S. (Samuel) Foskett.

The temple in the tope online

. (page 12 of 24)
Online LibraryS. (Samuel) FoskettThe temple in the tope → online text (page 12 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


mony, were taken completely by surprise and many
of the men were massacred before they could make any
attempt at resistance. At the moment that the attack
was made, Naga and his bride were on their way to
the mystic circle ; the bride was seized and dragged
down by the Lingites, but in the confusion the bride-
groom broke away, and, for some time, created terrible
havoc with a great branch which was the only weapon
he could lay hands on. At last he was wounded and
his wife seeing him fall, broke from her captors and
fled shrieking. But, as it turned out, he was not



THE FEUD OF THE NAGITES 151

killed. A moment later he was on the sharp ridge
behind the ravine, and from there he saw his newly-
made bride throw herself into the great pool on the
quartzite rock, and, with others, watched the tragedy
work to its grim climax as she disappeared with the
rain-swollen waters into the abyss below.

From that hour terrible hatred possessed the heart
of Naga. Night and day he watched for a suitable
opportunity of revenge. His one desire was to meet
Linganna in single combat, overcome him and then
mete out his punishment ; later on, when he had
collected his scattered tribe together, he would deal
fitly with the rest of the Lingite brood. But Linganna
was wary and kept himself from harm's reach by avoid-
ing the forest ; so, as the opportunity was long in
coming, Naga took to creeping between the edge of
the forest and the outskirts of the Agraharam.

Thus it happened that one evening towards dusk,
as the Car Festival was in progress, the Lingites, who
were helping to pull the Jagannath vehicle, recognised
him watching from behind a tree, and, after a struggle,
captured and threw him bound under the car. They
would have preferred to keep him and deal with him
in their own way, but religious fanaticism was roused,
and the people demanded a victim for the car.

At that moment, however, Colonel Wrencroff chanced
to be passing through the Agtaharam on his way to the
hills. Hearing what was going on, he hurried to the
scene. Fortunately, the great heavy car had settled
into a rut, otherwise his appearance on the spot would
have proved worse than useless. As it was, he was
just in time to rescue Naga from under the very wheels
of the car, with no small risk to himself and his company
of servants.

From that day the hatred of both Brahmins and
Lingites was turned against the Colonel ; and that
deadly feud, which had yet to run its full course, was
set in motion.



1 5 2 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

The priests of the Agraharam put every conceivable
obstacle in the way of the Colonel's schemes ; they
roused up the different forest tribes against him ; they
waylaid his carriers and runners ; they frightened the
coolies from doing the highly-paid labour ; they caused
the forest to be fired several times in the direction of
his operations, and finally, with infernal ingenuity, they
placed into the very midst of his household the spy and
traitor Raymond.

This was before the suttee ceremony at the temple
was prevented by Colonel Wrencroff's heroic action.
At that time Naga was an important member of his
household ; not only the most useful, but also the most
trusted, of his servants ; and it was he who was at
the Colonel's side when the latter reached the burning
pyre, though on the way Naga himself had had to burst
through a body of Lingites with Linganna, his heredi-
tary foe, at their head. Encouraged by the favour
and kindness of the Colonel, Naga collected together
the scattered members of his tribe. He provided them
with the necessities of life ; found them work con-
genial to their habits and their hereditary instincts ;
married their girls and widows to the men of the distant
gotrams with which they were intimately connected,
and, while using the young men of the Nagite tribe
in the Colonel's service, trained them assiduously for
the struggle to come.

Apart from the great sorrow which they felt for the
Colonel, the fall of the fort came as a great and irre-
trievable disaster to the plans of the Nagites. But they
did not lose hope. Their strong passionate attach-
ment to the peak and its grim shadows never wavered ;
and, during the difficult years that followed, Naga was
still with them, labouring night and day to stimulate
their efforts, and striving to drag a double secret from
his enemies.

The Lingites themselves had never attempted to
settle on the plateau. Even in the daytime they



THE FEUD OF THE NAGITES 153

shuddered at the current superstitions connected
with it. In groups of threes and fours, however, they
continued to collect the honey and the much-desired
roots which the mountain provided, and occasionally
wouid gather toll from the pilgrims who found it their
duty to visit the ghostly temple under the rishi-umbrella.
Their search for the mountain products compelled
them at times to remain all night on the peak, and for
their convenience they had built themselves temporary
huts on the plateau ; but they never felt safe from the
brooding revenge of the Nagites, and so they used
these thatch dwellings as little as possible, and then
only during the light fortnight of the moon. As years
went by this fear became almost a superstition. There
was something mysterious about the coming and going
of the Nagites : they were always there, but seldom
seen. When they did appear they were well armed
and well fed. Strange rumours had got afloat about
their increasing numbers, their new habits of living,
their war-like preparations, their food supplies, and
their fidelity to their leader. Of Naga himself they had
seen nothing since he escaped from the terrible death
which they had assigned to him some years before when
he was captured attempting to force an entrance into
the women's quarters of the high-priest's house. Nor
could they learn anything about him. Yet he seemed
to be always moving in their midst ; for daylight often
revealed some visible token intended to convey an un-
ceasing vigilance and a terrible retribution to come.
Moreover, these nocturnal visits created such con-
sternation amongst the priests themselves that they
would come and offer fabulous rewards for the proof of
his death. But none could ever get near him, or
rather the bolder ones, who went forth under a vow to
the goddess to carry out the wishes of the priests, never
returned to say how they had fared. Linganna himself
had more than once set out to track the lion to his lair ;
but each time the ubiquitous Nagites had sent him



1 54 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

back badly wounded and with only a remnant of the
hopeful followers who had looked to share the promised
reward.



CHAPTER XVIII DACOITS

AT the period with which our story is concerned,
neither life nor property was safe for any length of
time in the great expanse of undulating plains which
extends for more than one hundred miles along the
base of the Black Hills and stretches away from them
as far as the eye can see, towards the setting sun.

Hitherto, the new order of things had hardly made
itself felt. Elsewhere, especially in and around the
cities, great and radical changes were taking place with
marvellous rapidity : Imperial forms of government
were sweeping away the evils arising from the uncertain
and autocratic rule of irresponsible chiefs ; political
and social freedom was slowly but surely ousting the
ancient feudal systems ; caste influence, power of
wealth, force of arms were no longer the arbitrary
means of dispensing justice ; new modes of thought
and scientific knowledge were rapidly displacing cus-
toms and systems built upon superstition and mythology,
while an increasing demand for more refined culture
and more advanced civilisation was introducing into
the country methods and contrivances hitherto un-
dreamt of.

But here in this great isolated valley, bounded on
the east by the sombrous mountains with their primi-
tive forests, and on the west by rough ridges of arid
red limestone, incredible ignorance of the most ele-
mentary principles of life and superstitions of the
darkest form still prevailed. Even such news of
the outer world as penetrated to the knowledge of the
people was often distorted and exaggerated to serve



DACOITS 155

the purpose of those who knew better, and for most it
would have been almost impossible to explain whether
their allegiance was due to Nabob, Priest, Company or
Crown.

Much still remains to be desired in the way of im-
provement and suppression throughout this vast semi-
civilised region ; but thanks to the rigid policy of
progressive schemes half a century has witnessed a
wonderful evolution of peace and order out of chaotic
conditions : large tanks and tracts of cultivated land
are beginning to take the place of the scrub jungles
which until recently lay between the forest and the
villages ; macadamised roads are now to be seen where
formerly rough and almost impassable country tracks
were the only means of traffic and transit ; canals send
out their tentacles in steadily increasing numbers ;
internecine quarrels and raids have diminished before
stern repressive measures ; judicial courts, adminis-
trative councils, and schools have sprung up in all
directions, and, though the nests of criminal tribes are
far from being completely eradicated, yet prosperity,
order and justice are undeniably supplanting the law-
lessness, turbulence and flagrant oppression that
marked the greater part of the nineteenth century.

Wrencroff, as we have seen, had fallen into the hands
of one of those organised gangs of robbers, called
dacoits, to whose marauding exploits the wild con-
dition of the country and the semi-barbarous habits of
the inhabitants of the scattered villages were peculiarly
adapted. Even to-day, after years of steady progress
and improved organisation, it still remains one of the
most backward and criminal areas of the South, and
one that especially taxes the ingenuity of the Police
Department.

The failure to deal effectively with the campaigns
of criminal tribes and dacoit bands in those districts
infested by them, has seldom if ever been due to a lack
of zeal on the part of those responsible for their



i 5 6 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

suppression. Nor, as is often pointed out, has it been
due altogether to the methods employed by them for the
capture of the leaders of the lawless gangs, but rather
to the indifference of those who ought to be most con-
cerned in their extermination, and also to the means of
sanctuary sometimes afforded to them by the inhabit-
ants of those villages terrorised by them.

This remarkable attitude of apparent acquiescence
in the loss of life and property on the part of those
who could materially assist in the capture of these
organised bands of robbers is sometimes owing to
prior criminal association with the outlaws, but,
generally speaking, it is more frequently due to a ner-
vous apprehension of retaliation on the part of the
criminals and their associates before their final capture
and complete extermination can be effected.

The dacoits into whose hands Wrencroff had fallen
had decided to take refuge with their captive on the
fortified plateau of the peak. More than one con-
sideration had led them to adopt this expedient, but
beyond all others was the knowledge that their old
haunts were no longer safe. For years they had been
reaping with impunity the rich harvests of their un-
natural deeds and their secret terrorism ; but lately
their existence in the valley had become very pre-
carious on account of the zealous efforts of the police.



CHAPTER XIX THE DACOIT CHIEF

SLOWLY, almost painfully, did the strange band pursue
its way up the zigzag path that led to the plateau
above sometimes clinging to the edge of the pre-
cipitous ravine, at other times moving away from it
towards the right where the bare sloping surface of the
hill was scarped by an ugly chasm.



THE DACOIT CHIEF ij 7

About three o'clock the party reached the plateau, the
entrance of which still retained remnants of the mud
wall and palisade that had once guarded it.

Two rows of grass huts, separated by a narrow lane,
occupied the centre of the plateau ; but, from their
appearance and from the nature of the wild growth
about them, it was evident that they were seldom used
for habitation, and then only temporarily. Trees and
shrubs and thorns grew in disordered profusion over
the site of the once-thriving Nagite gotram.

After entering the broken palisade, two or three
dacoits came and took charge of Wrencroff and then
conducted him towards the huts. Some of those who
had arrived first on the plateau had thrown themselves
down under the trees and gone to sleep ; others had
settled down in the space between the two rows of
huts and were already preparing their hookahs or
sharing the contents of their flasks. The men in charge
of Wrencroff led him to one of the larger huts in the
centre of the row, and, after securing the coarsely-
strung bamboos over the entrance, left him without the
least hint as to why they had brought him there, or
what they intended to do with him.

From the start, the general attitude towards him had
been one of sullen silence, as though they resented his
presence without being able to avoid it, and neither
dacoit nor Lingite had deigned to answer the few
questions which he had put to them.

The hut in which he was held a prisoner was by no
means strong, being little more than thatch and thorns
strung together with hempen cords, but armed men
surrounded the place, and not only his hands, but
his arms also were tightly bound with thongs.

Time passed. How, he could hardly have explained,
excepting that each minute was like the interval be-
tween the strokes of a death-bell, each one bringing
with it a new and more terrible thought, but ending
with a still firmer resolution to show no sign of fear



i 5 8 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

or cowardice to the rough band of men laughing and
joking outside. Suddenly the coarse laughter died
away and the men's .voices ceased. There was a
scramble as if they were rising hastily to their feet.
Then came the whispered words the Swami ! the
Maha-Praboo !

The new arrival was evidently the one whose word
had saved him from being summarily dealt with at the
time of the sudden flight from the grove. His position
or personality was such as to keep even these rough,
fearless dacoits under the influence of a profound
respect, and, whoever he was, Wrencroff felt convinced
that it would be this man's decree that would decide
his fate. So he got up from his seat and crossed over
to the little door to try to get a glimpse of him through
the open chinks. The dacoits had taken up their
position on each side of the lane, and were making
sweeping salaams to a man of great size and most
ferocious aspect as he passed between them, accom-
panied by the fair-skinned dacoit who had seemed
hitherto to be their leader.

The new-comer was dressed, after the Turkish style,
in silk vest, braided coat, peg-top pantaloons, and a
large green turban. Around his waist was twisted a
silken shawl into which was stuck a long jewelled
poniard, and by his side clinked a great scimitar. His
beard was long, deep black and curling in the orthodox
fashion, and his eyes ! They were so utterly in-
human that they shattered the last remnant of hope
which had lingered in WrencrofFs mind. For some
minutes Wrencroff listened with strained hearing to
the sounds of enthusiastic welcome which was being
shown towards this strange-looking individual ; then,
amidst a sudden silence, he heard a raucous voice cry
shrilly :

" Bring him here at once ! "

A wild shout of excitement rent the air in answer to
the command, and he knew that the time had come



THE DACOIT CHIEF 159

to nerve himself to meet an ordeal that would most
likely test all his powers of endurance. In their zeal to
carry out the significant order, a number of dacoits
literally tore off the door of the hut and dragged him
into the presence of the new-comer, who was now seated
on a throne of shawls and turbans, which had been
arranged by the dacoits on a rough stone platform
under some trees at the end of the line of huts.

" Oh, so thou art the foreign devil ! " he said sneer-
ingly, as Wrencroff was pushed unceremoniously
in front of him. " What brought thee to this
country ? "

And as Wrencroff hesitated, not knowing what sort
of conciliatory reply to make, he raised his scabbard
threateningly.

The next moment the chief was on his feet, gazing
into Wrencroff's face with a piercing look.

" Ah ! " he at last breathed. Then his reptilian
eyes moved from his victim's face, and a tremor passed
over him as if he were shaking himself free of a strange
trance.

At last he turned towards the brutal faces looking
up at him in surprise.

" Friends," he said slowly, " I have an ancient vow
which I have long feared would never be fulfilled.
But the goddess is sometimes gracious to her servants,
and I think the opportunity has come at last. Prepare
her image under the tree. Perchance Ida and her
darlings will come to dance and make us merry while
the goddess is being propitiated ; for we shall dance
her to sleep to-night with a man in her lap and a warm
fire between her feet. Meanwhile, take this son of a
dog back to the hut, and leave him there, for I have a
mind to talk with him alone and in private."



A GLIMPSE OVER THE
EDGE OF THE EARTH

THEY were alone at last in the dim light of the beehive
hut, facing each other.

The eyes of the dacoit were lit with an unholy joy
as he gazed into the white drawn face of his victim.

" The ways of Durga are sometimes very strange,
but she can be very gracious to her faithful servants.
What is they name, son of a dog ? " he asked at last in
a slow, contemptuous voice.

" WrencrofF," answered Guy, thinking that nothing
was to be gained by withholding the information.

" Ah ! I thought so. I have a faithful memory for
the enemies of our goddess. Dost know that thou
art not the first white thief who has prowled about
these forests with that name and that face ? "

" I am aware of the fact," replied WrencrofF, begin-
ning to see the drift of the dacoit 's questions. " But
do not admit that he to whom thou referrest was ever
that which thou hast named him."

" Let that pass for the moment," angrily interrupted
the other. " What connection is there between you
art thou his son ? "

" Nay ; naught more than a distant cousin."

" Oh, oh ! " ejaculated the other in a tone of dis-
appointment. " I wouldst thou hadst been his son in
order that the torture of his cursed spirit might be
increased an hundredfold ; but still," he continued,
with a look of terrible malignity, " it is something that
thou art of the same blood. For I had begun to fear

160



GLIMPSE OVER THE EDGE OF THE EARTH 161

lest my vow should remain unfulfilled, and I myself
become a wanderer in the birth to come, perhaps, even
as a pariah ; but now I shall fulfil it through thee."

" And thy vow ? " demanded Wrencroff, unable to
repress the sneer that came to his lips, in spite of the
terrible answer which he foresaw.

' That I should offer to the goddess the blood of the
man who had defiled her worship. For, see !

" Ah ! now thou understandest," he continued in a
mocking voice ; for Wrencroff had staggered back in
surprise and disgust, as the dacoit chief pulled off his
black whiskers and great turban, and thus revealed the
shaven head and glittering eyes of Ramayya, the priest's
younger brother.

" Now thou knowest why I hate thee as much as thy
friend, the white ruler, who would steal the daughter
of the dedicated widow whom thy kinsman took by
force from our midst."

'Tis true," answered Wrencroff. " I have heard
something of my kinsman's story ; but I fail to see
how it concerns me in so vital a manner as thou wouldst
have me understand. It is true that he took away one
of your caste women and married her ; but it was his
doing, not mine. Moreover, seeing that he rescued her
from a cruel death, was there no justice in what he did ? "

" Cruel death ! chee, chee ! What cruelty could
there be in giving her back to the goddess who gave her
life ? Bah ! thy words are the foolish wisdom of the
white foreigner beating upon wind that blows it away.
Who can feel pain when the goddess calls ? 'Tis but
an illusion of the ignorant and unbeliever which dis-
appears like the lightning. But pollution of caste and
religion ! who can say how many generations and
incarnations will be needed to remove that ? Thy
kinsman despoiled the glory of our ancient temple ;
and I because I desired the woman he took, and
because I was the next high-priest in succession of the

F



1 62 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

goddess he outraged I swore to avenge our wrong
and offer his blood upon her altars. But, though he
was for a long time in the hollow of my hand waiting
to be crushed, yet in the end he escaped my vengeance.

" My oath, however, by the grace of the goddess, had
been wisely sworn. I could have accomplished my vow
through his child, and I watched for an opportunity to
do so. But my brother, the priest, placed me under
the terrible spells of the yogi who had promised him
strange things through the child of the white warrior.
Ida, the high-priestess of the temple, had also pro-
phesied by her pyromancy that I should never succeed
to the temple if the child died before the time appointed
by the sages. So I let her be. But as the years rolled
by I found that she was more beautiful than her mother,
and far more desirable. And now, when I would have
saved her for a better fate than that pointed out by the
sages, ye have come to pollute us as your kinsman did
before. But Ramayya the priest will yet conquer and
crush you all. Nakshatram shall come to me or meet
the fate appointed by the sages ; whichever way it
matters not the foreign Collector will eat his own
heart out in misery ; as for thee, who art of the cursed
blood and who wouldst have helped the Collector to
entangle the cycle of our sacred destinies, thou shalt
go hence on the lap of the goddess to increase the
torments of thy kinsman's spirit by telling him of
Ramayya's victory. And Ida, Ida the priestess whose
spirit is akin to mine, shall read my destiny in thy
sacrificial fire, and tell me whether the goddess is
appeased and whether I shall be able to overcome the
incantations of the high-priest, my brother, and take
from him both Nakshatram and the high-priesthood of
the temple."

After replacing the set of false whiskers and the huge
turban, the unnatural priest had left Wrencroff to
ponder over the terrible nature of the vengeance which



GLIMPSE OVER THE EDGE OF THE EARTH 163

his devilish imagination was striving to consummate.
But the dreadful suggestions had hardly had time to
begin the mental torture which the wicked ingenuity
of the priest had devised for his victim, when Wren-
croff's gloomy train of reflections was interrupted by
the swish of a knife working rapidly through the thatch
and thorns which formed the back wall of the hut. The
secret manner in which the worker seemed to be accom-
plishing his object roused the first spark of hope that
had warmed his heart since they had left the cool forest
glade in the morning.

There was, however, the possibility that some of
the dacoits with whom he had come into conflict the
evening before might not have fallen in with the views
of their chief and were now seeking an opportunity
to give vent to their brutal feelings in their own way.
And so, during the few minutes that slipped by while
the hole increased to a size large enough for a man to
creep through, Wrencoff s suspense became so intense
that he could hear his own heart beating till the place
seemed to resound with quick hard thuds ; for to him
it meant the last desperate chance of life and liberty
or at least death in a far less terrible form than that
which was now impending. At last his doubts were
set at rest ; for his bonds were cut, and a fine muscular
young giant of about twenty years of age stood before
him with the flush of success and modesty mantling his
dusky complexion as Wrencoff hurriedly expressed
his deep sense of obligation in words which, though
guarded to a whisper, could not fail to convey his
lasting gratitude.

" Has Sahib got knife ? " the youth at last inquired
in lisping English.

" No ; but I have this ! " replied Wrencoff, showing
his revolver.

" Good ! " answered the other, his eyes lighting up with
pleasure. " It will be very good; but knife make no noise."


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryS. (Samuel) FoskettThe temple in the tope → online text (page 12 of 24)