By Talbot Mundy
Howrah City bows the knee More or less to masters three, King, and Prince, and Siva. Howrah City pays in pain Taxes which the royal twain Give to priests, to give again (More or less) to Siva.
THAT was no time or place for any girl of twenty to be wandering unprotected. Rosemary McClean knew it; the old woman, of the sweeper caste, that is no caste at all,—the hag with the flat breasts and wrinkled skin, who followed her dogwise, and was no more protection than a toothless dog,—knew it well, and growled about it in incessant undertones that met with neither comment nor response.
"Leave a pearl of price to glisten on the street, yes!" she grumbled. "Perhaps none might notice it—perhaps! But her—here—at this time—" She would continue in a rumbling growl of half-prophetic catalogues of evil—some that she had seen to happen, some that she imagined, and not any part of which was in the least improbable.
As the girl passed through the stenching, many-hued bazaar, the roar would cease for a second and then rise again. Turbaned and pugreed—Mohammedan and Hindoo—men of all grades of color, language, and belief, but with only one theory on women, would stare first at the pony that she rode, then at her, and then at the ancient grandmother who trotted in her wake. Low jests would greet the grandmother, and then the trading and the gambling would resume, together with the under-thread of restlessness that was so evidently there and yet so hard to lay a finger on.
The sun beat down pitilessly—brass—like the din of cymbals. Beneath the sun helmet that sat so squarely and straightforwardly on the tidy chestnut curls, her face was pale. She smiled as she guided her pony in and out amid the roaring throng, and carefully refused to see the scowls, her brave little shoulders seconded a pair of quiet, brave gray eyes in showing an unconquerable courage to the world, and her clean, neat cotton riding-habit gave the lie and the laugh in one to poverty; but, as the crowd had its atmosphere of secret murmuring, she had another of secret anxiety.
Neither had fear. She did not believe in it. She was there to help her father fight inhuman wrong, and die, if need be, in the last ditch. T a two-hundred-million crowd, held down and compelled by less than a hundred thousand aliens. And, least of all, had the man who followed her at a little distance the slightest sense of fear. He was far more conversant with it than she, but—unlike her, and far more than the seething crowd—he knew the trend of events, and just what likelihood there was of insult or injury to Rosemary McClean being avenged in a generation.
He caused more comment than she, and of a different kind. His rose-pink pugree, with the egret and the diamond brooch to hold the egret in its place—his jeweled sabre—his swaggering, almost ruffianly air—were no more meant to escape attention than his charger that clattered and kicked among the crowd, or his following, who cleared a way for him with the butt ends of their lances. He rode ahead, but every other minute a mounted sepoy would reach out past him and drive his lance-end into the ribs of some one in the way.
There would follow much deep salaaming; more than one head would bow very low indeed; and in many languages, by the names of many gods, he would be cursed in undertones. Aloud, they would bless him and call him "Heaven-born!"
But he took no interest whatever in the crowd. His dark-brown eyes were fixed incessantly on Rosemary McClean's back. Whenever she turned a corner in the crowded maze of streets, he would spur on in a hurry until she was in sight again, and then his handsome, swarthy face would light with pleasure—wicked pleasure—self-assertive, certain, cruel. He would rein in again to let her draw once more ahead.
Rosemary McClean knew quite well who was following her, and knew, too, that she could do nothing to prevent him. Once, as she passed a species of caravansary—low-roofed, divided into many lockable partitions, and packed tight with babbling humanity—she caught sight of a pair of long, black thigh boots, silver-spurred, and of a polished scabbard that moved spasmodically, as though its owner were impatient.
"Mahommed Gunga!" she muttered to herself. "I wonder whether he would come to my assistance if I needed him. He fought once—or so he says—for the British; he might be loyal still. I wonder what he is doing here, and what—Oh, I wonder!"
She was very careful not to seem to look sideways, or seek acquaintance with the wearer of the boots; had she done so, she would have gained nothing, for the moment that he caught sight of her through the opened door he drew back into a shadow, and swore lustily. What he said to himself would have been little comfort to her.
"By the breath of God!" he growled. "These preachers of new creeds are the last straw, if one were wanting! They choose the one soft place where Mohammedan and Hindoo think alike, and smite! If I wanted to raise hell from end to end of Hind, I too would preach a new creed, and turn good-looking women loose to wander on the country-side!—Ah!" He drew back even further, as he spied the egret and the sabre and the stallion cavorting down the street—then thought better of it and strode swaggering to the doorway, and stood, crimson-coated, in the sunlight, stroking upward insolently at his black, fierce-barbered beard. There was a row of medal ribbons on his left breast that bore out something at least of his contention; he had been loyal to the British once, whether he was so now or not.
The man on the charger eyed him sideways and passed on. Mahommed Gunga waited. One of the prince's followers rode close to him—leaned low from the saddle—and leered into his face.
"Knowest not enough to salute thy betters?" he demanded.
Mahommed Gunga made a movement with his right hand in the direction of his left hip—one that needed no explanation; the other legged his horse away, and rode on, grinning nastily. To reassure himself of his superiority over everybody but his master, he spun his horse presently so that its rump struck against a tented stall, and upset tent and goods. Then he spent two full minutes in outrageous execration of the men who struggled underneath the gaudy cloth, before cantering away, looking, feeling, riding like a fearless man again. Mahommed Gunga sneered after him, and spat, and turned his back on the sunshine and the street.
"I had a mind to teach that Hindoo who his betters are!" he growled.
"Come in, risaldar-sahib!" said a voice persuasively. "By your own showing the hour is not yet—why spill blood before the hour?"
The Rajput swaggered to the dark door, spurs jingling, looking back across his shoulder once or twice, as though he half-regretted leaving the Hindoo horseman's head upon his shoulders.
"Come in, sahib," advised the voice again. "They be many. We are few. And, who knows—our roads may lie together yet."
Mahommed Gunga kicked his scabbard clear, and strode through the door. The shadows inside and the hum of voices swallowed him as though he were a big, red, black-legged devil reassimilated in the brewing broth of trouble; but his voice boomed deep and loud after he had disappeared from view.
"When their road and my road lie together, we will travel all feet foremost!" he asserted.
Ten turnings further away by that time, Rosemary McClean pressed on through the hot, dinning swarm of humanity, missing no opportunity to slip her pony through an opening, but trying, too, to seem unaware that she was followed. She chose narrow, winding ways, where the awnings almost met above the middle of the street, and where a cavalcade of horsemen would not be likely to follow her—only to hear a roar behind her, as the prince's escort started slashing at the awnings with their swords.
There was a rush and a din of shouting beside her and ahead, as the frightened merchants scurried to pull down their awnings before the ruthless horse-men could ride down on them; the narrow street transformed itself almost on the instant into a undraped, cleared defile between two walls. And after that she kept to the broader streets, where there was room in the middle for a troop to follow, four abreast, should it choose. She had no mind to seek her own safety at the expense of men whose souls her father was laboring so hard to save.
She got no credit, though, for consideration—only blame for what the swordsmen had already done. One man—a Maharati trader—half-naked, his black hair coiled into a shaggy rope and twisted up above his neck—followed her, side-tracking through the mazy byways of the bewildering mart, and coming out ahead of her—or lurking beside bales of merchandise and waiting his opportunity to leap from shadow into shadow unobserved.
He followed her until she reached the open, where a double row of trees on each side marked the edge of a big square, large enough for the drilling of an army. Along one side of the square there ran the high brick wall, topped with a kind of battlement, that guarded the Maharajah's palace grounds from the eyes of men.
Just as she turned, just as she was starting to canter her pony beside the long wall, he leaped out at her and seized her reins. The old woman screamed, and ran to the wall and cowered there.
Very likely the man only meant to frighten her and heap insults on her, for in '56, though wrath ran deep and strong, men waited. There was to be sudden, swift whelming when the time came, not intermittent outrage. But he had no time to do more than rein her pony back onto its haunches.
There came a clatter of scurrying hoofs behind, and from a whirl of dust, topped by a rose-pink pugree, a steel blade swooped down on her and him. A surge of brown and pink and cream, and a dozen rainbow tints flashed past her; a long boot brushed her saddle on the off side. There was a sickening sound, as something hard swished and whicked home; her pony reeled from the shock of a horse's shoulder, and—none too gently—none too modestly—the prince with the egret and the handsome face reined in on his horse's haunches and saluted her.
There was blood, becoming dull-brown in the dust between them. He shook his sabre, and the blood dripped from it then he held it outstretched, and a horseman wiped it, before he returned it with a clang.
"The sahiba's servant!" he said magnificently, making no motion to let her pass, but twisting with his sword-hand at his waxed mustache and smiling darkly.
She looked down between them at the thing that but a minute since had lived, and loved perhaps as well as hated.
"Shame on you, Jaimihr-sahib!" she said, shuddering. A year ago she would have fallen from her pony in a swoon, but one year of Howrah and its daily horrors had so hardened her that she could look and loathe without the saving grace of losing consciousness.
"The shame would have been easier to realize, had I taken more than one stroke!" he answered irritably, still blocking the way on his great horse, still twisting at his mustache point, still looking down at her through eyes that blazed a dozen accumulated centuries' store of lawless ambition. He was proud of that back-handed swipe of his that would cleave a man each time at one blow from shoulder-joint to ribs, severing the backbone. A woman of his own race would have been singing songs in praise of him and his skill in swordsman-ship already; but no woman of his own race would have looked him in the eye like that and dared him, nor have done what she did next. She leaned over and swished his charger with her little whip, and slipped past him.
He swore, deep and fiercely, as he spurred and wheeled, and cantered after her. His great stallion could overhaul her pony in a minute, going stride for stride; the wall was more than two miles long with no break in it other than locked gates; there was no hurry. He watched her through half-closed, glowering, appraising eyes as he cantered in her wake, admiring the frail, slight figure in the gray cotton habit, and bridling his desire to make her—seize her reins, and halt, and make her—admit him master of the situation.
As he reached her stirrup, she reined in and faced him, after a hurried glance that told her her duenna had failed her. The old woman was invisible.
"Will you leave that body to lie there in the dust and sun?" she asked indignantly.
"I am no vulture, or jackal, or hyena, sahiba!" he smiled. "I do not eat carrion!" He seemed to think that that was a very good retort, for he showed his wonderful white teeth until his handsome face was the epitome of self-satisfied amusement. His horse blocked the way again, and all retreat was cut off, for his escort were behind her, and three of them had ridden to the right, outside the row of trees, to cut off possible escape in that direction. "Was it not well that I was near, sahiba? Would it have been better to die at the hands of a Maharati of no caste—?"
"Than to see blood spilt—than to be beholden to a murderer? Infinitely better! There was no need to kill that man—I could have quieted him. Let me pass, please, Jaimihr-sahib!"
He reined aside; but if she thought that cold scorn or hot anger would either of them quell his ardor, she had things reversed. The less she behaved as a native woman would have done—the more she flouted him—the more enthusiastic he became.
"Sahiba!"—he trotted beside her, his great horse keeping up easily with her pony's canter—"I have told you oftener than once that I make a good friend and a bad enemy!"
"And I have answered oftener than once that I do not need your friendship, and am not afraid of you! You forget that the British Government will hold your royal brother liable for my safety and my father's!"
"You, too, overlook certain things, sahiba." He spoke evenly, with a little space between each word. With the dark look that accompanied it, with the blood barely dry yet on the dusty road behind, his speech was not calculated to reassure a slip of a girl, gray-eyed or not, stiff-chinned or not, borne up or not by Scots enthusiasm for a cause. "This is a native state. My brother rules. The British—"
"Are near enough, and strong enough, to strike and to bring you and your brother to your knees if you harm a British woman!" she retorted. "You forget—when the British Government gives leave to missionaries to go into a native state, it backs them up with a strong arm!"
"You build too much on the British and my brother, sahiba! Listen—Howrah is as strong as I am, and no stronger. Had he been stronger, he would have slain me long ago. The British are—" He checked himself and trotted beside her in silence for a minute. She affected complete indifference; it was as though she had not heard him; if she could not be rid of him, she at least knew how to show him his utter unimportance in her estimation.
"Have you heard, sahiba, of the Howrah treasure? Of the rubies? Of the pearls? Of the emeralds? Of the bars of gold? It is foolishness, of course; we who are modern-minded see the crime of hoarding all that wealth, and adding to it, for twenty generations. Have you heard of it, sahiba?"
"Yes!" she answered savagely, swishing at his charger again to make him keep his distance. "You have told me of it twice. You have told me that you know where it is, and you have offered to show it to me. You have told me that you and your brother Maharajah Howrah and the priests of Siva are the only men who know where it is, and you lust for that treasure! I can see you lust! You think that I lust too, and you make a great mistake Jaimihr-sahib! You see, I remember what you have told me. Now, go away and remember what I tell you. I care for you and for your treasure exactly that!" She hit his charger with all her might, and at the sting of the little whip he shied clear of the road before the Rajah's brother could rein him in.
Again her effort to destroy his admiration for her had directly the opposite effect. He swore, and he swore vengeance; but he swore, too, that there was no woman in the East so worth a prince's while as this one, who dared flout him with her riding-whip before his men!
"Sahiba!" he said, sidling close to her again, and bowing in the saddle in mock cavalier humility. "The time will come when your government and my brother, who—at present—is Maharajah Howrah—will be of little service to you. Then, perhaps, you may care to recall my promise to load all the jewels you can choose out of the treasure-house on you. Then, perhaps, you may, remember that I said 'a throne is better than a grave, sahiba.' Or else—"
"Or else what, Jaimihr-sahib?" She reined again and wheeled about and faced him—pale-trembling a little—looking very small and frail beside him on his great war-horse, but not flinching under his gaze for a single second.
"Or else, sahiba—I think you saw me slay the Maharati? Do you think that I would stop at anything to accomplish what I had set out to do? See, sahiba—there is a little blood there on your jacket! Let that be for a pledge between us—for a sign—or a token of my oath that on the day I am Maharajah Howrah, you are Maharanee—mistress of all the jewels in the treasure-house!"
She shuddered. She did not look to find the blood; she took his word for that, if for nothing else.
"I wonder you dare tell me that you plot against your brother!" That was more a spoken thought than a statement or a question.
"I would be very glad if you would warn my brother!" he answered her; and she knew like a flash, and on the instant, that what he said was true. She had been warned before she came to bear no tales to any one. No Oriental would believe the tale, coming from her; the Maharajah would arrest her promptly, glad of the excuse to vent his hatred of Christian missionaries. Jaimihr would attempt a rescue; it was common knowledge that he plotted for the throne. There would be instant civil war, in which the British Government would perforce back up the alleged protector of a defenseless woman. There would be a new Maharajah; then, in a little while, and in all likelihood, she would have disappeared forever while the war raged. There would be, no doubt, a circumstantial story of her death from natural causes.
She did not answer. She stared back at him, and he smiled down at her, twisting at his mustache.
"Think!" he said, nodding. "A throne, sahiba, is considerably better than a grave!" Then he wheeled like a sudden dust-devil and decamped in a cloud of dust, followed at full pelt by his clattering escort. She watched their horses leap one after the other the corpse of the Maharati that lay by the corner where it fell, and she saw the last of them go clattering, whirling up the street through the bazaar. The old hag rose out of a shadow and trotted after her again as she turned and rode on, pale-faced and crying now a little, to the little begged school place where her father tried to din the alphabet into a dozen low-caste fosterlings.
"Father!" she cried, and she all but fell out of the saddle into his arms as the tall, lean Scotsman came to the door to meet her and stood blinking in the sunlight. "Father, I've seen another man killed! I've had another scene with Jaimihr! I can't endure it! I—I—Oh, why did I ever come?"
"I don't know, dear," he answered. "But you would come, wouldn't you?"
'Twixt loot and law—'tween creed and caste— Through slough this people wallows, To where we choose our road at last. I choose the RIGHT! Who follows?
HEMMED in amid the stifling stench and babel of the caravansary, secluded by the very denseness of the many-minded swarm, five other Rajputs and Mahommed Gunga—all six, according to their turbans, followers of Islam—discussed matters that appeared to bring them little satisfaction.
They sat together in a dark, low-ceilinged room; its open door—it was far too hot to close anything that admitted air—gave straight onto the street, and the one big window opened on a courtyard, where a pair of game-cocks fought in and out between the restless legs of horses, while a yelling horde betted on them. On a heap of grass fodder in a corner of the yard an all-but-naked expert in inharmony thumped a skin tom-tom with his knuckles, while at his feet the own-blood brother to the screech-owls wailed of hell's torments on a wind instrument.
Din—glamour—stink—incessant movement—interblended poverty and riches rubbing shoulders—noisy self-interest side by side with introspective revery, where stray priests nodded in among the traders,—many-peopled India surged in miniature between the four hot walls and through the passage to the overflowing street; changeable and unexplainable, in ever-moving flux, but more conservative in spite of it than the very rocks she rests on—India who is sister to Aholibah and mother of all fascination.
In that room with the long window, low-growled, the one thin thread of clear-sighted unselfishness was reeling out to very slight approval. Mahommed Gunga paced the floor and kicked his toes against the walls, as he turned at either end, until his spurs jingled, and looked with blazing dark-brown eyes from one man to the other.
"What good ever came of listening to priests?" he asked. "All priests are alike—ours, and theirs, and padre-sahibs! They all preach peace and goad the lust that breeds war and massacre! Does a priest serve any but himself? Since when? There will come this rising that the priests speak of—yes! Of a truth, there will, for the priests will see to it! There is a padre-sahib here in Howrah now for the Hindoo priests to whet their hate on. You saw the woman ride past here a half-hour gone? There is a pile of tinder ready here, and any fool of a priest can make a spark! There will be a rising, and a big one!"
"There will! Of a truth, there will!" Alwa, his cousin, crossed one leg above the other with a clink of spurs and scabbard. He had no objection to betraying interest, but declined for the present to betray his hand.
"There will be a blood-letting that will do no harm to us Rajputs!" said another man, whose eyes gleamed from the darkest corner; he, too, clanked his scabbard as though the sound were an obbligato to his thoughts. "Sit still and say nothing is my advice; we will be all ready to help ourselves when the hour comes!"
"It is this way," said Mahommed Gunga, standing straddle-legged to face all five of them, with his back to the window. He stroked his black beard upward with one hand and fingered with the other at his sabre-hilt. "Without aid when the hour does come, the English will be smashed—worn down—starved out—surrounded—stamped out—annihilated—so!" He stamped with his heel descriptively on the hard earth floor. "And then, what?"
"Then, the plunder!" said Alwa, showing a double row of wonderful white teeth. The other four grinned like his reflections. "Ay, there will be plunder—for the priests! And we Rajputs will have new masters over us! Now, as things are, we have honorable men. They are fools, for any man is a fool who will not see and understand the signs. But they are honest. They ride straight! They look us straight between the eyes, and speak truth, and fear nobody! Will the Hindoo priests, who will rule India afterward, be thus? Nay! Here is one sword for the British when the hour comes!"
"I have yet to see a Hindoo priest rule me or plunder me!" said Alwa with a grin.
"You will live to see it!" said Mahommed Gunga. "Truly, you will live to see it, unless you throw your weight into the other scale! What are we Rajputs without a leader whom we all trust? What have we ever been?" He swung on his heels suddenly—angrily—and began to pace the floor again—then stopped.
"Divided, and again subdivided—one-fifth Mohammedan and four-fifths Hindoo—clan within clan, and each against the other. Do we own Rajputana? Nay! Do we rule it? Nay! What were we until Cunnigan-bahadur came?"
"Ah!" All five men rose with a clank in honor to the memory of that man. "Cunnigan-bahadur! Show us such another man as he was, and I and mine ride at his back!" said Alwa. "Not all the English are like Cunnigan! A Cunnigan could have five thousand men the minute that he asked for them!"
"Am I a wizard?—Can I cast spells and bring dead men's spirits from the dead again? I know of no man to take his place," said Mahommed Gunga sadly.
He was the poorest of them, but they were all, comparatively speaking, poor men; for the long peace had told its tale on a race of men who are first gentlemen, then soldiers, and last—least of all—and only as a last resource, landed proprietors. The British, for whom they had often fought because that way honor seemed to lie, had impoverished them afterward by passing and enforcing zemindary laws that lifted nine-tenths of the burden from the necks of starving tenants. The new law was just, as the Rajputs grudgingly admitted, but it pinched their pockets sadly; like the old-time English squires, they would give their best blood and their last rack-rent-wrung rupee for the cause that they believed in, but they resented interference with the rack-rents! Mahommed Gunga had had influence enough with these five landlord relations of his to persuade them to come and meet him in Howrah City to discuss matters; the mere fact that he had thought it worth his while to leave his own little holding in the north had satisfied them that he would be well worth listening to—for no man rode six hundred miles on an empty errand. But they needed something more than words before they pledged the word that no Rajput gentleman will ever break.
"Find us a Cunnigan—bring him to us—prove him to us—and if a blade worth having from end to end of Rajputana is not at his service, I myself will gut the Hindoo owner of it! That is my given word!" said Alwa.
"He had a son," said Mahommed Gunga quietly.
"True. Are all sons like their fathers? Take Maharajah Howrah here; his father was a man with whom any soldier might be proud to pick a quarrel. The present man is afraid of his own shadow on the wall—divided between love for the treasure-chests he dare not broach and fear of a brother whom he dare not kill. He is priest-ridden, priest-taught, and fit to be nothing but a priest. Who knows how young Cunnigan will shape? Where is he? Overseas yet! He must prove himself, as his father did, before he can hope to lead a free regiment of horse!"
"Then Cunnigan-bahadur's watch-word 'For the peace of India,' is dead-died with him?" asked Mahommed Gunga. "We are each for our own again?"
"I have spoken!" answered Alwa. As the biggest clan-chief left on all that countryside, he had a right to speak before the others, and he knew that what he said would carry weight when they had all ridden home again, and the report had gone abroad in ever-widening rings. "If the English can hold India, let them! I will not fight against them, for they are honest men for all their madness. If they cannot, then I am for Rajputana, not India—India may burn or rot or burst to pieces, so long as Rajputana stands! But—" He paused a moment, and looked at each man in turn, and tapped his sabre-hilt, "—if a Cunnigan-bahadur were among us—a man whom I could trust to lead me and mine and every man—I would lend him my sword for the sheer honor of helping him hack truth out of corruption! I have nothing more to say!"
"One word more, cousin!" said Mahommed Gunga. "I was risaldar in Cunnigan-bahadur's regiment of horse. There was more than mere discipline between us. I ate his salt. Once—when he might have saved himself the trouble without any daring to reproach him—he risked his own life, and a troop, and his reputation to save a woman of my family from capture, and something worse. There was never a Rajput or any other native woman wronged while he was with us."
"I am no friend of Christian priests—of padres. But—"
"She who rode by just now? What, then?"
"I ride northward now, and then very likely South again. I can do nothing in the matter, yet—were he in my shoes, and she a native woman at the mercy of the troops—Cunnigan-bahadur would have assigned a guard for her."
"Ho! So I am thy sepoy?" sneered Alwa, standing sideways—looking sideways—and throwing out his chest. "I am to do thy bidding, guarding stray padres" (he spoke the word as though it were a bad taste he was spitting from his mouth), "and herding women without purdah, while thou ridest on assignations Allah knows where? Since when?"
"I have yet to refuse to guard thy back, or thy good name, Alwa!" Mahommed Gunga eyed him straight, and thrust his hilt out. "The woman is nothing to me—the padre-sahib less. It is because of the debt I owe to Cunnigan that I ask this favor."
"Oh. It is granted! Should she appeal to me, I will rip Howrah into rags and burn this city to protect her if need be! She must first ask, though, even as thou didst."
Mahommed Gunga saluted him, bolt-upright as a lance, and without the slightest change in his expression.
"The word is sufficient, cousin!"
Alwa returned his salute, and raised his voice in a gruff command. A saice outside the window woke as though struck by a stick—sprang to his feet—and passed the order on. A dozen horses clattered in the courtyard and filed through the arched passage to the street, and Alwa mounted. The others, each with his escort, followed suit, and a moment later, with no further notice of one another, but with as much pomp and noise as though they owned the whole of India, the five rode off, each on his separate way, through the scattering crowd.
Then Mahommed Gunga called for his own horse and the lone armed man of his own race who acted squire to him.
"Did any overhear our talk?" he asked.
"Not the saice, even?"
"No, sahib. He slept."
"He awoke most suddenly, and at not much noise."
"For that reason I know he slept, sahib. Had he been pretending, he would have wakened slowly."
"Thou art no idiot!" said Mahommed Gunga. "Wait here until I return, and lie a few lies if any ask thee why we six came together, and of what we spoke!"
Then he mounted and rode off slowly, picking his way through the throng much more cautiously and considerately than his relatives had done, though not, apparently, because he loved the crowd. He used some singularly biting insults to help clear the way, and frowned as though every other man he looked at were either an assassin or—what a good Mohammedan considers worse—an infidel. He reached the long brick wall at last—broke into a canter—scattered the pariah dogs that were nosing and quarreling about the corpse of the Maharati, and drew rein fifteen minutes later by the door of the tiny school place that Miss McClean had entered.
For service truly rendered, and for duty dumbly done—For men who neither tremble nor forget—There is due reward, my henchman. There is honor to be won. There is watch and ward and sterner duty yet.
No sound came, from within the schoolhouse. The little building, coaxed from a grudging Maharajah, seemed to strain for light and air between two overlapping, high-walled brick warehouses. Before the door, in a spot where the scorching sun-rays came but fitfully between a mesh of fast-decaying thatch, the old hag who had followed Rosemary McClean lay snoozing, muttering to herself, and blinking every now and then as a street dog blinks at the passers-by. She took no notice of Mahommed Gunga until he swore at her.
"Miss-sahib hai?" he growled; and the woman jumped up in a hurry and went inside. A moment later Rosemary McClean stood framed in the doorway still in her cotton riding-habit, very pale—evidently frightened at the summons—but strangely, almost ethereally, beautiful. Her wealth of chestnut hair was loosely coiled above her neck, as though she had been caught in the act of dressing it. She looked like the wan, wasted spirit of human pity—he like a great, grim war-god.
"Salaam, Miss Maklin-sahib!"
He dismounted as he spoke and stood at attention, then stared truculently, too inherently chivalrous to deny her civility—he would have cut his throat as soon as address her from horseback while she stood—and too contemptuous of her father's calling to be more civil than he deemed in keeping with his honor.
"Salaam, Mohammed Gunga!" She seemed very much relieved, although doubtful yet. "Not letters again?"
"No, Miss-sahib. I am no mail-carrier! I brought those letters as a favor to Franklin-sahib at Peshawur; I was coming hither, and he had no man to send. I will take letters, since I am now going, if there are letters ready; I ride to-night."
"Thank you, Mahommed Gunga. I have letters for England. They are not yet sealed. May I send them to you before you start?"
"I will send my man for them. Also, Miss Maklin-sahib" (heavens! how much cleaner and better that sounded than the prince's ironical "sahiba"!)
"If you wish it, I will escort you to Peshawur, or to any city between here and there."
"I saw Jaimihr. I know Jaimihr."
"And—this is no place for a padre, or for the daughter of a padre."
What he said was true, but it was also insolent, said insolently.
"Mahommed Gunga-sahib, what are those ribbons on your breast?" she asked him.
He glanced down at them, and his expression changed a trifle; it was scarcely perceptible, but underneath his fierce mustache the muscles of his mouth stiffened.
"They are medal ribbons—for campaigns," he answered.
"Three-four-five! Then, you were a soldier a long time? Did you—did you desert your post when there was danger?"
He flushed, and raised his hand as though about to speak.
"Or did people insult you when you chose to remain on duty?"
"Miss-sahib, I have not insulted you!" said Mahommed Gunga. "I came here for another purpose."
"You came, very kindly, to ask whether there were letters. Thank you, Mahommed Gunga-sahib, for your courtesy. There are letters, and I will give them to your man, if you will be good enough to send him for them."
He still stood there, staring at her with eyes that did not blink. He was too much of a soldier to admit himself at a loss what to say, yet he had no intention of leaving Howrah without saying it, for that, too, would have been unsoldierly.
"The reason why your countrymen have found men of this land before now to fight for them—one reason, at least—" he said gruffly, "is that hitherto they have not meddled with our religions. It is not safe! It would be better to come away, Miss-sahib."
"Would you like to say that to my father? He is—"
"Allah forbid that I should argue with him! I spoke to you, on your account!"
"You forget, I think," she answered him gently, "that we had permission from the British Government to come here; it has not been withdrawn. We are doing no harm here—trying only to do good. There is always danger when—"
"I would speak of that," he interrupted—"You will not come away?"
She shook her head.
"Your father could remain."
She shook her head again. "I stay with him," she answered.
"At present, Jaimihr is the danger, Miss-sahib; but I think that at present he will dare do nothing. The Maharajah dare do nothing either, yet. Should either of them make a move to interfere with you, it would not be safe to appeal to the other one. You will not understand, but it is so. In that event, there is a way to safety of which I would warn you."
"Thank you, Mahommed Gunga. What is it?"
"There are men more than a day's ride away from here who are to be depended on—by you, at least—under all circumstances. Is that old woman to be trusted?"
"How should I know?" she smiled. "I believe she is fond of me."
"That should be enough. I would like, if the Miss-sahib will permit, to speak with her."
At a word from Miss McClean the old hag came out into the sun again and blinked at the Rajput, very much afraid of him. Mahommed Gunga saluted Miss McClean—swore at the old woman—pointed a wordless order with his right arm—watched her shuffle half a hundred yards up-street—followed her, and growled at her for about five minutes, while she nodded. Finally, he drew from the pocket of his crimson coat a small handful of gold mohurs—fat, dignified coins that glittered—and held them out toward her with an air as though they meant nothing to him—positively nothing—Her eyes gleamed. He let her take a good look at the money before replacing it, then tossed her a silver quarter-rupee piece, saluted Miss McClean again—for she was watching the pantomime from the doorway still—and mounted and rode off, his back looking like the back of one who has neither care nor fear nor master.
At the caravansary his squire came running out to hold his stirrup.
"Picket the horse in the yard," said Mahommed Gunga, "then find me another servant and bring him to me in the room here!"
"Another servant? But, sahib—"
"I said another servant! Has deafness overcome thee?" He used a word in the dialect which left no room for doubt as to his meaning; it was to be a different servant—a substitute for the squire he had already. The squire bowed his head in disciplined obedience and led the horse away.
An hour later—evening was drawing on—he came back, followed by a somewhat ruffianly-looking half-breed Rajput-Punjaubi. The new man was rather ragged and lacked one eye, but with the single eye he had he looked straight at his prospective master. Mahommed Gunga glared at him, but the man did not quail or shrink.
"This fellow wishes honorable service, sahib." The squire spoke as though he were calling his master's attention to a horse that was for sale. "I have seen his family; I have inquired about him; and I have explained to him that unless he serves at thee faithfully his wife and his man child will die at my hands in his absence."
"Can he groom a horse?"
"So he says, sahib, and so say others."
"Can he fight?"
"He slew the man with his bare hands who pricked his eye out with a sword."
"Oh! What payment does he ask?"
"He leaves that matter to your honor's pleasure."
"Good. Instruct him, then. Set him to cleaning my horse and then return here."
The squire was back again within five minutes and stood before Mahommed Gunga in silent expectation.
"I shall miss thee," said Mahommed Gunga after five minutes' reflection. "It is well that I have other servants in the north."
"In what have I offended, sahib?"
"In nothing. Therefore there is a trust imposed."
The man salaamed. Mahommed Gunga produced his little handful of gold mohurs and divided it into two equal portions; one he handed to the squire.
"Stay here. Be always either in the caravansary or else at call. Should the old woman who serves Miss Maklin-sahib, the padre-sahib's daughter come and ask thy aid, then saddle swiftly the three horses I will leave with thee, and bear Miss Maklin-sahib and her father to my cousin Alwa's place. Present two of the gold mohurs to the hag, should that happen."
"But sahib—two mohurs? I could buy ten such hags outright for the price!"
"She has my word in the matter! It is best to have her eager to win great reward. The hag will stay awake, but see to it that thou sleepest not!"
"And for how long must I stay here, sahib?"
"One month—six months—a year—who knows? Until the hag summons thee, or I, by writing or by word of mouth, relieve thee of thy trust."
At sunset he sent the squire to Miss McClean for the letters he had promised to deliver; and at one hour after sunset, when the heat of the earth had begun to rise and throw back a hot blast to the darkened sky and the little eddies of luke-warm surface wind made movement for horse and man less like a fight with scorching death, he rode off, with his new servant, on the two horses left to him of the five with which he came.
A six-hundred-mile ride without spare horses, in the heat of northern India, was an undertaking to have made any strong man flinch. The stronger the man, and the more soldierly, the better able he would be to realize the effort it would call for. But Mahommed Gunga rode as though he were starting on a visit to a near-by friend; he was not given to crossing bridges before he reached them, nor to letting prospects influence his peace of mind. He was a soldier. He took precautions first, when and where such were possible, then rode and looked fate in the eye.
He appeared to take no more notice of the glowering looks that followed him from stuffy balconies and dense-packed corners than of the mosquitoes to and the heat. Without hurry he picked his way through the thronged streets, where already men lay in thousands to escape the breathlessness of walled interiors; the gutters seemed like trenches where the dead of a devastated city had been laid; the murmur was like the voice of storm-winds gathering, and the little lights along the housetops were for the vent-holes on the lid of a tormented underworld.
But he rode on at his ease. Ahead of him lay that which he considered duty. He could feel the long-kept peace of India disintegrating all around him, and he knew—he was certain—as sometimes a brave man can see what cleverer men all overlook—that the right touch by the right man at the right moment, when the last taut-held thread should break, would very likely swing the balance in favor of peace again, instead of individual self seeking anarchy.
He knew what "Cunnigan-bahadur" would have done. He swore by Cunnigan-bahadur. And the memory of that same dead, desperately honest Cunningham he swore that no personal profit or convenience or safety should be allowed to stand between him and what was honorable and right! Mahommed Gunga had no secrets from himself; nor lack of imagination. He knew that he was riding—not to preserve the peace of India, for that was as good as gone—but to make possible the winning back of it. And he rode with a smile on his thin lips, as the crusaders once rode on a less self-advertising errand.
"You have failed!" whispered Fate, and a weary civilian Threw up his task as a matter of course. "Failed?" said the soldier. He knew a million Chances untackled yet. "Get me a horse!"
THAT was a strange ride of Mahommed Gunga's, and a fateful one—more full of portent for the British Raj in India than he, or the British, or the men amid whose homes he rode could ever have anticipated. He averaged a little less than twenty miles a day, and through an Indian hot-weather, and with no spare horse, none but a born horseman—a man of light weight and absolute control of temper—could have accomplished that for thirty days on end.
Wherever he rode there was the same unrest. Here and there were new complaints he had not yet heard of, imaginary some of them, and some only too well founded. Wherever there were Rajputs—and that race of fighting men is scattered all about the north—there was ill-suppressed impatience for the bursting of the wrath to come. They bore no grudge against the English, but they did bear more than grudge against the money-lenders and the fat, litigious traders who had fattened under British rule. At least at the beginning it was evident that all the interest of all the Rajputs lay in letting the British get the worst of it; even should the British suddenly wake up and look about them and take steps—or should the British hold their own with native aid, and so save India from anarchy, and afterward reward the men who helped—the Rajputs would stand to gain less individually, or even collectively, than if they let the English be driven to the sea, and then reverted to the age-old state of feudal lawlessness that once had made them rich.
Many of the Hindoo element among them were almost openly disloyal. The ryots—the little one and two acre farmers—were the least unsettled; they, when he asked them—and he asked often—disclaimed the least desire to change a rule that gave them safe holdings and but one tax-collection a year; they were frankly for their individual selves—not even for one another, for the ryots as a class.
Nobody seemed to be for India, except Mahommed Gunga; and he said little, but asked ever-repeated questions as he rode. There were men who would like to weld Rajputana into one again, and over-ride the rest of India; and there were other men who planned to do the same for the Punjaub; there were plots within plots, not many of which he learned in anything like detail, but none of which were more than skin-deep below the surface. All men looked to the sudden, swift, easy whelming of the British Raj, and then to the plundering of India; each man expected to be rich when the whelming came, and each man waited with ill-controlled impatience for the priests' word that would let loose the hundred-million flood of anarchy.
"And one man—one real man whom they trusted—one leader—one man who had one thousand at his back—could change the whole face of things!" he muttered to himself. "Would God there we a Cunnigan! But there is no Cunnigan. And who would follow me? They would pull my beard, tell me I was scheming for my own ends!—I, who was taught by Cunnigan, and would serve only India!"
He would ride before dawn and when the evening breeze had come to cool the hot earth a little through the blazing afternoons he would lie in the place of honor by some open window, where he could watch a hireling flick the flies off his lean, road-hardened horse, and listen to the plotting and the carried tales of plots, pretending always to be sympathetic or else open to conviction.
"A soldier? Hah! A soldier fights for the side that can best reward him!" he would grin. "And, when there is no side, perhaps he makes one! I am a soldier!"
If they pressed him, he would point to his medal ribbons, that he always wore. "The British gave me those for fighting against the northern tribes beyond the Himalayas," he would tell them. "The southern tribes—Bengalis of the south and east—would give better picking than mere medal ribbons!"
They were not all sure of him. They were not all satisfied why he should ride on to Peshawur, and decline to stay with them and talk good sedition.
"I would see how the British are!" he told them. And he told the truth. But they were not quite satisfied; he would have made a splendid leader to have kept among them, until he—too—became too powerful and would have to be deposed in turn.
His own holding was a long way from Peshawur, and he was no rich man who could afford at a mere whim to ride two long days' march beyond his goal. Nor was he, as he had explained to Miss McClean, a letter-carrier; he would get no more than the merest thanks for delivering her letters to where they could be included in the Government mail-bag. Yet he left the road that would have led him homeward to his left, and carried on—quickening his pace as he neared the frontier garrison town, and wasting, then, no time at all on seeking information. Nobody supposed that the Pathans and the other frontier tribes were anything but openly rebellious, and he would have been an idiot to ask questions about their loyalty.
Because of their disloyalty, and the ever-present danger that they were, the biggest British garrison in India had to be kept cooped up in Peshawur, to rot with fever and ague and the other ninety Indian plagues.
He wanted to see that garrison again, and estimate it, and make up his mind what exactly, or probably, the garrison would do in the event of the rebellion blazing out. And he wanted to try once more to warn some one in authority, and make him see the smouldering fire beneath the outer covering of sullen silence.
He received thanks for the letters. He received an invitation to take tea on the veranda of an officer so high in the British service that many a staff major would have given a month's pay for a like opportunity. But he was laughed at for the advice he had to give.
"Mahommed Gunga, you're like me, you're getting old!" said the high official.
"Not so very old, sahib. I was a young man when Cunnigan-bahadur raised a regiment and licked the half of Rajputana into shape with it. Not too old, sahib, to wish there were another Cunnigan to ride with!"
"Well, Mahommed Gunga, you're closer to your wish than you suppose! Young Cunningham's gazetted, and probably just about starting on his way out here via the Cape of Good Hope. He should be here in three or four months at the outside."
"You mean that, sahib?"
"Wish I didn't! The puppy will arrive here with altogether swollen notions of his own importance and what is due his father's son. He's been captain of his college at home, and that won't lessen his sense of self-esteem either. I can foresee trouble with that boy!"
"Sahib, there is a service I could render!"
The Rajput spoke with a strangely constrained voice all of a sudden, but the Commissioner did not notice it; he was too busy pulling on a wool-lined jacket to ward off the evening chill.
"Well, risaldar—what then?"
"I think that I could teach the son of Cunnigan-bahadur to be worth his salt."
"If you'll teach him to be properly respectful to his betters I'll be grateful to you, Mahommed Gunga."
"Then, sahib, I shall have certain license allowed me in the matter?"
"Do anything you like, in reason, risaldar! Only keep the pup from cutting his eye-teeth on his seniors' convenience, that's all!"
Mahommed Gunga wasted no time after that on talking, nor did he wait to specify the nature of the latitude he would expect to be allowed him; he knew better. And he knew now that the one chance that he sought had been given him.
Like all observant natives, he was perfectly aware that the British weakness mostly lay in the age of the senior officers and the slowness of promotion. There were majors of over fifty years of age, and if a man were a general at seventy he was considered fortunate and young. The jealousy with which younger men were regarded would have been humorous had it not come already so near to plunging India into anarchy.
He did not even trouble to overlook the garrison. He took his leave, and rode away the long two-day ride to his own place, where a sadly attenuated rent-roll and a very sadly thinned-down company of servants waited his coming. There, through fourteen hurried, excited days, he made certain arrangements about the disposition of his affairs during an even longer absence; he made certain sales—pledged the rent of fifty acres for ten years, in return for an advance—and on the fifteenth day rode southward, at the head of a five-man escort that, for quality, was worthy of a prince.
A little less than three months later he arrived at Bombay, and by dint of much hard bargaining and economy fitted out himself and his escort, so that each man looked as though he were the owner of an escort of his own. Then, fretful at every added day that strained his fast-diminishing resources, he settled down to wait until the ship should come that brought young Cunningham.
Lies home beneath a sickly sun, Where humbleness was taught me? Or here, where spurs my father won On bended knee are brought me?
HE landed, together with about a dozen other newly gazetted subalterns and civil officers, cramped, storm-tossed, snubbed, and then disgorged from a sailing-ship into a port that made no secret of its absolute contempt for new arrivals.
There were liners of a kind on the Red Sea route, and the only seniors who chose the long passage round the Cape were men returning after sick-leave—none too sweet-tempered individuals, and none too prone to give the young idea a good conceit of himself. He and the other youngsters landed with a crushed-in notion that India would treat them very cavalierly before she took them to herself. And all, save Cunningham, were right.
The other men, all homesick and lonely and bewildered, were met by bankers' agents, or, in cases, only by a hotel servant armed with a letter of instructions. Here and there a bored, tired-eyed European had found time, for somebody-or-other's sake, to pounce on a new arrival and bear him away to breakfast and a tawdry imitation of the real hospitality of northern India; but for the most part the beardless boys lounged in the red-hot customs shed (where they were to be mulcted for the privilege of serving their country) and envied young Cunningham.
He—as pale as they, as unexpectant as they were of anything approaching welcome—was first amazed, then suspicious, then pleased, then proud, in turn. The different emotions followed one another across his clean-lined face as plainly as a dawn vista changes; then, as the dawn leaves a landscape finally, true and what it is for all to see, true dignity was left and the look of a man who stands in armor.
"His father's son!" growled Mahommed Gunga; and the big, black-bearded warriors who stood behind him echoed, "Ay!"
But for four or five inches of straight stature, and a foot, perhaps, of chest-girth, he was a second edition of the Cunnigan-bahadur who had raised and led a regiment and licked peace into a warring countryside; and though he was that much bigger than his father had been, they dubbed him "Chota" Cunnigan on the instant. And that means "Little Cunningham."
He had yet to learn that a Rajput, be he poorest of the poor, admits no superior on earth. He did not know yet that these men had come, at one man's private cost, all down the length of India to meet him. Nobody had told him that the feudal spirit dies harder in northern Hindustan than it ever did in England, or that the Rajput clans cohere more tightly than the Scots. The Rajput belief that honest service—unselfishly given—is the greatest gift that any man may bring—that one who has received what he considers favors will serve the giver's son—was an unknown creed to him as yet.
But he stood and looked those six men in the eye, and liked them. And they, before they had as much as heard him speak, knew him for a soldier and loved him as he stood.
They hung sickly scented garlands round his neck, and kissed his hand in turn, and spoke to him thereafter as man to man. They had found their goal worth while, and they bore him off to his hotel in clattering glee, riding before him as men who have no doubt of the honor that they pay themselves. No other of the homesick subalterns drove away with a six-man escort to clear the way and scatter sparks!
They careered round through the narrow gate of the hotel courtyard as though a Viceroy at least were in the trap behind them; and Mahommed Gunga—six medaled, strapping feet of him—dismounted and held out an arm for him to take when he alighted. The hotel people understood at once that Somebody from Somewhere had arrived.
Young Cunningham had never yet been somebody. The men who give their lives for India are nothing much at home, and their sons are even less. Scarcely even at school, when they had made him captain of the team, had he felt the feel of homage and the subtle flattery that undermines a bad man's character; at schools in England they confer honors but take simultaneous precautions. He was green to the dangerous influence of feudal loyalty, but he quitted himself well, with reserve and dignity.
"He is good! He will do!" swore Mahommed Gunga fiercely, for the other emotions are meant for women only.
"He is better than the best!"
"We will make a man of this one!"
"Did you mark how he handed me his purse to defray expenses?" asked a black-bearded soldier of the five.
"He is a man who knows by instinct!" said Mahommed Gunga. "See to it that thy accounting is correct, and overpay no man!"
Deep-throated as a bull, erect as a lance, and pleased as a little child, Mahommed Gunga came to him alone that evening to talk, and to hear him talk, and to tell him of the plans that had been made.
"Thy father gave me this," he told him, producing a gold watch and chain of the hundred-guinea kind that nowadays are only found among the heirlooms. Young Cunningham looked at it, and recognized the heavy old-gold case that he had been allowed to "blow open" when a little boy. On the outside, deep-chiseled in the gold, was his father's crest, and on the inside a portrait of his mother.
"Thy father died in these two arms, bahadur! Thy father said: 'Look after him, Mahommed Gunga, when the time is ripe for him to be a soldier.' And I said: 'Ha, huzoor!' So! Then here is India!"
He waved one hand grandiloquently, as though he were presenting the throne of India to his protege!
"Here, sahib, is a servant—blood of my own blood."
He clapped his hands, and a man who looked like the big, black-ended spirit of Aladdin's lamp stood silent, instant, in the doorway.
"He speaks no English, but he may help to teach thee the Rajput tongue, and he will serve thee well—on my honor. His throat shall answer for it! Feed him and clothe him, sahib, but pay him very little—to serve well is sufficient recompense."
Young Cunningham gave his keys at once to the silent servant, as a tacit sign that from that moment he was trusted utterly; and Mahommed Gunga nodded grim approval.
"Thy father saw fit to bequeath me much in the hour when death came on him, sahib. I am no boaster, as he knew. Remember, then, to tell me if I fail at any time in what is due. I am at thy service!"
Tact was inborn in Cunningham, as it had been in his father. He realized that he ought at once to show his appreciation of the high plane of the service offered.
"There is one way in which you could help me almost at once, Mahommed Gunga," he answered.
"Command me, sahib."
"I need your advice—the advice of a man who really knows. I need horses, and—at first at least—I would rather trust your judgment than my own. Will you help me buy them?"
The Raiput's eyes blazed pleasure. On war, and wine, and women, and a horse are the four points to ask a man's advice and win his approval by the asking.
"Nay, sahib; why buy horses here? These Bombay traders have only crows' meat to sell to the ill-advised. I have horses, and spare horses for the journey; and in Rajputana I have horses waiting for thee—seven, all told—sufficient for a young officer. Six of them are country-bred-sand-weaned—a little wild perhaps, but strong, and up to thy weight. The seventh is a mare, got by thy father's stallion Aga Khan (him that made more than a hundred miles within a day under a fifteen-stone burden, with neither food nor water, and survived!). A good mare, sahib—indeed a mare of mares—fit for thy father's son. That mare I give thee. It is little, sahib, but my best; I am a poor man. The other six I bought—there is the account. I bought them cheaply, paying less than half the price demanded in each case—but I had to borrow and must pay back."
Young Cunningham was hard put to it to keep his voice steady as he answered. This man was a stranger to him. He had a hazy recollection of a dozen or more bearded giants who formed a moving background to his dreams of infancy, and he had expected some sort of welcome from one or two perhaps, of his father's men when he reached the north. But to have men borrow money that they might serve him, and have horses ready for him, and to be met like this at the gate of India by a man who admitted he was poor, was a little more than his self-control had been trained as yet to stand.
"I won't waste words, Mahommed Gunga," he said, half-choking. "I'll—er—I'll try to prove how I feel about it."
"Ha! How said I? Thy father's son, I said! He, too, was no believer in much promising! I was his servant, and will serve him still by serving thee. The honor is mine, sahib, and the advantage shall be where thy father wished it."
"My father would never have had me—"
"Sahib, forgive the interruption, but a mistake is better checked. Thy father would have flung thee ungrudged, into a hell of bayonets, me, too, and would have followed after, if by so doing he could have served the cause he held in trust. He bred thee, fed thee, and sent thee oversea to grow, that in the end India might gain! Thou and I are but servants of the peace, as he was. If I serve thee, and thou the Raj—though the two of us were weaned on the milk of war and get our bread by war—we will none the less serve peace! Aie! For what is honor if a soldier lets it rust? Of what use is service, mouthed and ready, but ungiven? It is good, Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur, that thou art come at last!"
He saluted and backed out through the swinging door. He had come in his uniform of risaldar of the elder Cunningham's now disbanded regiment, so he had not removed his boots as another native—and he himself if in mufti—would have done. Young Cunningham heard him go swaggering and clanking and spur-jingling down the corridor as though he had half a troop of horse behind him and wanted Asia to know it!
It was something of a brave beginning that, for a twenty-one-year-old! Something likely—and expressly calculated by Mahommed Gunga—to bring the real man to the surface. He had been no Cunningham unless his sense of duty had been very near the surface—no Englishman, had he not been proud that men of a foreign, conquered race should think him worthy of all that honor; and no man at all if his eye had been quite dry when the veteran light-horseman swaggered out at last and left him to his own reflections.
He had not been human if he had not felt a little homesick still, although home to him had been a place where a man stayed with distant relatives between the intervals of school. He felt lonely, in spite of his reception—a little like a baby on the edge of all things new and wonderful. He would have been no European if he had not felt the heat, the hotel was like a vapor-bath.
But the leaping red blood of youth ran strong in him. He had imagination. He could dream. The good things he was tasting were a presage only of the better things to come, and that is a wholesome point of view. He was proud—as who would not be?—to step straight into the tracks of such a father; and with that thought came another—just as good for him, and for India, that made him feel as though he were a robber yet, a thief in another's cornfield, gathering what he did not sow. It came over him in a flood that he must pay the price of all this homage.
Some men pay in advance, some at the time, and some pay afterward. All men, he knew, must pay. It would be his task soon to satisfy these gentle-men, who took him at his face value, by proving to them that they had made no very great mistake. The thought thrilled him instead of frightening—brought out every generous instinct that he had and made him thank the God of All Good Soldiers that at least he would have a chance to die in the attempt. There was nothing much the matter with young Cunningham.
I take no man at rumor's price, Nor as the gossips cry him. A son may ride, and stride, and stand; His father's eye—his father's hand— His father's tongue may give command; But ere I trust I'll try him!
BUT before young Cunningham was called upon to pay even a portion of the price of fealty there was more of the receiving of it still in store for him, and he found himself very hard put to it, indeed, to keep overboiling spirits from becoming exultation of the type that nauseates.
None of the other subalterns had influence, nor had they hereditary anchors in the far northwest that would be likely to draw them on to active service early in their career. They had already been made to surrender their boyhood dreams of quick promotion; now, standing in little groups and asking hesitating questions, they discovered that their destination—Fort William—was about the least desirable of all the awful holes in India.
They were told that a subaltern was lucky who could mount one step of the promotion ladder in his first ten years; that a major at fifty, a colonel at sixty, and a general at seventy were quite the usual thing. And they realized that the pay they would receive would be a mere beggar's pittance in a neighborhood so expensive as Calcutta, and that their little private means would be eaten up by the mere, necessities of life. They showed their chagrin and it was not very easy for young Cunningham, watching Mahommed Gunga's lordly preparations for the long up-country journey, to strike just the right attitude of pleasure at the prospect without seeming to flaunt his better fortune.
Mahommed Gunga interlarded his hoarse orders to the mule-drivers with descriptions in stateliest English, thrown out at random to the world at large, of the glories of the manlier north—of the plains, where a man might gallop while a horse could last, and of the mountains up beyond the plains. He sniffed at the fetid Bombay reek, and spoke of the clean air sweeping from the snow-topped Himalayas, that put life and courage into the lungs of men who rode like centaurs! And the other subalterns looked wistful, eying the bullock-carts that would take their baggage by another route.
Fully the half of what Mahommed Gunga said was due to pride of race and country. But the rest was all deliberately calculated to rouse the wicked envy of those who listened. He meant to make the son of "Pukka" Cunnigan feel, before he reached his heritage, that he was going up to something worth his while. To quote his own north-country metaphor, he meant to "make the colt come up the bit." He meant that "Chota" Cunnigan should have a proper sense of his own importance, and should chafe at restraint, to the end that when his chance did come to prove himself he would jump at it. Envy, he calculated—the unrighteous envy of men less fortunately placed—would make a good beginning. And it did, though hardly in the way he calculated.
Young Cunningham, tight-lipped to keep himself from grinning like a child, determined to prove himself worthy of the better fortune; and Mahommed Gunga would have cursed into his black beard in disgust had he known of the private resolutions being formed to obey orders to the letter and obtain the good will of his seniors. The one thing that the grim old Rajput wished for his protege was jealousy! He wanted him so well hated by the "nabobs" who had grown crusty and incompetent in high command that life for him in any northern garrison would be impossible.
Throughout the two months' journey to the north Mahommed Gunga never left a stone unturned to make Cunningham believe himself much more than ordinary clay. All along the trunk road, that trails by many thousand towns and listens to a hundred languages, whatever good there was was Cunningham's. Whichever room was best in each dak-bungalow, whichever chicken the kansamah least desired to kill, whoever were the stoutest dhoolee-bearers in the village, whichever horse had the easiest paces—all were Cunningham's. Respect were his, and homage and obeisance, for the Rajput saw to it.
Of evenings, while they rested, but before the sun went down, the old risaldar would come with his naked sabre and defy "Chota" Cunnigan to try to touch him. For five long weeks he tried each evening, the Rajput never doing anything but parry,—changing his sabre often to the other hand and grinning at the schoolboy swordsmanship—until one evening, at the end of a more than usually hard-fought bout, the youngster pricked him, lunged, and missed slitting his jugular by the merest fraction of an inch.
"Ho!" laughed Mahommed Gunga later, as he sluiced out the cut while his own adherents stood near by and chaffed him. "The cub cuts his teeth, then! Soon it will be time to try his pluck."
"Be gentle with him, risaldar-sahib; a good cub dies as easily as a poor one, until he knows the way."
"Leave him to me! I will show him the way, and we will see what we will see. If he is to disgrace his father's memory and us, he shall do it where there are few to see and none to talk of it. When Alwa and the others ask me, as they will ask, 'Is he a man?' I will give them a true answer! I think he is a man, but I need to test him in all ways possible before I pledge my word on it."
But after that little accident the old risaldar had sword-sticks fashioned at a village near the road, and ran no more risks of being killed by the stripling he would teach; and before many more days of the road had ribboned out, young Cunningham—bareback or from the saddle—could beat him to the ground, and could hold his own on foot afterward with either hand.
"The hand and eye are good!" said Mahommed Gunga. "It is time now for another test."
So he made a plausible excuse about the horses, and they halted for four days at a roadside dak-bungalow about a mile from where a foul-mouthed fakir sat and took tribute at a crossroads. It was a strangely chosen place to rest at.
Deep down in a hollow, where the trunk road took advantage of a winding gorge between the hills—screened on nearly all sides by green jungle whose brown edges wilted in the heat which the inner steam defied—stuffy, smelly, comfortless, it stood like a last left rear-guard of a white-man's city, swamped by the deathless, ceaselessly advancing tide of green. It was tucked between mammoth trees that had been left there when the space for it was cleared a hundred years before, and that now stood like grim giant guardians with arms out-stretched to hold the verdure back.
The little tribe of camp-followers chased at least a dozen snakes out of corners, and slew them in the open, as a preliminary to further investigation. There were kas-kas mats on the foursquare floors, and each of these, when lifted, disclosed a swarm of scorpions that had to be exterminated before a man dared move his possessions in. The once white calico ceilings moved suggestively where rats and snakes chased one another, or else hunted some third species of vermin; and there was a smell and a many-voiced weird whispering that hinted at corruption and war to the death behind skirting boards and underneath the floor.
It had evidently not been occupied for many years; the kansamah looked like a gray-bearded skeleton compressed within a tightened shroud of parchment skin that shone where a coffin or a tomb had touched it. He seemed to have forgotten what the bungalow was for, or that a sahib needed things to eat, until the ex-risaldar enlightened him, and then he complained wheezily.
The stables—rather the patch-and-hole-covered desolation that once had been stables—were altogether too snake-defiled and smelly to be worth repairing; the string of horses was quartered cleanly and snugly under tents, and Mahommed Gunga went to enormous trouble in arranging a ring of watch-fires at even distances.
"Are there thieves here, then?" asked Cunningham, and the Rajput nodded but said nothing. He seemed satisfied, though, that the man he had brought safely thus far at so much trouble would be well enough housed in the creaky wreck of the bungalow, and he took no precautions of any kind as to guarding its approaches.
Cunningham watched the preparations for his supper with ill-concealed disgust—saw the customary chase of a rubber-muscled chicken, heard its death gurgles, saw the guts removed, to make sure that the kansamah did not cook it with that part of its anatomy intact, as he surely would do unless watched—and then strolled ahead a little way along the road.
The fakir was squatting in the distance, on a big white stone, and in the quiet of the gloaming Cunningham could hear his coarse, lewd voice tossing crumbs of abuse and mockery to the seven or eight villagers who squatted near him—half-amused, half-frightened, and altogether credulous.
Even as he drew nearer Cunningham could not understand a word of what the fakir said, but the pantomime was obvious. His was the voice and the manner of the professional beggar who has no more need to whine but still would ingratiate. It was the bullying, brazen swagger and the voice that traffics in filth and impudence instead of wit; and, in payment for his evening bellyful he was pouring out abuse of Cunningham that grew viler and yet viler as Cunningham came nearer and the fakir realized that his subject could not understand a word of it.
The villagers looked leery and eyed Cunningham sideways at each fresh sally. The fakir grew bolder, until one of his listeners smothered an open laugh in both hands and rolled over sideways. Cunningham came closer yet, half-enamoured of the weird scene, half-curious to discover what the stone could be on which the fakir sat.
The fakir grew nervous. Perhaps, after all, this was one of those hatefully clever sahibs who know enough to pretend they do not know! The abuse and vile innuendo changed to more obsequious, less obviously filthy references to other things than Cunningham's religion, likes, and pedigree, and the little crowd of men who had tacitly encouraged him before got ready now to stand at a distance and take sides against him should the white man turn out to have understood.
But Cunningham happened to catch sight of a cloud of paroquets that swept in a screaming ellipse for a better branch to nest in and added the one touch of gorgeous color needed to make the whole scene utterly unearthly and unlike anything he had ever dreamed of, or had seen in pictures, or had had described to him. He stood at gaze—forgetful of the stone that had attracted him and of the fakir—spellbound by the wonder-blend of hues branch-backed, and framed in gloom as the birds' scream was framed in silence.
And, seeing him at gaze, the fakir recovered confidence and jeered new ribaldry, until some one suddenly shot out from behind Cunningham, and before he had recovered from his surprise he saw the fakir sprawling on his back, howling for mercy, while Mahommed Gunga beat the blood out of him with a whalebone riding-whip.
The sun went down with Indian suddenness and shut off the scene of upraised lash and squirming, naked, ash-smeared devil, as a magic-lantern picture; disappears. Only the creature's screams reverberated through the jungle, like a belated echo to the restless paroquets.
"He will sleep less easily for a week or two!" hazarded Mahommed Gunga, stepping back toward Cunningham. In the sudden darkness the white breeches showed and the whites of his eyes, but little else; his voice growled like a rumble from the underworld.
"Why did you do it, risaldar? What did he say?"
"It was enough, bahadur, that he sat on that stone; for that alone he had been beaten! What he said was but the babbling of priests. All priests are alike. They have a common jargon—a common disrespect for what they dare not openly defy. These temple rats of fakirs mimic them. That is all, sahib. A whipping meets the case."
"But the stone? Why shouldn't he sit on it?"
"Wait one minute, sahib, and then see." He formed his hands into a trumpet and bellowed through them in a high-pitched, nasal, ululating order to somebody behind:
The black, dark roadside echoed it and a dot of light leapt up as a man came running with what gradually grew into a lamp.
Mahommed Gunga seized the lamp, bent for a few seconds over the still sprawling fakir, whipped him again twice, cursed him and kicked him, until he got up and ran like a spectre for the gloom beyond the trees. Then, with a rather stately sweep of the lamp, and a tremble in his voice that was probably intentional—designed to make Cunningham at least aware of the existence of emotion before he looked—he let the light fall on the slab on which the fakir had been squatting.
The youngster bent down above the slab and tried, in the fitful light, to make out what the markings were that ran almost from side to side, in curves, across the stone; but it was too dark—the light was too fitful; the marks themselves were too faint from the constant squatting of roadside wanderers.
Mahommed Gunga set the lamp down on the stone, and he and the attendant took little sticks, sharp-pointed, with which they began to dig hurriedly, scratching and scraping at what presently showed, even in that rising and falling light, as Roman lettering. Soon Cunningham himself began to lend a hand. He made out a date first, and he could feel it with his fingers before his eyes deciphered it. Gradually, letter by letter—word by word—he read it off, feeling a strange new thrill run through him, as each line followed, like a voice from the haunted past.
A.D. 1823. A.D. SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF GENERAL ROBERT FRANCIS CUNNINGHAM WHO DIED ON THIS SPOT AETAT 81 FROM WOUNDS INFLICTED BY A TIGER
There was no sound audible except the purring of the lamp flame and the heavy breathing of the three as Cunningham gazed down at the very crudely carved, stained, often-desecrated slab below which lay the first of the Anglo-Indian Cunninghams.
This man—these crumbled bones that lay under a forgotten piece of rock—had made all of their share of history. They had begotten "Pukka" Cunningham, who had hacked the name deeper yet in the crisscrossed annals of a land of war. It was strange—it was queer—uncanny—for the third of the Cunninghams to be sitting on the stone. It was unexpected, yet it seemed to have a place in the scheme of things, for he caught himself searching his memory backward.
He received an impression that something was expected of him. He knew, by instinct and reasoning he could not have explained, that neither Mahommed Gunga nor the other men would say a word until he spoke. They were waiting—he knew they were—for a word, or a sign, or an order (he did not know which), on which would hang the future of all three of them.
Yet there was no hurry—no earthly hurry. He felt sure of it. In the silence and the blackness—in the tense, steamy atmosphere of expectancy—he felt perfectly at ease, although he knew, too, that there was superstition to be reckoned with—and that is something which a white man finds hard to weigh and cope with, as a rule.
The sweat ran down his face in little streams a the prickly heat began to move across his skin, like a fiery-footed centiped beneath his undershirt, but he noticed, neither. He began to be unconscious anything except the knowledge that the bones of his grandsire lay underneath him and that Mahommed Gunga waited for the word that would fit into the scheme and solve a problem.
"Are there any tigers here now?" he asked presently, in a perfectly normal voice. He spoke as he had done when his servant asked him which suit he would wear.
"Ha, sahib! Many."
"Man-eaters, by any chance?"
Mahommed Gunga and the other man exchanged quick glances, but Cunningham did not look up. He did not see the quick-flashed whites as their eyes met and looked down again.
"There is one, sahib—so say the kansamah and the head man—a full-grown tiger, in his prime."
"I will shoot him." Four words, said quietly—not "Do you think," or "I would like to," or "Perhaps." They were perfectly definite and without a trace of excitement; yet this man had never seen a tiger.
"Very good, sahib." That, too, was spoken in a level voice, but Mahommed Gunga's eyes and the other man's met once again above his head.
"We will stay here four days; by the third day there will be time enough to have brought an elephant and—"
"I will go on foot," said Cunningham, quite quietly. "Tomorrow, at dawn, risaldar-sahib. Will you be good enough to make arrangements? All we need to know is where he is and how to get there—will you attend to that?"
"Thanks. I wonder if my supper's ready."
He turned and walked away, with a little salute-like movement of his hand that was reminiscent of his father. The two Rajputs watched him in heavy-breathing silence until the little group of lights, where the horse-tents faced the old dak-bungalow, swallowed him. Then:
"He is good. He will do!" said the black-beard who had brought the lamp.
"He is good. But many sahibs would have acted coolly, thus. There must be a greater test. There must be no doubt—no littlest doubt. Alwa and the others will ask me on my honor, and I will answer on my honor, yes or no."
It was an hour before the two of them returned, and looked the horses over and strolled up to bid Cunningham good night; and in the meanwhile they had seen about the morrow's tiger, and another matter.
What found ye, then? Why heated ye the pot? What useful metal down the channels ran? Gold? Steel for making weapons? Iron? What? Nay. Out from the fire we kindled strode a man!
THEY set the legs of Cunningham's string-woven bed into pans of water, to keep the scorpions and ants and snakes at bay, and then left him in pitch darkness to his own devices, with a parting admonition to keep his slippers on for the floor, in the dark, would be the prowling-place of venomed death.
It was he who set the lamp on the little table by his bedside, for his servant—for the first time on that journey—was not at hand to execute his thoughts almost before he had spoken them. Mahommed Gunga had explained that the man was sick; and that seemed strange, for he had been well enough, and more than usually efficient, but an hour before.
But there were stranger things and far more irritating ones to interfere with the peaceful passage of the night. There were sounds that were unaccountable; there was the memory of the wayside tombstone and the train of thought that it engendered. Added to the hell-hot, baking stuffiness that radiated from the walls, there came the squeaking of a punka rope pulled out of time—the piece of piping in the mud-brick wall through which the rope passed had become clogged and rusted, and the villager pressed into service had forgotten how to pull; he jerked at the cord between nods as the heat of the veranda and the unaccustomed night duty combined to make him sleepy.
Soon the squeaking became intolerable, and Cunningham swore at him—in English, because he spoke little of any native language yet, and had not the least idea in any case what the punka-wallah's tongue might be. For a while after that the pulling was more even; he lay on one elbow, letting the swinging mat fan just miss his ear, and examining his rifle and pistols for lack of anything better to keep him from going mad. Then, suddenly, the pulling ceased altogether. Silence and hell heat shut down on him like a coffin lid. Even the lamp flame close beside him seemed to grow dim; the weight of black night that was suffocating him seemed to crush light out of the flame as well.
No living mortal could endure that, he imagined. He swore aloud, but there was no answer, so he got up, after crashing his rifle-butt down on the floor to scare away anything that crawled. For a moment he stood, undecided whether to take the lamp or rifle with him—then decided on the rifle, for the lamp might blow out in some unexpected night gust, whereas if he left it where it was it would go on burning and show him the way back to bed again. Besides, he was too unaccustomed to the joy of owning the last new thing in sporting rifles to hesitate for long about what to keep within his grasp.
Through the open door he could see nothing but pitch-blackness, unpunctuated even by a single star. There were no lights where the tents stood, so he judged that even the accustomed natives had found the added heat of Mahommed Gunga's watch-fires intolerable and had raked them out; but from where he imagined that the village must be came the dum-tu-dum-tu-dum of tom-toms, like fever blood pulsating in the veins of devils of the night.
The punka-wallah slept. He could just make out the man's blurred shape—a shadow in the shadows—dog-curled, with the punkah rope looped round his foot. He kicked him gently, and the man stirred, but fell asleep again. He kicked him harder. The man sat up and stared, terrified; the whites of his eyes were distinctly visible. He seemed to have forgotten why he was there, and to imagine that he saw a ghost.
Cunningham spoke to him—he first words that came into his head.
"Go on pulling," he said in English, quite kindly.
But if he had loosed his rifle off, the effect could not have been more instantaneous. Clutching his twisted rag of a turban in one hand, and kicking his leg free, he ran for it—leaped the veranda rail, and vanished—a night shadow, swallowed by its mother night.
"Come back!" called Cunningham. "Iderao! I won't hurt you!"
But there was no answer, save the tom-toms' thunder, swelling now into a devil's chorus-coming nearer. It seemed to be coming from the forest, but he reasoned that it could not be; it must be some village marriage feast, or perhaps an orgy; he had paid out what would seem to the villagers a lot of money, and it might be that they were celebrating the occasion. It was strange, though, that he could see no lights where the village ought to be.
For a moment he had a half-formed intention to shout for Mahommed Gunga; but he checked that, reasoning that the Rajput might think he was afraid. Then his eye caught sight of something blacker than the shadows—something long and thin and creepy that moved, and he remembered that bed, where the pans of water would protect him, was the only safe place.
So he returned into the hot, black silence where the tiny lamp-flame guttered and threw shadows. He wondered why it guttered. It seemed to be actually short of air. There were four rooms, he remembered, to the bungalow, all connected and each opening outward by a door that faced one of the four sides; he wondered whether the outer doors were opened to admit a draught, and started to investigate.
Two of them were shut tight, and he could not kick them open; the dried-out teak and the heavy iron bolts held as though they had been built to resist a siege; the noise that he made as he rattled at them frightened a swarm of unseen things—unguessed-at shapes—that scurried away. He thought he could see beady little eyes that looked and disappeared and circled round and stopped to look again. He could hear creepy movements in the stillness. It seemed better to leave those doors alone.
One other door, which faced that of his own room, was open wide, and he could feel the forest through it; there was nothing to be seen, but the stillness moved. The velvet blackness was deeper by a shade, and the heat, uprising to get even with the sky, bore up a stench with it. There was no draught, no movement except upward. Earth was panting-in time, it seemed, to the hellish thunder of the tom-toms.
He went back and lay on the bed again, leaning the rifle against the cot-frame, and trying by sheer will-power to prevent the blood from bursting his veins. He realized before long that he was parched with thirst, and reached out for the water-jar that stood beside the lamp; but as he started to drink he realized that a crawling evil was swimming round and round in rings in the water. In a fit of horror he threw the thing away and smashed it into a dozen fragments in a corner. He saw a dozen rats, at least, scamper to drink before the water could evaporate or filter through the floor; and when they were gone there was no half-drowned crawling thing either. They had eaten it.
He clutched his rifle to him. The barrel was hot, but the feel of it gave him a sense of companionship. And then, as he lay back on the bed again, the lamp went out. He groped for it and shook it. There was no oil.
Now, what had been hot horror turned to fear that passed all understanding—to the hate that does not reason—to the cold sweat breaking on the roasted skin. Where the four walls had been there was blackness of immeasurable space. He could hear the thousand-footed cannibals of night creep nearer—driven in toward him by the dinning of the tom-toms. He felt that his bed was up above a scrambling swarm of black-legged things that fought.
He had no idea how long he lay stock-still, for fear of calling attention to himself, and hated his servant and Mahommed Gunga and all India. Once—twice—he thought he heard another sound, almost like the footfall of a man on the veranda near him. Once he thought that a man breathed within ten paces of him, and for a moment there was a distinct sensation of not being alone. He hoped it was true; he could deal with an assassin. That would be something tangible to hate and hit. Manhood came to his assistance—the spirit of the soldier that will bow to nothing that has shape; but it died away again as the creeping silence once more shut down on him.
And then the thunder of the tom-toms ceased. Then even the venomed crawlers that he knew were near him faded into nothing that really mattered, compared to the greater, stealthy horror that he knew was coming, born of the shuddersome, shut silence that ensued. There was neither air nor view—no sense of time or space—nothing but the coal-black pit of terror yawning—cold sweat in the heat, and a footfall—an undoubted footfall—followed by another one, too heavy for a man's.
Where heavy feet were there was something tangible. His veins tingled and the cold sweat dried. Excitement began to reawaken all his soldier senses, and the wish to challenge seized him—the soldierly intent to warn the unaware, which is the actual opposite of cowardice.
"Halt! Who comes there?"
He lipped the words, but his dry throat would not voice them. Before he could clear his throat or wet his lips his eye caught something lighter than the night—two things—ten—twelve paces off—two things that glowed or sheened as though there were light inside them—too big and too far apart to be owl's eyes, but singularly like them. They moved, a little sideways and toward him; and again he heard the heavy, stealthy footfall.
They stayed still then for what may have been a minute, and another sense—smell—warned him and stirred up the man in him. He had never smelled it in his life; it must have been instinct that assured him of an enemy behind the strange, unpleasant, rather musky reek that filled the room. His right hand brought the rifle to his shoulder without sound, and almost without conscious effort on his part.
He forgot the heat now and the silence and discomfort. He lay still on his side, squinting down the rifle barrel at a spot he judged was midway between a pair of eyes that glowed, and wondering where his foresight might be. It struck him all at once that it was quite impossible to see the foresight—that he must actually touch what he would hit if he would be at all sure of hitting it. He remembered, too, in that instant—as a born soldier does remember things—that in the dark an attacking enemy is probably more frightened than his foe. His father had told it him when he was a little lad afraid of bogies; he in turn had told it to the other boys at school, and they had passed it on until in that school it had become rule number one of school-boy lore—just as rule number two in all schools where the sons of soldiers go is "Take the fight to him."
He leaped from the bed, with his rifle out in front of him—white-nightshirted and unexpected—sudden enough to scare the wits out of anything that had them. He was met by a snarl. The two eyes narrowed, and then blazed. They lowered, as though their owner gathered up his weight to spring. He fired between them. The flash and the smoke blinded him; the burst of the discharge within four echoing walls deadened his cars, and he was aware of nothing but a voice beside him that said quietly: "Well done, bahadur! Thou art thy father's son!"
He dropped his rifle butt to the floor, and some one struck a light. Even then it was thirty seconds before his strained eyes grew accustomed to the flare and he could see the tiger at his feet, less than a yard away—dead, bleeding, wide-eyed, obviously taken by surprise and shot as he prepared to spring. Beside him, within a yard, Mahommed Gunga stood, with a drawn sabre in his right hand and a pistol in his left, and there were three other men standing like statues by the walls.
"How long have you been here?" demanded Cunningham.
"A half-hour, sahib."
"In case of need, sahib. That tiger killed a woman yesterday at dawn and was driven off his kill; he was not likely to be an easy mark for an untried hunter."
"Why did you enter without knocking?"
The ex-risaldar said nothing.
"I see that you have shoes on."
"The scorpions, sahib—"
"Would you be pleased, Mahommed Gunga, if I entered your house with my hat on and without knocking or without permission?"
"Be good enough to have that brute's carcass dragged out and skinned, and—ah—leave me to sleep, will you?"
Mahommed Gunga bowed, and growled an order; another man passed the order on, and the tom-tom thundering began again as a dozen villagers pattered in to take away the tiger.
"Tell them, please," commanded Cunningham, "that that racket is to cease. I want to sleep."
Again Mahommed Gunga bowed, without a smile or a tremor on his face; again a growled order was echoed and re-echoed through the dark. The drumming stopped.
"Is there oil in the bahadur's lamp?" asked Mahommed Gunga.
"Probably not," said Cunningham.
"I will command that—"
"You needn't trouble, thank you, risaldar-sahib. I sleep better in the dark. I'll be glad to see you after breakfast as usual—ah—without your shoes, unless you come in uniform. Good night."
The Rajput signed to the others and withdrew with dignity. Cunningham reloaded his rifle in the dark and lay down. Within five minutes the swinging of the punka and the squeaking of the rope resumed, but regularly this time; Mahommed Gunga had apparently unearthed a man who understood the business. Reaction, the intermittent coolth, as the mat fan swung above his face, the steady, evenly timed squeak and movement—not least, the calm of well-asserted dignity—all joined to have one way, and Chota-Cunnigan-bahadur slept, to dream of fire-eyed tigers dancing on tombstones laid on the roof of hell, and of a grandfather in full general's uniform, who said: "Well done, bahadur!"
But outside, by a remade camp-fire, Mahommed Gunga sat and chuckled to himself, and every now and then grew eloquent to the bearded men who sat beside him.
"Aie! Did you hear him reprimand me? By the beard of God's prophet, that is a man of men! So was his father! Now I will tell Alwa and the others that I bring a man to them! By the teeth of God and my own honor I will swear to it! His first tiger—he had never seen a tiger!—in the dark, and unexpected—caught by it, to all seeming, like a trapped man in a cage—no lamp—no help at hand, or so he thought until it was all over. And he ran at the tiger! And then, 'you come with your shoes on, Mahommed Gunga—why, forsooth?' Did you hear him? By the blood of Allah, we have a man to lead us!"
Now, the gist of the thing is—Be silent. Be calm. Be awake. Be on hand on the day. Be instant to heed the first note of alarm. And—precisely—exactly—Obey.
AT Howrah, while Mahommed Gunga was employing each chance circumstance to test the pluck and decision and reliability of Cunningham at almost every resting-place along the Grand Trunk Road, the armed squire he had left behind with a little handful of gold mohurs and three horses was finding time heavy on his hands.
Like his master, Ali Partab was a man of action, to whom the purlieus of a caravansary were well enough on rare occasions. He could ruffle it with the best of them; like any of his race, he could lounge with dignity and listen to the tales that hum wherever many horsemen congregate; and he was no mean raconteur—he had a tale or two to tell himself, of women and the chase and of the laugh that he, too, had flung in the teeth of fear when opportunity arose.
But each new story of the paid taletellers, who squat and drone and reach a climax, and then pass the begging bowl before they finish it—each merrily related jest brought in by members of the constantly arriving trading parties—each neigh of his three chargers—every new phase of the kaleidoscopic life he watched stirred new ambition in him to be up, and away, and doing. Many a dozen times he had to remind himself that "there had been a trust imposed."
He exercised the horses daily, riding each in turn until he was as lean and lithe and hard beneath the skin as they were. They were Mahommed Gunga's horses—he Mahommed Gunga's man; therefore, his honor was involved. He reasoned, when he took the trouble to, along the good clean feudal line that lays down clearly what service is: there is no honor, says that argument, in serving any one who is content with half a service, and the honor is the only thing that counts.