CAVES OF TERROR
Garden City New York Garden City Publishing Co., Inc 1924
Copyright, 1924, by Doubleday, Page & Company All Rights Reserved Copyright, 1922, by Talbot Mundy, and the Ridgway Company Printed in the United States at the Country Life Press, Garden City, N. Y.
I. The Gray Mahatma
II. The Palace of Yasmini
III. Fear is Death
IV. The Pool of Terrors
V. Far Cities
VI. The Fire Bathers
VIII. The River of Death
IX. The Earthquake Elephant
X. A Date With Doom
XI. "Kill! Kill!"
XII. The Cave of Bones
CAVES OF TERROR
THE GRAY MAHATMA
Meldrum Strange has "a way" with him. You need all your tact to get him past the quarreling point; but once that point is left behind there isn't a finer business boss in the universe. He likes to put his ringer on a desk-bell and feel somebody jump in Tibet or Wei-hei-wei or Honolulu. That's Meldrum Strange.
When he sent me from San Francisco, where I was enjoying a vacation, to New York, where he was enjoying business, I took the first train.
"You've been a long time on the way," he remarked, as I walked into his office twenty minutes after the Chicago flyer reached Grand Central Station. "Look at this!" he growled, shoving into my hand a clipping from a Western newspaper.
"What about it?" I asked when I had finished reading.
"While you were wasting time on the West Coast this office has been busy," he snorted, looking more like General Grant than ever as he pulled out a cigar and started chewing it. "We've taken this matter up with the British Government, and we've been retained to look into it."
"You want me to go to Washington, I suppose."
"You've got to go to India at once."
"That clipping is two months old," I answered. "Why didn't you wire me when I was in Egypt to go on from there?"
"Look at this!" he answered, and shoved a letter across the desk.
It bore the address of a club in Simla.
Meldrum Strange, Esq., Messrs. Grim, Ramsden and Ross, New York.
Having recently resigned my commission in the British Indian army I am free to offer my services to your firm, provided you have a sufficiently responsible position here in India to offer me. My qualifications and record are known to the British Embassy in Washington, D. C., to whom I am permitted to refer you, and it is at the suggestion of —— —— (he gave the name of a British Cabinet Minister who is known the wide world over) that I am making this proposal; he was good enough to promise his endorsement to any application I might care to make. If this should interest you, please send me a cablegram, on receipt of which I will hold my services at your disposal until your letter has time to reach Simla, when, if your terms are satisfactory, I will cable my acceptance without further delay.
Yours faithfully, Athelstan King, V. C., D. S. O., etc.
"Do you know who he is?" demanded Strange. "That's the fellow who went to Khinjan Caves—the best secret service officer the British ever had. I cabled him, of course. Here's his contract. You take it to him. Here's the whole dope about this propaganda. Take the quickest route to India, sign up this man King, and go after them at that end for all the two of you are worth. That's all."
My passport being unexpired, I could make the Mauretania and did. Moreover I was merciless to the expense account. An aeroplane took me from Liverpool to London, another from London to Paris.
I don't care how often you arrive in Bombay, the thrill increases. You steam in at dawn by Gharipuri just as the gun announces sunrise, and the dreamy bay glimmers like a prophet's vision—temples, domes, minarets, palm-trees, roofs, towers, and masts.
Almost before the anchor had splashed into the spawn-skeined water off the Apollo Bunder a native boat drew alongside and a very well-dressed native climbed up the companion-ladder in quest of me. I had sent King a wireless, but his messenger was away in advance of even the bankers' agents, who flock on board to tout for customs business.
He handed me a letter which simply said that the bearer, Gulab Lal Singh, would look after me and my belongings. So I paid attention to the man. He was a strapping fellow, handsome as the deuce, with a Roman nose, and the eye of a gentleman unafraid.
He said that Major King was in Bombay, but detained by urgent business. However, he invited me to Major King's quarters for breakfast, so instead of waiting for the regular launch I got into the native sailboat with him. And he seemed to have some sort of talisman for charming officials, for on the quay an officer motioned us through without even examining my passport.
We drew up finally in front of a neat little bungalow in a long street of similar buildings intended for British officials. Gulab Lal Singh took me straight into the dining room and carried in breakfast with his own hands, standing behind my chair in silence while I ate.
Without much effort I could see his face in the mirror to my right, and when I thought he wasn't noticing I studied him carefully.
"Is there anything further that the sahib would care for?" he asked when the meal was finished.
"Yes," I said, pulling out an envelope. "Here's your contract, Major King. If you're agreeable we may as well get that signed and mailed to New York."
I expected to see him look surprised, but he simply sat down at the table, read the contract over, and signed it.
Then we went out on to a veranda that was shut off from the street by brown kaskas tatties.
"How long does it take you to grow a beard?" was his first, rather surprising question.
It was not long before I learned how differently he could treat different individuals. He had simply chosen his extraordinary way of receiving me as the best means of getting a real line on me without much loss of time. He did not compliment me on having seen through his disguise, or apologize for his own failure to keep up the deception. He sat opposite and studied me as he might the morning newspaper, and I returned the compliment.
"You see," he said suddenly, as if a previous conversation had been interrupted, "since the war, governments have lost their grip, so I resigned from the army. You look to me like a kind of God-send. Is Meldrum Strange as wealthy as they say?"
"Is he playing for power?"
"He's out to do the world good, but he enjoys the feel of it. He is absolutely on the level."
"I have a letter from Strange, in which he says you've hunted and prospected all over the world. Does that include India?"
"Know any of the languages?"
"Enough Hindustani to deceive a foreigner."
Mind you, I was supposed to be this fellow's boss.
"I think we'll be able to work together," he said after another long look at me.
"Are you familiar with the facts?" he asked me.
"I've the dossier with me. Studied it on the ship of course."
"You understand then: The Princess Yasmini and the Gray Mahatma are the two keys. The Government daren't arrest either, because it would inflame mob-passion. There's too much of that already. I'm not in position to play this game alone—can't afford to. I've joined the firm to get backing for what I want to do; I'd like that point clear. As long as we're in harness together I'll take you into confidence. But I expect absolutely free rein."
"All right," I said. And for two hours he unfolded to me a sort of panorama of Indian intrigue, including dozens of statements of sheer fact that not one person in a million would believe if set down in cold print.
"So you see," he said at last, "there's something needed in the way of unobtrusive inspection if the rest of the world is to have any kind of breathing spell. If you've no objection we'll leave Bombay to-night and get to work."
* * * * *
Athelstan King and I arrived, after certain hot days and choking nights, at a city in the Punjab that has had nine names in the course of history. It lies by a winding wide river, whose floods have changed the land-marks every year since men took to fighting for the common heritage.
The tremendous wall, along whose base the river sucks and sweeps for more than a third of the city's whole circumference, has to be kept repaired by endless labor, but there are compensations. The fierce current guards and gives privacy to a score of palaces and temples, as well as a burning ghat.
The city has been very little altered by the vandal hand of progress. There is a red steel railway bridge, but the same framework carries a bullock-road.
From the bridge's northern end as far as the bazaar the main street goes winding roughly parallel with the waterfront. Trees arch over it like a cathedral roof, and through the huge branches the sun turns everything beneath to gold, so that even the impious sacred monkeys achieve vicarious beauty, and the scavenger mongrel dogs scratch, sleep, and are miserable in an aureole.
There are modern signs, as for instance, a post office, some telegraph wires on which birds of a thousand colors perch with an air of perpetual surprise, and—tucked away in the city's busiest maze not four hundred yards from the western wall—the office of the Sikh apothecary Mulji Singh.
Mulji Singh takes life seriously, which is a laborious thing to do, and being an apostle of simple sanitation is looked at askance by the populace, but he persists.
King's specialty is making use of unconsidered trifles and misunderstood babus.
* * * * *
King was attired as a native, when we sought out Mulji Singh together and found him in a back street with a hundred-yard-long waiting list of low-caste and altogether casteless cripples.
And of course Mulji Singh had all the gossip of the city at his fingers' ends. When he closed his office at last, and we came inside to sit with him, he loosed his tongue and would have told us everything he knew if King had not steered the flow of information between channels.
"Aye, sahib, and this Mahatma, they say, is a very holy fellow, who works miracles. Sometimes he sits under a tree by the burning ghat, but at night he goes to the temple of the Tirthankers, where none dare follow him, although they sit in crowds outside to watch him enter and leave. The common rumor is that at night he leaves his body lifeless in a crypt in that Tirthanker temple and flies to heaven, where he fortifies himself with fresh magic. But I know where he goes by night. There comes to me with boils a one-legged sweeper who cleans a black panther's cage. The panther took his other leg. He sleeps in a cage beside the panther's, and it is a part of his duty to turn the panther loose on intruders. It is necessary that they warn this one-legged fellow whenever a stranger is expected by night, who should not be torn to pieces. Night after night he is warned. Night after night there comes this Mahatma to spend the hours in heaven! There are places less like heaven than her palace."
"Is he your only informant?" King demanded.
"Aye, sahib, the only one on that count. But there is another, whose foot was caught between stone and stone when they lowered a trap-door once in that Tirthanker temple. He bade the Tirthankers heal his foot, but instead they threw him out for having too much knowledge of matters that they said do not concern him. And he says that the trap-door opens into a passage that leads under the wall into a chamber from which access is obtained by another trap-door to a building inside her palace grounds within a stone-throw of that panther's cage. And he, too, says that the Mahatma goes nightly to her palace."
"Are there any stories of her?" King inquired.
"Thousands, sahib! But no two agree. It is known that she fell foul of the raj in some way, and they made her come to this place. I was here when she came. She has a household of a hundred women—maunds of furniture—maunds of it, sahib! She gave orders to her men-servants to be meek and inoffensive, so when they moved in there were not more than ten fights between them and the city-folk who thought they had as much right to the streets. There was a yellow-fanged northern devil who marshaled the serving-men, and it is he who keeps her palace gate. He keeps it well. None trespass."
"What other visitors does she entertain besides the Mahatma?"
"Many, sahib, though few enter by the front gate. There are tales of men being drawn up by ropes from boats in the river."
"Is there word of why they come?"
"Sahib, the little naked children weave stories of her doings. Each has a different tale. They call her empress of the hidden arts. They say that she knows all the secrets of the priests, and that there is nothing that she cannot do, because the gods love her and the Rakshasas (male evil spirits) and Apsaras (female evil spirits) do her bidding."
"What about this Tirthanker temple? Who controls it?"
"None knows that, sahib. It is so richly endowed that its priests despise men's gifts. None is encouraged to worship in that place. When those old Tirthankers stir abroad they have no dealings with folk in this city that any man knows of."
"Are you sure they are Tirthankers?" asked King.
"I am sure of nothing, sahib. For aught I know they are devils!"
King gave him a small sum of money, and we walked away toward the burning ghat, where there was nothing but a mean smell and a few old men with rakes gathering up ashes. But outside the ghat, where a golden mohur tree cast a wide shadow across the road there was a large crowd sitting and standing in rings around an absolutely naked, ash-smeared religious fanatic.
The fanatic appeared to have the crowd bewildered, for he cursed and blessed on no comprehensible schedule, and gave extraordinary answers to the simplest questions, not acknowledging a question at all unless it suited him.
King and I had not been there a minute before some one asked him about the Princess Yasmini.
"Aha! Who stares at the fire burns his eyes! A burned eye is of less use than a raw one!"
Some laughed, but not many. Most of them seemed to think there was deep wisdom in his answer to be dug for meditatively, as no doubt there was. Then a man on the edge of the crowd a long way off from me, who wore the air of a humorist, asked him about me.
"Does the shadow of this foreigner offend your honor's holiness?"
None glanced in my direction; that might have given the game away. It is considered an exquisite joke to discuss a white man to his face without his knowing it. The Gray Mahatma did not glance in my direction either.
"As a bird in the river—as a fish in the air—as a man in trouble is the foreigner in Hind!" he answered.
Then he suddenly began, declaiming, making his voice ring as if his throat were brass, yet without moving his body or shifting his head by a hair's breadth.
"The universe was chaos. He said, let order prevail, and order came out of the chaos and prevailed. The universe was in darkness. He said, let there be light and let it prevail over darkness; and light came out of the womb of darkness and prevailed. He ordained the Kali-Yug—an age of darkness in which all Hind should lie at the feet of foreigners. And thus ye lie in the dust. But there is an end of night, and so there is an end to Kali-Yug. Bide ye the time, and watch!"
King drew me away, and we returned up-street between old temples and new iron-fronted stores toward Mulji Singh's quarters where he had left the traveling bag that we shared between us.
"Is that Gray Mahatma linked up with propaganda in the U.S.A?" I asked, wondering.
"What's more," King answered, "he's dangerous; he's sincere—the most dangerous type of politician in the world—the honest visionary, in love with an abstract theory, capable of offering himself for martyrdom. Watch him now!"
The crowd was beginning to close in on the Mahatma, seeking to touch him. Suddenly he flew into a fury, seized a long stick from some one near him and began beating them over the head, using both hands and laying on so savagely that ashes fell from him like pipe-clay from a shaken bag, and several men ran away with the blood pouring down their faces. However, they were reckoned fortunate.
"Some of those will charge money to let other fools touch them," said King. "Come on. Let's call on her now."
So we returned to Mulji Singh's stuffy little office, and King changed into a Major's uniform.
"It isn't exactly according to Hoyle to wear this," he explained. "However, she doesn't know I've resigned from the army."
THE PALACE OF YASMINI
Nobody saw us walk up to Yasmini's palace gate and knock; for whoever was abroad in the heat was down by the ghat admiring the Mahatma.
The bearded giant who had admitted us stood staring at King, his long, strong fingers twitching. In his own good time King turned and saw fit to recognize him.
"Oh, hullo Ismail!"
He held a hand out, but the savage flung arms about him that were as strong as the iron gate-clamps, and King had to fight to break free from the embrace.
"Now Allah be praised, he is father of mercies! She warned me!" he croaked. "She knows the smell of dawn at midnight! She said, 'He cometh soon!' and none believed her, save only I. This very dawn said she, 'Thou, Ismail,' she said, 'be asleep at the gate when he cometh and thine eyes shall be thrown to the city dogs!' Aye! Oho!"
King nodded to lead on, and Ismail obeyed with a deal of pantomime intended to convey a sense of partnership with roots in the past and its fruition now.
The way was down a passage between high, carved walls so old that antiquarians burn friendship in disputes not so much about the century as the very era of that quiet art—under dark arches with latticed windows into unexpected gardens fresh with the smell of sprinkled water—by ancient bronze gateways into other passages that opened into stone-paved courts with fountains in the midst—building joining on to building and court meeting court until, where an old black panther snarled at us between iron bars, an arch and a solid bronze door admitted us at last into the woman's pleasance—a wonderland of jasmine, magnolia and pomegranates set about a marble pool and therein mirrored among rainbow-colored fishes.
Beyond the pool a flight of marble steps rose fifty feet until it passed through a many-windowed wall into the panch mahal—the quarters of the women. At their foot Ismail halted.
"Go thou up alone! Leave this elephant with me!" he said, nudging me and pointing with his thumb toward a shady bower against the garden wall.
Without acknowledging that pleasantry King took my arm and we went straight forward together, our tread resounding strangely on steps that for centuries had felt no sterner shock than that of soft slippers and naked, jeweled feet.
We were taking nobody entirely by surprise; that much was obvious. Before we reached the top step two women opened a door and ran to meet us. One woman threw over King's head such a prodigious garland of jasmine buds that he had to loop it thrice about his shoulders. Then each took a hand of one of us and we entered between doors of many-colored wood, treading on mat-strewn marble, their bare feet pattering beside ours. There were rustlings to right and left, and once I heard laughter, smothered instantly.
At last, at the end of a wide hall before many-hued silken curtains our two guides stopped. As they released our hands, with the always surprising strength that is part of the dancing woman's stock-in-trade, they slipped behind us suddenly and thrust us forward through the curtains.
There was not much to see in front of us. We found ourselves in a paneled corridor, whose narrow windows overlooked the river, facing a painted door sixty paces distant at the farther end. King strode down the corridor and knocked.
The answer was one word that I did not catch, although it rang like a suddenly struck chord of music, and the door yielded to the pressure of King's hand.
I entered behind him and the door swung shut of its own weight with a click. We were in a high-ceilinged, very long room, having seven sides. There were windows to right and left. A deep divan piled with scented cushions occupied the whole length of one long wall, and there were several huge cushions on the floor against another wall. There was one other door besides that we had entered by.
We stood in that room alone, but I know that King felt as uneasy as I did, for there was sweat on the back of his neck. We were being watched by unseen eyes. There is no mistaking that sensation.
Suddenly a voice broke silence like a golden bell whose overtones go widening in rings into infinity, and a vision of loveliness parted the curtains of that other door.
"My lord comes as is meet—spurred, and ready to give new kingdoms to his king! Oh, how my lord is welcome!" she said in Persian.
Her voice thrilled you, because of its perfect resonance, exactly in the middle of the note. She looked into King's eyes with challenging familiarity that made him smile, and then eyed me wonderingly. She glanced from me to a picture on the wall in blue of the Elephant-god—enormous, opulent, urbane, and then back again at me, and smiled very sweetly.
"So you have brought Ganesha with you? The god of good luck! How wonderful! How does one behave toward a real god?"
And while she said that she laid her hands on King's arms as naturally as if he were a lover whom she had not seen perhaps since yesterday. Plainly, there was absolutely nothing between him and her except his own obstinate independence. She was his if he wanted her.
She took King's hand with a laugh that had its roots in past companionship and led him to the middle, deepest window-seat, beneath which the river could be heard gurgling busily.
Then, when she had drawn the silken hangings until the softened light suggested lingering, uncounted hours, and had indicated with a nod to me a cushion in the corner, she came and lay on the cushions close to King, chin on hand, where she could watch his eyes.
King sat straight and square, watching her with caution that he did not trouble to conceal. She took his hand and raised the sleeve until the broad, gold, graven bracelet showed.
"That link forged in the past must bind us two more surely than an oath," she said smiling.
"I used it to show to the gatekeeper."
He sat cooly waiting for her next remark. And with almost unnecessary candor began to remove the bracelet and offer it back to her. So she unmasked her batteries, with a delicious little rippling laugh and a lazy, cat-like movement that betokened joy in the danger that was coming, if I know anything at all of what sign-language means.
"I knew that very day that you resigned your commission in the army, and I laughed with delight at the news, knowing that the gods who are our servants had contrived it. I know why thou art here," she said; and the change from you to thou was not haphazard.
"It is well known, Princess, that your spies are the cleverest in India," King answered.
"Spies? I need no spies as long as old India lives. Friends are better."
"Do all princesses break their promises?" he countered, meeting her eyes steadily.
"Never yet did I break one promise, whether it was for good or evil."
"Princess," he answered, looking sternly at her, "in Jamrud Fort you agreed to take no part again in politics, national or international in return for a promise of personal freedom and permission to reside in India."
"My promise was dependent on my liberty. But is this liberty—to be forced to reside in this old palace, with the spies of the Government keeping watch on my doings, except when they chance to be outwitted? Nevertheless, I have kept my promise. Thou knowest me better than to think that I need to break promises in order to outwit a government of Englishmen!"
"Quibbles won't help, Princess," he answered. "You promised to do nothing that Government might object to."
"Well; will they object to my religion?" she retorted, mocking him. "Has the British raj at last screwed up its courage to the point of trespassing behind the purdah and blundering in among religious exercises?"
No man in his senses ever challenges a woman's argument until he knows the whole of it and has unmasked its ulterior purpose. So King sat still and said nothing, knowing that that was precisely what she did not want.
"You must make terms with me, heaven-born!" she went on, changing her tone to one of rather more suggestive firmness. "The Kali-Yug (age of darkness) is drawing to a close, and India awakes! There is froth on the surface—a rising here, an agitation there, a deal of wild talk everywhere, and the dead old government proposes to suppress it in the dead old ways, like men with paddles seeking to beat the waves down flat! But the winds of God blow, and the boat of the men with the paddles will be upset presently. Who then shall ride the storm? Their gunners will be told to shoot the froth as it forms and rises! But if there is a wise man anywhere he will make terms with me, and will set himself to guide the underlying forces that may otherwise whelm everything. I think thou art wise, my heaven-born. Thou wert wise once on a time."
"Do you think you can rule India?" King asked her; and he did not make the mistake of suggesting ridicule.
"Who else can do it?" she retorted. "Do you think we come into the world to let fate be our master? Why have I royal blood and royal views, wealth, understanding and ambition, while the others have blindness and vague yearnings? Can you answer?"
"Princess," he answered, "I had only one object in coming here."
"I know that," she said nodding.
"I have simply come to warn you."
"Chut!" she answered with her chin between her hands and her elbows deep in the cushions. "I know how much is known. This man—what is his name? Ramsden? Pouff! Ganesha, here, is far better! Ganesha is from America. Those fools who went to prepare the American mind for what is coming, because they were altogether too foolish to be anything but in the way in India, have been found out, and Ganesha has come like a big bull-buffalo to save the world by thrusting his clumsy horns into things he does not understand! I tell you, Athelstan, that however much is known there is much more that is not known. You would better make terms with me!"
"What you must understand, Princess, is that your plan to overthrow the West and make the East the world's controlling force, is known by those who can prevent you," he answered quietly. "You see, I can't go away from here and tell whoever asks me that you are observing your promise to——"
"No," she interrupted with a ringing merry laugh of triumph. "You speak truth without knowing it! You can not go away!"
Princess Yasmini's boast was good. But we had come to solve a problem, not to run away with it, and she looked disconcerted by our rather obvious willingness to be her prisoners for a while.
"Do you think I can not be cruel?" she asked suddenly.
"I have seen you at your worst, as well as at your best!" King answered.
"You act like a man who has resources. Yet you have none," she answered slowly, as if reviewing all the situation in her mind. "None knows where you are—not even Mulji Singh, with whom you left your other clothes before putting on that uniform the better to impress me! The bag that you and Ganesha share between you, like two mendicants emerging from the jail, is now in a room in this palace. You came because you saw that if I should be arrested there would be insurrection. You said so to Ommony sahib, and his butler overheard. But not even Ommony knows where you are. He said to you: 'If you can defeat that woman without using violence, you'll stand alone in the world as the one man who could do it. But if you use violence, though you kill her, she will defeat you and all the rest of us.' Is not that what your Friend Ommony said?"
"What kind of terms do you want me to make with you, Princess?" King answered.
"I can make you ruler of all India!" she said. "Another may wear the baubles, but thou shalt be the true king, even as thy name is! And behind thee, me, Yasmini, whispering wisdom and laughing to see the politicians strut!"
King leaned back and laughed at her.
"Do you really expect me to help you ruin my own countrymen, go back on my color, creed, education, oath and everything, and——"
"Deluded fools! The East—the East, Athelstan, is waking! Better make terms with me, and thou shalt live to ride on the arising East as God rides on the wind and bits and governs it!"
"Very well," he said. "Show me. I'll do nothing blindfold."
"Hah! Thou art not half-conquered yet," she laughed. "And what of Ganesha? Is this mountain of bones and thews a person to be trusted, or shall we show him how much stronger than him is a horsehair in a clever woman's fingers?"
"This man Ramsden is my friend," King said.
"Are you his friend?" she retorted.
"You are going to see the naked heart of India!" she said. "Better to have your eyes burned out now than see that and be false to it afterward!"
Then, since we failed to order red-hot needles for our eyes, she cried out once—one clear note that sounded almost exactly as if she had struck a silver gong. A woman entered like the living echo to it. Yasmini spoke, and the woman disappeared again.
Below us the river swallowed and gurgled along the palace wall, and we caught the occasional thumping of a boat-pole. The thumping ceased exactly underneath us, and a man began singing in the time-hallowed language of Rajasthan. I think he was looking upward as he sang, for each word reached its goal.
"Oh warm and broad the plow land lies, The idle oxen wait! We pray thee, holy river, rise, Nor glut thy fields too late! The year awakes! The slumbering seed Swells to its birth! Oh river, heed!"
"Strange time of year for that song, Princess! Is that one of your spies?" asked King, not too politely.
"One of my friends," she answered. "I told you: India awakes! But watch."
It was growing dark. Two women came and drew the curtains closer. Other women brought lamps and set them on stools along one wall; others again brought tapers and lit the candles in the hydra-headed candelabra.
"It is really too light yet," Yasmini grumbled, as if the gods who marshal in the night had not kept faith with her. But even so, the shadows danced among India's gods on the wall facing the row of stools.
Then there began wood-wind music, made by musicians out of sight, low and sweet, suggesting unimaginable mysteries, and one by one through the curtains opposite there came in silently seven women on bare feet that hardly touched the carpet; and all the stories about nautch girls, all the travelers' tales of how Eastern women dance with their arms, not feet, vanished that instant into the kingdom of lies. This was dancing—art absolute. They no longer seemed to be flesh and blood women possessed of weight and other limitations; their footfall was hardly audible, and you could not hear them breathe at all. They were like living shadows, and they danced the way the shadows of the branches do on a jungle clearing when a light breeze makes the trees laugh.
It had some sort of mystic meaning no doubt, although I did not understand it; but what I did understand was that the whole arrangement was designed to produce a sort of mesmerism in the beholder.
However, school yourself to live alone and think alone for a quarter of a century or so, meeting people only as man to man instead of like a sheep among a flock of sheep, and you become immune to that sort of thing.
The Princess Yasmini seemed to realize that neither King nor I were being drawn into the net of dreaminess that those trained women of hers were weaving.
"Watch!" said Yasmini suddenly. And then we saw what very few men have been priviliged to see.
She joined the dance; and you knew then who had taught those women. Theirs had been after all a mere interpretation: of her vision. Hers was the vision itself.
She was It—the thing itself—no more an interpretation than anything in nature is. Yasmini became India—India's heart; and I suppose that if King and I had understood her we would have been swept into her vortex, as it were, like drops of water into an ocean.
She was unrestrained by any need, or even willingness to explain herself. She was talking the same language that the nodding blossoms and the light and shadow talk that go chasing each other across the hillsides. And while you watched you seemed to know all sorts of things—secrets that disappeared from your mind a moment afterward.
She began singing presently, commencing on the middle F as every sound in nature does and disregarding conventional limitations just as she did when dancing. She sang first of the emptiness before the worlds were made. She sang of the birth of peoples; of the history of peoples.
She sang of India as the mother of all speech, song, race and knowledge; of truths that every great thinker since the world's beginning has propounded; and of India as the home of all of them, until, whether you would or not, at least you seemed to see the undeniable truth of that.
And then, in a weird, wild, melancholy minor key came the story of the Kali-Yug—the age of darkness creeping over India, condemning her for her sins. She sang of India under the hoof of ugliness and ignorance and plague, and yet of a few who kept the old light burning in secret—of hidden books, and of stuff that men call magic handed down the centuries from lip to lip in caves and temple cellars and mountain fastnesses, wherever the mysteries were safe from profane eyes.
And then the key changed again, striking that fundamental middle F that is the mother-note of all the voices of nature and, as Indians maintain, of the music of the spheres as well. Music and song and dance became laughter. Doubt vanished, for there seemed nothing left to doubt, as she began to sing of India rising at last, again triumphant over darkness, mother of the world and of all the nations of the world, awake, unconquerable.
Never was another song like that one! Nor was there ever such a climax. As she finished on a chord of triumph that seemed like a new spirit bursting the bonds of ancient mystery and sank to the floor among her women, there stood the Gray Mahatma in their midst, not naked any longer, but clothed from head to heel in a saffron-colored robe, and without his paste of ashes.
He stood like a statue with folded arms, his yellow eyes blazing and his look like a lion's; and how he had entered the room I confess I don't know to this hour, nor does Athelstan King, who is a trained observer of unusual happenings. Both doors were closed, and I will take oath that neither had been opened since the women entered.
"Peace!" was his first word, spoken like one in authority, who ordered peace and dared to do it.
He stood looking for more than a minute at King and me with, I think, just a flicker of scorn on his thin lips, as if he were wondering whether we were men enough to face the ordeal before us. Then indefinably, yet quite perceptibly his mood changed and his appearance with it. He held his right hand out.
"Will you not shake hands with me?" he asked smiling.
Now that was a thing that no sanctimonious Brahman would have dreamed of doing, for fear of being defiled by the touch of a casteless foreigner; so he was either above or below the caste laws, and it is common knowledge how those who are below caste cringe and toady. So he evidently reckoned himself above it, and the Indian who can do that has met and overcome more tyranny and terrors than the West knows anything about.
I wish I could make exactly clear what happened when I took his outstretched hand.
His fingers closed on mine with a grip like marble. There are few men who are stronger than I am; I can outlift a stage professional; yet I could no more move his hand or pull mine free than if he had been a bronze image with my hand set solid in the casting.
"That is for your own good," he said pleasantly, letting go at last. "That other man knows better, but you might have been so unwise as to try using violence."
"I'm glad you had that experience," said King in a low voice, as I went back to the window-seat. "Don't let yourself be bewildered by it. There's an explanation for everything. They know something that we don't, that's all."
FEAR IS DEATH
At a sign from the Gray Mahatma all the women except Yasmini left the room. Yasmini seemed to be in a strange mood mixed of mischief and amused anticipation.
The Mahatma sat down exactly in the middle of the carpet, and his method was unique. It looked just as if an unseen hand had taken him by the hair and lowered him gradually, for he crossed his legs and dropped to the floor as evenly and slowly as one of those freight elevators that disappear beneath the city side-walks.
He seemed to attach a great deal of importance to his exact position and glanced repeatedly at the walls as if to make sure that he was not sitting an inch or two too far to the right or left; however, he had gauged his measurements exactly at the first attempt and did not move, once he was seated.
"You two sahibs," he began, with a slight emphasis on the word sahib, as if he wished to call attention to the fact that he was according us due courtesy, "you two honorable gentlemen," he continued, as if mere courtesy perhaps were not enough, "have been chosen unknown to yourselves. For there is but one Chooser, whose choice is never known until the hour comes. For the chosen there is no road back again. Even if you should prefer death, your death could not now be of your own choosing; for, having been chosen, there is no escape from service to the Purpose, and though you would certainly die if courage failed you, your death would be more terrible than life, since it would serve the Purpose without benefiting you.
"You are both honest men," he continued, "for the one has resigned honors and emoluments in the army for the sake of serving India; the other has accepted toilsome service under a man who seeks, however mistakenly, to serve the world. If you were not honest you would never have been chosen. If you had made no sacrifices of your own free will, you would not have been acceptable."
Yasmini clasped her hands and laid her chin on them among the cushions. She was reveling in intellectual enjoyment, as sinfully I daresay as some folk revel in more material delights. The Mahatma took no notice of her, but continued.
"You have heard of the Kali-Yug, the age of darkness. It is at an end. The nations presently begin to beat swords into plowshares because the time has come. But there is yet much else to do, and the eyes of those who have lived so long in darkness are but blinded for the present by the light, so that guides are needed, who can see. You two shall see—a little!"
It was becoming intolerably hot in the room with the curtains drawn and all those lights burning, but I seemed to be the only one who minded it. The candles in the chandelier were kept from collapsing by metal sheaths, but the very flames seemed to feel the heat and to flicker like living things that wilted.
"Corn is corn and grass is grass," said the Mahatma, "and neither one can change the other. Yet the seed of grass that is selected can improve all grass, as they understand who strive with problems of the field. Therefore ye two, who have been chosen, shall be sent as the seeds of grass to the United States to carry on the work that no Indian can properly accomplish. Corn to corn, grass to grass. That is your destiny."
He paused, as if waiting for the sand to run out of an hour-glass. There was no hour-glass, but the suggestion was there just the same.
"Nevertheless," he went on presently, "there are some who fail their destiny, even as some chosen seeds refuse to sprout. You will need besides your honesty such courage as is committed to few.
"Once on a time before the Kali-Yug began, when the Aryans, of whom you people are descendants, lived in this ancient motherland, the whole of all knowledge was the heritage of every man, and what to-day are called miracles were understood as natural working of pure law. It was nothing in those days for a man to walk through fire unscathed, for there was very little difference between the gods and men, and men knew themselves for masters of the universe, subject only to Parabrahm.
"Nevertheless, the sons of men grew blind, mistaking the shadow for the substance. And because the least error when extended to infinity produces chaos, the whole world became chaos, full of nothing but rivalries, sickness, hate, confusion.
"Meanwhile, the sons of men, ever seeking the light they lost, have spread around the earth, ever mistaking the shadow for the substance, until they have imitated the very thunder and lightning, calling them cannon; they have imitated all the forces of the universe and called them steam, gasoline, electricity, chemistry and what not, so that now they fly by machinery, who once could fly without effort and without wings.
"And now they grow deathly weary, not understanding why. Now they hold councils, one nation with another, seeking to substitute a lesser evil for the greater.
"Once in every hundred years men have been sent forth to prove by public demonstration that there is a greater science than all that are called sciences. None knew when the end of the Kali-Yug might be, and it was thought that if men saw things they could not explain, perhaps they would turn and seek the true mastery of the universe. But what happened? You, who are from America; is there one village in all America where men do not speak of Indians as fakirs and mock-magicians? For that there are two reasons. One is that there are multitudes of Indians who are thieves and liars, who know nothing and seek to conceal their ignorance beneath a cloak of deceit and trickery. The other is, that men are so deep in delusion, that when they do see the unexplainable they seek to explain it away. Whereas the truth is that there are natural laws which, if understood by all, would at once make all men masters of the universe.
"I will give you an example. To-day they are using wireless telephones, who twenty years ago would have mocked whoever had suggested such a thing. Yet it is common knowledge that forty years ago, for instance, when Roberts the British general led an army into Afghanistan in wintertime and fought a battle at Kandahar, the news of his victory was known in Bombay, a thousand miles away, as soon as it had happened, whereas the Government, possessing semaphores and the telegraph, had to wait many days for the news. How did that occur? Can you or any one explain it?
[Footnote 1: This is incontestably historical fact. See Lord Robert's book, Forty-one Years in India.]
"If I were to go forth and tell how it happened, the men who profit by the telegraphs and the deep-sea cables, would desire to kill me.
"There is only one country in the world where such things can be successfully explained, and that is India; but not even in India until India is free. When the millions of India once grasp the fact of freedom, they will forget superstition and understand. Then they will claim their powers and use them. Then the world will see, and wonder. And presently the world, too, will understand.
"Therefore, India must be free. These three hundred and fifty million people who speak one hundred and forty-seven languages must be set free to work out their own destiny.
"But there is only one way of doing that. The world, and India with it, is held in the grip of delusion. And what is delusion? Nothing but opinions. Therefore it is opinions that hold India in subjection, and opinions must be changed. A beginning must be made where opinions are least hidebound and are therefore easiest to change. That means America.
"Therefore you two sahibs are chosen—one who knows and loves India; one who knows and loves America. The duty laid on you is absolute. There can be no flinching from it. You are to go to America and convince Americans that India should be free to work out her own destiny.
"Therefore follow, and see what you shall see."
He rose, exactly as he had sat down, without apparent muscular effort. It was as if a hand had taken him by the scalp and lifted him, except that I noticed his feet were pressed so hard against the floor that the blood left them, so that I think the secret of the trick was perfect muscular control, although how to attain that is another matter.
The Princess Yasmini made no offer to come with us, but lounged among the cushions reveling in mischievous enjoyment. Whatever the Gray Mahatma's real motive, there was no possible doubt about hers; she was looking forward to a tangible, material profit.
The Gray Mahatma led the way through the door by which we had entered, stalking along in his saffron robe without the slightest effort to seem dignified or solemn.
"Keep your wits about you," King whispered; and then again, presently: "Don't be fooled into thinking that anything you see is supernatural. Remember that whatever you see is simply the result of something that they know and that we don't. Keep your hair on! We're going to see some wonderful stuff or I'm a Dutchman."
We passed down the long corridor outside Yasmini's room, but instead of continuing straight forward, the Gray Mahatma found an opening behind a curtain in a wall whose thickness could be only guessed. Inside the wall was a stairway six feet wide that descended to an echoing, unfurnished hall below after making two turns inside solid masonry.
The lower hall was dark, but he found his way without difficulty, picking up a lantern from a corner on his way and then opening a door that gave, underneath the outer marble stairway, on to the court where the pool and the flowering shrubs were. The lantern was not lighted when he picked it up. I did not see how he lighted it. It was an ordinary oil lantern, apparently, with a wire handle to carry it by, and after he had carried it for half a minute it seemed to burn brightly of its own accord. I called King's attention to it.
"I've seen that done before," he answered, but he did not say whether or not he understood the trick of it.
Ismail came running to meet us the instant we showed ourselves, but stopped when he saw the Mahatma and, kneeling, laid the palms of both hands on his forehead on the stone flags. That was a strange thing for a Moslem to do—especially toward a Hindu—but the Mahatma took not the slightest notice of him and walked straight past as if he had not been there. He could hear King's footsteps and mine behind him, of course, and did not need to look back, but there was something almost comical in the way he seemed to ignore our existence and go striding along alone as if on business bent. He acted as little like a priest or a fakir or a fanatic as any man I have ever seen, and no picture-gallery curator or theater usher ever did the honors of the show with less attention to his own importance.
He led the way through the same bronze gate that we had entered by and never paused or glanced behind him until he came to the cage where the old black panther snarled behind the bars; and then a remarkable thing happened.
At first the panther began running backward and forward, as the caged brutes usually do when they think they are going to be fed; for all his age he looked as full of fight as a newly caught young one, and his long yellow fangs flashed from under the curled lip—until the Mahatma spoke to him. He only said one word that I could hear, and I could not catch what the word was; but instantly the black brute slunk away to the corner of its cage farthest from the iron door, and at that the Mahatma opened the door without using any key that I detected. The padlock may have been a trick one, but I know this;—it came away in his hands the moment he touched it.
Then at last he took notice of King and me again. He stood aside, and smiled, and motioned to us with his hand to enter the cage ahead of him. I have been several sorts of rash idiot in my time, and I daresay that King has too, for most of us have been young once; but I have also hunted panthers, and so has King, and to walk unarmed or even with weapons—into a black panther's cage is something that calls, I should say, for inexperience. The more you know about panthers the less likely you are to do it. It was almost pitch-dark; you could see the brute's yellow eyes gleaming, but no other part of him now, because he matched the shadows perfectly; but, being a cat, he could see us, and the odds against a man who should walk into that cage were, as a rough guess, ten trillion to one.
"Fear is the presence of death, and death is delusion. Follow me then," said the Mahatma.
He walked straight in, keeping the lighted lantern on the side of him farthest from the panther, whose claws I could hear scratching on the stone flags.
"Keep that light toward him for God's sake!" I urged, having myself had to use a lantern more than a score of times for protection at night against the big cats.
"Nay, it troubles his eyes. For God's sake I will hide it from him," the Mahatma answered. "We must not wait here."
"Come on," said King, and strode in through the open door. So I went in too, because I did not care to let King see me hesitate. Curiosity had vanished. I was simply in a blue funk, and rather angry as well at the absurdity of what we were doing.
The Gray Mahatma turned and shut the gate behind me, taking no notice at all of the black brute that crouched in the other corner, grumbling and moaning rather than growling.
Have you ever seen a panther spit and spring when a keeper shoved it out of the way with the cleaning rake? There is no beast in the world with whom it is more dangerous to play tricks. Yet in that dark corner, with the lantern held purposely so that it should not dazzle the panther's eyes, the Gray Mahatma stirred the beast with his toe and drove him away as carelessly and incautiously as you might shove your favorite dog aside! The panther crowded itself against the side of the cage and slunk away behind us—to the front of the cage that is to say, close by the padlocked gate—where he crouched again and moaned.
The dark, rear end of the cage was all masonry and formed part of the building behind it. In the right-hand corner, almost invisible from outside, was a narrow door of thick teak that opened very readily when the Mahatma fumbled with it although I saw no lock, hasp or keyhole on the side toward us. We followed him through into a stone vault.
"And now there is need to be careful," he said, his voice booming and echoing along unseen corridors. "For though those here, who can harm you if they will, are without evil intention, nevertheless injury begets desire to injure. And do either of you know how to make acceptable explanations to a she-cobra whose young have been trodden on? Therefore walk with care, observing the lantern light and remembering that as long as you injure none, none will injure you."
At that he turned on his heel abruptly and walked forward, swinging the lantern so that its light swept to and fro. We were walking through the heart of masonry whose blocks were nearly black with age; there was a smell of ancient sepulchers, and in places the walls were damp enough to be green and slippery. Presently we came to the top of a flight of stone steps, each step being made of one enormous block and worn smooth by the sandalled traffic of centuries. It grew damper as we descended, and those great blocks were tricky things for a man in boots to walk on; yet the Gray Mahatma, swinging his lantern several steps below us, kept calling back:
"Have a care! Have a care! He who falls can do as much injury as he who jumps! Shall the injured inquire into reasons?"
We descended forty or fifty steps and I, walking last, had just reached the bottom, when something dashed between my feet, and another something flicked like a whip-lash after it. As the Mahatma swung the lantern I just caught sight of an enormous rat closely pursued by a six-foot snake, and after that we might as well have been in hell for all the difference it would have made to me.
I don't know how long that tunnel was, but I do know I am not going back there to measure it. It was nearly as big as the New York Subway, only built of huge stone blocks instead of concrete. It seemed to be an inferno, in which cobras hunted rats perpetually; but we saw one swarm of fiery-eyed rats eating a dead snake.
There were baby cobras by the hundred—savage, six-inch things, and even smaller, that knew as much of evil, and could slay as surely, as the full-grown mother-snake that raised her hood and hissed as we passed.
The snakes seemed afraid of the Mahatma, and yet not afraid of him—much more careful to keep out from under his feet than ours, yet taking no other apparent notice of him, whereas hundreds of them raised their hoods and hissed at us. And though nothing touched him, at least fifty times rats and snakes raced over King's feet and mine, or slipped between our legs.
"This fellow has some use for us," King said over his shoulder. "He'll neither be killed himself, nor let us be if he can help it. This is no new trick. Lots of 'em can manage snakes."
The Gray Mahatma, twenty yards ahead, heard every word of that. He stopped and let us come quite close up to him.
"Have you seen this?" he asked.
There was a cobra swinging its head about two and a half feet off the ground within a yard of him. He passed the lantern to me, and holding out both hands coaxed the venomous thing to come to him as you or I might coax a stray dog. It obeyed. It laid its head on his hands, lowered its hood, and climbed until, within six inches of his face, its head rested on his left shoulder.
"Would you like to try that?" he asked. "You can do it if you wish."
We did not wish, and while we stood there the infernal reptiles were swarming all around us, rising knee-high and swaying, with their forked tongues flashing in and out, but showing no inclination to use their fangs, although many of them raised their hoods. At that moment there were certainly fifty of the filthy things close enough to strike; and the bite of any one of them would have meant certain death within fifteen minutes.
However, they did not bite. The Gray Mahatma set down very gently the snake that had done his bidding, and then shooed the rest away; they backed off like a flock of foolish geese, hissing and swaying pretty much as geese do.
"Come!" he boomed. "Cobras are foolish people, and folly is infectious. Come away!"
THE POOL OF TERRORS
We came soon to another flight of steps made of gigantic blocks of stone older than history, and groping our way up those we followed the Gray Mahatma to a gallery at the top, on the other side of which was a sheer drop and the smell of stagnant water. I could hear something sluggish that moved in the water, and somewhere in the distance was a turning around which light found its way so dimly that it hardly looked like light at all, but more like filmy mist. A heavy monster splashed somewhere beneath us and the Mahatma raised the lantern to peer into our faces.
"Those are muggers (alligators). You may see them now if you would rather. The same as with the snakes, the rule is you must do them no harm."
He looked at us keenly, as if making sure that we really were not enjoying ourselves, and then leaned his weight against an iron door in a corner. It swung open, and we followed him through into a pitch-dark chamber of some kind. But the door we came in by had hardly slammed behind us when a bright light broke through a square hole in the ceiling and displayed a flight of rock-hewn steps. Some one overhead had removed a stone plug from the hole.
The Mahatma motioned to King to go first, but as King refused he led the way again, going through the square hole overhead as handily as any seaman swinging himself into the cross-trees. King followed him and I stood on the top step with head and shoulders through the opening surveying the prospect before scrambling up after him.
I was looking between King's legs. The light came from three large wood-fires placed over at the left end of a rectangular chamber hewn out of solid rock. The chamber was at least a hundred feet long and thirty wide; its roof was lost in smoke, but seemed to be irregular, as if the walls of a natural cavern had been shaped by masons who left the high roof as they found it.
A very nearly naked man with a long beard, hair over his shoulders, and the general air of being some one in authority, was walking about with nothing in his hand except a seven-jointed bamboo cane. He was a very old man, but of magnificent physique and ribbed up like a race-horse in training. His principal business seemed to be the supervision of several absolutely naked individuals, who carried in wood through a dark gap in the wall and piled it on the three fires at the farther end with almost ludicrous precision.
And between the three fires, not spitted and not bound but absolutely motionless, there sat a human being, so dried out that not even that fierce heat could wring a drop of sweat from him, yet living, for you could see him breathe and the firelight shone on his living, yet unwinking eyes. Every draft of air that he drew into his lungs must have scorched him. Every single hair had disappeared from his body. And while we watched they came and fed him.
But he was only one of many, all undergoing torture in its most hideous and useless forms, and all as free as he was to deliver themselves if they saw fit. The least offensive was a man within six feet of me who sat on a conical stone no bigger than a cocoanut; that small stone was resting on top of a cone of rock about a yard high, in such fashion that it rocked at the slightest change of balance; the man's legs were crossed, however, exactly as if he were squatting on the floor—although they actually rested on nothing; and his arms had been crossed behind his back for so long, and held so steadily, that the fingernails of the right hand had grown through the left arm biceps, and vice versa. He, too, was fed with drops of water and about a dozen grains of rice—every second day, as the Mahatma told us afterward.
Space was at a premium in that gruesome madhouse. Close beside the fellow on the rocking stone there hung two ropes from rings in the roof. There were iron hooks on their lower ends, and these were passed through the back muscles of another naked man, who kept himself swinging by touching the floor with one toe. The muscles were so drawn by his weight that they formed loops several inches long and had turned to dry gristle; the strain had had some effect on one of his legs, for it was curled up under him and apparently useless, but the other, with which he toed the floor to swing himself, was apparently all right. His hands were folded over his breast, and his beard and hair hung like seaweed.
Near him again there was an arrangement like a medieval rack, only that instead of having a wheel or a lever the cords were drawn by heavy weights. A man lay on it with arms and legs stretched out toward its corners so tightly that his body did not touch the underlying strut; and he had been so long in that position that his hands and feet were dead from the pressure of the cords, and his limbs were stretched several inches beyond their normal length. In proof that his torture, too, was voluntary, he was balancing a round stone on his solar plexus that could have been much more easily dumped than kept in place.
The priest stared questioningly at the Gray Mahatma, glancing from him to us and back again.
The Gray Mahatma beckoned King and me and led the way between the shuddersome, self-immolated, twisted wrecks of humanity to an opening in the far wall, through which we passed into another chamber carved out of the rock, not so large as the first and only lighted by a charcoal brazier that gave off as much fumes as flame. The fitful, bluish light fell in a stone ledge, in a niche like a sepulcher, carved in one wall, and on that ledge a man lay who had every muscle of his body pierced with thorns; his tongue protruded between his teeth, and was held there by a thorn thrust through it.
The Gray Mahatma stood and looked at him, and smiled.
"Just a presumptuous fool!" he said pleasantly. "This was the most presumptuous of them all, but they all suffer for the same offense. Take warning! They could walk away if they cared to. They are here of what they think is their free will. They are moths who sought the flame, some from curiosity, some from desire, some craving adoration for themselves, all for one false reason or another. This fate might be yours—so take warning!
"There is not one of these who was not warned," he said quietly. "They were cautioned not to inquire into matters too deep for them. They were here to be taught; but that little knowledge that is such a dangerous thing tempted them too swiftly forward beyond their depth, so that now—you see them. They seek to get rid of material bodies and to satisfy themselves that death is a delusion. You revolt at the sight of these self-tortured fools; yet I tell you that, should you commit the same offense, you would behave as they, even as the moth that goes too near the flame. Take care lest curiosity overwhelm you."
"All right, lead along," King answered rather testily. "I've seen worse than this a hundred times. I've seen the women."
The Mahatma nodded gravely.
"But not even I may lead you forward clothed as you are," he said. "I am about to reveal such mysteries as set presumptuous fools to seeking perfection by a too short route. Even I would be slain, if I tried to introduce you in that garb. Undress."
He set us the example; but as we were not qualified by years of arduously won sanctity to stand stark naked in the presence he conceded us a clout apiece torn from a filthy length of calico that some one had tossed in a corner. And he tore another piece of filthy red cotton cloth in halves, and divided it between us to twist around our heads. King laughed at me.
"You look like a fine, fat Bengali," he said.
The Mahatma called to one of the servitors to bring ashes in a brass bowl. We watched him rake them out from under the fires, shake water on them, and mix them into paste as casually as if the business were part of his regular routine. The Mahatma took the bowl from him and plastered King and me liberally with the stuff, making King look like a scabrous fanatic, and I don't doubt I looked worse, having more acreage of anatomy. Last of all he put some on himself, but only here and there, as if his sanctity only demanded a little piercing out. Then he raised a flagstone in one corner of the chamber that swung easily on pivots set in sockets in the masonry, and led the way again.
We were evidently in a system of caves that had been quarried into shape centuries before the Christian era. They seemed originally to have been bubbles and blow-holes in volcanic rock, and to have been connected together by piercing the walls between them. There was certainly no intelligible plan attached to their arrangement, for we went first up, then down, then sideways, losing all sense of elevation and direction. But we passed through at least three score of those connected blow-holes, and the air in some of the higher ones was so foul that breathing it made you weak at the knees. Nevertheless, in every single one there was an anchorite of some kind, engaged in painful meditation. In each cave was an infinitesimal lamp made of baked clay and fed with vegetable oil that provided more smoke than flame, and the walls and ceiling were deep with the soot of centuries.
Following the Gray Mahatma's example King and I took handfuls of the soot and smeared it on our breasts, stomachs and faces, to mingle with the ashes in a mask of holiness. By the time we had finished that there was not much chance of any one mistaking us for anything but two half-crazed aspirants for sanctity.
I could not possibly have drawn a tracing of our own course, for it was rank bewildering; but we emerged at last under the stars by the side of a great stone tank. It might have been a bathing pool, for along each side steps disappeared into the water. We could dimly distinguish one end on our right hand with a row of great graven gods all reflected in the water; but the other end vanished through a black cave-mouth. It was about a hundred and twenty feet wide from bank to bank, and between us and the steps that faced us on the far side, in among the quivering star-reflections, I could count the snouts of eighteen alligators.
"Which way now?" King asked him a shade suspiciously.
"Forward," he answered, with a note of surprise.
But if the Mahatma supposed that a coat of soot and ashes provided either King or me with a satisfactory reason for hobnobbing with alligators in their home pool, he was emphatically mistaken. We objected simultaneously, unanimously, and right out loud in meeting.
"Suit yourself," said I. "This suits me here."
"Go forward if you like," said King, "we'll wait for you."
The Gray Mahatma turned and eyed us solemnly but not unkindly.
"If I should leave you here," he said, "a much worse fate would overtake you than any that you anticipate, for your minds are not advanced enough to imagine the horrors that assail all those who lack courage. This is the testing place for aspirants, and more win their way across it than you might suppose, impudence of ambition adding skill to recklessness. All must make the attempt, alone and at night, who seek the inner shrines of Knowledge, and those creatures in the tank have no other food than is thus provided.
"Those whose courage failed them are now such fakirs as we have seen, who now seek to rid themselves of materiality, which is the cause of fear, by ridding themselves of their fleshy envelope. Follow me then."
He stepped down into the water, and at once it became evident that to all intents and purposes there were two tanks, the division between them lying about eighteen inches under water. But the division was neither straight nor exactly level. It zig-zagged this and that way like the key-track in a maze, and was more beset with slippery pitfalls than a mussel-shoal at low tide.
King followed the Mahatma in, and I came last, so I had the benefit of two pilots, as well as the important task of holding King whenever he groped his way forward with one foot. For the Mahatma went a great deal faster than we cared to follow, so that although he had shown us the way we were still doubtful of our footing. At intervals he would pause and turn and look at us, and every time he did that those long loathsome snouts would ripple toward him like spokes of a wheel, but he took no more notice of them than if they had been water-rats. They seemed more interested in him than in us.
There were seven sharp turns in that underwater causeway, and the edges of each turn were slippery slopes, up which an alligator certainly could climb, but that afforded not the least chance to a man whose foot once stepped too far and slid. And not only were there unexpected turns at different intervals, but there were gaps in the causeway of a yard or so in at least a dozen places, and the edges of those gaps were smooth and rounded, as if purposely designed to dump all wayfarers into the very jaws of the waiting reptiles. It was in just such places as that that they began to gather and wait patiently, with their awful yellow eyes just noticeable in the starlight.
King and I were standing on one such rounded guessing-place.
The Mahatma, twenty yards away, was taking his time about turning to give us directions, and one great fifteen foot brute had raised itself on the causeway behind us and was snapping its paws together like a pair of vicious castanets.
"Nero and Caligula were Christian gentlemen compared to you!" I called out to the Mahatma.
"You are fortunate," he boomed back. "You have starlight and a guide. Those who are not chosen have to find their way—or fail—alone under a cloudy sky. There is none to hold them while they grope; there is none to care whether they succeed or not, save only the mugger that desires a meal. Nevertheless, there are some of them who succeed, so how should you fail? Take a step to the left now—a long one, each holding the other, then another to the left—then to the right again."
"Curse you!" I shouted back, staring over King's shoulder. "There's a mugger's head between us and the next stepping-stone!"
"Nay!" he answered. "That is the stepping-stone."
I could have sworn that he was lying, but King set his foot on it and in a moment more we were working our way cautiously along the causeway again, making for the next sharp corner where the Mahatma had been standing to give us the direction. But he never waited for us to catch up with him. I think he suspected that in panic we might clutch him and offer violence, and he always moved on as we approached, leaving us to grope our way in agonies of apprehension.
The going did not become easier as we progressed. When the Gray Mahatma reached the steps on the far side and stood, out of the water waiting for us, all the monsters that had watched his progress came and joined our party; and now, instead of keeping to the water, two of them climbed up on the causeway, so that there was one of the creatures behind us and two in front.
"Call off your cousins and your uncles and your aunts!" I shouted, bearing in mind the Hindu creed that consigns the souls of unrighteous men to the bodies of animals in retribution for their sins.
The Gray Mahatma picked up a short pole from the embankment, and returned into the water with it, not striking out right and left as any ordinary-minded person would have done, but shoving the brutes away gently one by one, as if they were logs or small boats. And even so, they followed us so closely that they climbed the steps abreast of us.
But I'm willing to bet that there is not an alligator living that can catch me once my feet are set on hard ground, and I can say the same for King; we danced up those steps together like a pair of fauns emerging from a forest pool.
Then the Gray Mahatma came and peered into our faces, and asked an extraordinary question.
"Do you feel proud?" he asked, looking keenly from one to the other of us. "Because," he went on to explain, "you have now crossed the Pool of Terrors, and they are not so many who accomplish that. The muggers are well fed. And those who reach to this side are usually proud, believing they now have the secret key to the attainment of all Knowledge. You are going to see now what becomes of the proud ones."
The Mahatma led us forward toward a long, dark shadow that transformed itself into a temple wall as we drew closer, and in a moment we were once more groping our way downward amid prehistoric foundation stones, with bats flitting past us and a horrible feeling possessing me, at least, that the worst was yet to come.
The hunch proved accurate. We came into an enormous crypt that evidently underlay a temple. Great pillars of natural rock, practically square and twenty feet thick, supported the roof, which was partly of natural rock and partly of jointed masonry. There was nothing in the crypt itself, except one old gray-beard, who sat on a mat by a candle, reading a roll of manuscript; and he did not trouble to look up—did not take the slightest notice of us.
But around the crypt there were more cells than I could count off-hand. Some were dark. There were lights burning in the others. Each had an iron door with a few holes in it, and a small square window, unglazed and unbarred, cut in the natural rock. Enough light came through some of those square holes to suffuse the whole crypt dimly.
"None but an aspirant has ever entered here," said the Gray Mahatma. "Even when India was conquered, no enemy penetrated this place. You stand on forbidden ground."
He turned to the left and opened an iron cell door by simply pushing it; there did not seem to be any lock. He did not announce himself, but walked straight in, and we followed him. The cell was about ten feet by twelve, with a stone ledge wide enough to sleep on running along one side, and lighted by an oil lamp that hung by chains from the hewn roof. There were three bearded, middle-aged men, almost naked, squatting on one mat facing the stone ledge, one of whom held an ancient manuscript that all three were consulting; and on the stone ledge sat what once had been a man before those devils caught him.
The three looked up at the Gray Mahatma curiously, but did not challenge. I suppose his nakedness was his passport. They eyed King and me with a butcher's-eye appraisal, nodded, and resumed their consultation of the hand-written roll. The characters on it looked like Sanskrit.
The Gray Mahatma faced the creature on the stone ledge, and spoke to King and me in English.
"That," he said, "is one of those who crossed the Pool of Terrors and became insane with pride. Consider him. He entered here demanding knowledge, having only the desire and not the honesty. But since there is no way backward and even failure must subserve the universal cause, he was given knowledge and it made him what you see. Now these, who know a little and would learn more, make use of him as a subject for experiments.
"That thing, who was once a man, can imagine himself a bird, or a fish, or an animal—or even an insensate graven stone—at their command. When he is no more fit to be studied he will imagine himself to be a mugger, and will hurry into the tank with the other reptiles, and that will be the end of him. Come."
I felt like going mad that minute. I sat down on the rock floor and held my head to make sure that I still had it. I wanted to think of something that would give me back my grip on sanity and the good, clean concrete world outside; I don't think I could have done it if King had not seen and applied the solution. He kicked me in the ribs as hard as he could with his naked foot, and, that failing, used his fist.
"Get up!" he said. "Hit me, if you want to!"
Then he turned to the Mahatma.
"Confound you! Take us out of this!"
"Peace! Peace!" said the Gray Mahatma. "You are chosen. You are needed for another purpose. No harm shall come to either of you. There is one more cell that you must enter."
"No!" said I, and I met his eye squarely. "I've seen my fill of these sights. Lead the way out!"
He did not appear in the least afraid of me; merely curious, as if he were viewing an experiment. I made up my mind on the instant to experiment on my own account, and swung my fist back for a full-powered smash at him. I let go, too. But the blow fell on King, who stepped between us, and knocked nearly all the wind out of him.
"None o' that!" he gasped. "Let's see this through."
The Gray Mahatma patted him gently on the shoulder.
"Good!" he said. "Very good. You did well!"
The Gray Mahatma led the way toward one of the great square pillars that supported a portion of the roof.
In that pillar there was an opening, about six feet high and barely wide enough for a man of my build to squeeze himself through, but once inside it there was ample space and a stairway, hewn in the stone, wound upward. Still swinging the lantern he had brought with him from Yasmini's palace the Mahatma led the way up that, and we followed, I last as usual.
We emerged through a wooden door into a temple, whose walls were almost entirely hidden by enormous images of India's gods. There were no windows.
The resulting gloom was punctuated by dots of yellow light that came from hanging brass lamps, whose smoke in the course of centuries had covered everything with soot that it was nobody's business to remove. So it looked like a coal-black pantheon, and in the darkness you could hardly see the forms of long-robed men who were mumbling through some sort of ceremony.
"Those," said the Gray Mahatma, "are priests. They receive payment to pray for people who may not enter lest their sinfulness defile the sanctuary."
There was only one consideration that prevented me from looking for a door behind a carved stone screen placed at the end wall screen and bidding the Mahatma a discourteous farewell, and that was the prospect of walking through the streets with nothing on but a dish-rag and a small red turban.
However, the Gray Mahatma, as naked as the day he was born, led the way to the screen, opened a hinged door in it and beckoned us through; and we emerged, instead of into the street as I expected, into a marvelous courtyard bathed in moonlight, for the moon was just appearing over the roof of what looked like another temple at the rear.
All around the courtyard was a portico, supported by pillars of most wonderful workmanship; and the four walls within the portico were subdivided into open compartments, in each of which was the image of a different god. In front of each image hung a lighted lamp, whose rays were reflected in the idol's jeweled eyes; but the only people visible were three or four sleepy looking attendants in turbans and cotton loin-cloths, who sat up and stared at us without making any other sign of recognition.
In the very center of the courtyard was a big, square platform built of stone, with a roof like a canopy supported on carved pillars similar to those that supported the portico, which is to say that each one was different, and yet all were so alike as to blend into architectural harmony—repetition without monotony. The Gray Mahatma led the way up steps on to the platform, and waited for us at a square opening in the midst of its floor, beside which lay a stone that obviously fitted the hole exactly. There were no rings to lift the stone by from the outside, but there were holes drilled through it from side to side through which iron bolts could be passed from underneath.
Down that hole we went in single file again, the Gray Mahatma leading, treading an oval stairway interminably until I daresay we had descended more than a hundred feet. The air was warm, but breathable and there seemed to be plenty of it, as if some efficient means of artificial ventilation had been provided; nevertheless, it was nothing else than a cavern that we were exploring, and though there were traces of chisel and adze work on the walls, the only masonry was the steps.
We came to the bottom at last in an egg-shaped cave, in the center of which stood a rock, roughly hewn four-square; and on that rock, exactly in the middle, was a lingam of black polished marble, illuminated by a brass lamp hanging overhead. The Mahatma eyed it curiously:
"That," he said, "is the last symbol of ignorance. The remainder is knowledge."
There were doors on every side of that egg-shaped cave, each set cunningly into a natural fold of rock, so that they seemed to have been inset when it was molten, in the way that nuts are set into chocolate—pushed into place by a pair of titanic thumbs. And at last we seemed to have reached a place where the Gray Mahatma might not enter uninvited, for he selected one of the doors after a moment's thought and knocked.
We stood there for possibly ten minutes, without an answer, the Mahatma seeming satisfied with his own meditation, and we not caring to talk lest he should overhear us.
At last the door opened, not cautiously, but suddenly and wide, and a man stood square in it who filled it up from frame to frame—a big-eyed, muscular individual in loin-cloth and turban, who looked too proud to assert his pride. He stood with arms folded and a smile on his firm mouth; and the impression he conveyed was that of a master-craftsman, whose skill was his life, and whose craft was all he cared about.
He eyed the Mahatma without respect or flinching, and said nothing.
Have you ever watched two wild animals meet, stand looking at each other, and suddenly go off together without a sign of an explanation? That was what happened. The man in the doorway presently turned his back and led the way in.
The passage we entered was just exactly wide enough for me to pass along with elbows touching either wall. It was high; there was plenty of air in it; it was as scrupulously clean as a hospital ward. On either hand there were narrow wooden doors, spaced about twenty feet apart, every one of them closed; there were no bolts on the outside of the doors, and no keyholes, but I could not move them by shoving against them as I passed.
The extraordinary circumstance was the light. The whole passage was bathed in light, yet I could not detect where it came from. It was not dazzling like electricity. No one place seemed brighter than another, and there were no shadows.
The end of the passage forked at a perfect right angle, and there were doors at the end of each arm of the fork. Our guide turned to the right. He, King and the Mahatma passed through a door that seemed to open at the slightest touch, and the instant the Mahatma's back had passed the door-frame I found myself in darkness.
I had hung back a little, trying to make shadows with my hands to discover the direction of the light; and the strange part was that I could see bright light in front of me through the open door, but none of it came out into the passage.
It was intuition that caused me to pause at the threshold before following the others through. Something about the suddenness with which the light had ceased in the passage the moment the Mahatma's back was past the door, added to curiosity, made me stop and consider that plane where the light left off. Having no other instrument available, I took off my turban and flapped it to and fro, to see whether I could produce any effect on that astonishing dividing line, and for about the ten thousandth time in a somewhat strenuous career it was intuition and curiosity that saved me.