King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter VIII
Dear is the swagger that takes a man in
Even with the man with the stomach Ache mounted on the spare horse for the sake of extra speed (and he was not suffering one-fifth so much as he pretended); with Ismail to urge, and King to coax, and the fear of mountain death on every side of them, they were the part of a night and a day and a night and a part of another day in reaching Khinjan.
Darya Khan, with the rifle held in both hands, led the way swiftly, but warily; and the last man's eyes looked ever backward, for many a sneaking enemy might have seen them and have judged a stern chase worth while.
In the "Hills" the hunter has all the best of it, and the hunted needs must run. The accepted rule is to stalk one's enemy relentlessly and get him first. King happened to be bunting, although not for human life, and he felt bold, but the men with him dreaded each upstanding crag, that might conceal a rifleman. Armed men behind corners mean only one thing in the "Hills."
The animals grew weary to the verge of dropping, for the "road" had been made for the most part by mountain freshets, and where that was not the case it was imaginary altogether. They traveled upward, along ledges that were age-worn in the limestone—downward where the "hell-stones" slid from under them to almost bottomless ravines, and a false step would have been instant death—up again between big edged boulders, that nipped the mule's pack and let the mule between—past many and many a lonely cairn that hid the bones of a murdered man (buried to keep his ghost from making trouble)—ever with a tortured ridge of rock for sky-line and generally leaning against a wind, that chilled them to the bone, while the fierce sun burned them.
At night and at noon they slept fitfully at the chance-met shrine of some holy man. The "Hills" are full of them, marked by fluttering rags that can be seen for miles away; and though the Quran's meaning must be stretched to find excuse, the Hillmen are adept at stretching things and hold those shrines as sacred as the Book itself. Men who would almost rather cut throats than gamble regard them as sanctuaries.
When a man says he is holy he can find few in the "Hills" to believe him; but when he dies or is tortured to death or shot, even the men who murdered him will come and revere his grave.
Whole villages leave their preciousest possessions at a shrine before wandering in search of summer pasture. They find them safe on their return, although the "Hills" are the home of the lightest-fingered thieves on earth, who are prouder of villainy than of virtue. A man with a blood-feud, and his foe hard after him, may sleep in safety at a faquir's grave. His foe will wait within range, but he will not draw trigger until the grave is left behind.
So a man may rest in temporary peace even on the road to Khinjan, although Khinjan and peace have nothing whatever in common.
It was at such a shrine, surrounded by tattered rags tied to sticks, that fluttered in the wind three or four thousand feet above Khyber level, that King drew Ismail into conversation, and deftly forced on him the role of questioner.
"How can'st thou see the Caves!" he asked, for King had hinted at his intention; and for answer King gave him a glimpse of the gold bracelet.
"Aye! Well and good! But even she dare not disobey the rule. Khinjan was there before she came, and the rule was there from the beginning, when the first men found the Caves! Some—hundreds—have gained admission, lacking the right. But who ever saw them again? Allah! I, for one, would not chance it!"
"Thou and I are two men!" answered King. "Allah gave thee qualities I lack. He gave thee the strength of a bull and a mountain goat in one, and her for a mistress. To me he gave other qualities. I shall see the Caves. I am not afraid."
"Aye! He gave thee other gifts indeed! But listen! How many Indian servants of the British Raj have set out to see the Caves? Many, many—aye, very many! Again and again the sirkar sent its loyal ones. Did any return? Not one! Some were crucified before they reached the place. One died slowly on the very rock whereon we sit, with his eyelids missing and his eyes turned to the sun! Some entered Khinjan, and the women of the place made sport with them. Those would rather have been crucified outside had they but known. Some, having got by Khinjan, entered the Caves. None ever came out again!"
"Then, what is my case to thee?" King asked him "If I can not come out again and there is a secret then the secret will be kept, and what is the trouble?"
"I love thee," the Afridi answered simply. "Thou art a man after mine own heart. Turn! Go back before it is too late!"
King shook his head.
Ismail reached out a hairy-backed hand that shook with half-suppressed emotion.
"When we reach Khinjan, and I come within reach of her orders again, then I am her man, not thine!"
King smiled, glancing again at the gold bracelet on his arm.
"I look like her man, too!"
"Thou!" Ismail's scorn was well feigned if it was not real. "Thou chicken running to the hand that will pluck thy breast-feathers! Listen! Abdurrahman—he of Khabul—and may Allah give his ugly bones no peace!—Abdurrahman of Khabul sought the secret of the Caves. He sent his men to set an ambush. They caught twenty coming out of Khinjan on a raid. The twenty were carried to Khabul and put to torture there. How many, think you, told the secret under torture? They died cursing Abdurrahman to his face and he died without the secret! May God recompense him with the fire that burns forever and scalding water and ashes to eat! May rats eat his bones!"
"Had Abdurrahman this?" asked King, touching the bracelet.
"Nay! He would have given one eye for it, but none would trade with him! He knew of it, but never saw it."
"I am more favored. I have it. It is hers, is it not?" Does not she know the secret?"
"She knows all that any man knows and more!"
"Was she seen to slay a man in the teeth of written law?" asked King, and Ismail stared so hard at him that he laughed.
"I was in Khinjan once before, my friend! I know the rule! I failed to reach the Caves that other time because I had no witnesses to swear they had seen me slay a man in the teeth of written law. I know!"
"Who saw thee this time?" Ismail asked, and began to cackle with the cruel humor of the "Hills," that sees amusement in a man's undoing, or in the destruction of his plans. His humor forced him to explain.
"The price of an entrance has come of late to be the life of an English arrficer! Many an one the English have dubbed Ghazi, because he crossed the border and buried his knife in a man on church parade! They hang and burn them, knowing our Muslim law, that denies Heaven to him who is hanged and burned. Yet the man they miscall ghazi sought but the key to Khinjan Caves, with no thought at all about Heaven! Thou art a British arrficer. It may be they will let thee enter the Caves at her bidding. It may be, too, that they will keep thee in a cage there for some chief's son to try his knife on when the time comes to win admission! Listen—man o' my heart!—so strict is the rule that boys born in the Caves, when they come to manhood, must go and slay an Englishman and earn outlawry before they may come back; and lest they prove fearful and betray the secret, ten men follow each. They die by the hand of one or other of the ten unless they have slain their man within two weeks. So the secret has been kept more years than ten men can remember!" (That estimate was doubtless due to a respect for figures and bore no relation to the length of a human generation.)
"Whom did she kill to gain admission?" King asked him unexpectedly.
"Ask her!" said Ismail. "It is her business."
"And thou? Was the life of a British officer the price paid?"
"Nay. I slew a mullah."
The calmness of the admission, and the satisfaction that its memory seemed to bring the owner made King laugh. He found lawless satisfaction for himself in that Ismail's blood-price should have been a priest, not one of his brother officers. A man does not follow King's profession for health, profit or sentiment's sake, but healthy sentiment remains. The loyalty that drives him, and is its own most great reward, makes him a man to the middle. He liked Ismail. He could not have liked him in the same way if he had known him guilty of English blood, which is only proof, of course, that sentiment and common justice are not one. But sentiment remains. Justice is an ideal.
"Be warned and go back!" urged Ismail.
"Come with me, then."
"Nay, I am her man. She waits for me!"
"I imagine she waits for me!" laughed King. "Forward! We have rested in this place long enough!"
So on they went, climbing and descending the naked ramparts that lead eastward and upward and northward to the Roof of Mother Earth—Ismail ever grumbling into his long beard, and King consumed by a fiercer enthusiasm than ever had yet burned in him,
"Forward! Forward! Cast hounds forward! Forward in any event!" says Cocker. It is only regular generals in command of troops in the field who must keep their rear open for retreat. The Secret Service thinks only of the goal ahead.
It was ten of a blazing forenoon, and the sun had heated up the rocks until it was pain to walk on them and agony to sit, when they topped the last escarpment and came in sight of Khinjan's walls, across a mile-wide rock ravine—Khinjan the unregenerate, that has no other human habitation within a march because none dare build.
They stood on a ridge and leaned against the wind. Beneath them a path like a rope ladder descended in zigzags to the valley that is Khinjan's dry moat; it needed courage as well as imagination to believe that the animals could be guided down it.
"Is there no other way?" asked King. He knew well of one other, but one does not tell all one knows in the "Hills," and there might have been a third way.
"None from this side," said Ismail.
"And on the other side?"
"There is a rather better path—that by which the sirkar's troops once came—although it has been greatly obstructed since. It is two days' march from here to reach it. Be warned a last time, sahib—little hakim—be warned and go back!"
"Thou bird of ill omen!" laughed King. "Must thou croak from every rock we rest on?"
"If I were a bird I would fly away back with thee!" said Ismail.
"Forward, since we can not fly—forward and downward!" King answered. "She must have crossed this valley. Therefore there are things worth while beyond! Forward!"
The animals, weary to death anyhow, fell rather that walked down the track. The men sat and scrambled. And the heat rose up to meet them from the waterless ravine as if its floor were Tophet's lid and the devil busy under it, stoking.
It was midday when at last they stood on bottom and swayed like men in a dream fingering their bruises and scarcely able for the heat haze to see the tangled mass of stone towers and mud-and-stone walls that faced them, a mile away. Nobody challenged them yet. Khinjan itself seemed dead, crackled in the heat.
"Sahib, let us mount the hill again and wait for night and a cool breeze!" urged Darya Khan.
Ismail clucked into his beard and spat to wet his lips.
"This glare makes my eyes ache!" he grumbled.
"Wait, sahib! Wait a while!" urged the others.
"Forward!" ordered King. "This must be Tophet. Know ye not that none come out of Tophet by the way they entered in? Forward! The exit is beyond!"
They staggered after him, sheltering their eyes and faces from the glare with turban-ends and odds and ends of clothing. The animals swayed behind them with hung heads and drooping ears, and neither man nor beast had sense enough left to have detected an ambush. They were more than half-way across the valley, hunting for shadow where none was to be found, when a shotted salute brought them up all-standing in a cluster. Six or eight nickel-coated bullets spattered on the rocks close by, and one so narrowly missed King that be could feel its wind.
Up went all their hands together, and they held them so until they ached. Nothing whatever happened. Their arms ceased aching and grew numb.
"Forward!" ordered King.
After another quarter of a mile of stumbling among hot boulders, not one of which was big enough to afford cover, or shelter from the sun, another volley whistled over them. Their hands went up again, and this time King could see turbaned heads above a parapet in front. But nothing further happened.
"Forward!" he ordered.
They advanced another two hundred yards and a third volley rattled among the rocks on either hand, frightening one of the mules so that it stumbled and fell and had to be helped up again. When that was done, and the mule stood trembling, they all faced the wall. But they were too weary to hold their hands up any more. Thirst had begun to exercise its sway. One of the men was half delirious.
"Who are ye?" howled a human being, whose voice was so like a wolf's that the words at first had no meaning. He peered over the parapet, a hundred feet above, with his head so swathed in dirty linen that he looked like a bandaged corpse.
"What will ye? Who comes uninvited into Khinjan?"
King bethought him of Yasmini's talisman. He, held it up, and the gold band glinted in the sun. Yet, although a Hillman's eyes are keener than an eagle's, he did not believe the thing could be recognized at that angle, and from that distance. Another thought suggested itself to him. He turned his head and caught Ismail in the act of signaling with both hands.
"Ye may come!" howled the watchman on the parapet, disappearing instantly.
King trembled—perhaps as a racehorse trembles at the starting gate, though he was weary enough to tremble from fatigue. The "Hills," that numb the hearts of many men, had not cowed him, for he loved them and in love there is no fear. Heat and cold an hunger were all in the day's work; thirst was an incident; and the whistle of lead in the wind had never meant more to him than work ahead to do.
But a greyhound trembles in the leash. A boiler, trembles when word goes down the speaking-tube from the bridge for "all she's got." And so the mild-looking hakim Kurram Khan, walking gingerly across her rocks, donning cheap, imitation shell-rimmed spectacles to help him look the part, trembled even more than the leg-weary horse he led.
But that passed. He was all in hand when he led his men up over a rough stone causeway to a door in the bottom of a high battlemented wall and waited for somebody to open it.
The great teak door looked as if it had been stolen from some Hindu temple, and he wondered how and when they could have brought it there across those savage intervening miles. With its six-inch teak planks and bronze bolts its weight must be guessed at in tons—yet a horse can hardly carry a man along any of the trails that lead to Khinjan!
The wood bore the marks of siege and fracture repair. The walls were new-built, of age-old stone. The last expedition out of India had leveled every bit of those defenses flat with the valley, but Khinjan's devils had re-erected them, as ants rebuild a rifled nest.
The door was swung open after a time, pulled by a rope, manipulated from above by unseen hands. Inside was another blind wall, twenty feet behind the first. To the right a low barricade blocked the passage and provided a safe vantage point from which it could be swept by a hail of lead; but to the left a path ran unobstructed for more than a hundred yards between the walls, to where the way was blocked by another teak door, set in unscalable black rock. High above the door was a ledge of rock that crossed like a bridge from wall to wall, with a parapet of stone built upon it, pierced for rifle-fire.
As they approached this second door a Rangar turban, not unlike King's own, appeared above the parapet on the ledge and a voice he recognized hailed him good-humoredly.
"And upon thee be peace!" King answered in the Pashtu tongue, for the "Hills" are polite, whatever the other principles.
Rewa Gunga's face beamed down on him, wreathed in smiles that seemed to include mockery as well as triumph. Looking up at him at an angle that made his neck ache and dazzled his eyes, King could not be sure, but it seemed to him that the smile said, "Here you are, my man, and aren't you in for it?" He more than half suspected he was intended to understand that. But the Rangar's conversation took another line.
"By jove!" he chuckled. "She expected you. She guessed you are a hound who can hunt well on a dry scent, and she dared bet you will come in spite of all odds! But she didn't expect you in Rangar dress! No, by jove! You jolly well will take the wind out of her sails!"
King made no answer. For one thing, the word "hound," even in English, is not essentially a compliment. But he had a better reason than that.
"Did you find the way easily?" the Rangar asked but King kept silence.
"Is he parched? Have they cut his tongue out on the road?"
That question was in Pashtu, directed at Ismail and the others, but King answered it.
"Oh, as for that," he said, salaaming again in the fastidious manner of a native gentleman, "I know no other tongue than Pashtu and my own Rajasthani. My name is Kurram Khan. I ask admittance."
He held up his wrist to show the gold bracelet, and high over his head the Rangar laughed like a bell.
"Shabash!" he laughed. "Well done! Enter, Kurram Khan, and be welcome, thou and thy men. Be welcome in her name!"
Somebody pulled a rope and the door yawned wide, giving on a kind of courtyard whose high walls allowed no view of anything but hot blue sky. King hurried under the arch and looked up, but on the courtyard side of the door the wall rose sheer and blank, and there was no sign of window or stairs, or of any means of reaching the ledge from which the Rangar had addressed him. What he did see, as he faced that way, was that each of his men salaamed low and covered his face with both hands as he entered.
"Whom do ye salute?" he asked.
Ismail stared back at him almost insolently, as one who would rebuke a fool.
"Is this not her nest these days?" he answered. "It is well to bow low. She is not as other women. She is she! See yonder!"
Through a gap under an arch in a far corner of the courtyard came a one-eyed, lean-looking villain in Afridi dress who leaned on a long gun and stared at them under his hand. After a leisurely consideration of them he rubbed his nose slowly with one finger, spat contemptuously, and then used the finger to beckon them, crooking it queerly and turning on his heel. He did not say one word.
King led the way after him on foot, for even in the "Hills" where cruelty is a virtue, a man may be excused, on economic grounds, for showing mercy to his beast. His men tugged the weary animals along behind him, through the gap under the arch and along an almost interminable, smelly maze of alleys whose sides were the walls of square stone towers, or sometimes of mud-and-stone-walled compounds, and here and there of sheer, slab-sided cliff.
At intervals they came to bolted narrow doors, that probably led up to overhead defenses. Not fifty yards of any alley was straight; not a yard but what was commanded from overhead. Khinjan bad been rebuilt since its last destruction by some expert who knew all about street fighting. Like Old Jerusalem, the place could have contained a civil war of a hundred factions, and still have opposed stout resistance to an outside army.
Alley gave on to courtyard, and filthy square to alley, until unexpectedly at last a seemingly blind passage turned sharply and opened on a straight street, of fair width, and more than half a mile long. It is marked "Street of the Dwellings" on the secret army maps, and it has been burned so often by Khinjan rioters, as well as by expeditions out of India, that a man who goes on a long journey never expects to find it the same on his return.
It was lined on either hand with motley dwellings, out of which a motlier crowd of people swarmed to stare at King and his men. There were houses built of stolen corrugated iron-that cursed, hot, hideous stuff that the West has inflicted on an all-too-willing East; others of wood—of stone—of mud—of mat of skins—even of tent-cloth. Most of them were filthy. A row of kites sat on the roof of one, and in the gutter near it three gorged vultures sat on the remains of a mule. Scarcely a house was fit to be defended, for Khinjan's fighting men all possess towers, that are plastered about the overfrowning mountain like wasp nests on a wall. These were the sweepers, the traders, the loose women, the mere penniless and the more or less useful men—not Khinjan's inner guard by any means.
There were Hindus—sycophants, keepers of accounts and writers to the chiefs (since literacy is at premium in these parts). In proof of Khinjan's catholic taste and indiscriminate villainy, there were women of nearly every Indian breed and caste, many of them stolen into shameful slavery, but some of them there from choice. And there were little children—little naked brats with round drum tummies, who squealed and shrilled and stared with bold eyes; some of them were pretending to be bandits on their own account already, and one flung a stone that missed King by an inch. The stone fell in the gutter on the far side and, started a fight among the mangy street curs, which proved a diversion and probably saved King's party from more accurate attentions.
Perhaps a thousand souls came out to watch, all told. Not an eye of them all missed the government marks on King's trappings, or the government brand on the mules, and after a minute or two, when the procession was half-way down the street, a man reproved the child who had thrown a stone, and he was backed up by the others. They classified King correctly, exactly as he meant they should. As a hakim—a man of medicine—he could fill a long-felt want; but by the brand on his accouterments he walked an openly avowed robber, and that made him a brother in crime. Somebody cuffed the next child who picked up a stone.
He knew the street of old, although it had changed perhaps a dozen times since he had seen it. It was a cul-de-sac, and at the end of it, just as on his previous visit, there stood a stone mosque, whose roof leaned back at a steep angle against the mountain-side. The fact that it was a mosque, and that it was the only building used as such in Khinjan, had saved it from being leveled to the ground by the last British expedition.
It was a famous mosque in its way, for the bed-sheet of the Prophet is known to hang in it, preserved against the ravages of time and the touch of infidels by priceless Afghan rugs before and behind, so that it hangs like a great thin sandwich before the rear stone wall. King had seen it. Very vividly he recalled his almost exposure by a suspicious mullah, when be had crept nearer to examine it at close range. For the Secret Service must probe all things.
There had been an attempt since his last visit to make the mosque's exterior look more in keeping with the building's use. It was cleaner. It had been smeared with whitewash. A platform had been built on the roof for the muezzin. But it still looked more like a fort than a place of worship.
Toward it the one-eyed ruffian led the way, with the long, leisurely-seeming gait of a mountaineer. At the door, in the middle of the end of the street, he paused and struck on the lintel three times with his gun-butt. And that was a strange proceeding, to say the least, in a land where the mosque is public resting place for homeless ones, and all the "faithful" have a right to enter.
A mullah, shaven like a mummy for some unaccountable reason—even his eyebrows and eyelashes had been removed—pushed his bare head through the door and blinked at them. There was some whispering and more staring, and at last the mullah turned his back.
The door slammed. The one-eyed guide grounded his gun-butt on the stone, and the procession waited, watched by the crowd that had lost its interest sufficiently to talk and joke.
In two minutes the mullah returned and threw a mat over the threshold. It turned out to be the end of a long narrow strip that he kicked and unrolled in front of him all across the floor of the mosque. After that it was not so astonishing that the horses and mules were allowed to enter.
"Which proves I was right after all!" murmured King to himself.
In a steel box at Simla is a memorandum, made after his former visit to the place, to the effect that the entrance into Khinjan Caves might possibly be inside the mosque. Nobody had believed it likely, and he had not more than half favored it himself; but it is good, even when the next step may lead into a death-trap, to see one's first opinions confirmed.
He nodded to himself as the outer door slammed shut behind them, for that was another most unusual circumstance.
A faint light shone through slit-like windows, changing darkness into gloom, and little more than vaguely hinting at the Prophet's bed-sheet. But for a section of white wall to either side of it, the relic might have seemed part of the shadows. The mullah stood with his back to it and beckoned King nearer. He approached until he could see the pattern on the covering rugs, and the pink rims round the mullah's lashless eyes.
"What is thy desire?" the mullah asked—as a wolf might ask what a lamb wants.
Supposing Yasmini to be jealous of invasion of her realm, King did not doubt she would be glad to have him break down at this point. Until be had actually gained access to her, nobody could reasonably charge her with his safety. If he had been done to death in the Khyber, the sirkar would have known it in a matter of hours. If he were killed here they might never know it.
"Answer!" said the mullah. "What is thy desire?"
"Audience with her!" he answered, and showed the gold bracelet on his wrist.
The red eye-rims of the mullah blinked a time or two, and though he did not salute the bracelet, as others had invariably done, his manner underwent a perceptible change.
"That is proof that she knows thee. What is thy name."
"And thy business?"
"We need thee in Khinjan Caves! But none enter who have not earned right to enter! There is but one key. Name it!"
King drew in his breath. He had hoped Yasmini's talisman would prove to be key enough. The nails his left hand nearly pierced the palm, but he smiled pleasantly.
"He who would enter must slay a man before witnesses in the teeth of written law!" he said.
"I slew an Englishman!" The boast made his blood run cold, but his expression was one of sinful pride.
"Whom? When? Where?"
"Athelstan King—a British arrficer—sent on his way to these 'Hills' to spy!"
It was like having spells cast on himself to order!
"Where is his body?"
"Ask the vultures! Ask the kites!"
"And thy witnesses?"
Hoping against hope, King turned and waved his hand. As he did so, being quick-eyed, he saw Ismail drive an elbow home into Darya Khan's ribs, an caught a quick interchange of whispers.
"These men are all known to me," said the mullah. "They all have right to enter here. They have right to testify. Did ye see him slay his man?"
"Aye!" lied Ismail, prompt as friend can be.
"Aye!" lied Darya Khan, fearful of Ismail's elbow.
"Then, enter!" said the priest resignedly, as one admits a communicant against his better judgment.
He turned his back on them so as to face the Prophet's bed-sheet and the rear wall, and in that minute a hairy hand gripped King's arm from behind, and Ismail's voice hissed hot-breathed in his ear.
"Ready of tongue! Ready of wit! Who told thee I would lie to save thy skin? Be thy kismet as thy courage, then—but I am hers, not thy man! Hers, thou light of life—though God knows I love thee!"
The mullah seized the Prophet's bed-sheet and its covering rugs in both hands, with about as much reverence as salesmen show for what they keep in stock. The whole lot slid to one side by means of noisy rings on a rod, and a wall lay bare, built of crudely cut but very well laid stone blocks. It appeared to reach unbroken across the whole width of the mosque's interior.
On the floor lay a mallet, a peculiar thing of bronze, cast in one piece, handle and all. The mullah took it in his band and struck the stone floor sharply once—then twice again—then three times—then a dozen times in quick succession. The floor rang hollow at that spot.
After about a minute there came one answering hammer-stroke from beyond the wall. Then the mullah laid the mallet down and though King ached to pick it up and examine it he did not dare.
Excitement now was probably the least of his emotions. It had been swallowed in interest. But in his guise of hakim he had to beware of that superficial western carelessness, that permits folk to acknowledge themselves frightened or excited or amused. His business was to attract as little attention to himself as possible; and to that end he folded his hands and looked reverent, as if entering some Mecca of his dreams. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes looked far-away and dreamy. But it would have been a mistake to suppose that a detail was escaping him.
The irregular lines in the masonry began to be more pronounced. All at once the wall shook and they gaped by an inch or two, as happens when an earthquake has shaken buildings without bringing anything down. Then an irregular section of wall began to move quite smoothly away in front of him, leaving a gap through which eight men abreast could have marched.
As it receded be observed that the lowest course stones was laid on a bronze foundation, that keyed in wide bronze grooves. There was oil enough in the grooves to have greased a ship's ways and there neither squeak nor tremor as the tons of masonry slid back.
At the end of perhaps three minutes that section of the wall had become the fourth side of a twenty-foot-wide island that stood fair in the middle of a tunnel, splitting it in two to right and left. Judging by the angle of the two divisions they became one again before going very far.
The mullah stood aside and motioned King to enter. But the one-eyed guide who had led them to the mosque thrust himself between Darya Khan and Ismail, pushed King aside and took the lead.
"Nay!" he said, "I am responsible to her."
It was the first time he had spoken and be appeared to resent the waste of words.
The tunnel that led to the left was pierced in twenty places in the roof for rifle-fire; a score of men with enough ammunition could have held it forever against an army. But the right-hand way looked undefended. Nevertheless, the guide led to the left, and King followed him, filled with curiosity.
"Many have entered!" sang the lashless mullah in a sing-song chant. "More have sought to enter! Some who remained without were wisest! I count them! I keep count! Many went in! Not all came out again by this road!"
"Then there is another road?" King wondered, but he held his tongue and followed the guide.
It proved to be fifty yards through part natural, part hand-hewn, tunnel to the neck of the fork where the left—and right-hand passages became one again. He stopped at the fork and looked back, for none of his men was following.
He caught the sound of scuffling of clattering hoofs, and grunts and shouted oaths—and started to run back, since even a native hakim may protect his own, should he care to, even in the "Hills."
For the sake of principle he chose the other passage, for Cocker says, "Look! Look! Look!" But the guide seized him by the arm from behind and swung him back again.
"Not that way!" he growled. But he offered no explanation.
In the "Hills" it is not good to ask "why" of strangers. It is good to he glad one was not knifed, and to be deferent until more suitable occasion. King started to run again, but this time along the same defended passage down which they had come. And now the guide made no objection but leaned on his long gun and waited.
The charger proved to be making the trouble—the horse that King had exchanged with the jezailchi in the Khyber. The terrified brute was refusing to enter the passage, and all the men, including Ismail and the mullah, were shoving, or else tugging at the reins.
At the moment King appeared the united strength of six men was beginning to prevail. The mullah let go the reins, and in that instant the horse saw King advance toward him out of the tunnel; so, after the manner of horses, he chose the other passage. King ran at full speed round the corner after him, remembering that the guide had admitted responsibility, and therefore that the chances were he would be rescued should he run into a trap.
Suddenly, ten yards in the lead down the dark tunnel the horse threw his weight back with a clatter of sparks and screamed as only a horse can. After that there was neither sight nor sound of him.
Creeping forward with both arms outstretched against the left-hand wall, he reached the spot where, the horse had been, and shuddered on the smooth dark edge of a hole that went the full width of the floor. There came whispering up out of it, and a dank wet smell, as if there were running water a mile away below. He could feel that a little air flowed downward into it. Twenty yards away on the far side the path resumed, but there was neither hand nor foothold on the smooth damp walls between. He went back to his men with a shiver between his shoulder-blades, and the mullah, standing in the gap of the mosque wall, blinked at him with lashless eyes.
"Many have entered," be chanted maliciously. "Some went out by a different road!"
"Come!" Ismail growled at the other men, seizing the mule's bridle himself and leading to the left. "The ghosts will have a charger now for their captain to ride! Lead on, Hakim sahib!"
"Come!" called the one-eyed guide from the neck of the fork ahead. And as they all pressed forward after King the hairless mullah gave a signal and the great stone door slid slowly into place. It was like a tombstone. It was as if the world that mortals know were a thing of the forgotten past and the underworld lay ahead.
"Lead along, Charon!" King grinned. He needed some sort of pleasantry to steady his nerves. But even so he wondered what the nerves of India would be like if her millions knew of this place.