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UNDER THE RIDGE
Over the water from Kotahbagh village, thrusting out from the Himalayan foothills, brooding a while over the course of the young river, and with it lost at length in the sultry heat haze of the Terai fens, there is a long wooded ridge, called Maiwani. There is something in the aspect of it--a desolation, an aloofness--that makes even the uninitiated look twice and mutter, “Tiger country!”; something ominous, too, for it stands out darkly, an embodied threat, over a land of green and gold.
The women who gather sticks and cut grass all over the hills will not set foot on it, and their menfolk will only pass over it hurriedly, in clusters, with frequent backward looks. You never see deer there, or indeed any living thing except the huge spiders--yellow-bodied, black-legged--stretched motionless on the webs that make mystery below the branches. It is as if even the jungle folk were aware of the menace among them and avoided the unholy ground. Yet in the very shadow of it there is a place peaceful as Paradise; beautiful, not in contrast merely; teeming with life.
It is a clearing, a few acres in extent, set like a green cup between the Ridge and the river; and it was once a garden. A woodman of Kotahbagh--so the story goes--found that a spring welled out here from the sheer face of the Ridge, to feed the river with its half-dozen slender tentacles. Windless, with the cliffs precipitous at its back; well watered, with a natural canal system all its own; sharing sun and shade fairly--the place had pleased him. Foolishly forgetful of the menace of the Ridge, he had built a little house there, of fallen rocks, had installed a wife, and made a garden--all long ago. Then, the villagers say, the inevitable thing had happened. The tiger of the Ridge had come down one night and had taken toll. Cries had been heard, but no man had dared to go down to help.
And no man has dared to go down since. No human hand has harvested the oranges or the little grapes in the lost garden. The house is hidden under a suffocating pillar of blue convolvulus, and the jungle has crept back to claim its own. It is curious that a place of such singular peace and beauty should have been shunned as only a leper’s habitation is shunned. Nevertheless it is so. And perhaps it is well.
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