The House of the Falcon/Chapter 15

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

CHAPTER XV
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Edith Rand knew little of medical practice or theory. In truth, she was aghast at the responsibility that Mahmoud had thrust upon her woman's shoulders. Vainly she appealed to Iskander, who came in from day to day. The Arab shook his head.

"Mees Rand, the will of the hakim is not to be denied. His work is done. Does a learned reader of the Koran stoop to a book of verses? Not so."

Left to herself, Edith ransacked the contents of the medicine pail and her memory at the same time, studying labels, and trying to guess the condition of her patient After long deliberation, she reached the decision not to administer any drugs to Donovan until he should be stronger. Which was, perhaps, the wisest thing she could have done.

For days the stone chamber was her world. Aravang had arranged a couch for her near the brazier. He brought her meals to the door regularly, and the girl was grateful for the fresh fruit, the light wines, the well-cooked mutton and rice, even though seasoned in a manner strange to her.

It was quite clear that she was not expected to leave the chamber, for a native remained always on guard at the door. The masters of the house had dedicated her to the service of John Donovan.

And Edith devoted herself to her task. Racked by the pangs of inexperience, she lived in fear that her ignorance would result in harm to the sick man. So she became doubly watchful.

Not many women, with Edith's heritage of luxurious life, would have entered whole-heartedly upon the care of a man whose condition made constant demand upon their strength. But Edith, remembering the summer in Louisville when she had tended her father, put thought of self aside. Her natural sympathy was touched by the spectacle of Donovan's effort of recovery. Her pride spurred her on when she recalled Iskander's curt command to her.

More than sympathy or pride, however, was the new feeling of anxiety aroused in the girl. The safety and health of a fellow being of her own race rested in her hands. For perhaps the first time in her life Edith Rand was face to face with suffering and human need. The love of her father for the girl, the good-natured devotion of her aunt, the care of the old servants of the Rands—all these were now lost to her.

She stood alone. The men of Yakka Arik ignored her. To all intents she was a slave. And there was no telling what the morrow might bring.

The man became the only reality in her world. And she spent her strength in his care. When she slept, she was surprised to discover that Aravang slipped into the room and watched by the bed of John Donovan. At times, too, the scarred native would appear silently as always and offer by signs to assist her in her work.

To Edith it seemed that Aravang was grateful for the treatment she had given his wounds. But there was no mistaking the devotion in the brown eyes of the big attendant. Aravang had attached himself to the girl, and from that time on he devoted himself to her service as faithfully as the negro retainers of the Rand family in former days.

Days passed—every twilight and sunrise bringing its melody of the great horns. At first the girl had been startled. Later, she waxed curious as to the meaning of the trumpet call. But, as yet, she felt no desire to inspect what lay beyond the walls of her room or to ponder upon the nature and situation of Yakka Arik and its masters.

"He will know," she thought, of John Donovan.

Thus she gave freely of woman's tenderness—her hands more gentle, perhaps, than the hands of experience. Feeling that her care was insufficient for the need of the sick man, she frequently prayed at night, brief prayers whispered into the darkness. And, under Iskander's mask of unconcern, she knew that the Arab longed for Donovan's recovery and that others also waited patiently.

And day by day the shadow of death removed farther from John Donovan. Came long hours of utter lassitude when the flame of vitality glimmered low and the man's pulse was barely to be felt. The heaviness passed from the eyes that always watched Edith, and he gathered strength before her eyes.

To Edith, unaware of the resiliency of these men whose home had been the mountain heights, it seemed more remarkable even than the stolid hardihood of Aravang, whose wounds were barely healed.


The time came when Donovan insisted on talking. Until then, he had been content to watch her. Now he raised himself unsteadily, and Edith hastened to place pillows behind his back.

"I never believed in miracles," he murmured. "Will you tell me—where you came from?"

His voice still had the low note of weakness, and he paused often. It was a quiet voice, deliberate, musing—as if its owner was more accustomed to communing with himself than others.

"Hush!" said Edith reprovingly. "You are not well enough to talk."

Donovan smiled, and when he smiled the gaunt face lighted up and tiny wrinkles appeared at the eyes. She liked his eyes.

"You are—well enough to answer. I want to know why—you are in Yakka Arik."

Edith noticed that he pronounced the name in the sonorous fashion of the natives. She smiled back. "To take care of you."

"Me?"

A slight frown creased his brow as he pondered this slowly. Almost to himself, he muttered.

"And I thought you were not here. A splendid spirit. Angels might come to Yakka Arik—more easily than white women."

Worriedly, Edith surveyed him, chin on hand. For comfort's sake she had dressed her hair low on her neck, and she wore a silk scarf—a donation from Aravang—about her much enduring shirtwaist In the absence of mirrors—she had been unable to make known her great need of such an article to her faithful attendant by signs—she did not realize how becoming the effect was. John Donovan looked at her long.

"Because," he resumed, "I thought those horns were Gabriel's, you know, when I wakened that time, and I was quite certain that you were an angel. Didn't you wear a gold halo?"

Edith thought of the lamp that Mahmoud had held close to her hair, and for the first time in many days she laughed—from sheer amusement touched with real pleasure. "You worried me at first," she admitted—"talking about spirits. Indeed, I'm nothing at all angelic: I'm quite alive and real. I've told you my name, to prove it—Edith Rand."

"You are Edith Rand?" Donovan looked up in quick surprise. "Of course, I remember now you told me the name, part of it" He was silent, occupied with his thoughts. At such times, as the girl was beginning to notice, he seemed to forget her entirely. "But you are too young. Strange—I thought you were dead."

This remark startled her and she wondered if her patient was really free from fever. "Perhaps you are thinking of my mother," she responded gently. "She had my name and she left us many years ago. But she was never in India."

"Fate plays strange tricks," he said, and was silent again.

At this point Edith ended the talk by the simple expedient of leaving the couch.

It was the next day that Aravang brought an offering—the box containing the kit of Donovan. He set it down by the couch and departed. Edith had not thought to ask for the box—did not know, in fact, that it had reached Yakka Arik.

Donovan surveyed it curiously. It was a bright, sunny day and the fresh breeze swept the room, bearing with it the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle mingled with the fragrance of the pines. Something of the vigor of the mountain air seemed to have entered into John Donovan.

"Strange," he remarked "Now where did that come from?"

"From the same place I did."

But he was not to be put aside.

"I want to know, Miss Rand. This box was in the care of a certain Jain Ali Beg."

The name recalled the story of Major Fraser-Carnie to the girl. She hesitated whether to tell her patient. He was growing petulant, however, at being silenced.

"Jain Ali Beg was killed," she said, "by Aravang."

"Ah. Your servant?"

"No. One of the—the Yakka Arik men. The one that brought the box."

"A Sayak, then. I think he introduced himself to me in a Kashgar serai. Ah, perhaps he imagined Jain Ali Beg poisoned me. It would be like Jain Ali Beg." Donovan pondered.

"At Gilghit—Major Fraser-Carnie's house. Iskander stole—took—the box from Srinagar and brought it here with me."

"So Iskander brought you." Donovan's eyes became grave. "Miss Rand, I must know what has happened. Much depends on it. More than you know. You must tell me everything."

His insistence was more than the irritability of the sick. It was authoritative, urgent. She related briefly all that had passed from the night of the ball in Srinagar until now, leaving out Monsey and the hardships she had been forced to undergo; also, the affray at Kashgar.

The story had the effect of silencing Donovan. He listened intently, almost avidly, interrupting frequently. When she had finished, he lay back with closed eyes, thinking.

Edith waited, idly trying to draw the scarf about her shoulders so as to cover the rents in the worn waist. It was a torment to the girl that she had nothing to change to; because she had not wanted to ask for native garments—had not thought of it, in fact, during her care of Donovan.

"Oh, for a needle and thread," she sighed.

"There should be a sewing kit, in my box. Look and see."

Readily, the girl obeyed. Womanlike, she craved the means of sewing. Likewise, investigation of the box was not without its inducements in satisfying curiosity.

Various articles of corduroy clothing were on the top of the box. Then a rusted telescope appeared, the book of poems—Shelley. Edith was a trifle surprised at this. She had not connected such reading with the stern personality of the sick man of Yakka Arik.

Followed a worn notebook, a bag of native money, a complete shaving and toilet set in a handsome leather case, and then the housewife. This Edith appropriated gratefully. She would have liked, however, to go to the bottom of the box.

"Was Iskander followed from Srinagar, Miss Rand?"

The sudden question startled her. "Why—no. I don't think so. Certainly my father and the major could not have known of my—trip." Tactfully she refrained from the use of a harsher word.

"Yet you did not get off without a fight." Seeing her surprise, he added: "Aravang and Iskander both have been wounded. You see, Miss Rand, I have been listening to the men talking outside the door."

Pressed in this manner, she described the events of the Kashgar alley, trying to conceal her own peril. She had the feeling, however, that Donovan was piecing out from his own mind the omitted portions of the story.

"Describe the leader of the men at the serai—Alamans, I fancy from your version."

Edith did so and was surprised anew at the effect of her words. Donovan flushed, his eyes hardened, and he drew a quick breath. Then his glance sought that of the girl

"You say Ab—the man knew you."

"He called me by name."

"By name." Donovan shook his head moodily. His lean face was still sharp with aroused feeling. "Then the Vulture has marked you down and followed you from Srinagar. He knows you are here."

"Now," Edith commanded, fearing that her patient was beginning to talk wildly, "you must rest. I had no idea you had been sitting up so long."

"The Vulture!" The word was torn from the lips of the man. She stared at him in dismay. "Each thing you have told me weighs—more than a handful of gold. I tell you, I must know. Send Iskander to me."

"Indeed not!"

Donovan's broken phrases were curiously framed, as if he employed a tongue partially forgotten. But there was no mistaking his interest, even concern. By way of answer he summoned Aravang in the native's dialect.

Aravang left the room and before long Iskander strode in, taking in the scene at a glance, and measuring Donovan as swiftly. He paid scant heed to her.

"Please, you will overtire yourself!"

But Donovan shook his head impatiently. While Iskander knelt on a convenient carpet, cigarette between his lips, the two men talked in a language the girl recognized as that of the Arab. Donovan asked many questions and Iskander replied deliberately.

"They will follow her to Yakka Arik," she heard him say once, in English.

Seeing that she was temporarily forgotten, Edith retired to her couch in the opposite corner, not without a provoked pout. She busied herself with her new trophy, the needle and thread. It was long before Iskander left, as silently as he had come. Donovan lay back, thoroughly tired.

"I don't understand," she heard him mutter. At this, she went to him and adjusted the pillow and blankets. Then she bathed his face and hands.

"If you try to think and—and worry, I'll be ever so angry!" she warned.

His eyes met hers, and he smiled.

"Thanks, awfully. You're splendid, really. I wouldn't trade you for—a real spirit of paradise."

Early that evening Aravang entered and hung a silk curtain about the corner where her bed was. Then the native busied himself in cleaning out a square depression in the stone flooring—something that had puzzled Edith more than once.

Very soon she learned the purpose of the hollowed stone. Aravang carried in a full jar of fresh water which he poured into it, then another and another until the small tank was full. Edith surveyed the addition to her quarters with bewildered interest until she heard Donovan's voice.

"You may not know a Sayak bathtub when you see one, Miss Rand. It is somewhat chilly. You will find some extra soap in my box."

Edith pounced upon the prize. The attendant did not cease his labors until he had brought several long and finely textured veils of many-colored silk. These he laid on the bed, with a grin—adding thereto a package that Edith recognized as her discarded ball dress.

"Ladies' tailors are lacking in Yakka Arik, Miss Rand," Donovan explained from his side of the room, "but you may be able to do something with this stuff and a little sewing."

Then Edith understood that Donovan had thought during his interview with Iskander to mention her own needs.

That night the girl labored long by the light of a lamp. Donovan's quiet breathing told her that he was asleep some time before she had finished. The room and the hall were quiet.

With a smile of whimsical appreciation she surveyed the result of her efforts—a brilliantly colored nightgown of priceless silk. Putting out the lamp, she undressed and slipped into the tank.

It was, as Donovan had prophesied, rather chilly. But it was water and she had soap. Edith did not mind the cold. Two months ago she would have exclaimed at the thought of such a bath. Now it was luxury.

Nevertheless, she was glad to scramble from the tank and dry herself on some strips of clean cotton. Then, with a sigh of satisfaction, she slipped into the new nightgown and nestled among the blankets of the couch. She was refreshed and rested beyond words.

In spite of this she lay long awake, looking out from the oval embrasure, her thoughts dwelling on many things, the recovery of John Donovan, and the spirit of mastery he had promptly exhibited. She puzzled briefly and fruitlessly over his statement that a vulture had pursued her from Srinagar. Uppermost in her mind, drowsy by now, was the fact that he had taken thought for her comfort.

So also had Iskander, in the past. And they were both her foes. Had she not a reckoning to settle with them? Undoubtedly!