Parmala had never been so angry in her life. That he should have dared! That a toothless braggart, who had long lacked a wife, because no woman could endure his remote neighborhood for five minutes at a stretch, should have dared to lay stained hands on her, the untainted, the wholly clean!
Let him go back to the hides that matched his hands. And for herself clean, clear water to wash away the very thought of him.
So--as Tota had surmised, though he was somewhat at fault as to her reason for the course--she took the direction of the river, determined that she would not rest until she had washed her self from head to foot and made pure the places where his hands had rested. That done, she decided, she would cross by the ford and leave Kotahbagh behind forever.
For this too she had a reason. On the other side, connected with the ford, there was a route to the shrine of Kedarnath in the Hills. The poor and humble, pilgrims and beggars, flocked on it: why not her beggar? It was a chance, at least, and something seemed to beckon her that way. She had indeed a vision of him, sitting in the dust, watching the road for her, patiently, as he would. She felt that if he were anywhere at all, he would be sitting by that road. And if not, if he were dead--well, the river that washed her would welcome her again.
She did not know the way to the ford, but she knew that if she descended into the ravine she must at length make the river bank; and even now, as she started downhill, she could hear ever and again the song of the water.
Presently the trees thinned; heavy sal gave place to frailer trees; and, deep below, through the tracery of the leafless twigs, she caught glimpses of flickering silver and blue, and gleams of golden sand.
The river was now imminent, and, as it chanced, at one stage of her journey she was not a hundred yards from the brink of the cliff which sheltered Nanga on his rock. Had she gone but a little farther and looked down, she might have seen him lying prone and watching the river, and have saved herself from a journey and him from a mauling.
But, instead, she saw the apes.
The trees were full of them, boughs bending and swaying with their weight. On the ground were yet more--legions of hunched gray figures squatting in a giant circle round the grizzled ape that seemed to be their leader; and, even while she watched, another bevy crept purposefully out of the undergrowth and swelled the circle. She would never have thought that the world could contain so many apes. Why, they could have picked Kotahbagh clean in half an hour! They frightened her. Though she had not ventured out into the open, and was well hidden from them, there was an uncanny air of purpose about their assemblage that was terrifying. At this moment they were less like apes than human beings. They seemed actually to be talking, for a little mournful whisper ran up and down their ranks like the muttering of men. Wrought up as she was already, to an extremity of anxiety, she had the sense of having stumbled upon something ill-omened and ugly. So she turned quickly away, with the intention of crossing the river lower down. Soon she was glad that she had done so.
She had left the sal forest for good, and was treading lightly on the spongy turf under the sheeshum trees, when she heard behind her the sudden rush of feet and the angry babel which, had she but known it, betokened the onslaught on Nanga. But, though the sounds came from the direction of the very place that she had just left, they were so sudden and so different from the first that she never connected them with the apes. She made sure, instead, that they were human voices and human footsteps that she could hear; and, concluding that Tota had revenged himself on her by calling up the villagers, once more began to run.
The sound of Tota’s gunshot, transformed for her into a volley by the crashing echoes, served only to confirm her worst fears, and she ran till she had left the sheeshum belt far be hind her and had entered on the long reach of sand and scrub which stretched to Chhota Haldi.
So at noon, while Nanga was toiling up the Ridge, she was breaking her heart over the parched, clogging sand by the river in the hope of finding a second ford, every step taking her farther away from him; and it was high afternoon before she saw a cloud of dust on the far bank, and, emerging from it, a bullock cart driven by a naked urchin. She had found her ford at last, but it was little short of Chhota Haldi; and Chhota Haldi was four miles, as the crow flies, from Kotahbagh.
Even then she could not cross at once. She had to lie down behind a bush, full in the scorching sun, while the bullocks dragged their creaking burden through the water and down the track to Chhota Haldi. Then, not daring to stop and refresh herself with the cool water for fear lest there might be other travellers on the track, she hurried through. But on the far side she had her one shred of good fortune. The cart had chanced to be a corn-cart, and one of the sacks had leaked, so that there was a little trail of clean brown wheat between the ruts, and of this she quickly gathered two handfuls. Then, munching the grains hungrily,--for she had not had a bite for more than twelve hours,--she left the track and turned at last upstream.
At least she had put the river between herself and Kotahbagh--but at what a cost! Her head was aching; her throat was parched; her feet were bruised and torn; and four miles at least of wild and unknown country separated her from the road that she sought. The Ridge was her landmark. That at least stood out clear, and her road, she knew, lay somewhere behind it. But, before she could reach even the beginnings of the Ridge, she would have to traverse long reedy fens; and, beyond them, woods that danced in the heat haze and seemed to lie leagues away. And already she felt as if she could not go another step.
Still, there was a remedy to hand. The river was at her side, full of refreshment and healing. She had only to find a quiet shallow pool, and to sit down and cool her head and feet in the water, and quench her thirst. Then she could start again, renewed. Surely she could spare a minute or two for that.
She kept close to the water, searching for a place among the rushes that waved above her head. And among the rushes she felt a little easier. They did not overpower her as the trees had done, or sting her like the sand. They yielded, rather, at her coming, and closed again behind to screen her with their curtain of kindly, peaceful green.
Gone, too, was the haunting silence of the big woods, of the sandy scrub. Its place had been taken by many comforting little voices: the cries of the sedge birds, twittering in and out; the subdued laughter that rose when the breeze played on the reeds; and the murmur of close, quiet water. It seemed that at last she could dare to walk without looking behind her for some pursuer, man or beast, and her spirits even rose a little at the thought that she would soon be clean and refreshed and ready to start anew. Something in that atmosphere of quiet sounds and colours seemed to make success more possible, and soothed her fears.
She chose a little back-water for her bathe, a round pool where the reflected blue of the sky was framed in solemn reeds. Through a gap in them she could see the main river, brimming, hurrying by; but here the water was placid and inviting. There was even a spit of sand with a great log of wood lying across it, from which she could slip in without miring her feet. Peeping through the parted reeds, she thought that she had never seen so secret a place.
First of all, she took out the papers and the money and the jewels, and bound them into one firm bundle. She had not quite made up her mind what she would do with them. On the one hand, she had no joy in them now: they had cost her too much. On the other, they would be useful when she found her beggar. For the present, then, she would keep the ill-omened things.
That done, she loosened a pin, and the torn old sari fell and covered her feet.
For a moment, as if shy of seeing her own brown slimness mirrored, she hung back among the rushes, holding them to her like a dress. Then, smiling at her own foolishness, she stepped boldly out upon the spit of sand, meaning to use the black log that lay across it as a stepping-off place.
But her first step on that sand was her last.
There was a little scream of terror, and she was back again among the rushes, cowering, shrinking, clothing herself quickly with fumbling hands. For the log, the very log on which she had been about to set her foot, had suddenly come to life!
A little, lazy eye opening; the dead wood stirring, resolving itself miraculously into cruel snout, and barrel, and scaly tail; the lurching forward; the sliding, with a sucking sound, from sand to water--it had all happened so quickly that it was hard to believe that her eyes had beheld the foul thing. Happened, though, it had. The sand was bare. An ugly cloud of black mud stained the placid pool. And somewhere below, she knew, that lazy little eye was eager for her; that long, black snout was nosing in the roots of the reeds.
Crocodile! Of all the horrors, of all the nightmares--crocodile!
Grisly stories of the burning ghats and the bathing ghats, pictures of ghastly maimings and loathsome wounds--such things came crowding into her mind. Suppose she had set foot on it! Or suppose that it had not been asleep on the sand at all, but awake and lurking below, unseen in the mud. Then she would have sat down on the sand, all innocent; she would have dabbled her feet in the water. Still the little lazy eye would have watched. She would have dipped her bare leg to the knee, to the thigh. Then--it was unthinkable.
But it had very, very nearly happened.
Trembling in every limb, she fastened her sari anyhow, caught up her bundle, and once more fled.
She had suffered the supreme blow. Just when she had begun to recover a little her courage and hope, allowing the peace of the place to have its way with her, the ugliness that seemed to hide behind all peace and beauty had raised its head. Treachery, she now believed, lurked everywhere. It was lying in wait for her wherever she might go, among the soft rushes no less than in the burning sand. Nowhere could she be safe, or escape the fate that was laid up for her. Only, she prayed, let it not be so terrible.
Treachery too had taken her beggar boy from her. What foolishness to think that she would ever find him again, when he was lost--as dreams were lost, as she herself was lost.
Sitting by a roadside would he be, watching for her? Vain thought! Lying, more likely, starved to death, or with a gunshot wound in his back. That, the ugly thing, the treacherous thing, was what she ought to expect. She had set out too blithely on her adventure, had been too happy in her discovery of him. But happy thoughts were not for the like of her, or of him either.
Yet she kept on, not in hope, but in despair; kept on because she did not dare sit down and think. Somehow, being frail and light-footed, she won her way through those fens where men enough and even elephants had met their end in mud, and emerged in the low woods that but tressed the Ridge. And still she kept on, heading she hardly knew where, though her legs oozed with blood from leech-bites and blood dripped from her hands as she pushed her way through bamboo and thorn. But when at last, with night thickening round her, she reached what seemed to be a treeless hollow of the woods and stumbled upon a stream, she gave up the struggle.
She could no longer see her way and, even had the way been clear, had no strength to go on. Here was a little water, and an open place to lie in. Enough. To-morrow she would wake, or she would not wake: it was all one to her.
Careless now of what might be lurking there, she knelt by the stream, drank of it, and cooled her face. Then she lay down.
For a few minutes the silence seemed intolerable. It was as if she had wakened from some clamorous dream of pursuit, to find herself alone; and never, in all her solitary, kenneled life, had such a cruelty of loneliness come upon her. To be alone: that one stark fact seemed to sum up all suffering. It was past tears. It was past endurance.
A little after, she had a queer fancy--that the deer came quite close to her, sipping the stream and browsing on the grass.
Then she slept.