Strangers drawn from the ends of the earth, jewelled and plumed were we;|
I was the Lord of the Inca Race, and she was the Queen of the Sea.
Under the stars beyond our stars where the reinless meteors glow,
Hotly we stormed Valhalla, a million years ago.
Dust of the stars was under our feet, glitter of stars above—
She with the star I had marked for my own—I with my set desire—
IN summer the nights of the desert are hotter than the days, for when the sun goes down, earth, masonry, and marble give forth their stored heat, and the low clouds, promising rain and never bringing it, allow nothing to escape.
Tarvin was lying at rest in the verandah of the rest-house, smoking a cheroot and wondering how far he had bettered the case of the Maharaj Kunwar by appealing to the Maharajah. His reflections were not disturbed; the last of the commercial travellers had gone back to Calcutta and Bombay, grumbling up to the final moment of their stay, and the rest-house was all his own. Surveying his kingdom, he meditated, between the puffs of his cheroot, on the desperate and apparently hopeless condition of things. They had got to the precise point where he liked them. When a situation looked as this one did, only Nicholas Tarvin could put it through and come out on top. Kate was obdurate; the Naulahka was damnably coy; the Maharajah was ready to turn him out of the State. Sitabhai had heard him denounce her. His life was likely to come to a sudden and mysterious end, without so much as the satisfaction of knowing that Heckler and the boys would avenge him; and if it went on, it looked as though it would have to go on without Kate, and without the gift of new life to Topaz—in other words, without being worth the trouble of living.
The moonlight, shining on the city beyond the sands, threw fantastic shadows on temple spires and the watch-towers along the walls. A dog in search of food snuffed dolefully about Tarvin’s chair, and withdrew to howl at him at a distance. It was a singularly melancholy howl. Tarvin smoked till the moon went down in the thick darkness of an Indian night. She had scarcely set when he was aware of something blacker than the night between him and the horizon.
‘Is it you, Tarvin Sahib?’ the voice inquired in broken English.
Tarvin sprang to his feet before replying. He was beginning to be a little suspicious of fresh apparitions. His hand went to his hip pocket. Any horror, he argued, might jump out at him from the darkness in a country managed on the plan of a Kiralfy trick spectacle.
‘Nay; do not be afraid,’ said the voice. ‘It is I—Juggut Singh.’
Tarvin pulled thoughtfully at his cigar. ‘The State is full of Singhs,’ he said. ‘Which?’
‘I, Juggut Singh, of the household of the Maharajah.’
‘H’m. Does the King want to see me?’
The figure advanced a pace nearer.
‘No, Sahib; the Queen.’
‘Which?’ repeated Tarvin.
The figure was in the verandah at his side, almost whispering in his ear. ‘There is only one who would dare to leave the palace. It is the Gipsy.’
Tarvin snapped his fingers blissfully and soundlessly in the dark, and made a little click of triumph with his tongue. ‘Pleasant calling hours the lady keeps,’ he said.
‘This is no place for speaking, Sahib. I was to say, “Come, unless you are afraid of the dark.”’
‘Oh, were you? Well, now, look here, Juggut; let’s talk this thing out. I’d like to see your friend Sitabhai. Where are you keeping her? Where do you want me to go?’
‘I was to say, “Come with me.” Are you afraid?’ The man spoke this time at his own prompting.
‘Oh, I’m afraid fast enough,’ said Tarvin, blowing a cloud of smoke from him. ‘It isn’t that.’
‘There are horses—very swift horses. It is the Queen’s order. Come with me.’
Tarvin smoked on, unhurrying; and when he finally picked himself out of the chair it was muscle by muscle. He drew his revolver from his pocket, turned the chambers slowly one after another to the vague light, under Juggut Singh’s watchful eye, and returned it to his pocket again, giving his companion a wink as he did so.
‘Well, come on, Juggut,’ he said, and they passed behind the rest-house to a spot where two horses, their heads enveloped in cloaks to prevent them from neighing, were waiting at their pickets. The man mounted one, and Tarvin took the other silently, satisfying himself before getting into the saddle that the girths were not loose this time. They left the city road at a walking pace by a cart-track leading to the hills.
‘Now,’ said Juggut Singh, after they had gone a quarter of a mile in this fashion, and were alone under the stars, ‘we can ride.’
He bowed forward, struck his stirrups home, and began lashing his animal furiously. Nothing short of the fear of death would have made the pampered eunuch of the palace ride at this pace.
Tarvin watched him roll in the saddle, chuckled a little, and followed.
‘You wouldn’t make much of a cow-puncher, Juggut, would you?’
‘Ride!’ gasped Juggut Singh. ‘For the cleft between the two hills—ride!’
The dry sand flew behind their horses’ hoofs, and the hot winds whistled about their ears as they headed up the easy slope toward the hills, three miles from the palace. In the old days, before the introduction of telegraphs, the opium speculators of the desert were wont to telegraph the rise and fall in the price of the drug from little beacon-towers on the hills. It was toward one of these disused stations that Juggut Singh was straining. The horses fell into a walk as the slope grew steeper, and the outline of the squat-domed tower began to show clear against the sky. A few moments later Tarvin heard the hoofs of their horses ring on solid marble, and saw that he was riding near the edge of a great reservoir, full of water to the lip.
Eastward, a few twinkling lights in the open plain showed the position of Rhatore, and took him back to the night when he had said good-bye to Topaz from the rear platform of a Pullman. Night-fowl called to one another from the weeds at the far end of the tank, and a great fish leaped at the reflection of a star.
‘The watch-tower is at the further end of the am,’ said Juggut Singh, ‘The Gipsy is there.’
‘Will they never have done with that name?’ uttered an incomparably sweet voice out of the darkness. ‘It is well that I am of a gentle temper, or the fish would know more of thee, Juggut Singh.’
Tarvin checked his horse with a jerk, for almost under his bridle stood a figure enveloped from head to foot in a mist of pale yellow gauze. It had started up from behind the red tomb of a once famous Rajput cavalier who was supposed by the country-side to gallop nightly round the dam he had built. This was one of the reasons why the Dungar Talao was not visited after nightfall.
‘Come down, Tarvin Sahib,’ said the voice mockingly in English. ‘I, at least, am not a grey ape. Juggut Singh, go wait with the horses below the watchtower.’
‘Yes, Juggut; and don’t go to sleep,’ enjoined Tarvin—‘we might want you.’ He alighted, and stood before the veiled form of Sitabhai.
‘Shekand,’ she said, after a little pause, putting out a hand that was smaller even than Kate’s.
‘Ah, Sahib, I knew that you would come. I knew that you were not afraid.’
She held his hand as she spoke, and pressed it tenderly. Tarvin buried the tiny hand deep in his engulfing paw, and, pressing it in a grip that made her give an involuntary cry, shook it with a hearty motion.
‘Happy to make your acquaintance,’ he said, as she murmured under her breath, ‘By Indur, he has a hold!’
‘And I am pleased to see you, too,’ she answered aloud. Tarvin noted the music of the voice. He wondered what the face behind the veil might look like.
She sat down composedly on the slab of the tomb, motioning him to a seat beside her.
‘All white men like straight talk,’ she said, speaking slowly, and with uncertain mastery of English pronunciation. ‘Tell me, Tarvin Sahib, how much you know.’
She withdrew her veil as she spoke, and turned her face toward him. Tarvin saw that she was beautiful. The perception thrust itself insensibly between him and his other perceptions about her.
‘You don’t want me to give myself away, do you, Queen?’
‘I do not understand. But I know you do not talk like the other white men,’ she said sweetly.
‘Well, then, you don’t expect me to tell you the truth?’
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Else you would tell me why you are here. Why do you give me so much trouble?’
‘Do I trouble you? ’
Sitabhai laughed, throwing back her head, and clasping her hands behind her neck. Tarvin watched her curiously in the starlight. All his senses were alert; he was keenly on his guard, and he cast a wary eye about and behind him from time to time. But he could see nothing but the dull glimmer of the water that lapped at the foot of the marble steps, and hear nothing save the cry of the night-owls.
‘O Tarvin Sahib,’ she said. ‘You know! After the first time I was sorry.’
‘Which time was that?’ inquired Tarvin vaguely.
‘Of course it was when the saddle turned. And then when the timber fell from the archway I thought at least that I had maimed your horse. Was he hurt?’
‘No,’ said Tarvin, stupefied by her engaging frankness.
‘Surely you knew,’ she said almost reproachfully.
He shook his head. ‘No, Sitabhai, my dear,’ he said slowly and impressively. ‘I wasn’t on to you, and it’s my eternal shame. But I’m beginning to sabe. You worked the little business at the dam, too, I suppose, and the bridge and the bullock-carts. And I thought it was their infernal clumsiness? Well, I’ll be——’ He whistled melodiously, and the sound was answered by the hoarse croak of a crane across the reeds.
The Queen leaped to her feet, thrusting her hand into her bosom. ‘A signal!’ Then sinking back upon the slab of the tomb, ‘But you have brought no one with you. I know you are not afraid to go alone.’
‘Oh, I’m not trying to do you up, young lady,’ he answered. ‘I’m too busy admiring your picturesque and systematic deviltry. So you’re at the bottom of all my troubles? That quicksand trick was a pretty one. Do you often work it?’
‘0h, on the dam!’ exclaimed the Queen, waving her hands lightly. ‘I only gave them orders to do what they could. But they are very clumsy people—only coolie people. They told me what they had done, and I was angry.’
‘Kill any one?’
‘No; why should I?’
‘Well, if it comes to that, why should you be so hot on killing me?’ inquired Tarvin dryly.
‘I do not like any white men to stay here, and I knew that you had come to stay.’ Tarvin smiled at the unconscious Americanism. ‘Besides,’ she went on, ‘the Maharajah was fond of you, and I had never killed a white man. Then, too, I like you.’
‘Oh!’ responded Tarvin expressively.
‘By Malang Shah, and you never knew!’ She was swearing by the god of her own clan—the god of the gipsies.
‘Well, don’t rub it in,’ said Tarvin.
‘And you killed my big pet ape,’ she went on. ‘He used to salaam to me in the mornings like Luchman Rao, the prime minister. Tarvin Sahib, I have known many Englishmen. I have danced on the slack-rope before the mess-tents of the officers on the line of march, and taken my little begging gourd up to the big bearded colonel when I was no higher than his knee.’ She lowered her hand to within a foot of the ground. ‘And when I grew older,’ she continued, ‘I thought that I knew the hearts of all men. But, by Malang Shah, Tarvin Sahib, I never saw a man like unto you! Nay,’ she went on almost beseechingly, ‘do not say that you did not know. There is a love song in my tongue, “I have not slept between moon and moon because of you”; and indeed for me that song is quite true. Sometimes I think that I did not quite wish to see you die. But it would be better that you were dead. I, and I alone, command this State. And now, after that which you have told the King——’
‘Yes? You heard, then?’
She nodded. ‘After that I cannot see that there is any other way—unless you go away.’
‘I’m not going,’ said Tarvin.
‘That is good,’ said the Queen, with a little laugh. ‘And so I shall not miss seeing you in the courtyard day by day. I thought the sun would have killed you when you waited for the Maharajah. Be grateful to me, Tarvin Sahib, for I made the Maharajah come out. And you did me an ill turn.’
‘My dear young lady,’ said Tarvin earnestly, ‘if you’d pull in your wicked little fangs, no one wants to hurt you. But I can’t let you beat me about the Maharaj Kunwar. I’m here to see that the young man stays with us. Keep off the grass, and I’ll drop it.’
‘Again I do not understand,’ said the Queen, bewildered. ‘But what is the life of a little child to you who are a stranger here?’
‘What is it to me? Why, it’s fair-play; it’s the life of a little child. What more do you want? Is nothing sacred to you?’
‘I also have a son,’ returned the Queen, ‘and he is not weak. Nay, Tarvin Sahib, the child always was sickly from his birth. How can he govern men? My son will be a Rajput; and in the time to come—— But that is no concern of the white men. Let this little one go back to the gods!’
‘Not if I know it,’ responded Tarvin decisively.
‘Otherwise,’ swept on the Queen, ‘he will live infirm and miserable for ninety years. I know the bastard Kulu stock that he comes from. Yes; I have sung at the gate of his mother’s palace when she and I were children—I in the dust, and she in her marriage-litter. To-day she is in the dust. Tarvin Sahib’—her voice melted appealingly—‘I shall never bear another son; but I may at least mould the State from behind the curtain, as many queens have done. I am not a palace-bred woman. Those’—she pointed scornfully toward the lights of Rhatore—‘have never seen the wheat wave, or heard the wind blow, or sat in a saddle, or talked face to face with men in the streets. They call me the gipsy, and they cower under their robes like fat slugs when I choose to lift my hand to the Maharajah’s beard. Their bards sing of their ancestry for twelve hundred years. They are noble, forsooth! By Indur and Allah—yea, and the God of your missionaries too—their children and the British Government shall remember me for twice twelve hundred years. Ahi, Tarvin Sahib, you do not know how wise my little son is. I do not let him go to the missionary’s. All that he shall need afterward—and indeed it is no little thing to govern this State—he shall learn from me; for I have seen the world, and I know. And until you came all was going so softly, so softly, to its end! The little one would have died—yes; and there would have been no more trouble. And never man nor woman in the palace would have breathed to the King one word of what you cried aloud before the sun in the courtyard. Now, suspicion will never cease in the King’s mind, and I do not know—I do not know——’ She bent forward earnestly.—‘Tarvin Sahib, if I have spoken one word of truth this night, tell me how much is known to you.’
Tarvin preserved absolute silence. She stole one hand pleadingly on his knee. ‘And none would have suspected. When the ladies of the Viceroy came last year, I gave out of my own treasures twenty five thousand rupees to the nursing hospital, and the lady sahib kissed me on both cheeks, and I talked English, and showed them how I spent my time knitting—I who knit and unknit the hearts of men.’
This time Tarvin did not whistle; he merely smiled and murmured sympathetically. The large and masterly range of her wickedness, and the coolness with which she addressed herself to it, gave her a sort of distinction. More than this, he respected her for the personal achievement which of all feats most nearly appeals to the breast of the men of the West—she had done him up. It was true her plans had failed; but she had played them all on him without his knowledge. He almost revered her for it.
‘Now you begin to understand,’ said Sitabhai; ‘there is something more to think of. Do you mean to go to Colonel Nolan, Sahib, with all your story about me?’
‘Unless you keep your hands off the Maharaj Kunwar—yes,’ said Tarvin, not allowing his feelings to interfere with business.
‘That is very foolish,’ said the Queen; ‘because Colonel Nolan will give much trouble to the King, and the King will turn the palace into confusion, and every one of my handmaids, except a few, will give witness against me; and I perhaps shall come to be much suspected. Then you would think, Tarvin Sahib, that you had prevented me. But you cannot stay here for ever. You cannot stay here until I die. And so soon as you are gone——’ She snapped her fingers.
‘You won’t get the chance,’ said Tarvin unshakenly. ‘I’ll fix that. What do you take me for?’
The Queen bit the back of her forefinger irresolutely. There was no saying what this man, who strode unharmed through her machinations, might or might not be able to do. Had she been dealing with one of her own race she would have played threat against threat. But the perfectly composed and loose-knit figure by her side, watching every movement, chin in hand, ready, alert, confident, was an unknown quantity that baffled and distressed her.
There was a sound of a discreet cough, and Juggut Singh waddled toward them, bowing abjectly, to whisper something to the Queen. She laughed scornfully, and motioned him back to his post.
‘He says the night is passing,’ she explained, ‘and it is death for him and for me to be without the palace.’
‘Don’t let me keep you,’ said Tarvin, rising. ‘I think we understand each other.’ He looked into her eyes. ‘Hands off!’
‘Then I may not do what I please?’ she said, ‘and you will go to Colonel Nolan to-morrow? ‘
‘That depends,’ said Tarvin, shutting his lips. He thrust his hands into his pockets as he stood looking down at her.
‘Seat yourself again a moment, Tarvin Sahib,’ said Sitabhai, patting the slab of the tomb invitingly with her little palm. Tarvin obeyed. ‘Now, if I let no more timber fall, and keep the grey apes tied fast——’
‘And dry up the quicksands in the Amet River,’ pursued Tarvin grimly. ‘I see. My dear little spitfire, you are at liberty to do what you like. Don’t let me interfere with your amusements.’
‘I was wrong. I should have known that nothing would make you afraid,’ said she, eyeing him thoughtfully out of the corner of her eye; ‘and, excepting you, Tarvin Sahib, there is no man that I fear. If you were a king as I a queen, we would hold Hindustan between our two hands.’
She clasped his locked fist as she spoke, and Tarvin, remembering that sudden motion to her bosom when he had whistled, laid his own hand quickly above hers, and held them fast.
‘Is there nothing, Tarvin Sahib, that would make you leave me in peace? What is it you care for? You did not come here to keep the Maharaj Kunwar alive.’
‘How do you know I didn’t?’
‘You are very wise,’ she said, with a little laugh, ‘but it is not good to pretend to be too wise. Shall I tell you why you came?
‘Well, why did I? Speak up.’
‘ You came here, as you came to the temple of Iswara, to find that which you will never find, unless’—she leaned toward him—‘I help you. Was it very cold in the Cow’s Mouth, Tarvin Sahib?’
Tarvin drew back, frowning, but not betraying himself further.
‘I was afraid that the snakes would have killed you there?’
‘Yes,’ she said softly. ‘And I was afraid, too, that you might not have stepped swiftly enough for the turning stone in the temple.’
Tarvin glanced at her. ‘No?’
‘Yes. Ah! I knew what was in your mind, even before you spoke to the King—when the bodyguard charged.’
‘See here, young woman, do you run a private inquiry agency?’
She laughed. ‘There is a song in the palace now about your bravery. But the boldest thing was to speak to the King about the Naulahka. He told me all you said. But he—even he did not dream that any feringhi could dare to covet it. And I was so good—I did not tell him. But I knew men like you are not made for little things. Tarvin Sahib,’ she said, leaning close, releasing her hand and laying it softly on his shoulder, ‘you and I are kin indeed! For it is more easy to govern this State—ay, and from this State to recapture all Hindustan from these white dogs, the English—than to do what you have dreamed of. And yet a stout heart makes all things easy. Was it for yourself, Tarvin Sahib, that you wanted the Naulahka, or for another—even as I desire Gokral Seetarun for my son? We are not little people. It is for another, is it not?’
‘Look here,’ said Tarvin reverently, as he took her hand from his shoulder and held it firmly in his clutch again, ‘are there many of you in India?’
‘But one. I am like yourself—alone.’ Her chin drooped against his shoulder, and she looked up at him out of her eyes as dark as the lake. The scarlet mouth and the quivering nostrils were so close to his own that the fragrant breath swept his cheek.
‘Are you making states, Tarvin Sahib, like me? No; surely it is a woman. Your government is decreed for you, and you do what it orders. I turned the canal which the Government said should run through my orange-garden, even as I will bend the King to my will, even as I will kill the boy, even as I will myself rule in Gokral Seetarun through my child. But you, Tarvin Sahib—you wish only a woman! Is it not so? And she is too little to bear the weight of the Luck of the State. She grows paler day by day.’ She felt the man quiver, but he said nothing.
From the tangle of scrub and brushwood at the far end of the lake broke forth a hoarse barking cough that filled the hills with desolation as water brims a cup. Tarvin leaped to his feet. For the first time he heard the angry complaint of the tiger going home to his lair after a fruitless night of ranging.
‘It is nothing,’ said the Queen, without stirring. ‘It is only the tiger of the Dungar Talao. I have heard him howling many times when I was a gipsy, and even if he came you would shoot him, would you not, as you shot the ape?’
She nestled close to him, and, as he sank beside her on the stone again, his arm slipped unconsciously about her waist.
The shadow of the beast drifted across an open space by the lake-shore as noiselessly as thistledown draws through the air of summer, and Tarvin’s arm tightened in its resting-place—tightened on a bossed girdle that struck cold on his palm through many folds of muslin.
‘So little and so frail—how could she wear it?’ resumed the queen.
She turned a little in his embrace, and Tarvin’s arm brushed against one, and another, and then another, strand of the girdle, studded like the first with irregular bosses, till under his elbow he felt a great square stone.
He started, and tightened his hold about her waist, with paling lips.
‘But we two,’ the Queen went on, in a low voice, regarding him dreamily, ‘could make the kingdoms fight like the water-buffaloes in spring. Would you be my prime minister, Tarvin Sahib, and advise me through the curtain?’
‘I don’t know whether I could trust you,’ said Tarvin briefly.
‘I do not know whether I could trust myself,’ responded the Queen; ‘for after a time it might be that I should be servant who have always been queen. I have come near to casting my heart under the hoofs of your horse—not once, but many times.’ She put her arms around his neck and joined them there, gazing into his eyes, and drawing his head down to hers. ‘Is it a little thing,’ she cooed, ‘if I ask you to be my king? In the old days, before the English came, Englishmen of no birth stole the hearts of begums, and led their armies. They were kings in all but the name. We do not know when the old days may return, and we might lead our armies together.’
‘All right. Keep the place open for me. I might come back and apply for it one of these days when I’ve worked a scheme or two at home.’
‘Then you are going away—you will leave us soon?’
‘I’ll leave you when I’ve got what I want, my dear,’ he answered, pressing her closer.
She bit her lip. ‘I might have known,’ she said softly. ‘I, too, have never turned aside from anything I desired. Well, and what is it?’
The mouth drooped a little at the corners, as the head fell on his shoulder. Glancing down, he saw the ruby jewelled jade handle of a little knife at her breast.
He disengaged himself from her arms with a quick movement, and rose to his feet. She was very lovely as she stretched her arms appealingly out to him in the half light; but he was there for other things.
Tarvin looked at her between the eyes, and her glance fell.
‘I’ll take what you have around your waist, please.’
‘I might have known that the white man thinks only of money!’ she cried scornfully.
She unclasped a silver belt from her waist and threw it from her, clinking, upon the marble.
Tarvin did not give it a glance.
‘You know me better than that,’ he said quietly. ‘Come, hold up your. hands. Your game is played.’
‘I do not understand,’ she said. ‘Shall I give you some rupees?’ she asked scornfully. ‘Be quick, Juggut Singh is bringing the horses.’
‘Oh, I’ll be quick enough. Give me the Naulahka.’
‘The same. I’m tired of tipsy bridges and ungirt horses and uneasy arches and dizzy quicksands. I want the necklace.’
‘And I may have the boy?’
‘No; neither boy nor necklace.’
‘And will you go to Colonel Nolan in the morning?’
‘The morning is here now. You’d better be quick.’
‘Will you go to Colonel Nolan?’ she repeated, rising and facing him.
‘Yes; if you don’t give me the necklace.’
‘And if I do?’
‘No. Is it a trade?’ It was his question to Mrs. Mutrie.
The Queen looked desperately at the day-star that was beginning to pale in the East. Even her power over the King could not save her from death if the day discovered her beyond the palace walls.
The man spoke as one who held her life in the hollow of his hand; and she knew he was right. If he had proof he would not scruple to bring it before the Maharajah; and if the Maharajah believed—— Sitabhai could feel the sword at her throat. She would be no founder of a dynasty, but a nameless disappearance in the palace. Mercifully, the King had not been in a state to understand the charges Tarvin had brought against her in the courtyard. But she lay open now to anything this reckless and determined stranger might choose to do against her. At the least he could bring upon her the formless suspicion of an Indian court, worse than death to her plans, and set the removal of Maharaj Kunwar beyond her power, through the interposition of Colonel Nolan; and at the worst—— But she did not pursue this train of thought.
She cursed the miserable weakness of liking for him which had prevented her from killing him just now as he lay in her arms. She had meant to kill him from the first moment of their interview; she had let herself toy too long with the fascination of being dominated by a will stronger than her own, but there was still time.
‘And if I do not give you the Naulahka?’ she asked.
‘I guess you know best about that.’
As her eye wandered out on the plain she saw that the stars no longer had fire in them; the black water of the reservoir paled and grew grey, and the wild-fowl were waking in the reeds. The dawn was upon her, as merciless as the man. Juggut Singh was leading up the horses, motioning to her in an agony of impatience and terror. The sky was against her; and there was no help on earth.
She put her hands behind her. Tarvin heard the snap of a clasp, and the Naulahka lay about her feet in ripples of flame.
Without looking at him or the necklace, she moved toward the horses. Tarvin stooped swiftly and possessed himself of the treasure. Juggut Singh had released his horse. Tarvin strode forward and caught at the bridle, cramming the necklace into his breast-pocket.
He bent to make sure of his girth. The Queen, standing behind her horse, waited an instant to mount.
‘Good-bye, Tarvin Sahib; and remember the gipsy,’ she said, flinging her arm out over the horse’s withers. ‘Heh!’
A flicker of light passed his eye. The jade handle of the Queen’s knife quivered in the saddleflap, half an inch above his right shoulder. His horse plunged forward at the Queen’s stallion, with a snort of pain.
‘Kill him, Juggut Singh!’ gasped the Queen, pointing to Tarvin, as the eunuch scrambled into his saddle. ‘Kill him!’
Tarvin caught her tender wrist in his fast grip. ‘Easy there, girl! Easy!’ She returned his gaze, baffled. ‘Let me put you up,’ he said.
He put his arms about her and swung her into the saddle.
‘Now give us a kiss,’ he said, as she looked down at him.
She stooped. ‘No, you don’t! Give me your hands.’ He prisoned both wrists, and kissed her full upon the mouth. Then he smote the horse resoundingly upon the flank, and the animal blundered down the path and leaped out into the plain.
He watched the Queen and Juggut Singh disappear in a cloud of dust and flying stones, and turned with a deep sigh of relief to the lake. Drawing the Naulahka from its resting-place, and laying it fondly out upon his hands, he fed his eyes upon it.
The stones kindled with the glow of the dawn, and mocked the shifting colours of the hills. The shining ropes of gems put to shame the red glare that shot up from behind the reeds, as they had dulled the glare of the torches on the night of the little Prince’s wedding. The tender green of the reeds themselves, the intense blue of the lake, the beryl of the flashing kingfishers, and the blinding ripples spreading under the first rays of the sun, as a bevy of coots flapped the water from their wings—the necklace abashed them all. Only the black diamond took no joy from the joy of the morning, but lay among its glorious fellows as sombre and red-hearted as the troublous night out of which Tarvin had snatched it.
Tarvin ran the stones through his hands one by one, and there were forty-five of them—each stone perfect and flawless of its kind; nipped, lest any of its beauty should be hidden, by a tiny gold clasp, each stone swinging all but free from the strand of soft gold on which it was strung, and each stone worth a king’s ransom or a queen’s good name.
It was a good moment for Tarvin. His life gathered into it. Topaz was safe!
The wild duck were stringing to and fro across the lake, and the cranes called to one another, stalking through reeds almost as tall as their scarlet heads. From some temple hidden among the hills a lone priest chanted sonorously as he made the morning sacrifice to his god, and from the city in the plain came the boom of the first warddrums, telling that the gates were open and the day was born.
Tarvin lifted his head from the necklace. The jade-handled knife was lying at his feet. He picked up the delicate weapon and threw it into the lake.
‘And now for Kate,’ he said.