As day succeeded ever sultrier, ever longer-drawn-out day—as each night came that saw him peg the horses out wherever what little breezes moved might fan them—as he sat among the courtyard groups and listened in the heavy heat, the fact grew more apparent to him that this trust of his was something after all which a man of worth might shoulder proudly. There was danger in it.
The talk among the traders—darkly hinted, most of it, and couched in metaphor—was all of blood, and what would follow on the letting of it. Now and then a loud-mouthed boaster would throw caution to the winds and speak openly of a grim day coming for the British; he would be checked instantly by wiser men, but not before Ali Partab had heard enough to add to his private store of information.
Priests came from a dozen cities to the eastward, all nominally after pilgrims for the sacred places, but all strangely indifferent to their quest. They preferred, it would seem, to sit in rings with chance-met ruffians—with believers and unbelievers alike—even with men of no caste at all—and talk of other things than pilgrimages.
"Next year, one hundred years ago the English conquered India. Remember ye the prophecy? One hundred years they had! This, then, is the last year. Whom the gods would whelm they first deprive of reason; mark ye this! The cartridges they serve out to the sepoys now are smeared with the blended fat of cows and pigs. Knowing that we Hindoos hold the cow a sacred beast, they do this sacrilege—and why? They would make us bite the cartridges and lose our caste. And why again? Because they would make us Christians! That is the truth! Else why are the Christian missionaries here in Howrah?"
The listeners would nod while the little red fires glowed and purred above the pipes, and others not included in the circle strained forward through the dark to listen.
"The gods get ready now! Are ye ready?"
Elsewhere, a hadji—green-turbaned from the pilgrimage to Mecca—would hold out to a throng of true believers.
"Ay! Pig's fat on the cartridges! The new drill is that the sepoy bites the cartridge first, to spill a little powder and make priming. Which true believer wishes to defile himself with pig's fat? Why do they this? Why are the Christian missionaries here? Ask both riddles with one breath, for both two are one!"
"Up now, and slay!"
There would be an instant, eager restlessness, while Ali Partab would glance over to where the horses stood, and would wonder why the word that loosed him was so long in coming. The hadji would calm his listeners and tell them to get ready, but be still and await the sign.
"There were to be one hundred years, ran the prophecy; but ninety-nine and a portion have yet run. Wait for the hour!"
Then, for perhaps the hundredth time, Ali Partab would pretend that movement alone could save one or other of his horses from heat apoplexy. He would mount, and ride at a walking pace through the streets that seemed like a night view of a stricken battle-field, turn down by the palace wall, and then canter to the schoolhouse, where the hag—wiser than her mistress—would be sleeping in the open.
"Thou! Mother of a murrain! Toothless one! Is there no word yet?"
The hag would leer up through the heavy darkness—make certain that he had no lance with him with which to prod her in the ribs—scratch herself a time or two like a stray dog half awakened—and then leer knowingly.
"Hast thou the gold mohurs?" she would demand.
"Am I a sieve?"
"Let my old eyes see them, sahib."
He would take out two gold coins and hold them out in such a way that she could look at them without the opportunity to snatch.
"There is no word yet," she would answer, when her eyes had feasted on them as long as his patience would allow.
"Have they no fear then?"
"None. Only madness!"
"See that they bite thee not! Keep thy wits with thee, and be ready to bring me word in time, else—"
"Patience, sahib! Show me the coins again—one little look—again once!"
But Ali Partab would wheel and ride away, leaving her to mumble and gibber in the road and curl again on to her blanket in the blackest corner by the door.
Once, on an expedition of that kind, he encountered Duncan McClean himself. The lean, tall Scotsman, gray-headed from the cares he had taken on himself, a little bowed from heat and hopelessness, but showing no least symptom of surrender in the kind, strong lines of a rugged face, stood, eyes upward, in the moonlight. The moon, at least, looked cool. It was at the full, like a disk of silver, and he seemed to drink in the beams that bathed him.
"Does he worship it?" wondered Ali Partab, reining from an amble to a walk and watching half-reverently. The followers of Mohammed are most superstitious about the moon. The feeling that he had for this man of peace who could so gaze up at it was something very like respect, and, with the twenty-second sense that soldiers have, he knew, without a word spoken or a deed seen done, that this would be a wielder of cold steel to be reckoned should he ever slough the robes of peace and take it into his silvered head to fight. The Rajput, that respects decision above all other virtues, perhaps because it is the one that he most lacks, could sense firm, unshakable, quick-seized determination on the instant.
Duncan McClean acknowledged the fierce-seeming stare with a salute, and Ali Partab dismounted instantly. He who holds a trust from such as Mahommed Gunga is polite in recognition of the trust. He leaned, then, against the horse's withers, wondering how far he ought to let politeness go and whether his honor bade him show contempt for the Christian's creed.
"Is there any way, I wonder," asked the Scotsman, the clean-clipped suspicion of Scots dialect betraying itself even through the Hindustanee that he used, "of getting letters through to some small station?"
"I know not," said the Rajput.
"You are a Mohammedan?" The Scotsman peered at him, adjusting his viewpoint to the moon's rays. "I see you are. A Rajput, too, I think."
"There was a Rangar here not very long ago." This man evidently knew the proper title to give a he true believer of the proudest race there is. Ali Partab's heart began to go out to him—"an officer, I think, once of the Rajput Horse, who very kindly carried letters for me. Perhaps you know of some other gentleman of your race about to travel northward? He could earn, at least, gratitude."
"So-ho!" thought Ali Partab to himself. "I have known men of his race who would have offered money, to be spat on!—Not now, sahib," he answered aloud.
"Mahommed Gunga was the officer's name. Do you know him, or know of him, by any chance?"
"Ha, sahib, I know him well. It is an honor."
The Scotsman smiled. "He must be very far away by this time. How many are there, I wonder, in India who have such things said of them when their backs are turned?"
"More than a few, sahib! I would draw steel for the good name of more than a hundred men whom I know, and there be many others!"
"Men of your own race?"
"And yours, sahib."
There was no bombast in the man's voice; it was said good-naturedly, as a man might say, "There are some friends to whom I would lend money." No man with any insight could mistake the truth that underlay the boast. The Scotsman bowed.
"I am glad, indeed, to have met you. Will you sit down a little while?"
"Nay, sahib. The hour is late. I was but keeping the blood moving in this horse of mine."
"Well, tell me, since you won't stay, have you any notion who the man was whom Mahommed Gunga sent to get my letters? My daughter handed them to him one evening, late, at this door."
"I am he, sahib."
"Then—I understood—perhaps I was mistaken—I thought it was his man who came?"
"Praised be Allah, I am his man, sahib!"
"Oh! I wonder whether my servants praise God for the privilege!" McClean made the remark only half-aloud and in English. Ali Partab could not have understood the words, but he may have caught their meaning, for he glanced sideways at the old hag mumbling in the shadow and grinned into his beard. "Are you in communication with him? Could you get a letter to him?"
"I have no slightest notion where he is, sahib."
"If my letters could once reach him, wherever he might be, I would feel confident of their arriving at their destination."
"I, too, sahib!"
"I sent one letter—to a government official. It cannot have reached him, for there should have been an answer and none has come. It had reference to this terrible suttee business. Suttee is against the law as well as against all dictates of reason and humanity; yet the Hindoos make a constant practice of it here under our very eyes. These native states are under treaty to observe the law. I intend to do all in my power to put a stop to their ghoulish practices, and Maharajah Howrah knows what my intentions are. It must be a Mohammedan, this time, to whom I intrust my correspondence on suttee!"
Now, a Rangar is a man whose ancestors were Hindoos but who became converts to Islam. Like all proselytes, they adhere more enthusiastically to their religion than do the men whose mother creed it is; and the fact that the Rangars originally became converts under duress is often thrown in their teeth by the Hindoos, who gain nothing in the way of brotherly regard in the process. A Rangar hates a Hindoo as enthusiastically as he loves a fight. Ali Partab began to drum his fingers on his teeth and to exhibit less impatience to be off.
"There is no knowing, sahib. I, too, am no advocate of superstitious practices involving cruelty. I might get a letter through. My commission from the risaldar-sahib would include all honorable matters not obstructive to the main issue. I have certain funds—"
"I, too, have funds," smiled the missionary.
"I am not allowed, sahib, to involve myself in any brawl until after my business is accomplished. It would be necessary first to assure me on that point. My honor is involved in that matter. To whom, and of what nature, would the letter be?"
"A letter to the Company's Resident at Abu, reporting to him that Hindoo widows are still compelled in this city to burn themselves to death above their husbands' funeral pyres."
The Rajput grinned. "Does the Resident sahib not know it, then?"
"There will be no chance of his not knowing should my report reach him!"
"I will see, sahib, what can be done, then, in the matter. If I can find a man, I will bring him to you."
The missionary thanked him and stood watching as the Rajput rode away. When the horseman's free, lean back had vanished in the inky darkness his eyes wandered over to a point where tongues of flame licked upward, casting a dull, dancing, crimson glow on the hot sky. Here and there, silhouetted in the firelight, he could see the pugrees and occasional long poles of men who prodded at the embers. Ululating through the din of tom-toms he could catch the wails of women. He shuddered, prayed a little, and went in.
That day even the little bazaar fosterlings, whom he had begged, and coaxed, and taught, had all deserted to be present at the burning of three widows. Even the lepers in the tiny hospital that he had started had limped out for a distant view. He had watched a year's work all disintegrating in a minute at the call of bestial, loathsome, blood-hungry superstition.
And he was a man of iron, as Christian missionaries go. He had been hard-bitten in his youth and trained in a hard, grim school. In the Isle of Skye he had seen the little cabin where his mother lived pulled down to make more room for a fifty-thousand-acre deer-forest. He had seen his mother beg.
He had worked his way to Edinburgh, toiled at starvation wages for the sake of leave to learn at night, burned midnight oil, and failed at the end of it, through ill health, to pass for his degree.
He had loved as only hard-hammered men can love, and had married after a struggle the very thought of which would have melted the courage of an ordinary man, only to see his wife die when her child was born. And even then, in that awful hour, he had not felt the utterness of misery such as came to him when he saw that his work in Howrah was undone. He had given of his best, and all his best, and it seemed that he had given it for nothing.
"Who was that man, father?" asked a very weary voice through which courage seemed to live yet, as the tiniest suspicion of a sweet refrain still lives through melancholy bars.
"The man who took your home letters to Mahommed Gunga."
"He has promised to try to find a man for me who will take my report on this awful business to the Resident at Abu."
"Father, listen! Listen, please!" Rosemary McClean drew a chair for him and knelt beside him. Youth saved her face from being drawn as his, but the heat and horror had begun to undermine youth's powers of resistance. She looked more beautiful than ever, but no law lays down that a wraith shall be unlovely. She had tried the personal appeal with him a hundred times, and argument a thousand; now, she used both in a concentrated, earnest effort to prevail over his stubborn will. Her will was as strong as his, and yielded place to nothing but her sense of loyalty. There were not only Rajputs, as the Rajputs knew, who could be true to a high ideal. "I am sure that whoever that man is he must be the link between us and the safety Mahommed Gunga spoke of. Otherwise, why does he stay behind? Native officers who have servants take their servants with them, as a rule."
"Give the word! Let us at least get in touch with safety!"
"For myself, no. For you, yes! I have been weak with you, dear. I have let my selfish pleasure in having you near me overcome my sense of duty—that, and my faithless fear that you would not be properly provided for. I think, too, that I have never quite induced myself to trust natives sufficiently—even native gentlemen. You shall go, Rosemary. You shall go as soon as I can get word to Mahommed Gunga's man. Call that old woman in."
"Father, I will not go without you, and you know it! My place is with you, and I have quite made up my mind. If you stay, I stay! My presence here has saved your life a hundred times over. No, I don't mean just when you were ill; I mean that they dare not lay a finger on me! They know that a nation which respects their women would strike hard and swiftly to avenge a woman of its own! If I were to go away and leave you they would poison you or stab you within a day, and then hold a mock trial and hang some innocent or other to blind the British Government. I would be a murderess if I left you here alone! Come! Come away!"
He shook his head. "It was wrong of me to ever bring you here," he said sadly. "But I did not know—I would never have believed." Then wrath took hold of him—the awful, cold anger of the Puritan that hates evil as a concrete thing, to be ripped apart with steel. "God's wrath shall burst on Howrah!" he declared. "Sodom and Gomorrah were no worse! Remember what befell them!"
"Remember Lot!" said Rosemary. "Come away!"
"Lot stayed on to the last, and tried to warn them! I will warn the Resident! Here, give me my writing things—where are they?"
He pushed her aside, none too gently, for the fire of a Covenanter's anger was blazing in his eyes.
"There are forty thousand British soldiers standing still, and wrong—black, shameful wrong—is being done! For a matter of gold—for fear of the cost in filthy lucre—they refrain from hurling wrong-doers in the dust! For the sake of dishonorable peace they leave these native states to misgovern themselves and stink to high heaven! Will God allow what they do? The shame and the sin is on England's head! Her statesmen shut their eyes and cry 'Peace, peace!' where there is no peace. Her queen sits idle on the throne while widows burn, screaming, in the flames of superstitious priests. Men tell her, 'All is well; there is British rule in India!' They are too busy robbing widows in the Isle of Skye to lend an ear to the cries of India's widows! Corruption—superstition—murder—lies—black wrong—black selfishness—all growing rank beneath the shadow of the British rule—how long will God let that last?"
He was pacing up and down like a caged lion, not looking at Rosemary, not speaking to her—speaking to himself, and giving rein to all the rankling rage at wrong that wrong had nurtured in him since his boyhood. She knelt still by the chair, her eyes following him as he raged up and down the matted floor. She pitied him more than she did India.
When he took the one lamp at last and set it where the light would fall above his writing pad, she left the room and went to stand at the street-door, where the sluggish night air was a degree less stifling than in the mud-plastered, low-ceilinged room. As she stood there, one hand on either door-post to remind her she was living in a concrete world, not a charred whisp swaying in the heat, a black thing rose out of the blackness, and the toothless hag held out a bony hand and touched her.
"Is it not time yet for the word to go?" she asked.
"No. No word yet, Joanna."
Now, God give good going to master o' mine, God speed him, and lead him, and nerve him; God give him a lead of a length in the line, And,—God let him boast that I serve him!
THE dawn was barely breaking yet when things stirred in the little mission house. The flea-bitten gray pony was saddled by a sleepy saice, and brought round from his open-sided thatch stable in the rear. The violet and mauve, that precede the aching yellow glare of day were fading; a coppersmith began his everlasting bong-bong-bong, apparently reverberating from every direction; the last, almost indetectable, warm whiff of night wind moved and died away, and the monkeys in the near-by baobab chattered it a requiem. Almost on the stroke of sunrise Rosemary McClean stepped out—settled her sun-helmet, with a moue above the chin-strap that was wasted on flat-bosomed, black grandmotherdom and sulky groom—and mounted.
She needed no help. The pony stood as though he knew that the hot wind would soon dry the life out of him; and, though dark rings beneath dark eyes betrayed the work of heat and sleepless worry on a girl who should have graced the cool, sweet, rain-swept hills of Scotland, she had spirit left yet and an unspent store of youth. The saice seemed more weathered than the twenty-year-old girl, for he limped back into the smelly shelter of the servants' quarters to cook his breakfast and mumble about dogs and sahibs who prefer the sun.
She looked shrunk inside the riding-habit—not shrivelled, for she sat too straight, but as though the cotton jacket had been made for a larger woman. If she seemed tired, and if a stranger might have guessed that her head ached until the chestnut curls were too heavy for it, she was still supple. And, as she whipped the pony into an unwilling trot and old mission-named Joanna broke into a jog behind, revolt—no longer impatience, or discontent, or sorrow, but reckless rebellion—rode with her.
It was there, plain for the world to see, in the firm lines of a little Puritan mouth, in the angle of a high-held chin in the set of a gallant little pair of shoulders. The pony felt it, and leaned forward to a canter. Joanna scented, smelt, or sensed in some manner known to Eastern old age, that purpose was afoot; this was to be no early-morning canter, merely out and home again; there was no time, now, for the customary tricks of corner-cutting and rest-snatching under eaves; she tucked her head down and jogged forward in the dust, more like a dog than ever. It was a dog's silent, striving determination to be there when the finish came—a dog's disregard of all object or objective but his master's—but a long-thrown stride, and a crafty, beady eye that promised more usefulness than a dog's when called on.
The first word spoken was when Rosemary drew rein a little more than half-way along the palace wall.
"Are you tired yet, Joanna?"
"Uh-uh!" the woman answered, shaking her head violently and pointing at the sun that mounted every minute higher. The argument was obvious; in less than twenty minutes the whole horizon would be shimmering again like shaken plates of brass; wherever the other end might be, a rest would be better there than here! Her mistress nodded, and rode on again, faster yet; she had learned long ago that Joanna could show a dusty pair of heels to almost anything that ran, and she had never yet known distance tire her; it had been the thought of distance and speed combined that made her pause and ask.
She did not stop again until they had cantered up through the awakening bazaar, where unclean-looking merchants and their underlings rinsed out their teeth noisily above the gutters, and the pariah dogs had started nosing in among the muck for things unthinkable to eat. The sun had shortened up the shadows and begun to beat down through the gaps; the advance-guard of the shrivelling hot wind had raised foul dust eddies, and the city was ahum when she halted at last beside the big brick arch of the caravansary, where Mahommed Gunga's boots and spurs had caught her eye once.
"Now, Joanna!" She leaned back from the saddle and spoke low, but with a certain thrill. "Go in there, find me Mahommed Gunga-sahib's man, and bring him out here!"
"And if he will not come?" The old woman seemed half-afraid to enter.
"Go in, and don't come out without him—unless you want to see me go in by myself!"
The old woman looked at her piercingly with eyes that gleamed from amid a bunch of wrinkles, then motioned with a skinny arm in the direction of an awning where shade was to be had from the dangerous early sun-rays. She made no move to enter through the arch until her mistress had taken shelter.
Fifteen minutes later she emerged with Ali Partab, who looked sleepy, but still more ashamed of his unmilitary dishabille. Rosemary McClean glanced left and right—forgot about the awning and the custom which decrees aloofness—ignored the old woman's waving arm and Ali Partab's frown, and rode toward him eagerly.
"Did Mahommed Gunga-sahib leave you here with any orders relative to me?" she asked.
The Rajput bowed.
"Before he went away, he spoke to me of safety, and told me he would leave a link between me and men whom I may trust."
The Rajput bowed again. Neither of them saw an elbow laid on the window-ledge of a room above the arch; it disappeared, and very gingerly a bared black head replaced it. Then the head too disappeared.
The girl's eyes sparkled as the reassurance came that at least one good fighting man was waiting to do nothing but assist her. For the moment she threw caution to the winds and remembered nothing but her plight and her father's stubbornness.
"My father will not come away, but—"
Ali Partab's eyes betrayed no trace of concern.
"But—I thought—Are you all alone?"
"All alone, Miss-sahib, but your servant."
"Oh! I thought—perhaps that"—she checked herself, then rushed the words out as though ashamed of them—"that, if you had men to help you, you might carry him away against his will! Where are these others who are to be trusted?"
Ali Partab grinned and then drew himself up with a movement of polite dissent. It was not for him to question the suggestions of a Miss-sahib; he conveyed that much with an inimitable air. But it was his business to keep strictly to the letter of his orders.
"Miss-sahib, I cannot do that. So said Mahommed Gunga: 'When the hag brings word, then take three horses and bear the Miss-sahib and her father to my cousin Alwa's place.' I stand ready to obey, but the padre-sahib comes not against his will."
"To whose place?"
"And who is he?" She seemed bewildered. "I had hoped to be escorted to some British residency."
"That would be for Alwa, should he see fit. He has men and horses, and a fort that is impregnable. The Miss-sahib would be safe there under all circumstances."
"But—but, supposing I declined to accept that invitation? Supposing I preferred not to be carried off to a—er—a Mohammedan gentleman's fort. What then?"
"I could but wait here, Miss-sahib, until the hour came when you changed your mind, or until Mahommed Gunga by letter or by word of mouth relieved me of my trust."
"Oh! Then you will wait here until I ask?"
The head again peered through the window up above them, but disappeared below the ledge furtively, and none of the three were aware of it. For that matter, the old woman was gazing intently at Ali Partab and listening eagerly; he stood almost underneath the arch, and Miss McClean was staring at him frowning with the effort to translate her thoughts into a language that is very far from easy. They would none of them have seen the roof descending on them.
"And—and won't you under any circumstances take us, say, to the Resident at Abu instead?"
"I may not, Miss-sahib."
"Of a truth I know not. I never yet knew Mahommed Gunga to give an order without good reason for it; but beyond that he chose me, because he said the task might prove difficult and he trusted me, I know nothing."
"Have you no idea of the reason?"
"Miss-sahib, I am a soldier. To me an order is an order to be carried out; suspicions, fears are nothing unless they stand in the way of accomplishment. I await your word. I am ready. The horses are here—good horses—lean and hard. The order is that you must ask me."
"Thank you—er—Ali what?—thank you, Ali Partab." The disappointment in her voice was scarcely more noticeable than the despondency her drooping figure showed. The little shoulders that had sat so square and gallantly seemed to have lost their strength, and there was none of the determined ring left in the words she hesitated for. "I—hope you will understand that I am grateful—but—I cannot—er—see my way just yet to—"
"In your good time, Miss-sahib. I was ordered to have patience!"
"At least I will have more confidence, knowing that you are always close at hand."
The Rajput bowed. She reined back. He saluted, and she bowed again; then, with a glance to make sure that Joanna followed, she started back at little more than a walking pace—a dejected wraith of a girl on a dejected-looking pony, too overcome by the upsetting of her rebellious scheme to care or even think whether Joanna dropped out of sight or not. Ali Partab watched her down the street with a face that betrayed no emotion and no suspicion of what his thoughts might be. When she was out of sight he went back under the arch to attend to his three horses; and the moment that he did so a fat but very furtive Hindoo took his place—glanced down the street once in the direction that Rosemary had taken—and then darted up-street as fast as his shaking paunch would let him. He had been gone at the least ten minutes, when Joanna, also furtive, also in a hurry, dodged here and there among the commencing surge of traffic and approached the arch again.
It would be useless to try to read her mind, or to translate the glitter of her beady eyes into thoughts intelligible to any but an Oriental. It was quite clear, though, that she wished not to be noticed, that she feared the occupants of the caravansary, and that she had returned for word with Ali Partab. He, least of all, would have doubted her intention of demanding the two gold mohurs, for it was she who had brought the word that Miss McClean wanted him. But what relation that intention had to her loyalty or treachery, or whether she were capable of either—capable of anything except greed, and obedience for the sake of pay—were problems no man living could have guessed.
She asked the lounging sweeper by the arch whether Ali Partab had ridden out as yet. He jeered back outrageous improprieties, suggestive of impossible ambition on the hag's part. She called him "sahib," dubbed him "father of a dozen stalwart sons," returned a few of his immodest compliments with a flattering laugh, and learned that Ali Partab was still busy in the caravansary. Then she proceeded to make herself very inconspicuous beside a two-wheeled wagon, up-ended in the gutter opposite the arch, and waited with eastern patience for the horseman to ride out.
She saw the fat Hindoo come back, in no particular hurry now, and seat himself not far from her. Later she saw eight horsemen ride down the street, pass the arch, wheel, and halt. She noticed that they were not Maharajah Howrah's men but a portion of his brother Jaimihr's body-guard, then took no further notice of them. If they chose to wait there, it was no affair of hers, and to appear inquisitive would be to invite a lance-butt, very shrewdly thrust where it would hurt.
It was an hour at least before Ali Partab rode out through the arch, looking down anxiously at his horse's off-hind that had been showing symptoms of "brushing" lately. Joanna rose instantly to cross the street and intercept him; and she recoiled in the nick of time to save herself from being ridden down.
At a sign from the fat Hindoo the eight horsemen spurred, and swooped up-street with the speed and certainty of sparrow-hawks and the noise of devastation. They rode down Ali Partab—unhorsed him—bound him—threw him on his horse again—and galloped off before any but the Hindoo had time to realize that he was their objective. He was gone—snatched like a chicken from the coop. Noise and dust were all the trace or explanation that he left. The mazy streets swallowed him; the Hindoo waddled over to the arch and disappeared without a smile on his face to show even interest. The interrupted trading and bartering went on again, and no one commented or made a move to follow but Joanna.
She watched the fat Hindoo, and made sure that she would recognize him anywhere again. Then, by a trail that no one would have guessed at and few could have followed, she made her way to Jaimihr's palace—three miles away from Howrah's—where a dozen sulky-looking sepoys lolled, dismounted, by the wooden gate. There was neither sight nor sound of mounted men, and the gate was shut; but in the middle of the roadway there was smoking dung, and there was a suspicion of overacting about the indifference of the guardians of the entrance.
There was no overacting, though, in what Joanna did. Nobody would have dreamed that she was playing any kind of part, or interested in anything at all except the coppers that she begged for. She squatted in the roadway, ink-black and clear-cut in the now blazing sunlight, alternately flattering them and pretending to a knowledge of unguessed-at witchcraft.
She was there still at midday when they changed the guard. She was there when night fell, still squatting in the roadway, still exchanging repartee and hints at the supernatural with armed men who shuddered now and then between their bursts of mockery. The sore, suffering dogs that sniff through the night for worse eyesores than themselves whimpered and watched her. The guard changed and the moon paled, but she stayed on; and whatever her purpose, or whatever information she obtained in fragments amid the raillery, she did not return to the mission house.
It was not until Rosemary McClean returned and dismounted by the door that she realized Joanna had not kept pace. Even then she thought little of it; the old woman often lingered on the homeward way when the chance of her being needed was remote. Two or three hours passed before the suspicion rose that anything might have happened to Joanna, and even then she might not have been remembered had not Duncan McClean asked for her.
"I have changed my mind," he said, calling Rosemary into the long, low living-room. It was darkened to exclude the hot wind and the glare, and he looked like a ghost as he rose to meet her. "I have decided that my duty is to get away from this place for your sake and for the sake of the cause I have at heart. We are doing no good here. I can do most by going to the Resident, or even to somebody higher up than he, and laying my case before him personally. Send for Joanna, and tell her to go and bring Mahommed Gunga's man."
It was then that they missed Joanna and began to search for her. But no Joanna came. It was then that Rosemary McClean rehearsed with her father her former conversation with Mahommed Gunga and part, at least, of her recent one with Ali Partab, and the missionary started off himself to find the horseman whom Mahommed Gunga had so thoughtfully left behind.
But he very naturally found no Ali Partab. What he did discover was that he was followed—that a guard, unarmed but obvious, was placed around the mission house—that his servants deserted one by one—that no more children came to the mission school.
He decided to take chances and ride off with his daughter in the night. But the ponies went mysteriously lame, and nobody would lend or sell him horses on any terms at all. He did his best to get a letter through to anywhere where there were British, but nobody would take it. And then Jaimihr came, swaggering with his escort, to offer him and his daughter the hospitality of his palace.
He declined that offer a little testily, for the insolence behind the offer was less than half concealed. Jaimihr sneered as he rode away.
"Perhaps a month or two of undisturbed enjoyment will induce the padre-sahib to change his mind about my invitation!" he said nastily. And he made no secret then, as he ordered them about before he went, that the men who lounged and watched at every vantage-point were his.
They looked into my eyes and laughed,— But, what when I was gone? Have strong men made me one of them? Or do I ride alone?
ON the morning after Mahommed Gunga's daring experiment with Cunningham's nervous system he was anxious to say the least of it; and that is only another way of saying that he was irritable. He watched the Englishman at breakfast, on the dak-bungalow veranda, with a sideways restless glance that gave the lie a dozen times over to his assumed air of irascible authority.
"We will see now what we will see," he muttered to himself. "These who know such a lot imagine that the test is made. They forget that there be many brave men of whom but a few are fit to lead. Now—now—we will see!" And he kept on repeating that assurance to himself, with the air of a man who would like to be assured, but is not, while he ostentatiously found fault with every single thing on which his eyes lit.
"One would think that the Risaldar-sahib were afraid of consequences!" whispered the youngest of his followers, stung to the quick by a quite unmerited rebuke. "Does he fear that Chota-Cunnigan will beat him?"
White men have been known—often—to do stupider things than that, and particularly young white men who have not yet learned to gauge proportions accurately; so there was nothing really ridiculous in the suggestion. A young white man who has had his temper worked up to the boiling-point, his nerves deliberately racked, and then has been subjected to the visit of a driven tiger, may be confidently expected to exhibit all the faults of which his character is capable.
To make the situation even more ticklish, Cunningham's servant, in his zeal for his master's comfort, had forgotten to sham sickness, and instead of limping was in abominably active evidence. He was even doing more than was expected of him. Ralph Cunningham had said nothing to him—had not needed to; every single thing that a pampered sahib could imagine that he needed was done for him in the proper order, without noise or awkwardness, and the Risaldar cursed as he watched the clockwork-perfect service. He had hoped for a lapse that might call forth some pointer, either by way of irritation or amusement, as to how young Cunningham was taking things.
But not a thing went wrong and not a sign of any sort gave Cunningham. The youngster did not smile either to himself darkly or at his servant. He lit his after-breakfast cigar and smoked it peacefully, as though he had spent an absolutely normal night, without even a dream to worry him, and if he eyed Mahommed Gunga at all, he did it so naturally, and with so little interest, that no deductions could be drawn from it. He was neither more nor less than a sahib at his ease—which was disconcerting, very, to the Oriental mind.
He smoked the cigar to a finish, without a word or sign that he wished to give audience. Then his eyes lit for the first time on the tiger-skin that was pegged out tight, raw side upward, for the sun to sterilize; he threw the butt of his cigar away and strolled out to examine the skin without a sign to Mahommed Gunga, counted the claws one by one to make sure that no superstitious native had purloined any of them, and returned to his chair on the veranda without a word.
"Is he vindictive, then?" wondered Mahommed Gunga. "Is he a mean man? Will he bear malice and get even with me later on? If so—"
"Present my compliments to Mahommed Gunga-sahib, and ask him to be good enough to—"
The Risaldar heard the order, and was on his way to the veranda before the servant started to convey the message. He took no chances on a reprimand about his shoes, for he swaggered up in riding-boots, which no soldier can be asked to take off before he treads on a private floor; and he saluted as a soldier, all dignity. It was the only way by which he could be sure to keep the muscles of his face from telling tales.
"Morning, Mahommed Gunga. Take a seat, won't you?"
A camp-chair creaked under the descending Rajput's weight, and creaked again as he remembered to settle himself less stiffly—less guiltily.
"I say, I'm going to ask you chaps to do me a favor. You don't mind obliging me now and then, do you?"
The youngster leaned forward confidentially, one elbow on his knee, and looked half-serious, as though what he had to ask were more important than the ordinary.
"Sahib, there is nothing that we will not do."
"Ah! Then you won't mind my mentioning this, I'm sure. Next time you want to kennel a tiger in my bedroom, d'you mind giving me notice in advance? It's not the stink I mind, nor being waked up; it's the deuced awful risk of hurting somebody. Besides—look how I spoilt that tiger's mask! The skins I've always admired at home had been shot where it didn't show so badly."
There was not even the symptom of a smile on Cunningham's face. He looked straight into Mahommed Gunga's eyes, and spoke as one man talking calm common sense to another. He raised his hand as the Rajput began to stammer an apology.
"No. Don't apologize. If you'll forgive me for shooting your pet tiger, I'll overlook the rest of it. If I'd known that you kept him in there o' nights, I'd have chosen another room, that's all—some room where I couldn't smell him, and where I shouldn't run the risk of killing an inoffensive man. Why, I might have shot you! Think how sorry I'd have been!"
The Risaldar did not quite know what to say; so, wiser than most, he said nothing.
"Oh, and one other matter. I don't speak much of the language yet, so, would you mind translating to my servant that the next time he goes sick without giving me notice, and without putting oil in my lamp, I'll have him fed to the tiger before he's brought into my room? Just tell him that quietly, will you? Say it slowly so that it sinks in. Thanks."
Straight-faced as Cunningham himself, the Risaldar tongue-lashed the servant with harsh, tooth-rasping words that brought him up to attention. Whether he interpreted or not the exact meaning of what Cunningham had said, he at least produced the desired effect; the servant mumbled apologetic nothings and slunk off the veranda backward—to go away and hold his sides with laughter at the back of the dak-bungalow. There Mahommed Gunga found him afterward and administered a thrashing—not, as he was careful to explain, for disobedience, but for having dared to be amused at the Risaldar's discomfiture.
But there was still one point that weighed heavily on Mahommed Gunga's mind as the servant shuffled off and left him alone face to face with Cunningham. There is as a very general rule not more than one man-eating tiger in a neighborhood, and not even the greenest specimen of subaltern new brought from home would be likely to mistake one for the other kind. The man-eater was dead, and there was an engagement to shoot one that very morning. He hesitated—said nothing for the moment—and wondered whether his best course would be to go ahead and pretend to beat out the jungle and tell some lie or other about the tiger having got away. But Ralph Cunningham, with serious gray eyes fixed full on his, saved him the trouble of deciding.
"If it's all one to you, Mahommed Gunga," he said, the corner of his mouth just flickering, "we'll move on from here at once. This is a beastly old bungalow to sleep in, and shooting tigers don't seem so terribly exciting to me. Besides, the climate here must be rotten for the horses."
"As you wish, sahib."
"Very well—if the choice rests with me, I wish it. It might—ah—save the villagers a lot of hard work beating through the jungle, mightn't it—besides, there'll be other tigers on the road."
"Innumerable tigers, sahib."
"Good. Will you order a start then?"
The Risaldar departed round the corner of the bungalow, and a minute or two later Cunningham's ears caught the sound of a riding-switch, lustily applied, and of muffled groans. He suspected readily enough what was going on, particularly since his servant was not in evidence, but he dared not laugh on the veranda. He went inside, and made believe to be busy with his bag before he relaxed the muscles of his face.
"Now, I wonder whether I handled that situation rightly?" he asked himself between chuckles. "One thing I know—if that old ruffian plays another trick on me—one more of any kind—Ill show my teeth. There's a thing known as the limit!"
He would not have wondered, though, if he could have overheard Mahommed Gunga less than an hour later. The Risaldar had stayed behind to make sure nothing had been forgotten, and one of his men remained with him.
"There be sahibs and then sahibs," said Mahommed Gunga. "Two kinds are the worst—those who strike readily in anger and use bad language when annoyed, and those whose lips are thin and who save their vengeance to be wreaked later on. They are worse, either of them, than the sahib who is usually drunk."
"Is altogether otherwise. As his father was, and as a few other sahibs I have met, he understands what is not spoken—concedes dignity to him who is caught napping, as one who having disarmed his adversary, allows him to recover his weapon—and—"
"Proves himself a man worth following! I myself will slit the throat of any man I catch disparaging the name of Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur! By the blood of God—by my medals, my own honor, and the good name of Pukka-Cunnigan, his father, I swear it!"
"Rung Ho!" grinned the six-foot son of war who, rode beside him.
They rode on at a walk past the tombstone that—at Mahommed Gunga's orders—the villagers had decked with sickly scented forest flowers, and as they passed they both saluted it in silence. The fakir of the night before, sitting not very far away from it, mimicked them. He sprang on the stone as soon as they were out of sight, scattering the flowers all about him, and calling down the vengeance of a hundred gods on the heads of Christian and Mohammedan alike.
From lone hunt came the yearling cub And brought a grown kill back; With fangs aglut "'Tis nothing but Presumption!" growled the pack.
RALPH CUNNINGHAM reached Peshawur at last with no less than nine tigers to his gun, and that in itself would have been sufficient to damn him in the eyes of more than half of the men who held commands there. Jealousy in those days of slow promotion and intrenched influence had eaten into the very understanding of men whose only excuse for rule over a conquered people ought to have been understanding.
It was not considered decent for a boy of twenty-one to do much more than dare to be alive. For any man at all to offer advice or information to his senior was rank presumption. Criticism was high treason. Sport, such as tiger-shooting, was for those whose age and apoplectic temper rendered them least fitted for it. Conservatism reigned: "High Toryism, sir, old port, and proud Prerogative!"
Mahommed Gunga grinned into his beard at the reception that awaited the youngster whom he had trained for months now in the belief that India had nothing much to do except reverence him. He laughed aloud, when he could get away to do it, at the flush of indignation on his protege's face. Tall, lean-limbed, full of health and spirits, he had paid his duty call on a General of Division; with the boyish enthusiasm that says so plainly, "Laugh with me, for the world is mine!" he had boasted his good luck on the road, only to be snubbed thoroughly and told that tiger-shooting was not what he came for.
He took the snub like a man and made no complaint to anybody; he did not even mention it to the other subalterns, who, most of them, made no secret of their dissatisfaction and its hundred causes. He listened, and it was not very long before it dawned on him that, had not Mahommed Gunga gone with him to pay a call as well, the General Division would not have so much as interviewed him.
Mahommed Gunga soon became the bane of his existence. The veteran seemed in no hurry to go back to his estate that must have been in serious need of management by this time, but would ride off on mysterious errands and return with a dozen or more black-bearded horsemen each time. He would introduce them to Cunningham in public whenever possible under the eyes of outraged seniors who would swear and, fume and ride away disgust at the reverence paid to "a mere boy, sir—a bally, ignorant young jackanapes!"
Had Cunningham been other than a born soldier with his soldier senses all on edge and sleepless, he would have fallen foul of disgrace within a month. He was unattached as yet, and that fact gave opportunity to the men who looked for it to try to "take the conceit out of the cub, by gad."
"They "—everybody spoke of them as "they"—conceived the brilliant idea of confronting the youngster with conditions which he lacked experience to cope with. They set him to deal with circumstances which had long ago proved too difficult for themselves, and awaited confidently the outcome—the crass mistake, or oversight, or mere misfortune that, with the aid of a possible court martial, would reduce him to a proper state of humbleness.
Peshawur, the greatest garrison in northern India, was there on sufferance, apparently. For lack of energetic men in authority to deal with them, the border robbers plundered while the troops remained cooped up within the unhealthiest station on the list. The government itself, with several thousand troops to back it up, was paying blackmail to the border thieves! There was not a government bungalow in all Peshawur that did not have its "watchman," hired from over the border, well paid to sleep on the veranda lest his friends should come and take tribute in an even more unseemly manner.
The younger men, whose sense of fitness had not yet been rotted by climate and system and prerogative, swore at the condition; there were one or two men higher up, destined to make history, whose voices, raised in emphatic protest, were drowned in the drone of "Peace! Peace is the thing to work for. Compromise, consideration, courtesy, these three are the keys of rule." They failed to realize that cowardice was their real keynote, and that the threefold method that they vaunted was quite useless without a stiffening of courage.
So brave men, who had more courtesy in each of their fingers than most of the seniors had all put together, had to bow to a scandalous condition that made England's rule a laughing-stock within a stone's throw of the city limits. And they had to submit to the indecency of seeing a new, inexperienced arrival picked for the task of commanding a body of irregulars, for no other reason than because it was considered wise to make an exhibition of him.
Cunningham became half policeman, half soldier, in charge of a small special force of mounted men engaged for the purpose of patrol. He had nothing to do with the selection of them; that business was attended to perfunctorily by a man very high up in departmental service, who considered Cunningham a nuisance. He was a gentleman who did not know Mahommed Gunga; another thing he did not know was the comfortable feel of work well done; so he was more than pleased when Mahommed Gunga dropped in from nowhere in particular—paid him scandalously untrue compliments without a blush or a smile and offered to produce the required number of men at once.
Only fifty were required. Mahommed Gunga brought three hundred to select from, and, when asked to do so in order to save time and trouble, picked out the fifty best.
"There are your men!" said the Personage off-handedly, when they had been sworn in in a group. "Be good enough to remember, Mr. Cunningham, that you are now responsible for their behavior, and for the proper night patrolling of the city limits."
That was a tall order, and in spite of all of youth's enthusiasm was enough to make any young fellow nervous. But Mahommed Gunga met him in the street, saluted him with almost sacrilegious ceremony, and drew him to one side.
"Have courage, now, bahadur! I ride away to visit my estates (he spoke of them always in the plural, as though he owned a county or two). You have under you the best eyes and the keenest blades along the border for I attended to it! Be ruthless! Use them, work them—sweat them to death! Keep away from messes and parades; seek no praise, for you will get none in any case! Work! Work for what is coming!"
"You speak as though the fate of a continent were hanging in the balance," laughed Cunningham, shaking hands with him.
"I speak truth!" said Mahommed Gunga, riding off and leaving the youngster wondering.
Now, there was nothing much the matter with the men on either side, taken in the main, who hated one another on that far-pushed frontier. Even the insufferable incompetents who held the rotting reins of control were such because circumstance had blinded them. There was not a man among the highly placed ones even who would have deliberately placed his own importance or his own opinion in the scale against India's welfare. There was not a border thief but was ready to respect what he could recognize as strong-armed justice.
The root of the trouble lay in centralization of authority, and rigid adherence to the rule of seniority. Combined, these two processes had served to bring about a state of things that is nearly unbelievable when viewed in the light of modern love for efficiency. Young men, with the fire of ambition burning in them and a proper scorn for mere superficial ceremony, had to sweat their tempers and bow down beneath the yoke of senile pompousness.
Strong, savage, powder-weaned Hill-tribesmen—inheritors of egoistic independence and a love of loot—laughed loud and long and openly at System that prevented officers from taking arms against them until authority could come by delegate from somebody who slept. By that time they would be across the border, quarrelling among themselves about division of the plunder!
They had respect in plenty for the youth and virile middle age that dealt with them on the rare occasions when a timely blow was loosed. Then they had proof that from that strange, mad country overseas there came men who could lead men—men who could strike, and who knew enough to hold their hands when the sudden blow had told—just men, who could keep their plighted word. No border thief pretended that the British could not rule him; to a man, they laughed because the possible was not imposed. And to the last bold, ruffianly iconoclast they stole when, where, and what they dared.
Things altered strangely soon after Ralph Cunningham, with the diffidence of youth but the blood of a line of soldiers leaping in him, took charge of his tiny force of nondescripts. They were neither soldiers nor police. Nominally, he was everybody's dog, and so were they; actually he found himself at the head of a tiny department of his own, because it was nobody's affair to give him orders. They had deliberately turned him loose "to hang himself," and their hope that he might get his head into a noose of trouble as soon as possible—the very liberty they gave him, on purpose for his quick damnation—was the means of making reputation for him.
Nobody advised him; so with singularly British phlegm and not more than ordinary common sense he devised a method of his own for scotching night-prowlers. He stationed his men at well-considered vantage-points, and trusted them. With a party of ten, he patrolled the city ceaselessly himself and whipped every "watchman" he caught sleeping. One by one, the blackmailing brigade began to see the discomfort of a job that called for real wakefulness, and deserted over the Hills to urge the resumption of raids in force. One by one, the night-prowling fraternity were shot as they sneaked past sentries. One by one, the tale of robberies diminished. It was merely a question of one man, and he awake, having power to act without first submitting a request to somebody in triplicate on blue-form B.
The time came, after a month or two, when even natives dared to leave their houses after dark. The time came very soon, indeed, when the nearest tribes began to hold war councils and inveigh against the falling off of the supply of plunder. Cunningham was complimented openly. He was even praised by one of "Them." So it was perfectly natural, and quite in keeping with tradition, that he should shortly be relieved, and that a senior to him should be placed in charge of his little force, with orders to "organize" it.
The organization process lasted about twelve hours; at the end of that time every single man had deserted, horse and arms! Two nights later, the prowling and plundering was once more in full swing, and Cunningham was blamed for it; it was obvious to any man of curry-and-port-wine proclivities that his method, or lack of it, had completely undermined his men's loyalty!
A whole committee of gray-headed gentlemen took trouble to point out to him his utter failure; but a brigadier, who was not a member of that committee, and who was considered something of an upstart, asked that he might be appointed to a troop of irregular cavalry that had recently been raised. With glee—with a sigh of relief so heartfelt and unanimous that it could be heard across the street—the committee leaped at the suggestion. The proper person was induced without difficulty to put his signature to the required paper, and Cunningham found himself transferred to irregular oblivion. Incidentally he found himself commanding few less than a hundred men, so many of whose first names were Mahommed or Mohammed that the muster-roll looked like a list of Allah's prophets.
Cunningham was more than a little bit astonished, on the day he joined, in camp, a long way from Peshawur, to find his friend Mahommed Gunga, seated in a bell tent with the Brigadier. He caught sight of the long black military boot and silver spur, and half-recognized the up-and-down movement of the crossed leg long before he reached the tent. It was like father and son meeting, almost, as the Rajput rose to greet him and waited respectfully until he had paid his compliments to his new commander. Cunningham felt throat-bound, and could scarcely more than stammer his introduction of himself.
"I know who you are and all about you," said the Brigadier. "Used to know your father well. I applied to have you in my command partly for your father's sake, but principally because Risaldar Mahommed Gunga spake so highly of you. He tells me he has had an eye on you from the start, and that you shape well. Remember, this is irregular cavalry, and in many respects quite unlike regulars. You'll need tact and a firm hand combined, and you mustn't ever forget that the men whom you will lead are gentlemen."
Cunningham reported to his Colonel, only to discover that he, too, knew all about him. The Colonel was less inclined to be restricted as to topic, and less mindful of discretion than the Brigadier.
"I hear they couldn't stand you in Peshawur. That's hopeful! If you'd come with a recommendation from that quarter, I'd have packed you off back again. I never in my life would have believed that a dozen men could all shut their eyes so tightly to the signs—never!"
"The signs, sir?"
"Yes, the signs! Come and look your troop over."
Cunningham found that the troop, too, had heard about his coming. He did not look them over. When he reached the lines, they came out in a swarm—passed him one by one, eyed him, as traders eye a horse—and then saluted him a second time, with the greeting:
"Yes! You're in disgrace!" said his Colonel, noticing the color rising to the youngster's cheeks.
Sons of the sons of war we be, Sabred and horsed, and whole and free; One is the caste, and one degree,— One law,—one code decreed us. Who heads wolves in the dawning day? Who leaps in when the bull's at bay? He who dare is he who may! Now, rede ye who shall lead us!
THE check that Ralph Cunningham's management of his police had caused, and the subsequent resumption of night looting, served to whet the appetites of the hungry crowd beyond the border. Those closest to Peshawur, who had always done the looting, were not the ultimate consignees by any means; there were other tribes who bought from them—others yet to whom they paid tribute in the shape of stolen rifles. Cunningham's administration had upset the whole modus vivendi of the lower Himalayas!
Though it all began again the moment he was superseded, there had been, none the less, a three-month interregnum, and that had to be compensated for. The tribes at the rear were clamorous and would not listen to argument or explanation; they had collected in hundreds, led by the notorious Khumel Khan, preparatory to raiding in real earnest and with sufficient force to carry all before them at the first surprise attack.
They were disappointed when the pilfering resumed, for a tribal Hillman would generally rather fight than eat, and would always prefer his dinner from a dead enemy's cooking-pot. They sat about for a long time, considering whether there were not excuse enough for war in any case and listening to the intricately detailed information brought by the deserting watchmen. And as they discussed things, but before they had time to decide on any plan, the Brigadier commanding the Irregulars got wind of them.
He was a man who did not worry about the feelings of senile heads of red-tape-bound departments; nor was he particularly hidebound by respect for the laws of evidence. When he knew a thing, he knew it; then he either acted or did not act, as the circumstances might dictate. And when the deed was done or left undone, and was quite beyond the reach of criticism, he would send in a verbose, voluminous report, written out in several colored inks, on all the special forms he could get hold of. The heads of departments would be too busy for the next twelvemonth trying to get the form of the report straightened out to be able to give any attention to the details of it; and then it would be too late. But he was a brigadier, and what he could do with impunity and quiet amusement would have brought down the whole Anglo-Indian Government in awful wrath on the head of a subordinate.
He heard of the tribesmen under Khumel Khan one evening. At dawn his tents stood empty and the horse-lines were long bands of brown on the green grass. The pegs were up; only the burying beetles labored where the stamping chargers had neighed overnight.
The hunger-making wind that sweeps down, snow-sweetened, from the Himalayas bore with it intermittent thunder from four thousand hoofs as, split in three and swooping from three different directions, the squadrons viewed, gave tongue, and launched themselves, roaring, at the half-awakened plotters of the night before.
There was a battle, of a kind, in a bowlder-lined valley where the early morning sun had not yet reached to lift the chill. Long lances—devils' antennae—searched out the crevices where rock-bred mountain-men sought cover; too suddenly for clumsy-fingered Hillmen to reload, the reformed troops charged wedgewise into rallying detachments. In an hour, or less, there were prisoners being herded like cattle in the valley bottom, and a sting had been drawn from the border wasp that would not grow again for a year or two to come.
But Khumel Khan was missing. Khumel Khan, the tulwar man—he whose boast it was that he could hew through two men's necks at one whistling sweep of his notched, curved cimeter—had broken through with a dozen at his back. He had burst through the half-troop guarding the upper end of the defile, had left them red and reeling to count their dead, and the overfolding hill-spurs swallowed him.
"Mr. Cunningham! Take your troop, please, and find their chief! Hunt him out, ride him down, and get him! Don't come back until you do!"
The real thing! The real red thing within a year! A lone command—and that is the only thing a subaltern of spunk may pray for!—eighty-and-eight hawk-eyed troopers asking only for the opportunity to show their worth—lean, hungry hills to hunt in, no commissariat, fair law to the quarry, and a fight—as sure as God made mountains, a fight at the other end! There are men here and there who think that the day when they pass down a crowded aisle with Her is the great one, other great days are all as gas-jets to the sun. And there are others. There are men, like Cunningham, who have heard the drumming of the hoofs behind them as they led their first un-apron-stringed unit out into the unknown. The one kind of man has tasted honey, but the other knows what fed, and feeds, the roaring sportsmen in Valhalla.
There were crisscross trails, where low-hung clouds swept curtainwise to make the compass seem like a lie-begotten trick. There were gorges, hewn when the Titans needed dirt to build the awful Himalayas—shadow-darkened—sheer as the edge of Nemesis. Long-reaching, pile on pile, the over-lapping spurs leaned over them. The wind blew through them amid silence that swallowed and made nothing of the din which rides with armed men.
But, with eyes that were made for hunting, on horses that seemed part of them, they tracked and trailed—and viewed at last. Their shout gave Khumel Khan his notice that the price of a hundred murders was overdue, and he chose to make payment where a V-shaped cliff enclosed a small, flat plateau and not more than a dozen could ride at him at a time. His companions scattered much as a charge of shrapnel shrieks through the rocks, but Khumel Khan knew well enough that he was the quarry—his was the head that by no conceivable chance would be allowed to plan fresh villainies. He might have run yet a little way, but he saw the uselessness, and stood.
The troop, lined out knee to knee, could come within a hundred paces of him without breaking; it formed a base, then, to a triangle from which the man at bay could no more escape than a fire-ringed scorpion.
"Call on him to surrender!" ordered Cunningham.
A chevroned black-beard half a horse-length behind him translated the demand into stately Pashtu, and for answer the hill chieftain mounted his stolen horse and shook his tulwar. He had pistols at his belt, but he did not draw them; across his shoulder swung a five-foot-long jezail, but he loosed it and flung it to the ground.
"Is there any here dare take me single-handed?" he demanded with a grin.
Of the eight-and-eighty, there were eighty-eight who dared; but there was an eighty-ninth, a lad of not yet twenty-two, whom Indian chivalry desired to honor. The troop had heard but the troop had not yet seen.
"Ride in and take him!" ordered Cunningham and there was a thoroughly well acted make-believe of fear, while every eye watched "Cunnigan-bahadur," and the horses, spurred and reined at once, pranced at their bits for just so long as a good man needs to make his mind up. And Cunningham rode in.
He rode in as a Rajput rides, with a swoop and a swinging sabre and a silent, tight-lipped vow that he would prove himself. Green though he was yet, he knew that the troop had found for him—had rounded up for him—had made him his opportunity; so he took it, right under their eyes, straight in the teeth of the stoutest tulwar man of the lower Himalayas.
He, too, had pistols at his belt, but there was no shot fired. There was nothing but a spur-loosed rush and a shock—a spark-lit, swirling, slashing, stamping, snorting melee—a stallion and a mare up-ended—two strips of lightning steel that slit the wind—and a thud, as a lifeless border robber took the turf.
There was silence then—the grim, good silence of Mohammedan approval—while a native officer closed up a sword-cut with his fingers and tore ten-yard strips from his own turban to bind the youngster's head. They rode back without boast or noise and camped without advertisement. There was no demonstration made; only-a colonel said, "I like things done that way, quickly, without fuss," and a brigadier remarked, "Hrrrumph! 'Gratulate you, Mr. Cunningham!"
Later, when they camped again outside Peshawur, a reward of three thousand rupees that had been offered on the border outlaw's head was paid to Cunningham in person—a very appreciable sum to a subaltern, whose pay is barely sufficient for his mess bills. So, although no public comment was made on the matter, it was considered "decent of him" to contribute the whole amount to a pension fund for the dependents of the regiment's dead.
"You know, that's your money," said his Colonel. "You can keep every anna of it if you choose."
"I suppose I needn't be an officer unless I choose?" suggested Cunningham.
"I don't know, youngster! I can't guess what your troop would do if you tried to desert it!"
That was, of course, merely a diplomatic recognition of the fact that Cunningham had done his duty in making his men like him, and was not intended seriously. Nobody—not even the Brigadier—had any notion that the troop would very shortly have to dispense with its leader's services whether it wanted to or not.
But it so happened that one troop at a time was requisitioned to be ornamental body-guard to such as were entitled to one in the frontier city; and the turn arrived when Cunningham was sent. None liked the duty. No soldier, and particularly no irregular, likes to consider himself a pipe-clayed ornament; but Cunningham would have "gone sick" had he had the least idea of what was in store for him.
It was bad enough to be obliged to act as body-guard to men who had jockeyed him away because they were jealous of him. The white scar that ran now like a chin-strap mark from the corner of his eye to the angle of his jaw would blaze red often at some deliberately thought-out, not fancied, insult from men who should have been too big to more than notice him. And that, again, was nothing to the climax.
Mahommed Gunga chose to polish up his silver spurs and ride in from his "estates" on a protracted visit to Peshawur, and with an escort that must have included half the zemindars on the countryside as well as his own small retinue. Glittering on his own account like a regiment of horse, and with all but a regiment clattering behind him, he chose the occasion to meet Cunningham when the youngster was fuming with impatience opposite the club veranda, waiting to escort a general.
On the veranda sat a dozen men who had been at considerable pains to put and keep the officer of the escort in his place. If the jingle and glitter of the approaching cavalcade had not been sufficient to attract their notice, they could have stopped their cars and yet have been forced to hear the greeting.
"Aha! Salaam sahib! Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur, bohut salaam! Thy father's son! Sahib, I am much honored!"
The white scar blazed, but Mahommed Gunga affected not to notice the discomfort of his victim. Many more than a hundred sabred gentlemen pressed round to "do themselves the honor," as they expressed it, of paying Cunningham a compliment. They rode up like knights in armor in the lists, and saluted like heralds bringing tribute and allegiance.
"Bohut salaam, bahadur!"
The Generals, the High-Court judges, and Commissioners on the club veranda sat unhonored, while a boy of twenty-two received obeisance from men whose respect a king might envy. No Rajput ever lived who was not sure that his salute was worth more than tribute; he can be polite on all occasions, and what he thinks mere politeness would be considered overacting in the West, but his respect and his salute he keeps for his equals or his betters—and they must be men indeed.
The coterie of high officials sat indignation-bound for ten palpitating minutes, until the General remembered that it was his escort that was waiting for him. He had ordered it an hour too soon, for the express sweet purpose of keeping Cunningham waiting in the sun, but it dawned now on his apoplectic consciousness that his engagement was most urgent. He descended in a pompous hurry, mounted and demanded why—by all the gods of India—the escort was not lined up to receive him. A minute later, after a loudly administered reprimand that was meant as much for the swarm of Rajputs as for the indignant Cunningham, he rode off with the escort clattering behind him.
But on the club veranda, when the Rajputs with Mahommed Gunga had dispersed, the big wigs sat and talked the matter over very thoroughly.
"It's no use blinking matters," said the senior man present, using a huge handkerchief to wave the flies away from the polished dome which rose between two side wisps of gray hair. "They're going to lionize him while he's here, so we'd better move him on."
"I've got it! There's a letter in from Everton at Abu, saying he needs a man badly to go to Howrah and act resident there—says he hasn't heard from the missionaries and isn't satisfied—wants a man without too much authority to go there and keep an eye on things in general. Howrah's a hell of a place from all accounts."
"But that 'ud be promotion!"
"Can't be helped. No excuse for reducing him, so far as I've heard. The trouble is the cub has done too dashed well. We've got to promote him if we want to be rid of him."
They talked it over for an hour, and at the end of it decided Cunningham should go to Howrah, provided a brigadier could be induced without too much argument to see reason.
"The Brigadier probably wants to keep him, and his Colonel will raise all the different kinds of Cain there are!" suggested the man who had begun the discussion.
"I've seen brigadiers before now reduced to a proper sense of their own unimportance!" remarked another man. And he was connected with the Treasury. He knew.
But a week later, when the papers were sent to the Brigadier for signature, he amazed everybody by consenting without the least objection. Nobody but he knew who his visitor had been the night before.
"How did you know about it, Mahommed Gunga?" he demanded, as the veteran sat and faced him over the tent candle, his one lean leg swaying up and down, as usual, above the other.
"Have club servants not got ears, sahib?"
"I, too, have ears—good ones!"
The Brigadier drummed his fingers on the table, hesitating. No officer, however high up in the service, likes to lose even a subaltern from his command when that subaltern is worth his salt.
"Let him go, sahib! You have seen how we Rangars honor him—you may guess what difference he might make in a crisis. Sign, sahib—let him go!"
"But—where do you come in? What have you had to do with this?"
"First, sahib, I tested him thoroughly. I found him good. Second, I told tales about him, making him out better than even he is. Third, I made sure that all those in authority at Peshawur should hate him. That would have been impossible if he had been a fool, or a weak man, or an incompetent; but any good man can be hated easily. Fourth, sahib, I sent, by the hand of a man of mine, a message to Everton-sahib at Abu reporting to him that it was not in Howrah as it should be, and warning him that a sahib should be sent there. I knew that he would listen to a hint from me, and I knew that he had no one in his office whom he could send. Then, sahib, I brought matters to a head by bringing every man of merit whom I could raise to salute him and make an outrageous exhibition of him. That is what I have done!"
"One would think you were scheming for a throne, Mahommed Gunga!"
"Nay, sahib, I am scheming for the peace of India! But there will be war first."
"I know there will be war," said the Brigadier. "I only wish I could make the other sahibs realize it."
"Will you sign the paper, sahib?"
"Yes, I will sign the paper. But—"
"But what, sahib?"
"I'm not quite certain that I'm doing right."
"Brigadier-sahib, when the hour comes—and that is soon—it will be time to answer that! There lie the papers."
Even in darkness lime and sand Will blend to make up mortar. Two by two would equal four Under a bucket of water.
NOW it may seem unimaginable that two Europeans could be cooped in Howrah, not under physical restraint, and yet not able to communicate with any one who could render them assistance. It was the case, though, and not by any means an isolated case. The policy of the British Government, once established in India, was and always has been not to occupy an inch of extra territory until compelled by circumstances.
The native states, then, while forbidden to contract alliances with one another or the world outside, and obliged by the letter of written treaties to observe certain fundamental laws imposed on them by the Anglo-Indian Government, were left at liberty to govern themselves. And it was largely the fact that they could and did keep secret what was going on within their borders that enabled the so-called Sepoy Rebellion to get such a smouldering foothold before it burst into a blaze. The sepoys were the tools of the men behind the movement; and the men behind were priests and others who were feeling nothing but their own ambition.
No man knows even now how long the fire rebellion had been burning underground before showed through the surface; but it is quite obvious that, in spite of the heroism shown by British and loyal native alike when the crash did come, the rebels must have won—and have won easily sheer weight of numbers—had they only used the amazing system solely for the broad, comprehensive purpose for which it was devised.
But the sense of power that its ramifications and extent gave birth to also whetted the desires individuals. Each man of any influence at all began to scheme to use the system for the furtherance of his individual ambition. Instead of bending all their energy and craft to the one great object of hurling an unloved conqueror back whence he came, each reigning prince strove to scheme himself head and shoulders above the rest; and each man who wanted to be prince began to plot harder than ever to be one.
So in Howrah the Maharajah's brother, Jaimihr, with a large following and organization of his own, began to use the secret system of which he by right formed an integral part and to set wheels working within the wheels which in course of time should spew him up on the ledge which his brother now occupied. Long before the rebellion was ready he had all his preparations made and waited only for the general conflagration to strike for his own hand. And was so certain of success that he dared make plans as well for Rosemary McClean's fate.
There is a blindness, too, quite unexplainable that comes over whole nations sometimes. It is almost like a plague in its mysterious arrival and departure. As before the French Revolution there were almost none of the ruling classes who could read the writing on the wall, so it was in India in the spring of '57. Men saw the signs and could not read their meaning. As in France, so in India, there were a few who understood, but they were scoffed at; the rest—the vast majority who held the reins of power—were blind.
Rosemary McClean discovered that her pony had gone lame, and was angry with the groom. The groom ran away, and she put that down to native senselessness. Duncan McClean sent one after another of the little native children to find him a man who would take a letter to Mount Abu. The children went and did not come back again, and he put that down to the devil, who would seem to have reclaimed them.
Both of them saw the watchers, posted at every vantage-point, insolently wakeful; both of them knew that Jaimihr had placed them there. But neither of them looked one inch deeper than the surface, nor supposed that their presence betokened anything but the prince's unreachable ambition. Neither of them thought for an instant that the day could possibly have come when Britain would be unable to protect a woman of its own race, or when a native—however powerful—would dare to do more than threaten.
Joanna disappeared, and that led to a chain of thought which was not creditable to any one concerned. They reasoned this way: Rosemary had seen Mahommed Gunga hold out a handful of gold coins for the old woman's eyes to glitter at, therefore it was fair to presume that he had promised her a reward for bringing word to the man whom, it was now known, he had left behind. She had brought word to him and had disappeared. What more obvious than to reason that the man had gladly paid her, and had just as gladly ridden off, rejoicing at the thought that he could escape doing service?
"So much," they argued, "for native constancy! So much for Mahommed Gunga's boast that he knew of men who could be trusted! And so much for Joanna's gratitude!"
The old woman had been saved by Rosemary McClean from the long-drawn-out hell that is the life portion of most Indian widows, even of low caste; she had had little to do, ever, beyond snooze in the shade and eat, and run sometimes behind the pony—a task which came as easily to her as did the other less active parts of her employment. Her desertion, particularly at a crisis, made Rosemary McClean cry, and set her father to quoting Shakespeare's "King Lear."
"Blow, blow, thou winter wind! Thou art not so unkind As man's ingratitude!"
All Scotsmen seem to have a natural proclivity for quoting the appropriate dirge when sorrow shows itself. The Book of Lamentations—Shakespeare's sadder lines—roll off their tongues majestically and seem to give them consolation—as it were to lay a sound, unjoyous basis for the proper enjoyment of the songs of Robbie Burns.
The poor old king of the poet's imagining, declaiming up above the cliffs of Dover, could have put no more pathos into those immortal lines than did Duncan McClean as he paced up and down between the hot wars of the darkened room. The dry air parched his throat, and his ambition seemed to shrivel in him as he saw the brave little woman who was all he had sobbing with her head between her hands.
He turned to the Bible, but he could find no precedent in any of its pages for abandoning a quest like his in the teeth of disaster or adversity. He read it for hour after crackling hour, moistening his throat from time to time with warm, unappetizing water from the improvised jar filter; but when the oven blast that makes the Indian summer day a hell on earth had waned and died away, he had found nothing but admonishment to stand firm. There had been women, too, whose deeds were worthy of record in that book, and he found no argument for deserting his post on his daughter's account either. In the Bible account, as he read it, it had always been the devil who fled when things got too uncomfortable for him, and he was conscious of a tight-lipped, stern contempt for the devil.
He had about made up his mind what line to take with his daughter, when she ceased her sobbing and looked up through swollen eyes to relieve him of the necessity for talking her over to his point view. What she said amazed him, but not be cause it came to him as a new idea. She said, in different words, exactly what was passing in his own mind, and it was as though her tears and his search of the Scriptures had brought them both to one clear-cut conclusion.
"Why are we here, father?" she asked him suddenly; and because she took him by surprise he did not answer her at once. "We are here to do good aren't we?" That was no question; it was beginning of a line of argument. Her father held his tongue, and laid his Bible down, and listened on. "How much good have we done yet?"
She paused, but the pause was rhetorical, and he knew it; he could see the light behind her eyes that was more than visionary; it was the light of practical Scots enthusiasm, unquenched and undiscouraged after a battle with fear itself. She began to be beautiful again as the spirit of unconquerable courage won its way.
"Have we won one convert? Is there one, of those you have taught who is with us still?"
The answer was self-evident. There was none. But there was no sting for him in what she asked. Rather her words came as a relief, for he could feel the strength behind them. He still said nothing.
"Have we stopped one single suttee? Have we once, in any least degree, lessened the sufferings of one of those poor widows?"
"Not once," he answered her, without a trace of shame. He knew, and she knew, how hard the two of them had tried. There was nothing to apologize for.
"Have we undermined the power of the Hindoo priests? Have we removed one trace of superstition?"
"No," he said quietly.
"Have we given up the fight?"
He looked hard at her. Gray eyes under gray brows met gray eyes that shone from under dark, wet lashes, and deep spoke unto deep. Scotsman recognized Scotswoman, and the bond between them tightened.
"It seems to me"—there was a new thrill in her voice—"that here is our opportunity! Either Jaimihr wants to frighten us away or he is in earnest with his impudent attentions to me. In either case let us make no attempt to go away. Let us refuse to go away. Let us stay here at all costs. If he wishes us to go away, then he must have a reason and will show it, or else try to force us. If he is really trying to make love to me, then let him try; if he has pluck enough, let him seize me. In either case we shall force his hand. I am willing to be the bait. The moment that he harms either you or me, the government will have to interfere. If he kills us so much the better, for that would mean swift vengeance and a British occupation. That would stop suttee for all time, and we would have given our lives for something worth while. As we are, we cannot communicate with our government, and Jaimihr thinks he has us in his grasp. Let him think it! Let him go ahead! Sooner or later the government must find out that we are missing Then—!" Her eyes blazed at the thought of what would happen then.
Her father looked at her for about a minute, sadness and pride in her fighting in him for the mastery. Then he rose and crossed the little space between them.
"Lassie!" he said. "Lassie!"
She took his hand—the one little touch of human sentiment lacking to disturb his emotional balance. The Scots will talk readily enough of sorrow, but at showing it they are a grudging race of men. Unless a Scotsman thinks he can gain something for his cause by showing what emotion racks him, he will swallow down the choking flood of grief, and keep a straight face to the world and his own as well. Duncan McClean turned from her—drew his hand away—and walked to open the slit shutters. A moment later he came back, once more master of himself.
"As things are, dear," he said gently, "how would it be possible for us to get away?"
"'We canna gang awa'!" she quoted, with a smile.
"NO, lassie. We must stay here and be brave. This matter is not in our hands. We must wait, and watch, and see. If opportunity should come to us to make our escape, we will seize it. Should it not come—should Jaimihr, or some other of them, make occasion to molest us—it may be—it might be that—surely the day of martyrs is not past—it might be that—well, well, in either case we will eventually win. Should they kill us, the government must send here to avenge us; should we get away, surely our report will be listened to. A month or two—perhaps only a week or two—even a day or two, who knows?—and the last suttee will have been performed!"
He stood and stroked her head—then stooped and kissed it—an unusual betrayal of emotion from him.
"Ye're a brave lassie," he said, leaving the room hurriedly, to escape the shame of letting her see tears welling from his eyes—salt tears that scalded as they broke their hot-wind-wearied bounds.
Five minutes later she arose, dry-eyed, and went to stand in the doorway, where an eddy or two of lukewarm evening breeze might possibly be stirring. But a dirtily clad Hindoo, lounging on a raised, railless store veranda opposite, leered at her impudently, and she came inside again—to pass the evening and the sultry, black, breathless night out of sight, at least, of the brutes who shut her off from even exercise.
So, I am a dog? Hence I must come To do thy bidding faster? Must tell thee—Nay, a dog stays dumb! A dog obeys one master!
NOT many yards from where the restless elephants stood lined under big brick arches—in an age-old courtyard, three sides of which were stone-carved splendor and the fourth a typically Eastern mess of stables, servants' quarters, litter, stink, and noisy confusion—a stone door, slab-hewn, gave back the aching glitter of the sun. Its only opening—a narrow slit quite near the top—was barred. A man—his face close-pressed against them—peered through the interwoven iron rods from within.
Jaimihr, in a rose-pink pugree still, but not at all the swaggering cavalier who pranced, high-booted, through the streets—a down-at-heel prince, looking slovenly and heavy-eyed from too much opium—sat in a long chair under the cloister which faced the barred stone door. He swished with a rhino riding-whip at the stone column beside him, and the much-swathed individual of the plethoric paunch who stood and spoke with him kept a very leery eye on it; he seemed to expect the binding swish of it across his own shins, and the thought seemed tantalizing.
"It is not to be done," said Jaimihr, speaking in a dialect peculiar to Howrah. "That—of all the idiotic notions I have listened to—is the least worth while! Thy brains are in thy belly and are lost amid the fat! If my brother Howrah only had such counsellors as thou—such monkey folk to make his plans for him—the jackals would have finished with him long ago."
"Sahib, did I not bring word, and overhear, and trap the man?"
"Truly! Overheard whisperings, and trapped me a hyena I must feed! Now thou sayest, 'Torture him!' He is a Rangar, and of good stock; therefore, no amount of torturing will make him speak. He is that pig Mahommed Gunga's man; therefore, there' is nothing more sure than that Mahommed Gunga will be here, sooner or later, to look for him—Mahommed Gunga, with the half of a Hindoo name, the whole of a Moslem's fire, and the blind friendship of the British to rely on!"
"But if the man be dead when Mahommed Gunga comes?"
"He will be dead when Mahommed Gunga comes, if only what we await has first happened. But this rising that is planned hangs fire. Were I Maharajah I would like to see the Rangar who dare flout me or ask questions! I would like but to set eyes on that Rangar once! But I am not yet Maharajah; I am a prince—a younger brother—surrounded, counselled, impeded, hampered, rendered laughable by fat idiots!"
"My belly but shows your highness's generosity. At whose cost have I grown fat?"
"Ay, at whose cost? I should have kept thee slim, on prison diet, and saved myself a world of useless problems! Cease prattling! Get away from me! If I have to poison this Ali Partab, or wring his casteless neck, I will make thee do it, and give thee to Mahommed Gunga to wreak vengeance on. Leave me to think!"
The fat former occupant of the room above the arch of the caravansary waddled to the far end of the cloister, and sat down, cross-legged, to grumble to himself and scratch his paunch at intervals. His master, low-browed and irritable, continued to strike the stone column with his cane. He was in a horrid quandary.
Mahommed Gunga was one of many men he did not want, for the present, to offend seriously. Given a fair cause for quarrel, that irascible ex-Risaldar was capable of going to any lengths, and was known, moreover, to be trusted by the British. Nobody seemed to know whether or not Mahommed Gunga reciprocated the British regard, and nobody had cared to ask him except his own intimates; and they, like he, were men of close counsel.
The Prince had given no orders for the capture of Ali Partab; that had been carried out by his men in a fit of ill-advised officiousness. But the Prince had to solve the serious problem caused by the presence of Ali Partab within a stone-walled cell.
Should he let the fellow go, a report would be certain to reach Mahommed Gunga by the speediest route. Vengeance would be instantly decided on, for a Rajput does not merely accept service; he repays it, feudal-wise, and smites hip and thigh for the honor of his men. The vengeance would be sure to follow purely Eastern lines, and would be complicated; it would no doubt take the form of siding in some way or other with his brother the Maharajah. There would be instant, active doings, for that was Mahommed Gunga's style! The fat would be in the fire months, perhaps, before the proper time.
The prisoner's presence was maddening in a million ways. It had been the Prince's plan (for he knew well enough that Mahommed Gunga had left a man behind) to allow the escape to start; then it would have been an easy matter to arrange an ambush—to kill Ali Partab—and to pretend to ride to the rescue. Once rescued, Miss McClean and her father would be almost completely at his mercy, for they would not be able to accuse him of anything but friendliness, and would be obliged to return to whatever haven of safety he cared to offer them. Once in his palace of their own consent, they would have had to stay there until the rising of the whole of India put an end to any chance of interference from the British Government.
But now there was no Ali Partab outside to try to escort them to some place of safety; therefore, there was little chance that the missionaries would try to make a bolt. Instead of being in the position of a cat that watches silently and springs when the mouse breaks cover, he was in the unenviable condition now of being forced to make the first move. Over and over again he cursed the men who had made Ali Partab prisoner, and over and over again: he wondered how—by all the gods of all the multitudinous Hindoo mythology—how, when, and by what stroke of genius he could make use of the stiff-chinned Rangar and convert him from being a rankling thorn into a useful aid.
He dared not poison him—yet. For the same reason he dared not put him to the torture, to discover, or try to discover, what Mahommed Gunga's real leanings were in the matter of loyalty to the Raj or otherwise. He dared not let the man go, for forgiveness is not one of the virtues held in high esteem by men of Ali Partab's race, and wrongful arrest is considered ground enough for a feud to the death. It seemed he did not dare do anything!
He racked his opium-dulled brain for a suspicion of a plan that might help solve the difficulty, until his eye—wandering around the courtyard—fell on the black shape of a woman. She was old and bent and she was busied, with a handful of dry twigs, pretending to sweep around the stables.
"Who is that mother of corruption?" demanded Jaimihr; and a man came running to him.
"Who is that eyesore? I have never seen her, have I?"
"Highness, she is a beggar woman. She sat by the gate, and pretended to a power of telling fortunes—which it would seem she does possess in some degree. It was thought better that she should use her gift in here, for our advantage, than outside to our disadvantage. So she was brought in and set to sweeping."
"By the curse of the sin of the sack of Chitor, is my palace, then, a midden for the crawling offal of all the Howrah streets? First this Rangar—next a sweeper hag—what follows? What bring you next? Go, fetch the street dogs in!"
"Highness, she is useful and costs nothing but the measure or two of meal she eats."
"A horse eats little more!" the angry Prince retorted, perfectly accustomed to being argued with by his own servants. That is the time-honored custom of the East; obedience is one thing—argument another—both in their way are good, and both have their innings. "Bring her to me—nay!—keep her at a decent distance—so!—am I dirt for her broom?"
He sat and scowled at her, and the old woman tried to hide more of her protruding bones under the rag of clothing that she wore; she stood, wriggling in evident embarrassment, well out in the sun.
"What willst thou steal of mine?" the Prince demanded suddenly.
"I am no thief." Bright, beady eyes gleamed back at him, and gave the lie direct to her shrinking attitude of fear. But he had taken too much opium overnight, and was in no mood to notice little distinctions. He was satisfied that she should seem properly afraid of him, and he scowled angrily when one of his retainers—in slovenly undress—crossed the courtyard to him. The man's evident intention, made obvious by his manner and his leer at the old woman, was to say something against her; the Prince was in a mood to quarrel with any one, on any ground at all, who did not cower to him.
"Prince, she it is who ran ever with the white woman, as a dog runs in the dust."
"What does she here, then?"
"Ask her!" grinned the trooper. "Unless she comes to look for Ali Partab, I know not."
He made the last part of his remark in a hurried undertone, too low for the old woman to hear.
"Let her earn her meal around the stables," said the Prince. A sudden light dawned on him. Here was a means, at least, of trying to make use of Ali Partab. "Go—do thy sweeping!" he commanded, and the hag slunk off.
For ten minutes longer, Jaimihr sat still and flicked at the stone column with his whip,—then he sent for his master of the horse, whose mistaken sense of loyalty had been the direct cause of Ali Partab's capture. He had acted instantly when the fat Hindoo brought him word, and he had expected to be praised for quick decision and rewarded; he was plainly in high dudgeon as he swaggered out of a dark door near the stables and advanced sulkily toward his master.
"Remove the prisoner from that cell, taking great care that the hag yonder sees what you do—yes, that hag—the new one; she is a spy. Bring the prisoner in to me, where I will talk with him; afterward place him in a different cell—put him where we kept the bear that died—there is a dark comer beside it, where a man might hide; hide a man there when it grows dark. And give the hag access. Say nothing to her; let her come and go as she will; watch, and listen."