ghastly retribution had descended upon the blood-thirsty wretches.
Meanwhile the fugitives had wisely abandoned the log which only retarded their speed and were taking long, fast strokes towards the near-looming and friendly shore.
"We'll soon reach it," cried Sergeant Campbell. "Don't lose heart, comrades. And keep on splashing for all you're worth it will scare the muggers off."
"They like the taste of dark meat better, Sahib," said Sher Singh. "They won't touch a white man when they can have a native."
"That's jolly lucky for us if it's true," exclaimed Maurice.
Side by side the four swam on with desperate energy, Gunput assisted by the others, and behind them rang the piercing screams of the surviving savages who were still battling for life with the swift river and the hungry crocodiles. Presently, in spite of Sher Singh's assurance, Maurice glanced over his shoulder to see two ominous black objects within a dozen feet of him. His lusty shout warned the rest of the danger.
Campbell immediately altered his course and swam down the stream with the current. Sher Singh and Maurice followed him, but Gunput, losing his presence of mind, fell behind his companions and kept to his original course. One of the two crocodiles turned clumsily and struck after the sergeant and those with him, while the second reptile headed straight for the Hindoo.
The awful sounds were not to be mistaken, and the end of the luckless Hindoo presented itself as vividly to the eyes of Maurice and his companions as if they had actually witnessed the disaster. The same fate strongly threatened them, for the second mugger was giving them hot chase.
"Gunput is under," the lad said huskily, in the comparative silence that followed the stifled death cry.
"Don't waste your breath," panted Campbell. "You'll need it, my boy."
The survivors they were reduced to three now ceased to take advantage of the current. Turning a little, they headed diagonally for the shore and swam with hard, overhand strokes. Faster and faster approached the hungry reptile, his jaws rippling the surface of the river. He drew steadily, relentlessly nearer until, when the shore was yet thirty feet off, he was less then half that distance from his prey. A few more seconds would decide the issue. Would it be life or death?
"Thank Heaven!" Maurice exclaimed fervently.
"Hurra! we'll do it," shouted the sergeant.
The three had, at the same instant, found footing on the firm, sandy bottom. By a last effort, hope lending them strength, they splashed forward submerged to the waist. The stream shallowed at every step hip-deep, knee-deep, ankle-deep. Then, panting and exhausted, scarcely comprehending that they were indeed saved, they staggered out upon the reedy bank, and wheeling round, they saw the baffled mugger retreating in sullen rage to deep waters.
With thankful hearts the fugitives crept farther up the shore, and threw their trembling limbs down by the edge of the jungle. They were nervous and unstrung, overcome by the memory of the horrors that had been crowded into brief space since the previous evening's sunset, and for a time speech was unthought of and impossible. It was the darkest hour of the night that always precedes the dawn, and not a sound could be heard on the river or from the opposite bank. It was very doubtful if a single one of the boat's crew had escaped, and as for the Portuguese and his murderous allies, it was certain in any event that Silva must believe that those whom he wished to slay had perished by drowning or by the jaws of the crocodiles.
The interval of silence was broken by Sergeant Campbell.
"We are perfectly safe here," said he, reading what was in the minds of his companions, "and can rest as long as we like. To try to cross the river is the last thing those wretches will think of doing, after what has happened. You may be sure they are on the move already, bent on getting out of reach of the cavalry they know will be sent in pursuit of them."
"I shouldn't so much mind the rest escaping, if only Silva is caught," replied Maurice. "I wonder what he will do."
"He will probably take refuge with the tribesmen, Sahib," suggested Sher Singh; "in one of their rock villages, high up among the crags."
"Not a bit of it," disagreed Campbell. "To my way of thinking, the Portuguese will disguise himself and hide in one of the big towns, Bombay or Calcutta for choice. That is, if he gets the chance to do so; which I hope he won't."
"Well, in any event, his capture will be only a question of time," said Maurice. "What a night this has been!" he added. "I can't realize it all. It seems like a hideous, bloody dream. To think that you and I, Sher Singh, are the sole survivors. I mean of those who were in the employ of Tearle and Carruthers."
"Sahib, it is truly sad," replied the shikaree. "And, may I be forgiven if I am unjust, it is entirely the fault of the cavalry officer, Rogers Sahib. He laughed at Tearle Sahib's tale of danger, and refused to leave a force of sowars to guard the camp."
"Yes, I know that," assented Maurice. "The blame is his."
"You're drawing it a bit strong, you two," Campbell protested mildly, as in duty bound, "though I admit that you've got ground for complaint. But just wait. I'll warrant Captain Rogers wipes out the score when he gets on the trail of the murderers."
"Will that bring the dead to life?" Maurice cried bitterly, "or compensate Tearle for the loss of all his property? Poor Gunput! it is hard that he had to die when he was so near to safety."
"Ay, bitterly hard," assented the sergeant. "Mark you, though, the dead shall be avenged, lad. Why, I would gladly part with an arm to see that yellow fiend of a Portuguese blown to fragments from the muzzle of a cannon as our fellows properly served the Sepoys in the Great Mutiny."
"Then let us be off, Campbell Sahib," chimed in Sher Singh, "so that we can start the work of vengeance without delay. Be assured that the tribesmen will lose no time in hastening back to their mountain fastnesses."
"And Seranghur is some miles distant," added Maurice. "We must travel rapidly."
The sergeant was in hearty accord with the proposal -- all felt the better for the interval of rest and a few moments later found them pushing at a brisk pace through the jungle. They had landed a mile or so below the ford, and thus had no alternative, unless they were willing to waste more time, but to guess at the proper direction. It was a dismal, trying journey for the three. They were unarmed and in wet clothing, suffering from hunger and exhaustion and mental strain, while they were in no slight peril from wild animals. One thing was never absent from their minds, was a constant spur to their weary limbs the thought that with every minute Antonio Silva and his band of hired allies were speeding farther on the way to safety.
Fortunately the little party were not long hampered by the cloak of darkness, for soon after they had left the river the eastern sky began to brighten, and the Indian dawn gradually broke in a wealth of saffron and primrose colouring. The sun crept higher and higher, serving as a guide, until its fierce rays streamed through the matted foliage and made themselves uncomfortably felt.
"What a wild place this is," said Maurice. "We seem to be going farther from civilization."
"We're not, lad, though one might think so," replied Sergeant Campbell. "We are now in the great forest of Soonput, as it is called, and it is a part of the Raja of Seranghur's dominions. The cultivated territory lies half a dozen miles beyond."
It was truly a wonderful and fascinating place, the forest of Soonput, and the beauties around them continually stirred the travellers, heartsick and tireless as they were, to interest and admiration. The air was scented with the rich fragrance of tube-roses, and orange-blossoms and many another gorgeous flower. From branch to branch, with noisy chattering and murmurous cooing, flitted blue-jays, doves and parrakeets. Here were mango-topes and dense plantations of bamboo, there groves of oleander trees, lemon and citron, while far above towered wide-girthed giants that formed a vault of greenish-blue shade.
"Sure you're taking us all right?" Campbell presently inquired of Sher Singh, who was acting as guide and had been given the correct course by the sergeant.
"As well as I can, Sahib," the shikaree replied. "But I must depend on the sun alone, since I have never before been in this part of the country."
"Ay, that handicaps you, of course," assented Campbell. "I'm not much better posted myself, but I asked the question because, if we were travelling in the right direction, we should long ago have struck the path by which Captain Rogers and the sowars rode several days back."
"Was it a very plain one?" inquired Maurice.
"No, I can't say that it was, lad."
"Then we may have crossed it already."
"I don't believe we have," vowed Campbell, "for I have been keeping a sharp lookout. Why, what --" he added in surprise.
The exclamation was checked on his lips by a warning gesture made without looking back from Sher Singh, who had, unperceived, already pushed several yards in advance. He crept on carefully, with the stealth of a cat, and mounting to the crest of some rising ground, he paused by a thicket of oleanders.
"I wonder what's wrong," muttered the sergoant, stopping short. "What does the fellow see? If it was a wild beast he would hardly --"
"I'm certain I can smell wood-smoke," interrupted Maurice. "Who can be near us?"
The question was speedily answered, for just then the shikaree turned and beckoned to his companions. They at once joined him, and the three, gazing between the parted foliage, looked down upon a welcome and pleasing sight a camp of harmless hunters. There was a nullah beyond the high ground, and on the farther side of it two little white tents were staked, close to a water-pool. In front of them, seated on camp chairs, three Englishmen in linen shooting suits and sola-topees, were smoking and chatting. Two shikarees were overhauling the guns for the day's sport, and several native servants were preparing breakfast over a fire, from which arose most appetizing odours. The carcass of a spotted deer hanging from the limb of a tree, and a splendid tiger skin stretched over a rock, completed the picture.
"Those chaps are all right," whispered Sergeant Campbell. "I have seen them before an English baronet and his friends. They're doing India, and recently they were the guests of the Raja of Seranghur. He gave them permission to kill what they liked in the forest of Soonput, which is his private shooting-ground. Come along, we're just in time for breakfast."
With that the sergeant advanced into view, and began to descend the slope of the nullah, followed by Maurice and Sher Singh. The weary and bedraggled three, bearing plain evidence of the hardships they had undergone, roused no little curiosity as they limped into the camp. As much of their story as they cared to tell they did not wish to be detained by lengthy explanations and questioning won them a warm welcome, and they were promptly supplied with food and drink by the sympathetic sportsmen.
"You look ready to drop over," said Sir James Duckworth, as his guests were breakfasting. " You can't go on till you've slept, that's certain. Yonder tent is at your service, and I'll see that you are wakened in a couple of hours."
"You are very kind, sir, but we must reach Seranghur without delay," Campbell answered firmly.
"I might send one of my servants with a message."
"That wouldn't do, sir, thanking you all the same."
"Very well, you know best," said the baronet, yielding the point. "Since you are determined to push on, I'll not try to keep you against your will. But I must tell you that you have lost your bearings, though not to any serious extent. I shall be glad to put you right, and will lend you a guide as far as the nearest jungle road, which will take you straight to Seranghur."
The offer was gratefully accepted, and a few minutes later, after a stay of less than half an hour in the hunters' camp, Maurice and his companions were traversing a mere elephant track through the forest. Gurga Nath, the guide, marched confidently at their head, and they had gone a quarter of a mile when the report of a gun was heard close by.
"Hullo! what does that mean?" exclaimed Campbell.
"One of my party, Sahibs," replied Gurga Nath. "He rose early in order to shoot before breakfast."
The next instant, from the thicket a few yards ahead, the sportsman stepped into view. He was a tall, middle-aged Englishman of handsome but rather sinister appearance, with a black moustache and close-cropped beard. His shooting attire was of the most expensive kind, and his sola-topee was wreathed with blue silk. He carried his gun in one hand, and a brace of jungle fowl in the other.
"What is the matter, Sahib?" anxiously inquired the Hindoo. "Are you ill?"
The lad made no reply. His lips tightened he had been about to speak and he stumbled on his way with such a bewildered expression that Sergeant Campbell, who had observed the incident, glanced at him in amazement.
The Englishman had also been on the point of speaking, but when he encountered Maurice's keen, penetrating gaze his own features flushed and then turned pallid beneath the bronzed skin. He bit his lip nervously, and a sinister light crept into his eyes. As motionless and rigid as a graven image, he watched the travellers intently until they had vanished between the green walls of the jungle.
"Incredible!" he muttered. "I can hardly believe it. But I am not mistaken. It was the lad himself, alive and in the flesh. I have been deceived by a greedy, blackmailing scoundrel. To think that we should meet under such circumstances! And worst of all, he remembered me after all these years, or else I was -- no, he knew me right enough. I wish I had kept away from India. Exposure is quite on the cards now when least expected the blow threatens to fall -- and I shall have to take prompt measures to secure myself. Yes, safety at any price."
With an oath he swung round, and walked slowly and thoughtfully towards the camp of his friends.
"It shall go hard with that double-tongued traitor," he said to himself, "the first time I've the luck to run across him."
Meanwhile, having recovered his self-possession, Maurice was marching on with steady stride and an impassive face. He led his companions to believe that he had felt a sudden faintness, due to fatigue or the heat of the sun, but such was not the case. His brain was in a whirl of strange emotions, for he had indeed recognized the bearded stranger or at least was pretty nearly convinced to that effect. The eyes and features -- remembered after long years -- were those of the dark man who had been his escort on the fateful railway journey to London; the man who had presumably shipped him on board Captain Bonnick's vessel -- who must then have known, and must know now, the secret of his birth and early life.
It is little wonder that Maurice was both puzzled and alarmed by the discovery, not to speak of the possibilities that it suggested. He had not noticed the Englishman's agitation, however, and the more he pondered over the matter the less certain he became that he was right. Before he had gone a half-mile he was inclined to think that he had made a mistake.
"It may have been only an accidental resemblance," he reflected. "The face was the same, and yet not the same. And what could that man be doing here, in an Indian jungle?"
"How do you feel?" asked Campbell, breaking into the lad's musings. "Want to rest a bit?"
"No, we'll push on," was the reply. "I'm as fit as ever."
When the road was reached, a little later, the guide turned back with a word or two; and as Maurice continued the journey towards Seranghur with his companions, he dismissed the problem of identity from his mind and thought only of the punitive expedition that he was anxious to see despatched against Silva and his evil crew.
About the middle of the morning the great forest of Soonput, which had been growing thinner and thinner, fell away to right and left, and in front was seen a stretch of cultivated fields and isolated groups of trees. Here and there, at short intervals, they passed villages, each larger than the last, where fat, prosperous zemindars lounged in the shade of their fruit trees while their ryots toiled amid the grain; and as they drew nearer to the capital of the Raja's dominions they began to meet people on the road, which was growing broader and whiter -- Parsee merchants, laden with shawls and silks, sellers of bang and sherbet, matchlock men, bartering Afghans, wealthy Hindoos mounted on gorgeously-caparisoned horses and elephants, half-naked fakirs smeared with red ochre, smart soubahdurs and havildars of the guard, natives leading tame cheetahs in leash, and many other picturesque types of the East.
By this time, as may be guessed, the travelers were threading the outer suburbs of the city, whose stately domes and minarets rose before them, etched in rose and pearl against the burning, steel-blue sky. Regarded inquisitively by all, but accosted by none, the dusty, weary-limbed three pressed on their way; and just as a sentry was striking the hour of noon on a brazen ghurry at the main gate of Seranghur, a couple of hundred yards ahead, they slackened their pace at the entrance to the white-washed barracks, over which floated the British flag and the standard of the Raja.
An officer in spotless linen, who was riding out on a Cabul pony with a detachment of sowars, drew rein to stare at the group with quick and surprised recognition.
"Campbell!" he cried sternly. "Why, what does this mean?"
"It means the worst, sir," was the sergeant's grim reply. "We've a black and bloody story for your ears and a long one."
"And the sooner it is told the better," put in Maurice.
Captain Rogers, for it was he, at once dismounted and dismissed his escort. Two minutes later, in the seclusion of one of the guard-rooms, he was listening to the tale of disaster that the three intrepid messengers had brought so many miles. It was related mainly by Maurice, who claimed the right of spokesman, and corroborated at every point by Campbell and Sher Singh. The whole, terrible truth was disclosed at last, and for a moment the officer was fairly speechless, overcome by rage and consternation and perhaps self-reproach as well.
"It is monstrous, incredible, that such outrages should be perpetrated in this part of India," he said, with forced control. "I will act at once, and nothing shall be left undone to punish the bloodthirsty scoundrels and capture the Portuguese, who is responsible for it all."
"It need not have happened," Maurice began in- dignantly, "had you believed the warnings --"
"Be careful what you say," Captain Rogers interrupted sharply. "I acted under strict orders, and merely did my duty. I could not have done otherwise even had I been convinced that the danger your employers spoke of was more real than imaginary. The blame for the sad affair cannot be laid at any one's door unless it is Silva's."
"The captain is right, lad," whispered Sergeant Campbell.
"Do you mean that no one is liable for compensation," persisted Maurice.
"I have nothing to do with such issues," replied the officer. "Come, all of you. It is important that we lose no time. His Highness must hear your story, so that he may give the necessary orders."
"Will you tell me, sir, what news there is about my friends?" Maurice inquired, as he and his companions left the guard-room.
"They were promptly sent down to Calcutta," was the answer, "and they can hardly be released before the day after to-morrow, when they will be brought up for a hearing. But you may be sure that a full report of the matter will be forwarded to the authorities by post to-day."
With this statement Maurice had to be content. Captain Rogers hurried the three from the barracks to the neighbouring British Residency, and then, accompanied by the Resident himself, they entered the inner town of Seranghur, climbed the hilly street, and were shortly admitted to an audience within the palace, amid luxury and magnificence as only an Eastern potentate can boast. His Highness Gopal Mirza listened to the tale with Oriental stolidity. He asked a question or two, approved the Resident's suggestions, and without delay dictated to his secretary a brief order on parchment, which was put in the hands of Captain Rogers. This terminated the interview, and the party returned to the barracks, where the exhausted travellers sat down to food and drink.
The afternoon was yet young when three troops of sowars, commanded by Captain Rogers and several other English officers in the Raja's service, rode away from Seranghur in the direction of the forest of Soonput, bound on a punitive errand. Maurice and his two companions were not able, as may be supposed, to accompany the expedition, much as they wished to do so. In fact, now that the strain was over, all three partly broke down, and were ordered into hospital by the military surgeon at the cantonments. On the third morning they were up and about, quite restored by two days of sleep and rest, and the same evening a bugle announced the return of the troopers, who clanked into the barrack compound with a dejected air that told of bad news. And bad news it was. They had found and taken up the trail of the savages, it appeared, and followed them as far as the foothills.
"There the wretches scattered in every direction," said Captain Rogers, in telling the tale, "and it would have been worse than useless to pursue them further. We came back by way of the camp, and discovered only a circle of ashes. The cages and all other property had been destroyed. As for the animals, if any survived they were likely set at liberty."
"And Silva?" Maurice eagerly inquired.
"There was nothing to show," declared the officer, "whether he shared the flight of his murderous allies or took off by himself. However, his apprehension is only a question of time. The police will be instructed to keep a look out for him in every town and village in India."
Sorely distressed by the ill-tidings, Maurice resolved to hasten to Calcutta, which plan was frustrated by the unexpected arrival at Seranghur of Tearle and Carruthers, who had been discharged through the non-appearance of prosecutors and witnesses. Their worst fears were realized when they learned what had happened during their absence, but instead of being inclined to blame the lad, they were unstinted with their praise and gratitude, which was extended also to Sher Singh and Sergeant Campbell.
"I'm only too glad to find you alive, my boy," said Tearle, with a ring of emotion in his voice. "It was the pluckiest, the most daring thing I've ever heard of. You did your best, and that was as much as Carruthers and I could have done. So don't worry. And let me tell you that Hamrach and Company shall know of your faithfulness and heroism."
Nor, on reflection, did the deeply injured men decide to press any charge against Captain Rogers, whose seemingly harsh action had been simply in accord with his duty. Moreover, the officer was sincerely distressed, and promised to urge upon the Government authorities the necessity of capturing Antonio Silva, and despatching a large military force to punish the turbulent hillmen.
Karl Hamrach was a man of energy and ambition, prompt to recognize true merit, and his peculiar line of business had trained him years ago to regard with equanimity either large gains or heavy losses. His answer, speedily cabled back in cipher, was terse and to the point. Having the utmost faith and confidence in Tearle and Carruthers, he entirely exonerated them from blame. He instructed them to keep Maurice on at an increased salary, to purchase new outfits, and to start as soon as possible for the rugged and distant province of Assam. Here, they were to trap a certain number of wild animals of various kinds, regardless of expense, and bring the convoy personally to England.
The agents were delighted, and Maurice to a considerable extent shared their feelings, though it was some disappointment to him not to be able to return as soon as he had expected to his native country and seek out the mystery of his parentage. He easily consoled, however, by the thought that the delay would be only for a few months.
A week or ten days sufficed for such preparations as could be made in Calcutta, and so far no clue had been found to Antonio Silva's whereabouts, though the authorities were zealously on the watch for him at Madras and elsewhere; he was supposed to have taken refuge with the fanatical tribesmen of the northern hills. Meanwhile, a day or so after the party had settled down to humdrum life at their quarters in the suburb of Kidderpore, Maurice had told his friends of his strange encounter in the forest of Soonput, concerning which, having reflected often and long, he was beginning to veer round to his former opinion. He also gave an account of his meeting and subsequent experience with Bobilli, but that tale was superseded in interest -- and perhaps belief -- by the other. In fact, Carruthers hinted none too delicately that he had his doubts.
"Might not the fellow have been just an ordinary wandering native," he suggested, "with a young panther that he had tamed?"
"And are you certain," put in Tearle, "that you saw the same person and the same animal on those different occasions?"
"It all happened exactly as I have described it to you," vowed Maurice, who was a little nettled.
"Then we ought to be convinced," said Tearle. "It is most extraordinary, though. As for your power of subduing wild beasts with the eye, which you claim to have discovered, perhaps we'll be able to test that when we are back in the jungles again. But about this Englishman who was in camp near Seranghur I would rather talk of him. It is easy to make a mistake in such cases, lad. There are plenty of people in the world who look alike. Every one has his double, you know."
"Yes, I know that," assented Maurice. "I thought I was mistaken, afterwards."
"And now you believe him to have been the man of your childhood days, of your earliest memories?" asked Carruthers.
The lad nodded. "The more I think of it," he replied, "the more certain I am that he is the same dark man who took me to London and put me on board Captain Bonnick's vessel."
"It's a queer business," said Tearle. "I wish you had told me all this before we left Seranghur. You are sure the man was with the camping party?"
"Oh, yes; the guide told us so."
"Well, that settles it. I know Sir James Duckworth by repute. He is wealthy and popular, and a mighty Nimrod of a hunter. Look here, lad, I shall write to the British Resident at Seranghur, and ask for the names of those four sportsmen. That will be a sound clue to start with, and we'll proceed to work it here directly we've returned from Assam, and pursue it further in England. Give me a couple of months free-handed, and I'll warrant I clear up the mystery of your birth."
"What a pity," said Carruthers, "that poor Tom Dayleford didn't speak before he died."
"He meant to," replied Maurice, whose loyalty to his dead protector was not to be shaken.
The next morning, true to his word, Tearle wrote to the British Resident at the Court of Seranghur; but no answer had been received up to the day when the wild animal trappers left Calcutta on the first stage of their journey. As yet no additions had been made to the party, which consisted of Maurice, Sher Singh, and the two agents. They travelled by rail as far as Rangamati, on the western border of Assam, and from that point steamed fifty miles up the great Bramahputra River to Goalpara. Here native carpenters were set to work building cages, and when these were finished, and Tearle had hired a dozen skilled natives, a camp was located among the rugged hills and jungles to the south of the village.
Wild creatures of all kinds were fairly numerous and day by day the quest for them was steadily and successfully pursued. At the end of the first fortnight, when Saturday evening came, the total yield was a rhinoceros, two leopards, a panther, a box of serpents, and a number of rare birds of gorgeous plumage. Sunday was observed as a day of rest, most welcome to all, and Monday morning found the hunters hard at work again. That day -- its close was to be marked by a dual adventure of a thrilling and mysterious character -- passed by uneventfully until the middle of the afternoon, when Maurice and several natives, who had been digging a pitfall to the eastward, returned to camp. Tearle was not visible, but Carruthers, with a pipe in his mouth and a tall glass in one hand, was lounging before the tent.
"What luck?" inquired Maurice, referring to an expedition on which his employers had set forth after breakfast.
"We went half a dozen miles into the great forest that stretches to the south west," replied Carruthers, "and found a couple of likely places for traps. I left Dermot about three miles back -- he saw signs of spotted deer, and vowed that we should have venison steaks for supper. I came on alone, for the heat was intense, and I was beginning to feel a bit knocked out. I am easily fatigued since that last attack of fever. You needn't worry about Dermot," he added. "This is his third or fourth trip to Assam, and he knows the country like a book, especially hereabouts."
"How soon do you expect him?" asked Maurice.
"Well, inside of an hour, I should say," was the response. "The deer tracks were fresh, and wouldn't have taken him far."
But when two hours had gone by without bringing the absent man, and the day was very near its close, Maurice and Carruthcrs could no longer conceal from each other their growing apprehensions. Openly anxious both were, though deeper than anxiety was the fear -- neither was willing to put it into words -- that some evil had befallen Tearle.
"We might set out to meet him," proposed the lad.
"Yes, that would be better than hanging about the camp," assented Carruthers. "I suppose he killed a deer, and has stopped to cut it up. Or he may have wandered farther than he meant to; he is thoughtless when on the chase."
With a few assuring words to Sher Singh -- who did not relish the idea of being left behind -- Maurice and Carruthers started off towards the south west, their rifles on their shoulders. With the help of the slanting rays of the sun, which was low on the horizon, they were able to keep to the path -- if a clump of high grass recently disturbed or a remembered tree or stone can be called a path -- by which Carruthers had gone and come earlier in the day.
"Will Tearle hold this course in returning?" Maurice inquired, when the camp was nearly a mile to the rear.
"He is pretty certain to," said Carruthers. "It is the most open part of the jungle though that's not saying much. And just ahead, within a half mile or so, is a stream bridged by a fallen tree. We crossed it this morning, and Dermot is sure to make for it on his way back. He knows that the channel is deep and swift, and not easily forded."
"He may be within ear-shot now," suggested the lad.
"Shall we have a try?" replied Carruthers.
At the moment they were traversing an extremely wild and tangled locality, and having pushed on for a dozen yards, treading lightly and noiselessly with their habitual care, they stopped with one accord and shouted as loudly as they could. They paused to listen, and as quickly, to their amazement, a pair of monstrous grey ears flapped into view from the dense foliage thirty feet in front, and was followed by a tapering trunk that sniffed the air as it was reared high. Then, showing its bulk for a brief second, a huge bull elephant wheeled round and fled with shrill trumpeting.
"What a thumping big fellow!" exclaimed Maurice, when he had recovered from his surprise. "We were to windward of him, or he would never have kept on feeding so long."
"I must get a shot at him, if possible," cried Carruthers. "What do you say, lad?"
Maurice was more than willing, and at once, temporarily forgetting Tearle, the two hastened in pursuit of the great quadruped, whose flight was in a southerly direction. But they had acted on the sudden impulse of the moment, with scant forethought, and before they had gone a half mile they were of one mind to abandon the chase, which they reluctantly did. The undergrowth was so thickset that they could scarcely part it; and, moreover since but the single spoor had been seen and there was nothing to indicate the presence of a herd in the vicinity there was a strong likelihood that the elephant might be a solitary, or "rogue;" which means an elephant that for some reason is shunned by his kind.
"If that is the case," said Carruthers, "we are in a position of danger. The old rascal, instead of going far, would he in wait somewhere to rush out upon us."
"We had better turn back," Maurice replied uneasily. "Can you find the way?"
"That won't be difficult," vowed Carruthers, with a glance that sought vainly for a guiding glimmer of sunlight. "We'll strike a course for that bridge I spoke of. Come along."
As he spoke, startled by the snapping of a twig he turned to look suspiciously behind him. At the same instant, at a spot no more than fifty feet away, the leafy screen of the forest was violently agitated, as quickly cleft asunder by a monstrous shape, and forthwith appeared the rogue elephant. Trumpeting with rage, his wicked eyes flashing and his tusks uplifted, he bore thunderously down upon the two puny beings who had defied him and whom he meant to pound to a jelly.
"Don't run, lad," shouted Carruthers, in a voice that was audible above the trumpeting notes of wrath. "Let drive! Give it to him true -- aim between the eyes! Quick! or we are dead men."
Maurice, though horribly frightened, held his ground unflinchingly, and lifted and steadied his rifle. A couple of seconds, perhaps three -- they seemed each like a minute -- and then both firearms crashed simultaneously, with flame and smoke, waking a thousand echoes in the depths of the jungle.
"Back!" yelled Carruthers. "Out of the way, for your life!"
Back they sprang to one side, barely in time to escape the monstrous form that thundered by them with a tread that shook the earth. Had they inflicted mortal injury, or was a dreadful death imminent? As soon as possible, the elephant, baffled and still trumpeting with passion, turned his unwieldy bulk in a half-circle and sought for his intended victims. But he had been hit in the right spot, for a thin stream of blood was trickling down his bony forehead. Ah! and now he staggered, his knees tottered and swayed. Yet there was plenty of life left in him, plenty of gigantic strength, as he spied the crouching figures and came pounding towards them with trunk sniffing the wind and tusks in air.
"Again, lad!" cried Carruthers.
"I'm ready," Maurice shouted.
They stood up, fearlessly erect, and the two shots rang as one as they pulled trigger. Through the powder-smoke they saw the mouse-coloured body towering over them, they felt a rush of fleet air, and then, as they dived headlong into a clump of low bushes, there was a terrific crash that jarred the very ground.
"Hurra! we've done it," exclaimed Carruthers, as he looked back.
Timidly, wet with perspiration, they retraced the half-dozen steps they had made. But there was nothing to be afraid of. The mighty elephant was down, lying on his left side; he was quite still except for a barely perceptible twitching of his trunk and fore-limbs. A couple of leaden pellets, sent to the right spot, had indeed slain the herculean monarch of the forest.
"Is he dead?" asked Maurice.
"Ay, the breath is out of him," Carruthers replied. "Three balls of the four must have penetrated the brain. He was a determined rogue, and died hard. I wouldn't want to go through with that again, lad."
"Nor I," assented Maurice, with a shudder. "It was a near thing for both of us I thought we would surely be under the brute's feet before our shots could disable him. What a fine, big fellow he is! And look at the tusks."
"We'll have them cut out in the morning," said Carruthers. "It's worth a tidy sum, that ivory. But what we've got to do at present is to go ahead and search for Tearle, in case he has landed himself in trouble of some sort. As likely as not he has returned to camp by this time, but we'll push on as far as the tree-bridge I spoke of, anyway."
"Can you find your way back to the path?" Maurice inquired uneasily.
"I think so," Carruthers answered, with a glance that sought vainly for a guiding glimmer of sunlight.
The words had no more than left his lips when a rifle-shot was heard at no great distance to the right, and immediately afterwards a single shout, loud and shrill, echoed through the jungle.
"That's Tearle," vowed Maurice, "and he's in danger."
"Not a doubt of it, lad," cried Carruthers. "Come along."
The slain elephant was forgotten, and away they dashed at a rapid pace, in the direction of the alarm. Carruthers led, and not a hundred yards from the start, as he plunged into a patch of high reeds and bushes, he suddenly disappeared with a splash. Maurice, unable to check himself in time, had no sooner felt the ground yielding beneath his feet than he followed his companion, and was soused over head and ears in water. They came to the surface, gasping and spluttering, and at once renlized that they had fallen into the stream, which at this point was well screened from view and was deep and sluggish.
"Strike out, lad," exclaimed Carruthers. "On with you. It's no use to turn back, for Tearle is somewhere yonder."
With that he shouted twice, and the hail quickly brought a response. It came from startlingly near at hand, and was a plain appeal for help, the desperate need of which was emphasized, the next instant, by a savage, bloodcurdling roar.
"Is that a tiger?" gasped the lad.
"I'm afraid so; poor Dermot must be in sore straits," replied Carruthers. "Hold on, we're coming," he called lustily.
"Help! help!" entreated Tearle's voice; and again the beast uttered an angry roar.
Fortunately the stream was narrow, and the two swimmers, eager to get to the rescue, were not long in ploughing across the stagnant water; they managed to keep the barrels of their rifles above the surface, forgetting at the time that the weapons had already been entirely submerged. They waded the last couple of yards, and scrambling out on the opposite shore, they literally hurled themselves through a fringe of reeds and high grass.
They were prepared for a scene of deadly peril, and such immediately confronted them. From the thickets that bordered the stream to the farther edge of the jungle was a strip of open soil, a hundred feet wide, sparsely dotted with scrub and stones. In the middle of this stood a tree of slender girth, and here Dermot Tearle had taken refuge. His weight was dragging the bushy top slowly but surely towards the ground, and he seemed to be on the point of falling into the clutches of a huge tiger, who was waiting beneath him with open jaws.
"Look!" said Carruthers in a low voice. "Don't miss, lad, else it's all up with him."
Heedless of their own danger, the rescuers advanced several paces, then paused to take swift and steady aim. The hammers fell on the cartridges, and two sharp clicks followed, instead of the expected reports with their death-dealing lead.
"Both rifles are wet and useless," Maurice whispered bitterly. "I forgot they had been under water."
At this critical instant the tiger, alarmed by the slight noise, looked round and saw his discomfited enemies. With a furious roar he sprang ten feet towards them, and as he did so one of the boughs to which Tearle was clinging snapped off short, and the luckless man dropped heavily to the ground.
Carruthers uttered a cry of horror, for the tiger promptly turned half round, as if to leap back and pounce upon Tearle. But in the nick of time Maurice shouted fiercely, with all the strength of his lungs, and so surprised was the tawny brute that he abandoned his intention and remained where he was, in a crouching attitude, facing the intrepid youth.
For a few seconds there was a breathless, terrible silence -- a little eternity it seemed to the three who were at the mercy of a ravenous foe. Maurice held his ground, and Tearle lay as he had fallen, apparently stunned and bruised, though he was keenly alive to what was going on. Carruthers had edged back towards the stream, and for the moment he was almost bereft of his courage and presence of mind.
"Slip away if you get the chance, Dermot," he cried hoarsely. "Lad, you had better make a run for it, or the beast will spring. Are you mad? What do you mean to do?"
Until now -- he had acted on a swift impulse to save Tearle -- Maurice had no idea what he was going to do; he could not have answered that question. But as the words fell on his ear, and he remembered a previous adventure similar to the present one, an inspiration flashed to his brain and he was quick to act upon it.
"If I was able to subdue a panther, why should I fear to test my powers again?" he thought. "Don't move or speak, either of you," he added aloud, in a low voice. With that, letting his useless rifle slip to the ground, he went boldly forward, up the sandy slope, until he was within fifteen feet of the crouching animal, into whose fiery eyeballs he stared fixedly and menacingly. He was by no means as calm and courageous as his actions suggested, for he had grave doubts as to whether he would succeed or not. Fortunately, though the sun had sunk below the horizon and the opalescent glow that precedes the twilight was in the air, enough light still remained to give the experiment a fair chance.
Silence at first, except for the lad's deep, rapid breathing. A throaty snarl mingled with it, rising to a higher and angrier pitch. The tiger, flattened to the earth, with body quivering and tail lashing to and fro, seemed twice to be on the point of springing and twice thought better of it. The creature was evidently ill at ease and timid, unable to conquer its dread of the human eye, the magic of which it had never known before.
With a fast-beating heart -- it felt as if it was up in his throat -- the lad made two steps nearer, without ceasing to stare into the tiger's blazing orbs. The great beast whimpered and whined, began to crawl backward inch by inch; and then, turning tail as the lad advanced still closer, it glided swiftly across the open, bounded into the dense cover of the jungle, and was lost to sight.
"I thought I should do it," gasped Maurice.
His face grew suddenly white as his tense nerves relaxed, but he required no assistance from Carruthers, who sprang at once to his side and produced a small flask of brandy.
"Put this to your lips, lad," he urged.
"No, Tearle needs it more than I do," protested Maurice. "I'm all right now, though I felt a bit staggery for a couple of seconds."
"No wonder, after such a strain," said Carruthers. "It was amazing what you did. I never saw anything like it before. I shouldn't have believed it possible, if any one had told me that --"
"Well, since you've seen this with your own eyes," Maurice interrupted, good-naturedly, "perhaps you no longer doubt my story of the panther and the jungle child."
With that he hastened over to Tearle, who was sitting upright with his hands pressed to his forehead, and staring about him in a dazed manner. Carruthers followed slowly, with a crestfallen air.
"I hope you're not hurt, Dermot," he said anxiously. "Can you get on your feet, do you think? Here, put some brandy down your throat as quickly as possible."
"Ah! that's better," vowed Tearle, as, with returning colour and a steadier hand, he gave the flask back. "I can feel the strength ebbing into my veins. I'll be able to walk presently, when this dizziness passes off. There are no bones broken, though there might have been. The tumble from that tree pretty nearly shook me to pieces. Keep your eyes open for the tiger," he added, glancing apprehensively around.
"He won't trouble us again," replied Carruthers, "Did you see how our young hero tamed him and sent him flying to cover?"
"I was watching all the time," said Tearle. "It was a fascinating sight, and I couldn't have moved or spoken if I had wanted to. Directly the brute turned tail there was a mist in front of my eyes, and I felt like keeling over. My boy, I trust you'll forgive me for being a little incredulous about what you told us before. I spoke half jokingly of putting your powers to the test when we got to Assam, never dreaming that the chance would come, and in such a manner."
"I, too, owe you an apology," said Carruthers. "I was as bad as Tearle, if not worse. That's a marvellous gift you possess, and worth knowing."
"I wish I had it," declared Tearle. "It could be used to the greatest advantage in such a profession as ours. I advise you to cultivate it at every opportunity, lad. See what it has done for you at one stroke. You saved not only your own life, but mine and Carruthers' as well."
"I shouldn't want to try that sort of thing very often," Maurice answered modestly. "I was badly frightened while I stood looking into the tiger's eyes and the result would have been different had I shown, that I was afraid."
Content to have vindicated himself, and embarrassed by the praise of his companions, he slipped away to the stream and returned with his pith helmet half full of water. Tearle bathed his face with a wet handkerchief and then bound it across his temples, after which, he felt much better, though he was content to sit still until the effects of his shaking had further passed off.
"It was lucky for me that you were in the neighbourhood," he said, when he had listened to the account Maurice and Carruthers gave him of their adventure with the rogue elephant and their subsequent dash to the rescue. "I couldn't come up with those spotted deer, though I followed them for a mile or more, and in trying to hold a straight course for camp I was aiming for that tree bridge I naturally blundered a little out of the way. I finally reached the stream, and was standing down by that rock, in half a mind to swim across, when up jumped the tiger from the rushes, not twenty feet distant. As ill-luck would have it, there was only one cartridge in my rifle at the time. I let drive at the brute, but clean missed him in my flurry and excitement. Then I did a sprint for the tree, and you'll believe I wasn't a second too soon in climbing into the branches. The tiger leapt at me twice, and I had to go higher up, until the top began to bend with my weight. The rifle had stuck fast in a forked limb, and I couldn't have used it anyway. That is my story, and if you had arrived a minute later I shouldn't be telling it to you now."
"It has a moral to it," said Carruthers, "which is that a man ought never to wander about the jungle by himself. However, all's well that ends well. Suppose we make a start for supper. Do you feel up to it, Dermot?"
"Yes, I'll be able to manage," Tearle replied. He was helped to his feet, and without assistance -- Maurice offered him an arm -- he walked several yards.
"We won't need torches to return by," said the lad.
He was right, for although the brief period of twilight had already passed, the full disc of the moon was creeping above the horizon, and the open glade- was swimming in the pale, silvery glow.
"Hold on: I must have my rifle," said Tearle.
"I'll get it for you," replied Carruthers, as he pulled himself into the lower branches of the tree.
He easily found the weapon, and just as he dropped to the ground with it there was a rustling noise near by, at the edge of the jungle.
"The tiger!" exclaimed Maurice. "Watch sharp."
As he spoke a dusky creature leapt into view, and crouched down motionless about ten yards from the startled little group.
"That's too big and too black for a tiger," vowed Carruthers.
He thrust a cartridge into the empty rifle, and quickly aimed and fired. A shrill, peculiar sound somewhat like a whistle, preceded the loud report; and the unknown animal, hit in the act of turning round as if to retreat, uttered a yelping snarl and bounded into the thicket.
"I believe it was a panther," said Maurice. "But did you hear that --"
"Hark!" interrupted Tearle.
A wailing, high-pitched noise rose on the air, and the next instant, in the patch of moonlight where the animal had crouched, appeared a shadowy figure. It was either a native man or boy, with naked limbs and a mop of streaming hair. For a moment he was visible, waving his arms and crying loudly in tones of grief and rage, and then he vanished as suddenly as he had come, leaving the spectators almost persuaded that what they had seen was but an apparition.
"This is a most uncanny spot," said Carruthers, wiping a drop of cold perspiration from his forehead.
"It was the forest child we saw," exclaimed Maurice. "Bobbili and his tame panther. He is angry because we have shot the beast."
He twisted a bunch of dried grass into a torch and put a match to it, and with some difficulty prevailed upon his companions to follow him to the upper edge of the glade, when they discovered a few drops of blood. But the jungle was dark and silent, and though Maurice shouted several times, and called Bobbili by name, no response came back.
"I'm off," said Carruthers.
"So am I," muttered Tearle. "There are queer things abroad to-night."
"It was Bobbili," persisted the lad. "I am certain of it. You both saw him as plainly as I did."
"Yes, that's right enough," assented Carruthers.
Silently, at a steady pace, the three pushed along the verge of the stream, crossed it by the fallen tree, and soon reached the camp, much to the delight of Sher Singh and the others. After supper, in the cheerful glow of the fire, the mystery was the sole topic of conversation. Tearle and Carruthers, though not openly sceptical, were loth to believe what Maurice insisted upon -- that the jungle child, having by some unaccountable means learned of his whereabouts and desiring to be near him, had traversed the vast tract of country that separates Assam from the Seranghur district.
"He will go back to his old haunts now," the lad thought regretfully. "He is offended because we have wounded his panther. I am sorry Carruthers fired that shot."
Twice, in the middle of the night, Maurice woke with a sad, mournful cry ringing in his ears from a distance. But that was the last of Bobbili. He was never seen or heard of again.
The expedition had been in every way a success, for even more than the required number and variety of wild beasts had been secured. Dermot Tearle and his companions were in the best of spirits, and within forty-eight hours they hoped to be travelling down the mighty Brahmaputra, en route for the far-distant Bay of Bengal, in the big barge that they had previously hired at Goalpara from the Assam Navigation Company. Steam power would not be needed until the mouth of the river was reached, since the barge was fitted with great stern-oars or sweeps, by means of which it could be easily steered through the vast depth and breadth of water.
Seven cages had been sent down to Goalpara the day before, and seven others, hitched to spans of bullocks, were now ready to start. One by one they wheeled into the rugged jungle road, the native drivers walking alongside, goad in hand. Amid creaking and shouting they slowly vanished from sight. With the last three went Carruthers and Tearle, and the latter lingered behind for a moment to give Maurice some final instructions.
"You should be ready to follow us in an hour or less," he said. "Don't lose the way, lad. You ought to overtake us before long, for these heavy cages crawl at a snail's pace."
Tearle's departure left only Maurice and Sher Singh at the camp. Their duty was to load the remaining luggage in a cart, and push after the convoy as quickly as possible. The vehicle was a rude concern, with solid wooden wheels, and drawn by two fat bullocks.
The Hindoo and the lad toiled with rapid and busy fingers. They were glad to see the last of the camp, though their stay there had been, on the whole, a pleasant and enjoyable one, unmarred by losses or disaster. Both looked forward to the future with happy anticipations; Maurice, because he was going shortly to England, and Sher Singh because he was to accompany the lad to that strange and distant land. The Hindoo's devotion was like that of a faithful hound, unselfish and disinterested.
In rather less than an hour the work was finished, and a circle of trampled grass, strewn with wood ashes, was all that marked the site of the camp. The two climbed upon the fore-end of the cart, and Sher Singh pricked the oxen with a long goad. The sturdy animals lumbered into the narrow path, and the luxuriant undergrowth, swinging shut behind the vehicle and its occupants, soon hid the spot they were leaving.
For a mile the way led through dense and level jungle, and then mounted gradually up the side of a steep hill, on the summit of which Maurice urged that the bullocks be halted for a brief rest. Here the view was magnificent, beyond the power of words to describe. But for a haziness in the atmosphere Goalpara could have been seen, miles away. The great mountains on the farther shore of the Brahmaputra were distinctly visible, their tall peaks glistening in the sun.
The Hindoo applied the goad, and the cart rumbled and jolted down the hill. It reached the bottom, narrowly escaping mishap, and crept into a jungle where the gloom was like that of eventide. Broken rocks and serried walls of foliage rose from both sides of the path.
"This is about the gloomiest place I've ever seen," said Maurice. "I wish we were well out of it. It gives me the cold shivers and yet I don't know why it should. We are as safe as if we were in Goalpara."
"There is indeed nothing to fear, Sahib," replied Sher Singh, "unless it be a prowling tiger or some other beast. The Naga tribesmen, who dwell in the fastnesses of the hills far to the south, have been quiet and peaceable since a column of British soldiers fought them and burnt their villages five years ago. Before that they made many murderous raids, and more than one English planter --"
The sentence was cut short on the Hindoo's lips, and turned to a cry of alarm, by the sudden appearance of a half-score of brawny, half-naked savages, who sprang up, as if by magic, to right and left of the trail. They were armed with spears and knotted clubs, and their attack was as swift and silent as their approach.
The lad and his companion had no chance to defend themselves no time even to snatch their rifles. The cart was seized and overturned, and the bullocks, breaking loose from the shaft, fled in mad panic. A blow from a cudgel stretched Sher Singh senseless on the sprawling heap of luggage, and Maurice, as he attempted to rise, was gripped by three pairs of muscular hands.
The Nagas -- for to those wild people of Assam the attacking party clearly belonged -- were careful to make no more noise than was necessary. With the exception of a guttural word or two not a sound passed their lips. Maurice, in the first moment of surprise, was less frightened than wrathful and indignant. He struggled desperately to escape, kicking and striking, and managed to utter one loud shout, when he was immediately choked with such violence that he partially lost consciousness.
His mind was a blank for a certain interval -- he did not know how long -- and when next he was able to observe anything the path and the cart had disappeared and he was being hurried at a rapid pace through thick jungle. Two of the savages were supporting him, one on each side, while the others marched in front and behind. There was no sign of a path. Captors and captive wound amid the tangled vegetation with the sinuous and noiseless ease of a great serpent.
The leader of the party was a stalwart fellow, smeared with blue woad, and wearing a leopard skin girdle and a necklace of tigers' teeth. Seeing that Maurice had recovered from his stupor, he wheeled about and intimated to him by gestures that he would kill him if he made any sound.
The lad had no intention of disobeying the command, for his rash temper had by this time cooled off, and his brain was actively at work, seeking a plan by which he might outwit the savages. He feigned weakness as much as possible, in order to delay the march, though he had little hope of being rescued. He knew that the rearmost of the cages must have been a mile or so ahead at the moment of the attack, and that the whole convoy was doubtless pressing on to Goalpara in serene ignorance of what had happened behind.
He was in the blackest of spirits, oppressed by sad and bitter thoughts, as he was forced still deeper into the jungle solitudes. He naturally feared that Sher Singh had been killed by the cruel blow, and his heart ached for the faithful Hindoo to whom he owed so much. He was at a loss to know why he had been ambushed and carried off, but finally, after reviewing the circumstances, he concluded that he was to be held for the purpose of ransom, which the savages meant to demand from the local authorities of the province. Had he been better acquainted with the Nagas, however, he would have recognized the folly of such a theory.
"My life is safe, anyway," he reflected. "Everything points to that. And there is just a chance -- not a very bright one, I admit -- that Tearle and Carruthers, when they learn of the disaster, will be able to collect a party and overtake these wretches before they can reach their almost inaccessible villages in the hills."
It was poor consolation for Maurice, but it had the effect of slightly raising his spirits. For another hour the Nagas pursued their course steadily, and then, emerging suddenly from the forest, the lad beheld a sight that made his head swim with dizziness.
From the station of the Bengal Railway he went straight to a native barber-shop, from which he presently reappeared minus his beard and with his hair and moustache closely trimmed. In a neighbouring street he purchased a pair of blue spectacles, such as are worn for protection against the fierce rays of the Indian sun, and when he had adjusted these his features were so altered that his late fellow-sportsmen assuredly would not have recognized him. Satisfied with the result of his shrewd precautions, he now made his way to the Great Eastern Hotel, requested the clerk to send to the railway station for his luggage, and registered under a name that he had never borne before, that of Miles Hamilton.
To all outward appearance it might have been supposed that Mr. Miles Hamilton was in Calcutta merely for the sake of pleasure and sight-seeing, like numerous other travellers who were quartered in the same big hotel. He spent money freely, enjoyed a drive each evening, and strolled among the bazaars and in the principal thoroughfares, dressed in the height of fashion. More than once, with a boldness that was justified by his disguise, he calmly rubbed shoulders with some former friend or acquaintance. But his seeming idleness was a cloak for a deeper purpose, and in a quiet way, as if the matter was of no personal importance to him, he was making inquiries concerning the tragic death of Tom Dayleford, the trapper of wild animals. He had read an account of the riot at the time it occurred, and a faint recollection of it, flashing upon his mind soon after the meeting with Maurice in the forest of Soonput, had, in conjunction with another and older memory, given him the present clue.
Mr. Hamilton's investigations offered little or no difficulty. He readily learned what had become of Dayleford's adopted son after the former's death, and he was informed of the lad's presence in the city by the Calcutta papers, which devoted columns to the thrilling story of Antonio Silva's crimes. He did not encounter Maurice during his wanderings, nor, at this stage of affairs, did he have any inclination to run across him. He was anxiously waiting events, fearing the future and as yet unable to decide what he should do in case the threatened blow were to fall. Each day added to his apprehensions and unrest, for he could not rid himself of the conviction that the lad had recognized him in the jungle and that he possessed a dangerous knowledge of the past.
This belief, haunting the man hourly, by degrees sapped his scruples and conscience and gave birth to an impulse from which he at first recoiled with horror, but which nevertheless grew upon him. He began to regard the thought with less aversion, to wonder how the evil plan could best be carried out. All that made life worth living to him was at stake, and at any cost, he told himself, he must not lose. The days slipped by, and one night, long after dark, Hamilton was strolling by the bank of the Hooghly River, where of late he had been spending much time in the evenings. He was prudently attired in rough clothing, and was without his glasses. He was in a desperate and wicked frame of mind, since for several hours he had been prowling fruitlessly about Hamrach and Company's warehouse, at the adjacent suburb of Kidderpore. He had seen nothing of Maurice, nor was he aware of the fact that the lad and his companions had left Calcutta for Assam that same morning.
He had come forth with another purpose as well, however, on this particular night, and his eyes were very active as he sauntered along. The locality was by no means a safe one, and he carried a loaded revolver in his pocket.
"It looks as if I should have to make inquiries, which I don't want to do," he muttered, as he quickened his pace. "I might as easily find a needle in a hay-rick."
To the right were rows of factories, warehouses, and rope-walks, gloomy and deserted, with here and there a dim light burning. Close to the left flowed the great river, dotted in mid-stream by anchored vessels, while along the shore were the interminable docks, marked against the sky by a tangled forest of spars and rigging.
Suddenly the figure of a man loomed out of the darkness, and drawing near with a staggering, swaying gait, he pulled up directly in front of Hamilton. His age was perhaps fifty, and his nautical garb proclaimed him to be a sailor. A lamp-post stood not far off, and the light from it revealed his purplish, bloated face.
"Hello, stranger," he cried, thickly and unsteadily. "Hanged if I haven't lost my bearings in this beastly place. I'll be obliged to you if you can tell me where to find the ship 'Mary Shannon.' She's lying at Government dock number ten."
Hamilton bent forward and scrutinized the man keenly.
"I thought I knew the voice," he exclaimed, with a short, unpleasant laugh. "As for the features, they are so saturated with rum that they might belong to any drunken sot, though they still bear a faint likeness to Captain Bonnick --"
"That's me Captain Bonnick," interrupted th& man. "But you'd better be careful of your talk. A drunken sot, am I? By the blue peter! I've killed a man for less. Who in thunder are you, anyway?"
"I'll tell you," replied Hamilton; and he whispered two words in the other's ear.
"John Ravenhurst?" gasped the sailor, with an oath.
"Be quiet, you fool," Hamilton fiercely bade him. "Not that name aloud -- you know better."
Captain Bonnick stared silently for an instant; comprehension was dawning on his fuddled brain.
"What are you doing in Calcutta?" he asked hoarsely, as if he dreaded to put the question.
"Looking for you, for one thing," was the curt answer. "I saw by the papers that the 'Mary Shannon' had been sighted in the bay. When did you come up the river?"
"I've been in port twenty-four hours," the sailor replied, "and I've had wretched luck in that short time. I'm dead broke to-night. I've been drinking and gambling -- I don't deny it -- and a couple of those yellow niggers ashore robbed me of eighty pounds."
"It serves you right, you drunken idiot," said Hamilton. "Look here, Bonnick, I've got an account to settle with you. You are a scoundrel and a black-mailer, and I was a fool to have had anything to do with you. You promised to keep me posted about the lad, and when you swore that he was dead, that he had been drowned at sea, I believed you, I gave you the sum of money that you demanded. But it was all a dastardly lie --"
"Easy, go easy," warned the sailor. "I'm not in a mood for hard words."
"But I am, and you'll listen to what I want to say," cried Hamilton. "You have put me in a hole by your treachery. The boy is not dead -- I've seen him with my own eyes. You turned him over to an acquaintance of yours in Calcutta and he found new friends after the man Dayleford died."
"Is Tom Dayleford dead?"
"Yes, murdered by Hindoos. And the boy --"
"He's nothing to me now," interrupted Captain Bonnick, whose usual prudence was steeped in drink. I did what I promised to do -- more than your dirty money was worth. The score is on the other side, my fine gentleman, and I want a hundred pounds down on the nail. Be quick about it. Fork over."
Hamilton's face turned livid with rage.
"You ruffian," he cried, "I warn you not to try any of your blackmailing games. I've given you too much money as it is. Not another penny will you get."
"Won't I?" sneered the angry sailor. "I'll bet you the 'Mary Shannon ' I do. It's two hundred pounds I want now not a hundred. Unless you give it to me I'll blow the whole thing. I'll lift anchor to- morrow and sail for London. Once there I'll soon find the lad's friends, and then --"
"Hush!" cautioned Hamilton, in a whisper. "You fool, don't you see that some one is listening?"
Hamilton was right. He had that instant discovered a figure leaning against a post within five yards of the spot -- a native in turban and white linen. The fellow must have heard every word of the altercation.
"One of those dirty yellow niggers," muttered Captain Bonnick, with a careless glance. "Hand over the money," he added, loudly and wrathfully. "Quick! or I swear I'll blow on you, John Raven --"
There was the sound of a blow as Hamilton, maddened to desperation, struck the sailor between the eyes. Bonnick reeled, recovered his balance. With an oath he whipped his revolver from his pocket, aimed and fired.
Meanwhile the sailor had staggered backward several yards, almost to the water's edge. He was half-insane with rage and liquor, and cocking the weapon a second time, he aimed as steadily as he could at Hamilton's prostrate body.
In all likelihood, the shot would have proved fatal but for the prompt intervention of the native who was leaning in such a careless attitude against the post. With a rapid movement, with a stealthy whipping of his hand to his waist, he threw himself in front of the sailor. There was the flash and gleam of steel, the report of a pistol exploding on the ground. Then, with a husky cry that ended in a gurgle, Captain Bonnick tumbled heavily over the raised embankment of the river, and disappeared with a resounding splash.
Hamilton, before whose eyes the tragedy had swiftly passed, rose slowly to his feet, trembling in every limb. He glanced fearfully at the blood-stained knife -- a ray of light shone on it from the lamp post which the native held in his hand.
"Assassin!" he exclaimed, in tones of horror. "What have you done?"
"Is this your gratitude?" was the calm reply. "Sahib, I have saved your life at the risk of my own. There was not an instant to lose. But for me you would be lying yonder, bleeding from your death-wound. The other Sahib meant to kill you, surely."
"He did," Hamilton admitted, hoarsely. "He was a bad man. It is true, as you say, that I owe you my life. And yet -- and yet bloodshed might have been averted. It is a pity."
He walked to the edge of the river and stared down at the black, sluggish waters. Scarcely a ripple was visible on their smooth, unbroken surface. He shuddered violently as he turned away.
"The body has gone to the bottom," said the native. Picking up the sailor's revolver he flung it far out into the stream, and threw the knife after it.
"Yes, it has sunk," murmured Hamilton, with an effort. He wiped cold beads of perspiration from his forehead, and glanced keenly and uneasily at his strange companion. From a distance the bustle of the great city echoed faintly on the night air, and it seemed at first that no one could have heard the pistol shots. But a moment later, as the two stood in awkward silence, voices and footsteps became audible to the left. Several persons were approaching, drawn thither by the alarm.
"We must not be found here, Sahib," said the native.
"We have waited too long as it is," replied Hamilton. "Come; follow me. Make no noise."
They glided quickly and silently away from the fatal spot, the lean native dogging the Englishman's heels like a shadow. The noise they had heard soon faded behind them, but they pushed on for a quarter of a mile, straight up the river, until they reached Hamrach and Company's warehouse. Hamilton paused at an angle of the big, gloomy building, and listened intently for a minute.
"We are safe here," he said. "There is no outcry yonder. Even if they have found the right place, they would hardly discover the blood-stains -- if there are any -- without a lantern."
"There is no blood," declared the native. "The sailor-sahib went into the river too swiftly for that. We need fear nothing."
The Englishman drew a deep breath of relief.
"You are not a Hindoo?" he said abruptly to his companion.
"The Sahib has no reason to think so," was the calm reply.
"You do not speak like one," said Hamilton. "However, that is no concern of mine. This is a bad business," he added, "and it might cause serious trouble for both of us. But it won't do any good to talk about it. I am not ungrateful for your aid, I assure you, and if you will come with me I will see that you are suitably rewarded."
"I wish for no reward, Sahib," replied the native in a scornful tone, "I do not befriend people for gold. It is possible, indeed, that I can be of assistance to you in yet another way. That I heard your conversation with the sailor was not my fault. I listened to it with more than ordinary interest because it related to a former acquaintance of mine -- an English lad named Maurice, who used to live with a wild animal dealer in Calcutta."
Hamilton turned pale, and for an instant, as suspicion flashed into his mind, he lost his self-possession.
"How much do -- do you know?" he asked, in a frightened tone.
The man laughed softly.
"Nothing, Sahib, so far as you are concerned," he replied. "Merely that you are interested, for personal reasons, in this lad. I saw you lurking about Hamrach and Company's warehouse, where we are now, at twilight this evening. But the English boy is not here. He left the city this morning."
The last words were uttered with a hissing sound that denoted suppressed rage.
"He has left Calcutta?" exclaimed Hamilton, who felt compelled to speak in spite of the growing realization of his peril. "Where has he gone?"
"Far to the north east to the wild and distant province of Assam," the native answered. "He is with Hamrach and Company's agents, who have orders to trap a number of wild beasts. But he will come down country in a month or so, when the work is finished, and then he means to sail for England."
"For England?" echoed Hamilton, and his lips and throat were dry as he spoke.
"Yes, for the port of London. These friends of his, it seems, intend to help him find his parents, from whom he was separated many years ago."
Hamilton stifled an oath. It was too dark to see the stormy expression of his face.
"There are often slips in the affairs of men, Sahib," the native continued craftily. "Who knows? The lad may never return from the jungles of Assam. There are numerous perils to be encountered."
A sudden light dawned on Hamilton's comprehension as he detected, or fancied he detected, the native's subtle meaning as well as the note of bitterness in his speech. Several other things struck him at the same instant, and then, in a flash, he was convinced that he had made a real and thrilling discovery.
"I think you and I will understand each other," he said, in a complacent tone. "But wait -- I wish to tell you something first. Listen, my friend. I am a man of the world, I have travelled extensively, I have resided in Portugal in Lisbon. And I have closely read the Calcutta papers of the past few days."
He paused to look straight at his companion, who calmly returned the glance.
"Go on, Sahib," said the native. "I am listening."
"It is perfectly clear to me," resumed Hamilton, "that you are a Portuguese cunningly disguised as a Hindoo. I cannot mistake the features and the accent. I am satisfied, also, that you bitterly hate this English lad Maurice. These two things are easily explained -- if perchance you are the Senor Antonia Silva."
The unmasked native bowed with a courtly grace. There was a mocking gleam in his eyes, but no trace of fear or anger.
"Sir, I admire your penetration," he replied boldly. "Suppose I admit the truth of your statements? I am not in the least afraid of you. If I have a secret to preserve, you, too, have one." In a bitter tone he added; "I am a poor and hunted man, senor. I have lost my all. I need money badly, that I may escape from this accursed country. If the lad stands in your way, and your purse is a long one --"
"Hush!" Hamilton interrupted sharply. "This is no place to talk. We have lingered here far longer than was wise. Elsewhere I may have something to say that will prove to the advantage of both of us. I can trust you?"
"Absolutely; I swear it," vowed the disguised Portuguese.
"You are a magnificent villain," said the English man, "if all accounts of you are true."
Side by side they hastened away from the vicinity of the warehouse, and the darkness, which is ever ready to cloak evil, quickly swallowed the two birds of prey from sight.
It may be said, in dismissing the incident, that the body of Captain Bonnick was not found. In fact, the papers merely recorded him as missing, and after a vain search of more than three weeks, the ship 'Mary Shannon' lifted anchor and sailed down the Hooghly under the command of her first mate.
But the next instant, to his relief, he saw otherwise. The rocky banks dropped sheer down, with an occasional ledge to which stunted trees and bushes were clinging, and across the gulf ran a bridge of thick lianas, or vines, that trembled in the morning breeze and were secured to great boulders on either side. A dozen of these cable-like strands, twisted together formed a footway, and a little higher up were two more woven ropes that served for hand-rails. Far, far below, at the bottom of the chasm, a mountain stream roared and thundered.
"I would rather fight all these scoundrels single- handed, than trust myself to a thing like that," thought Maurice, with an inward shiver. "But I suppose there's no help for it."
There was none indeed. The ravine had to be crossed -- the band seemed feverishly anxious to put it in their rear -- and without delay two of the Nagas began the perilous venture. The lad was compelled to follow immediately after them, and two others came close behind him.
Each one had all that he could do to look after his own safety, and Maurice, knowing that no assistance could be given to him and that he must take care of himself, gripped a supporting-cable in each hand, and trusted to luck to plant his feet accurately on the narrow pathway. It was a terrible ordeal and more than once he despaired of coming through it alive. The frail structure rocked and swayed in the most alarming manner, repeatedly threatening to pitch him in mid-air. Time and again he believed that he must drop into the seething waters below and be dashed to pieces on the sharp-pointed rocks that split the current. But his stout courage sustained him. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he crept on, until at last he gained the opposite bank.
"I wouldn't go back again for a hundred pounds," he vowed, little dreaming what worse things the future held in store for him.
The rest of the party crossed without mishap, and then the Nagas hacked at the main cable until it was severed, when it swung against the opposite wall of the ravine. They did not molest the hand-rests, evidently dreaming that to be an unnecessary precaution.
From now on the savages proceeded at a more leisurely pace through the jungle, and Maurice was half-dragged, half-carried, by a couple of stalwart fellows who were apparently deceived by his well- simulated feebleness, though they had witnessed his activity on the bridge. The march continued for nearly a mile, and then a halt was made by a slab-shaped rock that towered high in the air. Here, it seemed, the Nagas expected to meet someone. The leader of the band placed his hand to his mouth and uttered a shrill, peculiar cry, which he twice repeated.
Meanwhile, the lad's two guards had put him down against the base of a tree, where he sat huddled limply with drooping head and half-closed eyes, still feigning weakness. It was so well done, indeed, that he looked to be in a state of extreme exhaustion. But his brain was working actively, and his supple strength had never been more ready to serve him. Anxiously he watched and waited.
"I'll show them something," he vowed desperately, "if they will only give me a chance."
Several minutes slipped by without bringing the wished-for opportunity, and then a response to the leader's signal came from a distance. It rang nearer at hand, and again nearer, until a crashing noise was heard close by, when at once every man of the party turned his gaze in the direction of the approaching sound.
Maurice was curious to learn who was coming, but he dared not delay for an instant. He sprang to his feet, catching a brief glimpse of a pith helmet beyond the towering rock, and as quickly he had wheeled round and plunged into the dense undergrowth back towards the ravine.
"Now for a race -- a race for life," he muttered.
He sped on blindly and swiftly, urged by the clamour of pursuit, by the fierce bloodthirsty cries, that were already ringing behind him on the still air. At first, remembering the broken bridge, he steered a little to the left, hoping to strike the chasm at a spot where the banks would be less precipitous and might possibly be scaled. But on second thoughts, the very thought that a bridge existed warning him that his expectation was vain, he reverted to his original course.
It was a stern, relentless chase, and the odds were heavily against the brave lad from the first. He was far from confident of being able to escape, but nevertheless he was hopeful, and he meant to spare no efforts or risk. Fortunately he was a splendid runner, even by comparison with the wiry and fleet-footed Nagas, and it was somewhat to the disadvantage of the latter, perhaps, that they could not be absolutely sure what direction the fugitive would take unless they followed his trail.
Under such circumstances, when death is dogging one's heels, a mile is a long distance. It seemed doubly long to Maurice as he dashed on and on, keeping his bearings as well as he could, and trying to husband breath and strength for what final ordeal he might have to meet. Yet speed was an important factor from the beginning, and he dared not run too slowly. As agile as a deer, he leapt over fallen trees and stones, tore headlong through coppice and spear-grass, and doubled round the impenetrable jungle-hooks that cropped up in his path, while ever behind him rang the vengeful yelling and shouting of the savages, who were scattered to right and left. And twice he was surprised to hear a deeper and more ominous voice, like that of a European, calling angry commands.
"I believe I shall do it," he told himself. "I must be half-way now."
He sped on, not relaxing his efforts, and he was further comforted and cheered by the discovery that the noise of pursuit, though it kept even pace with him, apparently did not draw any nearer. These favourable conditions continued, and there was an actual gain to his credit -- the Nagas must have paused in hesitation more -- than once when he finally staggered out of the forest and found himself on the brink of the ravine. He had blundered a little to the left. In that direction was a sheer-dropping precipice as far as the eye could reach, and in the other direction, at a distance of fifty yards, he saw what remained of the severed bridge of vines.
There was not an instant to lose. He had but a single chance, and that such a slim and desperate one, so frightfully perilous, that his heart quailed at the thought of it, though he had known all along that he would have to face it.
"It is life or death," he reflected, as he turned and sped to the right. "After what I've seen and heard, it is pretty clear why those fiends want to get hold of me again, though it's a hard thing to believe. I might as well be smashed on the rocks as killed by slow torture. But I'm not dead yet. Heaven help me to get safely across."
He ran fleetly along the narrow edge of the ravine, which was closely bordered by trees and vegetation, and when he reached the end of the ruined bridge, panting and exhausted, the jungle behind him was ringing with savage cries. He was faint for a moment, and had to pause for breath and strength. Then the weakness passed, and he felt ready for the ordeal.
He chose the thickest of the two cables that remained, and taking a firm grip of it he launched himself boldly into space. With swimming brain, with a prayer on his lips, he worked his way along, hand over hand. He did not trust himself to look down into the dizzy gulf, whence rose the ceaseless thunder of the torrent. At first it was comparatively easy, for the cable sagged with his weight, and he slipped rapidly along, with increasing confidence, until he had reached the middle of the chasm and a little more than that.
"It's half over," he thought. "Will they give me a chance to finish?"
But now, where the twisted rope of vines began to incline upward and to resist his progress, was the hardest and most trying part. He fought on, a few inches at a time, mounting gradually higher towards the opposite bank, on the crest of which he fixed his eyes. The strain on the muscles was agonizing, and he wondered if he would be able to endure it. To and fro he swayed in his slow advance, like the pendulum of a clock, and more than once he must have lost his hold and fallen but for the other cable, over which he managed to throw one knee, and thus obtained a slight and welcome relief.
Maurice had undertaken a quite impossible task impossible even to a man of herculean strength but he fortunately did not know this. Each second was like a minute, and it seemed a quarter of an hour to him -- it was really a very brief interval -- until the danger that he had forgotten to reckon with burst upon him from the rear. The slide down to the lowest point of the cable had been swift, but he had gained no more than three yards on the upward journey, and had still a disheartening distance to climb, when he heard a shrill clamour behind him, and venturing a backward glance he was alarmed by the sight of a half-dozen Nagas grouped on the spot from which he had started.
"They have no firearms," he thought, hopeful as yet.
Whirr! came a spear. Another and another. But the incessant swaying of the vines saved Maurice, and the weapons, leaving him unscathed, struck the rocks and fell clattering below. He struggled on, hauling himself slowly up the oscillating strands, until a greater peril than the whizzing spears sent a throb of despair to his heart. The Nagas, as the devilish impulse occurred to them, had begun an attack with their weapons on the two cables, at the point where they were coiled around the boulder. The frailer one parted, and sliding from under the lad's knee it fluttered down to the water, leaving him suspended in a perpendicular position over the abyss.
He gave himself up for lost, as well he might, for he knew that the second rope must soon follow the first. The instinct of life, however, urged him to continue his plucky flight. He flung one knee over the cable, struggled along for a few inches his teeth set hard. But he had ten yards yet to climb -- an impossible distance. He paused, breath and strength almost at their last ebb. Behind him he could hear the hacking noise made by the spears and clubs.
"I've got to drop," he told himself. "I wonder if I shall fall on the rocks or in the water."
The thought stimulated him to another effort. His head swam as he stretched his aching arms and gained a paltry half-foot. He glanced back, to see what the savages were doing, and just at that instant came the sharp, angry bark of firearms. One of the Nagas spun round and toppled into the gorge, and another dropped among his companions, squirming in the agonies of death.
"Hold tight, my boy," cried a lusty voice. "Don't despair -- we'll save you."
Never had words sounded sweeter to Maurice. He recognized the voice, and lifting his eyes to the nearer bank of the ravine, he saw a little group gathered there -- Tearle, Carruthers, and four of their native servants. They were kneeling by the brink, and firing in rapid succession.
"Faster, lad!" shouted Carruthers.
Maurice attempted to reply, but a husky whisper was the only result. The rifles continued to splutter while he dragged himself an inch two inches higher. Then, as he realised that further progress was impossible, he felt a quivering, relaxing motion of the taut cable. He instantly divined what was coming, and with a cry of despair he tightened his grip on the frail support that was about to fail him and drop him to certain death -- as he believed.
As quickly the strand parted from the rear bank, and down the lad shot at dizzy speed, swinging across the intervening stretch of the chasm. It seemed a long interval, though it was really little more than a second, until he was dashed violently against -- not the hard and cruel wall of granite -- but a clump of bushes that grew out from the face of the cliff, nearly thirty feet below the brink. There he dangled in space, fault and giddy, but quite unhurt, listening to the bloodthirsty yells of the savages and the cracking of firearms. A projecting knob of stone gave him a support for one foot, and this relieved the strain on his wrists.
"All right, lad?" came a voice from above.
"Yes," he replied hoarsely.
"Ready, then. Hold fast."
"Our fire was too hot for them," said Carruthers. "They made off directly their devilish plan failed. I never saw such a chap as you are for having narrow escapes," he added. "And this was the worst it was a nervy thing to do. You wouldn't have had a chance, though, but for our timely arrival."
"And none then not the slightest," declared Tearle, "but for the happy fact that the Nagas succeeded in cutting the cable. Otherwise, my boy, you must have swung to and fro in mid-air until you dropped, for you could not have dragged yourself a foot nearer to us."
"Not an inch," Maurice assented with a shudder, "That's right. I was completely fagged out. And of course you couldn't have pulled me up, or given any help as long as the cable was fast on the other side. If the Nagas know that they saved my life, they must be feeling pretty sore about it."
"They have something else to be sore about," said Carruthers. "We taught them a lesson they won't forget in a hurry. You're none the worse for your terrible experience, my lad?"
"Not a bit, except for a sort of shaky feeling all over," Maurice assured him. "It is passing off, though, and I'll be all right presently. But tell me what of Sher Singh? Is is he dead?"
"Dead?" exclaimed Carruthers. "No fear. Don't worry about your devoted shikaree. He got an ugly rap on the skull, but barring a headache for a couple of days, he won't suffer any inconvenience from it. He insisted on coming along with us, but we made him stop behind, at the spot where the disaster occurred."
"It was by sheer luck that we reached here in time to save you," said Tearle. "Bad luck we were inclined to call it, when the rear cage broke down, owing to a defective axle. Carruthers and these trusty fellows came back from the front to help me, and we had barely started repairs when your runaway span of bullocks came tearing by like mad. I jumped out and caught them, and then --"
"Then we hurried up the road," broke in Carruthers, "and found the cart upset, yourself missing, and Sher Singh just coming to his senses. Our Hindoos tumbled to the trail of the savages, and away we went like a pack of hounds on the scent."
"It was a fortunate break-down for me," said Maurice, with a reminiscent glance at the gorge. "I'm all right now," he added. "Shall we be off?"
"Without delay, if you are fit to march," replied Tearle. "I want to hear an account of your adventures, but that will keep until a better opportunity. I am in a hurry to get back to the convoy, which is scattered along the Goalpara road, almost unprotected."
"I don't believe it is in any danger," declared Carruthers. " There are no Nagas in that direction."
"Was anybody else with the savages -- I mean with the party that cut the bridge?" Maurice asked, in a hesitating voice.
"Anybody else?" muttered Tearle. "Not that I saw. Why do you inquire, lad?"
Maurice returned an evasive answer, and Carruthers just then calling attention to a strange bird, the question was not repeated. A few moments later the little party were retracing their steps through the tangled forest, and in less than an hour they reached the road, when an affecting and joyous meeting took place between the lad and Sher Singh. The runaway bullocks had been brought to the spot by one of the servants, and the cart was speedily righted and refilled. It was driven ahead to where the string of cages were waiting, and after a brief delay here the convoy proceeded towards Goalpara. Three armed natives formed a rear-guard, and Tearle and Carruthers walked alongside of the cart, in which rode Maurice and Sher Singh.
"Now, my lad," said Tearle, as the vehicle rumbled slowly on its way, "suppose you spin us the yarn. I'm anxious to hear it."
Maurice was less ready, for the simple reason that he had not yet decided how much he intended to tell, though he had been considering that point since he left the ravine. It was a question with him whether his imagination might have carried him astray. Had his eyes and ears deceived him, he wondered, by inventing things that had no existence? He plunged into the narrative, however, and described his abduction, and his subsequent adventures, in a graphic style. His companions were deeply interested, and for a short time they discussed the mystery from every conceivable standpoint, but without arriving at a satisfactory solution.
"Well, I give it up," exclaimed Carruthers, finally, "It's a queer business. I never knew the Nagas to carry any one off for ransom. They always kill, and jolly quick, too."
"Yes, that's right," said Tearle. "If this had happened in any other part of the country, lad, I should think there was a personal enemy at the bottom of it. But up here in the wilds of Assam, hundreds of miles from Calcutta -- "
The sentence ended in a low, expressive whistle, and Tearle shook his head. A moment later he was listening with a grave countenance, in speechless astonishment; for Maurice, at the suggestion of a personal foe, had reluctantly started to tell what he had hitherto concealed from his friends.
"Lad, are you certain of this?" demanded Tearle.
"No, I'm not certain," Maurice replied. "That's just it. I fancied I saw a helmet moving between the leaves, but I may easily have been mistaken. And the same with the voice, afterwards, when I was running for my life.. I couldn't be sure that I heard it, because the Nagas were yelling like fiends behind me."
"But whose voice do you think it was?" asked Carruthers.
"It sounded like Antonio Silva's," Maurice admitted; and his face changed colour as he spoke.
Tearle and Carruthers expected this answer. They both laughed, a little uneasily.
"You are on the wrong track, my boy," declared the former. "I am satisfied that Silva has left India -- he would be a fool to stop in the country any longer than he could help. That he could have followed you up to Assam, and trusted himself among these blood- thirsty Nagas, and bribed them to carry you off to serve his own evil ends -- why, it is too incredible for belief."
"Preposterous, indeed," assented Carruthers.
"To gratify a thirst for vengeance, Sahibs, a man will stop at nothing -- he will go as the devil drives," gloomily remarked Sher Singh; which was his sole contribution, then or afterwards, to the discussion.
"Tearle is right, my lad the Portuguese can't be in these parts," repeated Carruthers. "As for the motive of the Nagas, perhaps they wanted an English hostage to hold. Come to think of it, I remember they carried off an English magistrate once, just before they raided the tea plantations, and on the strength of their captive they got easy terms from the Government."
"It may have been the same in this case," said Tearle, though he spoke doubtfully. "However, if Silva is in the neighbourhood, he certainly won't venture near Goalpara. We will inform the authorities this evening, and they will probably set their native intelligence department in motion at once, if they think there is any likelihood of trouble with the Nagas. Have you got a match about you, lad?" he added carelessly. "I want to light my pipe."
The conversation flagged, and the subject of Antonia Silva seemed by tacit consent to be avoided. But it was not forgotten at least for the remainder of the day; though what Tearle, or Carruthers, or Maurice himself, really believed, whether or not they gave the Portuguese credit for having had a hand in the mysterious business, were questions which not one of the three could have answered. As for Sher Singh, he was either wrapt in sober reflections, or was de- pressed by the headache consequent on his cracked skull.
Slowly the line of cages jolted along, threading the jungle fastnesses, climbing hills and wading across streams, and late in the afternoon the valuable convoy entered Goalpara. Here was a pleasing taste of civilization of a kind, welcome as a change -- this little town in the Brahmaputra valley, with its native houses and temples and European dwellings, its warehouses, shops, and cantonment, shipping and landing-wharf, and motley types of people, from English to Afghan.
The cages were stored in a great covered shed belonging to Hamrach and Company, and the agent of the firm promptly appeared and offered the hospitality of his roof to the two Englishmen and the lad. He was a German named Scholl, who traded in tobacco and bottled ales, and incidentally purchased any wild animals or reptiles that were brought into Goalpara.
"Is everything in readiness?" Tearle inquired of him.
"Very nearly," the man replied. "The Navigation Company sent the barge here a week ago, but it required some repairs and special fittings, which are nearly completed. The stores are on board, and you can load your cargo by to-morrow afternoon."
"And the pilot?"
"I have one engaged for you, Mr. Tearle a trusty Hindoo who has spent his life on the Brahmaputra. He is somewhere in the town now, no doubt, for I saw him this morning."
Tearle expressed his satisfaction, and later in the evening, accompanied by Maurice, he called upon the local administrator and informed him of the outrage committed by the Nagas. The official promised an investigation, but scouted the idea of impending trouble with the predatory hillmen. No mention was made to him of Antonio Silva, or of the lad's suspicions, and he would have laughed the suggestion to scorn, as Tearle knew.
Whether or not the administrator kept his promise, or concerned himself further in the matter, Tearle and his companions did not learn, nor did they very much care; for on the morrow they discovered two vexatious things that for the time being threatened to interfere with their plans for departure. In the first place it was found that the barge, the "Star of Assam," required more repairs and fittings than Scholl had stated, and that the work could not be finished for another day and a half, at least. In the second place -- this was a more serious hitch -- the pilot engaged by the agent had mysteriously disappeared. No one remembered seeing him since the previous morning. All parts of the little town and the outlying suburbs, as well as the vessels in port, were thoroughly but vainly searched for him. In short barring the remote possibility of foul play the fellow had clearly repented of his bargain and left the neighbourhood, though for what reason none could surmise.
It was doubtful if a substitute could be obtained at such short notice, and the quest for one had proved fruitless up to that same evening, when, towards sunset, Tearle came ashore from the barge with Maurice and Sher Singh, leaving Carruthers to give some in- structions to the workmen.
They met Scholl on the bank, and as they stopped to talk to him, in the vicinity of an idle throng of natives and planters, merchants and soldiers, a man approached the little group and made a low, cringing bow. His attire was half-Hindoo, half-European. He wore cast-off cavalry trousers, a greasy kummer- bund and tunic of blue cloth, and a dingy turban. His head and coppery face were covered with a matted growth of coarse black hair.
"Salaam, Sahib," he began. "You are going down the river in yonder big boat?"
"Yes; what of it?" said Tearle.
"Perhaps you want a pilot?" was the reply.
"Sahib, do not trust this fellow," Sher Singh whispered quickly, as he touched Tearle on the arm.
Chapters I - XV
Chapters XVI - XXX
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