"I have a telegram here," he said, "that says she is in Delhi!"
He patted his coat, where the inner pocket bulged.
"Nay, then the tar lies, for I saw her go with these two eyes of mine!"
"It is not wise to lie to me, my friend," King assured him, so pleasantly that none could doubt he was telling truth.
"If I lie may I eat dirt!" Ismail answered him.
Inches lent the Afridi dignity, but dignity has often been used as a stalking horse for untruth. King nodded, and it was not possible to judge by his expression whether he believed or not.
"Let's make a move," be said, turning to Saunders. "She seems at any rate to wish it believed she has gone North. I can't stay here indefinitely. If she's here she's on the watch here, and there's no need of me. If she has gone North, then that is where the kites are wheeling! I'll take the early morning train. Where are the prisoners?"
"In the old Mir Khan Palace. We were short of jail room and had to improvise. The horse-stalls there have come in handy more than once before. Shall we take this gharry?"
With Ismail up beside the driver nursing King's bag and looking like a great grim vulture about to eat the horse, they drove back through swarming streets in the direction of the river. King seemed to have lost all interest in crowds. He scarcely even troubled to watch when they were held up at a cross-roads by a marching regiment that tramped as if it were herald of the Last Trump, with bayonets glistening in the street lights. He sat staring ahead in silence, although Saunders made more than one effort to engage him in conversation.
"No!" he said at last suddenly—so that Saunders jumped.
"No need to stay here. I've got what I came for!"
"What was that?" asked Saunders, but King was silent again. Conscious of the unaccustomed weight on his left wrist, he moved his arm so that the sleeve drew and he could see the edge of the great gold bracelet Rewa Gunga had given him in Yasmini's name.
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga?" he asked suddenly again.
"Yes, the Rangar. Yasmini's man."
"Not much. I've seen him. I've spoken with him, and I've had to stand impudence from him—twice. I've been tipped off more than once to let him alone because he's her man. He does ticklish errands for her, or so they say. He's what you might call 'known to the police' all right."
They began to approach an age-old palace near the river, and Saunders whispered a pass-word when an armed guard halted them. They were halted again at a gloomy gateway where an officer came out to look them over; by his leave they left the gharry and followed him under the arch until their heels rang on stone paving in a big ill-lighted courtyard surrounded by high walls.
There, after a little talk, they left Ismail squatting beside King's bag, and Saunders led the way through a modern iron door, into what had once been a royal prince's stables.
In gloom that was only thrown into contrast by a wide-spaced row of electric lights, a long line of barred and locked converted horse-stalls ran down one side of a lean-to building. The upper half of each locked door was a grating of steel rods, so that there was some ventilation for the prisoners; but very little light filtered between the bars, and all that King could see of the men within was the whites of their eyes. And they did not look friendly.
He had to pass between them and the light, and they could see more of him than he could of them. At the first cell he raised his left hand and made the gold bracelet on his wrist clink against the steel bars.
A moment later be cursed himself, and felt the bracelet with his fingernail. He had made a deep nick in the soft gold. A second later yet he smiled.
"May God be with thee!" boomed a prisoner's voice in Pashtu.
"Didn't know that fellow was handcuffed," said Saunders. "Did you hear the ring? They should have been taken off. Leaving his irons on has made him polite, though."
He passed oil, and King followed him, saying nothing. But at the next cell he repeated what he had done at the first, taking better care of the gold but letting his wrist stay longer in the light. "May God be with thee!" said a voice within.
"Gettin' a shade less arrogant, what?" said Saunders.
"May God be with thee!" said a man in the third stall as King passed.
"They seem to be anxious for your morals!" laughed Saunders, keeping a pace or two ahead to do the honors of the place.
"May God be with thee!" said a fourth man, and King desisted for the present, because Saunders looked as if he were growing inquisitive.
"Where did you arrest them?" he asked when Saunders came to a stand under a light.
"All in one place. At Ali's."
"Who and what is Ali?"
"Pimp—crimp—procurer—Prussian spy and any other evil thing that takes his fancy! Runs a combination gambling hell and boarding house. Lets 'em run into debt and blackmails 'em. Ali's in the kaiser's pay—that's known! 'Musing thing about it is he keeps a photo of Wilhelm in his pocket and tries to make himself believe the kaiser knows him by name. Suffers from swelled head, which is part of their plan, of course. We'll get him when we want him, but at present he's useful 'as is' for a decoy. Ali was very much upset at the arrest—asked in the name of Heaven—seems to be familiar with God, too, and all the angels! -how he shall collect all the money these men owe him!"
"You wouldn't call these men prosperous, then?"
"Not exactly! Ali is the only spy out of the North who prospers much at present, and even he gets most of his money out of his private business. Why, man, the real Germans we have pounced on are all as poor as church mice. That's another part of the plan, of course, which is sweet in all its workings. They're paid less than driven by threats of exposure to us—comes cheaper, and serves to ginger up the spies! The Germans pay Ali a little, and he traps the Hillmen when they come South—lets 'em gamble—gets 'em into debt—plays on their fear of jail and their ignorance of the Indian Penal Code, which altereth every afternoon—and spends a lot of time telling 'em stories to take back with 'em to the Hills when they can get away. They can get away when they've paid him what they owe. He makes that clear, and of course that's the fly in the amber. Yasmini sends and pays their board and gambling debts, and she's our man, so to speak. When they get back to the 'Hills'—"
"Thanks," said King, "I know what happens in the 'Hills." Tell me about the Delhi end of it."
"Well, when the wander-fever grabs 'em again they come down once more from their 'Hills' to drink and gamble,—and first they go to Yasmini's. But she won't let 'em drink at her place. Have to give her credit for that, y'know; her place has never been a stews. Sooner or later they grow tired of virtue, 'specially with so much intrigue goin' on under their noses, and back they all drift to Ali's and tell him tales to tell the Germans—and the round begins again. Yasmini coaxes all their stories out of 'em and primes 'em with a few extra good ones into the bargain. Everybody's fooled— 'specially the Germans—and exceptin', of course, Yasmini and the Raj. Nobody ever fooled that woman, nor ever will if my belief goes for anything!"
"Sounds simple!" said King. "Simple and sordid!" agreed Saunders.
King looked up and down the line of locked doors and then straight into Saunders' eyes in a friendly, yet rather disconcerting way. One could not judge whether he were laughing or just thinking.
"D'you suppose it's as simple as all that?"
"How d'you mean?"
"D'you suppose the Germans aren't in directer touch with the tribes?"
"Why should they be? The simpler the better, I expect, from their point of view; and the cheaper the better, too!"
"Um-m-m!" King rubbed his chin. "On what charge did you get these men?"
"Defense of the Realm—suspicious characters—charge to be entered later."
"Good! That's simple at all events! Know anything of my man Ismail?"
"Sure! He's one of Yasmini's pets. She bailed him out of Ali's three years ago and he worships her. It was he who broke the leg and ribs of a pup-rajah a month or two ago for putting on too much dog in her reception room! He's Ursus out of Quo Vadis! He's dog, desperado, stalking horse and Keeper of the Queen's secrets!"
"Then why d'you suppose she passed him along to me?" asked King. "Dunno! This is your little mystery, not mine!"
"Glad you appreciate that! Do me a favor, will you?"
"Anything in reason."
"Get the keys to all these cells—send 'em in here to me by Ismail— and leave me in here alone!" Saunders whistled and wiped sweat from his glistening face, for in spite of windows open to the courtyard it was hotter than a furnace room.
"Mayn't I have you thrown into a den of tigers?" he asked. "Or a nest of cobras? Or get the fiery furnace ready? You'll find 'em sore—and dangerous! That man at the end with handcuffs on has probably been violent! That 'God be with thee' stuff is habit— they say it with unction before they knife a man!"
"I'll be careful, then," King chuckled; and it is a fact that few men can argue with him when he laughs quietly in that way. "Send me in the keys, like a good chap."
So Saunders went, glad enough to get into the outer air. He slammed the great iron door behind him as if he were glad, too, to disassociate himself from King and all foolishness. Like many another first-class man, King sheds friends as a cat sheds fur going under a gate. They grow again and quit again and don't seem to make much difference.
The instant the door slammed King continued down the line with his left wrist held high so that the occupant of each cell in turn could see the bracelet.
"May God be with thee!" came the instant greeting from each cell until down toward the farther end. The occupants of the last six cells were silent.
Numbers had been chalked roughly on the doors. With wetted fingers he rubbed out the chalk marks on the last six doors, and he had scarcely finished doing that when Ismail strode in, slamming the great iron door behind him, jangling a bunch of keys and looking more than ever like somebody out of the Old Testament. "Open every door except those whose numbers I have rubbed out!" King ordered him.
Ismail proceeded to obey as if that were the least improbable order in all the world. It took him two minutes to select the pass-key and determine how it worked, then the doors flew open one after another in quick succession.
"Come out!" he growled. "Come out!—Come out!" although King had not ordered that.
King went and stood under the center light with his left arm bared. The prisoners, emerging like dead men out of tombs, blinked at the bright light—saw him—then the bracelet—and saluted.
"May God be with thee!" growled each of them.
They stood still then, awaiting fresh developments. It did not seem to occur to any one of them as strange that a British officer in khaki uniform should be sporting Yasmini's talisman; the thing was apparently sufficient explanation in itself.
"Ye all know this?" he asked, holding up his wrist. Whose is this?"
The answer was monosyllabic and instant from all thirty throats. "May Allah guard her, sleeping and awake!" added one or two of them.
King lit a cheroot and made mental note of the wisdom of referring to her by pronoun, not by name.
"And I? Who am!?" he asked, since it saves worlds of trouble to have the other side state the case. The Secret Service was not designed for giving information, but discovering it.
"Her messenger! Who else? Thou art he who shall take us to the 'Hills'! She promised!" "How did she know ye were in this jail?" he asked them, and one of the Hillmen laughed like a jackal, showing yellow eye-teeth. The others cackled in chorus after him.
"Answer that riddle thyself—or else ask her! Who are we? Bats, that can see in the night? Spirits, who can hear through walls? Nay, we be plain men of the mountains!"
"But where were ye when she promised?"
"At Ali's. All of us at Ali's—held for debt. We sent and begged of her. She sent word back by a woman that one of the sirkar's men shall free us and send us home. So we waited, eating shame and little else, at Ali's. At last came a sahib in a great rage, who ordered irons put on our wrists and us marched hither. Only when each was pushed into a separate cell were the irons taken off again. Yet we were patient, for we knew this is part of her cunning, to get us away from Ali without paying him. 'May Ali die of want,' said we, with one voice all together in these cells! And now we be ready! They fed us before we had been in here an hour. Our bellies be full, but we be hungry for the 'Hills'!"
King thought of the gold-hilted knife, that still rested under his shirt. He was tempted to show it to them and find out surely whose it was and what it meant. But wisdom and curiosity seldom mingle. He thought of Ismail—"Ursus, of Quo Vadis—dog, desperado, stalking- horse and Keeper of the Queen's secrets." It was not time yet to run risks with Ismail. The knife stayed where it was.
"I shall start for the Hills at dawn," he said slowly, and he watched their eyes gleam at the news. No caged tiger is as wretched as a prisoned Hillman. No freed bird wings more wildly for the open. No moth comes more foolishly back to the flame again. It was easy to take pity on them—probably not one of whom knew pity's meaning.
"Is there any among you who would care to come—?"
"—at the price of strict obedience?"
It seemed there was no word in Pashtu that could express their willingness.
"We be very, very weary for our Hills!" explained the nearest man.
"Aye!" King answered. "And ye all owe Ali!"
But he knew better than to browbeat them on that account just then, for the men of the North are easier led than driven—up to a certain point. Yet it is no bad plan to remind them of the fundamentals to begin with.
"Will ye obey me, and him?" he asked, laying his hand on Ismail's shoulder, as much to let them see the bracelet again as for any other reason.
"Aye! If we fail, Allah do more to us!"
King laughed. "Ye shall leave this place as my prisoners. Here ye have no friends. Here ye must obey. But what when ye come to your 'Hills' at last? Can one man hold thirty men prisoners then? In the 'Hills' will ye still obey me?"
They answered him in chorus. Every man of the thirty, and Ismail into the bargain, threw his right hand in the air.
"Allah witness that we will obey!"
"Ah-h-h!" said King. "I have heard Hillmen swear by Allah many a time! Many a time!"
The answer to that was unexpected. Ismail knelt—seized his hand— and pressed the gold bracelet to his lips!
In turn, every one of them filed by, knelt reverently and kissed the bracelet!
"Saw ye ever a Hillman do that before?" asked Ismail. "They will obey thee! Have no fear!"
"Kutch dar nahin hai!" King answered. "There is no such thing as fear!" and Ismail grinned at him, not knowing that King was feeling as Aladdin must have done.
"I have heard you swear," said King; "be ye true men!"
"Have they belongings that ought to be collected first?" he asked, and Ismail laughed.
"No more than the dead have! A shroud apiece! Ali gave them bitterness to eat and picked their teeth afterward for gleanings! They stand in what they own!"
"Then, come!" ordered King, turning his back confidently on thirty savages whom Saunders, for instance, would have preferred to drive in front of him, after first seeing them handcuffed. But when he is not pressed for time neither pistols, nor yet handcuffs, are included in King's method.
"Each lock has a key, but some keys fit all locks," says the Eastern proverb. King has been chosen for many ticklish errands in his time, and Saunders is still in Delhi. Through the great iron door into dim outer darkness King led them and presently made them squat in a close-huddled semicircle on the paving stones, like night-birds waiting for a meal.
"I want blankets for them—two good ones apiece—and food for a week's journey!" he told the astonished Saunders; and he spoke so decidedly that the other man's questions and argument died stillborn. "While you attend to that for me, I'll be seeing his dibs and making explanations. You look full of news. What do you know?"
"I've telephoned all the other stations, and my men swear Yasmini has not left Delhi by train!"
King smiled at him.
"If I leave by train d'you suppose she'll hear of it?"
"You bet! Bet your boots! Man alive—if she's interested in you by so much," —he measured off a fraction of his little finger end— "she knows your next two moves ahead, to say nothing of your past half-dozen! I crossed her bows once and thought I had her at a disadvantage. She laughed at me. On my honor, my spine tingles yet at the mere thought of it! You've never met her? Never heard her laugh? Never seen her eyes? You've a treat in store for you— and a mauvais quat' d'heure! What'll you bet me she doesn't laugh you out of countenance the very first time you meet? Come now— what'll you bet?"
"Not in the habit," King answered, glancing at his watch. "Will you see about their rations, please, and the blankets? Thanks!"
They went then in opposite directions and the prisoners were left squatting under the eyes and bayonets of a very suspicious prison guard, who made no secret of being ready for all conceivable emergencies. One enthusiast drew the cartridge out of his breech-chamber and licked it at intervals of a minute or two, to the very great interest of the Hillmen, who memorized every detail that by any stretch of imagination might be expected to improve their own shooting when they should get home again.
King found his way on foot through a maze of streets to a palace where he was admitted through one door after another by sentries who saluted when he had whispered to them. He ended by sitting on the end of the bed of a gray-headed man who owns three titles and whose word is law between the borders of a province. To him he talked as one schoolboy to a bigger one, because the gray-haired man had understanding, and hence sympathy.
"I don't envy you!" said he under the sheet. "There was an American here not long ago—most amusing man I ever talked to. He had the right expression. 'I do not desiderate that pie!' was his way of putting it. Good, don't you think?"
All the while he talked the older man was writing on a pad that he held propped by his knees beneath the bedclothes, holding the paper tight to keep it from fluttering in the breeze of a big electric fan.
"There's the release for your prisoners. Take it—and take them! Whatever possessed you to want such a gift?"
"His. He sent for me to Peshawur and gave me strict orders to work with, not against her. This was obvious." "How obvious? It seems bewildering!"
"Well, sir,—first place, she doesn't want to seem to be connected with me. Otherwise she'd have been more in evidence. Second place, she has left Delhi—his telegram and Saunders' men on oath notwithstanding—and she did not mean to leave those men. I imagine her best way to manage Hillmen is to keep promises, and they say she promised them. Third place, if those thirty men had been anything but her particular pet gang they'd either have been over the border or else in jail before now,—just like all the others. For some reason that I don't pretend to understand, she promised 'em more than she has been able to perform. So I provide performance. She gets the credit for it. I get a pretty good personal following at least as far as up the Khyber! Q.E.D.,sir!"
The man in bed nodded. "Not bad," he said.
"Didn't she make some effort to get those men away from Ali's?" King asked him. "I mean, didn't she try to get them dry-nursed by the sirkar in some way?"
"Yes. She did. But it was difficult. In the first place, there didn't seem to be any particular hurry. They were eating Ali's substance. The scoundrel had to feed them as long as he kept them there, and we wanted that. We forbade her to pay their debts to Ali, because he has too urgent need of money just now. He is being pressed on account of debts of his own, and the pressure is making him take risks. He has been begging for money from the German agents. We know who they are, and we expect to make a big haul within a few hours now."
"Hope I didn't spoil things by butting in, sir."
"No. This is different. She wanted them arrested and locked up at a moment when the jails were all crowded. And then she wanted us to put 'em into trucks and railroad 'em up North out of harm's way as she put it, and we happened to be too busy. The railway staff was overworked. Now things are getting straightened out. I felt it keenly not being able to oblige her, but she asked too much at the wrong moment! I would have done it if I could out of gratitude; it was she who tipped off for us most of the really dangerous men, and it was not her fault a few of them escaped. But we've all been working both tides under, King. Take me; this is my first night in bed in three, and here I am awake! No—nothing personal—glad to see you, but please understand. And I'm a leisured dilettante compared to most of the others. She must have known our fix. She shouldn't have asked."
King smiled. "Perfectly good opportunity for me, sir!" he said cheerfully.
"So you seem to think. But look out for that woman, King—she's dangerous. She's got the brains of Asia coupled with Western energy! I think she's on our side, and I know he believes it; but watch her!"
"Ham dekta hai!" King grinned. But the older man continued to look as if he pitied him.
"If you get through alive, come and tell me about it afterward. Now, mind you do! I'm awfully interested, but as for envying you—"
"Envy!" King almost squealed. He made the bed-springs rattle as he jumped. "I wouldn't swap jobs with General French, sir!"
"Nor with me, I suppose!" "Nor with you, sir.
"Good-by, then. Good-by, King, my boy. Good-by, Athelstan. Your brother's up the Khyber, isn't he? Give him my regards. Good-by!"
Long before dawn the thirty prisoners and Ismail squatted in a little herd on the up-platform of a railway station, shepherded by King, who smoked a cheroot some twenty paces away, sitting on an unmarked chest of medicines. He seemed absorbed in a book on surgery that he had borrowed from a chance-met acquaintance in the go-down where he drew the medical supplies. Ismail sat on the one trunk that had been fetched from the other station and nursed the new hand-bag on his knees, picking everlastingly at the lock and wondering audibly what the bag contained to an accompaniment of low-growled sympathy.
"I am his servant—for she said so—and he said so. As the custom is he gave me the key of the great bag—on which I sit—as he said himself, for safe-keeping. Then why—why in Allah's name—am I not to have the key of this bag too? Of this little bag that holds so little and is so light?"
"It might be money in it?" hazarded one of the herd.
"Nay, for that it is too light."
"Paper money!" suggested another man. "Hundies, with printing on the face that sahibs accept instead of gold."
"Nay, I know where his money is," said Ismail. "He has but little with him."
"A razor would slit the leather easily," suggested another man. "Then with a hand inserted carefully through the slit, so as not to widen it more than needful, a man could soon discover the contents. And later, the bag might be dropped or pushed violently against some sharp thing, to explain the cut."
Ismail shook his head.
"Why? What could he do to thee?"
"It is because I know not what he would do to me that I will do nothing!" answered Ismail. "He is not at all like other sahibs I have had dealings with. This man does unexpected things. This man is not mad, he has a devil. I have it in my heart to love this man. But such talk is foolishness. We are all her men!"
"Aye! We are her men!" came the chorus, so that King looked up and watched them over the open book.
At dawn, when the train pulled out, the thirty prisoners sat safely locked in third-class compartments. King lay lazily on the cushions of a first-class carriage in the rear, utterly absorbed in the principles of antiseptic dressing, as if that had anything to do with Prussians and the Khyber Pass; and Ismail attended to the careful packing of soda water bottles in the ice-box on the floor.
"Shall I open the little bag, sahib?" he asked.
King shook his head.
Ismail shook the bag.
"The sound is as of things of much importance all disordered," he said sagely. "It might be well to rearrange."
"Put it over there!" King ordered. "Set it down!"
Ismail obeyed and King laid his book down to light another of his black cheroots. The theme of antiseptics ceased to exercise its charm over him. He peeled off his tunic, changed his shirt and lay back in sweet contentment. Headed for the "Hills," who would not be contented, who had been born in their very shadow?—in their shadow, of a line of Britons who have all been buried there!
"The day after to-morrow I'll see snow!" he promised himself. And Ismail, grinning with yellow teeth through a gap in his wayward beard, understood and sympathized.
Forward in the third-class carriages the prisoners hugged themselves and crooned as they met old landmarks and recognized the changing scenery. There was a new cleaner tang in the hot wind that spoke of the "Hills" and home!
Delhi had drawn them as Monte Carlo attracts the gamblers of all Europe. But Delhi had spewed them out again, and oh! how exquisite the promise of the "Hills" was, and the thunder of the train that hurried—the bumping wheels that sang Himahlayas—Himahlyas!—the air that blew in on them unscented—the reawakened memory—the heart's desire for the cold and the snow and the cruelty—the dark nights and the shrieking storms and the savagery of the Land of the Knife ahead!
The journey to Peshawur, that ought to have been wearisome because they were everlastingly shunted into sidings to make way for roaring south-bound troop trains and kept waiting at every wayside station because the trains ahead of them were blocked three deep, was no less than a jubilee progress!
Not a packed-in regiment went by that was not howled at by King's prisoners as if they were blood-brothers of every man in it. Many an officer whom King knew waved to him from a passing train.
"Meet you in Berlin!" was a favorite greeting. And after that they would shout to him for news and be gone before King could answer.
Many a man, at stations where the sidings were all full and nothing less than miracles seemed able to release the wedged-in trains, came and paced up and down a platform side by side with King. From them he received opinions, but no sympathy to speak of.
"Got to stay in India? Hard lines!" Then the conversation would be bluntly changed, for in the height of one's enthusiasm it is not decent to hurt another fellow's feelings. Simple, simple as a little child is the clean-clipped British officer. "Look at that babu, now. Don't you think he's a marvel? Don't you think the Indian babu's a marvel? Sixty a month is more than the beggar gets, and there he goes, doing two jobs and straightening out tangled trains into the bargain! Isn't he a wonder, King?"
"India's a wonderful country," King would answer, that being one of his stock remarks. And to his credit be it written that he never laughed at one of them. He let them think they were more fortunate than he, with manlier, bloodier work to do.
Peshawur, when they reached it at last, looked dusty and bleak in the comfortless light of Northern dawn. But the prisoners crowed and crooned it a greeting, and there was not much grumbling when King refused to unlock their compartment doors. Having waited thus long, they could endure a few more hours in patience, now that they could see and smell their "Hills" at last.
And there was the general again, not in a dog-cart this time, but furiously driven in a motor-car, roaring and clattering into the station less than two minutes after the train arrived. He was out of the car, for all his age and weight, before it had come to a stand. He took one steady look at King and then at the prisoners before he returned King's salute.
"Good!" he said. And then, as if that were not enough: "Excellent! Don't let 'em out, though, to chew the rag with people on the platform. Keep 'em in!"
"They're locked in, sir."
"Excellent! Come and walk up and down with me."
Death roosts in the Khyber while he preens his wings! —Native Proverb
Seen her?" asked the general, with his hands behind him.
"No," said King, looking sharply sidewise at him and walking stride for stride. His hands were behind him, too, and one of them covered the gold bracelet on his other wrist.
The general looked equally sharply sidewise.
"Nor've I," he said. "She called me up over the phone yesterday to ask for facilities for her man Rewa Gunga, and he was in here later. He's waiting for you at the foot of the Pass—camped near the fort at Jamrud with your bandobast all ready. She's on ahead— wouldn't wait."
King listened in silence, and his prisoners, watching him through the barred compartment windows, formed new and golden opinions of him, for it is common knowledge in the "Hills" that when a burra sahib speaks to a chota sahib, the chota sahib ought to say, "Yes, sir, oh, yes!" at very short intervals. Therefore King could not be a chota sahib after all. So much the better. The "Hills" ever loved to deal with men in authority, just as they ever despised underlings.
"What made you go back for the prisoners?" the general asked. "Who gave you that cue?"
"It's a safe rule never to do what the other man expects, sir, and Rewa Gunga expected me to travel by his train."
"Was that your only reason?"
"No, sir. I had general reasons. None of 'em specific. Where natives have a finger in the pie there's always something left undone at the last minute."
"But what made you investigate those prisoners?"
"Couldn't imagine why thirty men should be singled out for special treatment. Rewa Gunga told me they were still at large in Delhi. Couldn't guess why. Had 'em arrested so's to be able to question 'em. That's all, sir."
"Not nearly all!" said the general. "You realize by now, I suppose, that they're her special men—special personal following?"
"Guessed something of that sort."
"Well—she's clever. It occurred to her that the safest way to get 'em up North was to have 'em arrested and deported. That would avoid interference and delay and would give her a chance to act deliverer at this end, and so make 'em grateful to her—you see? Rewa Gunga told me all this, you understand. He seems to think she's semi-divine. He was full of her cleverness in having thought of letting 'em all get into debt at a house of ill repute, so as to have 'em at hand when she wanted 'em."
"She must have learned that trick from our merchant marine," said King. "Maybe. She's clever. She asked me over the phone whether her thirty men had started North. I sent a telegram in cypher to find out. The answer was that you had found 'em and rounded 'em up and were bringing 'em with you. When she called me up on the phone the second time I told her so, and I heard her chuckle with delight. So I emphasized the point of your having discovered 'em and saved 'em every wit whole and all that kind of thing. I asked her to come and see me, but she wouldn't,—said she was 'disguised and particularly did not want to be recognized, which was reasonable enough. She sent Rewa Gunga instead. Now, this seems important:
"Before I sent you down to Delhi—before I sent for you at all—I told her what I meant to do, and I never in my life knew a woman raise such terrific objections to working with a man. As it happened her objections only confirmed my determination to send for you, and before she went down to Delhi to clean up I told her flatly she would either have to work with you or else stay in India for the duration of the war."
The general did not notice that King was licking his lips. Nor, if he had noticed King's hand that now was in front of him pressing on something under his shirt, could he have guessed that the something was a gold-hilted knife with a bronze blade. King grunted in token of attention, and the general continued.
"She gave in finally, but I felt nervous about it. Now, without your getting sight of her—you say you haven't seen her?—her whole attitude has changed! What have you done? Bringing up her thirty men seems a little enough thing. Yet, she swears by you! Used to swear at you, and now says you're the only officer in the British army with enough brains to fill a helmet! Says she wouldn't go up the Khyber without you! Says you're indispensable! Sent Rewa Gunga round to me with orders to make sure I don't change my mind about you! What have you done to her—bewitched her?"
"Done nothing," said King.
"Well, keep on doing nothing in the same style and the world shall render you its best jobs, one after the other, in sequence! You've made a good beginning!"
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga, sir?"
"Nothing, except that he's her man. She trusts him, so we've got to, and you've got to take him up the Khyber with you. What she orders, he'll do, or you may take it from me she would never have left him behind. As long as she is on our side you will be pretty safe in trusting Rewa Gunga. And she has got to be on our side. Got to be! She's the only key we've got to Khinjan, and hell is brewing there this minute! She dare unlock the gates and ride the devil down the Khyber if she thought it worth her while! You're to go up the Khyber after her to convince her that there are better mounts than the devil and better fun than playing with hell-fire! The Rangar told me he had given you her passport—that right?"
As they turned at the end of the platform King bared his wrist and showed the gold bracelet.
"Good!" said the general, but King thought his face clouded. "That thing is worth more than a hundred men. Jack Allison wore that same bracelet, unless I'm much mistaken, on his way down in disguise from Bukhara. So did another man we both knew; but he died. Be sure not to forget to give it back to her when the show's over, King."
King nodded and grunted. "What's the news from Khinjan, sir?"
"Nothing specific, except that the place is filling up. You remember what I told you about the 'Heart of the Hills' being in Khinjan? Well, they say now that the 'Heart of the Hills' has been awake for a long time, and that when the heart stirs the body does not lie quiet long. No use trying to guess what they mean; go and find out. And remember—the whole armed force at my disposal in this Province isn't more than enough to tempt the tribes to conclusions! It's a case for diplomacy. It's a case where diplomacy must not fail."
King said nothing, but the chin-strap mark on his cheek and chin grew slightly whiter, as it always does under the stress of emotion. He can not control it, and he has dyed it more than once on the eve of happenings, there being no more wisdom in wearing feelings on one's face than on a sleeve.
"Here comes your engine," said the general. "Well—there are two battalions of Khyber Rifles up the Pass and they're about at full strength. They've got word already that you are gazetted to them. They'll expect you. By the way, you've a brother in the K.R., haven't you?"
"At Ali Masjid, sir."
"Give him my regards when you see him, will you?"
"Thank you, sir."
"There's your engine whistling. You'd better hurry, Good-by, my boy. Get word to me whenever possible. Good luck to you! Regards to your brother! Good-by!"
King saluted and stood watching while the general hurried to the waiting motor-car. When the car whirled away in a din of dust he returned leisurely to the train that had been shortened to three coaches. Then be gave the signal to start up the spur-track, that leads to Jamrud, where a fort cowers in the very throat of the dreadfulest gorge in Asia—the Khyber Pass.
It was not a long journey, nor a very slow one, for there was nothing to block the way except occasional men with flags, who guarded culverts and little bridges. The Germans would know better than to waste time or effort on blowing up that track, but there might be Northern gentlemen at large, out to do damage for the sport of it, and the sepoys all along the line were posted in twos, and awake.
It was low-tide under the Himalayas. The flood that was draining India of her armed men had left Jamrud high and dry with a little nondescript force stranded there, as it were, under a British major and some native officers. There were no more pomp and circumstance; no more of the reassuring thunder of gathering regiments, nor for that matter any more of that unarmed native helplessness that so stiffens the backs of the official English.
Frowning over Jamrud were the lean "Hills," peopled by the fiercest fighting men on earth, and the clouds that hung over the Khyber's course were an accent to the savagery.
But King smiled merrily as he jumped out of the train, and Rewa Gunga, who was there to meet him, advanced with outstretched hand and a smile that would have melted snow on the distant peaks if he had only looked the other way.
"Welcome, King sahib!" he laughed, with the air of a skilled fencer who admires another, better one. "I shall know better another time and let you keep in front of me! No more getting first into a train and settling down for the night! It may not be easy to follow you, and I suspect it isn't, but at least it jolly well can't be such a job as leading you! I trust you had a comfortable journey?"
"Thanks," said King, shaking hands with him, and then turning away to unlock the carriage doors that held his prisoners in. They were baying now like wolves to be free, and they surged out, like wolves from a cage, to clamor round the Rangar, pawing him and struggling to be first to ask him questions.
"Nay, ye mountain people; nay!" he laughed. "I, too, am from the plains! What do I know of your families or of your feuds? Am I to be torn to pieces to make a meal?"
At that Ismail interfered, with the aid of an ash pick-handle, chance-found beside the track.
"Hill-bastards!" he howled at them, beating at them as if they were sheaves and his cudgel were a flail. "Sons of nameless mothers! Forgotten of God! Shameless! Brood of the evil one! Hands off!"
King had to stop him, not that he feared trouble, for they did not seem to resent either abuse or cudgeling in the least—and that in itself was food for thought; but broken shoulders are no use for carrying loads.
Laughing as if the whole thing was the greatest joke imaginable, Rewa Gunga fell into stride beside King and led him away in the direction of some tents.
"She is up the Pass ahead of us," he announced. "She was in the deuce of a hurry, I can assure you. She wanted to wait and meet you, but matters were too jolly well urgent, and we shall have our bally work cut out to catch her, you can bet! But I have everything ready— tents and beds and stores—everything!"
King looked over his shoulder to make sure that Ismail was bringing the little leather bag along.
"So have I," he said quietly.
"I have horses," said Rewa Gunga, "and mules and—"
"How did she travel up the Khyber?" King asked him, and the Rangar spared him a curious sidewise glance.
"On a horse. You should have seen the horse!"
"What escort had she?"
Rewa Gunga chuckled and then suddenly grew serious.
"The 'Hills' are her escort, King sahib. She is mistress in the 'Hills.' There isn't a murdering ruffian who would not lie down and let her walk on him! She rode away alone on a thoroughbred mare and she jolly well left me the mare's double on which to follow her. Come and look."
Not far from where the tents had been pitched in a cluster a string of horses winnied at a picket rope. King saw the two good horses ready for himself, and ten mules beside them that would have done credit to any outfit. But at the end of the line, pawing at the trampled grass, was a black mare that made his eyes open wide. Once in a hundred years or so a viceroy's cup, or a Derby is won by an animal that can stand and look and move as that mare did.
"Just watch!" the Rangar boasted; hooking up the bit and throwing off the blanket. And as he mounted into the native-made rough-hide saddle a shout went up from the fort and native officers and half the soldiery came out to watch the poetry of motion.
The mare was not the only one worth watching; her rider shared the praise. There was something unexpected, although not in the least ungainly, about the Rangar's seat in the saddle that was not the ordinary, graceful native balance and yet was full of grace. King ascribed the difference to the fact that the Rangar had seen no military service, and before the inadequacy of that explanation had asserted itself he had already forgotten to criticize in sheer admiration.
There was none of the spurring and back-reining that some native bloods of India mistake for horse-manship. The Rangar rode with sympathy and most consummate skill, and the result was that the mare behaved as if she were part of him, responding to his thoughts, putting a foot where he wished her to put it and showing her wildest turn of speed along a level stretch in instant response to his mood.
"Never saw anything better," King admitted ungrudgingly, as the mare came back at a walk to her picket rope.
"There is only one mare like this one," laughed the Rangar. "She has her."
"What'll you take for this one?" King asked him. "Name your price!"
"The mare is hers. You must ask her. Who knows? She is generous. There is nobody on earth more generous than she when she cares to be. See what you wear on your wrist!"
"That is a loan," said King, uncovering the bracelet. "I shall give it back to her when we meet."
"See what she says when you meet!" laughed the Rangar, taking a cigarette from his jeweled case with an air and smiling as he lighted it. "There is your tent, sahib."
He motioned with the cigarette toward a tent pitched quite a hundred yards away from the others and from the Rangar's own; with the Rangar's and the cluster of tents for the men it made an equilateral triangle, so that both he and the Rangar had privacy.
With a nod of dismissal, King walked over to inspect the bandobast, and finding it much more extravagant than he would have dreamed of providing for himself, he lit one of his black cheroots, and with hands clasped behind him strolled over to the fort to interview Courtenay, the officer commanding.
It so happened that Courtenay had gone up the Pass that morning with his shotgun after quail. He came back into view, followed by his little ten-man escort just as King neared the fort, and King timed his approach so as to meet him. The men of the escort were heavily burdened; he could see that from a distance.
"Hello!" he said by the fort gate, cheerily, after he had saluted and the salute had been returned.
"Oh, hello, King! Glad to see you. Heard you were coming, of course. Anything I can do?"
"Tell me anything you know," said King, offering him a cheroot which the other accepted. As he bit off the end they stood facing each other, so that King could see the oncoming escort and what it carried. Courtenay read his eyes.
"Two of my men!" he said. "Found 'em up the Pass. Gazi work I think. They were cut all to pieces. There's a big lashkar gathering somewhere in the 'Hills,' and it might have been done by their skirmishers, but I don't think so."
"A lashkar besides the crowd at Khinjan?" "Yes."
"Who's supposed to be leading it?"
"Can't find out," said Courtenay. Then he stepped aside to give orders to the escort. They carried the dead bodies into the fort.
"Know anything of Yasmini?" King asked, when the major stood in front of him again.
"By reputation, of course, yes. Famous person—sings like a bulbul— dances like the devil—lived in Delhi—mean her?"
King nodded. "When did she start up the Pass?" he asked.
"How d'ye mean?" Courtenay demanded sharply.
"To-day or yesterday?"
"She didn't start! I know who goes up and who comes down. Would you care to glance over the list?"
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga?" King asked him.
"Not much. Tried to buy his mare. Seen the animal? Gad! I'd give a year's pay for that beast! He wouldn't sell and I don't blame him."
"He goes up the Khyber with me," said King. "He's what the Turks would call my youldash."
"And the Persians a hamrah, eh? There was an American here lately—merry fellow—and I was learning his language. Side partner's the word in the States. I can imagine a worse side partner than that same man Rewa Gunga—much worse."
"He told me just now," said King, "that Yasmini went up the Pass unescorted, mounted on a mare the very dead spit of the black one you say you wanted to buy."
"I'm sorry, King. I'm sorry to say he lied."
"Will you come and listen while I have it out with him?"
King threw away his less-than-half-consumed cheroot and they started to walk together toward King's camp. After a few minutes they arrived at a point from which they could see the prisoners lined up in a row facing Rewa Gunga. A less experienced eye than King's or Courtenay's could have recognized their attitude of reverent obedience.
"He'll make a good adjutant for you, that man," said Courtenay; but King only grunted.
At sight of them Ismail left the line and came hurrying toward them with long mountainman's strides.
"Tell Rewa Gunga sahib that I wish to speak to him!" King called, and Ismail hurried back again.
Within two minutes the Rangar stood facing them, looking more at ease than they.
"I was cautioning those savages!" he explained. "They're an escort, but they need a reminder of the fact, else they might jolly well imagine themselves mountain goats and scatter among the 'Hills'!"
He drew out his wonderful cigarette case and offered it open to Courtenay, who hesitated, and then helped himself. King refused. "Major Courtenay has just told me," said King, "that nobody resembling Yasmini has gone up the Pass recently. Can you explain?"
"You see, I've been watching the Pass," explained Courtenay.
The Rangar shook his head, blew smoke through his nose and laughed.
"And you did not see her go?" he said, as if he were very much amused.
"No," said Courtenay. "She didn't go."
"Can you explain?" asked King rather stiffly.
"Do you mean, can I explain why the major failed to see her? 'Pon my soul, King sahib, d'you want me to insult the man? Yasmini is too jolly clever for me, or for any other man I ever met; and the major's a man, isn't he? He may pack the Khyber so full of men that there's only standing room and still she'll go up without his leave if she chooses! There is nobody like Yasmini in all the world!"
The Rangar was looking past them, facing the great gorge that lets the North of Asia trickle down into India and back again when weather and the tribes permit. His eyes had become interested in the distance. King wondered why—and looked—and saw. Courtenay saw, too.
"Hail that man and bring him here!" he ordered.
Ismail, keeping his distance with ears and eyes peeled, heard instantly and hurried off. He went like the wind and all three watched in silence for ten minutes while he headed off a man near the mouth of the Pass, stopped him, spoke to him and brought him along. Fifteen minutes later an Afridi stood scowling in front of them with a little letter in a cleft stick in his hand. He held it out and Courtenay took it and sniffed.
"Well—I'll be blessed! A note'—sniff—sniff—"on scented paper!" Sniff—sniff! "Carried down the Khyber in a split stick! Take it, King—it's addressed to you."
King obeyed and sniffed too. It smelt of something far more subtle than musk. He recognized the same strange scent that had been wafted from behind Yasmini's silken hangings in her room in Delhi. As he unfolded the note—it was not sealed—he found time for a swift glance at Rewa Gunga's face. The Rangar seemed interested and amused.
"Dear Captain King," the note ran, in English. "Kindly be quick to follow me, because there is much talk of a lashkar getting ready for a raid. I shall wait for you in Khinjan, whither my messenger shall show the way. Please let him keep his rifle. Trust him, and Rewa Gunga and my thirty whom you brought with you. The messenger's name is Darya Khan. "Your servant, "Ysamini."
He passed the note to Courtenay, who read it and passed it back.
"Are you the messenger who is to show this sahib the road to Khinjan?" he asked.
"But you are one of three who left here and went up the Pass at dawn! I recognize you."
"Aye!" said the man. "She met me and gave me this letter and sent me back."
"How great is the lashkar that is forming?" asked Courtenay. "Some say three thousand men. They speak truth. They who say five thousand are liars. There is a lashkar."
"And she went up alone?" King murmured aloud in Pashtu.
"Is the moon alone in the sky?" the fellow asked, and King smiled at him.
"Let us hurry after her, sahib!" urged Rewa Gunga, and King looked straight into his eyes, that were like pools of fire, just as they had been that night in the room in Delhi. He nodded and the Rangar grinned.
"Better wait until dawn," advised Courtenay. "The Pass is supposed to be closed at dusk." "I shall have to ask for special permission, sir."
"Granted, of course."
"Then, we'll start at eight to-night!" said King, glancing at his watch and snapping the gold case shut.
"Dine with me," said Courtenay.
"Yes, please. Got to pack first. Daren't trust anybody else."
"Very well. We'll dine in my tent at six-thirty," said Courtenay. "So long!"
"So long, sir," said King, and each went about his own business, King with the Rangar, and Ismail and all thirty prisoners at his heels, and Courtenay alone, but that much more determined.
"I'll find out," the major muttered, "how she got up the Pass without my knowing it. Somebody's tail shall be twisted for this!"
But he did not find out until King told him, and that was many days later, when a terrible cloud no longer threatened India from the North.
Oh, a broken blade, And an empty bag, And a sodden kit, And a foundered nag, And a whimpering wind Are more or less Ground for a gentleman's distress. Yet the blade will cut, (He should swing with a will!) And the emptiest bag He may readiest fill; And the nag will trot If the man has a mind, So the kit he may dry In the whimpering wind. Shades of a gallant past—confess! How many fights were won with less?
I think I envy you!" said Courtenay.
They were seated in Courtenay's tent, face to face across the low table, with guttering lights between and Ismail outside the tent handing plates and things to Courtenay's servant inside.
"You're about the first who has admitted it," said King.
Not far from them a herd of pack-camels grunted and bubbled after the evening meal. The evening breeze brought the smoke of dung fires down to them, and an Afghan—one of the little crowd of traders who had come down with the camels three hours ago—sang a wailing song about his lady-love. Overhead the sky was like black velvet, pierced with silver holes.
"You see, you can't call our end of this business war—it's sport," said Courtenay. "Two battalions of Khyber Rifles, hired to hold the Pass against their own relations. Against them a couple of hundred thousand tribesmen, very hungry for loot, armed with up-to- date rifles, thanks to Russia yesterday and Germany to-day, and all perfectly well aware that a world war is in progress. That's sport, you know—not the 'image and likeness of war' that Jorrocks called it, but the real red root. And you've got a mystery thrown in to give it piquancy. I haven't found out yet how Yasmini got up the Pass without my knowledge. I thought it was a trick. Didn't believe she'd gone. Yet all my mer swear they know she has gone, and not one of them will own to having seen her go! What d'you think of that ?"
"Tell you later," said King, "when I've been in the 'Hills' a while."
"What d'you suppose I'm going to say, eh? Shall I enter in my diary that a chit came down the Pass from a woman who never went up it? Or shall I say she went up while I was looking the other way?"
"Help yourself!" laughed King.
"Laugh on! I envy you! I f the worst comes to the worst, you'll have had the best end of it. If you fail up there in the 'Hills' you'll get scoughed and be done with you. You'll at least have had a show. All we shall know of your failure will be the arrival of the flood! We'll be swamped ingloriously—shot, skinned alive and crucified without a chance of doing anything but wait for it! You're in luck—you can move about and keep off the fidgets!"
For a while, as he ate Courtenay's broiled quail, King did not answer. But the merry smile had left his eyes and he seemed for once to be letting his mind dwell on conditions as they concerned himself.
"How many men have you at the fort?" he asked at last.
"Two hundred. Why?"
"To a man."
"What's the use of talking?" answered Courtenay. "You know what it means when men of an alien race stand up to you and grin when they salute. They're my own."
King nodded. "Die with you, eh?"
"To the last man," said Courtenay quietly with that conviction that can only be arrived at in one way, and that not the easiest.
"I'd die alone," said King. "It'll be lonely in the 'Hills.' Got any more quail?"
And that was all he ever did say on that subject, then or at any other time.
"Here's to her!" laughed Courtenay at last, rising and holding up his glass. "We can't explain her, so let's drink to her! No heel-taps! Here's to Rewa Gunga's mistress, Yasmini!"
"May she show good hunting!" answered King, draining his glass; and it was his first that day. "If it weren't for that note of hers that came down the Pass, and for one or two other things, I'd almost believe her a myth—one of those supposititious people who are supposed to express some ideal or other. Not an hallucination, you understand—nor exactly an embodied spirit, either. Perhaps the spirit of a problem. Let y be the Khyber district, z the tribes, and x the spirit of the rumpus. Find x. Get me?"
"Not exactly. Got quinine in your kit, by the way?"
"What shall you do first after you get up the Pass? Call on your brother at Ali Masjid? He's likely to know a lot by the time you get there."
"Not sure," said King. "May and may not. I'd like to see him. Haven't seen the old chap in a donkey's age. How is he?"
"Well two days ago," said Courtenay. "What's your general plan?"
"Hunt!" said King. "Hunt for x and report. Hunt for the spirit of the coming ruction and try to scrag it! Live in the open when I can, sleep with the lice when it rains or snows, eat dead goat and bad bread, I expect; scratch myself when I'm not looking, and take a tub at the first opportunity. When you see me on my way back, have a bath made ready for me, will you—and keep to windward!"
"Certainly!" said Courtenay. "What's the Rangar going to do with that mare of his? Suppose he'll leave her at Ali Masjid? He'll have to leave her somewhere on the way. She'll get stolen. Gad! That's the brightest notion yet! I'll make a point of buying her from the first horse-thief who comes traipsing down the Pass!"
"Here's wishing you luck!" said King. "It's time to go, sir."
He rose, and Courtenay walked with him to where his party waited in the dark, chilled by the cold wind whistling down the Khyber. Rewa Gunga sat, mounted, at their head, and close to him his personal servant rode another horse. Behind them were the mules, and then in a cluster, each with a load of some sort on his head, were the thirty prisoners, and Ismail took charge of them officiously. Darya Khan, the man who had brought the letter down the Pass, kept close to Ismail.
"Are you armed?" King asked, as soon as he could see the whites of the Rangar's eyes through the gloom.
"You jolly well bet I am!" the Rangar laughed. King mounted, and Courtenay shook hands; then he went to Rewa Gunga's side and shook hands with him, too.
"Good-by!" called King.
"Good-by and good luck!"
"Forward! March!" King ordered, and the little procession started.
"Oh, men of the 'Hills,' ye look like ghosts—like graveyard ghosts!" jeered Courtenay, as they all filed past him. "Ye look like dead men, going to be judged!"
Nobody answered. They strode behind the horses, with the swift silent strides of men who are going home to the "Hills"; but even they, born in the "Hills"' and knowing them as a wolf-pack knows its hunting-ground, were awed by the gloom of Khyber-mouth ahead. King's voice was the first to break the silence, and he did not speak until Courtenay was out of ear-shot. Then:
"Men of the 'Hills'!" he called. "Kuch dar nahin hai!"
"Nahin hai! Hah!" shouted Ismail. "So speaks a man! Hear that, ye mountain folk! He says, 'There is no such thing as fear!' "
In his place in the lead, King whistled softly to himself; but he drew an automatic pistol from its place beneath his armpit and transferred it to a readier position.
Fear or no fear, Khyber-mouth is haunted after dark by the men whose blood-feuds are too reeking raw to let them dare go home and for whom the British hangman very likely waits a mile or two farther south. It is one of the few places in the world where a pistol is better than a thick stick.
Boulder, crag and loose rock faded into gloom behind; in front on both hands ragged hillsides were beginning to close in; and the wind, whose home is in Allah's refuse heap, whistled as it searched busily among the black ravines. Then presently the shadow of the thousand-foot-high Khyber walls began to cover them, and King drew rein to count them all and let them close up. To have let them straggle after that point would be tantamount to murder probably.
"Ride last!" he ordered Rewa Gunga. "You've got the only other pistol, haven't you?"
Darya Khan, who had brought the letter, had a rifle; so King gave him a roving commission on the right flank.
They moved on again after five minutes, in the same deep silence, looking like ghosts in search of somebody to ferry them across the Styx. Only the glow of King's cheroot, and the lesser, quicker fire of Rewa Gunga's cigarette, betrayed humanity, except that once or twice King's horse would put a foot wrong and be spoken to.
But from five or ten yards away that might have been a new note in the gaining wind or even nothing.
After a while King's cheroot went out, and be threw it away. A little later Rewa Gunga threw away his cigarette. After that, the veriest five-year-old among the Zakka Khels, watching sleepless over the rim of some stone watch-tower, could have taken oath that the Khyber's unburied dead were prowling in search of empty graves. Probably their uncanny silence was their best protection; but Rewa Gunga chose to break it after a time.
"King sahib!" he called softly, repeating it louder and more loudly until King heard him. "Slowly! Not so fast!" "Why?"
King did not check speed by a fraction, but the Rangar legged his mare into a canter and forced him to pull out to the left of the track and make room.
"Because, sahib, there are men among those boulders, and to go too fast is to make them think you are afraid! To seem afraid is to invite attack! Can we defend ourselves, with three firearms between us? Look! What was that?"
They were at the point where the road begins to lead up-hill, westward, leaving the bed of a ravine and ascending to join the highway built by British engineers. Below, to left and right, was pit-mouth gloom, shadows amid shadows, full of eerie whisperings, and King felt the short hair on his neck begin to rise.
So he urged his horse forward, because what Rewa Gunga said is true. There is only one surer key to trouble in the Khyber than to seem afraid—and that is to be afraid. And to have sat his horse there listening to the Rangar's whisperings and trying to see through shadows would have been to invite fear, of the sort that grows into panic.
The Rangar followed him, close up, and both horse and mare sensed excitement. The mare's steel shoes sent up a shower of sparks, and King turned to rebuke the Rangar. Yet he did not speak. Never, in all the years he had known India and the borderland beyond, had he seen eyes so suggestive of a tiger's in the dark! Yet they were not the same color as a tiger's, nor the same size, nor the same shape!
"Look at what?"
After a second or two he caught a glimpse of bluish flame that flashed suddenly and died again, somewhere below to the right. Then all at once the flame burned brighter and steadier and began to move and to grow.
"Halt!" King thundered; and his voice was as sharp and unexpected as a pistol-crack. This was something tangible, that a man could tackle—a perfect antidote for nerves.
The blue light continued on a zigzag course, as if a man were running among boulders with an unusual sort of torch; and as there was no answer King drew his pistol, took about thirty seconds' aim and fired. He fired straight at the blue light.
It vanished instantly, into measureless black silence.
"Now you've jolly well done it, haven't you!"' the Rangar laughed in his ear. "That was her blue light—Yasmini's!"
It was a minute before King answered, for both animals were all but frantic with their sense of their riders' state of mind; it needed horsemanship to get them back under control.
"How do you know whose light it was?" King demanded, when the horse and mare were head to head again.
"It was prearranged. She promised me a signal at the point where I am to leave the track!"
"Where's that guide?" demanded King; and Darya Khan came forward out of the night, with his rifle cocked and ready.
"Did she not say Khinjan is the destination?"'
"Aye!" the fellow answered. "I know the way to Khinjan. That is not it. Get down there and find out what that light was. Shout back what you find!"
The man obeyed instantly and sprang down into darkness. But King had hardly given the order when shame told him he had sent a native on an errand he had no liking for himself.
"Come back!" he shouted. "I'll go."
But the man had gone, slipping noiselessly in the dark from rock to rock.
So King drove both spurs home, and set his unwilling horse to scrambling downward at an angle he could not guess, into blackness he could feel, trusting the animal to find a footing where his own eyes could make out nothing.
To his disgust he heard the Rangar follow immediately. To his even greater disgust the black mare overtook him. And even then, with his own mount stumbling and nearly pitching him headforemost at each lurch, he was forced to admire the mare's goatlike agility, for she descended into the gorge in running leaps, never setting a wrong foot. When he and his horse reached the bottom at last he found the Rangar waiting for him.
"This way, sahib!"
The next he knew sparks from the black mare's heels were kicking up in front of him, and a wild ride had begun such as he had never yet dreamed of. There was no catching up, for the black mare could gallop two to his horse's one; but be set his teeth and followed into solid night, trusting ear, eye, guesswork and the God of Secret Service men who loves the reckless.
Once in a minute or so be would see a spark, or a shower of them, where the mare took a turn in a hurry. Once in every two or three minutes he caught sight for a second of the same blue siren light that had started the race. He suspected that there were many torches placed at intervals. It could not be one man running. More than once it occurred to him to draw and shoot, but that thought died into the darkness whence it came. Never once while he rode did he forget to admire the Rangar's courage or the black mare's speed.
His own horse developed a speed and stamina he had not suspected, and probably the Rangar did not dare extend the mare to her limit in the dark; at all events, for ten, perhaps fifteen, minutes of breathless galloping he almost made a race of it, keeping the Rangar, either within sight or sound.
But then the mare swerved suddenly behind a boulder and was gone. He spurred round the same great rock a minute later, and was faced by a blank wall of shale that brought his horse up all standing. It led steep up for a thousand feet to the sky-line. There was not so much as a goat-track to show in which direction the mare had gone, nor a sound of any kind to guide him.
He dismounted and stumbled about on foot for about ten minutes with his eyes two feet from the earth, trying to find some trace of hoof. Then he listened, with his ear to the ground. There was no result.
He knew better than to shout, for that would sound like a cry of distress, and there is no mercy whatever in the "Hills" for lost wanderers, or for men who seem lost. He had not a doubt there were men with long jezails lurking not far away, to say nothing of those responsible for the blue torchlight.
After some thought be mounted and began to hunt the way back, remembering turns and twists with a gift for direction that natives might well have envied him. He found his way back to the foot of the road at a trot, where ninety-nine men out of almost any hundred would have been lost hopelessly; and close to the road he overtook Darya Khan, hugging his rifle and staring about like a scorpion at bay.
"Did you expect that blue light, and this galloping away?" he asked.
"Nay, sahib; I knew nothing of it! I was told to lead the way to Khinjan."
"Come on, then!"
He set his horse at the boulder-strewn slope and had to dismount to lead him at the end of half a minute. At the end of a minute both he and the messenger were hauling at the reins and the horse had grown frantic from fear of falling backward. He shouted for help, and Ismail and another man came leaping down, looking like the devils of the rocks, to lend their strength. Ismail tightened his long girdle and stung the other two with whiplash words, so that Darya Khan overcame prejudice to the point of stowing his rifle between some rocks and lending a hand. Then it took all four of them fifteen minutes to heave and haul the struggling animal to the level road above.
There, with eyes long grown used to the dark, King stared about him, recovering his breath and feeling in his pockets for a fresh cheroot and matches. He struck a match and watched it to be sure his hand did not shake before he spoke, because one of Cocker's rules is that a man must command himself before trying it on others.
"Where are the others?" he asked, when he was certain of himself.
"Gone!" boomed Ismail, still panting, for he had heaved and dragged more stoutly than had all the rest together.
King took a dozen pulls at the cheroot and stared about again. In the middle of the road stood his second horse, and three mules with his baggage, including the unmarked medicine chest. Close to them were three men, making the party now only six all told, including Darya Khan, himself and Ismail.
"Gone whither?" he asked.
Ismail's voice was eloquent of shocked surprise.
"They followed! Was it then thy baggage on the other mules? Were they thy men? They led the mules and went!"
"Who ordered them?"
"Allah! Need the night be ordered to follow the Day?"
"Who told them whither to go?"
"Who told the moon where the night was?" Ismail answered.
"I am thy man! She bade me be thy man!"
King bethought him of his wrist, that was heavy with the weight of gold on it. He drew back his sleeve and held it up.
"May God be with thee!" boomed all five men at once, and the Khyber night gave back their voices, like the echoing of a well. King took his reins and mounted.
"What now?" asked Ismail, picking up the leather bag that he regarded as his own particular charge. "Forward!" said King. "Come along!"
He began to set a fairly fast pace, Ismail leading the spare horse and the others towing the mules along. Except for King, who was modern and out of the picture, they looked like Old Testament patriarchs, hurrying out of Egypt, as depicted in the illustrated Bibles of a generation ago—all leaning forward—each man carrying a staff—and none looking to the right or left.
After a time the moon rose and looked at them from over a distant ridge that was thousands of feet higher than the ragged fringe of Khyber wall. The little mangy jackals threw up their heads to howl at it; and after that there was pale light diffused along the track, and they could see so well that King set a faster pace, and they breathed hard in the effort to keep up. He did not draw rein until it was nearly time for the Pass to begin narrowing and humping upward to the narrow gut at Ali Masjid. But then he halted suddenly. The jackals had ceased howling, and the very spirit of the Khyber seemed to hold its breath and listen.
In that shuddersome ravine unusual sounds will rattle along sometimes from wall to wall and gully to gully, multiplying as they go, until night grows full of thunder. So it was now that they heard a staccato cannonade—not very loud yet, but so quick, so pulsating, so filling to the ears that be could judge nothing about the sound at all, except that whatever caused it must be round a corner out of sight.
At first, for a few minutes King suspected it was Rewa Gunga's mare, galloping over hard rock away ahead of him. Then he knew it was a horse approaching. After that he became nearly sure he was mistaken altogether and that the drums were being beaten at a village—until he remembered there was no village near enough and no drums in any case.
It was the behavior of the horse he rode, and of the led one and the mules, that announced at last beyond all question that a horse was coming down the Khyber in a hurry. One of the mules brayed until the whole gorge echoed with the insult, and a man hit him hard on the nose to silence him.
King legged his horse into the shadow of a great rock. And after shepherding the men and mules into another shadow, Ismail came and held his stirrup, with the leather bag in the other hand. The bag fascinated him, because he did not know what was in it, and it was plain that he meant to cling to it until death or King should put an end to curiosity.
King drew his pistol. Ismail drew in his breath with a hissing sound, as if he and not King were the marksman. King notched the foresight against the corner of a crag, at a height that ought to be an inch or two above an oncoming horse's ears, and Ismail nodded sagely. Whoever now should gallop round that rock would be obliged to cross the line of fire. Such are the vagaries of the Khyber's night echoes that it was a long five minutes yet before a man appeared at last, riding like the night wind, on a horse that seemed to be very nearly on his last legs. The beast was going wildly, sobbing, with straggled ears.
Instead of speaking, King spurred out of the shadow and blocked the oncoming horseman's way, making his own horse meet the other shoulder to breast, knocking most of the remaining wind out of him. At risk of his own life, Ismail seized the man's reins. The sparks flew, and there was a growled oath; but the long and the short of it was that the rider squinted uncomfortably down the barrel of King's repeating pistol.
"Give an account of yourself!" commanded King.
The man did not answer. He was a jezailchi of the Khyber Rifles— hook-nosed as an osprey—black-bearded—with white teeth glistening out of a gap in the darkness of his lower face. And he was armed with a British government rifle, although that is no criterion in that borderland of professional thieves where many a man has offered himself for enlistment with a stolen government rifle in his grasp.
The waler he rode was an officer's charger. The poor brute sobbed and heaved and sweated in his tracks as his rightful owner surely had never made him do.
"Whither?" King demanded.
The jezailchi growled the one-word answer with one eye on King, but the other eye still squinted down the pistol barrel warily.
"Have you a letter?"
The man did not answer.
"You may speak to me. I am of your regiment. I am Captain King."
"That is a lie, and a poor one!" the fellow answered. "But a very little while ago I spoke with King sahib in Ali Masjid Fort, and he is no cappitin, he is leftnant. Therefore thou art a liar twice over—nay, three times! Thou art no officer of Khyber Rifles! I am a jezailchi, and I know them all!"
"None the less," said King, "I am an officer of the Khyber Rifles, newly appointed. I asked you, have you a letter?"
"Let me see it."
"I order you!"
"Nay! I am a true man! I will eat the letter rather!"
"Tell me who wrote it, then."
But the fellow shook his head, still eying the pistol as if it were a snake about to strike.
"I have eaten the salt!" he said. "May dogs eat me if I break faith! Who art thou, to ask me to break faith? An arrficer? That must be a lie! The letter is from him who wrote it, to whom I bear it— and that is my answer if I die this minute!"
King let his reins fall and raised his left wrist until the moonlight glinted on the gold of his bracelet under the jezailchi's very eyes.
"May God be with thee!" said the man at once.
"From whom is your letter, and to whom?" asked King, wondering what the men in the clubs at home would say if they knew that a woman's bracelet could outweigh authority on British sod; for the Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle's or Korea Japanese, or Panama United States American, and the Khyber jezailchis are paid to help keep it so.
"From the karnal sahib (colonel) at Landi Kotal, whose horse I ride," said the jezailchi slowly, "to the arrficer at Jamrud. To King sahib, the arrficer at Ali Masjid I bore a letter also, and left it as I passed."
"Had they no spare horse at Ali Masjid? That beast is foundered."
"There are two horses there, and both lame. The man who thou sayest is thy brother is heavy on horses."
King nodded. "What is in the letter?" he asked.
"Nay! Have I eyes that can see through paper?" "Thou hast ears that can listen!" answered King.
"In the letter that I left at Ali Masjid there is news of the lashkar that is gathering in the 'Hills,' above Ali Masjid and beyond Khinjan. King sahib is ordered to be awake and wary."
"And to lame no more horses jumping them over rocks!"
"Nay, the karnal sahib said he is to ride after no more jackals with a spear!"
"Same old game!" said King to himself. "What knowest thou of the lashkar that is gathering?"
"I? Oh, a little. An uncle of mine, and three half-brothers, and a brother are of its number! One came at night to tempt me to join— but I have eaten the salt. It was I who first warned our karnal sahib. Now, let me by!"
"Nay, wait!" ordered King. But he lowered his pistol point.
To hold up a despatch rider was about as irregular as any proceeding could be; but it was within his province to find out how far the Khyber jezailchis could be trusted and within his power more than to make up the lost time. So that the irregularity did not trouble him much.
"Does this other letter tell of the lashkar, too?"
"Am I God, that I should know? But of what else should the karnal sahib write?"
"What is the object of the rising?" King asked him next; and the man threw his head back to laugh like a wolf. Laughter, at night in the Khyber, is an insult. Ismail chattered into his beard; but King sat still.
"Object? What but to force the Khyber and burst through into India and loot? What but to plunder, now that English backs are turned the other way?"
"Who said their backs are turned?" demanded King.
"Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ho! Hear him!"
The Khyber echoed the mockery away and away into the distance.
"Their backs are this way and their faces that! The kites know it! The vultures know it! The little jackals know it! The little butchas in the valley villages all know it! Ask the rocks, and the grass—the very water running from the 'Hills'! They all know that the English fight for life!"
"And the Khyber jezailchis? What of them?" King asked.
"They know it better than any!"
"They make ready, even as I."
"For what Allah shall decide! We ate the salt, we jezailchis. We chose, and we ate of our own free will. We have been paid the price we named, in silver and rifles and clothing. The arrficers the sirkar sent us are men of faith who have made no trouble with our women. What, then, should the Khyber jezailchis do? For a little while there will be fighting—or, if we be very brave and our arrficers skillful, and Allah would fain see sport, then for a longer while. Then we shall be overridden. Then the Khyber will be a roaring river of men pouring into India, as my father's father told me it has often been! India shall bleed in these days—but there will be fighting in the Khyber first!"
"And what of her? Of Yasmini?" King asked.
"Thou wearest that—and askest what of her? Nay—tell!"
"Should she order the jezailchis to be false to the salt—?" "Such a question!"
The man clucked into his beard and began to fidget in the saddle. King gave him another view of the bracelet, and again he found a civil answer.
"We of the Rifles have her leave to be loyal to the salt, for, said she, otherwise how could we be true men; and she loves no liars. From the first, when she first won our hearts in the 'Hills,' she gave us of the Rifles leave to be true men first and her servants afterward! We may love her—as we do!—and yet fight against her, if so Allah wills—and she will yet love us!"
"Where is she?" King asked him suddenly, and the man began to laugh again.
"Let me by!" he shouted truculently. "Who am I to sit a horse and gossip in the Khyber? Let me by, I say!"
"I will let you by when you have told me where she is!"
"Then I die here, and very likely thou, too!" the man answered, bringing his rifle to the port in front of him so quickly that he almost had King at a disadvantage. As it was, King was quick enough to balance matters by covering him with the pistol again. The horses sensed excitement and began to stir. With a laugh the jezailchi let the rifle fall across his lap, and at that King put the pistol out of sight.
"Fool!" hissed Ismail in his ear; but King knows the "Hills" better in some ways than the savages who live in them; they, for instance, never seem able to judge. whether there will be a fight presently or not.
"Why won't you tell me where she is?" he asked in his friendliest voice, and that would wheedle secrets from the Sphynx.
"Her secrets are her own, and may Allah help her guard them! I will tear my tongue out first!"
"Enviable woman!" murmured King. "Pass, friend!" he ordered, reining aside. "Take my spare horse and leave me that weary one, so you will recover the lost time and more into the bargain."
The man changed horses gladly, saying nothing. When he had shifted the saddle and mounted, he began to ride off with a great air, not so much as deigning to scowl at Ismail. But he had not ridden a dozen paces when he sat round in the saddle and drew rein.
"Sahib!" he called. "Sahib!"
King waited. He had waited for this very thing and could afford to wait a minute longer.
"Hast thou—is there—does the sahib—I have not tasted—"
He made a sign with his hand that men recognize in pretty nearly every land under the sun.
"So-ho!" laughed King, patting his hip pocket, from which the cap of a silver-topped flask had been protruding ever since he put the pistol out of sight. "So our copper's hot, eh?"
"May Allah do more to me if my throat is not lined with the fires of Eblis!"
"But the Kalamullah!" King objected. "What saith the Prophet?"
"The Prophet forbade the faithful to drink wine," said the jezailchi. "He said nothing about whiskey, that I ever heard!"
"Mine is brandy," said King.
"May Allah bless the sahib's sons and grandsons to the seventh generation! May Allah—"
"Tell me about Yasmini first! Where is she?"
"Nay!" King tapped the flask in his pocket.
"Nay! My throat is dry, but it shalt parch! I know not! As to where she is, I know not!"
"Remember, and I will give you the whole of it!"
He drew the flask out of his pocket and rode a little way toward the man.
"None can overhear. Tell me now."
"Nay, sahib! I am silent!"
"Have you passed her on your way?"
The man shook his head—shook it until the whites of his eyes were a streak in the middle of his dark face; and when a Hillman is as vehement as that he is surely lying.
King set the flask to his own lips and drank a few drops.
"Salaam, sahib!" said the jezaitchi, wheeling his horse to ride away.
King let him ride twenty paces before calling to him to halt.
"Come back!" he ordered, and rode part of the way to meet him.
"I but tried thee, friend!" he said, holding out the flask.
"Allah then preserve me from a second test!"
The jezailchi seized the flask, clapped it to his lips and drained it to the last drop while King sat still in the moonlight and smiled at him.
"God grant the giver peace!" he prayed, handing the flask back. The kindly East possesses no word for "Thank you." Then he wheeled the horse in a sudden eddy, as polo ponies turn on the Indian plains, and rode away down the wind as if the Pass were full of devils in pursuit of him.
King watched him out of sight and then listened until the hoof-beats died away and the Pass grew still again.
"The jezailchis'll stand!" he said, lighting a new cheroot. "Good men and good luck to 'em!"
Then he rode back to his own men.
"Where starts the trail to Khinjan?" be asked; not that he had forgotten it, but to learn who knew.
"This side of Ali Masjid!" they answered all together.
"Two miles this side. More than a mile from here," said Ismail. "What next? Shall we camp here? Here is fuel and a little water. Give the word—"
"Nay-forward!" ordered King.
"Forward?" growled Ismail. "With this man it is ever 'forward!' Is there neither rest nor fear? Has she bewitched him? Hai! Ye lazy ones! Ho! Sons of sloth! Urge the mules faster! Beat the led horse!"
So in weird wan moonlight, King led them forward, straight up the narrowing gorge, between cliffs that seemed to fray the very bosom of the sky. He smoked a cigar and stared at the view, as if be were off to the mountains for a month's sport with dependable shikarris whom he knew. Nobody could have looked at him and guessed he was not enjoying himself.