Something—he could not decide what—about the man's appearance kept him staring for ten minutes, holding his breath unconsciously and letting it out in little silent gasps. It annoyed him that he could not pin down the elusive thing; and when be went on presently to be curious about more tangible things, it was only to be faced with the unexplainable at every turn.
How had the bodies been preserved, for instance? They were perfect, except for that one detail of the man's breast. The air was full of the perfume he had learned to recognize as Yasmini's, but there was no sniff about the bodies of pitch or bitumen, or of any other chemical. Nor was there any sign of violence about them, or means of telling how they died, or when, except for the probable date of the man's armor. Both of them looked young and healthy—the woman younger than thirty— twenty-five at a guess—and the man perhaps forty, perhaps forty-five.
He bent over them. Every stitch of the man's clothing had decayed in the course of centuries, so that his armor rested on the naked skin, except for a dressed leather kilt about his middle. The leather was as old as the curtains at the entrance, and as well preserved.
But the woman's silken clothing was as new as the bedding; and that was so new that it had been woven in Belfast, Ireland, by machinery and bore the mark of the firm that made it!
Yet, they both died at about the same time, or how could their fingers have been interlaced? And some of the jewelry on the woman's clothes was very ancient as well as priceless.
He looked closer at the fingers for signs of force and suddenly caught his breath. Under the woman's flimsy sleeve was a wrought gold bracelet, smaller than that one he himself had worn in Delhi and up the Khyber—exactly like the little one that Yasmini wore on her wrist in the Cavern of Earth's Drink! He raised the loose sleeve to look more closely at it.
The sleeve overlay the man's forearm, and the movement laid bare another bracelet, on the man's right wrist. Size for size, this was the same as the one that had been stolen from himself.
Memory prompted him. He felt its outer edge with a finger-nail. There was the little nick that he had made in the soft gold when he struck it against the cell bars in the jail at the Mir Khan Palace!
That put another thought in his head. It was less than two hours since Yasmini danced in the arena. It might well be much less than that since she had taken off her bracelets. He laid a finger on the dead man's stone-cold hand and let it rest so for a minute. Then, running it slowly up the wrist, he touched the gold. It was warm. He repeated the test on the woman's wrist. Hers was warm, too. Both bracelets had been worn by a living being within an hour—
"Probably within minutes!"
He muttered and frowned in thought, and then suddenly jumped backward. The leather curtain near the bed had moved on its bronze rod.
"Aren't they dears?" a voice said in English behind him. "Aren't they sweet?"
He had jumped so as to face about, and somebody laughed at him. Yasmini stood not two arms' lengths away, lovelier than the dead woman because of the merry life in her, young and warm, aglow, but looking like the dead woman and the woman of the frieze—the woman of the lamp—bowls—the statue—come to life, speaking to him in English more sweetly than if it had been her mother tongue. The English abuse their language. Yasmini caressed it and made it do its work twice over.
Being dressed as a native, he salaamed low. Knowing him for what he was, she gave him the senna-stained tips of her warm fingers to kiss, and he thought she trembled when he touched them. But a second later she had snatched them away and was treating him to raillery.
"Man of pills and blisters!" she said, "tell me how those bodies are preserved! Spill knowledge from that learned skull of thine!"
He did not answer. He never shone in conversation at any time, having made as many friends as enemies by saying nothing until the spirit moves him. But she did not know that yet.
"If I knew for certain why those two did not turn to worms," she went on, "almost I would choose to die now, while I am beautiful! Think of the fogy museum men! (She called them by a far less edifying name, really, for the East is frank in that way, especially in its use of other tongues.) "What would they say, think you, King sahib, if they found us two dead beside those two? Would not that be a mystery? Don't you love mysteries? Speak, man, speak! Has Khinjan struck you dumb?"
But he did not speak. He was staring at her arm, where two whitish marks on the skin betrayed that bracelets had been.
"Oh, those! They are theirs. I would not rob the dead, or the gods would turn on me. I robbed you, instead, while you slept. Fie, King sahib, while you slept!"
But her steel did not strike on flint. It was her eyes that flashed. He would have done better to have seemed ashamed, for then he might have fooled her, at least for a while. But having judged himself, he did not care a fig for her judgment of him. She realized that instantly and having found a tool that would not work, discarded it for a better one. She grew confidential.
"I borrow them," she explained, "but I put them back. I take them for so many days, and when the day comes—the gods like us to be exact! Once there was an Englishman to whom I lent the larger one, and he refused to return it. He wanted it to wear, to bring him luck. Collins, of the Gurkhas. A cobra bit him."
King's eyes changed, for Collins of the Gurkhas had died in his two arms, saying never a word. He had always wondered why the native who ran in to kill the cobra had run away again and left Collins lying there after seeming to shake hands with him. Yasmini, watching his eyes and reading his memory, missed nothing.
"You saw?" she said excitedly. "You remember? Then you understand! You yourself were near death when I took the bracelet last night. The time was up. I would have stabbed you if you had tried to prevent me!"
Now he spoke at last and gave her a first glimpse of an angle of his mind she had not suspected.
"Princess," he said. He used the word with the deference some men can combine with effrontery, so that very tenderness has barbs. "You might have had that thing back if you had sent a messenger for it at any time. A word by a servant would have been enough.
"You could never have reached Khinjan then!" she retorted. Her eyes flashed again, but his did not waver.
"Princess," he said, "why speak of what you don't know?"
He thought she would strike like a snake, but she smiled at him instead. And when Yasmini has smiled on a man he has never been just the same man afterward. He knows more, for one thing. He has had a lesson in one of the finer arts.
"I will speak of what I do know," she said. "No, there is no need. Look! Look!"
She pointed at the bed—at the man on the bed—fingers locked in those of a woman who looked so like herself.
"You see—yet you do not see! Men are blind! Men look into a mirror, and see only whiskers they forgot to shave the day before. Women look once and then remember! Look again!"
He looked, knowing well there was something to be understood, that stared him in the face. But for the life of him he could not determine question or answer.
"What is in your bosom?" she asked him.
He put his band to his shirt.
"Draw it out!" she said, as a teacher drills a child.
He drew out the gold-hilted knife with the bronze blade, with which a man had meant to murder him. He let it lie on the palm of his hand and looked from it to her and back again. The hilt might have been a portrait of her modeled from the life.
"Here is another like it," she said, stepping to the bedside. She drew back the woman's dress at the bosom and showed a knife exactly like that in King's hand. "One lay on her bosom and one on his when I found them!" she said. "Now, think again!"
He did think, of thirty thousand possibilities, and of one impossible idea that stood up prominent among them all and insisted on seeming the only likely one.
"I saw the knife in your bosom last night," she said, "and laughed so that I nearly wakened you. Man! Are you stupid? Will that ready wit of yours not work? Have I bewildered you? Is it my perfume? My eyes? My jewels? What is it? Think, man! Think!"
But if she wanted to make him guess aloud for her amusement she was wasting time. Had he known the answer he would have held his tongue. As he did not know it, he had all the more reason to wait indefinitely, if need be. But interminable waiting was no part of her plan. Words were welling out of her.
"I gave a fool that knife to use, because he was afraid. It gave him courage. When he failed I knew it by telegram, and I sent another fool before the wires were cold, to kill him in the police- station cell for having failed. One fool has been stabbed and the English will hang the other. Then I sent twenty men to turn India inside out and find the knife again, for like the bracelets it has its place. And that is why I laughed. They are hunting. They will hunt until I call them off!"
"Why didn't you take it with the bracelet?" King asked her, holding it out. "Take it now. I don't want it."
She accepted it and laid it on the man's bronze armor. Then, however, she resumed it and played with it.
"Look again!" she said. "Think and look again!"
He looked, and he knew now. But he still preferred that she should tell him, and his lips shut tight.
"Why, having ordered your death, did I countermand the order when your life had been attempted once? Why, as soon as Rewa Gunga had seen you, did I order you to be aided in every way?"
Still he did not answer, although the solution to that riddle, too, was beginning to dawn on his consciousness. He suspected she would be annoyed if he deprived her of the fun of telling him, so that by being silent he played both her game and his own.
"Why did I order your death in the first place?"
The answer to that was obvious, but she answered it for him.
"Because, since the sirkar insisted that one man must come with me to Khinjan, I preferred a fool, who could be lost on the way. I knew your reputation. I never heard any man call you a fool."
She laughed. He nodded. She was obviously telling truth.
"Can you guess why I changed my mind about you—wise man?"
She looked from him to the man on the bed and back to him again. Having solved her riddle, King had leisure to be interested in her eyes, and watched them analytically, like a jeweler appraising diamonds. They were strangely reminiscent, but much more changeable and colorful than any he had ever seen. They had the baffling trick of changing while he watched them.
"Having sent a man to kill you, why did I cease to want you killed? Instead of losing you on the way to Khinjan, why did I run risks to protect you after you reached here? Why did I save your life in the Cavern of Earth's Drink to-night? You do not know yet? Then I will tell you something else you do not know. I was in Delhi when you were! I watched and listened while you and Rewa Gunga talked in my house! I was in Rewa Gunga's carriage on the train that he took and you did not! I have learned at first hand that you are not a fool. But that was not enough! You had to be three things—clever and brave and one other. The one other you are! Brave you have proved yourself to be! Clever you must be, to trick your way into Khinjan Caves, even with Ismail at your elbow! That is why I saved your life—because you are those two things and—and— one other!"
She snatched a mirror from a little ivory table—a modern mirror— bad glass, bad art, bad workmanship, but silver warranted.
"Look in it and then at him!" she ordered.
But he did not need to look. The man on the bed was not so much like himself as the woman was like her, but the resemblance seemed to grow under his eyes, as such things do. It was helped out by the stain his brother had applied to his face in the Khyber. King was the taller and the younger by several years, but the noses were the same, and the wrinkled fore-heads; both men had the same firm mouth; both looked like Romans.
"How did you get that scar?"
She came closer and took his hand, holding it in both hers, and he felt the same thrill Samson knew. He steeled himself as Samson did not.
"A Mahsudi got me with a martini at long range in the blockade of 1902," he said dryly.
"Look! Did he get his from a spear or from an arrow?"
Almost in the same spot, also on the dead man's left hand, was a scar so nearly like it that it needed a third and a fourth glance to tell the difference. They both bent over the bed to see it, and she laid a hand on his shoulder. Touch and scent and confidence, all three were bewitching; all three were calculated, too! He could have killed her, and she knew he could have killed her, just as she knew he would not. Yet what right had she to know it!
She pronounced his given name as if she loved the word, standing straight again and looking into his eyes. There were high lights in hers that outgleamed the diamonds on her dress. "Your gods and mine have done this, Athelstan. When the gods combine they lay plans well indeed!"
"I only know one God," he answered simply, as a man speaks of the deep things in his heart.
"I know of many! They love me! They shall love you, too! Many are better than one! You shall learn to know my gods, for we are to be partners, you and I!"
She laughed at him, looking like a goddess herself, but he frowned. And the more he frowned the better she seemed to like him.
"Partners in what, Princess?"
"Thou—Ismail dubbed thee Ready o' wit!—answer thine own question!"
She took his hand again, her eyes burning with excitement and mysticism and ambition like a fever. She seemed to take more than physical possession of him.
"What brought them here? Tell me that!" she demanded, pointing to the bed. "You think he brought, her? I tell you she was the spur that drove him! Is it a wonder that men called her the 'Heart of the Hills'? I found them ten years ago and clothed her and put new linen on their bed, for the old was all rags and dust. There have always been hundreds—and sometimes thousands—who knew the secret of Khinjan Caves, but this has been a secret within a secret. Some one, who knew the secret before I, sawed those bracelets through and fitted hinges and clasps. The men you saw in the Cavern of Earth's Drink have no doubt I am the 'Heart of the Hills' come to life! They shall know thee as Him within a little while!" She held his hand a little tighter and pressed closer to him, laughing softly. He stood as if made of iron, and that only made her laugh the more.
"Tales of the 'Heart of the Hills' have puzzled the Raj, haven't they, these many years? They sent me to find the source of them. Me! They chose well! There are not many like me! I have found this one dead woman who was like me. And in ten years, until you came, I have found no man like Him!"
She tried to look into his eyes, but he frowned straight in front of him. His native costume and Rangar turban did not make him seem any less a man. His jowl, that was beginning to need shaving, was as grim and as satisfying as the dead Roman's. She stroked his left hand with soft fingers.
"I used to think I knew how to dance!" she laughed—"For ten years I have taken those pictures of her for my model and have striven to learn what she knew. I have surpassed her! I used to think I knew how to amuse myself with men's dreams—until I found this! Then I dreamed on my own account! My dream was true, my warrior! You have come! Our hour has come!"
She tugged at his hand. He was hers, soul and harness, if outward signs could prove it.
"Come!" she said. "Is this my hospitality? You are weary and hungry. Come!"
She led him by the hand, for it would have needed brute force to pry her fingers loose. She drew aside the leather curtain that hung on a bronze rod near the bed, led him through it, and let it clash to again behind them.
Now they were in the dark together, and it was not comprehended in her scheme of things to let circumstance lie fallow. She pressed his hand, and sighed, and then hurried, whispering tender words he could scarcely catch. When they burst together through a curtain at the other end of a passage in the rock, his skin was red under the tan and for the first time her eyes refused to meet his.
"Why did they choose that cave to sleep in?" she asked him. "Is not this a better one? Who laid them there?"
He stared about. They were in a great room far more splendid than the first. There was a fountain in the center splashing in the midst of flowers. They were cut flowers. The "Hills" must have been scoured for them within a day.
There were great cushioned couches all about and two thrones made of ivory and gold. Between two couches was a table, laden with golden plates and a golden jug, on pure white linen. There were two goblets of beaten gold and knives with golden handles and bronze blades. The whole room seemed to be drenched in the scent Yasmini favored, and there was the same frieze running round all four walls, with the woman depicted on it dancing.
"Come, we shall eat!" she said, leading him by the hand to a couch. She took the one facing him, and they lay like two Romans of the Empire with the table in between.
She struck a golden gong then, and a native woman came in who stared at King as if she had seen him before and did not like him. Except for the jewels, she was dressed exactly like Yasmini, which is to say that her gauzy stuff was all but transparent. But Yasmini uses raiment as she does her eyes; it is part of her, and of her art. The maid, who would have shone among many women, looked stiff and dull by contrast.
"I trust no Hill woman—they are cattle with human tongues," Yasmini said, frowning at the maid. "Even in Delhi there was only this one woman whom I dared bring here with me. You brought my men- servants! They are loyal, but as clumsy as the bears in their cold 'Hills'! Rewa Gunga brought me this one disguised as a man— you remember?"
She nodded to the servant, who clapped her hands. At once came a stream of Hillmen, robed in white, who carried sherbet in bottles cooled in snow and dishes fragrant with hot food. He recognized his own prisoners from the Mir Khan Palace jail, and nodded to them as they set the things down under the maid's direction. When they had done the woman chased them out and came and stood behind Yasmini with a fan, for though it was not too hot, she liked to have her golden hair blown into movement.
"My cook was a viceroy's," she said, beginning to eat. "He killed an officer who said the curry had pig's fat in it. That made him free of Khinjan but of not many other places! I have promised him a swim in Earth's Drink when he ever forgets his art!"
King ate, because a man can not talk and eat at once. It was true that he was hungry, that hunger is a piquant sauce, and that artist was an adjective too mild to apply to the cook. But the other reason was his chief one. Yasmini ate daintily, as if only to keep him company.
"You would rather have wine?" she asked suddenly. "All sahibs drink wine. Bring wine!" she ordered.
But King shook his head, and she looked pleased.
He had thought she would be disappointed. When he had finished eating she drove the maid away with a sharp word; and when King jumped to his feet she led him toward the gold-and-ivory thrones, taking her seat on one of them and bidding him adjust the footstool.
"Would I might offer you the other!" she said, merrily enough, "but you must sit at my feet until our hearts are one!"
It was clear that she took no delight in easy victories, for she laughed aloud at the quizzical expression on his face. He guessed that if she could have conquered him at the first attempt a day would have found her weary of him; there was deliberate wisdom in his plan for the present to seem to let her win by little inches at a time. He reasoned that so she would tell him more than if he defied her outright.
He brought an ivory footstool and set it about a yard away from her waxen toes. And she, watching him with burning eyes, wound tresses of her hair around the golden dagger handle, making her jewels glitter with each movement.
"You pleased me by refusing wine," she said. "You please me—oh, you please me! Christians drink wine and eat beef and pig-meat. Ugh! Hindu and Muslim both despise them, having each a little understanding of his own. The gods of India, who are the only real gods, what do they think of it all! They have been good to the English, but they have had no thanks. They will stand aside now and watch a greater jihad than the world has ever seen! And the Hindu, who holds the cow sacred, will not support Christians who hold nothing sacred, against Muhammadans who loathe the pig! Christianity has failed! The English must go down with it—just as Rome went down when she dabbled in Christianity. Oh, I know all about Rome!"
"And the gods of India?" he asked, to keep her to the point now that she seemed well started.
He was there to learn, not to teach.
"I know them, too! I know them as nobody else does! They are neither Hindu, nor Muhammadan, but are older by a thousand ages than either foolishness! I love them, and they love me—as you shall love me, too! If they did not love both of us, we would not both be here! We must obey them!"
None of the East's amazing ways of courtship are ever tedious. Love springs into being on an instant and lives a thousand years inside an hour. She left no doubt as to her meaning. She and King were to love, as the East knows love, and then the world might have just what they two did not care to take from it.
His only possible course as yet was the defensive, and there is no defense like silence. He was still.
"The sirkar," she went on, "the silly sirkar fears that perhaps Turkey may enter the war. Perhaps a jihad may be proclaimed. So much for fear! I know! I have known for a very long time! And I have not let fear trouble me at all!"
Her eyes were on his steadily, and she read no fear in his, either, for none was there. In hers he saw ambition—triumph already— excitement—the gambler's love of all the hugest risks. Behind them burned genius and the devilry that would stop at nothing. As the general had told him in Peshawur, she would dare open Hell's gate and ride the devil down the Khyber for the fun of it.
"Au diable, diable et demie!" the French say; and like most French proverbs it is a wise one. But whence the devil and a half should come to thwart her was not obvious.
"I must be a devil and a half," he told himself, and very nearly laughed aloud at the idea. She mistook the sudden humor in his eyes for admiration of herself, being used to that from men.
"Listen, while I tell you all from the beginning! The sirkar sent me to discover what may be this 'Heart of the Hills' men talk about. I found these caves—and this! I told the sirkar a little about the Caves, and nothing at all about the Sleepers. But even at that they only believed the third of what I said. And I—back in Delhi I bought books—borrowed books—sent to Europe for more books—and hired babu Sita Ram to read them to me, until his tongue grew dry and swollen and he used to fall asleep in a corner. I know all about Rome! Days I spent—weeks!—months!—listening to the history of their great Caesar, and their little Caesars—of their conquests and their games! It was good, and I understood it all! Rome should have been true to the old gods, and they would have been true to her! She fell when she fooled with Christianity!"
She was speaking dreamily now, with her chin resting on a hand and an elbow on the ivory arm of the throne, remembering as she told her story. And it meant so much to her, she was so in earnest, that her voice conjured up pictures for King to see.
"When I had read enough I came back here to think. I knew enough now to be sure that the Sleeper is a Roman, and the 'Heart of the Hills' a Grecian maid. She is like me. That is why I know she drove him to make an empire, choosing for a beginning these 'Hills' where Rome had never penetrated. He found her in Greece. He plunged through Persia to build a throne for her! I have seen it all in dreams, and again in the crystal! And because I was all alone, I saw that I would need all the skill I could learn, and much patience. So I began to learn to dance as she danced, using those pictures of her as a model. I have surpassed her! I can dance better than she ever did!
"Between times I would go to Delhi and dance there a little, and a little in other places—once indeed before a viceroy, and once for the king of England—and all men—the king, too!—told me that none in the world can dance as I can! And all the while I kept looking for the man—the man who should be like the Sleeper, even as I am like her whom be loved!
"Many a man—many and many a man I have tried and found wanting! For I was impatient in spite of resolutions. I burned to find him at once, and begin! But you are the first of all the men I have tested who answered all the tests! Languages—he must speak the native tongues. Brave be must be—and clever—resembling the Sleeper in appearance. I began to think long ago that I must forego that last test, for there was none like the Sleeper until you came. And when this world war broke—for it is a world war, a world war I tell you!—I thought at last that I must manage all alone. And then you came!
"But there were many I tried—many—especially after I abandoned the thought that the man must resemble the Sleeper. There was a Prince of Germany who came to India on a hunting trip. You remember?"
King pricked his ears and allowed himself to grin, for in common with many hundred other men who had been lieutenants at the time, he would once have given an ear and an eye to know the truth of that affair. The grin transformed his whole appearance, until Yasmini beamed on him.
"I'm listening, Princess!" he reminded her.
"Well—he came—the Prince of Germany—the borrower!"
"Borrower of what, Princess?"
"Of wit! Of brains! Of platitudes! Of reputation! There came a crowd with him of such clumsy plunderers, asking such rude questions, that even the sirkar could not shut its ears and eyes!
"I did not know all about sahibs in those days. I thought that, although this man is what he is, yet he is a prince, and perhaps I can fire him with my genius. I could have taught him the native tongues. I thought he had ambition, but I learned that he is only greedy. You see, I was foolish, not knowing yet that in good time if I am patient my man will come to me! But I learned all about Germans—all!
"I offered him India first, then Asia, then the world—even as I now offer them to you. The sirkar sent him to see me dance, and he stayed to hear me talk. When I saw at last that he has the head and heart of a hyena I told him lies. But he, being drunk, told me truths that I have remembered.
"Later be sent two of his officers to ask me questions, and they were little better than he, although a little better mannered. I told them lies, too, and they told me lies, but they told me much that was true.
"Then the prince came again, a last time. And I was weary of him. The sirkar was very weary of him too. He offered me money to go to Germany and dance for the kaiser in Berlin. He said I will be shown there much that will be to my advantage. I refused. He made me other offers. So I spat in his face and threw food at him.
"He complained to the sirkar against me, sending one of his high officers to demand that I be whipped. So I told the sirkar some— not much, indeed, but enough—of the things he and his officers had told me. And the sirkar said at once that there was both cholera and bubonic plague, and he must go home!
"I have heard—three men told me—that he said he will never rest until I have been whipped! But I have heard that his officers laughed behind his back. And ever since that time there have always been Germans in communication with me. I have had more money from Berlin than would bribe the viceroy's council, and I have not once been in the dark about Germany's plans—although they have always thought I am in the dark.
"I went on looking for my man—studying all, Germans, English, Turks, French—and there was a Frenchman whom I nearly chose—and an American, a man who used the strangest words, who laughed at me. I studied Hindu, Muslim, Christian, every good-looking fighting man who came my way, knowing well that all creeds are one when the gods have named their choice.
"There came that old Bull-with-a-beard, Muhammad Anim, and for a time I thought he is the man, for he is a man whatever else he is. But I tired of him. I called him Bull-with-a-beard, and the 'Hills' took it up and mocked him, until the new name stuck. He still thinks he is the man, having more strength to hope and more will to will wrongly than any man I ever met, except a German. I have even been sure sometimes that Muhammad Anim is a German; yet now I am not sure.
"From all the men I met and watched I have learned all they knew! And I have never neglected to tell the sirkar sufficient of what men have told me, to keep the sirkar pleased with me!
"Nor have I ever played Germany's game—no, no! I have talked with a prince of Germany, and I understand too well! Who sups with a boar may get good roots to eat, but must endure pigs' feet in the trough! Pigs' hides make good saddles; I have used the Germans, as they think they have used me! I have used them ruthlessly.
"Knowing all I knew, and being ready except that I had not found my man yet, I dallied in India on the eve of war, watching a certain Sikh to discover whether he is the man or not. But he lacked imagination, and I was caught in Delhi when war broke and the English dosed the Khyber Pass. Yet I had to come up the Khyber, to reach Khinjan.
"So it was fortunate that I knew of a German plot that I could spoil at the last minute. I fooled the Germans by letting the Sikh whom I had watched discover it. The Germans still believe me their accomplice—and the sirkar was so pleased that I think if I had asked for an English peerage they would have answered me soberly. A million dynamite bombs was a big haul for the sirkar! My offer to go to Khinjan and keep the 'Hills' quiet was accepted that same day!
"But what are a million dynamite bombs! Dynamite bombs have been coming into Khinjan month by month these three years! Bombs and rifles and cartridges! Muhammad Anim's men, whom be trusts because he must, hid it all in a cave I showed them, that they think, and he thinks, has only one entrance to it. Muhammad Anim scaled it, and he has the key. But I have the ammunition!
"There was another way out of that cave, although there is none now, for I have blocked it. My men, whom I trust because I know them, carried everything out by the back way, and I have it all. I will show it to you presently.
"I know all Muhammad Anim's plans. Bull-with-a-beard believes himself a statesman, yet he told me all he knows! He has told me how Germany plans to draw Turkey in and to force Turkey to proclaim a jihad. As if I did not know it first, almost before the Germans knew it! Fools! The jihad will recoil on them! It will be like a cobra, striking whoever stirs it! A typhoon, smiting right and left! Christianity is doomed, and the Germans call themselves Christians! Fools! Rome called herself Christian—and where is Rome?
"But we, my warrior, when Muhammad Anim gets the word from Germany and gives the sign, and the 'Hills' are afire, and the whole East roars in the flame of the jihad—we will put ourselves at the head of that jihad, and the East and the world is ours!"
King smiled at her.
"The East isn't very well armed," he objected. "Mere numbers—"
"Numbers?" She laughed at him. "The West has the West by the throat! It is tearing itself! They will drag in America! There will be no armed nation with its hands free—and while those wolves fight, other wolves shall come and steal the meat! The old gods, who built these caverns in the 'Hills,' are laughing! They are getting ready! Thou and I—"
As she coupled him and herself together in one plan she read the changed expression of his face—the very quickly passing cloud that even the best-trained man can not control.
"I know!" she asserted, sitting upright and coming out of her dream to face facts as their master. She looked more lovely now than ever, although twice as dangerous. "You are thinking of your brother— of his head! That I am a murderess who can never be your friend! Is that not so?"
He did not answer, but his eyes may have betrayed something, for she looked as if he had struck her. Leaning forward, she held the gold-hilted dagger out to him, hilt first.
"Take it and stab me!" she ordered. "Stab—if you blame me for your brother's death! I should have known him for your brother if I had come on him in the dark!—His head might have come from your shoulders!—You were like a man holding up his own head, as I have seen in pictures in a book! I would never have killed him!"
Her golden hair fell all about his shoulders, and its scent was not intended to be sobering. She ran warm fingers through his hair while she held the knife toward him with the other hand.
"Take it and stab!"
"No," he said.
"No!" she laughed. "No! You are my warrior—my man—my well— beloved! You have come to me alone out of all the world! You would no more stab me than the gods would forget me!"
Their eyes were on each other's—deep looking into deep.
"Strength!" she said, flinging him away and leaning back to look at him, almost as a fed cat stretches in the sunlight. "Courage! Simplicity! Directness! Strength I have, too, and courage never failed me, but my mind is a river winding in and out, gathering as it goes. I have no directness—no simplicity! You go straight from point to point, my sending from the gods! I have needed you! Oh, I have needed you so much, these many years! And now that you have come you want to hate me because you think I killed your brother! Listen—I will tell you all I know about your brother."'
Without a scrap of proof of any kind he knew she was telling truth unadorned—or at least the truth as she saw it. Eye to eye, there are times when no proof is needed.
"Without my leave, Muhammad Anim sent five hundred men on a foray toward the Khyber. Bull-with-a-beard needed an Englishman's head, for proof for a spy of his who could not enter Khinjan Caves. They trapped your brother outside Ali Masjid with fifty of his men. They took his head after a long fight, leaving more than a hundred of their own in payment.
"Bull-with-a-beard was pleased. But he was careless, and I sent my men to steal the head from his men. I needed evidence for you. And I swear to you —I swear to you by my gods who have brought us two together—that I first knew it was your brother's head when you held it up in the Cavern of Earth's Drink! Then I knew it could not be anybody else's head!"
"Why bid me throw it to them, then?" he asked her, and he was aware of her scorn before the words had left his lips.
She leaned back again and looked at him through lowered eyes, as if she must study him all anew. She seemed to find it hard to believe that he really thought so in the commonplace.
"What is a head to me, or to you—a head with no life in it—carrion!— compared to what shall be? Would you have known it was his head if you had thrown it to them when I ordered you?"
He understood. Some of her blood was Russian, some Indian.
"A friend is a friend, but a brother is a rival," says the East, out of world-old experience, and in some ways Russia is more eastern than the East itself.
"Muhammad Anim shall answer to you for your brother's head!" she said with a little nod, as if she were making concessions to a child. "At present we need him. Let him preach his jihad, and loose it at the right time. After that he will be in the way! You shall name his death—Earth's Drink—slow torture—fire! Will that content you?"
"No," he said, with a dry laugh.
"What more can you ask?"
"Less! My brother died at the head of his men. He couldn't ask more. Let Bull-with-a-beard alone."
She set both elbows on her knees and laid her chin on both hands to stare at him again. He began to remember long-forgotten schoolboy lore about chemical reagents, that dissolve materials into their component parts, such was the magic of her eyes. There were no eyes like hers that he had ever seen, although Rewa Gunga's had been something like them. Only Rewa Gunga's had not changed so. Thought of the Rangar no sooner crossed his mind than she was speaking of him. "Rewa Gunga met you in the dark, beyond those outer curtains, did he not?"
"Did he tell you that if you pass the curtains you shall be told all I know?"
He nodded again, and she laughed.
"It would take time to tell you all I know! First, I think I will show you things. Afterward you shall ask me questions, and I will answer them!'
She stood up, and of course he stood up, too. So, she on the footstool of the throne, her eyes and his were on a level. She laid hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes until he could see his own twin portraits in hers that were glowing sunset pools. Heart of the Hills? The Heart of all the East seemed to bum in her, rebellious!
"Are you believing me?" she asked him.
He nodded, for no man could have helped believing her. As she knew the truth, she was telling it to him, as surely as she was doing her skillful best to mesmerize him. But the Secret Service is made up of men trained against that.
"Come!" she said, and stepping down she took his arm.
She led him past the thrones to other leather curtains in a wall, and through them into long hewn passages from cavern into cavern, until even the Rock of Gibraltar seemed like a doll's house in comparison.
In one cave there were piles of javelins that had been stacked there by the Sleeper and his men. In another were sheaves of arrows; and in one were spears in racks against a wall. There were empty stables, with rings made fast into the rock where a hundred horses could have stood in line.
She showed him a cave containing great forges, where the bronze had been worked, with charcoal still piled up against the wall at one end. There were copper and tin ingots in there of a shape he had never seen.
"I know where they came from," she told him. "I have made it my business to know all the 'Hills.' I know things the Hillmen's great-great-great-grand-fathers forgot! I know old workings that would make a modem nation rich! We shall have money when we need it, never fear! We shall conquer India while the English backs are turned and the best troops are oversea. We will bring a hundred thousand slaves back here to work our mines! With what they dig from the mines, copper and gold and tin, we will make ready to buy the English off when they are free to turn this way again. The English will do anything for money! They will be in debt when this war is over, and their price will be less then than now!"
She laughed merrily at him because his face showed that he did not appreciate that stricture. Then she called him her Warrior and her Well-beloved and took him down a long passage, holding his hand all the way, to show him slots cut in the floor for the use of archers.
"You entered Khinjan Caves by a tunnel under this floor, Well-beloved. There is no other entrance!"
By this time Well-beloved was her name for him, although there was no air of finality about it. It was as if she paved the way for use of Athelstan and that was a sacred name. It was amazing how she conveyed that impression without using words.
"The Sleeper cut these slots for his archers. Then he had another thought and set these cauldrons in place, to boil oil to pour down. Could any army force a way through by the route by which you entered?"
"No," he said, marveling at the ton-weight copper cauldrons, one to each hole.
"Even without rifles for the defense?"
"No," he said.
"And I have more than a thousand Mauser rifles here, and more than a million rounds of ammunition!"
"How did you get them?"
"I shall tell you that later. Come and see some other things. See and believe!"
She showed him a cave in which boxes were stacked in high square piles.
"Dynamite bombs!" she boasted. "How many boxes? I forget! Too many to count! Women brought them all the way from the sea, for even Muhammad Anim could not make Afridi riflemen carry loads. I have wondered what Bull-with-a-beard will say when he misses his precious dynamite!"
"You've enough in there to blow the mountain up!" King advised her. "If somebody fired a pistol in here, the least would be the collapse of this floor into the tunnel below with a hundred thousand tons of rock on top of it. There is no other way out?"
"Earth's Drink!" she said, and he made a grimace that set her to laughing.
But she looked at him darkly after that and he got the impression that the thought was not new to her, and that she did not thank him for the advice. He began to wonder whether there was anything she had not thought of—any loophole she had left him for escape— any issue she had not foreseen.
"Kill her!" a secret voice urged him. But that was the voice of the "Hills," that are violent first and regretful afterward. He did not listen to it. And then the wisdom of the West came to him, as epitomized by Cocker along the lines laid down by Solomon.
"It isn't possible to make a puzzle that has no solution to it. The fact that it's a puzzle is the proof that there's a key! Go ahead!"
It was the "Go ahead!" that Solomon omitted, and that makes Cocker such cheerful reading. King ceased conjecturing and gave full attention to his guide.
She showed him where eleven hundred Mauser rifles stood in racks in another cave, with boxes of ammunition piled beside them—each rifle and cartridge worth its weight in silver coin—a very rajah's ransom!
"The Germans are generous in some things—only in some things—very mean in others!" she told him. "They sent no medical stores, and no blankets!"
Past caves where provisions of every imaginable kind were stored, sufficient for an army, she led him to where her guards slept together with the thirty special men whom King had brought with him up the Khyber.
"I have five hundred others whom I dare trust to come in here," she said, "but they shall stay outside until I want them. A mystery is a good thing! It is good for them all to wonder what I keep in here! It is good to keep this sanctuary; it makes for power!"
Pressing very close to him, she guided him down another dark tunnel until he and she stood together in the jaws of the round hole above the river, looking down into the cavern of Earth's Drink.
Nobody looked up at them. The thousands were too busy working up a frenzy for the great jihad that was to come. Stacks of wood had been piled up, six-man high in the middle, and then fired. The heat came upward like a furnace blast, and the smoke was a great red cloud among the stalactites. Round and round that holocaust the thousands did their sword-dance, yelling as the devils yelled at Khinjan's birth. They needed no wine to craze them. They were drunk with fanaticism, frenzy, lust!
"The women brought that wood from fifty miles away!" Yasmini shouted in his ear; for the din, mingling with the river's voice, made a volcano chord. "It is a week's supply of wood! But so they are— so they will be! They will lay waste India! They will butcher and plunder and burn! It will be what they leave of India that we shall build anew and govern, for India herself will rise to help them lay her own cities waste! It is always so! Conquests always are so! Come!"
She tugged at him and led him back along the tunnel and through other tunnels to the throne room, where she made him sit at her feet again.
The food had been cleared away in their absence. Instead, on the ebony table there were pens and ink and paper.
She leaned back on her throne, with bare feet pressed tight against the footstool, staring, staring at the table and the pens, and then at King, as if she would compose an ultimatum to the world and send King to deliver it.
"I said I will tell you," she sad slowly. "Listen!"
Nothing new! Nothing new! Nowhere to hide when a reckoning's due, But right earns right, and wrong gets rue, With nothing deducted or given in lieu; And neither the War God, I, nor you Ever could make one lie come true! Vale, Ceasar!
As Yasmini herself had admitted, she headed from point to point after a manner of her own.
"You know where is Dar es Salaam?" she asked.
"East Africa," said King.
"How far is that from here?"
"Two or three thousand miles."
"And English war-ships watch the Persian Gulf and all the seas from India to Aden?"
"Have the English any ships that dive under water?"
He nodded again.
"In these waters?"
"I think not. I'm not sure, but I think not."
"The grenades you have seen, and the rifles and cartridges were sent by the Germans to Dar es Salaam, to suppress a rising of African natives. Does it begin to grow clear to you, my friend?"
He smiled as well as nodded this time.
"Muhammad Anim used to wait with a hundred women at a certain place on the seashore. What he found on the beach there he made the women carry on their heads to Khinjan. And by the time be had hidden what he found and returned from Khinjan to the beach, there were more things to find and bring. So they worked, he and the Germans, for I know not how long—with the English watching the seas as on land lean wolves comb the valleys.
"Did you ever hear of the big whale in the Gulf?"
"No," said King. That was natural. There are as a rule about as many whales as salmon in the Persian Gulf.
"A German who came to me in Delhi—he who first showed me pictures of an underwater ship—said that at that time the officers and crew of one such ship were getting great practise. Do you suppose their practise made whales take refuge in the Gulf?"
"How should I know, Princess?"
"Because I heard a story later, of an English cruiser on its way up the Gulf, that collided with a whale. The shock of hitting it bent many steel plates, and the cruiser had to put back for repair. It must have been a very big whale, for there was much oil on the sea for a long time afterward. So I heard.
"And no more dynamite came—nor rifles—nor cartridges, although the Germans bad promised more. And orders for Muhammad Anim that had been said to come by sea came now by way of Bagdad, carried by pilgrims returning from the holy places. I know that because I intercepted a letter and threw its bearer into Earth's Drink to save Muhammad Anim the trouble of asking questions."
"What were the terms of the German bargain?" King asked her. "What stipulations did they make?"
"With the tribes? None! They were too wise. A jihad was decided on in Germany's good time; and when that time should come ten rifles in the 'Hills' and a thousand cartridges would mean not only a hundred dead Englishmen, but ten times that number busily engaged. Why bargain when there was no need? A rifle is what it is. The 'Hills' are the 'Hills'!
"Tell me about your lamp oil, then," he said. "You burn enough oil in Khinjan Caves to light Bombay! That does not come by submarine. The sirkar knows how much of everything goes up the Khyber. I have seen the printed lists myself—a few hundred cans of kerosene—a few score gallons of vegetable oil, and all bound for farther north. There isn't enough oil pressed among the 'Hills' to keep these caves going for a day. Where does it all come from?"
She laughed, as a mother laughs at a child's questions, finding delicious enjoyment in instructing him.
"There are three villages, not two days' march from Khabul, where men have lived for centuries by pressing oil for Khinjan Caves," she said. "The Sleeper fetched his oil thence. There are the bones of a camel in a cave I did not show you, and beside the camel are the leather bags still in which the oil was carried. Nowadays it comes in second-hand cans and drums. The Sleeper left gold in here. Those who kept the Sleeper's secret paid for the oil in gold. No Afghan troubled why oil was needed, so long as gold paid for it, until Abdurrahman heard the story. He made a ten-year-long effort to learn the secret, but he failed. When he cut off the supply of oil for a time, there was A rebellion so close to Khabul gates that he thought better of it. Of gold and Abdurrahman, gold was the stronger. And I know where the Sleeper dug his gold!"
They sat in silence for a long while after that, she looking at the table, with its ink and pens and paper, and he thinking, with hands clasped round one knee; for it is wiser to think than to talk, even when a woman is near who can read thoughts that are not guarded.
"Most disillusionments come simply," King said at last. "D'you know, Princess, what has kept the sirkar from really believing in Khinjan Caves?"
She shook her head. "The gods!" she said. "The gods can blindfold governments and whole peoples as easily as they can make us see!"
"It was the fact that they knew what provisions and what oil and what necessities of life went up the Khyber and came down it. They knew a place such as this was said to be could not be. They knew it! They could prove it!"
"Let it be a lesson to you, Princess!"
She stared, and her fiery-opal eyes began to change and glow. She began to twist her golden hair round the dagger hilt again. But always her feet were still on the footstool of the throne, as if she knew—knew—knew that she stood on firm foundations. No sirkar ever doubted less than she, and the suggestions in King's little homily did not please her. She looked toward the table again—then again into his eyes.
"Athelstan!" she said. "It sounds like a king's name! What was the Sleeper's name? I have often wondered! I found no name in all the books about Rome that seemed to fit him. None of the names I mouthed could make me dream as the sight of him could. But, Athelstan! That is a name like a king's! It seems to fit him, too! Was there such a name, in Rome?"
"No," he said.
"What does it mean?" she asked him.
"Slow of resolution!" She clapped her hands.
"Another sign!" she laughed. "The gods love me! There always is a sign when I need one! Slow of resolution, art thou? I will speed thy resolution, Well-beloved! You were quick to change from King, of the Khyber Rifle Regiment, to Kurram Khan. Change now into my warrior—my dear lord—my King again!"
She rose, with arms outstretched to him. All her dancer's art, her untamed poetry, her witchery, were expressed in a movement. Her eyes melted as they met his. And since he stood up, too, for manner's sake, they were eye to eye again—almost lip to lip. Her sweet breath was in his nostrils.
In another moment she was in his arms, clinging to him, kissing him. And if any man has felt on his lips the kiss of all the scented glamour of the East, let him tell what King's sensations were. Let Ceasar, who was kissed by Cleopatra, come to life and talk of it!
King's arm is strong, and he did not stand like an idol. His head might swim, but she, too, tasted the delirium of human passion loosed and given for a mad swift minute. If his heart swelled to bursting, so must hers have done.
"I have needed you!" she whispered. "I have been all alone! I have needed you!"
Then her lips sought his again, and neither spoke.
Neither knew how long it was before she began to understand that he, not she, was winning. The human answer to her appeal was full. He gave her all she asked of admiration, kiss for kiss. And then—her arms did not cling so tightly, although his strong right arm was like a stanchion. Because be knew that he, not she, was winning, he picked her up in his arms and kissed her as if she were a child. And then, because he knew he had won, he set her on her feet on the footstool of the throne, and even pitied her.
She felt the pity. As she tossed the hair back over her shoulder her eyes glowed with another meaning—dangerous—like a tiger's glare.
"You pity me? You think because I love you, you can feed my love on a plate to the Indian government? You think my love is a weapon to use against me? Your love for me may wait for a better time? You are not so wise as I thought you, Athelstan!"
But he knew he had won. His heart was singing down inside him as it had not sung since he left India behind. But he stood quite humbly before her, for had he not kissed her?
"You think a kiss is the bond between us? You mistake! You forget! The kiss, my Athelstan, was the fruit, not the seed! The seed came first! If I loosed you—if I set you free—you would never dare go back to India!"
He scarcely heard her. He knew he had won. His heart was like a bird, fluttering wildly. He knew that the next step would be shown him, and for the present he had time and grace to pity her, knowing how he would have felt if she had won. Besides, he had kissed her, and he had not lied. Each kiss had been a tribute of admiration, for was she not splendid—amazing—more to be desired than wine? He stood with bowed head, lest the triumph in his eyes offend her. Yet if any one had asked him how he knew that he had won, he never could have told.
"If you were to go back to India except as its conqueror, they would strip the buttons from your uniform and tear your medals off and shoot you in the back against a wall! My signature is known in India and I am known. What I write will be believed. Rewa Gunga shall take a letter. He shall take two—four—witnesses. He shall see them on their way and shall give them the letter when they reach the Khyber and shall send them into India with it. Have no fear. Bull-with-a-beard shall not intercept them, as I have intercepted his men. When Rewa Gunga shall return and tell me he saw my letter on its way down the Khyber, then we shall talk again about pity—you and I! Come!"
She took his arm, as if her threats had been caresses. Triumph shone from her eyes. She tossed her brave chin and laughed at him, only encouraged to greater daring by his attitude.
"Why don't you kill me?" she asked, and though his answer surprised her, it did not make her angry.
"It would do no good," he said simply.
"Would you kill me if you thought it would do good?"
"Certainly!" he said.
She laughed at that as if it were the greatest joke she had ever heard. It set her in the best humor possible, and by the time they reached the ebony table and she had taken the pen and dipped it in the ink, she was chuckling to herself as if the one good joke had grown into a hundred.
She wrote in Urdu. It is likely that for all her knowledge of the spoken English tongue she was not so swift or ready with the trick of writing it. She had said herself that a babu read English books to her aloud. But she wrote in Urdu with an easy flowing hand, and in two minutes she had thrown sand on the letter and had given it to King to read. It was not like a woman's letter. It did not waste a word.
"Your Captain King has been too much trouble. He has taken money from the Germans. He adopted native dress. He called himself Kurram Khan. He slew his own brother at night in the Khyber Pass. These men will say that he carried the head to Khinjan, and their word is true, for I, Yasmini, saw. He used the head for a passport, to obtain admittance. He proclaims a jihad! He urges invasion of India! He held up his brother's head before five thousand men and boasted of the murder. The next you shall hear of your Captain King of the Khyber Rifles, he will be leading a jihad into India. You would have better trusted me. Yasmini."
He read it and passed it back to her.
"They will not disbelieve me," she said, triumphant as the very devil over a branded soul all hot. "They will be sure you are mad, and they will believe the witnesses!"
He bowed. She sealed the letter and addressed it with only a scrawled mark on its outer cover. That, by the way, was utter insolence, for the mark would be understood at any frontier post by the officer commanding.
"Rewa Gunga shall start with this to-day!" she said, with more amusement than malice. After that she was still for a moment, watching his eyes, at a loss to understand his carelessness. He seemed strangely unabased. His folded arms were not defiant, but neither were they yielding.
"I love you, Athelstan!" she said. "Do you love me?"
"I think you are very beautiful, Princess!"
"Beautiful? I know I am beautiful. But is that all?"
"Clever!" he added.
She began to drum with the golden dagger hilt on the table, and to look dangerous, which is not to infer by any means that she looked less lovely.
"Do you love me?" she asked.
"Forgive me, Princess, but you forget. I was born east of Mecca, but my folk were from the West. We are slower to love than some other nations. With us love is more often growth, less often surrender at first sight. I think you are wonderful."
She nodded and tucked the sealed letter in her bosom.
"It shall go," she said darkly, "and another letter with it. They looted your brother's body. In his pocket they found the note you wrote him, and that you asked him to destroy! That will be evidence. That will convince! Come!"
He followed her through leather curtains again and down the dark passage into the outer chamber; and the illusion was of walking behind a golden-haired Madonna to some shrine of Innocence. Her perfume was like incense; her manner perfect reverence. She passed into the cave where the two dead bodies lay like a high priestess performing a rite.
Walking to the bed, she stood for minutes, gazing at the Sleeper and his queen. And from the new angle from which King saw him the Sleeper's likeness to himself was actually startling. Startling— weird—like an incantation were Yasmini's words when at last she spoke.
"Muhammad lied! He lied in his teeth! His sons have multiplied his lie! Siddhattha, whom men have called Gotama, the Buddha, was before Muhammad and he knew more! He told of the wheel of things, and there is a wheel! Yet, what knew the Buddha of the wheel? He who spoke of Dharma (the customs of the law) not knowing Dharma! This is true—-Of old there was a wish of the gods—of the old gods. And so these two were. There is a wish again now of the old gods. So, are we two not as they two were? It is the same wish, and lo! We are ready, this man and!. We will obey, ye gods—ye old gods!"
She raised her arms and, going closer to the bed, stood there in an attitude of mystic reverence, giving and receiving blessings.
"Dear gods!" she prayed. "Dear old gods—older than these 'Hills'— show me in a vision what their fault was—why these two were ended before the end!
"I know all the other things ye have shown me. I know the world's silly creeds have made it mad, and it must rend itself, and this man and I shall reap where the nations sowed—if only we obey! Wherein, ye old dear gods, who love me, did these two disobey? I pray you, tell me in a vision!"
She shook her head and sighed. Sadness seemed to have crept over her, like a cold mist from the night. It was as if she could dimly see her plans foredoomed, and yet hoped on in spite of it. The fatalism that she scorned as Muhammad's lie held her in its grip, and her natural courage fought with it. Womanlike, she turned to King in that minute and confided to him her very inmost thoughts. And he, without an inkling as to how she must fail, yet knew that she must, and pitied her.
"Have you seen that breast under the armor?" she asked suddenly. "Come nearer! Come and look! Why did his breast decay and his body stay whole like hers? Did she kill him? Was that a dagger- stab in his breast? I found perfume in these caves—great jars of it, and I use it always. It is better than temple incense and all the breath of gardens in the spring! I have put it on slaughtered animals. Where the knife has touched them, they decay—as that man's breast did—but the rest of them remains undecaying year after year. It was a knife, I think, that pierced his breast. I think that scent is the preservative. Did she kill him? Was she jealous of him? How did she die? There is no mark on her! Athelstan—listen! I think he would have failed her! I think she stabbed him rather than see him fail, and then swallowed poison! Afterward their servants laid them there. She smiles in death because she knew the wheel will turn and that death dies too! He looks grim because he knew less than she. It is always woman who understands and man who fails! I think she stabbed him. She should have loved him better, and then there would have been no need. I will love you better than she loved him!"
She turned and devoured him with her eyes, so that it needed all his manhood to hold him back from being her slave that minute. For in that minute she left no charm unexercised—sex—mesmerisrn—beauty— flattery (her eyes could flatter as a dumb dog's flatter a huntsman!)— grace unutterable-mystery—she used every art on him she knew. Yet he stood the test.
"Even if you fail me, Well-beloved, I will love you! The gods who gave you to me will know how to make you love; and lessons are to learn. If you fail me I will forgive, knowing that in the end the gods will never let you fail me! You are mine, and Earth is ours, for the old gods intend it so!"
She seemed to expect him to take her in his arms again; but he stood respectfully and made no answer, nor any move. Grim and strong his jowl was, like the Sleeper's, and the dark hair three days old on it softened nothing of its lines. His Roman nose and steady, dark, full eyes suggested no compromise. Yet he was good to look at. She had not lied when she said she loved him, and he understood her and was sorry. But he did not look sorry, nor did he offer any argument to quench her love. He was a servant of the raj; his life and his love had been India's since the day he first buckled on his spurs, and Yasmini wouldn't have understood that.
Nor did she understand that, even supposing he had loved her with all his heart, not on any conditions would he have admitted it until absolutely free, any more than that if she crucified him he would love her the same, supposing that he loved her at all. Nor did she trust the "old gods" too well, or let them work unaided.
"Come with me, Athelstan!" she said. She took his arm—found little jeweled slippers in a closet hewn in the wall—put them on and led him to the curtains he had entered by. She led him through them, and, red as cardinals in lamplight on the other side, they stood hand-in-hand, back to the leather, facing the unfathomable dark. Her fingers were so strong that he could not have wrenched his own away without using the other hand to help.
"Where are your shoes?" she asked him.
"At the foot of these steps, Princess."
"Can you see them yonder in the dark?" "No."
"Can you guess where the darkness leads to?"
He shuddered and she chuckled.
"Could you return alone by the way Ismail brought you ?" "I think not."
"Will you try?"
"If I must. I am not afraid."
"You have heard the echo? Yes, I know you heard the echo. Hear it again!"
She raised her head and howled like a wolf—like a lone wolf that has found no quarry—melancholy, mean, grown reckless with his hunger. There was a pause of nearly a minute. Then in the hideous darkness a phantom wolf-pack took up the howl in chorus, and for three long minutes there was din beside which the voice of living wolves at war would be a slumber song. Ten times ghastlier than if it had been real, the chorus wailed and ululated back and forth along immeasurable distances—became one yell again—and went howling down into earth's bowels as if the last of a phantom pack were left behind and yelling to be waited for.
When it ceased at last King was sweating.
"Nor am I afraid," she laughed, squeezing his hand yet tighter.
She led him down the steps, and at the foot told him to put on his slippers, as if be were a child. Then, hurrying as if those opal eyes of hers were indifferent to dark or daylight, she picked her way among boulders that he could feel but not see, along a floor that was only smooth in places, for a distance that was long enough by two or three times to lose him altogether.
When he looked back there was no sign of red lights behind him. And when he looked forward, there was a dim outer light in front and a whiff of the cool fresh air that presages the dawn!
She led him through a gap on to a ledge of rock that hung thousands of feet above the home of thunder, a ledge less than six feet wide, less than twenty long, tilted back toward the cliff. There they sat, watching the stars. And there they saw the dawn come.
Morning looks down into Khinjan hours after the sun has risen, because the precipices shut it out. But the peaks on every side are very beacons of the range at the earliest peep of dawn. In silence they watched day's herald touch the peaks with rosy jeweled fingers—she waiting as if she expected the marvel of it all to make King speak.
It was cold. She came and snuggled close to him, and it was so they watched the sparkle of dawn's jewels die and the peaks grow gray again, she with an arm on his shoulder and strands of her golden hair blown past his face.
"Of what are you thinking?" she asked him at last.
"Of India, Princess."
"What of India?"
"She lies helpless."
"Ah! You love India?"
"You shall love me better! You shall love me better than your life! Then, for love of me, you shall own the India you think you love! This letter shall go!" She tapped her bosom. "It is best to cut you off from India first. You shall lose that you may win!"
She got up and stood in the gap, smiling mockingly, framed in the darkness of the cave behind.
"I understand!" she said. "You think you are my enemy. Love and hate never lived side by side. You shall see!"
Then in an instant she was gone, backward into the dark. He sat and waited for her, cross-legged on the ledge. As daylight began to filter downward he could dimly make out the waterfall, thundering like the whelming of a world; he sat staring at it, trying to formulate a plan, until it dawned on him that he was nearly chilled to the bone. Then he got up and stepped through the gap, too.
"Princess!" he called. Then louder, "Princess!"
When the echo of his own voice died, it was as if the ghoul who made the echoes had taken shape. A beard—red eye-rims—and a hook nose came out of the dark, and Ismail bared yellow teeth.
"Come!" he said. "Come, little hakim!"
Private preserves? New Notions? Measure me a quart of honesty, And I will trade it for a pound weight of my thoughts. Then you and I shall go and dream together A brand-new dream of things that never happened, Nor ever can be. Come, trade with me!
What Yasmini had been doing in the minutes while King stared from the ledge in the dawn was unguessable. Perhaps she had been praying to her old gods. At least she had given Ismail strict orders, for he said nothing, but seized King's hand and led him through the dark as a rat leads a blind one—swiftly, surely, unhesitating. King had no means whatever of guessing their direction. They did not pass the two lights again with the curtain and the steps all glowing red.
They came instead to other steps, narrow and steep, that led upward in a semicircle to a rough hole in a rock wall. At the top there was a little yellow light, so dim and small that its rays scarcely sufficed to show the opening.
"Go up!" said Ismail, giving King a shove and disappearing at once. One side-step into blackness and he might have been a mile away.
So King went up, stooping to feel each next footing with a cautious hand. He was beginning to be sleepy, and to suspect that Yasmini had taken him to view the dawn with just that end in view. Nothing can make tired eyes so long for sleep as a glimpse of waking day— Sleepy eyes are easiest to trick.
It was not many minutes before he was sure his guess was right.
The opening at the head of the stairs led into a tunnel. He followed it with a hand on either wall and reached another of Khinjan's strange leather curtains. His face struck the leather unexpectedly, and at that instant, as if his touch were electric, the curtain sprang aside and his eyes were dazzled by the light of diamonds.
It was Aladdin's Cave, with her acting spirit of the lamp! It needed effort of self-control to know that the huge, white, cut crystals that sparkled all about the hewn cell could not be diamonds. They were as big as his head, and bigger—at least a hundred of them, and they multiplied the light of half a dozen little oil lamps until the cave seemed the home of light.
Yasmini had not a jewel on her. She was in a new mood and new garments to suit it. Her feet were still bare, but she was robed from head to heel in pure white linen, on which her long hair shone as if it were truly strands of gold. She received him with an air of mystic calm, gracious and dignified as the high-priestess of a Grecian temple. She seemed devout—to have forgotten that she ever killed a man, or made a threat or plotted for a kingdom.
"Be still," she said, raising a finger. "The old gods talk to us in here. It is not for us to answer them in words, but in deeds. Let us listen and do!"
There were two cushions—great billowy modern ones, covered in gold brocade—on the floor in the midst of the cave. Between them was a stand of ivory, some two feet high, whose top was a disk, cut from the largest tusk that ever could have been. On the disk resting in a little hollow in the ivory, was a pure, perfect crystal sphere of a foot diameter. He could see his reflection in it, and Yasmini's, too, the moment he entered the cave, and whichever way they moved both images remained undistorted. He suspected that the lighting and the crystal reflectors had not been arranged at random.
In each corner of the four-square cave there was a brazier of bronze, and from each rose incense smoke, straight upward. The four streams of smoke met at the ceiling and converged into a cloud that hung almost motionless.
Yasmini stepped very reverently to a cushion by the crystal in the middle, and signed to King to imitate her. They stood facing. She seemed to pray, for her eyes were hidden under the long lashes. Then she knelt, and King did the same, his knees sinking deep into another cushion. So they knelt eye to eye above the crystal for many minutes without either saying a word. It was Yasmini who spoke first.
"The old gods have showed me the past many and many a time in this," she said. "It is, their way of speaking to me. Now, to-day, I have prayed to them to show me the future. Look! Look, Athelstan! Do as I do—so!"
There seemed nothing to be gained by disobeying her. To obey her might be to win new insight into the ramifications of her plans. Men who have experience of the East are the last to deny that there is method in Eastern magic; they glimpse the knowledge that belonged to Pharaoh's men, although unlike Moses they are not always able to confound it. The East forgets nothing. The West ignores. But there are men from the West who are willing to look and to listen and to try to understand; like King, they go high in the Service. There are others who look on at the magic with an understanding eye and are caught by it. Their end is not good to contemplate. The East is fettered in her own mesmeric spell and must suffer until she wakes.
Yasmini held the upright column of the ivory stand with both hands, close under the disk at the top. He copied her, placing his hands below hers. Hers slipped down and covered his, soft and warm; and so they stayed.
"Look!" she said. "Look!"
Her own eyes were grown big and round, and she gazed at the crystal ball as she had looked into King's eyes that night, with the very hunger of her soul. Her lips were parted. Watching her, King grew expectant, too. His eyes followed hers, to stare into the middle of the crystal, no longer feeling sleepy, and in less than a minute he could not have withdrawn them had be tried.
The crystal clouded over. Yasmini's breath came steadily, with a little hissing sound between her teeth, and the crystal, or else the whole world, seemed to sway in time to it. Then the man in Roman armor strode out of a mist, and all was steady again and easy to understand. When the man in armor opened his lips to speak, one knew what he had said. When be frowned, one knew why he frowned. When he smiled, one knew that she was coming.
And she did come, dancing out of the mist behind him, to fling soft arms round his neck and whisper praises in his ear. He stood like a king who has come into his own, with an arm round her and his chin held high. She kissed him on his proud chin, and laughed into his face.
There were troubles—difficulties, all in the mist behind, but he stood and despised them then while she caressed him!
Just as spoken words had no part in the vision, yet the whole was understood, so time did not enter into it. There was no connecting link between each scene; each dissolved into the other, and all were one.
She faded into mist, in a swirl of graceful drapery, and he frowned again. A long line of men-at-arms stood before him, grim as he and as discontented. They leaned on spears, at ease, and that seemed to annoy him most of all. A spokesman stood out from the ranks and addressed him, with gesticulations and a head so far thrown back that his helmet-plume stood out like a secretary's pen behind him. He was not a Roman, although there was something Roman about his attitude and armor. None of the men-at-arms was a Roman.
They demanded to be led home, wherever home was. (It was as plain as if their spokesman had shouted it into King's ear aloud.) And he refused them bluntly, proudly.
Two men brought him a native woman, each holding an arm and thrusting her forward between them. She was not at all unlike a native woman of to-day, either in dress or sullenness; she had the beak and the keen eyes and the cruel lips of the "Hills." They showed her to him, and it was quite clear that they compared her to their own women, left behind; the comparison was plainly to her disadvantage.
He wasted no argument on them, but his scorn made the two men fade away, and the woman with them. Yet he had no scorn for his lined-up fighting men, and so could act none. He ordered the spokesman back to the ranks, and the man obeyed. He gave another order, and the long lines stood at attention, spears straight up and down, and their round sheilds like great medallions on a wall. He ordered them away, but they stood still.
Then he did a truly Roman thing. He got his harness off—unbuckled and took off the great bronze corselet, in which be lay dead in another cave. He threw it down—tore open the white shirt underneath— and held his arms out. He bade them come and kill him. He bade them drive their spears into his unprotected breast.
There was not a movement down the line of men. They stood as a cliff looks at the tide. He dared them. He called them cowards— women—weaklings afraid of blood. But they stood still. He strode up and down the line, seeking a man with heart enough to plunge a spear into him, and no man moved.
Then he stood still before them all again and wept, because they loved him and he loved them. And then she came, not dancing this time, but barefooted and walking like a poem of the early days of Greece. She picked up his corselet and buckled it on him, making him hold up his arms and kneel while she slipped it over his head. And the grim men-at-arms hove their long spears up into the air and roared her an ovation, bringing down their right feet with a thunder all together.
But the mist closed up and then the crystal was clear again. It was Yasmini's voice that spoke, King looked up into her eyes, and they made him shudder, for he had never seen eyes like them. Her hands still clasped his own, burning hot. She was more terrible than Khinjan.
"I never saw that before," she said. "It is because you are here! We shall see it all now! We shall know it all! We shall know whether it was she who killed him, or whether his own men took him at his word. We shall know! Look again! Look again!"
His eyes seemed unable to obey his own will any longer. They obeyed her voice. He gazed again into the crystal, and it clouded over. But although he obeyed her, the crystal obeyed him and answered at least in part the questions his imagination asked. He was not conscious of asking anything, but being a soldier his curiosity followed a more or less definite line.
Yasmini's breath began to come and go again with the little hissing sound. Her hot hands pressed his own. The mist suddenly dissolved. There was a road—a long white road, across a plain, and the men-at- arms fought their way along it. They were facing east.
Archers opposed them—archers on foot, and cavalry—Parthians. The Parthians were wild, but the drill of the men-at-arms was a thing to marvel at. When the flights of arrows came they knelt behind their shields. When the horsemen charged they closed in solid phalanx, and the inner ranks hurled javelins at ten-yard range. When the fury of the onslaught died they formed in column and went forward, gaining furlongs at a time while their enemy watched them and wondered.
It was plain that the enemy expected them to retreat sooner or later, for the archers and cavalry were at great pains to get behind them, so that before long the road ahead was less well defended than that behind. It did not seem to occur to the enemy that they were pressing toward the distant line of hills and did not seek to return at all.
They had no baggage to impede them. It was absurd to suppose they would not try to fight a way back soon. They must be a Roman raiding party, out to teach Parthians a lesson. Yet they pressed ever forward, and the hills grew ever nearer; while he sat a great brown charger calmly in their midst and gave them not too many orders, but here and there a word of praise, and once or twice a trumpet shout of encouragement. He seemed to own the knack of being wherever the fight was fiercest. His mere presence seemed better than a hundred men when the phalanx bent before charging cavalry.
She rode a little white horse, beside him always and utterly scornful of the risk. She wore no armor—carried no shield. Her bare feet showed through the sandal straps, and the outlines of her lissom body were quite visible through the muslin stuff she wore. She might have just come from the dancing. She had a flower in her hand, and a wreath of flowers in her hair. She shouted more encouragement than he. She shouted too much. Once he laid a strong brown hand across her mouth, and she held it there and kissed it.
They lost men—five or six or ten or twenty at each onslaught. Perhaps they had been a thousand strong in the beginning. Their own men—the regimental surgeons probably—cut the throats of the badly wounded, to save them from the enemy's attentions; and by this time they were not more than seven or eight hundred strong.
But they went forward—ever forward—and the line of hills drew near. Then he began to stir himself, and she with him. He shouted to them to charge, and she echoed him, leaving his side at last to take command of a wing and sting the tired-out men-at-arms into new enthusiasm. In a minute they were a roaring tide that swept forward to the foot of the hills and surged upward without a check. In a little while they were hurling boulders down on an enemy that seemed inclined to parley.
Then, like a shadow of the incense cloud above, the mist closed up in the crystal again, and in a moment more King and Yasmini were looking into each other's eyes again above it.
"I have seen that before," she said, shaking her, head. "I am weary of their battles. They won; that is enough! I must know how they failed, so that we make no such mistakes!"
Her face was flushed, and her eyes glowed with the fire that is not lit by ordinary passion. She was being eaten by ambition— burned by her own fire—by ambition not totally selfish, for she yearned to shepherd King as she seemed to think this woman of the vision had not shepherded the man in armor.
"Look again!" she said. "Look again! And oh, ye old gods, show— show me wherein she failed!"
They stared again, and once more the crystal clouded. Out of the cloud came a city in the middle of a plain, and the city was besieged. It was not a very great city, but from the outside it looked rich, for domes and roofs and towers showed above the wall, all well built and well preserved. He and she, sitting their horses out of arrow range from the main gate seemed confident of taking it and eager to get it over with.
They no longer had only six or seven hundred men, but men by the thousand. Their veterans in Roman armor were in command of others now, and they had a human pack-train with them, heavily burdened captives who sulked in chains under a guard.
The mist cleared further, and the gate gave in under the blows of an improvised battering-ram, covered by showers of arrows from short range. Then, like a river breaking down a dam, the thousands stormed in, howling. Smoke rose. There were screams of women. A great tower near the gate, that was half wood, half stone, crackled and curled up in yellow and crimson flame. He and she rode in together as modern men and women ride through a gate to the covert side at a fox-hunt. They chatted and laughed together, and their horses pranced, responding to the humor of their riders.
King would have liked to tear his eyes away from the scenes that followed in the tree-lined streets, but the crystal ball held him as if in a trance—that and Yasmini's hands that clasped his own like hot torture chamber clamps. Animals fighting to the death are not so vile, nor so inhuman as men can be in the hour of what they call victory. Even the little children of that city paid the penalty for having closed the gate.
Time was no measure to the crystal ball. In minutes it showed the devil's work of hours. The city went up in smoke and flame, and from the far side through a great breach in the wall the conquerors went out, with their plunder and such prisoners as had been saved to drag and carry it. Now there were wagons and camels and horses. Now there were tents and furniture. Now each man of the fighting force had as much as he himself could carry, as well as what was loaded on the prisoners.
Only he and she seemed to care nothing for the loot and rode as if each was all the other needed. Still he wore nothing but his armor, and she no more than her dancing dress and sandals. But now she had eight prisoners to hold a panoply above her horse and keep the sun from her.
She had flowers woven in her hair, and others in her hand, as if she rode from a bridal feast and were not in mourning for a plundered, butchered city. They were headed northward now, toward distant mountains, and the dust of their long column went up like a river of smoke, flowing from the holocaust behind.
Yasmini shook her head impatiently. The crystal clouded over, and King's eyes were free.
"I am tired of it," she said. "I have seen that so many times. I know they won. I know they found their way to Khinjan. I know they began to build an empire here. I have seen all that a hundred times.
What I must know is what mistake they made. What did they do wrong? How did they come to fail? Look again! Let us look again!"
She never once let King's hands go, but pressed them tighter and tighter until the circulation nearly stopped and they grew numb. Her own strength seemed endless—to grow rather than to wane in proportion as her yearning to look into the past grew. Her attitude would have been more understandable if she had believed herself and King to be reincarnations of those forgotten conquerors; but she was too original for that. She had said the old gods wished, and the man and the woman were; the old gods wished the same wish again, and she and King were. Why then, if the old gods were contriving it all, should she seek to steady the ark for them? But down at bottom there is no logic connected with gods many. She clutched King's fingers as if to hold him there, and to make him see and understand the distant past, were the only way to save him from mistakes.
"Look!" she insisted. "Look again!" And he obeyed her. By this time obedience was much the easiest course. Between times his eyes were so weary he could hardly hold them open, and it was only when he gazed into the crystal that he could rest them and feel easy. He knew well that she was winning control over him in some sort, and he fought against it grimly. Soon he became weirdly conscious of being two men—one, whom she had grasped and overcome, a physical man who did not matter much, and another, mental man who was free from her, who could understand her, whom she could not reach or touch.
"Look!" she insisted. "Look!" And the crystal clouded over.
He strode out of the mist again, frowning, with his chin hung low and fists clenched tight at his sides. Four of his own men came out of the mist to him and greeted him respectfully, yet not without a touch of irony.
They spoke to him and pointed westward. One laid a hand on his shoulder, but he shook it off and the man reeled back as if he had been struck. Another man took up the argument, but he shook his head. They all spoke together, gesticulating and growing angry; but he stood calm among them, as a rock stands in a storm. He folded his arms across his breast after a while and listened, saying nothing.
Then as if to end the argument for good and all, he drew his sword and held it out toward them, hilt first, telling them again to kill him and have done with it. They refused. He laughed at them, but they still refused; so he put his sword back in the sheath.
One of the men stepped into the mist and disappeared. Presently he came again, with two others, helping a wounded man along between them. Whoever the wounded man might be he was treated with respect. Prouder than Lucifer, he who had struck another man's hand from off his shoulder knelt to give this wounded man a knee and seemed pained when the man refused him.
The wounded man pointed to the westward too and argued in short clipped-off sentences. He had a day or two to live—certainly not longer, for the blood flowed slowly from a wound that would not stanch; yet he argued as a man who has lost no interest in life, but rather sees its problems truly now that his own are near an end.
He demanded something almost truculently. He took his helmet off and passed it down to him. With fingers that were growing feeble the wounded man held it and traced out the letters S. P. Q. R. on the front.
"Go home!" he said, passing it back to him. "Fight your way back home!" What he said was as distinct as if a voice in the cave had spoken it.
Then, vision within a vision—dream within a dream—there was a view of the Via Appia, with gaunt grim gallows set along it in a row and on them a regiment's commander crucified along with the remnant of his men.
"So Rome treats traitors!" said a voice, that might have been either man's.
But instantly there was another vision, of ten thousand wolves baying down a Himalayan gorge in winter-time, the sleet frozen stiff on their fur and their tongues hanging. Eye and fang flashed altogether and made one gleam.