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was the comet to justify his prognostications. The
heavenly signs were working steadily to the necessary
fivefold concurrence.

Everything promised success : there had been neither
hitch nor error in the preliminary rites ; the omens
had all been good ; the tests applied had revealed only
auspicious conditions except that which pointed to the
presence of their enemies in the tent. This, however,
they had provided against.


The people had long been promised some wonderful
manifestation of the latent power of their religion,
and now at last they would have their expectations
fulfilled. The temple would become more famous than
ever ; riches and power would flow to those who lived
upon its revenues.

Already the gifts and offerings of the festival had
surpassed all expectations.

The goddess beneath the canopy was a blaze of
jewelled splendour. She looked more malignant than
ever. And well she might ; for there was a helpless
victim held close in her ghastly clasp.

The old high-priest had taken a new lease of life.
Faith in the efficacy of the rite had acted upon him
like an elixir infusing new vigour to his frame. His
eye was brighter, his gait more erect, his step firmer.
This strange spectacle of rejuvenescence imparted
enthusiasm to his satellites ; for it held out unlimited
hopes for their own future. The gods, said the priest
to himself and his followers, had been good to him at
last. He was resolved to serve them with increased
fervour in the future, and visions of a tremendous
revival of the ancient Yajnas with their full ritual
began to seethe in his senile brain. There need be no
end now to his ambitions temporal or spiritual.

These foreigners, of course, would try to make
trouble. But what of that ? The girl's European
connection could be easily disproved after the event ;
and the sacrifice could be shown to be a case of religious
self-immolation. Nor were the priests altogether with-
out good ground for their assurance, at least so far
as the perpetration of their infamous deed was con-
cerned ; for their preparations had been carried out
without any signs of opposition on the part of those
whom they feared most, and it now wanted less than
half an hour to the fatal moonrise.

Such, indeed, was the position, and no one was more


painfully conscious that the precious moments were
slipping by than Stella herself, who, as we shall soon
see, lay bound, resigned to the worst, without hope
of assistance, without hope of mercy, yet trusting
implicitly in the two men around whom all her dreams
had circled, and in whom all her love and affections
were centred.

As the two men were preparing to leave the tent,
a soft, tremulous voice said gently :

" Sahib ! "

Looking around, Duncan saw a tall, slim, girlish
figure standing close to the tent.

" Come in, will you ? "

As she drew aside the upper part of her sari, which
had up till now hidden her face, Duncan recognised
her as the young widow whom he had seen ill-treated
in the morning. He had thought her a good-looking
girl then, but he was still more impressed with her
now. As for Wrencroff, the effect which her appear-
ance made upon him was such that admiration mingled
with pity in his gaze as he noted the beauty of her
features. His medical instinct read at once the inde-
scribable terror that filled her eyes. At the same time
there was an unmistakable determination in her small,
clear-cut face.

" You want to see me ? " said Duncan kindly.

' The Dora will perhaps remember that he spoke
kindly to a widow this morning ? "

' Yes, I remember quite well. I was sorry to see
them ill-treating a child who had already suffered a
great misfortune. Speak out, amma, without fear. If
it lies in my power to help you, I will do so gladly.
But I fear that time presses just now, and I have not
the leisure "

"It is enough if the Dora listen but a few moments.
.What I have to tell may be of use to him ; if so, the
risk will not have been in vain. . When the Dora


had gone away after scolding Gangamma, they sent
me away to the temple with Ida the Deva-dasi. There
was one there called Nakshatram a woman, beautiful,
and as fair as the Collector Dora himself. She also was
kind and patient towards me, and my heart went out
towards her like a child's to its mother. And when
she asked me I promised faithfully to carry her message
to the Sahibs if anything happened to her."

" And hast thou come with the message ? " inter-
posed Duncan.

" Yes, Sahib. I have brought her message."

" Then something has happened ? " said Duncan,
whose face had turned white.

' Yes, Dora."

" Tell me the message, amma."

" That Nakshatram was faithful in all things to him
who chose her as his wife, and that her spirit will wait
for his through all the yugas to come."

" Is she dead, then ? " asked Duncan quietly ; but
there was the thud of fierce passions behind his words.
" Tell me quickly and plainly. If they have done
aught to her, I will find a way to pull down their hell-
born temple about their ears."

" Nay ; she is not yet dead, but she may be soon ;
for they have bound her to the idol of the goddess,
and wait only for some sign which will be the signal of
her death."

" The inhuman brutes ! " remarked WrencrofF.

" And is there no way to get near to help her at
once, without letting them know our purpose ? " asked

" Yes, Sahib. See ! " and as the girl spoke she
held out a ponderous key. " It is for a small door on
the south side of the temple which I will show you."

" Let us go immediately, then," said both men at

" As you wish, Sahibs. But " and she hesitated ;


then continued with a pathetic appeal in her eyes :
" There is one request "

" Thou hast only to mention it, amma," said Duncan,
seeing her difficulty.

" It is that ye will not let me fall into the hands of
the priests or the dasis. They will kill me if they
know that I have helped the Doras to take Nakshatram

" Yes, that is true. And we will do all in our power
to get thee away from their evil influence. But let us
go ; for there will be much to do and little time to
do it in."

" The Collector Dora speaks wisely, and it is necessary
that we go quickly. But it will be better if the Sahibs
permit me to go first and wait for them at the south-
east corner. There are many people, and there may
be trouble if we are seen together."

So, leaving the key with the men, Kamalakshi
slipped out of the tent ; and, keeping to the darker
shadows of the line of mango trees, worked her way
silently towards the eastern side of the temple.

A few minutes later the men followed, armed with
loaded sticks and revolvers.


" Do you think the door is a reality ? It's beginning
to look like a myth, and yet I can't bring myself to
think that the girl's a fraud."

" No ; I'm sure she spoke only the truth."
As he spoke Duncan moved nearer to a tree. It
was a very big tree and the back part of it touched the
temple wall. The shape of it was curious, and it was
this fact which drew Duncan to examine it more care-
fully. From the height of a man's head the main


stock as it descended bifurcated into two distinct
trunks. The hollow thus formed had been ingeniously
covered by the trailing branches of some creepers
which grew round the tree. Duncan pulled one of
them aside ; as he did so his suspicions became con-

" Come along, Guy, and help with this. I think
I've found it," he cried.

The two men had soon pulled aside the false covering,
and there, sure enough, on the far side of the tree
was a small door into the temple court. It was
probably quite a recent device, for the Nagites who
had gradually collected round were ignorant of its
existence, and showed their surprise in curious guttural

Taking Yellum and two or three others chosen by
him, and having arranged with the rest of the Nagites
upon a signal in case they should be needed, the two
men passed through the little door which they had no
difficulty in opening with the key that Kamalakshi
had brought to them. Through the door they gained
access to a long narrow alley between the blank walls of
two separate buildings, and having traversed this with
all the speed that caution would permit, they found
themselves at last on the eastern side of the great
sacred pool.

It was still too dark to distinguish things clearly in
the temple court, though the pale light upon the fringe of
the hills showed that the moon would soon be visible.
A flare of lights, however, lit up the far side of the
temple, and so they were able to watch the excited
group of priests and Deva-dasis collected between the
western colonnade and the central pagoda. As they
watched an exclamation of fury burst from their lips,
for the group suddenly parted in a way that enabled
them to see the idol, and there amidst the lights Stella
could be seen clinging with her arms around the idol's


neck, and her body trailing to the ground as it were in
a posture of abandonment. As they moved forward
more quickly one of the Nagites slipped ahead into the
colonnade built along the eastern wall. His object
was soon evident, for a moment after the figure of the
Sannyasi left the shadow of the colonnade and fled
towards the group of priests, while the spear which had
just missed him fell harmlessly into the pool with a
splash to the sound of a note of warning. Realising
that caution was now no longer necessary, they hurried
on in a body along the northern side and would have
continued along the western, but here their progress
was impeded by the outraged body of priests who had
seen them, and moved forward to meet them. The old
high-priest, who was at their head, was almost speech-
less with rage and terror lest his long-deferred hopes
should be for ever destroyed by their sacrilegious
presence. All the infamous wickedness of his past
life seemed to be revived and made manifest in his
countenance as he faced Duncan and Wrencroff and
bade them begone with their low caste followers before
he cursed them for having interfered with the sacred
ceremonies and polluted the temple by their unclean
and impious entrance during a religious rite at which
even the caste Hindus could not be present. And his
words were taken up by the other priests who emphasised
them with angry gesticulations, curses and terrible
threats of vengeance, until the court seemed to shake
under the fierce imprecations of this maleficent band
of Durgite worshippers.

At last Duncan made himself heard. Their curses
and threats, he told them, could go for what they were
worth ; so far as he himself was concerned he cared not
a whit about them. But as for his own words they
would soon find that they were not merely empty threats;
for they would all quickly rue and regret the thing
they were now doing, if they persisted in it. It was


the hopelessly mad idea of a superstitious priest who
feared death. If they had done harm, or by any
chance succeeded in doing harm to the girl whom they
were really trying to sacrifice under the covering of a
dedication, he would have their cursed temple taken
away from their evil influence. The girl was a European,
of this they had the strongest possible proof which no
one could gainsay, and the priests would have to answer
for anything they did to her. They, themselves, would
leave the temple quietly on the condition that the girl
was handed over to them at once if not, then let them
beware, for they would then have to take her by force,
and someone would have to suffer.

The priests sneered and scoffed and prepared to
resist, and also uttered curious shouts, as if calling
someone to their assistance.

Meantime, the moon was peeping over the hill. It
had not yet risen to the appointed height, but the fatal
moment for opening the gates and allowing the people
to participate in the sacrifice was very near at hand.
Duncan recognised the pressing need of immediate
action ; once the people were in, the difficulty of their
task would be increased a hundredfold.

Already there was a deep ominous murmur beyond
the walls like the steady rising of a storm. Around
the idol itself there was an increased commotion. It was
impossible to see the cause, for the priests obstructed
the way, and there was a restless movement to and fro
that made it difficult to fix anything for any length of
time. While he hesitated which course to take a
woman's scream rang through the court. It was a
blood-curdling sound one that only mad terror or
mortal pain could produce. All attempt at argument
or persuasion was at an end. Action and action only
could do anything for such i: cry. It roused at once in
Duncan the elemental instincts that lie more or less
strong in every normal man's nature. There was for the


moment no more pity or consideration left in his heart
for anyone but the woman he loved. He thrust aside the
senile priest ; fought his way furiously and remorselessly
through the crowd of purohitas, panchangis, bhikshas
and gurus who threw themselves in his way ; and
when he had at last got free from them, rushed towards
the idol, where he ruthlessly put aside the Deva-dasis
in his path, then sprang to lift the drooping girl from
the idol. But by an ingenious device her hands had
been fastened around the idol's neck and her body so
bound that her bosom lay in close contact with the
marble bust of the ghastly goddess. With frenzied
strength he tore and twisted the bands away. Had he
been less excited he might have had some warning of
the truth. But he had none. With throbbing heart
he lifted her down and gazed into her face ; then
staggered back in bewilderment. The eyes that looked
back into his were not Stella's but Kamalakshi's !


DUNCAN gazed with surprise and consternation into
the girl's terror-stricken face.

" Speak, child ! " he cried in a terrible suspense.
" For the sake of the kindness she showed thee, speak
quickly ! Where is she ? "

Pity mingled with the pain that filled the girl's eyes
as she looked up into his own haggard face.

" I do not know, Sahib," she answered in gasps.
" He took her away "

" Who ? "

' The Brahmin whom they call Ramayya."
' When ? "

" Just now while the priests were trying to keep



the Sahibs back from the idol. They brought me into
the temple, only a few minutes before, by the western
gate. Nakshatram was then tied to the idol as she
was when I came to the Sahibs with her message.
While the priests were talking with the Sahibs, Ramayya
took her from the idol, and Ida, with the help of the
other dasis, tied me in her place. They were very
angry with me, and said they would kill me as they had
meant to kill Nakshatram. And," continued the girl with
a sob, " I think they have done as they said they would."

" The fiends ! " exclaimed Duncan ; " but they shall
not go unpunished. We shall yet make them rue the
day that this inhuman scheme entered their mad brains.
But tell me, child, if thou canst, whither Ramayya
went, or the direction he seemed to follow ? "

" He seemed to go towards the garbhaliam," answered
the girl with a painful effort.

Wrencroff had now succeeded in reaching Duncan's

" What is it ? " he asked. " Have they hurt her ?
Good heavens ! " he exclaimed in astonishment as he
caught sight of the girl's face. " It's the widow girl ! "

" Yes ; and she seems to be badly hurt."

" Where ? " asked Wrencroff, forcing back the lump
in his throat, as he watched the visible signs of the
girl's internal agony.

" Can't say ; but you'll probably be able to help
her when we get out of this row. Here, you'd better
carry her, while I force a way through them towards
the central pagoda. They're closing round us again."

" But where's Stella ? "

" Ah, where ? " replied^Duncan bitterly. " That
scoundrel, Ramayya, has been too quick for us again.
While we were talking to the high-priest and his
satellites he was busy substituting the young widow
for Stella, whom he has carried off somewhere in the
direction of the temple."


A few minutes only had clasped since the men's
entry into the temple court, nevertheless a complete
transformation in the scene had taken place during
the short time that it had taken them to reach the idol.

The moon had risen some distance above the hills,
and was now looking down with a serene expression
upon the fermenting tumult below. The temple
gopurams, sacred pool, monoliths, statues and choul-
tries seemed to shiver and tremble beneath the silvery
halos that surrounded them. Shouts of warning and
cries for assistance filled the air ; in response, Yellum's
followers were streaming into the court, Lingites were
dropping down from various parts of the temple walls,
where they had evidently been posted to watch the
turn of events, an armed group of dacoits were issuing
from beneath the banyan tree with the object of barring
the way to the main pagoda, and on all sides temple
attendants rushed frantically to and fro, urging on their
minions to drive back the impious invaders of their
sacred temple. Outside, the people were clamouring
to be let in. The murmuring of their many voices
had now risen to a furious roar. The excitement
within the temple walls had informed them that some-
thing strange was in progress, and the fanaticism which
had been roused up in them during the day was now
turning to a fierce outcry against the unusual prohibition
which forbade them the free enjoyment of the temple
and its privileges.

The priests were pressing in from behind, blows
were being exchanged between Lingites and Nagites,
the people were growing madder to be in, and, mean-
while, precious moments were passing, while Stella
lay somewhere in the power of Ramayya, her hereditary
enemy. So the little party went forward : Duncan
and Yellum first, then Wrencroff with the other Nagites,
to drive back the priests whenever they attempted to
drag the young widow from Wrencroff s arms.


On entering the little sanctuary known as the
garbhaliam, already described in one of the earlier
chapters of this story, Wrencroff proceeded to lay
the girl gently upon the stone floor. Of the two things
that might well have startled him as he did so, one,
which he unfortunately did not see, was the blood-red
blot that stained his coat ; the other, which drew
from him an exclamation that caused Duncan to come
quickly to his side, was the displacement of the large
slab at the back of the garbhaliam on which the Buddha-
like figure of Shiva was sculptured.

The exclamation had not yet died away when a
sun-browned sinewy hand moved through the opening.
With what purpose whether to close or to widen the
gap they could not guess ; nor did Duncan dare to
wait to find out. Quick as thought his own hand
went out to grasp the other in a grip of steel.

" Now, Guy, for all you're worth force the idol
back," he cried. " Every minute's precious."

Into one great heave Wrencroff put the full strength
of his lithe muscular body ; but the heavy slab and
its idol refused to move, and before he could repeat
the attempt a terrible thing happened that made his
companion stagger backwards.

From the other side of the slab there came a momen-
tary glint of bright steel, followed by a smothered cry ;
then the hand which Duncan held came away in his
grasp mercilessly severed from the wrist. Duncan
dropped the hand in horror. With fascinated eyes the
friends gazed a moment at the appalling object as it
lay bleeding on the floor of the dimly lighted chamber ;
then, with one impulse, they moved forward to the
idol, and with a tremendous effort forced it slowly
back, thus exposing to themselves one of the grimy
vaults in which Colonel Wrencroff had been held a
prisoner during five years of indescribable torture.

Duncan gazed into the ghastly dungeon ; but he


could distinguish nothing in. the shapeless darkness
that prevailed there, although some moonbeams
filtered, high up overhead, through the open slits
that perforated the sides of the central pagoda. So,
motioning Wrencroff to stay behind with the girl,
he picked up one of the saucers in which a wick was
burning before the idol, and proceeded to make his
way into the secret vault. The light itself was so
feeble that at first it gave him more annoyance than
assistance, and for some time after passing through
the little opening he could make out nothing but
fantastic forms that danced about with every move-
ment that he made. So at last he stood still to get a
better light, and to take his bearings. As he did so
he thought he heard sounds that were like the echoes
of hushed voices and feet retreating in the distance.
But he was not sure, for the tumult about the temple
was so great that he soon began to think that he had
made a mistake. Still, he thought it better to con-
tinue to move in the direction from which they seemed
to have come. He was not afraid, yet he could not
resist the shudders that crept over him as he recalled
the Colonel's terrible revelations. This, then, with its
nauseous atmosphere and its infernal associations, was
the prison in which the old veteran had languished
for so many months, and to which he had probably
returned soon after writing that pathetic letter. Where
was he now ? Where was Stella ? Where was the
priest ? And that dreadful hand ? where was the
body to which it belonged ? Hardly knowing what
to expect or where to look amidst such a maze of
mystery and wickedness, he worked his way along
the musty chamber, until suddenly, as he peered
amongst the pillars and heaps of broken rubbish, he
stepped afraid to go farther. For there lying on
the ground before him was something white that
made the blood pulsate madly to his brain. He had


found her again, that he knew instantly ; but how ?
Here, in one of the secret vaults of the priest who had
sacrificed everything to get her ; but abandoned
apparently cast-off like a toy that was done with and
still and motionless like one that was dead.

With a fierce movement Duncan brushed aside the
red mist that was beginning to blur his eyes. No, no,
it was not it could not be true ! The mere thought
of such iniquity was enough to drive the strongest of
men stark mad with a homicidal mania. After all,
heaven itself had a limit to its long-suffering, even
with such infernos as this heathen shrine where wicked-
ness of the vilest kind had long been heaped up to

What had they done to her ? Had she suffered
much ?

Her brave little message from the temple rang in
his ears, and he bowed his head with closed eyes, and
teeth that were fiercely clenched. Though the rose
which he loved had been snatched from him, heaven
grant that the perfume remained to sweeten the heavy
years to come. With trembling hands he placed the
light upon the floor, and approached the still form.
Her feet and hands were bound by rough thongs, her
mouth covered with a silken scarf, yet she lay there
calm and peaceful, like an unharmed child, albeit
the deathly pallor of her small face. Amidst the soft
tresses of her dark hair the jewelled tiara glittered and
gleamed with its Shivite pendant ; the golden chains
and circlets, which she had worn when he first met
her, lay upon her bosom ; the white folds that trailed
along the ground were those in which she had given
back the priest his answer ; and, as then she had
looked like an eastern queen giving forth her ultimatum,
so now, in spite of the dust and fallen pedestals, she
looked like a queen laid to rest. Swiftly, yet gently,
his hands removed the desecrating bonds. He was


glad to think that none were there at that moment
to look upon her but himself not even his friend
Guy. This moment would have to carry him through
life, and it was sacred to him and to her. Again the
red mist blurred his vision as he gazed into her white
face and noted the long dark lashes that veiled the
eyes which had entranced him, and he choked back
a sob as he took her hands in his and kissed them.
Then he was not sure but he looked up in wonder ;
and again he was not sure. It might have been the
blur upon his sight, or it might be that his mind had

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Online LibraryS. (Samuel) FoskettThe temple in the tope → online text (page 17 of 24)