TOLD IN THE EAST
By Talbot Mundy
[[Original Book edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1920. Source of the following edition is the omnibus "Romances of India" which was a reprint of three of Talbot Mundy's novels.]]
Romances of India
By Talbot Mundy - King of the Khyber Rifles - Guns of the Gods - Told in the East
Hookum Hai.............1 For The Salt Which He Had Eaten............129 Machassan Ah............235
TOLD IN THE EAST
A Blood-red sun rested its huge disk upon a low mud wall that crested a rise to westward, and flattened at the bottom from its own weight apparently. A dozen dried-out false-acacia-trees shivered as the faintest puff in all the world of stifling wind moved through them; and a hundred thousand tiny squirrels kept up their aimless scampering in search of food that was not there.
A coppersmith was about the only living thing that seemed to care whether the sun went down or not. He seemed in a hurry to get a job done, and his reiterated "Bong-bong-bong!"—that had never ceased since sunrise, and had driven nearly mad the few humans who were there to hear it—quickened and grew louder. At last Brown came out of a square mud house, to see about the sunset.
He was nobody but plain Bill Brown—or Sergeant William Brown, to give him his full name and entitlements—and the price of him was two rupees per day.
He stared straight at the dull red disk of the sun, and spat with eloquence. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and scratched a place where the prickly heat was bothering him. Next, he buttoned up his tunic, and brushed it down neatly and precisely. There was official business to be done, and a man did that with due formality, heat or no heat.
"Guard, turn out!" he ordered.
Twelve men filed out, one behind the other, from the hut that he had left. They seemed to feel the heat more than Brown did, as they fell in line before Brown's sword. There was no flag, and no flag-pole in that nameless health-resort, so the sword, without its scabbard, was doing duty, point downward in the ground, as a totem-pole of Empire. Brown had stuck it there, like Boanerges' boots, and there it stayed from sunrise until sunset, to be displaced by whoever dared to do it, at his peril.
They had no clock. They had nothing, except the uniforms and arms of the Honorable East India Company, as issued in this year of Our Lord, 1857—a cooking-pot or two, a kettle, a little money and a butcher-knife. Their supper bleated miserably some twenty yards away, tied to a tree, and a lean. Punjabi squatted near it in readiness to buy the skin. It was a big goat, but it was mangy, so he held only two annas in his hand. The other anna (in case that Brown should prove adamant) was twisted in the folds of his pugree, but he was prepared to perjure himself a dozen times, and take the names of all his female ancestors in vain, before he produced it.
The sun flattened a little more at the bottom, and began to move quickly, as it does in India—anxious apparently to get away from the day's ill deeds.
"Shoulder umms!" commanded Brown. "General salute! Present-umms!"
The red sun slid below the sky-line, and the night was on them, as though somebody had shut the lid. Brown stepped to the sword, jerked it out of the ground and returned it to his scabbard in three motions.
"Shoulder-umms! Order-umms! Dismiss!" The men filed back into the hut again, disconsolately, without swearing and without mirth. They had put the sun to bed with proper military decency. They would have seen humor—perhaps—or an excuse for blasphemy in the omission of such a detail, but it was much too hot to swear at the execution of it.
Besides, Brown was a strange individual who detested swearing, and it was a very useful thing, and wise, to humor him. He had a way of his own, and usually got it.
Brown posted a sentry at the hut-door, and another at the crossroads which he was to guard, then went round behind the but to bargain with the goatskin-merchant. But he stopped before he reached the tree.
"Boy!" he called, and a low-caste native servant came toward him at a run.
"Is that fakir there still?"
"Ha? Can't you learn to say 'yes,' like a human being?"
"All right. I'm going to have a talk with him. Kill the goat, and tell the Punjabi to wait, if he wants to buy the skin."
Brown spun round on his heel, and the servant wilted.
"Yes, sahib!" he corrected.
Brown left him then, with a nod that conveyed remission of cardinal sin, and a warning not to repeat the offence. As the native ran off to get the butcher-knife and sharpen it, it was noticeable that he wore a chastened look.
"Send Sidiki after me!" Brown shouted after him, and a minute later a nearly naked Beluchi struck a match and emerged from the darkness, with the light of a lantern gleaming on his skin. He followed like a snake, and only Brown's sharp, authority-conveying footfalls could be heard as he trudged sturdily—straight-backed, eyes straight in front of him—to where an age-old baobab loomed like a phantom in the night. He marched like a man in armor. Not even the terrific heat of a Central-Indian night could take the stiffening out of him.
The Beluchi ran ahead, just before they reached the tree. He stopped and held the lantern up to let its light fall on some object that was close against the tree-trunk. At a good ten-pace distance from the object Brown stopped and stared. The lamplight fell on two little dots that gleamed. Brown stepped two paces nearer. Two deadly, malicious human eyes blinked once, and then stared back at him.
"Does he never sleep?" asked Brown.
The Beluchi said something or other in a language that was full of harsh hard gutturals, and the owner of the eyes chuckled. His voice seemed to be coming from the tree itself, and there was nothing of him visible except the cruel keen eyes that had not blinked once since Brown drew nearer.
"Sahib, he does not answer."
"Tell him I'm tired of his not answering. Tell him that if he can't learn to give a civil answer to a civilly put question I'll exercise my authority on him!"
The Beluchi translated, or pretended to. Brown was not sure which, for he was rewarded with nothing but another chuckle, which sounded like water gurgling down a drain.
"Does he still say nothing?"
"Absolutely nothing, sahib."
Brown stepped up closer yet, and peered into the blackness, looking straight into the eyes that glared at him, and from them down at the body of the owner of them. The Beluchi shrank away.
"Have a care, sahib! It is dangerous! This very holy—most holy—most religious man!"
"Bring that lantern back."
"He will curse you, sahib!"
"Do you hear me?"
The Beluchi came nearer again, trembling with fright. Brown snatched the lamp away from him, and pushed it forward toward the fakir, moving it up and down to get a view of the whole of him. There was nothing that he saw that would reassure or comfort or please a devil even. It was ultradevilish; both by design and accident—conceived and calculated ghastliness, peculiar to India. Brown shuddered as he looked, and it took more than the merely horrible to make him betray emotion.
"What god do you say he worships?"
"Sahib, I know not. I am a Mussulman. These Hindus worship many gods."
The fakir chuckled again, and Brown held the lantern yet nearer to him to get a better view. The fakir's skin was not oily, and for all the blanket-heat it did not glisten, so his form was barely outlined against the blackness that was all but tangible behind him.
Brown spat again, as he drew away a step. He could contrive to express more disgust and more grim determination in that one rudimentary act than even a Stamboul Softa can.
"So he's holy, is he?"
"Very, very holy, sahib!"
Again the fakir chuckled, and again Brown held his breath and pushed the lantern closer to him.
"I believe the brute understands the Queen's English!"
"He understanding all things, sahib! He knowing all things what will happen! Mind, sahib! He may curse you!"
But Brown appeared indifferent to the danger that he ran. To the fakir's unconcealed discomfort, he proceeded to examine him minutely, going over him with the aid of the lantern inch by inch, from the toe-nails upward.
"Well," he commented aloud, "if the army's got an opposite, here's it! I'd give a month's pay for the privilege of washing this brute, just as a beginning!"
The man's toe-nails—for he really was a man!—were at least two inches long. They were twisted spirally, and some of them were curled back on themselves into disgusting-looking knots. What walking he had ever done had been on his heels. His feet were bent upward, and fixed upward, by a deliberately cultivated cramp.
His legs, twisted one above the other in a squatting attitude, were lean and hairy, and covered with open sores which were kept open by the swarm of insects that infested him. His loin-cloth was rotting from him. His emaciated body—powdered and smeared with ashes and dust and worse—was perched bolt-up-right on a flat earth dais that had once on a time been the throne of a crossroads idol. One arm, his right one, hung by his side in an almost normal attitude, and his right fingers moved incessantly like a man's who is kneading clay. But his other arm was rigid—straight up in the air above his head; set, fixed, cramped, paralyzed in that position, with the fist clenched. And through the back of the closed fist the fakir's nails were growing.
But, worse than the horror of the arm was the creature's face, with the evidence of torture on it, and fiendish delight in torture for the torture's sake. His eyes were his only organs that really lived still, and they expressed the steely hate and cruelty, the mad fanaticism, the greedy self-love—self-immolating for the sake of self—that is the thoroughgoing fakir's stock in trade. And his lips were like the graven lips of a Hindu temple god, self-satisfied, self-worshiping, contemptuous and cruel. He chuckled again, as Brown finished his inspection.
"So that crittur's holy, is he? Well, tell him that I'm set here to watch these crossroads. Tell him I'm supposed to question every one who comes, and find out what his business is, and arrest him if he can't give a proper account of himself. Say he's been here three days now, and that that's long enough for any one to find his tongue in. Tell him if I don't get an answer from him here and now I'll put him in the clink!"
"You tell him what I say, d'you hear?"
The Beluchi made haste to translate, trembling as he spoke, and wilting visibly when the baleful eyes of the fakir rested on him for a second. The fakir answered something in a guttural undertone.
"What does he say?"
"That he will curse you, sahib!"
"Sentry!" shouted Brown.
"Sir!" came the ready answer, and the sling-swivels of a rifle clicked as the man on guard at the crossroads shouldered it. There are some men who are called "sir" without any title to it, just as there are some sergeants who receive a colonel's share of deference when out on a non-commissioned officer's command. Bill Brown was one of them.
"Come here, will you!"
There came the sound of heavy footfalls, and a thud as a rifle-butt descended to the earth again. Brown moved the lamp, and its beams fell on a rifleman who stood close beside him at attention—like a jinnee formed suddenly from empty blackness.
"Arrest this fakir. Cram him in the clink."
"Very good, sir!"
The sentry took one step forward, with his fixed bayonet at the "charge," and the fakir sat still and eyed him.
"Oh, have a care, sahib!" wailed the Beluchi. "This is very holy man!"
"Silence!" ordered Brown. "Here. Hold the lamp."
The bayonet-point pressed against the fakir's ribs, and he drew back an inch or two to get away from it. He was evidently able to feel pain when it was inflicted by any other than himself.
"Come on," growled the sentry. "Forward. Quick march. If you don't want two inches in you!"
"Don't use the point!" commanded Brown. "You might do him an injury. Treat him to a sample of the butt!"
The sentry swung his rifle round with an under-handed motion that all riflemen used to practise in the short-range-rifle days. The fakir winced, and gabbled something in a hurry to the man who held the lamp.
"He says that he will speak, sahib!"
"Halt, then," commanded Brown. "Order arms. Tell him to hurry up!"
The Beluchi translated, and the fakir answered him, in a voice that sounded hard and distant and emotionless.
"He says that he, too, is here to watch the crossroads, sahib! He says that he will curse you if you touch him!"
"Tell him to curse away!"
"He says not unless you touch him, sahib."
"Prog him off his perch!" commanded Brown.
The rifle leaped up at the word, and its butt landed neatly on the fakir's ribs, sending him reeling backward off his balance, but not upsetting him completely. He recovered his poise with quite astonishing activity, and shuffled himself back again to the center of the dais. His eyes blazed with hate and indignation, and his breath came now in sharp gasps that sounded like escaping steam. He needed no further invitation to commence his cursing. It burst out with a rush, and paused for better effect, and burst out again in a torrent. The Beluchi hid his face between his hands.
"Now translate that!" commanded Brown, when the fakir stopped for lack of breath.
"Sahib, I dare not! Sahib—"
Brown took a threatening step toward him, and the Beluchi changed his mind. Brown's disciplining methods were a too recently encountered fact to be outdone by a fakir's promise of any kind of not-yet-met damnation.
"Sahib, he says that because your man has touched him, both you and your man shall lie within a week helpless upon an anthill, still living, while the ants run in and out among your wounds. He says that the ants shall eat your eyes, sahib, and that you shall cry for water, and there shall be no water within reach—only the sound of water just beyond you. He says that first you shall be beaten, both of you, until your backs and the soles of your feet run blood, in order that the ants may have an entrance!"
"Is he going to do all this?"
The Beluchi passed the question on, and the fakir tossed him an answer to it.
"He says, sahib, that the gods will see to it."
"So the gods obey his orders, do they. Well, they've a queer sense of duty! What else does he prophesy?"
"About your soul, sahib, and the sentry's soul."
"That's interesting! Translate!"
"He says, sahib, that for countless centuries you and your man shall inhabit the carcasses of snakes, to eat dirt and be trodden on and crushed, until you learn to have respect for very holy persons!"
"Is he going to have the ordering of that?"
"He says that the gods have already ordered it."
"It won't make much difference, then, what I do now. If that's in store for me in any case, I may as well get my money's worth before the fun begins! Tell him that unless he can give me a satisfactory reason for being here I shall treat him to a little more rifle-butt, and something else afterward that he will like even less!"
"He says," explained the Beluchi, after a moment's conversation with the fakir, "that he is here to see what the gods have prophesied. He says that India will presently be whelmed in blood!"
"Yours and that of others. He says, did you not see the sunset?"
"What of the sunset?"
Brown looked about him and, save where the lantern cast a fitful light on the fakir and the sentry and the native servant, and threw into faint relief the shadowy, snake-like tendrils of the baobab, his eyes failed to pierce the gloom. The sunset was a memory. In that heavy, death-darkness silence it seemed almost as though there had never been a sun.
"'A blot of blood,' he says. He says the order has been given. He says that half of India shall run blood within a day, and the whole of it within a week!"
"Who gave the order?"
"He answers 'Hookum hai!'—which means 'It is an order!' Nothing more does the holy fakir say."
"To the clink with him!" commanded Brown. "I'm tired of these Old Mother Shipton babblings. That's the third useless Hindu fanatic within a week who has talked about India being drenched in blood. Let him go in to the depot under guard, and do his prophesying there! Bring him along."
The sentry's rifle-butt rose again and threatened business. The Beluchi gave a warning cry, and the fakir tumbled off his dais. Then, with the trembling Beluchi walking on ahead with the lantern, and Brown and the sentry urging from behind, the fakir jumped and squirmed and wabbled on his all but useless feet toward the guardroom. When they reached the tree where the goat had bleated, the Punjabi skin-buyer rose up, took one long look at the fakir and ran.
"Well, I'll be!" exclaimed the sentry.
"You'll be worse than that," said Brown, "if you use that language anywhere where I'm about! I'll not have it, d'you hear? Get on ahead, and open the door of the clink!"
The sentry obeyed him, and a moment later the fakir was thrust into a four-square mud-walled room, and the door was locked on him.
"Back to your post," commanded Brown. "And next time I hear you swearing, I'll treat you to a double-trick, my man! About turn. Quick march."
The sentry trudged off without daring to answer him, and Brown took a good look at the fakir through the iron bars that protected the top half of the door. Then he went off to see about his supper, of newly slaughtered goat-chops and chupatties baked in ghee. His soul revolted at the thought of it, but it was his duty to eat it and set an example to the men; and duty was the only thing that mattered in Bill Brown's scheme of things.
"Maybe it's true," he muttered, "and maybe it's all lies; there's no knowing. Maybe India's going to run blood, as these fakirs seem to think, and maybe it isn't. There'll be more blood shed than mine in that case! 'Hookum hai'—'It is orders,' heh? Well—there's more than one sort of 'Hookum hai!' I've got my orders too!"
He doubled the guard, when supper bad been eaten and the guardroom had been swept and the pots and kettle had been burnished until they shone. Then he tossed a chupatty to the imprisoned fakir, spat again from sheer disgust, lit his pipe and went and sat where he could hear the footbeats of the sentries.
"They can't help their religion," he muttered. "The poor infidels don't know no better. And they've got a right to think what they please 'about me or the Company. But I've no patience with uncleanliness! That's wrong any way you look at it. That critter can't see straight for the dirt on him, nor think straight for that matter. He's a disgrace to humanity. Priest or fakir or whatever he is, if I live to see tomorrow's sun I'll hand him over to the guard and have him washed!"
Having formed that resolution, Brown dismissed all thoughts of the fakir. His memory went back to home—the clean white cottage on the Sussex Downs, and the clean white girl who once on a time had waited for him there. For the next few hours, until the guard was changed, the only signs or sounds of life were the glowing of Brown's pipe, the steady footfalls of the sentries and occasional creakings from the hell-hot guard-room, where sleepless soldiers tossed in prickly discomfort.
Bill Brown, with his twelve, had not been set to watch a lonely crossroad for the fun of it. One road was a well-made highway, and led from a walled city, where three thousand men sweated and thought of England, to another city, where five thousand armed natives drew England's pay, and wore English uniforms.
The other road was a snake-like trail, nearly as wide but not nearly so well kept. It twisted here and there amid countless swarming native villages, and was used almost exclusively by natives, whose rightful business was neither war nor peace nor the contriving of either of them. It had been a trade-road when history was being born, and the laden ox-carts creaked along it still, as they had always done and always will do until India awakes.
But there are few men in the world who attend to nothing but their rightful business, and there are even more in India than elsewhere who are prone to neglect their own affairs and stir up sedition among others. There are few fighting-men among that host. They are priests for the most part or fakirs or make-believe pedlers or confessed and shameless mendicants; and they have no liking for the trunk roads, where the tangible evidence of Might and Majesty may be seen marching in eight-hundred-man battalions. They prefer to dream along the byways, and set other people dreaming. They lead, when the crash comes, from behind.
Though the men who made the policies of the Honorable East India Company were mostly blind to the moving finger on the wall, and chose to imagine themselves secure against a rising of the millions they controlled; and though most of their military officers were blinder yet, and failed to read the temper of the native troops in their immediate command, still, there were other men who found themselves groping, at least two years before the Mutiny of '57. They were groping for something intangible and noiseless and threatening which they felt was there in a darkness, but which one could not see.
Baines was one of them—Lieutenant-General Baines, commanding at Bholat. His troops were in the center of a spider's web of roads that criss-crossed and drained a province. There were big trunk arteries, which took the flow of life from city to walled city, and a mass of winding veins in the shape of grass-grown country tracks. He could feel, if any man could, the first faint signs of fever rising, and he was placed where he could move swiftly, and cut deep in the right spot, should the knife be needed.
He was like a surgeon, though, who holds a lancet and can use it, but who lacks permission. The poison in India's system lay deep, and the fever was slow in showing itself. And meanwhile the men who had the ordering of things could see neither necessity nor excuse for so much as a parade of strength. They refused, point-blank and absolutely, to admit that there was, or, could be, any symptom of unrest.
He dared not make new posts for officers, for officers would grumble at enforced exile in the country districts, and the Government would get to hear of it, and countermand. But there were non-commissioned officers in plenty, and it was not difficult to choose the best of them—three men—and send them, with minute detachments, to three different points of vantage. Non-commissioned officers don't grumble, or if they do no one gets to hear of it, or minds. And they are just as good as officers at watching crossroads and reporting what they see and hear.
So where a little cluster of mud huts ached in the heat of a right angle where the trunk road crossed a native road some seventy miles from Bholat, Bill Brown—swordsman and sergeant and strictest of martinets, as well as sentimentalist—had been set to watch and listen and report.
There were many cleverer men in the non-commissioned ranks of Baine's command, many who knew more of the native languages, and who had more imagination. But there was none who knew better how to win the unqualified respect and the obedience of British and native alike, or who could be better counted on to obey an order, when it came, literally, promptly and in the teeth of anything.
Brown's theories on religion were a thing to marvel at, and walk singularly wide of, for he was a preacher with a pair of fists when thoroughly aroused. And his devotion to a girl in England whom no one in his regiment had ever seen, and of whom he did not even possess a likeness, was next door to being pitiable. His voice was like a raven's, with something rather less than a raven's sense of melody; he was very prone to sing, and his songs were mournful ones. He was not a social acquisition in any generally accepted sense, although his language was completely free from blasphemy or coarseness. His ideas were too cut and dried to make conversation even interesting. But his loyalty and his sense of duty were as adamant.
He had changed the double guard at the crossroads; and had posted two fresh men by the mud-walled guardroom door. He had lit his pipe for the dozenth time, and had let it go out again while he hummed a verse of a Covenanters' hymn. And he had just started up to wall over to the cell and make a cursory inspection of his prisoner, when his ears caught a distant sound that was different from any of the night sounds, though scarcely louder.
Prompt as a rifle in answer to the trigger, he threw himself down on all fours, and laid his ear to the ground. A second later, he was on his feet again.
"Guard!" he yelled. "Turn out!"
Cots squeaked and jumped, and there came a rush of hurrying feet. The eight men not on watch ran out in single file, still buttoning their uniforms, and lined up beside the two who watched the guardroom door.
"Stand easy!" commanded Brown. Then he marched off to the crossroads, finding his way in the blackness more by instinct and sense of direction than from any landmark, for even the road beneath his feet was barely visible.
"D'you mean to tell me that neither of you men can hear that sound?" he asked the sentries.
Both men listened intently, and presently one of them made out a very faint and distant noise, that did not seem to blend in with the other night-sounds.
"Might be a native drum?" he hazarded.
"No, 'tain't!" said the other. "I got it now. It's a horse galloping. Tired horse, by the sound of him, and coming this way. All right, Sergeant."
"One of you go two hundred yards along the road, and form an advance-post, so to speak. Challenge him the minute he's within ear-shot, and shoot him if he won't halt. If he halts, pass him along to Number Two. Number Two, pass him along to the guardroom, where I'll deal with him! Which of you's Number One? Number One, then—forward—quick—march!"
The sentry trudged off in one direction, and Bill Brown in another. The sentry concealed itself behind a rock that flanked the road, and Brown spent the next few minutes in making the guard "port arms," and carefully inspecting their weapons with the aid of a lantern. He had already inspected there once since supper, but he knew the effect that another inspection would be likely to produce. Nothing goes further toward making men careful and ready at the word than incessant and unexpected but quite quietly performed inspection of minutest details.
He produced the effect of setting the men on the qui vive without alarming them.
Suddenly, the farthest advanced sentry's challenge rang out.
"Frie-e-e-e-nd!" came the answer, in nasal, high-pitched wail, but the galloping continued.
"Halt, I tell you!" A breech-bolt clicked, and then another one. They were little sounds, but they were different, and the guard could hear them plainly. The galloping horse came on.
"Cra-a-a-a-ack!" went the sentry's rifle, and the flash of it spurted for an instant across the road, like a sheet of lightning. And, just as lightning might, it showed an instantaneous vision of a tired gray horse, foam-flecked and furiously ridden, pounding down the road head-on. The vision was blotted by the night again before any one could see who rode the horse, or what his weapons were—if any—or form a theory as to why he rode.
But the winging bullet did what the sentry's voice had failed to do. There came a clatter of spasmodic hoof-beats, an erratic shower of sparks, a curse in clean-lipped decent Urdu; a grunt, a struggle, more sparks again, and then a thud, followed by a devoutly worded prayer that Allah, the all-wise provider of just penalties, might blast the universe.
"Stop talkin'!" said the sentry, and a black-bearded Rajput rolled free, and looked up to find a bayonet-point within three inches of his eye.
"Poggul!" snarled the Mohammedan.
"Poggul's no password!" said the sentry. "Neither to my good-nature nor to nothing else. Put up your 'ands, and get on your feet, and march! Look alive, now! Call me a fool, would yer? Wait till the sergeant's through with yer, and see!"
The Rajput chose to consider a retort beneath his dignity. He rose, and took one quick look at the horse, which was still breathing.
"Your bayonet just there," he said, "and press. So he will die quickly."
The sentry placed his bayonet-point exactly where directed, and leaned his weight above it. The horse gave a little shudder, and lay still.
"Poggul!" said the Rajput once again. And this time the sentry looked and saw cold steel within three inches of his eye!
"Your rifle!" said the Rajput. "Hand it here!"
And, to save his eyesight, the sentry complied, while the Rajput's ivory-white teeth grinned at him pleasantly.
"Now, hands to your sides! Attention! March!" the Rajput ordered, and with his own bayonet at his back the sentry had to march, whether he wanted to or not, by the route that the other chose, toward the guardroom. The Rajput seemed to know by instinct where the second sentry stood although the man's shape was quite invisible against the night. He called out, "Friend!" again as he passed him, and the sentry hearing the first sentry's footsteps, imagined that the real situation was reversed.
So, out of a pall of blackness, to the accompanying sound of rifles being brought up to the shoulder, a British sentry—feeling and looking precisely like a fool—marched up to his own guardroom, with a man who should have been his prisoner in charge of him.
"Halt!" commanded Brown. "Who or what have you got there, Stanley?"
"Stanley is my prisoner at present!" said a voice that Brown vaguely recognized.
He stepped up closer, to make sure.
"What, you? Juggut Khan!"
"Aye, Brown sahib! Juggut Khan—with tidings, and a dead gray horse on which to bear them! If this fool could only use his bayonet as he can shoot, I think I would be dead too. His brains, though, are all behind his right eye. Tie him up, where no little child can come and make him prisoner!"
"Arrest that man!" commanded Brown, and two men detached themselves from the end of the guard, and stood him between them, behind the line.
"Here's his rifle!" smiled Juggut Khan, and Brown received it with an ill grace.
"How did you get past the other sentry?" he asked.
"Oh, easily! You English are only brave; you have no brains. Sometimes one part of the rule is broken, but the other never. You are not always brave!"
"I suppose you're angry because he killed your horse?"
"I am angry, Brown sahib, for greater happenings than that! The man conceivably was right, since I did not halt for him, and I suppose he had his orders. I am angry because the standard of rebellion is raised, and because of what it means to me!"
"Are you drunk, Juggut Khan?"
"Your honor is pleased to be humorous? No, I am not drunk. Nor have I eaten opium. I have eaten of the bread of bitterness this day, and drunk of the cup of gall. I have seen British officers—good, brave fools, some of whom I knew and loved—killed by the men they were supposed to lead. I have seen a barracks burning, and a city given over to be looted. I have seen white women—nay, sahib, steady!—I have seen them run before a howling mob, and I have seen certain of them shot by their own husbands!"
"Quietly!" ordered Brown. "Don't let the men hear!"
"One of them I slew myself, because her husband, who was wounded, sent me to her and bade me kill her. She died bravely. And certain others I have hidden where the mutineers are not likely to discover them at present. I ride now for succor—or, I rode, rather, until your expert marksman interfered with me! I now need another horse."
"You mean that the native troops have mutinied?" "I mean rather more than that, sahib. Mohammedans and Hindus are as one, and the crowd is with them. This is probably the end of the powder-train, for, from what I heard shouted by the mutineers, almost the whole of India is in revolt already!"
"God knows, sahib! The reason given is that the cartridges supplied are greased with the blended fat of pigs and cows, thus defiling both Hindu and Mohammedan alike. But, if you ask me, the cause lies deeper. In the meantime, the rebels have looted Jailpore and burned their barracks, and within an hour or two they will start along this road for Bholat, which they have a mind to loot likewise. My advice to you is retire at once. Get me another horse from somewhere, that I may carry warning. Then follow me as fast as you and your men can move."
"Bah!" said Brown. "They'll find General Baines to deal with them at Bholat."
"Who knows yet how many in Bholat have not risen? Are you positive that the garrison there has not already been surrounded by rebels? I am not! I would not be at all surprised to learn that General Baines is so busy defending himself that he can not move in any direction. And—does your honor mean to hold this guardroom here against five thousand?"
"I mean to obey my orders!" answered Brown.
"And your orders are?"
"Would they preclude the provision of another horse for me?"
"There's a village about a mile away, down over yonder, where I think you'll find a decent horse—along that road there."
"And your honor's orders would possibly permit a certain payment for the horse?"
"Positively not!" said Brown.
"To seize a horse, for military use, under the spur of necessity, and after giving a receipt for it, would be in order."
"So I am to spend the night wandering around the countryside, in a vain endeavor to—"
But Brown was doing mathematics in his head. Two men to guard prisoners, two on guard at the crossroads, two at the guardroom door—six from twelve left six, and six were not enough to rape a countryside.
"Guard!" he ordered. "Release that prisoner. Now, you Stanley, let this be a lesson to you, and remember that I only set you free because I'd have been short-handed otherwise. Number One! Stand guard between the clink and the guardroom door. Keep an eye on both. The remainder—form two-deep. Right turn! By the left, quick-march! Left wheel!... Now," he said, turning to Juggut Khan, "if you'll come along I'll soon get a horse for you!"
The Rajput strode along beside him, and gave him some additional information as they went, Brown taking very good care all the time to keep out of earshot of the men and to speak to Juggut Khan in low tones. He learned, among other things, that Juggut Khan had lost every anna that he owned, and had only escaped with his life by dint of luck and swordship and most terrific riding.
"Are all of you Rajputs loyal?" asked Brown.
"I know not. I know that I myself shall stay loyal until the end!"
"Well—the end is not in doubt. There can only be one end!" commented Brown.
"Of a truth, sahib, I believe that you are right. There can only be one end. This night is not more black, this horizon is no shorter, than the outlook!"
"Then, you mean—"
"I mean, sahib, that this uprising is more serious than you—or any other Englishman—is likely to believe. I believe that the side I fight for will be the losing side."
"And yet, you stay loyal?"
"All the same, Juggut Khan—I'm not emotional, or a man of many words. I don't trust Indians as a rule! I—but—here—will you shake hands?"
"Certainly, sahib!" said the Rajput. "We be two men, you and I! Why should the one be loyal and the other not?"
"When this is over," said Brown, "if it ends the way we want, and we're both alive, I'd like to call myself your friend!"
"I have always been your friend, sahib, and you mine, since the day when you bandaged up a boy and gave him your own drinking-water and carried him in to Bholat on your shoulder, twenty miles or more."
"Oh, as for that—any other man would have done the same thing. That was nothing!"
"Strange that when a white man does an honorable deed he lies about it!" said Juggut Khan. "That was not nothing, sahib, and you know it was not nothing! You know that from the heat and the exertion you were ill for more than a month afterward. And you know that there were others there, of my own people, who might have done what you did, and did not!"
"But, hang it all! Why drag up a little thing like this?"
"Because, sahib, I might have no other opportunity, and—"
"Well? And what?"
"And the Rajput boy whom you carried was my son!"
The finding of a remount for Juggut Khan was not so troublesome as might have been supposed. The rumors and plans and whispered orders for the coming struggle had been passed around the countryside for months past, and every man who owned a horse had it stalled safely near him, for use when the hour should come.
There were country-ponies and Arabs and Kathiawaris and Khaubulis among which to pick, and though the average run of them was worse than merely bad, and though both best and worst were hidden away whenever possible, good horses were discoverable. Within an hour, Bill Brown; with the aid of his men, had routed out a Khaubuji stallion for Juggut Khan, one fit to carry him against time the whole of the way to Bholat.
The Rajput mounted him where Brown unearthed him, and watched the signing of a scribbled-out receipt with a cynical smile.
"If he comes to claim his money for the horse," said Juggut Khan, "I—even I, who am penniless—will pay him. Good-by, Brown sahib!" He leaned over and grasped the sergeant by the hand. "Take my advice, now. I know what is happening and what has happened. Fall back on Bholat at once. Hurry! Seize horses or even asses for your men, and ride in hotfoot. Salaam!"
He drove his right spur in, wheeled the horse and started across country in the direction of Bholat at a hand-gallop, guiding himself solely by the soldier's sixth sense of direction, and leaving the problem of possible pitfalls to the horse.
"If what he says is true," said Brown, as the clattering hoof-beats died away, "and I'm game to take my oath he wouldn't lie to me, I'd give more than a little to have him with me for the next few hours!"
The men came clustering round him now, anxious for an explanation. They had held their tongues while Juggut Khan was there, because they happened to know Brown too well to do otherwise. He would have snubbed any man who dared to question him before the Indian. But, now that the Indian was gone, curiosity could stay no longer within bounds.
"What is it, Sergeant? Anything been happening? What's the news? What's that I heard him say about rebellion? They're a rum lot, them Rajputs. D'you think he's square? Tell us, Sergeant!"
"Listen, then. Rebellion has broken out. The native barracks at Jailpore have been burned, and all the English officers are killed—or so says Juggut Khan. He's riding on, to carry the news to General Baines. He says that the mutineers are planning to come along this way some time within the next few hours!"
"What are we going to do, then?"
"That's my business! I'm in command here!"
"Yes, but, Sergeant—aren't you going back to Bholat? Aren't you going to follow him? Are you going to stay here and get cut up? We'll get caught here like rats in a trap!"
"Are you giving orders here?" asked Brown acidly. "Fall in! Come on, now! Hurry! 'Tshun—eyes right—ri'—dress. Eyes—front. Ri'—turn. By the left—quick—march! Silence, now! Left! Left! Left!"
He marched them back toward the crossroads without giving them any further opportunity to remonstrate or ask for information.
It was not until he reached the crossroads, without being challenged, that he showed any sign of being in any way disturbed.
"Sentry!" he shouted. "Sentry!"
But there was no answer.
"Halt!" he ordered, and he himself went forward to investigate. The blackness swallowed him, but the men could hear him move, and they heard him fall. They heard him muttering, too, within ten paces of them. Then they heard his order.
"Bring a light here, some one."
One man produced a piece of candle, struck a match and lit it. A moment later they had all broken order, and were standing huddled up together like a frightened flock of sheep, peering through dancing, candle-lit shadows at something horrible that Brown was handling.
"What is it, Sergeant?"
"What in hell's happened?"
"Who was that swearing?" inquired Brown, with a sudden look up across his shoulder. "You, Taylor? You again? Swearing in the presence of death? Talking of hell, with your two comrades lying dead at the crossroads, and you like to follow both o' them at any minute?"
Both of the guards lay dead. They lay quite neatly, side by side, without a sign about them to show that they had met with violence. Brown rolled one body over, though, and then the cause of death became more obvious. A stream of blood welled out of the man's back, from between the shoulder-blades—warm blood, that had not even started to coagulate.
"They've been dead about three minutes!" commented Brown, rising, and wiping his hands in the road-dust to get the blood off them. "Pick 'em up. Carefully, now! Frog-march 'em, face-downwards. That's better! Now, forward. Quick, march!"
The procession advanced toward the guardhouse in grim silence, and once again there was no challenge when there should have been. The lamp was still burning in the guardroom, for they could see it plainly as they drew nearer, but there was no noise of a sentry's footfalls, or hoarse "Halt!" and "Who comes there?"
Nor was there any sign yet of the man whom Brown had left to guard both "clink" and guardroom. Brown let them take their dead comrades into the guardroom first, then set two fresh guards at the door, and covered up the bodies with a sheet before commencing to investigate.
He started off toward the cell where he had imprisoned the fakir. He went by himself, and no one volunteered to go with him.
He had gone five yards when the second explanation met his eyes. This time there was no need to stoop down, nor to turn any body over. The sentry whom he had left to guard both cell and guardroom stood bolt upright, with his mouth and his eyes wide open; skewered to the wall of the guardhouse by an iron spike, which pierced his chest.
"A lamp and four men here!" ordered Brown, without waiting to let the horror of the sight sink in. "Take that poor chap down, and lay him in the guardroom beside the others. How? How should I know? Pull it out, or break it off—I don't care which; don't leave him there, that's all."
He walked on toward the cell-door, while they labored, and fingered gingerly around the spike, which must have been driven through the sentry's chest with a hammer.
"I thought as much!" he muttered. And, though he had not thought as much, he might have done so. "I knew that a man who could maim his own body in that way was capable of any crime in the calendar!"
The door of the cell stood open, and there was no sign of any fakir, or of any one who might have helped him go—nothing but an empty cell, with the haunting smell of the fakir still abiding in it.
Bill Brown spat, and closed the cell-door.
"I'm thinking that Juggut Khan told nothing but the truth," he muttered. "Things look right, don't they, if that's so! Obey, Obey! I'd have liked to see England just once again—I would indeed. If I could only see her just once. If I'd a letter from her, or her picture. This is a rotten, rat-in-a-hole, lonely, uncreditable way to die! I wish Juggut Khan were here. I'd have somebody to help me keep my good courage up in that case."
The lock on the cell-door was broken, so he only closed it, then started back toward the guardroom.
"Three rifles, and three ammunition pouches gone!" he muttered. "That's three weapons they've got, in any case. A hornet's nest'd be better stopping in than this place."
He overtook the men who were carrying in the nail-killed sentry, and he saw that their faces were drawn and white. So were those of the other men, who were clustered in the guardroom door.
"What next, Sergeant? Hadn't we better be quick? Why not burn the place? That'd do instead o' buryin' the dead ones, and it'd give us a light to get away by. Might serve as a beacon, too. Might fetch assistance!"
It was evident that panic had set in.
"Fall in!" commanded Brown, and his straight back took on a curve that meant straightness to the nth power.
"'Tshun! Ri'—dress! Eyes—front!"
He glared at them for just about one minute before he spoke, and during that minute each man there realized that what was coming would be quite irrevocable.
"I'm sergeant here. My orders are to hold this post until relieved. Therefore—and I hope there's no man here holds any other notion; I hope it for his own sake!—until we are relieved, we're going to hold it! Moreover, this command is going to be a real command, from now on. It's going to buck up. I'm going to put some ginger in it. There are three dead men here to be avenged, and I'm going to avenge 'em, or make you do it! And if any man imagines he's going to help himself by feeling afraid, let me assure him that the only thing he needs to fear is me! I've a right to command men—I know how—I intend to do it. And if I've got to make men first out of whey-faced cowards, why, I'm game to do it, and this is just where I begin! Now! Anybody got a word to say?"
There was grim silence.
"Good! I'll assume, then, until I'm contradicted, that you're all brave men. Into the guardroom with you!"
"Sahib! Sahib!" said a voice beside him.
It was the Beluchi interpreter who had carried the lamp for him that evening when he arrested the fakir.
"Run, sahib! It is time to run away!"
"Go on, then! Why don't you run?"
"I am afraid, sahib."
"Of the men who slew the soldiers. Sahib! Remember what the fakir said. You will be pegged out on an anthill, sahib, when you have been beaten. Run, while there is yet time!"
"Did you see them kill my men?"
"How was that?"
"I ran away and hid, sahib."
"How many were there?"
"Very many. The Punjabi skin-buyer brought them."
"He did, did he? Very well! Did he go off with the fakir?"
"I think he did. I did not see."
"Well, we'll suppose he did, then. And when the day breaks; we'll suppose that we can find him, and we'll go in search of him, and I wouldn't like to be that Punjabi when I do find him! Get into the guard-room, and wait in there until I give you leave to stir."
An Indian city that has yet to have its mysterie's laid bare and banished by electric light is a stage deliberately set for massacre. The bazaars run criss-crosswise; any way at all save parallel, and anyhow but straight. Between them lies always a maze of passages, and alleys, deep sided, narrow, overhung by trellised windows and loopholed walls and guarded stairways.
For every square inch where the sun can shine there are a hundred where a man could hide unseen. Through century piled on suspicious century, no designer, no architect, no builder has neglected to provide a means of secret ingress, and still more secret egress, to each new house. And the newest house is built on secret passages that hid conspirators against the kings of men who lived before the oldest house was thought of.
After the Mutiny of '57 came broader roads—so that a cannon might be trained along them.
But in '57, Jailpore was a nest of winding alley-ways and blind bat and rat holes, where weird smells and strange unlisted poisons and prophecies were born. In its midst, tight-packed in a roaring babel-din of many-colored markets, stood a stone-walled palace, built once by a Hindu king to commemorate a victory over Moslems, added to by a Moslem Nizam, to celebrate his conquest of the Hindus and added to once again by the Honorable East India Company, to make a suitable barracks for its native troops.
From the rat-infested slums, from the hot shadows and the mazy back-bazaars, from temples, store-houses, shops, and from the sin-steeped underworld, there screamed and surged and swept the many-graded, many-minded polyglot rebellion-spume. A quarter of a million underdogs had turned against their masters. A hundred factions and as many more religions, all had one common end in view—to loot. All were agreed on one thing—that the first stage of the game must be to turn Jailpore and, after Jailpore, India, into a charnel-house.
Around and around the burning palace the mob screamed and swept uncontrolled. Moslem looted Hindu, and Hindu Moslem. Armed sepoys, with the blood of their British officers fresh-soaked on their British uniforms, and the unspent pay of "John Company" still jingling in their pockets, danced weird, wild devil-dances through the streets, clearing their way, when they saw fit, with cold steel or wanton volleys. Women screamed. Caste looted caste. Loose horses galloped madly through the streets. Here and there a pitched battle raged, where a merchant who had wealth had also courage, and apprentices and friends to help him defend his store.
And through all the din and clamor, under and above the howling and the volleys and the roar of flames, sounded the steady thumping of the sacred war-drums. The whole sky glowed red. The Indian night was scorched and smoked and lit by arson. Hell screamed with the cooking of red mutiny, and throbbed with the thunder of the sacred temple-drums. And that was only one of the hells, and a small one. India glowed red that night from end to end!
Juggut Khan, free-lance Rajput and gentleman of fortune, had ridden out of that caldron of Jailpore. His house was a heap of glowing ashes, and his goods were tossed for and distributed among a company. But his mark lay indelibly impressed upon the town. There were three European women and a child who were nowhere to be found; and there was a trail that led from somewhere near the palace to the western gate. It was a red trail.
In one spot lay a sepoy pierced through by a lance, and with half of the lance-shaft still standing upright in him. That had been bad art—sheer playing to the gallery! Juggut Khan had run him through and tried to lift him on the lance-end for a trophy. It was luck that saved the day for him that time, not swordsmanship.
But a man who has done what he had done that day may be forgiven. There lay nine other men behind him where his lance was left, and each of them lay face upward with a round red hole in his anatomy where the lance had entered.
And from the point where he had broken his lance and left it, up to where a self-appointed guard had refused at first to open the city gate for him, there was a trail that did honor to the man who taught him swordsmanship. One man lay headless, and another's head was only part of him, because the sword had split it down the middle and the two halves were still joined together at the neck.
There were men who claimed afterward that of the twenty-three who lay between his lance-shaft and the city gate, some five or six had been slain in brawls and looting forays. And Juggut Khan was never known to discuss the matter. But the fact remains that every man of them was killed by the blade or point of a cavalry-saber, and that Juggut Khan broke out of the place untouched.
And another fact worthy of record is, that underneath a stone floor, in a building that was partly powder-magazine-surrounded at every end and side by mutineers who searched for them, and very nearly stifled by the dust of decaying ages—there lay three women and a child, with a jar of water close beside them and a sack of hastily collected things to eat. They lay there in all but furnace-heat, close-huddled in the darkness, and they shuddered and sobbed and blessed Juggut Khan alternately. Below them the whispering echoes sighed mysteriously through a maze of tunnels. Around them, and around their sack of food, the rats scampered. Above them, where a ten-ton stone trapdoor lay closed over their heads, black powder stood in heaps and sacks and barrels. Closing the trapdoor had been easy. One pushed it and it fell. Not all the mutineers in Jailpore nor Juggut Khan nor any one could open it again without the secret. And no man living knew the secret. The three women and the child were safe from immediate intrusion!
Those three women and that child were not so exceptionally placed for India, of that date. Two of the women had seen their husbands slain that afternoon, before their eyes. They were mother and daughter and grandson; and the fourth was an English nurse, red-cheeked still from the kiss of English Channel breezes.
"If only Bill were here!" the nurse wailed. "I know he'd find a way out. There wasn't never nothing nowhere that beat Bill. Bill wouldn't ha' left us! Bill'd ha' took us out o' here, an' saved our lives. Bill—snnff, snnff—Bill wouldn't ha'—snnff, snnff—shoved us in a rat-hole and took hisself off!"
She had not yet lost her English point of view. She still believed that the strong right arm of an English lover could play ducks and drakes with Destiny. One-half of the world, at least, still swears that she was wrong, and her mistress and the other woman thought her despicable, ridiculous, unenlightened. It was a hardship to them, to be endured with dignity and patience, but none the less a hardship, that they should be left and should have to die with this woman of the Ranks Below to keep them company. She was an honest woman, or they would never have engaged her and paid her passage all the way to India. But she was not of their jat, and she was a fool. It happens, however, that her point of view saved England for the English, and that the other point of view had brought England to the brink of utter ruin.
"If you'd leave off talking about your truly tiresome lover, and would pray to God, Jane," said Mrs. Leslie, "the rest of us might have a chance to pray to God too! This isn't the time, let me tell you, to be thinking of carnal love-affairs. Recall your sins, one by one, and ask forgiveness for them."
In the gloom of the vault, poor Jane was quite invisible. The sound of her snuffling and sobs was the only clue to her direction. But her bridling was a thing that could be felt through the stuffy blackness, and there was a ring in her retort that gave the lie to the tears that she was shedding.
"The only sin I ask forgiveness for," she answered in a level voice, "is having let Bill come to India alone. Pray to God, is it? Go on! Pray! If Bill was here, he'd start on that stone door without no words nor argument, unless some one tried to stop him. Then there'd be an argument! And he'd get it open too. Bill's the kind that does his prayin' afterward, and God helps men like Bill!"
"Well—I'm afraid that your Bill isn't here, and can't get here. So the best thing that you can do is to pray and let us pray."
"I'll pray for Bill!" said Jane defiantly. "Bill don't know that I'm in India, and he surely doesn't know I'm here. But if he knew—Oh, God! Let him know! Tell him! He'd come so quick. He'd—snnff, snnff—he'd—why, he'd ha' been here long ago! Dear God, tell Bill I'm here, that's all!"
General Baines was in a position to be envied. No soldier worthy of his salt is other than elated at the thought of war. Now for the proving of his theories. Now for the fruit of all his tireless preaching and inspection and preparing—the planned, pegged-out swoop to victory!
He knew—as few men in India knew—the length and the breadth of what was coming. And when two of his non-commissioned officers sent in word that the whole country was ablaze, he realized, as few other men did in that minute, that this was no local outbreak. The long-threatened holocaust had come, and he had to act, to smite, to strike sure and swift at the festering root of things, or Central India was lost.
But his hands were tied still. He knew. He could see. He could feel. He could hear. But he had his orders. That very morning they had been repeated to him, and with emphasis. In a letter from the Council he had been told that "slight disturbances, of a purely local character, were not without the bounds of possibility, due partly to religious unrest and partly to local causes. Under no circumstances were any extended reprisals to be undertaken until further orders, and generals commanding districts were required to keep the bulk of their commands within cantonments."
The countryside was up. All India probably was up. His own men, set by himself to watch with one definite idea, had confirmed his worst fears. And he was under orders to stay with the bulk of his command in Bholat! Corked up in cantonments, with three thousand first-class fighting-men squealing for trouble, and red rebellion running riot all around him though it might be quelled by instant action!
And then worse happened. Juggut Khan clattered in to Bholat, spurring a horse that was so spent it could barely keep its feet. It fell in a woeful heap outside the general's quarters, and Juggut Khan—all but as weary as the horse—swung himself free, staggered past the sentry at the door and rapped with his hilt on the tough teak panel. They had to give him brandy and feed him before he could summon strength enough to tell what he had seen and heard and done.
"And Brown stayed on at the crossroads?"
"Aye, General sahib! He stayed!"
The general sat back and drummed his heels together on the floor in a way that his aides had come to recognize as meaning trouble.
"You say that all of the European officers in Jailpore have been killed?"
"I did not count. I did not even know them all by mine or sight. I think, though, that all were killed. I heard men among the mutineers declare that all had been accounted for, save only three women and a child, and me. Those four I myself had hidden, and as for myself—I too was accounted for, and not without credit to the Raj for whom I fight!"
"I believe you, Juggut Khan! Did you have to cut your way out?"
The Rajput smiled.
"There was a message to deliver, sahib! What would you? Should I have waited while they arrested me?"
"Oh! You managed to evade them, did you?"
"At least I am here, sahib!"
The general chewed at his mustache, leaned his chair back against the wall and tapped at his boot with a riding-cane.
"Tell me, Juggut Khan," he said after another minute's thought, "what is your idea? Is this sporadic? Is this a local outbreak? Will this die down, if left to burn itself out?"
The Rajput laughed aloud.
"'Sporadic,"' he answered, "is a word of which I have yet to learn the meaning. If 'sporadic' means rebellion from Peshawur to Cape Cormorin—revolution, rape, massacre, arson, high treason, torture, death to every European and every half-breed and every loyal native north, south, east and west—then, yes, General sahib, 'sporadic' would be the proper word. If your Honor should mean less than that, then some other word is needed!"
"Then you confirm my own opinion. You are inclined to think that this is an organized and country-wide rebellion?"
"I know of what I speak, sahib!"
"You don't think that you are being influenced in your opinion by the fact that you have seen a massacre, and have lost everything you had?"
"Nay, sahib! This is no hour for joking, or for bearing of false tidings. I tell you, up, sahib! Boots and saddles! Strike!"
The general chewed at his mustache another minute.
"You know this province well?" he asked.
"None better than I. I have traversed every yard of it, attending to my business."
"And your business is?"
"Each to his trade, sahib. My trade is honorable."
"I have good reasons for asking, and no impertinence is meant. Be good enough to tell me. I wish to know what value I may place on your opinion."
"Sahib, I am a full sergeant of the Rajput Horse retired. I bear one medal."
"I sell charms, sahib."
"What sort of charms?"
"All sorts. But principally charms against the evil eye, and the red sickness, and death by violence. But, also love-charms now and then, and now and then a death-charm to a man who has an enemy and lacks swordsmanship or courage. I trade with each and every man, sahib, and listen to the talk of each, and hold my tongue!"
"Strange trade for a soldier, isn't it?"
"Would you have me a robber, sahib? Or shall I sweep the streets—I, who have led a troop before now? Nay, sahib! A soldier can fight, and can do little else. When the day comes that the Raj has no more need of him—or thinks that it has no more need of him—he must either starve or become a prophet. And his own home is no place for a prophet who would turn his prophesying into silver coin!"
"Ah! Well-now, tell me! What is your opinion, without reference to what anybody else may think? You have just seen the massacre at Jailpore, and you know how many men I have here. And you know the condition of the road and the number of the mutineers. Would you, if you were in my place, strike at Jailpore immediately?"
"Nay, sahib. That I would not. I would strike north. And I would strike so swiftly that the mutineers would wonder whence I came. In Jailpore, all is over. They have done the harm, and they are in charge there. They have the powder-magazine in their possession, and the stands of arms, and the first advantage. Leave them there, then, sahib, and strike where you are not expected. In Jailpore you would be out of touch. You would have just that many more miles to march when the time comes—and it has come, sahib!—to join forces with the next command, and hit hard at the heart of things."
"And the heart of things is—"
"You display a quite amazing knowledge of the game."
"I am a soldier, sahib!"
"You would leave Jailpore, then, to its fate?"
"Jailpore has already met its fate, sahib. The barracks are afire, and the city has been given over to be looted. Reckon no more with Jailpore! Reckon only of the others. Listen, sahib! Has any message come from the next command? No? Then why? Think you that even a local outbreak could occur without some message being sent to you, and to the next division south of you? Why has no message come? Where is the next command? The next command north? Harumpore? Then why is there no news from Harumpore? I will tell you, sahib."
"You mean, I suppose, that the country is up, in between?"
"You know that it is up, sahib!"
"You think that no message could get through to me?"
"I know that it could not! Else had one already come. My advice to you, sahib, as one soldier to another and tendered with all respect, is to up and leave this Bholat. Here, of what use are you? Here you can hold a small city, until the countryside has time to rise and lay siege to you and hem you in! Outside of here, you can be a hornet-storm! They will burn Bholat behind you. Let them! Let them, too, pay the price. Swoop down on Harumpore, sahib—join there with Kendrick sahib's command. There make a fresh plan, and swoop down on some other place. But move, quickly, and keep on moving! And waste no time on places that are already lost."
"Then you would have me leave those women and that child, that you tell me of to their fate?"
"Nay, sahib! I am not of your command. I have done my duty to the Raj, and I now go about my own business."
"And that is?"
"To repay a debt that I owe the Raj, sahib!"
"Your answers are rather unnecessarily evasive, Juggut Khan. Be good enough to explain yourself!"
"I ride back to Jailpore, sahib. I would have stayed there, but it seemed right and soldierly to bring through the news first. Now, I return to do what I may to rescue those whom I hid there. I owe that to the Raj!"
"You mean that you will ride alone?"
"At least half of the distance, sahib. I had a favor to ask."
"Are you marching north, sahib?"
"I have not determined yet."
"Determined, sahib! This is no hour for dallying! Give orders now! Up! Strike, sahib! Listen! Should you march on Jailpore, the mutineers, who far outnumber you, will learn beforehand of your coming, and will put the place in a state of defense. It may take you weeks to fight your way in! Leave Jailpore, and those who are left in it to me, and lend me that non-commissioned officer of yours who guards the crossroads, and his twelve men. With a few, we can manage what a whole division might fail to do. And you march north, sahib, and burn and harry and slay! Strike quickly, where the trouble is yet brewing, and not where the day is lost already!"
It was case of the British power in India on one side of the scale, against three women and a child on the other; sentiment in the balance against strategy. And strategy must win, especially since this Rajput was offering his services.
"What are their names, you say?"
"Mrs. Leslie, wife of Captain Leslie; Mrs. Standish, wife of Colonel Standish and mother of Mrs. Leslie; Mrs. Leslie's child—I know not his name, he is but a child in arms—and the child's nurse."
The general still found it difficult to make up his mind.
"What proof have I of you?" he asked.
"Sahib, my honor is in question! I have a debt to pay!"
"To the Raj."
"To the Raj?"
"Aye, Sahib! I have but one son, and his life was saved for me by a British soldier. A life for a life. Four lives for a life. I ride! I need, though, a fresh horse. And I ask for the loan of that sergeant, and those twelve men."
"I wonder whether a man such as you can realize exactly what it means to us to know that white women are in Jailpore, at the mercy of black mutineers? I mean, are you sufficiently aware of the extreme horror of the situation?"
"Knew you Captain Collins Sahib, of the Jailpore command?"
"Know him well."
"Knew you his memsahib?"
"She was a niece of mine."
"I slew her myself, with this sword!"
"Yesterday. Because her husband could not get to her himself, and since he and I knew each other, and he trusted me. I said to her, 'Memsahib! I have your husband's orders!' She asked me 'What orders, Juggut Khan?' I said, 'Why ask me, memsahib? Is my task easier, or yours?' She said 'Obey your orders, Juggut Khan, and accept my thanks now, since I shall be unable to thank you afterward!' And then she looked me bravely in the face, and met her death, sahib. Of a truth I know! I am to be trusted!"
"I believe you, Juggut Khan. And, incidentally, I beg your pardon for having doubted you. Have you slept?"
"Nay, Sahib. And I sleep not on this side of the crossroads!"
"I don't place Sergeant Brown under your command—you'll understand that's impossible—but, it's quite impossible for him to catch me up. He may as well cooperate with you. Wait." He paused, and wrote, then continued, "Here is a note to him, in which I order him to work with you, and to take your advice whenever possible. Go to the stables, and choose any horse you like except my first charger. Here—here is money; you may need some. Count that, will you. How much is it? Four hundred rupees? Write out a receipt for it. Now, good luck to you, Juggut Khan. And if you should get through alive—I'll pay you the compliment of admitting that you won't come through without the women, and I know that Brown won't—if you should have luck, and should happen to get through, why, look for me at Harumpore, or elsewhere to the northward of it. I start with my division in an hour."
"Salaam, sahib!" said Rajput, rising and standing at the salute.
"Salaam, Juggut Khan! Take any food, or drink, or clothing that you want. Good-by, and your good luck ride with you. I feel like a murderer, but I know I've done the best that can be done!"
Now if Sergeant Brown possessed a sweetheart, and the sweetheart lived in England, and if Brown still loved her—as has already been more than hinted at—it is not at all unreasonable to wonder why he had no likeness of her, no news of her, nothing but her memory around which to weave the woof of sentiment—at least, it's not unreasonable so to wonder in this late year of grace.
Then, though, in 1857, when a newspaper cost threepence or thereabouts, and schools were so far from being free that only the sons of gentlemen (and seldom the daughters of even gentlemen, remember) attended them, the art of reading was not so common as it now is. Writing was still more uncommon. And it has not been pretended that Brown was other than a commoner. He was a stiff-backed man, and honest. And the pride that had raised him to the rank of sergeant was even stiffer than his stock. But he came from the ranks that owned no vote, nor little else, in those days, and he owned a sweetheart of the same rank as himself, who could neither read nor write. And when people whose somewhat primitive ideas on right and wrong lead them to look on daguerreotypes as works of the devil happen too to be living more than five thousand miles apart, when one of the two can not write, nor readily afford the cost of postage, and when the other is nearly always on the move from post to post, it is not exactly to be wondered at that memory of each other was all they had to dwell upon.
A journey to India in '57 meant, to the rank and file, oblivion and worse. There were men then, of course, just as there are now, who would leave a girl behind them tied fast by a promise of futile and endless devotion; men who knew what the girls did not know—that India was all but inaccessible to any one outside of government employ, and that a common soldier's chance of sending for his girl, or of coming home again to claim her, was something in the neighborhood of one in thirty thousand.
But there were other men, like William Brown, who were a shade too honest and too stiff-chinned to buckle under to the social conditions of England in those days, and who were consequently not exactly pestered with offers of employment. And a man who could see the difference between doffing his ragged cap to a dissolute squire or parson, and saluting his better on parade, could also see the selfishness of leaving an honest girl to languish for him. Brown could not get a living in England. So he told his girl to get a better man, swung his canvas bag across his shoulder and marched away.
"What kind of a man is a better man than Bill?" she had wondered. Men like Bill seem to have a knack of judging character, and of picking girls who are as steadfast as themselves. So it is not to be wondered at that almost before her tears were dry she had set about attempting what few women of her type and time would have dreamed of. If Bill had set her free, she reasoned, Bill had no more authority over her, and she might do exactly what she chose. Bill could release, but he could not make her take another man. So, for all that the local yeomen, and local tradesmen even, haunted the little cottage on the Downs, and pestered her with their attentions, no one supplanted Bill.
Bill could tell her—and had told her—that India was no country for a white woman; that there were snakes there, and black men and tigers and even worse. But, since he had set her free, if she could manage it she was quite at liberty to brave the tigers and the snakes. And, once there, she would see whether she was free or not, and whether Bill was, either!
It took Bill Brown six years of constant honest effort to become a sergeant. It took Jane Emmett six weeks of pride-consuming and vexatious vigilance to procure for herself a job as nurse in a soldier-family. And it took her six more years of unremitting diligence, sweetened by all the attributes that seem desirable when nursing other people's children and embittered by the shame of grudging patronage, before she was considered dependable enough to be recommended for the service of a family just leaving for Bengal. Then, however, her world was a real world again!
Five months on a sailing-ship around the Cape—deep-laden, gunwales awash in a beam—on Bay-of-Biscay "snorer," hove-to for a week off Cape Agul—has, while the clumsy brigantine rolled the masts loose in her, all but dismasted in a typhoon come astray from the China Sea, fed on moldy bread, and even moldier pork, with a fretful child to nurse, and an exacting mother to be pleased! Jane Emmett laughed at it. Bill had been there before her, and had done more on his way, and worse Bengal did not frighten her. Nor did the knowledge, when she reached it, that Bill was very likely still some hundreds of miles away. She, who had come five thousand miles as the crows are said to fly and nine thousand by the map, could manage the odd hundreds. And she could wait. She had waited six long years. What was another month or two?
She had not even a notion where Bill was, beyond a vague one that he belonged to another province. For when the Honorable East India Company was muddling the affairs of India, the honors and emoluments and privileges—such as they were!—were reserved for the benefit of the commissioned ranks.
So a transfer to Jailpore did not mean to Jane Emmett ten extra degrees of heat, the neighborhood of jungle-fever and a brand-new breed of smells. Those disadvantages, which weighted down the souls of her employers, were completely overshadowed, so far as she was concerned, by the knowledge that she was traveling nearer by a hundred leagues or so to where her Bill was stationed. She was going west; and somewhere to the west was Bill. Anything was good—fever, and prickly heat, and smells included—that brought her any nearer him.
There would be no sense in endeavoring to analyze her sensations when the sudden outburst overwhelmed the inner-guard at Jailpore. The sight of white women being butchered, and of white men with the blood of their own women on their hands, selling their lives as dearly as the God of War would let them in a holocaust of flames, blinded her. It was probably just a splurge of fire and noise and smoke and blood in her memory, with one or two details standing out. The only real sensation that she felt—even when a tall, lean Rajput flung her across his shoulder, ran with her and dropped her down through a square hole into stifling darkness—was a longing for Bill Brown, her Bill, the one man in the world who could surely stop the butchery.
The others prayed. But she refused to pray. She felt angry—not prayerful! Had she come nine thousand miles, and sacrificed six good years of youth and youth's heritage, to be cast into a reeking dungeon and left to die there in the dark? Not if Bill should know of it! And so she changed her argument, and prayed for Bill. If only Bill knew—straight-backed, honest, stiff-chinned, uncompromising, plain Bill Brown. He would change things!
"Oh, Bill! Bill! Bill!" she sobbed. "Dear God, bring Bill to me!"
When a man knows what is out against him, and from which direction he may look to meet death, he only needs to be a very ordinary man to make at least a gallant showing. Gallery or no gallery to watch, given responsibility and trained men under hire, not one man in a thousand will fail to face death with dignity.
But Brown knew practically nothing, and understood still less, of what was happening. He had Juggut Khan's word for it that Jailpore was in flames, and that all save four of its European population had been killed. He believed that to be a probably exaggerated statement of affairs, but he did not blink the fact that he might expect to be overwhelmed almost without notice, and at any minute. That was a fact which he accepted, for the sake of argument and as a working-basis on which to build a plan of some kind—His orders were to hold that post, and he would hold it until relieved by General Baines or death. But there are several ways of holding a hot coal besides the rather obvious one of sitting on it.
It would have been a fine chance to be theatrical, had play-acting been in his line. Many and many a full-blown general has risen to authority and fame by means of absolutely useless gallery-play. He believed that he would presently be relieved by General Baines, who he felt sure would march at once on Jailpore; and had he chosen to he could have addressed the men, have set them to throwing up defenses and have made a nice theatrical redoubt that he could have held quite easily with the help of nine men for a day or two. And since the really worthwhile things go often unrewarded, but the gallery-plays never, nobody would have blamed him had he chosen some such course as that.
But Brown's idea of holding down a place was to make that place a thorn in the side of the enemy. And since he did not know who was the enemy, or where he was, nor why he was an enemy, nor when he would attack, he proposed to find out these things for himself preparatory to making the said enemy as uncomfortable as his meager resources would permit, when eked out by an honest "dogged-does-it" brain.
He buried the three men whom Fate had seemed to value at the price of a fakir's freedom. And, being a religious man, to whom religion was a fact and the rest of the universe a theory, he was able to say a full funeral service over them from memory. He said it at the grave-end, with a lantern in his hand and one man facing him across the grave—as the English used to drink when the Danes had landed, each watching for the glint of steel beyond the other's shoulder.
And, four on each side of the trench that they had dug, the remainder knelt and faced the night each way—partly from enforced piety, and partly because eight men back to back, with their bayonets outward and their butts against their knees, are an awkward proposition for an enemy. They mumbled the responses because Brown made them do it, and they kept their eyes skinned because the night seemed full of other eyes, and sounds.
"And now, you men," said Brown, changing his voice to suit the nature of his task, "you can get your sleep by fours. I don't care which four of you goes to sleep first, but there are only two watches of us left, and there are about four hours left to sleep in, by my reckoning. That's two hours' sleep for each man. And we'll keep clear of the guardroom. As I understand my orders, the important point's the cross-roads. I'm supposed to halt every one who comes, and to ask him his business. And that'd be impossible to do from the guardroom here. Let this be a lesson to you men, now. In interpretin' orders, when a point's in doubt, always look for the meaning of the orders rather than the letter of them, obeying the letter only when the meaning and the letter are the same thing. The letter of our orders says the guardroom. The meaning's clear. We're here to guard the cross-roads. We take the meaning, and let the letter hang!
"Besides! The way it seems to me, if there's any more trouble cooking in this neighborhood, it's going to cook pretty fast, and it's going to boil around that guardroom; and if we're not in the guardroom, why, that's point number one for us! Leave the guardroom lantern lighted, and bring out nothing but your cartridge-pouches and the box of ammunition. Leave everything else where it lies. Quick, now."
They obeyed him on the run, afraid to be out of his sight for a moment even, trusting him as little children trust a nurse, and ready to do anything so long as he would only keep them up and doing, and not make them stay by the scene of the murders. Brown knew their state of mind as accurately as he knew the range of their service rifles, and he knew just how he could best keep panic from them. He knew too, if not what was best to do, at least what he intended doing, and he knew how he could best get them in a state to do it.
Behind his own mind lay all the while a sense of loneliness and hopelessness. He did not entertain the thought of failure to hold the crossroads, and he was so certain that General Baines would come with his division that he could almost see the advance-guard trotting toward him down the trunk road. But there is no accounting for a soldier's moods, and something told him—something deep down inside him that he could neither name nor understand—that he was out now on the adventure of a lifetime, and that the heart-cord which had held him tight to England all these years had been cut. He felt gloomy and dispirited, but not a man of the nine who followed him had the slightest inkling of it.
He halted them outside the guardroom, and bullydamned two of them because some unimportant part of their accouterments was missing; and he "'Tshuned" them, and stood them at ease, and "'Tshuned" them again, until he had them jumping at the word. Then he marched them two abreast in and out among the huts in search of any sign of native servants. They found no sign of any one at all. Though in that black darkness it would have been quite possible for half a hundred men to lie undetected. Brown decided that the camp was empty. He thought it probable that any one concealed there would have tried his luck on somebody at least, at close range as he passed.
So he marched them back to the guard-room once again, and sent two of them in to drag out the shivering Beluchi, who had taken cover underneath a cot and refused to come out until he was dragged out by the leg. The native's terror served to pull the men together quite a little, for Tommy Atkins always does and always did behave himself with pride when what he is pleased to consider his inferiors are anywhere about. They showed that unfortunate Beluchi how white men marched into the darkness—best foot foremost; without halt or hesitation, when ghosts or murderers or unseen marksmen were close at hand.
The Beluchi let himself be dragged, trembling, between two of them. It was he who first saw something move, or heard some one breathe. For he was absolutely on edge, and had nothing to attend to but his own fear. The others had to keep both eyes and ears lifting, to please Brown the exacting. The Beluchi struggled and held back, almost breaking loose, and actually tearing his loin-cloth.
"Sahib!" he whispered hoarsely. "Sahib!"
"What is it?" demanded Brown, scarcely waiting for an answer, though. Something told him what it was that moved, and his own skin felt goose-fleshy from neck to heel.
"The fakir, sahib!"
There was a murmur through the ranks, a sibilant indrawing of the breath.
"Did I hear anybody swear?" asked Brown.
Nobody answered him. All nine men stood stock-still, leaning on their rifles, their heads craned forward and their eyes strained in the direction of the gloomy baobab.
"Form single rank!" commanded Brown.
There was no response. They stood there fixed like a row of chickens staring at a snake!
"Form single rank!"
He leaped at them, and broke the first rule of the service—as a man may when he is man enough, and the alternative would be black shame.
His fist was a hard one and heavy, and they felt the weight of it.
"Form single rank! Take one pace open order! Extend! Now, forward—by the right! Right dress, there!"
He marched in front of them, and they followed him for very shame, now that he had broken their paralysis.
"Halt! Port-arms! Charge bayonets!"
He was peering at something in the dark, something that chuckled and smelled horrible, and sat unusually still for anything that lived.
"Numbers One, Two, Three—left wheel—forward! Halt! Numbers Seven, Eight, Nine—right wheel—forward! Halt!"
They were standing now on three sides of a square. The fourth side was the trunk of the baobab. Between them and the trunk, the streaming tendrils swayed and swung, bats flitted and something still invisible sat still and chuckled.
"One pace forward—march!"
They could see now. The fakir sat and stared at them and grinned. Brown raised the lamp and let its rays fall on him. The light glinted off his eyes, and off the only other part of him that shone—the long, curved, ghastly fingernails that had grown through the palm of his upstretched hand.
"How did you get here?" demanded Brown, not afraid to speak, for fear that fright would take possession of himself as well as of his men, but quite well aware that the fakir would not answer him. Then he remembered the Beluchi.
"Ask him, you! Ask him how he came here."
The Beluchi found his tongue, and stammered out a question. The fakir chuckled, and following his chuckle let a guttural remark escape him.
"He says, sahib, that he flew!"
"Ask him, could he fly with nine fixed bayonets in him!"
There was a little laughter from the men at that sally. It takes very little in the way of humor to dispel a sense of the uncanny or mysterious.
"He answers, sahib, that you have seen what comes of striking him. He asks how many dead there be."
"Does he want me to hold him answerable for those men's lives?"
"He says he cares not, sahib! He says that he has promised what shall befall you, sahib, before a day is past—you and one other!"
"Ask him, where is the Punjabi skin-buyer?"
The fakir chuckled at that question, and let out suddenly a long, low, hollow-sounding howl, like a she-wolf's just at sundown. He was answered by another howl from near the guardroom, and every soldier faced about as though a wasp had stung him.
"Front!" commanded Brown. "Now, one of you, about turn! Keep watch that way! Is that the Punjabi?—ask him."
"He says 'Yes!' sahib. He and others!"
"Very well. Now tell him that unless he obeys my orders on the jump, word for word as I give them, I'll hang him as high as Haman by that withered arm of his, and have him beaten on the toenails with a cleaning-rod before I fill him so full of bayonet-holes that the vultures'll take him for a sponge! Say I'm a man of my word, and don't exaggerate."
The Beluchi translated.
"He says you dare not, sahib!"
"Advise him to talk sense."
"He says, sahib, 'You have had one lesson!"'
"Now it's my turn to give him one. Men! We'll have to give up that sleep I talked about. This limping dummy of a fakir thinks he's got us frightened, and we've got to teach him different. There's some reason why we're not being attacked as yet. There's something fishy going on, and this swab's at the bottom of it! We want him, too, on a charge of murder, or instigating murder, and the guardroom's the best place for him. To the guardroom with him. He'll do for a hostage anyhow. And where he is, I've a notion that the control of this treachery won't be far away! Grab him below the arms and by the legs. One of you hold a bayonet-point against his ribs. The rest, face each way on guard. Now—all together, forward to the guardroom—march!"