CONSULTATIONS AND COUNCIL
THE wild and lovely shores of the Madhumati are covered even in the vicinity of well-inhabited villages by a tall rank grass almost impervious to human feet. Such a spot of peculiar and almost frightful solitude lay a little to the south of Radhaganj. There the impervious grass was intermixed with an equally high and impervious range of cane-bushes and other underwood which extended far into the land from the margin of the river. Were there a site in the vicinity which commanded an unbroken view of the whole area covered by the interminable underwood, not a single interruption could have been discerned to its luxuriant uniformity. One narrow foot-path seemed to present the only evidence that human footsteps had ever disturbed this dark habitation of venomous reptiles. But even this foot-path could be discerned upon the closest observation and for a short distance only, and then every trace of its further progress was lost. To the practised eye of those, however, who were wont to thread its maze, it presented the only guidance to a little hovel of straw which stood in the very heart of the jungle. The roof of the hovel, a little elevated above the general height of the bushes, was carefully concealed from the view of curious eyes outside by so drawing off and arranging the twigs of adjacent boughs that the whole thatch wore the appearance of the top of a bush higher than the rest. The inside of this small and wretched habitation, if such it could be called, was gloomy and damp. The walls were of bamboo and darmá, and two or three darmás were spread over the humid floor. Blackened pots and cooking utensils were stowed in one corner of the hovel, though apparently they were not often put to use. It was still early in the morning and the streaks of sunbeams that had penetrated inside through crevices had the length that [slanting] rays alone could possess. Its only inhabitants [were] men of a deep black complexion and of a stature and muscular formation that promised vast strength. A short and coarse cloth of small width lightly covered the waist of each, but their legs and thighs and the rest of their dark bodies were completely naked. Latties and swords lay scattered beside them and betokened that their profession was anything but peaceful. The noxious fume of ganja which was being smoked by the two by turns, filled the whole cabin. They were engaged in conversing with each other in a guarded tone which the secluded locality made little necessary.
“What will the business bring?” asked one in whom the reader will recognize Bhiku.
“A large sum,” responded his companion who was no other than the sardar, “full five thousand rupees. It is as good as a night’s affair, nay better, for we go shares with nobody.”
“Bosh” ejaculated Bhiku, his dull eyes glistening with joy, “but why will you not attempt it on the road when that lawyer carries it with him? How else can you get hold of it elsewhere!”
“Because you know that accursed wench, Rajmohan’s wife, had overheard me talking to her husband about it,” replied the sardar, “and has informed Madhav that we wanted it. He has warning and means to send the paper under good escort. And we are only two. Do you now understand, you monkey?”
“But how can we get at it otherwise?” observed the other. “Two of us cannot force the house.”
“Leave that to me, leave that to me. Wit will succeed where strength fails.”
Bhiku pulled a long puff at his chillum and then leisurely sent out the smoke in curls before him. Then shaking his head he observed, “No, no, sardar, I don’t see how it can be done. I tell you one thing, will not our employer advance us one of the five thousands he has promised? It will be a more profitable business then; he cannot find us out when we leave this place.”
“Do you think him such a fool?” replied the sardar. “Do hear what conditions the sharp bargainer has proposed. He gives us one thousand when we can show him the paper to be in our possession; we receive three thousands in all when we deliver it to his hands. And only when the suit is won, which will surely be if the will is destroyed, will we get the other two thousands.”
“But, then, tell me how we are to rob it.”
“No, no, no! you will spoil the business if you know it beforehand. Cunning Rajmohan may make you give it out to him. Follow me as my shadow and rest assured we will succeed.”
“Rajmohan cheat me that way!” exclaimed Bhiku with some enthusiasm, but immediately lowering his voice he said, “Hush I hear footsteps approaching.”
A cry like that of screech-owls but evidently uttered in a human voice, was heard from within the jungle.
“It is only Rajmohan,” observed the sardar and responded by a similar cry. Rajmohan soon made his appearance at the hovel.
“What news, Raj?” asked the sardar.
“All is well,” replied Rajmohan, “I have got back my wife.”
“Indeed! how was it? Where was she?” asked he with some show of satisfaction.
“Well it is rather strange,” said Rajmohan. “Instead of going to her sister where did she go, think you?”
“Where?” enquired both the banditti.
“Why, did not I think she would go there? The house of Mathur Ghose himself.”
“Indeed, and what has she been saying?”
“I believe, nothing, so far as I could gather. I had some talk with the domestics on purpose, but I believe they had no suspicion of anything.”
“Still,” said the sardar, lowering his eyes while a fierce glance shot therefrom, “we must get rid of her.”
“Why, consider,” said Rajmohan, “consider if she may not be spared.”
“Ah! was I right when I said you were—”
“Hear me sardar, hear me out,” interrupted Rajmohan with vehemence. “I hate that wretched woman more than you can ever do. Had I found her out that morning, you would have seen I am no lover. But I confess now that my blood has cooled, I have not the courage and cruelty to do such a deed. Besides, what we feared she had not done; she neither went to Madhav Ghose’s house, nor made a noise of last night’s affair. If she has not done it to-day, what reason is there that she will do it to-morrow.”
“Well,” said the sardar, musing, “I have a place and it may suit both your mind and ours.”
“What is it?” inquired Rajmohan.
“Pack up, take your beautiful wife with you, and come and live with us at Mitguntie.”
“And lead the life of a robber?”
“Yes. Are you not one?”
“Perhaps, but it is impossible for me to be one by reputation.”
“You decline to go?”
“Yes, I have others to take care of, besides this wretched wife. Can I lead the life of a robber with such a family?”
“Have we not our families there?”
“Yes—but then mine must not know that they live with—”
“Peace!” exclaimed the sardar, interrupting him authoritatively, “If you want to join us you can easily send off your sister and her children to her husband,—poor husband or rich husband, it is no look-out of yours; and as to your aunt, she is the aunt of many others like yourself and can shift for herself.”
Rajmohan still hesitated. A long debate ensued, but the threats of the sardar joined to his own wish to leave the neighbourhood of Madhav Ghose for ever, at length prevailed on Rajmohan, and he consented.
It was yet wanting to noon when Rajmohan returned home to bathe himself and break his fast.
The first person who met his eyes was his sister Kishori.
“Kishori,” he said to her, “tell the wretched woman to come before me. I shall teach her how to run away again from my house.”
“Whom do you mean, brother?” enquired Kishori.
“Whom? why, your sister-in-law,” exclaimed Rajmohan, irritated at the question. “Where can your senses be gone?”
“My sister-in-law is not here, you know,” replied Kishori.
“Not here!” ejaculated Rajmohan in surprise. “Has she not returned in the morning?”
“You said you would send her here from the ‘Elder House’,” returned Kishori, “but you have not done so.”
Rajmohan started up in anger and surprise. “It is false!” he cried, “I myself saw her coming in that woman Suki’s mother’s company.”
“That’s strange,” replied Kishori, “but she has not returned. Ask anybody here—none has seen her.” Rajmohan flew like a tiger round the house and ransacked every part of it, but could not find Matangini skulking anywhere.
“Run,” he cried to his sister, “run to her sister’s house; the wretch has sheltered herself there no doubt. Stop—ask aunt to go over to Kanak’s house and look for her there. She may be there probably. I shall keep watch for her here.”
Both Kishori and her aunt started on their errands, but both returned unsuccessfully. Vexation, rage, and surprise bewildered the disappointed husband. With angry words and gestures he again compelled his sister to undertake another fatiguing journey in the midday to learn by inquiry in Mathur Ghose’s household if Matangini had not returned. The obedient Kishori executed her commission with patience and fidelity, but could not succeed in bringing any news of her sister-in-law.