Gone, lost, her beggar boy!
It came, in the very height and heat of her excitement, like a cold clutch at Parmala’s heart. When she turned round to look for him, with the jewels all gathered to her breast like so many bright flowers, her eyes were sparkling and, in spite of her anxiety at the hue and cry, there was a gay tinge in her brown cheeks at the prospect of the race they would have together. Then, as she missed him, the sparkle and the colour were wiped out, and she seemed to shrink back into the little, untidy, bewildered daughter of Piri Ram.
Lost, when she had but an hour or two ago found him! Gone, when she had seemed to be pleasing him, to be giving something that he had needed so much! Gone! lost! It was unbelievable. He must be quite near all the time. Startled, perhaps, and in hiding; or playing a game among the trees, waiting to spring out with a laugh and hold her fast. Surely it was a game that he was playing!
If only there were not so many trees! If only she might dare to wait a little!
But they were coming fast down the hill. Any minute the faces would start out of the still green leafage, and yells proclaim that she had been seen. Then--the end indeed of her and her beggar boy!
The cries were close. There were glimpses of white garments among the trees. Even now she might be too late. Go she must, and trust to his following her, or to the chance of being able to find the place again.
Not daring to call out, she gave one wild glance round, as if to pierce the secrets of the wood, and silently fled.
It would have taken keen eyes indeed to mark that slight figure, dark and vague as the shadows themselves, flitting through the undergrowth.
She did not stop until the sound of the hue and cry had died away. Then she sat down and strained her ears for some sound of him.
Perhaps he had followed her. Perhaps even now he was near by, waiting for her to call.
“Brother! O brother!”
It was all that she could say, for she did not know a name to call out. Though he was her own, though she had mothered him and had watched his sleep, she did not even know his name. How little her hold on him, then.
Her voice trailed off hopelessly as the old suspicion returned to her. Suppose he were really deaf and dumb, as she had thought at first. How would he hear? How would he answer? What chance had she of finding him a second time? Fool, ever to have left him! She might have known that money and jewels, ill gotten, would do her no good; that she would pay heavily for her greed. But what was done could not be undone. If she were to bury the jewels, if she were to scatter money in a silver shower over the grass, it would bring him no nearer. All the money in the world would not bring him nearer by one inch.
No, there was only one way. She must go to him. She must go back to the place where she had left him, and start her search from there. But was it safe to go back?
She listened. In all the wood there was no sound except the indeterminate hum of day.
She took courage from that. Quietly, very cautiously she began to retrace her steps. It was difficult to find the way, which she had taken so blindly, but after a while she chanced on an immense tree with silver bark, that she dimly recognized. Knowing at last that she was on the right road, she worked uphill; and, after what seemed days of wandering, a patch of sunlit ground opened suddenly before her and, with a start of joy, she recognized that too. There lay the box, lidless and battered; and there, under a tree, was the bed of grass where he had slept and she had watched. Surely now there was some hope. Surely she could find some trace that would lead her to him.
Footsteps! Some one was about. There, on her right hand, walking away. Stopping now. Now stirring again. Who could it be? Not the men from the village, for there was shouting and drum-beating up there. Who, then? Could it, could it be he?
She saw something--a shadow moving, flitting among the trees--and all at once she felt certain that it must be he. It seemed inevitable that he should be there and nowhere else. With a little choking cry--“Brother, I have come back! Brother, wait for me!”--she ran forward to over take the shadow.
But it was only old Tota, the tanner.
Tota was staggered. In her blindness she had run into his very arms; and it is hard to say which was the more startled, the old man, who had half expected the tiger’s teeth in his neck, or the girl who quailed from him as if he were the man eater itself.
His shrewdness had deserted him. The shock had jerked the very pugree off his head, and he stood there, blinking like an owl and wondering whether he could be looking at one of the apparitions in whose existence he firmly believed.
“Thou!” he could only repeat weakly. “Thou wert surely eaten--”
“Eaten.” Her thoughts came dizzily, for she was half fainting from fright. What was he saying about being eaten? Eaten by whom? Was the old man mad? And what was he doing here with that gun? Had he come to shoot her? Or, worse, to shoot her beggar? Perhaps already--
A horny hand touched her arm, Tota being by no means convinced as yet that he was in the presence of flesh and blood. But the arm felt firm enough, and, reassured, he let his fingers wander over her shoulders, while she cowered, too terrified to fly.
“She has not been eaten,” he muttered sagely. “She is as she was.”
Then he explored farther. Quickly she thrust his hand away, but not be fore he had felt, within the somewhat tattered garment that was bunched over her breast, the distinct outline of papers. He even heard them crackle.
Ah! So it had been as he had thought. She had bestowed the contents of the box in woman’s favorite hiding-place. Only,--a trifle, this,--she had not been subsequently killed by the tiger. And that was just as well.
His mind was working quickly now, jubilantly. The gods were kind indeed. As a reward for his matchless courage, the precious papers had been delivered into his very hands. He had only to take them from where they lay; yes, and the silver too. That girl had metal hidden about her; he would stake his life on it. It was merely a question now of means--whether to use force or persuasion; and, as he was a trifle out of breath, persuasion seemed--
“O Tota! thy gun? Thou hast not killed him? He was here but a little while ago. Oh, thou hast not killed him?”
She had found her voice at last. It had come back to her in a sudden agony of surmise as to what the gun might portend. In her urgency she clung to the old man, tugging at his blanket as if to drag the answer out of him.
“Him?” Once more Tota was nonplussed. “What ‘him’? Dost thou perchance mean the tiger?”
It pleased him to think that she credited him with killing the tiger, and he was more inclined than ever to employ persuasion with her, to he kind to her. But it was at once evident that she did not mean the tiger, for she shook her head violently.
“No, no! the boy. The beggar. Hast thou seen him, thou old man?”
Tota scratched his beard. He could not make head or tail of this, except that evidently a night in the jungle had been too much for the girl’s reason.
Stay, though: there had been some talk of a boy, early in the night. A boy, now that he came to think of it, had in fact been the cause of the whole stupid alarm in the village.
Doubtless an accomplice, thought Tota.
“Boy?” he asked, eyeing her judicially. “What manner of boy? I cannot call to mind at the moment--”
But she cut him short. In her agony she shook him till he gasped, pouring out at the same time her incoherent tale:
“A beggar, a casteless beggar, naked and scarred, not fat like all other beggars. He came to our door, from where I know not; out of the night he came. But he took nothing. Though he had but to stretch out his hand to the dish and run, he took nothing. He but warmed his hands. Old man, I say, he but warmed his hands at our fire.”
She paused, breathless, panting. Tota looked at her almost pityingly: it was so evident that her mind was unhinged.
“So, instead, thou didst do the taking,” he suggested meaningly, “and, for a wench, pretty well. How many rupees was thy taking worth, O daughter of Piri Ram?”
But she seemed not to hear. She was staring at him, her eyes wide with question.
“Thou hast seen him, Tota? Thou hast seen him?”
Her lips just formed the words, so that he hardly heard them. But there was that in her low, tense tone, in her rapt face, that made Tota look at her curiously. There was more in this than met the eye, he decided.
The girl was not mad. Madness did not bring that note into a girl’s voice, that look into her face.
“I misremember,” he muttered, to gain time for a new idea that was slowly forming. “Where didst thou say he warmed his hands?”
“At our fire. But that was last night. It was here, this morning, that I lost him.”
She answered eagerly, but he did not listen. He was watching her.
It was long since he had seen a woman look as she looked, and it pleased him that she should continue to cling to him, to look yearningly at him with those wild, dewy eyes. Her sweeping, sudden movements, her whole tenseness, her gestures of despair--they had their appeal for an old man. He felt warm, heady, exhilarated. And through her rags he could see, out of the corner of his eye, the fall of her breast, and even a little of the smooth column of her body. Positively the slut, by some magic, had become--desirable!
“Thou didst lose him here? just here?” he repeated, pretending to ponder. But in reality he was putting the finishing touches to a plan, an excellent plan.
The girl was certainly desirable. Already, from the mere contact with her, he was feeling younger. Already, it was as if some of her eager, desperate youth had passed into him. By herself, he would indeed have thought twice about taking her, bitter experience having taught him that it was easier to get a woman into a house than out of it. But a love-stirred, glowing girl, loaded--yes, loaded-with rupees! The temptation was irresistible. Piri Ram’s daughter too! A pretty fall for that bloodsucker’s pride!
And he could do it so easily. He had only to work on her fears.
“Listen!” he said suddenly, holding up a warning finger to his lips, with a jerk of his head toward the village. “Listen. They have started.”
She was babbling of her beggar, but she stopped instantly, and he noted with satisfaction the new alarm in her face as she heard the gathering tumult in the village.
“Thy father,” he whispered hurriedly, “has collected fifty men to beat the jungle for thee. Guns, dogs, elephants: enough force to follow a tiger, let alone a girl. Hear, they are starting indeed. And when he finds thee, Piri Ram has sworn to tie thee to a cart tail, stripped, for thy whipping.” He waited for the words to sink in; then added, smiling a little: “Shall I save them the trouble? Shall I restore thee to gladden thy father’s heart?”
Again he waited, but there was no answer. He only saw in her face something of the terror, and all the yearning, of a hunted animal. He moistened his lips with his tongue; bent lower.
“Or wilt thou come with me?” he whispered. “We could hide in the ditch till they have passed, and then crawl up the ditch. With me thou shalt have food and drink, and no whipping. Better to come with me.”
Parmala stared at him vaguely, as if for the first time she had noticed his presence. The old man was evidently urging her to do something or other, and there was a look in his eyes that she had not seen before, a compelling, snakelike look that seemed to fathom her secrets. She distrusted him more than ever now, but what was she to do? Already the drums were throbbing, up in the village. They were certainly marching out, as he had said.
“Come?” she said uncertainly. “Come whither?”
Tota, the more inflamed by her hesitation, grew confidential. He caught her wrist.
“Whither?” he whispered in her ear. “Why, to my house--where else? I have a liking for thee. Thou hast--charms. And I am none so old. There is much that I can teach thee, for young men have no knowledge.”
Because she did not answer, he thought that she was yielding. It needed only a little boldness now. With a leer, he stooped still lower and whispered something more.
The words meant nothing to her. Dazed as she was, she did not take them in. But she caught the look in his face and realized all its suggestion of evil; and with that realization there suddenly came, out of the very depths of her, other knowledge, the knowledge that she had indeed something precious to give, and would give it to overflowing. But not here; not now; and least of all to this doddering dotard who smelt of bad leather.
That he should dare! That he should dare to touch her with those hands! those deft, horrible hands that she had so often seen busy on some dead skin! That he should ask--
No, her giving would be to another, to one who did not ask, did not take--anything.
Like a tigress she was up, facing him out, eye to eye. Recoiling suddenly, he received a push from her two hands that sent him tripping and staggering over the long barrel of his own gun which, in his eagerness to woo, he had just laid down. A fallen log finished his discomfiture. He sat down heavily.
In this posture he had the privilege of watching her sweeping, sudden movements for a considerable distance. But the perception that she moved as lightly and as gracefully as a deer in its own woods afforded him little comfort.