Bruce, from his howdah, heard the noise in the palace; female shrieks, commands, a shot from a musket. What in heaven’s name had happened? Where was Kathlyn? Why did she not appear? He fingered his revolvers. But Ahmed signaled to him not to stir. The knowledge of whatever had happened must be brought to them; on their lives they dared not go in search of it.
“This comes from your damnable oriental way of doing things. If I had had my way, Umballa would be dead and buried.”
“All in good time, Sahib.”
The elephants stirred restlessly, for they scented the cat whom they hated.
Within the palanquin Kathlyn dared scarcely to breathe; for outside seven leopards prowled and sniffed and snarled!
THE SEVEN LEOPARDS
Crouched in the palanquin Kathlyn waited for the onslaught of the leopards. Once she heard a tremendous scratching at the rear of her hiding-place; the palanquin tottered. But the animal was not trying to get inside; he was merely sharpening his claws after the manner of his kind, claws which were sharp enough, heaven knew, since, regularly, once a month the keepers filed them to needle-points.
An elephant trumpeted near by, and Kathlyn could have wept in despair. Outside the wall were friends, doubtless by this time joined by her father and Ramabai, and all wondering where she was. She dared not call out for fear of attracting the leopards, whose movements she could hear constantly: the jar of their padded feet as they trotted under and about the palanquin, the sniff-sniff of their wet noses, an occasional yawning.
By and by her curiosity could not be withstood, even though she might be courting death. Cautiously and soundlessly she moved the curtain which faced the wall. A mass of heavy vines ran from the ground to the top of this wall. If only she could reach it; if only she dared try! Presently the keepers, armed with goads and ropes, would be forthcoming, and all hope of flight banished. Umballa, upon close inspection, would recognize her despite her darkened skin and Indian dress.
From the other window she peered. There, in the path, were two leopards, boxing and frolicking in play. As she watched, always interested in the gambols of such animals, she noticed that two other leopards left off prowling, approached, sat upon their haunches, and critically followed the friendly set-to. Then the other three, seeking diversity, sauntered into view. Kathlyn quickened with life and hope. The seven leopards were at least half a dozen yards away. It was but a step to the vines sprawling over the wall.
To think that all depended upon the handle of the palanquin door! If it opened without noise there was a chance. If it creaked she was lost; for she would fall into the hands of the keepers if not under the merciless paws of the cats.