"That man," mumbled Ismail behind him, "is not as other sahibs I have known. He is a man, this one! He will do unexpected things!"
"Forward!" King called to them, thinking they were grumbling. "Forward, men of the 'Hills'!"
The owl he has eyes that are big for his size, And the night like a book he deciphers; "Too-woop!" he asserts, and "Hoo-woo-ip!" he cries, And he means to remark he is awfully wise; But he lags behind us, who are "on" to the lies Of the hairy Himalayan knifers!
For eyes we be, of Empire, we, Skinned and puckered and quick to see, And nobody guesses how wise we be, Nor hidden in what disguise we be, A-cooking a sudden surprise we be For hairy Himahlyan knifers!
After a time King urged his horse to a jog-trot, and the five Hillmen pattered in his wake, huddled so close together that the horse could easily have kicked more than one of them. The night was cold enough to make flesh creep; but it was imagination that herded them until they touched the horse's rump and kept the whites of their eyes ever showing as they glanced to left and right. The Khyber, fouled by memory, looks like the very birthplace of the ghosts when the moon is fitful and a mist begins to flow.
"Cheloh!" King called merrily enough; but his horse shied at nothing, because horses have an uncanny way of knowing how their riders really feel. They led mules and the spare horse, instead of dragging at their bridles, pressed forward to have their heads among the men, and every once and again there would sound the dull thump of a fist on a beast's nose—such being the attitude of men toward the lesser beasts.
They trotted forward until the bed of the Khyber began to grow very narrow, and Ali Masjid Fort could not be much more than a mile away, at the widest guess. Then King drew rein and dismounted, for he would have been challenged had he ridden much farther. A challenge in the Khyber after dark consists invariably of a volley at short range, with the mere words afterward, and the wise man takes precaution.
"Off with the mules' packs!" he ordered, and the men stood round and stared. Darya Khan, leaning on the only rifle in the party, grinned like a post-office letter box.
"Truly," growled Ismail, forgetting past expression of a different opinion, "this man is as mad as all the other Englishmen."
"Were you ever bitten by one?" wondered King aloud.
"Then, off with the packs—and hurry!"
Ismail began to obey.
"Thou! Lord of the Rivers! (For that is what Darya Khan means.) What is thy calling?"
"Badragga" (guide), he answered. "Did she not send me back down the Pass to be a guide?"
"And before that what wast thou?"
"Is that thy business?" he snarled, shifting his rifle-barrel to the other hand. "I am what she says I am! She used to call me 'Chikki'—the Lifter!—and I was! There are those who were made to know it! If she says now I am badragga, shall any say she lies?"
"I say thou art unpacker of mules' burdens!" answered King. "Begin!"
For answer the fellow grinned from ear to ear and thrust the rifle- barrel forward insolently. King, with the movement of determination that a man makes when about to force conclusions, drew up his sleeves above the wrist. At that instant the moon shone through the mist and the gold bracelet glittered in the moonlight.
"May God be with thee!" said "Lord of the Rivers" at once. And without another word he laid down his rifle and went to help off-load the mules.
King stepped aside and cursed softly. To a man who knows how to enforce his own authority, it is worse than galling to be obeyed because he wears a woman's favor. But for a vein of wisdom that underlay his pride he would have pocketed the bracelet there and then and have refused to wear it again. But as he sweated his pride he overheard Ismail growl:
"Good for thee! He had taught thee obedience in another bat of the eye!"
"I obey her!" muttered Darya Khan.
"I, too," said Ishmail. "So shall he before the week dies! But now it is good to obey him. He is an ugly man to disobey!"
"I obey him until she sets me free, then," grumbled Darya Khan.
"Better for thee!" said Ismail.
The packs were laid on the ground, and the mules shook themselves, while the jackals that haunt the Khyber came closer, to sit in a ring and watch. King dug a flashlight out of one of the packs, gave it to Ismail to hold, sat on the other pack and began to write on a memorandum pad. It was a minute before he could persuade Ismail that the flashlight was harmless, and another minute before he could get him to hold it still. Then, however, he wrote swiftly.
"In the Khyber, a mile below you. "Dear Old Man—I would like to run in and see you, but circumstances don't permit. Several people sent you their regards by me. Herewith go two mules and their packs. Make any use of the mules you like, but store the loads where I can draw on them in case of need. I would like to have a talk with you before taking the rather desperate step I intend, but I don't want to be seen entering or leaving Ali Masjid. Can you come down the Pass without making your intention known? It is growing misty now. It ought to be easy. My men will tell you where I am and show you the way. Why not destroy this letter? —"Athelstan."
He folded the note and stuck a postage stamp on it in lieu of seal. Then he examined the packs with the aid of the flashlight, sorted them and ordered two of the mules reloaded.
"You three!" he ordered then. "Take the loaded mules into Ali Masjid Fort. Take this chit, you. Give it to the sahib in command there."
They stood and gaped at him, wide-eyed—then I came closer to see his eyes and to catch any whisper that Ismail might have for them. But Ismail and Darya Khan seemed full of having been chosen to stay behind; they offered no suggestions—certainly no encouragement to mutiny.
"To hear is to obey!" said the nearest man, seizing the note, for at all events that was the easiest task. His action decided the other two. They took the mules' leading-reins and followed him. Before they had gone ten paces they were all swallowed in the mist that had begun to flow southeastward; it closed on them like a blanket, and in a minute more the clink of shod hooves had ceased. The night grew still, except for the whimpering of jackals. Ismail came nearer and squatted at King's feet.
"Why, sahib?" he asked: and Darya Khan came closer, too. King had tied the reins of the two horses and the one remaining mule together in a knot and was sitting on the pack.
"Why not?" he countered.
Solemn, almost motionless, squatted on their hunkers, they looked like two great vultures watching an animal die.
"What have they done that they should be sent away?" asked Ismail. "What have they done that they should be sent to the fort, where the arrficer will put them in irons?"
"Why should he put them in irons?" asked King.
"Why not? Here in the Khyber there is often a price on men's heads!"
"And not in Delhi?"
"In Delhi these were not known. There were no witnesses in Delhi. In the fort at Ali Masjid there will be a dozen ready to swear to them!"
"Then, why did they obey?" asked King.
"What is that on the sahib's wrist?"
"Sahib—if she said, 'Walk into the fire or over that Cliff!' there be many in these 'Hills' who would obey without murmuring!"
"I have nothing against them," said King. As long as they are my men I will not send them into a trap."
"Good!" nodded Ismail and Darya Khan together, but they did not seem really satisfied.
"It is good," said Ismail, "that she should have nothing against thee, sahib! Those three men are in thy keeping!"
"And I in thine?" King asked, but neither man answered him.
They sat in silence for five minutes. Then suddenly the two Hillmen shuddered, although King did not bat an eyelid. Din burst into being. A volley ripped out of the night and thundered down the Pass.
"How-utt! Hukkums dar?" came the insolent challenge half a minute after it—the proof positive that Ali Masjid's guards neither slept nor were afraid.
A weird wail answered the challenge, and there began a tossing to and fro of words, that was prelude to a shouted invitation:
English can be as weirdly distorted as wire, or any other supple medium, and native levies advance distortion to the point of art; but the language sounds no less good in the chilly gloom of a Khyber night.
Followed another wait, this time of half an hour. Then a man's footsteps—a booted, leather-heeled man, striding carelessly. Not far behind him was the softer noise of sandals. The man began to whistle Annie Laurie.
"Charles? That you?" called King.
"That you, old man?"
A man in khaki stepped into the moonlight. He was so nearly the image of Athelstan King that Ismail and Darya Khan stood up and stared. Athelstan strode to meet him. Their walk was the same. Angle for angle, line for line, they might have been one man and his shadow, except for three-quarters of an inch of stature.
"Glad to see you, old man," said Athelstan.
"Sure, old chap!" said Charles; and they shook hands.
"What's the desperate proposal?" asked the younger.
"I'll tell you when we are alone." His brother nodded and stood a step aside. The three who had taken the note to the fort came closer—partly to call attention to themselves, partly to claim credit, partly because the outer silence frightened them. They elbowed Ismail and Darya Khan, and one of them received a savage blow in the stomach by way of retort from Ismail. Before that spark could start an explosion Athelstan interfered.
"Ismail! Take two men. Go down the Pass out of car-shot, and keep watch! Come back when I whistle thus—but no sooner!"
He put fingers between his teeth and blew until the night shrilled back at him. Ismail seized the leather bag and started to obey.
"Leave that bag. Leave it, I say!"
"But some man may steal it, sahib. How shall a thief know there is no money in it?"
"Leave it and go!"
Ismail departed, grumbling, and King turned on Darya Khan.
"Take the remaining man, and go up the Pass!" he ordered. "Stand out of ear-shot and keep watch. Come when I whistle!"
"But this one has a belly ache where Ismail smote him! Can a man with a belly ache stand guard? His moaning will betray both him and me!" objected "Lord of the Rivers."
"Take him and go!" commanded King.
King was careful now not to show his bracelet.
But there was something in his eye and in his attitude—a subtle suggestive something-or-other about him—that was rather more convincing than a pistol or a stick. Darya Khan thrust his rifle-end into the hurt man's stomach for encouragement and started off into the mist.
"Come and ache out of the sahibs' sight!" he snarled.
In a minute King and his brother stood unseen, unheard in the shadow by a patch of silver moonlight. Athelstan sat down on the mule's pack. "Well?" said the younger. "Tell me. I shall have to hurry. You see I'm in charge back there. They saw me come out, but I hope to teach 'em a lesson going back."
Athelstan nodded. "Good!" he said. "I've a roving commission. I'm ordered to enter Khinjan Caves."
His brother whistled. "Tall order! What's your plan?"
"Haven't one—yet. Know more when I'm nearer Khinjan. You can help no end."
"How? Name it!"
"I shall go up in disguise. Nobody can put the stain on as well as you. But tell me something first. Any news of a holy war yet?"
His brother nodded. "Plenty of talk about one to come," he said. "We keep hearing of that lashkar that we can't locate, under a mullah whose name seems to change with the day of the week. And there are everlasting tales about the 'Heart of the Hills."'
"No explanation of 'em?" Athelstan asked him.
"None! Not a thing!"
"D'you know of Yasmini?"
"Heard of her of course," said his brother.
"Has she come up the Pass?"
His brother laughed. "No, neither she nor a coach and four." "I have heard the contrary," said Athelstan.
"Heard what, exactly?"
"She's up the Pass ahead of me."
"She hasn't passed Ali Masjid!" said his brother, and Athelstan nodded.
"Are the Turks in the show yet?" asked Charles.
"Not yet. But I know they're expected in."
"You bet they're expected in!" The younger man grinned from ear to ear. "They're working both tides under to prepare the tribes for it. They flatter themselves they can set alight a holy war that will put Timour Ilang to shame. You should hear my jezailchies talk at night when they think I'm not listening!"
"The jezailchies'll stand though," said Athelstan.
"Stake my life on it!" said his brother. "They'll stick to the last man!"
"I can't tell you," said Athelstan, "why we're not attacking brother Turk before he's ready. I imagine Whitehall has its hands full. But it's likely enough that the Turk will throw in his lot with the Prussians the minute he's ready to begin. Meanwhile my job is to help make the holy war seem unprofitable to the tribes, so that they'll let the Turk down hard when he calls on 'em. Every day that I can point to forts held strongly in the Khyber is a day in my favor. There are sure to be raids. In fact, the more the merrier, provided they're spasmodic. We must keep 'em separated—keep 'em from swarming too fast—while I sow other seeds among 'em."
His brother nodded. Sowing seeds was almost that family's hereditary job. Athelstan continued:
"Hang on to Ali Masjid like a leech, old man! The day one raiding lashkar gets command of the Khyber's throat, the others'll all believe they've won the game. Nothing'll stop 'em then! Look out for traps. Smash 'em on sight. But don't follow up too far!"
"Sure," said Charles.
"Help me with the stain now, will you?"
With his flash-light burning as if its battery provided current by the week instead of by the minute, Athelstan dragged open the mule's pack and produced a host of things. He propped a mirror against the pack and squatted in front of it. Then he passed a little bottle to his brother, and Charles attended to the chin-strap mark that would have betrayed him a British officer in any light brighter than dusk. In a few minutes his whole face was darkened to one hue, and Charles stepped back to look at it.
"Won't need to wash yourself for a month!" he said. "The dirt won't show!" He sniffed at the bottle. "But that stain won't come off if you do wash—never worry! You'll do finely."
"Not yet, I won't!" said Athelstan, picking up a little safety razor and beginning on his mustache. In a minute he had his upper lip bare. Then his brother bent over him and rubbed in stain where the scrubby mustache had been.
After that Athelstan unlocked the leather bag that had caused Ismail so much concern and shook out from it a pile of odds and ends at which his brother nodded with perfect understanding. The principal item was a piece of silk—forty or fifty yards of it—that he proceeded to bind into a turban on his head, his brother lending him a guiding, understanding finger at every other turn. When that was done, the man who had said he looked in the least like a British officer would have lied.
One after another he drew on native garments, picking them from the pile beside him. So, by rapid stages he developed into a native hakim—by creed a converted Hindu, like Rewa Gunga,—one of the men who practise yunani, or modern medicine, without a license and with a very great deal of added superstition, trickery and guesswork.
"I wouldn't trust you with a ha'penny!" announced his brother when he had done.
"Really? As good as all that?"
"The part to a T."
"Well—take these into the fort for me, will you?" His brother caught the bundle of discarded European clothes and tucked them under his arm. "Now, re-member, old man! This is the biggest show there has ever been! We've got to hold the Khyber, and we can't do it by riding pell-mell into the first trap set for us! We must smash when the fighting starts—but we mayn't miss! We mayn't run past the mark! Be a coward, if that's the name you care to give it. You needn't tell me you've got orders to hunt skirmishers to a standstill, because I know better. I know you've just had your wig pulled for laming two horses!"
"How d'you know that?"
"Never mind! I've been seconded to your crowd. I'm your senior, and I'm giving you orders. This show isn't sport, but the real red thing, and I want to count on you to fight like a trained man, not like a natural-born fool. I want to know you're holding Ali Masjid like Fabius held Rome, by being slow and wily, just for the sake of the comfortable feeling it will give me when I'm alone among the 'Hills.' Hit hard when you have to, but for God's sake, old man, ware traps!"
"All right," said his brother.
"Then good-by, old man!"
They stood facing and shook hands. Where had been a man and his reflection in the mist, there now seemed to be the same man and a native. Athelstan King had changed his very nature with his clothes. He stood like a native—moved like one; even his voice was changed, as if—like the actor who dyed himself all over to act Othello—he could do nothing by halves.
"I'm going to try to get in without my men seeing me!" said the younger.
"If they do see you, they'll shoot!"
"Yes, and miss! Trust a Khyber jezailchi not to hit much in the dark! It'll do 'em good either way. I'll have time to give 'em the password before they fire a second volley. They're not really dangerous till the third one. Good-by!"
Officers in that force are not chosen for their clumsiness, or inability to move silently by night. His foot-steps died in the mist almost as quickly as his shadow. Before he had been gone a minute the Pass was silent as death again, and though Athelstan listened with trained ears, the only sound be could detect was of a jackal cracking a bone fifty or sixty yards away.
He repacked the loads, putting everything back carefully into the big leather envelopes and locking the empty hand-bag, after throwing in a few stones for Ismail's benefit. Then he went to sit in the moonlight, with his back to a great rock and waited there cross-legged to give his brother time to make good a retreat through the mist. When there was no more doubt that his own men, at all events, had failed to detect the lieutenant, he put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
Almost at once he heard sandals come pattering from both directions. As they emerged out of the mist he sat silent and still. It was Darya Khan who came first and stood gaping at him, but Ismail was a very close second, and the other three were only a little behind. For full two minutes after the man with the sore stomach had come they all stood holding one another's arms, astonished. Then—
"Where is he?" asked Ismail.
"Who?" said King, the hakim.
"Our sahib—King sahib—where is he?"
Even his voice was so completely changed that men who had been reared amid mutual suspicion could not recognize it.
"But there are his loads! There is his mule!"
"Here is his bag!" said Ismail, pouncing on it, picking it up and shaking it. "It rattles not as formerly! There is more in it than there was!"
"His two horses and the mule are here," said Darya Khan.
"Did I say he took them with him?" asked the hakim, who sat still with his back to a rock. "He went because I came! He left me here in charge! Should he not leave the wherewithal to make me comfortable, since I must do his work? Hah! What do I see? A man bent nearly double? That means a belly ache! Who should have a belly ache when I have potions, lotions, balms to heal all ills, magic charms and talismans, big and little pills—and at such a little price! So small a price! Show me the belly and pay your money! Forget not the money, for nothing is free except air, water and the Word of God! I have paid money for water before now, and where is the mullah who will not take a fee? Nay, only air costs nothing! For a rupee, then—for one rupee I will heal the sore belly and forget to be ashamed for taking such a little fee!"
"Whither went the sahib? Nay—show us proof!" objected Darya Khan; and Ismail stood back a pace to scratch his flowing beard and think.
"The sahib left this with me!" said King, and held up his wrist. The gold bracelet Rewa Gunga had given him gleamed in the pale moonlight.
"May God be with thee!" boomed all five men together.
King jumped to his feet so suddenly that all five gave way in front of him, and Darya Khan brought his rifle to the port.
"Hast thou never seen me before?" he demanded, seizing Ismail by the shoulders and staring straight into his eyes.
"Nay, I never saw thee!"
He turned his head, to show his face in profile.
"Nay, I never saw thee!"
"Thou, then! Thou with the belly! Thou! Thou!"
They all denied ever having seen him.
So he stepped back until the moon shone full in his face and pulled off his turban, changing his expression at the same time.
"Ma'uzbillah! (May God protect us!)"
"Now ye know me?"
"Hee-yee-yee!" yelled Ismail, hugging himself by the elbows and beginning to dance from side to side. "Hee-yee-yee! What said I? Said I not so? Said I not this is a different man? Said I not this is a good one—a man of unexpected things? Said I not there was magic in the leather bag? I shook it often, and the magic grew! Hee-yee-yee! Look at him! See such cunning! Feel him! Smell of him! He is a good one—good!"
Three of the others stood and grinned, now that their first shock of surprise had died away. The fourth man poked among the packs. There was little to see except gleaming teeth and the whites of eyes, set in hairy faces in the mist. But Ismail danced all by himself among the stones of Khyber road and he looked like a bearded ghoul out for an airing.
"Hee-yee-yee! She smelt out a good one! Hee-yee-yee! This is a man after my heart! Hee-yee-yee! God preserve me! God preserve me to see the end of this! This one will show sport! Oh-yee-yee-yee!"
Suddenly be closed with King and hugged him until the stout ribs cracked and bent inward and King sobbed for breath among the strands of the Afridi's beard. He had to use knuckles and knees and feet to win freedom, and though he used them with all his might and hurt the old savage fiercely, he made no impression on his good will.
"After my own heart, thou art! Spirit of a cunning one! Worker of spells! Allah! That was a good day when she bade me wait for thee!"
King sat down again, panting. He wanted time to get his breath back and a little of the ache out of his ribs, but he did not care to waste any more minutes, and his eyes watched the faces of the other four men. He saw them slowly waken to understanding of what Ismail meant by "worker of spells" and "magic in the bag" and knew that he had even greater hold on them now than Yasmini's bracelet gave him.
"Ma'uzbillah!" they murmured as Ismail's meaning dawned and they recognized a magician in their midst. "May God protect us!"
"May God protect me! I have need of it!" said King. "What shall my new name be? Give ye me a name!"
"Nay, choose thou!" urged Ismail, drawing nearer. "We have seen one miracle; now let us hear another!"
"Very well. Khan is a title of respect. Since I wish for respect, I will call myself Khan. Name me a village the first name you can think of—quick!"
"Kurram," said Ismail, at a hazard.
"Kurram is good. Kurram I am! Kurram Khan is my name henceforward! Kurram Khan the dakitar!"
"But where is the sahib who came from the fort to talk?" asked the man whose stomach ached yet from Ismail and Darya Khan's attentions to it.
"Gone!" announced King. "He went with the other one!"
"Went whither? Did any see him go?"
"Is that thy affair?" asked King, and the man collapsed. It is not considered wise to the north of Jamrud to argue with a wizard, or even with a man who only claims to be one. This was a man who had changed his very nature almost under their eyes.
"Even his other clothes have gone!" murmured one man, he who had poked about among the packs.
"And now, Ismail, Darya Khan, ye two dunder-heads!—ye bellies without brains!—when was there ever a dakitar—a hakim, who had not two assistants at the least? Have ye never seen, ye blinder-than-bats—how one man holds a patient while his boils are lanced, and yet another makes the hot iron ready?"
They had both seen that often.
"Then, what are ye?"
They gaped at him. Were they to work wonders too? Were they to be part and parcel of the miracle? Watching them, King saw understanding dawn behind Ismail's eyes and knew he was winning more than a mere admirer. He knew it might be days yet, might be weeks before the truth was out, but it seemed to him that Ismail was at heart his friend. And there are no friendships stronger than those formed in the Khyber and beyond—no more loyal partnerships. The "Hills" are the home of contrasts, of blood-feuds that last until the last-but-one man dies, and of friendships that no crime or need or slander can efface. If the feuds are to be avoided like the devil, the friendships are worth having.
"There is another thing ye might do," he suggested, "if ye two grown men are afraid to see a boil slit open. Always there are timid patients who hang back and refuse to drink the medicines. There should be one or two among the crowd who will come forward and swallow the draughts eagerly, in proof that no harm results. Be ye two they!"
Ismail spat savagely.
"Nay! Bismillah! Nay, nay! I will hold them who have boils, sitting firmly on their bellies—so—or between their shoulders— thus—when the boils are behind! Nay, I will drink no draughts! I am a man, not a cess-pool!"
"And I will study how to heat hot irons!" said Darya Khan, with grim conviction. "It is likely that, having worked for a blacksmith once, I may learn quickly! Phaughghgh! I have tasted physic! I have drunk Apsin Saats! (Epsom Salts.)"
He spat, too, in a very fury of reminiscence.
"Good!" said King. "Henceforward, then, I am Kurram Khan, the dakitar, and ye two are my assistants, Ismail to hold the men with boils, and Darya Khan to heat the irons—both of ye to be my men and support me with words when need be!"
"Aye!" said Ismail, quick to think of details, "and these others shall be the tasters! They have big bellies, that will hold many potions without crowding. Let them swallow a little of each medicine in the chest now, for the sake of practise! Let them learn not to make a wry face when the taste of cess-pools rests on the tongue—"
"Aye, and the breath comes sobbing through the nose!" said Darya Khan, remembering fragments of an adventurous career. "Let them learn to drink Apsin Saats without coughing!"
"We will not drink the medicines!" announced the man who had a stomach ache. "Nay, nay!"
But Ismail hit him with the back of his hand in the stomach again and danced away, hugging himself and shouting "Hee-yee-yee!" until the jackals joined him in discontented chorus and the Khyber Pass became full of weird howling. Then suddenly the old Afridi thought of something else and came back to thrust his face close to King's.
"Why be a Rangar? Why be a Rajput, sahib? She loves us Hillmen better!"
"Do I look like a Hillman of the 'Hills'?" asked King.
"Nay, not now. But he who can work one miracle can work another. Change thy skin once more and be a true Hillman!"
"Aye!" King laughed. "And fall heir to a blood-feud with every second man I chance upon! A Hill-man is cousin to a hundred others, and what say they in the 'Hills'?—'to hate like cousins,' eh? All cousins are at war. As a Rangar I have left my cousins down in India. Better be a converted Hindu and be despised by some than have cousins in the 'Hills'! Besides—do I speak like a Hillman?"
"Aye! Never an Afridi spake his own tongue better!"
"Yet—does a Hillman slip? Would a Hillman use Punjabi words in a careless moment?"'
"Therefore, thou dunderhead, I will be a Rangar Rajput,—a stranger in a strange land, traveling by her favor to visit her in Khinjan! Thus, should I happen to make mistakes in speech or action, it may be overlooked, and each man will unwittingly be my advocate, explaining away my errors to himself and others instead of my enemy denouncing me to all and sundry! Is that clear, thou oaf?"
"Aye! Thou art more cunning than any man I ever met!"
The great Afridi began to rub the tips of his fingers through his straggly beard in a way that might mean anything, and King seemed to draw considerable satisfaction from it, as if it were a sign language that he understood. More than any one thing in the world just then he needed a friend, and he certainly did not propose to refuse such a useful one.
"And," he added, as if it were an afterthought, instead of his chief reason, "if her special man Rewa Gunga is a Rangar, and is known as a Rangar through out the 'Hills,' shall I not the more likely win favor by being a Rangar too? If I wear her bracelet and at the same time am a Rangar, who will not trust me?"
"True! Thou art a magician!"
"True!" agreed Ismail.
But the moon was getting low and Khyber would be dark again in half an hour, for the great crags in the distance to either hand shut off more light than do the Khyber walls. The mist, too, was growing thicker. It was time to make a move.
King rose. "Pack the mule and bring my horse! he ordered and they hurried to obey with alacrity born of new respect, Darya Khan attending to the trimming of the mule's load in person instead of snarling at another man. It was a very different little escort from the one that had come thus far. Like King himself, it had changed its very nature in fifteen minutes!
They brought the horse, and King laughed at them, calling the idiots— men without eyes.
"The saddle?" Ismail suggested. "It is a government arrficer's saddle."
"Stolen!" said King, and they nodded. "Stolen along with the horse!"
"Then the bridle?"
"Stolen too, ye men without eyes! Ye insects! A Stolen horse and saddle and bridle, are they not a passport of gentility this side of the border?"
"Aye!" "I am Kurram Khan, the dakitar, but who in the 'Hills' would believe it? Look now—look ye and tell me what is wrong?"
He pointed to the horse, and they stood in a row and stared. "Shorten those stirrups, then, six holes at the least! Men will laugh at me if I ride like a British arrficer!"
"Aye!" said Ismail, hurrying to obey.
"Aye! Aye! Aye!" agreed the others.
"Now," he said, gathering the reins and swinging into the saddle, "who knows the way to Khinjan?"
"Which of us does not!"
"Ye all know it? Then ye all are border thieves and worse! No honest man knows that road! Lead on, Darya Khan, thou Lord of Rivers! Do thy duty as badragga and beware lest we get our knees wet at the fords! Ismail, you march next. Now I. You other two and the mule follow me. Let the man with the belly ache ride last on the other horse. So! Forward march!"
So Darya Khan led the way with his rifle, and King's face glowed in cigarette light not very far behind him as he legged his horse up the narrow track that led northward out of the Khyber bed.
It would be a long time before he would dare smoke a cigar again, and his supply of cigarettes was destined to dwindle down to nothing before that day. But he did not seem to mind.
"Cheloh!" he called. "Forward, men of the mountains! Kuch dar nahin hai!"
"Thy mother and the spirit of a fight were one!" swore Ismail just in front of him, stepping out like a boy going to a picnic. "She will love thee! Allah! She will love thee! Allah! Allah!"
The thought seemed to appal him. For hours after that he climbed ahead in silence.
Dear is the swagger that takes a man in Helmeted, clattering, proud. Sweet are the honors the arrogant win, Hot from the breath of a crowd. Precious the spirit that never will bend— Hot challenge for insolent stare! But—talk when you've tried it!—to win in the end, Go ahsti!* Be meek! And beware!
Even with the man with the stomach Ache mounted on the spare horse for the sake of extra speed (and he was not suffering one-fifth so much as he pretended); with Ismail to urge, and King to coax, and the fear of mountain death on every side of them, they were the part of a night and a day and a night and a part of another day in reaching Khinjan.
Darya Khan, with the rifle held in both hands, led the way swiftly, but warily; and the last man's eyes looked ever backward, for many a sneaking enemy might have seen them and have judged a stern chase worth while.
In the "Hills" the hunter has all the best of it, and the hunted needs must run. The accepted rule is to stalk one's enemy relentlessly and get him first. King happened to be bunting, although not for human life, and he felt bold, but the men with him dreaded each upstanding crag, that might conceal a rifleman. Armed men behind corners mean only one thing in the "Hills."
The animals grew weary to the verge of dropping, for the "road" had been made for the most part by mountain freshets, and where that was not the case it was imaginary altogether. They traveled upward, along ledges that were age-worn in the limestone—downward where the "hell-stones" slid from under them to almost bottomless ravines, and a false step would have been instant death—up again between big edged boulders, that nipped the mule's pack and let the mule between—past many and many a lonely cairn that hid the bones of a murdered man (buried to keep his ghost from making trouble)— ever with a tortured ridge of rock for sky-line and generally leaning against a wind, that chilled them to the bone, while the fierce sun burned them.
At night and at noon they slept fitfully at the chance-met shrine of some holy man. The "Hills" are full of them, marked by fluttering rags that can be seen for miles away; and though the Quran's meaning must be stretched to find excuse, the Hillmen are adept at stretching things and hold those shrines as sacred as the Book itself. Men who would almost rather cut throats than gamble regard them as sanctuaries.
When a man says he is holy he can find few in the "Hills" to believe him; but when he dies or is tortured to death or shot, even the men who murdered him will come and revere his grave.
Whole villages leave their preciousest possessions at a shrine before wandering in search of summer pasture. They find them safe on their return, although the "Hills" are the home of the lightest- fingered thieves on earth, who are prouder of villainy than of virtue. A man with a blood-feud, and his foe hard after him, may sleep in safety at a faquir's grave. His foe will wait within range, but he will not draw trigger until the grave is left behind.
So a man may rest in temporary peace even on the road to Khinjan, although Khinjan and peace have nothing whatever in common.
It was at such a shrine, surrounded by tattered rags tied to sticks, that fluttered in the wind three or four thousand feet above Khyber level, that King drew Ismail into conversation, and deftly forced on him the role of questioner.
"How can'st thou see the Caves!" he asked, for King had hinted at his intention; and for answer King gave him a glimpse of the gold bracelet.
"Aye! Well and good! But even she dare not disobey the rule. Khinjan was there before she came, and the rule was there from the beginning, when the first men found the Caves! Some—hundreds— have gained admission, lacking the right. But who ever saw them again? Allah! I, for one, would not chance it!"
"Thou and I are two men!" answered King. "Allah gave thee qualities I lack. He gave thee the strength of a bull and a mountain goat in one, and her for a mistress. To me he gave other qualities. I shall see the Caves. I am not afraid."
"Aye! He gave thee other gifts indeed! But listen! How many Indian servants of the British Raj have set out to see the Caves? Many, many—aye, very many! Again and again the sirkar sent its loyal ones. Did any return? Not one! Some were crucified before they reached the place. One died slowly on the very rock whereon we sit, with his eyelids missing and his eyes turned to the sun! Some entered Khinjan, and the women of the place made sport with them. Those would rather have been crucified outside had they but known. Some, having got by Khinjan, entered the Caves. None ever came out again!" "Then, what is my case to thee?" King asked him "If I can not come out again and there is a secret then the secret will be kept, and what is the trouble?"
"I love thee," the Afridi answered simply. "Thou art a man after mine own heart. Turn! Go back before it is too late!"
King shook his head.
Ismail reached out a hairy-backed hand that shook with half- suppressed emotion.
"When we reach Khinjan, and I come within reach of her orders again, then I am her man, not thine!"
King smiled, glancing again at the gold bracelet on his arm.
"I look like her man, too!"
"Thou!" Ismail's scorn was well feigned if it was not real. "Thou chicken running to the hand that will pluck thy breast-feathers! Listen! Abdurrahman—he of Khabul—and may Allah give his ugly bones no peace!—Abdurrahman of Khabul sought the secret of the Caves. He sent his men to set an ambush. They caught twenty coming out of Khinjan on a raid. The twenty were carried to Khabul and put to torture there. How many, think you, told the secret under torture? They died cursing Abdurrahman to his face and he died without the secret! May God recompense him with the fire that burns forever and scalding water and ashes to eat! May rats eat his bones!"
"Had Abdurrahman this?" asked King, touching the bracelet.
"Nay! He would have given one eye for it, but none would trade with him! He knew of it, but never saw it." "I am more favored. I have it. It is hers, is it not?" Does not she know the secret?"
"She knows all that any man knows and more!"
"Was she seen to slay a man in the teeth of written law?" asked King, and Ismail stared so hard at him that he laughed.
"I was in Khinjan once before, my friend! I know the rule! I failed to reach the Caves that other time because I had no witnesses to swear they had seen me slay a man in the teeth of written law. I know!"
"Who saw thee this time?" Ismail asked, and began to cackle with the cruel humor of the "Hills," that sees amusement in a man's undoing, or in the destruction of his plans. His humor forced him to explain.
"The price of an entrance has come of late to be the life of an English arrficer! Many an one the English have dubbed Ghazi, because he crossed the border and buried his knife in a man on church parade! They hang and burn them, knowing our Muslim law, that denies Heaven to him who is hanged and burned. Yet the man they miscall ghazi sought but the key to Khinjan Caves, with no thought at all about Heaven! Thou art a British arrficer. It may be they will let thee enter the Caves at her bidding. It may be, too, that they will keep thee in a cage there for some chief's son to try his knife on when the time comes to win admission! Listen— man o' my heart!—so strict is the rule that boys born in the Caves, when they come to manhood, must go and slay an Englishman and earn outlawry before they may come back; and lest they prove fearful and betray the secret, ten men follow each. They die by the hand of one or other of the ten unless they have slain their man within two weeks. So the secret has been kept more years than ten men can remember!" (That estimate was doubtless due to a respect for figures and bore no relation to the length of a human generation.)
"Whom did she kill to gain admission?" King asked him unexpectedly.
"Ask her!" said Ismail. "It is her business."
"And thou? Was the life of a British officer the price paid?"
"Nay. I slew a mullah."
The calmness of the admission, and the satisfaction that its memory seemed to bring the owner made King laugh. He found lawless satisfaction for himself in that Ismail's blood-price should have been a priest, not one of his brother officers. A man does not follow King's profession for health, profit or sentiment's sake, but healthy sentiment remains. The loyalty that drives him, and is its own most great reward, makes him a man to the middle. He liked Ismail. He could not have liked him in the same way if he had known him guilty of English blood, which is only proof, of course, that sentiment and common justice are not one. But sentiment remains. Justice is an ideal.
"Be warned and go back!" urged Ismail.
"Come with me, then."
"Nay, I am her man. She waits for me!"
"I imagine she waits for me!" laughed King. "Forward! We have rested in this place long enough!"
So on they went, climbing and descending the naked ramparts that lead eastward and upward and northward to the Roof of Mother Earth— Ismail ever grumbling into his long beard, and King consumed by a fiercer enthusiasm than ever had yet burned in him,
"Forward! Forward! Cast hounds forward! Forward in any event!" says Cocker. It is only regular generals in command of troops in the field who must keep their rear open for retreat. The Secret Service thinks only of the goal ahead.
It was ten of a blazing forenoon, and the sun had heated up the rocks until it was pain to walk on them and agony to sit, when they topped the last escarpment and came in sight of Khinjan's walls, across a mile-wide rock ravine—Khinjan the unregenerate, that has no other human habitation within a march because none dare build.
They stood on a ridge and leaned against the wind. Beneath them a path like a rope ladder descended in zigzags to the valley that is Khinjan's dry moat; it needed courage as well as imagination to believe that the animals could be guided down it.
"Is there no other way?" asked King. He knew well of one other, but one does not tell all one knows in the "Hills," and there might have been a third way.
"None from this side," said Ismail.
"And on the other side?"
"There is a rather better path—that by which the sirkar's troops once came—although it has been greatly obstructed since. It is two days' march from here to reach it. Be warned a last time, sahib—little hakim—be warned and go back!"
"Thou bird of ill omen!" laughed King. "Must thou croak from every rock we rest on?"
"If I were a bird I would fly away back with thee!" said Ismail.
"Forward, since we can not fly—forward and downward!" King answered. "She must have crossed this valley. Therefore there are things worth while beyond! Forward!"
The animals, weary to death anyhow, fell rather that walked down the track. The men sat and scrambled. And the heat rose up to meet them from the waterless ravine as if its floor were Tophet's lid and the devil busy under it, stoking.
It was midday when at last they stood on bottom and swayed like men in a dream fingering their bruises and scarcely able for the heat haze to see the tangled mass of stone towers and mud-and-stone walls that faced them, a mile away. Nobody challenged them yet. Khinjan itself seemed dead, crackled in the heat.
"Sahib, let us mount the hill again and wait for night and a cool breeze!" urged Darya Khan.
Ismail clucked into his beard and spat to wet his lips.
"This glare makes my eyes ache!" he grumbled.
"Wait, sahib! Wait a while!" urged the others.
"Forward!" ordered King. "This must be Tophet. Know ye not that none come out of Tophet by the way they entered in? Forward! The exit is beyond!"
They staggered after him, sheltering their eyes and faces from the glare with turban-ends and odds and ends of clothing. The animals swayed behind them with hung heads and drooping ears, and neither man nor beast had sense enough left to have detected an ambush. They were more than half-way across the valley, hunting for shadow where none was to be found, when a shotted salute brought them up all- standing in a cluster. Six or eight nickel-coated bullets spattered on the rocks close by, and one so narrowly missed King that be could feel its wind.
Up went all their hands together, and they held them so until they ached. Nothing whatever happened. Their arms ceased aching and grew numb. "Forward!" ordered King.
After another quarter of a mile of stumbling among hot boulders, not one of which was big enough to afford cover, or shelter from the sun, another volley whistled over them. Their hands went up again, and this time King could see turbaned heads above a parapet in front. But nothing further happened.
"Forward!" he ordered.
They advanced another two hundred yards and a third volley rattled among the rocks on either hand, frightening one of the mules so that it stumbled and fell and had to be helped up again. When that was done, and the mule stood trembling, they all faced the wall. But they were too weary to hold their hands up any more. Thirst had begun to exercise its sway. One of the men was half delirious.
"Who are ye?" howled a human being, whose voice was so like a wolf's that the words at first had no meaning. He peered over the parapet, a hundred feet above, with his head so swathed in dirty linen that he looked like a bandaged corpse.
"What will ye? Who comes uninvited into Khinjan?"
King bethought him of Yasmini's talisman. He, held it up, and the gold band glinted in the sun. Yet, although a Hillman's eyes are keener than an eagle's, he did not believe the thing could be recognized at that angle, and from that distance. Another thought suggested itself to him. He turned his head and caught Ismail in the act of signaling with both hands.
"Ye may come!" howled the watchman on the parapet, disappearing instantly.
King trembled—perhaps as a racehorse trembles at the starting gate, though he was weary enough to tremble from fatigue. The "Hills," that numb the hearts of many men, had not cowed him, for he loved them and in love there is no fear. Heat and cold an hunger were all in the day's work; thirst was an incident; and the whistle of lead in the wind had never meant more to him than work ahead to do.
But a greyhound trembles in the leash. A boiler, trembles when word goes down the speaking-tube from the bridge for "all she's got." And so the mild-looking hakim Kurram Khan, walking gingerly across her rocks, donning cheap, imitation shell-rimmed spectacles to help him look the part, trembled even more than the leg-weary horse he led.
But that passed. He was all in hand when he led his men up over a rough stone causeway to a door in the bottom of a high battlemented wall and waited for somebody to open it.
The great teak door looked as if it had been stolen from some Hindu temple, and he wondered how and when they could have brought it there across those savage intervening miles. With its six-inch teak planks and bronze bolts its weight must be guessed at in tons— yet a horse can hardly carry a man along any of the trails that lead to Khinjan!
The wood bore the marks of siege and fracture repair. The walls were new-built, of age-old stone. The last expedition out of India had leveled every bit of those defenses flat with the valley, but Khinjan's devils had reerected them, as ants rebuild a rifled nest.
The door was swung open after a time, pulled by a rope, manipulated from above by unseen hands. Inside was another blind wall, twenty feet behind the first. To the right a low barricade blocked the passage and provided a safe vantage point from which it could be swept by a hail of lead; but to the left a path ran unobstructed for more than a hundred yards between the walls, to where the way was blocked by another teak door, set in unscalable black rock. High above the door was a ledge of rock that crossed like a bridge from wall to wall, with a parapet of stone built upon it, pierced for rifle-fire.
As they approached this second door a Rangar turban, not unlike King's own, appeared above the parapet on the ledge and a voice he recognized hailed him good-humoredly.
"And upon thee be peace!" King answered in the Pashtu tongue, for the "Hills" are polite, whatever the other principles.
Rewa Gunga's face beamed down on him, wreathed in smiles that seemed to include mockery as well as triumph. Looking up at him at an angle that made his neck ache and dazzled his eyes, King could not be sure, but it seemed to him that the smile said, "Here you are, my man, and aren't you in for it?" He more than half suspected he was intended to understand that. But the Rangar's conversation took another line.
"By jove!" he chuckled. "She expected you. She guessed you are a hound who can hunt well on a dry scent, and she dared bet you will come in spite of all odds! But she didn't expect you in Rangar dress! No, by jove! You jolly well will take the wind out of her sails!"
King made no answer. For one thing, the word "hound," even in English, is not essentially a compliment. But he had a better reason than that.
"Did you find the way easily?" the Rangar asked but King kept silence.
"Is he parched? Have they cut his tongue out on the road?"
That question was in Pashtu, directed at Ismail and the others, but King answered it.
"Oh, as for that," he said, salaaming again in the fastidious manner of a native gentleman, "I know no other tongue than Pashtu and my own Rajasthani. My name is Kurram Khan. I ask admittance."
He held up his wrist to show the gold bracelet, and high over his head the Rangar laughed like a bell.
"Shabash!" he laughed. "Well done! Enter, Kurram Khan, and be welcome, thou and thy men. Be welcome in her name!"
Somebody pulled a rope and the door yawned wide, giving on a kind of courtyard whose high walls allowed no view of anything but hot blue sky. King hurried under the arch and looked up, but on the courtyard side of the door the wall rose sheer and blank, and there was no sign of window or stairs, or of any means of reaching the ledge from which the Rangar had addressed him. What he did see, as he faced that way, was that each of his men salaamed low and covered his face with both hands as he entered.
"Whom do ye salute?" he asked.
Ismail stared back at him almost insolently, as one who would rebuke a fool.
"Is this not her nest these days?" he answered. "It is well to bow low. She is not as other women. She is she! See yonder!"
Through a gap under an arch in a far corner of the courtyard came a one-eyed, lean-looking villain in Afridi dress who leaned on a long gun and stared at them under his hand. After a leisurely consideration of them he rubbed his nose slowly with one finger, spat contemptuously, and then used the finger to beckon them, crooking it queerly and turning on his heel. He did not say one word.
King led the way after him on foot, for even in the "Hills" where cruelty is a virtue, a man may be excused, on economic grounds, for showing mercy to his beast. His men tugged the weary animals along behind him, through the gap under the arch and along an almost interminable, smelly maze of alleys whose sides were the walls of square stone towers, or sometimes of mud-and-stone-walled compounds, and here and there of sheer, slab-sided cliff.
At intervals they came to bolted narrow doors, that probably led up to overhead defenses. Not fifty yards of any alley was straight; not a yard but what was commanded from overhead. Khinjan bad been rebuilt since its last destruction by some expert who knew all about street fighting. Like Old Jerusalem, the place could have contained a civil war of a hundred factions, and still have opposed stout resistance to an outside army.
Alley gave on to courtyard, and filthy square to alley, until unexpectedly at last a seemingly blind passage turned sharply and opened on a straight street, of fair width, and more than half a mile long. It is marked "Street of the Dwellings" on the secret army maps, and it has been burned so often by Khinjan rioters, as well as by expeditions out of India, that a man who goes on a long journey never expects to find it the same on his return.
It was lined on either hand with motley dwellings, out of which a motlier crowd of people swarmed to stare at King and his men. There were houses built of stolen corrugated iron-that cursed, hot, hideous stuff that the West has inflicted on an all-too-willing East; others of wood—of stone—of mud—of mat of skins—even of tent-cloth. Most of them were filthy. A row of kites sat on the roof of one, and in the gutter near it three gorged vultures sat on the remains of a mule. Scarcely a house was fit to be defended, for Khinjan's fighting men all possess towers, that are plastered about the overfrowning mountain like wasp nests on a wall. These were the sweepers, the traders, the loose women, the mere penniless and the more or less useful men—not Khinjan's inner guard by any means.
There were Hindus—sycophants, keepers of accounts and writers to the chiefs (since literacy is at premium in these parts). In proof of Khinjan's catholic taste and indiscriminate villainy, there were women of nearly every Indian breed and caste, many of them stolen into shameful slavery, but some of them there from choice. And there were little children—little naked brats with round drum tummies, who squealed and shrilled and stared with bold eyes; some of them were pretending to be bandits on their own account already, and one flung a stone that missed King by an inch. The stone fell in the gutter on the far side and, started a fight among the mangy street curs, which proved a diversion and probably saved King's party from more accurate attentions.
Perhaps a thousand souls came out to watch, all told. Not an eye of them all missed the government marks on King's trappings, or the government brand on the mules, and after a minute or two, when the procession was half-way down the street, a man reproved the child who had thrown a stone, and he was backed up by the others. They classified King correctly, exactly as he meant they should. As a hakim—a man of medicine—he could fill a long-felt want; but by the brand on his accouterments he walked an openly avowed robber, and that made him a brother in crime. Somebody cuffed the next child who picked up a stone.
He knew the street of old, although it had changed perhaps a dozen times since he had seen it. It was a cul-de-sac, and at the end of it, just as on his previous visit, there stood a stone mosque, whose roof leaned back at a steep angle against the mountain-side. The fact that it was a mosque, and that it was the only building used as such in Khinjan, had saved it from being leveled to the ground by the last British expedition.
It was a famous mosque in its way, for the bed-sheet of the Prophet is known to hang in it, preserved against the ravages of time and the touch of infidels by priceless Afghan rugs before and behind, so that it hangs like a great thin sandwich before the rear stone wall. King had seen it. Very vividly he recalled his almost exposure by a suspicious mullah, when be had crept nearer to examine it at close range. For the Secret Service must probe all things.
There had been an attempt since his last visit to make the mosque's exterior look more in keeping with the building's use. It was cleaner. It had been smeared with whitewash. A platform had been built on the roof for the muezzin. But it still looked more like a fort than a place of worship.
Toward it the one-eyed ruffian led the way, with the long, leisurely- seeming gait of a mountaineer. At the door, in the middle of the end of the street, he paused and struck on the lintel three times with his gun-butt. And that was a strange proceeding, to say the least, in a land where the mosque is public resting place for homeless ones, and all the "faithful" have a right to enter.
A mullah, shaven like a mummy for some unaccountable reason—even his eyebrows and eyelashes had been removed—pushed his bare head through the door and blinked at them. There was some whispering and more staring, and at last the mullah turned his back.
The door slammed. The one-eyed guide grounded his gun-butt on the stone, and the procession waited, watched by the crowd that had lost its interest sufficiently to talk and joke.
In two minutes the mullah returned and threw a mat over the threshold. It turned out to be the end of a long narrow strip that he kicked and unrolled in front of him all across the floor of the mosque. After that it was not so astonishing that the horses and mules were allowed to enter.
"Which proves I was right after all!" murmured King to himself.
In a steel box at Simla is a memorandum, made after his former visit to the place, to the effect that the entrance into Khinjan Caves might possibly be inside the mosque. Nobody had believed it likely, and he had not more than half favored it himself; but it is good, even when the next step may lead into a death-trap, to see one's first opinions confirmed.
He nodded to himself as the outer door slammed shut behind them, for that was another most unusual circumstance.
A faint light shone through slit-like windows, changing darkness into gloom, and little more than vaguely hinting at the Prophet's bed-sheet. But for a section of white wall to either side of it, the relic might have seemed part of the shadows. The mullah stood with his back to it and beckoned King nearer. He approached until he could see the pattern on the covering rugs, and the pink rims round the mullah's lashless eyes.
"What is thy desire?" the mullah asked—as a wolf might ask what a lamb wants.
Supposing Yasmini to be jealous of invasion of her realm, King did not doubt she would be glad to have him break down at this point. Until be had actually gained access to her, nobody could reasonably charge her with his safety. If he had been done to death in the Khyber, the sirkar would have known it in a matter of hours. If he were killed here they might never know it.
"Answer!" said the mullah. "What is thy desire?"
"Audience with her!" he answered, and showed the gold bracelet on his wrist.
The red eye-rims of the mullah blinked a time or two, and though he did not salute the bracelet, as others had invariably done, his manner underwent a perceptible change.
"That is proof that she knows thee. What is thy name."
"And thy business?"
"We need thee in Khinjan Caves! But none enter who have not earned right to enter! There is but one key. Name it!"
King drew in his breath. He had hoped Yasmini's talisman would prove to be key enough. The nails his left hand nearly pierced the palm, but he smiled pleasantly.
"He who would enter must slay a man before witnesses in the teeth of written law!" he said.
"I slew an Englishman!" The boast made his blood run cold, but his expression was one of sinful pride.
"Whom? When? Where?"
"Athelstan King—a British arrficer—sent on his way to these 'Hills' to spy!"
It was like having spells cast on himself to order!
"Where is his body?"
"Ask the vultures! Ask the kites!"
"And thy witnesses?"
Hoping against hope, King turned and waved his hand. As he did so, being quick-eyed, he saw Ismail drive an elbow home into Darya Khan's ribs, an caught a quick interchange of whispers.
"These men are all known to me," said the mullah. "They all have right to enter here. They have right to testify. Did ye see him slay his man?"
"Aye!" lied Ismail, prompt as friend can be.
"Aye!" lied Darya Khan, fearful of Ismail's elbow.
"Then, enter!" said the priest resignedly, as one admits a communicant against his better judgment.
He turned his back on them so as to face the Prophet's bed-sheet and the rear wall, and in that minute a hairy hand gripped King's arm from behind, and Ismail's voice hissed hot-breathed in his ear.
"Ready of tongue! Ready of wit! Who told thee I would lie to save thy skin? Be thy kismet as thy courage, then—but I am hers, not thy man! Hers, thou light of life—though God knows I love thee!"
The mullah seized the Prophet's bed-sheet and its covering rugs in both hands, with about as much reverence as salesmen show for what they keep in stock. The whole lot slid to one side by means of noisy rings on a rod, and a wall lay bare, built of crudely cut but very well laid stone blocks. It appeared to reach unbroken across the whole width of the mosque's interior.
On the floor lay a mallet, a peculiar thing of bronze, cast in one piece, handle and all. The mullah took it in his band and struck the stone floor sharply once—then twice again—then three times— then a dozen times in quick succession. The floor rang hollow at that spot.
After about a minute there came one answering hammer-stroke from beyond the wall. Then the mullah laid the mallet down and though King ached to pick it up and examine it he did not dare.
Excitement now was probably the least of his emotions. It had been swallowed in interest. But in his guise of hakim he had to beware of that superficial western carelessness, that permits folk to acknowledge themselves frightened or excited or amused. His business was to attract as little attention to himself as possible; and to that end he folded his hands and looked reverent, as if entering some Mecca of his dreams. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes looked far-away and dreamy. But it would have been a mistake to suppose that a detail was escaping him.
The irregular lines in the masonry began to be more pronounced. All at once the wall shook and they gaped by an inch or two, as happens when an earthquake has shaken buildings without bringing anything down. Then an irregular section of wall began to move quite smoothly away in front of him, leaving a gap through which eight men abreast could have marched.
As it receded be observed that the lowest course stones was laid on a bronze foundation, that keyed in wide bronze grooves. There was oil enough in the grooves to have greased a ship's ways and there neither squeak nor tremor as the tons of masonry slid back.
At the end of perhaps three minutes that section of the wall had become the fourth side of a twenty-foot-wide island that stood fair in the middle of a tunnel, splitting it in two to right and left. Judging by the angle of the two divisions they became one again before going very far.
The mullah stood aside and motioned King to enter. But the one-eyed guide who had led them to the mosque thrust himself between Darya Khan and Ismail, pushed King aside and took the lead.
"Nay!" he said, "I am responsible to her."
It was the first time he had spoken and be appeared to resent the waste of words.
The tunnel that led to the left was pierced in twenty places in the roof for rifle-fire; a score of men with enough ammunition could have held it forever against an army. But the right-hand way looked undefended. Nevertheless, the guide led to the left, and King followed him, filled with curiosity.
"Many have entered!" sang the lashless mullah in a sing-song chant. "More have sought to enter! Some who remained without were wisest! I count them! I keep count! Many went in! Not all came out again by this road!" "Then there is another road?" King wondered, but he held his tongue and followed the guide.
It proved to be fifty yards through part natural, part hand-hewn, tunnel to the neck of the fork where the left—and right-hand passages became one again. He stopped at the fork and looked back, for none of his men was following.
He caught the sound of scuffling of clattering hoofs, and grunts and shouted oaths—and started to run back, since even a native hakim may protect his own, should he care to, even in the "Hills."
For the sake of principle he chose the other passage, for Cocker says, "Look! Look! Look!" But the guide seized him by the arm from behind and swung him back again.
"Not that way!" he growled. But he offered no explanation.
In the "Hills" it is not good to ask "why" of strangers. It is good to he glad one was not knifed, and to be deferent until more suitable occasion. King started to run again, but this time along the same defended passage down which they had come. And now the guide made no objection but leaned on his long gun and waited.
The charger proved to be making the trouble—the horse that King had exchanged with the jezailchi in the Khyber. The terrified brute was refusing to enter the passage, and all the men, including Ismail and the mullah, were shoving, or else tugging at the reins.
At the moment King appeared the united strength of six men was beginning to prevail. The mullah let go the reins, and in that instant the horse saw King advance toward him out of the tunnel; so, after the manner of horses, he chose the other passage. King ran at full speed round the corner after him, remembering that the guide had admitted responsibility, and therefore that the chances were he would be rescued should he run into a trap.
Suddenly, ten yards in the lead down the dark tunnel the horse threw his weight back with a clatter of sparks and screamed as only a horse can. After that there was neither sight nor sound of him.
Creeping forward with both arms outstretched against the left-hand wall, he reached the spot where, the horse had been, and shuddered on the smooth dark edge of a hole that went the full width of the floor. There came whispering up out of it, and a dank wet smell, as if there were running water a mile away below. He could feel that a little air flowed downward into it. Twenty yards away on the far side the path resumed, but there was neither hand nor foothold on the smooth damp walls between. He went back to his men with a shiver between his shoulder-blades, and the mullah, standing in the gap of the mosque wall, blinked at him with lashless eyes.
"Many have entered," be chanted maliciously. "Some went out by a different road!"
"Come!" Ismail growled at the other men, seizing the mule's bridle himself and leading to the left. "The ghosts will have a charger now for their captain to ride! Lead on, Hakim sahib!"
"Come!" called the one-eyed guide from the neck of the fork ahead. And as they all pressed forward after King the hairless mullah gave a signal and the great stone door slid slowly into place. It was like a tombstone. It was as if the world that mortals know were a thing of the forgotten past and the underworld lay ahead. "Lead along, Charon!" King grinned. He needed some sort of pleasantry to steady his nerves. But even so he wondered what the nerves of India would be like if her millions knew of this place.
Oh, Abdul trod with a martial tread, Swinging his scimiter's weight. "I am overlord here," he said, "And he who wishes may chance his head, "For my blade is long, and my arm is strong, "And the goods of the world to the bold belong!" So Abdul guarded the gate.
Many a head did Abdul cleave, Turban and crown and chin, For all the 'venturers sought to know What it could be he guarded so. And since none give but eke receive, A thrust in his ribs made Abdul grieve For good blood outpourin'.
His men wept, watching Abdul bleed And life's light waning dim, Till he cursed them. "Open the fort gate wide! To saddle, and scour the countryside For a leech!" he swore. "God rot ye, ride!" 'Twas thus, in the guise of a friend in need, His enemy came to him.
The second gap closed up behind them and the tunnel began to echo weirdly. The mule was the next to be panic-stricken. The noise of his plunging increased the echoes a thousand times and multiplied his fright, until the poor brute collapsed into meek obedience at last. But the guide strode on unconcerned with his easy Hillman gait, neither deigning to glance back nor making any verbal comment.
Over their heads, at irregular intervals, there were holes that if they led as King presumed into caves above, left not an inch of all the long passage that could not have been swept by rifle-fire. It was impregnable; for no artillery heavy enough to pound the mountain into pieces could ever be dragged within range. Whatever hiding place this entrance guarded could be held forever, given food and cartridges!
The tunnel wound to right and left like a snake, growing lighter and lighter after each bend; and soon their own din began to be swallowed in a greater one that entered from the farther end. After two sharp turns they came out unexpectedly into the blaze of blue day, nearly stunned by light and sound. A road came up from below like that of an ocean in the grip of a typhoon.
When his wits recovered from the shock, King struggled with a wild desire to yell, for before him, was what no servant of British India had ever seen and lived to tell about, and that is an experience more potent than unbroken rum.
They had emerged from a round-mouthed tunnel—it looked already like a rabbit-hole, so huge was the cliff behind—on to a ledge of rock that formed a sort of road along one side of a mile-wide chasm. Above him, it seemed a mile up, was blue sky, to which limestone walls ran sheer, with scarcely a foothold that could be seen. Beneath, so deep that eyes could not guess how deep, yawned the stained gorge of the underworld, many-colored, smooth and wet.
And out of a great, jagged slit in the side of the cliff, perhaps a thousand feet below them, there poured down into thunderous dimness a waterfall whose breadth seemed not less than half a mile. It spouted seventy or eighty yards before it began to curve, and its din was like the voice of all creation.
Ismail came and stood by King in silence, taking his hand, as a little child might. Presently he stooped and picked up a stone and tossed it over.
"Gone!" he said simply. "That down there is Earth's Drink!"
"And this is the 'Heart of the Hills' men boast about?"
"Nay! It is not!" snapped Ismail.
But the one-eyed guide beckoned impatiently, and King led the way after him, staring as hakim or prisoner or any man had right to do on first admission to such wonders. Not to have stared would have been to proclaim himself an idiot.
The least of all the wonders was that the secret of the place should have been kept all down the centuries; for it was the hollow middle of a limestone mountain, that could neither be looked down into from above, because the heights were not scalable, nor guessed at from the conformation of the country. The river, that flowed out of rock and went plunging down into the chasm, must be snow from the Himalayan peaks, on its way to swell the sea. There was no other way to account for that; but that explanation did explain why at least one Indian river is no greater than it is.
The road they followed was a fold in the natural rock, rising and falling and curving like a ribbon, but tending on the average downward. It looked to be about two miles to the point where it curved at the chasm's end and swept round and downward, to be lost in a fissure in the cliff.
They soon began to pass the mouths of caves. Some were above the road, now and then at crazy heights above it, reached by artificial steps hewn out of the stone. Others were below, reached from the road by means of ladders, that trembled and swayed over the dizzying waterfall. Most of the caves were inhabited, for armed men and sullen women came to their entrances to stare.
Ears grow accustomed to the sound of water sooner than to almost anything. It was not long before King's ears could catch the patter of his men's feet following, and the shod clink of the mule. He could hear when Ismail whispered:
"Be brave, little hakim! She loves fearless men."
As the track descended caves became more numerous. In one there were horses, for as they passed there came a whiff of unclean stables, and the litter of fodder and dung was all about the entrance. The mouths of other caves were sealed, with great wax disks, strangely stamped, affixed to stout wooden doors. One cave smelt as if oil were stored in it, and King wondered whence the oil was brought— for the sirkar knows to a pint and an ounce what products travel up and down the Khyber.
At last the guide halted, in the middle of a short steep slope where the path was less than six feet wide and a narrow cave mouth gave directly on to it.
"Be content to rest here!" he said, pointing.
"Thy cave?" asked King.
"Nay. God's! I am the caretaker!"
(The "Hills" are very pious and polite, between the acts of robbing and shedding blood.)
"Allah, then, reward thee, brother!" answered King. "Allah give sight to thy blind eye! Allah give thee children! Allah give thee peace, aud to all thy house!"
The guide salaamed, half-mockingly, half-wondering at such eloquence, pausing in the passage to point into the side-caves that debouched to either hand. There was a niche of a place, where a man might lie on guard near the entrance; another cave in which horses could be stabled, with plenty of fodder piled up ready; another beyond that for servants and baggage, with a fireplace and cooking pots; and at the last at the rear of all a great cavern full of eerie gloom, that opened out from the end of the passage like a bottle at the end of a long neck.
Peering about him into vastness, King became aware of frame beds, placed at intervals in a row, each with a mat beside it. And there were several brass basins and ewers for water. Also there were some little bronze lamps; the guide lit three of them, and King took up one to examine it. As he did so, involuntarily his hand almost went to his bosom, where the strange knife still reposed that he had taken from the would-be murderer in the train to Delhi.
There was no gold on the lamp; but the handle by which he lifted it had been cast, the devils of the Himalayas only knew how many centuries ago, in the form of a woman dancing; her size, and her shape, and the art with which she had been fashioned, were the same as the handle of the knife.
Watching him as a wolf eyes another one, the strange guide found his tongue.
"How many such hast thou ever seen?" he asked.
"None!" answered King, and the guide cackled at him, like a hen that has laid an egg.
"There be many strange things in Khinjan, but few strangers!" he remarked; and then, as if that were enough for any man to say on any occasion, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the cavern. It was the last King ever saw of him. He followed him down the passage to the entrance and watched him until his back disappeared round the first bend, but the man never turned his head once. He did not even look over the edge of the road, down into the amazing waterfall, nor up to the round disk of sky.
King turned back and looked into the other caves—saw the weary horse and mule fed, watered and bedded down—took note of the running water that rushed out of a rock fissure and gurgled out of sight down another one—examined the servants' cave and saw that they had been amply provided with blankets. There was nothing lacking that the most exacting traveler could have demanded at such a distance from civilization. There was more than the most exacting would have dared expect.
"Why isn't it damp in here?" he wondered, returning to his own cave. And then he noticed long fissures in the cavern walls, and that the smoke from the lamps drifted toward them. He could not guess what made it do that, unless it were the suction of the enormous river hurrying underground; and then he remembered that at the entrance air had rushed downward into the hole down which the horse had disappeared, which partly confirmed his guess.
"Ismail!" he shouted, and jumped at the revolver-crack -like echo of his voice.
Ismail came running.
"Make the men carry the mule's packs into this cave. You and Darya Khan stay here and help me open them. Remember, ye are both assistants of Kurram Khan, the hakim!"
"They will laugh at us! They will laugh at us!" clucked Ismail, but he hurried to obey, while King wondered who would laugh.
Within an hour a delegation came from no less a person than Yasmini herself, bearing her compliments, and hot food savory enough to make a brass idol's mouth water. By that time King had his sets of surgical instruments and drugs and bandages all laid out on one of the beds and covered from view by a blanket.
It was only one more proof of the British army's everlasting luck that one of the men, who set the great brass dish of food on the floor near King, had a swollen cheek, and that he should touch the swelling clumsily, as he lifted his hand to shake back a lock of greasy hair.
There followed an oath like flint struck on steel ten times in rapid succession.
"Does it pain thee, brother?" asked Kurram Khan the hakim.
"Are there devils in Tophet! Fire and my veins are one!"
The man did not notice the eagerness beaming out of King's horn- rimmed spectacles, but Ismail did; it seemed to him time to prove his virtues as assistant.
"This is the famous hakim Kurram Khan," he boasted. "He can cure anything, and for a very little fee!"
"Nay, for no fee at all in this case!" said King.
The man looked incredulous, but King drew the covering from his row of instruments and bottles.
"Take a chance!" he advised. "None but the brave wins anything!"
The man sat down, as if he would argue the point at length, but Ismail and Darya Khan were new to the business and enthusiastic. They had him down, held tight on the floor to the huge amusement of the rest, before the man could even protest; and his howls of rage did him no good, for Ismail drove the hilt of a knife between his open jaws to keep them open.
A very large proportion of King's stores consisted of morphia and cocaine. He injected enough cocaine to deaden the man's nerves, and allowed it time to work. Then he drew out three back teeth in quick succession, to make sure he had the right one.
Ismail let the victim up, and Darya Khan gave him water in a brass cup. Utterly without pain for the first time for days, the man was as grateful as a wolf freed from a trap.
"Allah reward thee, since the service was free!" he smirked.
"Are there any others in pain in Khinjan?" King asked him.
"Listen to him! What is Khinjan? Is there one man without a wound or a sore or a scar or a sickness?"
"Then, tell them," said King.
The man laughed.
"When I show my jaw, there will be a fight to be first! Make ready, hakim! I go!"
He was true to his word and left the cave like a gust of wind, followed by the three who had come with him. King sat down to eat, but he had not finished his meal—he had made the last little heap of rice into a ball with his fingers, native style, and was mopping up the last of the curried gravy with it—when the advance guard of the lame and the halt and the sick made its appearance. The cave's entrance became jammed with them, and no riot ever made more noise.
"Hakim! Ho, hakim! Where is the hakim who draws teeth? Where is the man who knows yunani?"
Ten men burst down the passage all together, all clamoring, and one man wasted no time at all but began to tear away bloody bandages to show his wound. The hardest thing now was to get and keep some kind of order, and for ten minutes Ismail and Darya Khan labored, using threats where argument failed, and brute force when they dared. It was like beating mad hounds from off their worry. What established order at last was that King rolled up his sleeves and began, so that eagerness gave place to wonder. The "Hills" are not squeamish in any one particular; so that the fact that the cave became a shambles upset nobody. The surgeon's thrill that makes even half-amateurs oblivious of all but the work in hand, coupled with the desperate need of winning this first trick, made King horror-proof; and nobody waiting for the next turn was troubled because the man under the knife screamed a little or bled more than usual.
When they died—and more than one did die—men carried them out and flung them over the precipice into the waterfall below.
Ismail and Darya Khan became choosers of the victims. They seized a man, laid him on the bed, tore off his disgusting bandages and held their breath until the awful resulting stench had more or less dispersed. Then King would probe or lance or bandage as he saw fit, using anaesthetics when he must, but managing mostly without them.
They almost flung money at him. Few of them asked what his fee would be. Those who had no money brought him shawls, and swords, and even clothing. Two or three brought old-fashioned fire-arms; but they were men who did not expect to live. And King accepted every gift without comment, because that was in keeping with the part be played. He tossed money and clothes and every other thing they gave him into a corner at the back of the cave, and nobody tried to steal them back, although a man suspected of honesty in that company would have been tortured to death as an heretic and would have had no sympathy.
For hour after gruesome hour he toiled over wounds and sores such as only battles and evil living can produce, until men began to come at last with fresh wounds, all caused by bullets, wrapped in bandages on which the blood had caked but had not grown foul.
"There has been fighting in the Khyber," somebody, informed him, and he stopped with lancet in mid-air to listen, scanning a hundred faces swiftly in the smoky lamplight. There were ten men who held lamps for him, one of them a newcomer, and it was he who spoke.
"Fighting in the Khyber! Aye! We were a little lashkar, but we drove them back into their fort! Aye! we slew many!"
"Not a jihad yet?" King asked, as if the world might be coming to an end. The words were startled out of him. Under other circumstances he would never have asked that question so directly; but he had lost reckoning of everything but these poor devils' dreadful need of doctoring, and he was like a man roused out of a dream. If a holy war had been proclaimed already, then he was engaged on a forlorn hope. But the man laughed at him.
"Nay, not yet. Bull-with-a-beard holds back yet. This was a little fight. The jihad shall come later!"
"And who is 'Bull-with-a-beard'?" King wondered; but he did not ask that question because his wits were awake again. It pays not to be in too much of a hurry to know things in the "Hills."
As it happened, he asked no more questions, for there came a shout at the cave entrance whose purport he did not catch, and within five minutes after that, without a word of explanation, the cave was left empty of all except his own five men. They carried away the men too sick to walk and vanished, snatching the last man away almost before King's fingers had finished tying the bandage on his wound. "Why is that?" he asked Ismail. "Why did they go? Who shouted?"
"It is night," Ismail answered. "It was time."
King stared about him. He had not realized until then that without aid of the lamps he could not see his own hand held out in front of him; his eyes had grown used to the gloom, like those of the surgeons in the sick-bays below the water line in Nelson's fleet.
"But who shouted?"
"Who knows? There is only one here who gives orders. We be many who obey," said Ismail.
"Whose men were the last ones?" King asked him, trying a new line.
"And whose man art thou, Ismail?"
The Afridi hesitated, and when he spoke at last there was not quite the same assurance in his voice as once there had been.
"I am hers! Be thou hers, too! But it is night. Sleep against the toil tomorrow. There be many sick in Khinjan."
King made a little effort to clean the cave, but the task was hopeless. For one thing he was so weary that his very bones were water; for another, Ismail pretended to be equally tired, and when the suggestion that they should help was put to the others they claimed their izzat indignantly. Izzat and sharm (honor and shame) are the two scarcely distinguishable enemies of honest work, into whose teeth it takes both nerve and resolution to drive a Hillman at the best of times. Nerve King had, but his resolution was asleep. He was too tired to care.
He appointed them to two-hour watches, to relieve one another until dawn, and flung himself on a clean bed. He was asleep before his head had met the pillow; and for all he knew to the contrary he dreamed of Yasmini all night long.
It seemed to him that she came into the cave—she the woman of the faded photograph the general had given him in Peshawur—and that the cave became filled with the strange intoxicating scent that had first wooed his senses in her reception room in Delhi.
He dreamed that she called him by name. First, "King sahib!" Then, "Kurram Khan!" And her voice was surprisingly familiar. But dreams are strange things.
"He sleeps!" said the same voice presently. "It is good that he sleeps!" And in his sleep he thought that a shadowy Ismail grunted an answer.
After that he was very sure in his dream that it was good to sleep, although a voice he did not recognize and that he was quite sure was a dream-voice, kept whispering to him to wake up and protect himself.
But the scent grew stronger, and he began to dream of cobras, that danced with a woman and struck at her so swiftly that she had to become two women in order to avoid them; and Rewa Gunga came and laughed at both and called them amateurs, so that the woman became enraged and drew a bronze-bladed dagger with a golden hilt.
Then intelligible dreams ceased altogether, and he, slept like a dead man, but with a vague suggestion ever with him that Yasmini was not very far away, and that she was interested in him to a point that was actually embarrassing. It was like the ether-dream he once dreamt in a hospital.
When he awoke at last it was after dawn, and light shone down the passage into his cave. "Ismail!" he shouted, for he was thirsty. But there was no answer.
Again there was no answer. He called each of the other men by name with the same result.
He got up and realized then for the first time that he had not undressed himself the night before. His head felt heavy, and although he did not believe he had been drugged, there was a scent he half-recognized that permeated the cave, and even overcame the dreadful atmosphere that the sick of yesterday had left behind. He decided to go to the cave mouth, summon his men, who were no doubt sleeping as he had done, sniff the fresh air outside and come back to try the scent again; he would know then whether his nose were deceiving him.
But there was no Ismail near the entrance—no Darya Khan—nor any of the other men. The horse was gone. So was the mule. So was the harness, and everything he had, except the drugs and instruments and the presents the sick had given him; he had noticed all those still lying about in confusion when he woke.
"Ismail!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, thinking they might all be outside.
He heard a man hawk and spit, close to the entrance, and went out to see. A man whom he had never seen before leaned on a magazine rifle and eyed him as a tiger eyes its prey.
"No farther!" he growled, bringing his rifle to the port.
"Why not?" King asked him.
"Allah! When a camel dies in the Khyber do the kites ask why? Go in!"
He thought then of Yasmini's bracelet, that always gained him at least civility from every man who saw it. He held up his left wrist and knew that instant why it felt uncomfortable. The bracelet has disappeared!
He turned back into the cave to hunt for it, and the strange scent greeted him again. In spite of the surrounding stench of drugs and filthy wounds, there was no mistaking it. If it had been her special scent in Delhi, as Saunders swore it was, and her special scent on the note Darya Khan had carried down the Khyber, then it was hers now, and she had been in the cave.