ATAN THOME and Lal Taask stood at the head of their safari, which had just emerged from a dense forest. At their right ran a quiet river; and before them stretched rough, open country. In the distance, visible above low hills, rose the summit of what appeared to be a huge extinct volcano.
“Look, Lal Taask!” exclaimed Thome. “It is Tuen-Baka. Inside its crater lies Ashair, The Forbidden City.”
“And The Father of Diamonds, Master,” added Lal Taask.
“Yes, The Father of Diamonds. I wish that Magra were here to see. I wonder where they are. Wolff must be on his way here with her by now. Perhaps we shall meet them when we come out; they could scarcely have overtaken us—we have moved too swiftly.”
“If we do not meet them, there will be fewer with whom to divide,” suggested Lal Taask.
“I promised her mother,” said Thome.
“That was a long time ago; and her mother is dead, and Magra never knew of the promise.”
“The memory of her mother never dies,” said Thome. “You have been a faithful servitor, Lal Taask. Perhaps I should tell you the story; then you will understand.”
“Your servant listens.”
“Magra’s mother was the only woman I ever loved. The inexorable laws of caste rendered her unobtainable by me. I am a mongrel. She was the daughter of a maha-raja. I was trusted in the service of her father; and when the princess married an Englishman, I was sent to England with her in her entourage. While her husband was hunting big game in Africa, he stumbled upon Ashair. For three years he was a prisoner there, undergoing cruelties and torture. At last he managed to escape, and returned home only to die as a result of his experiences. But he brought the story of The Father of Diamonds, and exacted from his wife a promise that she would organize an expedition to return to Ashair and punish those who had treated him so cruelly. The Father of Diamonds was to be the incentive to obtain volunteers; but the map he made became lost, and nothing was ever done. Then the princess died, leaving Magra, who was then ten years old, in my care; for the old maharaja was dead, and his successor would have nothing to do with the daughter of the Englishman. I have always had it in my mind to look for Ashair, and two years ago I made the first attempt. It was then that I learned that Brian Gregory was on a similar quest. He reached Ashair and made a map, though he never actually entered the city. On his second venture, I followed him; but got lost. I met the remnants of his safari coming out. He had disappeared. They refused to give me the map; so I swore to obtain it, and here I am with the map.”
“How did you know he made a map?” asked Lal Taask.
“Our safaris met for one night, after his first trip in. I just happened to see him making the map. It is the one I have, or, rather, a copy of it that he sent home in a letter.
“Because Magra’s father died because of The Father of Diamonds, a share of it belongs to her; and there is another reason. I am not yet an old man. I see in Magra the reincarnation of the woman I loved. Do you understand, Lal Taask?”
Atan Thome sighed. “Perhaps I dream foolish dreams. We shall see, but now we must move on. Come, Mbuli, get the boys going!”
The natives had been whispering among themselves while Thome and Taask talked, now Mbuli came to Atan Thome.
“My people will go no farther, bwana,” he said.
“What!” exclaimed Thome. “You must be crazy. I hired you to go to Ashair.”
“In Bonga, Ashair was a long way off; and the spirits of my people were brave. Now Bonga is a long way off and Ashair is near. Now they remember that Tuen-Baka is taboo, and they are afraid.”
“You are headman,” snapped Thome. “You make them come.”
“No can do,” insisted Mbuli.
“We’ll camp here by the river tonight,” said Thome. “I’ll talk with them. They may feel braver tomorrow. They certainly can’t quit on me now.”
“Very well, bwana; tomorrow they may feel braver. It would be well to camp here tonight.”
Atan Thome and Lal Taask slept well that night, lulled by the soothing murmuring of the river; and Atan Thome dreamed of The Father of Diamonds and Magra. Lal Taask thought that he dreamed when the silence of the night was broken by a sepulchral voice speaking in a strange tongue, but it was no dream.
The sun was high when Atan Thome awoke. He called his boy, but there was no response; then he called again, loudly, peremptorily. He listened. The camp was strangely silent. Rising, he went to the front of the tent and parted the flaps. Except for his tent and Lal Taask’s, the camp was deserted. He crossed to Taask’s tent and awakened him.
“What is the matter, master?” asked Lal Taask.
“The dogs have deserted us,” exclaimed Thome.
Taask leaped to his feet and came out of his tent. “By Allah! They have taken all our provisions and equipment with them. They have left us to die. We must hurry after them. They can’t be very far away.”
“We shall do nothing of the sort,” said Thome. “We’re going on!” There was a strange light in his eyes that Lal Taask had never seen there before. “Do you think I have gone through what I have gone through to turn back now because a few cowardly natives are afraid?”
“But, master, we cannot go on alone, just we two,” begged Lal Taask.
“Silence!” commanded Thome. “We go on to Ashair—to the Forbidden City and The Father of Diamonds. The Father of Diamonds!” He broke into wild laughter. “Magra shall wear the finest diamonds in the world. We shall be rich, rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice—she and I—the richest people in the world! I, Atan Thome, the mongrel, shall put the maharajas of India to shame. I shall strew the streets of Paris with gold. I—” He stopped suddenly and pressed a palm to his forehead. “Come!” he said presently in his normal tone. “We’ll follow the river up to Ashair.”
In silence, Lal Taask followed his master along a narrow trail that paralleled the river. The ground was rough and broken by gullies and ravines, the trail was fault across rocky, barren ground. Near noon they reached the mouth of a narrow gorge with precipitous cliffs on either side, cliffs that towered high above them, dwarfing the two men to Lilliputian proportions. Through the gorge flowed the river, placidly.
“Siva! What a place!” exclaimed Lal Taask. “We can go no farther.”
“It is the trail to Ashair,” said Thorne, pointing. “See it winding along the face of the cliff?”
“That, a trail!” exclaimed Taask. “It is only a scratch that a mountain goat couldn’t find footing on.”
“Nevertheless, it is the trail that we follow,” said Thorne.
“Master, it is madness!” cried Lal Taask. “Let us turn back. All the diamonds in the world are not worth the risk. Before we have gone a hundred yards we shall have fallen into the river and drowned.”
“Shut up!” snapped Thorne, “and follow me.”
Clinging precariously to a narrow foot path scratched in the face of the towering cliff, the two men inched their way along the rocky wall. Below them flowed the silent river that rose somewhere in the mystery that lay ahead. A single mis-step would cast them into it. Lal Taask dared not look down. Facing the wall, with arms outspread searching for handholds that were not there, trembling so that he feared his knees would give beneath him and hurl him to death, he followed his master, sweat gushing from every pore.
“We’ll never make it,” he panted.
“Shut up and come along!” snapped Thorne. “If I fall, you may turn back.”
“Oh, master, I couldn’t even do that. No one could turn around on this hideous trail.”
“Then keep coming and quit making such a fuss. You make me nervous.”
“And to think you take such risks for a diamond! If it were as big as a house and I had it now, I’d give it to be back in Lahore.”
“You are a coward, Lal Taask,” snapped Thorne.
“I am, master; but it is better to be a live coward than a dead fool.”
For two hours the men moved slowly along the narrow foot path until both were on the verge of exhaustion, and even Thorne was beginning to regret his temerity; then, as he turned a jutting shoulder in the cliff, he saw a little wooded canyon that broke the face of the mighty escarpment and ran gently down to the river. Down into this canyon the trail led. When they reached it, they threw themselves upon the ground in total exhaustion; and lay there until almost dark.
Finally they aroused themselves and built a fire, for with the coming of night a chill settled upon the canyon. All day they had been without food; and they were famished, but there was nothing for them to eat, and they had to content themselves by filling their bellies with water at the river. For warmth, they huddled close to their little fire.
“Master, this is an evil place,” said Lal Taask. “I have a feeling that we are being watched.”
“It is the evil within you speaking, fool,” growled Thorne.
“Allah! Master, look!” faltered Taask. “What is it?” He pointed into the blackness among the trees; and then a sepulchral voice spoke in a strange tongue, and Lal Taask fainted.