Noon passed. The drowsiness of day deepened into sleep, and hardly an eye was open between the Ridge and the river. But of all that slept the girl and the boy seemed lost in a slumber most unfathomable. Still as death they lay, a limp, brown, human heap, as unstudied in attitude as the body of a buffalo that a tiger has thrown down, or a worn-out, dead stag; such a heap as might well have brought down the vultures in flocks from the sky.
But, though the vultures were dropping fast to the Ridge, to feast in their hundreds on dead tiger, not one of them as much as glanced into the lost garden. There was something to tell these experts in death that here was no death; no likelihood, even, of death. Otherwise they would have been down and doing within half an hour.
And the vultures were, as ever, right. The boy had fainted from loss of blood; the girl had fainted from sheer sorrow and exhaustion; and, for both, fainting had passed into sleep.
They would wake at evening, the vultures knew--the time of stirring, of thirst-quenching, of cool. They would suddenly put off that pose of death, which might have deceived many, and would stretch out their arms and take possession of the place, as was the way of men.
The vultures were old; they had seen it all happen before. Sleep and death...sleep and death...Who would be deceived?
Once a gray shadow slipped from among the trees. It was a young jackal, more curious than the vultures, but far less knowledgeable, since blood to him was evidence enough of death. He stood for a moment on tiptoe, with one paw slightly raised, and craned his head eagerly at the pair. Then, with a little snort of surprise, he scuttled away. For they were warm. They were breathing.
After that the stillness settled down once more. Through all the long afternoon nothing moved except the shadows, stealing like leisurely fingers from the trees, and the tired butterflies. But as the sun met the Ridge and quivered there; as the slanting rays poured down that last liquid glut of light, all alive with swimming motes and rainbow colors; as the evening breeze started up in a flutter, as if it had been stealing a rest on its journey from the snows--then the old, sudden miracle happened.
The garden awoke. The birds fluttered about their roosting-places. The deer rose stiffly, and sleepily eyed their own reflections in the stream. And, obedient to long habit, to the clear call of evening, Nanga reluctantly stirred.
Something soft, smothering! His enemy!
Thinking that he was still battling with the tiger by the pool, he struck out. A great pain shot through one arm. The other, it seemed, went home well enough; for the softness yielded,...fell away. Suddenly his face and chest were free, and he could breathe again. But the pain in his arm remained.
Parmala reeled at the sudden blow and rolled clear of him. In her hazy, waking dream she thought that she was in her father’s house, seemed to see his face and to feel his hands at her throat. She cried out sharply.
The sound startled Nanga. He woke up and began to wonder where he was, and where he had heard before a cry something like that--a cry that belonged to the dim time before ever he had wandered and fought with a tiger by a pool.
His head was dizzy. Pain was there too, and he did not care yet to open his eyes. But that cry...What did it recall?
He had fought, yes, by a pool. His enemy lay dead in that pool. He had seen it with his own eyes,--the dark mass in the red water,--and had known it for the work of his hands. Never again would the beast walk the Ridge, never pass again under the great tree or bound over the stream, dangling dead fawns in his mouth.
Dead fawns...That was long ago...
Since that he had wandered, wandered through the river...soft turf under frail, moonlit trees...blue bulls careering ahead. Ah, it was coming back! Dark forest, then, for a little; a thorny ditch; red, crackling embers by the dwellings of man, and--ah!
Of the fragments of pictures that came and went, one at last was clear-a face forming, now in firelight, now in moonlight. He snatched at it, tried, as it were, to capture it ere it faded into darkness, and, with a supreme effort of mind, remembered.
The face; the cool fingers; and, again, the face, bending over him, half in shadow. A soothing, fleeting scent. A sound of laughter. He remembered it all...the daughter of man...her face, her fingers, her scent. He had been lonely and aching and hungry before he had found her; but when he had found her she had soothed all that away. And then...and then?
There was more to be remembered, much more; it did not end there, he knew. Else, why had he slain the tiger by a pool? Something had happened to her...in the morning...something...
For some strange reason his power of recalling seemed to stop short. It was as if his mind had come to the brink of horror and paused, trembling. He had a sense of coming despair, of something evil just ahead, that caused him to keep his eyes tight shut; to flinch, as it were, from pursuing the train of thought any farther. Desperately he clung to that first picture...of her face, half in shadow, tenderly concerned...
He was losing her! He was losing her!
No, he would not open his eyes. If he opened his eyes, she would be gone.
Afraid, he lay still...
But Parmala was open-eyed. Parmala was on her knees by him, hovering over him, clasping and unclasping her little hands, aching to touch, yet not daring, because it seemed too wonderful to be true that he should have moved, that he should be alive.
“That I could believe...that I could believe...” was all that she could say, whispering the words incredulously over and over again. Her eyes were shining, her cheeks streaked with glistening threads of tears. Smiles that peeped and hid again; hands that would not be still; fond, fluttering lips, forming all manner of welcomes and never uttering them--so her joy was bursting out, as pent water bursts out, in little bright spurts, now at this point, now at that.
“That I could believe...believe...”
It was as if she needed to do everything at once,--laugh and cry; touch and abstain; doubt and make sure,--and could not tarry over one sensation because the next was so exquisite. But just behind all the flutter, down in her breast, too strong to be long delayed, there was already rising a great serene river of happiness...rising...rising...to sweep her into his arms.
She felt it coming, surging. She opened her arms wide and threw back her head, poising herself, as it were, to meet it, almost fearful to give possession to something so tremendous and so urgent. Actually, now, with her happiness at her fingers’ ends, she was shy of it, she was shy of him. He had stirred. He was stirring now. In a moment his eyes would open. He would see her. There would be wonderful things in his eyes, if...if...
Ah, that moment! should she hasten it? Could she wait? It would be pain to wait, but pain of a sweet sort, because this was a moment that, once enjoyed, could never be repeated. He would awaken, surely, many, many times in her arms, but would she ever again see quite what she was now about to see--the dawning of a happiness, like this happiness of hers, in his face? the miracle coming to him as it had come to her?
No, she would wait; she would wait. She would treasure her moment. She would not touch nor speak, but let the dear eyes open of themselves.
Tenderly she looked down on him as he lay, frowning a little in some effort of awaking or remembering, stirring uneasily in his half-sleep; and there came to her, as she held herself back and treasured her moment, something of that pain of love that comes to woman out of her very honesty and her clear vision. It was as if, at the very last, she posed the question: “Will it really be as wonderful as I am making it...not to-day...but to-morrow? Will he, can he love me as I love? Or am I dreaming, and shall I, too, have to open my eyes?”
It was only a flicker of thought, an obscure pang in the heart, that came and passed, but it caused her for one second to flash at him a regard more intent, more earnest, as if to read his face for the answer to her question. It was as if she said, “I am expecting so much of you! Is it here?” And in that second--illuminated, as it were--much was revealed that had been hidden from her. Without quite formulating a single thought, she was wonderfully reassured. For she had inklings. She arrived, in one sharp instant of vision, at something very nearly approaching the truth: that he was not, in any respect at all, as other men were. He belonged...he belonged...to wild places!
He was untamed. Yes, and untainted. No other woman, not one. He was hers to make into what she willed. Make or mar--he was hers, and not a whit less virginal than she; and how much more free!
And free he should always be!
Inspired to a sudden great resolve, she glanced round, quickly, triumphantly, at the gray garden, at the leafy ruin, at the trees darkening against the orange glow. How well she had dreamed! for this indeed should be their home. Here was all that was essential to life: food and water, sun and shade; four walls for their privacy; a garden to till; and, for wandering, for delight, all the deep woods under the Ridge. There should be no going back for them, no crossing of the river, no paltering with the old life that had been left behind. The village, where men toiled and moiled for nothing in life but money, fought for money, sinned for money, loved for money, and died for money--it must be wiped out of mind. It must be for them the thing accursed, forbidden. They must never set foot in it again.
She was glad--oh, how glad!--that she had made her sacrifice; that she had poured away the fatal riches that might so easily have led them astray, into that secret old tree, where they would lie, and tarnish, and rot forever. So much the less evil in the world; for truly riches were the root of all evil! But for them there might have been kindliness in Kotahbagh. But for them Piri Ram might have used her as a daughter. But for them she would never have turned her back on her beggar boy.
Beggar? Nay, he was no beggar. All the rest were beggars: not one of them who would not fawn and abase himself for silver; but not he. A prince rather--one of the gentle princes of whom the singers sang, of whom it was said that they had belonged to a golden, vanished age. A prince of the woodland, where he belonged; yes, and must belong!
Her last glance was at herself, at her own bare breast and shoulders. She had naught now but her hair for garment; and that too seemed right and fitting. His eyes, she knew, when they opened, would regard nothing of her but her face.
So the time had come. She was ready for him...
She drew one great sigh of joy. Then she bent down, happy-eyed, and quietly, confidently--in a deep note that was new to her voice-gave him her welcome:
“Brother, I am here.”
He opened his eyes.