He hunted high and low and found no bracelet.
His pistol was gone, too, and his cartridges, but not the dagger, wrapped in a handkerchief, under his shirt. The money, that his patients had brought him, lay on the floor untouched. It was an unusual robber who had robbed him.
At least once in his life (or he were not human, but an angel) it dawns on a man that he has done the unforgivable. It dawns on most men oftener than once a week. So men learn sympathy.
"I should have been awake to change the guard every two hours!" he admitted, sitting on the bed. "I wouldn't hesitate to shoot another man for that—or for less!"
He let the thought sink in, until the very lees of shame tasted like ashes in his mouth. Then, being what he was,—and there are not very many men good enough to shoulder what lay ahead of him—he set the whole affair behind him as part of the past and looked forward.
"Who's 'Bull-with-a-beard'?" he wondered. "Nobody interfered with me until I doctored his men. He's in opposition. That's a fair guess. Now, who in thunder—by the fat lord Harry—can 'Bull-with- a-beard' be? And why fighting in the Khyber so early as all this? And why does 'Bull-with-a-beard,' whoever he is, hang back?"
Are jackals a tiger's friends because they flatter him and eat his leavings? Choose, ye with stripes and proud whiskers, choose between friend and enemy. —-Native Proverb
They came and changed the guard two hours after dawn, to the accompaniment of a lot of hawking and spitting, orders growled through the mist, and the crash of rifle-butts grounding on the rock path. King went to the cave entrance, to look the new man over; but because he was in Khinjan, and Khinjan in the "Hills," where indirectness is the key to information, he stood for a while at gaze, listening to the thunder of tumbling water and looking at the cliff-edge six feet away that was laid like a knife in the ascending mist.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the new man was a Mahsudi—no sweeter to look at and no less treacherous for the fact. Also, that he had boils all over the back of his neck. He was not likely to be better tempered because of that fact, either. But it is an ill wind that blows no good to the Secret Service.
"There is an end to everything," he remarked presently, addressing the world at large, or as much as he could see of it through the cave mouth. "A hill is so high, a pool so deep, a river so wide. How long, for instance, must thy watch be?"
"What is that to thee?" the fellow growled.
"There is an end to pain!" said King, adjusting his horn-rimmed spectacles. "I lanced a man's boils last night, and it hurt him, but he must be well to-day."
"Get in!" growled the guard. "She says it is sorcery! She says none are to let thee touch them!"
Plainly, he was in no receptive mood; orders had been spat into his hairy ear too recently.
"Get in!" he growled, lifting his rifle-butt as if to enforce the order.
"I can heal boils!" said King, retiring into the cave. Then, from a safe distance down the passage, he added a word or two to sink in as the hours went by.
"It is good to be able to bend the neck without pain and to rest easily at night! It is good not to flinch at another's touch. Boils are bad! Healing is easy and good!"
Then, since a quarrel was the very last thing he was looking for, he retired into his own gloomy quarters at the rear, taking care to sit so that he could see and overhear what passed at the entrance. Among other things in the course of the day he noticed that the watch was changed every four hours and that there were only three men in the guard, for the same man was back again that evening.
At intervals throughout the day Yasmini sent him food by silent messengers; so he ate, for "the thing to do," says Cocker, "is the first that comes to hand, and the thing not to do is worry." It is not easy to worry and eat heartily at one and the same time. Having eaten, he rolled up his sleeves and native-made cotton trousers and proceeded to clean the cave. After that he overhauled his stock of drugs and instruments, repacking them and making ready against opportunity.
"As I told that heathen with a gun out there, there's an end to everything!" he reflected. "May this come soon!"
When they changed the guard that afternoon he had grown weary of his own company and of fruitless speculation and was pacing up and down. The second guard proved even less communicative than the first, up to the point when, to lessen his ennui, King began to whistle. Because a Secret Service man must be consistent, the tune was not English, but a weird minor one to which the "Hills" have set their favorite love song (that is, all about hate in the concrete!).
The echo of the waterfall within the cave was like the roaring in a shell held to the ear, but each time he came near the entrance the new guard could catch a few bars of the tune. After a little while the hook-nosed ruffian began to sing the words to it, in a voice like a forgotten dog's.
So he stopped at the entrance and changed the tune. And the guard sang the words of the new tune, too. After that he came out into the light of day (direct sunlight was cut off by the huge height of the cliffs all around) and leaned in the entrance, smiling.
"Allah preserve thee, brother!" he remarked. "Thine is a voice like a warrior's—bold and big! Thou art a true son of the Prophet!"
"Aye!" said the fellow, "that I am! Allah preserve thee, for thou hast more need of it than I, although I guard thee just at present. Whistle me another one!"
So King whistled the refrain of a song that boasts of an Afghan invasion of India, and of the loot that came of it, and the prisoners, and the women—particularly the women, mentioning more than a few of them by name, and their charms in detail. It was a song to warm the very cockles of a Hillman's heart. Nothing could have been better chosen for that setting, of a cave mouth half-way down the side of a gash in earth's wildest mountains, with the blue sky resting on a jagged rim a mile above.
"Good!" said the bearded jailer. "Now begin again and I will sing!"
He threw his head back and howled until the mountain walls rang with the song, and other men in far-off caves took it up and howled it back at him. When he left off singing at last, to drink from a water-bottle, that surely had been looted from a British soldier, King decided to be done with overtures and make the next move in the game.
"Didst thou ever sing for her?" he asked, and the man turned round to stare at him as if he were mad, King saw then a blood-soaked bandage on the right of his neck, not very far from the jugular.
"When she sings we are silent! When she is silent it is good to wait a while and see!" he answered
"Hah!" said King. "Was that wound got in the Khyber the other day?"
"Nay. Here in Khinjan. I had my thumb in a man's eye, and the bastard bit me! May devils do worse to him where he has gone! I threw him into Earth's Drink!"
"A good place for one's enemies!" laughed King.
"A man told me last night," said King, drawing on imagination without any compunction at all, "that the fight in the Khyber was because a jihad is launched aleady."
"That man lied!" said the guard, shifting position uneasily, as if afraid to talk too much. "So I told him!" answered King. "I told him there never will be another jihad."'
"Then art thou a greater liar than he!" the guard answered hotly. "There will be a jihad when she is ready, such an one as never yet was! India shall bleed for all the fat years she has lain unplundered! Not a throat of an unbeliever in the world shall be left un-slit! No jihad? Thou liar! Get in out of my sight!"
So King retired into the cave, with something new to think about. Was she planning the jihad! Or pretending to plan one? Every once in a while the guard leaned far into the cave mouth and buried adjectives at him, the mildest of which was a well of information. If his temper was the temper of the "Hills," it was easy to read disappointment for a jihad that should have been already but had been postponed.
When they changed the guard again the new man proved surly. There was no getting a word out of him. He showed dirty yellow teeth in a wolfish snarl, and his only answer was a lifted rifle and a crooked forefinger. King let him alone and paced the cave for hours.
He was squatting on his bed-end in the dark, like a spectacled image of Buddha, when the first of the three men came on guard again and at last Ismail came for him holding a pitchy torch that filled the dim passage full of acrid smoke and made both of them, cough. Ismail was red-eyed with it.
"Come!" he growled. "Come, little hakim!" Then he turned on his heel at once, as if afraid of being twitted with desertion. He seemed to want to get outside, where he could keep out of range of words, yet not to wish to seem unfriendly.
But King made no effort to speak to him, following in silence out on to the dark ledge above the waterfall and noticing that the guard with the boils was back again on duty. He grinned evilly out of a shadow as King passed.
"Make an end!" he advised, spitting over the Cliff into thunderous darkness to illustrate the suggestion. "Jump, hakim, before a worse thing happens!"
To add further point be kicked a loose stone over the edge, and the movement caused him to bend his neck and so inadvertently to hurt his boils. He cursed, and there was pity in King's voice when he spoke next.
"Do they hurt thee?"
"Aye, like the devil! Khinjan is a place of plagues!"
"I could heal them," King said, passing on, and the man stared hard.
"Come!" boomed Ismail through the darkness, shaking the torch to make it burn better and beckoning impatiently, and King hurried after him, leaving behind a savage at the cave mouth who fingered his sores and wondered, muttering, leaning on a rifle, muttering and muttering again as if he had seen a new light.
Instead of waiting for King to catch up, Ismail began to lead the way at great speed along a path that descended gradually until it curved round the end of the chasm and plunged into a tunnel where the darkness grew opaque. In the tunnel the torch's smoke cast weird shadows on walls and roof, and the fitful light only confused, so that Ismail slowed down and let him come up close.
Then for thirty minutes he led swiftly down a crazy devil's stairway of uneven boulders, stopping to lend a hand at the worst places, but everlastingly urging him to hurry. They were both breathless, and King was bruised in a dozen places when they reached level going at least six or seven hundred feet below the cave from which they started.
Then the hell-mouth gloom began to grow faintly luminous, and the waterfall's thunder burst on their ears from close at hand. They emerged into fresh wet air and a sea of sound, on a rock ledge like the one above. Ismail raised the torch and waved it. The fire and smoke wandered up, until they flattened on a moving opal dome, that prisoned all the noises in the world.
"Earth's Drink!" he announced, waving the torch and then shutting his mouth tight, as if afraid to voice sacrilege.
It was the river, million-colored in the torch-light, pouring from a half-mile-long slash in the cliff above them and plunging past them through the gloom toward the very middle of the world. Its width was a matter of memory, and its depth unguessable, for although dim moonlight filtered through it, he did not know where the moon was, nor how far such light could penetrate through moving water. Somewhere it met rock-bottom and boiled there, for a roar like the sea's came up from deeps unimaginable.
He watched the overturning dome until his senses reeled. Then he crawled on hands and knees to the ledge's brink and tried to peer over. But Ismail dragged him back.
"Come!" he howled; but in all that din his shout was like a whisper.
"How deep is it?" King bellowed back.
"Allah! Ask Him who made it!"
The fear of the falls was on the Afridi, and he tugged at King's arm in a frenzy of impatience. Suddenly he let go and broke into a run. King trotted after him, afraid too, to look to right or left, lest the fear should make him throw himself over the brink. The thunder and the hugeness had their grip on him and had begun to numb his power to think and his will to be a man. Suddenly when they had run a hundred yards, Ismail turned sharp to the right into a tunnel that led straight back into the cliff and sloped uphill. As the din of the falls grew less behind him and his power to think returned, King calculated that they must be following the main direction of the river bed, but edging away gradually to the right of it. After ten minutes' hurrying uphill he guessed they must be level with the river, in a tunnel running nearly parallel.
He proved to be right, for they came to a gap in the wall, and Ismail thrust the torch through it. The light shone on swift black water, and a wind rushed through the gap that nearly blew the torch out. It accounted altogether for the dryness of the rock and the fresh air in the tunnel. The river's weight seemed to suck a hurricane along with it—air enough for a million men to breathe.
After that there was no more need to stop at intervals and beat the torch against the wall to make it burn brightly, for the wind fanned it until the flame was nearly white. Ismail kept looking back to bid King hurry and never paused once to rest.
"Come!" be urged fiercely. "This leads to the 'Heart of the Hills'!" And after that King had to do his best to keep the Afridi's back in sight.
They began after a time to hear voices and to see the smoky glare made by other torches. Then Ismail set the pace yet faster, and they became the last two of a procession of turbaned men, who tramped along a winding tunnel into a great mountain's womb. The sound of slippers clicking and rutching on the rock floor swelled and died and swelled again as the tunnel led from cavern into cavern.
In one great cave they came to every man beat out his torch and tossed it on a heap. The heap was more than shoulder high, and three parts covered the floor of the cave. After that there was a ledge above the height of a man's head on either side of the tunnel, and along the ledge little oil-burning lamps were spaced at measured intervals. They looked ancient enough to have been there when the mountain itself was born, and although all the brass ones suggested Indian and Hindu origin, there were others among them of earthenware that looked like plunder from ancient Greece.
It was like a transposition of epochs. King felt already as if the twentieth century had never existed, just as he seemed to have left life behind for good and all when the mosque door had closed on him.
A quarter of a mile farther along the tunnel opened into another, yet greater cave, and there every man kicked off his slippers, without seeming to trouble how they lay; they littered the floor unarranged and uncared for, looking like the cast-off wing-cases of gigantic beetles.
After that cave there were two sharp turns in the tunnel, and then at last a sea of noise and a veritable blaze of light.
Part of the noise made King feel homesick, for out of the mountain's very womb brayed a music-box, such as the old-time carousels made use of before the days of electricity and steam. It was being worked by inexpert hands, for the time was something jerky; but it was robbed of its tinny meanness and even majesty by the hugeness of a cavern's roof, as well as by the crashing, swinging march it played— wild -wonderful—invented for lawless hours and a kingless people.
The procession began to tramp in time to it, and the rock shook. They deployed to left and right into a space so vast that the eye at first refused to try to measure it. It was the hollow core of a mountain, filled by the sea-sound of a human crowd and hung with huge stalactites that danced and shifted and flung back a thousand colors at the flickering light below.
There was an undertone to the clangor of the music-box and the human hum, for across the cavern's farther end for a space of two hundred yards the great river rushed, penned here into a deep trough of less than a tenth its normal width—plunging out of a great fanged gap and hurrying out of view down another one, licking smooth banks on its way with a hungry sucking sound. Its depth where it crossed the cavern's end could only be guessed by remembering the half-mile breadth of the waterfall.
There were little lamps everywhere, perched on ledges amid the stalactites, and they suffused the whole cavern in golden glow, made the crowd's faces look golden and cast golden shimmers on the cold, black river bed. There was scarcely any smoke, for the wind that went like a storm down the tunnel seemed to have its birth here; the air was fresh and cool and never still. No doubt fresh air was pouring in continually through some shaft in the rock, but the shaft was invisible.
In the midst of the cavern a great arena had been left bare, and thousands of turbaned men squatted round it in rings. At the end where the river formed a tangent to them the rings were flattened, and at that point they were cut into by the ramp of a bridge, and by a lane left to connect the bridge with the arena. The bridge was almost the most wonderful of all.
So delicately formed that fairies might have made it with a guttered candle, it spanned the river in one splendid sweep, twenty feet above water, like a suspension bridge. Then, so light and graceful that it scarcely seemed to touch anything at all, it swept on in irregular arches downward to the arena and ceased abruptly as if shorn off by a giant ax, at a point less than half-way to it.
Its end formed a nearly square platform, about fourteen feet above the floor, and the broad track thence to the arena, as well as all the arena's boundary, had been marked off by great earthenware lamps, whose greasy smoke streaked up and was lost by the wind among the stalactites.
"Greek lamps, every one of 'em!" King whispered to himself, but he wasted no time just then on trying to explain how Greek lamps had ever got there. There was too much else to watch and wonder at.
No steps led down from the bridge end to the floor; toward the arena it was blind. But from the bridge's farther end across the hurrying water stairs had been hewn out of the rock wall and led up to a hole of twice a man's height, more than fifty feet above water level.
On either side of the bridge end a passage had been left clear to the river edge, and nobody seemed to care to invade it, although it was not marked off in any way. Each passage was about fifty feet wide and quite straight. But the space between the bridge end and the arena, and the arena itself, had to be kept free from trespassers by fifty swaggering ruffians armed to the teeth.
Every man of the thousands there had a knife in evidence, but the arena guards had magazine rifles well as Khyber tulwars. Nobody else wore firearms openly. Some of the arena guards bore huge round shields of prehistoric pattern of a size and sort he had never seen before, even in museums. But there was very little that he was seeing that night of a kind that he had seen before anywhere!
The guards lolled insolently, conscious of brute strength and special favor. When any man trespassed with so much as a toe beyond the ring of lamps, a guard would slap his rifle-butt until the swivels rattled and the offender would scurry into bounds amid the jeers of any who had seen.
Shoving, kicking and elbowing with set purpose, Ismail forced a way through the already seated crowd, and drew King down into the cramped space beside him, close enough to the arena to be able to catch the guards' low laughter. But he was restless. He wished to get nearer yet, only there seemed no room anywhere in front.
The music-box was hidden. King could see it nowhere. Five minutes after he and Ismail were seated it stopped playing. The hum of the crowd died too.
Then a guard threw his shield down with a clang and deliberately fired his rifle at the roof. The ricocheting bullet brought down a shower of splintered stone and stalactite, and he grinned as he watched the crowd dodge to avoid it. Before they had done dodging and while he yet grinned, a chant began—ghastly—tuneless—so out of time that the words were not intelligible—yet so obvious in general meaning that nobody could hear it and not understand.
It was a devils' anthem, glorifying hellishness—suggestive of the gnashing of a million teeth, and the whicker of drawn blades—more shuddersome and mean than the wind of a winter's night. And it ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
Another ruffian fired at the roof, and while the crack of the shot yet echoed seven other of the arena guards stepped forward with long horns and blew a blast. That was greeted by a yell that made the cavern tremble.
Instantly a hundred men rose from different directions and raced for the arena, each with a curved sword in either hand. The yelling changed back into the chant, only louder than before, and by that much more terrible. Cymbals crashed. The music-box resumed its measured grinding of The Marseillaise. And the hundred began an Afridi sword dance, than which there is nothing wilder in all the world. Its like can only be seen under the shadow of the "Hills."
Ismail put his hands together and howled through them like a wolf on the war-path, nudging King with an elbow. So King imitated him, although one extra shout in all that din seemed thrown away.
The dancers pranced in a circle, each man whirling both swords around his head and the head of the man in front of him at a speed that passed belief. Their long black hair shook and swayed. The sweat began to pour from them until their arms and shoulders glistened. The speed increased. Another hundred men leaped in, forming a new ring outside the first, only facing the other way. Another hundred and fifty formed a ring outside them again, with the direction again reversed; and two hundred and fifty more formed an outer circle— all careering at the limit of their power, gasping as the beasts do in the fury of fighting to the death, slitting the air until it whistled, with swords that missed human heads by immeasurable fractions of an inch.
Ismail seemed obsessed by the spirit of hell let loose—drawn by it, as by a magnet, although subsequent events proved him not to have been altogether without a plan. He got up, with his eyes fixed on the dance, and dragged King with him to a place ten rows nearer the arena, that had been vacated by a dancer. There—two, where there was only rightly room for one—he thrust himself and King next to some Orakzai Pathans, elbowing savagely to right and left to make room. And patience proved scarce. The instant oaths of anything but greeting were like overture to a dog fight.
"Bismillah!" swore the nearest man, deigning to use intelligible sentences at last. "Shall a dog of an Afridi bustle me?"
He reached for the ever-ready Pathan knife, and Ismail, with both eyes on the dancing, neither heard nor saw. The Pathan leaned past King to stab, but paused in the instant that his knife licked clear. From a swift side-glance at King's face be changed to full stare, his scowl slowly giving place to a grin as he recognized him.
He drove the long blade back again, fidgeting about to make more room and kicking out at his next neighbor to the same end, so that presently King sat on the rock floor instead of on other men's hip-bones. "Well met, hakim! See—the wound heals finely!"
Baring his shoulder under the smelly sheepskin coat, he lifted a bandage gingerly to show the clean opening out of which King had coaxed a bullet the day before. It looked wholesome and ready to heal.
"Name thy reward, hakim! We Orakzai Pathans forget no favors!" (Now that boast was a true one.)
King glanced to his left and saw that there was no risk of being overheard or interrupted by Ismail; the Afridi was beating his fists together, rocking from side to side in frenzy, and letting out about one yell a minute that would have curdled a wolf's heart.
"Nay, I have all I need!" he answered, and the Pathan laughed.
"In thine own time, hakim! Need forgets none of us!"
"True!" said King.
He nodded more to himself than to the other man. He needed, for instance, very much to know who was planning a jihad, and who "Bull- with-a-beard" might be; but it was not safe to confide just yet in a chance-made acquaintance. A very fair acquaintance with some phases of the East had taught him that names such as Bull-with-a- beard are often almost photographically descriptive. He rose to his feet to look. A blind man can talk, but it takes trained eyes to gather information.
The din had increased, and it was safe to stand up and stare, because all eyes were on the madness in the middle. There were plenty besides himself who stood to get a better view, and he had to dodge from side to side to see between them.
"I'm not to doctor his men. Therefore it's a fair guess that he and I are to be kept apart. Therefore he'll be as far away from me now as possible, supposing he's here."
Reasoning along that line, he tried to see the face on the far side, but the problem was to see over th dancers' heads. He succeeded presently, for the Orakzai Pathan saw what he wanted, and in his anxiety to be agreeable, reached forward to pull back a box from between the ranks in front.
Its owners offered instant fight, but made no further objection when they saw who wanted it and why. King wondered at their sudden change of mind, the Pathan looked actually grieved that a fight should have been spared him. He tried, with a few barbed insults, to rearouse a spark of enmity, but failed, to his own great discontent.
The box was a commonplace affair, built square, of pine, and had probably contained somebody's new helmet at one stage of its career. The stenciled marks on its sides and top had long ago become obliterated by wear and dirt.
King got up on it and gazed long at the rows of spectators on the far side, and having no least notion what to look for, he studied the faces one by one.
"If he's important enough for her to have it in for him, he'll not be far from the front," he reasoned and with that in mind he picked out several bull-necked, bearded men, any one of whom could easily have answered to the description. There were too many of them to give him any comfort, until the thought occurred to him that a man with brains enough to be a leader would not be so obsessed and excited by mere prancing athleticism as those men were. Then he looked farther along the line. He found a man soon who was not interested in the dancing, but who had eyes and ears apparently for everything and everybody else. He watched him for ten minutes, until at last their eyes met. Then he sat down and kicked the box back to its owners.
He looked again at Ismail. With teeth clenched and eyes ablaze, the Afridi was smashing his knuckles together and rocking to and fro. There was no need to fear him. He turned and touched the Pathan's broad shoulder. The man smiled and bent his turbaned head to listen.
"Opposite," said King, "nearly exactly opposite—three rows back from the front, counting the front row as one—there sits a man with his arm in a sling and a bandage over his eye."
The Pathan nodded and touched his knife-hilt.
"One-and-twenty men from him, counting him as one, sits a man with a big black beard, whose shoulders are like a bull's. As he sits he hangs his head between them—thus."
"And you want him killed? Nay, I think you mean Muhammad Anim. His time is not yet."
The suggestion was as good-naturedly prompt as if the hakim's need had been water, and the other's flask were empty. He was sorry he could not offer to oblige.
"Who am I that I should want him killed?" King answered with mild reproof. "My trade is to heal, not slay. I am a hakim."
The other nodded.
"Yet, to enter Khinjan Caves you had to slay a man, hakim or no!"
"He was an unbeliever," King answered modestly, and the other nodded again with friendly understanding. "What about the man yonder, then?" the Pathan asked. "What will you have of him?"
"Look! See! Tell me truly what his name is!"
The Pathan got up and strode forward to stand on the box, kicking aside the elbows that leaned on it and laughing when the owners cursed him. He stood on it and stared for five minutes, counting deliberately three times over, striking a finger on the palm of his hand to check himself.
"Bull-with-a-beard!" he announced at last, dropping back into place beside King. "Muhammad Anim. The mullah Muhammad Anim."
"An Afghan?" King asked.
"He says he is an Afghan. But unless he lies he is from Isbtamboul (Constantinople)."
Itching to ask more questions, King sat still and held his peace. The direr the need of information in the "Hills," and in all the East for that matter, the greater the wisdom, as a rule, of seeming uninquisitive. And wisdom was rewarded now, for the Pathan, who would have dried up under eager questioning, grew talkative. Civility and volubility are sometimes one, and not always only among the civilized. King—the hakim Kurram Khan—blinked mildly behind his spectacles and looked like one to whom a savage might safely ease his mind.
"He bade me go to Sikaram where my village is and bring him a hundred men for his lashkar. He says he has her special favor. Wait and watch, I say!
"Has he money?" asked King, apparently drawing a bow at a venture for conversation's sake. But there is an art in asking artless questions.
"Aye! The liar says the Germans gave it to him! He swears they will send more. Who are the Germans? Who is a man who talks of a jihad that is to be, that he should have gold coin given him by unbelievers? I saw a German once, at Nuklao. He ate pig-meat and washed it down with wine. Are such men sons of the Prophet? Wait and watch, say I!"
"Money?" said King. "He admits it? And none dare kill him for it? You say his time is not yet come?"
More than ever it was obvious that the hakim was a very simple man. The Pathan made a gesture of contempt.
"I dare what I will, hakim! But he says there is more money on the way! When he has it all—why—we are all in Allah's keeping— He decides!"
"And should no more money come?"
This was courteous conversation and received as such—many a long league removed from curiosity.
"Who am I to foretell a man's kismet? I know what I know, and I think what I think! I know thee, hakim, for a gentle fellow, who hurt me almost not at all in the drawing of a bullet out of my flesh. What knowest thou about me?"
"That I will dress the wound for thee again!"
Artless statements are as useful in their way as artless questions. Let the guile lie deep, that is all.
"Nay, nay! For she said nay! Shall I fall foul of her, for the sake of a new bandage?"
The temptation was terrific to ask why she had given that order, but King resisted it; and presently it occurred to the Pathan that his own theories on the subject might be of interest.
"She will use thee for a reward," he said. "He who shall win and keep her favor may have his hurts dressed and his belly dosed. Her enemies may rot." "Who is fool enough to be her enemy?" asked King, the altogether mild and guileless.
The Pathan stuck out his tongue and squezed his nose with one finger until it nearly disappeared into his face.
"If she calls a man enemy, how shall he prove otherwise?" he answered. Then he rolled off center, to pull out his great snuff-box from the leather bag at his waist.
"Does she call the mullah Muhammad Anim enemy?" King asked him.
"Nay, she never mentions him by name."
"Art thou a man of thy word?" King asked.
"When it suits me."
"There was a promise regarding my reward."
"Name it, hakim! We will see."
"Go tell the mullah Muhammad Anim where I sit!"
The fellow laughed. He considered himself tricked; one could read that plainly enough; for taking polite messages does not come within the Hills' elastic code of izzat, although carrying a challenge is another matter. Yet he felt grateful for the hakim's service and was ready to seize the first cheap means of squaring the indebtedness.
"Keep my place!" he ordered, getting up. He growled it, as some men speak to dogs, because growling soothed his ruffled vanity.
He helped himself noisily to snuff then and began to clear a passage, kicking out to right and left and laughing when his victims protested. Before he had traversed fifty yards he had made himself more enemies than most men dare aspire to in a lifetime, and he seemed well pleased with the fruit of his effort.
The dance went on for fifteen minutes yet, but then—quite unexpectedly— all the arena guards together fired a volley at the roof, and the dance stopped as if every dancer had been hit. The spectators were set surging by the showers of stone splinters, that hurt whom they struck, and their snarl was like a wolf-pack's when a tiger interferes. But the guards thought it all a prodigious joke and the more the crowd swore the more they laughed.
Panting—foaming at the mouth, some of them—the dancers ran to their seats and set the crowd surging again, leaving the arena empty of all but the guards. The man whose seat Ismail had taken came staggering, slippery with sweat, and squeezed himself where he belonged, forcing King into the Pathan's empty place. Ismail threw his arms round the man and patted him, calling him "mighty dancer," "son of the wind," "prince of prancers," "prince of swordsmen," "war-horse," and a dozen more endearing epithets. The fellow lay back across Ismail's knees, breathless but well enough contented.
And after a few more minutes the Orakzai Pathan came back, and King tried to make room for him to sit.
"I bade thee keep my place!" he growled, towering over King and plucking at his knife-belt irresolutely. He made it clear without troubling to use words that any other man would have had to fight, and the hakim might think himself lucky.
"Take my seat," said King, struggling to get up.
"Nay, nay—sit still, thou. I can kick room for myself. So! So! So!"
There was an answering snarl of hate that seemed like a song to him, amid which he sat down.
"The mullah Muhammad Anim answered he knows nothing of thee and cares less! He said—and he said it with vehemence—it is no more to him where a hakim sits than where the rats hide!"
He watched King's face and seeing that, King allowed his facial muscles to express chagrin.
"Between us, it is a poor time for messages to him. He is too full of pride that his lashkar should have beaten the British."
"Did they beat the British greatly?" King asked him, with only vague interest on his face and a prayer inside him that his heart might flutter less violently against his ribs. His voice was as non-committal as the mullah's message.
"Who knows, when so many men would rather lie than kill? Each one who returned swears he slew a hundred. But some did not return. Wait and watch, say I!"
Now a man stood up near the edge of the crowd whom King recognized; and recognition brought no joy with it. The mullah without hair or eyelashes, who had admitted him and his party through the mosque into the Caves, strode out to the middle of the arena all alone, strutting and swaggering. He recalled the man's last words and drew no consolation from them, either.
"Many have entered! Some went out by a different road!"
Cold chills went down his back. All at once Ismail's manner became unencouraging. He ceased to make a fuss over the dancer and began to eye King sidewise, until at last he seemed unable to contain the malice that would well forth.
"At the gate there were only words!" he whispered. "Here in this cavern men wait for proof!"
He licked his teeth suggestively, as a wolf does when he contemplates a meal. Then, as an afterthought, as though ashamed, "I love thee! Thou art a man after my own heart! But I am her man! Wait and see!"
The mullah in the arena, blinking with his lashless eyes, held both arms up for silence in the attitude of a Christian priest blessing a congregation. The guards backed his silent demand with threatening rifles. The din died to a hiss of a thousand whispers, and then the great cavern grew still, and only the river could be heard sucking hungrily between the smooth stone banks.
"God is great!" the mullah howled.
"God is great!" the crowd thundered in echo to him; and then the vault took up the echoes. "God is great—is great—is great—ea— ea—eat!"
"And Muhammad is His prophet!" howled the mullah. Instantly they answered him again.
"And Muhammad is His prophet!"
"His prophet—is His prophet—is His prophet!" said the stalactites, in loud barks—then in murmurs—then in awe-struck whispers.
That seemed to be all the religious ritual Khinjan remembered or could tolerate. Considering that the mullah, too, must have killed his man in cold blood before earning the right to be there, perhaps it was enough—too much. There were men not far from King who shuddered.
"There are strangers!" announced the mullah, as a man might say, "I smell a rat!" But he did not look at anybody in particular; he blinked at the crowd.
"Strangers!" said the stalactites, in an awe-struck whisper.
"Show them! Show them! Let them stand forth!"
"Oh-h-h-h-h! Let them stand forth!" said the roof. The mullah bowed as if that idea were a new one and he thought it better than his own; for all crowds love flattery.
"Bring them!" he shouted, and King suppressed a shudder—for what proof had he of right to be there beyond Ismail's verbal corroboration of a lie? Would Ismail lie for him again? he wondered. And if so, would the lie be any use?
Not far from where King sat there was an immediate disturbance in the crowd, and a wretched-looking Baluchi was thrust forward at a run, with arms lashed to his sides and a pitiful look of terror on his face. Two more Baluchis were hustled along after him, protesting a little, but looking almost as hopeless.
Once in the arena, the guards took charge of all three of them and lined them up facing the mullah, clubbing them with their rifle-butts to get quick obedience. The crowd began to be noisy again, but the mullah signed for silence.
"These are traitors!" he howled, with a gesture such as Ajax might have used when he defied the lightning.
The roof said "Traitors!"
"Slay them, then!" howled the crowd, delighted. And blinking behind the horn-rimmed spectacles, King began to look about busily for hope, where there did not seem to be any.
"Nay, hear me first!" the mullah howled, and his voice was like a wolf's at hunting time. "Hear, and be warned!"
The crowd grew very still, but King saw that some men licked their lips, as if they well knew what was coming.
"These three men came, and one was a new man!" the mullah howled. "The other two were his witnesses! All three swore that the first man came from slaying an unbeliever in the teeth of written law. They said he ran from the law. So, as the custom is, I let all three enter!"
"Good!" said the crowd. "Good!" They might have been five thousand judges, judging in equity, so grave they were. Yet they licked their lips.
"But later, word came to me saying they are liars. So—again as the custom is—I ordered them bound and held!"
"Slay them! Slay them!" the crowd yelped, gleeful as a wolf-pack on a scent and abandoning solemnity as suddenly as it had been assumed. "Slay them!"
They were like the wind, whipping in and out among Khinjan's rocks, savage and then still for a minute, savage and then still.
"Nay, there is a custom yet!" the mullah howled, holding up both arms. And there was silence again like the lull before a hurricane, with only the great black river talking to itself.
"Who speaks for them? Does any speak for them?"
"Speak for them?" said the roof.
There was silence. Then there was a murmur of astonishment. Over opposite to where King sat the mullah stood up, who the Pathan had said was "Bull-with-a-beard"—Muhammad Anim.
"The men are mine!" he growled. His voice was like a bear's at bay; it was low, but it carried strangely. And as he spoke he swung his great head between his shoulders, like a bear that means to charge. "The proof they brought has been stolen! They had good proof! I speak for them! The men are mine!"
The Pathan nudged King in the ribs with an elbow like a club and tickled his ear with hot breath.
"Bull-with-a-beard speaks truth!" he grinned. "'Truth and a lie together! Good may it do him and them! They die, they three Baluchis!"
"Proof!" howled the mullah who had no hair eyelashes.
"Proof—oof—oof!" said the stalactites.
"Proof! Show us proof!" yelled the crowd.
"Words at the gate—proof in the cavern!" howled the lashless one. The Pathan next King leaned over to whisper to him again, but stiffened in the act. There was a great gasp the same instant, as the whole crowd caught its breath all together. The mullah in the middle froze into mobility. Bull-with-a-beard stood mumbling, swaying his great head from side to side, no longer suggestive of a bear about to charge, but of one who hesitates.
The crowd was staring at the end of the bridge. King stared, too, and caught his own breath. For Yasmini stood there, smiling on them all as the new moon smiles down on the Khyber! She had come among them like a spirit, all unheralded.
So much more beautiful than the one likeness King had seen of her that for a second he doubted who she was—more lovely than he had imagined her even in his dreams—she stood there, human and warm and real, who had begun to seem a myth, clad in gauzy transparent stuff that made no secret of sylph-like shapeliness and looking nearly light enough to blow away. Her feet—and they were the most marvelously molded things he had ever seen—were naked and played restlessly on the naked stone. Not one part of her was still for a fraction of a second; yet the whole effect was of insolently lazy ease.
Her eyes blazed brighter than the little jewels stitched to her gossamer dress, and when a man once looked at them he did not find it easy to look away again. Even mullah Muhammad Anim seemed transfixed, like a great foolish animal.
But King was staring very hard indeed at something else—mentally cursing the plain glass spectacles he wore, that had begun to film over and dim his vision. There were two bracelets on her arm, both barbaric things of solid gold. The smaller of the two was on her wrist and the larger on her upper arm, but they were so alike, except for size, and so exactly like the one Rewa Gunga had given him in her name and that had been stolen from him in the night, that he ran the risk of removing the glasses a moment to stare with unimpeded eyes . Even then the distance was too great. He could not quite see.
But her eyes began to search the crowd in his direction, and then he knew two things absolutely. He was sitting where she had ordered Ismail to place him; for she picked him out almost instantly, and laughed as if somebody had struck a silver bell. And one of those bracelets was the one that he had worn; for she flaunted it at him, moving her arm so that the light should make the gold glitter.
Then, perhaps because the crowd bad begun to whisper, and she wanted all attention, she raised both arms to toss back the golden hair that came cascading nearly to her knees. And as if the crowd knew that symptom well, it drew its breath in sharply and grew very still.
"Muhammad Anim!" she said, and she might have been wooing him. "That was a devil's trick!"
It was rather an astounding statement, coming from lovely lips in such a setting. It was rather suggestive of a driver's whiplash, flicked through the air for a beginning. Muhammad Anim continued glaring and did not answer her, so in her own good time, when she had tossed her golden hair back once or twice again, she developed her meaning.
"We who are free of Khinjan Caves do not send men out to bring recruits. We know better than to bid our men tell lies for others at the gate. Nor, seeking proof for our new recruit, do we send men to hunt a head for him—not even those of us who have a lashkar that we call our own, mullah Muhammad Anim. Each of us earns his own way in!"
The mullah Muhammad Anim began to stroke his beard, but he made no answer.
"And—mullah Muhammad Anim, thou wandering man of God—when that lashkar has foolishly been sent and has failed, is it written in the Kalamullah saying we should pretend there was a head, and that the head was stolen? A lie is a lie, Muhammad Anim! Wandering perhaps is good, if in search of the way. Is it good to lose the way, and to lie, thou true follower of the Prophet?"
She smiled, tossing her hair back. Her eyes challenged, her lips mocked him and her chin scorned. The crowd breathed hard and watched. The mullah muttered something in his beard, and sat down, and the crowd began to roar applause at her. But she checked it with a regal gesture, and a glance of contempt at the mullah that was alone worth a journey across the "Hills" to see.
"Guards!" she said quietly. And the crowd's sigh then was like the night wind in a forest.
"Away with those three of Muhammad Anim's men!"
Twelve of the arena guards threw down their shields with a sudden clatter and seized the prisoners, four to each. The crowd shivered with delicious anticipation. The doomed men neither struggled nor cried, for fatalism is an anodyne as well as an explosive. King set his teeth. Yasmini, with both hands behind her head, continued to smile down on them all as sweetly as the stars shine on a battle-field.
She nodded once; and then all was over in a minute. With a ringing "Ho!" and a run, the guards lifted their victims shoulder high and bore them forward. At the river bank they paused for a second to swing them. Then, with another "Ho!" they threw them like dead rubbish into the swift black water.
There was only one wild scream that went echoing and re-echoing to the roof. There was scarcely a splash, and no extra ripple at all. No heads came up again to gasp. No fingers clutched at the surface. The fearful speed of the river sucked them under, to grind and churn and pound them through long caverns underground and hurl them at last over the great cataract toward the middle of the world.
"Ah-h-h-h-h!" sighed the crowd in ecstasy.
"Is there no other stranger?" asked Yasmini, searching for King again with her amazing eyes. The skin all down his back turned there and then into gooseflesh. And as her eyes met his she laughed like a bell at him. She knew! She knew who he was, how he had entered, and how he felt. Not a doubt of it!
Long slept the Heart o' the Hills, oh, long! (Ye who have watched, ye know!) As sap sleeps in the deodars When winter shrieks and steely stars Blink over frozen snow. Ye haste? The sap stirs now, ye say? Ye feel the pulse of spring? But sap must rise ere buds may break, Or cubs fare forth, or bees awake, Or lean buck spurn the ling!
"Kurram Khan!" the lashless mullah howled, like a lone wolf in the moonlight, and King stood up.
It is one of the laws of Cocker, who wrote the S. S. Code, that a man is alive until he is proved dead, and where there is life there is opportunity. In that grim minute King felt heretical; but a man's feelings are his own affair provided he can prove it, and he managed to seem about as much at ease as a native hakim ought to feel at such an initiation.
"Come forward!" the mullah howled, and he obeyed, treading gingerly between men who were at no pains to let him by, and silently blessing them, because he was not really in any hurry at all. Yasmini looked lovely from a distance, and life was sweet.
"Who are his witnesses?"
"Witnesses?" the roof hissed.
"I!" shouted Ismail, jumping up.
"I!" cracked the roof. "I! I!" So that for a second King almost believed he had a crowd of men to swear for him and did not hear Darya Khan at all, who rose from a place not very far behind where had sat.
Ismail followed him in a hurry, like a man wading a river with loose clothes gathered in one arm and the other arm ready in case of falling. He took much less trouble than King not to tread on people, and oaths' marked his wake.
Darya Khan did not go so fast. As he forced his way forward a man passed him up the wooden box that King had used to stand on; he seized it in both hands with a grin and a jest and went to stand behind King and Ismail, in line with the lashless mullah, facing Yasmini. Yasmini smiled at them all as if they were actors in her comedy, and she well pleased with them.
"Look ye!" howled the mullah. "Look ye and look well, for this is to be one of us!"
King felt ten thousand eyes burn holes in his back, but the one pair of eyes that mocked him from the bridge was more disconcerting.
"Turn, Kurram Khan! Turn that all may see!"
Feeling like a man on a spit, he revolved slowly. By the time he had turned once completely around, besides knowing positively that one of the two bracelets on her right arm was the one he had worn, or else its exact copy, he knew that he was not meant to die yet; for his eyes could work much more swiftly than the horn-rimmed spectacles made believe. He decided that Yasmini meant he should be frightened, but not much hurt just yet.
So he ceased altogether to feel frightened and took care to look more scared than ever.
"Who paid the price of thy admission?" the mullah howled, and King cleared his throat, for he was not quite sure yet what that might mean.
"Speak, Kurram Khan!" Yasmini purred, smiling her loveliest. "Tell them whom you slew."
King turned and faced the crowd, raising himself on the balls of his feet to shout, like a man facing thousands of troops on parade. He nearly gave himself away, for habit had him unawares. A native hakim, given the stoutest lungs in all India, would not have shouted in that way.
"Cappitin Attleystan King!" he roared. And he nearly jumped out of his skin when his own voice came rattling back at him from the roof overhead.
"Cappitin Attleystan King!" it answered.
Yasmini chuckled as a little rill will sometimes chuckle among ferns. It was devilish. It seemed to say there were traps not far ahead.
"Where was he slain?" asked the mullah.
"In the Khyber Pass," said King.
"In the Khyber Pass!" the roof whispered hoarsely, as if aghast at such cold-bloodedness.
"Now give proof!" said the mullah. "Words at the gate—proof in the cavern! Without good proof, there is only one way out of here!"
"Proof!" the crowd thundered. "Proof!"
"Proof! Proof! Proof!" the roof echoed.
There was no need for Darya Khan to whisper. King's hands were behind him, and he had seen what he had seen and guessed what he had guessed while he was turning to let the crowd look at him. His fingers closed on human hair.
"Nay, it is short!" hissed Darya Khan. "Take the two ears, or hold it by the jawbone! Hold it high in both hands!"
King obeyed, without looking at the thing, and Ismail, turning to face the crowd, rose on tiptoe and filled his lungs for the effort of his life.
"The head of Cappitin Attleystan King—infidel kaffir—British arrficer!" he howled.
"Good!" the crowd bellowed. "Good! Throw it!"
The crowd's roar and the roof's echoes combined until pandemonium.
"Throw it to them, Kurram Khan!" Yasmini purred from the bridge end, speaking as softly and as sweetly, as if she coaxed a child. Yet her voice carried.
He lowered the head, but instead of looking at it he looked up at her. He thought she was enjoying herself and his predicament as he had never seen any one enjoy anything.
"Throw it to them, Kurram Khan!" she purred. "It is the custom!"
"Throw it! Throw it!" the crowd thundered. He turned the ghastly thing until it lay face-upward in his hands, and so at last he saw it. He caught his breath, and only the horn- rimmed spectacles, that he had cursed twice that night, saved him from self-betrayal. The cavern seemed to sway, but he recovered and his wits worked swiftly. If Yasmini detected his nervousness she gave no sign.
"Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!"
The crowd was growing impatient. Many men were standing, waving their arms to draw attention to themselves, and he wondered what the ultimate end of the head would be, if he obeyed and threw it to them. Watching Yasmini's eyes, he knew it had not entered her head that he might disobey.
He looked past her toward the river. There were no guards near enough to prevent what he intended; but he had to bear in mind that the guards had rifles, and if he acted too suddenly one of them might shoot at him unbidden. They were wondrous free with their cartridges, those guards, in a land where ammunition is worth its weight in silver coin.
Holding the head before him with both hands, he began to walk toward the river, edging all the while a little toward the crowd as if meaning to get nearer before he threw.
He was much more than half-way to the river's edge before Yasmini or anybody else divined his true intention. The mullah grew suspicions first and yelled. Then King hurried, for he did not believe Yasmini would need many seconds in which to regain command of any situation. But she saw fit to stand still and watch.
He reached the river and stood there. Now he was in no hurry at all, for it stood to reason that unless Yasmini very much desired him to be kept alive he would have been shot dead already. For a moment the crowd was so interested that it forgot to bark and snarl.
His next move was as deliberate as he could make it, although he was careful to avoid the least suggestion of mummery (for then the crowd would have suspected disloyalty to Islam, and the "Hills" are very, very pious, and very suspicious of all foreign ritual).
He did a thoughtful simple thing that made every savage who watched him gasp because of its very unexpectedness. He held the head in both hands, threw it far out into the river and stood to watch it sink. Then, without visible emotion of any kind, he walked back stolidly to face Yasmini at the bridge end, with shoulders a little more stubborn now than they ought to be, and chin a shade too high, for there never was a man who could act quite perfectly.
"Thou fool!" Yasmini whispered through lips that did not move.
She betrayed a flash of temper like a trapped she-tiger's, but followed it instantly with her loveliest smile. Like to like, however, the crowd saw the flash of temper and took its cue from that.
"Slay him!" yelled a lone voice, that was greeted an approving murmur.
"Slay him!" advised the roof in a whisper, in one of its phonetic tricks.
"This is a darbar!" Yasmini announced in a rising, ringing voice. "My darbar, for I summoned it! Did I invite any man to speak?"
There was silence, as a whipped unwilling pack is silent.
"Speak, thou, Kurram Khan!" she said. "Knowing the custom—having heard the order to throw that trophy to them—why act otherwise? Explain!"
Nothing in the wide world could be fairer! She left him to extricate himself from a mess of his own making! It was more than fair, for she went out of her way to offer him an opening to jump through. And she paid him the compliment of suggesting be must be clever enough to take it, for she seemed to expect a satisfying answer.
"Tell them why!" she said, smiling. No man could have guessed by the tone of her voice whether she was for him or against him, and the crowd, beginning again to whisper, watched to see which way the cat would jump.
He bowed low to her three times—very low indeed and very slowly, for he had to think. Then he turned his back and repeated the obeisance to the crowd. Still he could think of no excuse, except Cocker's Rule No. I for Tight Places, and all the world knows that because Solomon said much the same thing first:
"A soft answer is better than a sword!"
But Cocker adds, "Never excuse. Explain! And blame no man."
"My brothers," he said, and paused, since a man must make a beginning, even when he can not see the end. And as he spoke the answer came to him. He stood upright, and his voice became that of a man whose advice has been asked, and who gives it freely. "These be stirring times! Ye need take care, my brothers! Ye saw this night how one man entered here on the strength of an oath and a promise. All he lacked was proof. And I had proof. Ye saw! Who am I that I should deny you a custom? Yet—think ye, my brothers!—how easy would it not have been, had I thrown that head to you, for a traitor to catch it and hide it in his clothes, and make away with it! He could have used it to admit to these caves—why—even an Englishman, my brothers! If that had happened, ye would have blamed me!"
Yasmini smiled. Taking its cue from her, the crowd murmured, scarcely assent, but rather recognition of the hakim's adroitness. The game was not won; there lacked a touch to tip the scales in his favor, and Yasmini supplied it with ready genius.
"The hakim speaks truth!" she laughed.
King turned about instantly to face her, but he salaamed so low that she could not have seen his expression had she tried.
"If Ye wish it, I will order him tossed into Earth's Drink after those other three."
Muhammed Anim rose stroking his beard and rocking where he stood.
"It is the law!" he growled, and King shuddered.
"It is the law," Yasmini answered in a voice that rang with pride and insolence, "that none interrupt me while I speak! For such ill- mannered ones Earth's Drink hungers! Will you test my authority, Muhammad Anim?"
The mullah sat down, and hundreds of men laughed at him, but not all of the men by any means.
"It is the law that none goes out of Khinjan Cave alive who breaks the law of the Caves. But he broke no very big law. And he spoke truth. Think Ye! If that head had only fallen into Muhammad Anim's lap, the mullah might have smuggled in another man with it!"
A roar of laughter greeted that thrust. Many men who had not laughed at the mullah's first discomfiture, joined in now. Muhammad Anim sat and fidgeted, meeting nobody's eye and answering nothing. "So it seems to me good," Yasmini said, in a voice that did not echo any more but rang very clear and true (she seemed to know the trick of the roof, and to use the echo or not as she chose), "to let this hakim live! He shall meditate in his cave a while, and perhaps he shall be beaten, lest he dare offend again. He can no more escape from Khinjan Caves than the women who are prisoners here. He may therefore live!" There was utter silence. Men looked at one another and at her, and her blazing eyes searched the crowd swiftly. It was plain enough that there were at least two parties there, and that none dared oppose Yasmini's will for fear of the others. "To thy seat, Kurram Khan!" she ordered, when she had waited a full minute and no man spoke.
He wasted no time. He hurried out of the arena as fast as he could walk, with Ismail and Darya Khan close at his heels. It was like a run out of danger in a dream. He stumbled over the legs of the front-rank men in his hurry to get back to his place, and Ismail overtook him, seized him by the shoulders, hugged him, and dragged him to the empty seat next to the Orakzai Pathan. There he hugged him until his ribs cracked.
"Ready o' wit!" he crowed. "Ready o' tongue! Light o' life! Man after mine own heart! Hey, I love thee! Readily I would be thy man, but for being hers! Would I had a son like thee! Fool—fool—fool not to throw the head to them! Squeamish one! Man like a child! What is the head but earth when the life has left it? What would thy head be without the nimble wit? Fool—fool—fool! And clever! Turned the joke on Muhammad Anim! Turned it on Bull-with-a-beard in a twinkling—in the bat of an eye—in a breath! Turned it against her enemy and raised a laugh against him from his own men! Ready o' wit! Shameless one! Lucky one! Allah was surely good to thee!"
Still exulting, he let go, but none too soon for comfort. King's ribs were sore from his hugging for days.
"What is it?" he asked. For King seemed to be shaping words with his lips. He bent a great hairy ear to listen.
"Have they taken Ali Masjid Fort?" King whispered.
"How should I know? Why?"
"Tell me, man, if you love me! Have they taken it?"
"Nay, how should I know? Ask her! She knows more than any man knows!"
King turned to ask the same question of his friend the Orakzai Pathan; but the Pathan would have none of his questions, he was busy listening for whispers from the crowd, watching with both eyes, and he shoved King aside.
The crowd was very far from being satisfied. An angry murmur had begun to fill the cavern as a hive is filled with the song of bees at swarming time. But even so, surmise what one might, it was not easy to persuade the eye that Yasmini's careless smile and easy poise were assumed. If she recognized indignation and feared it, she disguised her fear amazingly.
King saw her whisper to a guard. The fellow nodded and passed his shield to another man. He began to make his way in no great hurry toward the edge of the arena. She whispered again and standing forward with their trumpets seven of the guards blew a blast that split across the cavern like the trump of doom; and as its hundred thousand echoes died in the roof, the hum of voices died, too, and the very sound of breathing. The gurgling of water became as if the river flowed in solitude.
Leisurely then, languidly, she raised both arms until she looked like an angel poised for flight. The little jewels stitched to her gauzy dress twinkled like fire-flies as she moved. The crowd gasped sharply. She had it by the heart-strings.
She called, and four guards got under one shield, bowing their heads and resting the great rim on their shoulders. They carried it beneath her and stood still. With a low delicious laugh, sweet and true, she sprang on it, and the shield scarcely trembled; she seemed lighter than the silk her dress was woven from!
They carried her so, looking as if she and the shield were carved of a piece, and by a master such as has not often been. And in the midst of the arena before they had ceased moving she began to sing, with her head thrown back and bosom swelling like a bird's.
The East would ever rather draw its own conclusions from a hint let fall than be puzzled by what the West believes are facts. And parables are not good evidence in courts of law, which is always a consideration. So her song took the form of a parable.
And to say that she took hold of them and played rhapsodies of her own making on their heart-strings would be to undervalue what she did. They were dumb while she sang, but they rose at her. Not a force in the world could have kept them down, for she was deftly touching cords that stirred other forces—subtle, mysterious, mesmeric, which the old East understands—which Muhammad the Prophet understood when he harnessed evil in the shafts with men and wrote rules for their driving in a book. They rose in silence and stood tense.
While she sang, the guard to whom she had whispered forced a way through the ranks of the standing crowd, and came behind Ismail. He tweaked the Afridi's ear to draw attention, for like all the others—like King, too—Ismail was listening with dropped jaw and watching with burning eyes. For a minute they whispered, so low that King did not hear what they said; and then the guard forced his way back by the shortest route to the arena, knocking down half a dozen men and gaining safety beyond the lamps before his victims could draw knife and follow him.
Yasmini's song went on, verse after verse, telling never one fact, yet hinting unutterable things in a language that was made for hint and metaphor and parable and innuendo. What tongue did not hint at was conveyed by subtle gesture and a smile and flashing eyes. It was perfectly evident that she knew more than King—more than the general at Peshawur—more than the viceroy at Simla—probably more than the British government—concerning what was about to happen in Islam. The others might guess . She knew. It was just as evident that she would not tell. The whole of her song, and it took her twenty minutes by the count of King's pulse, to sing it, was a warning to wait and a promise of amazing things to come.
She sang of a wolf-pack gathering from the valleys in the winter snow—a very hungry wolf-pack. Then of a stalled ox, grown very fat from being cared for. Of the "Heart of the Hills" that awoke in the womb of the "Hills," and that listened and watched.
"Now, is she the 'Heart of the Hills'?" King wondered. The rumors men had heard and told again in India, about the "Heart of the Hills" in Khinjan seemed to have foundation.
He thought of the strange knife, wrapped in a handkerchief under his shirt, with its bronze blade and gold hilt in the shape of a woman dancing. The woman dancing was astonishingly like Yasmini, standing on the shield!
She sang about the owners of the stalled ox, who were busy at bay, defending themselves and their ox from another wolf-pack in another direction "far beyond."
She urged them to wait a little while. The ox was big enough and fat enough to nourish all the wolves in the world for many seasons. Let them wait, then, until another, greater wolf-pack joined them, that they might go hunting all together, overwhelm its present owners and devour the ox! So urged the "Heart of the Hills," speaking to the mountain wolves, according to Yasmini's song.
"The little cubs in the burrows know. Are ye grown wolves, who hurry so?"
She paused, for effect; but they gave tongue then because they could not help it, and the cavern shook to their terrific worship.
They summoned God to come and see the height and depth and weight of their allegiance to her! And because for their thunder there was no more chance of being heard, she dropped from the shield like a blossom. No sound of falling could have been heard in all that din, but one could see she made no sound. The shield-bearers ran back to the bridge and stood below it, eyes agape.
Rewa Gunga spoke truth in Delhi when he assured King he should some day wonder at Yasmini's dancing.
She became joy and bravery and youth! She danced a story for them of the things they knew. She was the dawn light, touching the distant peaks. She was the wind that follows it, sweeping among the junipers and kissing each as she came. She was laughter, as the little children laugh when the cattle are loosed from the byres at last to feed in the valleys. She was the scent of spring uprising. She was blossom. She was fruit! Very daughter of the sparkle of warm sun on snow, she was the "Heart of the Hills" herself!
Never was such dancing! Never such an audience! Never such mad applause! She danced until the great rough guards had to run round the arena with clubbed butts and beat back trespassers who would have mobbed her. And every movement—every gracious wonder-curve and step with which she told her tale was as purely Greek as the handle on King's knife and the figures on the lamp-bowls and as the bracelets on her arm. Greek!
And she half-modern-Russian, ex-girl-wife of a semi-civilized Hill- rajah! Who taught her? There is nothing new, even in Khinjan, in the "Hills"!
And when the crowd defeated the arena guards at last and burst through the swinging butts to seize and fling her high and worship her with mad barbaric rite, she ran toward the shield. The four men raised it shoulder-high again. She went to it like a leaf in the wind—sprang on it as if wings had lifted her, scarce touching it with naked toes—and leapt to the bridge with a laugh.
She went over the bridge on tiptoes, like nothing else under heaven but Yasmini at her bewitchingest. And without pausing on the far side she danced up the hewn stone stairs, dived into the dark hole and was gone!
"Come!" yelled Ismail in King's ear. He could have heard nothing less, for the cavern was like to burst apart from the tumult.
"Whither?" the Afridi shouted in disgust. "Does the wind ask whither? Come like the wind and see! They will remember next that they have a bone to pick with thee! Come away!"
That seemed good enough advice. He followed as fast as Ismail could shoulder a way out between the frantic Hillmen, deafened, stupefied, numbed, almost cowed by the ovation they were giving their "Heart of their Hills."
A scorpion in a corner stings himself to death. A coward blames the gods. They laugh and let him die A man goes forward —Native Proverb
As they disappeared after a scramble through the mouth of the same tunnel they had entered by, a roar went up behind them like the birth of earthquakes. Looking back over his shoulder, King saw Yasmini come back into the hole's mouth, to stand framed in it and bow acknowledgment. She looked so ravishing in contrast to the huge grim wall, and the black river, and the darkness at her back, that Khinjan's thousands tried to storm the bridge and drag her down to them. The guards were hard put to it, with their backs to the bridge end, for two or three minutes.
But Ismail would not let him wait and watch from there. He dragged him down the tunnel and pushed him up on to a ledge where they could both see without being seen, through a fissure in the rock.
For the space of five minutes Yasmini stood in the great hole, smiling and watching the struggle below. Then she went, and the guards began to get the best of it, because the crowd's enthusiasm waned when they could see her no more. Then suddenly the guards began to loose random volleys at the roof and brought down hundredweights of splintered stalactite. Within a minute there were a hundred men busy on sweeping up the splinters. In another minute twenty Zakka Khels had begun a sword dance, yelling like the damned. A hundred joined them. In three minutes more the whole arena was a dinning whirlpool, and the river's voice was drowned in shouting and the stamping of naked feet on stone.
"Come!" urged Ismail, and led the way.
King's last impression was of earth's womb on fire and of hellions brewing wrath. The stalactites and the hurrying river multiplied the dancing lights into a million, and the great roof hurled the din down again to make confusion with the new din coming up.
Ismail went like a rat down a run, and King failed to overtake him until he found him in the cave of the slippers kicking to right and left at random.
"Choose a good pair!" he growled. "Let late-comers fight for what is left! Nay, I have thine! Choose thou the next best!"
The statement being one of fact, and that no time or place for a quarrel with the only friend in sight, King picked out the best slippers he could see. The instant he had them on Ismail was off again, running like the wind.
They had no torch. They left the little tunnel lamps behind. It became so dark that King had to follow by ear, and so it happened that he missed seeing where the tunnel forked. He imagined they were running back toward the ledge under the waterfall; yet, when Ismail called a halt at last, panting, groped behind a great rock for a lamp and lit the wick with a common safety match, they were in a cave be had never seen before.
"Where are we?" King asked. "Where none dare seek us."
Ismail held the lamp high, shielding its wick with a hollowed palm and peering about him as if in doubt, his ragged beard looking like smoke in the wind; for a wind blew down all the passages in Khinjan.
King examined the lamp. It was of bronze and almost as surely ancient Greek as it surely was not Indian. There were figures graven on the bowl representing a woman dancing, who looked not unlike Yasmini; but before he had time to look very closely Ismail blew the lamp out and was off again, like a shadow shot into its mother night.
Confused by the sudden darkness King crashed into a rock as he tried to follow. Ismail turned back and gave him the end of a cotton girdle that he unwound from his waist; then he plunged ahead again into Cimmerian blackness, down a passage so narrow that they could touch a wall with either hand.
Once he shouted back to duck, and they passed tinder a low roof where water dripped on them, and the rock underfoot was the bed of a shallow stream. After that the track began to rise, and the grade grew so steep that even Ismail, the furious, had to slacken pace.
They began to climb up titanic stairways all in the dark, feeling their way through fissures in a mountain's framework, up zigzag ledges, and over great broken lumps of rock from one cave to another; until at last in one great cave Ismail stopped and relit the lamp. Hunting about with its aid he found an imported "hurricane" lantern and lit that, leaving the bronze lamp in its place.
Soon after that they lost sight of walls to their left for a time, although there were no stars, nor any light to suggest the outer world—nothing but wind. The wind blew a hurricane.
Their path now was a very narrow ledge formed by a crack that ran diagonally down the face of a black cliff on their right. They hugged the stone because of a sense of fathomless space above—below— on every side but one. The rock wall was the one thing tangible, and the footing the crack in it afforded was the gift of God.
The moaning wind rose to a shriek at intervals and made their clothes flutter like ghosts' shrouds, and in spite of it King's shirt was drenched with sweat, and his fingers ached from clinging as if they were on fire. Crawling against the wind along a wider ledge at the top, they came to a chasm, crossed by a foot-wide causeway. The wind bowled and moaned in it, and the futile lantern rays only suggested unimaginable, things—death the least of them.
"Art thou afraid?" asked Ismail, holding the lantern to King's face.
"Kuch dar nahin hai!" he answered. "There is no such thing as fear!"
It was a bold answer, and Ismail laughed, knowing well that neither of them believed a word of it at that moment. Only, each thought better of the other, that the one should have cared to ask, and that the other should be willing to give the lie to a fear that crawled and could be felt. Too many men are willing to admit they are afraid. Too many would rather condemn and despise than ask and laugh. But it is on the edges of eternity that men find each other out, and sympathize.
Ismail went down on his hands and knees, lifting the lantern along a foot at a time in front of him and carrying it in his teeth by the bail the last part of the way. It seemed like an hour before he stood up, nearly a hundred yards away on the far side, and yelled for King to follow.
The wind snatched the yells away, but the waving lantern beckoned him, and King knelt down in the dark. It happened that he laid his hand on a loose stone, the size of his head, near the edge. He shoved it over and listened. He listened for a minute but did not hear it strike anything, and the shudder, that he could not repress, came from the middle of his backbone and spread outward through each fiber of his being. If he had delayed another second his courage would have failed; he began at once to crawl to where Ismail stood swinging the light.
There was room on the ledge for his knees and no more. Toes and fingers were overside. He sat down as on horseback, and transferred both slippers to his pockets, and then went forward again with bare feet, waiting whenever the wind snatched at him with redoubled fury, to lean against it and grip the rock with numb fingers. Ismail swung the lamp, for reasons best known to himself, and half-way over King sat astride the ridge again to shout to him to hold it still. But Ismail did not understand him.
"Khinjan graves are deep!" be howled back. "Fear and the shadow of death are one!"
He swung the lamp even more violently, as if it were a charm that could exorcise fear and bring a man over safely. The shadows danced until his brain reeled, and King swore be would thrash the fool as soon as be could reach him. He lay belly-downward on the rock and crawled like an insect the remainder of the way.
And as if aware of his intention Ismail started to hurry on while there was yet a yard or two to crawl, and anger not being a load worth carrying, nor revenge a thing permitted to interfere with the sirkar's business, King let both die.
Hunted by the wind, they ran round a bold shoulder of cliff into another black-dark tunnel. There the wind died, swallowed in a hundred fissures, but the track grew worse and steeper until they had to cling with both hands and climb and now and then Ismail set the lantern on a ledge and lowered his girdle to help King up. Sometimes he stood on King's shoulder in order to reach a higher level. They climbed for an hour and dropped at last panting, on a ledge, after squeezing themselves under the corner of a boulder.
The lantern light shone on a tiny trickle of cold water, and there Ismail drank deep, like a bull, before signing to King to imitate him.
"A thirsty throat and a crazy head are one he counseled. "A man needs wit and a wet tongue who would talk with her!"
"Where is she?" asked King, when he had finished drinking.
"Go and look!"
Ismail gave him a sudden shove, that sent him feet first forward over the edge. He fell a distance rather greater than his own height, to another ledge and stood there looking up. He could see Ismail's red-rimmed eyes blinking down at him in the lantern light, but suddenly the Afridi blew the lamp out, and then the darkness became solid. Thought itself left off less than a yard away.
"Ismail!" he whispered. But Ismail did not answer him.
He faced about, leaning against the rock, with the flat of both bands pressed tight against it for the sake of its company; and almost at once he saw a little bright red light glowing in the distance. It might have been a hundred yards, and it might have been a mile away below him; it was perfectly impossible to judge, for the darkness was not measurable.
"Flowers turn to the light!" droned Ismail's voice above sententiously, and turning, he thought he could see red eyes peering over the rock. He jumped, and made a grab for the flowing beard that surely must be below them, but he missed.
"Little fish swim to the light!" droned Ismail. "Moths fly to the light! Who is a man that he should know less than they?"
He turned again and stared at the light. Dimly, very vaguely be could make out that a causeway led downward from almost where he stood. He was convinced that should he try to climb back Ismail would merely reach out a hand and shove him down again, and there was no sense in being put to that indignity. He decided to go forward, for there was even less sense in standing still.
"Come with me! Come along, Ismail!" he called.
"Allah! Hear him! Nay, nay, nay! Who was it said a little while ago, 'There is no such thing as fear!' I am afraid, but thou and I are two men! Go thou alone!"
Reason is a man's only dependable faculty. Reason told him that at a word from Yasmini he would have been flung into "Earth's Drink" hours ago. Therefore, added reason, why should she forego that spectacular opportunity when his death would have amused Khinjan's thousands, only to kill him now in the dark alone? He had treated a few dozen sick men, surely she had not been afraid to offend them. Had she not dared forbid the sick coming to him altogether? "Forward!" says Cocker, in at least a dozen places. "Go forward and find out! Better a bed in hell than a seat on the horns of a dilemma! Forward!"
There was no sound now anywhere. He stretched a leg downward and felt a rock two or three feet lower down, and the sound of his slipper sole touching it, being the only noise, made the short hair rise on the back of his neck. Then he took himself, so to speak, by the hand and went forward and downward, for action is the only curb imagination knows.
He forgot to count his pulse and judge how long it took him to descend that causeway in the dark. It was not so very rough, nor so very dangerous, but of course he only knew that fact afterward. He had to grope his way inch by inch, trusting to sense of touch and the British army's everlasting luck, with an eye all the while on a red light that was something like the glow through hell's keyhole.
When he reached bottom, after perhaps twenty minutes, and stood at last on comparatively level rock, his legs were trembling from tension, and he had to sit down while he stretched them out and rested. The light still looked a quarter of a mile away, although that was guesswork. It made scarcely more impression on the surrounding darkness than one coal glowing in a cellar. The silence began to make his head ache.
He got up and started forward, but just as he did that he thought he heard a footstep. He suspected Ismail might be following after all.
"Ismail!" he called, trying to peer through the dark. But all the darkness had its home there. He could not even see his own hand stretched out. His own voice made him jump; after a second's pause it began to crack and rattle from wall to wall and from roof to floor, until at last the echoing word became one again and died with a hiss somewhere in the bowels of the world— Mbisssss!—like the sound of hot iron being plunged into a blacksmith's trough with a little after-murmur of complaining water.
But then he was sure he heard a footstep! He faced about; and now there were two red lights where there had been only one. They seemed rather nearer, perhaps because there were two of them.
"Hullo, King sahib!" said a voice he recognized; and he choked. He felt that if he had coughed his heart would have lain on the floor!
"Are you afraid, King sahib?" said the Rangar Rewa Gunga's voice, and he took a step forward to be closer to his questioner. He found himself beside a rock, looking up at the Rangar's turban, that peered over the top of it. He could dimly make out the Rangar's dark eyes.
"I would be afraid if I were you!"
Rewa Gunga flashed a little electric torch into his eyes, but after a few seconds he shifted it so that both their faces could be seen, although the Rangar's only very faintly.
"I have come to warn you!"
"Very good of you, I'm sure!" said King.
"If she knew I were here, she would jolly well have my liver nailed to a wall! I come to advise you to go back!"
Have they taken Ali Masjid Fort?" King asked him.
"Never mind, sahib, but listen! I have brought her bracelet! I stole it! She stole it from you, and I stole it back! Take it! Put it on and wear it! Use it as a passport out of Khinjan Caves— for no man dare touch you while you wear it—and as a passport down the Khyber into India! Go back to India and stay there! Take it and go! Quick! Take it!"
"No, thanks!" said King.
The Rangar laughed mirthlessly, shifting the light a little as King stepped aside to get a better view of him. He held the torch more cunningly than a Spanish lady holds a fan.
"All Englishmen are fools—most of them stiff-necked fools," he asserted. "Bah! Do you think I do not know? Do you think anything is hidden from her? I know—and she knows—that you think you have a surprise in store for her! You think you will go to her, and she will say, 'King sahib, why did you throw that head into the river, and put me in danger from my men?' And you will say, will you not, 'Princess, that was my brother's head!'? Was that not what you intended? Is it not true? Does she not know it? She knows more than you know, King sahib! Because you showed me certain little courtesies, I have come to warn you to run away!"
"Do you suppose she knows you are here?" King asked, and the Rangar laughed.
"If she knows so much, and is able to read my mind from a distance, where does she suppose you are?" King insisted.
The Rangar laughed again, leaning his chin on both fists and switching out the light.
"Perhaps she sent me to warn you!"
"Well," said King, "my brother commanded at Ali Masjid Fort. There are things I must ask her. How did she know that head was my brother's? What part had she in taking it from his shoulders? What did she mean by that song of hers?"
The Rangar chuckled softly.
"There are no fools in the world like Englishmen! Listen! You are being offered life and liberty! Here is the key to both!"
He made the gold bracelet ring on the rock by way of explanation.
"Take the key and go!"
"No!" said King.
"Very well, sahib! Hear the other side of it! Beyond those two red lights there is a curtain. This side of that curtain you are Athelstan King of the Khyber Rifles, or Kurram Khan, or whatever you care to call yourself. Beyond it, you are what she calls you! Choose!"
King did not answer, so he continued after a pause.
"You shall pass behind that curtain, if you insist. Beyond it you shall know what she knows about Ali Masjid and your brother's head! You shall know all that she knows! There shall be no secrets between you and her! She shall translate the meaning of her song to you! But you shall never come out again King of the Khyber Rifles, or Kurram Khan! If you ever come out again, it shall be as you never dreamed, bearing arms you never saw yet, and you shall cut with your own hand the ties that bind you to England! Choose!"
"I chose long ago," said King.
"Are the gentle English never serious?" the Rangar asked. "Will you not understand that if you pass that curtain you shall know all things that Yasmini knows, but that you shall cease to be yourself? Cease—to—be—yourself! Is my meaning clear?"
"Not in the least," said King, "but I hope mine is!"
"You will go forward?"
"Yes," said King.
Rewa Gunga made no answer to that, although King waited for an answer. For about a minute there was no sound at all, except the beating of King's heart. Then he moved to try and see the Rangar's turban above the rock. He could not see it. He found a niche in the rock, set his foot in it and mounted three or four feet, until his head was level with the top. The Rangar was gone!
He listened for two or three minutes, but the silence began to make his head ache again; so he stooped to feel the floor with his hand before deciding to go forward. There was no mistaking the finish given by the tread of countless feet. He was on a highway, and there are not often pitfalls where so many feet have been.
For all that be went forward as a certain Agag once did, and it was many minutes before he could see a curtain glowing blood-red in the light behind the two lamps, at the top of a flight of ten stone steps. It was peculiar to him and to his service that he counted the steps before going nearer.
When he went quite close he saw carpet down the middle of the steps, so ancient that the stone showed through in places; all the pattern, supposing it ever had any, was worn or faded away. Carpet and steps glowed red too. His own face, and the hands he held in front of him were red-hot-poker color. Yet outside the little ellipse of light the darkness looked like a thing to lean against, and the silence was so intense that he could hear the arteries singing by his ears.
He saw the curtains move slightly, apparently in a little puff of wind that made the lamps waver. He was very nearly sure he heard a footfall beyond the curtains and a tinkle—as of a tiny silver bell, or a jewel striking against another one.
He kicked his slippers off, because there are no conditions under which bad manners ever are good policy. Wide history and Cocker's famous code. Then he walked up the steps without treading on the carpet, because living scorpions have been known to be placed under carpets on purpose on occasion. And at the top, being a Secret Service man, he stooped to examine the lamps.
They were bronze, cast, polished and graved. All round the circumference of each bowl were figures in half-relief, representing a woman dancing. She was the woman of the knife-hilt, and of the lamps in the arena! She looked like Yasmini! Only she could not be Yasmini because these lamps were so ancient and so rare that he had never seen any in the least like them, although he had visited most of the museums of the East.
Both lamps were alike, for he crossed over to make sure and took each in his hands in turn. But no two figures of the dance were alike on either. It was the same woman dancing, but the artist had chosen twenty different poses with which to immortalize his skill, and hers. Both lamps burned sweet oil with a wick, and each had a chimney of horn, not at all unlike a modern lamp-chimney. The horn was stained red.
As he set the second lamp down he became aware of a subtle interesting smell, and memory took back at once to Yasmini's room in the Chandni Chowk in Delhi where he had smelled it first. It was the peculiar scent he had been told was Yasmini's own—a blend of scents, like a chord of music, in which musk did not predominate.
He took three strides and touched the curtains, discovering now for the first time that there were two of them, divided down the middle. They were about eight feet high, and each three feet wide, of leather, and though they looked old as the "Hills" themselves the leather was supple as good cloth. They had once been decorated with figures in gold leaf, but only a little patch of yellow here and there remained to hint at faded glories. He decided to remember his manners again, and at least to make opportunity for an invitation.
"Kurram Khan hai!" he announced, forgetting the echo. But the echo was the only answer. It cackled at him, cracking back and forth down the cavern to die with a groan in illimitable darkness.
"Kurram-urram-urram-urram-urram-ahn-hai! Urram-urram-urram-urram- ahn-hai! Urram-urram-urram-ah-hh-ough-ah!"
There was no sound beyond the curtains. No answer. Only he thought the strange scent grew stronger. He decided to go forward. With his heart in his mouth he parted the curtains with both hands, startled by the sharp jangle of metal rings on a rod.
So he stood, with arms outstretched, staring—staring—staring— with eyes skilled swiftly to take in details, but with a brain that tried to explain—formed a hundred wild suggestions—and then reeled. He was face to face with the unexplainable—the riddle of Khinjan Caves.
Grand was thy goal! Thy vision new! Ave, Caesar! Conquest? Ends of Earth thy view? Ave, Caesar! To sow—to reap—to play God's game? How many Caesars did that same Until the great, grim Reaper came! Who ploughs with death shall garner rue, And under all skies is nothing new. Vale, Caesar!
Telling the story afterward King never made any effort to describe his own sensations. It was surely enough to state what be saw, after a breathless climb among the rat-runs of a mountain with his imagination fired already by what had happened in the Cavern of Earth's Drink.
The leather curtains slipped through his fingers and closed behind him with the clash of rings on a rod. But he was beyond being startled. He was not really sure he was in the world. He knew he was awake, and he knew he was glad he had left his shoes outside. But he was not certain whether it was the twentieth century, or fifty-five B. C., or earlier yet; or whether time had ceased. Very vividly in that minute there flashed before his mind Mark Twain's suggestion of the Transposition of Epochs.
The place where he was did not look like a cave, but a palace chamber, for the rock walls had been trimmed square and polished smooth; then they had been painted pure white, except for a wide blue frieze, with a line of gold-leaf drawn underneath it. And on the frieze, done in gold-leaf too, was the Grecian lady of the lamps, always dancing. There were fifty or sixty figures of her, no two the same.
A dozen lamps were burning, set in niches cut in the walls at measured intervals. They were exactly like the two outside, except that their horn chimneys were stained yellow instead of red, suffusing everything in a golden glow.
Opposite him was a curtain, rather like that through which he had entered. Near to the curtain was a bed, whose great wooden posts were cracked with age. And it was at the bed he stared, with eyes that took in every detail but refused to believe.
In spite of its age it was spread with fine new linen. Richly embroidered, not very ancient Indian draperies hung down from it to the floor on either side. On it, above the linen, a man and a woman lay hand-in-hand; and the woman was so exactly like Yasmini, even to her clothing, and her naked feet, that it was not possible for a man to be self-possessed.
They both seemed asleep. It was as if Yasmini, weary from the dancing, had laid herself to sleep beside her lord. But who was he? And why did he wear Roman armor? And why was there no guard to keep intruders out?
It was minutes before he satisfied himself that the man's breast did not rise and fall under the bronze armor and that the woman's jeweled gauzy stuff was still. Imagination played such tricks with him that in the stillness he imagined he heard breathing.
After be was sure they were both dead, be went nearer, but it was a minute yet before he knew the woman was not she. At first a wild thought possessed him that she had killed herself.
The only thing to show who he had been were the letters S. P. Q. R. on a great plumed helmet, on a little table by the bed. But she was the woman of the lamp-bowls and the frieze. A life-size stone statue in a corner was so like her, and like Yasmini too, that it was difficult to decide which of the two it represented.
She had lived when he did, for her fingers were locked in his. And he had lived two thousand years ago, because his armor was about as old as that, and for proof that be had died in it part of his breast had turned to powder inside the breastplate. The rest of his body was whole and perfectly preserved.
Stern, handsome in a high-beaked Roman way, gray on the temples, firm-lipped, he lay like an emperor in harness. But the pride and resolution on his face were outdone by the serenity of hers. Very surely those two had been lovers.