"Has he guards with him?"
"But ten, Maharajah-sahib."
"Then remove these people to the place where they were, and afterward admit him—without his guards!"
"I demand permission to speak with this Alwa-sahib!" said McClean.
Two spear-armed custodians of the door advanced. Resistance was obviously futile. Still holding his daughter's hand, the missionary let himself be led to the outer hall and down a corridor, where, presently, a six-inch door shut prisoners and guards even from sound of what transpired beyond.
Alwa, swaggering until his long spurs jingled like a bunch of keys each time his boot-heels struck the marble floor, strode straight as a soldier up to the raised throne dais—took no notice whatever of the sudden slamming of the door behind him—looked knife-keenly into Howrah's eyes—and saluted with a flourish.
"I come from bursting open Jaimihr's buzzard roost!" he intimated mildly. "He held a man of mine. I have the man."
Merely to speak first was insolence; but that breach of etiquette was nothing to his manner and his voice. It appeared that he was so utterly confident of his own prowess that he could afford to speak casually; he did not raise his voice or emphasize a word. He was a man of his word, relating facts, and every line of his steel-thewed anatomy showed it.
"I sent a letter to you, by horseman, with a present," said Howrah. "I await the answer."
Alwa's eyes changed, and his attention stiffened. Not having been at home, he knew nothing of the letter, but he did not choose to acknowledge the fact. The principle that one only shares the truth with friends is good, when taken by surprise.
"I preferred to have confirmation of the matter from the Maharajah's lips in person, so—since I had this other matter to attend to—I combined two visits in one trip."
He lied, as he walked and fought, like a soldier, and the weary man who watched him from the throne detected no false ring.
"I informed you that I had extended my protection to the two missionaries, man and daughter."
"You did. Also, you did well." He tossed that piece of comfort to the despot as a man might throw table scraps to a starveling dog! "I have come to take away the missionaries."
"With a guard of ten!"
It was the first admission of astonishment that either man had made.
"Are you not aware that Jaimihr, too, has eyes on the woman?"
"I am aware of it. I have shown Jaimihr how deep my fear of him lies! I know, too, how deep the love lies between thee and thy brother, king of Howrah! I am here to remind you that many more than ten men would race their horses to a stand-still to answer my summons—brave men, Maharajah-sahib—men whose blades are keen, and straightly held, and true. They who would rally round me against Jaimihr would—"
"Would fight for me?"
"I have not yet said so." There was a little, barely accentuated emphasis on the one word "yet." The Maharajah thought a minute before he answered.
"How many mounted troopers could you raise?"
"Who knows? A thousand—three thousand—according to the soreness of the need."
"You have heard—I know that you have heard—what, even at this minute, awaits the British? I know, for I have taken care to know, that a cousin of yours—Mahommed Gunga—is interested for the British. So—so I am interested to have word with you."
Alwa laughed ironically.
"And the tiger asked the wolf pack where good hunting was!" he mocked. "I and my men strike which way suits us when the hour comes."
"My palace has many chambers in it!" hinted Howrah. "There have been men who wondered what the light of day was like, having long ago forgotten!"
"Make me prisoner!" laughed Alwa. "Count then the hours until three thousand blades join Jaimihr and help him grease the dungeon hinges with thy fat!"
"Having looted Jaimihr's palace, you speak thus?"
"Having whipped a dog, I wait for the dog to lick my hand."
"What is your purpose with these missionaries?"
"To redeem my given word."
"I would be free to pledge it again."
"To whom I choose."
"I will give thee the missionaries, against thy word to fight on my side when the hour comes."
"I have no quarrel with the British, yet."
"I will give thee the missionaries, against thy word to support me on this throne."
"Against all comers."
"If I refuse, what then?"
"Jaimihr—who by this time must surely be thy very warmest friend!—shall attack thee unmolested. Pledge thy word—take thy missionary people—and Jaimihr must oppose thee and me combined."
"Should Jaimihr ride after me, what then?"
"If he takes many with him, he must leave his camp unguarded, or only weakly guarded. Then I would act. If he goes with few, how can he take thy castle?"
"Then I have your protection against Jaimihr, and the missionaries, against my promise to support you on the throne?"
"My word on it."
Howrah rose, stepped forward to the dais edge, and held his hand out.
"Nay!" swore Alwa, recoiling. "My word is given. I take no Hindoo's hand!"
Howrah glared for a moment, but thought better of the hot retort that rose to his lips. Instead he struck a silver gong, and when the doors swung open ordered the prisoners to be produced.
"Escape through the palace-grounds," he advised Alwa. "A man of mine will show the way."
"Remember!" said Alwa across his shoulder with more than royal insolence, "I swore to help thee against Jaimihr and to support thee on thy throne—but in nothing did I swear to be thy tool—remember!"
Howrah City bows the knee (More or less) to masters three, King, and Prince, and Siva. Howrah City comes and goes— Buys and sells—and never knows Which is friend, and which are foes— King, or Prince, or Siva.
THAT that followed Alwa's breakaway was all but the tensest hour in Howrah City's history. The inevitable—the foiled rage of the priests and Jaimihr's impudent insistence that the missionaries should be handed over to him—the Maharajah's answer—all combined to set the murmurings afoot. Men said that the threatened rebellion against the rule of Britain had broken loose at last, and a dozen other quite as false and equally probable things.
Jaimihr, finding that his palace was intact, and that only the prisoner and three horses from his stable were missing, placed the whole guard under arrest—stormed futilely, while his hurrying swarm flocked to him through the dinning streets—and then, mad-angry and made reckless by his rage, rode with a hundred at his back to Howrah's palace, scattering the bee-swarm of inquisitive but so far peaceful citizens right and left.
With little ceremony, he sent in word to Howrah that he wanted Alwa and the missionaries; he stated that his private honor was at stake, and that he would stop at nothing to wreak vengeance. He wanted the man who had dared invade his palace—the man whom he had released—and the two who were the prime cause of the outrage. And with just as little ceremony word came out that the Maharajah would please himself as to what he did with prisoners.
That message was followed almost instantly by the high priest of Siva in person, angry as a turkey-gobbler and blasphemously vindictive. He it was who told Jaimihr of the unexpected departure through the palace-grounds.
"Ride, Jaimihr-sahib! Ride!" he advised him.
"How many have you? A hundred? Plenty! Ride and cut him off! There is but one road to Alwa's place; he must pass by the northern ford through Howrah River. Ride and cut him off!"
So, loose-reined, foam-flecked, breathing vengeance, Jaimihr and his hundred thundered through the dark hot night, making a bee-line for the point where Alwa's band must pass in order to take the shortest route to safety.
It was his word to the Jew that saved Alwa's neck. He and his men were riding borrowed horses, and he had promised to return them and reclaim his own. They had moved at a walk through winding, dark palace-alleys, led by a palace attendant, and debouched through a narrow door that gave barely horse-room into the road where Jaimihr had once killed a Maharati trader who molested Rosemary McClean. The missionary and his daughter were mounted on the horses seized in Jaimihr's stable; Joanna, moaning about "three gold mohurs, sahib—three, where are they?" was up behind Ali Partab, tossed like a pea on a drum-skin by the lunging movements of the wonder of a horse.
Instead of heading straight for home, in which case—although he did not know it—he would have been surely overhauled and brought to bay, he led at a stiff hand gallop to the Jew's, changed horses, crossed the ford by the burning ghats, and swooped in a wide half-circle for the sandy trail that would take him homeward. He made the home road miles beyond the point where Jaimihr waited for him—drew rein into the long-striding amble that desert-taught horses love—and led on, laughing.
"Ho!" He laughed. "Ho-ho! Here, then, is the end of Mahommed Gunga's scheming! Now, when he comes with arguments to make me fight on the British side, what a tale I have for him! Ho! What a swearing there will be! I will give him his missionary people, and say, 'There, Mahommed Gunga, cousin mine, there is my word redeemed—there is thy man into the bargain—there are three horses for thee—and I—I am at Howrah's beck and call!' Allah! What a swearing there will be!"
There was swearing, viler and more blasphemous than any of which Mahommed Gunga might be capable, where Jaimihr waited in the dark. He waited until the yellow dawn broke up the first dim streaks of violet before he realized that Alwa had given him the slip; and he cursed even the high priest of Siva when that worthy accosted him and asked what tidings.
"Another trick!" swore Jaimihr. "So, thou and thy temple rats saw fit to send me packing for the night! What devils' tricks have been hatched out in my absence?"
The high priest started to protest, but Jaimihr silenced him with coarse-mouthed threats.
"I, too, can play double when occasion calls for it!" he swore. And with that hint at coming trouble he clattered on home to his palace.
To begin with, when he reached home, he had the guard beaten all but unconscious for having dared let raiders in during the night before; then he sent them, waterless and thirsty, back to the dungeon. He felt better then, and called for ink and paper.
For hours he thought and wrote alternately, tearing up letter after letter. Then, at last, he read over a composition that satisfied him and set his seal at the foot. He placed the whole in a silver tube, poured wax into the joint, and called for the fat man who had been responsible for Ali Partab's capture.
"Dog!" he snarled. "Interfering fool! All this was thy doing! Didst thou see the guard beaten awhile ago?"
"I did. It was a lordly beating. The men are all but dead but will live for such another one."
"Wouldst thou be so beaten?"
"How can I prevent, if your highness wishes?"
"Take this. It is intended for Peshawur but may be given to any British officer above the rank of major. It calls for a receipt. Do not dare come back, or be caught in Howrah City, without a receipt for that tube and its contents intact!"
"If Alwa and Mahommed Gunga are in league with my brother," muttered Jaimihr to himself when the fat Hindoo had gone, "then the sooner the British quarrel with both of them the better. Howrah alone I can dispose of easily enough, and there is yet time before rebellion starts for the British to spike the guns of the other two. By the time that is done, I will be Maharajah!"
It was less than three days later when the word came mysteriously through the undiscoverable "underground" route of India for all men to be ready.
"By the next full moon," went the message, from the priests alone knew where, "all India will be waiting. When the full moon rises then the hour is come!"
"And when that full moon rises," thought Jaimihr to himself, "my brother's funeral rites will be past history!"
For the present, though, he made believe to regret his recent rage, and was courteous to priest and Maharajah alike—even sending to his brother to apologize.
They've called thee by an evil word, They've named thee traitor, friend o' mine. Thou askest faith? I send my sword. There is no greater, friend o' mine.
RALPH CUNNINGHAM said good-by to Brigadier-General Byng (Byng the Brigadier) with more feeling of regret and disappointment than he cared to show. A born soldier, he did his hard-mouthed utmost to refrain from whining; he even pretended that a political appointment was a recognizable advance along the road to sure success—or, rather, pretended that he thought it was; and the Brigadier, who knew men, and particularly young men, detected instantly the telltale expression of the honest gray eyes—analyzed it—and, to Cunningham's amazement, approved the unwilling make-believe.
"Now, buck up, Cunningham!" he said, slapping him familiarly on the shoulder. "You're making a good, game effort to hide chagrin, and you're a good, game ass for your pains. There isn't one man in all India who has half your luck at this minute, if you only knew it; but go ahead and find out for yourself! Go to Abu and report, but waste no more time there than you can help. Hurry on to Howrah, and once you're there, if Mahommed Gunga tells you what looks like a lie, trust him to the hilt!"
"Is he coming with me, then?" asked Cunningham in some amazement.
"Yes—unofficially. He has relations in that neighborhood and wants to visit them; he is going to take advantage of your pack-train and escort. You'll have a small escort as far as Abu; after that you'll be expected to look out for yourself. The escort is made up of details travelling down-country; they'll leave you at Abu Road."
So, still unbelieving—still wondering why the Brigadier should go to all that trouble to convince him that politics in a half-forgotten native state were fair meat for a soldier—Cunningham rode off at the head of a variously made-up travelling party, grudging every step of that wonderful mare Mahommed Gunga had given him, that bore him away from the breeze-swept north—away from the mist-draped hills he had already learned to love—ever down, down, down into the hell-baked plains.
Each rest-house where he spent a night was but another brooding-place of discontent and regret, each little petty detail connected with the command of the motley party (mainly time-expired men, homeward bound), was drudgery; each Hindoo pugree that he met was but a beastly contrast, or so it seemed to him, to the turbans of the troop that but a week ago had thundered at his back.
More than any other thing, Mahommed Gunga's cheerfulness amazed him. He resented it. He did not see why the man who had expressed such interest in the good fortune of his father's son should not be sympathetic now that his soldier career had been nipped so early in the bud. He began to lose faith in Mahommed Gunga's wisdom, and was glad when the ex-Risaldar chose to bring up the rear of the procession instead of riding by his side.
But behind, in Peshawur, there was one man at least who knew Mahommed Gunga and his worth, and who refused to let himself be blinded by any sort of circumstantial evidence. The evidence was black—in black on white—written by a black-hearted schemer, and delivered by a big, fat black man, who was utterly road-weary, to the commissioner in person.
The sepoy mutiny that had been planned so carefully had started to take charge too soon. News had arrived of native regiments whose officers had been obliged against their will to disarm and disband them, and the loyalty of other regiments was seriously called in question.
But the men whose blindness was responsible for the possibility of mutiny were only made blinder by the evidence of coming trouble. With a dozen courses open to them, any one of which might have saved the situation, they deliberately chose a thirteenth—two-forked toboggan-slide into destruction. To prove their misjudged confidence in the native army, they actually disbanded the irregulars led by Byng the Brigadier—removed the European soldiers wherever possible from ammunition-magazine guard-duty, replacing them with native companies—and reprimanded the men whose clear sight showed them how events were shaping.
They reprimanded Byng, as though depriving him of his command were not enough. When he protested, as he had a right to do, they showed him Jaimihr's letter.
"Mahommed Gunga told you, did he? Look at this!"
The letter, most concisely and pointedly written, considering the indirect phraseology and caution of the East, deliberately accused Mahommed Gunga and a certain Alwa, together with all the Rangars of a whole province, of scheming with Maharajah Howrah to overthrow the British rule. It recommended the immediate arrest of Mahommed Gunga and stern measures against the Rangars.
"What do you propose to do about it?" inquired Byng.
"It's out of our province. A copy of this letter has been sent to the proper quarter, and no doubt the story will be investigated. There have been all kinds of stories about suttee being practised in Howrah, and it very likely won't be difficult to find a plausible excuse for deposing the Maharajah and putting Jaimihr in his place. In the meantime, if Mahommed Gunga shows himself in these parts he'll be arrested."
Byng did then the sort of thing that was fortunately characteristic of the men who rose in the nick of time to seize the reins. He hurried to his quarters, packed in its case the sword of honor that had once been given him by his Queen, and despatched it without a written line of comment to Mahommed Gunga. The native who took it was ordered to ride like the devil, overtake Mahommed Gunga on the road to Abu, present the sword without explanation, and return.
Cunningham, in spite of himself, had travelled swiftly. The moon lacked two nights of being full and two more days would have seen him climbing up the fourteen-mile rock road that leads up the purple flanks of Abu, when the ex-trooper of Irregulars cantered from a dust cloud, caught up Mahommed Gunga, who was riding, as usual, in the rear, and handed him the sword. He held it out with both hands. Mahommed Gunga seized it by the middle, and neither said a word for the moment.
In silence Mahommed Gunga drew the blade—saw Byng's name engraved close to the hilt—recognized the sword, and knew the sender—thought—and mistook the meaning.
"Was there no word?"
"Then take this word back. 'I will return the sword, with honor added to it, when the peace of India is won.' Say that, and nothing else."
"I would rest my horse for a day or two," said the trooper.
"Neither thou nor yet thy horse will have much rest this side of Eblis!" said Mahommed Gunga. "Ride!"
The trooper wheeled and went with a grin and a salute which he repeated twice, leaning back from the saddle for a last look at the man of his own race whom Byng had chosen to exalt. He felt himself honored merely to have carried the sword. Mahommed Gunga removed his own great sabre and handed it to one of his own five whom he overtook; then he buckled on the sword of honor and spurred until he rode abreast of Cunningham, a hundred yards or more ahead of the procession.
"Sahib," he asked, "did Byng-bahadur say a word or two about listening to me?"
"He did. Why?"
"Because I will now say things!"
The fact that the Brigadier had sent no message other than the sword was probably the Rajput's chief reason for talking in riddles still to Cunningham. The silence went straight to his Oriental heart—so to speak, set the key for him to play to. But he knew, too, that Cunningham's youth would be a handicap should it come to argument; what he was looking for was not a counsellor or some one to make plans, for the plans had all been laid and cross-laid by the enemy, and Mahommed Gunga knew it. He needed a man of decision—to be flung blindfold into unexpected and unexpecting hell wrath, who would lead, take charge, decide on the instant, and lead the way out again, with men behind him who would recognize decision when they saw it. So he spoke darkly. He understood that the sword meant "Things have started," so with a soldier's courage he proceeded to head Cunningham toward the spot where hell was loose.
"Say ahead!" smiled Cunningham.
"Yonder, sahib, lies Abu. Yonder to the right lies thy road now, not forward."
"I have orders to report at Abu."
"And I, sahib, orders to advise!"
"Are you advising me to disobey orders?"
The Rajput hesitated. "Sahib, have I anything to gain," he asked, "by offering the wrong advice?"
"I can't imagine so."
"I advise, now, that we—thou and I, sahib, and my five turn off here—yonder, where the other trail runs—letting the party proceed to Abu without us."
"But why, Mahommed Gunga?"
"There is need of haste, sahib. At Abu there will be delay—much talk with Everton-sahib, and who knows?—perhaps cancellation of the plan to send thee on to Howrah."
"I'd be damned glad, Mahommed Gunga, not to have to go there!"
"Sahib, look! What is this I wear?"
"See here, sahib—this."
For the first time Cunningham noticed the fine European workmanship on the sword-hilt, and realized that the Rajput's usual plain, workmanlike weapon had been replaced.
"That is Byng-bahadur's sword of honor! It reached me a few minutes ago. The man who brought it is barely out of sight. It means, sahib, that the hour to act is come!"
"Sahib—this sending thee to Howrah is my doing? Since the day when I first heard that the son of Pukka Cunnigan-bahadur was on his way I have schemed and planned and contrived to this end. It was at word from me that Byng-bahadur signed the transfer papers—otherwise he would have kept thee by him. There are owls—old women—men whom Allah has deprived of judgment—drunkards—fools—in charge at Peshawur and in other places; but there are certain men who know. Byng-bahadur knows. I know—and I will show the way! Let me lead, sahib, for a little while, and I will show thee what to lead!"
"Does this sword, sahib, mean nothing? Did Byng-bahadur send it me for fun?"
"But what's the idea? I can't disobey orders, and ride off to—God knows where—without some excuse. You'll have to tell me why. What's the matter? What's happening?"
"Byng-bahadur sent not one word to me when he sent this sword. To thee he said: 'Listen to Mahommed Gunga, even when he seems to lie!' I know that, for he told me he had said it. To me he said: 'Take charge, Mahommed Gunga, when the hour comes, and rub his innocent young nose hard as you like into the middle of the mess!' Ay, sahib, so said he. It is now that I take charge."
"'But,' said the nylghau, and the wolf-pack had him! 'But,' said the tiger, and the trap door shut! 'But,' said the Hindoo, and a priest betrayed him! But—but—but—I never knew thy father make much use of that word!"
"Yes—but—I have my orders, Mahommed Gunga!"
"Sahib—this sword is a sword of honor—it stands for Byng-bahadur's honor. I have it in my keeping. Mine own honor is a matter somewhat dear to me, and I have kept it clean these many years. Now I ask to keep thine honor, too, awhile—making three men's honor. If I fail, then thou and I and Byng-bahadur all go down together in good company. If I fail not, then, sahib—Allah is contented when his honor stands!"
Cunningham drew rein and looked him in the eyes. Gray eyes met brown and neither flinched; each read what men of mettle only can read when they see it—the truth, the fearlessness, the thought they understand because it lives with them. Cunningham held out his hand.
Some thirty minutes later Cunningham, Mahommed Gunga, and the five, with a much-diminished mule-train bumping in their wake, were headed westward on a dry, hot trail, while the time-expired and convalescent escort plodded south. The escort carried word that Cunningham had heard of trouble to the west, and had turned off to investigate it.
Quoth little red jackal, famishing, "Lo, Yonder a priest and a soldier go; You can see farthest, and you ought to know,— Which shall I wander with, carrion crow?" The crow cawed back at him, "Ignorant beast! Soldiers get glory, but none of the feast; Soldiers work hardest, and snaffle the least. Take my advice on it—Follow the priest!"
IT was two hours after sunrise on the second day that followed Cunningham's desertion of his party when he and Mahommed Gunga first caught sight of a blue, baked rock rising sheer out of a fringe of green on the dazzling horizon. It was a freak of nature—a point pushed through the level crust of bone-dry earth, and left to glitter there alone.
"That is my cousin Alwa's place!" exclaimed Mahommed Gunga, and he seemed to draw a world of consolation from the fact.
The sight loosed his tongue at last; he rode by Cunningham, and deigned an explanation now, at least, of what had led to what might happen. He wasted little breath on prophecy, but he was eloquent in building up a basis from which Cunningham might draw his own deductions. They had ridden through the cool of the night in easy stages, and should have camped at dawn; but Mahommed Gunga had insisted that the tired animals could carry them for three hours longer.
"A soldier's horse must rest at the other end sahib," he had laughed. "Who knows that they have not sent from Abu to arrest both thee and me?" And he had not vouchsafed another word until, over the desert glare, his cousin's aerie had blazed out, beating back the molten sun-rays.
"It looks hotter than the horns of hell!" said Cunningham.
"The horns of hell, sahib, are what we leave behind us! They grow hot now! Thy countrymen—the men who hated thee so easily—heated them and sit now between them for their folly!"
"How d'you mean? 'Pon my soul and honor, Risaldar, you talk more riddles in five minutes than I ever heard before in all my life!"
"There be many riddles I have not told yet—riddles of which I do not know the answer. Read me this one. Why did the British Government annex the state of Oudh? All the best native soldiers came from Oudh, or nearly all. They were loyal once; but can a man be fairly asked to side against his own? If Oudh should rise in rebellion, what would the soldiers do?"
"Dunno, I'm sure," said Cunningham.
"Read me this one, then. By pacifying both Mohammedan and Hindoo and by letting both keep their religion, by sometimes playing one against the other and by being just, the British Government has become supreme from the Himalayas to the ocean. Can you tell me why they now issue cartridges for the new rifles that are soaked in the fat of cows and pigs, thus insulting both Mohammedan and Hindoo?"
"I didn't know it was so."
"Sahib, it is! These damned new cartridges and this new drill-sahib, I—I who am loyal to the marrow of my bones—would no more touch those cartridges—nor bite them, as the drill decrees—than I would betray thee! Pig's fat! Ugh!"
He spat with Mohammedan eloquence and wiped his lips on his tunic sleeve before resuming.
"Then, like a flint and steel, to light the train that they have laid, they loose these missionaries, in a swarm, from one end of India to the other. Why? What say one and all? Mohammedan and Hindoo both say it is a plot, first to make them lose their own religion by defilement, then to make Christians of them! Foolishness to talk thus? Nay! It was foolishness to act thus!
"Sahib, peace follows in the wake of soldiers, as we know. Time and time again the peace of India has been ripped asunder at the whim of priests! These padre people, preaching new damnation everywhere, are the flint and steel for the tinder of the cartridge fat!"
"I never knew you to croak before, Mahommed Gunga."
"Nor am I croaking. I am praising Allah, who has sent thee now to the place whence the wind will come to fan the hell flames that presently will burn. The wind will blow hot or cold—for or against the government—according as you and I and certain others act when opportunity arrives! See yonder!"
They had been seen, evidently, for horsemen—looking like black ants on the desert—seemed to have crawled from the bowels of the living rock and were galloping in their direction.
"Friends?" asked Cunningham.
"Friends, indeed! But they have yet to discover whether we are friends. They set me thinking, sahib. Alwa is well known on this country-side and none dare raid his place; few would waste time trying. Therefore, it is all one to him who passes along this road; and he takes no trouble, as a rule, to send his men out in skirmishing order when a party comes in view. Why, then, does he trouble now?"
"Couldn't say. I don't know Alwa."
"I am thinking, sahib, that the cloud has burst at last! A blood-red cloud! Alwa is neither scare-monger nor robber; when he sends out armed men to inspect strangers on the sky-line, there is war! Sahib, I grow young again! Had people listened to me—had they called me anything but fool when I warned them—thou and I would have been cooped up now in Agra, or in Delhi, or Lucknow, or Peshawur! Now we are free of the plains of Rajputana—within a ride of fifty of my blood-relations, and they each within reach of others! Ho! I can hear the thunder of a squadron at my back again! I am young, sahib—young! My old joints loosen! Allah send the cloud has burst at last—I bring to two thousand Rangars a new Cunnigan-bahadur! Thy father's son shall learn what Cunnigan-bahadur taught!"
He lapsed into silence, watching the advancing horsemen, who swooped down on them in an ever-closing fan formation. His tired horse sensed the thrill that tingled through its rider's veins, and pranced again, curving his neck and straining at the bit until Mahommed Gunga steadied him. The five behind—even the mule-drivers too—detected excitement in the air, and the little column closed in on its leaders. All eyes watched the neck-and-neck approach of Alwa's men, until Cunningham at last could see their turbans and make out that they were Rangars, not Hindoos. Then he and the Risaldar drew rein.
There were twenty who raced toward them, but no Alwa.
"It is as I thought!" declared Mahommed Gunga. "It is war, sahib! He has summoned men from his estates. As a rule, he can afford but ten men for that fort of his, and he would not send all his men to meet us—he has a garrison up yonder!"
Like blown dust-devils the twenty raced to them, and drew up thundering within a lance-length. A sword-armed Rangar with a little gold lace on his sleeve laughed loud as he saluted, greeting Mahommed Gunga first. The Risaldar accepted his salute with iron dignity.
"Forgive him, sahib!" he whispered to Cunningham. "The jungli knows no better! He will learn whom to salute first when Alwa has said his say!"
But Cunningham was in no mood just then to stand on military ceremony or right of precedence. He was too excited, too inquisitive, too occupied with the necessity for keeping calm in the face of what most surely looked like the beginning of big happenings. These horsemen of Alwa's rode, and looked, and laughed like soldiers, new-stripped of the hobble ropes of peace, and their very seat in the untanned saddles—tight down, loose-swaying from the hips, and free—was confirmation of Mahommed Gunga's words.
They wheeled in a cloud and led the way, opening a little in the centre to let the clouds of sand their horses kicked up blow to the right and left of Cunningham and his men. Not a word was spoken—not a question asked or a piece of news exchanged—until the whole party halted at the foot of Alwa's fortress home—a great iron gate in front of them and garden land on either side—watered by the splashing streamlet from the heights above.
"Men of the house of Kachwaha have owned and held this place, sahib, since Allah made it!" whispered Mahommed Gunga. "Men say that Alwa has no right to it; they lie! His father's father won the dower-right!"
He was interrupted by the rising of the iron gate. It seemed solid, without even an eyehole in it. It was wide enough to let four horses under side by side, and for all its weight it rose as suddenly and evenly as though a giant's hand had lifted it. Immediately behind it, like an actor waiting for the stage-curtain to rise, Alwa bestrode his war-horse in the middle of a roadway. He saluted with drawn sabre, and this time Cunningham replied.
Almost instantly the man who had led the gallopers and had saluted Mahommed Gunga spurred his horse up close to Cunningham and whispered:
"Pardon, sahib! I did not know! Am I forgiven?"
"Yes," said Cunningham, remembering then that a Rajput, and a Rangar more particularly, thinks about points of etiquette before considering what to eat. Alwa growled out a welcome, rammed his sabre home, and wheeled without another word, showing the way at a walk—which was all a wild goat could have accomplished—up a winding road, hewn out of the solid mountain, that corkscrewed round and round upon itself until it gave onto the battlemented summit. There he dismounted, ordered his men to their quarters, and for the first time took notice of his cousin.
"I have thy missionary and his daughter, three horses for thee, and thy man," he smiled.
"Did Ali Partab bring them?"
"Nay. It was I brought Ali Partab and the rest! My promise is redeemed!"
Mahommed Gunga thrust his sword-hilt out and smiled back at him. "I present Raff-Cunnigan-sahib—son of Pukka-Cunnigan-bahadur!" he announced.
Alwa drew himself up to his full height and eyed young Cunningham as a buyer eyes a war-horse, inch by inch. The youngster, who had long since learned to actually revel in the weird sensation of a hundred pairs of eyes all fixed on him at once, felt this one man's gaze go over him as though he were being probed. He thanked his God he had no fat to be detected, and that his legs were straight, and that his tunic fitted him!
"Salaam, bahadur," said Alwa slowly. "I knew thy father. So—thou—art—his—son. Welcome. There is room here always for a guest. I have other guests with whom you might care to speak. I will have a room made ready. Have I leave to ask questions of my cousin here?"
Cunningham bowed in recognition of his courtesy, and walked away to a point whence he could look from the beetling parapet away and away across desert that shone hot and hazy-rimmed on every side. If this were a man on whom he must depend for following—if any of all the more than hints dropped by the risaldar were true—it seemed to him that his reception was a little too chilly to be hopeful.
After a minute or two he turned his eyes away from the dazzling plain below and faced about to inspect the paved courtyard. Round it, on three sides of a parallelogram, there ran a beautifully designed and wonderfully worked-out veranda-fronted building, broken here and there by cobbled passages that evidently led to other buildings on the far edge of the rock. In the centre, covered by a roof like a temple-dome in miniature, was the ice-cold spring, whose existence made the fort tenable. Under the veranda, on a long, low lounge, was a sight that arrested his attention—held him spell-bound—drew him, tingling in a way he could not have explained—drew him—drew him, slow-footed, awkward, red—across the courtyard.
He heard Mahommed Gunga swear aloud; he recognized the wording of the belly-growled Rangar oath; but it did not occur to him that what he saw—what was drawing him—could be connected with it. He looked straight ahead and walked ahead—reached the edge of the veranda—took his helmet off—and stood still, feeling like an idiot, with the sun full on his head.
"I'd advise you to step into the shade," said a voice that laughed more sweetly than the chuckling spring. "I don't know who you are, but I'm more glad to see you than I ever was in my life to see anybody. I can't get up, because I'm too stiff; the ride to here from Howrah City all but killed me, and I'm only here still because I couldn't ride another yard. My father will be out in a moment. He's half-dead too."
"My name is Cunningham."
"I'm Miss McClean. My father was a missionary in Howrah."
She nodded to a chair beside her, and Cunningham took it, feeling awkward, as men of his type usually do when they meet a woman in a strange place.
"How in the world did you get in?" she asked him. "It's two days now since the Alwa-sahib told us that the whole country is in rebellion. How is it that you managed to reach here? According to Alwa, no white man's life is safe in the open, and he only told me today that he wouldn't let me go away even if I were well enough to ride."
"First I've heard of rebellion!" said Cunningham aghast at the notion of hearing news like that a second hand, and from a woman.
"Hasn't Alwa told you?"
"He hasn't had time to, yet."
"Then, you'd better ask him. If what he say is true—and I think he tells the truth—the natives mean to kill us all, or drive us out of India. Of course they can't do it, but they mean to try. He has been more than kind—more than hospitable—more than chivalrous. Just because he gave his word to another Rangar, he risked his life about a dozen times to get my father and me and Ali Partab out of Howrah. But, I don't think he quite liked doing it—and—this is in confidence—if I were asked—and speaking just from intuition—I should say he is in sympathy with the rebellion!"
"How long have you been here?" asked Cunningham.
"Several days—ten, I think. It seemed strange at first and rather awful to be lodged on a rock like this in a section of a Rangar's harem! Yes, there are several women here behind the scenes, but I only see the waiting-women. I've forgotten time; the news about rebellion seems too awful to leave room for any other thought."
"Who was the Rangar to whom Aliva gave his word? Not Mahommed Gunga, by any chance?"
"Yes, Mahommed Gunga."
"Well, I'm—!" Cunningham clipped off the participle just in time. "There is something, then, in the talk about rebellion! That man's been talking in riddles to me ever since I came to India, and it looks as though he knew long in advance."
He was about to cross-examine Miss McClean rigorously, even at the risk of seeming either rude or else frightened; but before his lips could frame another question he caught sight of Mahommed Gunga making signals to him. He affected to ignore the signals. He objected to being kept in the dark so utterly, and wished to find out a little for himself before listening to what the Rangars had to say. But Mahommed Gunga started over to him.
He could not hear the remark Mahommed Gunga made to Alwa over his shoulder as he came.
"Had I remembered there was a woman of his own race here, I would have plunged him straight into the fighting! Now there will be the devil first to pay!"
"He has decision in at least one thing!" grinned Alwa.
"Something that I think thou lackest, cousin!" came the hot retort.
Alwa turned his back with a shake of his head and a thin-lipped smile—then disappeared through a green door in the side of what seemed like solid rock. A moment later Mahommed Gunga stood near Cunningham, saluting.
"We ask the favor of a consultation, sahib."
Cunningham rose, a shade regretfully, and followed into the rock-walled cavern into which Alwa had preceded them. It was nearly square—a hollow bubble in the age-old lava—axe-trimmed many hundred years ago. What light there was came in through three long slits that gave an archer's view of the plain and of the zigzag roadway from the iron gate below. It was cool, for the rock roof was fifty or more feet thick, and the silence of it seemed like the nestling-place of peace.
They sat down on wooden benches round the walls, with their soldier legs stretched out in front of them. Alwa broke silence first, and it was of anything but peace he spoke.
"Now—now, let us see whose throats we are to slit!" he started cheerfully.
Achilles had a tender spot That even guarding gods forgot, When clothing him in armor; And I have proved this charge o' mine For fear, and sloth, and vice, and wine, But clear forgot the charmer!
THE Alwa-sahib knew more English than he was willing to admit. In the first place, he had the perfectly natural dislike of committing his thoughts to any language other than his own when anything serious was the subject of discussion; in the second place, he had little of Mahommed Gunga's last-ditch loyalty. Not that Alwa could be disloyal; he had not got it in him; but as yet he had seen no good reason for pledging himself and his to the British cause.
So for more than ten minutes he chose to sit in apparent dudgeon, his hands folded in front of him on the hilt of his tremendous sabre, growling out a monologue in his own language for Mahommed Gunga's benefit. Then Mahommed Gunga silenced him with an uplifted hand, and turned to translate to Cunningham.
"It would seem, sahib, that even while we rode to Abu the rebellion was already raging! It burst suddenly. They have mutinied at Berhampur, and slain their officers. Likewise at Meerut, and at all the places in between. At Kohat, in this province they have slain every white man, woman, and child, and also at Arjpur and Sohlat. The rebels are hurrying to Delhi, where they have proclaimed new rule, under the descendants of the old-time kings. Word of all this came before dawn today, by a messenger from Maharajah Howrah to my cousin here. My cousin stands pledged to uphold Howrah on his throne; Howrah is against the British; Jaimihr, his brother, is in arms against Howrah."
"Why did the Alwa-sahib pledge himself to Howrah's cause?"
Mahommed Gunga—who knew quite well—saw fit to translate the question. With a little sign of irritation Alwa growled his answer.
"He says, sahib, that for the safety of two Christian missionaries, for whom he has no esteem at all, he was forced to swear allegiance to a Hindoo whom he esteems even less. He says that his word is given!"
"Does he mean that he would like me and the missionaries to leave his home at once—do we embarrass him?"
Again Mahommed Gunga—this time with a grin—saw fit to ask before he answered.
"He says, 'God forbid,' sahib; 'a guest is guest!'"
Cunningham reflected for a moment, then leaned forward.
"Tell him this!" he said slowly. "I am glad to be his guest, but, if this story of rebellion is true—"
"It is true, sahib! More than true! There is much more to be told!"
"Then, I can only accept his hospitality as the representative of my government! I stay here officially, or not at all. It is for him to answer!"
"Now, Allah be praised!" swore Mahommed Gunga. "I knew we had a man! That is well said, sahib!"
"The son of Cunnigan-bahadur is welcome here on any terms at all!" growled Alwa when Mahommed Gunga had translated. "All the rebels in all India, all trying at once, would fail to take this fort of mine, had I a larger garrison. But what Rangar on this countryside will risk his life and estates on behalf of a cause that is already lost? If they come to hold my fort for me, the rebels will burn their houses. The British Raj is doomed. We Rangars have to play for our own stake!"
Then Mahommed Gunga rose and paced the floor like a man in armor, tugging at his beard and kicking at his scabbard each time that he turned at either end.
"What Rangar in this province would have had one yard of land to his name but for this man's father?" he demanded. "In his day we fought, all of us, for what was right! We threw our weight behind him when he led, letting everything except obedience go where the devil wanted it! What came of that? Good tithes, good report, good feeling, peace!"
"And then, the zemindary laws!" growled Alwa. "Then the laws that took away from us full two-thirds of our revenue!"
"We had had no revenue, except for Cunnigan-bahadur!"
It dawned on Cunningham exactly why and how he came to be there! He understood now that Mahommed Gunga had told nothing less than truth when he declared it had been through his scheming, and no other man's, that he—Cunningham—whose sole thought was to be a soldier, had been relegated to oblivion and politics! He understood why Byng had signed the transfer, and he knew—knew—knew—deep down inside him that his chance had come!
"It seems that another Cunningham is to have the honor of preserving Rangars' titles for them," he smiled. "How many horsemen could the Alwa-sahib raise?"
"That would depend!" Alwa was in no mood to commit himself.
"At the most—at a pinch—in case of direst need, and for a cause that all agreed on?"
"Horsed and armed?"
"And you, Alwa-sahib—are you pledged to fight against the British?"
"Not in so many words. I swore to uphold Howrah on his throne. He is against the British."
"You swore to help smash his brother, Jaimihr?"
"If I were needed."
"And Jaimihr too is against the British?"
"Jaimihr is for Jaimihr, and has a personal affair with me!"
"I must think," said Cunningham, getting up. "I can think better alone. D'you mind if I go outside for a while, and come back later to tell you what I think?"
Alwa arose and held the door open for him—stood and watched him cross the courtyard—then turned and laughed at Mahommed Gunga.
"Straight over to the woman!" he grinned. "This leader of thine seems in leading-strings himself already!"
Mahommed Gunga cursed, and cursed again as his own eyes confirmed what Alwa said.
"I tried him all the ways there are, except that one way!" he declared. "May Allah forgive my oversight! I should have got him well entangled with a woman before he reached Peshawur! He should have been heart-broken by this time—rightly, he should have been desperate with unrequited love! Byng-bahadur could have managed it! Byng-bahadur would have managed it, had I thought to advise him!"
He stood, looking over very gloomily at Cunningham, making a dozen wild plans for getting rid of Miss McClean—by no means forgetting poison—and the height of Alwa's aerie from the plain below! He would have been considerably calmer, could he have heard what Cunningham and Miss McClean were saying.
The missionary was with her now—ill and exhausted from the combined effects of excitement, horror, and the unaccustomed ride across the desert—most anxious for his daughter—worried, to the verge of desperation, by the ghastly news of the rebellion.
"Mr. Cunningham, I hope you are the forerunner of a British force?" he hazarded.
But Cunningham was too intent on cross-examination to waste time on giving any information.
"I want you to tell me, quite quietly and without hurry, all you can about Howrah," he said, sitting close to Miss McClean. "I want you to understand that I am the sole representative of my government in the whole district, and that whatever can be done depends very largely on what information I can get. I have been talking to the Alwa-sahib, but he seems too obsessed with his own predicament to be able to make things quite clear. Now, go ahead and tell me what you know about conditions in the city. Remember, you are under orders! Try and consider yourself a scout, reporting information to your officer. Tell me every single thing, however unimportant."
On the far side of the courtyard Alwa and Mahommed Gunga had gone to lean over the parapet and watch something that seemed to interest both of them intently. There were twenty or more men, lined round the ramparts on the lookout, and they all too seemed spellbound, but Cunningham was too engrossed in Miss McClean's story of the happenings in Howrah City to take notice. Now and then her father would help her out with an interjected comment; occasionally Cunningham would stop her with a question, or would ask her to repeat some item; but, for more than an hour she spun a clear-strung narrative that left very little to imagination and included practically all there was to know.
"Do you think," asked Cunningham "that this brute Jaimihr really wants to make you Maharanee?"
"I couldn't say," she shuddered. "You know, there have been several instances of European women having practically sold themselves to native princes; there have been stories—I have heard them—of English women marrying Rajahs, and regretting it. There is no reason why he should not be in earnest, and he certainly seemed to be."
"And this treasure? Of course, I have heard tales about it, but I thought they were just tales."
"That treasure is really there, and its amount must be fabulous. I have been told that there are jewels there which would bring a Rajah's ransom, and gold enough to offset the taxes of the whole of India for a year or two. I've no doubt the stories are exaggerated, but the treasure is real enough, and big enough to make the throne worth fighting for. Jaimihr counts on being able to break the power of the priests and broach the treasure."
"And Jaimihr is—er—in love with you!"
"He tried very hard to prove it, in his own objectionable way!"
"And Jaimihr wants the throne—and Howrah wants to send a force against the British, but dare not move because of Jaimihr—I have Mahommed Gunga and five or six men to depend on—the Rangars are sitting on the fence—and the government has its hands full! The lookout's bright! I think I see the way through!"
"You are forgetting me." The missionary spread his broad stooped shoulders. "I am a missionary first, but next to that I have my country's cause more at heart than anything. I place myself under your orders, Mr. Cunningham."
"I too," said Miss McClean. She was looking at him keenly as he gazed away into nothing through slightly narrowed eyes. Vaguely, his attitude reminded her of a picture she had once seen of the Duke of Wellington; there was the same mastery, the same far vision, the same poise of self-contained power. His nose was not like the Iron Duke's, for young Cunningham's had rather more tolerance in its outline and less of Roman overbearing; but the eyes, and the mouth, and the angle of the jaw were so like Wellesley's as to force a smile. "A woman isn't likely to be much use in a case like this—but, one never knows. My country comes first."
"Thanks," he answered quietly. And as he turned his head to flash one glance at each of them, she recognized what Mahommed Gunga had gloated over from the first—the grim decision, that will sacrifice all—take full responsibility—and use all means available for the one unflinching purpose of the game in hand. She knew that minute, and her father knew, that if she could be used—in any way at all—he would make use of her.
"Go ahead!" she nodded. "I'll obey!"
"And I will not prevent!" said Duncan McClean, smiling and straightening his spectacles.
Cunningham left them and walked over to the parapet, where the whole garrison was bending excitedly now above the battlement. There were more than forty men, most of them clustered near Alwa and Mahommed Gunga. Mahommed Gunga was busy counting.
"Eight hundred!" he exclaimed, as Cunningham drew near.
"Eight hundred what, Mahommed Gunga? Come and see, sahib."
Cunningham leaned over, and beheld a mounted column, trailing along the desert road in wonderfully good formation.
"Where are they from?" he asked.
"Jaimihr's men, from Howrah!"
"That means," growled Alwa, "that the Hindoo pig Jaimihr has more than half the city at his back. He has left behind ten men for every one he brings with him—sufficient to hold Howrah in check. Otherwise he would never have dared come here. He hopes to settle his little private quarrel with me first, before dealing with his brother! Who told him, I wonder, that I was pledged to Howrah?"
"He reckons he has caught thee napping in this fort of thine!" laughed Mahommed Gunga. "He means to bottle up the Rangars' leader, and so checkmate all of them!"
The eight hundred horsemen on the plain below rode carelessly through Alwa's gardens, leaving trampled confusion in their wake, and lined up—with Jaimihr at their head—immediately before the great iron gate. A moment later four men rode closer and hammered on it with their lance-ends.
"Go down and speak to them!" commanded Alwa, and a man dropped down the zigzag roadway like a goat, taking short cuts from level to level, until he stood on a pinnacle of rock that overhung the gate. Ten minutes later he returned, breathing hard with the effort of his climb.
"Jaimihr demands the missionaries—particularly the Miss-sahib—also quarters and food!" he reported.
"Quarters and food he shall have!" swore Alwa, looking down at the Prince who sat his charger in the centre of the roadway. "Did he deign a threat?"
"He said that in fifteen minutes he will burst the gate in, unless he is first admitted!"
Duncan McClean walked over, limping painfully, and peered over the precipice.
"Unfriendly?" he asked, and Mahommed Gunga heard him.
"Thy friend Jaimihr, sahib! His teeth are all but visible from here!"
"He demands admittance—also thee and thy daughter!"
"Sahib—art thou a priest?"
"One, then, who prays?"
"For dead men, ever? For the dying?"
"On occasion, yes."
"Then pray now! There will be many dead and dying on the plain below in less than fifteen minutes! Hindoos, for all I know, would benefit by prayer. They have too many gods, and their gods are too busy fighting for ascendancy to listen. Pray thou, a little!"
There came a long shout from the plain, and Alwa sent a man again to listen. He came back with a message that Jaimihr granted amnesty to all who would surrender, and that he would be pleased to accept Alwa's allegiance if offered to him.
"I will offer the braggart something in the way of board and lodging that will astonish him!" growled Alwa. "Eight men to horse! The first eight! That will do! Back to the battlement, the rest of you!"
They had raced for the right to loose themselves against eight hundred!
OH, duck and run—the hornets come! Oh, jungli! Clear the way! The nest's ahum—the hornets come! The sharp-stinged, harp-winged hornets come! Nay, jungli! When the hornets come, It isn't well to stay!
ALWA ordered ten men down into the bowels of the rock itself, where great wheels with a chain attached to them were forced round to lift the gate. Next he stationed a signaller with a cord in either hand, above the parapet, to notify the men below exactly when to set the simple machinery in motion. His eight clattered out from the stables on the far side of the rock, and his own charger was brought to him, saddled.
Then, in a second, it was evident why Raputs do not rule in Rajputana.
"I ride too with my men!" declared Mahommed Gunga.
"Nay! This is my affair—my private quarrel with Jaimihr!"
Mahommed Gunga turned to Ali Partab, who had been a shadow to him ever since he came.
"Turn out my five, and bring my charger!" he commanded.
"No, I say!" Alwa had his hand already on his sabre hilt. "There is room for eight and no more. Four following four abreast, and one ahead to lead them. I and my men know how to do this. I and my men have a personal dispute with Jaimihr. Stay thou here!"
Mahommed Gunga's five and Ali Partab came clattering out so fast as to lead to the suspicion that their horses had been already saddled. Mahommed Gunga mounted.
"Lead on, cousin!" he exclaimed. "I will follow thy lead, but I come!"
Then Alwa did what a native nearly always will do. He turned to a man not of his own race, whom he believed he could trust to be impartial.
"Sahib—have I no rights in my own house?"
"Certainly you have," said Cunningham, who was wondering more than anything what weird, wild trick these horsemen meant to play. No man in his senses would have dared to ride a horse at more than foot-pace down the path. Was there another path? he wondered. At least, if eight men were about to charge into eight hundred, it would be best to keep his good friend Mahommed Gunga out of it, he decided.
"Risaldar!" The veteran was always most amenable to reason when addressed by his military title. "Who of us two is senior—thou or I?"
"By Allah, not I, sahib! I am thy servant!"
"I accept your service, and I order you to stay with your men up here with me!"
Mahommed Gunga saluted and dismounted, and his six followed suit, looking as disappointed as children just deprived of a vacation. Alwa wheeled his horse in front of Cunningham and saluted too.
"For that service, sahib, I am thy friend!" he muttered. "That was right and reasonable, and a judgement quickly given! Thy friend, bahadur!" He spoke low on purpose, but Mahommed Gunga heard him, caught Cunningham's eye, and grinned. He saw a way to save his face, at all events.
"That was a trick well turned, sahib!" he whispered, as Alwa moved away. "Alwa will listen in future when Cunnigan-bahadur speaks!"
"Go down and tell Jaimihr that I come in person!" ordered Alwa, and the man dropped down the cliff side for the third time; they could hear his voice, high-pitched, resounding off the rock, and they caught a faint murmur of the answer. Below, Jaimihr could be seen waiting patiently, checking his restive war-horse with a long-cheeked bit, and waiting, ready to ride under the gate the moment it was opened. Rosemary McClean came over; she and Cunningham and the missionary leaned together over the battlement and watched.
"We might do some execution with rifles from here," Cunningham suggested; "I believe I'll send for mine." But Mahommed Gunga overheard him.
"Nay, sahib! No shooting will be necessary. Watch!"
There was a clatter of hoofs, and they all looked up in time to see the tails of the last four chargers disappearing round the corner, downward. They had gone—full pelt—down a path that a man might hesitate to take! From where they stood, there was an archer's view of every inch of the only rock-hewn road that led from the gate to the summit of the cliff; an enemy who had burst the gate in would have had to climb in the teeth of a searching hail of missiles, with little chance of shooting back.
They could see the gate itself, and Jaimihr on the other side. And, swooping—shooting—sliding down the trail like a storm-loosed avalanche, they could see the nine go, led by Alwa. No living creature could have looked away!
Below, entirely unconscious of the coming shock, the mounted sepoys waited behind Jaimihr in four long, straight lines. Jaimihr himself, with a heavy-hilted cimeter held upward at the "carry," was about four charger lengths beyond the iron screen, ready to spur through. Close by him were a dozen, waiting to ram a big beam in and hold up the gate when it had opened. And, full-tilt down the gorge, flash-tipped like a thunderbolt, gray-turbaned, reckless, whirling death ripped down on them.
They caught sound of the hammering hoofs too late. Two gongs boomed in the rock. The windlass creaked. Five seconds too late Jaimihr gathered up his reins, spurred, wheeled, and shouted to the men behind him. The great gate rose, like the jaws of a hungry monster, and the nine—streaking too fast down far too steep a slide to stop themselves—burst straight out under it and struck, as a wind blast smites a poppy-field.
Jaimihr was borne backward—carried off his horse. Alwa and the first four rode him down, and crashed through the four-deep line beyond; the second four pounced on him, gathered him, and followed. Before the lines could form again the whole nine wheeled—as a wind-eddy spins on its own axis—and burst through back again, the horses racing neck and neck, and the sabres cutting down a swath to screech and swear and gurgle in among the trampled garden stuff.
They came back in a line, all eight abreast, Alwa leading only by a length. At the opening, four horses—two on either side—slid, rump to the ground, until their noses touched the rock. Alwa and four dashed through and under; the rest recovered, spun on their haunches, and followed. The gongs boomed again down in the belly of the rock, and the gate clanged shut.
"That was good," said Mahommed Gunga quietly. "Now, watch again!"
Almost before the words had left his lips, a hail of lead barked out from twenty vantage-points, and the smoke showed where some forty men were squinting down steel barrels, shooting as rapidly and as rottenly as natives of India usually do. They did little execution; but before Alwa and his eight had climbed up the steep track to the summit, patting their horses' necks and reviling Jaimihr as they came, the cavalry below had scampered out of range, leaving their dead and wounded where they lay.
"How is that for a start, sahib?" demanded Mahommed Gunga exultantly, as two men deposited the dishevelled Jaimihr on his feet, and the Prince glared around him like a man awaking from a dream. "How is that for a beginning?"
"As bad as could be!" answered Cunningham. "It was well executed—bold—clever—anything you like, Mahommed Gunga, but—if I'd been asked I'd have sooner made the devil prisoner! Jaimihr is no use at all to us in here. Outside, he'd be veritable godsend!"
There is war to the North should I risk and ride forth, And a fight to the South, too, I'm thinking; There is war in the East, and one battle at least In the West between eating and drinking. I'm allowed to rejoice in an excellent choice Of plans for a soldier of mettle, For all of them mean bloody war and rapine. So—on which should a gentleman settle?
WITH his muscles strained and twisted (for his Rangar capturers had dragged him none too gently) and with his jewelled pugree all awry, Jaimihr did not lack dignity. He held his chin high, although he gazed at the bubbling spring thirstily; and, thirsty though he must have been, he asked no favors.
One of Alwa's men brought him a brass dipper full of water, after washing it out first thoroughly and ostentatiously. But Jaimihr smiled. His caste forbade. He waved away the offering much as Caesar may have waved aside a crown, with an air of condescending mightiness too proud to know contempt.
"Go, help thyself!" growled Alwa; and Jaimihr walked to the spring without haste, knelt down, and dipped up water with his hand.
"Now to a cell with him!" commanded Alwa, before the Prince had time to slake a more than ordinary thirst. Jaimihr stood upright as four men closed in on him, and looked straight in the eyes of every one in turn. Rosemary McClean stepped back, to hide herself behind Cunningham's broad shoulders, but Jaimihr saw her and his proud smile broadened to a laugh of sheer amusement. He let his captors wait for him while he stared straight at her, sparing her no fragment of embarrassment.
"I slew a man once to save thee, sahiba!" he mocked. "Why slink away? Have I ever been thy enemy?"
Then he folded his arms and walked off between his guards, without even an acknowledgment of Alwa's or any other man's existence on the earth.
Alwa spat as he wiped blood from his long sabre. He imagined he was doing the necessary dirty work out of Miss McClean's sight; but, except hospital nurses, there are few women who can see dry blood removed from steel without a qualm; she had looked at Alwa to escape Jaimihr's gaze; now she looked at Jaimihr's back to avoid the sight of what Alwa was seeing fit to do. And with all the woman in her she pitied the prisoner, who had said no less than truth when he claimed to have killed a man for her.
She knew that he would have killed a thousand men for her with equal generosity and equal disregard of what she thought was right, and she did not doubt that he would think himself both justified and worthy of renown for doing it. She could have begged his release that minute, had she thought for an instant that Alwa would consent, and but for Cunningham. She had grown aware of Cunningham's gray eyes, staring straight at her—summing her up—reading her. And she became conscious of the fact that she had met a man whose leave she would like to ask before deciding to act.
The mental acknowledgment brought relief for a few seconds. She was tired. The woman in here went out to the man in Cunningham, and she welcomed a protector. Then the Scots blood raced to the assistance of the woman, and she bridled instantly. Who, then, was this chance-met jackanapes, that she should lean on him or look to him for guidance?
The rebellion that had made her disobey her father back in Howrah City—the spirit that had kept her in Howrah City and had given Jaimihr back cool stare for stare—rallied her to resist—to ridicule—to rival Cunningham's pretensions. He saw her flush beneath his gaze, and turned away to where Mahommed Gunga watched from the parapet.
The leaders of Jaimihr's calvary were arguing. They could be seen gathered together out of rifle-shot but in full view of Alwa's rock, and from their gestures they seemed to be considering the feasibility of an attack.
But it needed no warrior—it needed less even than ordinary intelligence—to know that as few as forty men could hold that fastness against two thousand. Eight hundred would have no chance against it. Even two thousand would need engineers, and ordnance, as well as plans.
Presently half of the little army rode away, back toward Howrah City, and the other half proceeded to bivouac where they could watch the iron-shuttered entrance and cut off the little garrison from all communication or assistance.
"We might as well resume our conference," suggested Alwa, with the courtly air of a man just arisen from a chair. No one who had not seen him ride would have dreamed that he was fresh from snatching a prisoner at the bottom of a neck-breaking defile. Cunningham nodded acquiescence and followed him, turning to stare again at Miss McClean before he strode away with long, even strides that had a reassuring effect on any one who watched him. She bridled again, and blushed. But she experienced the weird sensation of being read right through before Mahommed Gunga contrived adroitly to step into the line of view and so let Cunningham's attention fix itself on something else. The Risaldar had made up his mind that love was inopportune just then; and he was a man who left no stone unturned—no point unwatched—when he had sensed a danger. This might be danger and it might not be; so he watched. Cunningham was conscious of the sudden interruption of a train of thought, but he was not conscious of deliberate interference.
"That very young man is an old man," said Duncan McClean, wiping his spectacles as he walked beside his daughter to the deep veranda where their chairs were side by side. "He is a grown man. He has come to man's estate. Look at the set of that pair of shoulders. Mark his strength!"
"I expect any one of those Rajputs is physically stronger," answered Rosemary, in no mood to praise any one.
"I was thinking of the strength of character he expresses rather than of his actual muscles," said McClean.
"Bismillah!" Alwa was swearing behind the thick teak door that closed behind him and Cunningham and Mahommed Gunga. "We have made a good beginning! With the wolf in a trap, what has the goat to dread? Howrah may chuckle himself to sleep! And I—I, too, by the beard of God's prophet!—I, too, may laugh, for, with Jaimihr under lock and key, what need is there to ride to the aid of a Hindoo Rajah? I am free again!"
Cunningham had fixed him with those calm gray eyes of his, and Mahommed Gunga sat down on the nearest bench contented. He could wait for what was coming now. He recognized the blossoming of the plant that he had nursed through its growth so long.
"I listen," answered Alwa.
"I represent the British Government. I am the only servant of the Company within reach. Do you realize that?"
"I have no orders which entitle me to deal with any crisis such as this. But, when my orders were given me, no such crisis was contemplated. Therefore, on behalf of the Company, I assume full authority until such time as some one senior to me turns up to relieve me. Is all that clear to you?"
Mahommed Gunga went through considerable pantomime of being angry with a fly. He found it necessary to conceal emotion in some way or other. Alwa sat motionless and stared straight back at Cunningham.
"I understand, sahib," he repeated.
"You are talking to me, then, on that understanding?"
"Most certainly, huzoor."
"You can raise two thousand men?"
"Say fifteen hundred?"
"Surely fifteen hundred. Not a sabre less."
"All horsed and armed?"
"Surely, bahadur. Of what use would be a rabble? I was speaking in terms of men able to fight, as one soldier to another."
"Will you raise those men?"
"Of a truth, I must, sahib!" Alwa laughed. "Jaimihr's thousands will be in no mind to lie leaderless and let Howrah ride rough-shod over them! They know his charity of old! They will be here to claim their Prince within a day or two, and without my fifteen hundred how would I stand? Surely, bahadur, I will raise my fifteen hundred."
"Very well. Now I will make you a proposal. On behalf of the Company I offer you and your men pay at the rate paid to all irregular cavalry on a war basis. In return, I demand your allegiance."
"To whom, sahib? To you or to the Company?"
"To the Company, of course."
"Nay! Not I! For the son of Cunnigan-bahadur I would slit the throats of half Asia, and then of nine-tenths of the other half! But by the breath of God—by my spurs and this sabre here—I have had enough of pledging! I swore allegiance to Howrah. Being nearly free of that pledge by Allah's sending, shall I plunge into another, like a frightened bird fluttering from snare to snare? Nay, nay, bahadur! For thyself, for thy father's sake, ask any favor. It is granted. But thy Company may stew in the grease of its own cartridges for ought I care!"
Cunningham stood up and bowed very slightly—very stiffly—very punctiliously. Mahommed Gunga leaped to his feet, and came to attention with a military clatter. Alwa stared, inclining his head a trifle in recognition of the bow, but evidently taken by surprise.
"Then, good-by, Alwa-sahib."
Cunningham stretched out a hand.
"I am much obliged to you for your hospitality, and regret exceedingly that I cannot avail myself of it further, either for myself or for Mahommed Gunga or for Mr. and Miss McClean. As the Company's representative, they, of course, look to me for orders and protection, and I shall take them away at once. As things are, we can only be a source of embarrassment to you."
"But—sahib—huzoor—it is impossible. You have seen the cavalry below. How can you—how could you get away?"
"Unless I am your prisoner I shall certainly leave this place at once. The only other condition on which I will stay here is that you pledge your allegiance to the Company and take my orders."
"Sahib, this is—why—huzoor—"
Alwa looked over to Mahommed Gunga and raised his eyebrows eloquently.
"I obey him! I go with him!" growled Mahommed Gunga.
"Sahib, I would like time to think this over."
"How much time? I thought you quick-witted when you made Jaimihr prisoner. Has that small success undermined your power of decision? I know my mind. Mahommed Gunga knows his, Alwa-sahib."
"I ask an hour. There are many points I must consider. There is the prisoner for one thing."
"You can hand him over to the custody of the first British column we can get in touch with, Alwa-sahib. That will relieve you of further responsibility to Howrah and will insure a fair trial of any issue there may be between yourself and Jaimihr."
Alwa scowled. No Rajput likes the thought of litigation where affairs of honor are concerned. He felt he would prefer to keep Jaimihr prisoner for the present.
"Also, sahib"—fresh facets of the situation kept appearing to him as he sparred for time—"with Jaimihr in a cage I can drive a bargain with his brother. While I keep him in the cage, Howrah must respect my wishes for fear lest otherwise I loose Jaimihr to be a thorn in his side anew. If I hand him to the British, Howrah will know that he is safe and altogether out of harm's way; then he will recall what he may choose to consider insolence of mine; and then—"
"Oh, well—consider it!" said Cunningham, saluting him and making for the door, close followed by Mahommed Gunga. The two went out and it left Alwa to stride up and down alone—to wrestle between desire and circumspection—to weigh uncomfortable fact with fact—and to curse his wits that could not settle on the wisest and most creditable course. They turned into another chamber of the tunnelled rock, and there until long after the hour of law allowed to Alwa they discussed the situation too.
"The point was well taken, sahib," said Mahommed Gunga, "but he should have been handled rather less abruptly."
"Rather less abruptly, sahib."
"Oh! Well—if his mind isn't clear as to which side he'll fight on, I don't want him, and that's all!" said Cunningham. And Mahommed Gunga bitted his impatience fiercely, praying the one God he believed in to touch the right scale of the two. Later, Cunningham strode out to pace the courtyard in the dark, and the Rajput followed him.
The trapped wolf bared his fangs and swore, "But set me this time free, And I will hunt thee never more! By ear and eye and jungle law, I'll starve—I'll faint—I'll die before I bury tooth in thee!"
WHILE Alwa raged alone, and while Mahommed Gunga talked to Cunningham in a rock-room near at hand, Rosemary McClean saw fit to take a hand in history. It was not her temperament to sit quite idle while others shaped her destiny; nor was she given to mere brooding over wrongs. When a wrong was being done that she could alter or alleviate it was her way to tackle it at once without asking for permission or advice.
From where her chair was placed under the long veranda she could see the passage in the rock that led to Jaimihr's cell. She saw his captors take him up the passage; she heard the door clang shut on him, and she saw the men come back again. She heard them laugh, too, and she overheard a few words of a jest that seemed the reason for the laughter.
In Rajputana, as in other portions of the East, men laugh with meaning as a rule, and seldom from mere amusement. Included in the laugh there usually lies more than a hint of threat, or hate, or cruelty. And, in partial confirmation of the jest she unintentionally overheard, she saw no servant go to the chuckling spring to fill a water-jar. She recalled that Jaimihr only sipped as much as he could dip up in the hollow of his hand, and that physical exertion and suffering of the sort that he had undergone produces prodigious thirst in that hot, dry atmosphere.
She waited until dark for Cunninham, growing momentarily more restless. She recalled that she was a guest of Alwa's, and as such not free to interfere with his arrangements or to suggest insinuations anent his treatment of prisoners. She recalled the pride of all Rajputs, and its accompanying corollary of insolence when offended. There would come no good—she knew—from asking anybody whether Jaimihr was allowed to drink or not.
Cunningham, with that middle-aged air of authority laid over the fire and ability of youth, would be able, no doubt, to enforce his wishes in the matter after finding out the truth about it. But Cunningham did not come; and she remembered from a short experience of her own what thirst was.
The men-at-arms were all on the ramparts now, watching the leaderless cavalry on the plain. They had even left the cell door unguarded, for it was held shut by a heavy beam that could not be reached from the inside; and they were all too few, even all of them together, to hold that rock against eight hundred. It was characteristic, though, and Eastern of the East, that they should omit to padlock the big beam. It pivoted at its centre on a big bronze pin, and even a child could move it from the outside; it was only from the inside that it was uncontrollable. From inside one could have jerked at the door for a week and the big beam would have lain still and efficient in its niche in the rock-wall; but a little pressure underneath one end would send it swinging in an arc until it hung bolt upright. Then the same child who had pushed it up could have swung the teak door wide.
Rosemary, growing momentarily thirstier herself as she thought of the probable torture of the prisoner, walked down to the spring and filled a dipper, as she had done half a dozen times a day since she first arrived. She had carried almost all her own and her father's water, for Joanna was generally sleeping somewhere out of view, and no other body-servant had been provided for her. There was a fairly big brass pitcher by the spring. She filled it. Nobody noticed her.
Then she recalled that nobody would notice her if she were to carry the brass pitcher in the direction of her room, for she had done that often. She picked it up, and she reached the end of the veranda with it without having called attention to herself. She set it down then to make quite sure that she was unobserved.
But some movement of the cavalry on the plain below was keeping the eyes of the garrison employed. Although a solitary lantern shone full on her, she reached the passage leading to the prisoner's cell unseen; and she walked on down it, making no attempt to hide or hurry, remembering that she was acting out of mercy and had no need to be ashamed. If she were to be discovered, then she would be, and that was all about it, except that she would probably be able to appeal to Cunningham to save her from unpleasant consequences. In any case, she reasoned, she would have done good. She was quite ready to get herself and her own in trouble if by doing it she could insure that a prisoner had water.
But she was not seen. And no one saw her set the jar down by the door. No one except the prisoner inside heard her knock.
"Have you water, Jaimihr-sahib?" she inquired.
The East has a hundred florid epithets for one used in the West; and in a land where water is as scarce as gold and far more precious the mention of water to a thirsty man calls forth a flood of thought such as only music or perhaps religion can produce in luckier climes. Jaimihr waxed eloquent; more eloquent than even water might have made him had another—had even another woman—brought it. He recognized her voice, and said things to her that roused all the anger that she knew. She had not come to be made love to.
She thought, though, of his thirst. She remembered that within an hour or two he might be raving for another reason and with other words. The big beam lifted on her hands with barely more effort than was needed to lift up the water-jar; the door opened a little way, and she tried, while she passed the water in, to peer through the darkness at the prisoner. But there were no windows to that cell, and such dim light as there was came from behind her.
"They have bound me, sahiba, in this corner," groaned Jaimihr. "I cannot reach it. Take it away again! The certainty that it is there and out of reach is too great torture!"
So she slipped in through the door, leaving it open a little way—both her hands busy with the brass pitcher and both eyes straining their utmost through the gloom—advancing step by step through mouldy straw that might conceal a thousand horrors.
"You wonder, perhaps, why I do not escape!" said a voice. And then she heard the cell door close again gently.
Now she could see Jaimihr, for he stood with his back against the door, and his head was between her and the little six-inch grating that was all the ventilation or light a prisoner in that place was allowed.
"So you lied to me, even when I brought you water?" she answered. She was not afraid. She had nerve enough left to pity him.
"Yes. But I see that you did not lie. I am still thirsty, sahiba."
He held out both hands, and she could see them dimly. There were no chains on them, and he was not bound in any way. She gave him the jar.
"Let me pass out again before you drink," she ordered. "It is not known that I am in here, and I would not have it known."
She could have bitten out her tongue with mortification a moment afterward for letting any such admission escape her. She heard him chuckle as he drank—he choked from chuckling, and set the jar down to cough. Then, when he had recovered breath again, he answered almost patronizingly.
"Which would be least pleased with you, sahiba? The Rangars, or thy father, or the other Englishman? But never mind, sahiba, we are friends. I have proved that we are friends. Never have I taken water from the hands of any man or any woman not of my own caste. I would have died sooner. It was only thou, sahiba, who could make me set aside my caste."
"Let me pass!"
She certainly was frightened now. It dawned on her, as it had at once on him, that at the least commotion on his part or on hers a dozen Rangars would be likely to come running. And just as he had done, she wondered what explanation she would give in that case, and who would be likely to believe it. To have been caught going to the cell would have been one thing; to be caught in it would be another. He divined her thoughts.
"Have no fear, sahiba. Thou and I are friends."
She did not answer, for words would not come. Besides, she was beginning to realize that words would be of little help to her. A woman who will tell nothing but the truth under any circumstances and will surely keep her promises is at a disadvantage when conversing with a man who surely will not tell the truth if he can help it and who regards his given word with almost equal disrespect.
"I have no fear, sahiba. I am not afraid to open this door wide and make a bid for liberty. It would not be wise, that is all, and thou—and I must deal in wisdom."
His words came through the dark very evenly—spaced evenly—as though he weighed each one of them before he voiced it. She gathered the impression that he was thinking for his very life. She felt unable to think for her own. She felt impelled to listen—incredulous, helpless, frightened,—not a little ashamed. She was thinking more of the awful things those Moslem gentlemen would say about her should they come and discover her in Jaimihr's cell.
"Listen, sahiba! From end to end of India thy people are either dead, or else face to face with death. There is no escape anywhere for any man or woman—no hope, no chance. The British doom is sealed. So is the doom of every man who dared to side with them."
She shuddered. But she had to listen.
"There will be an army here within a day or two. My men—and I number them by thousands—will come and rip these Rangars from their roost. Those that are not crucified will be thrown down from the summit, and there shall be a Hindoo shrine where they have worshipped their false god. Then, sahiba, if thou art here—perhaps—there might—yet—be a way-perhaps, yes?—a way, still, to escape me?"
She was trembling. She could not help beginning to believe him. Whatever might be true of what he said was certainly not comforting.
"But, while my army comes in search of me, my brother Howrah will be making merry with my palace and belongings. There will be devastation and other things in my army's rear for which there is no need and for which I have no stomach. I detest the thought of them, sahiba. Therefore, sahiba, I would drive a bargain. Notice, sahiba, I say not one word of love, though love such as mine is has seldom been offered to a woman. I say no word of love—as yet. I say, help me to escape by night, when I may make my way unseen back to my men: enable me to reach Howrah before my dear brother is aware of my trouble and before his men can start plundering, and name your own terms, sahiba!"
Name her own terms—name her own terms—name her own terms! The words dinned through her head and she could grasp no other thought. She was alone in a cell with Jaimihr, and she could get out of it if she would name her terms! She must name them—she must hurry—what were they? What were her terms? She could not think.
"Understand, sahiba. Certain things are sure. It is sure my men will come. It is sure that every Rangar on this rock will meet a very far from pleasant death—"
He grinned, and though she could not see him grin, she knew that he was doing it. She knew that he was even then imagining a hundred horrors that the Rangars would endure before they died. She might name her terms. She could save them.
"No!" she hissed hoarsely. "No! They are my terms! I name them! You must spare them—spare the Rangars—spare every man on this hill, and theirs, and all they have!"
"Truly are those thy terms, sahiba?"
"Truly! What others can I ask?"
"They are granted, sahiba!"
"Oh, thank God!"
She knew that he was speaking at least half the truth. She knew his power. She knew enough of Howrah City's politics to be convinced that he would not be left at the mercy of a little band of Rangars. She knew that there were not enough Rangars on the whole countryside to oppose the army that would surely come to his rescue. And whether he were dead or living, she knew well enough that the vengeance would be wreaked on every living body on the hill. Alwa might feel confident, not she. She trembled now with joy at the thought that she—she the most helpless and useless of all of them—might save the lives of all.
But then another phase of the problem daunted her. She might help Jaimihr go. He might escape unobserved with her aid. But then? What then? What would the Rangars do to her? Had she sufficient courage to face that? It was not fear now that swept over her so much as wonder at herself. Jaimihr detected something different in her mental attitude, and, since almost any change means weakness to the Oriental mind, he was quick to try to take advantage of it. He guessed right at the first attempt.
"And what wilt thou do here, sahiba? When I am gone, and there is none here to love thee—"
"Peace!" she commanded. "Peace! I have suffered enough—"
"Thou wilt suffer more, should the Rangars learn—"
"That is my business! Let me pass! I have bargained, and I will try to fulfil my part!"
She stepped toward the door, but he held out both his arms and she saw them. She had no intention of being embraced by him, whatever their conspiracy.
"Stand back!" she ordered.
"Nay, nay, sahiba! Listen! Escape with me! These Rangars will not believe without proof that thou hast saved their lives by bargaining. They will show thee short shrift indeed when my loss is discovered. Come now and I will make thee Maharanee in a week!"
"I would be as safe with one as with the other!" she laughed, something of calm reflection returning to her. "And what proof have I in any case that you will keep your word, Jaimihr-sahib. I will keep mine—but who will keep yours, that has been so often broken?"