"Show me a proof!"
"Here—now—in this place?"
"Convince me, if you can! I will give myself willingly if I can save my father by it and these Rangars and Mr. Cunningham; but your bare word, Jaimihr-sahib, is worth that!"
She snapped her fingers, and he swore beneath his breath. Then he remembered his ambition and his present need, and words raced to his aid—words, plans, oaths, treachery, and all the hundred and one tricks that he was used to. He found himself consciously selecting from a dozen different plans for tricking her.
"Sahiba"—he spoke slowly and convincingly. In the gloom she could see his brown eyes levelled straight at hers, and she saw they did not flinch—"there is none who knows better than thou knowest how my brother and I stand to each other." She shuddered at the reiterated second person singular, but he either did not notice it or else affected not to. "Thou know est that there is no love between him and me, and that I would have his throne. The British could set me on that throne unless they were first overwhelmed. Wert thou my legal wife, and were I to aid the British in this minute of their need, they would not be overwhelmed, and afterward they would surely set me on the throne. Therefore I pledge my word to lead my men to the Company's aid, provided that these Rangars ride to my aid. My brother plans to overcome me first, and then take arms against the British. If the Rangars come to help me I will ride with them to the Company's aid afterward. That is my given word!"
"Then the throne of Howrah is your price, Jaimihr-sahib?"
"Thou art the price and the prize, sahiba! For thee I would win the throne!"
She actually laughed, and he winced palpably. There was no doubt that he loved her after a manner of his own, and her contempt hurt him.
"I have said all I can say," he told her. "I have promised all I can promise. What more is there to say or offer? If I stay here, I swear on the honor of a Rajput and a prince of royal blood, that every living man and woman on this rock, excepting thee only, shall be dead within a week. But if I escape by thy aid, and if, at thy instance, these Rangars and their friends ride to my help against my brother, then I will throw all my weight—men and influence—in the scale on the British side."
"And thou shalt be Maharanee!"
"But in case that the British should be beaten before we reach them, then, sahiba! Then in case of thy need!"
"Jaimihr-sahib, I will help you to escape tonight on the terms that you have named—that you spare these Rangars and every living body on this hill. Then I will do my utmost to persuade the Rangars to ride to your assistance on your condition, that you lead your men to help the British afterward. And if my action in helping you escape should make the Rangars turn against me and my immediate friends, I shall claim your protection. Is that agreed?"
"Then let me pass!"
Reluctantly he stood aside. She slipped out and let the bar down unobserved. But she had not recovered all her self-possession when she reached the courtyard.
"Evening, Miss McClean," said Cunningham; and she all but fainted, she was strained to such a pitch of nervousness.
"Where have you come from, Miss McClean?" asked Cunningham. And she told him. She was not quite so stiff-chinned as she had been.
"What were you doing there?"
She told him that, too.
"Where is your father?"
"In his chair on the veranda, Mr. Cunningham. There, in that deep shadow."
"Come to him, please. I want your explanation in his presence."
She followed as obediently as a child. The sense of guilt—of fright—of impending judgment left her as she walked with him, and gave place to a glow of comfort that here should be a man on whom to lean. She did not fight the new sensation, for she was growing strangely weary of the other one. By the time that they had reached her father, and he was standing before Cunningham wiping his spectacles in his nervous way, she had completely recovered her self-possession, although it is likely she would not have given any reason for it to herself.
Cunningham held a lantern up, so that he could study both their faces. His own face muscles were set rigidly, and he questioned them as he might have cross-examined a spy caught in the act. His voice was uncompromising, and his manner stern.
"Do you both understand how serious this situation is?" he asked.
"We naturally do," said Duncan McClean. The Scotsman was beginning to betray an inclination to bridle under the youngster's attitude, and to show an equally pronounced desire not to appear to. "More so, probably, than anybody else!"
"Are you positive—both of you—you too, Mr. McClean—that all that talk about treasure in Howrah City is not mere imagination and legend?"
"Absolutely positive!" They both answered him at once, both looking in his eyes across the unsteady rays of the flickering, smoky lamp. "The amount has been, of course, much exaggerated," said McClean, "but I have no doubt there is enough there to pay the taxes of all India for a year or two."
"Then I have another question to ask. Do you both—or do you not—place yourselves at the service of the Company? It is likely to be dangerous—a desperate service. But the Company needs all that it can muster."
"Of course we do!" Again both answered in one breath.
"Do you understand that that involves taking my orders?"
This time Duncan McClean did the answering, and now it was he who seized the lamp. He held it high, and scanned Cunningham's face as though he were reading a finely drawn map.
"We are prepared—I speak for my daughter as well as for myself—to obey any orders that you have a right to give, young man."
"You misunderstand me," answered Cunningham. "I am offering you the opportunity to serve the Company. As the Company's senior officer in the neighborhood, I am responsible to the Company for such orders as I see fit to give. I could not have my orders questioned. I don't mind telling you that I'm asking you, as British subjects, no more than I intend to ask Alwa and his Rangars. You can do as much as they are going to be asked to do. You can't do more. But you can do less if you like. You are being given the opportunity now to offer your services unconditionally—that is to say in the only manner in which I will accept them. Otherwise you will remain non-combatants, and I shall take such measures for your safety as I see fit. Time presses. Your answer, please!"
"I will obey your legal orders," said McClean, still making full use of the lantern.
"I refuse to admit the qualification," answered Cunningham promptly. "Either you will obey, or you will not. You are asked to say which, that is all."
"I will obey," said Rosemary McClean quietly. She said it through straight lips and in a level voice that carried more assurance than a string of loud-voiced oaths.
"And you, sir?"
"Since my daughter sees fit to—ah—capitulate, I have no option."
"Be good enough to be explicit."
"I agree to obey your orders."
"Thank you." He seemed to have finished with McClean. He turned away from him and faced Rosemary, not troubling to examine her face closely as he had done her father's, but seeming none the less to give her full attention. "I understood you to say that you promised to help Prince Jaimihr to escape from his cell tonight?"
Duncan McClean could not have acted such amazement. Cunningham desired no further evidence that he had not been accessory to his daughter's visit to the prisoner. He silenced him with a gesture. And now his eyes seemed for the time being to have finished with both of them; in spite of the darkness they both knew that he had resumed the far-away look that seemed able to see things finished.
"Yes," said Rosemary. "I promised. I had to."
Her father gasped. But Cunningham appeared to follow an unbroken chain of thought, and she listened.
"Well. You will both realize readily that we, as British subjects, are ranged all together on one side opposed to treachery, as represented by the large majority of the natives. That means that our first consideration must be to keep our given word. What we say,—what we promise—what we boast—must tally with what we undertake, and at the least try, to do. You must keep your word to Jaimihr, Miss McClean!"
She stared back at Cunningham through wide, unfrightened eyes. Whatever this man said to her, she seemed unable to feel fear while she had his attention. Her father seemed utterly bewildered, and she held his hand to reassure him.
"On the other hand, we cannot be guilty of a breach of faith to our friend Alwa here. I must have a little talk with him before I issue any orders. Please wait here and—ah—do nothing while I talk to Alwa. Did you—ah—did you agree to marry Jaimihr, should he make you Maharanee?"
"No! I told him I would rather die!"
"Thank you. That makes matters easier. Now tell me over again from the beginning what you know about the political situation in Howrah. Quickly, please. Consider yourself a scout reporting to his officer."
Ten minutes later Cunninham heard a commotion by the parapet, and stalked off to find Alwa, close followed by Mahommed Gunga. The grim old Rajput was grinning in his beard as he recognized the set of what might have been Cunningham the elder's shoulders.
Ye may go and lay your praise At a shrine of other days By the tomb of him who gat, and her who bore me; My plan is good—my way— The sons of kings obey— But, I'm reaping where another sowed before me.
JAIDEV SINGH was a five-K man, with the hair, breeches, bangle, comb, and dagger that betoken him who has sworn the vow of Khanda ka Pahul. Every item of the Sikh ritual was devised with no other motive than to preserve the fighting character of the organization. The very name Singh means lion. The Sikh's long hair with the iron ring hidden underneath is meant as a protection against sword-cuts. And because their faith is rather spiritual than fanatical—based rather on the cause of things than on material effect—men of that creed take first rank among fighting men.
Jaidev Singh arrived soon after the moon had risen. The notice of his coming was the steady drumming footfall of his horse, that slowed occasionally, and responded to the spur again immediately.
Close to the big iron gate below Alwa's eyrie there were some of Jaimihr's cavalry nosing about among the trampled gardens for the dead and wounded they had left there earlier in the afternoon. They ceased searching, and formed up to intercept whoever it might be who rode in such a hurry. Above them, on the overhanging ramparts, there was quick discussion, and one man left his post hurriedly.
"A horseman from the West!" he announced, breaking in on Alwa's privacy without ceremony.
"For us or them?"
"I know not, sahib."
Alwa—glad enough of the relief from puzzling his brain—ran to the rampart and looked long at the moving dot that was coming noisily toward his fastness but that gave no sign of its identity or purpose.
"Whoever he is can see them," he vowed. "The moon shines full on them. Either he is a man of theirs or else a madman!"
He watched for five more minutes without speaking. Cunningham and Mahommed Gunga, coming out at last in search of him, saw the strained figures of the garrison peering downward through the yellow moon rays, and took stand on either side of him to gaze, too, in spellbound silence.
"If he is their man," said Alwa presently, "he will turn now. He will change direction and ride for the main body of them yonder. He can see them now easily. Yes. See. He is their man!"
On a horse that staggered gamely—silhouetted and beginning to show detail in the yellow light—a man whose nationality or caste could not be recognized rode straight for the bivouacking cavalry, and a swarm of them rode out at a walk to meet him.
The tension on the ramparts was relaxed then. As a friend in direst need the man would have been welcome. As one of enemy, with a message for them, however urgent, he was no more than an incident.
"By Allah!" roared Alwa suddenly. "That is no man of theirs! Quick! To the wheels! Man the wheels! Eight men to horse!"
He took the cord himself, to send the necessary signal down into the belly of the rock. From his stables, where men and horses seemed to stand ready day and night, ten troopers cantered out, scattering the sparks, the whites of their horses' eyes and their drawn blades gleaming; without another order they dipped down the breakneck gorge, to wait below. The oncoming rider had wheeled again; he had caught the cavalry, that rode to meet him, unawares. They were not yet certain whether he was friend or foe, and they were milling in a bunch, shouting orders to one another. He, spurring like a maniac, was heading straight for the searching party, who had formed to cut him off. He seemed to have thrown his heart over Alwa's iron gate and to be thundering on hell's own horse in quest of it again.
Alwa's eight slipped down the defile as quickly as phantoms would have dared in that tricky moon-light. One of them shouted from below. Alwa jerked the cord, and the great gate yawned, well-oiled and silent. The oncomer raced straight for the middle of the intercepting line of horsemen; they—knowing him by this time for no friend—started to meet him; and Alwa's eight, unannounced and unexpected, whirled into them from the rear.
In a second there was shouting, blind confusion—eddying and trying to reform. The lone galloper pulled clear, and Alwa's men drove his opponents, crupper over headstall, into a body of the main contingent who had raced up in pursuit. They rammed the charge home, and reeled through both detachments—then wheeled at the spur and cut their way back again, catching up their man at the moment that his horse dropped dead beneath him. They seized him beneath the arms and bore him through as the great gate dropped and cut his horse in halves. Then one man took the galloper up behind his saddle, and bore him up the hill unquestioned until he could dismount in front of Alwa.
"Who art thou?" demanded the owner of the rock, recognizing a warrior by his trademarks, but in no way moderating the natural gruffness of his voice. Alwa considered that his inviolable hospitality should be too well known and understood to call for any explanation or expression; he would have considered it an insult to the Sikh's intelligence to have mouthed a welcome; he let it go for granted.
"Jaidev Singh—galloper to Byng-bahadur. I bring a letter for the Risaldar Mahommed Gunga, or for Cunnigan-sahib, whichever I can find first."
"They are both here."
"Then my letter is for both of them."
Cunningham and Mahommed Gunga each took one step forward, and the Sikh gave Cunningham a tiny, folded piece of paper, stuck together along one edge with native gum. He tore it open, read it in the light of a trooper's lantern, and then read it again aloud to Mahommed Gunga, pitching his voice high enough for Alwa to listen if he chose.
"What are you two men doing?" ran the note. "The very worst has happened. We all need men immediately, and I particularly need them. One hundred troopers now would be better than a thousand men a month from now. Hurry, and send word by bearer. S. F. BYNG."
"How soon can you start back?" asked Cunningham.
"The minute I am provided with a horse, sahib."
Cunningham turned to Alwa.
"Will you be kind enough to feed him, Alwa-sahib?"
Alwa resented the imputation against his hospitality instantly.
"Nay, I was waiting for his money in advance!" he laughed. "Food waits, thou. Thou art a Sikh—thou eatest meat—meat, then, is ready."
The Sikh, or at least the true Sikh, is not hampered by a list of caste restrictions. All of his precepts, taken singly or collectively, bid him be nothing but a man, and no law forbids him accept the hospitality of soldiers of another creed. So Jaidev Singh walked off to feed on curried beef that would have made a Hindoo know himself for damned. Cunningham then turned on Alwa.
"Now is the time, Alwa-sahib," he said in a level voice. "My party can start off with this man and our answer, if your answer is no. If your answer is yes, then the Sikh can bear that answer for us."
"You would none of you ride half a mile alive!" laughed Alwa.
"I none the less require an answer, Alwa-sahib."
Alwa stared hard at him. That was the kind of talk that went straight to his soldier heart. He loved a man who held to his point in the teeth of odds. The odds, it seemed to him, were awfully against Cunningham.
"So was thy father," he said slowly. "My cousin said thou wast thy father's son!"
"I require an answer by the time that the Sikh has finished eating," said Cunningham. "Otherwise, Alwa-sabib, I shall regret the necessity of foregoing further hospitality at your hands."
"Bismillah! Am I servant here or master?" wondered Alwa, loud enough for all his men to hear. Then he thought better of his dignity. "Sahib," he insisted, "I will not talk here before my men. We will have another conference."
"I concede you ten minutes," said Cunningham, preparing to follow him, and followed in turn by Mohammed Gunga.
"Now, swore the Risaldar into his beard, we shall see the reaching of decisions! Now, by the curse of the sack of Chitor we shall know who is on whose side, or I am no Rangar, nor the son of one!"
"I have a suggestion to make, sahib," smiled Alwa, closing the door of the rock-hewn chamber on the three of them.
"Hear mine first!" said Cunningham, with a hint of iron in his voice.
"Ay! Hear his first! Hear Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur!" echoed Mahommed Gunga. "Let us hear a plan worth hearing!" And Alwa looked into a pair of steady eyes that seemed to see through him—past him—to the finished work beyond.
"You are pledged to uphold Howrah on his throne?"
"Then, I guarantee you shall! You shall not go to the Company's aid until you have satisfactory guarantees that your homes and friends will not be assailed behind your backs."
"Guarantees to whose satisfaction, sahib?"
"But with whom am I dealing?" Alwa seemed actually staggered. "Who makes these promises? The Company?"
"I give you my solemn word of honor on it!"
"It is at least a man who speaks!" swore Alwa.
"It is the son of Cunnigan-bahadur!" growled Mahommed Gunga, standing chin erect. He seemed in no doubt now of the outcome. He was merely waiting for it with soldierly and ill-concealed impatience.
"Alwa-sahib, we have no time for argument. It is yes or no. I must send an answer back by that Sikh. He must—he shall take my answer! Either you are loyal to our cause or you are not. Are you?"
"By the breath of God, sahib, I am thinking you leave me little choice!"
"I still await an answer. I am calling on you for as many men as you can raise, and I have made you specific promises. Choose, Alwa-sahib. Yes or no?"
"The answer is yes—but—"
"Then I understand that you undertake to obey my orders without question until such time as a senior to me can be found to take over the command."
"That is contingent on the agreement," hesitated Alwa.
"I would like your word of honor, Alwa-sahib."
"I pledge that not lightly, sahib."
"For that very good reason I am asking for it. I shall know how far to trust when I have your word of honor!"
"I knew thy father! Thou art his son! I trusted him for good reason and with good result. I will trust thee also. My word is given, on thy conditions, sahib. First, the guarantees before we ride to the British aid!"
And you obey my orders?
"Yes. My word is given, sahib. The oath of a Rajput, of a Rangar, of a soldier, of a zemindar of the House of Kachwaha; the oath of a man to a man, sahib; the promise of thy father's friend to thy father's son! Bahadur"—he drew himself to his full height, and clicked his spurs together—"I am thy servant!"
Cunningham saluted. All three men looked in each other's eyes and a bond was sealed between them that nothing less than death could sever.
"Thank you," said Cunningham quite quietly. "And now, Alwa-sahib"—(he could strike while the iron glowed, could this son of Cunnigan!)—"for the plan. There is little time. Jaimihr must escape tonight!"
"Sahib, did I understand aright?"
Alwa's jaw had actually dropped. He looked as though he had been struck. Mahommed Gunga slammed his sabre ferule on the stone floor. He too, was hard put to it to believe his ears.
"Jaimihr is the key to the position. He is nothing but a nuisance where he is. Outside he can be made to help us."
"Am I dreaming, or art thou, sahib?" Alwa stood with fists clinched on his hips and his legs apart—incredulous. "Jaimihr to go free? Why that Hindoo pig is the source of all the trouble in the district!"
"We are neither of us dreaming, Alwa-sahib. Jaimihr is the dreamer. Let him dream in Howrah City for a day or two, while we get ready. Let him lead his men away and leave the road clear for us to pass in and out."
"Oh, I know. He is your prisoner, and your honor is involved, and all that kind of thing. I'm offering you, to set off against that, a much greater honor than you ever experienced in your whole life yet, and I've put my order in the shape of a request for the sake of courtesy. I ask you again to let me arrange for Jaimihr to escape."
"I was mad. But it seems that I have passed my word!" swore Alwa.
"I give you your word back again, then."
"Bismillah! I refuse it!"
"Then I do with Jaimihr as I like?"
"I gave my word, sahib."
"Thanks. You'll be glad before we've finished. Now I've left the raising of as many men as can be raised to you, Alwa-sahib. You will remember that you gave your promise on that count, too."
"I will keep that promise, too, sahib."
"Good. You shall have a road clear by tonight."
He stepped back a pace, awaited their salute with the calm, assured authority of a general of division, returned it, and left the two Rajputs looking in each other's eyes.
"What is this, cousin, that thou hast brought me to?" demanded Alwa.
Mahommed Gunga laughed and shook his sabre, letting it rattle in its scabbard.
"This? This is the edge of the war that I promised thee a year ago! This is the service of which I spoke! This is the beginning of the blood-spilling! I have brought thee the leader of whom we spoke in Howrah City. Dost remember, cousin? I recall thy words!"
"Ay, I recall them. I said then that I would follow a second Cunnigan, could such be found."
"And this is he!" vowed Mahommed Gunga.
"Ho! But we Rangars have a leader! A man of men!"
"But this plan of his? This loosing of the trapped wolf—what of that?"
"I neither know nor care, as yet! I trust him! I am his man, as I was his father's! I have seen him; I have heard him; I have felt his pulse in the welter of the wrath of God. I know him. Whatever plans he makes, whatever way he leads, those are my plans, my road! I serve the son of Cunnigan!"
Did he swear with his leg in a spring-steel trap And a tongue dry-cracked from thirst? Or down on his knees at his lady's lap With the lady's lips to his own, mayhap, And his head and his heart aburst? Nay! I have listened to vows enough And never the oath could bind Save that, that a free man chose to take For his own good reputation's sake! They're qualified—they're tricks—they break— They're words, the other kind!
MAHOMMED GUNGA had long ago determined to "go it blind" on Cunningham. He had known him longest and had the greatest right. Rosemary McClean, who knew him almost least of all, so far as length of time was concerned, was ready now to trust him as far as the Risaldar dared go; her limit was as long and as devil-daring as Mahommed Gunga's. Whatever Scots reserve and caution may have acted as a brake on Duncan McClean's enthusiasm were offset by the fact that his word was given; so far as he was concerned, he was now as much and as obedient a servant of the Company as either of the others. Nor was his attitude astonishing.
Alwa's was the point of view that was amazing, unexpected, brilliant, soldierly, unselfish—all the things, in fact, that no one had the least right to expect it to turn out to be. Two or three thousand men looked to him as their hereditary chieftain who alone could help them hold their chins high amid an overwhelming Hindoo population; his position was delicate, and he might have been excused for much hesitation, and even for a point-blank refusal to do what he might have preferred personally. He and his stood to lose all that they owned—their honor—and the honor of their wives and families, should they fight on the wrong side. Even as a soldier who had passed his word, he might have been excused for a lot of wordy questioning of orders, for he had enough at stake to make anybody cautious.
Yet, having said his say and sworn a dozen God-invoking Rangar oaths before he pledged his word, and then having pledged it, he threw Rajput tradition and the odds against him into one bottomless discard and proceeded to show Cunningham exactly what his fealty meant.
"By the boots and beard of Allah's Prophet!" he swore, growing freer-tongued now that his liberty of action had been limited. "Here we stand and talk like two old hags, Mahommed Gunga! My word is given. Let us find out now what this fledgling general of thine would have us do. If he is to release my prisoner, at least I would like to get amusement out of it!"
So he and Mahommed Gunga swaggered across the courtyard to where Cunningham had joined the McCleans again.
"We come with aid and not objections, sahib," he assured him. "If we listen, it may save explanations afterward."
So at a sign from Cunningham they enlarged the circle, and the East and West—bearded and clean-shaven, priest and soldiers, Christian and Mohammedan—stood in a ring, while almost the youngest of them—by far the youngest man of them—laid down the law for all. His eyes were all for Rosemary McClean, but his gestures included all of them, and they all answered him with nods or grunts as each saw fit.
"Send for the Sikh!" commanded Cunningham.
Five minutes later, with a lump of native bread still in his fist, Jaidev Singh walked up and saluted.
"Where is Byng-bahadur now?" asked Cunningham.
"At Deeseera, sahib—not shut in altogether, but hard pressed. There came cholera, and Byng-bahadur camped outside the town. He has been striking, sahib, striking hard with all too few to help him. His irregulars, sahib, were disbanded at some one's orders just before this outbreak, but some of them came back at word from him. And there were some of us Sikhs who knew him, and who would rather serve him and die than fight against him and live. He has now two British regiments with him, sadly thinned—some of my people, some Goorkhas, some men from the North—not very many more than two thousand men all told, having lost heavily in action and by disease. But word is going round from mouth to mouth that many sahibs have been superseded, and that only real sahibs such as Byng-bahadur have commands in this hour. Byng-bahadur is a man of men. We who are with him begin to have courage in our bones again. Is the answer ready? Yet a little while? It is well, sahib, I will rest. Salaam!"
"You see," said Cunningham, "the situation's desperate. We've got to act. Alwa here stands pledged to protect Howrah and you have promised to aid Jaimihr. Somebody's word has got to break, and you may take it from me that it will be the word of the weakest man! I think that that man is Jaimihr, but I can't be sure in advance, and we've got to accept his promise to begin with. Go to him, Miss McClean, and make a very careful bargain with him along the line I mapped out for you. Alwa-sahib, I want witnesses, or rather overhearers. I want you and Mahommed Gunga to place yourselves near Jaimihr's cell so that you can hear what he says. There won't be any doubt then about who has broken promises. Are you ready, Miss McClean?"
She was trembling, but from excitement and not fear. Both Rajputs saluted her as she started back for the cell, and whatever their Mohammedan ideas on women may have been, they chose to honor this one, who was so evidently one of them in the hour of danger. Duncan McClean seemed to be praying softly, for his lips moved.
When the cell-door creaked open, Alwa and Mahommed Gunga were crouched one on either side, listening with the ears of soldiers that do not let many sounds or words escape them.
"Jaimihr-sahib!" she whispered. "Jaimihr-sahib!"
"Ha! Sahiba!" Then he called her by half a dozen names that made the listening Rangars grin into their beards.
"Jaimihr-sahib"—she raised her voice a little now—"if I help you to escape, will you promise me my safety under all conditions?"
"Do you swear to protect every living person on this hill, including the Alwa-sahib and Cunningham-sahib?"
"You swear it?"
"I swear it on my honor. There is no more sacred oath."
"Then, listen. I can help you to escape now. I have a rope that is long enough to lower you over the parapet. I am prepared to risk the consequences, but I want to bargain with you for aid for my Countrymen."
Jaimihr did not answer.
"The Alwa-sahib and his Rangars stand pledged to help your brother!"
"I guessed at least that much," laughed Jaimihr.
"They would not help you against him under any circumstances. But they want to ride to the Company's aid, and they might be prepared to protect you against him. They might guarantee the safety of your palace and your men's homes. They might exact a guarantee from Howrah."
Jaimihr laughed aloud, careless of the risk of being overheard, and Rosemary knew that Cunningham's little plan was useless even before it had been quite expounded. She felt herself trembling for the consequences.
"Sahiba, there is only one condition that would make me ride to the British aid with all my men."
"Thou art it!"
"I don't understand you, Jaimihr-sahib," she whispered, understanding all too well.
"Follow me. Come to me in Howrah. Then whatever these fool Rangars choose to do, I swear by Siva and the Rites of Siva that I will hurry to the Company's aid!"
Rosemary McClean shuddered, and he knew it. But that fact rather added to his pleasure. The wolf prefers a cowering, frightened prey even though he dare fight on occasion. She was thinking against time. Through that one small, overburdened head, besides a splitting headache, there was flashing the ghastly thought of what was happening to her countrymen and women—of what would happen unless she hurried to do something for their aid. All the burden of all warring India seemed to be resting on her shoulders, in a stifling cell; and Jaimihr seemed to be the only help in sight.
"How many men could you summon to the Company's aid?" she asked him.
He laughed. "Ten thousand!" he boasted.
"Armed and drilled men—soldiers fit to fight?"
"I think that is a lie, Jaimihr-sahib. There is not time enough to waste on lies. Tell me the exact truth, please."
He contrived to save his face, or, rather, he contrived to make himself believe he did.
"I would need some to guard my rear," he answered. "I could lead five thousand to the British aid."
"Is that the truth?"
"On my honor, sahiba."
"And you wish to marry me?"
"Sahiba—I—I have no other wish!"
"I agree to marry you provided you will lead five thousand men to the Company's aid, but not until you have done so."
"You will come to Howrah?"
She could feel his excitement. The cell walls seemed to throb.
"Yes; but I shall come accompanied by my father, and Mr. Cunningham, and all the Rangars he can raise. And I shall hold you to your bargain. You must help the Company first. FIRST—d'you understand?"
It was Jaimihr's turn now to lay the law down. She had let him see her eagerness to gain his aid for the Company, and he saw the weakness of her case in an instant. He knew very well, too, that no woman of her breed would have thought of consenting to marry him unless her hand was forced. He decided immediately to force it further.
"I understand, sahiba. I, too, will hold thee to thy promise! Thou wilt come with an escort, as befits a prince's wife! But how should I know that the Rangars would prove friends of mine? How should I know that it is not all a trap?"
"You will have my promise to depend on."
"Truly! And there will be how many hundred men to override the promise of one woman? Nay! My word is good; my promise holds; but on my own conditions! Help me to escape. Then follow me to Howrah City. Come in advance of thy Rangar escort. By that I will know that the Rangars and this Cunningham are my friends—otherwise they would not let thee come. The Rangars are to exact guarantees from my brother? How should I know that they do not come to help my brother crush me out of existence? With thee in my camp as hostage I would risk agreement with them, but not otherwise. Escape with me now, or follow. But bring no Rangars, sahiba! Come alone!"
"I will not. I would not dare trust you."
Jaimihr laughed. "I have been reckoning, sahiba, how many hours will pass before my army comes to rip this nest of Alwa's from its roots, and defile the whole of it! If I am to spare the people on this rock, then I must hurry! Should my men come here to carry me away, they will be less merciful than I! Choose, sahiba! Let me go, and I will spare these Rangars until such time as they earn punishment anew. Or let me go, and follow me. Then fight with the Rangars and for the Company, with thee as the price of my alliance. Or leave me in this cell until my men come to rescue me. The last would be the simplest way! Or it would be enough to help me escape and wait until I have done my share at conquering the British. Then I could come and claim thee! Choose, sahiba; there are many ways, though they all end in one goal."
"If I am the price of your allegiance," said Rosemary, "then I will pay the price. Five thousand men for the British cause are dearer to me than my own happiness. I promise, Jaimihr-sahib, that I will come to you in Howrah. I shall come accompanied by one servant, named Joanna, and—I think—by my father; and the Rangars and Mr. Cunningham shall be at least a day's ride behind me. I give my word on that. But—I can promise you, on Mr. Cunningham's behalf, and on the Alwa-sahib's, and Mahommed Gunga's, that should you have made any attempt against my liberty—should you have offered me any insult or indignity—before they come—should you have tried to anticipate the terms of your agreement—then—then—there would be an end of bargaining and promises, Jaimihr-sahib, and your life would be surely forfeit! Do you understand?"
"Do you agree?"
"I already have agreed. They are my terms. I named them!"
"I would like to hear you promise, on your honor."
"I swear by all my gods and by my honor. I swear by my love, that is dearer to me than a throne, and by the name and the honor of a Rajput!"
"Be ready, then. I am going now to hide the rope in the shadow of the wall. It will take perhaps fifteen minutes. Be ready."
He made a quick movement to embrace her, but she slipped out and escaped him; and he thought better of his sudden plan to follow her, remembering that her word was likely to be good, whatever his might be. He elected to wait inside until she returned for him. He little knew that he missed the downward swing of Alwa's sabre, that was waiting, poised and balanced for him, in the darkness by the door.
"Bismillah! I would have had a right to kill him had he followed her and broken faith so early in the business!" Alwa swore, excusing his impatience to Mahommed Gunga. "Have no fear, sahib!" he counselled Cunningham a moment later, laying a heavy hand on the boy's arm. "Let her keep her promises. That Hindoo pig will not keep his! We will be after her, and surely—surely we will find good cause for some throat-slitting as well as the cancelling of marriage promises!"
"Do you understand, Alwa-sahib, that—if Jaimihr keeps his promise to her, she must keep hers to him? Do you realize that?"
"Allah! Listen to him! Yes, sahib. Truly, bahadur, I appreciate! I also know that I have given certain promises which I, too, must fulfil! She is not the only bargainer! I am worrying more about those guarantees that Howrah was to give—I am anxious to see how, with fifteen hundred, we are to get the better of a Rajah and his brother and their total of ten thousand! I want to see those promises performed! Ay! The Miss-sahib has done well. She has done her share. Let her continue. And do thou thy share, bahadur! I am at thy back with my men, but give us action!"
Cunningham held up a lantern, and looked straight at Duncan McClean. The missionary had held his daughter's hand while she recounted what had happened in the cell. Whatever he may have thought, he had uttered no word of remonstrance.
"Of course, we go to Howrah ahead of you," he answered to Cunningham's unspoken question.
Cunningham held out his right hand, and the missionary shook it.
"Hold the lamp, please," said Cunningham, and Mahommed Gunga seized it. Then Cunningham took paper and a pencil and read aloud the answer that he wrote to Byng-bahadur. He wrote it in Greek characters for fear lest it might fall into the enemy's hands and be too well understood.
"I can be with you in one week, sir, and perhaps sooner. Unless we are all killed in the meantime we should number more than fifteen hundred when we come. Expect either all or none of us. The situation here is critical, but our course seems clear, and we ought to pull through. Mahommed Gunga sends salaams. Your obedient servant,
"Would God I could see the clear course!" laughed Alwa.
"Call the Sikh, please."
The Sikh came running, and Cunningham gave him the folded note.
"Have you a horse for him, Alwa-sahib?"
"That has been attended to, sahib," the Sikh answered. "The Alwa-sahib has given me a wonder of a horse."
"Very well, then, Jaidev Singh. Watch your chance. Go to the parapet, and when you see by their lanterns that the cavalry below have ridden off, then race for all you're worth with that news for Byng-bahadur!"
"Salaam, sahib!" said the Sikh.
"Salaam, Jaidev Singh. And now hide, every-body! Don't let Jaimihr get the impression that we're playing with him."
A little later Miss McClean led Jaimihr through a passage in the rock, off which axe-hewn cells led on either side, to the far side of the summit, where the parapet was higher but the wall was very much less sheer. The Prince's arms were still too sore from the wrenching he received when they took him prisoner for him to dare trust himself hand over hand on a rope; she had to make the rope fast beneath his armpits, and then lower him slowly, taking two turns with the rope round the waist of a brass cannon. The Prince fended himself off the ragged wall with hands and feet, and called up instructions to her as loudly as he dared.
It was a tremendous drop. For the last fifty or more feet the wall rose straight, overhung by a ridge that rasped the rope. And the rope proved fifteen feet or more too short. Rosemary paid out as much of it as she dared, and then made the end fast round the cannon, leaning over to see whether Jaimihr would have sense enough or skill enough to cut himself free and fall. But he hung where he was and spun, and it was five minutes before Rosemary remembered that his weapons had all been taken from him! It was scarcely likely that he could bite the thick rope through with his teeth!
She stood then for two or three more minutes wondering what to do, for she had no knife of her own, and she had made the rope fast—woman-wise—with a true landlubber's knot that tightened from the strain until her struggling fingers could not make the least impression on it. But Alwa walked up openly—drew his heavy sabre—and saved the situation for her.
"That may help to jog his recollection of the bargain!" he laughed, severing the rope with a swinging cut and peering over to see, if he could, how Jaimihr landed. By a miracle the Prince landed on his feet. He sat down for a moment to recover from the shock, and then walked off awkwardly to where his cavalry were sleeping by their horses.
He had some trouble in persuading the outposts who he really was, and there was an argument that could be quite distinctly heard from the summit of the rock, and made Alwa roar with laughter before, finally, the whole contingent formed and wheeled and moved away, ambling toward Howrah City at a pace that betokened no unwillingness.
Five minutes later the Sikh's horse thundered out across the plain from under Alwa's iron gate, and the news, such as it was, was on its way to Byng-bahadur.
"A clear road at the price of a horse-hide rope!" laughed Alwa. "Now for some real man's work!"
Rosemary stole off to argue with her father and her conscience, but Alwa went to his troopers' quarters and told off ten good men for the task of manning the fortress in his absence. They were ten unwilling men; it needed all his gruff authority, and now and then a threat, to make them stay behind.
"I must leave ten men behind," he insisted. "It takes four men, even at a pinch, to lift the gate. And who shall guard my women? Nay, I should leave twenty, and I must leave ten. Therefore I leave the ten best men I have, and they who stay behind may know by that that I consider them the best!"
The remainder of his troopers he sent out one by one in different directions, with orders to rally every Rangar they could find, and at a certain point he named. Then he and Mahommed Gunga said good-by to Cunningham and took a trail that led in the direction where most of the doubtfuls lived—the men who might need personal convincing—rousing—awakening from lethargy.
"You think I ought to stay behind?" asked Cunningham, who had already made his mind up but chose to consult Alwa.
"Surely, sahib. If for no other reason, then to make sure that that priest of thine and his daughter make tracks for Howrah City! While he is here he is a priest, and we Rangars have our own ideas on what they are good for! When he is there he will be a man maneuvering to save his own life and his daughter's reputation! See that he starts, sahib!"
He rode off then. But before Mahommed Gunga saw fit to follow him he legged his charger close to Cunningham for a final word or two.
"Have no fear now, bahadur—no anxiety! Three days hence there will be a finer regiment to lead than ever thundered in thy father's wake—a regiment of men, sahib, for a man to lead and love!—a regiment that will trust thee, sahib! See thou to the guarantees! Rung Ho, bahadur!"
"Rung Ho! See you again, Mahommed Gunga!"
Sabres and spurs and jingling bits— (Ho! But the food to feed them!) Sinews and eyes and ears and wits— (Hey! But the troopers need them!) Sahib, mount! Thy chargers fling Foam to the night—thy trumpets sing— Thy lance-butts on the stirrups ring— Mount, sahib! Blood them! Lead them!
IT was arranged that the McCleans, with old Joanna, should start at dawn for Howrah City, and they were, both of them, too overcome with mingled dread and excitement to even try to sleep. Joanna, very much as usual, snoozed comfortably, curled in a blanket in a corner.
They would run about a hundred different risks, not least of which was the chance of falling in with a party of Howrah's men. In fact, if they should encounter anybody before bringing up at Jaimihr's palace it was likely that the whole plan would fizzle into nothing.
Cunningham, after fossicking for a long time in Aliva's armory—that contained, besides weapons of the date, a motley assortment of the tools of war that would have done great credit to a museum of antiquities—produced two pistols. He handed, one to the missionary and one to Miss McClean, advising her to hide hers underneath her clothing. "You know what they're for?" he asked. "No. You'd gain nothing by putting up a fight. They're loaded. All you've got to do is jerk the hammer back and pull the trigger, and the best way not to miss is to hold the muzzle underneath your chin—this way—keeping the butt well out from you. You make sure when you do that. The only satisfaction you'll have, if it comes to suicide as a last resource, will be that you've tried to do your duty and the knowledge that you'll be avenged. I promise that. But I don't think you'll have any need to do it—if I did think it I'd have thought twice before sending you."
"How does such a very young man as you come to have all this responsibility?" asked Rosemary, taking the pistol without a shudder. She laughed then as she noticed Cunningham's discomfort and recognized the decency that hates to talk about itself.
"I suppose I know my own mind," he answered. "These other awfully decent fellows don't, that's all—if you except Mahommed Gunga. That chap's a wonder. 'Pon my soul, it seems he knew this was coming and picked me from the start to take charge over here. Seems, owing to my dad's reputation, these Rangars think me a sort of reincarnation of efficiency. I've got to try and live up to it, you know—same old game of reaping what you didn't sow and hoping it'll all be over before you wake up! Won't you try and get some sleep before morning? No? Come and sit over by the parapet with me, then."
He carried chairs for both of them to a point whence he could sit and watch the track that led to Howrah and so help out the very meagre garrison. There, until the waning moon dipped down below the sky-line, they talked together—first about the task ahead of each of them; then about the sudden ghastliness of the rebellion, whose extent not one of them could really grasp as yet; last, and much longest, as familiarity gradually grew between them, of youthful reminiscences and home—of Eton and the Isle of Skye.
In the darkness and the comparative coolness that came between the setting of the moon and dawn Rosemary fell asleep, her head pillowed in her father's lap. For a while, then, seeing her only dimly through the night, but conscious, as he could not help being, of her youth and charm and of the act of self-sacrifice that she had undertaken without remonstrance, he felt ashamed. He began to wonder whether there might not have been some other way—whether he had any right, even for his country's sake, to send a girl on such a mission. Misgiving began to sap his optimism, and there was no Mahommed Gunga to stir the soldier in him and encourage iron-willed pursuance of the game. He began to doubt; and doubt bred silence.
He was wakened from a revery by Duncan McClean, who raised his daughter tenderly and got up on his feet.
"The dawn will be here soon, Mr. Cunningham. We had better get ready. Well—in case we never meet again—I'm glad I met you."
"Better start before the sun gets up," he answered, gripping the missionary's hand. He was a soldier again. He had had the answer to his thoughts! If the man who was to sacrifice his daughter—or risk her sacrifice—was pleased to have met him, there was not much sense in harboring self-criticism! He shook it off, and squared his shoulders, beginning again to think of all that lay ahead.
"Trust to the old woman to guide you and show you a place to rest at, if you must rest. You ought to reach Howrah at dusk tomorrow, for you'll find it quite impossible to travel fast—you're both of you too stiff, for one thing. Lie up somewhere—Joanna will know of a place—until the old woman has taken in a message to Jaimihr, and wait until he sends you some men to escort you through the outskirts of the city. I've got disguises ready for you—a pugree for you, Mr. McClean, and a purdah for your daughter—you'll travel as a Hindoo merchant and his wife. If you get stopped, say very little, but show this."
He produced the letter written once by Maharajah Howrah to the Alwa-sahib and sent by galloper with the present of a horse. It was signed, and at the bottom of it was the huge red royal seal. "Now go and put the disguise on, while I see to the horses; I'm going to pick out quiet ones, if possible, though I warn you they're rare in these parts."
Some twenty minutes later he led their horses for them gingerly down the slippery rock gorge, and waited at the bottom while six men wound the gate up slowly. Rosemary McClean was quite unrecognizable, draped from head to foot in a travelling veil that might have been Mohammedan or Hindoo, and gave no outward sign as to her caste, or rank. McClean, in the full attire of a fairly prosperous Hindoo, but with no other mark about him to betoken that he might be worth robbing, rode in front of her, high-perched on a native saddle. In front, on a desert pony, rode Joanna, garbed as a man.
"She ought to be travelling in a carriage of some kind," admitted Cunningham, "but we haven't got a single wheeled thing here. If any one asks pertinent questions on the road, you'd better say that she had an ekka, but that some Rangars took it from you. D'you think you know the language well enough to pass muster?"
"It's a little late to ask me that!" laughed McClean. "Yes—I'm positive I do. Good-by."
They shook hands again and the three rode off, cantering presently, to make the most of the coolness before the sun got up. Cunningham climbed slowly up the hill and then watched them from the parapet—wondering, wondering again—whether he was justified. As he put it to himself, it was "the hell of a position for a man to find himself in!" He caught himself wondering whether his thoughts would have been the same, and whether his conscience would have racked him quite as much, had Rosemary McClean been older, and less lovely, and a little more sour-tongued.
He had to laugh presently at the absurdity of that notion, for Jaimihr would never have bargained for possession of a sour-faced, elderly woman. He came to the conclusion that the only thing he could do was to congratulate the Raj because, at the right minute, the right good-looking woman had been on the spot! But he did not like the circumstances any better; and before two hours had passed the loneliness began to eat into his soul.
Like any other man whose race and breed and training make him self-dependent, he could be alone for weeks on end and scarcely be aware that he had nobody to talk to. But his training had never yet included sending women off on dangerous missions any more than it had taught him to resist woman's attraction—the charm of a woman's voice, the lure of a woman's eyes. He did not know what was the matter with him, but supposed that his liver must be out of order or else that the sun had touched him.
Taking a chance on the liver diagnosis, he had out the attenuated garrison, and drilled it, both mounted and dismounted, first on the hilltop—where they made the walls re-echo to the clang of grounded butts—and then on the plain below, with the gate wide open in their rear and one man watching from the height above. When he had tired them thoroughly, and himself as well, he set two men on the lookout and retired to sleep; nor did the droning and the wailing music of some women in the harem trouble him.
They called him regularly when the guard was changed, but he slept the greater part of that day and stood watch all night. The next day, and the third day, he drilled the garrison again, growing horribly impatient and hourly more worried as to what Byng-bahadur might be doing, and thinking of him.
It was evening of the fourth day when a Rangar woke him, squeezing at his foot and standing silent by the cot.
"Huzoor—Mahommed Gunga comes!"
He ran to the parapet and watched in the fading light a little dust cloud that followed no visible track but headed straight toward them over desert.
"How d'you know that's Mahommed Gunga?" he demanded.
"Who else, huzoor? Who else would ride from that direction all alone and straight for this nest of wasps? Who else but Alwa or Mahommed Gunga? Alwa said he would not come, but would wait yonder."
"It might be one of Alwa's men."
"We have many good men, sahib—and many good horses—but no man or horse who could come at that pace after traversing those leagues of desert! That is Mahommed Gunga, unless a new fire-eater has been found. And what new man would know the way?"
Soon—staccato, like a drum-beat in the silence—came the welcome, thrilling cadence of the horse's hoofs—the steady thunder of a horse hard-ridden but not foundered. The sun went down and blackness supervened, but the sound increased, as one lone rider raced with the evening wind, head on.
It seemed like an hour before the lookout challenged from the crag that overhung the gate—before the would-be English words rang out; and all Asia and its jackals seemed to wait in silence for the answer.
The cheer broke bonds from the depth of Cunningham's being, and Mahommed Gunga heard it on the plain below. There was a rush to man the wheels and sweat the gate up, and Cunningham started to run down the zigzag pathway. He thought better of it, though, and waited where the path gave out onto the courtyard, giving the signal with the cords for the gate to lower away again.
"Evening, Mahommed Gunga!" he said, almost casually, as the weary charger's nose appeared above the rise.
He dismounted and saluted and then leaned against his horse.
"I wonder, sahib, whether the horse or I be weariest! Of your favor, water, sahib!"
Cunningham brought him water in a dipper, and the Rajput washed his horse's mouth out, then held out the dipper again to Cunningham for fresh charge for himself.
"I would not ask the service, sahib, but for the moment my head reels. I must rest before I ride again."
"Is all well, Mahommed Gunga?"
"Ay, sahib! More than well!"
"The men are ready?"
"Horsed, armed, and waiting, they keep coming—there were many when I left—there will be three squadrons worthy of the name by the time we get there! Is all well at your end, sahib?"
"Yes, all's well."
"Did the padre people go to Howrah?"
"They started and they have not returned."
"Then, Allah be praised! Inshallah, I will grip that spectacled old woman of a priest by the hand before I die. He has a spark of manhood in him! Send me this good horse to the stables, sahib; I am overweary. Have him watered when the heat has left him, and then fed. Let them blanket him lightly. And, sahib, have his legs rubbed—that horse ever loved to have his legs rubbed. Allah! I must sleep four hours before I ride! And the Miss-sahib—went she bravely?"
"Went as a woman of her race ought to go, Mahommed Gunga."
"Ha! She met a man first of her own race, and he made her go! Would she have gone if a coward asked her, think you? Sahib—women are good—at the other end of things! We will ride and fetch her. Ha! I saw! My eyes are old, but they bear witness yet!—Now, food, sahib—for the love of Allah, food, before my belt-plate and my backbone touch!"
"I wonder what the damned old infidel is dreaming of!" swore Cunningham, as Mahommed Gunga staggered to the chamber in the rock where a serving-man was already heaping victuals for him.
"Have me called in four hours, sahib! In four hours I will be a man again!"
The freed wolf limped home to his lair, And lay to lick his sore. With wrinkled lip and fangs agnash— With back-laid ear and eyes aflash— "Twas something rather more than rash To turn me loose!" he swore.
NOW Jaimihr fondly thought he held a few cards up his sleeve when he made his bargain with Rosemary McClean and let himself be lowered from the Alwa-sahib's rock. He knew, better probably than any one except his brother and the priests, how desperate the British situation had become throughout all India at an instant's notice, and he made his terms accordingly.
He did not believe, in the first place, that there would be any British left to succor by the time matters had been settled sufficiently in Howrah to enable him to dare leave the city at his rear. Afterward, should it seem wise, he would have no objection in the world to riding to the aid of a Company that no longer existed.
In the second place, he entertained no least compunction about breaking his word completely in every particular. He knew that the members of the little band on Alwa's rock would keep their individual and collective word, and therefore that Rosemary McClean would come to him. He suspected, though, that there would prove to be a rider of some sort to her agreement as regarded marrying him, for he had young Cunningham in mind; and he knew enough of Englishmen from hearsay and deduction to guess that Cunningham would interject any obstacle his ingenuity could devise.
Natives of India do not like Englishmen to marry their women. How much less, then, would a stiff-necked member of a race of conquerors care to stand by while a woman of his own race became the wife of a native prince? He did not trust Cunningham, and he recalled that he had had no promise from that gentleman.
Therefore, he proposed to forestall Cunningham if possible, and, if that were inconvenient or rash, he meant to take other means of making Rosemary McClean his, beyond dispute, in any case.
Next to Rosemary McClean he coveted most the throne of Howrah. With regard to that he was shrewd enough not to conceal from himself for a second the necessity for scotching the priests of Siva before he dare broach the Howrah treasure, and so make the throne worth his royal while. Nor did he omit from his calculations the public clamor that would probably be raised should he deal too roughly with the priests. And he intended to deal roughly with them.
So the proposed allegiance of the Rangars suited him in more ways than one. His army and his brother's were so evenly matched in numbers and equipment that he had been able to leave Howrah without fear for the safety of his palace while his back was turned. The eight hundred whom he had led on the unlucky forray to Alwa's were scarcely missed, and, even had the Maharajah known that he was absent with them, there were still too many men behind for him to dare to start reprisals. The Maharajah was too complete a coward to do anything much until he was forced into it.
The Rangars, he resolved, must be made to take the blame for the broaching of the treasure. He proposed to go about the broaching even before hostilities between himself and his brother had commenced, and he expected to be able to trick the Rangars into seeming to be looting. To appear to defend the treasure would probably not be difficult; and it would be even less difficult to blame the Rangars afterward for the death of any priest who might succumb during the ensuing struggle. He counted on the populace, more than on his own organized forces, to make the Rangars powerless when the time should come for them to try to take the upper hand. The mob would suffer in the process, but its fanaticism—its religious prejudice and numbers—would surely win the day.
As for Rosemary McClean, the more he considered her the more his brown eyes glowed. He had promised to make her Maharanee. But he knew too thoroughly what that would mean not to entertain more than a passing doubt as to the wisdom of the course. He was as ready to break his word on that point as on any other.
A woman of his own race, however wooed and won, would have been content to accept the usual status of whisperer from behind the close-meshed screens. Not so an Englishwoman, with no friends to keep her company and with nothing in the world to do but think. She, he realized, would expect to make something definite of her position, and that would suit neither his creed (which was altogether superficial), nor custom (which was iron-bound and to be feared), nor prejudice (which was prodigious), nor yet convenience (which counted most).
He came to the conclusion that the fate in store for her was not such as she would have selected had she had her choice. Nor were his conclusions in regard to her such as would commend him in the eyes of honest men.
But, after all, the throne was the fulcrum of his plotting; and the lever had to be the treasure, if his plans were to succeed beyond upsetting. He changed his plans a dozen times over before he arrived at last at the audacious decision he was seeking.
Like many another Hindoo in that hour of England's need, he did not lose sight altogether of the distant if actual possibility that the Company's servants might—by dint of luck and grit, and what the insurance papers term the Act of God—pull through the crisis. Therefore, he decided that under no circumstances should Rosemary McClean be treated cavalierly until the Rangars were out of the way and he could pose as her protector if need be.
He would be able to prove that Rosemary and her father had come to him of their own free will. He would say that they had asked him for protection from the Rangars. He had evidence that his brother Howrah had been in communication with the Rangars. So, should the Company survive and retain power enough to force an answer to unpleasant questions, he thought it would not be difficult to prove that he had been the Company's friend all along.
Under all the circumstances he considered it best to be false to everybody and strike for no hand but his own, and with that reconsidered end in view he decided on a master-stroke. He sent word to his brother, the Maharajah, saying that the Rangars had accepted service with the Company and purposed a raid on Howrah; therefore, he proposed that they unite against the common enemy and set a trap for the Rangars.
Howrah sent back to ask what proof he had of the Rangars' taking service with the British. Jaimihr answered that Cunningham and Mahommed Gunga were both on Alwa's crag. He also swore that as Alwa's prisoner he had been able to over-hear the Rangars' plans.
The Maharajah was bewildered, as Jaimihr had expected that he would be. And with just as Eastern, just as muddle-headed, just as dishonest reasoning, he made up his mind to play a double game with everybody, too. He agreed to join Jaimihr in opposition to the Rangars. He agreed to send all his forces to meet Jaimihr's and together kill every Rangar who should show himself inside the city. And he privately made plans to arrive on the scene too late, and smash Jaimihr's army after it had been reduced in size and efficiency by its battle with Alwa's men.
Jaimihr, unknowingly, fitted his plan into his brother's by determining to get on the scene early enough to have first crack at the treasure. He meant to get away with that, leave his brother to deal with Alwa's men, circle round, and then attack his brother from the rear.
Finally, he made up his mind once and for all that Rosemary McClean must remain inviolate until he was quite certain that the English had been driven out of India. He expected that good news within a week.
He was delighted when Joanna, dressed as a man, turned up at his palace-gates and cajoled her way in past the guards. To be asked for an escort to bring the McCleans into Howrah fitted in with his role of protector as a key might fit a lock. Now they could never pretend—nobody could ever pretend—that he had seized them. He sent a carriage out for them, and when they arrived placed a whole wing of his palace at their disposal, treating them like royalty. He made no attempt to molest or interfere with either of them, except that he prevented them from going in and out; and he told off plenty of witnesses who would be able to swear subsequently that they had seen how well his guests were treated. He was taking no unnecessary chances at that stage of the game he played.
There were others, though, who plotted besides Jaimihr. There were, for instance, Siva's priests. It is not to be forgotten that in that part of India the priests had been foremost in fomenting the rebellion. They urged Howrah constantly to take the field against the British, and it was only the sure knowledge of his brother's intention to strike for the throne that prevented the Maharajah from doing what the priests urged.
He knew that Alwa and the Rangars would not help him unless Jaimihr first attacked him, for Alwa would be sure to stand on the strict letter of his oath. And he was afraid of the Rangars. He feared that they might protect him and depose him afterward. He reasoned that that, too, might be construed into a strict interpretation of the terms of Alwa's promise!
He consented to collect his army. He kept it under arms. He even paid it something on account of arrears of wages and served out rations. But, to the disgust of the priests who asked nothing better than dissension between the brothers, he jumped at the idea of uniting with Jaimihr to defeat Alwa's men. He knew—just as the priests feared—that once he could trick and defeat Jaimihr he could treat the troublesome priests as cavalierly as he chose.
So the priests made a third knot in the tangle and tried desperately at the last moment to recreate dissension between the rival royal camps.
"Jaimihr is getting ready to attack you!" they assured Howrah. "Attack him first!"
"I will wait until he does attack," the Maharajah answered. "For the moment we are friends and have a cause in common."
"Howrah's men will desert to you the moment you make a move to win the throne," they assured Jaimihr.
"Wait!" answered Jaimihr. "Wait but a day or two. I will move fast as I see fit when I am ready. For the present my cause and my brother's cause are one."
Spies brought in news to Maharajah, Prince, and priest of the hurried raising of a Rangar army. The Maharajah and the Prince laughed up their sleeves and the priests swore horribly; the interjection of another element—another creed—into the complication did not suit the priestly "book." They were the only men who were really worried about Alwa.
And another spy—Joanna—disappeared. No longer garbed as a man, she had hung about the palace, and—known to nearly all the sweepers—she had overheard things. Garbed as a man again, she suddenly evaporated in thin air, and Rosemary McClean was left without a servant or any means of communication with the outside world.
The ringed wolf glared the circle round Through baleful, blue-lit eye, Not unforgetful of his debt. "Now, heed ye how ye draw the net." Quoth he: "I'll do some damage yet Or ere my turn to die!"
THE mare that had been a present from Mahommed Gunga was brought out and saddled, together with a fresh horse for the Risaldar. The veteran had needed no summoning, for with a soldier's instinct he had wakened at the moment his self-allotted four hours had expired. He mounted a little stiffly, and tried his horse's paces up and down the courtyard once or twice before nodding to Cunningham.
"All ready, sahib."
"Ready, Mahommed Gunga."
But there was one other matter, after all, that needed attention first.
"That horse of mine that brought me hither"—the Risaldar picked out the man who waited with the gong cord in his hand—"is left in thy particular charge. Dost thou hear me? I will tell the Alwa-sahib what I now tell thee—that horse will be required of thee fit, good-tempered, light-mouthed, not spur-marked, and thoroughly well groomed. There will be a reward in the one case, but in the other—I would not stand in thy shoes! It is a trust!"
"Come along, Risaldar!" called Cunningham. "We're wasting an awful lot of time!"
"Nay, sahib, but a good horse is like a woman, to be loved and treated faithfully! Neither horse nor woman should be sacrificed for less than duty! Lead on, bahadur—I will join thee at the gate."
He had several directions to give for the horse's better care, and Cunningham was forced to wait at least five minutes for him at the foot of the steep descent. Then for another minute the two sat their horses side by side, while the great gate rose slowly, grudgingly, cranked upward by four men.
"If we two ever ride under here again, bahadur, we shall ride with honor thick on us," remarked Mahommed Gunga. "God knows what thy plan may be; but I know that from now on there will be no peace for either of us until we have helped rip it with our blades from the very belly of rebellion. Ride!"
The gate clanged down behind them as—untouched by heel or spur—the two spring-limbed chargers raced for their bits across the sand. They went like shadows, casting other shadows—moon-made—wind-driven—knee-to-knee.
The Risaldar broke silence after fifteen minutes. Neither he nor Cunningham were of the type that chatters when the time has come to loosen sabres and sit tight.
"In the matter of what lies ahead—as I said, neither I nor any man knows what this plan of thine may be, but I and the others have accepted thy bare word. These men who await thee—and they are many, and all soldiers, good, seasoned horsemen—have been told that the son of Cunnigan will lead them. Alwa has given his word, and I mine, that in the matter of a leader there is nothing left to be desired. And my five men have told them of certain happenings that they have seen. Therefore, thou art awaited with no little keenness. They will be all eyes and ears. It might be well, then, to set the pace a little slower, for a man looks better on a fresh horse than on a weary one!"
"I'm thinking, Mahommed Gunga, of the two McCleans and of General Byng, who is expecting us. There is little time to lose."
"I, too, consider them, sahib. It is we Rangars who must do the sabre work. ALL, sahib—ALL—depends now on the impression created on the men awaiting thee! Rein in a little. Thy father's name, thine own, and mine and Alwa's weigh for much on thy side; but have a sound horse between thy legs and a trumpet in thy throat when we get there! I have seen more than one officer have to fight up-hill for the hearts of his troopers because his tired horse stumbled or looked shabby on the first parade. Draw rein a little, sahib."
So Cunningham, still saying nothing, drew back into an easy canter. He was conscious of something, not at all like a trumpet, in his throat that was nearly choking him. He did not care to let Mahommed Gunga know that what was being mistaken for masterly silence was really emotion! He did not speak because he did not trust his voice.
"There are three squadrons, sahib—each of about five hundred men. Alwa has the right wing, I the left. Take thou the centre and command the whole. The horses are as good as any in this part of India, for each man has brought his best to do thee honor. Each man carries four days' rations in his saddle-bag and two days' rations for his horse. More horse feed is collecting, and they are bringing wagons, to follow when we give the word. But we thought there would be little sense in ordering wagons to follow us to Howrah City, knowing that thy plan would surely entail action. If we are to ride to the aid of Byng-bahadur it seemed better to pick up the wagons on the journey back again. That is all, sahib. There will be no time, of course, to waste on talk or drill. Take charge the moment that we get there—issue thy orders—and trust to the men understanding each command. Lead off without delay."
"All right," said Cunningham—two English words that went much further to allay the Risaldar's anxiety than any amount of rhetoric would have done. "But—d'you mean to tell me that the men don't understand words of command?"
"All of them do, sahib—but to many of them the English words are new. They all understand formations, and those who know the English words are teaching the others while they wait for us. There is not one man among them but has couched a lance or swung a sabre in some force or other?"
"Good. Have they all got lances?"
"All the front-rank men are armed with lance and sabre—the rear ranks have sabres only."
After two hours of steady cantering the going changed and became a quick succession of ever-deepening gorges cleft in sandstone. Far away in the distance to the left there rose a glow that showed where Howrah City kept uneasy vigil, doubtless with watch-fires at every street corner. It looked almost as though the distant city were in flames.
Ahead of them lay the gloom of hell mouth and the silence of the space beyond the stars.
It was with that strange, unclassified, unnamed sixth sense that soldiers, savages, and certain hunters have that Cunningham became aware of life ahead of him—massed, strong-breathing, ready—waiting life, spring-bent in the quivering blackness. A little farther, and he caught the ring of a curb-chain. Then a horse whinnied and a hoarse voice swore low at a restive charger. His own mare neighed, throwing her head high, and some one challenged through the dead-black night.
A horseman appeared suddenly from nowhere, and examined them at close quarters instead of waiting for their answer. He peered curiously at Cunningham—glanced at Mahommed Gunga—then wheeled, spinning his horse as the dust eddies twist in the sudden hot-wind gusts.
"Sahib-bahadur hai!" he shouted, racing back.
The night was instantly alive with jingling movement, as line after line of quite invisible light-horse-men—self-disciplined and eager to obey—took up their dressing. The overhanging cliff of sandstone hid the moon, but here and there there was a gleam of eyeballs in the dark—now man's, now horse's—and a sheen that was the hint of steel held vertical. No human being could have guessed the length of the gorge nor the number of the men who waited in it, for the restless chargers stamped in inch-deep sand that deadened sound without seeming to lessen its quantity.
It was Alwa, saluting with drawn sabre, reining back a pedigreed mare to get all the spectacular emotion out of the encounter that he could.
"Here are fifteen hundred eight and fifty, sahib—all Rangars—true believers—all true men—all pledged to see thee unsinged through the flames of hell! Do them the honor of a quick inspection, sahib!"
"Certainly!" smiled Cunningham.
"I have told them, sahib, that their homes, their women, their possessions, and their honor are all guaranteed them. Also pay. They make no other terms."
"I guarantee them all of that," said Cunningham, loud enough for at least the nearest ranks to hear.
"On thine own honor, sahib?"
"On my word of honor!"
"The promise is enough! Will you inspect them, sahib?"
"I'll take their salute first," said Cunningham.
Alwa filled his lungs and faced the unseen lines.
"Rangars!" he roared. "Your leader! To Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur—son of Pukka-Cunnigan whom we all knew—general—salute—present—sabres!"
There was sudden movement—the ring of whipped-out metal—a bird's wing-beat—as fifteen hundred hilts rose all together to as many lips—and a sharp intake of breath all down the line.
It wasn't bad. Not bad at all, thought Cunningham. It was not done as regulars would have worked it. There was the little matter of the lances, that he could make out dimly here and there, and he could detect even in that gloom that half of the men had been caught wondering how to salute with lance and sabre both. But that was not their fault; the effort—the respect behind the effort—the desire to act altogether—were all there and striving. He drew his own mare back a little, and returned their salute with full military dignity.
"Reeeecee—turn—sabres!" ordered Alwa, and that movement was accomplished better.
He rode once, slowly, down the long front rank, letting each man look him over—then back again along the rear rank, risking a kick or two, for there was little room between them and the cliff. He was not choking now. The soldier instinct, that is born in a man like statesmanship or poetry, but that never can be taught, had full command over all his other senses, and when he spurred out to the front again his voice rang loud and clear, like a trumpet through the night.
With fifty ground scouts scattered out ahead of them, they drummed out of the gorge and thundered by squadrons on the plain beyond—straight, as the jackal runs, for Howrah City. Alwa, leaving his own squadron, to canter at Cunningham's side, gave him all the new intelligence that mattered.
"Last evening I sent word on ahead to them of our coming, sahib! I sent one messenger to the Maharajah and one to Jaimihr, warning each that we ride to keep our plighted word. At the worst, we shall find both parties ready for us! We shall know before we reach the city who is our friend! News reached me, too, sahib, that the Maharajah and his brother have united against us—that Howrah will eat his promises and play me false. God send he does! I would like to have my hands in that Hindoo's treasure-chests! We none of us know yet, bahadur, what is this plan of thine—"
"You've been guessing awfully close to it, I think" laughed Cunningham.
"Aha! The treasure-chests, then! But—is there—have you information, sahib? Who knows, then—who has told where they are? Neither I nor my men know!"
"Send for Mahommed Gunga."
Mahommed Gunga left his squadron, too, to canter beside Alwa.
"I am all ears, sahib!" he asserted, reining his horse until his stride was equal to the others.
"The key to the situation is that treasure," asserted Cunningham. "Howrah wants it. Jaimihr wants it. The priests want it. I know that much for certain, from the McCleans. All right. We're a new factor in the problem, and they all mistrust us nearly as much, if not more, than they mistrust one another. Good. They'll be all of them watching that treasure. It'll be near where they are, and I'm going to snaffle it or break my neck—and all your necks—in the deuced desperate attempt. Is that clear? Where the carcass is, there wheel the kites and there the jackals fight, as your proverb says. The easiest part will be finding the treasure. Then—"
They legged in closer to him, hanging on his words and too busy listening to speak.
"If Howrah thinks we're after the treasure and decides to fight without previous argument, that absolves you from your promise, doesn't it, Alwa-sahib?"
"Surely, sahib, provided our intention is not to evade the promise."
"Our intention is to prevent Howrah and his brother from fighting, to insure peace and protection on this whole countryside, and, if possible, to ride away with Jaimihr's army to the Company's aid."
It seemed to occur to none of the three that fifteen hundred mounted men were somewhat few with which to accomplish such a marvel.
"If they are fighting already, we must interfere."
"We are ready, bahadur. Fighting is our trade!"
"But, before all things, we must keep our eyes well skinned for a hint of treachery on Jaimihr's part. I would rather quarrel with that gentleman than be his friend, but he happens to hold our promise. We've got to keep our promise, provided he keeps his. I think our first objective is the treasure."
"That, sahib, is an acrobat of a plan," said Alwa; "much jumping from one proposition to another!"
"It is no plan at all," said Cunningham. "It is a mere rehearsal of the circumstances. A plan is something quickly seized at the right second and then acted on—like your capture of Jaimihr. Wait awhile, Alwa-sahib!"
"Ay, wait awhile!" growled Mahommed Gunga. "Did I bring thee a leader to ask plans of thee, or a man of men for thee to follow? Which?"
"All the same," said Alwa, "I would rather halt and make a good plan. It would be wiser. I do not understand this one."
"I follow Cunnigan-bahadur!" said Mahommed Gunga; and he spurred off to his squadron. Alwa could see nothing better than to follow suit, for Cunningham closed his lips tight in a manner unmistakable. And whatever Alwa's misgivings might have been, he had the sense and the soldierly determination not to hint at them to his men.
As dawn rose pale-yellow in the eastern sky they thundered into view of Howrah City and drew rein to breathe their horses. The sun was high before they had trotted near enough to make out details. But, long before details could be seen, it was evident that an army was formed up to meet them on the tree-lined maidan that lay between them and the two-mile-long palace-wall. Beyond all doubt it was Jaimihr's army, for his elephants were not so gaudily harnessed as Howrah's, and his men were not so brilliantly dressed.
As they dipped into the last depression between them and the wall and halted for a minute's consultation, a khaki-clad, shrivelled figure of a man leaped up from behind a sand-ridge, and raced toward Cunningham, shouting to him in a dialect he had no knowledge of and gesticulating wildly. A trooper spurred down on him, brought him up all standing with an intercepted lance, examined him through puckered eyes, and then, roaring with laughter, picked him up and carried him to Cunningham.
"A woman, sahib! By the beard of Abraham, a woman!"
"Ha, sahib! Ha, sahib!"
She babbled to him, word overtaking word and choking all together in a dust-dry throat. Cunningham gave her water and then set her on the ground.
"Translate, somebody!" he ordered. "I can't understand a word she says."
Babbled and hurried and a little vague it might be, but Joanna had the news of the minute pat.
"Jaimihr is looting the treasure now, sahib. He has tricked his brother. They were to join, and both fight against you, but Jaimihr tried to get the treasure out before either you or his brother came. He is trying now, sahib!"
"Miss McClean! Ask her where Miss McClean is! Ask for Miss Maklin, sahib!"
"Jaimihr has told her that thou and Alwa and Mahommed Gunga are all dead, and the British overwhelmed throughout all India! He has her with him in a carriage, under guard, for all his men are with him and he could spare no great guard for his palace. See! Look, sahib! Jaimihr's palace is in flames!"
Alwa all but fell from his charger, laughing volcanically. The Rajput, who never can agree, can always see the humor in other Rajputs' disagreement.
"Ho, but they are playing a great game with each other!" he shouted. But Cunningham decided he had wasted time enough. He shouted his orders, and in less than thirty seconds his three squadrons were thundering in the direction of Jaimihr's army and the palace-wall. They drew rein again within a quarter of a mile of it, to discover with amazed military eyes that Jaimihr had no artillery.
It was then, at the moment when they halted, that Jaimihr reached a quick decision and the wrong one. He knew by now that his brother had won the first trick in the game of treachery, for he could see the smoke and flames of his burning palace from where he sat his horse. He decided at once that Alwa and his Rangars must have taken sides with the Maharajah, for how, otherwise, he reasoned, could the Maharajah dare let the Rangars approach unwatched and unmolested. It was evident to him that the Rangars were acting as part of a concerted movement.
He made up his mind to attack and beat off the new arrivals without further ceremony. He out-numbered them by four or five to one, and was on his own ground. Whatever their intentions, at least he would be able to pretend afterward that he had acted in defence of the sacred treasure; and then, with the treasure in his possession, he would soon be able to recompense himself for a mere burned and looted palace!
So he opened fire without notice, argument, or parley, and an ill-aimed volley shrieked over the heads of Cunningham's three squadrons.
Cunningham, unruffled and undecided still, made out through puckered eyes the six-horse carriage in which Miss McClean evidently was; it was drawn up close beside the wall, and two regiments were between it and his squadron. He was recalling the terms of the agreement made with Jaimihr; he remembered it included the sparing of all of Alwa's men, and not the firing on them.
A thousand of Jaimihr's cavalry swooped from the shelter of the infantry, opened out a very little, and, mistaking Cunningham's delay for fear, bore down with a cheer and something very like determination.
They were met some ten yards their side of the half-way mark by Cunningham's three squadrons, loosed and led by Cunningham himself. Outridden, outfought, outgeneralled, they were smashed through, ridden down, and whirled back reeling in confusion. About a hundred of them reached the shelter of the infantry in a formed-up body; many of the rest charged through it in a mob and threw it into confusion.
Too late Jaimihr decided on more reasonable tactics. Too late he gave orders to his infantry that no such confused body could obey. Before he could ride to rally them, the Rangars were in them, at them, through them, over them. The whole was disintegrating in retreat, endeavoring to rally and reform in different places, each subdivision shouting orders to its nearest neighbor and losing heart as its appeals for help were disregarded.
Back came Cunningham's close-formed squadrons, straight through the writhing mass again; and now the whole of Jaimihr's army took to its heels, just as part of the five-feet-thick stone palace-wall succumbed to the attacks of crowbars and crashed down in the roadway, disclosing a dark vault on the other side.
Jaimihr made a rush for the six-horse carriage, and tried vainly to get it started. Cunningham shouted to him to surrender, but he took no notice of the challenge; he escaped being made prisoner by the narrowest of margins, as the position next him was cut down. The other postilions were un-horsed, and six Rangars changed mounts and seized the reins. The Prince ran one man through the middle, and then spurred off to try and overtake his routed army, some of which showed a disposition to form up again.
"Sit quiet!" called Cunningham through the latticed carriage window. "You're safe!"
The heavy, swaying carriage rumbled round, and the horses plunged in answer to the Rangars' heels. A moment later it was moving at a gallop; two minutes later it was backed against the wall, and Rosemary McClean stepped out behind three protecting squadrons that had not suffered perceptibly from what they would have scorned to call a battle.
"Now all together!" shouted Cunningham, whose theories on the value of seconds when tackling reforming infantry were worthy of the Duke of Wellington, or any other officer who knew his business; and again he led his men at a breakneck charge. This time Jaimihr's disheartened little army did not wait for him, but broke into wild confusion and scattered right and left, leaving their elephants to be captured. There were only a few men killed. The lance-tipped, roaring whirlwind loosed itself for the most part against nothing, and reformed uninjured to trot back again. Cunningham told off two troops to pursue fugitives and keep their eyes open for the Prince before he rode back to examine the breach in the wall that Jaimihr had been to so much trouble about making.
He had halted to peer through the break in the age-old masonry when Mahommed Gunga spurred up close to him, touched his arm, and pointed.
"Look, sahib! Look!"
Jaimihr—and no one but a wizard could have told how he had managed to get to where he was unobserved—was riding as a man rides at a tent-peg, crouching low, full-pelt for Rosemary McClean!
Cunningham's spurs went home before the word was out of Mahommed Gunga's mouth, and Mahommed Gunga raced behind him; but Jaimihr had the start of them. Duncan McClean, looking ill and weak and helpless, crowded his daughter to the wall, standing between her and the Prince; but Jaimihr aimed a swinging sabre at him, and the missionary fell. His daughter stooped to bend over him, and Jaimihr seized her below the arms. A second later he had hoisted her to his saddle-bow and was spurring hell-bent-for-leather for the open country.
Two things prevented him from making his escape. Five of Alwa's men, returning from pursuing fugitives, cut off his flight in one direction, and the extra weight on his horse prevented him from getting clear by means of speed alone—as he might have done otherwise, for Cunningham's mare was growing tired.
Jaimihr rode for two minutes with the frenzy of a savage before he saw the futility of it. It was Cunningham's mare, gaining on him stride over stride, that warned him he would be cut down like a dog from behind unless he surrendered or let go his prize.
So he laughed and threw the girl to the ground. For a moment more he spurted, spurring like a fiend, then wheeled and charged at Cunningham. He guessed that but for Cunningham that number of Rangars would never have agreed on a given plan. He knew that it was he, and not Cunningham or Alwa or Rosemary McClean, who had broken faith. He had broken it in thought, and word, and action. And he had lost his prospect of a throne. So he came on like a man who has nothing to gain by considering his safety. He came like a real man at last. And Cunningham, on a tired mare, met him point to point.
They fought over a quarter of a mile of ground, for Jaimihr proved to be as useful with his weapon as Mahommed Gunga's teaching had made Cunningham. There was plenty of time for the reformed squadrons to see what was happening—plenty of time for Alwa, who considered that he had an account of his own to settle with the Prince, to leave his squadron and come thundering up to help. Mahommed Gunga dodged and reined and spurred, watching his opportunity on one side and Alwa on the other. It would have suited neither of them to have their leader killed at that stage of the game, but the fighting was too quick for either man to interfere.
Jaimihr charged Cunningham for the dozenth time and missed, charged past, to wheel and charge again, then closed with the most vindictive rush of all. Again Cunningham met him point to point. The two blades locked, and bent like springs as they wrenched at them. Cunningham's blade snapped. He snatched at his mare and spun her before Jaimihr could recover, then rammed both spurs in and bore down on the Prince with half a sabre. He had him on the near side at a disadvantage. Jaimihr spurred and tried to maneuver for position, and the half sabre went home just below his ribs. He dropped bleeding in the dust at the second that Alwa and Mahommed Gunga each saw an opportunity and rushed in, to rein back face to face, grinning in each other's faces, their horses' breasts pressed tight against the charger that Jaimihr rode. The horse screamed as the shock crushed the wind out of him.