King of the Khyber Rifles/Chapter XV

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Chapter XV[edit]

Private preserves? New Notions?
Measure me a quart of honesty,
And I will trade it for a pound weight of my thoughts.
Then you and I shall go and dream together
A brand-new dream of things that never happened,
Nor ever can be. Come, trade with me!


What Yasmini had been doing in the minutes while King stared from the ledge in the dawn was unguessable. Perhaps she had been praying to her old gods. At least she had given Ismail strict orders, for he said nothing, but seized King's hand and led him through the dark as a rat leads a blind one—swiftly, surely, unhesitating. King had no means whatever of guessing their direction. They did not pass the two lights again with the curtain and the steps all glowing red.

They came instead to other steps, narrow and steep, that led upward in a semicircle to a rough hole in a rock wall. At the top there was a little yellow light, so dim and small that its rays scarcely sufficed to show the opening.

"Go up!" said Ismail, giving King a shove and disappearing at once. One side-step into blackness and he might have been a mile away.

So King went up, stooping to feel each next footing with a cautious hand. He was beginning to be sleepy, and to suspect that Yasmini had taken him to view the dawn with just that end in view. Nothing can make tired eyes so long for sleep as a glimpse of waking day—Sleepy eyes are easiest to trick.

It was not many minutes before he was sure his guess was right.

The opening at the head of the stairs led into a tunnel. He followed it with a hand on either wall and reached another of Khinjan's strange leather curtains. His face struck the leather unexpectedly, and at that instant, as if his touch were electric, the curtain sprang aside and his eyes were dazzled by the light of diamonds.

It was Aladdin's Cave, with her acting spirit of the lamp! It needed effort of self-control to know that the huge, white, cut crystals that sparkled all about the hewn cell could not be diamonds. They were as big as his head, and bigger—at least a hundred of them, and they multiplied the light of half a dozen little oil lamps until the cave seemed the home of light.

Yasmini had not a jewel on her. She was in a new mood and new garments to suit it. Her feet were still bare, but she was robed from head to heel in pure white linen, on which her long hair shone as if it were truly strands of gold. She received him with an air of mystic calm, gracious and dignified as the high-priestess of a Grecian temple. She seemed devout—to have forgotten that she ever killed a man, or made a threat or plotted for a kingdom.

"Be still," she said, raising a finger. "The old gods talk to us in here. It is not for us to answer them in words, but in deeds. Let us listen and do!"

There were two cushions—great billowy modern ones, covered in gold brocade—on the floor in the midst of the cave. Between them was a stand of ivory, some two feet high, whose top was a disk, cut from the largest tusk that ever could have been. On the disk resting in a little hollow in the ivory, was a pure, perfect crystal sphere of a foot diameter. He could see his reflection in it, and Yasmini's, too, the moment he entered the cave, and whichever way they moved both images remained undistorted. He suspected that the lighting and the crystal reflectors had not been arranged at random.

In each corner of the four-square cave there was a brazier of bronze, and from each rose incense smoke, straight upward. The four streams of smoke met at the ceiling and converged into a cloud that hung almost motionless.

Yasmini stepped very reverently to a cushion by the crystal in the middle, and signed to King to imitate her. They stood facing. She seemed to pray, for her eyes were hidden under the long lashes. Then she knelt, and King did the same, his knees sinking deep into another cushion. So they knelt eye to eye above the crystal for many minutes without either saying a word. It was Yasmini who spoke first.

"The old gods have showed me the past many and many a time in this," she said. "It is, their way of speaking to me. Now, to-day, I have prayed to them to show me the future. Look! Look, Athelstan! Do as I do—so!"

There seemed nothing to be gained by disobeying her. To obey her might be to win new insight into the ramifications of her plans. Men who have experience of the East are the last to deny that there is method in Eastern magic; they glimpse the knowledge that belonged to Pharaoh's men, although unlike Moses they are not always able to confound it. The East forgets nothing. The West ignores. But there are men from the West who are willing to look and to listen and to try to understand; like King, they go high in the Service. There are others who look on at the magic with an understanding eye and are caught by it. Their end is not good to contemplate. The East is fettered in her own mesmeric spell and must suffer until she wakes.

Yasmini held the upright column of the ivory stand with both hands, close under the disk at the top. He copied her, placing his hands below hers. Hers slipped down and covered his, soft and warm; and so they stayed.

"Look!" she said. "Look!"

Her own eyes were grown big and round, and she gazed at the crystal ball as she had looked into King's eyes that night, with the very hunger of her soul. Her lips were parted. Watching her, King grew expectant, too. His eyes followed hers, to stare into the middle of the crystal, no longer feeling sleepy, and in less than a minute he could not have withdrawn them had be tried.

The crystal clouded over. Yasmini's breath came steadily, with a little hissing sound between her teeth, and the crystal, or else the whole world, seemed to sway in time to it. Then the man in Roman armor strode out of a mist, and all was steady again and easy to understand. When the man in armor opened his lips to speak, one knew what he had said. When be frowned, one knew why he frowned. When he smiled, one knew that she was coming.

And she did come, dancing out of the mist behind him, to fling soft arms round his neck and whisper praises in his ear. He stood like a king who has come into his own, with an arm round her and his chin held high. She kissed him on his proud chin, and laughed into his face.

There were troubles—difficulties, all in the mist behind, but he stood and despised them then while she caressed him!

Just as spoken words had no part in the vision, yet the whole was understood, so time did not enter into it. There was no connecting link between each scene; each dissolved into the other, and all were one.

She faded into mist, in a swirl of graceful drapery, and he frowned again. A long line of men-at-arms stood before him, grim as he and as discontented. They leaned on spears, at ease, and that seemed to annoy him most of all. A spokesman stood out from the ranks and addressed him, with gesticulations and a head so far thrown back that his helmet-plume stood out like a secretary's pen behind him. He was not a Roman, although there was something Roman about his attitude and armor. None of the men-at-arms was a Roman.

They demanded to be led home, wherever home was. (It was as plain as if their spokesman had shouted it into King's ear aloud.) And he refused them bluntly, proudly.

Two men brought him a native woman, each holding an arm and thrusting her forward between them. She was not at all unlike a native woman of to-day, either in dress or sullenness; she had the beak and the keen eyes and the cruel lips of the "Hills." They showed her to him, and it was quite clear that they compared her to their own women, left behind; the comparison was plainly to her disadvantage.

He wasted no argument on them, but his scorn made the two men fade away, and the woman with them. Yet he had no scorn for his lined-up fighting men, and so could act none. He ordered the spokesman back to the ranks, and the man obeyed. He gave another order, and the long lines stood at attention, spears straight up and down, and their round sheilds like great medallions on a wall. He ordered them away, but they stood still.

Then he did a truly Roman thing. He got his harness off—unbuckled and took off the great bronze corselet, in which be lay dead in another cave. He threw it down—tore open the white shirt underneath—and held his arms out. He bade them come and kill him. He bade them drive their spears into his unprotected breast.

There was not a movement down the line of men. They stood as a cliff looks at the tide. He dared them. He called them cowards—women—weaklings afraid of blood. But they stood still. He strode up and down the line, seeking a man with heart enough to plunge a spear into him, and no man moved.

Then he stood still before them all again and wept, because they loved him and he loved them. And then she came, not dancing this time, but barefooted and walking like a poem of the early days of Greece. She picked up his corselet and buckled it on him, making him hold up his arms and kneel while she slipped it over his head. And the grim men-at-arms hove their long spears up into the air and roared her an ovation, bringing down their right feet with a thunder all together.

"Ave!"

But the mist closed up and then the crystal was clear again. It was Yasmini's voice that spoke, King looked up into her eyes, and they made him shudder, for he had never seen eyes like them. Her hands still clasped his own, burning hot. She was more terrible than Khinjan.

"I never saw that before," she said. "It is because you are here! We shall see it all now! We shall know it all! We shall know whether it was she who killed him, or whether his own men took him at his word. We shall know! Look again! Look again!"

His eyes seemed unable to obey his own will any longer. They obeyed her voice. He gazed again into the crystal, and it clouded over. But although he obeyed her, the crystal obeyed him and answered at least in part the questions his imagination asked. He was not conscious of asking anything, but being a soldier his curiosity followed a more or less definite line.

Yasmini's breath began to come and go again with the little hissing sound. Her hot hands pressed his own. The mist suddenly dissolved. There was a road—a long white road, across a plain, and the men-at-arms fought their way along it. They were facing east.

Archers opposed them—archers on foot, and cavalry—Parthians. The Parthians were wild, but the drill of the men-at-arms was a thing to marvel at. When the flights of arrows came they knelt behind their shields. When the horsemen charged they closed in solid phalanx, and the inner ranks hurled javelins at ten-yard range. When the fury of the onslaught died they formed in column and went forward, gaining furlongs at a time while their enemy watched them and wondered.

It was plain that the enemy expected them to retreat sooner or later, for the archers and cavalry were at great pains to get behind them, so that before long the road ahead was less well defended than that behind. It did not seem to occur to the enemy that they were pressing toward the distant line of hills and did not seek to return at all.

They had no baggage to impede them. It was absurd to suppose they would not try to fight a way back soon. They must be a Roman raiding party, out to teach Parthians a lesson. Yet they pressed ever forward, and the hills grew ever nearer; while he sat a great brown charger calmly in their midst and gave them not too many orders, but here and there a word of praise, and once or twice a trumpet shout of encouragement. He seemed to own the knack of being wherever the fight was fiercest. His mere presence seemed better than a hundred men when the phalanx bent before charging cavalry.

She rode a little white horse, beside him always and utterly scornful of the risk. She wore no armor—carried no shield. Her bare feet showed through the sandal straps, and the outlines of her lissom body were quite visible through the muslin stuff she wore. She might have just come from the dancing. She had a flower in her hand, and a wreath of flowers in her hair. She shouted more encouragement than he. She shouted too much. Once he laid a strong brown hand across her mouth, and she held it there and kissed it.

They lost men—five or six or ten or twenty at each onslaught. Perhaps they had been a thousand strong in the beginning. Their own men—the regimental surgeons probably—cut the throats of the badly wounded, to save them from the enemy's attentions; and by this time they were not more than seven or eight hundred strong.

But they went forward—ever forward—and the line of hills drew near. Then he began to stir himself, and she with him. He shouted to them to charge, and she echoed him, leaving his side at last to take command of a wing and sting the tired-out men-at-arms into new enthusiasm. In a minute they were a roaring tide that swept forward to the foot of the hills and surged upward without a check. In a little while they were hurling boulders down on an enemy that seemed inclined to parley.

Then, like a shadow of the incense cloud above, the mist closed up in the crystal again, and in a moment more King and Yasmini were looking into each other's eyes again above it.

"I have seen that before," she said, shaking her, head. "I am weary of their battles. They won; that is enough! I must know how they failed, so that we make no such mistakes!"

Her face was flushed, and her eyes glowed with the fire that is not lit by ordinary passion. She was being eaten by ambition—burned by her own fire—by ambition not totally selfish, for she yearned to shepherd King as she seemed to think this woman of the vision had not shepherded the man in armor.

"Look again!" she said. "Look again! And oh, ye old gods, show—show me wherein she failed!"

They stared again, and once more the crystal clouded. Out of the cloud came a city in the middle of a plain, and the city was besieged. It was not a very great city, but from the outside it looked rich, for domes and roofs and towers showed above the wall, all well built and well preserved. He and she, sitting their horses out of arrow range from the main gate seemed confident of taking it and eager to get it over with.

They no longer had only six or seven hundred men, but men by the thousand. Their veterans in Roman armor were in command of others now, and they had a human pack-train with them, heavily burdened captives who sulked in chains under a guard.

The mist cleared further, and the gate gave in under the blows of an improvised battering-ram, covered by showers of arrows from short range. Then, like a river breaking down a dam, the thousands stormed in, howling. Smoke rose. There were screams of women. A great tower near the gate, that was half wood, half stone, crackled and curled up in yellow and crimson flame. He and she rode in together as modern men and women ride through a gate to the covert side at a fox-hunt. They chatted and laughed together, and their horses pranced, responding to the humor of their riders.

King would have liked to tear his eyes away from the scenes that followed in the tree-lined streets, but the crystal ball held him as if in a trance—that and Yasmini's hands that clasped his own like hot torture chamber clamps. Animals fighting to the death are not so vile, nor so inhuman as men can be in the hour of what they call victory. Even the little children of that city paid the penalty for having closed the gate.

Time was no measure to the crystal ball. In minutes it showed the devil's work of hours. The city went up in smoke and flame, and from the far side through a great breach in the wall the conquerors went out, with their plunder and such prisoners as had been saved to drag and carry it.

Now there were wagons and camels and horses. Now there were tents and furniture. Now each man of the fighting force had as much as he himself could carry, as well as what was loaded on the prisoners.

Only he and she seemed to care nothing for the loot and rode as if each was all the other needed. Still he wore nothing but his armor, and she no more than her dancing dress and sandals. But now she had eight prisoners to hold a panoply above her horse and keep the sun from her.

She had flowers woven in her hair, and others in her hand, as if she rode from a bridal feast and were not in mourning for a plundered, butchered city. They were headed northward now, toward distant mountains, and the dust of their long column went up like a river of smoke, flowing from the holocaust behind.

Yasmini shook her head impatiently. The crystal clouded over, and King's eyes were free.

"I am tired of it," she said. "I have seen that so many times. I know they won. I know they found their way to Khinjan. I know they began to build an empire here. I have seen all that a hundred times.

What I must know is what mistake they made. What did they do wrong? How did they come to fail? Look again! Let us look again!"

She never once let King's hands go, but pressed them tighter and tighter until the circulation nearly stopped and they grew numb. Her own strength seemed endless—to grow rather than to wane in proportion as her yearning to look into the past grew. Her attitude would have been more understandable if she had believed herself and King to be reincarnations of those forgotten conquerors; but she was too original for that. She had said the old gods wished, and the man and the woman were; the old gods wished the same wish again, and she and King were. Why then, if the old gods were contriving it all, should she seek to steady the ark for them? But down at bottom there is no logic connected with gods many. She clutched King's fingers as if to hold him there, and to make him see and understand the distant past, were the only way to save him from mistakes.

"Look!" she insisted. "Look again!" And he obeyed her. By this time obedience was much the easiest course. Between times his eyes were so weary he could hardly hold them open, and it was only when he gazed into the crystal that he could rest them and feel easy. He knew well that she was winning control over him in some sort, and he fought against it grimly. Soon he became weirdly conscious of being two men—one, whom she had grasped and overcome, a physical man who did not matter much, and another, mental man who was free from her, who could understand her, whom she could not reach or touch.

"Look!" she insisted. "Look!" And the crystal clouded over.

He strode out of the mist again, frowning, with his chin hung low and fists clenched tight at his sides. Four of his own men came out of the mist to him and greeted him respectfully, yet not without a touch of irony.

They spoke to him and pointed westward. One laid a hand on his shoulder, but he shook it off and the man reeled back as if he had been struck. Another man took up the argument, but he shook his head. They all spoke together, gesticulating and growing angry; but he stood calm among them, as a rock stands in a storm. He folded his arms across his breast after a while and listened, saying nothing.

Then as if to end the argument for good and all, he drew his sword and held it out toward them, hilt first, telling them again to kill him and have done with it. They refused. He laughed at them, but they still refused; so he put his sword back in the sheath.

One of the men stepped into the mist and disappeared. Presently he came again, with two others, helping a wounded man along between them. Whoever the wounded man might be he was treated with respect. Prouder than Lucifer, he who had struck another man's hand from off his shoulder knelt to give this wounded man a knee and seemed pained when the man refused him.

The wounded man pointed to the westward too and argued in short clipped-off sentences. He had a day or two to live—certainly not longer, for the blood flowed slowly from a wound that would not stanch; yet he argued as a man who has lost no interest in life, but rather sees its problems truly now that his own are near an end.

He demanded something almost truculently. He took his helmet off and passed it down to him. With fingers that were growing feeble the wounded man held it and traced out the letters S. P. Q. R. on the front.

"Go home!" he said, passing it back to him. "Fight your way back home!" What he said was as distinct as if a voice in the cave had spoken it.

Then, vision within a vision—dream within a dream—there was a view of the Via Appia, with gaunt grim gallows set along it in a row and on them a regiment's commander crucified along with the remnant of his men.

"So Rome treats traitors!" said a voice, that might have been either man's.

But instantly there was another vision, of ten thousand wolves baying down a Himalayan gorge in winter-time, the sleet frozen stiff on their fur and their tongues hanging. Eye and fang flashed altogether and made one gleam.

"Choose!" said a voice.

So he chose. He nodded. The men saluted him, and the wounded man was helped away to die. And then she came, angry as a flash of lightning, to spring at him and cling to him and call him names—begging, demanding, ordering, crying—abusing him and praising him in turn. He shook his head. She sobbed, but he shook his head again and pointed westward. Then she took him by the hand and led him away, not looking at his face again.

The crystal ball grew clouded. Yasmini's breath came and went as if she were running in a race, and her pressure on King's fingers was actually painful. The mist dissolved, and King forgot the pressure—forgot everything. The man in armor lay dead on his back in the cave on the wooden bed, and she bent over him, dagger in hand.

"Ah!" said Yasmini, her teeth chattering. "But what else could she do?" The mist closed in again and the crystal grew opaque. "The future!" she begged. "It is the future I must know! Ye old gods, tell me! Show me!"

The mist turned red. The crystal ball became as it were a ball of fire revolving within itself. The fire turned to blood, and the blood to fire again. The very cavern that they knelt in seemed to sway. Yasmini screamed and moaned. She loosed King's hands to cover her own eyes.

And as she did that King sank, like a sack half-empty and toppled over sidewise on the floor asleep.

He neither dreamed nor was conscious of anything, but slept like a dead man, having fought against her mesmerism harder than he knew.

Statesmen, generals, outlaws, all make their big mistakes and manage to recover. Very nearly always it is an apparently little mistake that does most damage in the end, something unnoticeable at the time, that grows in geometrical proportion, minus instead of plus.

Yasmini made her little mistake that minute in believing King was utterly mesmerized at last and utterly in her power. Whereas in truth he was only weary. It may be that she gave him orders in his sleep, after the accepted manner of mesmerists; but if she did, they never reached him; he was far too fast asleep. He slept so deep and long that he was not conscious of men's voices, nor of being carried, nor of time, nor of anxiety, nor of anything.