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CHAPTER VI – MIDNIGHT PLOTTING

ALL who have their eyes shut do not sleep. Mat-walls like stone-walls have ears.

Let us now return to Matangini.—Led to her chamber by her aged aunt-in-law after the harsh treatment she had received from her husband, she shut herself up in anguish of spirit. Supper was prepared in due time by the old woman, but not all her requests and entreaties nor those of Kishori, her sister-in-law, could prevail upon her to come out to partake of it. They were obliged therefore to desist and leave her to her own melancholy reflections.

Matangini lay in her bed brooding over the sufferings she was doomed for ever to bear. Her husband, she knew, would not see her that night, as was his wont whenever he was offended with her. She, however, felt all the happier for it, and felt a pleasure too in being left alone to indulge in her reflections. The night advanced and one by one the inmates of the house retired to rest. A deep silence pervaded the household as well as all external nature. Matangini's chamber was without a light, and total darkness pervaded it, except where a bright moonbeam that crept through a slight crevice in the small window, streaked the cold mud-floor. With her head raised from the pillow and supported on her hand, her anchal[1] thrown off from her bosom towards the waist on account of the sultry heat, Matangini gazed on the single ray of moonlight that recalled to her remembrance the days when she could sport beneath the evening beam with the gay and light heart of childhood. Childhood! That time when she used to lie in the open air, arm in arm with her beloved Hemangini, gazing on the silver orb that poured the sweet light and the interminable deep blue ocean on which she sailed! Many, many were the tales, such as childhood loves, which they then told to each other or heard from their affectionate grandmothers, and hearty was the mirth with which they listened. Eight years had wrought a change. The loud laugh was forgotten, the feces which she loved and whose pictures lay treasured in her heart, she never more could see. And then that smile and that tone of affection! Oh! she could give all she had now in the world again to see that smile, again to hear that tone of human voice. Her heart was a warm spring of inexhaustible love, but it found no vent, and the cold breath of unkindness congealed the celestial stream at its source. One painful remembrance, painful but too sweet in its painfulness not to be brooded over again and again, still con-nected her past happiness with her present lot. That she wished to forget; but she could not. There was but one human being near her who loved her, the good and guileless Kanak and she alone was mistress of her secret. Beyond this her life was continued misery, and Matangini wept as she thought it could be nothing more.

The sultry heat incident to the season became intolerable, and Matangini rose from her bed to open the window. She was about to open it when the sound of soft and cautious footsteps caught her ear. The sound evidently proceeded from outside the house, and from no distance from the window behind which she stood. The window was, as usual in mat-walled houses, very small, being not more than three feet by two and stood at a height of two feet above the floor. Matangini paused and tried to see through the chink, but could observe nothing beyond a cluster of trees and the far-off tops of others waving against the moonlit sky.

As no foot-path lay close to the place whence the sounds of footsteps proceeded, Matangini's apprehensions were excited; she stood motionless, and listened with intense attention. The footsteps approached very close to her and at length ceased; and she could hear whispering voices. Her curiosity was still more strongly excited when she recognized in one of the voices that of her husband, who spoke a little louder than the other. As the mat-wall alone divided them, Matangini could catch enough of the sounds though not all to be able to understand the meaning of the speaker.

"Why do you speak so loud?" said one of the whisperers, after a few words had been exchanged, "people in your house may hear us."

"None can be awake at this hour," said Rajmohan, as Matangini guessed from the voice.

"Had we not better go a little further off from the wall? Should any one happen to be awake, she could not then overhear us," observed the other.

"No," returned Rajmohan, "should any be awake as you fear, then we are best as we are, for here under the shadows of the wall and the eaves, no one can possibly see us from the house—neither through the chinks nor probably from outside, should people happen to be out at this hour."

"True," said the other, "but who are in this room here?"

"Why should I tell you that?" Rajmohan said, but immediately addressed, "there can be no harm in telling it, in my chamber there is nobody there but my wife."

"Are you sure she is asleep?" demanded the other.

"I think so, but I will go round and see, you wait here."

Matangini now heard steps receding, Softly and noiselessly she trod the floors and returned to her bed, on which she alighted still more gently and cautiously, so that the least rustling of clothes was not heard. She then threw herself into a posture of sleep, and shut her eyes.

Rajmohan came round to the door of his chamber and lightly tapped at it, nobody came to open it. He called gently to his wife to open the door, but with no better success. He now thought that his wife was really asleep, but thinking it not impossible that she would keep silence from resentment for which he had furnished ample cause, he determined to enter the room any how. Rajmohan went to the kitchen, struck a light, and returned with the kitchen lamp in his hand. Then laying it on the ground he applied one foot to one leaf of the door, and held fast the other with an arm. The slack hinges permitted a slight opening to be thus made between the leaves, and Rajmohan thrust a finger in to see if the large bar, the slight wooden bolt, and the little iron chain had all been fastened. He perceived that only the wooden bolt had been used, and rightly judged that his wife had left the door so slightly secured in order to permit him to open it from without if he chose to go in. He easily unfastened the slack bolt by thrusting two fingers in and drawing it aside, and entered the room with the lamp in his hand.

Rajmohan found the features of his wife composed in sleep. He called her several times by name, but so gently as not to awake her; spoke kindly, so that if his wife's silence proceeded from resentment or anger, it might vanish, but still finding her silent and breathing hard, and knowing no reason why she should counterfeit sleep, he was satisfied of its reality and went out, shutting the door after him by the same artifice that had helped him to open it. He then extinguished the lamp, and went round the whole house, tapping at each door and calling in a gentle voice to the slumberers, but finding none awake, rejoined his companion.

As the footsteps of her husband died away, Matangini left her bed and stealing with the same soft tread to the window overheard the following conversation.

After learning from Rajmohan that all was safe, his unknown companion began.

"Are you willing to assist us in this affair?"

"Not much I confess," said Rajmohan. "Not that I pretend to be honest so late, but though I don't like the man, he has done me some good."

"Why then do you not like him?" ashed the shrewd stranger.

"Because if he has done me some good he has done me harm too, and perhaps more harm than good," replied Rajmohan.

"Well, if so, why not assist us?"

"I will, if you give me what I demand. I am anxious to remove from his cursed neighbourhood, but I don't see how I can get food elsewhere without coming to trouble. I wish much therefore to get a sum that will make me care little where I go. If your affair will bring me such an amount of money, I will assist you."

"Name your condition," said the stranger.

"First let me know what I am required to do," responded the other.

"You will do what you have done for us sometimes before this—help us to conceal the property. This time we mean to leave everything we get except cash on your hands, and that this very night."

"I understand," Rajmohan replied, "you will do well not to conceal from me how much you stand in need of my aid. You are aware that a deed in such a big and wealthy house will be followed by too strict an enquiry and too hot a search for the property to render it convenient to you all to be enjoying your shares in quiet for some time, and you absolutely want somebody who can hold them in trust for you—which you well know none can do so well as I, specially as suspicion will not easily fall on me. Yes, I have an excellent hiding-place for such things; but I shall demand too much I fear."

"You see it—be moderate in your terms," rejoined the dacoit, for such, the reader sees, he was.

"We won't haggle," replied Rajmohan, "I want one-fourth of what you may sell the things for."

The dacoit knew Rajmohan too well to think he was endeavouring to bully him into a bad bargain.—He was silent for a moment and then said:

"So far as I am concerned—agreed; but I must take the opinion of the others, though you know my word in such matters is their word also."

"I have no doubt of that," responded Rajmohan, "but one word more. Before you take away these things, we will make a guesswork of what the things will sell for—and you will pay me down a fourth of it in cash. Of course I shall afterwards make up for anything that may fall short of expectation, and you will do the same to me ii you get more."

"Certainly it will be so, but one word to you also.—You are to do another service."

"I will, if you name another price."

"Yes, of course. We mean to carry off Madhav Ghose's property for ourselves; but we want to carry off something else for another."

"What?" enquired Rajmohan with some show of curiosity.

"His uncle's will."

"Hoon," exclaimed Rajmohan starting slightly.

"Yes -and will be paid for it. Now we want to know from you where Madhav keeps that will."

"I don't know it exactly myself. I have seen him take out his document from a certain box, but I don't know where that box is kept, whether he keeps it in another box or chest or almirah, I know nothing—but who pays you for the will?"

"I am bound not to tell."

"Not even to me?"

"To none."

"Is it Mathur Ghose?"

"May be or may not—but what sort of a box is it?"

"The terms?"

"What do you ask?"

"Two hundred in cash."

"Rather too much for two, or three words. But we have too much to do"—the dacoit continued, speaking more to himself than to the other, "to be searching for a bit of paper all night. The box must be in some iron chest in the bedroom; so we can find it easily if we only know what sort of box contains it. There is no jabbering with you—so be it as you say."

"It is an ivory box" Rajmohan said, "with three English letters written in gold on the lid. Those are the first letters of his name."

"So now that it is arranged," said the dacoit, "come with me and let us see our men. We will appoint a place of rendezvous where you will wait for us. Come, there is no time to lose; the work must be commenced as soon as the moon sets, and summer nights are short."

So saying the robber and his confederate softly stole from the shadow of the wall and took their way towards the woods at a distance from each other, soon to reunite in another dark spot. Matangini sank on the floor in astonishment and dismay.

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