King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter IV
Men boast in the Hills, when they ought to pray;
The rear lights of the train he had not taken swayed out of Delhi station and King grinned as he wiped the sweat from his face with a dripping handkerchief. Behind him towered the hook-nosed Ismail, resentful of the unexpected. In front of him Saunders eyed the proffered black cheroots suspiciously, accepted one with an air of curiosity and passed the case back. Around them the clatter of the station crowd began to die, and Parsimony in a shabby uniform went round to lower lights.
"Are you sure—"
King's merry eyes looked into Saunders' as if there were no world war really and they two were puppets in a comedy.
"—are you absolutely certain Yasmini is in Delhi?"
"No," said Saunders. "What I swear to is that she has not left by train. It's my business to know who leaves by train."
"What can you suggest?" asked King, twisting at his scrubby little mustache. But if be wished to convey the impression of a man at his wits' end, he failed signally.
"I? Nothing! She's the most elusive individual in Asia! One person in the world knows where she is, unless she has an accomplice. My information's negative. I know she has not gone by—"
King struck a match and held it out, so the sentence was unfinished; the first few puffs of the astonishing cigar wiped out all memory of the missing word. And then King changed the subject.
"Those men I asked you to arrest—?"
"Nabbed"—puff—"every one of 'em!"—puff—puff—"all under"—puff—puff—"lock and key,—best smoke I ever tasted—where d'you get 'em?"
"Had they been in communication with her?"
Puff—puff—"You bet they had! Where d'you get these things?"
"Not her special men by any chance?"
Puff—"Gad, what smoke!—couldn't say, of course, but"—puff—puff—"shouldn't think so."
"Well—I'll go along with you if you like, and look them over."
Both tone and manner gave Saunders credit for the suggestion, and Saunders seemed to like it. There is nothing like following up, in football, war or courtship.
"I see you're a judge of a cigar," said King, and Saunders purred, all men being fools to some extent, and the only trouble being to demonstrate the fact.
They had started for the station entrance when a nasal voice began intoning, "Cap-teen King sahib—Cap-teen King sahib!" and a telegraph messenger passed them with his book under his arm. King whistled him. A moment later he was tearing open an official urgent telegram and writing a string of figures in pencil across the top. Then he decoded swiftly,
"Advices are Yasmini was in Delhi as recently as six
this evening. Fail to understand your inability to
get in touch. Have you tried at her house? Matters
in Khyber district much less satisfactory. Word from
O-C Khyber Rifles to effect that lashkar is collecting.
Better sweep up in Delhi and proceed northward as quickly
as compatible with caution. L. M. L."
The three letters at the end were the general's coded signature. The wording of the telegram was such that as he read King saw a mental picture of the general's bald red skull and could almost hear him say the "fail to understand." The three words 'much less satisfactory" were a bookful of information. So, as he folded up the telegram, tore the penciled strip of figures from the top and burned it with a match, he was at pains to look pleased.
"Good news?" asked Saunders, blowing smoke through his nose.
"Excellent. Where's my man? Here—you—Ismail!"
The giant came and towered above him.
"You swore she went North!"
"Ha, sahib! To Peshawur she went!"
"Did she start from this station?"
"From where else, sahib?"
But this was too much for Saunders, who stepped forward and thrust in an oar. King on the other hand stepped back a pace so as to watch both faces.
"Then, when did she go?"
"I saw her go!" said Ismail, affronted.
"When? When, confound you! When?"
"I expect he means to-morrow," said King. With the advantage of looker-on and a very deep experience of Northerners, he had noted that Ismail was lying and that Saunders was growing doubtful, although both men concealed the truth with what was very close to being art.
"I have a telegram here," he said, "that says she is in Delhi!"
He patted his coat, where the inner pocket bulged.
"Nay, then the tar lies, for I saw her go with these two eyes of mine!"
"It is not wise to lie to me, my friend," King assured him, so pleasantly that none could doubt he was telling truth.
"If I lie may I eat dirt!" Ismail answered him.
Inches lent the Afridi dignity, but dignity has often been used as a stalking horse for untruth. King nodded, and it was not possible to judge by his expression whether he believed or not.
"Let's make a move," be said, turning to Saunders. "She seems at any rate to wish it believed she has gone North. I can't stay here indefinitely. If she's here she's on the watch here, and there's no need of me. If she has gone North, then that is where the kites are wheeling! I'll take the early morning train. Where are the prisoners?"
"In the old Mir Khan Palace. We were short of jail room and had to improvise. The horse-stalls there have come in handy more than once before. Shall we take this gharry?"
With Ismail up beside the driver nursing King's bag and looking like a great grim vulture about to eat the horse, they drove back through swarming streets in the direction of the river. King seemed to have lost all interest in crowds. He scarcely even troubled to watch when they were held up at a cross-roads by a marching regiment that tramped as if it were herald of the Last Trump, with bayonets glistening in the street lights. He sat staring ahead in silence, although Saunders made more than one effort to engage him in conversation.
"No!" he said at last suddenly—so that Saunders jumped.
"No need to stay here. I've got what I came for!"
"What was that?" asked Saunders, but King was silent again. Conscious of the unaccustomed weight on his left wrist, he moved his arm so that the sleeve drew and he could see the edge of the great gold bracelet Rewa Gunga had given him in Yasmini's name.
"Know anything of Rewa Gunga?" he asked suddenly again.
"Yes, the Rangar. Yasmini's man."
"Not much. I've seen him. I've spoken with him, and I've had to stand impudence from him—twice. I've been tipped off more than once to let him alone because he's her man. He does ticklish errands for her, or so they say. He's what you might call 'known to the police' all right."
They began to approach an age-old palace near the river, and Saunders whispered a pass-word when an armed guard halted them. They were halted again at a gloomy gateway where an officer came out to look them over; by his leave they left the gharry and followed him under the arch until their heels rang on stone paving in a big ill-lighted courtyard surrounded by high walls.
There, after a little talk, they left Ismail squatting beside King's bag, and Saunders led the way through a modern iron door, into what had once been a royal prince's stables.
In gloom that was only thrown into contrast by a wide-spaced row of electric lights, a long line of barred and locked converted horse-stalls ran down one side of a lean-to building. The upper half of each locked door was a grating of steel rods, so that there was some ventilation for the prisoners; but very little light filtered between the bars, and all that King could see of the men within was the whites of their eyes. And they did not look friendly.
He had to pass between them and the light, and they could see more of him than he could of them. At the first cell he raised his left hand and made the gold bracelet on his wrist clink against the steel bars.
A moment later be cursed himself, and felt the bracelet with his fingernail. He had made a deep nick in the soft gold. A second later yet he smiled.
"May God be with thee!" boomed a prisoner's voice in Pashtu.
"Didn't know that fellow was handcuffed," said Saunders. "Did you hear the ring? They should have been taken off. Leaving his irons on has made him polite, though."
He passed oil, and King followed him, saying nothing. But at the next cell he repeated what he had done at the first, taking better care of the gold but letting his wrist stay longer in the light.
"May God be with thee!" said a voice within.
"Gettin' a shade less arrogant, what?" said Saunders.
"May God be with thee!" said a man in the third stall as King passed.
"They seem to be anxious for your morals!" laughed Saunders, keeping a pace or two ahead to do the honors of the place.
"May God be with thee!" said a fourth man, and King desisted for the present, because Saunders looked as if he were growing inquisitive.
"Where did you arrest them?" he asked when Saunders came to a stand under a light.
"All in one place. At Ali's."
"Who and what is Ali?"
"Pimp—crimp—procurer—Prussian spy and any other evil thing that takes his fancy! Runs a combination gambling hell and boarding house. Lets 'em run into debt and blackmails 'em. Ali's in the kaiser's pay—that's known! 'Musing thing about it is he keeps a photo of Wilhelm in his pocket and tries to make himself believe the kaiser knows him by name. Suffers from swelled head, which is part of their plan, of course. We'll get him when we want him, but at present he's useful 'as is' for a decoy. Ali was very much upset at the arrest—asked in the name of Heaven—seems to be familiar with God, too, and all the angels! -how he shall collect all the money these men owe him!"
"You wouldn't call these men prosperous, then?"
"Not exactly! Ali is the only spy out of the North who prospers much at present, and even he gets most of his money out of his private business. Why, man, the real Germans we have pounced on are all as poor as church mice. That's another part of the plan, of course, which is sweet in all its workings. They're paid less than driven by threats of exposure to us—comes cheaper, and serves to ginger up the spies! The Germans pay Ali a little, and he traps the Hillmen when they come South—lets 'em gamble—gets 'em into debt—plays on their fear of jail and their ignorance of the Indian Penal Code, which altereth every afternoon—and spends a lot of time telling 'em stories to take back with 'em to the Hills when they can get away. They can get away when they've paid him what they owe. He makes that clear, and of course that's the fly in the amber. Yasmini sends and pays their board and gambling debts, and she's our man, so to speak. When they get back to the 'Hills'—"
"Thanks," said King, "I know what happens in the 'Hills." Tell me about the Delhi end of it."
"Well, when the wander-fever grabs 'em again they come down once more from their 'Hills' to drink and gamble,—and first they go to Yasmini's. But she won't let 'em drink at her place. Have to give her credit for that, y'know; her place has never been a stews. Sooner or later they grow tired of virtue, 'specially with so much intrigue goin' on under their noses, and back they all drift to Ali's and tell him tales to tell the Germans—and the round begins again. Yasmini coaxes all their stories out of 'em and primes 'em with a few extra good ones into the bargain. Everybody's fooled—'specially the Germans—and exceptin', of course, Yasmini and the Raj. Nobody ever fooled that woman, nor ever will if my belief goes for anything!"
"Sounds simple!" said King.
"Simple and sordid!" agreed Saunders.
King looked up and down the line of locked doors and then straight into Saunders' eyes in a friendly, yet rather disconcerting way. One could not judge whether he were laughing or just thinking.
"D'you suppose it's as simple as all that?"
"How d'you mean?"
"D'you suppose the Germans aren't in directer touch with the tribes?"
"Why should they be? The simpler the better, I expect, from their point of view; and the cheaper the better, too!"
"Um-m-m!" King rubbed his chin. "On what charge did you get these men?"
"Defense of the Realm—suspicious characters—charge to be entered later."
"Good! That's simple at all events! Know anything of my man Ismail?"
"Sure! He's one of Yasmini's pets. She bailed him out of Ali's three years ago and he worships her. It was he who broke the leg and ribs of a pup-rajah a month or two ago for putting on too much dog in her reception room! He's Ursus out of Quo Vadis! He's dog, desperado, stalking horse and Keeper of the Queen's secrets!"
"Then why d'you suppose she passed him along to me?" asked King.
"Dunno! This is your little mystery, not mine!"
"Glad you appreciate that! Do me a favor, will you?"
"Anything in reason."
"Get the keys to all these cells—send 'em in here to me by Ismail—and leave me in here alone!"
Saunders whistled and wiped sweat from his glistening face, for in spite of windows open to the courtyard it was hotter than a furnace room.
"Mayn't I have you thrown into a den of tigers?" he asked. "Or a nest of cobras? Or get the fiery furnace ready? You'll find 'em sore—and dangerous! That man at the end with handcuffs on has probably been violent! That 'God be with thee' stuff is habit—they say it with unction before they knife a man!"
"I'll be careful, then," King chuckled; and it is a fact that few men can argue with him when he laughs quietly in that way. "Send me in the keys, like a good chap."
So Saunders went, glad enough to get into the outer air. He slammed the great iron door behind him as if he were glad, too, to disassociate himself from King and all foolishness. Like many another first-class man, King sheds friends as a cat sheds fur going under a gate. They grow again and quit again and don't seem to make much difference.
The instant the door slammed King continued down the line with his left wrist held high so that the occupant of each cell in turn could see the bracelet.
"May God be with thee!" came the instant greeting from each cell until down toward the farther end. The occupants of the last six cells were silent.
Numbers had been chalked roughly on the doors. With wetted fingers he rubbed out the chalk marks on the last six doors, and he had scarcely finished doing that when Ismail strode in, slamming the great iron door behind him, jangling a bunch of keys and looking more than ever like somebody out of the Old Testament.
"Open every door except those whose numbers I have rubbed out!" King ordered him.
Ismail proceeded to obey as if that were the least improbable order in all the world. It took him two minutes to select the pass-key and determine how it worked, then the doors flew open one after another in quick succession.
"Come out!" he growled. "Come out!—Come out!" although King had not ordered that.
King went and stood under the center light with his left arm bared. The prisoners, emerging like dead men out of tombs, blinked at thebright light—saw him—then the bracelet—and saluted.
"May God be with thee!" growled each of them.
They stood still then, awaiting fresh developments. It did not seem to occur to any one of them as strange that a British officer in khaki uniform should be sporting Yasmini's talisman; the thing was apparently sufficient explanation in itself.
"Ye all know this?" he asked, holding up his wrist. Whose is this?"
The answer was monosyllabic and instant from all thirty throats. "May Allah guard her, sleeping and awake!" added one or two of them.
King lit a cheroot and made mental note of the wisdom of referring to her by pronoun, not by name.
"And I? Who am I?" he asked, since it saves worlds of trouble to have the other side state the case. The Secret Service was not designed for giving information, but discovering it.
"Her messenger! Who else? Thou art he who shall take us to the 'Hills'! She promised!"
"How did she know ye were in this jail?" he asked them, and one of the Hillmen laughed like a jackal, showing yellow eye-teeth. The others cackled in chorus after him.
"Answer that riddle thyself—or else ask her! Who are we? Bats, that can see in the night? Spirits, who can hear through walls? Nay, we be plain men of the mountains!"
"But where were ye when she promised?"
"At Ali's. All of us at Ali's—held for debt. We sent and begged of her. She sent word back by a woman that one of the sirkar's men shall free us and send us home. So we waited, eating shame and little else, at Ali's. At last came a sahib in a great rage, who ordered irons put on our wrists and us marched hither. Only when each was pushed into a separate cell were the irons taken off again. Yet we were patient, for we knew this is part of her cunning, to get us away from Ali without paying him. 'May Ali die of want,' said we, with one voice all together in these cells! And now we be ready! They fed us before we had been in here an hour. Our bellies be full, but we be hungry for the 'Hills'!"
King thought of the gold-hilted knife, that still rested under his shirt. He was tempted to show it to them and find out surely whose it was and what it meant. But wisdom and curiosity seldom mingle. He thought of Ismail—"Ursus, of Quo Vadis—dog, desperado, stalking-horse and Keeper of the Queen's secrets." It was not time yet to run risks with Ismail. The knife stayed where it was.
"I shall start for the Hills at dawn," he said slowly, and he watched their eyes gleam at the news. No caged tiger is as wretched as a prisoned Hillman. No freed bird wings more wildly for the open. No moth comes more foolishly back to the flame again. It was easy to take pity on them—probably not one of whom knew pity's meaning.
"Is there any among you who would care to come—?"
"—at the price of strict obedience?"
It seemed there was no word in Pashtu that could express their willingness.
"We be very, very weary for our Hills!" explained the nearest man.
"Aye!" King answered. "And ye all owe Ali!"
But he knew better than to browbeat them on that account just then, for the men of the North are easier led than driven—up to a certain point. Yet it is no bad plan to remind them of the fundamentals to begin with.
"Will ye obey me, and him?" he asked, laying his hand on Ismail's shoulder, as much to let them see the bracelet again as for any other reason.
"Aye! If we fail, Allah do more to us!"
King laughed. "Ye shall leave this place as my prisoners. Here ye have no friends. Here ye must obey. But what when ye come to your 'Hills' at last? Can one man hold thirty men prisoners then? In the 'Hills' will ye still obey me?"
They answered him in chorus. Every man of the thirty, and Ismail into the bargain, threw his right hand in the air.
"Allah witness that we will obey!"
"Ah-h-h!" said King. "I have heard Hillmen swear by Allah many a time! Many a time!"
The answer to that was unexpected. Ismail knelt—seized his hand—and pressed the gold bracelet to his lips!
In turn, every one of them filed by, knelt reverently and kissed the bracelet!
"Saw ye ever a Hillman do that before?" asked Ismail. "They will obey thee! Have no fear!"
"Kutch dar nahin hai!" King answered. "There is no such thing as fear!" and Ismail grinned at him, not knowing that King was feeling as Aladdin must have done.
"I have heard you swear," said King; "be ye true men!"
"Have they belongings that ought to be collected first?" he asked, and Ismail laughed.
"No more than the dead have! A shroud apiece! Ali gave them bitterness to eat and picked their teeth afterward for gleanings! They stand in what they own!"
"Then, come!" ordered King, turning his back confidently on thirty savages whom Saunders, for instance, would have preferred to drive in front of him, after first seeing them handcuffed. But when he is not pressed for time neither pistols, nor yet handcuffs, are included in King's method.
"Each lock has a key, but some keys fit all locks," says the Eastern proverb. King has been chosen for many ticklish errands in his time, and Saunders is still in Delhi.
Through the great iron door into dim outer darkness King led them and presently made them squat in a close-huddled semicircle on the paving stones, like night-birds waiting for a meal.
"I want blankets for them—two good ones apiece—and food for a week's journey!" he told the astonished Saunders; and he spoke so decidedly that the other man's questions and argument died stillborn. "While you attend to that for me, I'll be seeing his dibs and making explanations. You look full of news. What do you know?"
"I've telephoned all the other stations, and my men swear Yasmini has not left Delhi by train!"
King smiled at him.
"If I leave by train d'you suppose she'll hear of it?"
"You bet! Bet your boots! Man alive—if she's interested in you by so much,"—he measured off a fraction of his little finger end—"she knows your next two moves ahead, to say nothing of your past half-dozen! I crossed her bows once and thought I had her at a disadvantage. She laughed at me. On my honor, my spine tingles yet at the mere thought of it! You've never met her? Never heard her laugh? Never seen her eyes? You've a treat in store for you—and a mauvais quat' d'heure! What'll you bet me she doesn't laugh you out of countenance the very first time you meet? Come now—what'll you bet?"
"Not in the habit," King answered, glancing at his watch. "Will you see about their rations, please, and the blankets? Thanks!"
They went then in opposite directions and the prisoners were left squatting under the eyes and bayonets of a very suspicious prison guard, who made no secret of being ready for all conceivable emergencies. One enthusiast drew the cartridge out of his breech-chamber and licked it at intervals of a minute or two, to the very great interest of the Hillmen, who memorized every detail that by any stretch of imagination might be expected to improve their own shooting when they should get home again.
King found his way on foot through a maze of streets to a palace where he was admitted through one door after another by sentries who saluted when he had whispered to them. He ended by sitting on the end of the bed of a gray-headed man who owns three titles and whose word is law between the borders of a province. To him he talked as one schoolboy to a bigger one, because the gray-haired man had understanding, and hence sympathy.
"I don't envy you!" said he under the sheet. "There was an American here not long ago—most amusing man I ever talked to. He had the right expression. 'I do not desiderate that pie!' was his way of putting it. Good, don't you think?"
All the while he talked the older man was writing on a pad that he held propped by his knees beneath the bedclothes, holding the paper tight to keep it from fluttering in the breeze of a big electric fan.
"There's the release for your prisoners. Take it—and take them! Whatever possessed you to want such a gift?"
"His. He sent for me to Peshawur and gave me strict orders to work with, not against her. This was obvious."
"How obvious? It seems bewildering!"
"Well, sir,—first place, she doesn't want to seem to be connected with me. Otherwise she'd have been more in evidence. Second place, she has left Delhi—his telegram and Saunders' men on oath notwithstanding—and she did not mean to leave those men. I imagine her best way to manage Hillmen is to keep promises, and they say she promised them. Third place, if those thirty men had been anything but her particular pet gang they'd either have been over the border or else in jail before now,—just like all the others. For some reason that I don't pretend to understand, she promised 'em more than she has been able to perform. So I provide performance. She gets the credit for it. I get a pretty good personal following at least as far as up the Khyber! Q.E.D.,sir!"
The man in bed nodded. "Not bad," he said.
"Didn't she make some effort to get those men away from Ali's?" King asked him. "I mean, didn't she try to get them dry-nursed by the sirkar in some way?"
"Yes. She did. But it was difficult. In the first place, there didn't seem to be any particular hurry. They were eating Ali's substance. The scoundrel had to feed them as long as he kept them there, and we wanted that. We forbade her to pay their debts to Ali, because he has too urgent need of money just now. He is being pressed on account of debts of his own, and the pressure is making him take risks. He has been begging for money from the German agents. We know who they are, and we expect to make a big haul within a few hours now."
"Hope I didn't spoil things by butting in, sir."
"No. This is different. She wanted them arrested and locked up at a moment when the jails were all crowded. And then she wanted us to put 'em into trucks and railroad 'em up North out of harm's way as she put it, and we happened to be too busy. The railway staff was overworked. Now things are getting straightened out. I felt it keenly not being able to oblige her, but she asked too much at the wrong moment! I would have done it if I could out of gratitude; it was she who tipped off for us most of the really dangerous men, and it was not her fault a few of them escaped. But we've all been working both tides under, King. Take me; this is my first night in bed in three, and here I am awake! No—nothing personal—glad to see you, but please understand. And I'm a leisured dilettante compared to most of the others. She must have known our fix. She shouldn't have asked."
King smiled. "Perfectly good opportunity for me, sir!" he said cheerfully.
"So you seem to think. But look out for that woman, King—she's dangerous. She's got the brains of Asia coupled with Western energy! I think she's on our side, and I know he believes it; but watch her!"
"Ham dekta hai!" King grinned. But the older man continued to look as if he pitied him.
"If you get through alive, come and tell me about it afterward. Now, mind you do! I'm awfully interested, but as for envying you—"
"Envy!" King almost squealed. He made the bed-springs rattle as he jumped. "I wouldn't swap jobs with General French, sir!"
"Nor with me, I suppose!"
"Nor with you, sir.
"Good-by, then. Good-by, King, my boy. Good-by, Athelstan. Your brother's up the Khyber, isn't he? Give him my regards. Good-by!"
Long before dawn the thirty prisoners and Ismail squatted in a little herd on the up-platform of a railway station, shepherded by King, who smoked a cheroot some twenty paces away, sitting on an unmarked chest of medicines. He seemed absorbed in a book on surgery that he had borrowed from a chance-met acquaintance in the go-down where he drew the medical supplies. Ismail sat on the one trunk that had been fetched from the other station and nursed the new hand-bag on his knees, picking everlastingly at the lock and wondering audibly what the bag contained to an accompaniment of low-growled sympathy.
"I am his servant—for she said so—and he said so. As the custom is he gave me the key of the great bag—on which I sit—as he said himself, for safe-keeping. Then why—why in Allah's name—am I not to have the key of this bag too? Of this little bag that holds so little and is so light?"
"It might be money in it?" hazarded one of the herd.
"Nay, for that it is too light."
"Paper money!" suggested another man. "Hundies, with printing on the face that sahibs accept instead of gold."
"Nay, I know where his money is," said Ismail. "He has but little with him."
"A razor would slit the leather easily," suggested another man. "Then with a hand inserted carefully through the slit, so as not to widen it more than needful, a man could soon discover the contents. And later, the bag might be dropped or pushed violently against some sharp thing, to explain the cut."
Ismail shook his head.
"Why? What could he do to thee?"
"It is because I know not what he would do to me that I will do nothing!" answered Ismail. "He is not at all like other sahibs I have had dealings with. This man does unexpected things. This man is not mad, he has a devil. I have it in my heart to love this man. But such talk is foolishness. We are all her men!"
"Aye! We are her men!" came the chorus, so that King looked up and watched them over the open book.
At dawn, when the train pulled out, the thirty prisoners sat safely locked in third-class compartments. King lay lazily on the cushions of a first-class carriage in the rear, utterly absorbed in the principles of antiseptic dressing, as if that had anything to do with Prussians and the Khyber Pass; and Ismail attended to the careful packing of soda water bottles in the ice-box on the floor.
"Shall I open the little bag, sahib?" he asked.
King shook his head.
Ismail shook the bag.
"The sound is as of things of much importance all disordered," he said sagely. "It might be well to rearrange."
"Put it over there!" King ordered. "Set it down!"
Ismail obeyed and King laid his book down to light another of his black cheroots. The theme of antiseptics ceased to exercise its charm over him. He peeled off his tunic, changed his shirt and lay back in sweet contentment. Headed for the "Hills," who would not be contented, who had been born in their very shadow?—in their shadow, of a line of Britons who have all been buried there!
"The day after to-morrow I'll see snow!" he promised himself. And Ismail, grinning with yellow teeth through a gap in his wayward beard, understood and sympathized.
Forward in the third-class carriages the prisoners hugged themselves and crooned as they met old landmarks and recognized the changing scenery. There was a new cleaner tang in the hot wind that spoke of the "Hills" and home!
Delhi had drawn them as Monte Carlo attracts the gamblers of all Europe. But Delhi had spewed them out again, and oh! how exquisite the promise of the "Hills" was, and the thunder of the train that hurried—the bumping wheels that sang Himahlayas—Himahlyas!—the air that blew in on them unscented—the reawakened memory—the heart's desire for the cold and the snow and the cruelty—the dark nights and the shrieking storms and the savagery of the Land of the Knife ahead!
The journey to Peshawur, that ought to have been wearisome because they were everlastingly shunted into sidings to make way for roaring south-bound troop trains and kept waiting at every wayside station because the trains ahead of them were blocked three deep, was no less than a jubilee progress!
Not a packed-in regiment went by that was not howled at by King's prisoners as if they were blood-brothers of every man in it. Many an officer whom King knew waved to him from a passing train.
"Meet you in Berlin!" was a favorite greeting. And after that they would shout to him for news and be gone before King could answer.
Many a man, at stations where the sidings were all full and nothing less than miracles seemed able to release the wedged-in trains, came and paced up and down a platform side by side with King. From them he received opinions, but no sympathy to speak of.
"Got to stay in India? Hard lines!" Then the conversation would be bluntly changed, for in the height of one's enthusiasm it is not decent to hurt another fellow's feelings. Simple, simple as a little child is the clean-clipped British officer. "Look at that babu, now. Don't you think he's a marvel? Don't you think the Indian babu's a marvel? Sixty a month is more than the beggar gets, and there he goes, doing two jobs and straightening out tangled trains into the bargain! Isn't he a wonder, King?"
"India's a wonderful country," King would answer, that being one of his stock remarks. And to his credit be it written that he never laughed at one of them. He let them think they were more fortunate than he, with manlier, bloodier work to do.
Peshawur, when they reached it at last, looked dusty and bleak in the comfortless light of Northern dawn. But the prisoners crowed and crooned it a greeting, and there was not much grumbling when King refused to unlock their compartment doors. Having waited thus long, they could endure a few more hours in patience, now that they could see and smell their "Hills" at last.
And there was the general again, not in a dog-cart this time, but furiously driven in a motor-car, roaring and clattering into the station less than two minutes after the train arrived. He was out of the car, for all his age and weight, before it had come to a stand. He took one steady look at King and then at the prisoners before he returned King's salute.
"Good!" he said. And then, as if that were not enough: "Excellent! Don't let 'em out, though, to chew the rag with people on the platform. Keep 'em in!"
"They're locked in, sir."
"Excellent! Come and walk up and down with me."