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CHAPTER XI — WHEN THIEVES FALL OUT

In which is discussed the physical possibility of a robber being robbed and an assassin assassinated.

"YOU think of killing your wife, ruffian?" said one of the newcomers, who, however, had not come with any peaceful intentions himself as his heavy arms and gleaming dagger showed.

"Who are you?" roared Rajmohan, turning all his fury towards the intruders, and brandishing his knife with fearful rapidity. "Burglary in my house!"

"Softly, the inmates in the other rooms will be aroused. No thieves, friend. Look well and possibly you may recognize me," responded one of the new-comers with a contemptuous smile. "Lass," continued he addressing Matangini, "bring that lamp here that your husband may have a look at the face of a friend."

But Matangini, though not absolutely senseless, had fallen into a stupor—so bewildering had been the attack on her life and so strange the scarcely less fearful interruption that followed it.

"Friend or foe," said Rajmohan, "go out of my house."

"That you may murder your wife in quiet?" said the intrepid stranger with a sarcastic laugh.

"And who will prevent me from doing it if I choose?" exclaimed the furious husband, and dagger in hand rushed to plunge it in the audacious visitor's breast. But quick as lightning the latter parried the blow, and then with one stroke of his own gleaming sabre he made that tiny weapon in Rajmohan's hand fly off to a distance of several feet. Losing not a moment, he seized Rajmohan's arms in an iron grasp. "Now Bhiku," said he to his hitherto silent companion, "will you hold the lamp and let this fellow see my face. It is a moon face, Raju, and will please you as much as your golden moon of a wife there." Bhiku brought the lamp and as bid held it close to his face.

"Sardar!" exclaimed Rajmohan in amazement, as he recognized his fellow-plotter of the night.

"Yes, sardar," replied the other, "I see you recognized me; friends never forget each other so soon."

"What brings you here?" said he in the same angry tone as before; "what do you want by breaking into my house?"

"First tell me," replied the other "what were you going to murder your wife for."

"That concerns you not," returned Rajmohan, "leave me alone, or sardar or no sardar I will kick you out of the house."

"Ah! Let me see your kick, prisoner as you are," said the other sneeringly.

"My legs are free yet," roared Rajmohan, dealing a tremendous kick at his antagonist beneath which even the sturdy frame of the robber chief staggered some paces back, involuntarily letting go his hold of the agile antagonist's arms.

"Pin him, Bhiku, pin him down," roared the bandit as he saw Rajmohan running to regain his lost dagger; and before the sounds were uttered the vigorous arm of the second robber felled their opponent to the ground.

The sardar now sprang to the fallen man's breast with the agility and fierceness of a tiger, and while he thus held him down, the other bound Rajmohan's hands and feet with a piece of rope which, fastened to two bamboo-sticks on two of the walls, had formed a sort of rude cloth-stand for Matangini.

"Now, traitor!" said the sardar, "you are at our mercy."

"Yes, because you are two to one—but what have I done," asked Rajmohan, "that you should do thus to me?"

"What have you done? You have been a traitor, know [that]! Did you not send warning to the house and save your brother-in-law? You, hypocrite, you," he added fiercely, his eyes gleaming in rage, "you did it, you deserve to die."

"I! I give notice to him! I would sooner tear open his eyes," returned Rajmohan gnashing his teeth.

"Have done with your hypocrisy," said the sardar threateningly, "Fool that I was to believe that you would serve us against your own brother-in-law. Yet such a rascally tongue is yours, so deeply and smoothly does it lie—so often have you cursed him in our presence, that I thought I could trust you."

"I tell you, sardar, it was not I," returned Rajmohan with vehemence as he began to grow apprehensive for his life, for he knew well the desperate character he had to deal with. "I tell you it was not I. Do you not remember that I left the house in your company and, till your purpose failed, have been in your company only? Have I left you for the twinkling of an eye since we went?"

"Ah! don't hope to deceive me again; no snatching of a child's sweetmeat with me. You knew your wife was awake when you brought me to your mat-wall here; perhaps when you came round under the pretence of assuring yourself that she was asleep, you gave her a hint of what to do. Deny that if you can. If it was not she, can you tell me who else in the world did it?"

"She did it, I confess, but I can swear to you it was without my knowledge. When I came round I assure you I found her asleep. Propose the oath and I will swear that it was so."

"You have lived long," said the other sternly, "it is useless now. We know you now. Do you think I would mistake the meaning of the haste with which you left as soon as the shouts from the house told us that your end had been gained? Believe me, comrade, I am too old a sinner to be deceived so easily. Prepare then to die."

"For Heaven's sake descend from my bosom," said Rajmohan, gasping for breath. The heavy burden of the bandit's body was pressing on his chest and at length became unsupportable even to his strength and iron frame. "Release me. I swear to you by my patron God it was not so. I swear to you by my mother I did not know it."

"How did your wife do it then?" enquired the bandit chief in the same tone as before.

With this question he alighted from the breast of the other, but kept a hold on his throat by a light grasp prepared to tighten at the least hostile movement from his prisoner.

"Could it not be" said Rajmohan, now breathing free, "that she had only counterfeited sleep when I saw her?"

"Ha! ha! you take me for a fool" said the sardar with a gurgling laugh, "I wanted to stand off from the wall, you made me come to the wall; why was that? Why, but for this treachery? You have betrayed us to Madhav Ghose; who can say you will [not] betray [us] to the police also, for that man will protect you? You must die or there is no safety for [us. You] gave us the slip very smartly or you would not live till now."

"And what?" exclaimed Rajmohan with a sudden vehemence, "what did you see when you came in? Was I not going to murder the very woman whom [you] say I employed as my agent? But for your interference [she] would have been a corpse now."

"Han" exclaimed the sardar in an altered [voice, as he] gazed steadily on his silent comrade as if [to ask] what he thought of the [matter.]

"Yes, sardar, he speaks truth," said Bhiku, [breaking] silence for the first time, "why else should he [kill] the woman."

"I was going to kill her," said Rajmohan with a shudder, "for having done the very deed you charge me with."

"The woman! the woman! Kill the woman," said the sardar as he sprang to the spot where he had seen Rajmohan's wife sink at her husband's uplifted blade.

He alighted on a heap of clothes which he had mistaken for his intended victim in the dim light of the expiring lamp.

"Wretch" muttered he, "you need not escape me—don't think a sardar can't hunt you out in this little room."

"Stop," said Rajmohan, recovering the accustomed energy of his voice, "none but myself touches my wife; unbind me."

"Unbind him, Bhiku, while I drag her out by her hair," said the sardar as he jumped to another corner where he saw something white again. Bhiku quickly cut Rajmohan's bandages with his sword. "Het! clothes again!" muttered the robber as again he struck the hilt of his sword at a cane petara.[1] "but! out! wicked woman," said he highly exasperated and struck his weapon here and there on the bedstead. There was no Matangini on the bedstead.

"Here, Bhiku, bring the lamp here," roared the sardar once more, "the woman has hid herself beneath the taktaposh." Bhiku brought the lamp, trimming it well. Rajmohan followed; all then bent down to look beneath the taktaposh for the affrighted fugitive, when lo! nobody was there.

Lifting the lamp high they could see by its improved light every corner and angle of the room, but Matangini was nowhere.

"The door! the door!" exclaimed Rajmohan, "look! it is unbarred. I had barred it when I entered. She has fled."

Matangini had indeed fled. Profiting by the mutual quarrel [of the robbers who] were too deeply engaged in their own [life] and death struggle to remember her whom less brutal hearts could never forget, Matangini had stolen away unperceived to the door, which she had quietly unbarred, and it is to be doubted if far more clamorous proceedings on her part would have attracted the attention of combatants so busily engaged.

"Run, run after her," said the sardar, "she will ruin us."

"Yes, run" said Rajmohan. "But hark you, none but I lift a finger against my wife. I will kill her when she is found, or if I do not, kill me as you proposed. But no one else must touch her. Haste, I will precede you."

The three rushed out. The skies were still murky and continued drizzling. The fair fugitive was searched for in every direction. Day was now dawning fast, and little time was left for the search.

Rajmohan's first thought was to peep at Kanak's house. He and the sardar stealthily approached the hut and ascending to the level of the floor, slightly removed the jhamp which closed it. There they beheld in the faint gray light admitted by the opening thus made the sleeping forms of mother and daughter only. They looked over the neighbouring bushes, but with the same ill-success. A bright and ruddy morning was now following the wet and murky dawn too fast to render the search safe for the dacoits any longer. They then separated for the present, appointing a place of rendezvous at night, the sardar [uttering] an obscene threat to [ensure the] attendance of the suspected Rajmohan.


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