King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter X
Are jackals a tiger's friends because they flatter him and eat his leavings?
They came and changed the guard two hours after dawn, to the accompaniment of a lot of hawking and spitting, orders growled through the mist, and the crash of rifle-butts grounding on the rock path. King went to the cave entrance, to look the new man over; but because he was in Khinjan, and Khinjan in the "Hills,"where indirectness is the key to information, he stood for a while at gaze, listening to the thunder of tumbling water and looking at the cliff-edge six feet away that was laid like a knife in the ascending mist.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the new man was a Mahsudi—no sweeter to look at and no less treacherous for the fact. Also, that he had boils all over the back of his neck. He was not likely to be better tempered because of that fact, either. But it is an ill wind that blows no good to the Secret Service.
"There is an end to everything," he remarked presently, addressing the world at large, or as much as he could see of it through the cave mouth. "A hill is so high, a pool so deep, a river so wide. How long, for instance, must thy watch be?"
"What is that to thee?" the fellow growled.
"There is an end to pain!" said King, adjusting his horn-rimmed spectacles. "I lanced a man's boils last night, and it hurt him, but he must be well to-day."
"Get in!" growled the guard. "She says it is sorcery! She says none are to let thee touch them!"
Plainly, he was in no receptive mood; orders had been spat into his hairy ear too recently.
"Get in!" he growled, lifting his rifle-butt as if to enforce the order.
"I can heal boils!" said King, retiring into the cave. Then, from a safe distance down the passage, he added a word or two to sink in as the hours went by.
"It is good to be able to bend the neck without pain and to rest easily at night! It is good not to flinch at another's touch. Boils are bad! Healing is easy and good!"
Then, since a quarrel was the very last thing he was looking for, he retired into his own gloomy quarters at the rear, taking care to sit so that he could see and overhear what passed at the entrance. Among other things in the course of the day he noticed that the watch was changed every four hours and that there were only three men in the guard, for the same man was back again that evening.
At intervals throughout the day Yasmini sent him food by silent messengers; so he ate, for "the thing to do," says Cocker, "is the first that comes to hand, and the thing not to do is worry." It is not easy to worry and eat heartily at one and the same time. Having eaten, he rolled up his sleeves and native-made cotton trousers and proceeded to clean the cave. After that he overhauled his stock of drugs and instruments, repacking them and making ready against opportunity.
"As I told that heathen with a gun out there, there's an end to everything!" he reflected. "May this come soon!"
When they changed the guard that afternoon he had grown weary of his own company and of fruitless speculation and was pacing up and down. The second guard proved even less communicative than the first, up to the point when, to lessen his ennui, King began to whistle. Because a Secret Service man must be consistent, the tune was not English, but a weird minor one to which the "Hills" have set their favorite love song (that is, all about hate in the concrete!).
The echo of the waterfall within the cave was like the roaring in a shell held to the ear, but each time he came near the entrance the new guard could catch a few bars of the tune. After a little while the hook-nosed ruffian began to sing the words to it, in a voice like a forgotten dog's.
So he stopped at the entrance and changed the tune. And the guard sang the words of the new tune, too. After that he came out into the light of day (direct sunlight was cut off by the huge height of the cliffs all around) and leaned in the entrance, smiling.
"Allah preserve thee, brother!" he remarked. "Thine is a voice like a warrior's—bold and big! Thou art a true son of the Prophet!"
"Aye!" said the fellow, "that I am! Allah preserve thee, for thou hast more need of it than I, although I guard thee just at present. Whistle me another one!"
So King whistled the refrain of a song that boasts of an Afghan invasion of India, and of the loot that came of it, and the prisoners, and the women—particularly the women, mentioning more than a few of them by name, and their charms in detail. It was a song to warm the very cockles of a Hillman's heart. Nothing could have been better chosen for that setting, of a cave mouth half-way down the side of a gash in earth's wildest mountains, with the blue sky resting on a jagged rim a mile above.
"Good!" said the bearded jailer. "Now begin again and I will sing!"
He threw his head back and howled until the mountain walls rang with the song, and other men in far-off caves took it up and howled it back at him. When he left off singing at last, to drink from a water-bottle, that surely had been looted from a British soldier, King decided to be done with overtures and make the next move in the game.
"Didst thou ever sing for her?" he asked, and the man turned round to stare at him as if he were mad, King saw then a blood-soaked bandage on the right of his neck, not very far from the jugular.
"When she sings we are silent! When she is silent it is good to wait a while and see!" he answered
"Hah!" said King. "Was that wound got in the Khyber the other day?"
"Nay. Here in Khinjan. I had my thumb in a man's eye, and the bastard bit me! May devils do worse to him where he has gone! I threw him into Earth's Drink!"
"A good place for one's enemies!" laughed King.
"A man told me last night," said King, drawing on imagination without any compunction at all, "that the fight in the Khyber was because a jihad is launched aleady."
"That man lied!" said the guard, shifting position uneasily, as if afraid to talk too much.
"So I told him!" answered King. "I told him there never will be another jihad."'
"Then art thou a greater liar than he!" the guard answered hotly. "There will be a jihad when she is ready, such an one as never yet was! India shall bleed for all the fat years she has lain unplundered! Not a throat of an unbeliever in the world shall be left un-slit! No jihad? Thou liar! Get in out of my sight!"
So King retired into the cave, with something new to think about. Was she planning the jihad! Or pretending to plan one? Every once in a while the guard leaned far into the cave mouth and buried adjectives at him, the mildest of which was a well of information. If his temper was the temper of the "Hills," it was easy to read disappointment for a jihad that should have been already but had been postponed.
When they changed the guard again the new man proved surly. There was no getting a word out of him. He showed dirty yellow teeth in a wolfish snarl, and his only answer was a lifted rifle and a crooked forefinger. King let him alone and paced the cave for hours.
He was squatting on his bed-end in the dark, like a spectacled image of Buddha, when the first of the three men came on guard again and at last Ismail came for him holding a pitchy torch that filled the dim passage full of acrid smoke and made both of them, cough. Ismail was red-eyed with it.
"Come!" he growled. "Come, little hakim!" Then he turned on his heel at once, as if afraid of being twitted with desertion. He seemed to want to get outside, where he could keep out of range of words, yet not to wish to seem unfriendly.
But King made no effort to speak to him, following in silence out on to the dark ledge above the waterfall and noticing that the guard with the boils was back again on duty. He grinned evilly out of a shadow as King passed.
"Make an end!" he advised, spitting over the Cliff into thunderous darkness to illustrate the suggestion. "Jump, hakim, before a worse thing happens!"
To add further point be kicked a loose stone over the edge, and the movement caused him to bend his neck and so inadvertently to hurt his boils. He cursed, and there was pity in King's voice when he spoke next.
"Do they hurt thee?"
"Aye, like the devil! Khinjan is a place of plagues!"
"I could heal them," King said, passing on, and the man stared hard.
"Come!" boomed Ismail through the darkness, shaking the torch to make it burn better and beckoning impatiently, and King hurried after him, leaving behind a savage at the cave mouth who fingered his sores and wondered, muttering, leaning on a rifle, muttering and muttering again as if he had seen a new light.
Instead of waiting for King to catch up, Ismail began to lead the way at great speed along a path that descended gradually until it curved round the end of the chasm and plunged into a tunnel where the darkness grew opaque. In the tunnel the torch's smoke cast weird shadows on walls and roof, and the fitful light only confused, so that Ismail slowed down and let him come up close.
Then for thirty minutes he led swiftly down a crazy devil's stairway of uneven boulders, stopping to lend a hand at the worst places, but everlastingly urging him to hurry. They were both breathless, and King was bruised in a dozen places when they reached level going at least six or seven hundred feet below the cave from which they started.
Then the hell-mouth gloom began to grow faintly luminous, and the waterfall's thunder burst on their ears from close at hand. They emerged into fresh wet air and a sea of sound, on a rock ledge like the one above. Ismail raised the torch and waved it. The fire and smoke wandered up, until they flattened on a moving opal dome, that prisoned all the noises in the world.
"Earth's Drink!" he announced, waving the torch and then shutting his mouth tight, as if afraid to voice sacrilege.
It was the river, million-colored in the torch-light, pouring from a half-mile-long slash in the cliff above them and plunging past them through the gloom toward the very middle of the world. Its width was a matter of memory, and its depth unguessable, for although dim moonlight filtered through it, he did not know where the moon was, nor how far such light could penetrate through moving water. Somewhere it met rock-bottom and boiled there, for a roar like the sea's came up from deeps unimaginable.
He watched the overturning dome until his senses reeled. Then he crawled on hands and knees to the ledge's brink and tried to peer over. But Ismail dragged him back.
"Come!" he howled; but in all that din his shout was like a whisper.
"How deep is it?" King bellowed back.
"Allah! Ask Him who made it!"
The fear of the falls was on the Afridi, and he tugged at King's arm in a frenzy of impatience. Suddenly he let go and broke into a run. King trotted after him, afraid too, to look to right or left, lest the fear should make him throw himself over the brink. The thunder and the hugeness had their grip on him and had begun to numb his power to think and his will to be a man. Suddenly when they had run a hundred yards, Ismail turned sharp to the right into a tunnel that led straight back into the cliff and sloped uphill. As the din of the falls grew less behind him and his power to think returned, King calculated that they must be following the main direction of the river bed, but edging away gradually to the right of it. After ten minutes' hurrying uphill he guessed they must be level with the river, in a tunnel running nearly parallel.
He proved to be right, for they came to a gap in the wall, and Ismail thrust the torch through it. The light shone on swift black water, and a wind rushed through the gap that nearly blew the torch out. It accounted altogether for the dryness of the rock and the fresh air in the tunnel. The river's weight seemed to suck a hurricane along with it—air enough for a million men to breathe.
After that there was no more need to stop at intervals and beat the torch against the wall to make it burn brightly, for the wind fanned it until the flame was nearly white. Ismail kept looking back to bid King hurry and never paused once to rest.
"Come!" be urged fiercely. "This leads to the 'Heart of the Hills'!" And after that King had to do his best to keep the Afridi's back in sight.
They began after a time to hear voices and to see the smoky glare made by other torches. Then Ismail set the pace yet faster, and they became the last two of a procession of turbaned men, who tramped along a winding tunnel into a great mountain's womb. The sound of slippers clicking and rutching on the rock floor swelled and died and swelled again as the tunnel led from cavern into cavern.
In one great cave they came to every man beat out his torch and tossed it on a heap. The heap was more than shoulder high, and three parts covered the floor of the cave. After that there was a ledge above the height of a man's head on either side of the tunnel, and along the ledge little oil-burning lamps were spaced at measured intervals. They looked ancient enough to have been there when the mountain itself was born, and although all the brass ones suggested Indian and Hindu origin, there were others among them of earthenware that looked like plunder from ancient Greece.
It was like a transposition of epochs. King felt already as if the twentieth century had never existed, just as he seemed to have left life behind for good and all when the mosque door had closed on him.
A quarter of a mile farther along the tunnel opened into another, yet greater cave, and there every man kicked off his slippers, without seeming to trouble how they lay; they littered the floor unarranged and uncared for, looking like the cast-off wing-cases of gigantic beetles.
After that cave there were two sharp turns in the tunnel, and then at last a sea of noise and a veritable blaze of light.
Part of the noise made King feel homesick, for out of the mountain's very womb brayed a music-box, such as the old-time carousels made use of before the days of electricity and steam. It was being worked by inexpert hands, for the time was something jerky; but it was robbed of its tinny meanness and even majesty by the hugeness of a cavern's roof, as well as by the crashing, swinging march it played—wild—wonderful—invented for lawless hours and a kingless people.
The procession began to tramp in time to it, and the rock shook. They deployed to left and right into a space so vast that the eye at first refused to try to measure it. It was the hollow core of a mountain, filled by the sea-sound of a human crowd and hung with huge stalactites that danced and shifted and flung back a thousand colors at the flickering light below.
There was an undertone to the clangor of the music-box and the human hum, for across the cavern's farther end for a space of two hundred yards the great river rushed, penned here into a deep trough of less than a tenth its normal width—plunging out of a great fanged gap and hurrying out of view down another one, licking smooth banks on its way with a hungry sucking sound. Its depth where it crossed the cavern's end could only be guessed by remembering the half-mile breadth of the waterfall.
There were little lamps everywhere, perched on ledges amid the stalactites, and they suffused the whole cavern in golden glow, made the crowd's faces look golden and cast golden shimmers on the cold, black river bed. There was scarcely any smoke, for the wind that went like a storm down the tunnel seemed to have its birth here; the air was fresh and cool and never still. No doubt fresh air was pouring in continually through some shaft in the rock, but the shaft was invisible.
In the midst of the cavern a great arena had been left bare, and thousands of turbaned men squatted round it in rings. At the end where the river formed a tangent to them the rings were flattened, and at that point they were cut into by the ramp of a bridge, and by a lane left to connect the bridge with the arena. The bridge was almost the most wonderful of all.
So delicately formed that fairies might have made it with a guttered candle, it spanned the river in one splendid sweep, twenty feet above water, like a suspension bridge. Then, so light and graceful that it scarcely seemed to touch anything at all, it swept on in irregular arches downward to the arena and ceased abruptly as if shorn off by a giant ax, at a point less than half-way to it.
Its end formed a nearly square platform, about fourteen feet above the floor, and the broad track thence to the arena, as well as all the arena's boundary, had been marked off by great earthenware lamps, whose greasy smoke streaked up and was lost by the wind among the stalactites.
"Greek lamps, every one of 'em!" King whispered to himself, but he wasted no time just then on trying to explain how Greek lamps had ever got there. There was too much else to watch and wonder at.
No steps led down from the bridge end to the floor; toward the arena it was blind. But from the bridge's farther end across the hurrying water stairs had been hewn out of the rock wall and led up to a hole of twice a man's height, more than fifty feet above water level.
On either side of the bridge end a passage had been left clear to the river edge, and nobody seemed to care to invade it, although it was not marked off in any way. Each passage was about fifty feet wide and quite straight. But the space between the bridge end and the arena, and the arena itself, had to be kept free from trespassers by fifty swaggering ruffians armed to the teeth.
Every man of the thousands there had a knife in evidence, but the arena guards had magazine rifles well as Khyber tulwars. Nobody else wore firearms openly. Some of the arena guards bore huge round shields of prehistoric pattern of a size and sort he had never seen before, even in museums. But there was very little that he was seeing that night of a kind that he had seen before anywhere!
The guards lolled insolently, conscious of brute strength and special favor. When any man trespassed with so much as a toe beyond the ring of lamps, a guard would slap his rifle-butt until the swivels rattled and the offender would scurry into bounds amid the jeers of any who had seen.
Shoving, kicking and elbowing with set purpose, Ismail forced a way through the already seated crowd, and drew King down into the cramped space beside him, close enough to the arena to be able to catch the guards' low laughter. But he was restless. He wished to get nearer yet, only there seemed no room anywhere in front.
The music-box was hidden. King could see it nowhere. Five minutes after he and Ismail were seated it stopped playing. The hum of the crowd died too.
Then a guard threw his shield down with a clang and deliberately fired his rifle at the roof. The ricocheting bullet brought down a shower of splintered stone and stalactite, and he grinned as he watched the crowd dodge to avoid it. Before they had done dodging and while he yet grinned, a chant began—ghastly—tuneless—so out of time that the words were not intelligible—yet so obvious in general meaning that nobody could hear it and not understand.
It was a devils' anthem, glorifying hellishness—suggestive of the gnashing of a million teeth, and the whicker of drawn blades—more shuddersome and mean than the wind of a winter's night. And it ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
Another ruffian fired at the roof, and while the crack of the shot yet echoed seven other of the arena guards stepped forward with long horns and blew a blast. That was greeted by a yell that made the cavern tremble.
Instantly a hundred men rose from different directions and raced for the arena, each with a curved sword in either hand. The yelling changed back into the chant, only louder than before, and by that much more terrible. Cymbals crashed. The music-box resumed its measured grinding of The Marseillaise. And the hundred began an Afridi sword dance, than which there is nothing wilder in all the world. Its like can only be seen under the shadow of the "Hills."
Ismail put his hands together and howled through them like a wolf on the war-path, nudging King with an elbow. So King imitated him, although one extra shout in all that din seemed thrown away.
The dancers pranced in a circle, each man whirling both swords around his head and the head of the man in front of him at a speed that passed belief. Their long black hair shook and swayed. The sweat began to pour from them until their arms and shoulders glistened. The speed increased. Another hundred men leaped in, forming a new ring outside the first, only facing the other way. Another hundred and fifty formed a ring outside them again, with the direction again reversed; and two hundred and fifty more formed an outer circle—all careering at the limit of their power, gasping as the beasts do in the fury of fighting to the death, slitting the air until it whistled, with swords that missed human heads by immeasurable fractions of an inch.
Ismail seemed obsessed by the spirit of hell let loose—drawn by it, as by a magnet, although subsequent events proved him not to have been altogether without a plan. He got up, with his eyes fixed on the dance, and dragged King with him to a place ten rows nearer the arena, that had been vacated by a dancer. There—two, where there was only rightly room for one—he thrust himself and King next to some Orakzai Pathans, elbowing savagely to right and left to make room. And patience proved scarce. The instant oaths of anything but greeting were like overture to a dog fight.
"Bismillah!" swore the nearest man, deigning to use intelligible sentences at last. "Shall a dog of an Afridi bustle me?"
He reached for the ever-ready Pathan knife, and Ismail, with both eyes on the dancing, neither heard nor saw. The Pathan leaned past King to stab, but paused in the instant that his knife licked clear. From a swift side-glance at King's face be changed to full stare, his scowl slowly giving place to a grin as he recognized him.
He drove the long blade back again, fidgeting about to make more room and kicking out at his next neighbor to the same end, so that presently King sat on the rock floor instead of on other men's hip-bones.
"Well met, hakim! See—the wound heals finely!"
Baring his shoulder under the smelly sheepskin coat, he lifted a bandage gingerly to show the clean opening out of which King had coaxed a bullet the day before. It looked wholesome and ready to heal.
"Name thy reward, hakim! We Orakzai Pathans forget no favors!" (Now that boast was a true one.)
King glanced to his left and saw that there was no risk of being overheard or interrupted by Ismail; the Afridi was beating his fists together, rocking from side to side in frenzy, and letting out about one yell a minute that would have curdled a wolf's heart.
"Nay, I have all I need!" he answered, and the Pathan laughed.
"In thine own time, hakim! Need forgets none of us!"
"True!" said King.
He nodded more to himself than to the other man. He needed, for instance, very much to know who was planning a jihad, and who "Bull-with-a-beard" might be; but it was not safe to confide just yet in a chance-made acquaintance. A very fair acquaintance with some phases of the East had taught him that names such as Bull-with-a-beard are often almost photographically descriptive. He rose to his feet to look. A blind man can talk, but it takes trained eyes to gather information.
The din had increased, and it was safe to stand up and stare, because all eyes were on the madness in the middle. There were plenty besides himself who stood to get a better view, and he had to dodge from side to side to see between them.
"I'm not to doctor his men. Therefore it's a fair guess that he and I are to be kept apart. Therefore he'll be as far away from me now as possible, supposing he's here."
Reasoning along that line, he tried to see the face on the far side, but the problem was to see over th dancers' heads. He succeeded presently, for the Orakzai Pathan saw what he wanted, and in his anxiety to be agreeable, reached forward to pull back a box from between the ranks in front.
Its owners offered instant fight, but made no further objection when they saw who wanted it and why. King wondered at their sudden change of mind, the Pathan looked actually grieved that a fight should have been spared him. He tried, with a few barbed insults, to re-arouse a spark of enmity, but failed, to his own great discontent.
The box was a commonplace affair, built square, of pine, and had probably contained somebody's new helmet at one stage of its career. The stenciled marks on its sides and top had long ago become obliterated by wear and dirt.
King got up on it and gazed long at the rows of spectators on the far side, and having no least notion what to look for, he studied the faces one by one.
"If he's important enough for her to have it in for him, he'll not be far from the front," he reasoned and with that in mind he picked out several bull-necked, bearded men, any one of whom could easily have answered to the description. There were too many of them to give him any comfort, until the thought occurred to him that a man with brains enough to be a leader would not be so obsessed and excited by mere prancing athleticism as those men were. Then he looked farther along the line.
He found a man soon who was not interested in the dancing, but who had eyes and ears apparently for everything and everybody else. He watched him for ten minutes, until at last their eyes met. Then he sat down and kicked the box back to its owners.
He looked again at Ismail. With teeth clenched and eyes ablaze, the Afridi was smashing his knuckles together and rocking to and fro. There was no need to fear him. He turned and touched the Pathan's broad shoulder. The man smiled and bent his turbaned head to listen.
"Opposite," said King, "nearly exactly opposite—three rows back from the front, counting the front row as one—there sits a man with his arm in a sling and a bandage over his eye."
The Pathan nodded and touched his knife-hilt.
"One-and-twenty men from him, counting him as one, sits a man with a big black beard, whose shoulders are like a bull's. As he sits he hangs his head between them—thus."
"And you want him killed? Nay, I think you mean Muhammad Anim. His time is not yet."
The suggestion was as good-naturedly prompt as if the hakim's need had been water, and the other's flask were empty. He was sorry he could not offer to oblige.
"Who am I that I should want him killed?" King answered with mild reproof. "My trade is to heal, not slay. I am a hakim."
The other nodded.
"Yet, to enter Khinjan Caves you had to slay a man, hakim or no!"
"He was an unbeliever," King answered modestly, and the other nodded again with friendly understanding.
"What about the man yonder, then?" the Pathan asked. "What will you have of him?"
"Look! See! Tell me truly what his name is!"
The Pathan got up and strode forward to stand on the box, kicking aside the elbows that leaned on it and laughing when the owners cursed him. He stood on it and stared for five minutes, counting deliberately three times over, striking a finger on the palm of his hand to check himself.
"Bull-with-a-beard!" he announced at last, dropping back into place beside King. "Muhammad Anim. The mullah Muhammad Anim."
"An Afghan?" King asked.
"He says he is an Afghan. But unless he lies he is from Isbtamboul (Constantinople)."
Itching to ask more questions, King sat still and held his peace. The direr the need of information in the "Hills," and in all the East for that matter, the greater the wisdom, as a rule, of seeming uninquisitive. And wisdom was rewarded now, for the Pathan, who would have dried up under eager questioning, grew talkative. Civility and volubility are sometimes one, and not always only among the civilized. King—the hakim Kurram Khan—blinked mildly behind his spectacles and looked like one to whom a savage might safely ease his mind.
"He bade me go to Sikaram where my village is and bring him a hundred men for his lashkar. He says he has her special favor. Wait and watch, I say!
"Has he money?" asked King, apparently drawing a bow at a venture for conversation's sake. But there is an art in asking artless questions.
"Aye! The liar says the Germans gave it to him! He swears they will send more. Who are the Germans? Who is a man who talks of a jihad that is to be, that he should have gold coin given him by unbelievers? I saw a German once, at Nuklao. He ate pig-meat and washed it down with wine. Are such men sons of the Prophet? Wait and watch, say I!"
"Money?" said King. "He admits it? And none dare kill him for it? You say his time is not yet come?"
More than ever it was obvious that the hakim was a very simple man. The Pathan made a gesture of contempt.
"I dare what I will, hakim! But he says there is more money on the way! When he has it all—why—we are all in Allah's keeping—He decides!"
"And should no more money come?"
This was courteous conversation and received as such—many a long league removed from curiosity.
"Who am I to foretell a man's kismet? I know what I know, and I think what I think! I know thee, hakim, for a gentle fellow, who hurt me almost not at all in the drawing of a bullet out of my flesh. What knowest thou about me?"
"That I will dress the wound for thee again!"
Artless statements are as useful in their way as artless questions. Let the guile lie deep, that is all.
"Nay, nay! For she said nay! Shall I fall foul of her, for the sake of a new bandage?"
The temptation was terrific to ask why she had given that order, but King resisted it; and presently it occurred to the Pathan that his own theories on the subject might be of interest.
"She will use thee for a reward," he said. "He who shall win and keep her favor may have his hurts dressed and his belly dosed. Her enemies may rot."
"Who is fool enough to be her enemy?" asked King, the altogether mild and guileless.
The Pathan stuck out his tongue and squeezed his nose with one finger until it nearly disappeared into his face.
"If she calls a man enemy, how shall he prove otherwise?" he answered. Then he rolled off center, to pull out his great snuff-box from the leather bag at his waist.
"Does she call the mullah Muhammad Anim enemy?" King asked him.
"Nay, she never mentions him by name."
"Art thou a man of thy word?" King asked.
"When it suits me."
"There was a promise regarding my reward."
"Name it, hakim! We will see."
"Go tell the mullah Muhammad Anim where I sit!"
The fellow laughed. He considered himself tricked; one could read that plainly enough; for taking polite messages does not come within the Hills' elastic code of izzat, although carrying a challenge is another matter. Yet he felt grateful for the hakim's service and was ready to seize the first cheap means of squaring the indebtedness.
"Keep my place!" he ordered, getting up. He growled it, as some men speak to dogs, because growling soothed his ruffled vanity.
He helped himself noisily to snuff then and began to clear a passage, kicking out to right and left and laughing when his victims protested. Before he had traversed fifty yards he had made himself more enemies than most men dare aspire to in a lifetime, and he seemed well pleased with the fruit of his effort.
The dance went on for fifteen minutes yet, but then—quite unexpectedly—all the arena guards together fired a volley at the roof, and the dance stopped as if every dancer had been hit. The spectators were set surging by the showers of stone splinters, that hurt whom they struck, and their snarl was like a wolf-pack's when a tiger interferes. But the guards thought it all a prodigious joke and the more the crowd swore the more they laughed.
Panting—foaming at the mouth, some of them—the dancers ran to their seats and set the crowd surging again, leaving the arena empty of all but the guards. The man whose seat Ismail had taken came staggering, slippery with sweat, and squeezed himself where he belonged, forcing King into the Pathan's empty place. Ismail threw his arms round the man and patted him, calling him "mighty dancer," "son of the wind," "prince of prancers," "prince of swordsmen," "war-horse," and a dozen more endearing epithets. The fellow lay back across Ismail's knees, breathless but well enough contented.
And after a few more minutes the Orakzai Pathan came back, and King tried to make room for him to sit.
"I bade thee keep my place!" he growled, towering over King and plucking at his knife-belt irresolutely. He made it clear without troubling to use words that any other man would have had to fight, and the hakim might think himself lucky.
"Take my seat," said King, struggling to get up.
"Nay, nay—sit still, thou. I can kick room for myself. So! So! So!"
There was an answering snarl of hate that seemed like a song to him, amid which he sat down.
"The mullah Muhammad Anim answered he knows nothing of thee and cares less! He said—and he said it with vehemence—it is no more to him where a hakim sits than where the rats hide!"
He watched King's face and seeing that, King allowed his facial muscles to express chagrin.
"Between us, it is a poor time for messages to him. He is too full of pride that his lashkar should have beaten the British."
"Did they beat the British greatly?" King asked him, with only vague interest on his face and a prayer inside him that his heart might flutter less violently against his ribs. His voice was as non-committal as the mullah's message.
"Who knows, when so many men would rather lie than kill? Each one who returned swears he slew a hundred. But some did not return. Wait and watch, say I!"
Now a man stood up near the edge of the crowd whom King recognized; and recognition brought no joy with it. The mullah without hair or eyelashes, who had admitted him and his party through the mosque into the Caves, strode out to the middle of the arena all alone, strutting and swaggering. He recalled the man's last words and drew no consolation from them, either.
"Many have entered! Some went out by a different road!"
Cold chills went down his back. All at once Ismail's manner became unencouraging. He ceased to make a fuss over the dancer and began to eye King sidewise, until at last he seemed unable to contain the malice that would well forth.
"At the gate there were only words!" he whispered. "Here in this cavern men wait for proof!"
He licked his teeth suggestively, as a wolf does when he contemplates a meal. Then, as an afterthought, as though ashamed, "I love thee! Thou art a man after my own heart! But I am her man! Wait and see!"
The mullah in the arena, blinking with his lashless eyes, held both arms up for silence in the attitude of a Christian priest blessing a congregation. The guards backed his silent demand with threatening rifles. The din died to a hiss of a thousand whispers, and then the great cavern grew still, and only the river could be heard sucking hungrily between the smooth stone banks.
"God is great!" the mullah howled.
"God is great!" the crowd thundered in echo to him; and then the vault took up the echoes. "God is great—is great—is great—ea—ea—eat!"
"And Muhammad is His prophet!" howled the mullah. Instantly they answered him again.
"And Muhammad is His prophet!"
"His prophet—is His prophet—is His prophet!" said the stalactites, in loud barks—then in murmurs—then in awe-struck whispers.
That seemed to be all the religious ritual Khinjan remembered or could tolerate. Considering that the mullah, too, must have killed his man in cold blood before earning the right to be there, perhaps it was enough—too much. There were men not far from King who shuddered.
"There are strangers!" announced the mullah, as a man might say, "I smell a rat!" But he did not look at anybody in particular; he blinked at the crowd.
"Strangers!" said the stalactites, in an awe-struck whisper.
"Show them! Show them! Let them stand forth!"
"Oh-h-h-h-h! Let them stand forth!" said the roof.
The mullah bowed as if that idea were a new one and he thought it better than his own; for all crowds love flattery.
"Bring them!" he shouted, and King suppressed a shudder—for what proof had he of right to be there beyond Ismail's verbal corroboration of a lie? Would Ismail lie for him again? he wondered. And if so, would the lie be any use?
Not far from where King sat there was an immediate disturbance in the crowd, and a wretched-looking Baluchi was thrust forward at a run, with arms lashed to his sides and a pitiful look of terror on his face. Two more Baluchis were hustled along after him, protesting a little, but looking almost as hopeless.
Once in the arena, the guards took charge of all three of them and lined them up facing the mullah, clubbing them with their rifle-butts to get quick obedience. The crowd began to be noisy again, but the mullah signed for silence.
"These are traitors!" he howled, with a gesture such as Ajax might have used when he defied the lightning.
The roof said "Traitors!"
"Slay them, then!" howled the crowd, delighted. And blinking behind the horn-rimmed spectacles, King began to look about busily for hope, where there did not seem to be any.
"Nay, hear me first!" the mullah howled, and his voice was like a wolf's at hunting time. "Hear, and be warned!"
The crowd grew very still, but King saw that some men licked their lips, as if they well knew what was coming.
"These three men came, and one was a new man!" the mullah howled. "The other two were his witnesses! All three swore that the first man came from slaying an unbeliever in the teeth of written law. They said he ran from the law. So, as the custom is, I let all three enter!"
"Good!" said the crowd. "Good!" They might have been five thousand judges, judging in equity, so grave they were. Yet they licked their lips.
"But later, word came to me saying they are liars. So—again as the custom is—I ordered them bound and held!"
"Slay them! Slay them!" the crowd yelped, gleeful as a wolf-pack on a scent and abandoning solemnity as suddenly as it had been assumed. "Slay them!"
They were like the wind, whipping in and out among Khinjan's rocks, savage and then still for a minute, savage and then still.
"Nay, there is a custom yet!" the mullah howled, holding up both arms. And there was silence again like the lull before a hurricane, with only the great black river talking to itself.
"Who speaks for them? Does any speak for them?"
"Speak for them?" said the roof.
There was silence. Then there was a murmur of astonishment. Over opposite to where King sat the mullah stood up, who the Pathan had said was "Bull-with-a-beard"—Muhammad Anim.
"The men are mine!" he growled. His voice was like a bear's at bay; it was low, but it carried strangely. And as he spoke he swung his great head between his shoulders, like a bear that means to charge. "The proof they brought has been stolen! They had good proof! I speak for them! The men are mine!"
The Pathan nudged King in the ribs with an elbow like a club and tickled his ear with hot breath.
"Bull-with-a-beard speaks truth!" he grinned. "'Truth and a lie together! Good may it do him and them! They die, they three Baluchis!"
"Proof!" howled the mullah who had no hair eyelashes.
"Proof—oof—oof!" said the stalactites.
"Proof! Show us proof!" yelled the crowd.
"Words at the gate—proof in the cavern!" howled the lashless one.
The Pathan next King leaned over to whisper to him again, but stiffened in the act. There was a great gasp the same instant, as the whole crowd caught its breath all together. The mullah in the middle froze into mobility. Bull-with-a-beard stood mumbling, swaying his great head from side to side, no longer suggestive of a bear about to charge, but of one who hesitates.
The crowd was staring at the end of the bridge. King stared, too, and caught his own breath. For Yasmini stood there, smiling on them all as the new moon smiles down on the Khyber! She had come among them like a spirit, all unheralded.
So much more beautiful than the one likeness King had seen of her that for a second he doubted who she was—more lovely than he had imagined her even in his dreams—she stood there, human and warm and real, who had begun to seem a myth, clad in gauzy transparent stuff that made no secret of sylph-like shapeliness and looking nearly light enough to blow away. Her feet—and they were the most marvelously molded things he had ever seen—were naked and played restlessly on the naked stone. Not one part of her was still for a fraction of a second; yet the whole effect was of insolently lazy ease.
Her eyes blazed brighter than the little jewels stitched to her gossamer dress, and when a man once looked at them he did not find it easy to look away again. Even mullah Muhammad Anim seemed transfixed, like a great foolish animal.
But King was staring very hard indeed at something else—mentally cursing the plain glass spectacles he wore, that had begun to film over and dim his vision. There were two bracelets on her arm, both barbaric things of solid gold. The smaller of the two was on her wrist and the larger on her upper arm, but they were so alike, except for size, and so exactly like the one Rewa Gunga had given him in her name and that had been stolen from him in the night, that he ran the risk of removing the glasses a moment to stare with unimpeded eyes . Even then the distance was too great. He could not quite see.
But her eyes began to search the crowd in his direction, and then he knew two things absolutely. He was sitting where she had ordered Ismail to place him; for she picked him out almost instantly, and laughed as if somebody had struck a silver bell. And one of those bracelets was the one that he had worn; for she flaunted it at him, moving her arm so that the light should make the gold glitter.
Then, perhaps because the crowd bad begun to whisper, and she wanted all attention, she raised both arms to toss back the golden hair that came cascading nearly to her knees. And as if the crowd knew that symptom well, it drew its breath in sharply and grew very still.
"Muhammad Anim!" she said, and she might have been wooing him. "That was a devil's trick!"
It was rather an astounding statement, coming from lovely lips in such a setting. It was rather suggestive of a driver's whiplash, flicked through the air for a beginning. Muhammad Anim continued glaring and did not answer her, so in her own good time, when she had tossed her golden hair back once or twice again, she developed her meaning.
"We who are free of Khinjan Caves do not send men out to bring recruits. We know better than to bid our men tell lies for others at the gate. Nor, seeking proof for our new recruit, do we send men to hunt a head for him—not even those of us who have a lashkar that we call our own, mullah Muhammad Anim. Each of us earns his own way in!"
The mullah Muhammad Anim began to stroke his beard, but he made no answer.
"And—mullah Muhammad Anim, thou wandering man of God—when that lashkar has foolishly been sent and has failed, is it written in the Kalamullah saying we should pretend there was a head, and that the head was stolen? A lie is a lie, Muhammad Anim! Wandering perhaps is good, if in search of the way. Is it good to lose the way, and to lie, thou true follower of the Prophet?"
She smiled, tossing her hair back. Her eyes challenged, her lips mocked him and her chin scorned. The crowd breathed hard and watched. The mullah muttered something in his beard, and sat down, and the crowd began to roar applause at her. But she checked it with a regal gesture, and a glance of contempt at the mullah that was alone worth a journey across the "Hills" to see.
"Guards!" she said quietly. And the crowd's sigh then was like the night wind in a forest.
"Away with those three of Muhammad Anim's men!"
Twelve of the arena guards threw down their shields with a sudden clatter and seized the prisoners, four to each. The crowd shivered with delicious anticipation. The doomed men neither struggled nor cried, for fatalism is an anodyne as well as an explosive. King set his teeth. Yasmini, with both hands behind her head, continued to smile down on them all as sweetly as the stars shine on a battle-field.
She nodded once; and then all was over in a minute. With a ringing "Ho!" and a run, the guards lifted their victims shoulder high and bore them forward. At the river bank they paused for a second to swing them. Then, with another "Ho!" they threw them like dead rubbish into the swift black water.
There was only one wild scream that went echoing and re-echoing to the roof. There was scarcely a splash, and no extra ripple at all. No heads came up again to gasp. No fingers clutched at the surface. The fearful speed of the river sucked them under, to grind and churn and pound them through long caverns underground and hurl them at last over the great cataract toward the middle of the world.
"Ah-h-h-h-h!" sighed the crowd in ecstasy.
"Is there no other stranger?" asked Yasmini, searching for King again with her amazing eyes. The skin all down his back turned there and then into gooseflesh. And as her eyes met his she laughed like a bell at him. She knew! She knew who he was, how he had entered, and how he felt. Not a doubt of it!