Dawn was yet a faint yellow gleam when a furtive, stooping figure, cowled in an orange-hued blanket, sidled down Kotahbagh street. The pariah dogs, themselves stealing in no less furtively from the rubbish heap which they shared with the jackals, caught a sidelong glimpse of an unkempt black beard, a high forehead daubed with pink paint, and eyes that were somewhat like their own--sly and sleepy. But, perhaps because they had something in common with the stranger, or because he wielded a dangerous bamboo lathee, brass-shod, they did not proclaim his presence--even though he proceeded, in passing, to examine the fastenings of every door and every shutter.
It was the smuggling fakir who, prior to emptying his pockets, had filled Piri Ram’s pipe for him earlier in the night; and it had occurred to him, while hiding at a safe distance from the village, that the alarrn of dakoits was nothing short of providential. It would be a thousand pities, he reflected, if after such an alarm nothing should be missing from a well-to-do and sequestered village but a single paltry bag of coin. The shoulders of dakoits, however imaginary, he felt, were capable of sustaining a more substantial burden, what time an innocent purveyor of charas would be pursuing his lonely way to Kedarnath in the Hills.
But Kotahbagh was disappointing, for the owners of even the most decrepit hovels--whose roofs had gaped, unrepaired, this half-century and more--had had the ill taste to lavish good money without stint on their shutters and bolts and bars. He was, in fact, sadly turning his, back and starting in quest of a less sophisticated village, when the sound of a snore, unembarrassed by impeding wood and masonry, led him to the very last house in the street.
His reward was great, for the door of that house was ajar.
His next movements were those of an adept. A turn this way and that; a jerk or two of the head; and, in rather less than a minute, his eyes--sly enough but sleepy no longer--had possessed themselves of the whole pathetic geography of Piri Ram’s property. Well within the minute he was aware that there were two windows, but only one door; that there was no party wall, and there fore no chance of intrusive neighbors; and that within a field’s breadth lay dark jungle for safe hiding. More, having sensitive and reminiscent ears, he already entertained his suspicions as to the identity of the snorer, and rejoiced accordingly, knowing that he would have to fare far for a wealthier victim than Piri Ram, devotee of rupees and hemp-seed.
He lost no time. With a sort of grim alacrity he deposited his orange blanket, his black begging-bowl, and his bamboo lathee round the corner, under the wall; then, clad only in a loincloth of faded pink and closing his right hand unostentatiously over a modest knife, he insinuated himself through the doorway.
His entry, like everything he did, was unostentatious in the extreme, and Piri Ram, lying on his back with hands folded over a hairy chest, did not even stir. The snores proceeded rhythmically, sonorously.
A glance behind a dingy curtain revealed to the visitor the only other apartment in the house--a narrow crib, empty save for a tumbled pile of rags in a corner, an earthenware pot, and a cheap comb. Doubtless he drew his own conclusions from this disorder, for, without further ado, he devoted himself to a systematic exploration of the person of Piri Ram-though with little hope of extracting much in this, his second, investigation. The stout form, obedient in sleep as wax, turned this way and that under the persuasion of those experienced fingers, which flickered here and there for perhaps thirty seconds, yet left no single square inch of the man, or of the bed on which he lay, unexplored. But the results, as he had expected, were meager, being confined to a huqqa mouthpiece and a silver toothpick.
But there was no interval for disappointment, no shadow of indecision. The nimble fingers were at once at work again on the wall, in the roof, along the floor--tapping, sounding, rummaging wherever they went-and it was inevitable that in due time they should probe the mysteries of the heap of fragile dung-cakes behind the sleeper’s head, and, underneath, encounter that which was neither fragile nor yet a dung-cake.
In a trice the box, a bazaar-made affair of tin, was out, and its contents appraised by a weighing in the hands. Then the thief stole out.
A wakeful, even a listening man would have caught no single sound as the door opened. Watchful eyes would have seen a shadow come and go--no more. But Piri Ram, neither watchful nor wakeful, merely snored.
The pariah dogs and the jackals--they were the only witnesses--saw no unusual thing in the bearded man who carried a lathee on his shoulder and on his head a bundle wrapped in a blanket. Most men, and all women, carried bundles on their heads, and there was no set hour for their exits and their entrances. So neither bark nor wail disturbed the peace of Kotahbagh as the fakir hurriedly crossed Piri Ram’s field and disappeared, just as Parmala had done a few hours before, into the jungle at its nearest point.
He walked downhill, because there the wood was lighter, till he came to an open space where some trees had been felled. Several of the long trunks, lying in an untidy heap, formed a kind of natural shelter, from which he could see the approaches without being seen. Here he squatted down and, with his knife, set to work on the lid of the box.
Paper, money, heavier metal--he could hear the crackling and the clanking inside, and in his impatience to get at them he used perhaps more force than was wise. There was a metallic snap as the box flew open.
It was not in itself a loud sound. Yet it seemed to fall like a hammer blow on the intense stillness of the wood, so that two pairs of ears at least, in the vicinity, were startled.
Parmala, sheltering under a tree perhaps fifty paces away and watching Nanga’s sleep, looked up suddenly. And the huge, hungry-looking beast that had stolen from its accustomed path to watch Parmala bounded silently back and crouched down.
Nothing else could have saved her life.
The tiger of the Ridge was within ten feet of her when that sound startled Parmala. But she could not have known it. She could not have seen him lumbering up the cart road from Chhota Haldi, with his huge head held low, dribbling and snuffing the ground as he came; nor when, pausing at the sudden tidings on the breeze, he abandoned the open path and on his belly crept toward her through the scrub. She could not by any sense given to man have surmised that last silent approach, when the ten-foot tiger made less rustle on the leaves than a mouse would have made. Even had she looked at the place where he crouched to spring, she would have seen nothing to warn her, so perfectly did the tawny body merge with the brown earth and the black shadows. Nanga was asleep. She was daydreaming over him, defenseless as that stooping crone who had met her fate gathering wood. Her back would have been broken before Nanga could even have wakened to his own predicament. Thus the click of that box-lid was indeed her salvation.
The great beast, back among the shadows, slowly rose and stood erect, looking from the pair that he had marked as his prey, to the newcomer who had disturbed him.
His eyes, set deep under the creased and frown ing forehead, made points of greenish light as they turned this way and that. With ears flattened tight against his head and his fangs just showing, he had something of the aspect of a vicious stallion, and in that eerie light he seemed to stand as high. But no stallion ever foaled possessed the singular combination of sheer massiveness with sinister grace, that he revealed at that moment. A full-grown tiger, tough with the heat and cold of thirty summers and winters, suppled with infinite marches, venison-fed, dressed in a panoply of orange as warm and in tense as sunset, he was the very perfection of a force, of a cruelty almost beautiful. Impossible that nature could produce a more powerful or more perfect mechanism of death.
It seemed that he was making up his mind between the original victims and the new-comer. It was as if he appraised them, one by one, girl and boy and man, and found them all meager; for he looked ill satisfied. Then, all at once, purpose came into his stance. He was the monster cat, long-bodied and sinuous, on the hunt. Following his rule, which indicated a single straggler in preference to two members of a herd, whether of buffaloes or of men, he had made his choice.
Slinking, creeping, immeasurably cautious, he headed for the fakir.
The man was engrossed. He had shaken out the box and was gloating over the contents, which lay in a splendid confusion on the ground in front of him. He saw nothing; heard nothing. Even when danger was so close that he might have felt the breath of it, he did not turn round. One moment, he was holding up a blue stone to the light, between his forefinger and thumb. The next, he was being dragged out of sight, with a broken back.
It was so quickly done that not a drop of blood was shed on the spot, not a blade of grass disturbed; and so quietly that Parmala, sitting but fifty paces away, heard nothing.
What happened, she never knew. Dozing happily, with Nanga’s head in her lap, she heard a metallic sound and looked up quickly. From first to last she never saw the tiger, and it was only after some seconds had passed that she descried among some fallen trees the man whom she vaguely recognized as the charas-smuggler.
He was sitting with his profile to her, and with a start of amazement she saw that he had her father’s box, or one very like it, on his knees. Then, fearing that the sleeping boy might suddenly awake and betray their presence, she tried to put herself between him and the intruder.
When she looked up again, the man had disappeared.
This was explicable, because at that very moment there rose in the village a hum of voices and sounds of barking. She concluded instantly that her father, missing the box, had given the alarm; and that the thief had heard it just before she had-as was natural, since he would have the ears of guilt. So he had slipped away.
But he had left his spoil. There lay the box, overturned among the logs, with papers fluttering all about. There was even a glint of silver among the brown leaves. Undoubtedly it was her father’s box.
Could she dare?
A look of mischief came into her face. The villagers, she knew, must be at least a quarter of a mile away from the precious box, whereas she was but fifty paces. There would be delays, too. How well she could picture it all--the running hither and thither, the arming, the summoning of this man and that: chokidar, patwari, Tota the mochi, Kullu, Lalta Pershad from the shop; then confabulations; and, in the end, the chance of their getting on a false scent. Surely she would have time to nip across, and gather the spoil; then--back to her beggar, and race for it!
Her eyes danced at the thought of Piri Ram’s consternation at finding his box empty. The delicious revenge of it--that it should be she who did it, she who mulcted him of his papers and his money! What a secret to laugh over with her beggar boy, when she was far away!
True, the real thief might still be about, but she must risk that. It was temptation that she could not resist. She must have those precious papers, those rupees, if only because they were precious to a man who had beaten her. But there was no time to lose.
She glanced down at Nanga; saw that he was still sleeping. Gently she laid his head on the ground, with grass for a pillow. Then, with a last smile for him, the more generous because there were no eyes to see it and make her shy, she ran lightly to where the box lay, and fell on her knees beside it.
In a trice her nimble fingers were at work.
Yellow papers, blowing about--not one must be left. Annoying papers, for they kept fluttering out of her reach, wasting her time. But she must have them.
Safe now, in her breast. But the cries--they were in the field--and that booming voice--her father’s. Time--would there ever be time?
Silver bracelets! She had always wanted silver bracelets. But where to put them? Not loose, for they would rattle and bruise her breast.
In a bundle, then; tied up in her sari. Quick!
Blue stones, red stones, amber balls like golden eggs, silver filigree belt, all in the big bundle! How she would shine, how she would tinkle for that beggar boy!
Now they were all garnered--all--
Like the sound of hounds in full cry the shouts burst out in the wood itself.
Fear mingling with the triumph in her face, she sprang up and raced for the tree that sheltered her beggar, mad to wake him and drag him along with her.
But when she reached the tree, her glad cry ended piteously. For there was the neat little nest, crushed and hollowed in the grass where they had lain--his bed and hers--empty.