King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter XI

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Chapter XI[edit]

Long slept the Heart o' the Hills, oh, long!
(Ye who have watched, ye know!)
As sap sleeps in the deodars
When winter shrieks and steely stars
Blink over frozen snow.
Ye haste? The sap stirs now, ye say?
Ye feel the pulse of spring?
But sap must rise ere buds may break,
Or cubs fare forth, or bees awake,
Or lean buck spurn the ling!


"Kurram Khan!" the lashless mullah howled, like a lone wolf in the moonlight, and King stood up.

It is one of the laws of Cocker, who wrote the S. S. Code, that a man is alive until he is proved dead, and where there is life there is opportunity. In that grim minute King felt heretical; but a man's feelings are his own affair provided he can prove it, and he managed to seem about as much at ease as a native hakim ought to feel at such an initiation.

"Come forward!" the mullah howled, and he obeyed, treading gingerly between men who were at no pains to let him by, and silently blessing them, because he was not really in any hurry at all. Yasmini looked lovely from a distance, and life was sweet.

"Who are his witnesses?"

"Witnesses?" the roof hissed.

"I!" shouted Ismail, jumping up.

"I!" cracked the roof. "I! I!" So that for a second King almost believed he had a crowd of men to swear for him and did not hear Darya Khan at all, who rose from a place not very far behind where had sat.

Ismail followed him in a hurry, like a man wading a river with loose clothes gathered in one arm and the other arm ready in case of falling. He took much less trouble than King not to tread on people, and oaths' marked his wake.

Darya Khan did not go so fast. As he forced his way forward a man passed him up the wooden box that King had used to stand on; he seized it in both hands with a grin and a jest and went to stand behind King and Ismail, in line with the lashless mullah, facing Yasmini. Yasmini smiled at them all as if they were actors in her comedy, and she well pleased with them.

"Look ye!" howled the mullah. "Look ye and look well, for this is to be one of us!"

King felt ten thousand eyes burn holes in his back, but the one pair of eyes that mocked him from the bridge was more disconcerting.

"Turn, Kurram Khan! Turn that all may see!"

Feeling like a man on a spit, he revolved slowly. By the time he had turned once completely around, besides knowing positively that one of the two bracelets on her right arm was the one he had worn, or else its exact copy, he knew that he was not meant to die yet; for his eyes could work much more swiftly than the horn-rimmed spectacles made believe. He decided that Yasmini meant he should be frightened, but not much hurt just yet.

So he ceased altogether to feel frightened and took care to look more scared than ever.

"Who paid the price of thy admission?" the mullah howled, and King cleared his throat, for he was not quite sure yet what that might mean.

"Speak, Kurram Khan!" Yasmini purred, smiling her loveliest. "Tell them whom you slew."

King turned and faced the crowd, raising himself on the balls of his feet to shout, like a man facing thousands of troops on parade. He nearly gave himself away, for habit had him unawares. A native hakim, given the stoutest lungs in all India, would not have shouted in that way.

"Cappitin Attleystan King!" he roared. And he nearly jumped out of his skin when his own voice came rattling back at him from the roof overhead.

"Cappitin Attleystan King!" it answered.

Yasmini chuckled as a little rill will sometimes chuckle among ferns. It was devilish. It seemed to say there were traps not far ahead.

"Where was he slain?" asked the mullah.

"In the Khyber Pass," said King.

"In the Khyber Pass!" the roof whispered hoarsely, as if aghast at such cold-bloodedness.

"Now give proof!" said the mullah. "Words at the gate—proof in the cavern! Without good proof, there is only one way out of here!"

"Proof!" the crowd thundered. "Proof!"

"Proof! Proof! Proof!" the roof echoed.

There was no need for Darya Khan to whisper. King's hands were behind him, and he had seen what he had seen and guessed what he had guessed while he was turning to let the crowd look at him. His fingers closed on human hair.

"Nay, it is short!" hissed Darya Khan. "Take the two ears, or hold it by the jawbone! Hold it high in both hands!"

King obeyed, without looking at the thing, and Ismail, turning to face the crowd, rose on tiptoe and filled his lungs for the effort of his life.

"The head of Cappitin Attleystan King—infidel kaffir—British arrficer!" he howled.

"Good!" the crowd bellowed. "Good! Throw it!"

The crowd's roar and the roof's echoes combined until pandemonium.

"Throw it to them, Kurram Khan!" Yasmini purred from the bridge end, speaking as softly and as sweetly, as if she coaxed a child. Yet her voice carried.

He lowered the head, but instead of looking at it he looked up at her. He thought she was enjoying herself and his predicament as he had never seen any one enjoy anything.

"Throw it to them, Kurram Khan!" she purred. "It is the custom!"

"Throw it! Throw it!" the crowd thundered.

He turned the ghastly thing until it lay face-upward in his hands, and so at last he saw it. He caught his breath, and only the horn-rimmed spectacles, that he had cursed twice that night, saved him from self-betrayal. The cavern seemed to sway, but he recovered and his wits worked swiftly. If Yasmini detected his nervousness she gave no sign.

"Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!"

The crowd was growing impatient. Many men were standing, waving their arms to draw attention to themselves, and he wondered what the ultimate end of the head would be, if he obeyed and threw it to them. Watching Yasmini's eyes, he knew it had not entered her head that he might disobey.

He looked past her toward the river. There were no guards near enough to prevent what he intended; but he had to bear in mind that the guards had rifles, and if he acted too suddenly one of them might shoot at him unbidden. They were wondrous free with their cartridges, those guards, in a land where ammunition is worth its weight in silver coin.

Holding the head before him with both hands, he began to walk toward the river, edging all the while a little toward the crowd as if meaning to get nearer before he threw.

He was much more than half-way to the river's edge before Yasmini or anybody else divined his true intention. The mullah grew suspicions first and yelled. Then King hurried, for he did not believe Yasmini would need many seconds in which to regain command of any situation. But she saw fit to stand still and watch.

He reached the river and stood there. Now he was in no hurry at all, for it stood to reason that unless Yasmini very much desired him to be kept alive he would have been shot dead already. For a moment the crowd was so interested that it forgot to bark and snarl.

His next move was as deliberate as he could make it, although he was careful to avoid the least suggestion of mummery (for then the crowd would have suspected disloyalty to Islam, and the "Hills" are very, very pious, and very suspicious of all foreign ritual).

He did a thoughtful simple thing that made every savage who watched him gasp because of its very unexpectedness. He held the head in both hands, threw it far out into the river and stood to watch it sink. Then, without visible emotion of any kind, he walked back stolidly to face Yasmini at the bridge end, with shoulders a little more stubborn now than they ought to be, and chin a shade too high, for there never was a man who could act quite perfectly.

"Thou fool!" Yasmini whispered through lips that did not move.

She betrayed a flash of temper like a trapped she-tiger's, but followed it instantly with her loveliest smile. Like to like, however, the crowd saw the flash of temper and took its cue from that.

"Slay him!" yelled a lone voice, that was greeted an approving murmur.

"Slay him!" advised the roof in a whisper, in one of its phonetic tricks.

"This is a darbar!" Yasmini announced in a rising, ringing voice. "My darbar, for I summoned it! Did I invite any man to speak?"

There was silence, as a whipped unwilling pack is silent.

"Speak, thou, Kurram Khan!" she said. "Knowing the custom—having heard the order to throw that trophy to them—why act otherwise? Explain!"

Nothing in the wide world could be fairer! She left him to extricate himself from a mess of his own making! It was more than fair, for she went out of her way to offer him an opening to jump through. And she paid him the compliment of suggesting be must be clever enough to take it, for she seemed to expect a satisfying answer.

"Tell them why!" she said, smiling. No man could have guessed by the tone of her voice whether she was for him or against him, and the crowd, beginning again to whisper, watched to see which way the cat would jump.

He bowed low to her three times—very low indeed and very slowly, for he had to think. Then he turned his back and repeated the obeisance to the crowd. Still he could think of no excuse, except Cocker's Rule No. I for Tight Places, and all the world knows that because Solomon said much the same thing first:

"A soft answer is better than a sword!"

But Cocker adds, "Never excuse. Explain! And blame no man."

"My brothers," he said, and paused, since a man must make a beginning, even when he can not see the end. And as he spoke the answer came to him. He stood upright, and his voice became that of a man whose advice has been asked, and who gives it freely. "These be stirring times! Ye need take care, my brothers! Ye saw this night how one man entered here on the strength of an oath and a promise. All he lacked was proof. And I had proof. Ye saw! Who am I that I should deny you a custom? Yet—think ye, my brothers!—how easy would it not have been, had I thrown that head to you, for a traitor to catch it and hide it in his clothes, and make away with it! He could have used it to admit to these caves—why—even an Englishman, my brothers! If that had happened, ye would have blamed me!"

Yasmini smiled. Taking its cue from her, the crowd murmured, scarcely assent, but rather recognition of the hakim's adroitness. The game was not won; there lacked a touch to tip the scales in his favor, and Yasmini supplied it with ready genius.

"The hakim speaks truth!" she laughed.

King turned about instantly to face her, but he salaamed so low that she could not have seen his expression had she tried.

"If Ye wish it, I will order him tossed into Earth's Drink after those other three."

Muhammed Anim rose stroking his beard and rocking where he stood.

"It is the law!" he growled, and King shuddered.

"It is the law," Yasmini answered in a voice that rang with pride and insolence, "that none interrupt me while I speak! For such ill-mannered ones Earth's Drink hungers! Will you test my authority, Muhammad Anim?"

The mullah sat down, and hundreds of men laughed at him, but not all of the men by any means.

"It is the law that none goes out of Khinjan Cave alive who breaks the law of the Caves. But he broke no very big law. And he spoke truth. Think Ye! If that head had only fallen into Muhammad Anim's lap, the mullah might have smuggled in another man with it!"

A roar of laughter greeted that thrust. Many men who had not laughed at the mullah's first discomfiture, joined in now. Muhammad Anim sat and fidgeted, meeting nobody's eye and answering nothing.

"So it seems to me good," Yasmini said, in a voice that did not echo any more but rang very clear and true (she seemed to know the trick of the roof, and to use the echo or not as she chose), "to let this hakim live! He shall meditate in his cave a while, and perhaps he shall be beaten, lest he dare offend again. He can no more escape from Khinjan Caves than the women who are prisoners here. He may therefore live!"

There was utter silence. Men looked at one another and at her, and her blazing eyes searched the crowd swiftly. It was plain enough that there were at least two parties there, and that none dared oppose Yasmini's will for fear of the others.

"To thy seat, Kurram Khan!" she ordered, when she had waited a full minute and no man spoke.

He wasted no time. He hurried out of the arena as fast as he could walk, with Ismail and Darya Khan close at his heels. It was like a run out of danger in a dream. He stumbled over the legs of the front-rank men in his hurry to get back to his place, and Ismail overtook him, seized him by the shoulders, hugged him, and dragged him to the empty seat next to the Orakzai Pathan. There he hugged him until his ribs cracked.

"Ready o' wit!" he crowed. "Ready o' tongue! Light o' life! Man after mine own heart! Hey, I love thee! Readily I would be thy man, but for being hers! Would I had a son like thee! Fool—fool—fool not to throw the head to them! Squeamish one! Man like a child! What is the head but earth when the life has left it? What would thy head be without the nimble wit? Fool—fool—fool! And clever! Turned the joke on Muhammad Anim! Turned it on Bull-with-a-beard in a twinkling—in the bat of an eye—in a breath! Turned it against her enemy and raised a laugh against him from his own men! Ready o' wit! Shameless one! Lucky one! Allah was surely good to thee!"

Still exulting, he let go, but none too soon for comfort. King's ribs were sore from his hugging for days.

"What is it?" he asked. For King seemed to be shaping words with his lips. He bent a great hairy ear to listen.

"Have they taken Ali Masjid Fort?" King whispered.

"How should I know? Why?"

"Tell me, man, if you love me! Have they taken it?"

"Nay, how should I know? Ask her! She knows more than any man knows!"

King turned to ask the same question of his friend the Orakzai Pathan; but the Pathan would have none of his questions, he was busy listening for whispers from the crowd, watching with both eyes, and he shoved King aside.

The crowd was very far from being satisfied. An angry murmur had begun to fill the cavern as a hive is filled with the song of bees at swarming time. But even so, surmise what one might, it was not easy to persuade the eye that Yasmini's careless smile and easy poise were assumed. If she recognized indignation and feared it, she disguised her fear amazingly.

King saw her whisper to a guard. The fellow nodded and passed his shield to another man. He began to make his way in no great hurry toward the edge of the arena. She whispered again and standing forward with their trumpets seven of the guards blew a blast that split across the cavern like the trump of doom; and as its hundred thousand echoes died in the roof, the hum of voices died, too, and the very sound of breathing. The gurgling of water became as if the river flowed in solitude.

Leisurely then, languidly, she raised both arms until she looked like an angel poised for flight. The little jewels stitched to her gauzy dress twinkled like fire-flies as she moved. The crowd gasped sharply. She had it by the heart-strings.

She called, and four guards got under one shield, bowing their heads and resting the great rim on their shoulders. They carried it beneath her and stood still. With a low delicious laugh, sweet and true, she sprang on it, and the shield scarcely trembled; she seemed lighter than the silk her dress was woven from!

They carried her so, looking as if she and the shield were carved of a piece, and by a master such as has not often been. And in the midst of the arena before they had ceased moving she began to sing, with her head thrown back and bosom swelling like a bird's.

The East would ever rather draw its own conclusions from a hint let fall than be puzzled by what the West believes are facts. And parables are not good evidence in courts of law, which is always a consideration. So her song took the form of a parable.

And to say that she took hold of them and played rhapsodies of her own making on their heart-strings would be to undervalue what she did. They were dumb while she sang, but they rose at her. Not a force in the world could have kept them down, for she was deftly touching cords that stirred other forces—subtle, mysterious, mesmeric, which the old East understands—which Muhammad the Prophet understood when he harnessed evil in the shafts with men and wrote rules for their driving in a book. They rose in silence and stood tense.

While she sang, the guard to whom she had whispered forced a way through the ranks of the standing crowd, and came behind Ismail. He tweaked the Afridi's ear to draw attention, for like all the others—like King, too—Ismail was listening with dropped jaw and watching with burning eyes. For a minute they whispered, so low that King did not hear what they said; and then the guard forced his way back by the shortest route to the arena, knocking down half a dozen men and gaining safety beyond the lamps before his victims could draw knife and follow him.

Yasmini's song went on, verse after verse, telling never one fact, yet hinting unutterable things in a language that was made for hint and metaphor and parable and innuendo. What tongue did not hint at was conveyed by subtle gesture and a smile and flashing eyes. It was perfectly evident that she knew more than King—more than the general at Peshawur—more than the viceroy at Simla—probably more than the British government—concerning what was about to happen in Islam. The others might guess . She knew. It was just as evident that she would not tell. The whole of her song, and it took her twenty minutes by the count of King's pulse, to sing it, was a warning to wait and a promise of amazing things to come.

She sang of a wolf-pack gathering from the valleys in the winter snow—a very hungry wolf-pack. Then of a stalled ox, grown very fat from being cared for. Of the "Heart of the Hills" that awoke in the womb of the "Hills," and that listened and watched.

"Now, is she the 'Heart of the Hills'?" King wondered. The rumors men had heard and told again in India, about the "Heart of the Hills" in Khinjan seemed to have foundation.

He thought of the strange knife, wrapped in a handkerchief under his shirt, with its bronze blade and gold hilt in the shape of a woman dancing. The woman dancing was astonishingly like Yasmini, standing on the shield!

She sang about the owners of the stalled ox, who were busy at bay, defending themselves and their ox from another wolf-pack in another direction "far beyond."

She urged them to wait a little while. The ox was big enough and fat enough to nourish all the wolves in the world for many seasons. Let them wait, then, until another, greater wolf-pack joined them, that they might go hunting all together, overwhelm its present owners and devour the ox! So urged the "Heart of the Hills," speaking to the mountain wolves, according to Yasmini's song.

        "The little cubs in the burrows know.
         Are ye grown wolves, who hurry so?"

She paused, for effect; but they gave tongue then because they could not help it, and the cavern shook to their terrific worship.

"Allah! Allah!"

They summoned God to come and see the height and depth and weight of their allegiance to her! And because for their thunder there was no more chance of being heard, she dropped from the shield like a blossom. No sound of falling could have been heard in all that din, but one could see she made no sound. The shield-bearers ran back to the bridge and stood below it, eyes agape.

Rewa Gunga spoke truth in Delhi when he assured King he should some day wonder at Yasmini's dancing.

She became joy and bravery and youth! She danced a story for them of the things they knew. She was the dawn light, touching the distant peaks. She was the wind that follows it, sweeping among the junipers and kissing each as she came. She was laughter, as the little children laugh when the cattle are loosed from the byres at last to feed in the valleys. She was the scent of spring uprising. She was blossom. She was fruit! Very daughter of the sparkle of warm sun on snow, she was the "Heart of the Hills" herself!

Never was such dancing! Never such an audience! Never such mad applause! She danced until the great rough guards had to run round the arena with clubbed butts and beat back trespassers who would have mobbed her. And every movement—every gracious wonder-curve and step with which she told her tale was as purely Greek as the handle on King's knife and the figures on the lamp-bowls and as the bracelets on her arm. Greek!

And she half-modern-Russian, ex-girl-wife of a semi-civilized Hill-rajah! Who taught her? There is nothing new, even in Khinjan, in the "Hills"!

And when the crowd defeated the arena guards at last and burst through the swinging butts to seize and fling her high and worship her with mad barbaric rite, she ran toward the shield. The four men raised it shoulder-high again. She went to it like a leaf in the wind—sprang on it as if wings had lifted her, scarce touching it with naked toes—and leapt to the bridge with a laugh.

She went over the bridge on tiptoes, like nothing else under heaven but Yasmini at her bewitchingest. And without pausing on the far side she danced up the hewn stone stairs, dived into the dark hole and was gone!

"Come!" yelled Ismail in King's ear. He could have heard nothing less, for the cavern was like to burst apart from the tumult.

"Whither?" the Afridi shouted in disgust. "Does the wind ask whither? Come like the wind and see! They will remember next that they have a bone to pick with thee! Come away!"

That seemed good enough advice. He followed as fast as Ismail could shoulder a way out between the frantic Hillmen, deafened, stupefied, numbed, almost cowed by the ovation they were giving their "Heart of their Hills."