A man in tatters appeared suddenly in the great arched doorway. His turban came down almost to his eyes and a neckcloth covered his mouth. All that could be seen of him in the matter of countenance was a pair of brilliant eyes and a predatory nose. He threw a quick piercing glance about, assured himself that such devotees as he saw were harmless, then strode boldly, if hurriedly, toward the rear chamber, which he entered without ado. Instantly the indignant priests rushed toward him to expel him and give him a tongue-lashing for his impudence, when a hand was thrust out, and they beheld upon a finger a great green stone. They stopped as suddenly as though they had met an invisible electric current.
The curtain fell behind the man in tatters, and he remained motionless for a space. A low murmuring among the priests ensued, and presently one of their number—the youngest—passed out and stationed himself before the curtain. Not even a privileged dancing girl might enter now.
The man in tatters stepped forward. He became the center of the group; his gestures were quick, tense, authoritative. At length priest turned to priest, and the wrinkled faces became more wrinkled still: smiles.
“Highness,” said the eldest, “we had thought of this, but you did not make us your confidant.”
“Till an hour gone it had not occurred to me. Shall Ramabai, then, become your master, to set forth the propaganda of the infidel?”
“No!” The word was not spoken loudly, but sibilantly, with something resembling a hiss. “No!”
“And shall a king who has no mind, no will, no strength, resume his authority? Perhaps to bring more white people into Allaha, perhaps to give Allaha eventually to the British Raj?”
Again the negative.
“But the method?”
Umballa smiled. “What brings the worshiper here with candles and flowers and incense? Is it love or reverence or superstition?”
The bald yellow heads nodded like porcelain mandarins.
“Superstition,” went on Umballa, “the sword which bends the knees of the layman, has and always will through the ages!”
In the vault outside a bell tinkled, a gong boomed melodiously.
“When I give the sign,” continued the schemer, “declare the curse upon all those who do not bend. A word from your lips, and Ramabai’s troops vanish, reform and become yours and mine!”
“While the king lives?” asked the chief priest curiously.
“Ah!” And Umballa smiled again.
“But you, Durga Ram?”
“There is Ramabai, a senile king, and I. Which for your purposes will you choose?”
There was a conference. The priests drifted away from Umballa. He did not stir. His mien was proud and haughty, but for all that his knees shook and his heart thundered. He understood that it was to be all or nothing, no middle course, no half methods. He waited, wetting his cracked and swollen lips. When the priests returned to him, their heads bent before him a little. It represented a salaam, as much as they had ever given to the king himself. A glow ran over Umballa.