|From small-pox and the Evil Eye, a wasteful marriagefeast, and the kindness of my co-wife, may the Gods protect my son.—Hindu Proverb.|
TARVIN made his way to the banquet with his face aflame and his tongue dry between his teeth. He had seen it. It existed. It was not a myth. And he would have it; he would take it back with him. Mrs. Mutrie should hang it about the sculptured neck that looked so well when she laughed; and the Three C.’s should come to Topaz. He would be the saviour of his town; the boys at home would take the horses out of his carriage and drag him up Pennsylvania Avenue with their own hands; and town lots would sell next year in Topaz by the running inch.
It was worth all the waiting, worth the damming of a hundred rivers, worth a century of pachisi playing, and a thousand miles of bullock-cart. As he drained a glass to the health of the young Maharaj Kunwar at the banquet that evening, he renewed his pledge to himself to fight it out on this line if it took all summer. His pride of success had lain low of late, and taken many hurts; but now that he had seen his prize he esteemed it already within his grasp, as he had argued at Topaz that Kate must be his because he loved her.
Next morning he woke with a confused notion that he stood on the threshold of great deeds; and then, in his bath, he wondered whence he had plucked the certainty and exultation of the night before. He had, indeed, seen the Naulahka. But the temple doors had closed on the vision. He found himself asking whether either temple or necklace had been real, and in the midst of his wonder and excitement was half way to the city before he knew that he had left the rest-house. When he came to himself, however, he knew well whither he was going and what he was going for. If he had seen the Naulahka, he meant to keep it in sight. It had disappeared into the temple. To the temple, therefore, he would go.
Fragments of burnt-out torches lay on the temple steps among trampled flowers and spilt oil, and the marigold garlands hung limp and wilted on the fat shoulders of the black stone bulls that guarded the inner court. Tarvin took off his white pith helmet (it was very hot, though it was only two hours after dawn), pushed back the scanty hair from his high forehead, and surveyed the remnants of yesterday’s feast. The city was still asleep after its holiday. The doors of the building were wide open, and he ascended the steps and walked in, with none to hinder.
The formless, four-faced god Iswara, standing in the centre of the temple, was smeared and discoloured with stains of melted butter, and the black smoke of exhausted incense. Tarvin looked at the figure curiously, half expecting to find the Naulahka hung about one of its four necks. Behind him, in the deeper gloom of the temple, stood other divinities, many-handed and many-headed, tossing their arms aloft, protruding their tongues, and grinning at one another. The remains of many sacrifices lay about them, and in the half light Tarvin could see that the knees of one were dark with dried blood. Overhead the dark roof ran up into a Hindu dome, and there was a soft rustle and scratching of nesting bats.
Tarvin, with his hat on the back of his head and his hands in his pockets, gazed at the image, looking about him and whistling softly. He had been a month in India, but he had not yet penetrated to the interior of a temple. Standing there, he recognised with fresh force how entirely the life, habits, and traditions of this strange people alienated them from all that seemed good and right to him; and he was vaguely angered to know that it was the servants of these horrors who possessed a necklace which had power to change the destiny of a Christian and civilised town like Topaz.
He knew that he would be expelled without ceremony for profanation, if discovered, and made haste to finish his investigations, with a half-formed belief that the slovenliness of the race might have caused them to leave the Naulahka about somewhere, as a woman might leave her jewels on her dressing-table after a late return from a ball the night before. He peered about and under the gods, one by one, while the bats squeaked above him. Then he returned to the central image of Iswara, and in his former attitude regarded the idol.
It occurred to him that, though he was on level ground, most of his weight was resting on his toes, and he stepped back to recover his balance. The slab of sandstone he had just quitted rolled over slowly, as a porpoise rolls in the still sea, revealing for an instant a black chasm below. Then it shouldered up into its place again without a sound, and Tarvin wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. If he had found the Naulahka at that instant he would have smashed it in pure rage. He went out into the sunlight once more, devoting the country where such things were possible to its own gods; he could think of nothing worse.
A priest, sprung from an unguessable retreat, came out of the temple immediately afterward, and smiled upon him.
Tarvin, willing to renew his hold on the wholesome world in which there were homes and women, betook himself to the missionary’s cottage, where he invited himself to breakfast. Mr. and Mrs. Estes had kept themselves strictly aloof from the marriage ceremony, but they could enjoy Tarvin’s account of it, delivered from the Topaz point of view. Kate was unfeignedly glad to see him. She was full of the discreditable desertion of Dhunpat Rai and the hospital staff from their posts. They had all gone to watch the wedding festivities, and for three days had not appeared at the hospital. The entire work of the place had devolved on herself and the wild woman of the desert who was watching her husband’s cure. Kate was very tired, and her heart was troubled with misgivings for the welfare of the little Prince, which she communicated to Tarvin when he drew her out upon the verandah after breakfast.
‘I’m sure he wants absolute rest now,’ she said, almost tearfully. ‘He came to me at the end of the dinner last night—I was in the women’s wing of the palace—and cried for half an hour. Poor little baby! It’s cruel.’
‘Oh, well, he’ll be resting to-day. Don’t worry.’
‘No; to-day they take his bride back to her own people again, and he has to drive out with the procession or something—in this sun, too. It’s very wicked. Doesn’t it ever make your head ache, Nick? I sometimes think of you sitting out on that dam of yours, and wonder how you can bear it.’
‘I can bear a good deal for you, little girl,’ returned Tarvin, looking down into her eyes.
‘Why, how is that for me, Nick?’
‘You’ll see if you live long enough,’ he assured her; but he was not anxious to discuss his dam, and returned to the safer subject of the Maharaj Kunwar.
Next day and the day after he rode aimlessly about in the neighbourhood of the temple, not caring to trust himself within its walls again, but determined to keep his eye upon the first and last spot where he had seen the Naulahka. There was no chance at present of getting speech with the only living person, save the King, whom he definitely knew to have touched the treasure. It was maddening to await the reappearance of the Maharaj Kunwar in his barouche, but he summoned what patience he could. He hoped much from him; but meanwhile he often looked in at the hospital to see how Kate fared. The traitor Dhunpat Rai and his helpers had returned; but the hospital was crowded with cases from the furthest portions of the State—fractures caused by the King’s reckless barouches, and one or two cases, new in Kate’s experience, of men drugged, under the guise of friendship, for the sake of the money they carried with them, and left helpless in the public ways.
Tarvin, as he cast his shrewd eye about the perfectly kept men’s ward, humbly owned to himself that, after all, she was doing better work in Rhatore than he. She at least did not run a hospital to cover up deeper and darker designs, and she had the inestimable advantage over him of having her goal in sight. It was not snatched from her after one maddening glimpse; it was not the charge of a mysterious priesthood, or of an impalpable State; it was not hidden in treacherous temples, nor hung round the necks of vanishing infants.
One morning, before the hour at which he usually set out for the dam, Kate sent a note over to him at the rest-house asking him to call at the hospital as soon as possible. For one rapturous moment he dreamed of impossible things. But smiling bitterly at his readiness to hope, he lighted a cigar, and obeyed the order.
Kate met him on the steps, and led him into the dispensary.
She laid an eager hand on his arm. ‘Do you know anything about the symptoms of hemp-poisoning?’ she asked him.
He caught her by both hands quickly, and stared wildly into her face. ‘Why? Why? Has any one been daring——?’
She laughed nervously. ‘No, no. It isn’t me. It’s him.’
The Maharaj—the child. I’m certain of it now.’ She went on to tell him how, that morning, the barouche, the escort, and a pompous native had hurried up to the missionary’s door bearing the almost lifeless form of the Maharaj Kunwar; how she had at first attributed the attack, whatever it might be, to exhaustion consequent upon the wedding festivities; how the little one had roused from his stupor, blue-lipped and hollow-eyed, and had fallen from one convulsion into another, until she had begun to despair and how, at the last, he had dropped into a deep sleep of exhaustion, when she had left him in the care of Mrs. Estes. She added that Mrs. Estes had believed that the young prince was suffering from a return of his usual malady; she had seen him in paroxysms of this kind twice before Kate came.
‘Now look at this,’ said Kate, taking down the chart of her hospital cases, on which were recorded the symptoms and progress of two cases of hemp-poisoning that had come to her within the past week.
‘These men,’ she said, ‘had been given sweetmeats by a gang of travelling gipsies, and all their money was taken from them before they woke up. Read for yourself.’
Tarvin read, biting his lips. At the end he looked up at her sharply.
‘Yes,’ he said, with an emphatic nod of his head—‘ yes. Sitabhai?’
‘Who else would dare?’ answered Kate passionately.
‘I know. I know. But how to stop her going on! how to bring it home to her!’
‘Tell the Maharajah,’ responded Kate decidedly.
Tarvin took her hand. ‘Good! I’ll try it. But there’s no shadow of proof, you know.’
‘No matter. Remember the boy. Try. I must go back to him now.’
The two returned to the house of the missionary together, saying very little on the way. Tarvin’s indignation that Kate should be mixed up in this miserable business almost turned to anger at Kate herself, as he rode beside her but his wrath was extinguished at sight of the Maharaj Kunwar. The child lay on a bed in an inner room at the missionary’s, almost too weak to turn his head. As Kate and Tarvin entered, Mrs. Estes rose from giving him his medicine, said a word to Kate by way of report, and returned to her own work. The child was clothed only in a soft muslin coat; but his sword and jewelled belt lay across his feet.
‘Salaam, Tarvin Sahib,’ he murmured. ‘I am very sorry that I was ill.’
Tarvin bent over him tenderly. ‘Don’t try to talk, little one.’
‘Nay; I am well now,’ was the answer. ‘Soon we will go riding together.’
‘Were you very sick, little man?’
‘I cannot tell. It is all dark to me. I was in the palace laughing with some of the dance-girls. Then I fell. And after that I remember no more till I came here.’
He gulped down the cooling draught that Kate gave him, and resettled himself on the pillows, while one wax-yellow hand played with the hilt of his sword. Kate was kneeling by his side, one arm under the pillow supporting his head; and it seemed to Tarvin that he had never before done justice to the beauty latent in her good, plain, strong features. The trim little figure took softer outlines, the firm mouth quivered, the eyes were filled with a light that Tarvin had never seen before.
‘Come to the other side—so,’ said the child, beckoning Tarvin in the native fashion, by folding all his tiny fingers into his palms rapidly and repeatedly. Tarvin knelt obediently on the other side of the couch. ‘Now I am a king, and this is my court.’
Kate laughed musically in her delight at seeing the boy recovering strength. Tarvin slid his arm under the pillow, found Kate’s hand there, and held it.
The portière at, the door of the room dropped softly. Mrs. Estes had stolen in for a moment, and imagined that she saw enough to cause her to steal out again. She had been thinking a great deal since the days when Tarvin first introduced himself.
The child’s eyes began to grow dull and heavy, and Kate would have withdrawn her arm to give him another draught.
‘Nay; stay so,’ he said imperiously; and relapsing into the vernacular, muttered thickly—‘Those who serve the King shall not lack their reward. They shall have villages free of tax—three, five villages; Sujjain, Amet, and Gungra. Let it be entered as a free gift when they marry. They shall marry, and be about me always—Miss Kate and Tarvin Sahib.’
Tarvin did not understand why Kate’s hand was withdrawn swiftly. He did not know the vernacular as she did.
‘He is getting delirious again,’ said Kate, under her breath. ‘Poor, poor little one!’
Tarvin ground his teeth, and cursed Sitabhai between them. Kate was wiping the damp forehead, and trying to still the head as it was thrown restlessly from side to side. Tarvin held the child’s hands, which closed fiercely on his own, as the boy was racked and convulsed by the last effects of the hemp.
For some minutes he fought and writhed, calling upon the names of many gods, striving to reach his sword, and ordering imaginary regiments to hang those white dogs to the beams of the palace gate, and to smoke them to death.
Then the crisis passed, and he began to talk to himself and to call for his mother.
The vision of a little grave dug in the open plain sloping to the river, where they had laid out the Topaz cemetery, rose before Tarvin’s memory. They were lowering Heckler’s first baby into it, in its pine coffin; and Kate, standing by the graveside, was writing the child’s name on the finger’s length of smoothed pine which was to be its only headstone.
‘Nay, nay, nay!’ wailed the Maharaj Kunwar. ‘I am speaking the truth; and oh, I was so tired at that pagal dance in the temple, and I only crossed the courtyard. . . . It was a new girl from Lucknow; she sang the song of “The Green Pulse of Mundore.” . . . Yes; but only some almond curd. I was hungry, too. A little white almond curd, mother. Why should I not eat when I feel inclined? Am I a sweeper’s son, or a prince? Pick me up! pick me up! It is very hot inside my head. . . . Louder. I do not understand. Will they take me over to Kate? She will make all well. What was the message?’ The child began to wring his hands despairingly. ‘The message! The message! I have forgotten the message. No one in the State speaks English as I speak English. But I have forgotten the message.
‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright|
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Framed thy fearful symmetry?
Yes, mother; till she cries. I am to say the whole of it till she cries. I will not forget. I did not forget the first message. By the great god Har! I have forgotten this message.’ And he began to cry.
Kate, who had watched so long by bedsides of pain, was calm and strong; she soothed the child, speaking to him in a low, quieting voice, administering a sedative draught, doing the right thing, as Tarvin saw, surely and steadily, undisturbed. It was he who was shaken by the agony that he could not alleviate.
The Maharaj Kunwar drew a long, sobbing breath, and contracted his eyebrows.
‘Mahadeo ki jai!’ he shouted. ‘It has come back. A gipsy has done this. A gipsy has done this. And I was to say it until she cried.’
Kate half rose, with an awful look at Tarvin. He returned it, and, nodding, strode from the room, dashing the tears from his eyes.