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" What is it thy wife has in her pot ? " asked the
peon who was of an inquisitive turn of mind.

" It is nothing a little toddy that is all. When
we passed through Ethapalliam the toddy-drawers'
pettah near the priests' Agraharam we were very
thirsty ; and, as we could get no good water, we got
this to refresh us on our way ; but, as you see, we
have not needed all of it. Moreover, the taste of it is
not much to my wife's liking at any time."

With fitful bursts of conversation the time passed by.
Wrencroff remained by the boulder near the stream,
which was only a few yards away from the chatram.
All his senses were keenly alert, and his hand was
never far from his revolver. The arrival of the two
pilgrims had greatly annoyed him, but they were such
wretched-looking creatures that he had not the heart
to move them on with the darkness rapidly increasing.
Though he wished them far enough away, he did not
see how they could in any way interfere with his own
plans ; so, with a bad grace known only to himself,
he had let the matter pass unnoticed.

With the first suggestion of the rising of the moon
he ordered the bullocks to be yoked again, and inspected
both them and the horses when everything had been
prepared. When this was done, he again warned the
servants to be on their guard ; and, having noted the
sleeping forms of the exhausted pilgrims, he returned
to his position near the rock with the instinctive feeling
of having something solid behind his back.

At first the light was dim and uncertain ; but as
the moon rose slowly above the hills everything stood
out distinctly in a silvery glamour as if called into
existence by the touch of a fairy's wand. An hour
passed during which the stillness of the forest remained
unbroken but for the heavy breathing of the bullocks
and the occasional stamping of the horses.

From where he stood, Wrencroff could now make
out the figures of his three servants : one sitting


against the pillar of the chatram holding the horses'
bridles, the peon lying on the floor just within the
chatram, the bandy-man patiently sitting upon his
uncomfortable perch.

Suddenly the growl of a bear broke on the night air,
followed by the scamper of a herd of spotted deer ; a
few minutes later a panther appeared in the middle
of the road less than a hundred yards away, looked
at the party for a time and, having satisfied its curiosity,
walked quietly away into the trees.

Wrencroff sighed as he thought of the sport he was
missing, then he stretched himself, and walked over
to the chatram.

" Syce ! " he called quietly. But there was no

" Syce ! " he repeated a little louder, thinking he had
spoken too low ; but again there was no answer.

In a quick stride he reached the man's side and
shook him angrily for going to sleep under such circum-
stances. But there was no response, and the man
toppled over quietly on to his back, letting the bridles
trail through his helpless fingers.

" Peon," he called fiercely ; but the peon answered
him no more than the syce, and his fierce call seemed
to echo back with the unearthly chuckles of the spirits
of the forest.

Then with a gulp and with a bitter laugh, he under-
stood the position. As he passed to the horses his
fears were realised. The girths of the saddles were
cut ; the yoke of the bandy lay quietly upon the necks
of the bullocks but the leading ropes and fasteners were
gone ; his men lay drugged and the pretended beggars
were gone. A metallic sound rang out as his foot
knocked against some object. He bent down and
picked it up. It was one of the stirrups on the leather
which had been cut with the girths.

" You blind idiot you consummate ass ! " mur-
mured Wrencroff to himself as he realised how


thoroughly he had been duped, and he was on the
point of cursing his unpardonable stupidity in still
stronger terms, when the sound of rushing feet made
him swing round sharply towards the chair am. He
was not a second too soon, for as he did so, his eye
caught the gleam of a long knife, and the large naked
body of a powerfully-built man was almost upon him
before he could do anything to avoid the would-be
murderer's onslaught. With the instinct of self-
preservation, however, he grasped the leather of the
heavy steel stirrup in his hand, and, with all his might,
struck at his assailant's face. With almost mathe-
matical precision the little weapon descended with a
terrible smash between the man's fiercely glaring eyes,
and sent him to the ground with a groan.

Wrencroff had little or no time to think of the narrow-
ness of his escape from the sinister weapon that went
spinning with a flash through the moonlight ; for his
foe had hardly fallen backward to the ground when
two others rushed from behind the little building and
tried to fling themselves upon him. The nearest of
these he instantly placed hors de combat with his
heavily booted foot, and then with the hope of gaining
time to get at the revolver in his breast pocket he
jumped backward. Unfortunately his foot caught in
something that caused him to stumble. Before he
could recover himself his third assailant was upon
him, and the next moment they were on the ground
engaged in a struggle in which, it was evident, little
mercy was expected to be given or received. Wrencroff
himself was far from being a novice at wrestling, but
he quickly recognised the superior skill and strength
of his opponent and the little chance he would have
if the struggle continued long. So, dropping all other
tactics, he used a trick learnt years before as a medical
student, got at his opponent's throat, and gripped it
for all he was worth, then gave it a peculiar twist
calculated to prove effective, if not fatal, in a very


short time. Almost instantaneously he had the
satisfaction of feeling his enemy's hold relax, and was
endeavouring to struggle to his feet, when a crashing
blow descended upon his own head, and he toppled
over unconscious and helpless amidst his unknown



The sun was already well above the hills when Wren-
croff at last struggled back to consciousness. For
hours that had seemed interminable, mad visions and
shadowy foes had chased each other through his
fevered brain. But now, as the sunlight began to slant
through the trees and the morning breeze to fan his
burning temples, the semiconsciousness [which had so
often baffled his painful efforts passed away like the
sudden lifting of a mist, the kaleidoscopic medley of
mental pictures settled down into the distant outlines
of a woodland scene, and he lay in a bath of perspira-
tion increasingly conscious of the gipsy-like caravanserai
around him.

At the moment Wrencroff opened his eyes the air
seemed to throb with the pulse of vigorous life not
so much with the wild unfettered life of the forest as
with the more familiar forms of it. Laughter mingled
with the burr of voices ; feet pattered to and fro
accompanied by the jingle of ornaments ; the soft
strum of a stringed instrument floated up among the
trees angry execrations followed the sudden hissing
of a fire that sent up a strong smell of garlic.

Without attracting any undue attention to himself,
Wrencroff was able to count about thirty men resting
or moving about among the trees.

All were marked on the forehead with the same
symbolic sign the sign of the Hindu goddess in one
of her worst forms but a glance was sufficient to
reveal the fact that, though at one in their profession
and dedication, they were men of vastly different
castes and, in some cases, of very different races.


The women also of this roving band seemed to
represent all the different types and classes of the
country. Amongst them were girls with fair skins and
red silk trousers who had evidently been abducted
from Mohammedan harems ; there were also high
caste Hindu women, equally fair in skin but of a much
more oriental type of beauty ; others had evidently
been drawn from some of the lower castes, women
with darker complexions, perhaps, but with forms and
features hard to rival, while even three or four Brinjari
maids helped to increase the picturesqueness of the
scene with their many-coloured tinselled garments and
their wonderful array of crude ornaments.

Wrencroff soon recognised the peculiar character of
the people amongst whom he had fallen. He was in
the midst of a band of dacoits dedicated to Durga a
species of religious fanatics who infested the country
wherever prey was plentiful and refuge easy. He had
often heard of these lawless bands that carried on their
brigandage under a religious oath, and knew from
experience in connection with hospital cases, that they
were practically all-powerful within the sphere of their
depredations ; for it was common knowledge that they
held the villages in abject terror, and compelled them
under terrible threats to supply all their needs and to
hide all traces of their retreat. Their spies were every-
where, while members of their league could be found
acting as Government clerks, village magistrates, police-
men, and taliaries, and not infrequently the rich land-
lords and merchants were involved in their infamous
deeds. Hence to trace or to capture them was almost
impossible, because the sources of assistance were so
many that the warning of danger was always far ahead
of the danger itself, and failure to warn in good time
usually meant death or mutilation to those who were
unfortunate enough to fail in the duties of their

A sudden disturbance was created amongst them by


the arrival of a man who rushed into the grove and
began to talk with much excitement and a great deal
of gesticulation. His forehead was low and bulging,
his eyes intensely dark but expressionless, while his
nose and lips were negroid in their shape and thick-
ness : a man with some affinity to the aboriginal forest
tribe, and yet not altogether a forest-dweller, as his
loin cloth and the arrangement of his hair showed.

When he had done speaking a sharp order was given
by the man who seemed to be recognised as the leader ;
the women immediately scurried to and fro, packing
and lading the bullocks ; and in an incredibly short
time the grove began to empty, until at last only a few
of the dacoits were left with the man who carried the
bandage over his forehead.

" Let some of the Lingites," said the latter, " lead
the way to their mountain fort while others make a
false trail the rest can carry the hakim \ "

But most of the men who had remained behind were
not in favour of the latter part of the leader's advice.
It was altogether against the past policy of the band,
and experience had taught them that dead men give no
trouble. One counselled one thing, one another ; but
the leader remained adamant, having said his say.

Wrencroff closed his eyes and listened for all he was
worth, trying to understand the drift of their conversa-
tion. He had no difficulty in learning that he himself
was the cause of contention and that most of them
were urging that he should be summarily dealt with
and hidden away in the forest.

" Nay," cried the leader at last with impatience,
" it shall not be so. The Swami sent word that the
hakim was to be kept till he came. We know not his
reasons or his purpose, but those who fail the Swami
know what it means."

This argument seemed to break down all objections.
At a signal two bamboo poles were brought and fixed
to the hammock upon which Wrencroff was lying.


There was a moment's delay while two or three mem-
bers of the Lingite tribe were leaving the grove to lay
false trails in different directions ; then, when these
had disappeared, the rest of the party proceeded to
cross the stream at a point where an almost invisible
pathway led through an intricate maze of thorns and
thickly clustering shrubs.

The men bearing the hammock were the last to take
up their position in the Indian file ; and, as they did
so, an inspiration came to Wrencroff that made his
thoughts work rapidly towards a slight chance of rescue.
The sudden decampment of the dacoits was probably
owing to the fact that his friend was following up the
trail with assistance ; but, granting that he might hit
upon the grove, was it likely that he would be able to
follow up the trail from there ? To say the least of it,
it would take time ; and minutes, so far as any chance
of escape was concerned, were precious. If possible
he must try and leave some clue behind for his friend's
guidance. His hands and feet were tied, but with the
former he could still reach his waistcoat pocket in which
he carried a small compass. As his bearers were about
to cross the stream, he sat up suddenly with a jerk,
making the men stagger so much as to leave very clear
signs of their passage. In the confusion of the moment
he dropped the little compass unseen through the net,
and when the Lingite carriers passed on, the little
instrument lay shining in the cool empty grove.



MORE than a thousand feet above the Shivite shrine
there lies a small plateau on a frowning peak.

On three sides the plateau is inaccessible, but on
the fourth it may be reached by a small mountain path


which winds in and out along the precipitous face of a
deep and dangerous ravine.

Some two hundred feet below the plateau, at the
point where the ravine takes an almost perpendicular
descent, there is a flat, broad bed of quartzite and
slaty rock where a spring collects into a deep pool
before hurling itself down into the abyss below.

All the water which leaves this pool does not, how-
ever, go over the waterfall ; with curious perversity
a considerable stream turns away before reaching the
edge, runs for some distance over the mountain foot-
path that leads up to the plateau, then flows off along
the rocky bed of a cave hollowed out of the side of the

The entrance to this cave is almost completely
covered by one of those gigantic overhanging rocks
called by the natives rishi-umbrellas, and at first sight
that part of it which is exposed seems little more than
an insignificant hollow caused by the denudation of
the " Umbrella's " underlying bed of rocks.

On passing under the rishi-umbrella, however, one
finds oneself not only in a cave of considerable size,
but also in one of an unusual character. The light
which filters through the great clefts at the sides of the
rock is dim and uncertain but still sufficient to reveal
the^fact that the place is peopled with a crowd of
monstrous figures. Grim sentinels, representing ima-
ginary or mythical combinations of man and beast,
stand out on all sides as if guarding the approach to
some superior being ; spears and arrows protrude
from the ceiling and walls like a series of triumphal
arches ; while python-like bodies and masses of coils
give uncanny shocks until closer inspection reveals
alike the dust of ages and the primitive crudity of the
sculptured representations.

The cave becomes narrower and darker as it pro-
ceeds, until a torch is required to light one's way along
the narrow passage to which it contracts. This passage,


after continuing some distance with a downward slope,
suddenly makes a series of sharp turns, then opens out
again into a large cave, and there before one stands
the object of veneration a large bronze cobra, brightly
painted, with its head erect and its hood expanded.

This ancient relic of the forest-dwellers is by no
means at the end of the subterranean way. The cave
goes on, apparently indefinitely, into the very heart
of the hill ; but less than thirty feet beyond the sacred
fetish the floor of the cave disappears altogether ; and
through the clammy atmosphere there comes the soft
lap, lap of water from the fathomless rock cistern that
bars the further progress of the inquisitive.

About a century before the events already recorded,
the plateau was inhabited by a strong and thriving
gotram or community of forest-dwellers. They were
said to be an off-shoot of the common tribes that over-
run the Black Mountains, but for ages they had kept
to themselves, and the only gotrams with which they
intermarried were more than a hundred miles away.

In many ways they were far superior to the neigh-
bouring gotrams of forest tribes and differed from
them in physical appearance as well as in social and
religious customs.

They were more powerfully built ; their eyes were
more piercing ; they were braver and more straight-
forward, and while possessing many of the character-
istics of southern tribes, held a standard of morality
all their own and showed an independence unknown
among the degenerate tribes. In religion they were
purely totemistic ; whereas the other tribes, though
preserving much of their ancient fetishism, had, under
Brahmin influence, adopted Hindu incarnations as their
principal deities.

There was one custom in particular which was
peculiar to these Nagite inhabitants of the plateau
the form of their marriages. The man wishing to
marry selected a bride, and, with the consent of the


gotram, retired with her. On the following day a
circular space was cleared, in the centre of which a
bow and arrow were fixed ; a feast was then prepared,
and, to the sound of tom-toms and the throwing of
rice, the bride and bridegroom were made to go round
and round the symbolic circle. This done, the man
was then asked if he were satisfied with his bride, and,
receiving the expected answer, the headman ratified
the marriage, and the bride was conducted to her
newly-built beehive hut.

If, for any reason, the marriage remained unratified,
the omission naturally involved great disgrace for
the bride, and roused intense ill-feeling against the
delinquent bridegroom. But the danger of such a
calamity had seldom arisen in the history of the tribe,
and at one time had hardly been taken into account
even as a possibility. Unfortunately, however, it had
occurred twice within the century, with fatal results
for the gotram. For it was the cause of a deadly feud
which brought years of cruel misfortune and desolation
upon the Nagites. How the fatal omission occurred in
the first instance was in this way :

The chief of the Nagite tribe had an only son a
wild, wayward young fellow with a hankering after
the plains and a taste for the pleasures of the village.
As often as not he was away from the tribe indulging
in the evil habits of the low-castes under whose influ-
ence he had fallen. On his return he would simply
wander about with gloomy looks, refusing to take part
either in their simple pleasures or in their daily struggle
for existence. Murmurs of discontent amongst the
tribe increased ; the son was the hereditary successor
to his father's office, and the Nagites were not pleased
with the interest which he took in village ways or with
the behaviour which he showed towards themselves.
At last the headman considered it high time to move
in the matter, and, marriage appearing to be the solution
of the difficulty and the likeliest enticement for him


to settle down, a council was held, the decision of
which was that he should marry the daughter of the
headman's younger brother.

Arrangements were made and, according to custom,
the chief's son chose the bride which popular consent
had assigned to him. On the morrow, however, after
a fit of jealousy on the bride's part and an outburst of
anger on his, he refused to take part in the ratification
of the marriage. Persuasion and threats alike availed
nothing : scorning the one and defying the other, he
rose angrily from the hastily convened council, forswore
his cousin and left the gotram for ever.

The renegade Nagite found his way to the Agra-
haram or priests' village, which lies fifteen miles away
from the Shivite temple, and, there attaching himself
to a community of Lingites, married the headman's
daughter, whose existence had no doubt played an
important part in the renunciation of his tribe and

The Lingites were a curious mixture of the tribes
that dwell in the forest and of the primitive nomads
whose temporary dwellings hang round the skirts of the
towns and villages. They lived largely by the chase
and the produce of the forest, but at the same time
were ever willing to act as village watchmen, guardians
of the passes, guides, carriers, runners or spies. Thus
it naturally happened that where their services were
constantly required for these purposes, there their
dwellings tended to become more permanent.

In religion they were, as their name suggests, followers
of the great nature worship of the Shivites and Durgites,
and, together with other peculiar customs of their own,
were in the habit of dedicating most of their daughters
to the goddess.

Through the marriage of their headman's daughter
with the son of the Nagite chief, the Lingites in time
set up a rival claim to the peak with its famous sub-
terranean temple. When the old chief died they urged


his son to press his claim ; but the latter hated the place
and its association and refused to have anything to do
with it.

Twenty years later, however, an old cause of conten-
tion the collection of wax and honey and certain
berries and roots which were to be found in abundance
on the sides of the mountain gave birth to open
hostilities, and his son, urged by his Lingite brethren,
headed a raid upon the inhabitants of the peak.

During the fray the youth slipped on one of the
crags and was dashed to pieces ; but he left a son to
inherit his hate. Till this child grew to manhood the
feud was again laid to sleep. But it was never for-
gotten ; it worked to a murderous fury in the minds of
the Lingites with the increasing years ; and from his
infancy the young child was imbued with the utterly
false idea that the Nagites possessed his inheritance.

The Brahmins in the Agraharam, though apparently
unconnected with the affairs of either tribe, were the
real promoters of this intertribal struggle. In one way
or another they found means to feed the feud and to
work it to a fury. The Lingites were under their
influence and through them they hoped, eventually, to
obtain a hold upon the ancient temple on the peak.
It had long been a sore point with them that the Nagites
remained indifferent to their hierarchical authority.
The unique character of the Nagite temple had made
it famous and they had often desired to make it another
bait to the pilgrims ; but the Nagites were as proud
of their tribe and independence as the Brahmins were
of their caste, and they would have neither social nor
religious connection with the latter. Moreover, there
were strange rumours that among the quartzite and
mica on the hill precious stones had been found from
time to time, and the hill-tribe had a shrewd idea,
that, valueless as these were in their own eyes, yet
they had a strange fascination for the insatiable priests
in the temple below, and that once the latter succeeded


in getting a plausible hold upon the mountain there
would be little peace for themselves on the plateau

Thus the years rolled by and Linganna, the grand-
son of the renegade Nagite, grew to manhood. Urged
by the Lingites, indirectly spurred and secretly en-
couraged by the Brahmins, and finally drawn on by
his own evilly directed desires, he nursed his hopes
for revenge, and laid his plans for possession with
consummate skill.

Brawls and skirmishes between members of the two
tribes had increased, and the forest was no longer safe
for one or the other, though the Lingites seldom came
off the better. The latter, however, were biding their
time, for report had it that preparations were being
made for the marriage of Naga the chief's son ; and
Linganna had arranged that a general assault should be
made upon the Nagites during the ratification of the
marriage, which would take place at the rising of the
sun on the Hindu festival of Dusserah, which was also
a festival of the Nagites. Moreover, the priests of the
Agraharam had continually assured them that for all
faithful followers of the goddess engaged in warlike
occupations that was above all a propitious day, for
it was the festival of Durga's victory over the demon.

So at sunrise on the morning of Dusserah the assault
was made. The Nagites, intent on the marriage cere-

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Online LibraryS. (Samuel) FoskettThe temple in the tope → online text (page 11 of 24)