MADHAV AND TARA
MADHAV and Tara had known each other from their infancy. Tara’s father and Madhav’s maternal grandfather were residents of the same village, and in Madhav’s constant visits to the place during his boyhood, Tara had been his playmate. They were distantly related to each other on this side, a circumstance which was the means of their coming so frequently in contact with each other in their early age as to be each other’s play-fellow. Although Tara was Madhav’s senior by a few years, they had always called each other “Tara” and “Madhav” respectively. Tara’s marriage with Mathur did not to any great extent interfere to banish the feeling in the mind of each towards the other, generated by the familiar and unrestrained intercourse of infancy. For, before Mathur evinced his grasping avarice by the secret but not unperceived aid he rendered to his aunt in her lawsuit, friendly intercourse, apparently cordial on both sides, had subsisted between the cousins, and necessarily Madhav’s visits to Mathur’s household were frequent. By so many years the junior of Mathur, zenana etiquette did not stand in the way of his holding frequent conversations with Tara on these occasions, and Madhav always availed himself of every such opportunity. Such an intercourse was equally gratifying to both, for each had a high esteem for the other. But their mutual fondness, and such the feeling might suitably be termed, was far removed from all impurity of the heart. Their attachment to each other springing in childhood, and nurtured by a daily growing appreciation of the moral beauty of each other’s heart, had ripened into an affection that was akin to the love of brother and sister.
Nevertheless, when Tara and Madhav found themselves face to face in the godown-mahal, their situation was sufficiently embarrassing. Surprise at this strange and, to both, inexplicable meeting, was the first feeling that predominated in their minds. When its effects had subsided, they began to feel the embarrassing character of their situation, and for some time neither spoke. Tara first broke the silence. “You here, Madhav!”
Madhav could not well retort the interrogatory on Tara, but remained silent, hardly knowing how to answer. Tara felt all the novelty and embarrassment of the situation; but in such cases women, perhaps, are better able to get over the difficulty than men. Tara, confident in the integrity of her own character and feeling secure from misapprehension on the part of the other, in the esteem she knew Madhav entertained for her, as well as sensible of the necessity of coming to an explanation, proceeded to bring matters to an issue.
“First, tell me, Thakurpo,[note]Husband’s younger brother or cousin.[/note] who could be the two Jama-dut[note]Pluto’s messengers.[/note]-like men who just now ran away from here? I wonder what business you could have had with people of that description, and here in our house too? One of them gazed at me fixedly when I stood there in the veranda, and perhaps taking me for a ghost fled precipitately.”
“Was it you then who opened this door and clanked the chains?”
“Yes, I opened the door, and was making towards the room from which you came out, but the appearance of these Jama-duts frightened me, and I was returning.”
“And whence came the sounds?”
“Have you heard nothing strange?”
“Yes, a freezing shriek of woe; but I thought it was coming from your room.”
“No? You frighten me. I shall return.”
“Without hearing, hearing why I am here?”
“I must hear it, and I must also tell you why I came here. Be quick then.”
“Gladly,” replied Madhav, “but I must take some precautions from interruption which you will by and by understand.”
Madhav went out, and drew the massive bar of the door which led from the godown-mahal at once out of the house. He then re-entered the apartment which had so lately been his prison, and beckoning to Tara to follow, sat down to narrate the history of his capture. He neither concealed nor extenuated any circumstance, speaking as he did in the bitterness of resentment, as well as from a consciousness that however affectionately Tara might love her husband, she was too pure-minded herself to sympathize with his crooked policy. Tara felt sorely grieved as well as disappointed.
“You are not then what I seek,” she said; “you have arrived only this evening, while I believe my suspicions were roused two days ago.”
Tara related in her turn the purpose of her visit. That need not be detailed to the reader. He has already seen with what solicitude this affectionate wife had watched the change in her husband; how she had racked her mind with fruitless conjectures for its cause; how at last she had importuned her husband for a disclosure, and how disappointed she had been in her wishes; how at last the strange and secret walk her husband had taken that night, and his clandestine and mysterious entry into the godowns, had raised suspicion in her mind that the mysterious cause of her solicitude lay concealed in that apartment; how she determined to wrest the secret at all hazards and to visit the godowns that night, to know what misfortune lay hid beneath its roof; and lastly, how she had secured the keys from her husband while he slept, from beneath his pillow.
“How many fears, what tremor, what anxiety,” continued Tara “assailed me as, possessed of the stolen keys I threaded my dark way beneath these sombre walls, you can better conceive than I describe. But I felt myself acting under a supernatural impulse and came on. I could have died if my death would have removed his unhappiness. Judge then what impression your presence here, made on me. I at once connected your presence here, with the cause of his unhappiness. But you say you are here only from this evening. You cannot then be what I seek.”
“You will not perhaps be disappointed,” said Madhav in reply, shuddering as he spoke. “Those sounds—did you not hear them? There is a mystery yet to solve.”
Tara turned pale.
“Do not be frightened,” said Madhav “I believe there is nothing to fear, I will relate what I have just heard and seen. I will do so, however, only if you give me a promise not to indulge in a woman’s fears. Do you promise?”
It was with difficulty that she gasped out the words, “Speak on.” Madhav then gave her an account of the strange sounds that had interrupted his interview with the dacoits, relieving her by the tone of his narrative as much of supernatural fears, as the nature of the subject admitted.
Tara’s feelings were most painful. Fear, natural in women whom philosophy never taught to disbelieve in supernatural beings, predominated. Mingled with it, was curiosity, such as danger excites, and an intense regret that her search should be attended with so much terror. She now almost repented having undertaken it, and asked Madhav to see her safe to the interior of the house.
“Will you give up your search so easily? I assure you there is no danger,” said Madhav with some vehemence, for his curiosity and interest had been intensely awakened, and he had forgotten his own precarious, and with Tara in his company, delicate situation, for its gratification.
Tara remained silent for some moments. Mustering resolution at last, she replied, “Where can we search? Have not the robbers searched everywhere?”
“Yes, but I see now that one thing escaped them. There is a door,” he said, pointing to the little iron-door we have described before, “which remained to be opened.”
“It evidently leads to the other room: did not they examine that other room also?”
At this moment, again came the hollow agony-bespeaking sound, clearer, more distinct than ever. The listeners started; its touching and startling tones thrilled them in every nerve.
A short pang shot across Madhav’s brain. A dark and agonizing thought seized him. Wrenching almost with violence the bunch of keys from Tara’s hand, he madly sprung towards the little door, knelt down, and pushed a key into the keyhole. It did not turn. With the same vehemence of movement he tried a second and a third key, but with the same ill-success. Maddened with vexation, and the torture of suspense, he would have torn open the ponderous metal, had he the strength. Happily for his self-command, the fourth key he tried turned in the lock, and away flew the heavy door as though it were a feather.
“Tara! Tara! hesitate not, but follow,” he said, with compressed energy, and crept in, bruising his sides.
Led by the contagion of impulse, Tara followed with the light. Joy and surprise held Madhav mute when they discerned a staircase of brick, narrow and deep, and filled with spiders’ webs. Without stopping to speak Madhav bounded up, and Tara lost in amazement, mechanically continued to follow. The staircase led to a small door of apparently an upper-storied room. A glance at the very small height of this room sufficed to convince Madhav of the art with which it had been so made as to be concealed from every other part of the building. He saw that the height of the two rooms, upper and lower together, made up the height of the side-rooms and the veranda, and being destitute of windows the existence of the upper story could not possibly be discerned from any other part of the building, nor any way suspected except by a comparison of the height of the central room with that of the adjacent ones.
Madhav, anxious and trembling, sought die lock of this second door and, after two or three fruitless attempts in which the violent movement of the keys brought blood from his fingers, he succeeded, and threw open die plated door ringing and echoing. Tara entered with him, holding the light in her hand. The feeble glimmer it threw around, revealed to them an unexpected sight. Upon a small bedstead of varnished mahogany, splendidly ornamented with gauze and crape, lay a form apparently that of a female. Tara and Madhav ran to the bedstead with the light; and its dim and ghastly glare, as Tara held it over die bedstead, revealed to them the features—pale, emaciated, agonized, but still heavenly—the features of Matangini.