The House of the Falcon/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI
PANDORA'S BOX

It was a breezy, sunny noon when the midday quiet rested on the house that Edith had her first glimpse of Yakka Arik.

Donovan had suggested smilingly that she might not be so closely guarded as she suspected, and that there was a fine view from a terrace opening from the second story of the stone dwelling, also that she looked peaked from long confinement indoors. It was time, said he, she began to take care of herself a little.

"Don't bother about the yashmak, either," he laughed, his grave face lighting up, "you won't scandalize Iskander and the rest. They are mostly at church."

Vaguely, Edith wondered if he was jesting. Was there a church in Yakka Arik? She asked Donovan. His smile faded.

"Rather. Not much else."

So Edith ventured out into the hall, feeling a strong sense of guilt—as once when she had been a girl in short skirts and had stolen into an orchard forbidden to her. It was a relief that no one confronted her in the hall or on the winding staircase. Her pulse quickened as she stepped through a pillared, cloisterlike room and out upon a wide balcony. There she drew a deep breath.

Almost to the courtyard of the house stretched the blue surface of a small lake. Its tranquil depths reflected the panoply of white wind clouds overhead, and the lofty summits of the snow peaks that had closed around the woman since she had left Kashgar. Near at hand, the mountain slopes were a dense mass of pines. The fragrance of these woods had reached into the sick room.

Around the border of the lake Edith caught glimpses of flat-roofed stone dwellings, much like the one she occupied. The lake and the houses, set in the depths of the bowl-ike valley, were dwarfed by the vast heights above. It was very warm, surprisingly so, and peaceful.

Across the lake were stretches of pasture land. The girl could make out flocks of sheep, tiny gray bodies moving very slowly, watched by an occasional white-tuniced native. Also horses, and a species of long-haired oxen strange to her. (These were the yaks of Central Asia.) Low wooden structures opening upon the pastures revealed themselves as sheepfolds and stables.

The valley extended north, beyond the lake, and here were squares of tilled ground. A gusty breeze bent the surface of ripened grain in long ripples. She could not see above the tilled land because the ground broke up into trap rock, the outcropping of which extended to the hills that pressed in on the valley upon three sides.

What surprised Edith was the complete quiet of the place. With the exception of the sheep boys, some men fishing in a flat skiff near by, and an occasional man walking barefoot between the houses, the place had the appearance of being deserted.

She had looked for the camels of the caravan. They were not to be seen. Nor could she make out the road by which she had come in the night. Paths ran along the lake shore and from house to house; but there was no trace of any road leading away to the north.

"How stupid of me," she reflected. "I must have come up from the south."

The lake was not round; it ran in a long oval under the mountains. She looked to the south. At a distance of perhaps half a mile the valley turned sharply around the shoulder of a mountain. At this point was a building larger than any at the nearer lake shore. It rose, however, from the water's edge.

It was a sheer walled edifice of gray stone. By shading her eyes and straining her sight Edith could make out a lofty arched entrance, a round dome, and twin, spirelike towers rising from either side the arch.

She fancied it resembled the pictures she had seen of Mohammedan mosques. The spires were like the minarets she had glimpsed during the evening when they approached Kashgar. But the walls merged into the gray wall of a cliff behind the edifice. The deep shadow of the lower gorge through which she had been carried in the sedan shrouded the spot. If she had not been looking intently at the place, she would hardly have noticed the mosque at all. Edith realized that, to reach the village, the palanquin must have passed through the mosque.

A wide-winged bird swept low over the lake, circling around the skiff of the fishermen. It moved lazily on the air currents, a black and white creature of the air. It was not a crow, nor an eagle. Yet it must be very large.

Edith perched herself on the stone railing of the balcony and gave herself up to the grateful flood of sunlight and the survey of her new surroundings.

Even now she felt that she was watched.

Coming from the long isolation of the sick room, she felt as if she had reëntered life itself. A new life, tranquil, yet vitally significant. Srinagar and Quebec and Louisville were not a part of this world. Her father and her aunt were incredibly distant She tried to think of the place of the lotus-eaters, the poem of Tennyson——

"What is the verdict?"

Edith looked up, and was surprised to see Donovan, supported by Aravang. Over his free arm the grinning servant carried a plaid steamer rug and a takedown armchair. She did not know Donovan at first.

During her absence he had managed to have himself shaved, and his disordered hair trimmed. A clean white shirt, a neat flannel jacket and white flannel trousers completed the metamorphosis. His mustache was altered into almost military smartness, and the growth of beard was gone. Only the blue eyes and the lean brown cheeks were the same.

"Oh," cried Edith, "you shouldn't be outdoors. You will take cold."

Donovan smiled, or rather the lines in his cheeks deepened and the wrinkles about his eyes crept into being. "Really? I'm quite accustomed to—outdoors. Besides, I've had a cold bath."

She recalled his first speech, and clapped her hands.

"Bravo! The verdict is: excellent. How did you do it?"

"Do what? Oh." Donovan sank into the camp chair Aravang had adjusted. "I meant Yakka Arik, not myself, Miss Rand."

"But you are wonderfully clean. I'm growing envious."

"The explanation is simple. A good native barber may be had in Yakka Arik—thanks to the Sayak rule of half-shaven mustaches and hair, following the Mohammedan custom. I had my own kit."

"A mirror! Have you a mirror, Mr. Donovan?" She held her breath.

"Oh, yes. And the rug and chair emerged from my box."

But Edith had sprung to her feet. "I must have the mirror!"

Donovan held up a protesting hand. His keen glance dwelt briefly on her face, flushed by the sun. Edith had been busy with her new-found sewing materials and had fashioned a light blue smock out of Aravang's offerings of veils—also a loose girdle of the same color and a light scarf.

These served to use in place of her outworn shirtwaist. Her natural taste in dress made them becoming. The girl was a splendid picture, her fine hair hanging loose to her slender shoulders and her eyes alight with good humor.

"Please!" Donovan said gravely. "Some women may need a mirror, but you——" He fell silent. "You are——"

His voice sank, yet Edith's quick ears—and it must be confessed that she was listening acutely—caught the word "matchless." It was her turn to pause. Into the eyes of the man there had sprung a glow that was not a reflection of the sunlight.

"Your box is a regular treasure chest," Edith changed the topic, and did not know that her bare throat and her face had turned a shade rosier. "What else have you hidden in it?"

"Pandora! I forbid you to look." Donovan spoke lightly, his eyes still resting on the glory of her hair. Yet he meant what he said. It was characteristic of the man to expect attention and obedience when he spoke. This naturally piqued the girl who did not understand that those who have been much alone in the waste places of the world have become a law unto themselves.

Not that Donovan was silent with her. He loved to hear her talk, enjoying her low, almost drawling voice and her quick wit.

The man was a puzzle to Edith. Seemingly an ally of the natives of Yakka Arik, his name was still known throughout India. When he shook off his mood of silent introspection, his manners were those of a gentleman. He was educated, possessed a taste for Shelley, Lamartine, and Catullus—a combination of the poets that took Edith out of her depth. Yet he seemed to be little more than a wandering adventurer—certainly without home ties.

"Don't you realize," she pointed out, "that it is dangerous to forbid a woman to—look?"

"But the box is my treasure house. I do not intend to be plundered."

"What if I look for the mirror?"

"I cede that to you. Aravang has put it in your—apartment."

They were speaking lightly, avoiding—as Edith thought—the mention of the realities of Yakka Arik—her captivity, his status in the world, and what the future held in store for her.

A shadow passed quickly over the balcony. The black bird had flown above them, circling idly. The man noticed it, as he did everything. On first coming to the balcony he had scanned the valley with the interest of one who looks for other details than scenery.

"What do you think of this?" His hand swept along the valley, much in the gesture used by Iskander. Edith surveyed the lake seriously, chin on hand, perched on the balcony rail.

"It is quiet. It is so shut in by the mountains. I think I have never seen anything quite so wonderful."

"Would you think so. Miss Rand, if you knew that this Arcadia was in reality a kind of garden of Hesperides?"

"A hidden garden? Or do you hint at forbidden fruit?"

"Both, Miss Rand. The Sayaks guard the location of Yakka Arik with blind zeal. The less you know about the valley, the better for you——"

The fragrance of flowers clung to the balcony. Edith could see the delicate blossoms of the wild rose in the open meadows. Jasmine and acacia were growing near the house. The whole vista was a garden of some sort wherein life was warm. But the Overhanging snow peaks seemed to mock the brightness of the lake—as if the garden spot were flowering only for a brief interval, and soon to be again in the grip of winter.

Edith nodded, dwelling on Donovan's words. She could hear the murmur of hidden cascades and the purring of millstones in the village near by.

"The Sayaks believe that Allah—God—put the warm springs here for their use. They bathe in them, you know. Their religion prescribes absolute cleanliness, especially before prayer."

"Then Aravang isn't a Sayak." Edith turned to him curiously. "What does the word Sayak mean?"

Instead of replying, Donovan adjusted the folds of the blanket thoughtfully.

"The Sayaks," he said, "are followers of a certain religious sect. Kind of Mohammedans, you might say. That is their mosque."

He indicated the gray building at the lower end of the lake. Edith had the feeling that he was putting her question aside.

"As for Aravang," he added, "the beggar is a kul, a servant or slave. He happens to be a Dungan—a Chinese-Taghlik type."

Edith recalled the difficulty Major Fraser-Carnie had experienced in placing the man with the scar. So Aravang was a man of two races, and most probably a murderer. She had not been able to forget this.

"He is allowed a lot of liberty. Miss Rand, because of his strength as a warrior and because he handles falcons well."

At this Edith smiled provokingly. Donovan was trying so palpably to lead her away from the subject of Sayaks. "You don't answer my question at all, Mr. Dono-van Khan"—watching him, she saw his brows go up at mention of the name—"and I'm angry. I'll give you another chance to redeem yourself. What is Yakka Arik?"

Donovan pointed to the lake.

"That is Yakka Arik!"

"Indeed! Then I suppose the fish are Sayaks." She frowned at him determinedly. "And that building down at the end there is nothing more than the village meeting house in spite of its being so carefully camouflaged, and in spite of the fact that practically all the men and women of this quite ordinary place spend hours there every day?"

"It's my fault that I'm so bally poor at explaining. Quite right. That's the church, and everybody except the kuls and the guards——" he broke off hastily. "Everybody, that is, of the Sayak creed is there. Otherwise, you would have to put on your veil, and I would be most unhappy."

Just a little her frown unbent, and then tightened. She would not let him change the subject again. Edith was accustomed to find out what she wanted to know.

"You are not nice, at all. I want to know what that mosque really is and why there are guards here. Oh, I heard you."

At this, the mask of moodiness fell over the man's lined face. He surveyed the still surface of the lake in silence. And when he spoke, he seemed communing with himself again.

"The mosque? Yes, that's the trouble, the mosque. It's better, far better that you should not know all about that. I want you not to know. It's your best chance. Iskander and the rest won't say anything. Aravang can't—much. By the way, that fellow will serve you faithfully. He worships you, as—many do.'

Edith went straight to the point of this. Her inborn sincerity yearned for plain words of truth; likewise she wanted him to have confidence in her.

"Why don't you want me to know?"

"Because," he observed slowly, "I know. That's the reason I'm here. Not that I blame them. After all, it was my own doing. Curious thing, fate. It's like black care behind the rider—can't escape it, you know." His blue eyes brooded "After all, they have made me their friend. Mahmoud and the others. But Mahmoud, of course, is the leader in brains. And he, like the other Sayaks, is aflame with religious zeal. No, Miss Rand. So long as you know nothing of the mosque, its meaning, or the true location of Yakka Arik, you have a good chance——"

"To escape. And you?"

Unconsciously she held her breath. At last they were facing the question that was vital to both.

"I? Don't worry. Oh, they are fair, very fair. Besides," he was pondering aloud, "they need me. I must do something for them. That's a card in our hands to get you free. But you must not go to the mosque or ask questions, as you are apt to do."

Edith felt aggrieved and not a little hurt. Woman-like, she desired to hurt him in like measure. She had been looking forward to the moment when they could confide in each other. And now——

"Mr. Donovan, I was carried here by these—friends—of yours away from my father. I don't know why. And now I'm kept here in Yakka Arik. Really, I'm a prisoner. Why? I've been wanting to know, to ask you about it all. I've waited all this time to hear you explain everything. And now you say I'm asking too many questions."