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The passageway was long and dark and given to sudden curves and angles, penetrating, it seemed, the very bowels of the Raj Mahal. It ended unexpectedly in a low arch through which the two men passed into an open courtyard, apparently given over entirely to stables. Despite the lateness of the hour it was tenanted by several wideawake syces, dancing attendance upon a pair of blooded stallions of the stud royal, who, saddled, bridled and hooded, pawed and champed impatiently in the centre of the yard, making it echo with the ringing of iron on stone and the jingling of their silver curb-chains.
Salig Singh paused, with a wave of his hand calling Amber's attention to the superb brutes.
"Thou canst see, hazoor, that all is prepared!"
But Salig Singh merely smiled enigmatically, and shaking a patient head, passed on.
A second arch gave upon a corridor which led upwards and presently changed into a steep flight of steps, of ancient stone worn smooth and grooved with the traffic of generations of naked feet. At the top they turned aside and passed through a deserted hanging garden, and then, through a heavy door which Salig Singh unlocked with a private key, into a vast, vacant room, with a lofty ceiling supported by huge, unwieldy pillars of stone, sculptured with all the loves and wars of Hindu mythology. At one end the fitful, eerie flare of a great bronze brazier revealed the huge proportions of an ivory throne, gorgeous with gems and cloth of gold, standing upon a dais and flanked by two motionless figures which at first sight Amber took to be pieces of statuary. But they quickened, saluting with a single movement and a flash of steel, as the Maharana drew nearer, and so proved themselves troopers of the State, standing guard with naked swords.
"There is no need, perhaps, to tell thee, hazoor," Salig Singh muttered, bending to Amber's ear, "that sitting upon this throne, in this Hall of Audience, for generations thy forefathers ruled this land, making and administering its laws, meting out justice, honoured of all men--and served, my lord, for generations by my forebears, the faithful stewards of thy House; even as I would prove faithful...."
"Interesting," Amber interrupted brusquely, "if true. Is this what you wanted to show me?"
"Nay, hazoor, not this alone. Come."
The Rajput led him out of the hall by way of a small doorway behind the throne, and after a little turning and twisting through tortuous passages they began to ascend again, and so went on up, ever upwards, the flights of steps broken by other corridors, other apartments, other galleries and gardens, until at length they emerged into a garden laid out in the very topmost court of all--the loftiest spot in all Kuttarpur.
It was a very wonderful garden, a jungle of exotic plants and shrubs threaded by narrow walks that led to secluded nooks and unsuspected pleasaunces, and lighted by low-swung festoons of dim lamps, many-coloured. A banian grew curiously in its midst, and there also they found a great tank of crystal water with a bed of brilliant pebbles over which small golden gleaming fish flashed and loitered. Here, where the walls of acacia, orange, thuia and pepal shut out every breath of wind, the air was dense with the cloying sweetness of jasmine, musk and marigold....
"My lord," said the Maharana, pausing, "if thou wilt wait here for a little, permitting me to excuse myself--?"
"All right," Amber told him tolerantly. "Run along."
Salig Singh quietly effaced himself, and the American watched him go with an inward chuckle. "I presume I'll have to pay for my impudence in the end," he thought; "but it's costing Salig Singh a good deal to hold himself in." He was for the time being not ill-pleased with this phase of his adventure; he had a notion that this must be a sort of very private pleasure-ground of the rulers of Khandawar, and that very few, if any, white people had ever been permitted to inspect it. What the Maharana's next move would be he had not the least suspicion; but since he must be content and abide the developments as they came, he was minded to amuse himself. He moved away from the cistern, idling down a path in a direction opposite that taken by Salig Singh.
An abrupt turn brought him to the outer wall, and he stopped to gaze, leaning upon the low marble balustrade.
From his feet the wall fell away sheer, precipitous, a hundred feet or more, to another hanging garden like that which lay behind him. From this there was another stupendous drop. On all sides the marble walls spread over the hillsides, descending it in great strides broken by terraces, gardens, paved courts, all white and silver and deep violet shadow, with here and there a window glowing softly yellow or a web of saffron rays peeping through the intricacies of a carved stone lattice. Far below, on the one hand, the lake lay like a sheet of steel; on the other the city stretched, a huddle of flat roofs not unlike an armful of child's building blocks. At that great height the effect was that of peering over the upper lip of an avalanche of masonry on the point of tumbling headlong down a mountainside to crush all beneath it.
In the hush there rose to Amber a muted confusion of sounds--the blended voices of the multitude that inhabited the hidden chambers of the palace: the pawing and shrill neighing of the stallions in the lower courtyard, a shivering clash of steel against steel, somewhere the tinkle of a stringed instrument and a soft voice singing, a man's accents weighty with authority, the ripple of a woman's laugh--all relieved against an undertone like a profound sigh, waning and waxing: the breathing of the Raj Mahal ...
Amber turned away to rejoin Salig Singh by the cistern. But the Rajput was not there; and, presently, another path tempting him to unlawful exploration, he yielded and sauntered aimlessly away. A sudden corner cloaked with foliage brought him to a little open space, a patch of lawn over which a canopy had been raised. Beneath this, a woman sat alone. He halted, thunderstruck.
Simultaneously, with a soft swish of draperies, a clash of jewelled bracelets, dull and musical, and a flash of coruscating colour, the woman stood before him, young, slender, graceful, garbed in indescribable splendour--and veiled.
For the space of three long breaths the Virginian hesitated, unspeakably amazed. Though she were veiled, it were deep dishonour for a woman of a Rajput's household to be seen by a stranger. It seemed inexplicable that Salig Singh should have wittingly left him in any place where he might encounter an inmate of the zenana. Yet the Maharana must have known.... Amber made an irresolute movement, as if to go. But it was too late.
With a murmur, inaudible, and a swift, infinitely alluring gesture, the woman swept the veil away from her face, and looked him squarely in the eyes. She moved toward him slowly, swaying, as graceful as a fawn, more beautiful than any woman he had ever known. His breath caught in his throat, for sheer wonder at this incomparable loveliness.
Her face was oval without a flaw, and pale as newly-minted gold, with a flush of red where the blood ran warm beneath the skin. Her hair was black as ebony and finer than the finest silk, rich and lustrous; her jet-black eyebrows formed a perfect arch. Her mouth was like a passion-flower, but small and sweet, with lips full and firm and scarlet. Her eyes were twin pools of darkness lighted with ardent inner fire. They held him speechless and motionless with the beauty of their unuttered desire, and before he could collect his wits she had made him captive--had without warning cast herself upon her knees before him and imprisoned both his hands, burying her face in their palms. He felt her lips hot upon his flesh, and then--wonder of wonders!--tears from those divine eyes streaming through his fingers.
The shock of it brought him to his senses. Pitiful, dumfounded, horrified, he glared wildly about him, seeking some avenue of escape. There was no one watching: he thanked Heaven for that, while the cold sweat started out upon his forehead. But still at his feet the woman rocked, softly sobbing, her fair shoulders gently agitated, and still she defied his gentle efforts to free his hands, holding them in a grasp he might not break without hurting her. He found his tongue eventually.
"Don't!" he pleaded desperately. "My dear, you mustn't. For pity's sake don't sob like that! What under the sun's the trouble? Don't, please!... Good Lord! what am I to do with this lovely lunatic?" Then he remembered that he had spoken in English and thoughtfully translated the gist of his remonstrances, with as little effect as if he had spoken to the empty air.
Though in time the fiercest paroxysm of her passion passed and her sobs diminished in violence, she clung heavily to him and made no resistance when he lifted her in his arms. The error was fatal; he had designed to get her on her feet and then stand away. But no sooner had he raised her and succeeded in disengaging his hands, than soft round arms were clasped tightly about his neck and her face--if possible, more ravishing in tears than when first he had seen it--pillowed on his breast. And for the first time she spoke coherently.
"Aie!" she wailed tremulously. "Aie! Now is the cup of my happiness full to brimming, now that thou hast returned to me at last, O my lord! Well-nigh had I ceased to hope for thee, O Beloved; well-nigh had this heart of mine grown cold within my bosom, that had no nourishment save hope, save hope! Day and night I have watched for thy coming for many years, praying that thou shouldst return to me ere this frail prettiness of mine, that made thee love me long ago, should wane and fade, so that thy heart should turn to other women, O my husband!"
"Husband! Great--Heavens! Look here, my dear, hadn't you better come to your senses and let me go before--"
"Let thee go, Lalji, ere what? Ere any come to disturb us? Nay, but who should come between husband and wife in the first hour of their reunion after many years of separation? Is it not known--does not all Khandawar know how I have waited for thee, almost thy widow ere thy wife, all this weary time?... Or is it that thy heart hath forgotten thy child-bride? Am I scorned, O my Lord--I, Naraini? Is there no love in thy bosom to leap in response to the love of thee that is my life?"
She released him and whirled a pace or two away, draperies swirling, jewels scintillating cold fire in hopeless emulation of the radiance of her tear-gemmed eyes.
"Naraini?" stammered Amber, recalling what he had heard of the woman. "Naraini!"
"Aye, my lord, Naraini, thy wedded wife!" The rounded little chin went up a trifle and her eyes gleamed angrily. "Am I no longer thy Naraini, then? Or wouldst thou deny that thou art Har Dyal, my king and my beloved? Hast thou indeed forgotten the child that was given thee for wife when thy father reigned in Khandawar and thou wert but a boy--a boy of ten, the Maharaj Har Dyal? Hast thou forgotten the little maid they brought thee from the north, Lalji--the maiden who had grown to womanhood ere thy return from thy travels to take up thy father's crown?... Aie! Thou canst never forget, Beloved; though years and the multitude of faces have come between us as a veil, thou dost remember--even as thou didst remember when the message of the Bell came to thee across the great black waters, and thou didst learn that the days of thy exile were numbered, that the hour approached when again thou shouldst sit in the place of thy fathers and rule the world as once they ruled it."
A denial stuck in Amber's throat. The words would not come, nor would they, he believed, have served his purpose could he have commanded them. If he had found no argument wherewith to persuade Salig Singh, he found none wherewith to refute the claim of this golden-faced woman who recognised him for her husband. He was wholly dismayed and aghast. But while he lingered in indecision, staring in the woman's face, her look of petulance was replaced by one of divine forgiveness and compassion. And she gave him no time to think or to avoid her; in a twinkling she had thrown herself upon him again, was in his arms and crushing her lips upon his.
"Nay," she murmured, "but I did wrong thee, Beloved! Perchance," she told him archly, "thou didst not think to see me so soon, or in this garden? Perchance surprise hath robbed thee of thy wits--and thy tongue as well, O wordless one? Or thou art overcome with joy, as I am overcome, and smitten dumb by it, as I am not? Aho, Lalji! was ever a woman at loss for words to voice her happiness?" And nestling to him she laughed quietly, with a note as tender and sweet as the cooing of a wood-dove to its mate.
"Nay, but there is a mistake." He recovered the power of speech tardily, and would have put her from him; but she held tight to him. "I am not thy husband, nor yet a Rajput. I come from America, the far land where thy husband died.... Nay, it doth pain me to hurt thee so, Ranee, but the mistake is not of my making, and it hath been carried too far. Thy husband died in my presence--"
"It is so, then!" she cut him short. And his arms were suddenly empty, to his huge relief. "Indeed they had warned me that thou wouldst tell this story and deny me--why, I know not, unless it be that thou art unworthy of thy lineage, a coward and a weakling!" Her small foot stamped angrily and on every limb of her round body bracelets and anklets clashed and shimmered. "And so thou hast returned only to forswear me and thy kingdom, O thou of little spirit!" The scarlet lips curled and the eyes grew cold and hard with contempt. "If that be so, tell me, why hast thou returned at all? To die? For that thou must surely come to, if it be in thy mind to defy the behests of the Voice, thou king without a kingdom!... Why, then, art thou here, rather than running to hide in some far place, thinking to escape with thy worthless life--worthless even to thee, who art too craven to make a man's use of it--from the Vengeance of the Body?... Dost think I am to be tricked and hoodwinked--I, in whose heart thine image hath been enshrined these many weary years?"
"I neither think, nor know, nor greatly care, Ranee," Amber interposed wearily. "Doubtless I deserve thine anger and thy scorn, since I am not he who thou wouldst have me be. If death must be my portion for this offence, for that I resemble Har Dyal Rutton ... then it is written that I am to die. My business here in Khandawar hath concern neither with thee, nor with the State, not yet with the Gateway of Swords--of the very name of which I am weary.... Now," and his mouth settled in lines of unmistakable resolve, "I will go; nor do I think that there be any here to stop me."
He wheeled about, prepared to fight his way out of the palace, if need be. Indeed, it was in his mind that a death there were as easy as one an hour after sunrise; for he had little doubt but that he was to die if he remained obdurate, and the hospitality of the Rajput would cease to protect him the moment he set foot upon the marble bund of his bungalow.
But the woman sprang after him and caught his arm. "Of thy pity," she begged breathlessly, "hold for a space until I have taken thought.... Thou knowest that if what thou hast told me be the truth, then am I widow before my time--widowed and doomed!"
"Aye!" And there was real terror in her eyes and voice. "Doomed to sati. For, since I am a widow--since thou dost maintain thou art not my husband--then my face hath been looked upon by a man not of mine own people, and I am dishonoured. Fire alone can cleanse me of that defilement--the pyre and the death by flame!"
"Good God! you don't mean that! Surely that custom has perished!"
"Thou shouldst know that it dieth not. What to us women in whose bodies runs the blood of royalty, is an edict of your English Government? What, the Sirkar itself to us in Khandawar?" She laughed bitterly. "I am a Rohilla, a daughter of kings: my dishonour may be purged only by flame. Arre! that I should live to meet with such fate--I, Naraini, to perish in the flower of my beauty.... For I am beautiful, am I not?" She dropped the veil which instinctively she had caught across her face, and met his gaze with childish coquetry, torn though she seemed to be by fear and disappointment.
"Thou art assuredly most beautiful, Ranee," Amber told her, with a break in his voice, very compassionate. And he spoke simple truth. "Of thy kind there is none more lovely in the world ..."
"There was tenderness then in your tone, my lord!" she caught him up quickly. "Is there no mercy in thy heart for me?... Who is this woman across the seas who hath won thy love?... Aye, even that I know--that thou dost love this fair daughter of the English. Didst thou not lose the picture of her that was taken with the magic-box of the sahibs?... Is it for her sake that thou dost deny me, O my husband? Is she more fair than I, are her lips more sweet?"
"I am not thy husband," he declared vehemently, appalled by her reversion to that delusion. "Till this hour I have never seen thee; nor is the sahiba of any concern to thee. Let me go, please."
But she had him fast and he could not have shaken her off but with violence. He had been a strong man indeed who had not been melted to tenderness by her beauty and her distress. She lifted her glorious face to him, pleading, insistent, and played upon him with her voice of gold. "Yet a moment gone thou didst tell me I was greatly gifted with beauty. Have I changed in thine eyes, O my king? Canst thou look upon this poor beauty and hear me tell thee of my love--and indeed I am altogether thine, Lalji!--and harden thy heart against me?... What though it be as thou hast said? What though thou art of a truth not of the house of Rutton, nor yet a Rajput? Let us say that this is so, however hard it be to credit: even so, am I not reward enough for thy renunciation?"
"I know not thy meaning, Ranee, I--"
"Come, then, and I will show thee, my king. Come thou with me.... Nay, why shouldst thou falter? There is naught for thee to fear--save me." She tugged at his hand and laughed low, in a voice that sang like smitten glasses. "Come, Beloved!"
Unwillingly, he humoured her. This could not last long.... The woman half led, half dragged him to the northern boundary of the garden, where they entered a little turret builded out from the walls over an abyss fully three-hundred feet in depth. And here, standing upon the verge of the parapet, with naught but a foot high coping between her and the frightful fall, utterly fearless and unutterably lovely, Naraini flung out a bare, jewelled arm in an eloquent gesture.
"See, my king!" she cried, her voice vibrant, her eyes kindling as they met his. "Look down upon thy kingdom. North, south, east, west--look!" she commanded. "Wherever thine eyes may turn, and farther than they can see upon the clearest day, this land is all thine ... for the taking. Look and tell me thou hast strength to renounce it ... and me, Beloved!"
A little giddy with the consciousness of their perilous height, his breath coming harshly, he looked--first down to the lake that shone like a silver dollar set in velvet, then up the misty distances of the widening valley through which ran the stream that fed the lake, and out to the hills that closed it in, miles away, and then farther yet over the silvered summits of the great, rough hills that rolled away endlessly, like a sea frozen in its fury.
"There lies thy kingdom, O my king!" The bewitching voice cooed seduction at his shoulder. "There and ... here." She sought his hand and placed it firmly upon her bosom, holding it there with gentle pressure until he felt the thumping of her heart and the warm flesh that heaved beneath a shred of half-transparent lace.
Reddening and a little shaken, he snatched his hand away. And she laughed chidingly.
"From the railway in the north to the railway in the south, all the land is Khandawar, Beloved: thine inheritance--thine for the taking ... even as I am thine, if thou wilt take me.... Look upon it, thy father's kingdom, then upon me, thy queen.... Yea!" she cried, throwing back her head and meeting his gaze with eye languorous beneath their heavy silken lashes. "Yea, I am altogether thine, my king! Wilt thou cast me aside, then, who am faint with love for thee?... Never hast thou dreamed of love such as the love that I bear for thee. How could it be otherwise, when thou hast passed thy days in the chill exile of the North? O my husband, turn not from me--"
He pulled himself together and stood away. "Madam," he said with an absurdly formal bow, "I am not your husband."
She opened her arms with infinite allure. "It is so little that is asked of thee--only to ascend thy father's throne and be honoured of all Bharuta, only to wield the sceptre that is thine by right, only to reign an undisputed king in two kingdoms--Khandawar and thy Naraini's heart!"
"I am very sorry," he returned with the same preciseness. "It is quite impossible. Besides, it seems that you leave the Sirkar altogether out of your calculations. It may not have occurred to you that the Supreme Government of India may have something to say about the contemplated change."
He saw her bite her lips with chagrin, and the look she flashed to his face was anything but kind and tender. "Arre!" she laughed derisively. "And of what account is this frail, tottering Sirkar's will besides the Will of the Body? Of what avail its dicta against the rulings of the Bell? Thou knowest--"
"Pardon, I know nothing. I have told thee, Ranee, that I am not Har Dyal Rutton."
She was mistress of a thousand artifices. Brought to a standstill on the one line of attack, she diverged to another without the quiver of an eyelash to betray her discomfiture.
"Yea, thou hast told me," she purred. "But I, Naraini, I know what I know. Thou dost deny thyself even as thou dost deny me, but ... art thou willing to be put to the proof, my king?"
"If you've any means of proving my identity, I would thank you for making use of it, Ranee."
"There is the test of the Token, Lalji."
"I am not aware of it."
"The test of the Token--the ring that was brought to thee, the signet of thy House. Surely thou hast it with thee?"
Since that night in Calcutta Amber had resumed his habit of carrying the Token in the chamois bag. Now, on the reflection that it had been given him for a special purpose, which had been frustrated by the death of Dhola Baksh, so that he had no further use for it, he decided against the counsels of prudence. "What's the odds," he asked himself, "if I do lose it? I don't want the damn' thing--it's brought me nothing but trouble, thus far." And he thrust a hand within his shirt and brought forth the emerald. "Here it is," he told the woman cheerfully. "Now this test?" "Place it upon thy finger--so, even upon thy little finger, as was thy father's wont with it. Now lift up thine arm, so, and turn the stone to the west, toward Kathiapur."
Without comprehension he yielded to this whim, folding up his right arm and turning the emerald to the quarter indicated by Naraini.
The hour had drawn close upon dawn. A cold air breathed down the valley and was chill to them in that lofty eyrie. The moon, dipping towards the rim of the world, was poised, a globe of dull silver, upon the ridge of a far, dark hill. As they watched it dropped out of sight and everything was suddenly very bleak and black.
And a curious thing happened.
Naraini cried out sharply--"Aho!"--as if unable to contain her excitement.
Somewhere in the palace behind them a great gong boomed like thunder.
A pause ensued, disturbed only by the fluttering of the woman's breath: for the space of thirty pulse-beats nothing happened. Then Naraini's fingers closed like bands of steel about Amber's left wrist.
"See!" she cried in a voice of awe, while the bracelets shivered and clashed upon her outstretched arm, "The Eye, my king, the Eye!"
Amber shut his teeth upon an exclamation of amaze. For just above the far, dark mountain ridge, uncannily brilliant in the void of the pale, moonlit firmament, a light had blazed out; a vivid emerald light, winking and stabbing the darkness with shafts of seemingly supernatural radiance.
"And thy ring, lord--look! The Token!"
The great emerald seemed to have caught and to be answering the light Naraini called the Eye; in the stone's depths an infernal fire leaped and died and leaped again, now luridly blazing, now fitfully a-quiver as though about to vanish, again strong and steady: even as the light of the strange emerald star above the mountains ebbed and flowed through the night.
Naraini shuddered and cried out guardedly for very fear. "By Indur, it is even as the Voice foretold! Nay, Heaven-born"--she caught his sleeve and forcibly pulled down his hand--"tempt not the Unseen further. And put away this Token, lest a more terrible thing befall us. There be mysteries that even we of the initiate may not comprehend, my lord. It is not well to meddle with the unknown."
The ring was off his finger now and the woman was cramming it into his coat-pocket with tremulous hands. And where the Eye had shone, the sky was blank. They stood in darkness, Amber mute with perplexity, Naraini clinging to his arm and shaking like a reed in the wind.
"Now am I frightened, lord of my heart! Lead me back to the garden, for I am but a woman and afraid. Who am I, Naraini, to see the Eye? What am I, a weak woman, to trespass upon the Mysteries? I am very much afraid. Do thou take me hence and comfort me, my king!" She drew his arm about her waist, firm, round, and slender, and held it so, her body yielding subtly to his, her head drooping wearily upon his shoulder.
They moved slowly from the turret and back along the lighted walks of the garden, the woman apparently content, Amber preoccupied--to tell the truth, more troubled than he would have been willing to confess. As for the intimacy of their attitude, he was temporarily careless of it; it meant less to him than the woman guessed. It seems likely that she inferred a conquest from his indifference, for when they had come back to the tank of the gold-fish beneath the banian she slipped from his embrace and confronted him with a face afire with elation.
"See now how thou art altogether controverted, Lalji!" she cried joyfully. "No longer canst thou persist that thou art other than thy true self, the lord of Naraini's heart, the king returned to his kingdom.... For who would dare give the lie to the Eye?... Indeed," she continued with a low, sighing laugh, "I myself had begun to doubt, my faith borne down and overcome by thy repeated denials; but now I know thee. Did not the Bell foretell that the Eye should be seen of men only when Har Dyal Rutton had returned to his kingdom, and then only when he wore the Token? Even as it was said, so has it been.... And now art thou prepared to go?"
"To Kathiawar--even to the threshold of the Gateway?... There is yet time, before the dawn, and it were wise to go quickly, my king; but for one night more is the Gateway open to receive thee. Thou didst see the saddled stallions in the courtyard? They wait there for thee, to bear thee to Kathiawar.... Nay, it were better that thou shouldst wait, mayhap, for the hours be few before the rising of the sun. Go then to thy rest, heart of my heart, since thou must leave me; and this night we shall ride, thou and I, together to the Gateway."
"So be it," he assented, with a grave inclination of his head. Convinced of the thanklessness of any further attempt to convince the woman against her will, he gave it up, and was grateful for the respite promised him. In twelve or eighteen hours he might accomplish much--with the aid of Labertouche. At worst he would find some means to communicate with the Farrells and then seek safety for himself in flight or hiding until what he had come to term "that damned Gateway-thing" should be closed and he be free to resume his strange wooing. Some way, somehow, he could contrive to extricate himself and his beloved.
Therefore he told the woman: "Be it so, O Queen! Now, I go."
"And leave me," she pouted prettily, "with no word but that, my king? Am I not worth a caress--not even when I beg for it?"
He smiled down at her, tolerant and amused, and impulsively caught her to him. "The point's well taken," he said. "Decidedly you're worth it, Naraini. And if you were not, the show was!"
And he kissed and left her, all in a breath.
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