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CHAPTER X — THE RETURN

IT wanted an hour to the first streaks of day-break, when Matangini with sad heart and heavy steps again threaded the wild foot-path. Karuna silently followed her homeward footsteps. The paling blue of the starry heavens was now half covered by numbers of driving clouds, while one dense and settled mass of black hovered over the distant horizon and shed a sombre grey over the dimly seen outlines of the far-off tree-tops on its verge. A wild and fitful breeze occasionally moaned over the dark woods with an ominous sound and a few drops of pattering rain fell on the earth, on the leafy trees and on the luxuriant shrubbery. Matangini was too deeply absorbed in her own thoughts to heed the appearance of external nature, though lowering and gloomy looked the scene around her. The remembrance of the forbidden and fond interview she had just stolen, engrossed all her soul; not even the thoughts of the reception which might await her at home, not even the risk and danger of discovery by her husband, obliterated the faintest tint of the vivid picture which memory of fancy successfully traced before her mental view, now in the darkest, now in the most radiant colours. She had promised to forget; the first thing she did after leaving Madhav was to remember; to remember and hang with rapture on each word he had uttered,—on each tear he had shed; and often would the rapture vanish and be succeeded by the thought that god and man abhorred her impurity of heart.

A part of their journey had been accomplished when the growing blackness of the skies announced that a storm was near.

"Thakuran, hasten your footsteps," said Karuna, breaking the long silence; "there will be a storm; let us reach your house before it commences."

"Yes," said Matangini unconsciously, "go on."

Karuna increased her speed and Matangini imitated her, more from example than from any sense of necessity.

"There—hear,—bigger drops are falling on the leaves," said Karuna speaking once more.

"Yes?" said Matangini, then awaking for the first time from her abstraction, and, stopping to listen, continued, "Ah it is not the sound of rain-drops—it seems to be—what? perhaps the sound of human feet treading over the leaves and stumps of trees."

"Is it so, Thakuran?" ejaculated Karuna and increased her speed, apprehensive lest she should fall into the hands of some loiterer from among the dacoit band.

But they had not proceeded far when the wind rose in fury, the lightning flashed, the thunder growled, and big drops of rain poured down too unmistakably.

"We shall be drenched to death," said Karuna, "can we not shelter ourselves beneath this tree?"

"Come then," said Matangini, as she led the way to the covert afforded by the overspreading boughs of a large tamarind. Just then a sudden flash of light illuminated the earth and revealed by its momentary gleam a human figure standing at the foot of the tree, within speaking distance of themselves.

"Fly, O fly!" shrieked Karuna, and waiting not for an answer, ran with all her might, dragging the nerveless Matangini after her as she sped away. "Fly, fly, fly," she kept on crying and ran on amidst the storm and rain and stopped not to take breath till she had reached the house which fortunately was nigh.

"Stay here not," said Matangini after they had arrived there, "although it is cruel to turn you out at this hour—it will be more dangerous for you to stay, cross over to Kanak's and remain there in the veranda; when the storm abates a little and the daylight comes you can leave the house before the family arise from their beds.

So saying, Matangini proceeded to open the door of her sleeping apartment, and Karuna left the house. Matangini found the door still shut, and unbarring it by the same artifice which Rajmohan had used a few hours before, she gently entered the apartment. She was in the act of shutting the door again when another figure glided into the room after her and drew the massive bar. The very sound of the tread of his feet told Matangini that it was her dreaded husband.

Rajmohan said nothing, but by feeling in the dark he brought out a tinder box and with flint and steel struck a light and placed it on its accustomed seat. Still he spoke not but sat on the taktapos or bedstead eying his wife with a savage glance. Matangini read her fate in his looks and stood, not pale and trembling but firmly and proudly, with all the dignity and courage which had that very evening awed into silence the fury of her brutal oppressor. The howling of the wind and the clatter of the rain without, and the angry growl in the clouds above were the only sounds that disturbed the appalling silence.

At length Rajmohan spoke, "Accursed woman," he said in a bitter tone which had in it nothing of the unusual savage impetuosity of his temper, “did you not go to your paramour?" Matangini did not answer. "Speak,” he said in a low voice of fearful imperiousness, stamping his foot on the ground.

"I shall not answer to questions which I ought not to be asked," replied the half guilty and half innocent woman.

"Wretch," exclaimed Rajmohan, gnashing his teeth and growing furious; but again assuming a forced calmness, he added, "Did you or did you not go to Madhav Ghose's home this night?"

"Yes, I did," she said, suddenly excited beyond herself by the sound of the name, "I did—to save him from the robbery you had planned."

Rajmohan sprang from the bed with clenched fists.

"Woman," he said fiercely, "deceive me not. Canst thou? Thou little knowest how I have watched thee; how from the earliest day that thy beauty became thy curse, I have followed every footstep of thine—caught every look that shot from thine eyes. Brute though I be," continued he again becoming gentle, "I was proud of my beautiful wife and as the tigress watches over her whelp, I watched over thee. Did I not perceive how before thou wert a woman, thou didst already become fond of that cursed wretch? Did I not see how time ripened thy fondness into sin? Doubt thou what I say? Know then that this very afternoon, when won by the poisoned words of that harlot, thy friend, thou didst leave the house unbidden, thou didst not leave unwatched. Then too I was behind thee—I was behind thee—deny it woman, if thou canst, when before the garden thou didst wilfully, yea most wickedly—most treacherously, let go thy veil, why? that your eyes might meet—and be blasted! Once and once only I missed thee—and I rue the hour when I did so. But returning at night to my untenanted chamber could I not guess the serpent's hole into which the vile worm had crept? I did and watched thee again at his khirki gate. Knowest not that in the moaning wind and amidst the howling storm I have dogged thy steps even but now?—knowest thou, harlot, why I have whetted my knife to-night? You answer not and I ask not for answer. I will kill you." He ceased and his eyes darted fire as he cast a last glance of scrutiny over her petrified features. A momentary pause ensued during which the howling storm without was alone heard. At length Matangini spoke and desperate calmness was in her voice.

"You are right," she said. "I love him—deeply do I love him; long loved I and I love him so. I will also tell you that words have I uttered which, but for the uncontrolled—uncontrollable madness of a love you cannot understand, would never have passed these lips. But beyond this I have not been guilty to you. Do you believe me?"

"No," said he, rising from his seat, "I will kill you." And he unsheathed a small dagger that hung from his waist concealed in his clothes.

"My mother, O mother! and you father! where are you now?" were the only sounds that escaped the lips of the doomed girl, as she sunk about lifeless on the floor. The ruthless weapon gleamed high, as it was about to descend on the lovely bosom of the trembling victim, when the purpose was suddenly arrested by a violent noise at the window. Rajmohan turned round to see the cause of the unexpected noise. The jhamp flew open and two dark and athletic forms sprang one after another into the chamber, dripping with rain and bespattered with mud, but shooting sparks of fire from their red and fierce glances.

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