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CHAPTER VIII — FOREWARNED AND FOREARMED

MATANGINI stopped at an open veranda and desired Karuna to awaken her sister and bring her thither. In a few minutes Hemangini, who had not been asleep, came with utter astonishment depicted in her face and enquired in an eager tone the object of her unexpected and untimely visit.

"I come to warn," said Matangini, "there will be a dacoity in your house."

"Dacoity!" half screamed, half muttered the astounded girl.

"Hem!" shrieked Karuna.

"Softly, Karuna" said Matangini, "gently Hem; why stand you here? Go warn your husband and bid him be prepared."

But Hemangini was then utterly unfit for the task. She stood pale and trembling, unable either to answer or move. Matangini was perplexed, she saw that her sister was lost in fear and time could not be spared. The loquacious zeal of Karuna, who could not for the world forego this opportunity of being the first to carry such dreadful tidings, as well as the salutary effect that had been produced upon her fears by the unexpected intelligence, relieved Matangini of her anxiety, and the mortal enemy of the finny tribe, big with the importance of being the messenger of evil, flew to Madhav's chamber to discharge the mission which legitimately belonged to Hemangini.

She soon returned and informed Matangini that Madhav did not feel disposed to give weight to her (Karuna's) words and seemed particularly incredulous when she said that Matangini was in the house and that it was she who had brought the intelligence. "If she is here," Madhav had said, "I can hear the news from herself; bring her to me that I may learn from my sister-in-law how much there is to fear. Ask her to come hither."

"Go Hem," said Matangini to her sister, "You go—tell your husband that I am here and that what I say is true. He will believe you."

"No, no," said the girl, "you must go yourself. How can I answer all the questions that he may ask ? Go—answer all the questions that he may ask. Go and lose no time, for if it be as you say,—"

"I had better not go. Tell him that I say it, and that it is true."

"No—you go," again urged the reluctant girl with sweet child-like obstinacy.

"I cannot go, I must not," said Matangini in the most serious tone and in an agitated voice.

"O Luck!" shouted Karuna laughingly, "it is nothing then? Your sister wants to frighten you only, mother."

"Ah! sister, do you want to frighten me only," said Hemangini, her face brightening. "I confess I am frightened—now tell me what is your errand."

Matangini mused in deep silence for a minute; then taking her resolution, she said, "Yes, I will go to him. You come with me, Hem."

But the modest girl positively refused to appear before her husband in the presence of her sister, though she did not say as much in words. "Stay then and speak not a word about me or my errand till I come back," said Matangini and darted away through the veranda, for she saw the moon's disk sinking on the tops of the trees. But as Matangini neared the door of Madhav's apartment, her feet trembled more violently than even when she had stood eying the glaring light in the mango-grove. She drew her sari over her forehead and proceeded softly and with seeming reluctance. She receded, advanced, stopped short, pushed aside the door, stopped again, and at length entered. A single lamp illuminated the gaily decorated apartment and the young Babu reclined on a rich sofa. Matangini stationed herself close to a wall with downcast head as befitted the modesty of her sex and age, her face scarcely turned towards that of her brother-in-law. Madhav gave a start and then only half rose from his reclining posture.

Neither, however, spoke, although one was as anxious to impart the fearful tidings she bore as the other to receive them, and a silence ensued which evidently embarrassed both. At length Madhav spoke jestingly, as the connection between them authorized.

"I wish you were an English Memshahib, sister-in-law," said he with a smile, "that I might offer you a seat. But why not sit down on—on—"

Matangini relieved him from his embarrassment by saying almost in a whisper, "Have you heard what I have to say?"

"Yes," said Madhav seriously, "is it true?"

"It is true," she said in the same half audible tone.

"To-night you say?"

"To-night, even now they will make their attack as soon as the moon sinks and the moon will sink in half a danda."

"Is it? Then I am lost But how do you know all this sister-in-law?"

"That," replied Matangini in a more distinct voice, slightly lifting the cloth which covered her forehead, "That you must not ask me."

"You perplex me," rejoined he, "I scarcely know what to think." Matangini now completely uncovered her face and looking steadily into his, spoke in a yet bolder tone. "Do you not know me, Madhav? Can I deceive you? And do you think I would come to your house, at this hour, and unattended—"

"Sure—I was wrong," he answered, "wait here with your sister while I go and rouse my men."

Matangini arrested him with a look as he was rising and asked him to give her one word more.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Where is your uncle's will—take care of it—they mean to carry it off."

"Humph" ejaculated Madhav, a sudden light flashing upon him as he called to mind his aunt's lawsuit, "They shall not have it."

"Do you not keep it in an ivory box in this room?"

"Yes—how do you know it?" he enquired in fresh amazement.

"Why I? they know it,"—she replied.

"Now I see it!" he answered, "you must be too well informed," and he rose to depart.

"I have something to beg of you—will you grant it?"

"Ask it and it will be yours."

"Then say not a word to a human being that I have been your informant or even that I have been here to-night; my life depends on it."

"How your life ? Who dares threaten it?" exclaimed he with a flash of indignation.

"Hush!" said she.

"Yes, I forget!" said he checking himself, "I promise you silence."

"And impose the same on Karuna and my sister as you go."

"With Karuna, it will be rather difficult, but I shall frighten the wench into dumbness. You stop with your sister, with closed doors and you will remain here unperceived by the household. When I come back I shall lead you to a place of greater security and privacy."

So saying he passed by his wife and Karuna, each of whom he desired or commanded to be strictly silent regarding Matangini. Then darting swiftly into the outer department, he was at once in the midst of his darwans.

Madhav knew Matangini to be a woman of too clear a mind to have been greatly deceived, and he knew her also too well to think she would ever be at so much pains to deceive him. He therefore set himself to the work of preparation in earnest. Before total darkness had covered the face of the earth, the house-top might be seen full of human forms flitting against the sky. These were select men from the tenantry who lived close to the house and from among whom a little lattial force could be collected at any time at a moment's notice. These were mostly armed with latties, spears, bricks and other missiles ready to be hurled at the doomed invader that durst approach the walls or enter the house. We do not pretend to say that all these midnight warriors bore a heart as sturdy as the latties that they clasped in their hands, and many doubtless there were who thought this untimely interruption of their repose very unwelcome, and who would, have gladly beat a retreat did not the stern voice of their landlord, as it rolled forth command after command, convince them that it would be safer to stay and trust to chance than risk his displeasure. Most however felt secure in their position; there was but little [in the] house on the top, to tempt the steps of robbers, and with this comfortable assurance the bold defenders stood boldly by their posts. Five or six men of the sturdier race from the North-west protected the entrance, well accoutred with sword, shield, spear and musket. Four or five others could be seen walking round, with orders to be on the alert, and to give the warning when necessary to the rest. Inside the house, the boxes and chest which contained the most valuable things, jewels, cash, plate and other articles of small bulk and great value, as also the coveted ivory box, were nowhere to be seen. They were removed to obscure hiding-places which among the endless apartments of the ample edifice could never be [discovered] by one who had never seen them, and it was not every one of the inmates of the house that had a knowledge of their existence. Madhav was everywhere mild and easily yielding by nature under ordinary circumstances; his energy and activity in the moment of excitement was feverish and held in awe the timid and the hesitating. Nevertheless not few were the women, who dragging naked children in one arm and holding large wallets under the other, stealthily left the threatened house to seek shelter in the neighbouring huts, Whose humble pretensions protected them from the chance of spoliation. Among the fleetest and foremost might be, seen the conscientious cook who had signalized herself by victory in the preceding evening, and who now conducted a most dexterous retreat with bag and baggage, not forgetting the famous ghee-pot which formed the glorious trophy of her evening triumph.

The hum and bustle of preparation subsided as all [was] completed and the expectant crowd awaited the issue in silence. The moon had already set and Madhav began half to doubt the truth of Matangini's suspicions. Just as his thoughts were taking that direction a darwan came up to him and informed him in Hindi that one of the men appointed to keep a look out, had seen a light in the direction of the "old garden" (as the mango-grove where Matangini had nearly encountered the robbers was called) and that venturing in that direction very close to the grove he had observed [several] armed men assembled in that place. "What is [your command,]" asked the man, "shall we go and attack [them]?"

["Hurry] not, Bhup Singh," replied Madhav, "it is unnecessary, and besides if you go in insufficient numbers, you will be overpowered, but if on the other hand many of you go, you leave the house unprotected, and who knows but there may be another company?"

"Is it Maharaj's pleasure, then, we remain as we are?" asked the darwan.

"Yes—but set up a shout all of you together, and let the rascals perceive how well prepared we are."

No sooner had he spoken than a long loud shout rent the midnight air. The females trembled in their apartments as they listened in awe and thought the danger near. A dismal silence succeeded the noise.

"Another shout—once more." said Madhav.

Again a similar sound shook the night. No sooner had its echoes died away, than out rose a terrific yell from the wilderness, as if uttered by midnight demons who revelled in the dark. The blood ran cold in the veins of the listeners as the horrible sound fell on their ears.

"Again, again, my men, once more [raise] your voices, and louder than ever," shouted Madhav, apprehensive lest the appalling sound chilled the courage of his retainers. Again was the order obeyed with zeal and promptness, and again arose a responsive cry from the direction of the "old garden." But this time it was the cooing cry known among robbers as the signal of retreat.

"They fly; they fly; they fly;" shouted several voices, "that is the cry of flight."

"Yes, but do not be too sure," said Madhav, "it may have been uttered to deceive you. Remain as you are."

Long did Madhav and his men wait, but nothing occurred. After another injunction to his retainers not to relax their vigilance and to keep up all night, Madhav turned his steps towards the inner apartments to thank the brave woman who had saved him from imminent danger.

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