LOVE CAN CONQUER FEAR
In which the author narrowly misses an opportunity of introducing a few ghosts and regrets that he cannot gratify his young readers.
EVERY word that caught the ear of Matangini froze her with horror during the terrible dialogue she overheard. As long as it continued, the intense interest with which she listened sustained her trembling frame, but so soon as it was ended, she sank overpowered on the floor. For some moments she remained almost insensible from the stupor of fear and agony. By degrees she recovered composure enough to think on what she had heard. A new and terrible light had just been thrown on the life and character of her husband. She had hitherto known him as a man of mad heart and brutal temper, but she recoiled with horror at the recollection that the accomplice of robbers, himself a robber perhaps, had hitherto enjoyed her innocent bosom. And the future? Was it in her power, now that her eyes were opened, to tear herself from his disgusting embraces? No, no, she was for ever cursed!
Such thoughts would rend her bosom at one moment—at the next the daring crime to which he was going to lend a hand burst on her sight with fearful vividness. She trembled as she thought of this. And the victims of this horrible deed were to be her own Hemangini and her Madhav. Her hair stood on end, her blood tingled in her veins, and a sharp pang shot across her head. All thoughts of her own accursed future and degraded womanhood vanished as she thought of the beloved beings who were now sleeping in fancied security while utter poverty and misery, perhaps worse, yawned to engulf them in an hour. She felt she must save them if she could, even at the price of her life.
Her first thought was to alarm her own household. But the next moment she perceived the folly of the thought. Who in the household would believe it of Rajmohan? Would his aunt believe it? or would his sister? Most probably they would think her crazed, delirious or dreaming. And supposing they did believe, would they endanger Rajmohan to save Madhav? And even if they would, could they save him? No, they dreaded too much their formidable relative to act in the slightest manner against his wishes. And should they not believe her, but in any manner let him know what she had uttered, her doom would be sealed.
She next thought of Kanak. Might not Kanak be sent to inform Madhav’s household? Kanak’s house was close by and Matangini might steal away from her chamber and awaken and impart to her so much of what she knew as would suffice to warn Madhav without endangering Rajmohan. But this course also appeared unpromising, if not impossible. She could not awaken Kanak without awakening Kanak’s mother also, for both she knew, slept in the same room. Kanak might perhaps believe anything she said without asking for explanations, but Kanak’s mother would not. To satisfy her it would be necessary to reveal everything and implicate her husband, but Matangini could not for all the world turn informer against the man to whom she had pledged her faith before God and man. Nor would it be possible to impart to Kanak alone the purpose of a midnight visit, and would Kanak’s mother allow her daughter to leave her home at midnight, alone, or what she perhaps might think as bad, in the company of another young woman? Far from it, it was rather more likely that she would awaken Matangini’s household in return, and deliver her over to their custody, fairly making it certain that Matangini had become either mad or dishonest. And even with her mother’s consent, would Kanak have the courage to venture on such a journey at such an hour unattended or attended by only another woman, herself, specially when bands of dacoits were out, lurking on the wayside?
Matangini now perceived with despair that her only resource lay in herself. She must go herself. Her whole soul recoiled at the idea. She thought not of the danger, though the danger was great. At this hour of dread loneliness, a young woman would have to thread her way through a wild and jungly path. She was, naturally enough, superstitious and her rich imagination was stored with tales of unearthly haunters of the woods, and had fed on them since infancy. A band of desperate robbers were stationed somewhere in the vicinity, and should she fall into their hands, she shuddered to think what might be the consequence. If among these robbers she should meet her husband! Matangini shuddered again.
Matangini had a brave heart, and for her sister and her husband she felt she could risk her life.
As the appalling dangers rose before her mind, her noble love expanded and rose also, and she longed to sacrifice at its altar a life whose burden her crushed heart could not longer bear. But still another womanly feeling kept her back. To go to the house of Madhav at midnight and alone! Who would understand her? What would Madhav think! She pressed her brows and stood thinking in an unmoved attitude.
Undecided she heaved a deep sigh, and to relieve herself of the heat that oppressed her, she ventured to open the little window. The trees now cast shadows of huge length and the moon hung over the far horizon, shedding a waning light In an hour she would vanish, the loud shout of the robbers would be heard, “and then,” thought Matangini, “it will be too late to save them.” The near approach of certain danger banished her scruples, her love returned with tenfold energy, and she no longer hesitated.
Wrapping herself in a coarse piece of bed-cloth from head to foot she gently opened the door, and issuing out of the chamber, closed it with the same care and drew the bolt after her in the same manner as Rajmohan had done. As she stood out in the open space and eyed the vast solitude of the blue heavens and the thick mass of the noiseless tops of the trees, her heart again misgave [her] and her feet refused their office. “Gods, give me strength,” she uttered with her hands clasped on her bosom. Then summoning all her resolutions, she made rapid but noiseless steps. Her heart beat as she walked through the jungly path. The dreary silence and the dark shadows appalled her. The knotted trunks of huge trees showed like so many unearthly forms watching her progress in malignant silence. In each leafy bough that shot over her darkened path, she fancied there lurked a demon. In each dark recess she could see the skulking form and glistening eyes of a spectre or of a robber. All the wild tales she had heard of fierce visages and ghostly grins that had appalled to death the belated traveller, rushed to her imagination. The light crack of the falling leaf, the flapping wings of some frightened night-bird as it changed its unseen seat among the dark branches, the slight rustle of crawling reptiles among the fallen leaves, even her own footsteps made her heart fainter and fainter. Still the resolute girl hurried on, taking the name of her patron goddess a thousand times within her heart, and now and then muttering a prayer. The darkest part of the path wound along a glade which lay between two plots of raised ground. On one side was a vast mango-tope enclosed by a high and impervious hedge of prickly vegetation. On the other side was the raised bank of a pool covered with underwood above which waved the vast foliage of three Bur trees, darkening the foot-path which wound beneath their shadows. Matangini cast around her eyes in fear. From the middle of the mango-tope issued a strong glare of light, and she could even hear low discordant voices. All her worst fears were realized. There was the robber band. Matangini stood chained to the spot, unable to move a step. To add to her misfortune a dog which lay by the wayside rose up and began to bark loudly at the sight of a passenger at night. Immediately the voices in the garden were hushed. Matangini still retained presence of mind enough to see that the dacoits had taken the warning given by the animal, and that she was likely soon to be discovered. Danger again restored her energies. Darting with the fleetness and the lightness of the gazelle across the darkened bank of the pool, she as swiftly ascended to the edge of the water. Her position was now concealed by the bank from the view of any who might look for her in the foot-path; but should the robbers think of looking about the bank on which the Bur trees stood, she was lost. No bush or thicket was near to afford her a shelter. Her energies had been roused and she did not lose a moment. The dog still barked. She hastily loosened a heavy clod of earth from the moist edge of the water, placed it in the coarse cloth in which she had wrapped herself, and tied it in a bundle, so that it might not float when thrown into the water. Thus prepared to free herself from an incumbrance which might betray her, for the light sari could be managed with ease, she stood ready for an emergency. Footsteps could now be distinctly heard and voices whispered on the other side of the bank. She gently sank the bundle in the water, taking care that the water might not splash. Then as gently gliding into die water at a spot where the spreading branches of the Bur cast a deep shadow, she sat down immersed to her chin, so that nothing but her head was visible, if indeed it could be seen where the dark water of die pool was made darker by the sombre shade of the tree. But still apprehensive lest the fair complexion of her lily face [should] betray her, she unloosed the knot of her hair and spread the dark luxuriant tresses on all sides of her head, so that not even die closest scrutiny could now distinguish from above the dark hair floating over the darkened pool.
Presently the footsteps and the whispering voices approached this side of the bank and descended half way. Matangini could hear this; but did not turn her head.
“It is strange,” said one of die voices within her hearing, “I thought I saw through an opening in die hedge a figure wrapped in a chudder standing on the pathway.”
“You must have mistaken a tree for a man,” said the other, “for could any have disappeared so soon? Besides, would any sane man wrap himself in a thick chudder as you say, in this season?”
“Yes, you may be right,” was the reply, “or it might be an apadevata1 that I have seen.”
She too gave a last glance around them, without discovering, however, the timid intruder who formed the cause of their apprehension. They then walked away.
Matangini waited in the water for some minutes even after she had heard the last audible sound of their footsteps, and when she thought they had regained the mango-grove, she came out of her watery shelter and gently squeezed the water out of her sari, abandoning to it the lost chudder. Without venturing again on the dangerous foot-path above, she took her way along the edge of the water, along a bank at right angles to the one she had left, casting looks of anxious fear behind her. She knew well the foot-paths here, for though so strictly forbidden the Madhumati, she had permission to resort to this piece of water for her daily ablutions. From this bank the fair adventurer cut across a little foot-path which she knew led through a dense mass of underwood to the one that she had been compelled to desert. It was at length gained, though not without repeated misgivings of the heart. There she stood at a distance from the mango-grove and the animal which had caused her so much trouble. But a new difficulty threatened to check her further progress. Since her arrival at Radhaganj she had but twice visited her sister, and never on foot, but closed in a palki. As much of the way as she knew from hearsay she had passed, but now her footsteps rested at the intersecting point of cross-roads. Bewildered by her new difficulty, she turned her eyes on all directions and luckily caught sight of the tops of the tall Devdaru trees which she knew stood in front of Madhav’s house. She immediately struck the path which led in that direction and soon got the huge edifice in view, towards the khirki or postern gate of which she turned her steps.
[The last difficulty had yet to be overcome. All in the household were asleep at that hour, and it was after knocking a good many times that she succeeded in rousing Karuna, the maid-servant of the house.]
“Who knocks at this time of night?” enquired Karuna surlily.
“Oh hasten, hasten, Karuna, open the door” cried Matangini anxiously.
“But who are you that I shall open the door to you at this time of night?” again demanded Karuna in the same surly tone, indignant that the sweetness of her repose should be disturbed by an untimely intruder.
“Come, come soon—you will see,” said Matangini in a beseeching tone, unwilling to speak out who she was.
“But who are you,” cried Karuna more furiously than ever.
“I am a woman and no thief, come and see,” was the reply.
It struck the slowly opening senses of Karuna that a thief does not usually possess so sweet a voice as the one she heard. Without further parley, therefore, she came to the door and opened it.
“You, Thakurani!” exclaimed Karuna in utter astonishment at beholding Matangini.
“I want to see my sister,” said the latter, “lead me to her.”
But Karuna’s faculties had scarcely recovered from her surprise, and the worthy dame kept on asking questions.
“You here!” she repeated, “and at midnight! What brings you here, mother? Your clothes are wet. What has happened?”
The impatient girl replied not to her questions, but said again in a commanding tone, “Lead me to my sister.”
“She is asleep,” said Karuna, “yet we will awaken her. But wait, first change your clothes.”
“Give me a sari soon if you can, or lead on.”
Karuna gave her a sari that was at hand, and Matangini changing her light apparel in a trice followed Karuna to the apartments above stairs.