The Winds of the World/Chapter 9
Now, India is unlike every other country in the world in all particulars, and Delhi is in some respects the very heart through which India's unusualness flows. Delhi has five railway stations with which to cope with latter-day floods of paradoxical necessity; and nobody knew from which railway station troops might be expected to entrain or whither, although Delhi knew that there was war.
There did not seem to be anything very much out of the ordinary at any of the stations. In India one or two sidings are nearly always full of empty trains; there did not seem to be more of them than usual.
At the British barracks there was more or less commotion, because Thomas Atkins likes to voice his joy when the long peace breaks at last and he may justify himself; but in the native lines, where dignity is differently understood, the only men who really seemed unusually busy were the farriers, and the armourers who sharpened swords.
The government offices appeared to be undisturbed, and certainly no more messengers ran about than usual, the only difference was that one or two of them were open at a very early hour. But even in them—and Englishmen were busy in them—there seemed no excitement. Delhi had found time in a night to catch her breath and continue listening; for, unlike most big cities that brag with or without good reason, Delhi is listening nearly all the time.
A man was listening in the dingiest of all the offices on the ground floor of a big building on the side away from the street—a man in a drab silk suit, who twisted a leather watch-guard around his thumb and untwisted it incessantly. There was a telephone beside him, and a fair-sized pile of telegraph forms, but beyond that not much to show what his particular business might be. He did not look aggressive, but he seemed nervous, for he jumped perceptibly when the telephone-bell rang; and being a government telephone, with no commercial aims, it did not ring loud.
"Yes," he said, with the receiver at his ear. "Yes, yes. Who else? Oh, I forgot for the moment. Four, three, two, nine, two. Give yours! Very well, I'm listening."
Whoever was speaking at the other end had a lot to say, and none of it can have been expected, for the man in the drab silk suit twisted his wrinkled face and worked his eyes in a hundred expressions that began with displeasure and passed through different stages of surprise to acquiescence.
"I want you to know," he said, "that I got my information at first hand. I got it from Yasmini herself, from three of the hill-men who were present, and from the Afridi who was kicked and beaten. All except the Afridi, who wasn't there by that time, agreed that Ranjoor Singh had words with the German afterward. Eh? What's that?"
He listened again for about five minutes, and then hung up the receiver with an expression of mixed irritation and amusement.
"Caught me hopping on the wrong leg this time!" he muttered, beginning to twist at his watch-guard again.
Presently he sat up and looked bored, for he heard the fast trot of a big, long-striding horse. A minute later a high dogcart drew up in the street, and he heard a man's long—striding footsteps coming round the corner.
"Like horse, like man, like regiment!" he muttered. "Pick his stride or his horse's out of a hundred, and"—he pulled out his nickel watch—"he's ten minutes earlier than I expected him! Morning, Colonel Kirby!" he said pleasantly, as Kirby strode in, helmet in hand. "Take a seat."
He noticed Kirby's scalp was red and that he smelt more than faintly of carbolic.
"Morning!" said Kirby.
"I'm wondering what's brought you," said the man in drab.
"I've come about Ranjoor Singh," said Kirby; and the man in drab tried to look surprised.
"What about him? Reconsidered yesterday's decision?"
"No," said Kirby. "I've come to ask what news you have of him." And Kirby's eye, that some men seemed to think so like a bird's, transfixed the man in drab, so that he squirmed as if he had been impaled.
"You must understand, Colonel Kirby—in fact, I'm sure you do understand—that my business doesn't admit of confidences. Even if I wanted to divulge information, I'm not allowed to. I stretched a point yesterday when I confided in you my suspicions regarding Ranjoor Singh, but that doesn't imply that I'm going to tell you all I know. I asked you what you knew, you may remember."
"I told you!" snapped Kirby. "Is Ranjoor Singh still under suspicion?"
That was a straight question of the true Kirby type that admitted of no evasion, and the man in drab pulled his watch out, knocking it on the desk absent-mindedly, as if it were an egg that he wished to crack. He must either answer or not, it seemed, so he did neither.
"Why do you ask?" he parried.
"I've a right to know! Ranjoor Singh's my wing commander, and a better officer or a more loyal gentleman doesn't exist. I want him! I want to know where he is! And if he's under a cloud, I want to know why! Where is he?"
"I don't know where he is," said the man in drab. "Is he—ah—absent without leave?"
"Certainly not!" said Kirby. "I've seen to that!"
"Then you've communicated with him?"
"Then if his regiment were to march without him——"
"It won't if I can help it!" said Kirby.
"And if you can't help it, Colonel Kirby?"
"In that case he has got what he asked for, and there can be no charge against him until he shows up."
"I understand you have your marching orders?"
"I have sealed orders!" snapped Kirby.
"To be opened at sea?"
"To be opened when I see fit!"
"Yes," said Kirby. "I asked you is Ranjoor Singh still under suspicion!"
"My good sir, I am not the arbiter of Ranjoor Singh's destiny! How should I know?"
"I intend to know!" vowed Kirby, rising.
"I'm prepared to state that Ranjoor Singh is not in danger of arrest. I don't see that you have right to ask more than that, Colonel Kirby. Martial law has been declared this morning, and things don't take their ordinary course any longer, you know."
Kirby paced once across the office floor, and once back again. Then he faced the man in drab as a duelist faces his antagonist.
"I don't like to go over men's heads," he said, "as you threatened to do to me, for instance, yesterday. If you will give me satisfactory assurance that Ranjoor Singh is being treated as a loyal officer should be, I will ask no more. If not, I shall go now to the general commanding. As you say, there's martial law now, he's the man to see."
"Colonel Kirby," said the man in drab, twisting at his watch-guard furiously, "if you'll tell me what's in your sealed orders—open them and see—I'll tell you what I know about Ranjoor Singh, and we'll call it a bargain!"
"I wasn't joking," said Kirby, turning red as his scalp from the roots of his hair to his collar.
"I'm in deadly earnest!" said the man in drab.
So, without a word more, Colonel Kirby hurried out again, carrying his saber in his left hand at an angle that was peculiar to him, and that illustrated determination better than words could have done.
His huge horse plunged away almost before he had gained the seat, and, saber and all, he gained the seat at a step-and-a-jump. But the sais was not up behind, and Kirby had scarcely settled down to drive before the man in drab had the telephone mouthpiece to his lips and had given his mysterious number again—4-3-2-9-2.
"He's coming, sir!" he said curtly.
Somebody at the other end apparently asked, "Who is coming?" for the man in drab answered:
Five minutes later Kirby caught a general at breakfast, and was received with courtesy and feigned surprise.
"D'you happen to know anything about my risaldar-major, Ranjoor Singh?" asked Kirby, after a hasty apology for bursting in.
"He was under suspicion yesterday—I was told so. Next he disappeared. Then I received a message from him asking me to assign him to special duty; that was after I'd more than half believed him burned to death in a place called the 'House-of-the-Eight-Half-brothers.' He has sent some most extraordinary messages to his squadron by the hand of a mysterious babu, but not a word of explanation of any kind. Can you tell me anything about him, sir?"
"Wasn't a trooper of yours murdered yesterday?" the general asked.
"Yes," said Kirby.
"And another missing?"
"Did Ranjoor Singh go off to search for the missing man?"
"I was told so."
"H-rrrr-ump! Well, I'm glad you came; you've saved me trouble! Did you put Ranjoor Singh in Orders as assigned to special duty?"
"What is the missing trooper's name?"
"Well, please enter him in Orders, too."
"Special service," said the general. "How about Ranjoor Singh's charger?"
"I understand that he's been kept well groomed by Ranjoor Singh's orders, and my adjutant tells me he has the horse in care in his own stable."
The general made a note.
"Whose stable?" he asked.
"Warrington, of Outram's Own, eh? Captain Warrington?"
The general wrote that down, while Kirby watched him bewildered.
"Well now, Kirby, that'll be all right Have the horse left there, will you? I hope You've been able to dispose of your own horses to advantage. Two chargers don't seem a large allowance for a commanding officer of a cavalry regiment, but that's all you can take with you. You'll have to leave the rest behind."
"Haven't given it a thought, sir! Too busy thinking about Ranjoor Singh. Worried about him."
"Shouldn't worry!" said the general. "Ranjoor Singh's all right."
"That's the first assurance I've had of it, except by way of a mysterious note," said Kirby.
"By all right, I mean that he isn't in disgrace. But now about your horses and private effects. You've done nothing about them?"
"I'll have time to attend to that this afternoon, sir."
"Oh, no, you won't. That's why I'm glad you came! These"—he gave him a sealed envelope—"are supplementary orders, to be opened when you get back to barracks. I want you out of the way by noon if possible. We'll send a man down this morning to take charge of whatever any of you want kept, and you'd better tell him to sell the rest and pay the money to your bankers; he'll be a responsible officer. That's all. Good-by, Kirby, and good luck!"
The general held out his hand.
"One more minute, sir," said Kirby. "About Ranjoor Singh!"
"What about him?"
"Well, sir—what about him?"
"What have you heard?"
"That—I've heard a sort of promise that he'll be with his squadron, to lead it, before the blood runs."
"Won't that be time enough?" asked the general, smiling. He was looking at Kirby very closely. "Not sick, are you?" he asked. "No? I thought your scalp looked rather redder than usual."
Kirby flushed to the top of his collar instantly, and the general pretended to arrange a sheaf of papers on the table.
"One reason why you're being sent first, my boy," said the general, holding out his hand again, "is that you and your regiment are fittest to be sent. But I've taken into consideration, too, that I don't want you or your adjutant killed by a cobra in any event. And—snf—snf—the salt sea air gets rid of the smell of musk quicker than anything. Good-by, Kirby, my boy, and God bless you!"
Kirby stammered the words, and almost ran down the steps to his waiting dog-cart. As all good men do, when undeserved ridicule or blame falls to their lot, he wondered what in the world he could have done wrong.
He had no blame for anybody, only a fierce resentment of injustice—an almost savage sense of shame that any one should know about the adventure of the night before, and a rising sense of joy in his soldier's heart because he had orders in his pocket to be up and doing. So, and only so, could he forget it all.
He whipped up his horse and went down the general's drive at a pace that made the British sentry at the gate grin from ear to ear with whole-souled approval. He did not see a fat babu approach the general's bungalow from the direction of the bazaar. The babu salaamed profoundly, but Kirby's eyes were fixed on the road ahead, and his thoughts were already deep in the future. He saw nothing except the road, until he took the last corner into barracks on one wheel, and drew up a minute later in front of the bachelor quarters that had sheltered him for the past four years.
"Pack! Campaign kit! One trunk!" he ordered his servant. "Orderly!"
An orderly ran in from outside.
"Tell Major Brammle and Captain Warrington to come to me!"
It took ten minutes to find Warrington, since every job was his, and nearly every responsibility, until his colonel should take charge of a paraded, perfect regiment, and lead it away to its fate. He came at last, however, and on the run, and Brammle with him.
"Orders changed!" said Kirby. "March at noon! Man'll be here this morning to take charge of officers' effects. Better have things ready for him and full instructions. One trunk allowed each officer. Two chargers."
"Destination, sir?" asked Brammle.
"Where do we entrain?" asked Warrington.
"We march out of Delhi. Entrain later, at a place appointed on the road."
Warrington began to hum to himself and to be utterly, consciously happy.
"Then I'll get a move on!" he said, starting to hurry out. "Everything's ready, but——"
"Wait a minute!" commanded Kirby; and Warrington remained in the room after Brammle had left it.
"You haven't said anything to anybody, of course, about that incident last night?"
"Then she has!"
"Are you sure she has?"
"Quite. I've just had proof of it!"
"Makes a fellow reverence the sex!" swore Warrington.
"It'll be forgotten by the time we're back in India," said Kirby solemnly. "Remember to keep absolutely silent about it. The best way to help others forget it is to forget it yourself. Not one word now to anybody, even under provocation!"
"Not a word, sir!"
"All right. Go and attend to business!"
What "attending to business" meant nobody can guess who has not been in at the breaking up of quarters at short notice. Everything was ready, as Warrington had boasted, but even an automobile may "stall" for a time in the hands of the best chauffeur, and a regiment contains as many separate human equations as it has men in its ranks.
The amount of personal possessions that had to be jettisoned, or left to the tender mercies of a perfunctory agent, would have wrung groans from any one but soldiers. The last minute details that seemed to be nobody's job, and that, therefore, all fell to Warrington because somebody had to see to them, were beyond the imagination of any but an adjutant, and not even Warrington's imagination proved quite equal to the task.
"We're ready, sir!" he reported at last to Kirby. "We're paraded and waiting. Brammle's inspected 'em, and I've done ditto. There are only thirteen thousand details left undone that I can't think of, and not one of 'em's important enough to keep us waitin'!"
So Kirby rode out on parade and took the regiment's salute. There was nobody to see them off. There were not even women to wail by the barrack gate, for they marched away at dinner-time and official lies had been distributed where they would do most good.
Englishman and Sikh alike rode untormented by the wails or waving farewells of their kindred; and there was only a civilian on a white pony, somewhere along ahead, who seemed to know that they were more than just parading. He led them toward the Ajmere Gate, and by the time that the regiment's luggage came along in wagons, with the little rear-guard last of all, it was too late to run and warn people. Outram's Own had gone at high noon, and nobody the wiser!
There was no music as they marched and no talking. Only the jingling bits and rattling hoofs proclaimed that India's best were riding on a sudden summons to fight for the "Salt." They marched in the direction least expected of them, three-quarters of a day before their scheduled time, and even "Guppy," the mess bull-terrier, who ran under the wagon with the officers' luggage, behaved as if all ends of the world were one to him. He waved his tail with dignity and trotted in content.
Hard by the Ajmere Gate they halted, for some bullock carts had claimed their centuries-long prerogative of getting in the way. While the bullocks, to much tail-twisting and objurgation, labored in the mud in every direction but the right one, Colonel Kirby sat his charger almost underneath the gate, waiting patiently. Then the advance-guard clattered off and he led along.
He never knew where it came from and he never tried to guess. He caught it instinctively, and kept it for the sake of chivalry, or perhaps because she had made him think for a moment of his mother. At all events, the bunch of jasmine flowers that fell into his lap found a warm berth under his buttoned tunic, and he rode on through the great gate with a kinder thought for Yasmini than probably she would guess.
With that resentment gone, he could ride now as suited him, with all his thoughts ahead, and there lacked then only one thing to complete his pleasure—he missed Ranjoor Singh.
It was not that the squadron would lack good leading. An English officer had taken Ranjoor Singh's place. It was the man he missed—the decent loyal gentleman who had worked untiringly to sweat a squadron into shape to Kirby's liking and never once presumed, nor had taken offense at criticism—the man who had been good enough to understand the ethics of an alien colonel, and to translate them for the benefit of his command. It is not easy for a Sikh to rise to the rank of major and lead a squadron for the Raj.
He counted Ranjoor Singh his friend, and he knew that Ranjoor Singh would have given all the rest of his life to ride away now for only one encounter on a foreign battle-field. Nothing, nothing less than the word of Ranjoor Singh himself, would ever convince him of the man's disloyalty. And he would have felt better if he could have shaken hands with Ranjoor Singh before going, since it seemed to be the order of the day that the Sikh should stay behind.
It did not seem quite the thing to be riding away to war with the best native officer in all India somewhere in Delhi on "special service"—whatever that might be.
He was given, as a rule, to smiling at any man who did his best. On any other day he would have very likely exchanged a joke with the bullock-man who labored so unavailingly to get the road cleared in a hurry. But to-day, since his thoughts were of Ranjoor Singh, he paid the man no attention; he had not even formed a mental picture of him by the time he passed the gate.
It was Warrington, cantering up from behind a minute or so later, who changed the color of the earth and sky.
"Did you recognize him, sir?"
"Not the bullock-man who blocked the road, but the man who ran out from behind the gate and straightened things out again. That man was Ranjoor Singh in mufti!"
"What makes you think so?"
"I recognized him. So did his squadron—look at them! They're riding like new men!"
Kirby looked, and there was no doubt about D Squadron.
"Is he there still?" he asked.
"I can see a man standing there—see him? Fellow in white between two bullock carts?"
Kirby pulled out to the roadside and let the regiment pass him. Then he cantered back. The man between the bullock carts had his back turned, and was gazing toward Delhi under his hand.
"Ranjoor Singh!" said Kirby, reining suddenly. "Is that you?"
"Uh?" The man faced about. He was no more Ranjoor Singh than he was Colonel Kirby.
"Where is the man who came from behind the gate to clear the road?"
The man pointed toward the gate. Inside, within the gloom of the gate itself, Kirby was certain he saw a Sikh who stood at the salute. He cantered to the gate, for he would have given a year's pay for word with Ranjoor Singh. But when he reached the gate the man was gone.
"And he promised he'd be there to lead his squadron when the blood runs," wondered Kirby.
"Now a trap," said the tiger, "is easy to spot,"
(Oh, jungli, be seated and listen!)
"Some tempt you with live bait, and others do not;"
(Oh, jungli, be leery and listen!)
"The easiest sort to detect have a door—
A box, with three walls and a roof and a floor—
That the veriest, hungriest cub should ignore."
(Oh, jungli, stop laughing and listen!)
"This isn't a trap, as I'll show you, my friend."
But the tiger fell into it. That is the end.
(Oh, jungli, be loving and listen!)