Had not the thief been at pains to leave the door precisely as he had found it, slightly ajar, Piri Ram might have slept the clock round. But, as it was, he was awakened within ten minutes of the visitor’s departure, by a shred of sunlight on his face.
He blinked and shifted his head. But the sunlight was inexorable. Sleep--the dull, luxurious sleep of hemp-seed--passed out of him, leaving only the intolerable headache and the peevish liver that constitute an early instalment of the price to be paid. Under such circumstances his first thought was always of his daughter, the human being whom the gods had provided for the express purpose of sharing that price.
“Water, child of an owl!”
This--painfully, through parched lips from a throat like a kiln--was the expression of his first thought. But there was no sound of stirring be hind the tattered curtain.
With a grunt and a rolling of his heavy--rimmed little eyes, Piri Ram raised himself on one elbow and stretched out his hand for the bamboo stick in the corner behind his head. He had a way of rousing her which accorded well with a peevish liver. A smart cut or two, and--
His eye lit upon the disarray of the dung-cakes.
They had been neatly piled when he had last seen them. Now they were scattered. The heart was clearly out of the heap, and the heart was a box containing notes of hand which represented three fourths of the landed property of Kotahbagh, not to speak of money and jewelry. Piri Ram leaped to his feet.
With a sound like a shriek of physical pain he rummaged, flinging dung-cakes to the four corners of the room. The dust of them filled his nostrils.
But there was no box.
He tore down the curtain and rushed like a maniac into his daughter’s apartment.
But there was no daughter.
There was only a tumbled heap of rags on the floor--her bed. He scattered them in handfuls. He smashed the earthenware jug and trampled on the cheap comb, doing to things intimate to her as he meant to do to her in person when he had found her; for, as was natural, he assumed without question that she was the thief. Then, angrier still because he had wasted time and energy on trifles, he lumbered out into the street, for all the world like a fat buffalo with a swarm of bees round its head, bellowing.
The dogs saw him and barked. The neighbors, snug in bed, heard his hoarse, incoherent roars of “My daughter! My box!” and, reluctantly assuming blankets and snatching up staves, joined him outside. Doors banged. Heads protruded from windows. Men came running. And soon, precisely as Parmala had foreseen, he had collected to his side the patwari, the gray-headed and rheumatic chokidar, Tota the mochi, Kullu the pound-keeper, Lalta Pershad from the shop, and a dozen more, all of whom had a peculiar interest in the fate of the box, if not in that of the daughter.
Standing round Piri Ram in an agitated group, with their blankets blowing about their thin brown legs, they would have presented interesting psychology to a student of human situations. Not one of them who did not have an anxious and helpful expression on his face--and his tongue in his cheek. Not one of them who, while making ardent suggestions for its recovery, did not pray within himself that the box might be wholly and irretrievably lost. Above all petty considerations, they had this in common: a generous appreciation of the sufferings of their oppressor; and they made it clear, with many heartfelt expressions, that not for untold gold would they have missed this opportunity of being at his side. So, while the stricken man was raving and clamoring for action, they were piling up plausible plans for doing nothing at all, until Parmala could reasonably be supposed to have got clear away.
Here the patwari, wise with the accumulated experience of sixteen years’ government service on sixteen shillings a month, proved himself an adept minister of delay. He proposed a court of inquiry on the spot. In an hour or two at most he hoped to be able to collect the necessary men of substance to hear and weigh the evidence, if any, of eye-witnesses; by evening he would, with his own pen, have dished up the said evidence in a form palatable to the Tahsildar Saheb; and by to-morrow’s noon at latest the Tahsildar Saheb--or, in the absence of the Tahsildar Saheb, the Canongo Saheb--
It was at this point--the patwari was long-winded, and in moments of emotion stammered--that Piri Ram, with a strange cry, broke away from the group.
There were tracks through his wheat-field! Fresh tracks leading from his very back yard, across the field, to the jungle. The yellow sunlight revealed them, dark and bruised lanes in the immaculate green.
Renewed hope in every ponderous step, he took up the trail.
Another cry--of rage, now.
The apes had been up in the night.
But the havoc of the apes did not compare to the havoc wrought by his friends as they followed him. Where the apes had merely passed over, they trampled with unction.
Yet a third cry! Piri Ram, well ahead of the hunt, was in the ditch. His friends, hurriedly joining him, regarded the top of his bald head with unconcealed anxiety. Could it be that the girl had hidden herself, or the box, in the ditch? The gods avert such a catastrophe!
No, he had not found the girl, or the box. Only a footprint.
They breathed again. The footprint was scrutinised, pored over. Anything to delay the search, to insure the disappearance of those notes of hand that they had signed in their foolishness, those promises to pay. For the first time there rose in the hardened hearts of her neighbors a belated admiration for Parmala, as for one whose powers had been sadly underestimated; an earnest interest in her well-being; and a glow of deferred gratitude which would blossom into real affection with the prolongation of her absence.
“She is in haste. An hour or two, and she will be clear away. That she should have done this, so quietly, so well!”--this was their common thought, though they did not express it.
“Alas! She has been devoured in the ditch, and this footprint is the sole relic. No need for further search. Let us sit down and recall her virtues, O Piri Ram, since thy daughter herself is beyond recall. Also, doubtless, thy box. But what is the loss of even a lac of rupees as compared with the loss of so talented, so dear a daughter? May the tiger that took her be troubled!”--this was the substance of what they said.
But Piri Ram was strangely impervious to sympathy. Like a hound on the scent, he was nosing the ground beyond the ditch, for there he had found another footprint, the faintest impression on the parched ground, but enough to show that at any rate Parmala had not been devoured in the ditch. There was blood in it, hardly dry.
“She hath torn herself. She goes lame,” shouted Piri Ram, hopefully.
“For shame!” murmured his friends, following him despondently among the trees. It was far from being their business to search the ground. Consequently they passed over and completely blotted out the more definite impressions that the fakir had made. But in any case, a few paces on, evidence more startling than any footprint was awaiting them. There, under the trees, for all to see, lay a brass dish overturned, with its wrapper flung wide of it, and some pulse spilled.
For a moment no one moved. There was something indescribably suggestive of sudden fear and flight in the attitude of that dish. It had been so clearly flung away, not dropped or laid down; and for the first time they could not help considering the serious possibility of the explanation which they had so lightly suggested. Suppose the tiger had taken her.
More than one of them had figured in search-parties which had brought back, from this identical spot, so little of Dharma Nand’s grand mother; and of other crones, nothing at all. How could they help recalling it? How could they help fingering their lathees and looking back fearfully to the place whence they had come?
“Bah! Her courage forsook her under the trees. She is not far off,” muttered Piri Ram, but this time he did not take so pronounced a lead of the others as before. They went forward gingerly, in a bunch, shouting uproariously to give themselves confidence. So, for a few hundred paces, they followed the slight blood-trail, more regular now, down the hill. Then there was a sudden involuntary gasp from every man in the party.
Below them, in an open space under the trees--like the brass dish flung carelessly, derelict, and in its isolation strangely sinister--lay a tin box, apparently unopened.
Each man, looking at his neighbor, formed the words with his lips.
In an idle moment tiger had been suggested, and the suggestion had so worked on the inner thoughts of each that not one of them would stir by himself in that still place. They stood together--some even clung together--and saw tiger in every shifting shadow. Not a man who did not suffer from a sense of being watched, that sent a chill up his bare legs and into the hidden seats of terror. For what else could have made the girl drop the box? What else could have spirited her away?
Then the chokidar, peering about among the loose soil and the leaves at their feet, found an unmistakable tiger print, deeply indented.
He jumped back, as if the mere impress had teeth and claws, and pointed with a quavering finger.
“Woh hai! Woh hai! Khubrdar...” he whispered.
But the discovery had already been too much for the jangled, early-morning nerves of the group. They had taken to their heels; and the chokidar, ancient and rheumatic as he was, followed with a surprising agility. Nor was a halt called until they were once more over the ditch and well in the middle of the field.
Then they all talked at once, raising their voices so that the tiger might be under no delusions as to the desirability of coming out into the open.
It was so simple: they might well have been eye-witnesses of the scene. The errant but precious child of a stricken father, burdened with the stolen box and the provision for her journey, hears a sound behind her. She drops the food and flees, only to be pounced upon a little farther on and dragged away. Doubtless, under some bush not ten paces from the box, the beast is even now devouring his prey.
Sad, sad for the father, to lose in one morning a precious box, a precious child!
Yet--this was the unanimous verdict--nothing could be done for the moment. The box lay on dangerous ground. The life of the man who approached it would not be worth a moment’s purchase. Armed force was the only hope--fifty men at least, guns, gongs, torches, and an elephant or two.
But this would take time: not before noon could they hope to be ready. Then, with a great banging of drums and firing of guns, they might venture to advance to the spot and recover--what?
A few pitiful rupees? A note of hand or two? A bundle of mortgage deeds? Poor stricken father! As if the recovery of paltry property could compensate for a daughter’s loss, a daughter who had endeared herself to all!
So, with their tongues in their cheeks, they poured out solace and commiseration for the benefit of Piri Ram, who was biting his fingers with rage.
Well he knew what was expected of him. They were waiting for the crowning joke--to see him sitting down in the center of a grinning circle and strewing dust on his head, to hear him reciting in the approved manner the supposed virtues of the deceased. He, Piri Ram, to sit down and invent excellences for that good-for-nothing she whelp whom he had begotten and reared--yes, and beaten black and blue--only that she might make off in the night with every shred of his property and be eaten! No wonder Lalta Pershad was smiling, no wonder the accursed mochi was licking his lips! But if they expected anything in that nature from him, they were vastly mistaken. Rather than afford them this final satisfaction he would go back and dispute possession with the tiger itself!
But he went only a few paces.
There was a dreadful silence about the wood, looming so darkly against the risen sun; and he was essentially a prudent man. So he left the group and, with all the dignity at his command, stalked into the house.
The door banged behind him.
“Behold how he mourns his daughter!” commented his smiling friends.