S. (Samuel) Foskett.

The temple in the tope online

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what exquisite joy for them to know it ! But, no, it
shall not be while one spark of life remains to keep
this broken body alive."

But his body was evidently too worn and battered to
keep pace with the indomitable spirit that dwelt within ;
for as he moved forward to continue the journey down
the road, he staggered and would have fallen had not
his companion sprung to his side in time to prevent
him from doing so.



THE DEATH OF A HERO 313

" Hunger and pain have made thee weak. Rest a
little here till thy strength returns," pleaded the
younger man, whose dark eyes glowed with the pathetic
wistfulness of dumb animals that lack the power to
ease the pain of those they love.

" Rest ! " exclaimed the other ironically. " What
rest can there be for me while Ramayya the priest
lies, like a snake in secret, waiting for the moment
to strike. Thou wouldst not surely have me pay to-
morrow with tears of blood for every moment spent in
ease to-day ? "

" Nay ; God grant to-morrow may see the end of all
thy sorrows ; though I fear it will not bring thee back
the strength our enemies have stolen from thee."

" 'Tis true. But the little they have left me shall
yet bring down upon their heads the miseries they
have planned for others."

" Let us go, then ! "

" Ay, it is necessary. Thou thyself saw Ramayya in
his haste to reach the city."

" That is so," muttered the young man fiercely.
" While thou wert resting in the tope near Kalvarum
I entered the village in search of food. The grain
merchant in the bazaar would not believe the words I
spake to him, and I was turning away in sorrow when
the Swami's bandy stopped near the merchant's door.
He was beside himself with rage because the bullocks
would not move. ' Quick, thou fool ! ' he cried to
the driver. ' How many times have I told thee already
that it is necessary to reach the city before sunset
if the white jackal is to carry a corpse to his den instead
of a bride. Thinkest thou that the reward shall be
thine if thou failest to do so ? Nay ; not one mite
of it shall come thy way if that happen which I have
told thee must not come to pass.' '

The old man's eyes flashed with a terrible fury as he
listened to the other's words.



3i4 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

" Ah ! " he breathed, straightening himself with an
effort. " His words have given me back some of th
strength I lacked. Come ! thou see'st for thyself,
Chirtha, that it is necessary to hasten if we would
profit by the Sannyasi's warning."

And the younger man, seeing the stern look of deter-
mination on his companion's haggard face, bowed his
head in silent acquiescence, and moved on down the
road towards the city. But even the invincible spirit
could not altogether sustain the mortal weakness of
the shattered frame ; and, less than a mile farther on,
where the two lines of tamarind trees changed the white
road into a darkened avenue, the older man's strength
again failed as it had done on the crest of the ridge.

The air was now thick with a fine sand that nearly
choked and blinded the two tired travellers. A furious
wind was screaming through the line of trees. A
bright flash followed by an angry growl told of the rain
that would soon be following in the wake of the swirling
sand. With the gentleness of a woman the younger man
lifted his fallen companion, and, having carried him some
distance, placed him against one of the larger trees so
that the fierce blasts of the storm might not hurt him.

The stricken man groaned in his helplessness.

" Nay ; do not despair. It is little more than the
flight of an arrow," said his companion.

" Ay, it may be so ; but to what purpose serveth
the kunta when the water is too low for the dying
animals to reach it ? See ! the sun will set in less
than an hour, and I ... I am of no more use than
the broken reed."

" Nay, do not say so ! " cried the other in a voice
that was strangled to a hoarse whisper, as his thoughts
went back to the splendid specimen of manhood which
had once stood in the place of the wreck now lying
against the foot of the tree. " The city is quite near.
I will go and return quickly."



THE DEATH OF A HERO 515

" To what good ? "

" I will seek a means of getting thee to the place
where thou desirest to be."

" Thou hast sought twice already, and failed."

" 'Tis true. Those others wished not to come so far,
and, being foolish, would not heed thy words."

" Even the merchant in Paniram would not,"
answered the sick man bitterly. " He preferred to
take thy hunting knife rather than the pledge I offered
to him to tempt him to supply our needs."

" Yet, permit me, and I will try again. There is no
other way . . . and this time I shall not fail."

" Go, then, Chirtha ! It is, as thou sayest, our only
hope. Promise the man thou findest willing to come
anything so that he can come and return to the city in
time. Give him the Collector Sahib's name as 'bond, and
if that satisfy not, give him this," and as he spoke the
older man took what seemed to be a rough-looking
piece of glass from the pouch round his neck, and
handed it to the other. " Tell him that it is worth a
lakh of rupees, and that he may hold it till thy promises
are redeemed."

As the young man took the precious stone and sped
along the road a streak of light wriggled across the
blackened sky, a terrific peal of thunder rolled above
the tree-tops, while heavy drops of rain began to fall
with an increasing patter amongst the leaves.

From the cut of his clothes the man lying at the foot
of the tamarind tree might have been taken for a
Mohammedan, but there was a suspicion of incongruity
between the man himself and the clothes he wore, for
the splendid grey eyes, and the contour of his strong
face set now with the fierce determination of men who-
die fighting belied the outward semblance of a follower
of the Prophet, and suggested something more than an
Asiatic origin, in spite of the strange hue of his deeply
bronzed skin.



3 i6 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

" Stella ! . . . Stella ! " he murmured weakly, as the
storm beat down upon him in its pitiless violence.
" God guard thee like one of His angels, for thine
enemies are strong and treacherous. Would that I
could have seen thee far away from their machinations
and happy in the love of the man whom thy heart hath
chosen. But it has been willed otherwise ... ! "
And as he finished speaking the tired traveller sank
back against the tree, and, in spite of the deluge of rain
that was now pouring down upon him, slept like a man
whose mind and body are thoroughly exhausted.



In a well-watered compound beyond the city walls,
bright, in spite of the increasing heat, with the bloom
of roses, oleanders, sunflowers and gorgeous lilies,
stood, and still stands, a beautiful little English church
of Gothic pretensions.

Under normal conditions, the beautiful interior of
the sacred building was solemnly impressive, and
reverently suggestive of the unseen Presence to Whom
the prayers and the praise of the faithful had been,
and still continued to be offered. But if the reader,
who has so patiently followed the course of this story,
had entered the church, about the time that the two
tired travellers arrived on the crest of the ridge, he
would have found the sense of the supernatural sub-
servient, at least for the time being, to an intensely
human interest, and an increasing burr of excitement
disturbing the reverent silence that usually prevailed
there. And further, he would have found the inside of
the little church extraordinarily gay with a gorgeous
display of floral decorations. Gigantic pots overflow-
ing with ferns and lilies, or filled with huge waving
aloes and palms, lined the aisles and filled the sanctuary ;
masses of maidenhair and bright-hued flowers covered
the pulpit, the lectern, and the priest's desk ; while



THE DEATH OF A HERO 317

strings of bright green leaves, intertwined with the
white and purple flowers of the church creepers and
the orange-red blossom of the mothakapuvu, hung along
the walls and crossed the chancel in the shape of a
triumphal arch.

It was the Collector Sahib's wedding-day, and the
few Europeans to be found within a hundred miles
were now gathered together to do honour to the occasion.
The eagerly-expected bride, dressed in a wonderful
gown of white silk, produced for the occasion by the
bazaar tailors under the supervision of the padre's
wife, entered the church leaning on Wrencroff's arm.
The service passed without a hitch ; the solemn ques-
tions and answers flowing smoothly as if Stella had
been used all her life to the language in which they
were given the little gold ring being slipped upon
the bride's finger at the crucial moment so that hence-
forth she became the wife of Percival Duncan till death
should take one or both of them.

At the church door the bullock coach, which was to
convey the bride and bridegroom to the Collector's
bungalow, was being decorated with garlands of leaves
and flowers ; and, while the peons and servants were
engaged in putting the last touches to the gorgeous
trappings which they had prepared for the homeward
journey, Duncan with a happy smile turned to receive
the friendly congratulations of a group of Indian
officials. Stella was standing on the top step, and, as
he turned to introduce her to one of the tahsildars,
the smile suddenly died out of his face, his eyes dilated
with a great terror, and the bronzed hue of his face
turned to a ghastly grey. At the same moment a
hundred horrified exclamations burst from Hindu
and European alike. A man, who had concealed his
face by wearing his upper cloth as a woman wears the
upper part of her sari, had sprung forward, seized
Stella with one hand, and raised the other above his



3 i8 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

head, so that the last glint of the setting sun caught
the blade of a long knife which he held in it.

But he had evidently misjudged the distance in
springing towards Stella ; for, instead of alighting on
the step itself, his foot rested on the edge of it, and
before he could balance himself to strike, another
figure, that had followed in his wake like a flash, had
gripped his throat in a grasp of steel and dragged him
from the steps.

" Thou hast failed, Ramayya, priest and traitor ! "
cried the second in a terrible voice of anger.

For a second the priest gazed into his captor's face
in astonishment.

Then laughed the harsh triumphant laugh of an
escaped fiend.

" Nay, thou white thief . . . see ! " And before any
one of the horrified spectators could lift a hand to
prevent the murderous deed, he raised his knife again,
brushed aside the handless stump of an arm that was
lifted to ward off the blow, and, with a yell of satis-
faction, struck ; then leapt to his feet, slipped through
an opening in the crowd, and disappeared into the
thicket beyond.

The whole incident had only occupied a second or
two, passing from one stage to another with startling
rapidity, and had already reached its terrible climax
before any of the spectators had fully realised its
dreadful nature.

Duncan, Wrencroff, Lloyd and others had moved
to the man's assistance when they had seen the priest's
knife raised a second time ; but they had been too late to
stay the deed, and, for a moment, none seemed to grasp
the reason why it had met with so little resistance, or the
identity of the victim who had risked his life for Stella's.

" Good heavens ! " exclaimed Duncan incredulously,
as he bent down to raise the man up. " It is the
Colonel himself ! "



THE DEATH OF A HERO 319

" Great Scott, you're right ! " answered Wrencroff,
who was by his side. " Let me see if I can do anything
for him. Drive that crowd back, Percy, while I see
to him. Ah, that's you, Stella, is it ? " he asked,
looking up at the sound of a sob just behind him.
" You have guessed who it is ? "

" Yes, I saw his face as he dragged Ramayya back,
and recognised it at once, though I have never seen it
without the dark colour he always used in the forest.
I knew his voice also . . . there is no other voice like
it," answered the sobbing girl, as she gently raised the
Colonel's head and placed it in her lap.

" Yes ; hold his head so ! Now bend down and
listen. He is trying to speak to you," directed Wren-
croff. " No, Percy," he continued in answer to
Duncan's question. " It's no good, I'm afraid. The
wound is a nasty one, and I don't think he has the
strength to get over it. They've evidently played the
deuce with him since we last saw him. It will be
best to let him rest where he is, without moving him.
Poor old Colonel . . . fearless and self-sacrificing to
the last ! "

' What is it, Colonel ? " asked Duncan, with a
curious catch in his voice, as he tried to read the mute
appeal in the dying man's eyes.

" He can't see Stella as he would like to," said Mrs.
Jackson quietly, as she handed her husband's handker-
chief to Wrencroff in order to staunch the wound.
" Let me take his hand, dear, and you move round so
that he can see you. Ah ! that is it ! His eyes have
already lighted up with pleasure."

A trickle of dark blood was oozing through the
Colonel's lips, and his breath was coming in painful
gasps.

He made an effort to speak and failed, the blood
flowing more freely from his mouth as he sank back
into Mrs. Jackson's arms.



320 THE TEMPLE IN THE TOPE

Duncan was ordering one of the church peons to
bring some water from the vestry. The engineer's
wife, who seemed to have a wonderful, sympathetic
faculty for interpreting the dying man's wishes, beckoned
to him to come quickly.

" I think he wants you also," she said, " so that he
may see you both at the same time."

" Is there no hope, Guy ? "

" None."

Duncan took Stella's hand and knelt near the Colonel
so that he could see them both as he desired.

A glad light came into the dying man's eyes. Again
he tried to speak, but no words came through his lips.
With a weak, uncertain movement he placed his hand
over theirs, and let it rest there, his eyes closed, and a
look of contentment spread over his noble face.

" He is dead ! " murmured Wrencroff a moment
later.

" Dead ! " ejaculated all.

" Yes."

And so it was ; without a murmur, without the last
word of farewell he would have wished to say, the
brave old Colonel had passed into his long-needed
rest.

As the group around the body bent their heads in
mournful sorrow, a moan indescribably pitiful made
them look towards a dark form huddled up near the
dead man's feet.

" Oh ! " exclaimed Wrencroff, in surprise and pity.
" It's Chirtha ! . . . poor beggar ! "

" Poor fellow ! " answered Duncan. " Let him
weep out his grief at his Chief's feet, for he and his
tribe have indeed lost a friend to-day."



THE END



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