CAPTORS AND CAPTIVE
LET us shift the scene. A solitary and feeble lamp lighted a gloomy and low-roofed room, whose sombre and massive walls looked more grim in the dim light. The room was as small in area as it was low in altitude, and altogether wore the appearance more of a habitation destined for the reception of criminals than of an ordinary residence of any who could find another shelter. A low small thick door of iron shut the only entrance to this gloomy apartment, and was furnished with bolts and bars of a proportionately massive character. As if still suspicious of the character of the security of this cell, the architect had taken the unusual precaution of plating the very walls with a coat of iron. The black metal frowned by the dim and flickering light as if it inclosed a living grave. There was another passage or resemblance of a passage from this room besides the iron-door already mentioned. It was another door, precisely of the same character, placed in one of the corners and leading apparently to a side-room; but it was even of smaller dimensions, so much so that a child had to creep through it. The gloomy apartment was without a single article of furniture. It was totally empty. One solitary individual, the sole occupant, was pacing it in the dim and fitful light of the single lamp. It was Madhav Ghose.
Our readers need not be apprised that this was the place where Madhav had been deposited by his captors. But his captors were not there. The hour was about deep midnight. The bolts were drawn outside; and Madhav Ghose for the present at least was shut up in a living grave. Still his mien was not stricken down or dejected or hopeless. Resentment more than any other feeling was foremost in his mind; and as he continued unceasingly to pace the silent chamber with a lofty step, he gathered resolution to meet the worst he had to expect from the desperate character of his captors.
At length a sound was heard of a key turning in the lock which closed the door outside. Next followed the sound of the bolt and bar and chain being cautiously unfastened, the massive doors slowly creaked on their hinges, and his two savage captors silently entered the room, shutting the door after them with the same carefulness.
Madhav cast a glance of unbounded resentment but, without taking any other notice of their entrance, continued pacing the chamber as before. The sardar and Bhiku seated themselves by the lamp, and taking out a little ganja from a bag which the latter carried in his waist, as well as a small and almost headless kalika, began pounding the drug on his palm by the strong pressure of his thumb, preparatory to its ignition. The sardar trimmed the lamp and, while thus employed, observed sarcastically, “The Baboo seems particularly submissive tonight.”
Madhav stopped short in his walk, and faced the miscreant; his features worked as if he would reply, but he suddenly turned without saying anything and resumed his previous employment of pacing the chamber. The ganja was now ready for the kalika, and it being duly ignited, the robbers commenced smoking. The silent contempt of the prisoner now began to irritate his captors, who had hitherto been restrained from offering needless insult by that habitual awe and respect which compels even the most reckless among the vulgar to observe a proper distance to those entitled to deference. The sardar was no vulgar ruffian, as our readers have doubtless perceived, but the lofty mien and stern deportment of the prisoner had restrained even his petulance. But now the fumes of the ganja loosened his spirits.
“Baboo,” said he with a malicious smile on his lips, “will you deign a pull at the kalika? It is done exactly to a millionaire’s taste, I can promise you.”
Madhav again disdained replying, and the discomfited sardar went on smoking, carrying on a horribly obscene conversation with his associate.
“Will you tell me what your master intends doing with me?” at length inquired Madhav, speaking for the first time.
“We have no master,” answered the sardar gruffly, without further interruption to the smoking and the obscene dialogue.
“Your employer then?” asked Madhav again.
“We have no employer,” said the sardar in the same tone, and went on pulling at the kalika.
“He who bade you do this deed?” said Madhav.
“No one bade us,” said the sardar.
“No one? Have you seized and confined me for play?”
“Not for play,” retorted the sardar. “We have seized and confined you for money.” The cool and collected demeanour of Madhav Ghose and the imperious tone of his language had mortified the ruffianly pride of the bandit, who piqued himself upon being the scourge and humiliator of the rich and the great, and he was resolved to be as mortifying in his answers.
“And who gives you this money?” enquired Madhav.
“Guess,” said the sardar.
“I need not.”
A deep and hollow sound interrupted the speaker and his auditors.
“What’s that?” ejaculated Bhiku in amazement.
“What’s that?” ejaculated the sardar in his turn.
All three remained silent for a few moments.
“Can there be another in the room? That would be a fine affair indeed,” said the sardar. “Let me see.”
Although the whole room was visible with the distinctness that the faint light would permit from the place where they sat, the sardar nevertheless got up and scrutinized every corner, but of course with little success.
“It is strange,” he observed as he resumed his place, “but let it go. You were speaking of my employer, sir; who do you think he is?”
The presuming tone of the question highly irritated Madhav Ghose, but suppressing his resentment he briefly answered, “I know he is Mathur Ghose; now tell me what are your instructions.”
Bhiku gaped in surprise, and leering towards the sardar, observed, “How is it that he knows it already?”
“Fool!” said the sardar “do you gape at this, who else in Radhaganj has an iron-walled dungeon to cage his prisoners in?”
But he returned no answer to Madhav’s question, true to his determination of humbling the yet lofty pride of his captive and perhaps to mould him to that state of mind which would facilitate his object. But Bhiku was getting impudent, and warmed by the fumes of the ganja, his usual taciturnity was fast giving place to an uncontrollable propensity to chatter.
“In truth,” said he, “what are we to do with our booty: booty of flesh and blood I mean?”
“Eat him up, I suppose,” said the sardar.
Bhiku broke out into a hoarse laugh at this sally of his chief. But his rude laugh was suddenly checked by another plaintive groan which seemed to issue this time from the ceiling.
“Again!” ejaculated the startled sardar.
Bhiku sat aghast, superstitious fears now coming over him. Madhav also felt uneasy though from other causes.
“This place has been long untenanted,” observed Bhiku speaking in a whisper, “who knows what beings may have made this room their abode.”
Though, of course, equally given to superstition, the much stronger mind of the sardar did not so easily yield to such influences. Generally, their lawless and terrible profession renders people of this class habitually conversant with those scenes which are best calculated to give rise to fears of a superhuman character, and though they as firmly believe as other ignorant people in the existence of superhuman agencies, habit renders them less liable to their impressions.
“Or somebody may be lurking somewhere,” said the sardar, “this must be looked to; you watch our friend here.”
The sardar tore up an edge from his small dhoti and rolling it up into a wick, dipped it in the oil of the lamp, and ignited it in its flame. Thus furnished with a light, he cautiously opened the door. He then proceeded to examine every creek and corner of the veranda which lined the single row of rooms, of which the one now occupied by Madhav and his watchers was the middle one. Not finding anything in the veranda to explain the cause of his alarm he proceeded to search the open ground in front, which was enclosed by the walls already mentioned. But there also the search proved equally fruitless, and he returned vexed and doubtful. Bhiku was now really frightened and, in his anxiety to get rid of the place, gave a hard and significant pinch under the elbow of his chief to hasten negotiations. The sardar complied.
“It is getting late,” he said, addressing Madhav, “and this is no place for us to sleep in. If you will comply with our conditions you can regain your liberty.”
“What are they?” inquired Madhav with indifference, for he saw his advantage.
“Deliver up to us your uncle’s will.”
“It is not with me here,” said he laconically, and turned round to resume his walk.
“Remain here then,” said the sardar with equal brevity; “we go with the keys.”
“And suppose I am inclined to give up the paper, how am I to get at it from here?”
The bandit in his turn perceived his advantage, and replied, “That is your own concern. Devise the best means in your power. If I were you I would think of sending a note by one of my captors to a friend at home, asking him to send me the paper by the bearer.”
“And if my friend asks you where is the writer of the note, what answer will you give?”
Again the same unearthly sound burst upon their ears. This time it was a low stifled shriek, such as no human being could utter. Again the sound seemed to proceed from the ceiling.
The robbers started to their feet; even Madhav himself was shaken.
“Is there an upper story?” said he.
“No, no,” answered both the robbers at once.
“Stop; I will go up to the roof and see again,” said the sardar.
It was easy for such a practised dacoit as the sardar to scale the no great elevation of the rooms. When up, however, his search proved as fruitless as before.
Bending over the edge of the roof he gazed intently on the ground on the back of the building, but here also his search proved equally unsuccessful. He returned once more, vexed and troubled.
A sudden light broke upon Madhav. “Are there not two other rooms, similar to this, in the row?”
“Yes,” said the sardar, “it seems so.”
“Did you bring any other captives to these dungeons?”
“Perhaps then others did; some unfortunate victim of this wretch’s cupidity is undergoing a horrible fate in one of these cells,” said he, more as speaking to himself. “Can you go and see if there are any there?”
“You say right,” replied the sardar, musingly. “Probably in that case, these doors are locked; but I can speak, and the prisoner, if any there is, will doubtless reply.” The sardar again made a wick and proceeded to examine. To his great disappointment the doors of both the rooms were open and the rooms entirely empty.
Utter amazement now seized on Madhav, who clearly saw that every possible existing source had been enquired into, while the robber-chief now began seriously to give way to superstitious apprehensions.
Bhiku cowered with fear and crouched near the sardar.
“We have no heart to stay any longer,” said the sardar to Madhav, “the ways of gods are known to themselves. Give your answer at once, or we shut you up and go.”
Madhav saw that his only chance lay in compliance. If they left him shut up, he could not guess how or when he could expect release. If he complied, it was probable that his note would cause enquiry and afford a clue to his friends by which they would trace out his place of confinement. Still he was determined to make a last effort.
“You expect money,” he said to the sardar, “if you get the will from me; name the sum and I will double it, if you will let me go without giving up the paper.”
“We are satisfied with what has been promised to us. Who can be fool enough to think that you, once free, would give us the money you promise now. The note, or we go.”
Clothes rustled somewhere in the rooms. The dacoits looked at each other, as if ready to fly without waiting further. Madhav understood the look and inquired if they had pen and paper, to which they replied that they had come “provided with them Madhav took the pen and paper, and commenced writing a note to his chief amlá at home.
“I will dictate,” said the sardar, “so that I may be neither doubted nor entrapped, nor your retreat found out. I could once read and write like you.”
Madhav looked up in surprise, but signified his assent and the sardar began to dictate, though from the supernatural fears which agitated him, he was far from being cool enough for the purpose. Madhav began to write.
At that moment a heavy clanking of chains, followed by a tremendous clattering sound, came thundering on the already frightened party, and then again issued the same unearthly moan, more loud and piercing. At one bound Bhiku cleared the veranda, and ran out of the house with a scream. The sardar also rose startled and leaped into the veranda. He was petrified with the vision that there met his eyes and, without turning back even to lock the door, precipitately ran out of the house, leaving Madhav entirely free.
But Madhav himself was just then too much bewildered by the mysterious sounds and the sudden impetuous flight of his captors, to be able fully to comprehend his position. For a moment he remained motionless and undecided. But he was soon ashamed of himself and shaking off unmanly apprehensions jumped into the veranda. Nothing was to be seen. He looked and looked and perceived a small streak of light creeping through a crevice which opened from the veranda into the open ground. Bounding in that direction he found that the door was not locked, and throwing it open saw a female figure standing it that lonely spot. A small lantern was on the ground. Eagerly holding it up for closer examination, he was staggered at what he saw.
“Tara!” escaped from his lips.
“Madhav!” murmured Tara, speechless with astonishment.
But again came [the] plaintive cry from above.