King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter I
The men who govern India—more power to them and her!—are few. Those who stand in their way and pretend to help them with a flood of words are a host. And from the host goes up an endless cry that India is the home of thugs, and of three hundred million hungry ones.
The men who know—and Athelstan King might claim to know a little—answer that she is the original home of chivalry and the modern mistress of as many decent, gallant, native gentlemen as ever graced a page of history.
The charge has seen the light in print that India—well-spring of plague and sudden death and money-lenders—has sold her soul to twenty succeeding conquerors in turn.
Athelstan King and a hundred like him whom India has picked from British stock and taught, can answer truly that she has won it back again from each by very purity of purpose.
So when the world war broke the world was destined to be surprised on India's account. The Red Sea, full of racing transports crowded with dark-skinned gentlemen, whose one prayer was that the war might not be over before they should have struck a blow for Britain, was the Indian army's answer to the press.
The rest of India paid its taxes and contributed and muzzled itself and set to work to make supplies. For they understand in India, almost as nowhere else, the meaning of such old-fashioned words as gratitude and honor; and of such platitudes as, "Give and it shall be given unto you."
More than one nation was deeply shocked by India's answer to "practises" that had extended over years. But there were men in India who learned to love India long ago with that love that casts out fear, who knew exactly what was going to happen and could therefore afford to wait for orders instead of running round in rings.
Athelstan King, for instance, nothing yet but a captain unattached, sat in meagerly furnished quarters with his heels on a table. He is not a doctor, yet he read a book on surgery, and when he went over to the club he carried the book under his arm and continued to read it there. He is considered a rotten conversationalist, and he did nothing at the club to improve his reputation.
"Man alive—get a move on!" gasped a wondering senior, accepting a cigar. Nobody knows where he gets those long, strong, black cheroots, and nobody ever refuses one.
"Thanks—got a book to read," said King.
"You ass! Wake up and grab the best thing in sight, as a stepping stone to something better! Wake up and worry!"
King grinned. You have to when you don't agree with a senior officer, for the army is like a school in many more ways than one.
"Help yourself, sir! I'll take the job that's left when the scramble's over. Something good's sure to be overlooked."
"White feather? Laziness? Dark Horse?" the major wondered. Then he hurried away to write telegrams, because a belief thrives in the early days of any war that influence can make or break a man's chances. In the other room where the telegraph blanks were littered in confusion all about the floor, he ran into a crony whose chief sore point was Athelstan King, loathing him as some men loathe pickles or sardines, for no real reason whatever, except that they are what they are.
"Saw you talking to King," he said.
"Yes. Can't make him out. Rum fellow!"
"Rum? Huh! Trouble is he's seventh of his family in succession to serve in India. She has seeped into him and pickled his heritage. He's a believer in Kismet crossed on to Opportunity. Not sure he doesn't pray to Allah on the sly! Hopeless case."
"Are you sure?"
So they all sent telegrams and forgot King who sat and smoked and read about surgery; and before he had nearly finished one box of cheroots a general at Peshawur wiped a bald red skull and sent him an urgent telegram.
"Come at once!" it said simply.
King was at Lahore, but miles don't matter when the dogs of war are loosed. The right man goes to the right place at the exact right time then, and the fool goes to the wall. In that one respect war is better than some kinds of peace.
In the train on the way to Peshawur he did not talk any more volubly, and a fellow traveler, studying him from the opposite corner of the stifling compartment, catalogued him as "quite an ordinary man." But he was of the Public Works Department, which is sorrowfully underpaid and wears emotions on its sleeve for policy's sake, believing of course that all the rest of the world should do the same.
"Don't you think we're bound in honor to go to Belgium's aid?" he asked. "Can you see any way out of it?"
"Haven't looked for one," said King.
"But don't you think—"
"No," said King. "I hardly ever think. I'm in the army, don't you know, and don't have to. What's the use of doing somebody else's work?"
"Rotter!" thought the P.W.D. man, almost aloud; but King was not troubled by any further forced conversation. Consequently he reached Peshawur comfortable, in spite of the heat. And his genial manner of saluting the full-general who met him with a dog-cart at Peshawur station was something scandalous.
"Is he a lunatic or a relative or royalty?" the P.W.D. man wondered.
Full-generals, particularly in the early days of war, do not drive to the station to meet captains very often; yet King climbed into the dog-cart unexcitedly, after keeping the general waiting while he checked a trunk!
The general cracked his whip without any other comment than a smile. A blood mare tore sparks out of the macadam, and a dusty military road began to ribbon out between the wheels. Sentries in unexpected places announced themselves with a ring of shaken steel as their rifles came to the "present," which courtesies the general noticed with a raised whip. Then a fox-terrier resumed his chase of squirrels between the planted shade-trees, and Peshawur became normal, shimmering in light and heat reflected from the "Hills."
(The P.W.D. man, who would have giggled if a general mentioned him by name, walked because no conveyance could be hired. judgment was in the wind.)
On the dog-cart's high front seat, staring straight ahead of him between the horse's ears, King listened. The general did nearly all the talking.
"The North's the danger."
King grunted with the lids half-lowered over full dark eyes. He did not look especially handsome in that attitude. Some men swear he looks like a Roman, and others liken him to a gargoyle, all of them choosing to ignore the smile that can transform his whole face instantly.
"We're denuding India of troops—not keeping back more than a mere handful to hold the tribes in check."
King nodded. There has never been peace along the northwest border. It did not need vision to foresee trouble from that quarter. In fact it must have been partly on the strength of some of King's reports that the general was planning now.
"That was a very small handful of Sikhs you named as likely to give trouble. Did you do that job thoroughly?"
"Well—Delhi's chock-full of spies, all listening to stories made in Germany for them to take back to the 'Hills' with 'em. The tribes'll know presently how many men we're sending oversea. There've been rumors about Khinjan by the hundred lately. They're cooking something. Can you imagine 'em keeping quiet now?"
"That depends, sir. Yes, I can imagine it."
The general laughed. "That's why I sent for you. I need a man with imagination! There's a woman you've got to work with on this occasion who can imagine a shade or two too much. What's worse, she's ambitious. So I chose you to work with her."
King's lips stiffened under his mustache, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled into crow's-feet to correspond. Eyes are never coal-black, of course, but his looked it at that minute.
"You know we've sent men to Khinjan who are said to have entered the Caves. Not one of 'em has ever returned."
"She claims she can enter the Caves and come out again at pleasure. She has offered to do it, and I have accepted."
It would not have been polite to look incredulous, so King's expression changed to one of intense interest a little overdone, as the general did not fail to notice.
"If she hadn't given proof of devotion and ability, I'd have turned her down. But she has. Only the other day she uncovered a plot in Delhi—about a million dynamite bombs in a ruined temple in charge of a German agent for use by mutineers supposed to be ready to rise against us. Fact! Can you guess who she is?"
"Not Yasmini?" King hazarded, and the general nodded and flicked his whip. The horse mistook it for a signal, and it was two minutes before the speed was reduced to mere recklessness.
The helmet-strap mark, printed indelibly on King's jaw and cheek by the Indian sun, tightened and grew whiter—as the general noted out of the corner of his eye.
"Know of her, of course, sir. Everybody does. Never met her to my knowledge."
"Um-m-m! Whose fault was that? Somebody ought to have seen to that. Go to Delhi now and meet her. I'll send her a wire to say you're coming. She knows I've chosen you. She tried to insist on full discretion, but I overruled her. Between us two, she'll have discretion once she gets beyond Jamrud. The 'Hills' are full of our spies, of course, but none of 'em dare try Khinjan Caves any more and you'll be the only check we shall have on her."
King's tongue licked his lips, and his eyes wrinkled. The general's voice became the least shade more authoritative.
"When you see her, get a pass from her that'll take you into Khinjan Caves! Ask her for it! For the sake of appearances I'll gazette you Seconded to the Khyber Rifles. For the sake of success, get a pass from her!"
"Very well, sir."
"You've a brother in the Khyber Rifles, haven't you? Was it you or your brother who visited Khinjan once and sent in a report?"
"I did, sir."
He spoke without pride. Even the brigade of British-Indian cavalry that went to Khinjan on the strength of his report and leveled its defenses with the ground, had not been able to find the famous Caves. Yet the Caves themselves are a by-word.
"There's talk of a jihad (holy war). There's worse than that! When you went to Khinjan, what was your chief object?"
"To find the source of the everlasting rumors about the so-called 'Heart of the Hills,' sir."
"Yes, yes. I remember. I read your report. You didn't find anything, did you? Well. The story is now that the 'Heart of the Hills' has come to life. So the spies say."
King whistled softly.
"There's no guessing what it means," said the general. "Go and find out. Go and work with Yasmini. I shall have enough men here to attack instantly and smash any small force as soon as it begins to gather anywhere near the border. But Khinjan is another story. We can't prove anything, but the spies keep bringing in rumors of ten thousand men in Khinjan Caves, and of another large lashkar not far away from Khinjan. There must be no jihad, King! India is all but defenseless! We can tackle sporadic raids. We can even handle an ordinary raid in force. But this story about a 'Heart of the Hills' coming to life may presage unity of action and a holy war such as the world has not seen. Go up there and stop it if you can. At least, let me know the facts."
King grunted. To stop a holy war single-handed would be rather like stopping the wind—possibly easy enough, if one knew the way. Yet he knew no general would throw away a man like himself on a useless venture. He began to look happy.
The general clucked to the mare and the big beast sank an inch between the shafts. The sais behind set his feet against the drop-board and clung with both hands to the seat. One wheel ceased to touch the gravel as they whirled along a semicircular drive. Suddenly the mare drew up on her haunches, under the porch of a pretentious residence. Sentries saluted. The sais swung down. In less than sixty seconds King was following the general through a wide entrance into a crowded hall. The instant the general's fat figure darkened the doorway twenty men of higher rank than King, native and English, rose from lined-up chairs and pressed forward.
"Sorry—have to keep you all waiting—busy!" He waved them aside with a little apologetic gesture. "Come in here, King."
King followed him through a door that slammed tight behind them on rubber jambs.
The general unlocked a steel drawer and began to rummage among the papers in it. In a minute he produced a package, bound in rubber bands, with a faded photograph face-upward on the top.
"That's the woman! How d'you like the look of her?"
King took the package and for a minute stared hard at the likeness of a woman whose fame has traveled up and down India, until her witchery has become a proverb. She was dressed as a dancing woman, yet very few dancing women could afford to be dressed as she was.
King's service uses whom it may, and he had met and talked with many dancing women in the course of duty; but as he stared at Yasmini's likeness he did not think he had ever met one who so measured up to rumor. The nautch he knew for a delusion. Yet—!
The general watched his face with eyes that missed nothing.
"Remember—I said work with her!"
King looked up and nodded.
"They say she's three parts Russian," said the general. "To my own knowledge she speaks Russian like a native, and about twenty other tongues as well, including English. She speaks English as well as you or I. She was the girl-widow of a rascally Hill-rajah. There's a story I've heard, to the effect that Russia arranged her marriage in the day when India was Russia's objective—and that's how long ago?—seems like weeks, not years! I've heard she loved her rajah. And I've heard she didn't! There's another story that she poisoned him. I know she got away with his money—and that's proof enough of brains! Some say she's a she-devil. I think that's an exaggeration, but bear in mind she's dangerous!"
King grinned. A man who trusts Eastern women over readily does not rise far in the Secret Service.
"If you've got nous enough to keep on her soft side and use her—not let her use you—you can keep the 'Hills' quiet and the Khyber safe! If you can contrive that—now—in this pinch—there's no limit for you! Commander-in-chief shall be your job before you're sixty!"
King pocketed the photograph and papers. "I'm well enough content, sir, as things are," he said quietly.
"Well, remember she's ambitious, even if you're not! I'm not preaching ambition, mind—I'm warning you! Ambition's bad! Study those papers on your way down to Delhi and see that I get them back."
The general paced once across the room and once back again, with hands behind him. Then he stopped in front of King.
"No man in India has a stiffer task than you have now! It may encourage you to know that I realize that! She's the key to the puzzle, and she happens to be in Delhi. Go to Delhi, then. A jihad launched from the 'Hills' would mean anarchy in the plains. That would entail sending back from France an army that can't be spared. There must be no jihad, King!—There must—not—be—one! Keep that in your head!"
"What arrangements have been made with her, sir?"
"Practically none! She's watching the spies in Delhi, but they're likely to break for the 'Hills' any minute. Then they'll be arrested. When that happens the fate of India may be in your hands and hers! Get out of my way now, until tiffin-time!"
In a way that some men never learn, King proceeded to efface himself entirely among the crowd in the hall, contriving to say nothing of any account to anybody until the great gong boomed and the general led them all in to his long dining table. Yet he did not look furtive or secretive. Nobody noticed him, and he noticed everybody. There is nothing whatever secretive about that.
The fare was plain, and the meal a perfunctory affair. The general and his guests were there for other reason than to eat food, and only the man who happened to seat himself next to King—a major by the name of Hyde—spoke to him at all.
"Why aren't you with your regiment?" he asked.
"Because the general asked me to lunch, sir!"
"I suppose you've been pestering him for an appointment!"
King, with his mouth full of curry did not answer, but his eyes smiled.
"It's astonishing to me," said the major, "that a captain should leave his company when war has begun! When I was captain I'd have been driven out of the service if I'd asked for leave of absence at such a time!"
King made no comment, but his expression denoted belief.
"Are you bound for the front, sir?" he asked presently. But Hyde did not answer. They finished the meal in silence.
After lunch he was closeted with the general again for twenty minutes. Then one of the general's carriages took him to the station; and it did not appear to trouble him at all that the other occupant of the carriage was the self-same Major Hyde who had sat next him at lunch. In fact, he smiled so pleasantly that Hyde grew exasperated. Neither of them spoke. At the station Hyde lost his temper openly, and King left him abusing an unhappy native servant.
The station was crammed to suffocation by a crowd that roared and writhed and smelt to high heaven. At one end of the platform, in the midst of a human eddy, a frenzied horse resisted with his teeth and all four feet at once the efforts of six natives and a British sergeant to force him into a loose-box. At the back of the same platform the little dark-brown mules of a mountain battery twitched their flanks in line, jingling chains and stamping when the flies bit home.
Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat native merchants vied with lean and timid ones in noisy effort to secure accommodation on a train already crowded to the limit. Twenty British officers hunted up and down for the places supposed to have been reserved for them, and sweating servants hurried after them with arms full of heterogeneous baggage, swearing at the crowd that swore back ungrudgingly. But the general himself had telephoned for King's reservation, so he took his time.
There were din and stink and dust beneath a savage sun, shaken into reverberations by the scream of an engine's safety valve. It was India in essence and awake!—India arising out of lethargy!—India as she is more often nowadays—and it made King, for the time being of the Khyber Rifles, happier than some other men can be in ballrooms.
Any one who watched him—and there was at least one man who did—must have noticed his strange ability, almost like that of water, to reach the point he aimed for, through, and not around, the crowd.
He neither shoved nor argued. Orders and blows would have been equally useless, for had it tried the crowd could not have obeyed, and it was in no mind to try. Without the least apparent effort he arrived—and there is no other word that quite describes it—he arrived, through the densest part of the sweating throng of humans, at the door of the luggage office.
There, though a bunnia's sharp elbow nagged his ribs, and the bunnia's servant dropped a heavy package on his foot, he smiled so genially that he melted the wrath of the frantic luggage clerk. But not at once. Even the sun needs seconds to melt ice.
"Am I God?" the babu wailed. "Can I do all the-e things in all the-e world at once if not sooner?"
King's smile began to get its work in. The man ceased gesticulating to wipe sweat from his stubbly jowl with the end of a Punjabi headdress. He actually smiled back. Who was he, that he should suspect new outrage or guess he was about to be used in a game he did not understand? He would have stopped all work to beg for extra pay at the merest suggestion of such a thing; but as it was he raised both fists and lapsed into his own tongue to apostrophize the ruffian who dared jostle King. A Northerner who did not seem to understand Punjabi almost cost King his balance as he thrust broad shoulders between him and the bunnia.
The bunnia chattered like an outraged ape; but King, the person most entitled to be angry, actually apologized! That being a miracle, the babu forthwith wrought another one, and within a minute King's one trunk was checked through to Delhi.
"Delhi is right, sahib?" he asked, to make doubly sure; for in India where the milk of human kindness is not hawked in the market-place, men will pay over-measure for a smile.
"Yes. Delhi is right. Thank you, babuji."
He made more room for the Hillman, beaming amusement at the man's impatience; but the Hillman had no luggage and turned away, making an unexpected effort to hide his face with a turban end. He who had forced his way to the front with so much violence and haste now burst back again toward the train like a football forward tearing through the thick of his opponents. He scattered a swath a yard wide, for he had shoulders like a bull. King saw him leap into third-class carriage. He saw, too, that he was not wanted in the carriage. There was a storm of protest from tight-packed native passengers, but the fellow had his way.
The swath through the crowd closed up like water in a ship's wake, but it opened again for King. He smiled so humorously that the angry jostled ones smiled too and were appeased, forgetting haste and bruises and indignity merely because understanding looked at them through merry eyes. All crowds are that way, but an Indian crowd more so than all.
Taking his time, and falling foul of nobody, King marked down a native constable—hot and unhappy, leaning with his back against the train. He touched him on the shoulder and the fellow jumped.
"Nay, sahib! I am only constabeel—I know nothing—I can do nothing! The teerain goes when it goes, and then perhaps we will beat these people from the platform and make room again! But there is no authority—no law any more—they are all gone mad!"
King wrote on a pad, tore off a sheet, folded it and gave it to him.
"That is for the Superintendent of Police at the office. Carriage number 1181, eleven doors from here—the one with the shut door and a big Hillman inside sitting three places from the door facing the engine. Get the Hillman! No, there is only one Hillman in the carriage. No, the others are not his friends; they will not help him. He will fight, but he has no friends in that carriage."
The "constabeel" obeyed, not very cheerfully. King stood to watch him with a foot on the step of a first-class coach. Another constable passed him, elbowing a snail's progress between the train and the crowd. He seized the man's arm.
"Go and help that man!" he ordered. "Hurry!"
Then he climbed into the carriage and leaned from the window. He grinned as he saw both constables pounce on a third-class carriage door and, with the yell of good huntsmen who have viewed, seize the protesting Northerner by the leg and begin to drag him forth. There was a fight, that lasted three minutes, in the course of which a long knife flashed. But there were plenty to help take the knife away, and the Hillman stood handcuffed and sullen at last, while one of his captors bound a cut forearm. Then they dragged him away; but not before he had seen King at the window, and had lipped a silent threat.
"I believe you, my son!" King chuckled, half aloud. "I surely believe you! I'll watch! Ham dekta hai!"
"Why was that man arrested?" asked an acid voice behind him; and without troubling to turn his head, he knew that Major Hyde was to be his carriage mate again. To be vindictive, on duty or off it, is foolishness; but to let opportunity slip by one is a crime. He looked glad, not sorry, as be faced about—pleased, not disappointed—like a man on a desert island who has found a tool.
"Why was that man arrested?" the major asked again.
"I ordered it," said King.
"So I imagined. I asked you why."
King stared at him and then turned to watch the prisoner being dragged away; he was fighting again, striking at his captors' heads with handcuffed wrists.
"Does he look innocent?" asked King.
"Is that your answer?" asked the major. Balked ambition is an ugly horse to ride. He had tried for a command but had been shelved.
"I have sufficient authority," said King, unruffled. He spoke as if he were thinking of something entirely different. His eyes were as if they saw the major from a very long way off and rather approved of him on the whole.
"Show me your authority, please!"
King dived into an inner pocket and produced a card that had about ten words written on its face, above a general's signature. Hyde read it and passed it back.
"So you're one of those, are you!" he said in a tone of voice that would start a fight in some parts of the world and in some services. But King nodded cheerfully, and that annoyed the major more than ever; he snorted, closed his mouth with a snap and turned to rearrange the sheet and pillow on his berth.
Then the train pulled out, amid a din of voices from the left—behind that nearly drowned the panting of overloaded engine. There was a roar of joy from the two coaches full of soldiers in the rear—a shriek from a woman who had missed the train—a babel of farewells tossed back and forth between the platform and the third-class carriages—and Peshawur fell away behind.
King settled down on his side of the compartment, after a struggle with the thermantidote that refused to work. There was heat enough below the roof to have roasted meat, so that the physical atmosphere became as turgid as the mental after a little while.
Hyde all but stripped himself and drew on striped pajamas. King was content to lie in shirt-sleeves on the other berth, with knees raised, so that Hyde could not overlook the general's papers. At his ease he studied them one by one, memorizing a string of names, with details as to their owners' antecedents and probable present whereabouts. There were several photographs in the packet, and he studied them very carefully indeed.
But much most carefully of all he examined Yasmini's portrait, returning to it again and again. He reached the conclusion in the end that when it was taken she had been cunningly disguised.
"This was intended for purpose of identification at a given time and place," he told himself.
"Were you muttering at me?" asked Hyde.
"It looked extremely like it!"
"My mistake, sir. Nothing of the sort intended."
Hyde turned an indignant back on him, and King studied the back as if he found it interesting. On the whole he looked sympathetic, so it was as well that Hyde did not look around. Balked ambition as a rule loathes sympathy.
After many prickly-hot, interminable, jolting hours the train drew up at Rawal-Pindi station. Instantly King was on his feet with his tunic on, and he was out on the blazing hot platform before the train's motion had quite ceased.
He began to walk up and down, not elbowing but percolating through the crowd, missing nothing worth noticing in all the hot kaleidoscope and seeming to find new amusement at every turn. It was not in the least astonishing that a well-dressed native should address him presently, for he looked genial enough to be asked to hold a baby. King himself did not seem surprised at all. Far from it; he looked pleased.
"Excuse me, sir," said the man in glib babu English. "I am seeking Captain King sahib, for whom my brother is veree anxious to be servant. Can you kindlee tell me, sir, where I could find Captain King sahib?"
"Certainly," King answered him. He looked glad to be of help. "Are you traveling on this train?"
The question sounded like politeness welling from the lips of unsuspicion.
"Yes, sir. I am traveling from this place where I have spent a few days, to Bombay, where my business is.
"How did you know King sahib is on the train?" King asked him, smiling so genially that even the police could not have charged him with more than curiosity.
"By telegram, sir. My brother had the misfortune to miss Captain King sahib at Peshawur and therefore sent a telegram to me asking me to do what I can at an interview."
"I see," said King. "I see." And judging by the sparkle in his eyes as he looked away he could see a lot. But the native could not see his eyes at that instant, although he tried to.
He looked back at the train, giving the man a good chance to study his face in profile.
"Oh, thank you, sir!" said the native oilily. "You are most kind! I am your humble servant, sir!"
King nodded good-by to him, his dark eyes in the shadow of the khaki helmet seeming scarcely interested any longer.
"Couldn't you find another berth?" Hyde asked him angrily when he stepped back into the compartment. "What were you out there looking for?"
King smiled back at him blandly.
"I think there are railway thieves on the train," he announced without any effort at relevance. He might not have heard the question.
"What makes you think so?"
"Oh! Then if you've seen thieves, why didn't you have 'em arrested? You were precious free with that authority of yours on Peshawur platform!"
"Perhaps You'd care to take the responsibility, sir? Let me point out one of them."
Full of grudging curiosity Hyde came to stand by him, and King stepped back just as the train began to move.
"That man, sir—over there—no, beyond him—there!"
Hyde thrust head and shoulders through the window, and a well-dressed native with one foot on the running-board at the back end of the train took a long steady stare at him before jumping in and slamming the door of a third-class carriage.
"Which one?" demanded Hyde impatiently.
"I don't see him now, sir!"
Hyde snorted and returned to his seat in the silence of unspeakable scorn. But presently he opened a suitcase and drew out a repeating pistol which he cocked carefully and stowed beneath his pillow; not at all a contemptible move, because the Indian railway thief is the most resourceful specialist in the world. But King took no overt precautions of any kind.
After more interminable hours night shut down on them, red-hot, black-dark, mesmerically subdivided into seconds by the thump of carriage wheels and lit at intervals by showers of sparks from the gasping engine. The din of Babel rode behind the first-class carriages, for all the natives in the packed third-class talked all together. (In India, when one has spent a fortune on a third-class ticket, one proceeds to enjoy the ride.) The train was a Beast out of Revelation, wallowing in noise.
But after other, hotter hours the talking ceased. Then King, strangely without kicking off his shoes, drew a sheet up over his shoulders. On the opposite berth Hyde covered his head, to keep dust out of his hair, and presently King heard him begin to snore gently. Then, very carefully he adjusted his own position so that his profile lay outlined in the dim light from the gas lamp in the roof. He might almost have been waiting to be shaved.
The stuffiness increased to a degree that is sometimes preached in Christian churches as belonging to a sulphurous sphere beyond the grave. Yet he did not move a muscle. It was long after midnight when his vigil was rewarded by a slight sound at the door. From that instant his eyes were on the watch, under dark of closed lashes; but his even breathing was that of the seventh stage of sleep that knows no dreams.
A click of the door-latch heralded the appearance of a hand. With skill, of the sort that only special training can develop, a man in native dress insinuated himself into the carriage without making another sound of any kind. King's ears are part of the equipment for his exacting business, but he could not hear the door click shut again.
For about five minutes, while the train swayed head-long into Indian darkness, the man stood listening and watching King's face. He stood so near that King recognized him for the one who had accosted him on Rawal-Pindi platform. And he could see the outline of the knife-hilt that the man's fingers clutched underneath his shirt.
"He'll either strike first, so as to kill us both and do the looting afterward—and in that case I think it will be easier to break his neck than his arm—yes, decidedly his neck; it's long and thin;—or—"
His eyes feigned sleep so successfully that the native turned away at last.
"Thought so!" He dared open his eyes a mite wider. "He's pukka—true to type! Rob first and then kill! Rule number one with his sort, run when you've stabbed! Not a bad rule either, from their point of view!"
As he watched, the thief drew the sheet back from Hyde's face, with trained fingers that could have taken spectacles from the victims' nose without his knowledge. Then as fish glide in and out among the reeds without touching them, swift and soft and unseen, his fingers searched Hyde's body. They found nothing. So they dived under the pillow and brought out the pistol and a gold watch.
After that he began to search the clothes that hung on a hook beside Hyde's berth. He brought forth papers and a pocketbook—then money. Money went into one bag—papers and pocketbook into another. And that was evidence enough as well as risk enough. The knife would be due in a minute.
King moved in his sleep, rather noisily, and the movement knocked a book to the floor from the foot of his berth. The noise of that awoke Hyde, and King pretended to begin to wake, yawning and rolling on his back (that being much the safest position an unarmed man can take and much the most awkward for his enemy).
"Thieves!" Hyde yelled at the top of his lungs, groping wildly for his pistol and not finding it.
King sat up and rubbed his eyes. The native drew the knife, and—believing himself in command of the situation—hesitated for one priceless second. He saw his error and darted for the door too late. With a movement unbelievably swift King was there ahead of him; and with another movement not so swift, but much more disconcerting, he threw his sheet as the retiarius used to throw a net in ancient Rome. It wrapped round the native's head and arms, and the two went together to the floor in a twisted stranglehold.
In another half-minute the native was groaning, for King had his knife-wrist in two hands and was bending it backward while he pressed the man's stomach with his knees.
"Get his loot!" he panted between efforts.
The knife fell to the floor, and the thief made a gallant effort to recover it, but King was too strong for him. He seized the knife himself, slipped it in his own bosom and resumed his hold before the native guessed what he was after. Then he kept a tight grip while Hyde knelt to grope for his missing property. The major found both the thief's bags, and held them up.
"I expect that's all," said King, loosening his grip very gradually. The native noticed—as Hyde did not—that King had begun to seem almost absent-minded; the thief lay quite still, looking up, trying to divine his next intention. Suddenly the brakes went on, but King's grip did not tighten. The train began to scream itself to a standstill at a wayside station, and King (the absent-minded—very nearly grinned.
"If I weren't in such an infernal hurry to reach Bombay—" Hyde grumbled; and King nearly laughed aloud then, for the thief knew English, and was listening with all his ears, "—may I be damned if I wouldn't get off at this station and wait to see that scoundrel brought to justice!"
The train jerked itself to a standstill, and a man with a lantern began to chant the station's name.
"Damn it!—I'm going to Bombay to act censor. I can't wait—they want me there."
The instant the train's motion altogether ceased the heat shut in on them as if the lid of Tophet had been slammed. The prickly beat burst out all over Hyde's skin and King's too.
"Almighty God!" gasped Hyde, beginning to fan himself.
There was plenty of excuse for relaxing hold still further, and King made full use of it. A second later be gave a very good pretense of pain in his finger-ends as the thief burst free. The native made a dive at his bosom for the knife, but he frustrated that. Then he made a prodigious effort, just too late, to clutch the man again, and he did succeed in tearing loose a piece of shirt; but the fleeing robber must have wondered, as he bolted into the blacker shadows of the station building, why such an iron-fingered, wide-awake sahib should have made such a truly feeble showing at the end.
"Damn it!—couldn't you hold him? Were you afraid of him, or what?" demanded Hyde, beginning to dress himself. Instead of answering, King leaned out into the lamp-lit gloom, and in a minute he caught sight of a sergeant of native infantry passing down the train. He made a sign that brought the man to him on the run.
"Did you see that runaway?" he asked.
"Ha, sahib. I saw one running. Shall I follow?"
"No. This piece of his shirt will identify him. Take it. Hide it! When a man with a torn shirt, into which that piece fits, makes for the telegraph office after this train has gone on, see that he is allowed to send any telegrams he wants to! Only, have copies of every one of them wired to Captain King, care of the station-master, Delhi. Have you understood?"
"Grab him, and lock him up tight afterward—but not until he has sent his telegrams!'
"Make yourself scarce, then!"
Major Hyde was dressed, having performed that military evolution in something less than record time.
"Who was that you were talking to?" he demanded. But King continued to look out the door.
Hyde came and tapped on his shoulder impatiently, but King did not seem to understand until the native sergeant had quite vanished into the shadows.
"Let me pass, will you!" Hyde demanded. "I'll have that thief caught if the train has to wait a week while they do it!"
He pushed past, but he was scarcely on the step when the station-master blew his whistle, and his colored minion waved a lantern back and forth. The engine shrieked forthwith of death and torment; carriage doors slammed shut in staccato series; the heat relaxed as the engine moved—loosened—let go—lifted at last, and a trainload of hot passengers sighed thanks to an unresponsive sky as the train gained speed and wind crept in through the thermantidotes.
Only through the broken thermantidote in King's compartment no wet air came. Hyde knelt on King's berth and wrestled with it like a caged animal, but with no result except that the sweat poured out all over him and he was more uncomfortable than before.
"What are you looking at?" he demanded at last, sitting on King's berth. His head swam. He had to wait a few seconds before he could step across to his own side.
"Only a knife," said King. He was standing under the dim gas lamp that helped make the darkness more unbearable.
"Not that robber's knife? Did he drop it?"
"It's my knife," said King.
"Strange time to stand staring at it, if it's yours! Didn't you ever see it before?"
King stowed the knife away in his bosom, and the major crossed to his own side.
"I'm thinking I'll know it again, at all events!" King answered, sitting down. "Good night, sir."
Within ten minutes Hyde was asleep, snoring prodigiously. Then King pulled out the knife again and studied it for half an hour. The blade was of bronze, with an edge hammered to the keenness of a razor. The hilt was of nearly pure gold, in the form of a woman dancing.
The whole thing was so exquisitely wrought that age had only softened the lines, without in the least impairing them. It looked like one of those Grecian toys with which Roman women of Nero's day stabbed their lovers. But that was not why he began to whistle very softly to himself.
Presently he drew out the general's package of papers, with the photograph on the top. He stood up, to hold both knife and papers close to the light in the roof.
It needed no great stretch of imagination to suggest a likeness between the woman of the photograph and the other, of the golden knife-hilt. And nobody, looking at him then, would have dared suggest he lacked imagination.
If the knife had not been so ancient they might have been portraits of the same woman, in the same disguise, taken at the same time.
"She knew I had been chosen to work with her. The general sent her word that I am coming," he muttered to himself. "Man number one had a try for me, but I had him pinched too soon. There must have been a spy watching at Peshawur, who wired to Rawal-Pindi for this man to jump the train and go on with the job. She must have had him planted at Rawal-Pindi in case of accidents. She seems thorough! Why should she give the man a knife with her own portrait on it? Is she queen of a secret society? Well—we shall see!"
He sat down on his berth again and sighed, not discontentedly. Then he lit one of his great black cigars and blew rings for five or six minutes. Then he lay back with his head on the pillow, and before five minutes more had gone he was asleep, with the cold cigar still clutched between his fingers.
He looked as interesting in his sleep as when awake. His mobile face in repose looked Roman, for the sun had tanned his skin and his nose was aquiline. In museums, where sculptured heads of Roman generals and emperors stand around the wall on pedestals, it would not be difficult to pick several that bore more than a faint resemblance to him. He had breadth and depth of forehead and a jowl that lent itself to smiles as well as sternness, and a throat that expressed manly determination in every molded line.
He slept like a boy until dawn; and he and Hyde had scarcely exchanged another dozen words when the train screamed next day into Delhi station. Then he saluted stiffly and was gone.
"Young jackanapes!" Hyde muttered after him. "Lazy young devil! He ought to be with his regiment, marching and setting a good example to his men! We'll have our work cut out to win this war, if there are many of his stamp! And I'm afraid there are—I'm afraid so—far too many of 'em! Pity! Such a pity! If the right men were at the top the youngsters at the foot of the ladder would mind their P's and Q's. As it is, I'm afraid we shall get beaten in this show. Dear, oh, dear!"
Being what he was, and consistent before all things, Major Hyde drew out his writing materials there and then and wrote a report against Athelstan King, which he signed, addressed to headquarters and mailed at the first opportunity. There some future historian may find it and draw from it unkind deductions on the morale of the British army.