Digital transcription by M.R.J.
King—of the Khyber Rifles A romance of adventure By Talbot Mundy
Suckled were we in a school unkind On suddenly snatched deduction And ever ahead of you (never behind!) Over the border our tracks you'll find, Wherever some idiot feels inclined To scatter the seeds of ruction.
For eyes we be, of Empire, we! Skinned and Puckered and quick to see And nobody guesses how wise we be. Unwilling to advertise we be. But, hot on the trail of ties, we be The pullers of roots of ruction!
—Son of the Indian Secret Service
The men who govern India—more power to them and her!—are few. Those who stand in their way and pretend to help them with a flood of words are a host. And from the host goes up an endless cry that India is the home of thugs, and of three hundred million hungry ones.
The men who know—and Athelstan King might claim to know a little— answer that she is the original home of chivalry and the modern mistress of as many decent, gallant, native gentlemen as ever graced a page of history.
The charge has seen the light in print that India—well-spring of plague and sudden death and money-lenders—has sold her soul to twenty succeeding conquerors in turn. Athelstan King and a hundred like him whom India has picked from British stock and taught, can answer truly that she has won it back again from each by very purity of purpose.
So when the world war broke the world was destined to be surprised on India's account. The Red Sea, full of racing transports crowded with dark-skinned gentlemen, whose one prayer was that the war might not be over before they should have struck a blow for Britain, was the Indian army's answer to the press.
The rest of India paid its taxes and contributed and muzzled itself and set to work to make supplies. For they understand in India, almost as nowhere else, the meaning of such old-fashioned words as gratitude and honor; and of such platitudes as, "Give and it shall be given unto you."
More than one nation was deeply shocked by India's answer to "practises" that had extended over years. But there were men in India who learned to love India long ago with that love that casts out fear, who knew exactly what was going to happen and could therefore afford to wait for orders instead of running round in rings.
Athelstan King, for instance, nothing yet but a captain unattached, sat in meagerly furnished quarters with his heels on a table. He is not a doctor, yet he read a book on surgery, and when he went over to the club he carried the book under his arm and continued to read it there. He is considered a rotten conversationalist, and he did nothing at the club to improve his reputation.
"Man alive—get a move on!" gasped a wondering senior, accepting a cigar. Nobody knows where he gets those long, strong, black cheroots, and nobody ever refuses one.
"Thanks—got a book to read," said King.
"You ass! Wake up and grab the best thing in sight, as a stepping stone to something better! Wake up and worry!"
King grinned. You have to when you don't agree with a senior officer, for the army is like a school in many more ways than one.
"Help yourself, sir! I'll take the job that's left when the scramble's over. Something good's sure to be overlooked."
"White feather? Laziness? Dark Horse?" the major wondered. Then he hurried away to write telegrams, because a belief thrives in the early days of any war that influence can make or break a man's chances. In the other room where the telegraph blanks were littered in confusion all about the floor, he ran into a crony whose chief sore point was Athelstan King, loathing him as some men loathe pickles or sardines, for no real reason whatever, except that they are what they are.
"Saw you talking to King," he said.
"Yes. Can't make him out. Rum fellow!"
"Rum? Huh! Trouble is he's seventh of his family in succession to serve in India. She has seeped into him and pickled his heritage. He's a believer in Kismet crossed on to Opportunity. Not sure he doesn't pray to Allah on the sly! Hopeless case."
"Are you sure?"
So they all sent telegrams and forgot King who sat and smoked and read about surgery; and before he had nearly finished one box of cheroots a general at Peshawur wiped a bald red skull and sent him an urgent telegram.
"Come at once!" it said simply.
King was at Lahore, but miles don't matter when the dogs of war are loosed. The right man goes to the right place at the exact right time then, and the fool goes to the wall. In that one respect war is better than some kinds of peace.
In the train on the way to Peshawur he did not talk any more volubly, and a fellow traveler, studying him from the opposite corner of the stifling compartment, catalogued him as "quite an ordinary man." But he was of the Public Works Department, which is sorrowfully underpaid and wears emotions on its sleeve for policy's sake, believing of course that all the rest of the world should do the same.
"Don't you think we're bound in honor to go to Belgium's aid?" he asked. "Can you see any way out of it?"
"Haven't looked for one," said King.
"But don't you think—"
"No," said King. "I hardly ever think. I'm in the army, don't you know, and don't have to. What's the use of doing somebody else's work?"
"Rotter!" thought the P.W.D. man, almost aloud; but King was not troubled by any further forced conversation. Consequently he reached Peshawur comfortable, in spite of the heat. And his genial manner of saluting the full-general who met him with a dog-cart at Peshawur station was something scandalous. "Is he a lunatic or a relative or royalty?" the P.W.D. man wondered. Full-generals, particularly in the early days of war, do not drive to the station to meet captains very often; yet King climbed into the dog-cart unexcitedly, after keeping the general waiting while he checked a trunk!
The general cracked his whip without any other comment than a smile. A blood mare tore sparks out of the macadam, and a dusty military road began to ribbon out between the wheels. Sentries in unexpected places announced themselves with a ring of shaken steel as their rifles came to the "present," which courtesies the general noticed with a raised whip. Then a fox-terrier resumed his chase of squirrels between the planted shade-trees, and Peshawur became normal, shimmering in light and heat reflected from the "Hills."
(The P.W.D. man, who would have giggled if a general mentioned him by name, walked because no conveyance could be hired. judgment was in the wind.)
On the dog-cart's high front seat, staring straight ahead of him between the horse's ears, King listened. The general did nearly all the talking.
"The North's the danger."
King grunted with the lids half-lowered over full dark eyes. He did not look especially handsome in that attitude. Some men swear he looks like a Roman, and others liken him to a gargoyle, all of them choosing to ignore the smile that can transform his whole face instantly.
"We're denuding India of troops—not keeping back more than a mere handful to hold the tribes in check."
King nodded. There has never been peace along the northwest border. It did not need vision to foresee trouble from that quarter. In fact it must have been partly on the strength of some of King's reports that the general was planning now.
"That was a very small handful of Sikhs you named as likely to give trouble. Did you do that job thoroughly?"
"Well—Delhi's chock-full of spies, all listening to stories made in Germany for them to take back to the 'Hills' with 'em. The tribes'll know presently how many men we're sending oversea. There've been rumors about Khinjan by the hundred lately. They're cooking something. Can you imagine 'em keeping quiet now?"
"That depends, sir. Yes, I can imagine it."
The general laughed. "That's why I sent for you. I need a man with imagination! There's a woman you've got to work with on this occasion who can imagine a shade or two too much. What's worse, she's ambitious. So I chose you to work with her."
King's lips stiffened under his mustache, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled into crow's-feet to correspond. Eyes are never coal- black, of course, but his looked it at that minute.
"You know we've sent men to Khinjan who are said to have entered the Caves. Not one of 'em has ever returned."
"She claims she can enter the Caves and come out again at pleasure. She has offered to do it, and I have accepted."
It would not have been polite to look incredulous, so King's expression changed to one of intense interest a little overdone, as the general did not fail to notice.
"If she hadn't given proof of devotion and ability, I'd have turned her down. But she has. Only the other day she uncovered a plot in Delhi—about a million dynamite bombs in a ruined temple in charge of a German agent for use by mutineers supposed to be ready to rise against us. Fact! Can you guess who she is?"
"Not Yasmini?" King hazarded, and the general nodded and flicked his whip. The horse mistook it for a signal, and it was two minutes before the speed was reduced to mere recklessness.
The helmet-strap mark, printed indelibly on King's jaw and cheek by the Indian sun, tightened and grew whiter—as the general noted out of the corner of his eye.
"Know of her, of course, sir. Everybody does. Never met her to my knowledge."
"Um-m-m! Whose fault was that? Somebody ought to have seen to that. Go to Delhi now and meet her. I'll send her a wire to say you're coming. She knows I've chosen you. She tried to insist on full discretion, but I overruled her. Between us two, she'll have discretion once she gets beyond Jamrud. The 'Hills' are full of our spies, of course, but none of 'em dare try Khinjan Caves any more and you'll be the only check we shall have on her."
King's tongue licked his lips, and his eyes wrinkled. The general's voice became the least shade more authoritative.
"When you see her, get a pass from her that'll take you into Khinjan Caves! Ask her for it! For the sake of appearances I'll gazette you Seconded to the Khyber Rifles. For the sake of success, get a pass from her!"
"Very well, sir."
"You've a brother in the Khyber Rifles, haven't you? Was it you or your brother who visited Khinjan once and sent in a report?"
"I did, sir."
He spoke without pride. Even the brigade of British-Indian cavalry that went to Khinjan on the strength of his report and leveled its defenses with the ground, had not been able to find the famous Caves. Yet the Caves themselves are a by-word.
"There's talk of a jihad (holy war). There's worse than that! When you went to Khinjan, what was your chief object?"
"To find the source of the everlasting rumors about the so-called 'Heart of the Hills,' sir."
"Yes, yes. I remember. I read your report. You didn't find anything, did you? Well. The story is now that the 'Heart of the Hills' has come to life. So the spies say."
King whistled softly.
"There's no guessing what it means," said the general. "Go and find out. Go and work with Yasmini. I shall have enough men here to attack instantly and smash any small force as soon as it begins to gather anywhere near the border. But Khinjan is another story. We can't prove anything, but the spies keep bringing in rumors of ten thousand men in Khinjan Caves, and of another large lashkar not far away from Khinjan. There must be no jihad, King! India is all but defenseless! We can tackle sporadic raids. We can even handle an ordinary raid in force. But this story about a 'Heart of the Hills' coming to life may presage unity of action and a holy war such as the world has not seen. Go up there and stop it if you can. At least, let me know the facts."
King grunted. To stop a holy war single-handed would be rather like stopping the wind—possibly easy enough, if one knew the way. Yet he knew no general would throw away a man like himself on a useless venture. He began to look happy.
The general clucked to the mare and the big beast sank an inch between the shafts. The sais behind set his feet against the drop- board and clung with both hands to the seat. One wheel ceased to touch the gravel as they whirled along a semicircular drive. Suddenly the mare drew up on her haunches, under the porch of a pretentious residence. Sentries saluted. The sais swung down. In less than sixty seconds King was following the general through a wide entrance into a crowded hall. The instant the general's fat figure darkened the doorway twenty men of higher rank than King, native and English, rose from lined-up chairs and pressed forward.
"Sorry—have to keep you all waiting—busy!" He waved them aside with a little apologetic gesture. "Come in here, King."
King followed him through a door that slammed tight behind them on rubber jambs.
The general unlocked a steel drawer and began to rummage among the papers in it. In a minute he produced a package, bound in rubber bands, with a faded photograph face-upward on the top.
"That's the woman! How d'you like the look of her?"
King took the package and for a minute stared hard at the likeness of a woman whose fame has traveled up and down India, until her witchery has become a proverb. She was dressed as a dancing woman, yet very few dancing women could afford to be dressed as she was.
King's service uses whom it may, and he had met and talked with many dancing women in the course of duty; but as he stared at Yasmini's likeness he did not think he had ever met one who so measured up to rumor. The nautch he knew for a delusion. Yet—!
The general watched his face with eyes that missed nothing.
"Remember—I said work with her!"
King looked up and nodded.
"They say she's three parts Russian," said the general. "To my own knowledge she speaks Russian like a native, and about twenty other tongues as well, including English. She speaks English as well as you or I. She was the girl-widow of a rascally Hill-rajah. There's a story I've heard, to the effect that Russia arranged her marriage in the day when India was Russia's objective—and that's how long ago?—seems like weeks, not years! I've heard she loved her rajah. And I've heard she didn't! There's another story that she poisoned him. I know she got away with his money—and that's proof enough of brains! Some say she's a she-devil. I think that's an exaggeration, but bear in mind she's dangerous!"
King grinned. A man who trusts Eastern women over readily does not rise far in the Secret Service.
"If you've got nous enough to keep on her soft side and use her— not let her use you—you can keep the 'Hills' quiet and the Khyber safe! If you can contrive that—now—in this pinch—there's no limit for you! Commander-in-chief shall be your job before you're sixty!"
King pocketed the photograph and papers. "I'm well enough content, sir, as things are," he said quietly.
"Well, remember she's ambitious, even if you're not! I'm not preaching ambition, mind—I'm warning you! Ambition's bad! Study those papers on your way down to Delhi and see that I get them back."
The general paced once across the room and once back again, with hands behind him. Then he stopped in front of King.
"No man in India has a stiffer task than you have now! It may encourage you to know that I realize that! She's the key to the puzzle, and she happens to be in Delhi. Go to Delhi, then. A jihad launched from the 'Hills' would mean anarchy in the plains. That would entail sending back from France an army that can't be spared. There must be no jihad, King!—There must—not—be—one! Keep that in your head!"
"What arrangements have been made with her, sir?"
"Practically none! She's watching the spies in Delhi, but they're likely to break for the 'Hills' any minute. Then they'll be arrested. When that happens the fate of India may be in your hands and hers! Get out of my way now, until tiffin-time!"
In a way that some men never learn, King proceeded to efface himself entirely among the crowd in the hall, contriving to say nothing of any account to anybody until the great gong boomed and the general led them all in to his long dining table. Yet he did not look furtive or secretive. Nobody noticed him, and he noticed everybody. There is nothing whatever secretive about that.
The fare was plain, and the meal a perfunctory affair. The general and his guests were there for other reason than to eat food, and only the man who happened to seat himself next to King—a major by the name of Hyde—spoke to him at all.
"Why aren't you with your regiment?" he asked.
"Because the general asked me to lunch, sir!"
"I suppose you've been pestering him for an appointment!"
King, with his mouth full of curr did not answer, but his eyes smiled.
"It's astonishing to me," said the major, "that a captain should leave his company when war has begun! When I was captain I'd have been driven out of the service if I'd asked for leave of absence at such a time!"
King made no comment, but his expression denoted belief.
"Are you bound for the front, sir?" he asked presently. But Hyde did not answer. They finished the meal in silence.
After lunch he was closeted with the general again for twenty minutes. Then one of the general's carriages took him to the station; and it did not appear to trouble him at all that the other occupant of the carriage was the self-same Major Hyde who had sat next him at lunch. In fact, he smiled so pleasantly that Hyde grew exasperated. Neither of them spoke. At the station Hyde lost his temper openly, and King left him abusing an unhappy native servant.
The station was crammed to suffocation by a crowd that roared and writhed and smelt to high heaven. At one end of the platform, in the midst of a human eddy, a frenzied horse resisted with his teeth and all four feet at once the efforts of six natives and a British sergeant to force him into a loose-box. At the back of the same platform the little dark-brown mules of a mountain battery twitched their flanks in line, jingling chains and stamping when the flies bit home.
Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat native merchants vied with lean and timid ones in noisy effort to secure accommodation on a train already crowded to the limit. Twenty British officers hunted up and down for the places supposed to have been reserved for them, and sweating servants hurried after them with arms full of heterogeneous baggage, swearing at the crowd that swore back ungrudgingly. But the general himself had telephoned for King's reservation, so he took his time.
There were din and stink and dust beneath a savage sun, shaken into reverberations by the scream of an engine's safety valve. It was India in essence and awake!—India arising out of lethargy!—India as she is more often nowadays—and it made King, for the time being of the Khyber Rifles, happier than some other men can be in ballrooms.
Any one who watched him—and there was at least one man who did— must have noticed his strange ability, almost like that of water, to reach the point he aimed for, through, and not around, the crowd.
He neither shoved nor argued. Orders and blows would have been equally useless, for had it tried the crowd could not have obeyed, and it was in no mind to try. Without the least apparent effort he arrived—and there is no other word that quite describes it—he arrived, through the densest part of the sweating throng of humans, at the door of the luggage office.
There, though a bunnia's sharp elbow nagged his ribs, and the bunnia's servant dropped a heavy package on his foot, he smiled so genially that he melted the wrath of the frantic luggage clerk. But not at once. Even the sun needs seconds to melt ice.
"Am I God?" the babu wailed. "Can I do all the-e things in all the-e world at once if not sooner?"
King's smile began to get its work in. The man ceased gesticulating to wipe sweat from his stubbly jowl with the end of a Punjabi headdress. He actually smiled back. Who was he, that he should suspect new outrage or guess he was about to be used in a game he did not understand? He would have stopped all work to beg for extra pay at the merest suggestion of such a thing; but as it was he raised both fists and lapsed into his own tongue to apostrophize the ruffian who dared jostle King. A Northerner who did not seem to understand Punjabi almost cost King his balance as he thrust broad shoulders between him and the bunnia.
The bunnia chattered like an outraged ape; but King, the person most entitled to be angry, actually apologized! That being a miracle, the babu forthwith wrought another one, and within a minute King's one trunk was checked through to Delhi.
"Delhi is right, sahib?" he asked, to make doubly sure; for in India where the milk of human kindness is not hawked in the market- place, men will pay over-measure for a smile.
"Yes. Delhi is right. Thank you, babuji."
He made more room for the Hillman, beaming amusement at the man's impatience; but the Hillman had no luggage and turned away, making an unexpected effort to hide his face with a turban end. He who had forced his way to the front with so much violence and haste now burst back again toward the train like a football forward tearing through the thick of his opponents. He scattered a swath a yard wide, for he had shoulders like a bull. King saw him leap into third-class carriage. He saw, too, that he was not wanted in the carriage. There was a storm of protest from tight-packed native passengers, but the fellow had his way.
The swath through the crowd closed up like water in a ship's wake, but it opened again for King. He smiled so humorously that the angry jostled ones smiled too and were appeased, forgetting haste and bruises and indignity merely because understanding looked at them through merry eyes. All crowds are that way, but an Indian crowd more so than all.
Taking his time, and falling foul of nobody, King marked down a native constable—hot and unhappy, leaning with his back against the train. He touched him on the shoulder and the fellow jumped.
"Nay, sahib! I am only constabeel—I know nothing—I can do nothing! The teerain goes when it goes, and then perhaps we will beat these people from the platform and make room again! But there is no authority—no law any more—they are all gone mad!"
King wrote on a pad, tore off a sheet, folded it and gave it to him.
"That is for the Superintendent of Police at the office. Carriage number 1181, eleven doors from here—the one with the shut door and a big Hillman inside sitting three places from the door facing the engine. Get the Hillman! No, there is only one Hillman in the carriage. No, the others are not his friends; they will not help him. He will fight, but he has no friends in that carriage."
The "constabeel" obeyed, not very cheerfully. King stood to watch him with a foot on the step of a first-class coach. Another constable passed him, elbowing a snail's progress between the train and the crowd. He seized the man's arm. "Go and help that man!" he ordered. "Hurry!"
Then he climbed into the carriage and leaned from the window. He grinned as he saw both constables pounce on a third-class carriage door and, with the yell of good huntsmen who have viewed, seize the protesting Northerner by the leg and begin to drag him forth. There was a fight, that lasted three minutes, in the course of which a long knife flashed. But there were plenty to help take the knife away, and the Hillman stood handcuffed and sullen at last, while one of his captors bound a cut forearm. Then they dragged him away; but not before he bad seen King at the window, and had lipped a silent threat.
"I believe you, my son!" King chuckled, half aloud. "I surely believe you! I'll watch! Ham dekta hai!"
"Why was that man arrested?" asked an acid voice behind him; and without troubling to turn his head, he knew that Major Hyde was to be his carriage mate again. To be vindictive, on duty or off it, is foolishness; but to let opportunity slip by one is a crime. He looked glad, not sorry, as be faced about—pleased, not disappointed— like a man on a desert island who has found a tool.
"Why was that man arrested?" the major asked again.
"I ordered it," said King.
"So I imagined. I asked you why."
King stared at him and then turned to watch the prisoner being dragged away; he was fighting again, striking at his captors' heads with handcuffed wrists.
"Does he look innocent?" asked King.
"Is that your answer?" asked the major. Balked ambition is an ugly horse to ride. He had tried for a command but had been shelved.
"I have sufficient authority," said King, unruffled. He spoke as if he were thinking of something entirely different. His eyes were as if they saw the major from a very long way off and rather approved of him on the whole.
"Show me your authority, please!"
King dived into an inner pocket and produced a card that had about ten words written on its face, above a general's signature. Hyde read it and passed it back.
"So you're one of those, are you!" he said in a tone of voice that would start a fight in some parts of the world and in some services. But King nodded cheerfully, and that annoyed the major more than ever; he snorted, closed his mouth with a snap and turned to rearrange the sheet and pillow on his berth.
Then the train pulled out, amid a din of voices from the left—behind that nearly drowned the panting of overloaded engine. There was a roar of joy from the two coaches full of soldiers in the rear—a shriek from a woman who had missed the train—a babel of farewells tossed back and forth between the platform and the third-class carriages—and Peshawur fell away behind.
King settled down on his side of the compartment, after a struggle with the thermantidote that refused to work. There was heat enough below the roof to have roasted meat, so that the physical atmosphere became as turgid as the mental after a little while.
Hyde all but stripped himself and drew on striped pajamas. King was content to lie in shirt-sleeves on the other berth, with knees raised, so that Hyde could not overlook the general's papers. At his ease he studied them one by one, memorizing a string of names, with details as to their owners' antecedents and probable present whereabouts. There were several photographs in the packet, and he studied them very carefully indeed.
But much most carefully of all he examined Yasmini's portrait, returning to it again and again. He reached the conclusion in the end that when it was taken she had been cunningly disguised.
"This was intended for purpose of identification at a given time and place," he told himself.
"Were you muttering at me?" asked Hyde.
"It looked extremely like it!"
"My mistake, sir. Nothing of the sort intended."
Hyde turned an indignant back on him, and King studied the back as if he found it interesting. On the whole he looked sympathetic, so it was as well that Hyde did not look around. Balked ambition as a rule loathes sympathy.
After many prickly-hot, interminable, jolting hours the train drew up at Rawal-Pindi station. Instantly King was on his feet with his tunic on, and he was out on the blazing hot platform before the train's motion had quite ceased.
He began to walk up and down, not elbowing but percolating through the crowd, missing nothing worth noticing in all the hot kaleidoscope and seeming to find new amusement at every turn. It was not in the least astonishing that a well-dressed native should address him presently, for he looked genial enough to be asked to hold a baby. King himself did not seem surprised at all. Far from it; he looked pleased.
"Excuse me, sir," said the man in glib babu English. "I am seeking Captain King sahib, for whom my brother is veree anxious to be servant. Can you kindlee tell me, sir, where I could find Captain King sahib?"
"Certainly," King answered him. He looked glad to be of help. "Are you traveling on this train?"
The question sounded like politeness welling from the lips of unsuspicion.
"Yes, sir. I am traveling from this place where I have spent a few days, to Bombay, where my business is.
"How did you know King sahib is on the train?" King asked him, smiling so genially that even the police could not have charged him with more than curiosity.
"By telegram, sir. My brother had the misfortune to miss Captain King sahib at Peshawur and therefore sent a telegram to me asking me to do what I can at an interview."
"I see," said King. "I see." And judging by the sparkle in his eyes as he looked away he could see a lot. But the native could not see his eyes at that instant, although he tried to.
He looked back at the train, giving the man a good chance to study his face in profile. "Oh, thank you, sir!" said the native oilily. "You are most kind! I am your humble servant, sir!"
King nodded good-by to him, his dark eyes in the shadow of the khaki helmet seeming scarcely interested any longer.
"Couldn't you find another berth?" Hyde asked him angrily when he stepped back into the compartment.
"What were you out there looking for?"
King smiled back at him blandly.
"I think there are railway thieves on the train," he announced without any effort at relevance. He might not have heard the question.
"What makes you think so?"
"Observation, sir." "Oh! Then if you've seen thieves, why didn't you have 'em arrested? You were precious free with that authority of yours on Peshawur platform!"
"Perhaps You'd care to take the responsibility, sir? Let me point out one of them."
Full of grudging curiosity Hyde came to stand by him, and King stepped back just as the train began to move.
"That man, sir—over there—no, beyond him—there!"
Hyde thrust head and shoulders through the window, and a well-dressed native with one foot on the running-board at the back end of the train took a long steady stare at him before jumping in and slamming the door of a third-class carriage.
"Which one?" demanded Hyde impatiently.
"I don't see him now, sir!"
Hyde snorted and returned to his seat in the silence of unspeakable scorn. But presently he opened a suitcase and drew out a repeating pistol which he cocked carefully and stowed beneath his pillow; not at all a contemptible move, because the Indian railway thief is the most resourceful specialist in the world. But King took no overt precautions of any kind.
After more interminable hours night shut down on them, red-hot, black-dark, mesmerically subdivided into seconds by the thump of carriage wheels and lit at intervals by showers of sparks from the gasping engine. The din of Babel rode behind the first-class carriages, for all the natives in the packed third-class talked all together. (In India, when one has spent a fortune on a third-class ticket, one proceeds to enjoy the ride.) The train was a Beast out of Revelation, wallowing in noise.
But after other, hotter hours the talking ceased. Then King, strangely without kicking off his shoes, drew a sheet up over his shoulders. On the opposite berth Hyde covered his head, to keep dust out of his hair, and presently King heard him begin to snore gently. Then, very carefully he adjusted his own position so that his profile lay outlined in the dim light from the gas lamp in the roof. He might almost have been waiting to be shaved.
The stuffiness increased to a degree that is sometimes preached in Christian churches as belonging to a sulphurous sphere beyond the grave. Yet he did not move a muscle. It was long after midnight when his vigil was rewarded by a slight sound at the door. From that instant his eyes were on the watch, under dark of closed lashes; but his even breathing was that of the seventh stage of sleep that knows no dreams.
A click of the door-latch heralded the appearance of a hand. With skill, of the sort that only special training can develop, a man in native dress insinuated himself into the carriage without making another sound of any kind. King's ears are part of the equipment for his exacting business, but he could not hear the door click shut again.
For about five minutes, while the train swayed head-long into Indian darkness, the man stood listening and watching King's face. He stood so near that King recognized him for the one who had accosted him on Rawal-Pindi platform. And he could see the outline of the knife-hilt that the man's fingers clutched underneath his shirt.
"He'll either strike first, so as to kill us both and do the looting afterward—and in that case I think it will be easier to break his neck than his arm—yes, decidedly his neck; it's long and thin;—or—"
His eyes feigned sleep so successfully that the native turned away at last.
"Thought so!" He dared open his eyes a mite wider. "He's pukka— true to type! Rob first and then kill! Rule number one with his sort, run when you've stabbed! Not a bad rule either, from their point of view!"
As he watched, the thief drew the sheet back from Hyde's face, with trained fingers that could have taken spectacles from the victims' nose without his knowledge. Then as fish glide in and out among the reeds without touching them, swift and soft and unseen, his fingers searched Hyde's body. They found nothing. So they dived under the pillow and brought out the pistol and a gold watch.
After that he began to search the clothes that hung on a hook beside Hyde's berth. He brought forth papers and a pocketbook—then money. Money went into one bag—papers and pocketbook into another. And that was evidence enough as well as risk enough. The knife would be due in a minute.
King moved in his sleep, rather noisily, and the movement knocked a book to the floor from the foot of his berth. The noise of that awoke Hyde, and King pretended to begin to wake, yawning and rolling on his back (that being much the safest position an unarmed man can take and much the most awkward for his enemy).
"Thieves!" Hyde yelled at the top of his lungs, groping wildly for his pistol and not finding it.
King sat up and rubbed his eyes. The native drew the knife, and— believing himself in command of the situation—hesitated for one priceless second. He saw his error and darted for the door too late. With a movement unbelievably swift King was there ahead of him; and with another movement not so swift, but much more disconcerting, he threw his sheet as the retiarius used to throw a net in ancient Rome. It wrapped round the native's head and arms, and the two went together to the floor in a twisted stranglehold.
In another half-minute the native was groaning, for King had his knife-wrist in two hands and was bending it backward while he pressed the man's stomach with his knees.
"Get his loot!" he panted between efforts.
The knife fell to the floor, and the thief made a gallant effort to recover it, but King was too strong for him. He seized the knife himself, slipped it in his own bosom and resumed his hold before the native guessed what he was after. Then he kept a tight grip while Hyde knelt to grope for his missing property. The major found both the thief's bags, and held them up.
"I expect that's all," said King, loosening his grip very gradually. The native noticed—as Hyde did not—that King had begun to seem almost absent-minded; the thief lay quite still, looking up, trying to divine his next intention. Suddenly the brakes went on, but King's grip did not tighten. The train began to scream itself to a standstill at a wayside station, and King (the absent-minded—very nearly grinned.
"If I weren't in such an infernal hurry to reach Bombay—" Hyde grumbled; and King nearly laughed aloud then, for the thief knew English, and was listening with all his ears, "—may I be damned if I wouldn't get off at this station and wait to see that scoundrel brought to justice!"
The train jerked itself to a standstill, and a man with a lantern began to chant the station's name. "Damn it!—I'm going to Bombay to act censor. I can't wait—they want me there."
The instant the train's motion altogether ceased the heat shut in on them as if the lid of Tophet had been slammed. The prickly beat burst out all over Hyde's skin and King's too.
"Almighty God!" gasped Hyde, beginning to fan himself.
There was plenty of excuse for relaxing hold still further, and King made full use of it. A second later be gave a very good pretense of pain in his finger-ends as the thief burst free. The native made a dive at his bosom for the knife, but he frustrated that. Then he made a prodigious effort, just too late, to clutch the man again, and he did succeed in tearing loose a piece of shirt; but the fleeing robber must have wondered, as he bolted into the blacker shadows of the station building, why such an iron-fingered, wide-awake sahib should have made such a truly feeble showing at the end.
"Damn it!—couldn't you hold him? Were you afraid of him, or what?" demanded Hyde, beginning to dress himself. Instead of answering, King leaned out into the lamp-lit gloom, and in a minute he caught sight of a sergeant of native infantry passing down the train. He made a sign that brought the man to him on the run.
"Did you see that runaway?" he asked.
"Ha, sahib. I saw one running. Shall I follow?"
"No. This piece of his shirt will identify him. Take it. Hide it! When a man with a torn shirt, into which that piece fits, makes for the telegraph office after this train has gone on, see that he is allowed to send any telegrams he wants to! Only, have copies of every one of them wired to Captain King, care of the station-master, Delhi. Have you understood?"
"Grab him, and lock him up tight afterward—but not until he has sent his telegrams!'
"Make yourself scarce, then!"
Major Hyde was dressed, having performed that military evolution in something less than record time.
"Who was that you were talking to?" he demanded. But King continued to look out the door.
Hyde came and tapped on his shoulder impatiently, but King did not seem to understand until the native sergeant had quite vanished into the shadows.
"Let me pass, will you!" Hyde demanded. "I'll have that thief caught if the train has to wait a week while they do it!"
He pushed past, but he was scarcely on the step when the station- master blew his whistle, and his colored minion waved a lantern back and forth. The engine shrieked forthwith of death and torment; carriage doors slammed shut in staccato series; the heat relaxed as the engine moved—loosened—let go—lifted at last, and a trainload of hot passengers sighed thanks to an unresponsive sky as the train gained speed and wind crept in through the thermantidotes.
Only through the broken thermantidote in King's compartment no wet air came. Hyde knelt on King's berth and wrestled with it like a caged animal, but with no result except that the sweat poured out all over him and he was more uncomfortable than before. "What are you looking at?" he demanded at last, sitting on King's berth. His head swam. He had to wait a few seconds before he could step across to his own side.
"Only a knife," said King. He was standing under the dim gas lamp that helped make the darkness more unbearable.
"Not that robber's knife? Did he drop it?"
"It's my knife," said King.
"Strange time to stand staring at it, if it's yours! Didn't you ever see it before?"
King stowed the knife away in his bosom, and the major crossed to his own side.
"I'm thinking I'll know it again, at all events!" King answered, sitting down. "Good night, sir."
Within ten minutes Hyde was asleep, snoring prodigiously. Then King pulled out the knife again and studied it for half an hour. The blade was of bronze, with an edge hammered to the keenness of a razor. The hilt was of nearly pure gold, in the form of a woman dancing.
The whole thing was so exquisitely wrought that age had only softened the lines, without in the least impairing them. It looked like one of those Grecian toys with which Roman women of Nero's day stabbed their lovers. But that was not why he began to whistle very softly to himself.
Presently he drew out the general's package of papers, with the photograph on the top. He stood up, to hold both knife and papers close to the light in the roof.
It needed no great stretch of imagination to suggest a likeness between the woman of the photograph and the other, of the golden knife-hilt. And nobody, looking at him then, would have dared suggest he lacked imagination.
If the knife had not been so ancient they might have been portraits of the same woman, in the same disguise, taken at the same time.
"She knew I had been chosen to work with her. The general sent her word that I am coming," he muttered to himself. "Man number one had a try for me, but I had him pinched too soon. There must have been a spy watching at Peshawur, who wired to Rawal-Pindi for this man to jump the train and go on with the job. She must have had him planted at Rawal-Pindi in case of accidents. She seems thorough! Why should she give the man a knife with her own portrait on it? Is she queen of a secret society? Well—we shall see!"
He sat down on his berth again and sighed, not discontentedly. Then he lit one of his great black cigars and blew rings for five or six minutes. Then he lay back with his head on the pillow, and before five minutes more had gone he was asleep, with the cold cigar still clutched between his fingers.
He looked as interesting in his sleep as when awake. His mobile face in repose looked Roman, for the sun had tanned his skin and his nose was aquiline. In museums, where sculptured heads of Roman generals and emperors stand around the wall on pedestals, it would not be difficult to pick several that bore more than a faint resemblance to him. He had breadth and depth of forehead and a jowl that lent itself to smiles as well as sternness, and a throat that expressed manly determination in every molded line.
He slept like a boy until dawn; and he and Hyde had scarcely exchanged another dozen words when the train screamed next day into Delhi station. Then he saluted stiffly and was gone.
"Young jackanapes!" Hyde muttered after him. "Lazy young devil! He ought to be with his regiment, marching and setting a good example to his men! We'll have our work cut out to win this war, if there are many of his stamp! And I'm afraid there are—I'm afraid so— far too many of 'em! Pity! Such a pity! If the right men were at the top the youngsters at the foot of the ladder would mind their P's and Q's. As it is, I'm afraid we shall get beaten in this show. Dear, oh, dear!"
Being what he was, and consistent before all things, Major Hyde drew out his writing materials there and then and wrote a report against Athelstan King, which he signed, addressed to headquarters and mailed at the first opportunity. There some future historian may find it and draw from it unkind deductions on the morale of the British army.
The only things which can not be explained are facts. So, use 'em. A riddle is proof there is a key to it. Nor is it a riddle when you've got the key. Life is as simple as all that. —Cocker
Delhi boasts a round half-dozen railway stations, all of them designed with regard to war, so that to King there was nothing unexpected in the fact that the train had brought him to an unexpected station. He plunged into its crowd much as a man in the mood might plunge into a whirlpool,—laughing as he plunged, for it was the most intoxicating splurge of color, din and smell that even India, the many-peopled—even Delhi, mother of dynasties— ever had, evolved.
The station echoed—reverberated—hummed. A roar went up of human voices, babbling in twenty tongues, and above that rose in differing degrees the ear-splitting shriek of locomotives, the blare of bugles, the neigh of led horses, the bray of mules, the jingle of gun-chains and the thundering cadence of drilled feet.
At one minute the whole building shook to the thunder of a grinning regiment; an instant later it clattered to the wrought-steel hammer of a thousand hoofs, as led troop-horses danced into formation to invade the waiting trucks. Loaded trucks banged into one another and thunderclapped their way into the sidings. And soldiers of nearly every Indian military caste stood about everywhere, in what was picturesque confusion to the uninitiated, yet like the letters of an index to a man who knew. And King knew. Down the back of each platform Tommy Atkins stood in long straight lines, talking or munching great sandwiches or smoking.
The heat smelt and felt of another world. The din was from the same sphere. Yet everywhere was hope and geniality and by-your- leave as if weddings were in the wind and not the overture to death.
Threading his way in and out among the motley swarm with a great black cheroot between his teeth and sweat running into his eyes from his helmet-band, Athelstan King strode at ease—at home—intent— amused—awake—and almost awfully happy. He was not in the least less happy because perfectly aware that a native was following him at a distance, although he did wonder how the native had contrived to pass within the lines.
The general at Peshawur had compressed about a ton of miscellaneous information into fifteen hurried minutes, but mostly he had given him leave and orders to inform himself; so the fun was under way of winning exact knowledge in spite of officers, not one of whom would not have grown instantly suspicions at the first asked question. At the end of fifteen minutes there was not a glib staff-officer there who could have deceived him as to the numbers and destination of the force entraining.
"Kerachi!" he told himself, chewing the butt of his cigar and keeping well ahead of the shadowing native. Always keep a "shadow" moving until you're ready to deal with him is one of Cocker's very soundest rules.
"Turkey hasn't taken a hand yet—the general said so. No holy war yet. These'll be held in readiness to cross to Basra in case the Turks begin. While they wait for that at Kerachi the tribes won't dare begin anything. One or two spies are sure to break North and tell them what this force is for—but the tribes won't believe. They'll wait until the force has moved to Basra before they take chances. Good! That means no especial hurry for me!"
He did not have to return salutes, because he did not look for them. Very few people noticed him at all, although he was recognized once or twice by former messmates, and one officer stopped him with an out-stretched hand.
"Shake hands, you old tramp! Where are you bound for next? Tibet by any chance—or is it Samarkand this time?"
"Oh, hullo, Carmichel!" he answered, beaming instant good-fellowship. "Where are you bound for?" And the other did not notice that his own question had not been answered.
"Wish you luck!" laughed King, passing on. Every living man there, with the exception of a few staff-officers, believed himself en route for Europe; their faces said as much. Yet King took another look at the piles of stores and at the kits the men carried.
"Who'd take all that stuff to Europe, where they make it?" he reflected. "And what 'u'd they use camel harness for in France?"
At his leisure—in his own way, that was devious and like a string of miracles—he filtered toward the telegraph office. The native who had followed him all this time drew closer, but he did not let himself be troubled by that.
He whispered proof of his identity to the telegraph clerk, who was a Royal Engineer, new to that job that morning, and a sealed telegram was handed to him at once. The "shadow" came very close indeed, presumably to try and read over his shoulder from behind, but he side-stepped into a corner and read the telegram with his back to the wall.
It was in English, no doubt to escape suspicion; and because it was war-time, and the censorship had closed on India like a throttling string, it was not in code. So the wording, all things considered, had to be ingenious, for the Mirza Ali, of the Fort, Bombay, to whom it was addressed, could scarcely be expected to read more than between the lines. The lines had to be there to read between.
"Cattle intended for slaughter," it ran, "despatched Bombay on Fourteen down. Meet train. Will be inspected en route, but should be dealt with carefully, on arrival. Cattle inclined to stampede owing to bad scare received to North of Delhi. Take all precautions and notify Abdul." It was signed "Suliman."
"Good!" be chuckled. "Let's hope we get Abdul too. I wonder who he is!"
Still uninterested in the man who shadowed him, he walked back to the office window and wrote two telegrams; one to Bombay, ordering the arrest of Ali Mirza of the Fort, with an urgent admonition to discover who his man Abdul might be, and to seize him as soon as found; the other to the station in the north, insisting on dose confinement for Suliman.
"Don't let him out on any terms at all!" he wired.
That being all the urgent business, he turned leisurely to face his shadow, and the native met his eyes with the engaging frankness of an old friend, coming forward with outstretched hand. They did not shake hands, for King knew better than to fall into the first trap offered him. But the man made a signal with his fingers that is known to not more than a dozen men in all the world, and that changed the situation altogether.
"Walk with me," said King, and the man fell into stride beside him.
He was a Rangar,—which is to say a Rajput who, or whose ancestors had turned Muhammadan. Like many Rajputs he was not a big man, but be looked fit and wiry; his head scarcely came above the level of King's chin, although his turban distracted attention from the fact. The turban was of silk and unusually large.
The whitest of well-kept teeth, gleaming regularly under a little black waxed mustache betrayed no trace of betel-nut or other nastiness, and neither his fine features nor his eyes suggested vice of the sort that often undermines the character of Rajput youth.
On second thoughts, and at the next opportunity to see them, King was not so sure that the eyes were brown, and he changed his opinion about their color a dozen times within the hour. Once be would even have sworn they were green.
The man was well-to-do, for his turban was of costly silk, and he was clad in expensive jodpur riding breeches and spurred black riding boots, all perfectly immaculate. The breeches, baggy above and tight, below, suggested the clean lines of cat-like agility and strength.
The upper part of his costume was semi-European. He was a regular Rangar dandy, of the type that can be seen playing polo almost any day at Mount Abu—that gets into mischief with a grace due to practise and heredity—but that does not manage its estates too well, as a rule, nor pay its debts in a hurry.
"My name is Rewa Gunga," he said in a low voice, looking up sidewise at King a shade too guilelessly. Between Cape Comorin and the Northern Ice guile is normal, and its absence makes the wise suspicious.
"I am Captain King."
"I have a message for you."
"From her!" said the Rangar, and without exactly knowing why, or being pleased with himself, King felt excited.
They were walking toward the station exit. King had a trunk check in his hand, but returned it to pocket, not proposing just yet to let this Rangar over—hear instructions regarding the trunk's destination; he was too good-looking and too overbrimming with personal charm to be trusted thus early in the game. Besides, there was that captured knife, that hinted at lies and treachery. Secret signs as well as loot have been stolen before now.
"I'd like to walk through the streets and see the crowd."
He smiled as he said that, knowing well that the average young Rajput of good birth would rather fight a tiger with cold steel than walk a mile or two. He drew fire at once.
"Why walk, King sahib? Are we animals? There is a carriage waiting— her carriage—and a coachman whose ears were born dead. We might be overheard in the street. Are you and I children, tossing stones into a pool to watch the rings widen!"
"Lead on, then," answered King.
Outside the station was a luxuriously modern victoria, with C springs and rubber tires, with horses that would have done credit to a viceroy. The Rangar motioned King to get in first, and the moment they were both seated the Rajput coachman set the horses to going like the wind. Rewa Gunga opened a jeweled cigarette case.
"Will you have one?" he asked with the air of royalty entertaining a blood-equal.
King accepted a cigarette for politeness' sake and took occasion to admire the man's slender wrist, that was doubtless hard and strong as woven steel, but was not much more than half the thickness of his own.
The Rajputs as a race are proud of their wrists and hands. Their swords are made with a hilt so small that none save a Rajput of the blood could possibly use one; yet there is no race in all warring India, nor any in the world, that bears a finer record for hard fighting and sheer derring-do. One of the questions that occurred to King that minute was why this well-bred youngster whose age he guessed at twenty-two or so had not turned his attention to the army.
The man had read his thoughts!
"Not quite tall enough. Besides—you are a soldier, are you not? And do you fight?"
He nodded toward a dozen water-buffaloes, that slouched along the street with wet goatskin mussuks slung on their blue flanks.
"They can fight," he said smiling. "So can any other fool!" Then, after a minute of rather strained silence: "My message is from her."
King accepted the rebuke with a little inclination of the head. He spoke as little as possible, because he was puzzled. He had become conscious of a puzzled look in the Rangar's eyes—of a subtle wonderment that might be intentional flattery (for Art and the East are one). Whenever the East is doubtful, and recognizes doubt, it is as dangerous as a hillside in the rains, and it only added to his problem if the Rangar found in him something inexplicable. The West can only get the better of the East when the East is too cock-sure.
"She has jolly well gone North!" said the Rangar suddenly, and King shut his teeth with a snap. He sat bolt upright, and the Rangar allowed himself to look amused.
"She was too jolly well excited to wait, sahib! She is of the North, you know. She loves the North, and the men of the 'Hills'; and she knows them because she loves them. There came a tar (telegram) from Peshawur, from a general, to say King sahib comes to Delhi; but already she had completed all arrangements here. She was in a great stew, I can assure you. Finally she said, 'Why should I wait?' Nobody could answer her."
He spoke English well enough. Few educated foreign gentlemen could have spoken it better, although there was the tendency to use slang that well-bred natives insist on picking up from British officers; and as he went on, here and there the native idiom crept through, translated. King said nothing, but listened and watched, puzzled more than he would have cared to admit by the look in the Rangar's eyes. It was not suspicion—nor respect. Yet there was a suggestion of both.
"At last she said, 'It is well; I will not wait! I know of this sahib. He is a man whose feet stand under him and he will not tread my growing flowers into garbage! He will be clever enough to pick up the end of the thread that I shall leave behind and follow it and me! He is a true bound, with a nose that reads the wind, or the general sahib never would have sent him!' So she left me behind, sahib, to—to present to you the end of the thread of which she spoke."
King tossed away the stump of the cigarette and rolled his tongue round the butt of a fresh cheroot. The word "hound" is not necessarily a compliment in any of a thousand Eastern tongues and gains little by translation. It might have been a slip, but the East takes advantage of its own slips as well as of other peoples' unless watched.
The carriage swayed at high speed round three sharp corners in succession before the Rangar spoke again.
"She has often heard of you," he said then. That was not unlikely, but not necessarily true either. If it were true, it did not help to account for the puzzled look in the Rangar's eyes, that increased rather than diminished.
"I've heard of her," said King.
"Of course! Who has not? She has desired to meet you, sahib, ever since she was told you are the best man in your service."
King grunted, thinking of the knife beneath his shirt.
"She is very glad that you and she are on the same errand." He leaned forward for the sake of emphasis and laid a finger on King's hand. It was a delicate, dainty finger with an almond nail. "She is very glad. She is far more glad than you imagine, or than you would believe. King sahib, she is all bucked up about it! Listen— her web is wide! Her agents are here—there—everywhere, and she is obeyed as few kings have ever been! Those agents shall all be held answerable for your life, sahib,—for she has said so! They are one and all your bodyguard, from now forward!"
King inclined his head politely, but the weight of the knife inside his shirt did not encourage credulity. True, it might not be Yasmini's knife, and the Rangar's emphatic assurance might not be an unintentional admission that the man who had tried to use it was Yasmini's man. But when a man has formed the habit of deduction, he deduces as he goes along, and is prone to believe what his instinct tells him.
Again, it was as if the Rangar read a part of his thoughts, if not all of them. It is not difficult to counter that trick, but to do it a man must be on his guard, or the East will know what he has thought and what he is going to think, as many have discovered when it was too late.
"Her men are able to protect anybody's life from any God's number of assassins, whatever may lead you to think the contrary. From now forward your life is in her men's keeping!"
"Very good of her; I'm sure," King murmured. He was thinking of the general's express order to apply for a "passport" that would take him into Khinjan Caves—mentally cursing the necessity for asking any kind of favor,—and wondering whether to ask this man for it or wait until he should meet Yasmini. He had about made up his mind that to wait would be quite within a strict interpretation of his orders, as well as infinitely more agreeable to himself, when the Rangar answered his thoughts again as if he had spoken them aloud.
"She left this with me, saying I am to give it to you! I am to say that wherever you wear it, between here and Afghanistan, your life shall be safe and you may come and go!"
King stared. The Rangar drew a bracelet from an inner pocket and held it out. It was a wonderful, barbaric thing of pure gold, big enough for a grown man's wrist, and old enough to have been hammered out in the very womb of time. It looked almost like ancient Greek, and it fastened with a hinge and clasp that looked as if they did not belong to it, and might have been made by a not very skillful modern jeweler.
"Won't you wear it?" asked Rewa Gunga, watching him. "It will prove a true talisman! What was the name of the Johnny who had a lamp to rub? Aladdin? It will be better than what he had! He could only command a lot of bogies. This will give you authority over flesh and blood! Take it, sahib!"
So King put it on, letting it slip up his sleeve, out of sight,— with a sensation as the snap closed of putting handcuffs on himself. But the Rangar looked relieved.
"That is your passport, sahib! Show it to a Hill-man whenever you suppose yourself in danger. The Raj might go to pieces, but while Yasmini lives—"
"Her friends will boast about her, I suppose!"
King finished the sentence for him because it is considered good form for natives to hint at possible dissolution of the Anglo-Indian Government. Everybody knows that the British will not govern India forever, but the British—who know it best of all, and work to that end most fervently—are the only ones encouraged to talk about it.
For a few minutes after that Rewa Gunga held his peace, while the carriage swayed at breakneck speed through the swarming streets. They had to drive slower in the Chandni Chowk, for the ancient Street of the Silversmiths that is now the mart of Delhi was ablaze with crude colors, and was thronged with more people than ever since '57. There were a thousand signs worth studying by a man who could read them.
King, watching and saying nothing, reached the conclusion that Delhi was in hand—excited undoubtedly, more than a bit bewildered, watchful, but in hand. Without exactly knowing how he did it, he grew aware of a certain confidence that underlay the surface fuss. After that the sea of changing patterns and raised voices ceased to have any particular interest for him and he lay back against the cushions to pay stricter attention to his own immediate affairs.
He did not believe for a second the lame explanation Yasmini had left behind. She must have some good reason for wishing to be first up the Khyber, and he was very sorry indeed she had slipped away. It might be only jealousy, yet why should she be jealous? It might be fear—yet why should she be afraid?
It was the next remark of the Rangar's that set him entirely on his guard, and thenceforward whoever could have read his thoughts would have been more than human. Perhaps it is the most dominant characteristic of the British race that it will not defend itself until it must. He had known of that thought-reading trick ever since his ayah (native nurse) taught him to lisp Hindustanee; just as surely he knew that its impudent, repeated use was intended to sap his belief in himself. There is not much to choose between the native impudence that dares intrude on a man's thoughts, and the insolence that understands it, and is rather too proud to care.
"I'll bet you a hundred dibs," said the Rangar, "that she jolly well didn't fancy your being on the scene ahead of her! I'll bet you she decided to be there first and get control of the situation! Take me? You'd lose if you did! She's slippery, and quick, and like all Women, she's jealous!"
The Rangar's eyes were on his, but King was not to be caught again. It is quite easy to think behind a fence, so to speak, if one gives attention to it.
"She will be busy presently fooling those Afridis," he continued, waving his cigarette. "She has fooled them always, to the limit of their bally bent. They all believe she is their best friend in the world—oh, dear Yes, you bet they do! And so she is—so she is—but not in the way they think! They believe she plots with them against the Raj! Poor silly devils! Yet Yasmini loves them! They want war—blood—loot! It is all they think about! They are seldom satisfied unless their wrists and elbows are bally well red with other peoples' gore! And while they are picturing the loot, and the slaughter of unbelievers—(as if they believed anything but foolishness themselves!)—Yasmini plays her own game, for amusement and power—a good game—a deep game! You have seen already how India has to ask her aid in the 'Hills'! She loves power, power, power—not for its name, for names are nothing, but to use it. She loves the feel of it! Fighting is not power! Blood-letting is foolishness. If there is any blood spilt it is none of her doing—unless—"
"Unless what?" asked King.
"Oh—sometimes there were fools who interfered. You can not blame her for that."
"You seem to be a champion of hers! How long have you known her?"'
The Rangar eyed him sharply.
"A long time. She and I played together when we were children. I know her whole history—and that is something nobody else in the world knows but she herself. You see, I am favored. It is because she knows me very well that she chose me to travel North with you, when you start to find her in the 'Hills'!"
King cleared his throat, and the Rangar nodded, looking into his eyes with the engaging confidence of a child who never has been refused anything, in or out of reason. King made no effort to look pleased, so the Rangar drew on his resources.
"I have a letter from her," he stated blandly.
From a pocket in the carriage cushions he brought out a silver tube, richly carved in the Kashmiri style and closed at either end with a tightly fitting silver cap. King accepted it and drew the cap from one end. A roll of scented paper fell on his lap, and a puff of hot wind combined with a lurch of the carriage springs came near to lose it for him; he snatched it just in time and unrolled it to find a letter written to himself in Urdu, in a beautiful flowing hand.
Urdu is perhaps the politest of written tongues and lends itself most readily to indirectness; but since he did not expect to read a catalogue of exact facts, he was not disappointed.
Translated, the letter ran:
"To Athelstan King sahib, by the hand of Rewa Gunga. Greeting. The bearer is my well-trusted servant, whom I have chosen to be the sahib's guide until Heaven shall be propitious and we meet. He is instructed in all that he need know concerning what is now in hand, and he will tell by word of mouth such things as ought not to be written. By all means let Rewa Gunga travel with you, for he is of royal blood, of the House of Ketchwaha and will not fail you. His honor and mine are one. Praying that the many gods of India may heap honors on your honor's head, providing each his proper attribute toward entire ability to succeed in all things, but especially in the present undertaking,
"I am Your Excellency's humble servant, —Yasmini."
He had barely finished reading it when the coachman took a last corner at a gallop and drew the horses up on their haunches at a door in a high white wall. Rewa Gunga sprang out of the carriage before the horses were quite at a standstill.
"Here we are!" he said, and King, gathering up the letter and the silver tube, noticed that the street curved here so that no other door and no window overlooked this one.
He followed the Rangar, and he was no sooner into the shadow of the door than the coachman lashed the horses and the carriage swung out of view.
"This way," said the Rangar over his shoulder. "Come!"
Lie to a liar, for lies are his coin. Steal from a thief, for that is easy. Set a trap for a trickster, and catch him at the first attempt. But beware of the man who has no axe to grind. —Eastern Proverb
It was a musty smelling entrance, so dark that to see was scarcely possible after the hot glare outside. Dimly King made out Rewa Gunga mounting stairs to the left and followed him. The stairs wound backward and forward on themselves four times, growing scarcely any lighter as they ascended, until, when he guessed himself two stories at least above road level, there was a sudden blaze of reflected light and he blinked at more mirrors than he could count. They had been swung on hinges suddenly to throw the light full in his face.
There were curtains reflected in each mirror, and little glowing lamps, so cunningly arranged that it was not possible to guess which were real and which were not. Rewa Gunga offered no explanation, but stood watching with quiet amusement. He seemed to expect King to take a chance and go forward, but if he did he reckoned without his guest. King stood still.
Then suddenly, as if she had done it a thousand times before and surprised a thousand people, a little nut-brown maid parted the middle pair of curtains and said "Salaam!" smiling with teeth that were as white as porcelain. All the other curtains parted too, so that the whereabouts of the door might still have been in doubt had she not spoken and so distinguished herself from her reflections. King looked scarcely interested and not at all disturbed.
Balked of his amusement, Rewa Gunga hurried past him, thrusting the little maid aside, and led the way. King followed him into a long room, whose walls were hung with richer silks than any he remembered to have seen. In a great wide window to one side some twenty, women began at once to make flute music.
Silken punkahs swung from chains, wafting back and forth a cloud of sandalwood smoke that veiled the whole scene in mysterious, scented mist. Through the open window came the splash of a fountain and the chattering of birds, and the branch of a feathery tree drooped near by. It seemed that the long white wall below was that of Yasmini's garden.
"Be welcome!" laughed Rewa Gunga; "I am to do the honors, since she is not here. Be seated, sahib."
King chose a divan at the room's farthest end, near tall curtains that led into rooms beyond. He turned his back toward the reason for his choice. On a little ivory-inlaid ebony table about ten feet away lay a knife, that was almost the exact duplicate of the one inside his shirt. Bronze knives of ancient date, with golden handles carved to represent a woman dancing, are rare. The ability to seem not to notice incriminating evidence is rarer still—rarest of all when under the eyes of a native of India, for cats and hawks are dullards by comparison to them. But King saw the knife, yet did not seem to see it. There was nothing there calculated to set an Englishman at ease. In spite of the Rangar's casual manner, Yasmini's reception room felt like the antechamber to another world, where mystery is atmosphere and ordinary air to breathe is not at all. He could sense hushed expectancy on every side—could feel the eyes of many women fixed on him—and began to draw on his guard as a fighting man draws on armor. There and then he deliberately set himself to resist mesmerism, which is the East's chief weapon.
Rewa Gunga, perfectly at home, sprawled leisurely, along a cushioned couch with a grace that the West has not learned yet; but King did not make the mistake of trusting him any better for his easy manners, and his eyes sought swiftly for some unrhythmic, unplanned thing on which to rest, that he might save himself by a sort of mental leverage.
Glancing along the wall that faced the big window, he noticed for the first time a huge Afridi, who sat on a stool and leaned back against the silken hangings with arms folded.
"Who is that man?" he asked.
"He? Oh, he is a savage—just a big savage," said Rewa Gunga, looking vaguely annoyed.
"Why is he here?"
He did not dare let go of this chance side-issue. He knew that Rewa Gunga wished him to talk of Yasmini and to ask questions about her, and that if he succumbed to that temptation all his self- control would be cunningly sapped away from him until his secrets, and his very senses, belonged to some one else.
"What is he doing here?" he insisted.
"He? Oh, he does nothing. He waits," purred the Rangar. "He is to be your body-servant on your journey to the North. He is nothing— nobody at all!—except that be is to be trusted utterly because he loves Yasmini. He is Obedience! A big obedient fool! Let him be!"
"No," said King. "If he's to be my man I'll speak to him!"
He felt himself winning. Already the spell of the room was lifting, and he no longer felt the cloud of sandalwood smoke like a veil across his brain.
"Won't you tell him to come here to me?"
Rewa Gunga laughed, resting his silk turban against the wall hangings and clasping both hands about his knee. It was as a man might laugh who has been touched in a bout with foils.
"Oh!—Ismail!" he called, with a voice like a bell, that made King stare.
The Afridi seemed to come out of a deep sleep and looked bewildered, rubbing his eyes and feeling whether his turban was on straight. He combed his beard with nervous fingers as he gazed about him and caught Rewa Gunga's eye. Then be sprang to his feet.
"Come!" ordered Rewa Gunga.
The man obeyed.
"Did you see?" Rewa Gunga chuckled. "He rose from his place like a buffalo, rump first and then shoulder after shoulder! Such men are safe! Such men have no guile beyond what will help them to obey! Such men think too slowly to invent deceit for its own sake!"
The Afridi came and towered above them, standing with gnarled hands knotted into clubs.
"What is thy name?" King asked him. "Ismail!" he boomed.
"Thou art to be my servant?"
"Aye! So said she. I am her man. I obey!"
"When did she say so?" King asked him blandly, asking unexpected questions being half the art of Secret Service, although the other half is harder to achieve.
The Hillman stroked his great beard and stood considering the question. One could almost imagine the click of slow machinery revolving in his mind, although King entertained a shrewd suspicion that he was not so stupid as he chose to seem. His eyes were too hawk-bright to be a stupid man's.
"Before she went away," he answered at last.
"When did she go away?"
He thought again, then "Yesterday," he said.
"Why did you wait before you answered?"
The Afridi's eyes furtively sought Rewa Gunga's and found no aid there. Watching the Rangar less furtively, but even less obviously, King was aware that his eyes were nearly closed, as if they were not interested. The fingers that clasped his knee drummed on it indifferently, seeing which King allowed himself to smile.
"Never mind," he told Ismail. "It is no matter. It is ever well to think twice before speaking once, for thus mistakes die stillborn. Only the monkey-folk thrive on quick answers—is it not so? Thou art a man of many inches—of thew and sinew—Hey, but thou art a man! If the heart within those great ribs of thine is true as thine arms are strong I shall be fortunate to have thee for a servant!"
"Aye!" said the Afridi. "But what are words? She has said I am thy servant, and to hear her is to obey!"
"Then from now thou art my servant?"
"Nay, but from yesterday when she gave the order!"
"Good!" said King.
"Aye, good for thee! May Allah do more to me if I fail!"
"Then, take me a telegram!" said King.
He began to write at once on a half-sheet of paper that he tore from a letter he had in his pocket, setting down a row of figures at the top and transposing into cypher as he went along.
"Yasmini has gone North. Is there any reason at your end why I should not follow her at once?"
He addressed it in plain English to his friend the general at Peshawur, taking great care lest the Rangar read it through those sleepy, half-closed eyes of his. Then he tore the cypher from the top, struck a match and burned the strip of paper and handed the code telegram to Ismail, directing him carefully to a government office where the cypher signature would be recognized and the telegram given precedence.
Ismail stalked off with it, striding like Moses down from Sinai— hook-nose—hawk-eye—flowing beard—dignity and all, and King settled down to guard himself against the next attempt on his sovereign self-command.
Now he chose to notice the knife on the ebony table as if he had not seen it before. He got up and reached for it and brought it back, turning it over and over in his hand.
"A strange knife," he said. "Yes,—from Khinjan," said Rewa Gunga, and King eyed him as one wolf eyes another. "What makes you say it is from Khinjan?"
"She brought it from Khinjan Caves herself! There is another knife that matches it, but that is not here. That bracelet you now wear, sahib, is from Khinjan Caves too! She has the secret of the Caves!"
"I have heard that the 'Heart of the Hills' is there," King answered. "Is the 'Heart of the Hills' a treasure house?"
Rewa Gunga laughed.
"Ask her, sahib! Perhaps she will tell you! Perhaps she will let you see! Who knows? She is a woman of resource and unexpectedness— Let her women dance for you a while."
King nodded. Then he got up and laid the knife back on the little table. A minute or so later he noticed that at a sign from Rewa Gunga a woman left the great window place and spirited the knife away.
"May I have a sheet of paper?" he asked, for he knew that another fight for his self-command was due.
Rewa Gunga gave an order, and a maid brought him scented paper on a silver tray. He drew out his own fountain pen then and made ready.
In spite of the great silken punkah that swung rhythmically across the full breadth of the room the beat was so great that the pen slipped round and round between his fingers. Yet he contrived to write, and since his one object was to give his brain employment, he wrote down a list of the names he had memorized in the train on the journey from Peshawur, not thinking of a use for the list until he had finished. Then, though, a real use occurred to him.
While he began to write more than a dozen dancing women swept into the room from behind the silk hangings in a concerted movement that was all lithe slumberous grace. Wood-wind music called to them from the great deep window as snakes are summoned from their holes, and as cobras answer the charmer's call the women glided to the center and stood poised beneath the punkah.
There they began to chant, still dreamily, and with the chant the dance began, in and out, round and round, lazily, ever so lazily, wreathed in buoyant gossamer that was scarcely more solid than the sandalwood smoke they wafted into rings.
King watched them and listened to their chant until he began to recognize the strain on the eye-muscles that precedes the mesmeric spell. Then he wrote and read what he had written and wrote again. And after that, for the sake of mental exercise, he switched his thoughts into another channel altogether. He reverted to Delhi railway station.
"The Turks can spy as well as anybody.—They know those men are going to Kerachi to be ready for them.—Therefore, having cut his eye-teeth B.C. several hundred, the Unspeakable Turk will take care not to misbehave UNTIL he's ready. And I suppose our government, being ours and we being us, will let him do it! All of which will take time.—And that again means no trouble in the 'Hills—probably— until the Turks really do feel ready to begin. They'll preach a holy war just ahead of the date. The tribes will keep quiet because an army at Kerachi might be meant for their benefit. Oh, yes, I'm quite sure they were entraining for Kerachi in readiness to move on Basra. Trucks ready for camels—and camel drivers—and food for camels— and Eresby, who's just come from taking a special camel course. Not a doubt of it!—And then, Corrigan—Elwright—Doby—Gould—all on the platform in a bunch, and all down on the Army List as Turkish interpreters! Not a doubt left!"
"What have you written?" asked a quiet voice at his ear; and he turned to look straight in the eyes of Rewa Gunga, who had leaned forward to read over his shoulder. Just for one second he hovered on the brink of quick defeat. Having escaped the Scylla of the dancing women, Charybdis waited for him in the shape of eyes that were pools of hot mystery. It was the sound of his own voice that brought him back to the world again and saved his will for him unbound.
"Read it, won't you?" he laughed. "If you know, take this pen and mark the names of whichever of those men are still in Delhi."
Rewa Gunga took pen and paper and set a mark against some thirty of the names, for King had a manner that disarmed refusal.
"Where are the others?" he asked him, after a glance at it.
"In jail, or else over the border."
The Rangar nodded. "Trust Yasmini! She saw to that jolly well before she left Delhi! She would have stayed had there been anything more to do!"
King began to watch the dance again, for it did not feel safe to look too long into the Rangar's eyes. It was not wise just then to look too long at anything, or to think too long on any one subject.
"Ismail is slow about returning," said the Rangar.
"I wrote at the foot of the tar," said King, "that they are to detain him there until the answer comes."
The Rangar's eyes blazed for a second and then grew cold again (as King did not fail to observe). He knew as well as the Rangar that not many men would have kept their will so unfettered in that room as to be able to give independent orders. He recognized resignation, temporary at least, in the Rangar's attitude of leaning back again to watch from under lowered eyelids. It was like being watched by a cat.
All this while the women danced on, in time to wailing flute-music, until, it seemed from nowhere, a lovelier woman than any of them appeared in their midst, sitting cross-legged with a flat basket at her knees. She sat with arms raised and swayed from the waist as if in a delirium. Her arms moved in narrowing circles, higher and higher above the basket lid, and the lid began to rise. Nobody touched it, nor was there any string, but as it rose it swayed with sickening monotony.
It was minutes before the bodies of two great king-cobras could be made out, moving against the woman's spangled dress. The basket lid was resting on their heads, and as the music and the chanting rose to a wild weird shriek the lid rose too, until suddenly the woman snatched the lid away and the snakes were revealed, with hoods raised, hissing the cobra's hate-song that is prelude to the poison-death.
They struck at the woman, one after the other, and she leaped out of their range, swift and as supple as they. Instantly then she joined in the dance, with the snakes striking right and left at her. Left and right she swayed to avoid them, far more gracefully than a matador avoids the bull and courting a deadlier peril than he— poisonous, two to his one. As she danced she whirled both arms above her head and cried as the were-wolves are said to do on stormy nights.
Some unseen hand drew a blind over the great window and an eerie green-and-golden light began to play from one end of the room, throwing the dancers into half-relief and deepening the mystery.
Sweet strange scents were wafted in from under the silken hangings. The room grew cooler by unguessed means. Every sense was treacherously wooed. And ever, in the middle of the moving light among the languorous dancers, the snakes pursued the woman!
"Do you do this often?" wondered King, in a calm aside to Rewa Gunga, turning half toward him and taking his eyes off the dance without any, very, great effort.
Rewa Gunga clapped his hands and the dance ceased. The woman spirited her snakes away. The blind was drawn upward and in a moment all was normal again with the punkah swinging slowly overhead, except that the seductive smell remained, that was like the early-morning breath of all the different flowers of India.
"If she were here," said the Rangar, a little grimly—with a trace of disappointment in his tone—"you would not snatch your eyes away like that! You would have been jolly well transfixed, my friend! These—she—that woman—they are but clumsy amateurs! If she were here, to dance with her snakes for you, you would have been jolly well dancing with her, if she had wished it! Perhaps you shall see her dance some day! Ah,—here is Ismail," he added in an altered tone of voice. He seemed relieved at sight of the Afridi.
Bursting through the glass-bead curtains at the door, the great savage strode down the room, holding out a telegram. Rewa Gunga looked as if he would have snatched it, but King's hand was held out first and Ismail gave it to him. With a murmur of conventional apology King tore the envelope and in a second his eyes were ablaze with something more than wonder. A mystery, added to a mystery, stirred all the zeal in him. But in a second he had sweated his excitement down.
"Read that, will you?" he said, passing it to Rewa Gunga. It was not in cypher, but in plain everyday English.
"She has not gone North," it ran. "She is still in Delhi. Suit your own movements to your plans."
"Can you explain?" asked King in a level voice. He was watching the Rangar narrowly, yet he could not detect the slightest symptom of emotion.
"Explain?" said the Rangar. "Who can explain foolishness? It means that another fat general has made another fat mistake!"
"What makes you so certain she went North?" King asked.
Instead of answering, Rewa Gunga beckoned Ismail, who had stepped back out of hearing. The giant came and loomed over them like the Spirit of the Lamp of the Arabian Nights.
"Whither went she?" asked the Rangar.
"To the North!" he boomed.
"How knowest thou?"
"I saw her go!" "When went she?"
"Yesterday, when a telegram came."
The word "came" was the only clue to his meaning, for in the language he used "yesterday" and "to-morrow" are the same word; such is the East's estimate of time.
"By what route did she go?" asked Rewa Gunga.
"By the terrain from the station."
"How knowest thou that?"
"I was there, bearing her box of jewels."
"Didst thou see her buy the tikkut?"
"Nay, I bought it, for she ordered me."
"For what destination was the tikkut?"
"Peshawur!" said Ismail, filling his mouth with the word as if he loved it.
"Yet"—it was King who spoke now, pointing an accusing finger at him—"a burra sahib sends a tar to me—this is it!—to say she is in Delhi still! Who told thee to answer those questions with those words?" "She!" the big man answered.
"Aye! May Allah cover her with blessings!"
"Ah!" said King. "You have my leave to depart out of earshot."
Then he turned on Rewa Gunga.
"Whatever the truth of all this," he said quietly, "I suppose it means she has done what there was to do in Delhi?"
"Sahib,—trust her! Does a tigress hunt where no watercourses are, and where no game goes to drink? She follows the sambur!"
"You are positive she has started for the North?"
"Sahib, when she speaks it is best to believe! She told me she will go. Therefore I am ready to lead King sahib up the Khyber to her!"
"Are you certain you can find her?"
"Aye, sahib,—in the dark!" "There's a train leaves for the North to-night," said King.
The Rangar nodded.
"You'll want a pass up the line. How many servants? Three—four— how many?"
"One," said the Rangar, and King was instantly suspicious of the modesty of that allowance; however he wrote out a pass for Rewa Gunga and one servant and gave it to him.
"Be there on time and see about your own reservation," he said. "I'll attend to Ismail's pass myself."
He folded the list of names that the Rangar had marked and wrote something on the back. Then he begged an envelope, and Rewa Gunga had one brought to him. He sealed the list in the envelope, addressed it and beckoned Ismail again.
"Take this to Saunders sahib!" he ordered. "Go first to the telegraph office, where you were before, and the babu there will tell you where Saunders sahib may be found. Having found him, deliver the letter to him. Then come and find me at the Star of India Hotel and help me to bathe and change my clothes."
"To hear is to obey!" boomed Ismail, bowing; but his last glance was for Rewa Gunga, and be did not turn to go until he had met the Rangar's eyes.
When Ismail had gone striding down the room, with no glance to spare for the whispering women in the window, and with dignity like an aura exuding from him, King looked into the Rangar's eyes with that engaging frankness of his that disarms so many people.
"Then you'll be on the train to-night?" he asked.
"To hear is to obey! With pleasure, sahib!"
"Then good-by until this evening."
King bowed very civilly and walked out, rather unsteadily because his head ached. Probably nobody else, except the Rangar, could have guessed what an ordeal he had passed through or how near he had been to losing self-command.
But as he felt his way down the stairs, that were dimly lighted now, he knew he had all his senses with him, for he "spotted" and admired the lurking places that had been designed for undoing of the unwary, or even the overwary. Yasmini's Delhi nest was like a hundred traps in one.
"Almost like a pool table," he reflected. "Pocket 'em at both ends and the middle!"
In the street he found a gharry after a while and drove to his hotel. And before Ismail came he took a stroll through a bazaar, where he made a few strange purchases. In the hotel lobby he invested in a leather bag with a good lock, in which to put them. Later on Ismail came and proved himself an efficient body-servant.
That evening Ismail carried the leather bag and found his place on the train, and that was not so difficult, because the trains running North were nearly empty, although the platforms were all crowded. As he stood at the carriage door with Ismail near him, a man named Saunders slipped through the crowd and sought him out.
"Arrested 'em all!" he grinned.
"Seen anything of her? I recognized Yasmini's scent on your envelope. It's peculiar to her—one of her monopolies!"
"No. I'm told she went North yesterday."
"Not by train, she didn't! It's my business to know that!"
King did not answer; nor did he look surprised. He was watching Rewa Gunga, followed by a servant, hurrying to a reserved compartment at the front end of the train. The Rangar waved to him and he waved back.
"I'd know her in a million!" vowed Saunders. "I can take oath she hasn't gone anywhere by train! Unless she has walked, or taken a carriage, she's in Delhi!"
The engine gave a preliminary shriek and the giant Ismail nudged King's elbow in impatient warning. There was no more sign of Rewa Gunga, who had evidently settled down in his compartment for the night.
"Get my bag out again!" King ordered, and Ismail stared.
"Get out my bag, I said!"
"To hear is to obey!" Ismail grumbled, reaching with his long arm through the window.
The engine shrieked again, somebody whistled, and the train began to move.
"You've missed it!" said Saunders, amused at Ismail's frantic disappointment. The giant was tugging at his beard. "How about your trunk? Better wire ahead and have it spotted for you."
"No," said King; "it's still in the baggage room a the other station. I didn't intend to go by this train. Came down here to see another fellow off, that's all! Have a cigar and then let's go together and look those prisoners over!"
Men boast in the Hills, when they ought to pray; For the wind blows lusty, and the blood runs red, And Law lies belly upwards for a man to wreak his fancy on it. Down in the plains, in the dust of the plains Where law is master and a good man ought to boast, They all lie belly downwards praying for their Hills again!
The rear lights of the train he had not taken swayed out of Delhi station and King grinned as he wiped the sweat from his face with a dripping handkerchief. Behind him towered the hook-nosed Ismail, resentful of the unexpected. In front of him Saunders eyed the proffered black cheroots suspiciously, accepted one with an air of curiosity and passed the case back. Around them the clatter of the station crowd began to die, and Parsimony in a shabby uniform went round to lower lights.
"Are you sure—"
King's merry eyes looked into Saunders' as if there were no world war really and they two were puppets in a comedy.
"—are you absolutely certain Yasmini is in Delhi?"
"No," said Saunders. "What I swear to is that she has not left by train. It's my business to know who leaves by train."
"What can you suggest?" asked King, twisting at his scrubby little mustache. But if be wished to convey the impression of a man at his wits'end, he failed signally. "I? Nothing! She's the most elusive individual in Asia! One person in the world knows where she is, unless she has an accomplice. My information's negative. I know she has not gone by—"
King struck a match and held it out, so the sentence was unfinished; the first few puffs of the astonishing cigar wiped out all memory of the missing word. And then King changed the subject.
"Those men I asked you to arrest—?"
"Nabbed"—puff—"every one of 'em!"—puff—puff—"all under"—puff— puff—"lock and key,—best smoke I ever tasted—where d'you get 'em?"
"Had they been in communication with her?"
Puff—puff—"You bet they had! Where d'you get these things?"
"Not her special men by any chance?"
Puff—"Gad, what smoke!—couldn't say, of course, but"—puff—puff— "shouldn't think so."
"Well—I'll go along with you if you like, and look them over."
Both tone and manner gave Saunders credit for the suggestion, and Saunders seemed to like it. There is nothing like following up, in football, war or courtship.
"I see you're a judge of a cigar," said King, and Saunders purred, all men being fools to some extent, and the only trouble being to demonstrate the fact.
They had started for the station entrance when a nasal voice began intoning, "Cap-teen King sahib—Cap-teen King sahib!" and a telegraph messenger passed them with his book under his arm. King whistled him. A moment later he was tearing open an official urgent telegram and writing a string of figures in pencil across the top. Then he decoded swiftly,
"Advices are Yasmini was in Delhi as recently as six this evening. Fail to understand your inability to get in touch. Have you tried at her house? Matters in Khyber district much less satisfactory. Word from O-C Khyber Rifles to effect that lashkar is collecting. Better sweep up in Delhi and proceed northward as quickly as compatible with caution. L. M. L."
The three letters at the end were the general's coded signature. The wording of the telegram was such that as he read King saw a mental picture of the general's bald red skull and could almost hear him say the "fail to understand." The three words 'much less satisfactory" were a bookful of information. So, as he folded up the telegram, tore the penciled strip of figures from the top and burned it with a match, he was at pains to look pleased.
"Good news?" asked Saunders, blowing smoke through his nose.
"Excellent. Where's my man? Here—you—Ismail!"
The giant came and towered above him.
"You swore she went North!"
"Ha, sahib! To Peshawur she went!"
"Did she start from this station?"
"From where else, sahib?"
But this was too much for Saunders, who stepped forward and thrust in an oar. King on the other band stepped back a pace so as to watch both faces.
"Then, when did she go?"
"I saw her go!" said Ismail, affronted.
"When? When, confound you! When?"
"I expect he means to-morrow," said King. With the advantage of looker-on and a very deep experience of Northerners, he had noted that Ismail was lying and that Saunders was growing doubtful, although both men concealed the truth with what was very close to being art.