The House of the Falcon/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII
ARAVANG EXPLAINS

Donovan sat up suddenly and gripped the arms of his chair as if confronted by a new and disturbing thought.

"You think, Miss Rand, that I am responsible for bringing you here? No. Mahmoud and Iskander planned that while I was ill."

Edith was well aware of this, but a provoking elf of obstinacy kept her from acknowledging it. After all, she thought, she had not accused him of it.

"Please understand," he said slowly, almost painfully. "I would give an arm if you had not been brought here. Miss Rand, you held me back from death. I—I was probably headed for a Sayak grave—so Iskander says. Tired, you know. When your face came before my eyes and I felt your hands clinging to mine——"

"You didn't!" A rosy wave swept to the roots of Edith's hair. "You—you must have dreamed that. It was Mahmoud who saved you."

He was silent, bewildered. He had not meant to hurt the girl, was longing instead to comfort her. But his character was not schooled in the varying moods of woman.

"No, you were the one. You asked me to help you. It brought me back, to want to live. Don't you see? You were an angel. God knows, I've cursed the men who brought you here." Bitterness crept into his low voice. "It's been another misfortune that came of my mission here."

"Please don't say that." Edith did not like to see Donovan so downcast. The man was strong—a leader among his kind, she had felt. Now he seemed to abandon his thoughts to moodiness on her account.

"It's the truth. I've nothing left, no ties or hopes, except one. And that you would despise, I think. Yes, you would. You are too noble-hearted to do anything else. But, then you don't understand." His jaw thrust forward and one lean hand clenched. "Still, I will give my life to get you out of Yakka Arik and back—home. Yes, home. I haven't been home for seven years. Well, no use thinking of that or wanting to go, when I have no home. You have."

By a wayward twist of memory the thought of the young British subaltern at the Maharaja's ball came to Edith. The officer had craved sight of those he had left in England. "It must be terrible—to have no home," she murmured.

"Terrible? No. It is just being alone." He replied to her with an effort, his mind clearly on other things. "But to lose the others—that is hard." Donovan was speaking now with strong feeling held in check. "During the War my father and brother went West. There were only the three of us, you know."

"Oh!" Edith felt a quick impulse of sympathy. She tried to think of a consoling word, and was silent. John Donovan, gazing out forbiddingly at the lake, seemed to repel any such advance.

The girl had realized for some time that he was an Englishman. She wondered if he, like his brother, had been in the army. She believed that was the case. Certain mannerisms, a habit of authoritative speech, attention to the little things that go to make comfort out of hardships, indicated that this was so. But he did not care to speak about himself.

Edith bent a tendril of hair about her finger and released it—a habit of hers. Donovan watched her passively. During his illness the two had been brought closely together. A word, an inflection, or a gesture meant much.

"You think, then," she mused, "that it will be hard for me to leave Yakka Arik."

He pointed up at the hills that surrounded Yakka Arik on three sides. "I must tell you how useless it is to try, Miss Rand. A cordon of armed guards extends all around us, each sentry within sight of his neighbor. here they are posted in the forest, a swathe has been cut in underbrush from one to the other. I have seen graves in those cleared spaces, where visitors came unbidden to steal through the lines."

"But at night—it might be possible to escape then."

"Nature has provided against that. Any one fleeing in the dark would fall into the ravines or be caught by the cataracts. At best only a little ground could be gained before morning. Then the men in the upper lookouts on the summits would spot you. After that, you would be tracked down."

It was hard for Edith to realize that she was actually a prisoner, guarded by invisible eyes. She did not know how bitter the tribal feuds of these mountains had been, and how keen were the eyes of the sheep hunters who nursed long muzzle-loaders on dizzy elevations. Inexperienced in this new life, she refused to accept Donovan's warning, believing that he had not been wholly frank with her. "There must be some way in—and out—except across the bridge at the lower gorge and through the mosque!"

Donovan smiled thoughtfully. "Once," he observed, "a man entered Yakka Arik through a sheep path, that skirted the mosque by a ravine, under the sentinel. The Sayaks call him 'the Vulture.' Now, his life is forfeit if they ever find him and his followers. And I rather think they will."

Edith shivered, as the menace that lay behind the sunny aspect of the valley assumed reality. "Oh, it is terrible!"

"Life itself is terrible sometimes, Miss Rand. But Yakka Arik assumes the guise of terror only to protect itself. What is strange to you is commonplace to these men. Really, they only follow tradition, and the law and faith of Yakka Arik are older than our faith, and"—he spoke musingly—"the two are not so different, after all."

The girl, gazing down the lake, saw a throng issue from the arch of the mosque. A many-colored group of men, women and children emerged into the village streets. The mosque did seem a little like a church, with its Sunday worshipers. Only the worshipers went every day. "It looks so like a big cathedral," she reflected aloud. "I wish I could understand!"

Donovan nodded sympathetically.

"Right! Only the whole of the valley is the cathedral, Miss Rand. We are in one of the holy spots of ancient Asia itself—as ancient as the Tartar hordes that once were driven past here by the Chinese, who built the tower on the lower ravine. Remember that these mountain places are considered sacred by the natives."

"I thought no Mohammedans ever lived above the Himalayas." Edith was guilefully seeking the forbidden fruit of knowledge which Donovan had denied her.

"Your wisdom is too young, Miss Rand. The forefathers of the Moslems, the Uigurs and the Tartars had their birthplace in upper Central Asia. And they had Yakka Arik. Now they come here from Arabia, Turkestan, and the corners of Asia. The Arabs, Persians, Uigurs, Taghliks, and not a few Afghans ride here in the pilgrimage caravans——"

"Sometimes called the 'caravan of the dead'?" she put in.

Donovan looked at her sharply, and a hard mask settled on his lean face.

"Those who ride in the caravan of the dead have offended against the law of Yakka Arik. God grant you never come to know its meaning——"

He fell silent, his hands gripped tight together, sunk in meditation. Edith was startled by the gravity of his low voice. She half put out her hand to touch his, then drew back.

"I am so glad that I found you here," she said impulsively. "Mahmoud and the others frighten me. They never even look at me, and I am sure they have no syrmpathy at all. No one, even, except Iskander, comes to the house." It was her way of offering him peace—with honor—of asking him to trust her.

Donovan replied abstractedly, without weighing the possible effect of his words: "You see, it's my house, given me because they've made me khan— equal in rank to Iskander. They don't look at you because you are unveiled in the house, and they don't come here on that account—because, of course, they consider that you are mine and it's contrary to the old Moslem law to visit where the women of the house can be seen."

Edith caught her breath. So she was merely the property of Donovan Khan! The Sayaks thought of her as his wife or—or slave! She recalled the words of Iskander.

"Indeed," she observed frigidly, "haven't you told them that I am an American? They must know I have friends, who may trace me to Kashgar——"

Donovan shook his head thoughtfully.

"Any place but Kashgar, Miss Rand, where the Vulture roosts just now. You are safer here. As for your nationality, if you will pardon me, it is unknown here or in Central Asia generally."

"Is it?" Edith tossed away the tendril, feeling provoked the more because instinct told her this was the truth. "We shall see. They may learn what an American father will do for his daughter. But these Sayaks—why do they keep me prisoner? For ransom?"

"Indeed not"

"As—as hostage?"

"Nearer right. Not exactly."

"Then what? You won't tell me!"

A shapely foot in a native sandal—Edith's shoes were being preserved carefully against future need—began to tap the stone floor of the balcony. Donovan noticed it with appreciation. Everything about her, he reflected, was dainty. He did not interpret the animation of the foot as a sign of danger.

"Your friends seem to me very much like heathens, Mr. Donovan, in spite of your defense of them. And I think that church is a bad place."

"Well, they think of us as infidels. Yet, Miss Rand, the mosque and the man who lives within it is one of the safeguards of Christianity. He is the one more than any other whose friendship I must keep."

Craftily she sought for information about this man.

"He is not a Christian, is he? You always say, 'Perhaps'." Edith wanted him to understand that he had not made peace. "You never say what I want you to."

Donovan smiled doggedly. He did not understand the mood of the girl—that she wanted him to confide in her, comfort her.

"Remember," he observed bluntly, "Mahmoud has done much for me. And Iskander saved you—your life at Kashgar. He did the same thing for me, too, at Kashgar, when the Vulture's friends pretty nearly succeeded in poisoning me."

"But they are murderers and—and brigands. Aravang killed your servant."

He sighed. How was this girl, fresh from the outside world, to understand the men of another race and the rigid laws of Yakka Arik?

"They have their code. An old one, Miss Rand. Before the coming of Christ it was that of Christians. An eye for an eye—a blow for a blow." Donovan pointed suddenly to the mosque. "That is not an evil place. It is a temple of faith, and faith is not an evil thing."

"Then why can't I go there? To this man who is your friend?"

Anxiety flashed into Donovan's tense face. Edith mistook it for anger.

"Because I say so! You must not try to learn the secret of the Sayaks."

The familiar ring of command was in his low voice. The girl's chin went up stubbornly and the gray eyes became cold.

"Very well," she said.

Donovan nodded in relief. He did not understand that, instead of consent, Edith's words meant that she was fully determined to disobey him. She would go to the mosque. Nothing would prevent her, now that Donovan, who should—so she reasoned—have been frank with her and trusted her instead of his Sayak friends, h;ad forbidden it. And at the same time she would appeal to the man of the mosque to help Donovan and herself.

Unaware that Edith had made up her mind to do the very thing he was most anxious she should not do—the thing that could ruin her prospect of escape from the lake, Donovan proposed that they should go below to their quarters.

"I'm devilishly hungry," he said cheerfully, "and Aravang must have lunch ready. I think I smell baked fish."

"I'm not hungry," she assured him coldly.

The girl remained on her perch when Aravang appeared for the sick man. Later, when Donovan sent the native to convey to her by signs that lunch was waiting, she shook her head.

For the first time she noticed that Aravang had a large bird on his wrist. It was a goshawk, hooded. Its powerful claws gripped a glove on the man's hand. The slave started at sight of the girl.

Aravang had evidently planned a little of his favorite diversion, while his mistress was below stairs. Edith stared at the falcon curiously, surprised at its tameness. Hawks, she had always thought, were wild and not subject to domestication. Its hooked beak and sharp talons appeared menacing.

Suddenly she beckoned the native.

"Aravang," she said, "I know you are not as ignorant as you want to seem. You know some English. Even if you can't speak it very well. Now, please pay attention. No one else will tell me anything. So you must."

The falconer grinned, one hand gently. Stroking the feathers of his pet. He could not have understood Edith's words, but he was obedient to the change in her voice. She faced him, one finger raised, as if he had been a child.

"Now listen." Edith spoke very slowly and distinctly. "Aravang, who is Dono-van Khan?" She lifted her brows and pointed to the stairway. "Who is he?"

"Dono-van Khan."

Edith was momentarily halted but not defeated. "Is he a real khan? Is he a khan among the Sayaks?" She nodded toward the distant mosque.

An expression of apprehension crossed the man's open face. He cast a wary eye at the stairs. "Sayak, no," he muttered. "Khan, yess."

Edith understood by this that Donovan was not a member of the religious brotherhood of Yakka Arik, but was held in esteem by them.

"What is a khan?" she whispered. "A chief?"

The last word did not penetrate to Aravang's understanding. He shifted his feet uneasily, handling the bird. Then he made a vocular effort.

"Mees effendi, Mees Rrand." He planted a fist on his own chest. "Me—kul! Dono-van Khan—manaps."

"What is that?"

Aravang was stumped. He could not explain. He shook his shaggy head and extended a pleading hand, to show his helplessness and his desire to serve his mistress. Then his broad face brightened.

"Manaps," he repeated and pointed to the hawk.

"A falcon?" She recalled that Iskander had termed him this, and she thought of the blue letter that had come to Monsey—"The Falcon is on the wing."

So, Monsey had been warned that Donovan was alive.

At this, Aravang excelled himself. He drew an imaginary sword and swung it viciously at an invisible enemy, repeating the native word, as if it were a charm. He darted a scarred finger at the mosque from which the throng of men and women was still emerging.

"Iskander, Dono-van Khan, manaps. Mees effendi, thus—you look!"

Abruptly, he whisked the hood off the goshawk and slipped the silver chain from its claw. For a second the falcon hesitated. Then, with a whirr of wings, it soared up from the balcony.

Edith watched it circle into the sky with the velocity of an arrow. The only other winged thing in sight was the black vulture, a carrion bird. Ordinarily, perhaps, the hawk would not have attacked such a thing. But now it was ravenous, having been starved by Aravang to the proper point. And the native had trained his birds well.

In the space of a few swift moments the falcon had got above the vulture, which now began to fly toward the pines, evidently sensing some danger; and Aravang's pet had flashed down, striking the black bird with beak and tearing claws.

Edith saw the dying bird fall into a garden not far away. The hawk circled down close upon it. She looked up. Aravang had gone to redeem his pet.

In the room below the girl found Donovan standing by the table where the lunch was set. He had not touched the food, waiting until she should come.

His lean face, and bright, deep-set eyes made her think of the hawk.