Chapters I - XV
Chapters XVI - XXX
|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||The 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|
"Yes, I do need a pilot, as it happens," he replied, with a keen glance at the applicant, whose appearance was certainly against him, "but it is doubtful if you will suit me."
"I am at the Sahib's service," said the Hindoo, "and to be hired cheap. You will not repent of your bargain. I know every mile of the river from here to the sea."
" The boatmen that I have previously engaged have always told me the same thing," Tearle answered, reflectively, "but their statements usually proved false. You tell me you are a trained pilot. What is your name, and how often have you been down the Brahmaputra?"
"Many more times than I can count, Sahib," declared the fellow, holding up his hands and opening and shutting them rapidly, "on budgerows, dinghees, steamers, and tea-barges, and I have never been wrecked. As for my name, I am called Gunga Ra."
"And your papers? Of course those are indispensable."
"I have them, Sahib;" and with a quiet smile the Hindoo produced from the folds of his kummerbund a small, flat parcel tied with green muslin.
"I will look into them," said Tearle, "and will confer with my companions. Meanwhile do you remain here."
With that he drew Maurice and Sher Singh a few paces to one side, and at the same instant the three were joined by Carruthers. Scholl, who had been called away by an acquaintance in the passing crowd also came up to the group.
"What did that queer-looking chap want?" asked Carruthers. "I saw him palavering with you just now."
"He wants a berth as pilot," said Tearle, "and he seems to be all right, but Sher Singh is of the opinion that he is not to be trusted."
"Then you know something to his discredit?" Carruthers inquired of the shikaree.
"I know nothing, Sahib," Sher Singh replied. "I never saw him before. Yet a tiny voice here," he patted his breast, "tells me that you will be wise to refuse this offer. A pilot he may be, but he has the face of a rogue and a budmash."
"And you suspect him on that account?" exclaimed Tearle, contemptuously. "A man is not always to be judged by his looks."
"And we must have a pilot," put in Maurice.
"The fellow is fair-spoken," Tearle went on. "But he has given me his papers they ought to settle the question."
He opened the packet, and having examined the half dozen or so of credentials that it contained, he handed them to Carruthers.
"Nothing wrong with these," said the latter, after a brief inspection. "They are all in good order -- I know a couple of the signatures -- and they are written in terms of the highest praise."
Scholl passed a similar opinion, and declared, moreover, that he remembered having seen the Hindoo come ashore from several vessels that touched at Goal para, though not very recently.
"I have no doubt." he added, "that the man is what he professes to be."
"Then we will take him," promptly decided Tearle. "It would be foolish to reject such a chance." He stepped over to the Hindoo. "Here are your papers," he said. "We have found no fault with them. Be on hand early to-morrow morning to help us load, I will pay you a rupee a day. Is that sufficient?"
"The Sahib is generous," replied Gunga Ra; and with a servile bow he took himself off.
"He is a rascally-looking fellow, that's a fact," said Maurice.
"I don't care a hang for his looks, as long as he proves a good pilot," laughed Tearle, "and I fancy he will. It's a relief to get that difficulty off my mind."
Sher Singh said nothing, nor was he aggrieved by the rejection of his unfounded advice; but his face was grave and troubled, and his eyes mistrustfully followed Gunga Ra's figure until it was lost to sight.
"May Brahma decree," he said to himself, "that these Sahibs do not repent of their confidence! The secret voice within me is not to be stilled."
By daybreak the next morning -- the workmen had been persuaded to continue their labours through the greater part of the night -- the repairs were so nearly finished that the loading of the barge was commenced. Gunga Ra turned up on time, and worked with a zeal that placed him high in the estimation of all, excepting, perhaps, Sher Singh. By noon everything was on board and in its place -- cages, bullocks for the carni- vorous animals to be fed upon, bales of hay, luggage, and various supplies for man and beast. Tearle paid off some of his helpers, and settled accounts with the native merchants to whom he was indebted.
Mid-afternoon saw the mooring-ropes cast loose, and the ''Star of Assam" started on its momentous journey, drifting slowly out to the buoyed channel and down stream, while the thatched houses and white-walled cantonments of Goalpara faded in the distance, and Scholl, conspicuous amid a group of onlookers, waved his hand from the bank.
The barge, on account of its length and breadth, had the appearance of being lower in the water than it really was. Its general outlines resembled the great ferry-boats that ply on some of the American and English rivers. In the middle of the deck, running fore and aft, were the movable hatches that covered the deep and spacious hold, where the wild beasts and cattle -- the latter partitioned off by themselves -- were snugly quartered. From the fore-deck rose an airy little cabin, occupied by Maurice, Sher Singh, and their employers.
Near by a ladder descended to the store-room, and here, among other supplies, were cases of ammunition and a fifty-pound cask of powder, which had been brought up from Calcutta for bartering purposes with the natives, but had proved not to be needed. A large portion of the deck was roofed over with sheets of rice matting. On one side of the hatches were the sleeping-quarters of the crew, and the other side was used for cooking and eating.
The barge was guided from the stern by two monstrous sweeps, like the oar-blades of a raft. Two men were required to each sweep, and there were two relays -- eight men in all. The cook, the pilot, and six natives whom Tearle had retained to look after the animals, swelled the number of Hindoos on board to sixteen, exclusive of Sher Singh.
Across the deck and a little forward, high above hatches and awnings, was the bridge where sat Gunga Ra, with his earthen water-bowl beside him swathed in a damp cloth. He commanded a clear view of the river ahead, and could, at the same time, give instructions to the men at the sweeps by word and signal.
The current of the Brahmaputra was rather sluggish and even at this great distance from the sea the channel was from one to two miles broad. There were no snags or shoals, apparently, and this fact caused Tearle to wonder if a pilot was a necessity. Gunga Ra had little or nothing to do, though he showed his authority by issuing an occasional order.
Through the sultry hours of the afternoon the "Star of Assam" swung leisurely down the murky waterway keeping well to mid-stream. To right and left were low, jungle-covered shores, the haunts of innumerable wild beasts and reptiles. Here and there, on a cleared hillside, stood the bungalow and factories of a tea or indigo planter. To the north the blue spurs of the Himalayas could be faintly seen, sixty miles distant. A few craft were encountered bound upwards to Goalpara -- a native trader's boat, a steam launch flying the French flag, a passenger barge, and a troop-steamer crowded to the rail with helmetted British soldiers.
At sunset the barge was guided to the left bank of the river, and moored fast to trees; for Tearle was not inclined to run the risk of navigating in the dark. Guards were posted at different parts of the deck, and the night passed without alarm, though one incident occurred to which a special significance afterwards attached.
About two o'clock in the morning, while lying half-asleep and half-awake in his bunk, Maurice imagined that he heard a creaking of the ladder which led down to the store-room; he rose and looked out of the cabin but seeing one of the sentries pacing by he returned to bed. In the morning he spoke lightly of the matter to Tearle, who, on descending to the store-room with a lantern, found evidence that a box of biscuits had been tampered with.
"It must have been that sentry," he said. "I suppose he got hungry in the night. I shan't say anything about it this time, but I don't want it to happen again. Goodness knows, I give these fellows plenty to eat."
"They are a greedy lot," replied the lad; and ceased to think of the affair.
The second day's journey was uneventful, except that the town of Rangamati was passed. The "Star of Assam" floated on for mile after mile, under the burning Indian sun, and amid scenery of the most gorgeous description. Frequently Maurice, while walking the deck, glanced up at the bridge to find Gunga Ra's piercing black eyes fixed upon him with what he fancied was a fierce and malevolent stare. Each time the Hindoo turned quickly away. The lad could not shake off the delusion, though he was convinced that it was nothing more than that. It gave him a vague feeling of uneasiness.
Others on board, notably Tearle and Sher Singh, were, unknown to themselves, regarded with that same evil scrutiny. Meanwhile the pilot had fallen under suspicion with the men at the sweeps, who considered his post to be a mere sinecure, and found fault with his Hindustani. They agreed among themselves that he was not what he claimed to be -- that his knowledge of the river was limited, and that he did not hail from Assam. No whisper of this reached Tearle and his companions, else the course of events might have been decidedly changed.
The third day of the journey dawned. Noon came and went, and the sun dropped slowly towards the west. An hour before twilight Gunga Ra hopped nimbly down from the bridge, and came forward to where Tearle was sitting with Carruthers and Maurice.
"If it is the Sahib's pleasure," he said, "the barge can float through the night with safety; we are thirty miles below Rangamati, and from here on, for a long distance, the channel is free from obstructions and shoals, deep from bank to bank."
Tearle at first shook his head. "No," he replied, "we will tie up as usual."
"I am the Sahib's willing servant," persisted Gunga Ra, "but we will surely save much time. I am accustomed to go without sleep for many hours, and will keep watch on the bridge until daylight."
Tearle hesitated. Any device that would shorten the journey was worthy of consideration.
"It sounds fair," said Carruthers. "We can't come to any harm if we stick to mid-channel. Of course I don't advise it as a regular thing. But in this case, if the part of the river we are on is known to be unobstructed."
"It is," broke in Maurice. "Don't you remember, when we came up from Calcutta, and were travelling by steamer, what the captain told us one evening. He said that for sixty miles below Rangamati it was safe running by day or by night."
"True; I had forgotten that for the moment," exclaimed Tearle. "Well, we'll risk it for once. Go back to your post, my good fellow," he added to the pilot. "You shall have an extra rupee to make up for the loss of sleep."
A little later Gunga Ra was perched on the bridge, peering alertly ahead. The night fell swiftly, and when semi-darkness shrouded the river, great lanterns were lighted and hung at bow and stern, and the second relay of men went to the sweeps. While the barge glided down mid-stream between the faintly-visible shores, supper was eaten, and pipes were smoked, and the bullocks and wild animals were made snug for the night.
At one o'clock in the morning all were asleep except those on whom devolved the safe guidance of the "Star of Assam." Not a sound was to be heard but the monotonous splash and creak of the oar-blades as the men shuffled their naked feet to and fro over the rear-deck, or an occasional grunt or whine from the hold. Blind and unquestioning obedience to the commands of the pilot was imperative, for the glare of the lanterns prevented the sweepmen from seeing much farther than the rail.
Gunga Ra, perched aloft, had the barge at his mercy. He alone knew whither it was drifting. From time to tune he shouted a curt word of instruction.
An hour slipped by, and shortly after two o'clock there was a tremendous crash a grinding, quivering jar that sent a shudder through the stout framework of the "Star of Assam," that pitched the occupants of the cabin out of their bunks and sprawled them in a tangled heap upon the floor.
"Sahib, we must be sinking," exclaimed Sher Singh, when he could find his voice.
" It is possible, though I don't believe it," Maurice replied. "But we have had an awful collision with something or other."
As he spoke Tearle and Carruthers, who had wisely delayed to light a lantern, joined the other two on the fore-deck.
"We are not sinking, lad," vowed Tearle. "I am sure of that. I know the feel of it too well, having been twice wrecked at sea."
"Then the bow is fast aground, and we are swinging round broadside," declared Maurice, as he stepped to the rail and looked over.
He had no sooner spoken than the statement was confirmed. There was a scraping noise, followed by succession of quivering jars and jerks. With that the barge held tight, and the only perceptible motion was a gentle swaying to and fro.
Tearle ran to the opposite side of the deck and stared across the water, shading his eyes with his hands.
"Yes, we've swung clear round," he shouted. " The barge is tight on a shoal, with the bow pointing up stream. But that's not the worst of it. Look yonder. What do you make of that?"
Now, for the first time, all eyes discerned the outline of the shore within a distance of fifty yards. Its murky reflection stained the river almost as far as the side of the barge.
"We're aground on the shallows," cried Carruthers. "Is this devilry or accident?"
"Gunga Ra can tell you that," replied Maurice. "Either he ran us purposely ashore, or he fell asleep at his post of duty."
"I'll wring the scoundrel's neck when I get hold of him," muttered Tearle, with an oath.
He snatched the lantern from Carruthers and started along the deck, his companions at his heels.
"I warned the Sahibs," declared Sher Singh, excitedly. "I knew that the budmash of a pilot was not to be trusted. He has betrayed us."
"If that's true he dies for it," swore Carruthers.
Though a very brief time had elapsed since the crash, the tumult was now subsiding. Here and there a lantern, ignited by some ready witted fellow, was flaming towards the stern and shedding light on a motley scene. The natives were running to and fro, talking hoarsely and confusedly, and an occasional roar floated up from the hold.
Tearle swung his lantern high, and searched the bridge. It was empty. He glanced round in vain for the missing pilot.
"Where is Gunga Ra?" he demanded angrily. "Who has seen him?"
There was a jabbering of voices in reply, but none could answer the questions. The men who had been at the sweeps were promptly examined, but they easily exonerated themselves from blame. They had merely obeyed orders, they declared, and the glare of the lights had prevented them from seeing any distance beyond the rail. Their evidence, however, brought out one important and damaging fact. Gunga Ra had not been sleeping at his post, for up to the very moment of the disaster he had issued instructions.
"That settles it," Tearle cried in a passion. "There is some devilry brewing. The barge was grounded by design. Find the scoundrel, men. He must be still on board. He can't escape us."
Just then a dusky and bleeding figure emerged from the depths of the hold and crawled painfully and slowly over the hatch-combing. It was the shikaree Jafar, who had been acting as night-watch over the animals. He stood to his feet with difficulty, and his breath came in short, quick gasps.
"Hello! what's wrong here?" demanded Tearle. "Are you hurt?"
"Truly I am, Sahib," was the reply. "That pig of a Gunga Ra, that son of a burnt grandfather -- when the bump came -- he fell down -- he fell down through the awning and into the hold -- he fell upon me with much heaviness. See -- I am hurt here -- and here;" and he patted his ribs and nose.
Tearle grimly repressed an inclination to laugh.
"Where is the rascal now?" he exclaimed. "Did he climb back upon the deck?"
"He rolled away in the darkness, over and over Sahib," replied Jafar, pointing to the hold. "He must be still in hiding down there."
"Then we've got him all right, eh?" cried Carruthers. "Search for him and bring him up. I want to hear what he has to say for himself."
"No, no, Sahib wait," Jafar interposed. "I forgot to tell you the cage with the big rhinoceros has upset. It will be dangerous to venture down below. The beast may break loose at any moment. Hark! do you hear him pounding his horn against the planks?"
"I hear him plainly enough, if that's what it is," said Tearle. "Gunga Ra will keep for the present. The rhinoceros must be attended to, and at once. Come along, all hands are needed for this business."
"We had better look for the pilot at the same time," suggested Maurice, "or he will give us the slip. It's an easy swim to shore."
"I'll see that the fellow don't escape," vowed Carruthers, as he stuffed the chambers of a revolver with cartridges.
A stout gate barred the entrance to the hold, which was a sloping gangway, eight or nine feet wide, that opened on to one of the side decks of the barge. Tearle swung the gate on its hinges, and then, a sudden thought occurring to him, he stopped. Selecting four of the natives, he bade them stand aside.
"Put these fellows on guard at the hatches," he said to Maurice. "They won't need any weapons. And you had better stay up here with them yourself. There's a chance that the scoundrel may slip out of the hold; or perhaps he is already out, and lurking somewhere on deck. I wouldn't lose him for a good bit."
"Right you are," Maurice assented. "I'll keep a sharp look out."
"Lively now, men," exclaimed Tearle ; and holding the lantern high he led the party through the gate and down into the hold, where the ill-tempered rhinoceros was still jabbing and prodding, to the accompaniment of snarls and whimpers from the other animals. Sher Singh lingered for an instant, wavering between duty and inclination, then reluctantly vanished below.
Maurice lost not a minute in disposing his four men where he thought they were most needed. He left the fore-deck unguarded, since the hatch at this end of the hold was tightly battened down. It was the natural and proper course to take, under the circumstances, yet the lad was shortly to wish that he had posted at least one of the natives in the vicinity.
"And now," he told himself, when he had completed his arrangements, "I mean to search the whole deck for Mr. Gunga Ra. I have an idea that he climbed out of the hold some time before Jafar did. I only hope he hasn't dropped over the rail and swum ashore."
As he sauntered forward, peering right and left into the gloom, he recalled with a feeling of uneasiness the malevolent glances which he had so often received from the pilot.
"I shouldn't care to meet the fellow empty-handed," he reflected. "I had better arm myself."
He hastened to the cabin and took his rifle from the hooks -- a light-weight weapon to which he was much attached. But his cartridge-belt was empty and he remembered that the cartridges of the required size were all in the store-room.
"It's no fun lugging one of those weapons around," he muttered, glancing at the heavier rifles of Tearle and Carruthers. "I can put my hand on the box in the dark and it won't take a minute."
He returned to the deck and paused for a few seconds in the glare of the big lantern -- it had been relit -- that was swinging above him. From the hold came various discordant sounds mingled with the excited jabbering of voices.
He stepped to the ladder and began to descend. When he was half-way down the rungs he fancied he saw a flash of yellow light below him. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The bright streak had disappeared, and all was dark.
"It was a reflection from the deck," he assured himself.
Maurice reached the bottom. The door opened inwards, and he pushed it slowly back on its hinges. He still felt a little anxious about the visionary light, so he took a match from his pocket, and scraped it on the wall as he strode from the narrow passage into the store-room.
For a brief instant, while the vesta flamed between his fingers, he stood trembling and speechless -- petrified by the discovery that was revealed to him. Many of the cases and boxes had been moved away from the middle of the floor, and that space was now occupied by the fifty-pound cask of gunpowder. From the hole in the top -- it had been unscrewed -- dangled a fuse two feet in length, the end of it charred and burnt. Several partly-consumed matches lay near, and a couple of yards off was a dark-lantern with the shade drawn.
All this the lad saw at a quick, sweeping glance and then, almost before he could grasp the terrible meaning of the preparations, or realize his own imminent danger, a pair of bony hands fastened on his throat from behind. There was no opportunity to cry out -- no chance for a struggle on anything like equal terms. The rifle and the match dropped, and Maurice was flung heavily down on top of them, thus plunging the store-room in total darkness.
In the fall his head struck the floor, and the stunning pain helped to disable him. He fought desperately to rid himself of his unseen foe, but his struggles were in vain. The muscular fingers only clutched him the tighter. He grew rapidly weaker, and throes of suffocation began to torture him. His brain seemed to be splitting in two; he was on the verge of unconsciousness.
But suddenly, when his strength was quite gone, and his senses nearly so, the grip on his throat was relaxed. He lay still, breathing in painful gasps, and unable to utter a sound. As he revived a little he found, with impotent rage and fear, that his captor was binding his ankles together, and tying his wrists behind his back. He could feel the ruffian's hot breath on his neck.
When it came to the gagging process the lad again offered, or attempted to offer resistance; but a wad of cloth was quickly and easily forced into his mouth. Then the man's kneeling weight was lifted from his body, and he lay there prone, as helpless as a log of wood. He heard the door of the store room close softly heard muffled foot-steps crossing the floor, and then a creaking, sliding noise. With that a strong beam of light from the partly-opened shutter of the dark lantern shone full upon him.
Scowling and venomous, full of triumphant hatred, was the ruffian's countenance, which was as yet unfamiliar to Maurice. He shuddered with terror and, maddened by the thought of his helplessness he strained at his fetters.
"It must be Gunga Ra," he told himself. "He was disguised before."
The man stepped nearer, and looked down upon the lad as a tigress might glare at the slayer of her cubs.
"Ah! I could have wished for no better fortune," he muttered. "You are as good as dead, so I need not fear to unmask. How cleverly I deceived you all, with the help of my good friend Gunga Ra! What! You do not know me! But how could you, with this stubbly growth of beard -- in these rags? Listen! I am Antonio Silva."
Maurice started, and turned pale. He recognized the voice -- knew the cast of the features. The revelation brought a hopeless, frightened look to his eyes.
"Time is precious, but I can spare a minute for you," the Portuguese went on. "The game is in my hands, and at one stroke I shall have a complete and glorious revenge -- not only on you, but on those others as well who have wronged me. You baffled me in the jungles of Seranghur; escape now if you can. Ha! ha! how easily the dogs of Englishmen were deceived! I have been hidden in yonder corner, among the cases and boxes, since you started down the river. Gunga Ra smuggled me aboard at Goalpara. He hates you and the others even as I do, lad, because you killed his brother during the fight at the camp. It was Gunga Ra, my cunning servant, who bribed the Naga hillmen to carry you off; who decoyed into the jungle, and there slew, the native pilot who was to have taken his place. The rest was easy. As for Gunga Ra's papers, I forged them before I came to Assam. From the first, whether the Naga plot failed or succeeded, I swore that the Englishmen's barge should never reach the Bay of Bengal."
Maurice forced a groan from his parched and swollen lips, as he writhed impotently. Silva bent over the lad, lifted him by the shoulders, and propped him in an upright position against a box.
"Gunga Ra should be here with me," he resumed. "I trust that he has escaped to the shore, where I shall speedily join him. He made a little mistake to-night, and ran the boat aground before I was ready. But it is an easy matter to drop into the river. I am a good swimmer, and a better diver. And your friends -- they will not miss you until it is too late. Hark! they are still busy in the hold."
He listened for a few seconds to the dull, muffled noise that came through the wooden walls, and then scraped a match, which he held for a moment between his fingers.
"Your fate is certain," he said smilingly. "You can expect no help from your companions. Do you see that fuse? You shall sit here and watch it burning its way to the top of the cask. Directly the spark touches the powder the barge and all on board will be blown to fragments. Dead men tell no tales, and none will ever know that Antonio Silva and Gunga Ra thus wiped out a debt of vengeance. I will leave the lantern," he added, "so that you may measure your remaining span of life. I wish you pleasant thoughts during the next two minutes. After that -- oblivion. Farewell, my young friend Maurice."
With a truly satanic grin Silva put the match to the fuse, which began to spit fire. He quietly left the store-room, closing the door behind him. The rungs of the ladder creaked, and all was still. Maurice, helplessly bound and gagged, was abandoned to such mental torments as only a fiend could have devised.
Let us, for a brief interval -- it must be very brief indeed while that deadly fuse is burning below -- follow the Portuguese. Coolly and cautiously he climbed to the fore-deck, and a swift glance showed him that the coast was clear, that there was no danger of any person either preventing his escape or frustrating his devilish designs. He crept to the rail and swung over. By the aid of a dangling rope he let himself farther down, then dropped into the water with scarcely a splash and swam noiselessly towards the near by shore.
At that very moment, as it happened, a diversion occurred in the hold. While Tearle and a number of others were working hard to right the overturned cage that held the rhinoceros, Carruthers and several natives were searching zealously for the missing pilot, whom they believed to be hidden close by. They had entered the space that was walled off for the bullocks, and Carruthers was flashing a lantern here and there, when what appeared to be a bundle of straw, suddenly endowed with life, rose from the gloom of the farthest corner.
Down went the straw, revealing the half-naked figure of Gunga Ra. As quickly he sprang to the top of the partition even before Carruthers could fire and a second leap landed him on the sloping gangway. He darted forward, struck down a native who tried to stop him, and the next instant had gained the side of the barge and vaulted into the river.
"Shoot him! shoot him! " yelled frantic voices.
There was a lusty hue and cry as Tearle and Carruthers, followed by every man that was below, rushed to the deck. They crowded along the rail, gazing anxiously shore wards, but as the fugitive pilot had immediately dived, he was of course invisible. For the same reason, and also because he was much nearer to the bank, nothing was seen of Silva.
"Look, Sahibs!" shouted Sher Singh, when a few seconds had elapsed.
A head rose to the surface, to vanish as quickly. Rifles and pistols cracked, and a shower of lead rained about the spot where Gunga Ra had so briefly appeared. Beyond were shadows too deep for the watchful eyes to penetrate; a black, sluggish current that rippled inland to the overhanging trees and vegetation.
"We couldn't have hit him," exclaimed Carruthers. "He was too quick. He can swim and dive like a duck."
"I'll give fifty rupees for the scoundrel, dead or alive," cried Tearle. He scanned the murky waters, then lowered his rifle in despair. " It's no use," he muttered.
"Sahib, let me go after him," spoke up Jafar, the shikaree. "I'll take a boat paddle hard!"
"You can try it," Tearle assented, indifferently, "but you will come back empty-handed. The fellow is too cunning to be caught."
However, the boat was lowered -- a couple of light craft were swung over the rear-deck -- and it swiftly receded in the gloom, propelled by Jafar and four other natives. Tearle and Carruthers stood looking towards the shore, and listening to the faint dip and splash of the paddles, though they well knew that the quest would be a fruitless one. It had occurred to neither of them, as yet, that they had seen nothing of Maurice since they left the hold.
To return to the store-room. What Maurice felt when the door softly closed, and Silva's footsteps died away up the ladder, no tongue or pen can describe. His head seemed to be on fire with seething agony. He strained every nerve and muscle to break his bonds, to eject the gag from his mouth; but his efforts were vain, and weakness speedily compelled him to desist. He sat still, propped against the box, in a fever of suffering, with his eyes fixed on the cask of powder and the speck of hissing, spitting fire that was creeping closer and closer.
With incredible rapidity one mental picture after another glided through his mind. He saw in imagination the natives standing about the deck, his friends working away in the hold, all indifferently ignorant of his whereabouts. Then -- frightful scene! he saw the barge burst to fragments with an awful explosion, And strew the river with charred wood and mangled bodies. He saw Silva's evil face, lit with intense joy, peering from the shelter of the jungle.
Again the lad struggled desperately, with purpling cheeks, to free his arms and tongue. If he could only cry out! The fuse was now half-consumed, and was burning up the side of the cask.
Suddenly his attention was distracted by hoarse shouts overhead. He heard a rush of footsteps across the deck, then angry voices and the sharp crack of rifles. He knew what this meant.
"Silva has been discovered while leaping overboard," he thought. "Oh, I hope they will shoot him -- I hope they will!"
The tumult and firing continued, but no one came near the store-room. The brief hope that had cheered Maurice died away. He looked at the spitting fuse, and the sight maddened him. Persistently he strained his aching muscles, but it was useless to try to break the cords that bound him. At last, attacking the gag with teeth and tongue, it flew out of his mouth.
For an instant he was faint with joy. When he tried to shout, however, he was dismayed to find that he could utter only a wheezing sound. The noise still continued, and he realized the hopelessness of making himself heard.
Death was very near -- the explosion must soon take place. Already the end of the fuse was six inches off the floor. The fire was steadily, relentlessly, devouring its way up the side of the cask to the open tap-hole. A few seconds passed, fraught with unspeakable agony to the doomed lad. A quivering moan escaped his lips, and he shuddered in every limb.
"To die like this it is too horrible!" he whispered. "God help me!"
As Maurice repeated the fervent prayer there flashed into his mind, as if in answer, a slim ray of hope a desperate opportunity of saving his life. As quickly he regained his self-control, was calm and clear-headed. He was utterly weak, but strength came to him with the need of it.
Throwing himself over on his side, he began to roll across the floor, and by tacking several times he gained the position that he wanted. His head rested against the powder-cask, and the burning end of the fuse was just above him. The sparks dropped upon his face, in a little shower.
Would it be success or failure? He answered the question by a straining, muscular effort that raised his head from the floor. He opened his mouth, and literally snapped at the spot of fire. He caught it, and closed his lips tightly, regardless of the burning pain. Then his head sank back, and he lost consciousness.
The lad knew nothing more until he opened his eyes to find himself in his own berth in the cabin, with friendly faces about him. Sher Singh was rubbing his burnt lips and tongue with some healing ointment.
"Lie still, my brave fellow," said Tearle. "You are not able to rise yet."
"Yes, I am," vowed Maurice, sitting up as he spoke. "Did I put it out?" he asked eagerly. "Oh, how it stung! Are you all safe? Where is the Portuguese? It was Antonio Silva who did it. Have you shot him?"
"The boy's mind is wandering," said Carruthers in an undertone.
"Yes, you put the fuse out," he added. "The charred end was still clenched between your teeth when we found you in the store-room ten minutes ago. Your lips and tongue are scorched, but the pain won't last very long."
"We all owe our lives to you, my young hero," said Tearle. "Your wits and courage saved the barge from destruction. But Gunga Ra has escaped us, worse luck. He leapt out of the hold and over the rail, almost before we could give the alarm. We fired at the scoundrel, but it was no use, for he dived like an otter. Jafar and four others have gone after him in a small boat "
"What I can't understand, lad," broke in Carruthers. "is why Gunga Ra should have crept back to hide in the hold, after he had trussed you up in the storeroom like a helpless fowl and fired the mine that was to have blown us to bits."
"Gunga Ra?" exclaimed Maurice. "Why, he wasn't near the store-room I know nothing of him. It was Antonio Silva who knocked me down and bound me, and put the fuse to the powder. Do you mean to say you've let him escape?"
"The Portuguese here?" Tearle and Carruthers cried incredulously, in one breath.
"Yes, here in disguise. He has been on board all the time, since we left Goalpara."
When the excitement caused by his revelation had subsided a little, the lad went on to tell the whole story, briefly and rapidly. The consternation and amazement of his hearers were beyond words.
Tearle grew purple with rage, was speechless for a moment.
"I would give every penny I own to get my hand on the yellow wretch," he blurted out, with a string of oaths. "I would tear him limb from limb. Only to think that Silva was actually among us!"
"He must be a tremendous hater," said Carruthers, "to judge from the trouble he took, following the lad up here into Assam, and hiring the Nagas to carry him off. And then, when that plan failed, to take us in with a false pilot and smuggle himself aboard the barge! He is a fiend in human guise."
Sher Singh said nothing, but the flash of his dark eyes showed that he shared his companions' wrath and indignation.
At this point the splash of paddles was heard, and a half-minute later, as the four left the cabin, the boat swung alongside the barge. Its occupants climbed silently to the deck and hauled the light craft after them.
"I thought so," growled Tearle. "No luck, eh?"
"None, Tearle Sahib," replied Jafar. "The rogue is safe within the thick jungle, where there is scarcely a trail even for beasts."
"We are well rid of both of them, if you ask me," declared Carruthers. "I don't believe they will trouble us again in a hurry; they will probably cut up to Rangamati, and leave this part of the country by rail."
"Very likely," assented Tearle. "But I sincerely hope Silva will cross our path again before we depart from India. And now to get the barge off the shoals. There is but one way, I fear -- to fly a signal of distress and wait till some steamer comes along."
"Which won't be until daylight, at least," said Carruthers. "It is no more than two o'clock now. Shall we turn in for a few hours of sleep?"
"The Sahibs surely forget the rhinoceros," interposed Sher Singh. "We left the hold in great haste."
"So we did!" cried Tearle. "We got the cage right side up, but it is too much strained for safety."
"It was ready to fall apart," added Carruthers. "It must be strengthened at once -- better lose no time about it. I can hear the beast prodding at the planks. He has been in an awful temper for the past two days."
"Come along, then," said Tearle, as he picked up the lantern. "Jafar, go to the rear-deck and fetch some of that teakwood planking."
The Hindoo set off on his errand, but had taken only a dozen strides when there was a ripping, crashing noise from the depths of the barge, mingled with angry snorting and grunting.
"Too late!" cried Tearle. "There! he's done it. Old Terrible is loose. Nets and ropes, quick!"
Old Terrible, it may be explained, was the name that had been given to the rhinoceros at the time of his capture, on account of his fierce and surly disposition, and his present performance showed that he meant to deserve his title.
A few seconds after the first alarm there was a repetition of the crashing, rending sounds, followed by a pandemonium of grunts and squeals, roaring and yowling. The commotion rose to a high and deafening pitch, and all the beasts and bullocks joined in lustily till you would have thought they were engaging in a pitched battle. There was hurried running to and fro on the deck, as Tearle rapidly shouted his orders. Maurice was as active as the rest, his burns forgotten in the excitement.
"Lively, men," urged Carruthers. "Old Terrible seems to be smashing the other cages out of sheer spite. But he is not to be harmed, remember, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. You can try your magic power on the brute, lad," he added with a grin.
"I'll think about that," Maurice told him. "It is doubtful if I could do anything with a rhinoceros."
"I was only jesting," said Carruthers, "Keep out of danger."
Brown bodies tumbled over one another in the scramble for guns, nets, and ropes, most of which supplies had been stacked within convenient reach. There were no cowards aboard the barge, and every man was at Tearle's heels as he led the way forward. They might well have quailed, however, at the awful babel of sound rising from below.
Tearle and two shikarees were carrying a large, thick-meshed net, and as they drew near to the entrance of the hold two spotted tigercats, with eyes aflame leapt out of the black space,
"Grab them," cried Tearle.
The shikarees flung the net, but it fell short of the little animals, who turned tail, shrieking hideously, and fled towards the rear-deck.
"Let them go," exclaimed Carruthers. "No time to waste now."
The delay, brief though it was, proved most unfortunate. The next instant, before the attacking party could recover from their temporary confusion, the situation had changed and the initiative was taken out of their hands.
Old Terrible, scenting mischief, came snorting and pounding up the gangway leading from the hold. He struck the closed gate at the top like a ton of stones from a catapult, shivered it to fragments, and plunged on with the impetus. He narrowly missed striking the rail and going into the river, but wheeled about in time, and charged full- tilt at the men.
None stopped to toy with rope or net. Away they went with shrill clamour, in the direction of the fore-deck, hotly pursued by the ill-tempered beast. Maurice dashed into the cabin, followed by Carruthers and Sher Singh. Tearle and the shikarees tumbled down the ladder to the store-room, while the rest of the party circled round the hatch and fled towards the rear-deck.
Old Terrible naturally pursued the bent of his lowered horn, which brought him in violent contact with the side wall of the cabin. Crash! his head and shoulders went through the frail planking as if it had been an egg-shell. He stuck fast for an instant, and then, pressing on, he squeezed his great bulk entirely into the cabin just as Maurice and his terrified companions bolted by the door.
"Run, Sahibs," cried Sher Singh. "Faster! He is after us -- he gallops with the speed of a horse."
"Ho -- hold on," panted Carruthers, who was out of breath, "help me -- or -- or -- I'm done for."
Maurice and the Hindoo took hold of him, and thus they sped along the side of the deck, thoroughly convinced, by the sounds in their rear, that Old Terrible was in close pursuit. They were relieved to find otherwise when they gained the rear-deck, where eight or ten of the natives were assembled.
"I believe the brute is trapped in the cabin," suggested Maurice. "Shall we go back and see?"
"He is kicking up a tremendous row," said Carruthers, doubtfully. "But where is Tearle? Didn't he double round in this direction?"
"No, Sahib," replied Sher Singh, "he and the shikarees --"
An angry screech drowned the Hindoo's voice, and out from the shadow of the hatch combing slid the pair of tiger-cats. The little animals -- they were by no means tiny -- were disposed to show fight. They crept slowly towards the group of men, snarling and spitting.
"Wait; they won't harm us," exclaimed Maurice. He tried to cow them by a steady glance, but it had no visible effect, probably because of the poor light, "The net, quick!" he cried.
Sher Singh had one under his arm, and the lad helped him to unroll it. They advanced several steps and made a rapid cast. One of the animals escaped by darting out of the way and leaping to the rail, whence it sprang to the nearest sweep and began to crawl towards the water. The other, neatly caught by the descending net, squalled and scratched with fury, and was speedily entangled in the stout meshes.
Among the sweep-men was a stalwart fellow, with muscles of iron. He ran forward and fastened both hands in the scruff of the tiger-cat's neck. Lifting the animal, net and all, he carried it to the hold and dropped it down -- a feat that was witnessed with admiration.
"We've got him all right," cried Tearle. "The rascal has trapped himself. Wait till I noose the rope and drop it over his neck. Then you and I will hold him, Jafar, while Pershad slips in by the rear and throws the net over him."
It was a very simple plan, provided the sanction of the fourth party was obtained. At first the rhinoceros offered no objections. Seemingly pleased with his new quarters, he looked about with his wicked little eyes and grunted softly. But as the rope dangled before him, ready for the cast, Old Terrible snorted with rage and shot forward. Crack! rattle! went the door frame, and in less time than it takes to tell the brute was outside the cabin.
"Run!" cried Tearle, as he hastily flung the noose and missed his aim. He barely saved his life by an agile spring to one side, and dashing to the covered hatch, which was close by and was fortunately of some height, he leapt upon it. Jafar did the same, but bolted round the cabin, hotly pursued by the vengeful quadruped, and it was not until the second lap that he succeeded in joining his companions.
Thus baffled, Old Terrible was now in a worse temper than ever. He jabbed the side of the hold several times so that Tearle was able to cast the noose over his head, then backed away with a jerk that robbed the three men of the rope before they could get a tight grip of it. He took a turn or two, and was about to charge the empty cabin when he suddenly pricked up his ears and went thundering aft down the barge.
The advent of the pugnacious rhinoceros at the rear deck was a few seconds after the tiger-cat had been dropped into the hold. He loomed monstrously in the light of the stern lanterns, and the sweep-men, as they were charged, scattered right and left. Five of them, in fear and desperation, crawled out on the great oar-blades, three on one and two on the other. Of course the sweeps dipped low, and at the first touch of the water the fugitive tiger-cat, which had sought refuge here, gained the rail by a flying leap over the heads of the men. The little animal slipped by the rhinoceros and raced into the gloom.
This diversion afforded Maurice and his companions a welcome opportunity, and darting round the corner of the hold, they fled to the fore-deck, with Old Terrible grunting after them. Carruthers climbed to the low roof of the cabin, followed by Sher Singh and the lad, and of the others some mounted to the hatch and some swung themselves to the shelter of the bridge.
Old Terrible arrived on the scene a little too late. Seeing that his enemies were at present beyond reach he ambled leisurely to the rail and peered down at the rippling water. He was perhaps thirsty after his exertions.
"Well, this is pleasant, I must say," grumbled Tearle. "It's a nice mess. We're in a regular state of siege. I don't know what's to be done."
"Hadn't we better shoot the creature before he does any more damage?" Carruthers called across from the roof. "Now is a good chance."
"Shoot him? not a bit of it," declared Tearle, emphatically. "That rhinoceros is too valuable to lose. Wait till his temper cools off, and then we'll try to get a net over him."
"If we had another rope about his neck," suggested Maurice, "we might all make a rush and pull on him together from both sides. I have a rope with me," he added.
"Wait," replied Tearle. "Have patience."
Of that admirable quality Old Terrible had a full share, combined with devilish cunning. Several minutes passed before he turned from the rail. He plainty understood that he was master of the barge, and his beady eyes twinkled with malicious enjoyment. Hearing a sound from the stern, he wheeled about and trotted in that direction; and the watchers on hatch and cabin and bridge could follow his progress by the glow of the lanterns that were strung about the barge. They saw the sweep-men, who had meanwhile climbed back to the deck, hurriedly retreat to the oar-blades again as the brute lunged at them again.
Old Terrible, still monarch of all he surveyed, now shuffled leisurely forward. He paused near the cabin and Maurice hastily cast a rope. The brute escaped it by swinging his head, and then moved towards the hatch, when the shikarees enflamed his wrath anew by flinging a net partly over him. He shook it off and trampled it under his hoofs, soon rending it to shreds.
"He is more than a match for the whole of us," Tearle vowed angrily.
At this luckless moment the tiger-cat appeared, slinking round the corner of the hold. The little animal was uneasy and frightened, bewildered by liberty under such strange conditions. It whined in a low, quavering tone, and fixed its fiery gaze on the little group who occupied the hatch covering.
There was a sudden rush, a chorus of grunts and squeals, and the tiger-cat lay lifeless on the deck. Not yet satisfied, Old Terrible trampled the body and mangled it with his curved horn, and the sight and smell of blood seemed to rouse him to a pitch of insane fury.
He glared about him, charged full tilt at the hatch and recoiled from the stout timbers.
He snorted, wheeled round and charged the cabin. There was a splintering crash that caused the structure to reel, and down tumbled Maurice fairly upon the hind-quarters of the rhinoceros.
It was a thrilling and perilous moment, and almost before the lad had rolled off the animal's back to the deck, his companions, from cabin-roof and hatch, were shouting confused instructions to him. Several rifles were pointed at the brute, but, at a command from Tearle, none were discharged.
"Speed will save him," he cried. "Don't fire yet. This way, lad." Springing to his feet with a nimbleness that showed him to be uninjured, Maurice turned and ran. Old Terrible wheeled as quickly, in a fine rage, and the brief race that ensued was nip and tuck. The snorting and trampling behind him magnified the danger to the lad's ears, and leaping upon the hatch in such hot haste that he could not check himself, he tripped over Jafar's crouching figure, missed Tearle's outstretched hand, and plunged head first into the yawning depths of an opening in the hold.
A burst of startled cries greeted the disaster, and the rhinoceros, somewhat cowed by the noise and not knowing what to make of it, pulled up short in his charge. Maurice had happily alighted upon a bale of hay.
"I'm all right," he promptly called to his companions. "Not hurt a bit."
"Be careful, lad," warned Tearle. "Stop where you are. It is unsafe to venture out now. Wait until the brute goes to the rear again."
"We had better end the siege with a volley of rifle- balls," exclaimed Carruthers. "Things are getting too serious. Stop! no, you don't," he added, as he seized Sher Singh's arm.
The Hindoo desired to creep round to the gangway and join the lad in the hold, and it was with difficulty that Carruthers persuaded him to abandon his rash intention. It would have been simple suicide, indeed, for Old Terrible was now prancing between hatch and cabin, alternately prodding at both.
"Are any more of the animals loose down there?" asked Tearle.
"I don't think so," Maurice replied uneasily.
Without loss of time he made sure that he was right. It was a weird and uncanny place, the hold, and he felt rather nervous as he looked about in the semi-darkness. The wild beasts in the surrounding cages were uttering all sorts of blood-curdling cries, and of the bullocks, which were divided off by themselves, some had broken loose and all were bellowing loudly. A step forward brought Maurice in contact with something soft, and a ferocious yell made him spring clear off his feet, badly frightened. Then he laughed as the little tiger-cat, still tangled in the net, rolled away from him, snarling and spitting.
"I say, lad," shouted Tearle. "I'm coming down there. I want to see if we can't block the entrance to the hold. If Old Terrible gets in again he'll play ducks and drakes with our cargo."
"That's true; he might," assented Maurice. "There are some planks here, and an empty cage we can make use of."
Having told several of the others to be ready to follow him if they should be needed, Tearle lowered himself over the opening, and dropped lightly beside the lad. Had they started the proposed task at once they would have been spared some very troublesome and exciting times, but their attention was drawn instead to the tiger cat, and by the aid of a strip of canvas they grabbed the animal at both ends and dumped it into its cage, which they strengthened by nailing a couple of strips of wood over it.
Meanwhile Old Terrible had been prowling about the fore-deck in a sullen humour, which found vent in occasional assaults on the hatch and the cabin. Presently, hearing sounds from below, he concluded to investigate, and off he trotted to the entrance of the hold. What Tearle had feared might happen was really imminent.
"Look out!" shouted Carruthers.
Knowing that his friends were in a position of deadly peril, he risked a hasty shot. He meant and hoped to kill, but the bullet merely grazed Old Terrible's fore-shoulder, and added fuel to his wrath. The report of the rifle and the clamour of their comrades gave Tearle and the lad all too brief a warning of what was wrong, and the next instant the rhinoceros came clattering down the gangway into the hold, with murder gleaming in his eyes.
"Dodge him!" cried Maurice. "Watch sharp."
"Here you are, quick!" Tearle yelled.
He climbed upon the empty cage -- it was close by -- and helped the lad to mount beside him. Almost immediately the charging brute struck the refuge with his horny snout, and the fugitives, reeling from the shock, lost no time in springing to the top of the adjoining cage, which held a very large black panther. From this vantage, the edge of the hold being fortunately within reach overhead, they managed with a little dexterity to gain the deck.
"What is the brute doing?" exclaimed Carruthers, as he descended from the cabin-roof to join his friends.
"He'll be up to some devilry," replied Tearle. "Look he's at it now."
A startling scene was witnessed by the row of faces that lined the hatch combing. The rhinoceros, his passion diverted to another channel by the escape of his intended victims, charged with terrific force at the cage containing the black panther. There was a thumping clatter as the big box fell from the wheeled truck, and for an instant the noise of splitting timbers and ferocious cries was deafening, a snort of triumph rising above it all.
As the warning was uttered the magnificent black beast, delivered from the ruins of its cage, leapt from the hold and landed on deck near the gangway, just as the five sweep-men, who had profited by Old Terrible's absence to seek better quarters, ran forward and joined their companions. There was a lively scramble for safety. Carruthers and Sher Singh had returned to the cabin roof, and they made room here for Tearle and Maurice. The sweep-men climbed hastily upon the already overcrowded hatch. The situation had thus changed in less time than it takes to tell, and the next act of the impromptu drama was destined to be a thrilling one. The black panther, having stealthily advanced, was now squatting on deck mid-way between hatch and cabin. It was in a frightful rage, which meant something considerable for an animal of such thick, muscular dimensions. The restless tail thumped the hard boards, and the flaming malevolent eyes, turned from side to side as though searching where best to attack.
"The fun is going to begin," said Tearle. "We are all right up here, but I don't envy those fellows on the hatch if the beast takes a notion to leap among them."
"Which he is pretty certain to do," declared Carruthers.
Some of the natives were of the same mind, and realising their peril they begged earnestly for help and for permission to use their firearms. They were caught in a trap, as it were, and none of them dared venture off the hatch in order to get to the bridge, where several of their comrades were perched in safety. Nor was the cabin roof as sound a refuge as those on the top of it could have wished.
"I value that beast more than I do the rhinoceros," vowed Tearle, "but, upon my word, I'm afraid I shall have to shoot him. Otherwise there will be bloodshed."
He reluctantly lifted his rifle, then lowered it slowly. The panther, apparently awed by the clamour of the natives, showed no immediate desire to attack, it crawled in a half-circle, snarling deep in its throat and glaring furtively on all sides. Without doubt it would gladly have escaped from the barge had an opportunity offered.
"It would be a pity to shoot the creature, after all the trouble we had in trapping him," said Maurice. "Of course it will have to be done, rather than let him kill anybody. But there is a net up here. Suppose we try that first, while we have the chance."
"Do you think we can make a successful cast?" asked Tearle, as he measured the distance with his eye.
"I believe it," exclaimed Carruthers. "I'll help you, Dermot." He stood to his feet, Tearle doing the same, and taking the net between them they hurriedly gathered the ends in their hands.
"Wait," interposed Maurice. "I'll throw a couple of cartridges at the brute, and that may draw him nearer."
"Right you are," said Tearle. "Be quick."
But just then, before the lad could carry out his intention, a short spear was hurled from the hatch by one of the natives, whom terror had driven to this imprudent act. The weapon roughly grazed the animal's back, sped on, and whizzed over the rail into the river.
"What fool did that?" growled Carruthers.
Instantly, with a rasping scream of rage, the panther wheeled round. It crouched flat, with open jaws and lashing tail, quivering for a spring that would land it in the midst of the huddled group of natives.
"Here goes -- it can't be helped," exclaimed Tearle, throwing his rifle to his shoulder.
"Stop! stop! don't fire yet," cried Maurice, as he struck the barrel up. "I'll try what I can do first, and if I fail then you can blaze away and cover my retreat."
"Sahib, be not so mad," appealed Sher Singh. "You will be slain."
"No folly of that sort now -- it is too dark," commanded Tearle; and as he spoke he and Carruthers clutched at the lad.
But Maurice, eluding them both, as quickly swung over the edge of the roof and dropped. He ran boldly forward, empty-handed, uttering a shout that was probably the salvation of one or more of the Hindoos; for the panther, startled by the noise and by the daring of the intruder, hesitated in the very act of leaping upon the hatch. It faced about with a blood-curdling screech, and crawled a little nearer, as if to launch itself at the defiant, boyish figure.
Ere his rifle went to his shoulder, to be ready if needed, he made a frantic gesture of silence that was seen and understood by all. Not a man spoke; breathlessly they watched the thrilling, fascinating scene. A few seconds passed while lad and beast confronted each other, separated by less than ten feet. Fortunately for Maurice a lantern swung close over-head, and threw a broad yellow glare of yellow light full on his face. His eyes, fixed steadily, intensely on the panther, reflected the sparkle of the flame. The savage animal remained flat on the deck, mewling like an angry cat, its limbs and tail twitching. It was manifestly ill at ease, yet it gave no sign of retreating.
Thus, for an interval that was magnified by suspense, the two held their ground, eye to eye. But what the outcome would have been, whether the panther would ultimately have slunk away or have gathered courage to attack the lad, was fated never to be known. For of a sudden a very brief interval had elapsed since the exit of the one beast and the appearance of the other a clattering sound which all understood was heard from the direction of the hold, where meanwhile, the rhinoceros had been tramping about restlessly in the gloom, though for some reason he had done no damage.
"Run, lad!" Tearle and Carruthers shouted together.
The panther twisting its head just then in the direction of the commotion, Maurice turned and darted back, and swung himself quickly to the cabin roof to receive the fervent congratulations of his friends.
"Don't try that again," cried Tearle. "It's too risky. I was ready with the rifle, but it is doubtful if I could have saved you."
"Better kill the brute, and have done with it," urged Carruthers.
Tearle made no reply, and at that instant Old Terrible swung round the hold and came snorting and pounding on the scene, ready for any diversion that offered, and particularly keen to try conclusions with the crouching black creature that was watching him with eyes of fire.
"There is going to be a fight," exclaimed Maurice.
"And one worth seeing," vowed Tearle.
The battle opened without the slightest delay, and the spectators clinging to the hatch, forgetful of their exposed position, looked on as raptly as did those on the cabin roof. The rhinoceros grunted viciously and charged, and was not a little surprised when he struck only the rail of the barge; for the panther, with a rasping screech, had sprung timely to one side.
In quick succession the larger animal made three more charges, all equally futile, until its rage waxed to boiling point. The panther, just as angry and as hot for the fray, had no intention of yielding. In cunning and agility it was at least a match for its foe. Round and round it crept, dodging rush after rush, and at last it found the opportunity it sought. The black form flashed through the air, and landed on Old Terrible's hind-quarters, its sharp claws and teeth drawing blood from the leathery hide.
The big quadruped plunged and pranced, snorting with wrath and pain, and finally succeeding in dislodging its assailant, who slipped to the deck and rolled out of reach. The panther was uninjured, still undaunted, and for several minutes the drawn game continued -- the one charging and the other as persistently evading. The men watched eagerly and silently indifferent to all but the excitement of the combat.
The end was near at hand, however. Old Terrible by a shrewder and fleeter rush than usual, drove his foe against the wall of the cabin, and the panther, thus cornered, narrowly escaped impalement by leaping upon the head and shoulders of the rhinoceros. There was a moment of frightful squealing and grunting and struggling, while drops of blood trickled down on the planks; and then, by a vigorous, tossing effort, Old Terrible freed himself of his burden. The panther struck the deck with a thump, rolled over twice, and pitched head first into the opening that led to the store-room. A couple of wailing cries were followed by silence. Either the creature had been hurt by falling to the bottom of the ladder, or it had no inclination to renew the fight.
"That was the finest thing I've ever seen," declared Tearle.
"It was magnificent," said Maurice. "They're a plucky pair."
"But we are no better off than we were before," growled Carruthers. "I don't know what's going to become of us."
Old Terrible stared about him with blinking eyes, evidently puzzled by the unexpected disappearance of his enemy, until it seemed to dawn upon him that he was the victor. Anxious for another conquest, and realizing that his human foes were not to be got at, he shook his clumsy body, spattering the deck with blood, and moved deliberately towards the entrance of the hold.
"That will never do," cried Carruthers. "he means to smash the cages."
"I believe it," exclaimed Tearle. "I'll have to shoot the rascal for sure this time."
But again, as a daring thought occurred to him, Maurice swiftly interfered to prevent the deed and the consequent monetary loss.
"Don't fire," he begged. "Perhaps I can save the rhinoceros for you, and end the siege as well. There is shallow water all around us, you know. You needn't be afraid I'll show you."
Before any one could check him he had lowered himself from the roof to the deck. He tore loose the cabin-door, which was hanging by one hinge to the shattered frame, and placed it over the ladder way leading to the store-room, thus securely imprisoning the panther below. Then, heedless of the entreaties of his companions that he should return, he darted after the rhinoceros, who had nearly reached the entrance to the hold.
He stopped within a dozen feet, shouted loudly, and waved his hands. Old Terrible wheeled about, and changing his mind at the sight of the daring lad, he charged him with an angry snort. Maurice turned and sped to the end of the fore-deck, where he paused within a foot of the rail to confront his prisoner, who was lunging straight forward.
Simultaneous cries of horror rose from the spectators on hatch and cabin, and with good reason. But Maurice had his wits about him and had never been more cool and collected than now. He had taken a lesson from the recent fight, and knew just what he was doing. He waited and watched alertly, and when the rhinoceros was but five feet distant from him he jumped nimbly to one side.
The ruse was a splendid success. Old Terrible could more easily have taken wings and flown than checked his headlong, impetuous rush at such short range. With a dismal snort he smashed into the rail, swept it away as if it had been pasteboard, and went plunging down to the muddy waters of the Bramah- putra. The splash that followed fairly shook the barge.
His friends dropped off the cabin roof to the deck, enthusiastic and delighted, and the Hindoos swarmed noisily to the spot from hatch and bridge.
"Yes, you have ended the siege," declared Tearle, when he had spoken his gratitude in no mild terms.
"And jolly near put an end to yourself," said Carruthers. "It was a most perilous thing to attempt."
"I wasn't a bit afraid," replied Maurice. "I remembered how the panther dodged. And now for the rhinoceros. We don't want to lose him."
"By no means," assented Tearle. "You have at least saved the brute's life, and if we capture him again, Hamrach and Company shall reward you as you deserve."
All crowded to the rail and looked over. By the dim light they could see Old Terrible swimming slowly and clumsily towards the shore. He was grunting and splashing, and appeared to be in no wise injured by his fall. At a distance of some fifteen feet from the bow of the barge he struck shallow water and began to wade, his huge body emerging higher and higher from the surface.
"If we are quick we shall get him," cried Tearle, "Launch the two boats. Lively, men ; there is no time to waste."
The boats were hastily lowered, and a crew of six dropped into each. Tearle and Carruthers were in charge of one, and Maurice and Sher Singh of the other. Both parties had plenty of ropes, and lanterns were taken as well. By Tearle's orders the two boats were soon pulled into position on opposite sides of the sluggishly-moving rhinoceros, and so near to him that in a short time he was securely and doubly lassoed. The cold bath had tamed his spirit, and he submitted to recapture with sullen indifference.
Three natives from each craft now sprang out into the shallow water, and while they kept the ropes drawn taut the boats were rowed back to the barge. The entrance to the hold fortunately faced towards the shore, and the gangway -- which was long and heavy -- was hauled across the deck and let down to the river. Several of the sweep-men walked out upon it until it dipped deep enough to touch bottom. Meanwhile, as Carruthers was supervising this work, Tearle and Maurice speedily repaired the big brute's cage and wheeled it into the required position.
The next step proved less difficult than was anticipated. The six natives in the river, aided by others in the boats, headed Old Terrible around and urged him foot by foot to the barge, when he was guided into the gangway and thence to the deck. A few minutes later he was safe behind the bars of his cage, and munching grass as calmly as if nothing had happened.
"Well done, that," exclaimed Tearle, in a tone of great relief. "The worst is over. And now for the black panther."
He directed irons to be heated and the empty cage to be made ready, as the animal's former quarters were too badly smashed for use. The necessary preparations having been completed, the door was removed from the opening to the store-room, and the panther was seen crouching at the foot of the ladder. It was immediately noosed by Sher Singh, and a dozen arms hauled it to the deck, where a stout net was thrown over it. Hot irons were not required, the panther being too nearly suffocated by the rope to make much of a struggle as it was dragged into its cage.
No one feeling disposed to go back to bed, the task of putting the barge into ship-shape condition again was proceeded with at once. The mangled body of the tiger-cat was thrown overboard, and a squad of natives fell to and scrubbed the deck. Maurice and Sher Singh repaired the broken railing and the gate leading to the hold, while Tearle and Carruthers tinkered at the shattered cabin until it showed little trace of Old Terrible's forcible entry.
Dawn broke shortly after the weary men ceased work to prepare breakfast. Not a sail was in sight up or down stream, however, and Tearle, losing his temper at the prospect of further delay, made use of language that was anything but complimentary to Antonio Silva and Gunga Ra.
"There's no telling how long we may be stuck here," he declared angrily. "Several days, perhaps. We can't get off without assistance, that's certain."
The outlook was indeed a gloomy one, but, in spite of Tearle's prophecy, an unexpected stroke of luck turned vexation to rejoicing. The muddy waters of the Brahmaputra assumed a deeper yellow tinge, and it was seen that the current was flowing more swiftly. Owing to the sudden swelling of the tributary mountain streams -- a common occurrence at this season of the year -- the river was on the rise.
"It couldn't have happened at a better time," exclaimed Carruthers. "We shall soon be free."
"Don't be too sure of it," replied Tearle. "The flood may not rise high enough to lift us clear."
"The Sahibs need not worry," confidently declared Sher Singh. "I know the signs. This is only the beginning."
It was even so. The Hindoo's words came true. Higher and higher crept the saffron waters, and their increase could be plainly noted on the sides of the barge and along the jungle-clad shore -- the shore that had swallowed Antonia Silva and Gunga Ra from righteous vengeance. An hour after daylight, the big vessel began to creak and quiver, to groan with distress, and five minutes later it slid off the bottom with a crunching noise and drifted rapidly down stream.
Amid the glad confusion and cheering, Tearle's voice rang distinctly as he shouted words of command. The sweep-men ran to the oar-blades and worked with a will, swinging the "Star of Assam" around, and driving it south by west, until it was well out on the broad bosom of the Brahmaputra. Then an interval for breakfast, and when the hungry men were fed the beasts and bullocks had to be cared for.
"I don't suppose we can pick up a pilot anywhere,'' said Tearle.
"I will serve if the Sahib wishes," volunteered Sher Singh, to the surprise of his companions.
"You?" cried Maurice.
"I am not a pilot," the shikaree answered modestly, "but I know something of these waters, and I will do my best. I have frequently travelled up and down with English sportsmen, by whom I was hired."
"Well, that's a sort of a qualification," said Tearle. "I think you'll do. Go ahead."
So Sher Singh proudly assumed his new duties, and mounted the bridge where Gunga Ra had planned his diabolical treachery. There was little occasion for a pilot just now, however, for the river was broad and deep, and passing vessels were few and far between.
Towards noon the little settlement of Kymansing hove in sight, and the barge was run in and moored off a ricketty wharf. Tearle and Carruthers went ashore to purchase some supplies, and also to pay a visit to the local authorities, whom they warned to be on the look out for Silva and his confederate. The English inspector promised to do all in his power, but he was of the opinion -- which his visitors shared -- that the fugitives would make their way to Rangamati and attempt to get down country by rail.
By two o'clock in the afternoon the "Star of Assam" was again adrift, and before evening it had passed the right angular bend of the Brahmaputra, and was holding a southern course on the turbid yellow flood. For nearly a week -- the interval may be dismissed with brief mention -- there was little to break the monotony of the journey, save the tie-ups at night along shore and a glimpse of what craft were abroad. Sher Singh performed his duties well and cleverly, and was at times relieved by Maurice and Carruthers, who were quick to "learn the ropes." The wild beasts gave no trouble, and Old Terrible and the panther were none the worse for their slight injuries.
This portion of the Brahmaputra was wild and lonely, and flowed through dense jungle that stretched as far as the eye could reach. In a space of a hundred miles there were only one or two squalid settlements inhabited by half savage peoples. Meanwhile the channel had been growing wider and wider, and on the sixth day the barge entered that lower part of the mighty river which here assumes a different name and is called the Megua. Now, the current being stronger, much better speed was made. Instead of tying up at night the "Star of Assam " boldly pursued her course, displaying warning lights fore and aft.
On the ninth day out from Goalpara the barge was drifting down midstream. The Megua was fully twenty miles broad, and the shores to right and left, each ten miles away, were but dimly visible. Here and there on the waste of waters was the white sail of a budgerow, or the smoking funnel of a steamer.
The hour was two o'clock of the afternoon, and on the fore-deck sat Maurice and his three friends. For the time being there was no pilot on the bridge. A well thumbed chart was spread on Tearle's knees, and it was evident that a consultation of a serious nature had been taking place. A greater or less degree of perplexity was stamped on every countenance.
"As I understand it, then," said Carruthers, "we are within forty miles of the Bay of Bengal, and that forty-mile stretch is attended with a certain amount of danger."
"Dangerous unless we are taken in tow by a steamer," suggested Maurice.
"Exactly," replied Tearle. "We should require the services of a steamer anyway, since there is a sea voyage before us of nearly two hundred miles, from the mouth of the Megua to Calcutta. But I did not think we should need it so soon, I admit."
"You will, Sahibs," declared Sher Singh. "I do not warn you idly. The river is far more perilous below than above. Frightful storms are common, and a very bad one might wreck the barge upon the shore or against a shoal, or drive it far out into the Bay, where the tremendous seas would make an end of it."
"It is difficult to believe in sudden tempests under such a sky," said Maurice.
"True; and yet one is coming," replied the Hindoo. "I can feel it, even as I was able to foretell Gunga Ra's treachery, though you would not listen. The air tells of it this strange, breathless calm. And look, Sahibs, not a vessel is in sight. The native pilots are wise, and read the signs."
"Then we will push for the left shore at once," answered Tearle, decidedly, "and find a safe harbour where we can lie in wait for one of the tug steamers that come up from the bay."
"Yes, we had better," assented Carruthers. "But it will be a labour of hours to swing across ten miles of current. Shall we be able to beat the storm?"
"Who knows, Sahib?" replied Sher Singh, as he strode to the rear-deck to issue instructions to the sweep-men.
A minute later he was perched aloft on the bridge.
Three o'clock found the vast expanse of water still deserted. There was still the shuddering calm in the air, and the sun was terribly oppressive even under the awnings. An hour later, the distant, low-lying land was enveloped in a murky, pearl-coloured haze, and the sky had a strange, weird look, a leaden hue, that was reflected on the tide. That these signs meant something ominous could not be doubted. Down in the hold the cattle were bawling hoarsely and kicking, and the wild animals were uttering restless cries. The sweep-men jabbered uncouthly among themselves as they shuffled to and fro at the oars. Sher Singh, squatted on the bridge like a splendid piece of bronze statuary, rarely moved except to glance up at the sky.
Tearle and his companions anxiously paced the deck, from bow to stern. There was nothing that they could do but to watch and wait. They realized the peril and helplessness of the situation, and were more troubled than they cared to admit.
"Do you think we shall reach the shore in time?" asked Maurice.
"It is doubtful," Tearle replied. "We may, if the weather holds as it is long enough. If not, then be ready for the worst."
"After all we have gone through, and wriggled out of by the skin of our teeth," Carruthers said bitterly, "it would be hard luck if we foundered out here on this big, smooth mill-pond."
Another hour passed serenely, giving rise to hopes that were vain; for just at sunset the great change came -- so swiftly and so violently as to strike terror to every heart. A purplish-black darkness blotted out the shores and the sky, and strode rapidly over the water like a pall. The gloom of midnight wrapped the barge, and the very lanterns seemed to shed a bluish glare. These conditions prevailed for less than a minute, and next fell a rattling shower of rain, mingled with flashes of forked lightnings.
"The wind, Sahibs it is coming," Sher Singh shouted from the bridge. "Prepare for it."
So Tearle collected all hands, except the men at the sweeps, and led them down into the hold, where they hastily lifted the cages off the trucks, and did what was possible to secure their stability. Returning to the deck, they fastened all the hatch covers and stretched oil-skins and canvas over the entrance to the hold.
"Where are we now?" exclaimed Tearle, as he peered into the darkness.
"Half a dozen miles from shore, at the least," declared Carruthers. "It's no use hoping to reach land. We must trust to --"
The finish of his sentence was drowned in an awful roar, and as quickly the hurricane -- for such it was -- struck the barge. At the first blast all who were on the fore-deck threw themselves flat, else they would have been blown away. Sher Singh, who had lingered too long above, leapt from his perch to the hatches just as the ruins of the bridge fell clattering about his ears. He gamed the deck, and crawled over to Tearle and his companions.
"Stick tight, Sahibs," he shouted. "This is a fearful storm, and it may last for many hours. One of the sweep-men has been blown overboard. I saw him go by that flash of lightning."
The news was received with less horror than it would have been under other circumstances. The barge was pitching and reeling dizzily, and monstrous waves were slapping its stout sides. It was a sickening thing to lie there on the exposed deck, not daring to move, and listen to the creaking, whistling fury of the destructive gale. Rip! rip! away went the awnings, whirled aloft like so many huge, flapping birds. Crash! jingle! one by one the lanterns were hurled into the river or smashed to fragments against hatch and rail. Not a light was left burning. In the purple gloom the outlines of the vessel could be faintly perceived.
The rain still poured, and the lightning flashed an accompaniment to the shrieking of the hurricane. There was suddenly a terrific thud and bang, and the cabin, rent to fragments, vanished from the deck, carrying a section of the rail with it. The native cook had foolishly taken refuge within, and his pale, agonized face was visible for a second in a flash of lightning, before he disappeared for ever.
Tearle uttered a loud cry, and warned his companions not to stir. His voice was scarcely heard, for the roar of the tempest was blended with a terribly shrill noise from the poor beasts confined in the hold.
"This surely can't last long," shouted Carruthers.
"It may continue until the morning," Sher Singh shouted in reply, "though such violent storms often pass in an hour. But the worst peril is yet to come, and we must be prepared for it. The river will be lashed into mighty waves. They will rise higher and higher, and possibly they will sweep over the barge."
"That's a pleasant prospect," cried Tearle. "There are life-preservers in the store-room I don't know why I stowed them down there. We ought to have them, by all means."
He started to crawl forward, but Maurice, who was nearest the opening, bade him remain where he was.
"I will fetch them," he shouted.
With considerable difficulty the plucky lad wriggled to the ladder, and the moment he was below deck and out of the gale, the feeling of relief was like a tonic. He easily found the life-preservers, and having girded one about himself he carried three successive loads to the top of the ladder and tossed them to his companions, then returned to his place beside Sher Singh.
For a few minutes the hurricane perceptibly increased in violence, blowing the two boats away, but finally it seemed to abate a little. Tearle crept about the barge, along both decks, and distributed a number of life-preservers to the scattered crew.
"It looks as if the worst might be really over," he told his companions when he came back. We have lost two men, and the cook. Both sweeps are gone so we can't do any more steering." "That don't make much difference," said Carruthers. "We may be glad that we are out towards mid-channel, for if we struck bottom we should soon go to pieces. The main thing now is to weather the waves."
"I hope we can," replied Tearle; he still had to shout to be heard. "I don't want to lose this convoy of animals, let alone our lives. But the "Star of Assam" is a staunch craft. I believe we shall pull through."
"The waves will grow larger, Sahibs," declared Slier Singh, who was evidently far from confident.
For a time, however, the Hindoo's prophecy came to naught. During the next hour the force of the wind slightly abated, while the surging waters at least did not wax more violent. They were bad enough as it was, the barge plunging and dipping in every direction. Tearle and his companions presently made their way to the hold, and clinging there upright they could see at each flash of lightning the dusky figures of the crew in similiar attitudes along the hatch combing.
Once a piercing whistle and a puffing noise were heard close by, telling that some large vessel was in the vicinity. Nothing could be seen of it through the inky darkness, no lights were shown, and several minutes of harrowing suspense were endured. All listened anxiously, expecting a deadly collision, and at Tearle's suggestion they shouted half a dozen times. But the crash did not come, and after a while the whistle sounded again at a distance.
"She has gone by!" exclaimed Maurice.
"Yes, fortunately," replied Carruthers. "I wish it had been possible for her to have taken us in tow."
"We can do without any help," Tearle said cheerfully.
The chances now looked brighter, it is true, but the lull proved to be deceptive, and to be the forerunner of the perils that Sher Singh had predicted. The tempest suddenly burst afresh, and cyclonic winds shrieked on all sides, spinning the barge about in half-circles. The billows mounted higher, and their white crests broke over the vessel in swirling cascades and pools of foam. Then furious torrents of rain crashed down, and forked lightning blazed incessantly across the black heavens.
Nor had the storm yet reached its limit of power, for each ravenous wave was larger and stronger than the last. Piecemeal, with sharp, crackling noises, the rails were demolished. Water rolled over the deck, gurgled and poured below, and the wretched men, clinging fast to hold and hatches, were waist-deep half the time, at the mercy of showers of spray that slapped their faces with stinging force.
"We can't stand much more of this," Maurice cried hoarsely.
"Are you weary, Sahib?" Slier Singh's voice spoke at his ear; and the exhausted lad felt a strong arm encircle him.
Of a sudden the fore-end of the barge leapt high in air, and at the same instant a grinding, splashing sound rose from the stern, accompanied by frightful cries.
"Look! look! " yelled Carruthers, as a vivid purple flash lighted the scene. "A great wave has swept over the rear-deck and washed some of the poor fellows away."
"Heaven help us!" shouted Tearle. "It will be our turn next!"
He was right. A moment later the position of the barge was reversed, the bow settling deep in the trough of the river, and before it could rise again a veritable mountain of water was seen rolling towards it.
"Here it comes!" Carruthers warned shrilly. "Hold tight for your lives."
Fearing lest he and Maurice should be torn away, the devoted Sher Singh, who had one arm about the lad's waist, tried to get a safer grip with the other.
It was a fatal attempt. The monstrous wave surged clear across the deck, and when its fury was spent Tearle and Carruthers found themselves alone. A cry of despair rose to their ears from out in the darkness and the storm.
"Don't hang on to me so hard," gasped Maurice. "I can swim."
"Only so we are not separated, Sahib," replied the Hindoo, as he shifted his hold to the lad's arm. "Look! look!" he shouted.
As he spoke, by a flash of lightning that rent the heavens, the bulky mass of the barge was seen at a distance of several hundred feet. As quickly the black, impenetrable darkness settled again on the water.
"Tearle and Carruthers are still there," exclaimed Maurice. "I saw them clinging to the hold. But they can do nothing for us."
"Truly nothing," assented Sher Singh. "If we are to live, Sahib, it must be by our own efforts."
But for the life-preservers that encircled them the two luckless castaways must have succumbed at once, and for some minutes, indeed, they waged a desperate and unequal fight with the angry waves. Though they shouted occasionally, when they could spare breath, their voices were weak in comparison with the howling of the tempest; they doubted if they had made themselves heard, for no response was audible from their friends on the barge.
Meanwhile, still held together by the Hindoo's grip, they were spun round and round like chips, now tossed high up on the crest of the billows, now sucked down into the hollow of a watery trough. They were soon bruised from head to foot, but after the first chill they felt the cold less, for the heavy showers were turning the water warm.
"Have courage, Sahib," Sher Singh said presently. "The worst is over."
There was reason to believe that he was right. The shriek of the hurricane had become a mournful wail. Gradually the fury of the waves abated, though the difference was scarcely perceptible, and then a thick choppy rain fell with stinging force.
"It can't matter much whether the storm increases or passes off," Maurice said despondently. "We are out near mid-channel, miles from land, and sooner or later we must be drowned. I am completely knocked up already. There is a feeling of numbness creeping over me."
"Struggle against it, Sahib," urged the Hindoo. "Trust to me, and I will save you. I will keep tight hold of you, and support your head, and thus we shall float until morning, when surely there will be vessels in sight perhaps the 'Star of Assam.'"
"Till the morning," Maurice faintly murmured. "Ah, that is hours off yet. It is no use -- no use --"
He paused drowsily, with a groan, and closing his eyes he swayed limply on the Hindoo's breast. Sher Singh threw an arm about him, and thus they drifted on and on in the darkness, at the sport of the rolling waves that still pitched them at will and lashed them savagely. The lightning played at intervals over the river, but the barge could no longer be seen; either it had foundered and taken all hands to the bottom or the gale had blown it widely apart from the castaways.
The minutes wore on, fraught with weariness and suspense to the devoted Hindoo, and he had lost all account of time, and was himself beginning to suffer from exhaustion, when a purple bolt of lightning revealed close by an object that was scarcely less welcome to him than a glimpse of the barge would have been a small boat tossing bottom up among the waves. He waited eagerly for the next flash, which, as it came, showed him the craft within a dozen feet.
Sher Singh plunged forward, hauling his burden along while he swam with one hand, and more by chance than skill he succeeded in clutching the bow of the boat, where by good fortune he found a ring that gave him a splendid purchase for his fingers. In this position he remained for a few moments, recruiting his flagging strength, and from time to time calling vainly upon Maurice to speak to him.
The boat plainly did not belong to the "Star of Assam," but had been lost from some other vessel, most probably the steamer that had threatened to collide with the barge. It was a long craft, and fairly wide, with a flat bottom that offered a place of better security for Maurice, whose unconscious body Sher Singh managed to hoist upon it, with the assistance of a wave that flung both upward.
There was room for the Hindoo as well, but the heroic fellow did not avail himself of it. He remained in the water, so that he might more easily steer the boat through the turbulent billows; and during the perilous ride that followed, for the space of at least two hours, he held the lad fast with one hand and gripped the iron ring with the other. Meanwhile the rain had ceased and the wind had dropped to a sighing breeze, though the night was still black and the river still rolling high.
But in spite of these altered conditions the situation was little less critical, for Sher Singh, who was by no means made of steel, was very near the end of his endurance. He forgot his distress, however -- and a ghastly fear that had begun to haunt him -- when Maurice suddenly sighed, stirred, and raised himself on one elbow.
"Where am I?" the lad muttered. "What has happened? Are you there, Sher Singh?"
"Yes, Sahib, I am here," the Hindoo joyfully assured him. "Have no fear. We are safe, and the storm has passed away."
"And what is this that I am on?"
"A boat, Sahib. Be careful, lest you slip off. Do not try to move."
In a few words Sher Singh described the finding of the craft, and his subsequent proceedings, though he modestly concealed how much the lad owed to him, and hid as well the exhaustion to which he knew he must soon yield.
"It was a streak of luck, your falling in with such a refuge," said Maurice, whose senses were fast reviving. "The last thing I remember is a sharp pain in my forehead while you were supporting me among the waves, and then everything seemed to whirl round. No wonder my head ached," he added, putting his hand to it. "There is a big, swollen bruise over my left eye."
"You must have struck the rail when we were washed off the deck," suggested the Hindoo.
"That's about it. I didn't feel the blow until afterwards, when it made me weak all of a sudden. But where do you suppose we are? Near the shore?"
"We can see nothing for the darkness," Sher Singh answered. " We may be close to land, or the storm may have blown us out to mid-channel. When the dawn breaks --"
"Hello! what's that?" Maurice interrupted.
As he spoke the boat lurched forward on the crest of a great wave, and the next instant it struck with a grinding, jarring crash, throwing the lad over the Hindoo's head. Both were submerged, and as quickly they felt hard bottom underfoot. Rising with difficulty, one clinging to the other, they saw a dark blot within a few yards of them.
"An island!" cried Maurice.
"An island!" echoed Sher Singh. "Sahib, we are saved!"
Hope infused strength into his feeble limbs. He hastily dragged the lad ashore and dropped him there, then sprang back into the shallow water for the boat, which he hauled far out of the reach of the waves.
"We shall need it again," he said.
The two were numbed and exhausted, and for a time, with thankful hearts, they lay stretched side by side on the wet sands, heedless of the surf that was breaking angrily at their feet. Their lassitude presently passed off, and when they had gone forward, and had examined their surroundings as well as the gloom would permit, they discovered that the spot on which they had providentially run aground was indeed, as they had surmised, an island lying somewhere out on the channel of the Megua.
"I knew it couldn't be the mainland," said Maurice. "I took it for a mere sand-bar, but it is better than that."
"At least the river cannot sweep over it, Sahib," replied Sher Singh.
At the normal state of the tide the island was clearly of considerable extent, for as far as they could see to right and left were partly submerged trees and bushes, the tops of which swayed and bent to the wash of the current. A ridge of some steepness -- the crest of the island -- rose well above the surrounding flood, comprising an oblong space of about a thousand square yards. It was mostly covered with tangled undergrowth and loose stones, sprinkled with a few trees, and in the middle of it towered a mass of boulders and stunted timber. Here, in between the nest of rocks, the castaways found to their satisfaction a triangular crevice, a sort of cavern, that was large enough to give roomy shelter to both.
"This will protect us if the storm breaks again," said Sher Singh. "We shall be dry and warm until morning."
"I don't see how you figure that out," replied Maurice, " when we are both drenched to the skin. The place is all right, but it would be a jolly sight more comfortable with a roaring fire. In India one bakes by day and freezes by night. Even if our clothes were dry we should suffer from the cold."
"But a fire is impossible, Sahib."
"I hope not. I have some matches, though the water may have spoilt them."
Maurice took from his pocket a little metal box, containing a number of wax vestas. He anxiously scraped one on the lid, and at once it burst into flame, lighting the cavern from floor to roof, and revealing against the farther wall a heap of drift wood that had lodged there in time of former and more severe floods.
"Hurra! fuel in plenty," cried the lad. "Dry as tinder, too. Get a lot of it, Sher Singh, before the match burns out. And give me some of the smaller twigs to start the fire with."
The Hindoo hastened to obey, and thereby narrowly escaped a horrible death; for a spotted snake of a poisonous variety, uncoiling itself from a cranny of the rocks, hissed vengefully in his face. He sprang back, simultaneously with the lad's shout of alarm, and, picking up a heavy stone, he crushed the reptile before it could leap forward to strike.
"There may be others about," cried Maurice, as he lighted a second match.
"We will look, Sahib," Sher Singh calmly replied.
A thorough search was made, but it failed to disclose any more serpents. Satisfied that none were in the immediate vicinity, the castaways resumed their preparations to spend a comfortable night. A spot at one side, which possessed the advantages of a natural chimney, was chosen for the fire-place. Sher Singh gathered an armful of wood and piled it here, and Maurice, having stuffed a bunch of twigs underneath, was about to ignite them when three sharp reports were heard in rapid succession. They came apparently from up the river, and died away in dull, lingering echoes.
Maurice was so startled that he let the match fall, and the two were plunged in darkness.
"What was that?" he asked hoarsely.
"Gun-shots, Sahib," declared the Hindoo. "One two, three -- they went off quickly."
"And not far above the island."
"Farther than you would think, Sahib. What wind there is now blows down-stream, and sound travels loudly over the water."
"Who can be shooting? there is something wrong," muttered the lad, as he groped with his companion to the mouth of the cavern; and he had no more than spoken when a jet of lurid red flame shone suddenly out of the blackness of the night.
"A ship on fire, Sahib," he cried. "It is three or four miles up the river, and lies over towards the left shore."
"I hope it is not the 'Star of Assam,'" Maurice exclaimed anxiously.
"No, Sahib, that cannot well be. The barge should be somewhere down yonder, below the island, and no doubt our friends are safe."
"You are right about that," assented Maurice. "The storm would have blown the barge along faster than it did us. But what puzzles me is the shooting. That's the queer part of it -- the fire is more easily accounted for."
"Strange and terrible deeds are sometimes done on the lower reaches of this river," the Hindoo replied gloomily. "More than one vessel has been captured and sunk by piratical natives, who hide in the jungle creeks."
"And do you believe that is what is going on now?"
"Who knows, Sahib? It is possible. But see, the flames are sinking down."
"They are and rapidly at that." Fainter and fainter dwindled the ruddy, wavering glow in spite of the tongues of fire that occasionally shot up as though loth to abandon their prey. At last the glare died away to a tiny red dot, and then was snuffed out altogether, leaving not a trace on the dark curtain of the night.
"That is the end," said Sher Singh. "The vessel must have foundered quickly and gone to the bottom."
"Or else they were able to extinguish the fire with the pumps," Maurice suggested.
"I fear not, Sahib."
"Well, if your view of the matter is the right one, some of the crew have probably escaped in boats. If we build a rousing fire it will guide them here."
"They will find the mainland much nearer, from the position in which the ship lay," replied Sher Singh. "As for the fire, we have need of that ourselves. And it will shine both up and down the river."
"That's true," exclaimed Maurice. "Our friends will be certain to see it, and in the morning we will take the boat and paddle after them."
Several minutes later the fire had been lighted, and was roaring and crackling merrily at the mouth of the cavern, from which it shone forth to stream redly across the swift waters. For fear of a further rise of the tide Sher Singh drew the boat to a higher position among the bushes, while Maurice gathered a lot of the driftwood and piled it within reach. Then they stretched themselves comfortably on the earthen floor, with their shoulders against the rocky wall, listening to the splash of the waves on the shore of the island, and to the moaning and whistling of the breeze. The hurricane had wreaked its fury and departed, and here and there the stars were breaking through the clouds."
We ought to be thankful for such snug quarters," said Maurice. "I would feel betterif I had something to eat, but there's no use wishing for that. We shall have a good breakfast if the 'Star of Assam' is still afloat."
"Be sure that she is, Sahib," declared the Hindoo. "You need have no fear for your friends."
"I'm not worrying much about them," Maurice replied. "The last glimpse we had of the barge she was all right, and I saw Tearle and Carruthers plainly. The worst of the storm was then over -- it was at no time afterwards so bad as when that great wave swept us off the deck."
For a half-hour they talked of the events of the night, and gradually, as the warmth of the fire dried their clothing, a feeling of drowsiness stole upon both. They fought against it in vain, and Maurice was the first to succumb. His eyes closed, and his head dropped to one side; he was sound asleep. Sher Singh roused himself to heap wood on the sinking fire, then crouched beside the lad. A moment later he, too, was wrapped in slumber.
No premonition of danger disturbed the castaways as they slept on peacefully; little did they dream to what ill-omened voyagers their blazing fire was proving a beacon of refuge and an incentive to bloody deeds. From a point a mile or two up the river a boat was moving steadily towards the ruddy speck of light -- a small, graceful craft painted white, and bearing in blue letters the name "Mogul Emperor." Squatted in the bow, with eyes fixed ahead, was the lean, ill-clad figure of Gunga Ra. And the yellow- faced, unshaven man who sat in the stern, paddling alternately from right to left with a single oar, was none other than Antonio Silva.
The Portuguese was ragged and half-naked. A steel bracelet was locked to each wrist, and from each bracelet dangled several inches of chain. His left eye was swollen, nearly shut, and down his right cheek was a raw, bleeding wound which looked as if it had recently been ploughed by a rifle-ball. He shivered in his drenched, blood-stained garments a shiver that may have meant cold or fear. Probably both, for often he glanced over his shoulder into the impenetrable darkness behind him.
"I am nervous, and yet there is nothing to fear," he muttered aloud, heedless of his companion. "A couple of miles of water between us. There is no danger of pursuit now. I gave them the slip neatly the fire drew their attention and kept them busy. But, how did they manage to put it out so easily? The water must have reached the engines, for they dropped anchor before I was beyond ear-shot. I have well earned my freedom, and I had better make the most of this last chance, for if I am caught again it means --"
He ended with an oath, and turned for another look behind him.
"Murder!" he continued in a lower tone, shuddering. "And an ugly one at that. But there was no help for it. The fool refused to submit. Bah! what are fifty lives to mine?" He paddled on for a few minutes keeping in line with the distant goal. "Wake up -- speak -- do something, you silent dog," he cried harshly to his companion. "Don't crouch there like a mummy. Has the bleeding stopped?"
"Very nearly, Sahib," replied Gunga Ra, who had a bullet in the fleshy part of his thigh. "I have plugged the wound with linen, but it causes me great pain; and he poured out a string of imprecations, in heathenish language, on those who had thus injured him.
"Pain?" laughed Silva. "You'll have to get used to it, my friend, if you want to escape the gallows. Will that be the shore yonder? the mainland?"
"I think so, Sahib," was the sullen reply.
"And the light --"
"It comes from a fire. A native hut on the bank, perhaps."
"Why not a party of English hunters? Or men escaped from some craft that perished in the storm?"
"True, Sahib. Why not?"
"You take it coolly."
"If there is danger, let us avoid the spot."
"Yes, we can run in below," assented Silva; and he fell to paddling with quicker strokes. "Once ashore," he said to himself, "once safe in the jungle and I'll defy them to capture me, though I've no food or firearms, no drink or tobacco. Ay, and I'll have my revenge yet, come what may, and earn the money that was bargained for. Then to slip way from this accursed land. But I'll take good care not to lose sight of my rich benefactor. He shall be my banker, and a generous one."
For a quarter of an hour neither of the two spoke, and by then, the voyagers having approached to within a hundred yards of the yellow glare, the Portuguese could perceive the dark outlines of the half-immerged trees and bushes, and the flood that stretched far to the right and left of them.
"An island!" he muttered with an oath, disappointed by the discovery. "My cursed luck! And who can be there? Shall I stop or go on?"
"Will the Sahib land?" whispered Gunga Ra.
"Wait; and be quiet."
A moment of hesitation, and Silva slightly altered the boat's course, dipping the oar with noiseless strokes. Making a prudent detour, he paddled slowly past and beyond the firelight, and swung in at the lower end of the island.
"Don't stir from here," he said, as he grounded the craft between two stones and stepped ashore.
"Be careful, Sahib," urged Gunga Ra.
"Fool! I know what I'm doing," whispered Silva and with that he crept off in the direction of the clump of rocks.
He glanced from the sleeping Hindoo to the fire, and was about to throw some fresh wood on the still-blazing embers when he caught a sharp sound outside the cavern, as if a dry twig had snapped under foot. He was at once alert and watchful, not a little alarmed; and on the first impulse, wishing to discover what the threatened peril might be, he foolishly resolved not to awaken Sher Singh for fear the intruder should be frightened off.
There was a moment of silence, and then a faint rustling noise came closer and closer, though whether made by man or beast, it was as yet impossible to judge. Rising softly to his feet, the lad slipped behind a projecting rock at the side of the cavern whence he could command a good view of the opening without being seen himself. He was barely in time, for the stealthy, creeping footsteps had drawn very near, and it was now evident that the unwelcome visitor was human.
Maurice felt a chill of terror. He and Sher Singh were absolutely unarmed, with not even a pocket-knife between them. A stone as large as his two-fists lay within reach, and stooping swiftly he picked it up. The next instant a shadow darkened the mouth of the cavern, and the glow of the blazing wood shone on the stooping form and evil yellow countenance of the last person the lad had expected to see -- Senor Antonio Silva. The blood turned to ice in the watcher's veins, and for the moment he was powerless to move or act.
As the Portuguese advanced with wary and noiseless steps, peering keenly into the flame-lit space behind the fire he slid a long, keen-bladed knife from his belt. The ruffian had perceived and recognised the Hindoo, his old enemy, and hatred and murder were stamped on his ferocious face. He passed the fire, and bent over the slumbering man. The steel rose for the deadly stroke, clutched in his right hand, and another second must have seen it plunged deeply into Sher Singh's exposed breast.
But just then, roused from his horrid stupor, Maurice uttered a loud cry and let drive the stone, His aim was as sure as his purpose, for the missile struck the knife and knocked it out of Silva's hand. Stone and weapon flew against the wall and bounded back, and with that, startled and unnerved by the unexpected attack, the Portuguese lost his head and bolted from the cavern with a yell.
Shouting lustily to Sher Singh, Maurice immediately dashed in pursuit of the ruffian, not even delaying long enough -- as he should have done -- to pick up the knife. His blood was up, and he was reckless with anger; too reckless, indeed, for he had gone no more than half a dozen yards when he ran almost into the arms of Silva, who had turned to lie in wait for him.
The knowledge that his foe was unarmed encouraged the lad, and he offered a sturdy resistance; but, as on previous occasions, the wiry Portuguese proved himself much the stronger of the two. His tactics were swift and merciless. Having partly throttled the lad, and beaten him on the face, he seized him by the collar and began to hurry him over the rough ground. His intention was to put the one enemy hors du combat, so that he might be free to encounter the other, and in this he succeeded admirably.
The boat belonging to the castaways was close by, and into this Maurice was flung head first, with such force that he struck his injured temple on the farther gunwale and split the bruise open. As he tried to rise, well-nigh helpless with pain and dizziness, he was pounced upon by Gunga Ra, who had hastened forward from the other boat at the first sound of trouble. Though he was lame and wounded, and the plug had come out of the bullet hole, he was yet a formidable antagonist in a scuffle.
"Keep the fellow there," Silva shouted to his confederate, "but for your life don't hurt him."
It had all happened in a very brief space -- in less time than it requires to tell -- and Silva had no more than swung round, expectant of an attack from the Hindoo shikaree, when that sharply-awakened individual burst savagely from the cavern. He had lingered just long enough to light a billet of wood at the fire, and as he held it above him the streaming flame showed Maurice and Gunga Ra struggling beside the boat, out of which they had fallen.
The sight had much the same effect on Sher Singh as a red rag has when flaunted before the eyes of a vicious bull. Unfortunately he too had failed to pick up Silva's knife -- he did not know it was there -- and so he was quite unarmed. He dropped the torch, and with a hoarse cry rushed at the Portuguese who, not daring to close with a man so much larger and stronger than himself, promptly resorted to cunning, and at the right moment slipped down on his hands and knees.
It was a risky trick, and one that fails as often as it succeeds; but in this instance it worked the mischief that was intended, for Sher Singh tripped heavily over the kneeling body, and the impetus sent him sprawling half a dozen feet away. As quickly the ruffian was up, and speeding like a deer towards the cavern. He vanished between the rocks, and emerged a second or two later with the knife in his grasp and an evil smile of satisfaction on his face.
By now Sher Singh -- he realized that for the present he must let Maurice look after himself -- had also risen and followed in hot and vengeful chase of his crafty foe. He saw the knife in Silva's hand, and a prudent impulse checked the rash attack that he meditated. Instead, he turned and ran towards the water, looking vainly about in search of stones, or of anything else that might serve as a weapon of defence. The Portuguese followed swiftly and warily.
Maurice, who was still showing fight and resisting Gunga Ra's efforts to hold him to the ground, called faintly to the shikaree as he sped past him.
"He means to kill you. Don't give him the chance."
Sher Singh threw an anxious glance at the lad, and ran on. He splashed into the shallows, near the end of the island, and there his eye caught what he was seeking for -- a stone three or four times as large as his head, partly buried in the soil at the water's edge. It was very heavy, but it was that or nothing, for there was no time to delay. He quickly stooped, and forced the stone from its bed; then, lifting it in both hands straight above his head, he faced around. Silva was within eight or ten feet, brandishing his knife.
"Drop that," he snarled.
"I shall drop it on your skull -- nowhere else," cried Sher Singh, with a triumphant laugh. "Yield, assassin, or I will surely crush you."
The Portuguese answered with a yell of rage that might have come from the throat of a wild beast. He paused for an instant, uttering threats and curses, and began to sidle forward slowly and watchfully. He was determined not to be baulked of his prey by the Hindoo's missile, which he hoped to draw and elude.
Meanwhile, crippled though he was, Gunga Ra had overpowered the lad and jammed him into the bow of the boat, where he held him fast. The torch was still burning on the ground, and it cast a flickering light upon Sher Singh and Silva as they confronted each other at close range, one waiting and one creeping to the attack. They were only a few yards from Maurice, who could see them plainly. He was feeble with pain and dizziness, and his brain was swimming, but he realized that the issue of the contest would decide his own fate. Was it to be life or death?
The suspense was of brief duration. The advantage was with the Hindoo, but he was destined to lose it, and thus turn the odds against him, in a sudden and unexpected manner. He was about to throw the big stone with a force and aim that would have brained his enemy, when the heavy weight overbalanced him and jerked his arms behind his head. He sought vainly to recover his balance, then reeled backward, and stone and man came down together with a splash in the shallow water.
Sher Singh was a little farther out as he rose to his feet, submerged to the waist, and quickly Silva was upon him with a bound like a tiger's. There was a short and desperate struggle in the river; there were yells, and curses, and the flash of steel.
"Die -- die, you dog," hissed the Portuguese.
The knife rose and fell, finding lodgment in flesh and bone. Sorely wounded, Sher Singh tossed up his arms with a pitiful cry, and dropped back among the waves. The current snatched him, and whirled him swiftly along the shore of the island. Silva waded to land, sheathing his reeking blade. With a hasty glance towards Gunga Ra and the lad, he ran parallel with the water's edge, following with his eyes the drifting body of his victim until he saw it sink beneath the tide, when he turned back with a shout of triumph.
Maurice was spared the final scene, and was by this time mercifully oblivious to the fate that was in store for him. He had swooned away after witnessing with horror and anguish, by the lurid glare of the torch, the murder of his faithful friend.
The respite was a short one. When the lad returned to consciousness, a few minutes later, he was propped in a half-upright position with his back against the rear wall of the cavern, to which his captors had borne him. His limbs were bound with strips torn from Gunga Ra's filthy kummerbund, and his wrists were drawn behind him and secured to a projection of rock. A large slab of stone rested on his feet and ankles, pressing them heavily to the floor.
Worse still, a quantity of the inflammable drift-wood -- all that was to be had -- was piled around both sides of him and on the slab. Worst of all, Silva and Gunga Ra squatted in front of him, leering at him horribly, and nodding their heads towards the glowing embers of the fire with a significance that was not to be mistaken. What these preparations foretold Maurice knew only too well. Though he was stupid with dizziness and pain, his senses benumbed, he realised that his fiendish foes meant to burn him alive. He made an attempt to break loose, and found that he was powerless to move.
"Tug and strain, pull till your eyes burst if you like," cried Silva, with a mocking laugh. "It will do no goqd. Nothing can save you. Presently, when you feel the flames, you will shriek like a whipped cur. And you and I will listen, eh, Gunga Ra?"
"We will watch him slowly roast, Sahib," gleefully replied the Hindoo.
"You are devils, not men," Maurice said hoarsely. "Why do you hate me so bitterly? Have you no pity or mercy?"
"Mercy?" echoed the Portuguese. "That is a word I do not understand. I have never shown mercy to those who injured me, nor shall I begin now. Why did you oppose me, months ago, in the jungle of Seranghur, for the sake of a paltry tiger that would not have been missed? I gave you your chance, offered you a position with my own firm, but you laughed me to scorn. And since then ill-luck has followed me, all through you, until I am a beggar and an outcast, a fugitive with a price on my head." His voice rose to a higher pitch of fury. "And you plead for mercy?" he went on. "You ask me to forgive and forget? No, no, boy, you must die, and by the torments of fire."
"You will live to wish you had spared me," said Maurice, shuddering at the venomous expression on the ruffian's mutilated face.
"I shall live," replied Silva, with a veiled meaning, "to profit by your death. Had I missed this opportunity, and gone by the island, I would have tracked you across India if need be."
He was silent for a space, apparently absorbed in his evil thoughts, and perhaps feeling already a premonition of the doom that was nearer than he believed. Gunga Ra watched his master with ill-concealed impatience, waiting as a vampire waits for a feast of blood, and occasionally he writhed with the pain of his wounded thigh. Robbed utterly of hope, confronted by death in its most awful form, Maurice endeavoured to summon courage to meet his fate. But he was young, and life was sweet and dear. To move the hearts of these ghoulish scoundrels was, he knew well, an impossibility; yet he pleaded with them piteously, frantically, begging first for freedom and then for a knife thrust to end his misery, until, exhausted and faint, his eyes closed and his chin sank on his breast.
When he lifted his head, roused by a sudden stir, Silva was on his feet and staring out into the night.
"What was that?" he muttered nervously.
"I heard nothing, Sahib," replied Gunga Ra.
"It was a rustling noise the breeze, no doubt," said the Portuguese, as he stepped nearer the opening. "The rains must have been heavier up the river," he added, in a sharp tone, "for the tide has risen in the last half-hour. Make haste, Gunga Ra, and draw our boat to a place of safety. See, the other boat lies partly in the water. You had better pull that up, too, as you return."
"And then, Sahib --" began the Hindoo.
"Then we will finish and be off," broke in Silva. "It is not far from dawn."
Maurice and Silva had plainly witnessed the tragedy, for it occurred on the broad pathway of yellow light which, cast by the blazing fire, streamed down over the stony slope to and beyond the edge of the flooding waters. For a moment both were silent from sheer horror, watching the death struggle that passed before their eyes, and Maurice was the first to find voice.
"A leopard!" he cried. "It will be our turn next."
"Yes, a leopard," assented the Portuguese. "And I have no firearms. "The Hindoo must die."
"Drive the brute away, quick!" exclaimed Maurice who, in the face of this new peril, had forgotten the worse one. "If it gets in here it will make short work of us."
"What can I do with only a knife?" demanded Silva, in a voice that was shrill with fright.
"Cut me loose, and give me a torch," begged the lad, "and I will show you "
"Set you free?" sneered the Portuguese. "I am not such a fool as that, boy. But your suggestion is good. I shall try it."
He promptly snatched a thick brand from the fire, and with that in one hand and the knife in the other, he crept reluctantly out of the cavern and advanced to the rescue, though it was doubtful if Gunga Ra were still alive.
From his uncomfortable seat Maurice looked on breathlessly, longing for a moment of freedom. The leopard, as the flaming torch approached, seemed at first indisposed to yield; but, like all animals, it dreaded fire more than anything else. Silva hesitated and stopped, moved on slowly, and with that the snarling beast left the body of its victim and retreated a couple of yards. Taking courage, Silva shouted and pressed closer, waving the brand. For an instant the leopard blinked with wrathful eyes at the circle of flame, and then, turning tail with a screech of baffled fury, it bounded into the boat which Sher Singh had drawn up among the bushes, and squatted on the stern seat.
Again the Portuguese shouted, and there was a ring of delighted triumph in his voice, as well there might be. An unexpected thing had happened, for the boat -- the rising waters had by this time nearly surrounded it -- was gliding slowly but surely away from the shore. It had begun to move, torn from its frail hold, directly the sudden weight at the stern caused the bow to lift. It went on, gathering speed, until it was caught in the suck of the current and dragged farther out. It swung round, and shot swiftly on with the flood.
The leopard was visible for a few seconds, whining and whimpering as it paced restlessly about the tossing craft, and then it was swallowed from sight by the impenetrable darkness. Out of the night came a wailing cry of distress.
Maurice, meanwhile, had seen the whole affair, and now that it was ended, and he was again at the mercy of his enemy, he waited in helpless despair for the fate that he knew to be inevitable. When the boat and its strange passenger had quite vanished, and he was satisfied that nothing more was to be feared from the leopard, Silva approached the motionless form of Gunga Ra, and bent over him for a moment, holding the torch low. He straightened up with a shrug of his shoulders, and disappeared in the direction of the lower point of the island, evidently for the purpose of drawing the other boat to a place of safety. He soon returned and entered the cavern. His evil face was gloomy and troubled, his eyes bloodshot, and apparently from his first words, he was thinking less of his act of vengeance than of what had recently occurred.
"I am rid of the leopard," he muttered, half to himself. "I don't know where it came from, unless it drifted here on a log or a tree. But the brute has killed the only comrade I had left," he added, with an oath. "I am alone and friendless -- every man's hand is against me."
"Is Gunga Ra dead?" asked Maurice.
"Yes, bitten through the throat," was the sullen reply; and he shuddered as he glanced towards the mangled body of the Hindoo. Maurice, watching the Portuguese with close and furtive scrutiny, gathered a ray of comfort from a sudden theory that suggested itself to him.
"He is worried about something," he reflected. "Perhaps the remaining boat has been carried away. If such is the case -- and I pray Heaven it is -- he will not dare to kill me, because he has no means of escaping from the island. He must know that my friends will find him here in the morning."
But the next instant Silva turned abruptly to the lad, and, as if reading his secret thoughts, made haste to crush his hopes.
"The boat is all right," he said with a mocking smile. "So you imagined that I was a prisoner, marooned in mid-river that I must needs show mercy on that account. Not so. I will make a speedy end of you, boy, and then to reach the mainland, and the dense jungles, where I shall be safe from pursuit."
"Leave me here bound if you like, to take my chances of rescue," Maurice begged hoarsely. "At least spare my life. Is there not bloodshed enough on your soul?"
"Not yet," cried the ruffian, with a fiendish laugh. "Your friends, should they come, will find only a heap of charred bones."
Loth to abandon hope, Maurice continued to plead pitifully, but to no avail; he might as well have tried to move a stone to mercy. Silva, bent on his devilish purpose, seized a stick and raked burning embers from the fire around the wood that covered the lower part of the lad's body. He knelt down and blew hard upon the coals, fanning them with his breath, until little tongues of flame leapt up, crackling and hissing, in half a dozen places.
Maurice felt the heat and the smoke. His mental sufferings were terrible beyond words, and life had never seemed so sweet to him before. He strove to cry out, to utter a last appeal, but his tongue seemed to cleave fast to the roof of his mouth. Morning was now at hand, and a pale, grey streak was flushing the outer darkness. Silva discovered this, and it warned him not to linger. He drew the wood closer together, and satisfied himself that the flames had gained a good headway.
"You dog," he snarled, "I must leave you to burn by inches. May your torments endure till the rising of the sun."
His voice choked with rage, and casting a final look of hatred at his miserable victim, he left the cavern and disappeared.
Maurice saw the flames creeping nearer and nearer, and felt their scorching breath. He shouted as loudly as he could, though he knew the uselessness of it, and made desperate but futile efforts to free his limbs. Strength failed him, and letting his head drop on his breast, he remained for a moment in a stupor, from which he was roused by a scuffling, scratching noise. He looked up, and fixing his eyes on a narrow fissure at one side of the cavern, he saw a man's head and shoulders come in sight, followed by a brown, half-naked body.
"Sher Singh!" he cried incredulously.
"I am here, Sahib," was the husky answer.
It was indeed Sher Singh, alive and in the flesh. His face was colourless, and his tunic was saturated with clotted blood. He uttered a low exclamation of joy, crawled feebly over the floor, and with his hands tore away the burning sticks and scattered them right and left. Then he perceived a knife lying within reach -- the Portuguese had ignorantly left the weapon behind and with a few quick strokes he severed the thongs that bound Maurice's wrists and ankles. It was his last effort. He sank on his right side, faintly muttering the lad's name, and a crimson stream flowed from his wound, which had broken out afresh.
Maurice sat up, stretching his cramped limbs, and in spite of pain and dizziness he found that he was able to stand and walk. He dropped to his knees beside the faithful Hindoo.
"Thank God!" he cried. "You came just in time. I never dreamed that you were alive. How did you escape? Where is Silva? Have you seen him?"
"No, Sahib," was the scarcely audible reply, "but beware -- he cannot be far off. His boat lies behind the rocks. I floated down with the current -- and swam up the eddy -- to the island. I lay there helpless -- until I was able to crawl up -- through the bushes."
"Don't talk any more. You are badly wounded.''
"I am dying, Sahib. All grows -- dark --"
His voice fluttered to a groan, and his eyes closed. His head fell back, and he lay as one dead. The lad burst into tears.
"Speak to me," he begged, calling the Hindoo by name. "One word, Sher Singh -- only one word to tell me that you are alive."
That word was not spoken, but Maurice heard instead a light footstep without the cavern, and glancing up he saw, to his horror, the swarthy face of Antonio Silva peering in at him with a savage scowl; the sound of voices had attracted the ruffian's attention, or else he had returned in quest of his forgotten knife.
"You see, I am back," he exclaimed, with an oath. "It is not so easy to cheat me. Who has cut you loose? Ah, that Hindoo dog."
At one instant Maurice was pale with fear, the next he had snatched the knife from Sher Singh's limp fingers and sprung to his feet. He looked formidable enough as he stood planted in the middle of the floor, among the burning fragments of the fire, brandishing the long-bladed weapon.
"Keep off, you devil," he cried hotly. "Keep off. I am ready for you this time. It is my turn now. Come a step nearer, and I will plunge the steel into your black heart."
The Portuguese laughed, but it was a very hollow and sickly laugh indeed. The odds were heavily against him, and he knew it; he was cowed by the lad's valour and rage, and dared not for his life press an attack. He dodged from side to side of the opening watching for a chance to slip in, and finally he retreated a few paces towards the water, keeping his eyes fixed on Maurice. He evidently meant to arm himself with stones, as soon as he could get to a safe distance.
Just then, however, a splashing noise was heard up the river, and there was no mistaking the origin of the sound. It was the regular, creaking dip of oars. Silva shot a swift glance over his shoulder, and by the grey light of the dawn he saw a dark object moving straight in the direction of the island. His face blanched with terror, and for a moment he stood undecided.
"Help! help!" shouted Maurice, who also saw and heard.
He answered by a lusty hail, and the oars dipped faster. The Portuguese, realizing that the game was up, and that he must be quick if he would escape, turned and fled.
"He shan't escape," vowed Maurice, shaking a fist in the direction of the fugitive.
Throwing himself flat at the water's edge, he drank until his feverish thirst was quenched. He rose feeling refreshed and strengthened, and with a steadier gait he made his way back to the upper end of the island. The strange craft was looming very near, and in less than a minute it ran ashore with a force that drove the bow deep into the soft earth. Two men sprang out, armed with rifles. To all appearance they were Englishman. One was short and thick-set, with a clean-shaven face, and the other was a tall, bearded man, wearing the blue jacket and gold-laced cap of & ship's officer. In a trice they had covered the lad with their weapons, which the next instant they slowly and reluctantly lowered.
"Why, this is only a boy!" exclaimed the big man, in a tone of keen disappointment. "I hoped for better luck."
"There was somebody with him," declared the other, "for I saw two figures running. I believe the Portuguese is not far off."
"Are you looking for Antonio Silva?" Maurice asked excitedly.
"That we are, lad," cried the first speaker, "and for a native as well, Gunga Ra by name. Have you seen them?"
"I've seen more of them than I wanted to," Maurice replied. "They were both here, and you'll find Gunga Ra's body lying yonder. He is dead, killed by a leopard. As for Silva, he has just escaped in a boat, and is barely out of sight!"
"Good ! we'll have him yet," said the short man, "And who are you, my lad? How did you get on the island?"
Maurice answered briefly, telling as much of his story as was necessary to explain his present situation, and including a graphic account of his adventures with the two ruffians.
"A more desperate and bloody-minded pair of scoundrels never drew breath," vowed the bearded man. "You have had a terrible time of it, my lad, and I am glad you lived to tell the tale. So you belong to the 'Star of Assam' -- that's the barge Silva and his confederate ran aground and tried to blow up. I am Captain Wragg, of the passenger steamer 'Mogul Emperor.' What is to be done with this young castaway, Bicknell?" he added to his companion. "Shall we take him with us?"
"We can't leave him here," was the reply.
"I want to be in at the finish when you capture the Portuguese," Maurice said eagerly. "But first I beg that you will come and look at Sher Singh, the faithful Hindoo to whom I owe my life. He may not be dead, though I am afraid he is. It won't take long, and you can soon make up for lost time."
"Yes, that's true," assented Captain Wragg. "The river is a score of miles wide hereabouts, and it will soon be broad daylight now. The Portuguese has but one oar, so he can't possibly escape us. We'll spare ten minutes, eh, Bicknell?"
"It's queer," muttered the short man, absently.
"What's queer ? What are you looking at, man, as if you saw a ghost?"
"I've been wondering where I've seen this lad before," replied Bicknell. "It was somewhere and sometime, I'll swear. And yet it can't be. No, it it is only a resemblance -- a mighty odd one, though."
"I was thinking the same about you," said Maurice. "Directly you spoke your voice sounded familiar, and I imagined I had met you before. If I did, it was long ago."
"Perhaps we'll hit on it by and by," replied Bicknell. "Come, let us see this friend of yours."
The mention of the Hindoo banished all else from the lad's mind, and he led his companions forward. They paused for a moment by the mutilated body of Gunga Ra, which was already growing stiff, and then passed on to the cavern, where the blazing remnants of the fire shed sufficient light. Captain Wragg knelt by the still unconscious form of Sher Singh, and closely examined him.
"Dead? not a bit of it," he cried, to Maurice's intense relief. "Silva's knife gave him an ugly dig between the ribs, but I should say he has a fair chance of recovery. We'll take him with us -- that will be the best plan -- and before many hours he shall have proper attention from a surgeon; there is one aboard my vessel. Meanwhile he'll do well enough. I have a few drops of brandy," producing a flask, "but you'll need that yourself. What with the bruise on your forehead, and all you have gone through since you were blown off the barge last night, you look ready to drop."
"I can hold out," protested Maurice. "Give the brandy to Sher Singh -- he wants it more than I do. And don't waste any further time, or Silva may get away."
The men had no intention of lingering. The brandy was divided, Maurice assenting to that, and his share of the fiery stimulant infused fresh vigour into his tired limbs. The portion that was forced down the Hindoo's throat caused him to stir and to open his eyes; he glanced gratefully at the faces bending over him, and his lips moved.
"Don't try to speak," the lad told him. "Everything is all right, and we are going to pull you through.''
Sher Singh was tenderly carried to the water and placed in the boat, where a bed of grass and bushes was quickly made for him on the bottom, Bicknel, providing his jacket for a pillow. Maurice's wound was bathed and bandaged, greatly to his comfort and soon the little party were adrift, bent on the pursuit and capture of the desperado who was guilty of so many deeds of blood. The boat swung out from the island of evil memories, as it was ever to be regarded by the lad, and began to move rapidly downstream.
It was now quite daylight, and overhead was a clear and cloudless sky, though as yet, the sun not having risen, the broad flood of turbid waters was in many places shrouded by white mists. This was gradually breaking and rolling away, and presently Bicknell, glancing round while he tugged at the oars, uttered an exclamation of pleasure.
"There's our craft," he said.
"Yes, yonder lies the 'Mogul Emperor,'" assented Captain Wragg; and he pointed up the river to the dark bulk of a vessel that was indistinctly visible about four miles distant.
"She is not moving?" inquired Maurice.
"No, she is swinging at anchor," replied Bicknell.
He would have said more, but just then, the freshening wind having blown a wide gap in the mist on the lower reaches of the stream, the fugitive Portuguese loomed suddenly into view. He was about a mile away, and was evidently holding to mid-channel for the sake of the stronger current, instead of attempting to gain one or the other of the remote-lying shores.
"The scoundrel!" cried Captain Wragg. "He is as good as caught. He hasn't a ghost of a chance."
"I'll bet you a sovereign you don't take him alive," said Bicknell.
"Alive or dead -- it won't make much difference," muttered the captain; and he looked to the loading of his rifle. "But you would lose your bet," he added, "for the fellow is unarmed, and can't offer resistance. He might commit suicide by drowning; that is the only way he can cheat us and the hangman."
"I hope he won't get off so easily," said Maurice, his face darkening as he remembered the ruffian's long roll of crimes. "But how did you come to be searching for him? You haven't told me that."
"Why, no more we have," exclaimed Captain Wragg. "That was stupid of us, to be sure. We had too much else on our minds, lad, I suppose. The tale is not a long one. Silva and Gunga Ra were captured at the riverside settlement of Kolapur, while sleeping soundly in a native hut -- the authorities had been notified to be on the watch for them, and their hiding-place was betrayed by a coolie. This happened two days ago, and the same afternoon our steamer touched at Kolapur and the two prisoners were brought on board in charge of an officer, who meant to take them to Calcutta. But last night, when the worst of the storm was over, Silva broke his handcuffs, murdered his guard, and liberated Gunga Ra. Then they set fire to the vessel, and in the confusion that followed they heaved a small boat over the rail and jumped into it, leaving one of the oars behind. We fired at the precious pair, but they got away in the darkness --"
"But not unhurt," said Maurice. "You shot Gunga Ra in the thigh, and Silva has a wound in the face."
"Ah, I thought we couldn't have missed them altogether," exclaimed Captain Wragg. "So they were both hit. The fire kept us busy," he went on, "and when we got it out the engines were damaged, and we had to drop anchor. But by now they ought to be in working order again."
"Towards morning," interjected Bicknell, "the captain and I lowered a boat and pushed on to look for the fugitives, though we hadn't much hope of overhauling them. It was a bit of luck, their stopping at the island."
"It came mighty near to costing this brave lad his life," Captain Wragg said grimly.
The conversation lapsed, and for twenty minutes the boat went steadily on its course, with Bicknell at the oars. Silva was doing wonders with his one blade, though the intervening stretch was perceptibly lessening; there was no doubt that he had discovered his pursuers and was fully aware of his precarious position. Sher Singh was neither better nor worse. He lay in a stupor, occasionally stirring or uttering a moan of pain; his eyes opened once or twice, but there was no recognition or intelligence in them.
"He's not going to die," said Captain Wragg, who perceived Maurice's unspoken anxiety. "Don't you worry."
A little later the sun rose, a dull-red globe on the horizon, and as it mounted higher, dissolving and penetrating the banks of mist that still lingered on the broad bosom of the Megna, Maurice started suddenly from his seat.
"Look!" he cried, extending a shaking arm. "Look there! Do you see?"
Bicknell and Captain Wragg strained their eyes, supposing that the lad's eager shout had something to do with Silva. What they saw, however, as it took better shape, was a large object resting on the water as a considerable distance down stream and to the left.
"That's just what it is," Maurice interrupted joyfully. "The 'Star of Assam,' as sure as fate. Hurra! my friends are safe."
"I believe you are right, my lad," said the captain. "It answers to the description of your craft, anyway. Is there a small boat on board?"
"Not one," replied Maurice. "They were blown away last night."
"Then Silva has nothing to fear from that source, especially as the barge appears to be fast aground on some shoal or bar."
"I'll bet the ruffian sheers off to one side," predicted Bicknell. "He won't be fool enough to hold his present course."
It was quickly evident, however, that this was exactly what Silva meant to do, nor was a sound reason lacking; for a small vessel with bare masts had now come in view off to the right. It lay a half-mile opposite to the barge, and the fugitive was equally distant from the two, and perhaps a quarter of a mile above them. He must have realized the situation, and formed a plan, some time before Maurice made his discovery.
"He intends to slip between them," said Captain Wragg.
"It is a big risk," replied Bicknell, " but he knows that it is the safest thing to do, under the circumstances. He hopes to creep by without attracting suspicion, as he must have done had he suddenly altered his course. He didn't discover the danger in time to avoid it."
"Perhaps there are other vessels, not yet visible to us, nearer both shores," Maurice suggested.
The comments of the lad and his companions were mere conjecture, though probably they were not far wrong. At all events, Silva held to a straight course, and he appeared to be almost in line with the two vessels by the time the pursuing boat, still gaining by degrees, was within a half-mile of him. Moving figures could be discerned on the deck of the barge.
"I wonder if your friends could stop the scoundrel with a bullet," said Captain Wragg. "It would be worth a trial."
"Tearle and Carruthers are both fine shots," replied Maurice, "but the difficulty is they don't understand what is going on."
"Then I'll give them an idea of the situation," vowed Bicknell. He dropped the oars, picked up his rifle, and fired three shots in the air. They conveyed some sort of a meaning, and that promptly. The echoes had scarcely died away when those on the barge opened a lively fusillade, and for several minutes the firearms barked angrily. But the Portuguese, who was by no means within such short range as he looked to be, ran the gauntlet unscathed.
"He is out of reach now," Captain Wragg declared finally. "I hardly believed they would hit him."
"More fun for us, in the end," said Bicknell. "Look here, Captain, what do you say to stopping at the barge long enough to hoist the Hindoo aboard? The poor fellow needs attention badly."
"It is a good idea," was the reply. "Our surgeon can visit him later. Five minutes' delay, more or less, won't matter to us. It is impossible for Silva to give us the slip on this vast stretch of open water."
So, much to Maurice's satisfaction, a course was immediately steered for the "Star of Assam," for such it undoubtedly was. The boat drew rapidly near, and now a taut chain, running downward from the rear deck, showed that the barge was at anchor, and not aground. Soon the lad was recognised by Tearle and Carruthers, who hailed him with lusty shouts, and it was a happy moment when he slipped alongside the big craft and called greetings to the friends whom he had never expected to see again, and who had in turn given him up for dead.
It was no time for sentiment or many words, however. Brief explanations were made, and then Sher Singh was lifted to the deck. Carruthers, who had a fair knowledge of surgery, bustled about in quest of brandy, and bandages, and sponges. Tearle, having picked up a rifle, lowered himself to the boat and shared the stern seat with Maurice.
"I wouldn't miss taking a hand in that yellow fellow's capture for a good bit," he said. "But you ought not to be here, lad," he added. "A snug berth, with hot blankets, is your proper place."
"I'm going along, anyway," replied Maurice. "I am good for a few hours yet."
"Plucky as ever," Tearle muttered, in a tone of admiration. "I might have known you would pull through somehow last night, though I admit we feared the worst. After the storm was over we anchored here, intending to signal some passing vessel, and then --"
"Ready?" interrupted Bicknell, who was impatiently handling the oars.
"Yes," said Tearle. "Hello ! Carruthers," he shouted, "raise the anchor and drift along behind us."
"All right," came the response from above.
"Push off," cried Captain Wragg; and an instant later the boat was skimming swiftly away from the barge, bound on its stern and terrible mission of retribution.
Though the delay had been brief, Silva was now a good mile distant and still trusting to the current of mid-channel. Unenviable must have been his thoughts, bitter his rage and consternation, as, looking back from time to time over the dancing waves, he saw that his relentless foes were again in grim pursuit. He could not escape them -- he must have known that, even as he knew that if caught his life would surely be forfeit to the hangman.
Higher and higher rose the sun into the pearl and blue of the Eastern sky, and the far-off shores began to stand out more distinctly. As yet the morning air was cool after the hurricane, sweet and fragrant with the breath of dawn, and the wide waste of water glistened like burnished silver. Several large craft were in sight, but they were miles to right and left, pale smudges on the horizon, and they seemed to only add to the loneliness of the seascape.
The radiant beauty and freshness of the day were in ill-accord with thoughts of bloodshed and human passions. Under the circumstances, however, Maurice and his companions were impervious to the spell of Nature, to her subtle influences. They had a stern task to fulfil, and they heeded nothing else. The boat forged rapidly ahead, its course followed eagerly by those abroad the barge, which had begun to drift with the tide. Dark faces, belonging to a native crew, were also gazing from the little vessel anchored to the right.
"Lad, we are gaining fast," declared Tearle.
"Yes, Silva is much nearer," said Maurice. "If he had two oars, though, they would tell a different tale."
"It won't be long until we're within rifle-shot of the scoundrel," remarked Bicknell. "That murdered officer was an old pal of mine," he added gloomily.
"This is no occasion for private grudges," hinted Captain Wragg. "Remember that we represent the authority of law and justice."
"That's true, sir," assented Tearle, "and I say it who have the heaviest score against the Portuguese. But we'll take him alive if we can."
The chase continued in silence, and slowly and surely, yard by yard, the avengers overhauled the fleeing wretch, who was straining every nerve to prolong his dwindling lease of freedom. An unforeseen element, however, was shortly to be introduced, to the chagrin and anxiety of the pursuers.
A heavy, widespread sheet of mist still lay in front like a white carpet, on the bosom of the Megna. This began to break in two, under the action of the wind and sun, and as it rolled apart, disclosing the watery gap between, a mass of bright green vegetation loomed out of mid-river.
Captain Wragg, who was sitting in the bow, glanced forward over his shoulder in response to an exclamation of surprise from Maurice.
"Serpent Island!" he cried. "I had forgotten that we were in this neighbourhood."
"I've heard of Serpent Island before," said Bicknell. "It's a good bit of land, too, I believe."
"Eight miles long, and at least three wide in the middle," replied the captain, significantly. "It is infested with serpents and tigers, and covered with dense jungle and scrub that is almost impenetrable."
"Then it's good-bye to Silva, as far as we are concerned, if he manages to reach that place of refuge," exclaimed Tearle. "We might as well hunt for a needle in a hay-rick as hope to find him."
"He won't reach it," cried Bicknell. "He must not. We are only half a mile behind him now, and the island is three times that far from here."
"Yes, about a mile and a half, perhaps a little less," agreed Captain Wragg. "The scoundrel's boat is considerably lighter than ours, but we will do our best. Pull hard, Bicknell. What on earth made us forget to bring another set of oars?"
The dripping blades rose and fell rapidly, without a second's interval between the strokes, and a palpitating wake of foam and ripples gathered astern of the scudding craft.
"Should Silva once get to the island," added the captain, "it will indeed be the last of him, I fear. If he is not killed by tigers or snakes -- as ten to one he will be -- he will find it a very simple matter to escape at night, and drift with a cross current to the mainland, either on a log or a raft. There is plenty of wreckage to be had, in the way of timber and trees."
"And we can't patrol sixteen miles of shore," said Tearle, despondently. "No use to try."
The Portuguese was evidently shrewd enough to take a similar view of the situation, and the prospect of a safe hiding-place, with a chance of ultimate escape to follow, urged him to redouble his efforts. He plied his one oar desperately, and at frequent intervals glanced back to note how the race was progressing.
A quarter of an hour slipped by, and each minute was fraught with keenest suspense and anxiety to all concerned. During that time scarcely a word was spoken; every eye watched the steadily decreasing space between the two boats. Who would win in the end? It was a question that none as yet had confidence to answer.
"It is sickening to see the fellow drawing nearer and nearer," cried Maurice. "Oh! why can't we overtake him?"
"I am doing my level best," vowed Bicknell. "It is going to be a mighty close shave, or else --" he hesitated.
"Or else we lose," said Tearle, fiercely. "But anything but that! Rather than let him gain the shelter of the jungle, a bullet must cut him short in his sins."
"Yes, a bullet as the last resort," assented Captain Wragg. "If we can get within gunshot of him," he added doubtfully.
There was room for doubt, and the issue was just as uncertain a little later, when the island was half a mile away and the Portuguese was more than half that distance from his pursuers. Tearle, too impatient to sit still, rose and crept forward to the bow of the boat. He stood there, towering above Captain Wragg, and waited with rifle in hand.
"That's hardly fair, comrade," growled Bicknell.
"I ought to have the first shot. It was my friend Jack Masters, whom Silva killed."
"My score is the heavier, by far," replied Tearle, "However, if you wish it, I will take the oars and yield you my place. But don't miss."
"No; go ahead," said Bicknell. "You're the better shot, perhaps."
Two minutes passed, and the boat had swept nearer to the fugitive and to the island. Crack! rang Tearle's rifle. Crack! crack! The bullets fell short of the mark. Another interval, bringing the chase nearer to its end, and then a fourth shot, which struck with a splash a little ahead of the Portuguese.
"Now you've got him," Maurice cried excitedly. "Quick!"
"The next shot will plug the scoundrel," exclaimed Captain Wragg. "But first, don't you think we ought to give him a chance to surrender."
"It will be only a waste of breath," vowed Bicknell.
Just then, finding that he was in range, Silva had recourse to a cunning ruse, and one that bade fair to succeed. Having made three vigorous strokes that sent the boat straight and swift for the point of the island, he dropped the oar and suddenly vanished. He had thrown himself flat on the bottom of the craft, and not an inch of his body showed above the gunwales.
"By Heavens, he'll cheat us yet!" cried Captain Wragg.
"Wait!" Tearle said calmly.
He watched, keen-eyed, with his rifle still at his shoulder. The island, in the next minute, drew within four hundred feet. The fugitive was but a dozen yards from the thick jungle coverts, which reached almost to the water's edge. Bicknell pulled like a madman, and the faces of the others were strained with mingled hope and fear.
Crunch! the sound was plainly heard as the bow of the assassin's boat cut deep into the sand and pebbles. As quickly the Portuguese bounded to his feet, sprang ashore, and leapt towards the friendly thickets.
For a brief instant his figure was in view, and in that instant retribution overtook him. Tearle's rifle barked vengefully, and as the smoke lifted Silva was seen to reel and toss up his arms. Then, with an imprecation on his lips, the guilty wretch fell like a dog.
The little group stepped out and approached the Portuguese, who, though mortally wounded beyond a doubt, was far from dead. He was breathing in painful gasps, and his strong vitality promised to keep him alive for some time. He glared up at his enemies, a frenzy of hatred in his burning eyes, and cursed them between throat spasms until blood oozed to his lips, when he became half-unconscious.
"He has not long to live," said Maurice.
"An hour or two, perhaps," replied Tearle. "It is not easy to kill fellows of this sort. See, the ball passed clean through him, entering at the back and emerging under the ribs. It is not a pleasant thing to do to shoot a man down in cold blood. But it was that or lose him."
"There is no need to feel any remorse about it," said Bicknell, in a hard tone. "The ruffian richly deserves his fate. It is far too good for him, in fact the hangman should have had his dues. However, we can afford to be merciful now. Shall we take him aboard the barge, and let him die in peace?"
"It is the least we can do," assented Captain Wragg.
"There's a chance, I'm thinking, that the surgeon will be able to patch him up."
Tearle shook his head. "Not a hundred surgeons could save him, more's the pity," he declared. "I know the signs."
They lifted the wounded man and bore him to the boat, then pulled gladly away from the Isle of Serpents, towing astern of them the smaller craft belonging to the passenger steamer. The journey was a short one, and twenty minutes later all were aboard the "Star of Assam," which had meanwhile been drifting slowly down the river. Silva, his condition unchanged, was made comfortable on deck under the awning, and the crew pressed round the spot, curious for a glimpse of the dreaded outlaw. When the excitement had somewhat subsided, Maurice's first inquiry was for Sher Singh, who had been put to bed in the cabin.
"He is doing as well as can be expected," declared Carruthers. "While there's life there's hope. But unless you turn in and get some rest, my lad, I shall have two patients on my hands."
"There is nothing much the matter with me," said Maurice, "except that I am as hungry as a bear. And little wonder."
He did not have to wait long for his breakfast, and by the time that was finished the "Star of Assam" had meanwhile dropped anchor again -- the " Mogul Emperor" was in plain sight, beating its way down mid-channel under half-steam. Tearle and Captain Wragg held a brief consultation, and the latter agreed, for a certain sum of money, to tow the barge down to the Bay of Bengal and across to the delta of the Hooghly. Therefore, as soon as the big passenger steamer came within hailing distance, she eased her speed and backed up in front of the barge, to which she was promptly secured by half a dozen stout cables. Then the huge side-paddles of the "Mogul Emperor" lashed the water into foam, and the two vessels ploughed on their way together.
The steamer's passengers, when they learned what had occurred, were all eager to go aboard the barge, but Captain Wragg gave permission to only two. The favoured couple were Englishmen, and one was a Calcutta surgeon, a lean, brusque, elderly man, who was returning from a professional visit to a wealthy planter of Assam; for which service he must have received an enormous fee. The other was a handsome, distinguished-looking gentleman of perhaps fifty years of age, with keen brown eyes and a tawny drooping moustache. His dress and manner, his languid, well-modulated voice, clearly indicated that he belonged to the upper classes.
"There is work for you here, Dr. Sawton; this way, sir," said the captain. "I'm afraid you won't find your surroundings very agreeable," he added, in a tone of great respect, to the surgeon's companion. "The barge is in a state of disorder, Mr. Carfax, and is hardly a fit place for a gentleman."
"Never mind about that," replied Mr. Carfax. "I have a curiosity to see --"
He broke off to stare fixedly and with sudden interest at Maurice, who, unaware of the stranger's scrutiny, turned to follow the surgeon. The latter went straight to Sher Singh, and after a lengthy examination he declared that with careful nursing the Hindoo would have more than a chance of recovery. He then stepped across the deck to the Portuguese, and at the first glance he shook his head.
"I can do nothing here," he said. "The fellow is past help, and will surely cheat the hangman. He has not long to live."
Maurice, stirred by an impulse of pity or as near to pity as it could be under the circumstances, knelt beside the dying man and moistened his lips with a sponge.
"Come, this won't do, my boy," remonstrated the surgeon. "You appear to be in need of attention yourself. You are wounded and exhausted, and ought to be in bed."
At that moment Silva opened his eyes, and they rested on Maurice with a glance of fiery hatred, which, to the amazement of all quickly turned to a softer expression. Knowing that his end was fast approaching the assassin was beginning to yield, as the most evil natures frequently do at the last, to the terrifying touch of conscience and remorse.
"Brandy! brandy!" he begged in a hoarse whisper.
They brought a wine-glass full of the strong stimulant and poured it down his throat, and it promptly revived him. He motioned to be lifted up, and when that had been done, and he was supported in Carruthers' arms, his glazing eyes turned to Maurice with a look of mingled horror and penitence.
"I'm going -- I know that," he muttered faintly. "I thought I should be game to the finish, and if any one had told me that I would forgive a wrong, or soften my heart to a foe, I'd have laughed him to scorn. But it's different, somehow, when you see the grave waiting. All my sins are crowding into my mind -- they're dragging me down, shoving me into the darkness. Are you still there, my lad? I can't see you. I'm glad I didn't kill you, and I want to do you a service before I go. You have a cruel and determined enemy. Beware of him. He hired me to murder you, and I was to have been paid five hundred pounds. The man's real name is -- Ravenhurst -- and -- and you'll find -- him -- at -- Calcutta. Go to the --"
A gurgling, choking sound ended the sentence, and there was a rush of blood to Silva's lips. He struggled, tried to raise himself, and fell limply back dead. He had gone to the great judgment seat to answer for his crimes.
"The world is well rid of him," said Tearle, in a hard voice, "but he went out of it too easily."
The sun shone gloriously down on the deck. Carruthers drew the blanket over the body of the Portuguese, and the little group of men moved away from the spot. Maurice stood by the rail, looking over the wide waters with puzzled eyes and confused thoughts. He pressed his hand in bewilderment to his brow.
"What does it mean?" he exclaimed aloud. "Ravenhurst! Ravenhurst! I have heard the name before. But when? Where?"
"What have you got to do with John Ravenhurst, my boy?" demanded an eager voice behind him. "There's a mystery here, and between the two of us we ought to --"
Maurice, turning quickly round, came face to face with Bicknell, and immediately he fancied he recognized him. The veil of the past was lifted at least in part, and his mind was back in the years of his childhood. A clearer light dawned on Bicknell at the same instant, and he was the more agitated of the two. He threw his arms about the lad and embraced him exuberantly.
"Why, I know you now!" he cried. "I must have been blind before. I'd take my oath that I'm right. You're little Dick Forrest, my old pal, straight enough. To think that we should meet again like this, here in India! It's wonderful! I was not wrong, then, in suspecting that scoundrel Ravenhurst. I was satisfied from the first that he meant to play some wicked game. Surely, my boy, you've not forgotten me. Don't you remember the circus, and the menagerie, and how we travelled about the country together?"
"Yes, I do remember," declared Maurice. "It all comes back to me -- it is growing clearer. My father died and this man Ravenhurst took me away and put me on board of Captain Bonnick's vessel. I have seen him once since then -- in the forest of Soonput, not long ago. But why did he hate me, and why did he hire Antonio Silva to kill me? And you -- didn't I used to call you Bick?"
"That's right, lad. It was short for Bicknell. Well well, this is a queer world we live in. And it's a strange tale I have to tell you --"
Just then the English gentleman, who had been standing near enough to catch a fragment of the conversation, came up to the two and touched Bicknell on the shoulder.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "but may I have a word with you?"
"I heard you call yourself Bicknell just now, and that is a name which means something to me. Are you by any chance George Bicknell, formerly of Norwich in England, and of late years the owner of a small tea plantation, thirty miles north of Goalpara?"
"I'm the man," Bicknell admitted. "You've read me off correctly, sir. But if you wish to buy the plantation you're a little too late. I sold it a month ago to --"
"I don't want the plantation," impatiently broke in the gentleman. "I want you, and I have come all the way from England to find you. I travelled up-country to your place, and the new owner told me you had gone to Calcutta --"
"I started for there by water, sir, but I stopped off for a time at Rangamati, and took passage later on the 'Mogul Emperor,' when she touched on her down trip."
"Then we have been fellow-passengers for some days. I wish I had known that before. Now, by mere chance, I have found you out. My name, I suppose, will tell you nothing. I am Mr. Philip Carfax of the Towers, in Essex -- that is my English home."
"You've got the advantage of me, sir," Bicknell replied, shaking his head. He glanced at Maurice and then towards the others standing near, who were looking curiously on.
"Some years ago you were travelling about England with a circus and menagerie, were you not?" asked Mr. Carfax, growing visibly more excited.
"I was, sir; that's right," Bicknell admitted.
"And with the same circus were two persons, Gilbert Forrest and his son Richard, with whom you were on friendly terms?"
"Right again. Why, I was talking of those days not two minutes ago. But did you know Gilbert Forrest?"
"Did I know him?" echoed Mr. Carfax, hoarsely. "Yes, from childhood. I may as well tell you the whole truth there is no reason for concealing it. Gilbert Forrest, as he called himself, was my brother."
"You don't mean it, sir?" gasped Bicknell. "If that is the case, then --"
"He was my own brother," repeated Mr. Carfax. "Poor fellow! what would I not give to bring him back to life ? And now for the next question I fear to ask it, and I dread the answer. Where is my nephew, the little lad who was known as Richard Forrest? You alone can tell me."
It was Bicknell's turn to show excitement. He stared in open-mouthed wonder for a moment, and then, putting a hand on Maurice, he drew him forward.
"He wants you, lad," he said. "Why this beats everything."
"I -- I don't understand," stammered Maurice, on whose face was dawning the light of a great revelation. "Am I Richard Forrest? Was that my name when I was with the circus?"
"Of course it was I told you so," declared Bicknell. "Mr. Carfax, here is your nepliew. This gentleman claims to be your uncle, my boy, and I've no doubt that he is."
A brief searching glance satisfied Mr. Carfax that Bicknell was speaking the truth, and the next instant, overcome by emotion, he had opened his arms and gathered Maurice into them.
"Yes, you are Horace's son," he cried. "You have his features, his eyes. At last, thank Heaven! I have found you."
"Am I awake or am I dreaming?" muttered Bicknell. "This is a day of surprises, and no mistake."
The scene was a thrilling and affecting one, and Maurice, thus suddenly embraced by a stranger, was too bewildered for speech. Some little time passed and some further explanation was needed, before he could fully grasp the situation, which, when the meaning of it had been made clear to him, brought a lump to his throat and a look of happiness to his face. He realized that the puzzling mystery of the past was a mystery no longer, and that a new life had begun for him.
Others gathered about the spot, impelled by curiosity and the first to offer congratulations to Maurice were Tearle and Carruthers, who had overheard a part of the conversation, and were not slow to understand what had happened. The honest fellows were as pleased as Bicknell.
"You have found a nephew who is worthy of you, Mr. Carfax," said Tearle. "You may well be proud of him. You deserve your good luck, my lad, and I say it who know. We meant to help you to clear up the mystery of your birth as soon as we reached England, but there is no need of that now."
"I am heartily glad for your sake," vowed Carruthers as he wrung Maurice's hand, "but I hope we are not going to lose you."
"I am afraid you will," declared Philip Carfax. "I cannot part with my nephew."
There were several points on which he desired to be enlightened, and, moreover, there was much that still called for explanation; so Maurice, in reply to the questions of his newly-found relative, spoke of the vague recollections of his early years, and went on to tell at length of his life in India, from the time he had been left in Tom Dayleford's care.
"You have indeed suffered many hardships and perils, my boy," said his uncle, when the narrative was finished, "and that you came safely through them is due to those who stood by you so faithfully. But your troubles are over, and as far as possible the future shall atone for the past. I have a sad story to tell, and it is only right that your kind friends should listen to it. Before I begin, however, I should like to hear what Mr. Bicknell knows. It may not be much, yet nevertheless --"
"It is very little, Mr. Carfax," Bicknell interrupted, "but such as it is you're welcome to it, if you'll excuse my blunt way of speaking. To start the yarn proper, I joined Santley's circus and menagerie about the year 1880, and Gilbert Forrest was then attached to it as lion-tamer. He was a rare one for animals, and they all seemed fond of him. Living with him was his son Dick --this same lad -- who was then a tiny chap four or five years old. Forrest and I became thick friends, and more than that, but he never spoke of his past life except to say that his wife was dead. I knew there was some mystery about him, and I didn't need to be told that he was a gentleman born and bred.
"Well, sir, to go on, I had been with the circus for a while, and we were performing in the town of Preston, when Forrest got a letter that took him to London for a couple of days. He went off, leaving the boy in my care, and not twenty-four hours after he came back he was knocked down and fatally trampled upon by a loose elephant. He lingered nearly a week, and before he died he told me that his father had bequeathed him a legacy, and that he was going to appoint an old friend of his, named Ravenhurst, as guardian for his boy. The man turned up in company with a lawyer just before Forrest breathed his last, and I believe they got the proper papers written and signed. I mistrusted Ravenhurst's looks at the time, but I didn't dare say anything. He took little Dick away with him the next morning, and that was the last I saw or heard of either until to-day. The following spring a distant relative of mine died in Assam, and left me a bit of a plantation. I took it into my head to run the place myself, so I came out on the first steamer, and I've been here ever since. Then I got tired and sold out, and now I'm on the way back to England. That's my story, Mr. Carfax, and I hope there will be a better ending to it before long I want to see that scoundrel Ravenhurst caught and punished. It makes my blood boil to think that he has been spending Dick's money all these years."
"My story is a comparatively short one," began Philip Carfax, "and I may say by way of introduction that I come of an old family who have been large and wealthy landowners in Essex for three centuries. My ancestors were soldiers and sailors in the days of Elizabeth, fighting-men in the reign of the Stuarts, and from time to time in later generations -- as often happens -- one of our race has developed a wild and reckless strain in the blood. Indeed, it has been inherent more or less with all of us, and I mention the fact because it occurs in what I am about to tell you. My brother Horace and myself were the only children of Godfrey Carfax, who was in the diplomatic service for some years, and retired at the age of forty to his country-place. We were born at the Towers, and there we spent the most of our youth, a happy period that was clouded by the death of our mother My brother was two years my junior, and we were devotedly attached to each other; but while I had quiet and studious tastes, and perhaps an exaggerated idea of the dignity of my position, Horace was of a restless and impulsive nature, light-hearted and careless. He was fond of all sports, of horses and dogs, and had an aversion to books. He made friends of gipsies and poachers, and was constantly getting into trouble with his tutor, and with our father as well, who did not understand how to deal with him. Nothing serious happened, however, until we went up to Oxford together, and then, at the beginning of his second year, Horace was led by dissolute companions into a scrape that caused him to be sent down. He came home, and after a bitter quarrel with his father, in which both lost their tempers, he left in anger vowing that he would never return. A long time passed without any word or knowledge of my brother -- I was forbidden to make any search for him and then we had a letter from Horace in which he stated that he was married to a friendless orphan girl, whose father had been the proprietor of a travelling caravan of wild animals. Considering this piece of news to be an indelible blot on the family name and honour, my father wrote to Horace at once, absolutely disowning and disinheriting him. No answer was received, and for half a dozen years there was unbroken silence, until we discovered quite by accident that Horace's wife was dead, and that he and his child were touring about England with a circus, under the assumed name of Forrest.
"Another interval followed, and within a year or so my father, stricken by a mortal illness, repented of his harshness at the last, and bequeathed to my younger brother the sum of £40,000. That legacy was claimed a month later, as soon as Horace learned of his good fortune. He came in person to London, and a cheque for the amount was handed to him by our family solicitor. At about this time I had a severe attack of fever, and directly I was convalescent I was ordered aboard [sic] to regain my health. I meant to search for my brother when I returned, but meanwhile he met his death by an accident, and the sad tidings reached me in Egypt. Doubly bereaved, I was now a lonely man indeed. Not caring to reside in solitary state at the Towers, with its haunting memories of the dead, I sought distraction in foreign travel. For years I was a restless, discontented exile, wandering from city to city, from country to country, and by way of occupation collecting rare books and prints, antique weapons and armour. Finally I returned home, twelve months ago, and remembering Horace's child -- my only living kinsman -- I determined to find and claim him.
"I should but weary you if I were to describe in detail that long and exhaustive search. Santley's circus was broken up, and many of its old employees were dead. In the end, however, my patience was partly rewarded, and I stumbled upon the clue that brought me to India and thence up the Brahmaputra to Assam in quest of George Bicknell. The rest I need not relate; you witnessed this morning the consummation of my hopes. Of John Ravenhurst I know little or nothing, except that he was a chum of my brother's at Oxford, where he belonged to a fast and unprincipled set. For his heinous crimes, and the base betrayal of his trust, he shall assuredly be punished as he deserves. And in conclusion let me say that I shall devote my future to the welfare and happiness of my dear nephew, whom by the mercy of Providence I have been enabled to find."
Philip Carfax paused, and laid a hand affectionately on Maurice's shoulder.
A week later the "Star of Assam " and the "Mogul Emperor," still joined together by hawsers, swung up the Hooghly river with the tide and dropped anchor off the Calcutta docks, not far from Hamrach and Company's warehouse. A statement of Antonio Silva's death and burial was furnished without delay to the proper authorities, and as neither Tearle nor any of his companions would accept the reward that had been offered for the fugitive, it was ultimately given to the family of the murdered police-officer. Thanks to his strong constitution, and the care he had received, Sher Singh was mending rapidly, and in a fortnight after his removal to a hospital he was hobbling about.
On coming ashore Mr. Carfax and Maurice -- to give the lad the familiar name that was no longer his -- drove straight to the Great Eastern Hotel, little dreaming that John Ravenhurst, alias Miles Hamilton, had hastily left there not two hours before, having read in the papers an account of the arrival of the two vessels and the stirring adventures they had encountered during their voyage down the Brahmaputra. By the same evening he was on board a P. and O. liner, bound for England.
As there were various matters that required attention, nearly a month passed before our friends were ready to leave Calcutta. In the first place Tearle and Carruthers were anxious to wait until Sher Singh had entirely recovered, as they wanted him to assist in caring for the wild animals on the long vogage to London, for which purpose they also engaged Bicknell. In the meantime Philip Carfax made every endeavour to find Ravenhurst, but since he had been known by a false name while in India the task proved a futile one, no trace of him being discovered.
Acting under cabled instructions from the firm, Dermot Tearle chartered a portion of a comparatively fast steamer for the shipment of his animals, and as Maurice was anxious to be with his friends as long as possible, the same vessel carried Mr. Carfax and his nephew away from the shores of India. They had a quick and prosperous journey home, and their surprise can be better imagined than described when, on entering the Thames and landing below the Tower, they found the newspapers of the day full of sensational stories of the rascality of the very man whom they had vainly sought for in Calcutta. John Ravenhurst had been arrested and charged, it appeared, and had then been released from custody under heavy bonds for trial.
The explanation of the mystery was very simple. Captain Bonnick had been pulled out of the Hooghly River by some native boatmen, and taken to a hospital, where he hovered between life and death for many weeks, unable to give any information concerning himself. When he at length recovered he returned to England to find and join his ship, and in London he came across Ravenhurst, who had arrived a few weeks before. He at once handed the villain over to the police, and the dastardly plot to which the sailor had lent himself was made public.
Unfortunately the law -- to dismiss an unpleasant episode briefly -- did not receive its just dues; for John Ravenhurst forfeited his bail and fled to a South American state, where, for want of an extradition treaty, he will probably drag out a miserable existence to the end of his days. He left property behind him which, when legally attached, yielded to Maurice nearly one-half the equivalent of his stolen fortune. Since he showed himself to be truly penitent for his share in the plot, Captain Bonnick escaped prosecution. He made a full confession to Mr. Carfax, admitting that he had received money from Ravenhurst from time to time, during the years when Maurice was on board the "Mary Shannon" and while he was in Tom Dayleford's care at Calcutta. Dayleford and the sailor, it may be added, had been friends of long standing, and the fact that the former was a deserter from the army was well known to Captain Bonnick.
George Bicknell, having conceived a strong liking for Tearle and Carruthers, and for their perilous trade as well, decided to permanently enter the employment of Hamrach and Company. Sher Singh had other prospects, and he severed his connection with the firm in order to accompany Mr. Carfax and Maurice to their country home in Essex, where the services of the devoted Hindoo will always be prized as they deserve.
And now we must reluctantly bid farewell to our young hero, and leave him on the threshold of the new and happy life that has opened before him. His first aim is a thorough education, and no money will be spared to obtain it. In after years, when he comes to young manhood, he and his uncle will probably spend much time in travel, visiting strange and wild lands as well as European countries. You may believe that Sher Singh will go with them, and perhaps, in the course of their wanderings, they will some day chance upon the friends of Maurice's eventful youth -- the intrepid wild beast hunters of the Indian jungles.
Chapters I - XV
Chapters XVI - XXX
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