"I believe thou art a very great liar indeed!" said the man who lacked part of his nose. "The Pathan went, and he did not come back. What proof have we."
"Ye have me!" said King. "If I show you no proof, how can I escape you?"
They all grunted agreement as to that. King used his elbow to hit Ismail in the ribs. He did not dare speak to him; but now was the time for Ismail to carry information to her, supposing that to be his job. And after a minute Ismail rolled into a shadow and was gone. King gave him twenty minutes start, letting his men rest their legs and exercise their tongues. Now that he was out of the mullah's clutches—and he suspected Yasmini would know of it within an hour or two, and before dawn in any event—he began to feel like a player in a game of chess who foresees his opponent mate in so many moves.
If Yasmini were to let the mullah and his men into the Caves and to join forces with him in there, he would at least have time to hurry back to India with his eighty men and give warning. He might have time to call up the Khyber jezailchis and blockade the Caves before the hive could swarm, and he chuckled to think of the hope of that.
On the other hand, if there was to be a battle royal between Yasmini and the mullah he would be there to watch it and to comfort India with the news.
"Now we will go on again, in order to be close to Khinjan at break of day," he said, and they all got up and obeyed him as if his word had been law to them for years. Of all of them he was the only man in doubt—he who seemed most confident of all.
They swung along into the darkness under low-hung stars, trailing behind King's horse, with only half a dozen of them a hundred yards or so ahead as an advance guard, and all of them expecting to see Khinjan loom above each next valley, for distances and darkness are deceptive in the "Hills," even to trained eyes. Suddenly the advance guard halted, but did not shoot. And as King caught up with them he saw they were talking with some one.
He had to ride up close before be recognized the Orakzai Pathan.
"Salaam!" said the fellow with a grin. "I bring one hundred and eleven!"
As he spoke graveyard shadows rose out of the darkness all around and leaned on rifles
"Be ye men all ex-soldiers of the raj?" King asked them.
"Aye!" they growled in chorus.
"What will ye?"
"Pardons!" They all said the word together.
"Who gave you leave to come?" King asked.
"None! He told us of the pardons and we came!"
"Aye!" said the Orakzai Pathan, drawing King aside. "But she gave me leave to seek them out and tempt them!"
"And what does she intend?" King asked him suddenly.
"She? Ask Allah, who put the spirit in her! How should I know?"
"We will march again, my brothers!" King shouted, and they streamed along behind him, now with no advance guard, but with the Orakzai Pathan striding beside King's horse, with a great hand on the saddle. Like the others, he seemed decided in his mind that the hakim ought not to be allowed much chance to escape.
Just as the dawn was tinting the surrounding peaks with softest rose they topped a ridge, and Khinjan lay below them across the mile-wide bone-dry valley. They all stood and stared at it, leaning on their guns. All the "Men with New Eyes" saw it now for the first time, and it held them speechless, for with its patchwork towers and high battlements it looked like a very city of the spirits that their tales around the fire on winter nights so linger on.
And while they watched, and the Khinjan men were beginning to murmur (for they needed no last view of the place to satisfy any longings!) none else than Ismail rose from behind a rock and came to King's stirrup. He tugged and King backed his horse until they stood together apart.
"She sends this message," said Ismail, showing his teeth in the most peculiar grin that surely the Hills ever witnessed. And then, omitting the message, he proceeded first to give some news. "Many of her men who have never been in the army, are none the less true to her, and she will not leave them to the mullah's mercy. They will leave the Caves in a little while and will come up here. They are to go down into India and be made prisoners if the sirkar will not enlist them. You are to wait for them here."
"Is that all her message?" King asked him.
"Nay. That is none of it! This is her message. THOU SHALT KNOW THIS DAY, THOU ENGLISHMAN, WHETHER OR NOT SHE TRULY LOVED THEE! THERE SHALL BE PROOF, SUCH AS EVEN THOU SHALT UNDERSTAND!"'
"What does that mean?"
"Nay, who am I that I should know?"
Ismail slipped away and lost himself among the men, and none of them seemed to notice that he had been away and had come again. On King's advice a dozen men climbed near-by eminences and began to watch for the mullah's coming. The Khinjan men murmured openly; they wanted to be off.
"But no," said King. "Go if ye will, but she has sent word that other men are coming. I wait for them here."
After a great deal of resentful argument they consented to lie hidden for an hour or two "but no longer," and King hid his horse in a hollow and persuaded three of them to gather grass for him. It was a little more than an hour after dawn and the chilled rocks were beginning to grow warmer when the head of a procession came out of Khinjan Gate and started toward them over the valley. In all more than five hundred men emerged and about a hundred women and children, and King's men were kept busy for half an hour counting them and quarreling about the exact number. Some of them were burdened heavily, and there was much discussion as to whether to loot them or not. Then:
"Muhammad Anim comes!" shouted a voice from a crag top.
They snuggled into better hiding, and there was no thought now of leaving before the mullah should go by. There began to be wagers as to whether her men would be hidden out of sight before the mullah could top the rise; and then, when the last man was safe across the valley and up the cliff and in hiding, there was endless argument as to how much each had betted and to whom he had lost. It needed an effort to quiet them when the mullah rose into view at last above the rise and paused for a minute to stare across at Khinjan before leading his four thousand down and onward. He was silent as an image, but his men roared like a river in flood and he made no effort to check them. He was like a man who has made up his mind to victory in any event. He seemed to be speculating three or four moves ahead of this one, and to hold this one such a foregone conclusion in his mind that it had ceased to interest. He was admirable, there was no doubt of that. In his own way, like an old boar sniffing up the wind for trouble, he could command a decent man's respect.
He dismounted, for he had to, and tossed his reins to the nearest man with the air of an emperor. And he led the way dawn the cliffside without hesitation, striding like a mountaineer. His men followed him noisily, holding hands to make human chains at the difficult places and shouting a great deal; but not quite naturally now. They were too impressed by the seriousness of what they undertook, and in their hearts too much afraid. The noise was bravado.
It was a weary long wait, watching from the crevices until the last man's back departed down the cliff, and the procession—Pied Piper of Hamelin and rats, (but no music!)—wound across the valley. At last Khinjan Gate opened and the mullah led in. The gate did not shut after the last man, King noted that.
"Let us go now!" shouted fifty voices, and every man of King's party showed himself and stretched. "Let us go! Why wait?"
But King would not go. Nor would he explain why he would not go. Nor could he tell himself what held him, gazing at Khinjan, except that he thought of Yasmini and ached to know what she was doing.
It was thirty minutes after the last of the mullahs men had vanished through the gate, and his own men in dozens and twenties were scattered along the cliff-top arguing against delay with growing rancor, when a lone horseman galloped out of Khinjan Gate and started across the valley. He rode recklessly. He was either panic-stricken or else bolder than the devil.
In a minute King had recognized the mare, and so had the eyes of fifty men around him. No man with half an eye for a horse could have failed to recognize that black mare, having ever seen her once. She came like a goat among the rocks, just as she had once dived into darkness in the Khyber with King following. In another two minutes King had recognized the Rangar's silken turban. And now there was no need to restrain the men; they all stood and watched, to know what new turn affairs were taking.
Most of them were staring downward at the Rangar's head as he urged the mare up the cliff path, when the explanation of Yasmini's message came. It was only King, urged by some intuition, who had his eyes fixed on Khinjan.
There came a shock that actually swayed the hill they stood on. The mare on the path below missed her footing and fell a dozen feet, only to get up again and scramble as if a thousand devils were behind her, the Rangar riding her grimly, like a jockey in a race. Three more shocks followed. A great slice of Khinjan suddenly caved in with a roar, and smoke and dust burst upward through the tumbling crust.
There was a pause after that, as if the waiting elements were gathering strength. For ten minutes they watched and scarcely breathed. Rewa Gunga gained the summit and, dismounting, stood by King with the reins over his arm. The mare was too blown to do anything but stand and tremble. And King was too enthralled to do anything but stare.
"That is what a woman can do for a man!" said Rewa Gunga grimly. "She set a fuse and exploded all the dynamite. There were tons of it! The galleries must have fallen in, one on the other! A thousand men digging for a thousand years could never get into Khinjan now, and the only way out is down Earth's Drink! She bade me come and bid you good-by, sahib. I would have stayed in there, but she commanded me. She said, 'Tell King sahib my love was true. Tell him I give him India and all Asia that were at my mercy!' "
While the Rangar spoke there came three more earth tremors in swift succession, and a thunder out of Khinjan as if the very "Hills" were coming to an end. The mare grew frantic and the Rangar summoned six men to hold her.
Suddenly, right over the top of Khinjan's upper rim, where only the eagles ever perched, there burst a column of water, immeasurable, huge, that for a moment blotted out the sun. It rose sheer upward, curved on itself, and fell in a million-ton deluge on to Khinjan and into Khinjan valley, hissing and roaring and thundering.
Earth's Drink had been blocked by the explosion and had found a new way over the barrier before plunging down again into the bowels of the world. The one sky-flung leap it made as its weight burst down a mountain wall was enough to blot out Khinjan forever, and what had been a dry mile-wide moat was a shallow lake with death's rack and rubbish floating on the surface.
The earth rocked. The Hillmen prayed, and King stared, trying to memorize all that had been. Suddenly it flashed across his mind that the Rangar who had striven like a fiend to stab him only a matter of hours ago was now standing behind him, within a yard.
He was up on his feet in a second and faced about. The Rangar laughed.
"So ends the 'Heart of the Hills!' " he said. "Think kindly of her, sahib. She thought well enough of you!"
He laughed again and sprang on the black mare, and before King could speak or raise a hand to stop him be was off, hell-bent-for- leather along the precipice in the direction of the Khyber Pass and India. Two of the men who had come out of Khinjan mounted and spurred after him.
King collected his men and the women and children. It was easy, for they were numb from what they had witnessed and dazed by fear. In half an hour he had them mustered and marching.
"Let us go back and loot the mullah's camp and take the women!" urged a dozen men at least.
"Go then!" said King. "Go back! But I go on!"
"He is afraid! The hakim is afraid of what he saw!"
King let them think so. He let them think anything they chose, knowing well that what had unnerved him had at least rendered them amenable to leading. They would have no more dared go back without him, and without at least a hundred others, than they would have dared go and hunt in the ruins of Khinjan.
Even Ismail clang to his stirrup and would not leave him, looking like a fledgling with his beard all new-sprouted on his jaw, and eyes wider than any bird's.
"Why art thou here?" King asked him. "Had she no true men who would die with her?"
The Afridi scowled, but choked the answer back. "Art thou my man now?" King asked him. But he shook his head.
So they marched without talking over the hideous boulder-strewn range that separates Khinjan from the Khyber, sleeping fitfully whenever King called a halt, and eating almost nothing at all, for only a few of them had thought of bringing food.
They reached the Khyber famished and were fed at Ali Masjid Fort, after King had given a certain password and had whispered to the officer commanding. But he did not change into European clothes yet, and none of his following suspected him of being an Englishman.
"A Rangar on a black mare has gone down the pass ahead of you in a hurry," they told him at Ali Masjid. "He had two men with him and food enough. Only stopped long enough to make his business known."
"What did he say his business is?" asked King.
"He gave a sign and said a word that satisfied us—on that point!"
"Oh!" said King. "Can you signal down the Pass?"
"Courtenay still at Jamrud?"
"Yes. In charge there and growing tired of doing nothing."
"Signal down and ask him to have that bath ready for me that I spoke about. Good-by."
So he left Ali Masjid at the head of a motley procession that grew noisier and more confident every hour. Ismail still clung to his stirrup, but began to grow more lively and to have a good many orders to fling to the rest.
"You mourn like a dog," King told him. "Three howls and a whine and a little sulking—and then forgetfulness!"
Ismail looked nasty at that but did not answer, although he seemed to have a hot word ready. And thenceforward he hung his head more, and at least tried to seem bereaved. But his manner was unconvincing none the less, and King found it food for thought.
The ex-soldiers and would-be soldiers marched in fours behind him, growing hourly more like drilled men, and talking, with each stride that brought them nearer India, more as men do who have an interest in law and order. Behind them tramped the women from Khinjan, carrying their babies and their husbands loads; and behind them again were the other women, who had been told they would be overtaken in the Khyber, but who had actually had to run themselves raw-footed in order to catch up.
Down the Khyber have come conquerors, a dozen conquering kings, and as many beaten armies; but surely no stranger host than this ever trudged between the echoing walls. The very eagles screamed at them.
And as they neared Jamrud Fort the men who sought pardons began to grow sheepish. They began to remember that the hakim might after all be a trickster, and to realize how much too friendly— how almost intimate he had been with the sahibs at Ali Masjid. They began to cluster round him instead of letting him lead, and by the time they met the farthest outposts up the Khyber they were as nervous as raw recruits and ready to turn and bolt at a word— for no one can be more timid than your Hillman when he is not sure of himself, just as no one can be braver when he knows his ground.
Signals preceded them, and Courtenay himself rode up the Pass to greet them. But of course he was not very cordial to King, considering his disguise; and he chose to keep the Hillmen in doubt yet as to their eventual reception. But one of them, the Orakzai Pathan (for nothing could completely unman him), shouted to know whether it was true that pardons had been offered for deserters, and Courtenay nodded. They were less timid after that. Some of them pulled medals out and pinned them outside their shirts.
At Jamrud they were given food and their rifles were taken away from them and a guard was set to watch them. But the guard only consisted of two men, both of whom were Pathans, and they assured them that, ridiculous though it sounded, the British were actually willing to forgive their enemies and to pardon all deserters who applied for pardon on condition of good faith in the future.
That night they prayed to Allah like little children lost and found. The women crooned love-songs to their babies over the clear fires and the men talked—and talked—and talked until the stars grew big as moons to weary eyes and they slept at last, to dream of khaki uniforms and karnel sahibs who knew neither fear nor favor and who said things that were so. It is a mad world to the Himalayan Hillman where men in authority tell truth unadorned without shame and without consideration—a mad, mad world, and perhaps too exotic to be wholesome, but pleasant while the dream lasts.
Over in the fort Courtenay placed a bath at King's disposal and lent him clean clothes and a razor. But he was not very cordial.
"Tell me all the war news!" said King, splashing in the tub. And Courtenay told him, passing him another cake of soap when the first was finished. After all there was not much to tell—butchery in Belgium—Huns and guns—and the everlastingly glorious stand that saved Paris and France and Europe.
"According to the cables our men are going the records one better. I think that's all," said Courtenay.
"Then why the stuffiness?" asked King. "Why am I talked to at the end of a tube, so to speak?"
"You're under arrest!" said Courtenay.
"The deuce I am!"
"I'm taking care of you myself to obviate the necessity of putting a sentry on guard over you."
"Good of you, I'm sure. What's it all about?"
"I don't mind telling you, but I'd rather you'd wait. The minute you were sighted word was wired down to headquarters, and the general himself will be up here by train any minute."
"Very well," said King. "Got a cigar? Got a black one? Blacker the better!"
He was out of his bath and remembered that minute that he had not smoked a cigar since leaving India. Naked, shaved, with some of the stain removed, he did not look like a man in trouble as he filled his lungs with the saltpeterish smoke of a fat Trichinopoli.
And then the general came and did not wait for King to get dressed but burst into the bathroom and shook hands with him while he was still naked and asked ten questions (like a gatling gun) while King was getting on his trousers, divining each answer after the third word and waving the rest aside.
"And why am I arrested, sir?" asked King the moment he could slip the question in edgewise.
"Oh, yes, of course. Try the case here as well as anywhere. What does this mean?"
Out of his pocket the general produced a letter that smelt strongly of a scent King recognized. He spread it out on a table, and King read. It was Yasmini's letter that she had sent down the Khyber to make India too hot to hold him.
"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. 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."
"Too bad about your brother," said the general.
"The body is buried. How much is true about the head?"
King told him.
"Where's she?" asked the general.
King did not answer. The general waited.
"I don't know, sir."
"Ask the Rangar," Courtenay suggested.
"Where is he?" asked King.
"Caught him coming down the Khyber on his black mare and arrested him. He's in the next room! I hope he's to be hanged. So that I can buy the mare," he added cheerfully.
King whistled softly to himself, and the general looked at him through half-closed eyes.
"Go in and talk to him, King. Let me know the result."
He had picked King to go up the Khyber on that errand not for nothing. He knew King and he knew the symptoms. Without answering him King obeyed. He went out of the room into a dark corridor and rapped on the door of the next room to the right. There was a muffled answer from within. Courtenay shouted something to the sentry outside the door and he called another man who fitted a key in the lock. King walked into a room in which one lamp was burning and the door slammed shut behind him.
He was in there an hour, and it never did transpire just what passed, for he can hold his tongue on any subject like a clam, and the general, if anything, can go him one better. Courtenay was placed under orders not to talk, so those who say they know exactly what happened in the room between the time when the door was shut on King and the time when he knocked to have it opened and called for the general, are not telling the truth.
What is known is that finally the general hurried through the door and ejaculated, "Well, I'm damned!" before it could close again. The sentry (Punjabi Mussulman) has sworn to that over a dozen camp-fires since the day.
And it is known, too, for the sentry has taken oath on it and has told the story so many times without much variation that no one who knows the man's record doubts any longer—it is known that when the door opened again King and the general walked out, with the Rangar between them. And the Rangar had no turban on, but carried it unwound in his hand. And his golden hair fell nearly to his knees and changed his whole appearance. And he was weeping. And he was not a Rangar at all, but she, and how anybody can ever have mistaken her for a man, even in man's clothes and with her skin darkened, was beyond the sentry's power to guess. He for one, etc. . . . But nobody believed that part of his tale.
As Yussuf bin Ali said over the camp-fire up the Khyber later on, "When she sets out to disguise herself, she is what she will be, and he who says he thinks otherwise has two tongues and no conscience!"
What is surely true is that the four of them—Yasmini, the general, Courtenay and King sat up all night in a room in the fort, talking together, while a succession of sentries overstrained their ears endeavoring to hear through keyholes. And the sentries heard nothing and invented very much.
But Partan Singh, the Sikh, who carried in bread and cocoa to them at about five the next morning and found them still talking, heard King say, "So, in my opinion, sir, there'll be no jihad in these parts. There'll be sporadic raids, of course, but nothing a brigade can't deal with. The heart of the holy war's torn out and thrown away."
"Very well," said the general. "You can get up the Khyber again and join your regiment."'
But by that time the Rangar's turban was on again and the tears were dry, and it was Partan Singh who threw most doubt on the sentry's tale about the golden hair. But, as the sentry said, no doubt Partan Singh was jealous.
There is no doubt whatever that the general went back to Peshawur in the train at eight o'clock and that the Rangar went with him in a separate compartment with about a dozen Hillmen chosen from among those who had come down with King.
And it is certain that before they went King had a talk with the Rangar in a room alone, of which conversation, however, the sentry reported afterward that he did not overhear one word; and he had to go to the doctor with a cold in his ear at that. He said he was nearly sure be heard weeping. But on the other hand, those who saw both of them come out were certain that both were smiling.
It is quite certain that Athelstan King went up the Khyber again, for the official records say so, and they never lie, especially in time of war. He rode a coal-black mare, and Courtenay called him "Chikki"—a "lifter."
Some say the Rangar went to Delhi. Some say Yasmini is in Delhi. Some say no. But it is quite certain that before he started up the Khyber King showed Courtenay a great gold bracelet that he had under his sleeve. Five men saw him do it.
And if that was really Rewa Gunga in the general's train, why was the general so painfully polite to him? And why did Ismail insist on riding in the train, instead of accepting King's offer to go up the Khyber with him?
One thing is very certain. King was right about the jihad. There has been none in spite of all Turkey's and Germany's efforts. There have been sporadic raids, much as usual, but nothing one brigade could not easily deal with, the paid press to the contrary notwithstanding.
King of the Khyber Rifles is now a major, for you can see that by turning up the army list.
But if you wish to know just what transpired in the room in Jamrud Fort while the general and Courtenay waited, you must ask King—if you dare; for only he knows, and one other. It is not likely you can find the other.
But it is likely that you may hear from both of them again, for "A woman and intrigue are one!" as India says. The war seems long, and the world is large, and the chances for intrigue are almost infinite, given such combination as King and Yasmini and a love affair.
And as King says on occasion: "Kuch dar nahin hai! There is no such thing as fear!" Another one might say, "The roof's the limit!"
And bear in mind, for this is important: King wrote to Yasmini a letter, in Urdu from the mullah's cave, in which he as good as gave her his word of honor to be her "loyal servant" should she choose to return to her allegiance. He is no splitter of hairs, no quibbler. His word is good on the darkest night or wherever he casts a shadow in the sun.
"A man and his promise—a woman and intrigue—are one!"