The Winds of the World/Chapter 7
"That's the man whose face was in the mirror!" said Warrington suddenly, reaching out to seize the babu's collar. "He's the man who wanted to be regimental clerk! He's the man who was offering to eat a German a day!… No—stand still, and I won't hurt you!"
"Bring him out into the fresh air!" ordered Kirby.
The illimitable sky did not seem big enough just then; four walls could not hold him. Kirby, colonel of light cavalry, and considered by many the soundest man in his profession, was in revolt against himself; and his collar was a beastly mess.
"Hurry out of this hole, for heaven's sake!" he exclaimed.
So Warrington applied a little science to the babu, and that gentleman went out through a narrow door backward at a speed and at an angle that were new to him—so new that he could not express his sensations in the form of speech. The door shut behind them with a slam, and when they looked for it they could see no more than a mark in the wall about fifty yards from the bigger door by which they had originally entered.
"There's the carriage waiting, sir!" said Warrington, and with a glance toward it to reassure himself, Kirby opened his mouth wide and filled his lungs three times with the fresh, rain-sweetened air.
There were splashes of rain falling, and he stood with bared head, face upward, as if the rain would wash Yasmini's musk from him. It was nearly pitch-dark, but Warrington could just see that the risaldar on the box seat raised his whip to them in token of recognition.
"Now then! Speak, my friend! What were you doing in there?" demanded Warrington.
"No, not here!" said Kirby. "We might be recognized. Bring him into the shay."
The babu uttered no complaint, but allowed himself to be pushed along at a trot ahead of the adjutant, and bundled head-foremost through the carriage door.
"Drive slowly!" ordered Kirby, clambering in last; and the risaldar sent the horses forward at a steady trot.
"Now!" said Warrington.
"H-r-r-ump!" said Kirby.
"My God, gentlemen!" said the babu. "Sahibs, I am innocent of all complicitee in this or any other eventualitee. I am married man, having family responsibilitee and other handicaps. Therefore——"
"Where did you get this ring?" demanded Kirby.
"That? Oh, that!" said the babu. "That is veree simplee told. That is simple little matter. There is nothing untoward in that connection. Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh, who is legal owner of ring, same being his property, gave it into my hand."
Both men demanded to know that in one voice.
"Sahibs, having no means of telling time, how can I guess?"
"How long ago? About how long ago?"
"Being elderly person of advancing years and much adipose tissue, I am not able to observe more than one thing at a time. And yet many things have been forced on my attention. I do not know how long ago."
"Since I saw you outside the barrack gate?" demanded Warrington.
"Oh, yes. Oh, certainly. By all means!"
"Less than two hours ago, then, sir!" said Warrington, looking at his watch.
"Then he isn't burned to death!" said Kirby, with more satisfaction than he had expressed all the evening.
"Oh, no, sir! Positivelee not, sahib! The risaldar-major is all vitalitee!"
"Where did he give you the ring?"
"Into the palm of my hand, sahib."
"Where—in what place—in what street—at whose house?"
"At nobody's house, sahib. It was in the dark, and the dark is very big."
"Did he give it you at Yasmini's?"
"Oh, no, sahib! Positivelee not!"
"Where is he now?"
"Sahib, how should I know, who am but elderly person of no metaphysical attainments, only failed B.A.?"
"What did he say when he gave it to you?"
"Sahib, he threatened me!"
"Confound you, what did he say?"
"He said, 'Babuji, present this ring to Colonel Kirby sahib. You will find him, babuji, where you will find him, but in any case you will lose no time at all in finding him. When you have given the ring to him he will ask you questions, and you will say Ranjoor Singh said, "All will presently be made clear"; and should you forget the message, babuji, or should you fail to find him soon, there are those who will make it their urgent business, babuji, to open that belly of thine and see what is in it!' So, my God, gentlemen! I am veree timid man! I have given the ring and the message, but how will they know that I have given it? I did not think of that! Moreover, I am unrewarded—I have no emolument—as yet!"
"How will who know?" demanded Warrington.
"Who are they?" asked Kirby.
"The men who will investigate the inside of my belly, sahib. Oh, a belly is so sensitive! I am afraid!"
"Did he tell you who 'they' were?"
"No, sahib. Had he done so, I would at once have sought police protection. Not knowing names of individuals, what was use of going to police, who would laugh at me? I went to Yasmini, who understands all things. She laughed, too; but she told me where is Colonel Kirby sahib."
Colonel Kirby became possessed of a bright idea, his first since Yasmini had thrown her spell over him.
"Could you find the way," he asked, "from here to wherever it was that Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh gave you that ring?"
The babu thrust his head out of the carriage window and gazed into the dark for several minutes.
"Conceivablee yes, sahib."
"Then tell the driver where to turn!"
"I could direct with more discernment from box-seat," said the babu, with a hand on the door.
"No, you don't!" commanded Warrington.
"Let go that handle! What I want to know is why were you so afraid at Yasmini's?"
"Yes, you! I saw your face in a mirror, and you were scared nearly to death. Of what?"
"Who is not afraid of Yasmini? Were the sahibs not also afraid?"
"Of what besides Yasmini were you afraid? Of what in particular?"
"Of her cobras, sahib!"
"What of them?" demanded Warrington, with a reminiscent shudder.
"Certain of her women showed them to me."
"To further convince me, sahib, had that been necessary. Oh, but I was already quite convinced. Bravery is not my vade mecum!"
"Confound the man! To convince you of what?"
"That if I tell too much one of those snakes will shortlee be my bedmate. Ah! To think of it causes me to perspirate with sweat. Sahibs, that is a——"
"You shall go to jail if you don't tell me what I want to know!" said Kirby.
"Ah, sahib, I was jail clerk once—dismissed for minor offenses but cumulative in effect. Being familiar with inside of jail, am able to make choice."
"Get on the box-seat with him!" commanded Kirby. "Let him show the driver where to turn. But watch him! Keep hold of him!"
So again the babu was propelled on an involuntary course, and Warrington proceeded to pinch certain of his fat parts to encourage him to mount the box with greater speed; but his helplessness became so obvious that Warrington turned friend and shoved him up at last, keeping hold of his loin-cloth when he wedged his own muscular anatomy into the small space left.
"To the right," said the babu, pointing. And the risaldar drove to the right.
"To the left," said the babu, and Warrington made note of the fact that they were not so very far away from the House-of-the-Eight-Half-brothers.
Soon the babu began to scratch his stomach.
"What's the matter?" demanded Warrington.
"They said they would cut my belly open, sahib! A belly is so sensitive!"
Warrington laughed sympathetically; for the fear was genuine and candidly expressed. The babu continued scratching.
"To the right," he said after a while, and the risaldar drove to the right, toward where a Hindu temple cast deep shadows, and a row of trees stood sentry in spasmodic moonlight. In front of the temple, seated on a mat, was a wandering fakir of the none-too-holy type. By his side was a flat covered basket.
"Look, sahib!" said the babu; and Warrington looked.
"My belly crawls!"
"What's the matter, man?"
"He is a fakir. There are snakes in that basket—cobras, sahib! Ow-ow-ow!"
Warrington, swaying precariously over the edge, held tight by the loin-cloth, depending on it as a yacht in a tideway would to three hundred pounds of iron.
"Oh, cobras are so veree dreadful creatures!" wailed the babu, caressing his waist again. "Look, sahib! Look! Oh, look! Between devil and over-sea what should a man do? Ow!"
The carriage lurched at a mud-puddle. The babu's weight lurched with it, and Warrington's center of gravity shifted. The babu seemed to shrug himself away from the snakes, but the effect was to shove Warrington the odd half-inch it needed to put him overside. He clung to the loin-cloth and pulled hard to haul himself back again, and the loin-cloth came away.
"Halt!" yelled Warrington; and the risaldar reined in.
But the horses took fright and plunged forward, though the risaldar swore afterward that the babu did nothing to them; he supposed it must have been the fakir squatting in the shadows that scared them.
And whatever it may have been—snakes or not—that had scared the babu, it had scared all his helplessness away. Naked from shirt to socks, he rolled like a big ball backward over the carriage top, fell to earth behind the carriage, bumped into Warrington, who was struggling to his feet, knocking him down again, and departed for the temple shadows, screaming. The temple door slammed just as Warrington started after him.
By that time the risaldar had got the horses stopped, and Colonel Kirby realized what had happened.
"Come back, Warrington!" he ordered peremptorily.
Warrington obeyed, but without enthusiasm.
"I can run faster than that fat brute, sir!" he said. "And I saw him go into the temple. We won't find Ranjoor Singh now in a month of Sundays!"
He was trying to wipe the mud from himself with the aid of the loin-cloth.
"Anyhow, I've got the most important part of his costume," he said vindictively. "Gad, I'd like to get him on the run now through the public street!"
"Come along in!" commanded Kirby, opening the door. "There has been trouble enough already without a charge of temple breaking. Tell the risaldar to drive back to quarters. I'm going to get this musk out of my hair before dawn!"
Warrington sniffed as he climbed in. The outer night had given him at least a standard by which to judge things.
"I'd give something to listen to the first man who smells the inside of this shay!" he said cheerily. "D 'you suppose we can blame it on the babu, sir?"
"We can try!" said Kirby. "Is that his loin-cloth you've got still?"
"Didn't propose to leave it in the road for him to come and find, sir! His present shame is about the only consolation prize we get out of the evening's sport. I wish it smelt of musk—but it doesn't; it smells of babu—straight babu, undiluted. Hallo—what's this?"
He began to untwist a corner of the cloth, holding it up to get a better view of it in the dim light that entered through the window. He produced a piece of paper that had to be untwisted, too.
"Got a match, sir?"
Kirby struck one.
"It's addressed to 'Colonel Kirby sahib!' Bet you it's from Ranjoor Singh! Now—d'you suppose that heathen meant to hold on to that until he could get his price for it?"
"Dunno," said Kirby with indifference, opening the note as fast as trembling fingers could unfold it. He would not have admitted to himself what his fingers told so plainly—the extent of his regard for Ranjoor Singh.
The note was short, and Kirby read it aloud, since it was not marked private, and there was nothing in it that even the babu might not have read:
"To Colonel Kirby sahib, from his obedient servant, Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh—Leave of absence being out of question after declaration of war, will Colonel Kirby sahib please put in Order of the Day that Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh is assigned to special duty, or words to same effect?"
"Is that all?" asked Warrington.
"That's all," said Kirby.
"Suppose it's a forgery?"
"The ring rather proves it isn't, and I've another way of knowing."
"Yes," said Kirby.
They sat in silence in the swaying shay until the smell of musk and the sense of being mystified became too much for Warrington, and he began to hum to himself. Humming brought about a return to his usual wide-awakefulness, and he began to notice things.
"Shay rides like a gun," he said suddenly.
"All the weight's behind and——" He put his head out of the window to investigate, but Kirby ordered him to sit still.
"Want to be recognized?" he demanded. "Keep your head inside, you young ass!"
So Warrington sat back against the cushions until the guard at the barrack gate turned out to present arms to the risaldar's raised whip. As if he understood the requirements of the occasion without being told, the risaldar sent the horses up the drive at a hard gallop. It was rather more than half-way up the drive that Warrington spoke again.
"Feel that, sir?" he asked.
"I ordered that place to be seen to yesterday!" growled Kirby. "Why wasn't it done?"
"It was, sir."
"Why did we bump there, then?"
"Why aren't we running like a gun any longer?" wondered Warrington. "Felt to me as if we'd dropped a load."
"Well, here we are, thank God! What do you mean to do?"
"Rounds," said Warrington.
Kirby dived through his door, while Warrington went behind the shay to have a good look for causes. He could find none, although a black leather apron, usually rolled up behind in order to be strapped over baggage when required, was missing.
"Didn't see who took that apron, did you?" he asked the risaldar; but the risaldar had not known that it was gone.
"All right, then, and thank you!" said Warrington, walking off into the darkness bareheaded, to help the smell evaporate from his hair; and the shay rumbled away to its appointed place, with the babu's loin-cloth inside it on the front seat.
It need surprise nobody that Colonel Kirby found time first to go to his bathroom. His regiment was as ready for active service at any minute as a fire-engine should be—in that particular, India's speed is as three to Prussia's one. The moment orders to march should come, he would parade it in full marching order and lead it away. But there were no orders yet; he had merely had warning.
So he sent for dog-soap and a brush, and proceeded to scour his head. After twenty minutes of it, and ten changes of water, when he felt that he dared face his own servant without blushing, he made that wondering Sikh take turns at shampooing him until he could endure the friction no longer.
"What does my head smell of now?" he demanded.
"Not of dog-soap?"
"Bring that carbolic disinfectant here!"
The servant obeyed, and Kirby mixed a lotion that would outsmell most things. He laved his head in it generously, and washed it off sparingly.
"Bring me brown paper?" he ordered then; and again the wide-eyed Sikh obeyed.
Kirby rolled the paper into torches, and giving the servant one, proceeded to fumigate the room and his own person until not even a bloodhound could have tracked him back to Yasmini's, and the reek of musk had been temporarily, at least, subdued into quiescence.
"Go and ask Major Brammle to come and see me," said Kirby then.
Brammle came in sniffing, and Kirby cursed him through tight lips with words that were no less fervent for lack of being heard.
"Hallo! Burning love-letters? The whole mess is doin' the same thing. Haven't had time to burn mine yet—was busy sorting things over when you called. Look here!"
He opened the front of his mess-jacket and produced a little lace handkerchief, a glove and a powder-puff.
"Smell 'em!" he said. "Patchouli! Shame to burn 'em, what? S'pose I must, though."
"Any thing happen while I was gone?" asked Kirby.
"Yes. Most extraordinary thing. You know that a few hours ago D Squadron were all sitting about in groups looking miserable? We set it down to their trooper being murdered and another man being missing. Well, just about the time you and Warrington drove off in the mess shay, they all bucked up and began grinning! Wouldn't say a word. Just grinned, and became the perkiest squadron of the lot!
"Now they're all sleeping like two-year-olds. Reason? Not a word of reason! I saw young Warrington just now on his way to their quarters with a lantern, and if he can find any of 'em awake perhaps he can get the truth out of 'em, for they'll talk to him when they won't to anybody else. By the way, Warrington can't have come in with you, did he?"
Kirby ignored the question.
"Did you tell Warrington to go and ask them?" he demanded.
"Yes. Passed him in the dark, but did not recognize him by the smell. No—no! Got as near him as I could, and then leaned up against the scent to have a word with him! Musk! Never smelt anything like it in my life! Talk about girls! He must be in love with half India, and native at that! Brazen-faced young monkey! I asked him where he got the disinfectant, and he told me he fell into a mud-puddle!"
"Perhaps he did," said Kirby. "Was there mud on him?"
"Couldn't see. Didn't dare get so near him! Don't you think he ought to be spoken to? I mean, the eve of war's the eve of war and all that kind of thing, but——"
"I wish you'd let me see the Orders of the Day," Kirby interrupted. "I want to make an addition to them."
"I'll send an orderly."
"Wish you would."
Five minutes later Kirby sat at his private desk, while Brammle puffed at a cigar by the window. Kirby, after a lot of thinking, wrote:
"Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh (D Squadron) assigned to special duty."
He handed the orders back to Brammle, and the major eyed the addition with subdued amazement.
"What'll D Squadron say?" he asked.
"Remains to be seen," said Kirby.
Outside in the muggy blackness that shuts down on India in the rains, Warrington walked alone, swinging a lantern and chuckling to himself as he reflected what D Squadron would be likely to invent as a reason for the smell that walked with him. For he meant to wake D Squadron and learn things.
But all at once it occurred to him that he had left the babu's loin-cloth on the inside front seat of the shay; and, because if that were seen it would have given excuse for a thousand tales too many and too imaginative, he hurried in search of it, taking a short cut to where by that time the shay should be. On his way, close to his destination, he stumbled over something soft that tripped him. He stooped, swung the lantern forward, and picked up—the missing leather apron from behind the shay.
The footpath on which he stood was about a yard wide; the shay could not possibly have come along it. And it certainly had been behind the shay when they left barracks. Moreover, close examination proved it to be the identical apron beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Warrington began to hum to himself. And then he ceased from humming. Then he set the lantern down and stepped away from it sidewise until its light no longer shone on him. He listened, as a dog does, with intelligence and skill. Then, suddenly, he sprang and lit on a bulky mass that yielded—gasped—spluttered—did anything but yell.
"So you rode on the luggage-rack behind the carriage, did you, babuji?" he smiled. "And curled under the apron to look like luggage when we passed the guard, eh?"
"But, my God, sahib!" said a plaintive voice. "Should I walk through Delhi naked? You, who wear pants, you laugh at me, but I assure you, sahib——"
"Hush!" ordered Warrington; and the babu seemed very glad to hush.
"There was a note in a corner of that cloth of yours!"
"And the sahib found it? Oh, then I am relieved. I am preserved from pangs of mutual regret!"
"Why didn't you give that note to Colonel Kirby sahib when you had the chance? Eh?" asked Warrington, keeping firm hold of him.
"Sahib! Your honor! Not being yet remunerated on account of ring and verbal message duly delivered, commercial precedent was all on my side that I should retain further article of value pending settlement. Now, I ask you——"
"Where was Ranjoor Singh when he gave you that ring and message?" demanded Warrington sternly, increasing his grip on the babu's fat arm.
"Sahib, when I have received payment for first service rendered, my disposition may be changed. I am as yet in condition of forma pauperis."
Still holding him tight, Warrington produced twenty rupees in paper money.
"Can you see those, babuji? See them? Then earn them!"
"Oh, my God, sahib, I have positivelee earned a lakh of rupees this night already!"
"Where was Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh when he——"
Footsteps were approaching—undoubtedly a guard on his way to investigate. The babu seemed to sense Warrington's impatience.
"Sahib," he said, "I am very meek person, having family of wife and children all dependent. Is that rupees twenty? I would graciously accept same, and positivelee hold my tongue!"
The steps came nearer.
"I was on my way to D Squadron quarters, sahib, to narrate story and pass begging bowl. Total price of story rupees twenty. Or else the sahib may deliver me to guard, and guard shall be regaled free gratis with full account of evening's amusement? Yes?"
The steps came nearer yet. Recognizing an officer, the men halted a few paces away.
"Sahib, for sum of rupees twenty I could hold tongue for twenty years, unless in meantime deceased, in which case——"
"Take 'em!" ordered Warrington; and the babu's fingers shut tight on the money.
"Guard!" ordered Warrington. "Put this babu out into the street!"
"Good night, sahib!" said the babu. "Kindlee present my serious respects to the colonel sahib. Salaam, sahib!"
But Warrington had gone into the darkness.
The Four Winds come, the Four Winds go,
(Ye wise o' the world, oh, listen ye!),
Whispering, whistling what they know,
Wise, since wandering made them so
(Ye stay-at-homes, oh, listen ye!).
Ever they seek and sift and pry—
Listening here, and hurrying by—
Restless, ceaseless—know ye why?
(Then, wise o' the world, oh, listen ye!)
The goal of the search of the hurrying wind
Is the key to the maze of a woman's mind,
(And there is no key! Oh, listen ye!)