King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter XIV
Nothing new! Nothing new!
As Yasmini herself had admitted, she headed from point to point after a manner of her own.
"You know where is Dar es Salaam?" she asked.
"East Africa," said King.
"How far is that from here?"
"Two or three thousand miles."
"And English war-ships watch the Persian Gulf and all the seas from India to Aden?"
"Have the English any ships that dive under water?"
He nodded again.
"In these waters?"
"I think not. I'm not sure, but I think not."
"The grenades you have seen, and the rifles and cartridges were sent by the Germans to Dar es Salaam, to suppress a rising of African natives. Does it begin to grow clear to you, my friend?"
He smiled as well as nodded this time.
"Muhammad Anim used to wait with a hundred women at a certain place on the seashore. What he found on the beach there he made the women carry on their heads to Khinjan. And by the time be had hidden what he found and returned from Khinjan to the beach, there were more things to find and bring. So they worked, he and the Germans, for I know not how long—with the English watching the seas as on land lean wolves comb the valleys.
"Did you ever hear of the big whale in the Gulf?"
"No," said King. That was natural. There are as a rule about as many whales as salmon in the Persian Gulf.
"A German who came to me in Delhi—he who first showed me pictures of an underwater ship—said that at that time the officers and crew of one such ship were getting great practise. Do you suppose their practise made whales take refuge in the Gulf?"
"How should I know, Princess?"
"Because I heard a story later, of an English cruiser on its way up the Gulf, that collided with a whale. The shock of hitting it bent many steel plates, and the cruiser had to put back for repair. It must have been a very big whale, for there was much oil on the sea for a long time afterward. So I heard.
"And no more dynamite came—nor rifles—nor cartridges, although the Germans bad promised more. And orders for Muhammad Anim that had been said to come by sea came now by way of Bagdad, carried by pilgrims returning from the holy places. I know that because I intercepted a letter and threw its bearer into Earth's Drink to save Muhammad Anim the trouble of asking questions."
"What were the terms of the German bargain?" King asked her. "What stipulations did they make?"
"With the tribes? None! They were too wise. A jihad was decided on in Germany's good time; and when that time should come ten rifles in the 'Hills' and a thousand cartridges would mean not only a hundred dead Englishmen, but ten times that number busily engaged. Why bargain when there was no need? A rifle is what it is. The 'Hills' are the 'Hills'!
"Tell me about your lamp oil, then," he said. "You burn enough oil in Khinjan Caves to light Bombay! That does not come by submarine. The sirkar knows how much of everything goes up the Khyber. I have seen the printed lists myself—a few hundred cans of kerosene—a few score gallons of vegetable oil, and all bound for farther north. There isn't enough oil pressed among the 'Hills' to keep these caves going for a day. Where does it all come from?"
She laughed, as a mother laughs at a child's questions, finding delicious enjoyment in instructing him.
"There are three villages, not two days' march from Khabul, where men have lived for centuries by pressing oil for Khinjan Caves," she said. "The Sleeper fetched his oil thence. There are the bones of a camel in a cave I did not show you, and beside the camel are the leather bags still in which the oil was carried. Nowadays it comes in second-hand cans and drums. The Sleeper left gold in here. Those who kept the Sleeper's secret paid for the oil in gold. No Afghan troubled why oil was needed, so long as gold paid for it, until Abdurrahman heard the story. He made a ten-year-long effort to learn the secret, but he failed. When he cut off the supply of oil for a time, there was A rebellion so close to Khabul gates that he thought better of it. Of gold and Abdurrahman, gold was the stronger. And I know where the Sleeper dug his gold!"
They sat in silence for a long while after that, she looking at the table, with its ink and pens and paper, and he thinking, with hands clasped round one knee; for it is wiser to think than to talk, even when a woman is near who can read thoughts that are not guarded.
"Most disillusionments come simply," King said at last. "D'you know, Princess, what has kept the sirkar from really believing in Khinjan Caves?"
She shook her head. "The gods!" she said. "The gods can blindfold governments and whole peoples as easily as they can make us see!"
"It was the fact that they knew what provisions and what oil and what necessities of life went up the Khyber and came down it. They knew a place such as this was said to be could not be. They knew it! They could prove it!"
"Let it be a lesson to you, Princess!"
She stared, and her fiery-opal eyes began to change and glow. She began to twist her golden hair round the dagger hilt again. But always her feet were still on the footstool of the throne, as if she knew—knew—knew that she stood on firm foundations. No sirkar ever doubted less than she, and the suggestions in King's little homily did not please her. She looked toward the table again—then again into his eyes.
"Athelstan!" she said. "It sounds like a king's name! What was the Sleeper's name? I have often wondered! I found no name in all the books about Rome that seemed to fit him. None of the names I mouthed could make me dream as the sight of him could. But, Athelstan! That is a name like a king's! It seems to fit him, too! Was there such a name, in Rome?"
"No," he said.
"What does it mean?" she asked him.
"Slow of resolution!"
She clapped her hands.
"Another sign!" she laughed. "The gods love me! There always is a sign when I need one! Slow of resolution, art thou? I will speed thy resolution, Well-beloved! You were quick to change from King, of the Khyber Rifle Regiment, to Kurram Khan. Change now into my warrior—my dear lord—my King again!"
She rose, with arms outstretched to him. All her dancer's art, her untamed poetry, her witchery, were expressed in a movement. Her eyes melted as they met his. And since he stood up, too, for manner's sake, they were eye to eye again—almost lip to lip. Her sweet breath was in his nostrils.
In another moment she was in his arms, clinging to him, kissing him. And if any man has felt on his lips the kiss of all the scented glamour of the East, let him tell what King's sensations were. Let Ceasar, who was kissed by Cleopatra, come to life and talk of it!
King's arm is strong, and he did not stand like an idol. His head might swim, but she, too, tasted the delirium of human passion loosed and given for a mad swift minute. If his heart swelled to bursting, so must hers have done.
"I have needed you!" she whispered. "I have been all alone! I have needed you!"
Then her lips sought his again, and neither spoke.
Neither knew how long it was before she began to understand that he, not she, was winning. The human answer to her appeal was full. He gave her all she asked of admiration, kiss for kiss. And then—her arms did not cling so tightly, although his strong right arm was like a stanchion. Because be knew that he, not she, was winning, he picked her up in his arms and kissed her as if she were a child. And then, because he knew he had won, he set her on her feet on the footstool of the throne, and even pitied her.
She felt the pity. As she tossed the hair back over her shoulder her eyes glowed with another meaning—dangerous—like a tiger's glare.
"You pity me? You think because I love you, you can feed my love on a plate to the Indian government? You think my love is a weapon to use against me? Your love for me may wait for a better time? You are not so wise as I thought you, Athelstan!"
But he knew he had won. His heart was singing down inside him as it had not sung since he left India behind. But he stood quite humbly before her, for had he not kissed her?
"You think a kiss is the bond between us? You mistake! You forget! The kiss, my Athelstan, was the fruit, not the seed! The seed came first! If I loosed you—if I set you free—you would never dare go back to India!"
He scarcely heard her. He knew he had won. His heart was like a bird, fluttering wildly. He knew that the next step would be shown him, and for the present he had time and grace to pity her, knowing how he would have felt if she had won. Besides, he had kissed her, and he had not lied. Each kiss had been a tribute of admiration, for was she not splendid—amazing—more to be desired than wine? He stood with bowed head, lest the triumph in his eyes offend her. Yet if any one had asked him how he knew that he had won, he never could have told.
"If you were to go back to India except as its conqueror, they would strip the buttons from your uniform and tear your medals off and shoot you in the back against a wall! My signature is known in India and I am known. What I write will be believed. Rewa Gunga shall take a letter. He shall take two—four—witnesses. He shall see them on their way and shall give them the letter when they reach the Khyber and shall send them into India with it. Have no fear. Bull-with-a-beard shall not intercept them, as I have intercepted his men. When Rewa Gunga shall return and tell me he saw my letter on its way down the Khyber, then we shall talk again about pity—you and I! Come!"
She took his arm, as if her threats had been caresses. Triumph shone from her eyes. She tossed her brave chin and laughed at him, only encouraged to greater daring by his attitude.
"Why don't you kill me?" she asked, and though his answer surprised her, it did not make her angry.
"It would do no good," he said simply.
"Would you kill me if you thought it would do good?"
"Certainly!" he said.
She laughed at that as if it were the greatest joke she had ever heard. It set her in the best humor possible, and by the time they reached the ebony table and she had taken the pen and dipped it in the ink, she was chuckling to herself as if the one good joke had grown into a hundred.
She wrote in Urdu. It is likely that for all her knowledge of the spoken English tongue she was not so swift or ready with the trick of writing it. She had said herself that a babu read English books to her aloud. But she wrote in Urdu with an easy flowing hand, and in two minutes she had thrown sand on the letter and had given it to King to read. It was not like a woman's letter. It did not waste a word.
"Your Captain King has been too much trouble. He has
taken money from the Germans. He adopted native dress.
He called himself Kurram Khan. He slew his own brother
at night in the Khyber Pass. These men will say that
he carried the head to Khinjan, and their word is true,
for I, Yasmini, saw. He used the head for a passport,
to obtain admittance. He proclaims a jihad! He urges
invasion of India! He held up his brother's head
before five thousand men and boasted of the murder.
The next you shall hear of your Captain King of the
Khyber Rifles, he will be leading a jihad into India.
You would have better trusted me. Yasmini."
He read it and passed it back to her.
"They will not disbelieve me," she said, triumphant as the very devil over a branded soul all hot. "They will be sure you are mad, and they will believe the witnesses!"
He bowed. She sealed the letter and addressed it with only a scrawled mark on its outer cover. That, by the way, was utter insolence, for the mark would be understood at any frontier post by the officer commanding.
"Rewa Gunga shall start with this to-day!" she said, with more amusement than malice. After that she was still for a moment, watching his eyes, at a loss to understand his carelessness. He seemed strangely unabased. His folded arms were not defiant, but neither were they yielding.
"I love you, Athelstan!" she said. "Do you love me?"
"I think you are very beautiful, Princess!"
"Beautiful? I know I am beautiful. But is that all?"
"Clever!" he added.
She began to drum with the golden dagger hilt on the table, and to look dangerous, which is not to infer by any means that she looked less lovely.
"Do you love me?" she asked.
"Forgive me, Princess, but you forget. I was born east of Mecca, but my folk were from the West. We are slower to love than some other nations. With us love is more often growth, less often surrender at first sight. I think you are wonderful."
She nodded and tucked the sealed letter in her bosom.
"It shall go," she said darkly, "and another letter with it. They looted your brother's body. In his pocket they found the note you wrote him, and that you asked him to destroy! That will be evidence. That will convince! Come!"
He followed her through leather curtains again and down the dark passage into the outer chamber; and the illusion was of walking behind a golden-haired Madonna to some shrine of Innocence. Her perfume was like incense; her manner perfect reverence. She passed into the cave where the two dead bodies lay like a high priestess performing a rite.
Walking to the bed, she stood for minutes, gazing at the Sleeper and his queen. And from the new angle from which King saw him the Sleeper's likeness to himself was actually startling. Startling—weird—like an incantation were Yasmini's words when at last she spoke.
"Muhammad lied! He lied in his teeth! His sons have multiplied his lie! Siddhattha, whom men have called Gotama, the Buddha, was before Muhammad and he knew more! He told of the wheel of things, and there is a wheel! Yet, what knew the Buddha of the wheel? He who spoke of Dharma (the customs of the law) not knowing Dharma! This is true—-Of old there was a wish of the gods—of the old gods. And so these two were. There is a wish again now of the old gods. So, are we two not as they two were? It is the same wish, and lo! We are ready, this man and!. We will obey, ye gods—ye old gods!"
She raised her arms and, going closer to the bed, stood there in an attitude of mystic reverence, giving and receiving blessings.
"Dear gods!" she prayed. "Dear old gods—older than these 'Hills'—show me in a vision what their fault was—why these two were ended before the end!
"I know all the other things ye have shown me. I know the world's silly creeds have made it mad, and it must rend itself, and this man and I shall reap where the nations sowed—if only we obey! Wherein, ye old dear gods, who love me, did these two disobey? I pray you, tell me in a vision!"
She shook her head and sighed. Sadness seemed to have crept over her, like a cold mist from the night. It was as if she could dimly see her plans foredoomed, and yet hoped on in spite of it. The fatalism that she scorned as Muhammad's lie held her in its grip, and her natural courage fought with it. Womanlike, she turned to King in that minute and confided to him her very inmost thoughts. And he, without an inkling as to how she must fail, yet knew that she must, and pitied her.
"Have you seen that breast under the armor?" she asked suddenly. "Come nearer! Come and look! Why did his breast decay and his body stay whole like hers? Did she kill him? Was that a dagger-stab in his breast? I found perfume in these caves—great jars of it, and I use it always. It is better than temple incense and all the breath of gardens in the spring! I have put it on slaughtered animals. Where the knife has touched them, they decay—as that man's breast did—but the rest of them remains undecaying year after year. It was a knife, I think, that pierced his breast. I think that scent is the preservative. Did she kill him? Was she jealous of him? How did she die? There is no mark on her! Athelstan—listen! I think he would have failed her! I think she stabbed him rather than see him fail, and then swallowed poison! Afterward their servants laid them there. She smiles in death because she knew the wheel will turn and that death dies too! He looks grim because he knew less than she. It is always woman who understands and man who fails! I think she stabbed him. She should have loved him better, and then there would have been no need. I will love you better than she loved him!"
She turned and devoured him with her eyes, so that it needed all his manhood to hold him back from being her slave that minute. For in that minute she left no charm unexercised—sex—mesmerisrn—beauty—flattery (her eyes could flatter as a dumb dog's flatter a huntsman!)—grace unutterable-mystery—she used every art on him she knew. Yet he stood the test.
"Even if you fail me, Well-beloved, I will love you! The gods who gave you to me will know how to make you love; and lessons are to learn. If you fail me I will forgive, knowing that in the end the gods will never let you fail me! You are mine, and Earth is ours, for the old gods intend it so!"
She seemed to expect him to take her in his arms again; but he stood respectfully and made no answer, nor any move. Grim and strong his jowl was, like the Sleeper's, and the dark hair three days old on it softened nothing of its lines. His Roman nose and steady, dark, full eyes suggested no compromise. Yet he was good to look at. She had not lied when she said she loved him, and he understood her and was sorry. But he did not look sorry, nor did he offer any argument to quench her love. He was a servant of the raj; his life and his love had been India's since the day he first buckled on his spurs, and Yasmini wouldn't have understood that.
Nor did she understand that, even supposing he had loved her with all his heart, not on any conditions would he have admitted it until absolutely free, any more than that if she crucified him he would love her the same, supposing that he loved her at all. Nor did she trust the "old gods" too well, or let them work unaided.
"Come with me, Athelstan!" she said. She took his arm—found little jeweled slippers in a closet hewn in the wall—put them on and led him to the curtains he had entered by. She led him through them, and, red as cardinals in lamplight on the other side, they stood hand-in-hand, back to the leather, facing the unfathomable dark. Her fingers were so strong that he could not have wrenched his own away without using the other hand to help.
"Where are your shoes?" she asked him.
"At the foot of these steps, Princess."
"Can you see them yonder in the dark?"
"Can you guess where the darkness leads to?"
He shuddered and she chuckled.
"Could you return alone by the way Ismail brought you ?"
"I think not."
"Will you try?"
"If I must. I am not afraid."
"You have heard the echo? Yes, I know you heard the echo. Hear it again!"
She raised her head and howled like a wolf—like a lone wolf that has found no quarry—melancholy, mean, grown reckless with his hunger. There was a pause of nearly a minute. Then in the hideous darkness a phantom wolf-pack took up the howl in chorus, and for three long minutes there was din beside which the voice of living wolves at war would be a slumber song. Ten times ghastlier than if it had been real, the chorus wailed and ululated back and forth along immeasurable distances—became one yell again—and went howling down into earth's bowels as if the last of a phantom pack were left behind and yelling to be waited for.
When it ceased at last King was sweating.
"Nor am I afraid," she laughed, squeezing his hand yet tighter.
She led him down the steps, and at the foot told him to put on his slippers, as if be were a child. Then, hurrying as if those opal eyes of hers were indifferent to dark or daylight, she picked her way among boulders that he could feel but not see, along a floor that was only smooth in places, for a distance that was long enough by two or three times to lose him altogether.
When he looked back there was no sign of red lights behind him. And when he looked forward, there was a dim outer light in front and a whiff of the cool fresh air that presages the dawn!
She led him through a gap on to a ledge of rock that hung thousands of feet above the home of thunder, a ledge less than six feet wide, less than twenty long, tilted back toward the cliff. There they sat, watching the stars. And there they saw the dawn come.
Morning looks down into Khinjan hours after the sun has risen, because the precipices shut it out. But the peaks on every side are very beacons of the range at the earliest peep of dawn. In silence they watched day's herald touch the peaks with rosy jeweled fingers—she waiting as if she expected the marvel of it all to make King speak.
It was cold. She came and snuggled close to him, and it was so they watched the sparkle of dawn's jewels die and the peaks grow gray again, she with an arm on his shoulder and strands of her golden hair blown past his face.
"Of what are you thinking?" she asked him at last.
"Of India, Princess."
"What of India?"
"She lies helpless."
"Ah! You love India?"
"You shall love me better! You shall love me better than your life! Then, for love of me, you shall own the India you think you love! This letter shall go!" She tapped her bosom. "It is best to cut you off from India first. You shall lose that you may win!"
She got up and stood in the gap, smiling mockingly, framed in the darkness of the cave behind.
"I understand!" she said. "You think you are my enemy. Love and hate never lived side by side. You shall see!"
Then in an instant she was gone, backward into the dark. He sat and waited for her, cross-legged on the ledge. As daylight began to filter downward he could dimly make out the waterfall, thundering like the whelming of a world; he sat staring at it, trying to formulate a plan, until it dawned on him that he was nearly chilled to the bone. Then he got up and stepped through the gap, too.
"Princess!" he called. Then louder, "Princess!"
When the echo of his own voice died, it was as if the ghoul who made the echoes had taken shape. A beard—red eye-rims—and a hook nose came out of the dark, and Ismail bared yellow teeth.
"Come!" he said. "Come, little hakim!"