King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter IX
Oh, Abdul trod with a martial tread,
The second gap closed up behind them and the tunnel began to echo weirdly. The mule was the next to be panic-stricken. The noise of his plunging increased the echoes a thousand times and multiplied his fright, until the poor brute collapsed into meek obedience at last. But the guide strode on unconcerned with his easy Hillman gait, neither deigning to glance back nor making any verbal comment.
Over their heads, at irregular intervals, there were holes that if they led as King presumed into caves above, left not an inch of all the long passage that could not have been swept by rifle-fire. It was impregnable; for no artillery heavy enough to pound the mountain into pieces could ever be dragged within range. Whatever hiding place this entrance guarded could be held forever, given food and cartridges!
The tunnel wound to right and left like a snake, growing lighter and lighter after each bend; and soon their own din began to be swallowed in a greater one that entered from the farther end. After two sharp turns they came out unexpectedly into the blaze of blue day, nearly stunned by light and sound. A road came up from below like that of an ocean in the grip of a typhoon.
When his wits recovered from the shock, King struggled with a wild desire to yell, for before him, was what no servant of British India had ever seen and lived to tell about, and that is an experience more potent than unbroken rum.
They had emerged from a round-mouthed tunnel—it looked already like a rabbit-hole, so huge was the cliff behind—on to a ledge of rock that formed a sort of road along one side of a mile-wide chasm. Above him, it seemed a mile up, was blue sky, to which limestone walls ran sheer, with scarcely a foothold that could be seen. Beneath, so deep that eyes could not guess how deep, yawned the stained gorge of the underworld, many-colored, smooth and wet.
And out of a great, jagged slit in the side of the cliff, perhaps a thousand feet below them, there poured down into thunderous dimness a waterfall whose breadth seemed not less than half a mile. It spouted seventy or eighty yards before it began to curve, and its din was like the voice of all creation.
Ismail came and stood by King in silence, taking his hand, as a little child might. Presently he stooped and picked up a stone and tossed it over.
"Gone!" he said simply. "That down there is Earth's Drink!"
"And this is the 'Heart of the Hills' men boast about?"
"Nay! It is not!" snapped Ismail.
But the one-eyed guide beckoned impatiently, and King led the way after him, staring as hakim or prisoner or any man had right to do on first admission to such wonders. Not to have stared would have been to proclaim himself an idiot.
The least of all the wonders was that the secret of the place should have been kept all down the centuries; for it was the hollow middle of a limestone mountain, that could neither be looked down into from above, because the heights were not scalable, nor guessed at from the conformation of the country. The river, that flowed out of rock and went plunging down into the chasm, must be snow from the Himalayan peaks, on its way to swell the sea. There was no other way to account for that; but that explanation did explain why at least one Indian river is no greater than it is.
The road they followed was a fold in the natural rock, rising and falling and curving like a ribbon, but tending on the average downward. It looked to be about two miles to the point where it curved at the chasm's end and swept round and downward, to be lost in a fissure in the cliff.
They soon began to pass the mouths of caves. Some were above the road, now and then at crazy heights above it, reached by artificial steps hewn out of the stone. Others were below, reached from the road by means of ladders, that trembled and swayed over the dizzying waterfall. Most of the caves were inhabited, for armed men and sullen women came to their entrances to stare.
Ears grow accustomed to the sound of water sooner than to almost anything. It was not long before King's ears could catch the patter of his men's feet following, and the shod clink of the mule. He could hear when Ismail whispered:
"Be brave, little hakim! She loves fearless men."
As the track descended caves became more numerous. In one there were horses, for as they passed there came a whiff of unclean stables, and the litter of fodder and dung was all about the entrance. The mouths of other caves were sealed, with great wax disks, strangely stamped, affixed to stout wooden doors. One cave smelt as if oil were stored in it, and King wondered whence the oil was brought—for the sirkar knows to a pint and an ounce what products travel up and down the Khyber.
At last the guide halted, in the middle of a short steep slope where the path was less than six feet wide and a narrow cave mouth gave directly on to it.
"Be content to rest here!" he said, pointing.
"Thy cave?" asked King.
"Nay. God's! I am the caretaker!"
(The "Hills" are very pious and polite, between the acts of robbing and shedding blood.)
"Allah, then, reward thee, brother!" answered King. "Allah give sight to thy blind eye! Allah give thee children! Allah give thee peace, aud to all thy house!"
The guide salaamed, half-mockingly, half-wondering at such eloquence, pausing in the passage to point into the side-caves that debouched to either hand. There was a niche of a place, where a man might lie on guard near the entrance; another cave in which horses could be stabled, with plenty of fodder piled up ready; another beyond that for servants and baggage, with a fireplace and cooking pots; and at the last at the rear of all a great cavern full of eerie gloom, that opened out from the end of the passage like a bottle at the end of a long neck.
Peering about him into vastness, King became aware of frame beds, placed at intervals in a row, each with a mat beside it. And there were several brass basins and ewers for water. Also there were some little bronze lamps; the guide lit three of them, and King took up one to examine it. As he did so, involuntarily his hand almost went to his bosom, where the strange knife still reposed that he had taken from the would-be murderer in the train to Delhi.
There was no gold on the lamp; but the handle by which he lifted it had been cast, the devils of the Himalayas only knew how many centuries ago, in the form of a woman dancing; her size, and her shape, and the art with which she had been fashioned, were the same as the handle of the knife.
Watching him as a wolf eyes another one, the strange guide found his tongue.
"How many such hast thou ever seen?" he asked.
"None!" answered King, and the guide cackled at him, like a hen that has laid an egg.
"There be many strange things in Khinjan, but few strangers!" he remarked; and then, as if that were enough for any man to say on any occasion, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the cavern. It was the last King ever saw of him. He followed him down the passage to the entrance and watched him until his back disappeared round the first bend, but the man never turned his head once. He did not even look over the edge of the road, down into the amazing waterfall, nor up to the round disk of sky.
King turned back and looked into the other caves—saw the weary horse and mule fed, watered and bedded down—took note of the running water that rushed out of a rock fissure and gurgled out of sight down another one—examined the servants' cave and saw that they had been amply provided with blankets. There was nothing lacking that the most exacting traveler could have demanded at such a distance from civilization. There was more than the most exacting would have dared expect.
"Why isn't it damp in here?" he wondered, returning to his own cave. And then he noticed long fissures in the cavern walls, and that the smoke from the lamps drifted toward them. He could not guess what made it do that, unless it were the suction of the enormous river hurrying underground; and then he remembered that at the entrance air had rushed downward into the hole down which the horse had disappeared, which partly confirmed his guess.
"Ismail!" he shouted, and jumped at the revolver-crack—like echo of his voice.
Ismail came running.
"Make the men carry the mule's packs into this cave. You and Darya Khan stay here and help me open them. Remember, ye are both assistants of Kurram Khan, the hakim!"
"They will laugh at us! They will laugh at us!" clucked Ismail, but he hurried to obey, while King wondered who would laugh.
Within an hour a delegation came from no less a person than Yasmini herself, bearing her compliments, and hot food savory enough to make a brass idol's mouth water. By that time King had his sets of surgical instruments and drugs and bandages all laid out on one of the beds and covered from view by a blanket.
It was only one more proof of the British army's everlasting luck that one of the men, who set the great brass dish of food on the floor near King, had a swollen cheek, and that he should touch the swelling clumsily, as he lifted his hand to shake back a lock of greasy hair.
There followed an oath like flint struck on steel ten times in rapid succession.
"Does it pain thee, brother?" asked Kurram Khan the hakim.
"Are there devils in Tophet! Fire and my veins are one!"
The man did not notice the eagerness beaming out of King's horn-rimmed spectacles, but Ismail did; it seemed to him time to prove his virtues as assistant.
"This is the famous hakim Kurram Khan," he boasted. "He can cure anything, and for a very little fee!"
"Nay, for no fee at all in this case!" said King.
The man looked incredulous, but King drew the covering from his row of instruments and bottles.
"Take a chance!" he advised. "None but the brave wins anything!"
The man sat down, as if he would argue the point at length, but Ismail and Darya Khan were new to the business and enthusiastic. They had him down, held tight on the floor to the huge amusement of the rest, before the man could even protest; and his howls of rage did him no good, for Ismail drove the hilt of a knife between his open jaws to keep them open.
A very large proportion of King's stores consisted of morphia and cocaine. He injected enough cocaine to deaden the man's nerves, and allowed it time to work. Then he drew out three back teeth in quick succession, to make sure he had the right one.
Ismail let the victim up, and Darya Khan gave him water in a brass cup. Utterly without pain for the first time for days, the man was as grateful as a wolf freed from a trap.
"Allah reward thee, since the service was free!" he smirked.
"Are there any others in pain in Khinjan?" King asked him.
"Listen to him! What is Khinjan? Is there one man without a wound or a sore or a scar or a sickness?"
"Then, tell them," said King.
The man laughed.
"When I show my jaw, there will be a fight to be first! Make ready, hakim! I go!"
He was true to his word and left the cave like a gust of wind, followed by the three who had come with him. King sat down to eat, but he had not finished his meal—he had made the last little heap of rice into a ball with his fingers, native style, and was mopping up the last of the curried gravy with it—when the advance guard of the lame and the halt and the sick made its appearance. The cave's entrance became jammed with them, and no riot ever made more noise.
"Hakim! Ho, hakim! Where is the hakim who draws teeth? Where is the man who knows yunani?"
Ten men burst down the passage all together, all clamoring, and one man wasted no time at all but began to tear away bloody bandages to show his wound. The hardest thing now was to get and keep some kind of order, and for ten minutes Ismail and Darya Khan labored, using threats where argument failed, and brute force when they dared. It was like beating mad hounds from off their worry. What established order at last was that King rolled up his sleeves and began, so that eagerness gave place to wonder.
The "Hills" are not squeamish in any one particular; so that the fact that the cave became a shambles upset nobody. The surgeon's thrill that makes even half-amateurs oblivious of all but the work in hand, coupled with the desperate need of winning this first trick, made King horror-proof; and nobody waiting for the next turn was troubled because the man under the knife screamed a little or bled more than usual.
When they died—and more than one did die—men carried them out and flung them over the precipice into the waterfall below.
Ismail and Darya Khan became choosers of the victims. They seized a man, laid him on the bed, tore off his disgusting bandages and held their breath until the awful resulting stench had more or less dispersed. Then King would probe or lance or bandage as he saw fit, using anaesthetics when he must, but managing mostly without them.
They almost flung money at him. Few of them asked what his fee would be. Those who had no money brought him shawls, and swords, and even clothing. Two or three brought old-fashioned fire-arms; but they were men who did not expect to live. And King accepted every gift without comment, because that was in keeping with the part be played. He tossed money and clothes and every other thing they gave him into a corner at the back of the cave, and nobody tried to steal them back, although a man suspected of honesty in that company would have been tortured to death as an heretic and would have had no sympathy.
For hour after gruesome hour he toiled over wounds and sores such as only battles and evil living can produce, until men began to come at last with fresh wounds, all caused by bullets, wrapped in bandages on which the blood had caked but had not grown foul.
"There has been fighting in the Khyber," somebody, informed him, and he stopped with lancet in mid-air to listen, scanning a hundred faces swiftly in the smoky lamplight. There were ten men who held lamps for him, one of them a newcomer, and it was he who spoke.
"Fighting in the Khyber! Aye! We were a little lashkar, but we drove them back into their fort! Aye! we slew many!"
"Not a jihad yet?" King asked, as if the world might be coming to an end. The words were startled out of him. Under other circumstances he would never have asked that question so directly; but he had lost reckoning of everything but these poor devils' dreadful need of doctoring, and he was like a man roused out of a dream. If a holy war had been proclaimed already, then he was engaged on a forlorn hope. But the man laughed at him.
"Nay, not yet. Bull-with-a-beard holds back yet. This was a little fight. The jihad shall come later!"
"And who is 'Bull-with-a-beard'?" King wondered; but he did not ask that question because his wits were awake again. It pays not to be in too much of a hurry to know things in the "Hills."
As it happened, he asked no more questions, for there came a shout at the cave entrance whose purport he did not catch, and within five minutes after that, without a word of explanation, the cave was left empty of all except his own five men. They carried away the men too sick to walk and vanished, snatching the last man away almost before King's fingers had finished tying the bandage on his wound.
"Why is that?" he asked Ismail. "Why did they go? Who shouted?"
"It is night," Ismail answered. "It was time."
King stared about him. He had not realized until then that without aid of the lamps he could not see his own hand held out in front of him; his eyes had grown used to the gloom, like those of the surgeons in the sick-bays below the water line in Nelson's fleet.
"But who shouted?"
"Who knows? There is only one here who gives orders. We be many who obey," said Ismail.
"Whose men were the last ones?" King asked him, trying a new line.
"And whose man art thou, Ismail?"
The Afridi hesitated, and when he spoke at last there was not quite the same assurance in his voice as once there had been.
"I am hers! Be thou hers, too! But it is night. Sleep against the toil tomorrow. There be many sick in Khinjan."
King made a little effort to clean the cave, but the task was hopeless. For one thing he was so weary that his very bones were water; for another, Ismail pretended to be equally tired, and when the suggestion that they should help was put to the others they claimed their izzat indignantly. Izzat and sharm (honor and shame) are the two scarcely distinguishable enemies of honest work, into whose teeth it takes both nerve and resolution to drive a Hillman at the best of times. Nerve King had, but his resolution was asleep. He was too tired to care.
He appointed them to two-hour watches, to relieve one another until dawn, and flung himself on a clean bed. He was asleep before his head had met the pillow; and for all he knew to the contrary he dreamed of Yasmini all night long.
It seemed to him that she came into the cave—she the woman of the faded photograph the general had given him in Peshawur—and that the cave became filled with the strange intoxicating scent that had first wooed his senses in her reception room in Delhi.
He dreamed that she called him by name. First, "King sahib!" Then, "Kurram Khan!" And her voice was surprisingly familiar. But dreams are strange things.
"He sleeps!" said the same voice presently. "It is good that he sleeps!" And in his sleep he thought that a shadowy Ismail grunted an answer.
After that he was very sure in his dream that it was good to sleep, although a voice he did not recognize and that he was quite sure was a dream-voice, kept whispering to him to wake up and protect himself.
But the scent grew stronger, and he began to dream of cobras, that danced with a woman and struck at her so swiftly that she had to become two women in order to avoid them; and Rewa Gunga came and laughed at both and called them amateurs, so that the woman became enraged and drew a bronze-bladed dagger with a golden hilt.
Then intelligible dreams ceased altogether, and he, slept like a dead man, but with a vague suggestion ever with him that Yasmini was not very far away, and that she was interested in him to a point that was actually embarrassing. It was like the ether-dream he once dreamt in a hospital.
When he awoke at last it was after dawn, and light shone down the passage into his cave.
"Ismail!" he shouted, for he was thirsty. But there was no answer.
Again there was no answer. He called each of the other men by name with the same result.
He got up and realized then for the first time that he had not undressed himself the night before. His head felt heavy, and although he did not believe he had been drugged, there was a scent he half-recognized that permeated the cave, and even overcame the dreadful atmosphere that the sick of yesterday had left behind. He decided to go to the cave mouth, summon his men, who were no doubt sleeping as he had done, sniff the fresh air outside and come back to try the scent again; he would know then whether his nose were deceiving him.
But there was no Ismail near the entrance—no Darya Khan—nor any of the other men. The horse was gone. So was the mule. So was the harness, and everything he had, except the drugs and instruments and the presents the sick had given him; he had noticed all those still lying about in confusion when he woke.
"Ismail!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, thinking they might all be outside.
He heard a man hawk and spit, close to the entrance, and went out to see. A man whom he had never seen before leaned on a magazine rifle and eyed him as a tiger eyes its prey.
"No farther!" he growled, bringing his rifle to the port.
"Why not?" King asked him.
"Allah! When a camel dies in the Khyber do the kites ask why? Go in!"
He thought then of Yasmini's bracelet, that always gained him at least civility from every man who saw it. He held up his left wrist and knew that instant why it felt uncomfortable. The bracelet has disappeared!
He turned back into the cave to hunt for it, and the strange scent greeted him again. In spite of the surrounding stench of drugs and filthy wounds, there was no mistaking it. If it had been her special scent in Delhi, as Saunders swore it was, and her special scent on the note Darya Khan had carried down the Khyber, then it was hers now, and she had been in the cave.
He hunted high and low and found no bracelet.
His pistol was gone, too, and his cartridges, but not the dagger, wrapped in a handkerchief, under his shirt. The money, that his patients had brought him, lay on the floor untouched. It was an unusual robber who had robbed him.
At least once in his life (or he were not human, but an angel) it dawns on a man that he has done the unforgivable. It dawns on most men oftener than once a week. So men learn sympathy.
"I should have been awake to change the guard every two hours!" he admitted, sitting on the bed. "I wouldn't hesitate to shoot another man for that—or for less!"
He let the thought sink in, until the very lees of shame tasted like ashes in his mouth. Then, being what he was,—and there are not very many men good enough to shoulder what lay ahead of him—he set the whole affair behind him as part of the past and looked forward.
"Who's 'Bull-with-a-beard'?" he wondered. "Nobody interfered with me until I doctored his men. He's in opposition. That's a fair guess. Now, who in thunder—by the fat lord Harry—can 'Bull-with-a-beard' be? And why fighting in the Khyber so early as all this? And why does 'Bull-with-a-beard,' whoever he is, hang back?"