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So we struck up into the glorious pine woods, mountains all about us. Here and there as we climbed higher was a little bank of forgotten snow, but spring had triumphed and everywhere was the waving grace of maiden-hair ferns, banks of violets and strangely beautiful little wild flowers. These woods are full of panthers, but in day time the only precaution necessary is to take no dog, - a dainty they cannot resist. The air was exquisite with the sun-warm scent of pines, and here and there the trees broke away disclosing mighty ranges of hills covered with rich blue shadows like the bloom on a plum, - the clouds chasing the sunshine over the mountain sides and the dark green velvet of the robe of pines. I looked across ravines that did not seem gigantic and yet the villages on the other side were like a handful of peas, so tremendous was the scale. I stood now and then to see the rhododendrons, forest trees here with great trunks and massive boughs glowing with blood-red blossom, and time went by and I took no count of it, so glorious was the climb.
It must have been hours later when it struck me that the sun was getting low and that by now we should be nearing The House in the Woods. I said as much to Ali Khan. He looked perplexed and agreed. We had reached a comparatively level place, the trail faint but apparent, and it surprised me that we heard no sound of life from the dense wood where our goal must be.
"I know not, Presence," he said. "May his face be blackened that directed me. I thought surely I could not miss the way, and yet-"
We cast back and could see no trail forking from the one we were on. There was nothing for it but to trust to luck and push on. But I began to be uneasy and so was the man. I had stupidly forgotten to unpack my revolver, and worse, we had no food, and the mountain air is an appetiser, and at night the woods have their dangers, apart from being absolutely trackless. We had not met a living being since we left the road and there seemed no likelihood of asking for directions. I stopped no longer for views but went steadily on, Ali Khan keeping up a running fire of low-voiced invocations and lamentations. And now it was dusk and the position decidely unpleasant.
It was at that moment I saw a woman before us walking lightly and steadily under the pines. She must have struck into the trail from the side for she never could have kept before us all the way. A native woman, but wearing the all-concealing boorka, more like a town dweller than a woman of the hills. I put on speed and Ali Khan, now very tired, toiled on behind me as I came up with her and courteously asked the way. Her face was entirely hidden, but the answering voice was clear and sweet. I made up my mind she was young, for it had the bird-like thrill of youth.
"If the Presence continues to follow this path he will arrive. It is not far. They wait for him."
That was all. It left me with a desire to see the veiled face. We passed on and Ali Khan looked fearfully back.
"Ajaib! (Wonderful!) A strange place to meet one of the purdah-nashin (veiled women)" he muttered. "What would she be doing up here in the heights? She walked like a Khanam (khan's wife) and I saw the gleam of gold under the boorka."
I turned with some curiosity as he spoke, and lo! there was no human being in sight. She had disappeared from the track behind us and it was impossible to say where. The darkening trees were beginning to hold the dusk and it seemed unimaginable that a woman should leave the way and take to the dangers of the woods.
"Puna-i-Khoda - God protect us!" said Ali Khan in a shuddering whisper. "She was a devil of the wilds. Press on, Sahib. We should not be here in the dark."
There was nothing else to do. We made the best speed we could, and the trees grew more dense and the trail fainter between the close trunks, and so the night came bewildering with the expectation that we must pass the night unfed and unarmed in the cold of the heights. They might send out a search party from The House in the Woods - that was still a hope, if there were no other. And then, very gradually and wonderfully the moon dawned over the tree tops and flooded the wood with mysterious silver lights and about her rolled the majesty of the stars. We pressed on into the heart of the night. From the dense black depths we emerged at last. An open glade lay before us - the trees falling back to right and left to disclose - what?
A long low house of marble, unlit, silent, bathed in pale splendour and shadow. About it stood great deodars, clothed in clouds of the white blossoming clematis, ghostly and still. Acacias hung motionless trails of heavily scented bloom as if carved in ivory. It was all silent as death. A flight of nobly sculptured steps led up to a broad veranda and a wide open door with darkness behind it. Nothing more.
I forced myself to shout in Hindustani - the cry seeming a brutal outrage upon the night, and an echo came back numbed in the black woods. I tried once more and in vain. We stood absorbed also into the silence.
"Ya Alla! it is a house of the dead!" whispered Ali Khan, shuddering at my shoulder, - and even as the words left his lips I understood where we were. "It is the Sukh Mandir." I said. "It is the House of the Maharao of Ranipur."
It was impossible to be in Ranipur and hear nothing of the dead house of the forest and Ali Khan had heard - God only knows what tales. In his terror all discipline, all the inborn respect of the native forsook him, and without word or sign he turned and fled along the track, crashing through the forest blind and mad with fear. It would have been insanity to follow him, and in India the first rule of life is that the Sahib shows no fear, so I left him to his fate whatever it might be, believing at the same time that a little reflection and dread of the lonely forest would bring him to heel quickly.
I stood there and the stillness flowed like water about me. It was as though I floated upon it - bathed in quiet. My thoughts adjusted themselves. Possibly it was not the Sukh Mandir. Olesen had spoken of ruin. I could see none. At least it was shelter from the chill which is always present at these heights when the sun sets, - and it was beautiful as a house not made with hands. There was a sense of awe but no fear as I went slowly up the great steps and into the gloom beyond and so gained the hall.
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck