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There came a day—a day of discontent
Begot by vision in the ageless womb
Of that old prostitute impenitent
Salome, earth-bound in the crimson tomb
Of this man's heart—a gray day dawning cold
In melancholy when a Voice said: Slay!
She has no title. Dagger loose her hold
And know no law henceforth save Disobey!
ANGUS, nicknamed "Gup" McLeod, six feet two and a half inches of him, came untouched out of the Great War—untouched that is, except by savagery that had eaten through the film of conventional courtesy toward forms that seemed to him ridiculous. He went in a boy, obedient to all the caprices of family tradition and the prejudices of what he had been taught to revere as civilization. Like many another man, before the war was over he devoutly hoped to get a bullet in his brain and strove to that end vainly. They gave him medals and they would have given him high promotion, only some one at Headquarters thought that big men are a mistake. Besides, he had a way of smiling down from his great height that some people thought was scornful, whereas it was actually puzzled curiosity. Angus McLeod despised nobody and nobody's ideals in those days; he had not yet reached even the stage of despising himself. But the humorous, baffled sense of the absurdity of human make-believe that laughed in his eyes set the rank of brevet major as his limit of attainment in the war. It offended people. And when the Armistice was signed, he, who could endure the unendurable and lead men into it because he could pretend to like it, was in India doing practically nothing.
He resigned his commission in India, and for several months he was treated as distantly as formal politeness allowed, because it was generally supposed he would apply for a government job. Jobs were scarce and men not dying fast enough, but the McLeods, as a family, have almost a hereditary lien on India and he possibly had home influence, too, that might have forced the hand of authority. However, he asked for nothing, and it was presently learned that he had some private means—not much, but enough to prevent the salary-hunger that makes half the world sheep and the other half wolves.
Then a new sort of suspicion, vague at first, began to rest on him. He was known to be studying languages, but it was not understood why he should choose to practise conversation with all sorts of Indian politicians. He looked more like a Highland chieftain than a Bolshevik; his sandy hair and blue eyes instantly placed him, at the first glance, in the category of men who live and die with the ancient slogans on their lips. But unexpected things were happening and governments were super- sensitive; a world-bath of blood and explosions can bring forth greater improbabilities than that an atavistic Scotsman should turn rebel. Angus McLeod had felt the thin veneer of education wearing off. It made him feel morally naked at first, and after he got used to that he began to be tactless and almost to flaunt his nakedness—his unbelief in the accepted standards of behavior and speech. He certainly chose unconventional teachers. Rebellion of any sort, and judicious selection of one's companions, seldom go together. That appears to be a law.
There are three good ways to learn a language, of which the first is woman. But Gup McLeod was in rebellion against woman also. His wife had run off with some other man home on furlough while McLeod was in the trenches with her photo next his heart. Perhaps she had foreseen the earthquake nature of the coming change in him, in which all preconceptions would crumble and leave nothing but incomprehensible fact to be faced. She was possibly wise; in course of time she had three babies and a bank account. And her cruelty merely hastened an event at the cost of a certain amount of torture to Gup's sensitive ego. He hid what he felt, under a mask of tight-lipped silence, but all women, for a while, became included in the disrespect that one had earned.
The second-best way to learn a language is by studying religion, because that means digging for the form of thought behind the words and mastering the subtleties of thin-split argument. But Gup McLeod was not the type of man who goes into a monastery when the world displeases him. His discontent included a suggestion that the mess the world is in is as much due to mixed religion as to unmixed depravity, so that the sight of a temple made him angry and the thought of studying comparative religions made him shudder. He had no desire whatever to reform the world. Let it rot. He believed that it would, and he thought that probably the best solution. His problem was to interest himself meanwhile, and to find something tremendous in which to engage his strength of mind and body.
The third best way to learn a language is to study politics—a more disgusting process than the others but less dangerous, because a man can change his politics, whereas creeds are prehensile and women costly. Politics are cheap in their less esoteric stages, and McLeod was enough of a Scotsman to appreciate that; so politics it was, and he soon became, as a result, amazingly proficient in three languages.
But he kept strange company, and he became known in all the ramifying byways of India's political underworld, which are as dark and sinuous as the workings of one of Zola's coal-mines. Those are swift students of human character who sap and mine, for the fun and excitement of it, beneath the foundations of alien rule. They may be madmen and they may be miscreants, as certainly at least a few of them are heroes, but they are all sharp-witted because they must be that or perish; so it was very swiftly understood that Gup McLeod was a safe man with whom to talk—a man not easily committed to a course, and particularly not to a course he did not understand, but a man who sold no secrets, whether for gold or favor.
Naturally it was not long before the ubiquitous government agents reported him through devious channels as a member of almost every one of the innumerable secret and seditious political societies with which India was swarming as a worn out and neglected garden does with gophers. That, of course, was too much for even a professional bureaucrat to pretend to believe, but McLeod's mail was read and rather clumsily re-sealed; his trunks at the hotel were ransacked in his absence; he was shadowed wherever he went. There being no incriminating evidence he was sent for at last by a high and fatherly official, who produced cigars and whisky before revealing himself in his true guise of inquisitor.
"McLeod, for the sake of your good name now, be candid. Tell me what your game is. What are you planning, and why?"
It may have been the weather, or it may have been that an insight into politics had finally undone the last of McLeod's respect for established authority. He had a brainstorm. Fury and indignation swept away all self-restraint and for thirty minutes he poured forth all the bitterness that had been accumulating in his heart since the day when he saw his regiment swept out of being in Flanders. It was bitterness of incredulity, strangely impersonal and without malice, but almost as corrosive of the official's personal self-esteem as sulphuric acid thrown into his face.
"Good God, man! Are you an anarchist?"
"What an idiotic question! Only an ass could ask it! I'm no kind of 'ist.' It's the 'isms' and 'osophies' that have us hog-tied. To hell with every theory of government from Plato downward!"
"You're a Bolshevist?"
"Do you think I bought the right to think, on battlefields, in order to bow my neck to a coiner of phrases in Moscow?"
"But you are known to have discussed communism with—"
"Good God! And I've read Einstein and Ouspensky! I've talked about the next coming of Christ with a Dukhobor who works for a Chinese herbalist! I've talked about adultery with a Catholic archbishop, and I've discussed the effect of constipation on a mathematician's style with a Seventh-day Adventist from the United States. Of which of those deadly crimes am I accused? I'll name a few more if you haven't enough."
"You are accused of nothing. I am asking."
"Answer this first. Do you think you know good government when you see it? Have you ever seen it? Do you think your own is even half-good? Then mayn't I go like Socrates into the market-place and—or is this stuff that looks and smells like whisky and soda actually hemlock? If so, Vale, Caesar, I cheerfully drink to you and your orthodox box of pink pills for paleolithic people. I'm sick of this world—ready for the next, if there is one."
"Don't you think a man of your ability and breeding ought to try to redeem the world?"
"How? By joining your old ladies' say-so club."
"You're aware, I suppose, that I can order you deported?"
"I almost wish you would. I might admire you if you did. It 'ud give me something to fight about. Misgovernment would then be personal to me. I'd make it personal to you, too. I've a thousand a year and some brains. Let's do it! You deport me and I'll make of you the historical example of Anglo-Indian Bumbledom! It may do good. I'll write you up, make speeches about you, slander, libel and lampoon you, pay a member of Parliament to accuse you before the house, set spies on you—you'll die famous."
"For the time being, you are merely cautioned."
"Bunk! If a pickpocket did what you have ordered done to me he would be put in prison. You have read my mail, searched the pockets of my trousers, set stool-pigeons to listen through my keyhole—and now you are inferentially lying! If you had a scrap of proof against me you would have me deported without granting me an interview. I am cautioned, am I? I warn you I'm on the edge of exasperation. Shove me and I'll go over. For the moment I'm neutral. I don't care if India goes to the dogs and you along with it; I wouldn't raise a hand to aid or hinder. I'm a loaded gun. You pull the trigger and—"
"You are nervous. You need medical attention." That closed the interview, of which no shorthand notes were taken. But India is all eyes and ears, so a spy reported every word of it to several people, of whom Babu Pepul Das was one, in a room at the back of a store in the Chandni Chowk, which is the Street of the Silversmiths in Delhi. That afternoon two doctors and a secretary called on Gup at his hotel, where they subjected him to a mental inquisition, so obvious in its purpose and so diffident in method that it amused him, and amusement made him calm. All three were honest gentleman, so they had to admit to themselves that he was quite as sane as they were. They admitted it even to him, but they, too, cautioned him against extravagance of disgust with life as humans elect to live it.
"It's a poor world but the only one we have, Gup. Try riding vicious horses for a change, or lend a rajah money and get drunk with him. But pick your rajah—they vary."
Gup McLeod took a look at his situation then and recognized the nature of the quicksand into which he had been plowing head- on. It was not amusing to be thought mad. It would be even less amusing to be locked up on a charge of madness—stark sane and suffering the more in consequence. He decided to find employment, and since his mood was such as made orders from higher up unendurable, he decided to go into business for himself. There being only one business in India that an independent gentleman of active mind and body, not possessed of much capital nor trained in any of the sciences, can profitably follow, he presently found himself caught in the toils of the second-oldest vocation in the world, buying and selling horses.
Buying them took him to Dera Ismail Khan in the Northwest Province, where they hold the horse-fair in the spring. And because he had chosen politics in lieu of woman or religion for his purpose, and they three are one, as is understood by all except the politicians who are the blind third of the triad, he encountered woman and religion swiftly, without knowing what he did until it was too late to withdraw. But that, it is almost needless to remark, was the fault of the horses. Centaurs are only a mythical symbol of the truth which stands so plainly written on the scrolls of time, that men and horses are as necessary to each other as pen and ink. As every Moslem knows, Mohammed rode to heaven on a horse. And many and many a man has gone to hell on one.
But there is no way more beset with thorns
Than disobedience. That whore within
Was trenched amid a mystery of horns
Of strange dilemmas, naming each one sin,
By whose authority none knew. So voices said:
Not this way and not that, lest thou offend
That living Spirit throned amid the dead,
Or lest thy fearlessness accuse thy friend.
ENDLESS lines of animals stood picketed that spring and squealed, kicked, snorted their sense of a change in the tide on which destiny swims blindly in spite of all men and animals, who make only ripples on it. The war was over and there was no knowing what prices ought to be, some buyers even prophesying that the horse has had his day—all sellers swearing that a day without a horse is darkness. Booths, tents and temporary buildings hummed with the gossip of fairs as far away as Nizhny- Novgorod. Bohkara and Samarkand brought tales of brigandry and leaderless revolt beyond the Pamirs. Some men told of an undergrowl in Kabul and its echo muttering down Khyber's skull- strewn throat. Tirhoot and Bihar, the Dekkan, Bombay and Calcutta all had tales to tell and guessing to be done. And there were the English, even more than normally immaculate in khaki, looking as calm as the Romans used to in a conquered province, but a lot more curious than ever the Romans were as to what surprise destiny might spring. A sense of duty produces restless and exacting nervousness, more difficult to hide than ring-bone on a horse.
Gup McLeod began to feel new interest in life at Dera Ismail Khan. Striding through the horse-lines, thinking his own thoughts behind the barrage of the dealers' lies, he felt a comforting sense of detachment, as if he, although it might be only he, in all that crowd was not imprisoned any longer in the web that men call destiny. He believed he was his own master at last, to do and buy and sell what suited him. He had planned to buy a dozen horses but there was not much prospect of his finding that number, since he insisted they must carry his own great weight as a test of money's worth.
"There is always a market for muscle," he told himself. "The only problem is to find both the muscle and market."
But there is a market for more things than muscle, and there are keen wits ever searching for the rare commodity without which not much else has value. Spirit, too, has a market price. There was never an eagle but some one wished to trap and cage him. But Gup was not thinking of traps: there was a coal-black horse that he was pretending, with Scots caution, not to believe as good as he looked—a stallion from God knew where, with a plausible claim to being two-thirds English thoroughbred; and there was a man in charge of him, also from God knew where, who was strangely indisposed to sell, in a buyers' market. His was the only stallion that spring that stirred a little competition among those with money at their belts. The man in charge would name no price; he invited bids, but he refused to allow the horse to be ridden, even by men whose horsemanship was known from Quetta to Aintree. Nevertheless, when Gup McLeod asserted that the big- boned beauty was not up to weight he was instantly offered a ride. The apparent owner, an Afghan by the name of Rahman, even ventured a cautious hint that Gup did not dare to risk his neck.
"He is a stallion of stallions! God's breath is in him. He believes he is wind and an eagle in one! Iskander is his name—why not? A lesser name would be an insult to such a son of tempests—such a sire of lightnings!"
Watched by hundreds, and especially watched by Pepul Das, who was an inconspicuous small Hindu wearing the fez and turban of a convert to Islam, Gup mounted and turned the stallion's head toward the hills. He and his mount were one that instant—one force, welded by a wrath against all limits. It is not mere speed that exhilarates, it is expense of effort. It is not mere strength that stirs until the blood goes surging and the breath comes in deep draughts, it is the use of strength. Ability to lay leagues underfoot is relative; machinery and the wind both have it. But the horse, and the horse alone of all created things, can awaken in man the consciousness of physical dominion, so that he becomes that very Centaur that the ancients drew symbolically on the temple walls.
Gup felt balanced, for the first time since he went into the war in Flanders sharing with thousands of other men on both sides that dynamic calm that resembles the lull before a typhoon. It was a balance of emotions that never lasts long, being fraught with too much power, but for the moment there was only one emotion possible, felt and enjoyed simultaneously by stallion and man. The scented earth thundered beneath them, and the thunder was as passionate as the plunging of waves against a rockbound shore. It was an overture to something; stallion and man both knew it, although neither of them cared; eternity, to both of them, was now, that moment, sensed and seen and almost understood, as effort squandered itself, glorying in sheer extravagance of being strong. There was no competition—no limit—not a muscle or a nerve unused—nor one mean thought in forty minutes of exultant and united living.
Then back to the horse-lines slowly, to let sweat dry in the wind and to let muscles resume quiescence without shrinking to the opposite extreme of stiffness—back to a supper and blanket and the almost cosmic music of a camp where tents were astir with the cooking and the smell of wood-smoke sharpened appetite. As Rahman rubbed the stallion's legs he spoke to Gup McLeod as to one who has knowledge of matters normally beyond the ken of those who had not ridden from far-off places over mountain passes where the snow lies shoulder deep and there is nothing between men and death but their horses' good will and their own resourcefulness.
"Huzoor, with men and horses, it is all one. You, I, and any horse that lays a good leg to the ground—we are all one when we do our utmost. We have shone then as the sun shines. We have blown then as the wind blows. We are servants of the Most High then—may God be praised."
"But how much for the horse?" asked Gup McLeod. He did not see Pepul Das, who was pretending to finger the off-knee of a Kathiawari gelding, but as Rahman stooped to rub the black stallion's fetlock he could look under his elbow at the small man's mobile face and read his mouthing. There was nothing spoken.
"What is the price of an eagle in the sky?" asked Rahman. "Nay, it is not with money that a man buys spirit—as he might buy whisky in a bottle," he added. It was a pointed afterthought. There was a barb in it.
"I have a bottle in my tent. You'd better join me," Gup answered and walked away. Whereat Pepul Das approached very close and pretended to examine the stallion's com, so that he might whisper to Rahman unsuspected even by his shadow. However, Rahman answered him aloud in the hearing of all who cared to listen, so that an officer who happened to be passing turned and stared, wondering what the cryptic speech might mean.
"Go, push the sun and make it set the quicker, Pepul Das! You see the journey's end, but I see this night's trail. By God, I spur no willing horse on such a trail as this."
The sun went down in splendor, and the stars, that looked as chilly as the northern wind, shone down on shadowy mystery where lamplight glowed and the sparks of camp-fires streamed in the lanes between the tents. There were few sounds now except the rare squeal of a stallion and, here and there, a song to a stringed accompaniment; the men of the North take relaxation dourly and impose their manner by example, but there were circles of cloaked figures around the fires and, with suitable long pauses, there were tidings of wondrous affairs being told in undertones; plans were being laid that would creep to fulfilment at all nine ends of Asia. The secret-service men were wrapped in none knew which cloaks, and the approach of a stranger to any camp-fire brought down silence like the sudden ceasing of the speech of frogs.
But the English have different manners and the Scots are hospitable in a nervous fashion of their own, so that Gup McLeod's tent was noisy for a long time with talk about nothing. One self-invited guest who stayed interminably was a dealer in horses from Calcutta side, who hoped to learn something of McLeod's business; he had less chance than he imagined, but the whisky was free and plentiful, and he seemed to think that chattering about tight money and loose women might tempt McLeod to talk horse, from which to indiscretion is an any-man's land that is crossed with half a dozen words. But Gup McLeod talked platitudes, at which the Scots excel when on their guard, and the candle-lantern light showed a thin smile on a lean strong face that should have warned any horse-coper that curiosity was useless.
The other man was Major Glint, an individual apparently in no haste, long-limbed, lazy-looking but as keen in some ways as a Hillman's knife-edge—a man proud of hiding his aim and motive behind lamely humorous conversation but less able to do it than he supposed—given to occasional ridicule of morals and zeal, the better to hide his own zealotry and rigid rule of conduct as laid down for others. It was his boast that he had "spoiled more little games" and put more men behind the bars than any one else in India, and it was his delusion that almost nobody, and certainly no stranger, could see through his outer suavity to the heart of the spy within. A very pleasant-looking man, until you saw his teeth; it seemed impossible that the truth could get by those teeth without being stripped of virtue.
Rahman came. Perceiving visitors, he would have backed away into a shadow but McLeod invited him into the tent, where he refused a chair but sat down on a heap of saddles and horse- blankets. He was wrapped in his sheepskin overcoat that made his bulk shapeless, and his graying beard, that began unusually close to his eyes and spread when he dropped his chin on his chest, combined with the turban to make him hardly recognizable where he sat in the shadow, but his restless eyes shone in the candle- light, and about his shapelessness there was a hint of seasoned and surprising strength. He accepted whisky.
"I am not suggesting you are a hypocrite," said Glint, "but are you not a Moslem? Now we should call it sailing under false colors to acknowledge the Prophet and drink forbidden whisky almost with the same breath."
Rahman would have answered, but Gup McLeod's mood had not changed much since he rode the black stallion Iskander home to the lines. There was the same emotion surging in him, craving another outlet since he had to sit still. He sprang to his feet, knocking his chair over backward, and turned on Glint with blue eyes blazing and his fist clenched like a club.
"The man's a gentleman. What right have you to stick your teeth into his religion? You heard me invite him. Who gave you leave to insult my guest?"
Glint smiled. "I did not realize you had had too much to drink," he remarked and found his way out of the tent, striding with a faint suggestion of a stork in search of pickings. In the door of the tent he turned and smiled again:
"To-morrow, if you are sober, I will give you a chance to apologize—before witnesses. After you have sobered up you'd better ponder whether you are in a safe position to make an enemy of me. Not many people do that without regretting it. Good night.
The man from Calcutta side got to his feet a bit unsteadily. "You'll have to excuse me," he said thickly. "Quarreling is not my trade. I'd rather not be drawn into it. I heard nothing. I saw nothing."
"And you're good for nothing," Gup retorted.
"Good night to you."
"Two enemies in one night!" Rahman commented. "Huzoor, an enemy or two are good for us but—"
He paused, stared, then took an older man's privilege. "Did he speak truth about the drink?
Gup raised his glass from the table. It was almost untasted. "My first to-day," he answered. Anger was still blazing in him.
"Is there then a woman in this quarrel.
Gup stared, half inclined to hurl the balance of his fury at the Afghan. But Rahman was his invited guest, whereas the others had been uninvited, and besides he had met this man in circumstances that had almost forced the entering wedge of familiarity. Mutual admiration of a horse transcends all limits of a formal introduction.
"Have supper with me," he said curtly. No, there is no woman."
"Good. But I would rather quarrel with a woman than with that finder of faults. It was he, if you permit plain speech, Huzoor, who meddled in the business at Mahmud Kot and sent Captain Llewellyn home in disgrace—and for nothing except that the Captain refused to salute him after he had whipped a horse until it bled from rump to shoulder. He poses as one who can tame bad horses, whereas he can only break heart and spirit. He has a devil in him."
"He'll get a licking in the morning if he doesn't keep out of my way," said Gup. "Sit down. I'll call the servant."
Rahman watched him as he strode out to the rear where food was cooking in a smaller tent. He watched in the same way that he would judge a horse's points, not taking them one by one but letting the whole picture limn itself on an undisturbed mind, getting a general impression first. He nodded approval. Nevertheless, there was laughter in his eyes, as if he knew that strong men build their own snares and entrap themselves if given scope enough.
"There'll be food in a minute. Let's talk horse," said Gup, returning. "Take a comfortable chair."
"Huzoor, talk concerning a horse is a gate through which much speech may enter. Is it permitted that I take that riding- whip—the long one with the whalebone in it? So—a moment."
He went outside the tent and made a circuit, peering into the darkness underneath the flies. A sudden yell announced that he had caught a man in hiding and was laying on the whip with a vengeance, but there was no comment from the near-by tents and Gup sat still. It was nothing unusual to catch a thief on the prowl; the police were almost helpless to prevent oiled experts from sneaking through the shadows, and the law of the whip was a better solution than legal formulas for that sort of impudence.
"It was as I thought," said Rahman returning, a trifle breathless. "By the Prophet, though, the man was swift."
Rahman laughed. "He with the teeth—your Honor's enemy! He had his spy already placed where he might overhear my talk and so accuse your Honor of God knows what infamies! I am a person of some notoriety," he added proudly. "Doubtless he suspected me of intention to corrupt your Honor's politics!"
"Oh, talk horse," Gup retorted. "I'm sick of all this nonsense."
"Let us have no more of it," said Rahman. "By your Honor's leave I will attend to that."
He stood in the tent mouth and whistled. Some one came—small and shadowy—clothed in a turban and sheepskin jacket.
"Watch!" commanded Rahman.
He was answered by a grunt, then silence. Rahman took his place at table and the food was brought in. For a while there was no conversation, because the servant, too, might be a spy and Gup offered no word in his favor. It is an old trick for a government to make use of a man's own household to overhear his speech and watch his doings. Rahman ate noisily, as much from politeness, to show appreciation of the food, as from habit of eating in horse- camps, where a finicky man is suspected of lack of stamina; he ate enormously and drank with wonderful restraint, sip for sip with his host. They spoke of Arabian breeds of horses, and of the snow lying late in the passes. It was not until the servant had removed the tablecloth that Rahman opened up, his eyes on the smoke of McLeod's cigar lest his own eyes should be read too easily.
"And what of the black stallion?" he asked.
"I'll buy him," said Gup, "if you don't ask too much money."
"Huzoor, no money under heaven could buy that horse."
"Then why bring him to Dera Ismail Khan?"
"He might be had, but not for money."
"I hate a mystery. What will you take for him?"
"He is not mine."
"Dammit—then whose is he?"
Rahman watched impatience rising, diagnosed it, understood it as he would a horse's fretting at the bit. He might not know what make of bit it was that produced that inner fury, but he knew the symptoms. He increased them before he offered remedy.
"Huzoor, if it were known who the stallion's owner is, that man, whom your Honor ordered forth from this tent but an hour ago, would know no rest until he had wrought indignities and brought down shame on some one's head."
"On your head?"
"On my head also. But first on the head of the horse's owner."
"Why? Is he a border-thief? Did he steal the horse?"
"By Allah and by my beard, no! Huzoor—are you a border-thief and do you steal horses? Is it necessary that a man be vile in order that a government should set the secret agents on his trail?"
"None better than I can answer that," said Gup with a low laugh that had no mirth in it. "The truth is, Rahman, that no good government has been invented yet. However, what's the trouble with the stallion's owner?"
"Nothing, Huzoor, except a strong distaste for prison."
"Is he in prison now?"
"May God and His Prophet be praised, not yet! Nor shall be! But for the owner of that stallion to visit Dera Ismail Khan or for you to visit that stallion's owner would be as dangerous as to—as to cross the Pamirs in midwinter."
"How so? Is he far from here?"
"Not as you and I reckon distances."
"I'm a free man, Rahman. I visit whom and when and wherever I please. I would like to meet the owner of that animal. What I can't understand is why, seeing he won't sell, he sends the stallion to a horse-fair."
"I will answer, Huzoor. Let the truth speak for itself. It was known that your Honor will come to Dera Ismail Khan. It was also known you are a man of strong will, much annoyed by having seen the entrails of intrigue; a lover of plain speech. How then shall a meeting be arranged between your Honor and that stallion's owner, to whom intrigue is as needful as air to a bird, and to whom plain speech is forbidden. Should I come and openly try to arrange it? Allah!—And be ordered out of your Honor's tent like that dog who took me to task about religion! Nay. Neither am I a man who will eat such shame, nor is the owner of that stallion one whose embassies—"
Gup whistled softly. "Embassies? You speak in highfalutin terms."
Rahman ignored the interruption, as if he had not heard it and had not used the word embassies with deliberate intention. "What better way then, Huzoor, than to bring hither such a stallion as challenges attention? And as a result do I not sit here at your Honor's table, speaking of such matters as could not have been spoken of otherwise between us two?"
"Stated plainly, then, the owner of that stallion wants to meet me? Why?"
"If I should answer," Rahman said, "what proof is there? Speech face to face is better than through the mouth of the most trusted messenger."
"But you say it's difficult to see this person."
"Difficult for spies, yes, and for busybodies, and for fools. Impossible by day because of suspicion and watchfulness on the part of many who would give one eye for leave to follow. But by night—"
"This night is as good as another."
"Very well," said Gup. But his Scots common sense had not deserted him. "This is a wild borderland. I suppose you came prepared to prove your good faith?"
"By Allah and by my beard, I and my word are the same thing." Rahman answered. "This, you and I both know: that any liar can come carrying proofs, which are as often as not forged or stolen. Few men know a horse; yet you do. Fewer yet can read a man's eyes; you may read mine, or you may not read them, just as you will. But I know this: that you yourself were challenged to give proofs of good faith to your government, and that you gave none. What is good for the horse from Kabul, let the horse from Kandahar eat also. I have no proofs."
"Very well," said Gup. "That is an honest answer. I will go with you."
"Let us pack up the tent," said Rahman. "You can not be back by morning. It would not look well for the tent to be seen, and no owner. Let my servants do it. There shall be nothing lost or stolen."
Gup hesitated for a moment arguing with himself. But the thought stood foremost that he was invited to explore some byway of life that had been fenced off by bureaucracy. That temptation was almost stronger than the wish to meet the unknown owner of the black horse. Also it still rankled in him that insolent fools had dared to think him guilty of sedition. He knew himself guilty of nothing except rage at false standards of living and outworn methods of compelling men to think and act alike. The ride that afternoon had reawaked in him a fury that knew no limits.
"What about my servant?" he demanded.
"Bring him also. Such men talk if they are left behind."
"I have three horses here, and three grooms."
"You say there shall be nothing lost or stolen? Down with the tent then. I will hold you answerable."
Now Disobedience becomes a law
Vampiric—a new fetish to be fed,
A monstrous wind-blown effigy of straw
That will not follow whither Judgment led
Lest Judgment copy Custom.
Fear Hydra-headed has a head unslain
To blood-suck purpose. All gains disappear
And leave the whole long fight to win again.
THE Deputy Commissioner was acting for a superior home on leave. He was feverish, overworked and worried. Furthermore, he hated Glint—hated him straight to his face and resented the obligation to have any dealings with him.
"If I believed in reincarnation, Glint, I should say you were once an informer at Nero's court. I have never heard you give any one except yourself credit for even ordinary decency. And you're the most ingenious man I've ever known when it comes to inventing jobs from which you can't be dislodged. Damn you, I wish you'd get yourself transferred to another province—or at least to another district."
"I do my duty and I try to be impersonal," said Glint. "I don't expect to be admired for it. The prisons are full of people I have brought to justice. Government offices are overstuffed with men who have sought to prevent me. However, I did not come to you to talk about opinions, but about this case, which leaves no room for opinion. It calls for action."
"You will have to wait then. I refuse to talk to you alone about it."
One after another junior members of the district committee drifted in, lighted cigars and took haphazard chairs in the uncomfortable office. It had been furnished with an attempt to combine dignity and ease, a compromise that resulted in formal dreariness, particularly before ten o'clock when the sun would shine through the window and touch things up a bit. Every one looked bored, except Glint, who sat bolt-upright and wore an air of ingenuous virtue. "Secretary, read the minutes."
"Minutes are confidential. Has Major Glint a letter of appointment to this committee?"
"No, I haven't."
"Secretary, make a note of that,—objection sustained after consultation. Ayes have it. Now, what?"
"Angus McLeod, ex-brevet major, was in Dera Ismail Khan, in camp, until last night," said Glint. "Ostensibly here to buy horses."
"No harm in that. Any one may buy a horse who has the price. I wish I had; my old Shere Ali has developed a running abscess—three vets had a look at it—they only torture him—it still weeps."
"Have you tried any of those new chemicals they invented for trench-mouth? Kill anything that wiggles, without harming the tissue."
"I was speaking of McLeod, if you'll permit me," Glint interrupted.
"Go on, then. Try to make it interesting."
"Order, please. Let's get this over with. I've a hundred and one Fahrenheit. Anybody want my job?"
"I happen to have access to some confidential files," said Glint, "and I find that McLeod has been suspected for a long time of seditious intention. He has kept bad company. He has been officially cautioned."
A voice over by the window piped up: "Let's see the particulars."
"Certainly not. Such reports are confidential," Glint retorted. "I should have to get permission, which would take a week unless I wire for it. Do you wish me to wire?"
"Proposal tabled for consideration. Ayes have it. Go on."
"Last evening I paid him a visit, in his tent."
"Order, please. Don't interrupt him or it may take all day."
"I found him in conversation with the Afghan Rahman, and you know what that means."
"Certainly. Rahman is the safest man to buy a horse from, anywhere north of Delhi."
"Rahman," Glint retorted, "is one of the most dangerous intriguers at liberty. He should be required to report to the police twice daily as long as he remains on our territory."
"Too many have to do that now—fifteen hundred of them," said the chairman. "The police are becoming clerks."
"They are," said the police officer. "And besides: Glint's little game is to clap an order on 'em to report twice daily. Then, when they start for their own country he has 'em arrested for not reporting. That's clever, but it isn't decent, and I object to using the police in that way."
"Since when have you been dictator of how the police shall be used?" Glint asked him. "As I understand it, you are supposed to obey orders."
"For God's sake, let's get down to business," said the chairman.
"But for interruptions I could have finished," said Glint. "I report that McLeod—take this down, please, Secretary,—I report that McLeod was in conference last evening with Rahman. That he caught my servant listening underneath the tent fly—"
"Don't you mean your stool-pigeon?"
"Servant—have you got that, Secretary?—caught my servant listening and whipped him severely. Furthermore, he set a guard outside his tent—a man named Pepul Das, a known renegade, who has served a prison sentence. Pepul Das summoned several Afghans, so that the tent was surrounded by cutthroats—"
"Whose throats did they cut?" the chairman asked.
"Surrounded by Afghans, then, who allowed no one to approach."
"Perfectly lawful," said the police officer. "Did they harm any one?"
"No—not as it happened. But they increased my suspicion and caused me to go home and search my confidential files, with the result that I am well satisfied that McLeod is up to mischief. Under the Prevention of Sedition Act we have the right to hold him for investigation on a warrant issued by you acting as Deputy Commissioner for this District. I demand that."
"Anybody know anything about McLeod?" the chairman asked.
"He's a gentleman—a damned decent fellow."
"Quick tempered, but as straight as a shot. Served in the war with distinction. Several medals—one for bravery. Three wounds, I think."
"We'll need more facts before we can arrest him," said the chairman.
"Very well, then. Pepul Das is a paid retainer of the ex-Ranee of Jullunder."
"The ex-Ranee of Jullunder is in hiding but is known to be moving about the country. Rahman is known to have carried a message for her when he came down the Gomal Pass a week ago," said Glint.
"Who knows all this?"
"I know it," Glint insisted. "Do you wish me to produce my witnesses? That would take twenty-four hours, and in the meantime McLeod may start trouble. Those Afghans pulled his tent down in the night, and they all vanished."
"Why didn't you follow them?" the policeman asked. "I don't see that you did your duty."
"Thank you. If you would attend to your own duty and not interrupt me this District would be a great deal safer. As it is—I suppose you know that the ex-Ranee of Jullander is an Englishwoman."
"English be blowed! She's a Cape-Dutch girl."
"Well, half-English. Doubly dangerous. Cold-shouldered by her own race and maddened by a taste of power. Plenty of money. Capable of any sort of intrigue and very difficult to keep an eye on because of the purdah customs. Ever since the Rajah died she has been financing seditious movements and corresponding with the tribes across the border. I believe I have told you enough. I demand a warrant for McLeod's arrest."
Glint crossed his legs and waited.
"This ought to go to the Lieutenant-Governor," said the chairman.
"Not at all. This is an emergency," Glint answered. "And I would like personally to serve the warrant on McLeod."
"Because I would like the chance to talk to him for his own good."
"I thought I smelled a nigger in the wood-pile," said the voice by the window. "Nothing personal in this?"
"I am never personal," said Glint, "in matters of duty. I believe McLeod needs some advice, and I believe I am the one to give it. It may be not too late to make him see the error of his ways. He is tinged with Bolshevism."
"What do you know about Bolshevism?" asked the voice near the window. All that Glint could see was rounded shoulders turned toward him and the outline of a graying bullet head.
"I have no time to give you a lecture on that subject. I believe McLeod is tainted. His mood is rebellious. He can see no good in any established order. I gathered that from conversation with him yesterday."
"Scots verdict," said the chairman, "I find nothing proven. What say the rest of you?"
"Put it up to the Lieutenant-Governor."
"Pass the buck, eh? I say, scotch it."
"Glint," said the chairman, "can go to the civil court and get a summons against McLeod for having whipped that eavesdropper."
"No witnesses," said Glint.
"Nevertheless you can summons him, can't you, and gain time. It may bring him to his senses. Request for a warrant refused for reasons stated. Objections? None. Ayes, have it. Have to ask you fellows to excuse me, I think my temperature's going up. I'm off to bed. Any one passing the doctor's bungalow? Mind asking him to drop in and see me?"
"Such is government. Such is imperial recognition of a public servant's zeal!" Glint grumbled as he stalked out.
So sought he the New Grail. Impenitent
He pledged impenitence to unknown gods,
His own imagin'd creatures. Fury, pent
Within him burst. He said: If great Jove nods
While agony each act of faith pursues,
Nor marks the bitter anguish of a world that weeps,
I go alone! No more I pay those dues
Nor ever bow this forehead to a God who sleeps.
RAHMAN was a man of tact as well as mystery and strategy. He mounted McLeod on Iskander again, thus creating a mood. A romantic Scotsman astride a splendid horse at night under the stars, ignorant of where he is going, becomes a vehicle for utterly unconventional ideas. In other words he becomes a poet. Rahman ordered his own men to surround McLeod's servants and to lead them with their baggage to a rendezvous. Apparently he had a horde of followers; he sent another party in an opposite direction, selecting for their leader a man who, in darkness, looked so like himself as to deceive keen eyes. He gave that man orders to attract attention, so as to draw off pursuit.
"Beat whoever offers thee excuse. If the police arrest thee, say thou art Rahman. I will pay the fine."
He and McLeod and another rode away into a stream of mist that flowed along-wind from the Indus. In the mist they changed direction eastward, going slowly lest their horses leave too deep an imprint on the ground, but at the end of a mile they swung northward again, and when they could see the stars they broke into the easy lope at which horses can go for hours without wearying. Speech at that speed would have been easy but there was nothing said until Rahman drew rein to ease his horse into a nullah, where in the shadowy depth he waited for the third man to overtake them.
"This is Pepul Das," he announced then. "He was an idolator once. Ill-fortune in those days dogged his footsteps, as it should be. Allah! May all idolators die ugly deaths! He was caught and thrown in prison, where Allah saw fit to enlighten him and he adopted the true religion, becoming circumcized. Thenceforth he was a man to reckon with, although he looks like nothing much."
The man described as "nothing much" looked almost dwarfish on the big horse he was riding, and the sheepskin jacket threw his body out of all proportion. The end of his turban, thrown over his mouth, served as a mask, and there was nothing to judge him by except Rahman's introduction and a pair of small, bright, sunken eyes that danced with interest.
"I hope I speak to one with whom my destiny runs parallel," he said in neatly pronounced English. "Has Rahman told you whom we ride to see?"
"No!" Rahman interrupted. "Let him see for himself. Let him judge for himself." He spurred his horse, led the way out of the nullah and made room for McLeod beside him on a trail that barely allowed room for two horses abreast, thus forcing Pepul Das to keep his distance. He made his horse kick when the smaller man crowded him.
They rode in silence until within a half-hour of daylight, roughly following the direction of the River Indus toward the mountains. It was cold and dark when Rahman at last drew rein and threw up a warning hand. There was nothing visible except deeper shadow a hundred yards ahead and McLeod felt suddenly the same loneliness that he had experienced in No Man's Land in Flanders, where a bullet might pop out of nowhere and plunk into its mark, as weirdly free from relevancy as life and death are. There was no reason why they should not be shot, all three of them; that northwest border is a land where as many hairy human thieves as jackals prowl by night. Rahman turned on Pepul Das.
"Speak, thou!" he commanded. "Speak swiftly!"
He may have thought it beneath his own dignity to make such a noise as Pepul Das did, ululating a weird cry like nothing human; it suggested horror, but it was answered after a moment, almost echoed, from the gloom in front, and Rahman led forward at a snail's pace.
"Ahsti! Ahsti! Hold that stallion. If we come too fast they may think we are police who have our signal. A policeman's life is worth less than an anna in this place."
There came a challenge out of the darkness. Rahman answered it. A man came picking his way slowly between sharp stakes set into the ground. He set his foot into each stirrup in turn and raised himself to examine all three faces.
"Who is this one?" he demanded, balancing, with his hand on McLeod's saddle.
"Fool!" said Rahman. "For whom went I? And whose black stallion is he riding, thou owl out of hell!"
The "owl out of hell" swung himself up behind McLeod, but Rahman would have none of that.
"Get down and lead!" he ordered. "Shall we get good horses on the stakes? Show thou the way."
It was a winding way, so guarded by stakes, with their sharp ends made hard by burning, as to impale the horse of any one intruding in too great haste. It led to a low wall, ruinous and overgrown with creepers, and beyond that, in gloom was a formless mass of something solid. The horses' hoofs rang on stone pavement that was, nevertheless, too covered with dust and dead weeds to be visible. These seemed to be the ruins of an ancient fort. A red light appeared through a chink in masonry, or it might be from a dugout.
"Is your Honor afraid of devils?" Rahman asked, laughing to hide a certain nervousness he felt himself. "This place is near where in former times the British took a beating from the Sikhs. Many were lost on both sides and they say"—he paused and listened—"they say the spirits of those men still fight their battles here. Few visit the place. There were robbers in hiding when we came, but we drove them forth."
He rode a little closer to the shadowy ruins and some men clad in sheepskin cloaks came out and took the reins. Rahman gave them gruffly explicit orders regarding the horses, following with threats of what would happen if the stallion caught cold.
"And if there is no room in hell for you, what care I," he added. He seemed relieved at last and almost genial, as if a weight were off his mind. "Huzoor," he said, signing to McLeod to follow him, "it was naught else than Allah's will that has brought this to pass. Let Allah guide you and all of us henceforth." Then he led on, striding with the irregular footfall of a horseman born amid mountains. Pepul Das wanted to follow but he turned on him.
"Go thou and do thy business!"
Pepul Das turned away grumbling and Rahman led on. There was no door in the first wall; they passed through a gap, where they stumbled on broken débris. But in an inner wall there was a door made something like a hurdle covered with sheepskin, and within that there were more than a dozen curtains hanging in a narrow passage. Behind each alternate curtain stood a man with a candle-lantern, armed to the teeth with northern steel, but there were no firearms visible, although McLeod thought he heard a breech-lock click when he passed by a gap in the masonry.
At the end of the passage was another door of hide and wickerwork, and there a tall Pathan stood with a tulwar at his waist—a great, black-bearded savage with a genial grin which showed that half his yellow teeth were missing.
"Does she sleep?" asked Rahman.
"Allah! She never sleeps when there is anything else that devils can invent for her to do. God pity us, who serve a woman! Is this the Redhead? Allah! But he stands well! Bring him forward to the light where I may see him."
"Open!" commanded Rahman. "Art thou a dog at a door, to keep a guest at bay?"
Gup smelled scent now—musky, exotic stuff suggesting warmth and luxury. But it also suggested danger of the sort that lends itself to no classification in advance but merely makes the spine feel creepy and the will weak. However, anything that made McLeod feel less than master of himself just then was an irritant that spurred him forward. He feared to yield to indecision more than he dreaded any other danger.
"What are we waiting for?" he demanded.
The guardian of the door struck iron with the flat of his naked tulwar blade—a harsh, clanging signal that was answered from within by a woman's voice. The door opened, awkwardly on leather hinges. A parchment-covered lantern shed red light, and in the midst stood a girl not more than twenty years of age, dressed in an Indian sari that was white, but the red light changed it to shimmering crimson. She had a jade stud in her nostril, dark skin, dark hair and a smile that included all life within the scope of one amused irreverence.
"Enter," she said in English.
Now Gup hesitated. On that stallion beneath the stars his thoughts had been of chivalry. Heredity had surged up, picturing in his imagination days gone by when men rode seeking for the Holy Grail, and days again when they rode with Richard of the Lion's Heart against the Paynim for the sake of an ideal. An idealist at all times, he was never less in a mood to meet abominable women. Judging by the woman's silken trousers, she was Moslem; she should be ashamed to show her face before men. But he glanced at Rahman, who appeared uncomfortable, and the Pathan had turned his back. Those two were nervous because she was respectable, yet unveiled. So Gup strode in, surprised to discover that Rahman did not follow.
The girl closed the door and fastened it with leather thongs. She was still laughing, silently, to herself. Her amusement suggested a surprise in reserve, which put Gup's nervousness on edge again and made him wish he had a weapon. He had heard all sorts of extravagant tales about men being trapped into harems and then slain because a jealous Moslem had caught his favorite peering with too much admiration through slatted blinds. However, he had no weapon and must make the best of it, so he followed the girl down a passage that turned to the right.
And now he knew he was within an ancient fort. The masonry had been cleaned and smeared with ocher. There were rugs strewn underfoot. On the walls were curtains—nothing wonderful, but good enough to lend the place an atmosphere of comfort. He noticed there was nothing there, except the color on the walls, that could not be removed at a moment's notice. The roof, for a wonder, seemed to be in excellent repair, but it looked as if it might be the floor of a long-ago demolished upper story. Probably there was a mound of grass-grown débris overhead; all India is full of mounds that overlie old ruins, and to explore them all would be a task beyond even a government's power or authority, since if only one body has been buried on the mound within the memory of man the place takes rank as a cemetery, which is sacred and may not be touched with pick and shovel. Consequently, thieves, who have no reverence for such things, find hiding a simple matter. Thus far, door, rug, attendants, hangings, all might belong to a gang of border-robbers, although this girl who led him with such amused assurance seemed hardly to fit into that category.
The passage was nearly a hundred feet long, dimly lighted by small oil-lamps and with openings in the wall on either side that had been closed up with the same arrangement of hides stretched on wickerwork as served for a door at the entrance. But at the end it turned and brought up abruptly at a wooden door that offered the first real suggestion of wealth and splendor. Surely it never belonged to that fort; it had been brought from elsewhere recently, and it looked older than the fort itself; it was made of teak and deeply carved with pantheistic Hindu symbols—a strange door with which to bar the way to Moslem secrets.
A cord passed through a small hole in the door-post; the girl pulled it, ringing a deep-sounding gong. The door opened and again there was a flood of red light. This time there were two women, one on each side of the door, but Gup hardly noticed them. Facing him, on a magnificent teak chair that resembled a throne, with her bare feet on a tiger-skin rug and a naked sword across her knees, sat a woman less than thirty years of age, fair- haired, wearing silken Moslem trousers and a robe of gold and crimson like a Moslem emperor's. Her turban was crimson and gold with a diamond brooch. Her other jewelry looked priceless but there was not too much of it—one ring on each hand, one bracelet on each wrist, a chain of diamonds and gold beads on her neck. Her eyes were sky-blue, something like McLeod's own, and they were exactly wide enough apart, and deep and big enough to fix attention on them, and to stare without seeming to stare.
The door closed and Gup bowed without speaking. For a moment his eyes appraised the splendor of the square room. He was conscious of a vague perfume that he had never before smelled. Then his eyes met hers again and he watched the slow smile of her lips that stirred in him alternate waves of wonder and resentment. Hers was not exactly a possessive smile, but it was loaded with daring and self-reliance that outweighed the suggestion of generosity. Her mouth he had seen on ancient Egyptian sculpture—proud and yet promising unfathomable wealth of favors to whoever could pass the scrutiny of the wisdom-laden eyes. She was no Indian woman, that was certain; her nose was almost Greek in its classical outline, and her skin was more softly fair than a rain-kissed Irish girl's.
"So you are he whom Rahman recommended," she said presently, in a strong low voice that hinted honey without offering it. "I won't ask your pardon for this interruption to your plans, because I think you came of your free will, didn't you? I am the Ranee of Jullunder."
"I never heard of you," Gup answered, chivalry in one part of his brain, suspicion in the other.
She laughed, toying with the bare sword on her knees. "You shall hear now, if you will have patience. Won't you be seated?"
There were several women in the room, none veiled, all dressed as Moslems in embroidered silk, although two of them looked like Europeans; one of those placed a heavy chair where Gup McLeod might sit and face his hostess. The other watched him. He accepted the chair and sat drumming with his finger-nails on carved teak.
"May I offer you whisky and soda? Wine? You are not hungry?"
He shook his head and there was a minute's silence.
"What would you do," she asked suddenly, "if you were deprived of all your rights without legal process, and without any reason except some one's hatred of you?"
The question was so unexpected that he hesitated. However, he saw no harm in it.
"I would fight," he answered.
"How would you fight?"
"I don't know. But I would fight as long as I had breath. And I would invent resources if I hadn't any."
"Then you will sympathize with me."
"Not necessarily." He drew on caution. "There are things that I wouldn't do, which perhaps you might do."
"Does this sword suggest that I am blood-thirsty? It was my father's. He was an Irishman. He fought at Kandahar under Roberts and at Omdurman under Hector Macdonald. He, too, was deprived of his rights. He was shot in Dublin for resenting the behavior of Black-and-Tans."
"There were probably two sides to that," Gup retorted. He had been in the mess in Dublin—knew what difficulties governments must face on the spur of an awkward moment.
He was studying her intently, puzzled by her evident at least superficial knowledge of his own reactions to arbitrary authority. It was clear to him that she was planning her questions deliberately to stir his readiest emotion. Her next words whether they were true or not, were cunning:
"I hold this sword to remind me that come what may, and no matter what injustice I suffer, I must always fight fairly. That is not invariably easy for a woman to remember. Some of the rules that men call fair are so ridiculous. But as long as the best men obey them, I will do that too."
"But why did you wish to speak to me?" Gup asked. "Because information led me to believe you are a man of courage and strong opinions, in search of an occupation that you can follow without losing self-respect."
"And the source of your information?"
"It would take too long to tell you that now, but I have spies spread all through India. And spies in London. And spies in New York—Paris—many places."
"What is the occupation you suggest?"
"That of commander-in-chief."
"Of what army?"
"You mean in Jullunder?"
She laughed again; it was throatily musical, stirring, unforced, genuine. She laughed because she really had known despair and overcome it. "Did I say I am the Ranee of Jullunder? Habit! I was the Ranee of Jullunder. The Rajah, my husband, died and in his will, with the consent of the diwan and council, he appointed me his sole heiress and successor to the throne, as he had the right to do. Many a previous Rajah of Jullunder had done that. Some of the best rulers of Jullunder have been women. But the Indian Government would not permit me to rule—I suppose because I am partly Irish and partly South-African English-Dutch. They put one of the late Rajah's distant relatives on the throne—a drunken idiot, who spends most of his time in Paris when he isn't trying to recover his squandered health in a sanitarium."
"Do you propose that I should help you to retake Jullunder?" Gup asked, as much amused by the absurdity of the suggestion as by any one's supposing he would lend himself to political violence.
She laughed again, and Gup could not help liking her. A laugh is more revealing than a thousand words when it comes unguarded.
"If you are the man I think you are, why should I wish to destroy you by sending you on such a foolish venture?" she retorted. "Do you realize to what extent I am proposing to trust you? To obtain your services I must tell my story. Having revealed my plans, should I not be at your mercy? Could you not betray me to the Indian Government?"
"I could," said Gup. "And I will if that should seem to me the decent thing to do."
"How wonderful, that you should say decent and not proper. You mean, you will do what is becoming—to a gentleman of independent character and fearless decision?"
"I won't commit myself to anything in advance," he answered. "You must use your own judgment. Trust me or not, as you see fit."
"No, that is not fair. What I propose to discuss with you is treasonable in the opinion of the Indian Government. It is as treasonable as George Washington's plans were, or as Cromwell's or Napoleon's. It is as treasonable as the Irish struggle for a free state—as lawless as Lafayette's adventure in America—as dangerous as Bolivar's uprising against Spain. One word said too soon, to the wrong man, and I shall end my days in prison, unless hanged or shot."
"Then why not keep silent?" he suggested.
"Because, like any other leader, I need lieutenants. "I am nobody's lieutenant," Gup retorted. "I have seen through all that foolishness of sheep being led by sheep, to be fleeced and then slaughtered without a day of dignity or even a vestige of humor."
"Somebody must lead."
"Lead whom? Nobody shall lead me. I have seen through it. Nowadays a crowd is told that it votes and is therefore responsible for anything that happens. But things haven't changed. Somebody yells a lot of platitudes and one good catchword. Corruption—carnage—loot—the inevitable sequence. I go it alone."
"Exactly." She pounced on his last four words, but there was nothing catlike about it. And he noticed she was being studiously careful not to stir in him the slightest recognition of her charms; wherein she was wise; she could have found no swifter means than sex-appeal of turning against her the full tide of his combativeness. "You go it alone. I know you do. Rahman saw that. So did a dozen others. So you are not a spy for any government—not a tale-bearer—not a sneak. You can listen to me without a sense of obligation to tell the Indian Government what I tell you. You can decently promise to tell no one. You can keep my secret whether you agree with me or not."
"Yes," he said. "But I don't agree to be your lieutenant or to help you in any way whatever."
"I am looking at your jaw-bone and your lips and eyes. You would keep my secret even under torture."
"They don't torture people nowadays."
"Don't they? Wait until you have heard me. Did you ever meet a certain Major Glint? I see you did! If Major Glint should have you thrown in prison, and should heap infamies on you, and slander you so that your name was for ever blackened—and should then send to you a cunning impostor to pose as your friend with a pretended plan to ruin Major Glint by telling all the truth, thus at the same time restoring your own good name—would you tell?"
"I have said I will not tell."
"And if Major Glint's spies should pretend to be brigands, and should catch you and put you to torture, would you tell then?"
"I don't think even Glint would do that."
"His men have often done it with his knowledge. Would you tell under torture?"
"I don't know. Nobody can answer that. I have never faced physical torture except in war, when wounded, and that was different."
"You notice I have made no threat?"
"It hadn't occurred to me. Why should you?"
"If I thought you were a weak man or a liar I would introduce you to the men who would avenge me in the event of betrayal. They would follow, if necessary, to the end of the world to punish a man who gave me his pledge and broke it."
"That thought leaves me unembarrassed."
"So it should. I have decided I will tell you. But it is morning. Will you join me at breakfast? I wish to talk to you alone, where not even my women can overhear."
Gup McLeod stood up and faced her, hands behind him. "Yes," he said, "I accept the Moslem thought about that. I will eat your salt, therefore I may not betray you, lest I lose my soul in hell. But remember: I have made you no promise of help of any sort whatever, stated or implied."
He knew the reason why he made that speech. It was, that discipline, convention, common sense, tradition, sense of the proprieties and fear all warned him he should turn his back on the woman and ride away. Slight, in a sense, though it was, it was his first act of genuine rebellion.
Then dangerous new courses, to his gaze
By light of inward anger, through the lens
Projected of bewilderment, amaze
Until he wonders at his own and other men's
Long loyalty to ruts of ready-made
Time-rotted rule. These new ways lure
Until he sees them deadly. Then afraid
He turns, so safe the old were and so sure.
SHE led into a room that looked like an ancient armory, but the racks and hooks on the walls had been hung with Bokhara curtains and there was a probably priceless Persian rug on the flagstone floor. There was no window; fresh air entered through holes roughly pierced and covered with silk gauze to keep out insects; a smaller door led to a pantry and kitchen, and there was one woman—deaf and dumb as it transpired—who came and went like an automaton. A table had been laid for two, with marvelous linen and porcelain, flowers on the table, fruit, and such coffee as only rarely greets men's nostrils except in company where cooking and philosophy are parts of the same thing. There were candles, and by their light as he sat down facing her, McLeod could read those blue eyes better than he had done, and interpret the curve of her full, yet not exactly sensuous lips. He decided she was not unlike himself in some respects, which was to say she would be difficult to dissuade from a chosen course. He decided, too, that she was the handsomest woman he had ever seen, but that made him all the more cautious.
"You suspect me, of course, of being the vulgarest sort of adventuress," she began, "and if you omitted the vulgarity you would be almost right. I can't help my heredity. In fact, I'm proud of it. We all have to live what is born in us or else waste our lives, and I detest waste more than I do cruelty. At times it seems impossible to avoid cruelty, whereas waste is simply laziness that benefits no one. In the old days I was Lottie Carstairs."
Gup suddenly remembered now the actress who in two seasons had laughed and sung her way into the hearts of London, and then had so unaccountably vanished and been forgotten. There had been nothing in the papers about her marrying a Rajah, and it must have needed something like a miracle to procure that silence. He remembered her song about "Up in the morning early," that all England had whistled and hummed. She had started something like a craze for early rising, with the result that servants in suburban households had been harder to retain than ever, and there had even been an editorial in the Times about it.
"I, too, have worshipped," he said simply, and she smiled acknowledgment. He remembered the smile now—inimitable—wondered why he had not noticed it before.
"Did you know that Jullunder was a lineal descendant of the Emperor Akbar? By a junior wife, but direct descent. He inherited many of Akbar's qualities—all of the best ones and one of the worst, if ambition is bad. He was wild to make Jullunder prosperous; he wanted to see it the best governed state in the world, and he was not above wanting to enlarge its borders, either. You know, it's only a two by four state, hardly larger than an English county, but well populated and potentially rich."
Gup nodded. "Good saises come from Jullunder."
[* horse attendants.]
"And good swordsmen—good sturdy yeomen—good upstanding men of their word, who look you in the eye and judge for themselves whether they will follow you or not," she retorted.
"I sit rebuked."
"Jullunder saw my act in London and sent his card back-stage. It was a long time before I would meet him, but a friend arranged it finally. I won't pretend I fell in love with him, but I did fall in love with his splendid ideas, and I have never for one split second regretted having married him. If ever a man and woman were companions with one united purpose to keep our minds off trivialities, he and I were. It was up to me to get used to Oriental customs, and I did. It was up to me to turn my back on old ties and associations, and I did that too. It was up to him to make concessions to my race, habits, prejudices, ignorance—and he did. He never failed once. We dreamed, worked, rode together, encouraging and finding fault with people, helping where we could and preventing hardship where we could, until I knew every mountain and valley and stream in Jullunder and might almost say I knew the name of every headman in the state. I was known as the Ranee who Laughs and Sings."
"I remember hearing of it." Gup was hardly conscious of food on the table. A wave of emotion had swept over him such as he had not felt since the early days of the war—something that seemed to have swept him into an unknown orbit, wherein impossibilities did not exist. However, he made no effort to explain it to himself, perhaps for fear he might resist it. For the moment he swam with the tide. "Go on," he said, "I'm listening."
"We soon grew enormously wealthy. Not that our income was particularly big, but we used it wisely. We purchased stocks in the United States, always buying and hardly ever selling—only selling in order to buy something better managed, that had better prospects. When the war came all our stocks went up through a hole in the sky. They were all in my name. I am probably one of the richest women in the world."
"I pity you."
"You need not. Money is the means to do things. However, the war brought us our share of sadness. We equipped a corps of transport troops—self-contained, able to protect itself to a certain extent. It was sent to Mesopotamia, where the men died like rats, mainly of dirt and neglect. When additional troops were asked for we did what we could, but our main effort was already spent—thrown away—wasted. Then Jullunder died. They said he died of pneumonia, but I know better. Does shame and a broken heart mean anything to you?"
"Shame, yes," Gup answered. "But I have a heart that won't break. I wish it could. I've done my best to break it."
"Major Glint came on the scene then. He got himself appointed political agent. It was really he who vetoed my succession. I believe the Indian Government would have confirmed it but for him. He hunted up that rotter—Jullunder's second cousin—and I know what happened to Glint's bank account in London, although the payment was made so craftily that it would be difficult to prove anything; besides, that was wartime, when officials were too busy for that sort of investigation. Jullunder's second cousin was appointed Rajah, and I was dumped into the discard, but not before Glint had interviewed me and had dropped a few hints. I understood his hints. I made the mistake of not bribing him. I should have bribed him. He would have been at my mercy then. As it was, he was afraid he had said too much and had made a too dangerous enemy. He began to try to drive me out of India."
"Why didn't you go?" Gup asked her. But he knew that he himself would not have gone. "There are lots of other countries where money can pauperize people and give you a sense of superiority."
"I thought of it. But I don't like defeat. I mean, I don't like to admit it. And—perhaps I'm wrong, but I despise laziness, and I don't want my money to help to make any one lazy. I thought, too, of my sense of superiority. I have it. I don't need to create it or to strengthen it. I know I have more ability than most people have, and ability is magic; it makes you sick unless you use it."
"Why not marry another Rajah?" Gup suggested, as deliberately rude, for caution's sake, as he could force himself to be.
"I could have—a twenty-one gun man with a territory ten times the size of Jullunder. But he had no genius and only wanted to be lazy with my money. I hate rotters of any kind; they're nothing but a waste of human life."
He attacked her again, but with words not quite so barbed with bitterness: "And I suppose all that money was burning a hole in your patience?"
"It was. I began to make use of it. In a sense it was India's money, although I made it elsewhere. I began to finance the so- called patriots who pretend to be seeking India's independence. I had to do it secretly, which led to my organizing a very intricate network of spies and agents. I have a sort of genius for choosing men; most of the men I choose turn out to be what I think they are. But the leaders of the independence movement were not men of my choosing, and I soon learned they were a mixture of incompetents and scoundrels looking for their own personal advantage or else too crazy to be worth attention. I don't refer to Ghandi—he's an angel and exactly as much use as any other angel would be. Two or three other good men worked themselves to death or died with broken hearts. The others—well, a Hindu would rather scrag a Moslem than go to work; and a Moslem would rather put a Hindu to indignity than agree with him that twice two are four. I had to choose. I chose the Moslems."
"Why? They're as crazy as any one else, and they haven't produced a civilization of their own worth mentioning since the Moors invaded Spain."
"They have more backbone than the others. They are less broad- minded, but they know how to unite. I need united rifles at my back."
"They haven't rifles."
"In India, no. But north of the border, yes. Do you begin to see now what I'm planning?"
Gup saw too well. He nodded. He began to feel uncomfortable. Though a man leave all that he hath, and renounce allegiance to the flag under which he has fought with valor, and though he do so from the highest motive, he shall none the less be disturbed by the news of another doing it. Gup never had renounced allegiance, he had only fretted at the mediocrity to which it tied him. A revulsion of feeling swept over him and he began to lean the other way. Nevertheless, he decided to hear the story to a finish. "Go on," he said.
"North of the border is No Man's Land," she went on. "The tribes have neither chiefs nor central government. The governments of India and Afghanistan have used them as a sort of buffer state. Why? Because neither side could conquer them. They would have been conquered long ago if it were possible, but they are splendid fighting men and their country is almost inaccessible to armies. Are they civilized? No. Why? Because it has pleased other people to keep them uncivilized, for strategic reasons. Are they armed? Yes—for the most part with modem rifles. Have they plenty of ammunition? Yes, because I saw to that; money will buy anything, and there were millions of rounds of rifle ammunition left after the war, that nobody knew what to do with, and that almost any one would sell, whether or not he owned it. I bought and the tribes have; that is that."
"And you trust me with that information?"
"Why not? You are a sane man—not a jingo—you can see straight. How far to the northward of Peshawar, or of this place, does the King's writ run?
They might shoot or hang me for doing it if I were caught, but haven't I perfect right to deal with the tribes as I please? I should not have had that right if they had accepted me as Ranee of Jullunder, but they broke their own treaties and their own law, as well as the ancient law of the state of Jullunder, when they turned me out and even confiscated some of my personal property. I am no more beholden to such a government. If it has the power to restrain me, well and good. If it has the wit to suspect what I am doing, that is my misfortune. But if not—are you such a man as would betray me to a government that has broken every promise it ever made?"
McLeod writhed. No governments keep promises, except in exchange for votes or money. Human rule means human fear, stupidity and weakness, with a little virtue added if the voters are awake. He himself had cursed all rulers but he knew that almost any government is better than such anarchy as savages with rifles can produce.
"Some promises," he answered, "are impossible to keep."
"Yes," she said, "and the moves of destiny are impossible to prevent. What if the tribes beyond the frontier—the Pathan, the Afridi, the Mohmand, the Shinwari, the Orakzai—what if the tribes who overlook the Khyber, and half of Afghanistan—what if they should invite me to be their leader? Has any one the right to say no? And if I accept, has any one the right to call me a traitor?"
"After that, what?" he demanded.
"I was a civilizing influence in Jullunder."
He stared at her, resentment growing. That was her first shade of equivocation and it touched off the explosive in him that was never difficult to reach. "If you don't care to tell me the truth," he retorted, "I'll go now. You are not thinking of civilization. You are planning to invade India."
"What of it? Can you tell me of a single instance, in the whole course of history, where a people has won independence without war? Can you tell me of one civilization that had a chance to be born until its progenitors proved their mettle? Were the Scots weaned on sweet words—or bitter fighting? Did the Irish win their independence by bullets or blarney? Was the United States suckled at a dove's breast or an eagle's? How about Germany—France—England? How about the States of South America? Mexico—South Africa—Italy?"
"Yes. But why should you interfere?"
She looked straight at his eyes and the ancient Egyptian look, so noticeable about her mouth, seemed suddenly to strengthen her entire face, making it ruthless and yet good-humored, although more proud than pride itself. "Because destiny commands!"
"I have heard of others who believed they could read destiny," he sneered.
"You are thinking of Napoleon and William of Hohenzollern. I prefer to think of Joan of Arc, Bolivar, LaFayette, Garibaldi, Boadicea, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan—or of any of the countless foreigners who have lent their swords to the evolving universe! I would even rather think of Byron." She paused a moment. "Do you think I am utterly selfish? Do you think I am afraid to die?"
"I think you are mad," he answered.
The sky-blue eyes looked full and straight at him again. "Has no one accused you of being mad?"
He bit his lip, not knowing what to say to her. She evidently knew the nature of his own experience; it would be no use talking platitudes or pretending he felt loyal to established institutions. He hated to be illogical; it was better to say nothing. He rose to his feet.
"If you'll excuse me—"
"You refuse?" She laughed at him; and again he knew that her laughter was not bravado. It was based on something that she knew and that he did not know; he recognized that, without imagining what trump she could have up her sleeve. And she maddened him by not playing the trump. "Some day soon," she said, "you will be like MacMahon, and like Napoleon I shall have to wonder whether I can trust you within the sound of bagpipes! You are going? Very well. I feel quite sure I can trust you not to betray my confidence."
He bowed and strode out of the room not glancing back. What need? There was a picture of her in his mind that could never fade. She was a Woman among women and her words would burn him to his dying day, because they were the logical extension of his own words and his own thoughts that had brought him at such loggerheads with the established order. He would let that be a lesson to him—no more rebellion, come what might! But what a woman! What a life he and she could have led if it had been his destiny to know her and fall in love with her before she met her Rajah. But now, he supposed, she was ruined—too far gone along the road from which there is no turning back. He thought then bitterly of destiny, whose cheap trick had let him see her in London, across the footlights, when she was caroling and laughing until London threw its hats at her and turned the stage into a wilderness of costly flowers—then brought him face to face with her again in such a place as this, amid such circumstances. What if he had known and loved her in the London days, instead of wasting his ideals on the light-headed fool whom he married? Would it have come to this pass? He believed not. Was it his own fault, that he had not been awake in those days? Are we all shown our opportunity and then let alone to seize or leave it? Was destiny mocking him—and her? If so, he thought not much of destiny—thought no more highly of it than of certain of the claws and fangs of human government that he had cursed in bitterness of soul.
The same girl who admitted him now led him forth again along the passage. She, too, although she said no word, appeared to be in no doubt of the outcome of the interview; she smiled with a kind of confidential approval, as much as to say that this was no more than a beginning of acquaintance. So he supposed she had not been listening through curtains, since otherwise she would have known that it was good-by.
At the outer door the same Pathan was standing, heavy from lack of sleep but jovial and full of swagger.
"Huzoor, salaam alaikum! Praised be the Prophet, may Allah grant at last thou art the man! It is a nightlong weariness of heart to serve a woman, but a strong man's face is daybreak!"
"Peace, fool!" Rahman came into the passage, red-eyed, too, with wakefulness, masking curiosity, if such he had, beneath an air of gruff impatience. "Huzoor, we should make haste, if your Honor pleases. If we dally, we may be seen; if we are seen, God pity us!"
Now mark him, lion-like in sullen mood
Upon his own spoor turning, visioning his den
Well hidden in the zone familiar where brood
Old enemies but no new danger. Then
There meet him, like sly hunters who pursue
To have no more of him within their zone,
Old unslain ghosts. So at the ghosts he knew
He hurls his new-born hate of the Unknown.
GUP MCLEOD mounted the black stallion and reached for the rein of Rahman's horse that was protesting against a cold saddle so violently that Rahman could not come near enough to get a foot into the stirrup.
He deliberately memorized his bearings, his blue, far-seeing eyes scanning the line of hills and making note of distances. Then he turned in the saddle to study the grass-grown mound that overlay the ruin, fixing it in mind until he knew that he could recognize it in the dark. It was all one to Gup McLeod that Rahman watched him with sleepy interest, like a cat with one eye open; it suited his mood to let the Afghan know how carefully he mapped the landscape in his mind. He defied suspicion—defied everything except his own right to govern himself. He even turned inquisitor, lest Rahman should think him afraid to be curious.
"Where is the man who rode last night with us? What was his name—Pepul Das?"
"He has an errand," Rahman answered. Then, as if to fall in with McLeod's mood: "It is an errand that concerns your Honor's business."
He drew no response. Gup's personal affairs, at the moment, were beneath consideration; he could think of nothing less interesting. But the Afghan's curiosity was rising as his blood flowed more freely with the movement of the good horse under him. And there was never a hunter of men who did not relish the prospect that he who has been hunted shall know afterward, and understand, who hunted him, and how.
"There are your Honor's tents and servants—and a horse or two."
"There is he with the teeth to be considered—Glint with the heart of a jackal and such teeth as no hyena has. Pepul Das plays fox to the jackal."
No response. Abominably tawdry were the threads of circumstance that Glint thought so important. He began to marvel at the subtlety of destiny that could use Glint's meanness like a trigger in the mechanism that had lifted Lottie Carstairs to a throne, taught her the feel of power, and then turned her loose to discover what outlawry means. Insufferably self-important and abysmally ignominious Glint, a tool of destiny! A cockroach causing the death of possibly a hundred thousand men! It might easily cost that number to persuade a headstrong woman of the error of her way. So a cockroach, in the infinite design is as important as the rest of us? But what a mess! What a blood-hungry monster this destiny is that schools the actors, sets the stage, and looks on. Rahman again:
"Now a man is by nature a fool, and a jackal is restless—so that Glint is a restless fool. A spy, he must be fed by lesser spies, or he would grow lonely and might learn wisdom—which Allah forbid! If he were wise he might be dangerous! And if he knew not where to find your Honor, he might make haste and seize your Honor's tents, which would be inconvenient. We took care, but informers may have told him whither the tents were taken. It was thought wise to protect the tents by sending Pepul Das to betray to him the place where your Honor will rest at midday. Thus he will pursue your Honor and not seize the tents. And your Honor may either avoid him or—"
He drew response at last. A sudden wave of anger so swept over Gup McLeod that the stallion felt it and snatched at the reins, to be off at full gallop. It needed a minute of iron will and horsemanship to rein him in. Then Gup turned savagely on Rahman, speaking almost gently because the violence was in the spirit of the words:
"Would you mind telling me a reason why I should avoid Glint?"
Rahman looked another way a moment. Allah loves hunters of men, but it is seldom wise to let the hunted see the laughter in the eyes of him whom Allah loves. Then presently:
"He is an enemy, who never in his life forgave what he reckoned to be an insult. And being mean, he measures insults with a silversmith's scale, weighing grams. Where you and I would scratch ourselves, as at a flea-bite, he feels the rust of a murderer's dagger in his veins. Such as might stagger you or me, Huzoor, because a great man meant it, would pass him by because he is too mean to understand. Your Honor insulted him. If it were my own tamasha I would avoid him as I do a leper."*
"Suit yourself," Gup answered. "If you see him coming you can escape, if that's what troubles you. Swap horses, if you wish. If you think he has it in for you for anything, he might recognize this stallion as yours and seize him."
Rahman looked aside again to recover control of his eyes. Behind the silent laughter of those men of the North there is always gratitude, and though they are few who understand that, they are many who can see it and become suspicious. It is safer to look greedy.
"I am your Honor's escort," he answered after a moment, with quiet dignity.
Thereafter for a while they rode in silence, Gup not troubling about direction, leaving that to Rahman; only he made note of it, observing that Dera Ismail Khan was almost on their right hand. He supposed his tents and other belongings had been hidden in the bottom of some nullah and that Rahman would lead him straight to them unless Glint should show up. It would be difficult for Glint to cross that open country unseen, and as the hours wore on he began to believe that the whole Glint business was a false alarm. The man was only a mean busybody. Why waste thought on him?
So he thought of Lottie Carstairs, the ex-Ranee of Jullunder, sitting with a naked sword across her knees and offering him high command of an army that he supposed existed still in her imagination. Not that he doubted she could raise an army; given money and imagination—and the moment—almost any one can do that, but he doubted she could do it without the fact being known. If she already had an army it was beyond belief that she could restrain it—not an army of Hillmen raised for the purpose of upsetting boundaries and trampling on established law. It would have been up to the eyes in plunder long ago, and long ago defeated by the massed gas-batteries and aeroplanes. No, she had no army yet. She had offered to make him commander-in-chief of a dream, with the job on his hands of materializing dream into reality. He wondered what man she would find for the job. Too bad he had not suggested Glint to her! He almost laughed at his own lame cynicism. Then:
"Have a care!" said Rahman. "Rein him in, Huzoor, he takes a rough descent like this too eagerly." So Gup McLeod let Rahman lead down a goat-track to the bottom of a dry ravine, where scrubby tamarisks rose head-high of a man on horseback and the kites in a clearing were picking a dead sheep's bones. There was no room to have turned; where Rahman halted there were rocks on either hand, and Gup could just see over Rahman's shoulder, between tamarisks, the yellow pony beside which Glint was standing with the reins looped over his arm. Then Glint's voice, nasty with the ring of triumph:
"Mis-ter McLeod, I think! I have a summons for you. You may come, too, Rahman. I arrest you without warrant."
"Pull aside!" Gup ordered. "Let me through!"
He spurred the stallion, making him plunge into the tamarisks, forcing his way between them and Rahman's horse. He almost rode Glint down. He forced him backward into a circular wide patch of naked gravel where Glint's servants waited—three men on native ponies, unarmed. Glint had a revolver but he made no bluff at using it.
"What sort of paper have you?" Gup demanded. "Simply a summons to begin with. There will be something more serious later, unless you see the error of your ways. I went to the personal trouble of serving this on you, first, to give you opportunity to apologize to me for last night's insult; second, to give you a talking to, for your own good."
"What's the summons for?" Gup asked him.
"For assault—for a vicious assault—and on my servant as it happens."
"Last night, of course. You know that without asking."
"You mean, you accuse me of having struck your servant?"
"Any witnesses? Who?"
"The servant, myself and another."
"So. You saw me do it? You propose to swear to that?"
Gup stared at the three native servants, wondering why Glint had brought no troopers with him—no police—no armed men. He knew Glint was not a fighter of the sort who faces enemies lone- handed. Was there an ambush—constables in hiding, ready to make an arrest when Glint provoked an attempt at violence? That would be Glint's way. But the voice of Rahman, who had ridden up knee to knee with him, whispered: "Pepul Das has seen that there are no policemen near."
Glint heard whispering, but not the words. "You may consider it clever to whisper secrets to an Afghan horse-thief in my presence, but the apology you owe me would be better manners and far safer for yourself," he sneered. He was a man who could not keep his venom blanketed. The scorn in Gup McLeod's eyes, being genuine, aroused all Glint's hatred of a man more honorable than himself.
Then Rahman laughed, and Glint, who hated to be laughed at more than to be detected cheating, said one word too much for anybody's peace. But McLeod began it, choosing his words because of dim suspicion now that Rahman, with the aid of Pepul Das, had staged this meeting. Rahman was too unself-conscious in appearance to be altogether innocent of guile.
"I did not whip your servant," Gup said simply. "Why lie about it?" Glint asked. "Try that on the court if you have witnesses to back you up."
"Do you intend to swear you saw me do it?"
Gup passed his reins to Rahman. He had no whip, but Glint had. He leaped from the saddle and seized that whip. He took Glint by the tunic collar and began to thrash him mercilessly. Glint shouted something about the King's name, but Gup's heel was grinding the King's summons into the gravel-bed and he had no respect that moment for any law except the oldest one of personal chastisement, nor any thought except that he would not hurt the man too much, since he was after all only a rotter. But the mounted servants tried to interfere, and Rahman held them at bay with voice and riding-whip. Then Glint made an incredible mistake. He tried to shoot. He pulled his Colt out of the holster and had it cocked before McLeod saw what was happening. Then the whip came down on the back of Glint's hand with a blow like the smack of a meat-seller's ax. The revolver hit the gravel; McLeod kicked it in among the tamarisks, and thereafter he laid on the whip without one thought other than that Glint should know he had been whipped—and what for.
"You abominable reptile! This is for spying and lying and then attempting murder!"
Men like Glint, who have lived by treachery, think inevitably of a threat when weapons fail. And being desperate they load their threat with the deepest secret slug they had held in reserve.
"You'd better stop! By God, I'll get you for it! Ow! Help, somebody! Damn you, I know your doings! You're in league with the ex-Ranee of Jullunder! You've been with her all night! I'll jail you—I'll break you—I'll hang you for it. You're killing me, you—"
"You have done enough," said Rahman. "Slay a louse, but let that vermin live. He has his uses."
Gup wondered why an Afghan should recommend mercy. The race is not notorious for mercy or restraint in anger. But he let Glint fall on to the gravel and lie sobbing—let Glint's three servants come and offer clumsy first-aid. Then he saw the crumpled summons that his heel had ground into the gravel. Then he looked at Glint's torn uniform, and at those three witnesses who had seen the thrashing—doubtless all three ready to swear that he had thrashed Glint's other servant under the fly of the tent the night before. Then he looked into Rahman's eyes—and understood, in part at any rate.
"This is your doing!"
"By Allah, no, Huzoor. I am not so good at an intrigue. But we are outlaws, you and I!"
"You—and Pepul Das—"
"Huzoor, that fellow owns no cunning that could—"
"By whose orders? Did the Ranee of Jullunder order this?"
"By Allah, none knows that woman's secrets. But I know that your Honor stands high in her favor. She is also an outlaw. Better follow me, Huzoor, to where an outlaw's trail is easy but pursuit is hard!"
Gup glared at him. The trap had grown obvious. He was almost in a panic. Rahman read him like a book.
"It is very seldom wise to run away, by God. And why run from a woman?"
"You may tell that woman to go to hell!" Gup answered.
"Heaven and hell," said Rahman, "are the province of the Most High. It is only on earth, Huzoor, that we have our say—in unimportant matters."
But Rahman perceived he must use subtler argument and summon subtler forces to his aid—make magic, as the unbelievers call it, who know no magic. (They who do know use a less polluted word, with a swift glance over their own right shoulder.) He eased the black stallion's rein, and with a toe that Gup could not see he touched the sleek flank. The stallion moved in a half-circle, so that he stood behind Gup with his head toward Rahman. In a moment he was lipping at Gup's hair, breathing on his neck. Gup's hand rose to stroke the velvety muzzle, almost unconsciously answering the touch of confidence. "There is none except yourself, Huzoor, who can restrain that woman on the road she takes," said Rahman.
The stallion snorted friendship into Gup's ear, stuff such as only horses have, so only they can give to men. Pride and price are not in it, nor sentiment in any ordinary sense; there is something wordless that a horse knows, which men do not know, but which horses can stir out of slumber in a man's subconscious mind, so that he reacts a little differently to circumstances than he might do otherwise, which is why a man on horseback is a different creature from the same man on the ground. It is also a reason why they say Mohammed rode to heaven on a horse.
"Let her drive to her own damnation," Gup retorted. "Why should I interfere?" But words did not satisfy him. Impulse nagged at him to mount the stallion and ride him beyond the sky- line—anywhither. But the stallion was not his, it was the woman's. He did not propose to be beholden to her for anything.
"The police come," Rahman murmured.
"Let 'em!" said Gup.
"And if they take you, they will take me also."
"Your funeral. I didn't ask for this."
"And it may be, we shall both be hanged for seditious practises. That fellow Glint is a marvelous liar. It would be a pity to give him so much satisfaction. Moreover, why run from Allah's jesting? Is it not better to see the end of Allah's jest? Is Glint a friend of God that you await his good pleasure concerning you? Does he who is beset by dogs get on his knees and bite them for the sake of dignity? Why not escape and fight Glint with a better weapon, at the right time, after Allah's jest is finished and the opportunity appears? Do you intend to let that dog bark triumph over both of us?"
"Don't worry. I won't let Glint put us in prison."
"Nevertheless, the police come."
It was true—or perhaps it was true. There was a distant sound of horses galloping, and Glint, not willing to appear less than brutally beaten and helpless, sent one of his servants to the top of the far bank of the ravine to make signals. Where his tunic was torn, he tore it more. Where there was blood, he smeared it. He could simulate extreme pain with a realism due to enjoyment of mental and physical pain of other people. He groaned, and restrained the groaning with artistic heroism.
"Find my horses and tents," said Gup.
He never knew exactly why he reached that sudden decision. He knew, the moment he made it, what it meant. He had chosen between the indignity and injustice of arrest and trial with perjured evidence against him, and at least a temporary state of outlawry, with not more than a remote chance even so of being able to clear himself of Glint's charges. He knew Glint would use every malicious means imaginable to compass his ruin, and that flight would be interpreted as confession of guilt.
"I am probably riding to death," he remarked to himself as he mounted Iskander. "Well, the sooner the better." But he had no intention of doing death's work. Let death defeat him if it could. He would give death a run for its money. "Lead on to where you think my horses are," he ordered.
Rahman needed no second invitation. He led at full gallop along the ravine, that wound on its course like a snake, until they reached a track up which they rode to the level land above. And there they had the advantage of a long, low, rounded ridge between them and where Glint lay, so that they could gallop unseen, extended to the limit of their horses' speed. Gup never once looked behind him. There was nothing to look back to, that he cared about. He was abandoning his good name; Glint would presently abolish that from off the earth. He must make a new reputation somehow—how would presently transpire, perhaps. Riding that splendid horse, restraining him not to outdistance Rahman's horse, let him forget anxiety.
But as they rode a strange uneasiness crept over him, that at first he made no attempt to analyze, since he suspected it of being fear and he was habitually merciless with himself whenever he thought fear was getting in the thin end of its wedge. Like all men who have turned and faced fear many times, he had learned to spot it swiftly and to kill it in its early stages. So, from familiarity with that enemy, he discovered that this mood was not even fear in disguise. And when he knew what it was, he felt bewildered more than ever.
He was homesick—not for houses—not for individuals, it takes time for that phase to appear. He was homesick for the opposite of what Glint stood for—homesick for the idea that men call flag and country, that such as Glint disgrace, and that stuffy-minded people stir the scoundrels and the jingoes to debauch. The discovery so astonished him that he almost drew rein. He had supposed himself totally free from national sentiment—had thought he fought that strangler to the death in Flanders. Now, though, he knew himself one with his country and only at war with his country's enemies—an outlaw, who still loved his country! Suddenly he knew he loved it with a passion that had driven him half insane with anger at the fools who brought his country into disrepute. He knew now what had been the matter with him—knew it too late. Why he did not draw rein was that once more destiny appeared to him as a sordid tyranny that mocks men's highest aspirations. What was the use of pausing? What was the use of hesitation?
"Lord God, what a lousy universe! Is it impossible to see straight and act fairly without bringing down one's own house in ruins?"
And neither sword nor heavy-hafted spear,
Nor bow well strung with arrows straight and long
That wing their way obedient is Fear,
Whose seeming strength is weakness and its weakness strong,
In turning on the user lunge and thrust—
Himself his adversary, effort its own foil,
Trust in an untrue tool undoing Trust,
Himself the warrior and war, his Faith the spoil.
PESHAWAR is a northern stronghold where the forces fret protecting India against invasion. Take away those forces and as sudden or as gradual as their withdrawal would the inroad be of Hillmen weaned on the ancient law of survival of him who can take and get away with it. The forces fret like steam or any other concentrated power kept ready for action and held in restraint. Their sentries are now and then murdered by fleece-clad sportsmen, who creep through the midnight mist and slay for the sake of a rifle and a bandolier; a rifle is worth its weight in silver money, and the British hospital takes care of any one who gets the wrong end of the luck, so the game is played without ill-will but with a determination that would shame the sluggard ant. Protected merchants in the sanitary, well-policed bazaar exorbitantly choose their guardians. In proof that peace is not a blind goal of deluded theorists, the cemeteries quite surround the city. And, suggesting that there may be tides of destiny as well as of oceans and emotions, Moslem minarets look down on the Buddhist ruins, and the British troops parade within sight of where Mahmud conquered Ghazni. They protect the road along which Akbar's delegates passed to his Province of Kabul. Some of the ashes of Buddha lie in the new museum. Some of the graves surrounding the wide city are those of much more recently dead students of the art of living loyally and dying game.
The wind sweeps from the mountains, blowing southward bugle music and the skirl of Scottish pipes. Dust of a parade-ground drifts on statuary left by Alexander's Greeks. A few unveiled, unhonored Moslem ladies sing shrill hymns in the Zenana Mission, while men from Samarkand and Kandahar, from all the ranges of the Hindu-Kush, and from the Khyber and all the Himalayan sky-high valleys eye the Hindu with a wolf-lift of the upper lip and a curious, now and then ponderous gleam of eyes that seem aware of fate and of the need to await the appointed hour.
In the midst of that, in what is known as luxury, resides a Chief Commissioner, a man of merely human zeal and only thirty or forty years' experience, whom possibly the gods of irony applaud for wishing he had something easy on his hands like Pontius Pilate's job. He has advisers, to increase his knowledge and to plow perplexity; telegraph wires remind him he is no more than a corner-knot in an enormous web of empire, trembling to the jerk and strain of politics at earth's ends; he is a gentleman by dint of having earned that title, a degree from the College of Life that makes most politics seem filthy, all forgiveness easy and all drasticism difficult. He will be damned for whatever he does, damned if he does nothing, and the condition of his liver—in Peshawar in the spring—is not always a fit subject for polite discussion. Furthermore, he knows a great deal that he must not tell to any one except his equally distracted seniors, who are seldom within twenty-fours hours' reach.
"Yes, I know," said the Chief Commissioner.
The Moslem member of his council, whom he liked but dreaded because of his gimlet-like ability to bore through screens of platitudes to the underlying, unformed judgment, sat beside him on the Government House verandah where, over a breakfast table, in view of the everlasting hills, the conversation usually shaped the ultimate decisions of a council.
"This mean's God's own trouble," said the Moslem. "He has thrashed an officer in the presence of witnesses, and the news has leaked out."
"Glint took care it did," said the Commissioner. "And he has run away. Is he mad?"
"I hope so. That would be such an easy solution. Send him home and let him cool off."
"But if he is mad, and if he escapes death, he may join the Amir. You have sent police after him? You had better send for a hundred thousand men to defend the border. I don't believe you realize the risk of an invasion by the Amir."
The Commissioner shrugged his shoulders, suggesting indifference in order to hide sensitive concern. He knew what the Moslem member did not, that almost all the available troops were needed to overawe India itself and prevent simultaneous rebellion in three provinces.
"The police are Pathans—Moslems. Surely you don't want him shot by a policeman? In my opinion—perhaps I am prejudiced—it would be a very bad thing, tending to destroy discipline, if an officer—even an ex-officer of your race—should be shot by a Pathan policeman. The news would be all over Peshawar in a moment. Human life is too cheap as it is. It would become cheaper. Perhaps I understand the Moslem psychology better than you do. It is a good thing that the person of the British officer is regarded as something almost sacred. Reduce or remove that restraint, and you will have every uncivilized and half-civilized savage who thinks he owes a grudge taking the law into his own hands. Those of us who are civilized and educated recognize that. As long as British rule lasts here, it must be rule, not riot- law. The persons of your countrymen must be inviolable."
"What do you suggest?" asked the Commissioner.
"I would suggest this. He has probably ridden up one of the passes leading northward. In other words, he is beyond the border. I would send some one to pass the word quietly among the Hillmen that if he should be shot beyond the border there would be no questions asked and no reprisals."
"Can you imagine me doing that?"
"Disagreeable, of course, but duty wisely carried out is not often amusing to a man of honorable motive like yourself. You know very well that if he should be shot beyond the border it would be hushed up in any event. There might be questions asked, and threats made. But reprisals? You know there would not be any—not in the circumstances. And now let me try to make my opinion clear to you. If he should be shot beyond the border, without word having gone forth that he may be shot with impunity, that would be a bad thing. But if word should be secretly sent that he may be shot with impunity, the psychology would be altogether different and it might be a very good thing. McLeod looks like an important person, even if he is not. It might be the spark in the powder-barrel. It might cause them to throw in their lot with the Amir. And if he invades India—you know—they reason like children. They are marvelous fighting men, and to them murder is sport, but they are much more simple in their thought processes than they are sometimes given credit for. If the Amir of Afghanistan could count on the allegiance of the Tribes he would invade India to-morrow."
A bullet-headed, gray-haired man of fifty was announced, greeted with something approaching astonishment and offered breakfast, which he accepted. It took him an appreciable time to suppress irritation but he was carefully, and even more than carefully polite to the Moslem member of the council.
"'Morning, Habib'ullah—glad to see you looking bright-eyed. Not so worried about the Amir as you were, eh? Legal affairs keep you busy? Snow you under, some day! Same as a bridge will fall on me and bust my reputation. But I always did thank God my job is public works. No money in it, but you need no brains."
"How did you get here, Trowbridge?" the Commissioner asked.
"Plane. And by the way, there should be something done about it. These damned idiotic orders against civilians getting a lift will lead to serious trouble. Some day there's going to be a crisis, and nothing done about it because some squirt of a pilot quotes his orders and tells a civilian to keep his trotters in the mud. God-dammit! Know what I did? I told that young brass- faced whippersnapper about Admiral Nelson—telescope to his blind eye and all that blather! What you bet me they don't break him for having brought me here?"
The eggs came. With his spoon he smashed the top off one of them as if it were a flight commander's head.
"God-dammit!" he said, "I'll have to save that youngster somehow. They'll break him as sure as tape's red. I wonder why they can't make decent coffee anywhere except in the United States? Yours not any worse than other people's. You mind oaring in? The youngster's name is Percy—Percy Simkins—wouldn't you know he'd have a name like that? But he's a nice boy. He deserves to be saved for a crash later on. Mind speaking for him?"
"I can probably drop the right word. But why your hurry?"
A second egg was decapitated with a sudden sideswipe of the spoon.
"That ass McLeod, of course. The man's an idiot, but he's worth as many Glints as there are hairs on a hog's back. Glint tried to get us to P. S. A. him at Dera Ismail Khan. Personal malice all over the proposal—Glint at his usual game of working off a grudge. I knifed it with a nod to Curtis, who could hardly sit at his desk he was so rotten with malaria.
Glint got a magistrate's summons against McLeod for assault on a spy who was eavesdropping under the fly of McLeod's tent. I don't believe Gup did it. What does he care who spies on him? Anyhow, some one flogged the spy, and Glint swears he saw it happen. Glint, as usual, produces corroborative native testimony. Glint goes out to serve the summons—meets Gup—an exchange of compliments—Gup thrashes Glint—unfortunately doesn't give him half what any one of us would like to hand him—and there's your story—all of it."
The Commissioner looked uncomfortable. "No," he said, "unfortunately not all."
Trowbridge snapped his teeth into a piece of toast and munched savagely. He wiped his mustache. It bristled.
"The Jullunder woman? You believe in that mare's nest?"
"Have to. Can't avoid it. Information received."
"Shoot. Why not, and save time? I'm on the docket—so is Habib'ullah. She put it over on Gup McLeod? I'd sooner believe he'd joined the Amir! He may have turned Bolshevist. He may believe the Soviets are the new dispensation and that the Amir is the arm of destiny. Some Scotsmen do that kind of thing. But Gup and an adventuress? Never!"
"You can look at the files in my office after breakfast. No, I have no information that she actually roped him. But she passed over the border with a string of mules and camels late last night, and information is that Gup McLeod's horses and tents were in the string. I don't know yet where he is—not actually."
"Police after him?"
"Yes, but they haven't an earthly chance. The hell of it is that Glint was right. I know of nothing in the world more maddening than to have the predictions of a person of Glint's caliber come true. If any one but he had told us the Jullunder woman was cooking mischief we would have paid more attention to it, and incidentally to her. But we were busy in other directions. She has slipped out of reach. It's one of those damned things that happen. And what is almost worse, we'll be saddled with Glint for years to come—no shaking him—he'll get the credit, and he'll make it hot for everybody. You know he has powerful friends in London? He may even force my resignation if the whole story comes out."
"You don't understand how to deal with Glint. Give him his head and he'll hang himself. Flatter him instead of getting in his way. Flattery poisons 'em; they go crazy and come a cropper. However, meanwhile what? You'd better send me up to survey a road from here to the Karakorum Mountains. I know Gup. He knows me. If I find him he will listen."
"Might do worse, Trowbridge, and might do better. But you're—"
"Fat-headed and full-gutted, yes, I get you."
"You're a valuable man and badly needed here."
"Well, where is Tom O'Hara?"
"He should be here now. I sent for him at sunrise. He's a difficult devil to find when you want to lay your finger on him, but the Air-Force knew where he was. They sent a plane."
"He's here then. I saw the plane coming. It was on the sky- line when I landed."
"Right you are, here's Tom O'Hara."
"'Morning, sir. Thank you, had breakfast."
The ugliest London Irishman who ever lived sat down at the Commissioner's right hand, shoving his chair well back so that he could read three faces at the same time. He had red hair. A round, owlish face was liberally peppered with freckles of all shapes and sizes, in the midst of which a nose as predatory as an owl's beak curved into a scrubby red mustache. A pair of very lively, windy-gray eyes seemed to look almost from the inside of his head through deep cavities spaced wide apart. He had come in haste, unshaved, so the reddish stubble argued with his red tie, and with the madder color of the flannel suit he wore. He had a large ruby ring on one finger of a hand that was almost as hairy as his head. His feet, for his height, which was hardly five feet seven, were enormous, and he was of rather heavy, stocky build without an ounce of surplus fat. He could smile at will with eyes or mouth, and at moments, when he used both, he looked hardly human because irregular wrinkles appeared and the freckles moved in waves. He offered no excuse for not wearing a uniform.
"O'Hara, the ex-Ranee of Jullunder crossed the border last night."
"I knew ut, sir. I said ut. Why wouldn't she? Eighteenth of April last year, half after four of the afternoon, I turned in details of her link-up with something like half of the chiefs this side of Kabul. I said ut then—she'll cut loose. I wrote ut. Look ut up and see."
"I never saw that report," said the Commissioner. "You turned it in at Delhi?"
"As per orders. Took a receipt, too."
"Well, it's too late to look into that now. Gup McLeod went with her—or if not with her, let us say went also. Do you see what trouble that many mean?" The owl eyes blinked twice. "Couple o' hot ones!" His voice grew hoarse under emotion. "A woman's pipe-dream of an independent kingdom in the Hills, plus a man in a rage at injustice! And the Amir in Kabul—?" He whistled.
"Suggest anything?" asked the Commissioner. "She may be intending to join the Amir. If reports are true, he thinks seriously of invading India."
"The Amir is married. The ex-Ranee of Jullunder is a one wife woman," said Tom O'Hara.
"Isn't McLeod a possibility? Might she not be in love with him—and he with her?"
"Hell, I said ut! She'll have half Asia at her back in no time. What's the use of having men like me and Jimmy Oxshot, who do our work like a nursemaid combing Katie's hair for hen-lice, if you're to let 'em slip through after we've given you the info, all in black and white? I told 'em about Gup McLeod six weeks ago. All that man needed was a job o' work. I said ut. I said: put him in charge of a leper colony, or set him to catching dacoits. He'll go wrong, I said. I wrote ut. I snaffled a snooty reprimand. I was told to mind my business."
"Too bad, but such things happen in the occasional confusion of inter-departmental business. With your present understanding of the situation, what do you suggest can be done?"
"There's nobbut one thing to be done. I'll do ut. I'll go after them."
"When can you start?"
"How many men will you need?"
"None. Pick 'em up beyond the border. Take 'em from this side, they tell who you are. Provisions, tents—steal your canned stuff and they shoot you for the value of a tent. Let me draw about three thousand rupees, paper money, and I'll just melt over the border. You won't see me again until the job's done. But don't send Jimmy Oxshot after me. He's too good. We can't work together. We're singletons. We spoil each other's game."
"You'll try to send word, of course?"
"Try, hell! Soon as I've news I'll send ut. And my long leave's due, so you may bet your boots I'll not let grass grow under mine. I've a date with a girl in Copenhagen and if I don't keep ut some good-looking devil with a million pounds may wipe my eye."
"Then you'll go at once?"
"I said ut."
And yet—all forces and all substance and the poles
Of Fear and Valor and the measureless degrees
Between—aye, folly and unfaith and sunless holes
Within the rind of rancid humor, and Regret—
Aye, sin itself, are parts of the All-seeing. These unfold
Life out of death, death fading from the Light within,
False glitter falsely leading to the unguessed gold.
There is a value even in disaster, so a use for sin.
EMOTION produces fatigue more swiftly than physical strain does. Gup McLeod did not realize he had missed a night's sleep and had ridden more than fifty miles, until Rahman drew rein in the midst of a jumble of boulders that provided an almost perfect camp-site. There was no camp—only Pepul Das and three camels. Perhaps the natural environment suggested tents, and they in turn suggested weariness. Gup knew he was tired, all at once, to the verge of hysteria, which assumes almost as many disguises as there are individuals to suffer from it. It made him afraid of fear—afraid to yield to anything less all-conquering than death. A long sleep might have brought in its wake a calmer view of his difficulty; he might have realized he had friends, who would believe his story, or who would at any rate pretend to believe it for the sake of saving him from Glint's notorious malice.
He might have been willing to camp in that spot, had Rahman offered. But Rahman had roped and trained too many horses to be in doubt for a moment what course to take with this mere human he was handling. Doubtless he and Pepul Das were also weary, and the horses had had enough of it, but weary horses, with their girths loosened, still can follow, and men can wear down any animal that breathes—including one another.
"Where are my tents and horses?" Gup demanded. But that was habit—Scots frugality maintaining that a man should keep strict account of his own possessions, otherwise they soon belong to some one else. He did not really care.
Pepul Das glanced at the pupils of Gup's eyes, then at Rahman, who nodded.
"In a safe place, Huzoor. I will lead you to them."
"And my servants?"
Rahman intervened. "Huzoor, if a servant can follow his master, he is good; he may himself become a master. If not, he is no better than a bedbug, in love with his own belly, sucking the blood of this man until the next comes along, whom he will suck more skilfully. I took the liberty of ordering those servants tested, and lo, they are not. By Allah, they are probably already buying false testimonials in Peshawar, unless Glint's informers have arrested them. It may be they are being whipped in secret, like com on the stalk, for evidence against your Honor. Let us ride on."
Little things, like last straws, seem the most overwhelming. Gup had no particular affection for his "bearer" and three dissolute saises, who had to be watched to prevent them from selling the horses' corn; he had not even intended to keep them any longer than it would take him to find better ones, and there could hardly be worse. But their loss now seemed to take away the last remaining vestige of his honor, in addition to the obvious fact that his having deserted them would add one more link to the chain of circumstantial evidence against him.
"Did you pay them their wages?" he asked.
"No," Rahman answered. "For, by Allah, who are we that we should use your Honor's money? And unless the money that was in your Honor's trunk is there yet, Pepul Das shall learn how his flesh feels without a covering of skin."
Unpaid servants! What an opportunity for Glint to get in caustic asides about his not being even a gentleman! And an unpaid club bill, he remembered. They would post him at the club, he supposed, and then summon a special meeting to cancel his membership. He began to feel dirty, not realizing that he only needed a bath; the sweat and the dust from the long ride felt like moral dirt.
"Let us go," said Rahman.
Gup mounted a kneeling camel. What did he care? He watched with a sort of numb detachment while Rahman overcame the stallion's objection to the hated smell, fastening both horses by a short line to the knob on the camel's saddle. Then away, with the velvety, rhythmical swing that eats up distances as nothing else on earth does. Those were trained Bikaniri camels—gaunt, unlovely specters grumbling at survival from the eons when there were no men to make them earn their fodder. There was nothing awkward in their awkward-looking gait; they had been trained to waste no motion and to use not one unnecessary ounce of energy. Each cushioned stride went forward, all the way, and because it is only waste that sets up inconvenience the movement was elastic and almost hypnotic. Gup slept fitfully.
It is easier to sleep on camel than on horseback, if the camels are not baggage beasts. But such sleep, waking in starts at intervals to grab the saddle under the impression he was falling, became a series of disjointed evil dreams, not restful to the body, and a dozen times more wearing on mind than waking speculation would have been. The narrow gorge into which they passed, near sunset, resembled the pictures of Dante's hell-gate, with nothing lacking except the legend notifying any one who entered to abandon hope. Deep gloom already filled the gorge, whose ribs of gneiss and limestone took fantastic shapes. A dark sky, bellying with low clouds, dimly reflected the sunset and made darkness visible. The formless, first beginnings of the night mist moved on the evening wind like stuff from which shivering phantoms gather veils to hide their nakedness. Suddenly, as the sun set, a splurge of angry crimson spread itself against the belly of the clouds, filling the gorge with red-hot color that, nevertheless, held no heat, only horror. And then night, full of startling mysterious sounds, and a cold wind sighing amid crags and caverns.
There was a short halt, hardly remembered afterward, at a place where Rahman left the horses to be fed and brought along later; meanwhile they were stabled for a good night's sleep in a low, warm hut well hidden behind one of those fantastic limestone spurs that look as if Titans had built them to keep mountains from falling in and filling the Himalayan gorges. Black-bearded men with rifles and bandoliers, and with unexpected khaki uniforms beneath their sheepskin coats, appeared from nowhere, answered Rahman's greeting with curt monosyllables, did their appointed task, and vanished. Somebody brought Gup a stale chupatty that he munched without tasting, eating without knowing that he ate. Then on again.
Interminable, echoing darkness—sky invisible—a hint, perhaps subconscious, of enormous walls on either hand—sense, rather than sight revealing measureless chasms, now to the right, now to the left, that echoed to the rattle of stones displaced by the camel's footfall—hollow, lonely echoes, sounding like voices of souls in search of the bodies that no friend had buried. Once in a while came a burst like laughter as the wind struck the mouth of an unseen cave and blustered, buffeting the back-flow. Now and then Rahman, over-shoulder, always repeating the same phrase: "Soon—soon now, Huzoor! Aiee—what camels!" There was a hint of daylight, very cold and dimly driving through a gray mist into the ravine, when Rahman at last turned near a bridge once thrown by British army engineers across a chasm in one of the never-ending border wars. The bridge had long ago fallen in. Rahman turned toward a mass of tumbled boulders, where no road led. Ages ago a limestone cliff had fallen, leaving a slope with neither track nor foothold, except where the larger boulders lay around the base. The mother of all fallen rocks lay nearly smothered under débris at the north edge, close against the cliff, and it was toward that, urging the grumbling camels, who hate uneven ground, that Rahman guided the procession.
Presently, in the dim light, Gup could see there had been recent blasting. Earth and débris had been scattered to hide the new, raw, telltale splintered rock, but the weather had not had time to work on it and town eyes could have seen there was a new cave, or a tunnel or shaft of some kind driven into the cliff-face somewhere close at hand. There was almost a mine dump in miniature, although some one had been at great pains to disguise it, and it might not be long before wind and rain should make it unnoticeable. Rahman grinned. He gestured. Here was a keyhole such as pleased his Afghan heart—a new way, not on survey maps, that penetrated into unknown vitals of an unseen mystery. Eyes that were bleary and red from lack of sleep revealed a glitter in their depths, and even Pepul Das, bone-weary and chilled to speechlessness, stiffened his back on his camel and found the grace to grin. Gup saw no signs of human life, although he stared about him when he thought he heard a breech-lock click.
Between the huge, square fallen rock and the face of the cliff, as they drew nearer, a narrow cleft opened. It was barely wide enough to let a loaded camel pass. They followed that for fifty yards; it was V-shaped, open to the sky, and on the left- hand side, some twenty feet above the ground, was a ledge on which boulders and stones had been placed ready to be pushed over, either with the idea of crushing unwelcome intruders or, as seemed more likely, to conceal the roadbed. It was at the end of that fifty yards that all the blasting had been done. A hole, very skilfully masked by a dike in the face of the cliff, had been hewn and blasted until it reached a natural, wide fissure, whose smooth floor proved it once had been a subterranean watercourse until volcanic upheaval or earthquake turned the water elsewhere, or dried it up.
It was long and winding, but not totally dark because in places the fissure opened to the sky. In those places further blasting had been done, to get rid of rocks that had fallen in. In two or three places they were obliged to duck their heads to avoid a low roof, but there was generally ample head-room and in places the echoing darkness overhead sounded and felt like the hollow core of a vast mountain, black with bats. The ceaseless moaning of a chill wind deadened the camels' foot-fall; it blew in their faces, slightly tainted with the smell of dung and wood- smoke, and the smell suggested welcome warmth—a suggestion that made sleepiness a torturing, almost overwhelming weight on watery eyes.
Gup estimated the length of that passage at nearly half a mile before it opened into a draughty cavern, water-worn and glistening with stalactite.
"The Serpent's Mouth!" Rahman shouted. "And by Allah, was there ever such a serpent?"
The shout seemed hardly louder than normal speech; most of the sound was swallowed by the strange acoustics of the domed roof. Except for the height, the cavern was not unlike a hollow snake's head: light streamed in through the low, wide mouth and there were gleaming fangs of stalactite to strengthen the illusion. The long passage they had traversed resembled a snake as much as was necessary to set Moslem imagination working. Rahman began reeling off an endless myth concerning a saint-devouring serpent that had lain there since the dawn of time, only to be slain by a descendant of the Prophet who had charged on horseback into the fire-belching mouth and had been coughed forth into paradise by the dying reptile's final spasm.
"Jonah and the big fish were nothing compared to it. And I will show you this saint's grave," said Rahman.
Gup hardly listened. Riding between two stalactites, on a camel that slipped on glass-smooth stone, he stared three thousand feet into a gorge whose edges were a mile apart, and whose length and breadth was strewn with rocks that looked like monstrous, lime-white skeletons. It was only for a few minutes that he could bear to look at them; then the sun peered in over the rim of the gorge and the whole interior became a furnace of white fire, intolerable.
"Cover the eyes!" commanded Rahman. "By Allah, there is many a blind man begging bread, who looked too long on this sight. Cover the eyes. I lead the way."
He even tied cloths on the camels' heads, making fast the nose of Gup's beast to the crupper of his own, but he left Pepul Das to take care of himself. He found a long stick in a crevice, and with that in the same hand that held the camel's nose-rope, guarding his eyes with a cloth hung over his left forearm, he gingerly led the way downward along a track fit for goats. It varied in width from one to three feet. There were places where a camel's right flank rubbed the wall while his left flank overhung the precipice.
"And they are bad brutes at this down-hill work," said Rahman, grumbling over-shoulder. "Put a foot wrong and they perish! Below there are the bones of a hundred camels—and of horses many—but of mules not one! Insh'allah* we shall nevertheless not die until the appointed hour."
[* If God wills.]
On a ledge where there was room for all three camels to stand side by side and Rahman paused to rest himself Gup saw fit to demand more knowledge.
"Do you mean to tell me my tents and horses came by this road."
"By my beard, no! There is another way in, easier, though much more difficult to find."
He led on, crossing a crevasse by a bank of débris two feet wide, where a false step by man or camel would have dropped them on to crags a thousand feet below. An eagle flew alongside, watching them, poised like a swimmer, his bright eye hungry for warm, rock-broken carcases.
"Many a camel and man that beak has ripped!" said Rahman, stooping to throw stones that made the eagle swerve and rise a hundred feet. "May Allah slay the lousy bird and let me live!"
As he led he kicked loose stones over the edge, until Gup cursed him because of the irresistible fascination of watching the stones descend, but Rahman shed the hot speech like a boxer avoiding a blow, with a duck of the knees and a roll of the neck.
"And if I kick them not away, how long will a blinded camel go before he slips on one of those? And then what?"
On another ledge he said his prayers, spreading out his saddle-cloth for mat and turning toward Mecca, first using dust from the cliff in place of water for the ritual ablutions and then reprimanding Pepul Das for lack of piety.
"Ungodly fool! If Allah pleases, we be all three dead men at the next turn! Pray, thou, that this unbeliever bring no judgment on our heads!"
He prayed with dignity, with the devout, wholehearted candor of a strong man on his knees confessing his own weakness in the face of the Inscrutable. Then:
"Lie-abed sots and infidels are those sons of unwashed swine below there! No fires—none to greet us! Self-respecting men—aye, even sons of emperors would have come thus far to meet us on the way!"
Gup mentioned that he had smelled smoke in the passage that led to the "Serpent's Mouth." Rahman chuckled:
"Look back and upward, Huzoor. If you and I had such a hiding- place as this, would we leave it unguarded? There were a hundred rifles within ten strides of where we looked into the gorge just now to see the sun rise. There were ten men watching when we turned into the Serpent's Tail. Look backward now."
On a ledge like a giant's out thrust lower lip, in silhouette against a bright blue sky Gup saw the shapes of skin-clad rifle- men, like vultures squatting in a row.
Curiosity swept over him then and awakened in him something almost like interest in living. At first he resented it, in the way that some sick men resent attention, but every wholesome natural instinct rallied to his aid and within a few moments he was actually hoping he might get safely to the bottom of that ghastly trail, in order to learn the secret of this guarded valley—or rather chasm; he could see no inlet or outlet. It appeared to be a huge hole several miles in circumference, with a floor of quartz and mica, and with walls of discolored limestone. As they drew nearer the bottom the glare grew less because of the shadow from the eastern wall and it became possible to distinguish objects, notably an irregular line of dead trees that appeared to follow a dried-up watercourse. What from the summit had looked like giant skeletons became enormous boulders lying in confusion. There was not a vestige of life anywhere in sight, except for those guards on the ledge near the summit; even the lone eagle had vanished.
However, presently, almost a thousand feet yet from the bottom, the track they were painfully following plunged into a wide dark hole and the camels seemed to know that place; they hurried, the one in front so close oh Rahman's heels that he had to use the stick to hold it back. The camel pranced, backing away from the stick, crowding the beast that Gup was riding, forcing him to the edge of the track, where a rock rolled loose under his weight. For a second he hung by the nose-rope. Gup jumped for his life, seizing the other camel's leg and swinging himself up on to the track. The camel resented that leg-hold and kicked, but the kick went wild because the nose-rope broke that same instant. Gup's camel dropped into space, a somersaulting incredible- looking nightmare of neck and legs. The sudden release of the strain sent the kicking camel reeling against the wall, where he almost fell on Rahman, who said something about kismet.
Within a minute there were vultures visible against the raw- blue sky. Rahman leaned over the edge of the precipice, staring. He spat, then glanced swiftly side-wise to see what effect the narrow escape had had on Gup, who was busily rubbing a bruised knee.
"By Allah, what is bad for camels may be good for men!" he muttered.
Gup was actually feeling better. The shock had revived his nerves and sent blood surging through his veins again. He got to his feet and mounted Rahman's camel, swinging himself up without waiting for the beast to kneel. Not even many camel-men can do that.
"Lead on," he commanded.
"Allah!" The accent was on the ascending note of the final syllable. Rahman led the way in silence, and Pepul Das, on the camel behind, began singing a high falsetto Hindu song about the birth of Krishna until Rahman turned and cursed him into silence.
Then they plunged into darkness through the hole in the face of the cliff and the camels had to be struck to prevent them from trotting off toward some cavern that they knew, where food awaited them. There was a sound of rushing water and a smell of stables. Long before Gup's eyes had grown used to the darkness Rahman was whacking the camels to make them pass a narrow cavern- mouth instead of turning in. Then firelight flickered on a rock wall where the tunnel turned toward the right. A hand appeared, holding a lantern, and a hairy face peered around the bend. "Salaam!" said a hoarse voice, and the word went cannoning along the tunnel until it vanished in the outer air.
And now there was no smell of stables but the sharp clean tang of wood-smoke and the aroma of coffee. Around the bend the tunnel opened into a great dry cave in which six fires were burning. There were several bearded Hillmen around each fire, one man cooking and the others offering advice. The camels knelt but none took any notice of them; Rahman and Pepul Das undid the girths and dragged the saddles off; then Rahman, shuffling off his slippers, kicked both creatures on the nose and sent them hurrying to find their own way to the stable. Gup felt in his pocket for a cigarette. He had none. Rahman handed him a package.
"I ask pardon for this discourtesy," he said. "I will attend to it."
He strode into the space between the fires, where he kicked away the empty cooking vessels and the coats of half a dozen men, one coat falling into a fire where it was partly burned before its owner rescued it. All eyes were on Rahman then.
"Now, by my beard!" he thundered. "I will kill the man who does not pay his Honor homage—aye, and before my words cease echoing!"
"He has no rifle. He has no sword," said some one, in the harsh, gruff, Hillman dialect.
"He needs nothing when he rides as my guest!" Rahman retorted. "Whose time has come? Who dies first?" He produced an automatic pistol.
One by one they passed before Gup McLeod and did him homage in the sly-eyed, upstanding Hillman fashion that reserves opinion but recognizes force majeure. There were tall men and strong men among them, but there was none so tall as he, nor any one who stood so straight or whose eyes were so unflinching. He acknowledged their salutes with only a slight inclination of the head.
"Speak!" muttered Rahman, for he knew that Gup's voice had the sonorous depth that Hillmen consider a sign of manhood.
"I will speak when I have anything I care to say," said Gup, and his voice went booming amid the echoes in the smoke-filled roof. "Is there no food in all these hills?"
They hurried then to serve him, spreading a rug on the floor and bringing low stools on which to set coffee, cakes and jam in imported tins—three sorts of it. He sat with his back to the wall and tried to eat his fill before falling asleep, and he noticed that Rahman, for the sake of implied compliment, ate his own breakfast apart, as if unworthy to be seated on the same rug with his guest. And Pepul Das, in turn, was fed apart from Rahman, served from stolen tableware of a much less expensive make. Then Rahman spoke again, when he had cleaned his beard and finished belching:
"Is his Honor's room not ready?"
A man who had done nothing yet but stand and stare took a lantern and led the way along a passage hewn into the rock. They came to a wooden door that had an iron bolt on the inside. He kicked it open. It led into a cave as comfortably furnished as a hotel bedroom, only that the bed was built of rough-hewn wood and rawhide thongs, with fleeces heaped on it. There were enough blankets there for a dozen men—soap, water in a big brass ewer, towels, shaving tackle taken from Gup's own camp equipment, and his own clean underwear spread on a bench, with thumb-marks on the linen in proof that Hillmen had examined and remarked on every detail.
"Your Honor's life is on my head. I will sleep outside the door," said Rahman.
"You may sleep in here," Gup answered.
The Afghan laughed. "Not if I value peace!" he remarked. "An order is an order."
Gup was too weary to care who had ordered that he should sleep alone. He bolted the door behind Rahman, cleaned himself and rolled on the bed, where he fell asleep almost instantly.
It was not written he shall blunder without help
So be he blunder manly. Though he meet
All evil; though the grim, insatiable yelp
Of hell-hounds following foretell defeat,
Nor in the dreadful darkness can he see new ways;
That very syren-voice that bade him sin
Is vibrant with the Law that law obeys.
The man's Redeemer is not yonder, but within.
GUP MCLEOD awoke without the slightest notion of what the time might be. He lay for a long time without moving and with his eyes closed, going over his impressions of the past two days and nights. It seemed to him he had been mad. He checked over every detail of his memory, absorbed by the dread that he might have acted in some way unbecoming to a gentleman—his standard of living, lower than which he refused to stoop, higher than which he knew no way of reaching, since he knew of nothing higher. It was nothing he would have cared to talk about; it was one of those conversations that a man holds with himself in solitude. He decided, that if he was not dreaming, if his memory was accurate and his brain not playing tricks he could pass his own scrutiny, which was probably more severe than that of other people. It remained to be discovered whether he was awake or dreaming—sane or insane. So he opened his eyes.
There was a candle burning in the room, or rather cave. He remembered he had gone to bed in darkness, arguing that if unknown enemies proposed to kill him he would be no safer even though ten lights should trouble his sleep. The next thing that his eyes met was a table near the bed, on which somebody had laid his revolver and the wallet containing his money, that had been locked in the steel trunk in his tent. He supposed they had burst off the hinges to rifle the trunk. He reached out and counted the money. It was all there.
"Nothing missing?" asked a voice in English.
He refused to seem startled. He looked in the wallet again for cards and odds and ends, his identification paper and two letters that he valued.
"No," he said. "Everything's there." Then he looked into the eyes of a man with a shaven skull but with a stiff black beard, who squatted against the wall on a Persian prayer-mat. "How did you get in here?" he demanded, remembering the thick door and the strong bolt on the inside.
"I am human. I came through a hole. Though I have studied all philosophies and quite a little science, I have yet to learn how to pass myself through solid barriers. Did you think me a phantom?"
"Who are you?"
"Ah-h-h! The proper answer would be, none of your damned business. But the proprieties are ill-observed in these disgraceful days. Suppose then, I lie to you. What shall I say my name is? Would Alam Khan do? Would that make you any wiser?"
Gup got out of bed and pulled his boots on. He was as naked as on the day he was born, but a man can fight if his feet are covered.
"You propose to use fists?"
"No, my feet. I propose to kick you through the hole you entered by."
"When you have a revolver? The weapon would be much more dignified and practical, because I would put my hands up if you threatened me with it, and then I could say I was forced to tell the truth. Not that anybody would believe that; I am too well known to lie in almost any circumstances—an invaluable reputation! It enables me to tell the truth without shaming the devil. Why should I shame the devil? And why should I not enjoy the thrill of being aimed at, without the danger of being shot?"
"Is this a madhouse?" Gup demanded.
"Yes, Bahadur! One of countless madhouses conducted by Allah for the discipline of men—and women. These are known as the Doab caves—Doab meaning two rivers—doubtless so called because there are no rivers—not nowadays. There never were any but streams that three women could carry off home in a jar. But I annoy you. May I beg you to be calm?"
"What do you want?" Gup demanded.
"To avoid boredom, difficulties, punishment and hunger. I am like all other men, in that respect. I also want to be amused, and to flatter myself, since none other does that for me. As to why I am here, that is another question altogether. Business and pleasure are so seldom united in lawful wedlock."
"All right, why are you here?"
"Bahadur, I bring bad news."
Gup let forth a mirthless laugh. He could imagine no news bad enough to make his state worse. He began to dress himself. "Spill it," he said, pulling off his boots again to pull on socks.
"But suppose I should lie to you?"
"What should I care? Suit yourself: lie, tell the truth or get out of here."
"And if I say nothing?"
"I will kick you out."
"Then I will tell the truth, anticipating you will not believe it, although I so seldom tell the truth that the task will be difficult. There is only one person to whom I never lie because I don't dare, and that person is not myself, either. I deceive myself whenever possible, since the truth is almost always disagreeable and we learn it in any event too soon. But would you not like to know why I am to tell you this? How shall I make you feel as wretched as I wish unless you believe what I tell you? And why should you believe what I say, unless you know why I say it? And if why I say, then also how I know. Which leads us in a circle back again to: Who am I?"
"I asked who you are."
"And I said Alam Khan, which was nearly the truth. It is one of my alibi-pseudonyms. I am known to the police—unfavorably known to them—by that name in three provinces of India. But I wrote another name upon the rolls of Jesus College, Oxford, where I took a bachelor's degree as a spur toward matrimony—anything, my dear sir, to escape the literary-leather flavor of your classics—even four wives and the scandalous title of mullah! I am known as the mullah Ghulam Jan throughout these hills, and as a hajji, having been to Mecca, but in Moscow I am known as Faiz Wali—red—red—crimson with the unshed blood of unborn millionaires! I made a speech in Moscow for which Lenin himself embraced me, and in proof of it I have his watch that I stole while his cheek was against my whiskers. I would have taken the watch-guard also, but he might have missed it too soon. I am known in Paris as Syad Mahmud, and in the United States as Hakim Khan; there, if you should consult the records, you would find that they did me the honor of booting me out of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New Orleans. To put it mildly, our opinions differed. I was what I think they call deported finally, but I preferred to pay my own first-class fare because it annoys me to be seasick among third-class passengers."
"Very well. You're a blackguard. I understand that. Now what's the news?" Gup asked him, pulling on his shirt.
"One piece of news—to you—is that I am the agent of her adorable Highness the ex-Ranee of Jullunder."
"Thought so. Go on." Gup arranged his necktie, whistling to himself. He was ready for anything now—knew storms were coming—trapped again, perhaps, but a different person from the fool who had a reputation still to lose. All lost, he had it all to win again. Let the struggle begin, and the sooner the better. He pulled his tie so tight he nearly choked himself.
"You can get to hell out of here, if you wish."
"That would be disobedience to her—lacking, that is to say, even rudiments of wisdom! You have seen her eyes? Her lips? The way her head rests on the regal neck? Her hands? And you suggest disobedience? Oh, my enemy! May Allah with the milk of charity dilute the venom of your mind! I tell the truth instead. The truth is this, Bahadur: That the Indian Government, well knowing there is discontent from Kabul all the way to Amritsar and the Dekkan and Madras—well knowing there is unrest in the Hills and that the Khyber might be rushed at almost any minute—knowing, too, that one whose familiar name is Gup McLeod has abandoned allegiance, forsaken his friends and vanished northward after whipping the skin from an officer's back—that crafty and secretive government, notorious for mystifying moves, has sent its ablest spy to track you down and gather evidence against you—possibly to shoot you in the back—who knows?"
"Who is he?" Gup demanded. "Know his name?"
"The ruthless, red-haired Tom O'Hara—he who pulled the camels' noses, as we say, in Waziristan while the war was raging—fooled them so that half an army corps of half-trained men held India, while a half-million riflemen sat scratching their heads in the mountains wondering what magic Tom O'Hara would do next. You have to hide from Tom O'Hara!"
"Tom's a friend of mine," said Gup. "I'd rather talk with Tom than any man I know."
He cursed himself for saying that. The moment after he had said it he would have given all the money in his wallet to recall the words. He was in a land now where money is to be had for the mere trouble of shooting its owner, but where secrets are the stuff that keeps men's souls inside their bodies, because dead men tell no tales but there is always a chance to coax a secret from a living one. If they had not known that he knew Tom O'Hara, he might have found Tom and talked with him secretly.
"Damn!" he exploded. Then he pulled on his coat. He was ready—perhaps more ready than he might have been if he had not let out that secret. Now he was as wide awake and nervously alert as he had ever been in No Man's Land in Flanders. Sometimes a man must pay a high price for the lessons that he learns, and there is no recovering the value given in exchange, nor anything to gain by grudging it. "What next?" he demanded.
"Ham and eggs! Pig's props embalmed and hen-fruit looking at you—so reproachful and so wistful, yet so savory and toothsome! Coffee! Can you smell it in imagination? Come."
He led the way toward a corner of the cave where blankets had been heaped the day before.
"My watch has stopped. What time is it?" Gup asked him.
"Midnight," he answered cheerfully, with a gesture of indifference to time that made his long smock sway like a woman's skirt. He stooped and dragged the blankets farther away from the hole they had covered.
"If I go first, will you promise not to jump on me?" he asked.
"Where is Rahman? I will speak to Rahman before I go anywhere," said Gup.
"Then, either you will follow him northward, or you will stay where you are for a long time. Rahman and Pepul Das have been sent on a mission to convert some sluggards from the evil of their ways. Bahadur, there is nothing more remarkable in this world than some people's objection to being hurried into the next, where heaven or hell await them. Would not hell, where we knew it was hell, be better than this uncertainty? And as for heaven—oh, the ladies in our Moslem paradise! And oh, the emerald trees with golden fruit, by fountains that sparkle with diamond water! Oh, the lazy lordly life for ever amid elegance in useless bliss! How exquisite! And yet men hesitate to kill one another in the hope of being killed! Why live when we may die so easily? Is that why you leave your revolver behind?"
Gup had also left his money on the table, reasoning not unshrewdly. Amid savagery, Moslem virtues are as prominent as their peculiar vices and the law of hospitality is Law One, never broken except by men so lost to all sense of honor and religion that they rank below animals in the scale of consideration. He was a guest, not a prisoner. The more the guest trusts his Moslem host, the more sacred his life and belongings are, but let him make a gesture to protect himself, or let him betray a moment's doubt of his host's integrity, as regards that law of hospitality, and the law may cease to function, being two-sided like all other human ideas.
"Lead on," he commanded.
"Put not your trust in money or revolvers, eh? Well, that is not such idiotic counsel as it sounds. Will you pardon me, though, if I make myself responsible? I dread the consequences to myself of some one else's lapse from dreamy altruism. You see, I am a Moslem. You are not. Ich kenne meine Pappenheimer,* as the Germans say."
[*Approx. "I know my own when I see them."]
He took the wallet and revolver, hiding them within the voluminous folds of his sash. Then he stepped into the hole and in a moment there was nothing of him visible except his shaven, shiny head. It looked like John the Baptist's on a black platter, the stiff black beard, combed splay-shape, seeming to spread outward because of the weight imposed on it.
"Pass me the candle," he said. "I forgot the candle. Or rather, I should say, perhaps, that I forgot your nerves."
Gup gave him the candle and followed him into the hole, where it was easy going for the first few moments. There were rough steps hewn in dry rock; it was neither slippery nor tortuous. But presently they reached a level platform a few feet long, at the end of which the passage turned abruptly. There, at the round of the turn, the candle fluttered and died in a gust of warm wind. The ensuing darkness was unearthly. For a while Gup saw the image of the candle flame projected, as it were by memory, from the retina of each eye. Then that ceased and the blackness became solid. He could hear the footsteps of the man who led the way, but sound was relative to nothing and was consequently as confusing as chaos itself. He could feel a wall on one side, nothing on the other; and presently, on his right, from beneath, came murmurings as if there were water flowing at the bottom of a deep well. Panic suggested itself, but Gup could manage that stuff; he had a will like molded iron whenever fear assumed physical manifestation.
"Follow the wall," said the voice in front of him. "One stride to your right and you will learn how hanged men feel before the rope tightens! Step off into nothing—then the next world! Are you curious? Or can you wait until death selects you for the ordeal? Then follow the wall on your left hand and don't stumble. No, I have no matches. Have you? Would you like me to wait while you go back and get some? I wouldn't wait, but I would like to know how you feel about it! No? Well then, follow the wall."
Imagination invented paralyzing dangers, but the will can control imagination and the reason functions logically when the will prevails. Gup argued that his guide would hardly risk his own neck. Also, he remembered seeing prisoners of war subjected to the torture of imagined danger in order to get them to tell what they knew. If that was the idea, there was a surprise in store for some one. He set his teeth, but he rather wished he had kept the revolver; he could have fired it and scared that play- actor who led the way, the flash would have shown him his bearings. However, it was too late to think of that now, and there was no obligation to lose breath or balance, he could take his time. So he set both hands against the wall and felt with each foot for solid rock before he moved forward.
That way he made reasonably good progress as long as the passage descended gradually and the wall was there to lean against. But presently the downward trend grew sharper and more uneven. Then the wall vanished; there was an irregular, sharp edge and beyond that nothing. Warm air wafted upward, strong enough to move his hair and dry the sweat on his neck and temples. Water-murmuring grew louder and he wondered why there had been no dampness on the wall he could no longer reach. He noticed a change in the feel of the rock underfoot and stooped to touch it with his fingers, squatting, using both hands for the sake of balance. He found a loose piece and thought it felt like shale but knew it was no use guessing. He tossed the piece away—not far. It seemed minutes before he heard it rattle against rock beneath him, somewhere in the bowels of the earth. Then fear did grip him for a moment; it burst on his consciousness that he could no longer hear the footsteps of his guide.
"Where are you?" he demanded, and his voice went echoing and rumbling like the mutterings of an earthquake into unseen tunnels.
"If I knew where we are I would rewrite history!" The voice came almost from between his feet; it was as startling as his own had been. "We are in some sort of mine, but I don't know what sort, nor who dug it, nor when, nor what they did with what they took out, nor why. But did you think I would leave you alone, to fall down winzes and chutes and shafts, to break your legs and arms unless you were lucky and broke your neck first? By Allah, if you thought that, you don't give me enough credit for intelligence!
I have enough brains to understand the attitude of my employer and oh, you don't know how I dislike punishment! This is the place where you hold my shoulders—one hand rather lightly on each shoulder and don't shove—don't cling—above all, don't grip my throat! On the right there is a chasm leading to the middle of the world, and on the left there is one of those vacuums nature abhors; it leads directly to the center of the universe. You notice I exaggerate with truly Oriental restraint, but that is because the path we must tread is less than two feet wide and I am almost as scared as you are. Wait a moment, let me show it to you—watch!"
He fired three shots from Gup's revolver, from a narrow ledge where he was crouching almost out of reach from where Gup stood. They were like three lightning flashes, thunder following. Fantastic crags and chasms shook, flashed, leaped into vivid being and ceased as suddenly in cataclysmic night. Din like the raging of devils at war with God screamed, shouted, thundered, volleying—re-volleying an agony of chaos.
It multiplied even its suddenness. It ceased in a silence so utterly still, in a darkness so intense, that all existence seemed to have been wiped out. Absolute negation, without form or future, for a moment seemed all that was left. But there was a sharp smell of burned gunpowder to stir one sense into function, and Gup's eyes remembered. Photographed, sharp and distinct on his brain and now developing as the shock began to lose its potency, was a glimpse of a ribboning path of quartz or malachite, like the top of a wall between two ghastly underworlds, that descended in curves until it vanished in a black hole amid crags in a measureless distance. He had to use that path. He might as well begin.
He felt with his foot, groped his way down the ledge where his guide was waiting and laid a hand on each of the man's shoulders.
"Lead on," he commanded. "And if you shoot again without giving me warning I'll strangle you and push you over!"
"Keep step," said the Moslem. "Left—right—slowly! Don't forget, the path winds and goes downward. I have to feel my way. Left—now wait—right—wait again—left...."
Eternities are also relative. A man can live through one of them in one swift dream. Imagination can invent more horrors in a second than a thousand men can perpetrate in a whole lifetime. Gup imagined bayonets and barbed-wire—hooks on the wall of the chasm to catch and rend the sinews of a falling body—eyes, whose light was night itself—hands in the dark, outreaching—hands without substance—shadowy shapes of abstract malice seeking to push him side-wise over the abyss....
"Left—now wait again—wait while I feel the way—right—follow slowly—you are pressing too hard on my shoulders, it bothers me—left.."
At last solider night and the welcoming, stuffier air of a hole in the face of a cliff, with room to stand at ease and take the strain off tautened sinews.
"All easy and simple now," the guide said, in a voice that Gup thought forced. He was glad the other man had felt the strain, too; it made him less self-critical. "Only a long rope-ladder now, and the rope is new—a good rope, stolen from the Indian army engineers. Hold my shoulders till we reach the edge, then wait for me until I call from below. If there are two on the ladder at one time it sways and shakes too badly."
A gust of warm air announced the end of a short tunnel. The guide knelt, groped, seized two steel pins driven into the rock floor, swung himself over and vanished. His voice came from below:
"When I shout, take the pins in your hands and let your body swing downward. Then grope with your feet for the rungs—there is nearly a yard from rung to rung—one hundred and twenty of them altogether."
Gup held the rope and felt it swing jerkily. Apparently it was not made fast to anything below, and it was also apparent that the face of the cliff receded so that there was nothing to touch that might have steadied the pendulum swing as the weight went lower. Thinking about climbing down that thing was worse than doing it; he lay and sweated at the prospect; he would almost have been willing to retrace his steps, except for that ghastly causeway with a precipice on either hand. Arguing that he was stronger and more capable than the man making the descent only seemed to intensify the sense of horror that made him alternately sweat and tremble until a kind of mountain sickness seized him and he lay half-paralyzed by nerves that were in rebellion against his will.
And it was worse when at last the guide called to him. He peered over. Somebody had lighted a red light and it served to make the depth look even deeper than it was—a red pin-point like a distant danger signal on a railroad track. The longer he stared at it the farther away it seemed, until at last it appeared like the tail-light of some monstrous thing descending into black eternity. It moved. The guide called him again, but the words were indistinguishable, all mixed up with echoes and misshapen from their contact with crag and hollow.
"Here goes!" he remarked to himself, wondering whether his hands had strength enough to hold his weight as he seized the steel pins and began to work himself over the edge. It seemed to him he had no physical strength remaining, only will-power, and the worst moment he ever experienced was when he lowered himself and began to grope with his feet for the topmost rung. He found it, and the first half-dozen rungs were a maniac's nightmare, until he discovered that the ladder was not swinging as it had done when the other man descended. Somebody had made the lower end fast and, though it sagged and shook and swayed, it was not so terrifying as he expected. Nevertheless, he died about three deaths before he reached the bottom and stood trying to look self-possessed.
The guide had vanished. It was not a red lantern but a white one—an ordinary export lantern with a wire bail, standing on the smooth rock floor. The red light came reflected from a crimson velvet curtain that hung by brass rings from a brass rod set into the face of the rock in a recess six paces away from the foot of the ladder. He picked up the lantern to try to see what sort of shaft he had descended but could make out nothing; the walls, of a stone he did not recognize, rose sheer from an almost perfect octagonal floor for a distance of twenty or thirty feet, after which they appeared to lean outward and were lost to sight.
He examined the curtain. It divided down the middle, revealing a door made of rare wood, unpainted and unpolished; it seemed centuries old but still perfect and had neither knocker, bell nor keyhole. After a moment's hesitation he decided to use his knuckles and beat a tattoo on it. There was no answer. He tried again, louder. Suddenly the door swung open and there stepped forth, framed by the crimson curtain, the same Pathan who had admitted him and Rahman two nights ago into the fort below the border. He was the same, but more handsomely dressed; the same, but more sure of himself, more truculent, less genial. He stood with folded arms and with a heavy tulwar at his waist, looking rather like a Viking.
"And your Honor's wishes?" he demanded.
"Get out of my way before I smash you!" Gup said simply.
The Pathan saluted. "In the name of God, bakheir braiyed!" he said. "Come safely! May your Honor's shadow touch none but friends, and may your Honor's enemies see shame!"
But evil seeks strong oxen for its yoke;
How shall it plough with weaklings? Thus the Will
That would not yield to wantonness awoke
New plausible seducing voices. In the still
First quiet of retreating night
A voice asked: shall the warrior who lives
Lie idle? Victor, lo, these others' plight!
Thy sword! He only keeps what he has won, who gives!
LIGHT after all that darkness was bewildering and moments passed before Gup's senses could interpret what he saw. There was nothing normal that his mind could fasten on; no sensation that he had any right to experience in a cavern underneath a mountain in a range of the Himalayas. A subtle, musky scent assailed his nostrils. Music, of wood-wind and stringed instruments and muted drum-beat, pulsed in his ears with a rhythm and melody more fascinating than the scent. It was cool, but without the clammy moisture of the Indian thermantidote that steals the virtue from the sunlight but reveals its dread. And there was electric light—not ill-placed, frugally issued bulbs such as even some modem Indian villages can boast, but floods of light upstreaming against a roof of rare. hand-finished rock from niches hewn into the walls. The wires were hidden, probably beneath the serpents, carved out of ebony, that coiled along the walls.
Crimson curtains again at the end of a long passage. A carpet like a beam of yellow moonlight, woven in one piece, reaching from end to end down the exact center of a hewn-rock floor, whose vague irregularities suggested ripples on a wine-dark stream. Great shields, like bosses, on the walls at measured intervals, and between those spears, of an unknown pattern, upright in groups of three. Blue-robed, with golden sari, at the end of the passage, standing between the crimson curtains, the same young woman who had met him in the passage in the fort below the border.
"Salaam," said Gup, a little startled by the vibrance of his own voice that he had intended should sound matter-of-fact and calm. He possessed in full measure the British instinct to seem indifferent to climax, and it annoyed him when his voice betrayed his dignity.
Her lips moved. She smiled and stood waiting. If she had had a thousand eyes he could not have been more uncomfortable as he strode toward her down the center of the golden carpet, wondering whether his clothes looked half-presentable and aware that civilization and pants have robbed men of the art of walking gracefully. Few strong men, possessed of a resolute stride, appreciate the value even of their awkwardness, and Gup felt as self-conscious as on the day when he walked up the aisle of a cathedral to be married to the woman who afterward betrayed his trust. That made him savagely polite, discourtesy exuding through the outer film and made ridiculous, as he was aware, by the scent, the strains of music, the artistic setting and his own complete helplessness.
"Will you kindly tell me where I am and who owns this place?" he demanded. "I have no desire to trespass into anybody's quarters. My guide has left me."
The young woman, smiling again, turned and led the way between the curtains. Following, he found himself in a square antechamber, three times higher than its width, well lighted by a group of dragons hanging from the roof, that sprayed from their mouths and eyes a golden glow on polished walls. Now the music was louder but not aggressive; it was wonderful ancient stuff, composed for instruments that had neither the speed nor range of modern devices, so that its beauty had to be expressed in simple sequence and its variety was longitudinal, not heaped into vertical, clamoring chords. It annoyed Gup. It was peaceful. He was spoiling for a fight. The lilting skirl of bagpipes might have calmed him.
An opening in each wall was concealed by crimson curtains. There was a rug on the floor from a loom long perished, woven by women whose fingers disappeared into the dust of mid-Asian history, and whither their skill went, none knows. They had woven the story of sunlight opening the pagan riot of the flowers in a wilderness in spring—a harmony of hope that knows no limits, and of faith that knows no fear, yet law-obeying, within natural dimensions. That rug increased Gup's irritation; it suggested sentimental values experience had stung him to consider worthless.
"Every flower in every field is fed with blood and bones," he muttered. "God, what a farce this life is! Beauty is an insult spat at tortured faces!"
Then a clash of brass rings on a rod as crimson curtains were withdrawn revealing women in the filmy silken stuff that imitates the colors of the mountain ranges in the waking daylight—more than a dozen women, all young, unembarrassed and without that challenge in their eyes that so many women in rebellion, and always eastern women use to disguise their own doubt of themselves. These were not so self-assured as wholly sure of something else, though of what, was not hinted. Gup, angry again since he was sure of nothing except, perhaps, that women and he had no pursuit in common, bowed and stood still. One of them stepped forward and addressed him—in English; it was too good English to have been learned in an Indian harem. She was dark- complexioned, with heavy, wavy dark hair, but slim and agile- looking; he had seen English girls as dark as her, in Devonshire; he had seen scores of them in Scotland.
"You are welcome, and we're sorry if the stairway was a little uncivilized. Won't you come in?"
He followed her, straight through the midst of a bevy of women who made him feel ridiculously huge, into a room that seemed to have been hewn out from the curving buttress of a mountain's flank. It was fan shaped. The perimeter was pierced with mullioned windows set with small panes of tinted glass, each window forming the end of a deep recess, so suggesting the ends of the ribs of the fan. Deep, cushioned seats were around the walls of each recess and beneath the windows; all the walls were hung with draperies of embroidered cloth-of-gold, and on the enormous floor the rugs were piled in such profusion that feet sank into them and movement was without sound. The music seemed to come from a balcony hewn in the wall at the short, squared base of the fan, above the curtained door. It was dark outside; all light came from electric bulbs in unseen niches in the walls.
There was only one chair—Chinese—nearly large enough to be called a throne, set on a low platform facing the door, between two window recesses, but there were cushions on the floor in heaps irregularly placed in a wide semicircle, more or less facing the throne. On the chair, in a peacock-colored turban fastened with a spray of brilliants, wearing a long embroidered, crimson coat over a golden smock and oriental trousers, with pointed golden slippers on her bare feet, sat the Ranee of Jullunder. Age had not yet touched her with its cynical contempt for enthusiasm; she had years ahead of her of youth and ascending energy before the curve would bring her to the valley of vain longings and the harvest of youth's ambition. And again Gup noticed the old Egyptian, almost goddess-like expression of her eyes and mouth. If she had worn the serpent on her forehead, with the head-dress slightly changed, she might have posed for the portrait of Hatshepsut, daughter of Amon-Ra who sat upon the throne of Horus. Her smile was royal; it betrayed no trace of triumph—only welcome, dignity and wisdom.
"So we meet again," she said. "I consider myself fortunate. And you?"
To save his life Gup could not have answered less than courteously. She was too fine—too full of grace and dignity to be treated as his anger told him she deserved. It was intolerable that she should have spread her net and drawn him into her presence like an animal intended to be tamed and put to work, but her presence was wonderful, nevertheless. She had shed the vague vulgarity of Lottie Carstairs but retained her charm; she had left behind the Ranee of Jullunder's aim at middle distances, enlarging vision without losing the touch of detail; she had burgeoned, ripened into something new—dynamic and not masculine, self-restrained and almost irresistible. The stuff that had made the London public mad for her was there without its veil of aped immodesty. Gup had to find his voice. It came gruffly, less calm than he wished:
"I am unfortunate. I have to repeat what I said at the first interview. I won't do what you wish."
She smiled. If he could read, her smile suggested nothing but approval, though there was perhaps a trace of recognition of a thing foreseen. "I keep you standing," she said. "That is not gracious. And I haven't introduced you. Ladies, this is Angus McLeod—better known as Gup McLeod and henceforth to be known as Gup Bahadur, commander-in-chief of my army!" The women murmured and Gup bowed to them, she watching him with eyes as full of laughter as blue pools are when the wind and sun unite at daybreak.
"You accept?" she asked him, misinterpreting his bow with a provoking, sub-malicious air of unexpected pleasure.
"No," Gup answered. "I have told you."
"Well, never mind. You can't deny what you don't know. You haven't seen yet—haven't heard. The way to win you is to show you your plain duty. And the way to make you pleased with me is to offer you breakfast. I suppose we must call it breakfast. Do you know what time it is?"
"No, I don't. The liar who led me down the thing you call a stairway said it was after midnight."
"Jonesey did? Then he told the truth for once. It is two hours after midnight."
"Jonesey? I don't know him. The man I mean called himself Alam Khan—and Ghulam Jan—and Syad Mahmud, among other names."
"Yes—Jonesey—David Jones is his real name. He's a Welshman, born in Cardiff. Didn't he tell you he was at Jesus College, Oxford, where the Welsh all go? Some day he will damn himself by writing a true book about the Tribes of the Himalayas, but he is invaluable as long as he lets the truth alone."
"He has my money and revolver," Gup said pointedly.
"Oh, no. You will find them on the breakfast table. Shall we go into the other room? I have only two rooms fit for a commander-in-chief to see."
The art of rising to accept a man's arm is a half-forgotten dignity, too hasteless for these eager democratic days wherein women run lest men see something first. But a new throne needs old manners, and the aim at doing one thing well implies unconscious ease in all subordinate things. Gup felt himself honored. He did not wish to be and it annoyed him, but he confessed it to himself in secret. He even wondered, as he walked beside her with his feet an inch deep in Persian rugs, what the fellows at home would say if they could see him arm-in-arm with Lottie Carstairs in a troglodytic palace hewn out of the heart of unwritten history.
The other women stayed in the great room. She and he alone passed through splendid curtains into a room where silver peacocks adorned the walls, depicted strutting in every imaginable attitude that could display the mystery of their metallic feathers. There were peacocks perched on painted trees and peacocks on the wing across the low curved ceiling.
"Who did this?" Gup asked her.
"No one knows. But Jonesey found it. Jonesey knows every foot of the ranges. It was he who blasted through the Serpent's Tail. He was looking for pitchblende. He discovered this."
"Is he the rogue that he pretends he is?"
"Of course not. Jonesey is a Druid, who hides druidism under a mask of imbecility. A reputation for madness has saved his life a hundred times. You know they won't harm madmen in a Moslem land. That is why so many mullahs behave like idiots."
There was a table, beautifully laid and laden with fruit from the low-lying Afghan valleys. The same deaf and dumb girl waited on them. They sat facing each other in the soft glow streaming from a hidden source, and for a while they said nothing at all, he waiting for her to speak and she observing him, as if wondering which corner of his obstinacy to attack. "Do you drink wine?" she asked after a while. "Not at breakfast."
"I never touch it. It robs inspiration of spontaneity, if that means anything. I mean, I hate artificial illusion. I like to think things for myself. I like to do things myself, all new, on my own foundation, without advice or assistance. But that can't always be done, particularly in a land where women are the lawful prey of anybody bold enough to seize them. Paradox is useful. The very fact that women are made to wear veils and are kept in harems makes it possible for me to leap into power. I amaze the Hillmen. I upset all their calculations. But that is a power that will swing again against me when it has reached its limit—which is not yet, but the day will come."
She paused, but Gup said nothing. He perceived the thin end of a wedge that she proposed to drive into his self-control. He preferred eating fruit to answering. She went on:
"It annoys me to have to build on old foundations—tradition and so on; so many of them are rotten—like the treatment of women here, for instance, and the Brahmin rule in India. But I learned my lesson when Jonesey showed me this place. I had had dreams of a fortress built according to my own plans; one that should grow—become a town, a city, and then send forth branches, the way Rome did, only much more swiftly. Don't smile at that; things do move swiftly nowadays. I mean to make a kingdom in these hills."
"I was smiling," said Gup, "at the thought that things also tumble swiftly. And dreams vanish like smoke."
"Yes, part of my dream went. I let it. I accepted this system of caverns left by some one else, who also seems to have built with a kingdom in view. It is too near to the border, but even that had its advantage; I was able to bring up supplies, luxuries, and make the place more habitable. It is very ancient—nobody can guess how old, but in good repair and dry. There is shale here, and oil, and the oil has been burning underground for ages. The dry heat of that, and the inrush of air has kept all moisture from the caverns. We use a Diesel system for electric lights, and I wish you had seen the fun we had getting that heavy engine over the border without arousing the suspicion of British officers. We draw our fuel from a shallow well and filter it through clean sand."
"Who installed your electric lights?"
"Jonesey, with the aid of Russians who had run from the Reds in Siberia. They came all the way over the mountains, starving, some of them wounded, with their feet in rags and without hope in the world except to find some hiding-place where they could die in comfort. They were engineers."
A grim suspicion crossed Gup's mind. "How did you keep them from talking?" he asked. "I mean, after they reached the British border."
"They never reached it." For a moment she enjoyed his horror. "Why should they?" she went on. "No, I did not have them shot. I swore them into my service. Russians are wonderful linguists and if you could tell them now from Moslem tribesmen you are cleverer than I think. They are good men, but you will find they need dreadfully hard work and insolence to keep them from being introspective, which makes them sloppy and careless. They enjoy being miserable. But they are good men and one of them commands a thousand of my riflemen."
"How many thousand have you?"
Their eyes met. She hesitated—laughed. "Is that ambition asking," she retorted, "or do you propose to catch me boasting? Or are you thinking of buying pardon from the Indian Government by telling them all you can find out about me?"
"You don't know me," he said, "or you wouldn't have troubled to ask that last question. I will never buy pardon. I have done nothing for which any man can pardon me. I would not accept pardon, as you, and undoubtedly they, would call it. I admit no guilt."
"But there were two other questions!"
"Both wrong. I was idly curious. It means nothing to me how many cutthroats you have sworn into your service, unless I should have the opportunity to fight against them. Then, the more the merrier! It never pays to defeat a mere handful of Hillmen. They need punishment in droves—a big dramatic climax. Then the lesson lasts."
"Very true. But how can you ever fight against my riflemen? You would be arrested and shot the moment you set foot on Indian soil. My dear man, listen. Do you take me for a half-wit? Do you think I hesitate to be ruthless to attain an end, or that I don't know all about a man when I have once set eyes on him? There lies your revolver on that side-table. We are alone, but do you think I fear your shooting me? I have no weapon. Yet I am going to tell you now what would make some men want to shoot me without a moment's hesitation. I admire you or I would not waste breath on you. I wouldn't want you if you weren't a man of honor. And I knew I couldn't get you without leaving you no other possible course. Your only alternative now is suicide."
"We will see," said Gup. "What have you done?" He was beginning to enjoy himself. A clean fight over a plain issue suited the state of his nerves. If she could be ruthless, so could he. But he did not know what was coming.
"I have sent down into India the proof that you visited me in the fort that night below the border."
"Well, what of it? I've a right to visit any one I please."
"They won't admit that. However, I have also sent the proof that there were emissaries there that night from the Amir of Afghanistan, who is known to be planning to invade India. You did not know that those men were with me in the fort, but they were there, and who would believe that you didn't know it? Could you prove you didn't know it? Could you prove that against Major Glint? It was to Glint I sent the evidence."
"I have learned not to look for much fair play from a woman," Gup answered. He spoke carelessly, but he felt stung. "On the other hand, I kept my promise not to reveal your plans. If I had chosen I could have gone with Glint and have saved my own good name by ruining yours—telling all I know about you."
"Do you mind if I call you Gup? It sounds so friendly. I have always thought of you as Gup. You may call me anything you please. Gup, are you so innocent as to believe that the Indian Government doesn't know my plans? Do you suppose I would have come so soon across the border, had I not known that the Indian Government was drawing in its net to catch me? If I had not had spies in every important government office, they would have trapped me long ago. They think I am in league with the Amir of Afghanistan, whereas I only mean to use that fool. I mean to let him take the blame for invading India and bear the expense and the shock of the first assault."
"I see no ground for suicide," said Gup. "You have blackened my name, but it was black already. I will find a way of cleaning it."
"But I haven't finished. One of the Amir's emissaries fell into British hands. They caught him on his way to take the train southward from Mahmud Kot; he intended to talk with the Sikhs at Amritsar, who are seething with sedition. But I did not wish that idiot to upset all my careful arrangements with the Sikhs, who are ready to support me, not the Amir. It was easy to have him arrested. It was easier still to connect you with him."
"How?" Gup wondered. He was too astonished by the boldness and the breadth of her intrigue to think much just then of his own predicament. He used that monosyllable to keep the conversation going.
"Were your tents and trunks not in charge of Pepul Das?"
"Oh, so that's why they burst my box open?"
"No need to burst it. Your servant, knowing you did not intend to keep him much longer, had had a false key made. He was only waiting his opportunity to loot your boxes and escape. So Pepul Das took the key from him, opened your box and found your wallet, that was since returned to you. There were English ten-pound notes in it. Your name was written on them. Ten-pound notes without your name were substituted. Those that bore your name were handed secretly to the Amir's man as a token of support in time of trouble. When he came to be searched, of course those notes, bearing your name in your own handwriting, were on his person. Now prove you are innocent! Now save yourself from being shot, blindfolded, with your face to a wall! Can you imagine Glint not adding enough of his usual sort of evidence to convict you of treason?"
"No," said Gup. "I think you have me there."
"You admit that? You admit defeat?" She leaned forward and laughed excitedly; her eyes alight with triumph. "It was a long game, first studying you, then watching for opportunity, then arousing Glint's suspicion of you so that Glint would make you indignant and force you to some act of violence that would drive you into my camp. Don't you think I'm patient? Don't you think I'm a rather good psychologist?"
"No," said Gup. He liked this sort of fight far better than he enjoyed the thought of whipping all the Glints in Christendom. There was nothing tawdry about this; his antagonist was not a hypocrite, nor was he accused of sedition but of too stiff loyalty, a charge that might have deadly danger wrapped in it but that did not make him feel dirty. "No," he said, "your psychology is as weak as your spirit is strong and your plans are daring. Your argument, too, is as weak as any other criminal's."
"You call me a criminal? Was Napoleon a criminal?"
"I believe he began by being magnificent, sacrificing life and genius in the cause of an adopted country, just as you did. I believe he became a criminal when he let his ambition run away with him, just as yours has. You are offering to plunge three hundred and fifty million people into all the misery and damned cruelty of war, solely because a bewildered and perhaps badly advised government refused to recognize you as a Ranee."
"That is false!" she said angrily. "If they had put a man in my place, who would have carried on what I was doing, I would have retired with good grace. They put a rotten scoundrel on the throne instead, who undid all that Jullunder and I had worked so hard to build up. He neglects the state, and he would pawn its revenues to-morrow, if he dared, for money to spend on vice in Europe. So I decided I will win a new throne, from which to begin with a clean beginning."
"At the cost of the lives of possibly a quarter of a million men!"
"Or more! What of it? Would they not die anyhow, sooner or later? Which is better for them? To die nobly in a great cause? Or to die like rats, of plague and cholera. God kills us all in due time—don't forget that."
"In due time, yes—and let God answer for it! You are offering to run God's business, aren't you? You are willing—more than that, you are determined to shoulder responsibility for the life or death of millions. Good psychology? Rank bad!"
"Are you afraid?" she asked.
"Do I appear afraid? The answer to your proposal is no, flat, downright, without qualification, and for ever! Now what?"
"Do you realize that you are in my power?"
"Perfectly. I have failed in a fight for independence. I am not even cock of my own dunghill."
"I can make you the Cock o' the North!" she retorted. "Lead my army! I will make you chief—king—emperor, if you like, of all these Hills! Cock o' the North, Gup! Have you any notion of the extent of my wealth and of the rings within rings of influence that I have built up?"
"I'm not interested. I simply don't care."
"Can you imagine how important it is for me, and how determined I am to obtain the services of a man of valor, whom I can admire and trust—a man of merit, who can't be blackmailed, bought or stolen?"
"If you are to succeed, that seems essential."
"You seem to me to be that man."
"Why, then, try to blackmail me?" Gup asked her—and she caught her breath, as she might have if a rapier point had pricked her near the heart.
"I offer you," she said, "a quarter of a million pounds, the office of commander-in-chief of an army of a hundred thousand men—and the title of prince."
"I am not even tempted."
"I am! I am tempted to use means that would bend that stiff spirit of yours or break it."
"Bent or broken it would not be worth much," Gup retorted.
She leaned back in her chair and looked at him across the daintily laid table, where the coffee was cold in the cups and the food was barely tasted.
"Take a cigarette and think it over. You might do what Akbar did. He conquered India and made it prosper. Help me to build a kingdom in these hills!"
"All that Akbar did has perished," he answered. "There remains his name and nothing more."
"A man of your spirit must do something," she said. "What do you want to do?"
"Nothing," said Gup. He grew suddenly downcast. All the disgust with life that he had felt in recent months returned to him in one almost overwhelming wave. "I only know I loathe what I see around me and I don't know how to change it."
The deaf-and-dumb girl opened the door between the two rooms for a moment. Music, with a muted drum-beat, stole on Gup's ears—strangely stirring stuff. It ceased as the door closed.
"I remember," he said, "the old commandments—thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill."
"There is a new one," she answered. "Thou shalt not neglect thy opportunities!"
"Not bad, but you can't make it work if you forget the others. And after all, I am the sole judge of my opportunities. I have declined your offer. What next?"
"I will give you one whole day and night in which to reconsider."
"The answer will be no. And then what?"
"If you are still so unwise, I will send you back below the border, where you may face Glint. And—I will hold you to your word of honor not to save yourself by betraying me!"
But Truth needs neither drum nor bugle blast.
Within all treason, and all untruth, and all doubt,
Truth is, and lies proclaim it. Neither first nor last
But always, Truth is. Silence or the shout
Of myriads of voices—thought or deed or thing—
Corruption and all change—these make no mark
On Truth; they are no part of it. Above,
Beneath, without, within, not light nor dark
But absolute, Truth is. And Truth is Love.
THE door between the two rooms opened again, admitting music. It had ceased to be slumberous, circular stuff that left off where it started as if life were only lazy variations of an old theme. It had changed to a spiraling, challenging lilt that asserted there are unknown principles and new realms waiting for imagination to explore them. But it hardly needed that to arouse Gup's inward fire. The battle with himself for self-determination might have made him numb, but that was only on the surface. Under that, compressed and consequently ten times strengthened, was the spirit of Scottish Covenanters, never less than eager to accept a challenge, and to which apparent defeat is a spur to superhuman pertinacity and courage. A nation weaned on uncooked oatmeal, lest the smoke of cooking should betray its hiding-places to a foe made cruel by expensive and unprofitable victory, grows rich with hidden assets. Gup's spirit leaped forth out of ambush, not alone; there came with it what always does accompany the stuff that makes men fight. The Clan of Gup McLeod—the unseen products of heredity, climate, history and culture—more deadly in his case because drilled and disciplined, swaggered out from cover with their sporrans swinging and the skirl of bagpipes in their ears.
"So you will send me below the border?" Gup got up and strode to the side-table where he pocketed his money and revolver, remembering now that there were only three remaining cartridges. He returned and sat down. "You are a fine woman—a bonny woman," he continued. "You are twice the woman you were when you were Lottie Carstairs, singing across the footlights to make life- hungry youngsters like me, and others, lose our dignity. Many a lad's head you turned; many and many a lad left the theater and went looking for a lass like you. Not by hundreds am I the only one who saw the next woman he met, through a memory of Lottie Carstairs—heard her laugh, through the ripple of Lottie Carstairs' chuckle—felt her dancing with him as he thought that Lottie Carstairs' lissomness might feel—and went and married the wrong lass, for your sake! Nor is that all. Many a feckless chiel has gone to worse hell than a wedding for the sake of your bonny blue eyes."
"And you blame me for that?" she retorted.
"I blame myself, who should have known that new commandment that you named just now. 'Thou shalt not neglect thy opportunity.' I should have known that. But a man seems born with blinkers on his eyes."
The ancient Egyptian hint of spiritual longing, that came and went but was never entirely absent from her face, grew now so strong that Gup's eyes narrowed as he watched her. It made his blood leap. It made her ageless—younger by years—older by all eternities in grace and value. She was several years younger than himself; at moments she was almost a child to his eyes, healthy, spiritual, only waiting to be caught and guided into golden womanhood.
"I should have known," he said, "what I know now. I should have known that the way to power is through song and smiles, not railing and abuses. I should have learned from you the trick of winning people's hearts—and so their confidence—and so their votes. I might have changed the world."
The Lottie Carstairs chuckle that had once made London hearts feel gay in the London fog answered him.
"It is nice of you not to speak of Jezebel and the whore o' Babylon," she said. "Most Scotsmen do when they reprove a woman."
But her banter increased his vibrance. She could see the veins and sinews of his strong hands that gripped the table-edge, and her own blue eyes betrayed some other thought than ridicule. Nor was it fear.
"But I will do my duty now," he said.
Gaily she laughed then—pealing, happy laughter that enjoyed a joke without the scorn that tarnishes good humor. "With a thoroughly Scottish sense of duty, I don't doubt! You propose to sacrifice yourself for the sake of reforming me? You dour, delightful comedian!"
"Not so," said Gup. "The pity is, I did not fall in love with you in days gone by. If I had, it would have needed more than stage-doors and a contract to keep me from snatching you out from behind the footlights. That might have saved the two of us from many a mistake."
"But don't you know," she said, "that by mistakes we learn? We almost never learn anyway else."
"There is no need to make so many," Gup retorted. "You are making one that I intend to interfere with. If I thought you were a wanton, I would leave you to your own devices. I would let you go your own gait to the ruin that o'ertakes all wantonness."
"Akbar," she said, "Alexander—Caesar—Cortes—Clive—were they ruined?"
"Spiritual ruin," he insisted. "Though you conquered India, I would not give twopence for your throne. But I will give my life to save India—and to save you for something better."
"For what?" she asked mischievously. "Preaching? Would you like to see me in a doctor's gown, plowing a sea of prejudices with rust-eaten phrases? I have money enough. I could build a cathedral. You might grow a beard and I could make you bishop. But we would have to bleach the beard gray or all the women of the diocese would make me so jealous I couldn't breathe!" Suddenly her eyes blazed, taking up the challenge of the fire in his. "Nonsense!" she said indignantly. "Do you think I am such a weakling as to yield my goal simply because a handsome gallant tells me I should?"
The word gallant stung Gup's pride. In all his life he had never offered a woman less than the benefit of whatever doubt might say of her, and he knew this woman had been no man's light o' love. He hated insincerity. It scalded him to be accused of it.
"If you were worthless," he said, "I would not talk to you. If your goal were worthy of you I would win it; I would give it to you, if I died reaching it. Handsome?" he said. "Handsome is that handsome does, and when I say to you that you shall yield that goal and seek another, I mean no less. I will make you do it."
"How?" she asked, forcing a smile of amusement. She was still indignant.
"I will make you either kill me or else recognize the goodness that is in your own heart! I know what your genius is."
"All-wise!" she retorted. "What alchemy enables you to guess? If you had asked, I could not have answered. Is incredulity a sin? I am only a woman, unable to read my own heart. How should you read it, who are after all only a man, unable to govern your own?"
"Only a man," said Gup. "That isn't a bad title. I accept it."
"I offered you 'Cock o' the North,'" she retorted. "It suits you better. You resemble Bruce or Wallace more than John Knox."
There was a curtain in the corner of the room behind Gup's back, to his right, a thing like the walls, of silver peacocks. It was through that that the deaf-and-dumb maid carried plates and dishes. Her eyes glanced toward it and Gup noticed that she shook her head, but he thought she was shaking her head at his scorn of titles.
"You had greater title to men's homage when you sang for them," he said, "and made them merry for a passing minute, than all the thrones in the world could ever give you. When I said that you sent men astray, I meant this: that I myself married the wrong woman solely because I saw, heard, chuckled with you and craved more of it. Scores of other fellows did the same. You were a decoy for the less lovely of your sex—a peacock (should I say a pea-hen?) acting as advertisement for sparrows! Your fault? Not a bit of it. Who has a right to blame you because men were fools? You dazzled 'em. And by gad, if we hadn't all been dazzled, we had been dumb images! You are twice the woman now that you were then. You were wonderful then. You are lovable now."
"And you're dazzled?" She laughed again, honestly—a rippling laugh, all pleasure, and as fearless of danger or its consequences as the light in her eyes was brave and lonely. Even if she did not know she was lonely, Gup knew. He had plumbed the depths of that stuff.
"No!" he retorted. "I am not the fool I once was. I have paid in agony of mind and body for the right to say that, so I can say it without immodesty. But all Asia is full of fools, and you know it. In those days you were innocent and fools were dazzled at their own risk, because you had no designs on 'em. They paid the piper and you sang. But to-day you're proposing to dazzle the fools and send 'em roaring down to death, for the sake of the peacock throne you see beyond a crimson battle-field or two. I am here to prevent that!"
"You are rather a breath-taking person," she said, watching the set of his shoulders and the angle of head and neck, that is earned, not bought by any one.
"I will take more than your breath," he said calmly. "I will take your dream of an empire from you."
"Does it occur to you that you are rather swift in your decisions—a trifle bold?" she asked.
"Did you ask me to command your army because you suspected me of being slow and timid?" he retorted.
She laughed again. "You tempt me. You do, indeed. I might perhaps forego a kingdom even for a republic—if you would command my army."
"Tempt you? I tempt nobody. Temptation is the stuff which butchers deluded fools for the sake of titles and a rent- roll."
She glanced at the curtain again and shook her head. "Brave words, Gup. By the way, why did they name you Gup?"
"I had a dog by that name. He ran with the regiment. He died fighting an animal twice his size. The nickname stuck to me—no reason."
"No," she said, raising a napkin to her lips, "there appears to have been no reason for it. Do you recall, about an hour ago, admitting you are at my mercy?"
"Mercy was not mentioned."
"In my power then. Incorrigible Scotsman! Must I prove my power?" There was a threat on her lips but he interrupted it:
"Yes. I haven't heard you sing since the London days, when you sang and danced and made men's hearts leap. That was power. All this other stuff is tawdry. Come where the music is and sing to me. Do you remember the song that made even old ladies rise at daybreak—until for pity's sake you sang 'em another one about 'taking it easy—easy, easy—what's the use of rush?' How did the other one go? He hummed it:
"Up in the morning early, girly, dawn is on the dune, Come and avoid the hurly-burly, twitter the birds a tune!
Trip the light fantastic, so elastic in the dew, Twiddle your toesies where the roses blush to see the view!"
"Yes," she said, "silly stuff, wasn't it? But it used to stop the show. I've heard a Kroo-boy singing that song as he came up from the bunkers of a P. & O. and once I heard it sung by a Baluchi camel-trader on his way down the pass from Tashkent. They tell me the poor fellows sang it in the front-line trenches when they stood up to the knees in freezing water."
"They did," said Gup. "I sang it with 'em. Go and change those clothes—put on something civilized—then let's go into that big room and you sing it again for auld lang syne."
"I never sing nowadays," she answered. "I haven't sung since poor Jullunder's heart broke and he went to see what honesty and high ideals buy you in the next world."
"That," said Gup, "is what's the matter with you! Sing again and you'll have better dreams than war and a throne raised on a heap of skulls. Come along. Come and sing to me."
"Listen!" she said. "You're a warrior yourself, with bishop's boots on, and they don't fit! You talk to me of honesty. Is there no splendor in it? No conquest of danger? No glorious aim at the impossible? No hitting it and pinning it to earth? No triumph? No imagination? No daring? No recklessness? Is honesty a mawky mess of platitudes on tinsel paper in a penny frame?"
"It's gra-a-an' stuff," said Gup, "but I can't define it."
"And you talk of skulls, as if the world weren't strewn so thick with them that you can't step unless on dead men's bones! There isn't a government on earth that wasn't born in the agony of war, just as you were born in your mother's travail! War would do Asia good. It would make men out of mad philosophers. They have degenerated, because they are not allowed to go to war with one another."
"Piffle!" Gup retorted. "Come and sing."
His aim was as true as his eyes. He had seen her weakest point and shot his dart straight into it.
"Piffle?" she said indignantly, and now there was no trace of humor in her eyes. "I appear to you ridiculous?"
He glanced around at silver peacocks on the walls. "They're gra-a-an' birds—at what they're good for. None better."
"You consider me—"
"—a vain creature without—"
"Peacocks can't sing. Come and sing to me."
"So you refuse to take me seriously?"
"I am deadly serious. What decent fellow isn't when he sees a lovely woman shooting dice with the devil? You have made life worth living! I was like a dead man when I entered here. I couldn't see the use of living. But from now on, watch me!"
"Watch you? I wonder whether you suspect how minutely you have been watched?" She was showing him her worst now, and Gup knew it. He was no such fool as to suppose she was without flaw, and he was glad to see her weakness. He knew, too, she was not yet conquered. Not for nothing had he fought himself and schooled rebellious horses; he knew at least a little of the art of conquest. Besides, he knew he had a mean streak of his own, so he demanded perfection of no one else.
"Why," she asked him, "did you get up and get your revolver just now?"
He laughed—two monosyllables. "That's not an easy one to answer. I suppose that's when I crossed my Rubicon. That and the money are all I have at the moment. When a man decides that he sees a life's job looking him in the face, there's an instinct that goes with it—an instinct to gather in all resources, no matter how small they are nor what they are. Something is better than nothing."
"You didn't propose to yourself to threaten me with it?"
"If I had proposed that to myself, I would have done it."
"Let me show you then what would have happened."
She stood up, so of course he did, his face grave and courteous but his eyes alight with humor that had not looked out from them since two-thirds of his regiment was wiped out at the Marne. He watched her walk toward the silver peacock curtain. Facing him, finely dramatic, her eyes sulky now with assumed indifference, she snatched the curtain open with a clashing of brass rings on an iron rod. Jonesey—the mullah bachelor of arts, the Moslem Welshman—stood there with his black beard on his chest and in his hand a British army service automatic. Behind him, with their backs against the passage wall, stood two slow- breathing Orakzai Pathans; they were armed with tulwars. Jonesey stepped into the room, the others after him.
"That," she said, "is what would have happened. At a sign from me—"
Gup interrupted her, but not with words. He took the Welshman by the neck and flung him back into the passage. Before the two Hillmen could draw their tulwars he crashed their heads together, pulled them suddenly toward him and then hurled them, too, staggering on their heels into the passage, where they fell on Jonesey.
"Why not order them to use their weapons?" he asked calmly. "They are three to one."
"And you," she said, "you refuse to fight? You won't lead my army?"
"Come and sing," he answered. "That is something that you understand."
She bit her lip. Her breath came in excited gasps. His eyes were quiet. Hers blazed.
"Yes," she said, "go into the next room. I will join you. I will sing you something that I wrote and set to music. That will make you understand me better than any mere argument could. And after that—you shall have your twenty-four hours in which to answer me. If yes, good; then in turn I will answer you. If no, I shall be sorry, but so will you be."
Thus, since in utmost Chaos there is no
Void vacant of those Great Twin Brethren,
But Truth and Love are destiny and ebb and flow,
Cause and effect, man and the life of men,
Infinity in one, both Seeker and the Sought—
One way remains—one dim veil to remove—
One priceless price at which true victory is bought—
One coin, one measure and one payment—love!
GUP strode into the great room, where there was yet no sign of morning through the tinted window-panes. Music was still coming from the balcony, but it was tired stuff without inspiration; the unseen musicians appeared to be merely killing time. Gup counted heads; there were eleven women in the room, of whom three were yawning and one was asleep; she awoke with a start. The dark- complexioned girl, who had met him in the door when he first entered, arose from a heap of cushions and came toward him, extending her right hand.
"I am Harriet Dover to you," she said, smiling. "I have an Indian name, too, but never mind that. I may not have even a head a month from now. Let's not be formal."
"Formality is good for people who think they know just what's going to happen, isn't it?" said Gup.
The others clustered and she introduced them—three with English names—a Russian—a fair-haired Swede or Norwegian; the rest were high-caste Indian women. One had the Brahmin caste mark on her forehead. They were all in Indian costume.
"Take the throne," said Harriet Dover. "We will sprawl around and worship."
"I might look like a comic opera king but I don't sing well enough," Gup answered.
"Better take it. Men of your build don't look dignified on scented cushions. If it should happen that we're admiring the wrong man we'll all be pretty little corpses in a row so soon that nothing will matter anyhow—not even ridicule."
They all smiled at that. They looked brave enough for anything and rather proud of being in rare danger.
"You have been told, haven't you, exactly what to say to me?" Gup suggested. "Say the rest of it. I'll listen. Thanks, no, I'll stand up." He was already wondering whether he had not let himself move too swiftly in the other room; shock tactics are good, but he knew there is a proper time and place for them, as well as an inopportune moment and a wrong place. Inevitably, by a law as unavoidable as that of gravity, all captains of suddenness suffer reaction and wonder whether slow caution would not have been wiser after all. Slow men, in the same way, suffer pangs of self-doubt, wishing they were swift. Only fools and fanatics have no doubts, it being out of the blinding dust of doubt that the artillery-wheels of destiny come rolling. Blucher arrived in a cloud of dust at Waterloo.
Harriet Dover met Gup's eyes and smiled in the Celtic way that is called inscrutable. Whatever that smile was intended to do, it made Gup suspicious of her. He sensed treachery, and he thought her eyes looked tired from too much thinking. "We are loyal," she answered. "We are all in the same predicament. Why shouldn't we use the same arguments?"
"The predicament is?"
"We are women!"
"And the argument?"
"We need a man though we hate to admit it. We can do any man's job—except make women believe in us! We thought we could stir Moslem women, so that they, in turn, would stir their men. What happens is, we stir the men and make the women sullenly suspicious. We don't need you to devise our strategy; three of us in this room know the theory of war at least as well as Sandhurst, or West Point, or the École Militaire can teach it. We don't even need you to lead men into battle; a Joan of Arc can outlead a Julius Caesar. But we need a spectacular man, to make women rally. We need a Rustum—an Iskander."
Gup knew the Himalayan superstition that the great Alexander of Macedon shall return to the world and lead the Hillmen to a holy war. He knew the theory that nothing is more sweet in Allah's nostrils than the smoke of idolatrous cities—nothing more holy than Hillmen enriched by the plunder of India's plains. He smiled as a man might who hears an old song repeated.
"If you will stand like that, and smile like that, and let the Moslem women see you, India is ours," said Harriet Dover.
"I don't want India," he answered. "Do you?"
"Not an India recivilized? Not an end of injustice and superstition? Abolition of caste! The release of four hundred million people—perhaps the release of all Asia from bondage to outworn ideas!"
He smiled again. "Sweetness," he suggested, "out of savagery? Sweet water from a bitter spring?"
"Nonsense!" she retorted. "That is one of the old moth-eaten phrases that we intend to teach men to forget! Nobody in his senses imagines that more than a fraction of Asia is ready for self-rule. We will take those who are ready and make them rulers of the others, teaching the others gradually."
"Let's see," he said. "Aren't they trying something of the sort in Russia? Why not watch the Russian experiment before trying it out on such a grand scale?"
"Ours won't resemble the Soviet system. Ours will be absolute monarchy, benevolent in aim and motive and observing rigid principles of right and wrong."
"If I knew right from wrong," said Gup, "I might agree with you—or I might not—I don't know." Harriet Dover's brown eyes darkened, and the line of her lips grew straighter. It began to be obvious who was the Ranee's chief adviser.
"What would your solution be?" she asked him.
"I haven't one," said Gup.
"You won't command her army?"
Something warned Gup not to answer. No man knows what intuition is. It sealed his lips. There began to come glimmer of morning through the tinted window-panes.
Then the voice of Lottie Carstairs—strangely different from that of the ex-Ranee of Jullunder, though she was the selfsame woman; the voice was younger and had more mirth in it, although it vibrated with a thrill that might mean nervousness. He turned to watch her enter through the door between the rooms, but her back was toward him; she was speaking between the curtains; some one in the other room was talking rapidly in a language that Gup hardly understood. The startling thing was, that she was dressed as Lottie Carstairs now—not in a stage costume but in something fresh from Paris and a Paris hat. Gup wondered why she had ever been willing to hide such legs within the shapeless folds of Moslem trousers.
When she turned she was smiling. She was a vision in cream and pale blue, as radiant with life as he had ever seen her. He could almost have held out his arms to her, but the other women in the room made him self-conscious.
"You look marvelous," he said. "But the dress isn't enough. Sing! Bring back the old days and the old ideals."
But her bright face clouded. Harriet Dover and the other women were silent, glancing at one another. Harriet seemed to gather the others' discontent into her own dark eyes; she broke the silence:
"What would happen to us all if you were seen in that kit?"
Lottie Carstairs vanished. The ex-Ranee of Jullunder stood there in the same dress and the same high-heeled shoes. They were the same eyes, too, but they blazed indignantly, where less than a second ago fun had looked forth.
"Stop that music!" she commanded. "It will drive me crazy! Send the musicians away! You may all go too," she added, controlling herself with an effort. "Go to bed—go anywhere!"
"If you are seen in that dress, it will be all over the hills, within a day or two, that you are only an impostor pretending to cherish their ideals. Here, use this," said Harriet Dover. She took a sari of cloth-of-gold from the throne-chair and offered to drape it over the offending dress.
"You may go! Did you hear me?" Lottie Carstairs snatched at the sari. It fell to the floor. She put her foot on it.
Harriet Dover led the retreat, which was sullen and not graceful; but they turned and curtsied one by one as they filed out through the door by which Gup had entered when he first came. It looked like a climax of long-hidden irritation. There was an unseen struggle going on.
"And now sing," said Gup, "before you murder some one."
For a second he expected her to do one thing or the other. Her lips moved and the Lottie Carstairs radiance almost trembled into being. She almost yielded to him, or so he thought. But the sound of a gong came through the curtains and she shook that mood off.
"To hear them—and you—talk, one would think I was incapable of thinking! One would think it was not I but a committee that had this vision and made it come true."
"You promised to sing. You are dressed for it."
"Did I? Am I? The mood has passed. I will sing when you give me your promise. Why sooner? Shall I sing about their fears and your Scots religion? I feel more like killing some one! When I have won you—"
"You won me years ago," said Gup. "You can't unwin me! I address myself to Lottie Carstairs."
"I prefer my victories to look less like a rout," she retorted. "However, I will win! Do you mind picking up that sari? I dislike asking you but I'm supposed to be a queen; I mayn't wait on myself. But those idiots were right, I must wear it; this dress won't do—not yet, but I will change all that. Now I suppose I must send for them again, and I suppose I must apologize. Do you ever feel like crying? No, of course you don't, you enormous mass of Calvinistic egoism! Oh, I hate you! Daylight—and a dozen chiefs have come—the brutes expect to be received at this hour! Does it penetrate through your obstinacy, what a difference it might make if I could introduce them to my new general?"
"You may say I am your new counselor," Gup suggested, smiling down at her. He knew she was as lonely as himself. He felt an impulse to take her in his arms, but in spite of his recent boldness he was almost childishly shy with women. She might have misinterpreted his motive. He did not in the least mind smashing her house of cards, but her self-respect was as important to him as his own. Besides, he did not suppose that kind of woman was to be won or weakened by any assault on her personal dignity.
"I will tell them that, if you will consent to command my army," she retorted. "Oh, I hate you and I admire and pity you! What a man you are, and what a pawky little penny-wise Scots conscience! Those twelve chieftains out there, who are eating bread and honey in my back hallway and glad to get it, have more real resolution in their little fingers than you have in your whole strong body! They have more to lose than you have—they are chieftains, each with a little army of his own. They have the courage to come and discuss war. They would follow a man like you to the ends of the earth after one swift look at you—and you? You stand there afraid to lead them! Yes, you are afraid! You are afraid of the old nurse's schooling that you call conscience! You forget that John Knox was a fighter—and Robert Bruce—and Wallace. So was every one of your national heroes."
"You look splendid," he said, "when your eyes blaze, but I like you better when you smile."
"I will never smile at you again unless you yield! I loved you when you threw three men out of the room. I hate you—I despise you when you are afraid and when you preach! Go—leave me to do a man's work! Jonesey shall show you the way. You may go where you like—yes, to the devil, or below the border, where Glint will—"
It was possibly Gup's face that made her pause. He had moods when he was like an enormous boy, expressing every passing emotion where whoever cared might read it.
"I will not go below the border," he said calmly. "I will stay here and do what I can to save you from the consequences of your own mistake."
"Why not say sin? The word was on your lips, you preacher! I tell you, you shall not stay here except on one condition. You know the condition. I promised you twenty-four hours. If you yield, you shall never have to yield to me again. If you yield, I will put such a sword in your hand as no man ever had before. If you refuse—well—you will be another of my cherished illusions gone up in smoke, that's all. I will turn my back on you for ever and try to forget you, and when I can't help remembering you, I will think of you as the coward. There, I have said it. Do you like the word?"
"Not much," said Gup. It brought the blood to his temples, but he made no retort.
"Then go, and leave me to talk to men of courage! You will find Jonesey outside that door. He is to guide you anywhere you please and he is to answer all your questions."
Gup bowed to her. He felt he was missing an opportunity, yet he was so old-fashioned in his prejudices that he saw no way to improve the situation. She was his hostess, never mind how she had inveigled him to be her guest. And he loved her. There was no logic in that. It made him feel tragic, not happy. He had no right to love her, he who had foresworn all women. Certainly it conferred no right on him to say more than he had done; in fact, he had even stretched a point. If love was what the poets say it is, then was he not, by loving her, condoning everything she stood for? But can a man prevent himself from loving? Or was it untrue? Was he only feeling an emotion due to too much mental torture and then sudden relief from it? He would find that out. So he strode to the door with a smile on his lips that gave the lie to bewilderment. He was too well mannered to appear indifferent, too proud to turn again and plead. He did not glance over his shoulder. He pushed the door open and almost stumbled over Jonesey, squatting like a Hillman on the mat outside. The Orakzai Pathans, whose heads he had recently cracked together, stood with their backs to the far wall. They grinned at him! His method suited their notions perfectly; so would they, too, have treated eavesdroppers, only that they might have used steel in place of bare hands. They admired his prowess.
Nor was Jonesey resentful. He got up and began leading the way through another door and along rock-hewn corridors that echoed to the tread of the Pathans who followed at a decent distance, tramping like boot-shod infantry.
"Ex-Indian army soldiers," said Jonesey. "All such savages are proud of being drilled, although it bores them to learn. Thank you for not kicking me. Any man may get punched or chucked out, if Allah wishes. But there is nothing either in the Bible or the Koran about being meek when you're kicked. What a colossally strong man you are."
"You seem to me to be a ridiculous person," Gup answered, prejudice no longer urging him to be polite.
"I am indeed. It is my business," said Jonesey. "I am the hardest-worked court jester that the world has ever seen. I even keep the charts with all the pins in them that show where our food for powder frets in unmapped villages. Care to see them? I will show you charts that the Indian Government would pay for by the inch. They would cover each inch with sovereigns as high as you could pile 'em without spilling—and cheap at the price! Come and look."
He led into a low rock room where tables stood, and on the tables there were British-Indian survey maps, corrected in various-colored inks and with colored pins stuck all over them.
"Even aeroplanes, you know, can't get that information," said Jonesey. "See—there are all the footpaths, mule-tracks, caverns, villages—water, stores of provender, numbers of rifles and ammunition—names of headmen—names of mullahs—time required for messages to go by runner—numbers of camels and mules available—census of men, women and children—and—most important of all—temperament, affiliations and politics of every headman, village, district, tribe and group of tribes. Me—I—mullah Ghulam Jan—opprobriously known as Jonesey, did it."
It was hard to believe him. He looked like a monk, with his stiff black beard and his shaven head, the long brown smock and sandals, and the staff on which he leaned, a monk who might have been a poet or a maker of stained-glass windows. If he had stepped down out of a picture of the Middle Ages he would have been more credible.
"Why did you do it?" Gup asked him. "If you'd wanted money, the Indian Government would have paid you. You're not the sort of man who seeks power—"
"Passion!" Jonesey interrupted. "The selfsame reason why I played the organ in chapel at home when I was ten years old, with whooping-cough and chilblains. Passion! They used to have to stop the service while I whooped with my head in a bag behind the organ. Even so our Ranee of Song and Dance has had to hold up her campaign for a less spiritual empire while I plodded over mountain ranges and made notes with pin-pricks under the Arabic letters of the Koran I carried. It was the only safe way; they would have skinned me if they had seen me writing anything. I detest being skinned. I have skinned myself on nearly every crag of the Himalayas. Necessity knows no law. Hillmen have no sense of a stranger's privacy. So I invented a kind of pin-prick shorthand—spoiled a Koran—bad luck, so they tell me; but I never did have luck, so what's the difference?"
He invited Gup to see the radio. "We can send and receive, but we don't dare send. The Indian Government might listen in. However, we pick up a lot of their messages, and we have a Russian who is good at decoding. Let me show you our plant; the antenna is as artfully hidden as my virtue."
Gup did not crave an exhibition of the Welshman's showmanship. He was not a customer for a throne. He would have liked a horse—the big black stallion again for choice—on which to ride away to some place where he could think uninterrupted.
"To the devil with your radio," he objected. "Introduce me to some solitude."
Jonesey looked swiftly sidewise at him. "Come and see our gas- plant. We've a Russian who makes poison-gas from stuff we dig from the old mine workings. He is an artist—loves it—he is well worth studying. And it's wonderful poison. One sniff, and you have all the solitude you wish, in the realm from which no traveler returns. You wouldn't wish to return.—not into the same body; bodies that have sniffed it don't look pleasant. A sort of cyanide, I think he said, but I don't know chemistry. We couldn't use it unless the wind were just right; the second-hand gas-masks that some munitions dealer sold to our Ranee's agent let it through like water through a sieve. It cost us nearly ninety men to make that discovery, but it did good in the long run; there is now a wholesome superstition that it might not pay to trespass into these caverns. Sometimes it's not easy to get even the right people to call on us. However—"
He became aware by no particularly subtle process that Gup was becoming angry. The staff was snatched out of his hand; one end of it poked him rather shrewdly near the liver.
"I said solitude!"
"This way, sir. Pray accept my apology. I had catalogued you in my mind as a suitable king. I retract. You will make a perfect emperor—a Caesar. After you are dead, if it is not lèse- majesty to speak of death with reference to you, they will deify you. It was a violent temper, you know, that made Charlemagne, Nero and Henry the Eighth so successful. This way, please. I could kill you very easily, but I don't want to become a fugitive from injustice."
He led in and out of ancient passages that were sometimes squared and finished, with padlocked doors to right and left, and sometimes rough with the original pick-marks. They were shored in places, but not with timber; whoever the previous owner had been, he was a man who commanded plenty of skilful masons; wherever the roof of a tunnel was weak it had been supported by a beautifully built stone arch. Some one else had fitted doors into the arches, but all those doors were open at the moment, to let the fresh air flow.
"We could barrack a hundred thousand men unseen," said Jonesey, "but we couldn't feed 'em. Some one invent riflemen who don't eat, and I'll conquer the world—and then the moon and Mars. Bellies are worse than bad feet. You can fix bad feet with worse whisky, but you have to feed bellies. However, there are five thousand men eating their heads off, now, within a quarter of a mile of you. You couldn't find 'em in a week. It's a great place, this. My own belief is, some of Alexander's men got lost up here and took to mining, but the mine was already ancient when they got here. And there has been some one else since their day, but who he was, only Allah knows. Sometimes I think not even Allah knows all of it. Here's the entrance. How do you like the view?"
Gup stood under a huge stone arch and stared at the blistering whiteness of the boulder-strewn valley floor. The half that was in shadow was more tolerable to the eyes, but gloomier than hell's gate—shudder-some—comfortless. The half that lay in sunlight was a wilderness of agony. It suggested one of the dead craters of the moon. There was even a sort of island near the center that might have been left there by a final spasm of the fires within a dying earth. On the side on which Gup found himself, half in shadow and half in sunlight, a bulge of the enormous wall projected overhead to a distance, in places, of about two hundred feet, so that it would be impossible from above to see the entrance to the caverns or the almost countless openings that had been cut into the wall. The waste rock dug from the mine had been used for a fill, and had been leveled, so that there was a terrace, about two hundred feet wide and more than a mile long, curving around that end of the ravine.
"It isn't only ants that work!" said Jonesey. "How would you like that job, without machinery?"
The windows of the Ranee's fan-shaped chamber were in plain view, half a mile away. From the mouth of a near-by tunnel came the mutter of a muffled Diesel-engine and the faint purr of a dynamo.
"How did you get your machinery down here?" Gup demanded.
"Ah!" said Jonesey. "If you knew that, you would know the way out!"
Gup's jaw jerked forward. "Does that mean I'm a prisoner? You were to answer all my questions."
"I answered that one. No, you're not a prisoner, but you don't know the way out. A king in prison would be a dangerous nuisance, whereas an ignorant king is nothing out of the ordinary. But let me ask you a question. What do you suppose caused this pock-mark in the earth's hide? Does it occur to you that an enormous meteorite may have struck the earth here and exploded? Something spectacular happened. Too bad that it happened before there were men in the world to witness it. I wouldn't mind dying if I could be snuffed out by such a thunder- bolt as that—it would make me feel important, and it's our feelings that matter; nature insults us when it wipes us out with microbes or a one-inch bullet—not that we don't deserve the insult, but who wants what he deserves? Look up—up there against the sky. It's seven thousand feet from the floor to the top of that crag. Do you notice how the explosion, or whatever it was, threw up a lip like the splash of a bursting bubble? It leans outward. It makes this place almost impregnable—almost undiscoverable. Aeroplanes can't see much. Except at noon there's always enough shadow to make photography impossible. They daren't fly low because of the danger of forced landings; and if they fly high they can't see detail. How do you like our parade- ground?"
He indicated the wide terrace but Gup took no notice of the question. He was almost spell-bound by the huge raw horror of the place, although he noticed that it had no such effect on the men within sight. He could count about a hundred individuals, each attending to some task or other; there were several cleaning mules at a cavern-mouth at the far end of the terrace; others, in the distance, appeared to be women carrying bags of grain toward the great central mass of boulders, from which he could now see thin blue smoke ascending. Twenty or thirty men were cleaning rifles near another tunnel-mouth. Somewhere close at hand a man was singing.
Gup strode out on the terrace. Jonesey followed him and the two Orakzai Pathans came striding along behind. It was Gup's first taste of the lack of privacy that makes crowned heads resemble gold-fish in a glass jar. He resented it. He ordered Jonesey to keep out of reach unless he wanted to be pitched off the terrace, so Jonesey fell behind. Having no hat, Gup did not care to expose himself in the glare; he turned to the right, in shadow, and walked rapidly to where the terrace ended in a flight of rough steps leading to the boulder-strewn floor of the gorge.
"It's like an open sore in earth's side," he reflected. "If there's anything in the theory that like produces like, it's a suitable throat to spew forth death and ruin. Is destiny intelligent? And if so, why am I here? Why is she here? Are good and evil synonymous terms? Can good come out of evil? What's to be done? What if I do nothing? What then? Why is it that a man can't see the proper thing to do? It would be so simple to do the right thing if we only knew what it was. Death doesn't matter; nobody minds dying if there's a decent reason for it. There's probably a decent reason for living, if we only understood it. There's a decent thing to do now—but what? Why should I love that woman? God knows. I don't. I only know I do love her. Are love and destiny the same thing? If so, why the perfectly unnecessary hell when two tides meet? Perhaps this world is hell, with heaven to be won by enduring the torment, as the Moslems seem to think. If so, let's clean up hell—that's obvious. But how?"
He hardly looked where he was going. The way before him was between huge, tumbled boulders that cast shadow within shadow. They were all unclimbable; there was nothing to do but follow the winding track between them; it was a maze where a hundred thousand men, if they had food and water, could hide indefinitely. They could not even be shelled effectively by long- range cannon; the surrounding crags were too high and there was too much cover between boulders. They could easily hide from aeroplanes; a hundred bombs might kill a few, not many. Nothing less than poison-gas could drive them out.
He shuddered at the thought of poison-gas. If it was true that they were concocting some devil's brew with cyanide within those caverns, duty was plain; he must prevent that, at whatever risk. However, Jonesey was an imaginative liar and it seemed hardly likely they would have the necessary knowledge or appliances. If they made the stuff, how could they store it? Anyhow, he hoped that was a lie. And if it was true, he hoped that she had had nothing to do with it.
"God, what a weird world! Ruin—outlaw—this place—offer of an army—offer of a kingdom! And in love with the woman who trapped me into it! Can you beat that?"
He arrived at a place where a track led up the cliff-side. There was a ledge, no great distance up, from which he should be able to see the entire grim panorama, so he climbed the track. Jonesey called to him that the track led nowhere, but followed him, since he insisted on taking it. He discovered that Jonesey had not lied—or had apparently not lied; there was the ledge, and beyond that nothing, so he sat down on a boulder, staring at the view.
Hearing Jonesey's approaching footsteps, he gathered a handful of small rocks and began to pelt them at him.
"Stay below there!" he commanded. "Damn you, I want solitude!"
Jonesey turned back. "All right, Tiberius!" he answered. "All right! Consider yourself on Capri! But if you try to move out of my sight, I shall follow even if I have to shoot you in the leg to slow you down a bit."
Gup watched him scramble up a boulder from which he could see the ledge, and for a moment or two he wondered in which direction he might move in order to escape out of sight, but he could see no way. The cliff rose sheer behind him. On his right, and in front, the ledge ended in air. It was only a big rock projecting from the cliffside. And he had been wrong in supposing he would be able to see the entire floor of the gorge; he could see less than half of it. However, it was a good enough place in which to sit and puzzle out what he ought to do.
And Love has more resources than the whole
Vast aggregate of nature and all things
That force has made and gathered.
As the hole Is to the spade, or as the song the diva sings
Is to the source of music, so are all
The fruits of being to the spiritual
Cause Which makes men be. Lo, he who loves may call
On That, whose instance knows no pause.
DOWN the face of the cliff was a gash like the scar left by a thunderbolt. It ended in a jumble of broken rocks in which scrawny thorn-bush and starved weeds fought for a living. Gup sat near that, since it camouflaged him. There was no object in being difficult to see, except the satisfaction of annoying Jonesey—that and the habit that humans share with certain animals of liking to lie hidden in the Intervals of one mood and another. For a while he watched men like insects moving among boulders. They were as hard to explain as insects—streams of them going both ways to and from an opening in the cliff-face near the Ranee's windows; it looked purposeless, and yet there was a suggestion of purpose. The silence was almost stupefying; the great gorge seemed to swallow sound and to change it, by an unearthly alchemy, into something of which space is made. The feeling of vastness and unreality kept on increasing. It was nightmare land.
So a voice meant nothing—not for a few moments. It was almost like the voice of conscience or a memory of speech heard long ago. It issued from behind him, as it might be from the air or from the solid cliff and it was almost toneless. It was so free from emphasis that it stole on the ear rather than spoke into it, with the result that Gup did not turn his head, even when he recognized it as the voice of some one hidden in the bush behind him.
"Think you're out o' luck, I suppose! You're lousy with ut! All the luck of every idiot in India added into one heap wouldn't match yours! If you look my way before I tip you to, I'll brain you with a lump of rock, you ostrich! Got your head so stuck into the luck, you can't see daylight! I'm Tom O'Hara."
"Shift yourself. Sit on that other rock, so that you can see me sidewise. Put your elbow on your knee—chin on your hand—hide your mouth and talk, don't whisper."
Tom O'Hara's owl face peered out from a maze of weeds and thorns. He had on a turban with the green patch of a hajji who had made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and he appeared to be dressed in the rusty-brown garb of a Moslem mullah. His owl eyes were aglow with the fever of love of his job—a glow that any one may interpret as he pleases; under that turban it looked like religious frenzy, a sure passport in the Moslem hills.
"How did you find me, Tom? How did you get here?"
"Easy. Knew of this place long ago. I knew ut 'ud come to this. I said ut. I wrote ut. By and by they'll blame me for ut. Who cares? I've a girl in Copenhagen. They can send me the sack for a wedding gift, and I'll turn farmer. Hell of a good place for raising cows is all that country around Copenhagen."
"But how did you get in?"
"Curious, aren't you? I rode in, along with a dozen Shinwari headmen who would sell their souls for a half-chance to go raiding. They're war-hungry—haven't seen a sight of loot since the Amir poisoned his uncle. Your friend Rahman found 'em up-pass somewhere asking the way to this place. He brought 'em along; he had Pepul Das with him. And I'm a very holy gent from Samarkand, where I've been all winter, preaching ghasa.* They naturally brought me with 'em. I'm that holy, though, I had to say my prayers, and I say 'em solitary, that being a special extra vow I took in Mecca, where the Prophet spoke to me in a dream by night, and any one who sees me praying has his luck queered permanent. I came and sat up here to look for you, and if your luck weren't Allah's own with diamonds on ut, I might be looking for a week. Who's your friend on the rock?"
[* holy war.]
"One of his names is the mullah Ghulam Jan."
"Not Jonesey? Lord, we are in luck! Has he finished those charts, I wonder? He's been making 'em for three years. I'd give one eye to copy 'em. Maybe I will. Maybe I'll swipe 'em—there were only two thieves crucified—I'm still living by my wits. Now gimme your news."
"I am offered the command of an army."
"I said ut! You accepted ut? You snapped ut?"
"Naturally not. What do you take me for?"
"I gave you credut for being two-eyed, you longfaced Caledonian! I wrote ut. I said: All that fellow Gup McLeod needs is a job o' work. I told 'em: He's a Covenanter out of employment. I said: Give him something difficult and dangerous to do, with peas in his boots and a hair-shirt, and he'll spike hell's cannons, but if you don't, he'll spike yours. And I made 'em listen—dammut! And here you are—and you turn the job down! You ostrich!"
"You want to see me invading India?" Gup asked, his lips white with contempt. There was no humor in him at the moment.
"Sooner see you try ut than see you sit here like a virgin Andromache waiting for your modesty to save your virtue! Nobody needs virgins nowadays. Listen, you anachronism—you Hielan' hell- cat with a Covenanters' muzzle! Get your claws out—get 'em busy!"
"How?" Gup asked him.
"First I'll tell you why. They've kep' this subsky rosavich*, which is Russian for a ten-ton censorship. The Punjaub is seething; ninety per cent, of the Sikhs are ready to revolt and raise bloody hell, and that's not half of ut, there's lots more, spoiling for self-rule. You know what that means—how many cutthroats that means? All right. The Amir of Afghanistan, with a new throne under him, mind you, that makes him feel like Pharaoh on a hot stove, knows about the Punjaub. He's no Solomon, but he can pick 'em when the cards lie face-up. He's heard of Mustapha Kemal and Mussolini. He knows Europe is stone-broke and sick o' fighting. He'd be crazy if he didn't cut loose! He's all ready to come howling down the Khyber with a quarter of a million Afghans—into the Punjaub—and up with the Sikhs—Allah strafe India! Get me?"
[* Subsky rosavich: pseudo-Russian, evidently a word-play on the Latin phrase sub rosa (secret). RG]
"Yes," said Gup, "I know that."
"And you sit there mooning! And you offered the command of an army, by the best-looking woman east of Europe, full o' money and notions—and the meat on the table—dammut! All you have to do is grab ut! You ostrich! Can't you see, that if you take her army by the snoot—and you a known outlaw—nobody knows where you'll lead ut! Will you march on Kabul? That's what the Amir wants to know. And who tells? Is it likely he'll waltz into India, with you and maybe fifty thousand Hillmen sweating blood for a chance to fall on his rear and loot his baggage trains? And are the Sikhs so crazy that they'll take a chance until they know whether you're for the Amir or ag'in' him? Not much! Sikhs have had a taste or two o' being bad boys all on their little lonesome! Oh, you ostrich! Think o' Glint's peeve when he learns it was Gup McLeod who saved India! We might pull strings and fix ut so that Glint has to be on parade when they make you K. C. M. G.! They'll sure do ut! You can make 'em do ut! If they didn't do ut, they might think you'd cross the Rubicon like Joan of Arc and rub their smellers in the dust!"
"Not so simple," said Gup. "It's her army, not mine."
"And she a woman? And you looking like a flame-headed Launcelot out of a book by Dumas? Is there anything simpler? Ain't it cushy? What do you want—a bath-chair and a trained nurse? Dammut! If I had your good looks, and, say, half o' your luck, I'd lead a raid on Kabul that 'ud make her army sick o' fighting for a couple o' generations! I'd make the Amir sick, too. And I'd make her sick o' spending money! After that, if I liked her well enough, I'd set her to cooking and keeping house and milking a cow or two o' mornings. If not—I'd let the Government have her for exhibit A, example one, o' playing poker without knowing who she's up against."
Gup scowled, although he liked the theory, and he loved Tom O'Hara. He suspected Tom would give him no false tips, even for the sake of statecraft. But it is not easy for a man like Gup to love a woman, lie to her, betray her and then laugh, not though he save her from ruin and death by doing it.
"I'd have to pledge my word," he said, gritting his teeth.
"Go ahead then and pledge ut! Me, I'd pledge ut on a stack o' Bibles—and I'd kiss her on the mouth and call her puss-in-the- corner names—I'd put a helmut on and get myself a ramping big horse—I'd talk about plundering India's plains, to get the army gingered up—and I'd act that treasonable that they'd find a new name for ut! And all for the love of—"
Tom O'Hara hesitated. He was watching Gup's face, his own eyes wide and his weird nose moving like an owl's beak.
"For the love of country, honesty, or a woman—which?" Gup asked him.
"Nix on any of 'em! For the love of acting like a man! Will you do ut?"
Gup sat silent. It was not argument that reached him, it was contact with a friend whose purpose and integrity were flintlike. A spark had struck. He felt a new flame burning in him, as he sat toying with a rock that he tossed from hand to hand. He stood up. Suddenly he threw the rock; it smashed on the boulder below within a foot of Jonesey, who scrambled to earth in a hurry.
"I will do it," he said calmly.
"I knew ut."
"But listen, Tom, I"
"Dammut, don't talk slop to me; I've a girl of my own in Copenhagen! You're in love with her. I knew ut. Any ostrich could see that with his head in a barrel o' saw-dust. Take a tip: if you're only in love, get it over with and get out. But if you love her, use your whip! I don't mean that too literal, but let her know who cooks the hash and who finds fault with ut—you get me? Women are like horses. Let 'em know who's master—let 'em know ut, mind you, and no guessing—and there ain't a thing they won't do, nor a fence they won't face for the sake of proving 'emselves fit to look you in the eye."
"Thanks, Tom. I dare say you know."
"And here's another tip for you: the Afghan Amir means ut. He means to invade India. He's coming quick! Lottie Carstairs of Jullunder has a pipe-dream of a kingdom of her own between Afghanistan and India. Am I right? The Amir wants an empire—all the way to Delhi. Don't argue with me—I know ut. And if you think the Amir hasn't tried to win her alliance you're as crazy as she'd be if she fell for ut. And if you think he hasn't got some treacherous specimens cuckooed into her own nest, working against her, you're just plain ignorant of how they play that kind o' game."
Gup paced along the ledge, stood staring and strode back. Then he picked up another rock for Jonesey's benefit in case the Welshman should start up the track.
"Now, listen, Tom. If I do this I've got to lie to her. I've got to explain my change of front. An hour or two ago I refused her offer pointblank."
"Easy. Glint has had you posted. There's a reward out—five thousand rupees for you, dead or alive. You can say you saw me and I told you how your own crowd have condemned you without giving you the benefit of doubt."
"Is it true?"
"True as I'm sitting here. The only friends you have left are the few you'd let sell you if it 'ud save a ticklish situation. How many might that be—two—three men in Asia? Are you going? Take that fellow Jonesey with you and keep an eye on him; he knows me by sight, and I want to get my fingers on his charts."
"All right, Tom." Gup stared straight at him. "And thank you."
The owl face nodded. The curved, beaklike nose spread slightly and a maze of wrinkles rippled upward as white teeth flashed in a cherubic smile. Then the face resumed its solemnity.
"Swallow your dose and get a move on!"
"All right, Tom."
"And listen: watch that Dover woman. She's as treacherous as Talleyrand and Judas Iscariot rolled in one, and she's got more brains than either of 'em! Don't forget now, that I said ut!"
But he must love. It is not written that his lust
Shall be the law of heaven. Crave he for the fruit
Who tilled no tree—the weariness and dust,
The seeming for a moment and the bruit
Of tasteless victory are his, since Fortune drew
Him to the lists of disillusionment to earn
Through failure Faith—that Phoenix, born anew,
Whose magic is so simple to apply, so hard to learn.
"YOU are to come with me," said Gup. He was another man; he whistled as he walked, and Jonesey had to hurry to keep up with him.
"Why this sudden interest in my society?" asked Jonesey. "It is merely minutes since I was a spiritual stink under your nostrils. I suspect you of enmity, by Allah, veiled and vile. It was just now as frank as a Durham bull's."
"I have slightly changed my mind about you," Gup answered.
"Oh. What shall I do about that, I wonder? Allah! Nothing is more uncertain than the temper of these Nordic blonds; the only certainty about it is, that they will first get thoroughly self- righteous and then commit atrocity in the name of virtue. I prefer animals as less exasperating; however, you were going to tell me—?"
"This," said Gup. "From now on I expect you to report to me direct. If I as much as suspect you of not doing that—"
He hesitated. However, he had to begin. A commander-in- chief—more particularly of an army of lawless mountaineers—must be ruthless in enforcing discipline. He must apply the very principles he hated. In the name of right he must do wrong.
"I will send you," he said, "to where you may discover which is the true religion, even if I have to kill you with my own hand."
Jonesey's brown eyes wondered at him, but Jonesey's face was lighted with mischievous amusement, two sides of his character, almost like two colors, vying for supremacy, not blending—not able to blend—and both controlled by something else.
"You Nordics," he retorted, "are in love with violence. That is because you violently hate your own shortcomings, instead of being amused by them as a sensible person would be. However, I can lie like Ananias. Very well, sir, I am at your service. I will report to you direct. I swear I will report to you direct. Shall I call you your Majesty—Caesar—Imperial Highness?"
"You may call me Gup Bahadur."
"That is rather a good name, Gup Bahadur. It doesn't mean anything, but in the long run nothing means anything, so what's the odds? Shall I tell you the actual truth for once—just this once—naked truth as near as I can tell it?"
He stopped, persuading Gup to face him. He leaned on his long staff, peering into Gup's eyes. He resembled a monk more than ever; the wrinkles on his weathered skin were like writing on parchment—cryptic written statement of his unbelief in everything that the beautiful brown eyes had seen, and that the satyr's ears had heard; nevertheless of his faith in something. The faith had baffled him; it was there but he could not grasp it with his intellect.
"If you make good as Gup Bahadur I will serve you as one man seldom serves another. By your eyes I can see you have crossed a Rubicon. And you won't turn back. I am as big a fool as you are; I also refuse to turn back. And fools are happier than wise men, until folly and wisdom meet in one big melting-pot; we call it death. I have studied all religions and all governments. I have read and talked philosophy until my eyes burned and my throat was as dry as leather. Fortunately spittle comes to its own rescue, even after such a course as that, so I spat on all of them!"
He spat by way of illustration, exceedingly wetly and loosely, in the Moslem fashion that expressed scorn beyond control. Then he went on:
"I eliminated all the nonsense. There was this left: every man his own hero, his own guide and his own redeemer. But I am a bad guide except over mountains. As a hero, I find there are holes in me; I don't hold heroism. And I can't redeem a billy-goat. Nevertheless, I refuse to be robbed of amusement, and I find life interesting. Then what?"
He prodded the ground with his staff, leaned on it, straightened himself and continued:
"Nothing left but this: I will find some one else who shall be a hero, a guide, a redeemer. I will not believe in him, of course; that would be too stupid. But I will act as if believing in him. When he falls down, I will leave him flat and find another. Or look for another; they are not easy to find. In that way I shall amuse myself, and I may learn something worth knowing. I will place at the service of such a man all my incredulity, my knowledge of things that are not what they seem to be, my expensive experience of man's ingratitude, my immodesty, my genius for lying, my irreverence, and no small zeal. But beware of my zeal; I leave nothing undone; I make mistakes as accurate in detail and as hard to undo as a treasury statement. Do you wish to be that hero? Would you like me to think myself—"
"I don't care a damn what you think about you or me, so long as you obey me," Gup interrupted. "I don't propose to waste one thought on you except as being a useful person who does what he's told. Do we understand each other?"
"Perfectly. You are the hero! You shall be that until you fail me by becoming sentimental or in some other way arousing my contempt. I am free with my fancies. However—"
"I am commanded not to let you out of sight. I shall return you to the heroine—this side up, unbroken so to speak—before I put the hero in her place in my heart. In at one door, out the other! You will go the same way when a better man, or better woman, shows up. But you are the most interesting yet."
"You are to come with me," said Gup. "What are those men doing—streaming back and forth near the Ranee's windows?"
"They are carrying silver rupees."
"From a hole where they were buried and cemented up, into a treasury room near her apartment. It was I who buried them. We were a long time making this place ready. Do you realize how much money it takes to keep a Hillman army sitting still? Overlook one pay-day, and then count how many men you have to-morrow morning! The unpaid remainder will be tough and hungry, spoiling to be led toward the plunder and very mutinous. Money, money, money! The rupees were safer buried in the open where they could be swept by machine-gun fire, than in the caverns, until we were thoroughly organized. We have a properly underpaid guard for them now that is stupid enough to be loyal, so into the caverns they go. But they melt—oh, Allah, how the money melts! And there's no way now of cashing drafts on Europe and then smuggling the silver across the border. Time is the most expensive commodity in the market. If you asked me, I should say action is indicated—very sudden and not limited by other people's feelings."
"You weren't asked," said Gup. He climbed the rough steps to the terrace and entered the huge arched tunnel mouth, alert now to his bearings and striding with a step that echoed down the passage ahead of him. He was not conscious of dramatic movement; he did not know that his stride had changed or that his face was now a picture of determination. He was not even thinking of himself or of his own predicament. Whether he was ridiculous or heroic, wise or unwise, he neither knew nor cared. He had made up his mind. He had accepted a job and he was going to finish it as swiftly as he could and with the aid of every faculty he had. And strangely enough, the prize was not Lottie Carstairs. The goal was as suddenly clear in his sight as the sun on the rim of the world at daybreak, but the prize was nothing to be told in words or even to be thought in communicable phrases. It was something abstract and intangible that he might, or might not be able to share with the woman whom he knew now that he loved; that depended on her. What depended on him, he would do. For the time being he was determined not to think about his love for her.
So he strode along intricate passages, noticing on the way in what had escaped his notice on the way out because he had then been interested only in his own way out of an infernal difficulty. Now it was the difficulty that was interesting and not a detail of its setting escaped him. New admiration for Lottie Carstairs swept over him—a new respect for her. It dawned on him that no one not intelligent and plucky almost beyond human limits could have established herself in those caverns without confusion and with an imposed routine so wonderfully planned that there was hardly a sight or a sound of the men who attended to details. The place was clean. The few men whom he passed were on their rounds inspecting something for which they were responsible to some one higher up. There was organization here and a master- genius controlling it. Control, he reflected, is not physical; if it were, the bulls and elephants would rule; nor is it merely intellectual, or the scholars would govern the world. In essence it is genius. He wondered whether he himself had genius. He was going to find out.
When he reached the door of her apartment, he struck it a blow with his knuckles that rather disconcerted him; he had not meant to make so much noise.
However, he was kept waiting a long time and it was a suave little Bengali clerk who opened it at last—a lean man with brown intellectual eyes, who smiled as men do who have had to do much thinking behind a mask of disarming pleasantries.
"Her Highness is not able to see you at the moment," he said in fluent, beautifully pronounced English.
"Who are you?" Gup demanded.
"Does she know I am here?"
"I suspect not. But she is holding a jirga.*"
Gup turned to Jonesey. "Leave those Pathans outside and follow me in," he commanded. Then he strode into the hallway, pushing aside the astonished treasurer. "Go in to the jirga and say Gup Bahadur is out here waiting. Or shall I go in unannounced?"
The treasurer glanced at Jonesey's face for an explanation, but Jonesey had closed the door behind him and was staring at the wall, apparently seeing, hearing, saying nothing, but nevertheless exuding mirth.
"I will not wait long," said Gup in a voice whose restraint suggested steel springs and a trigger. The treasurer's surface serenity wilted and the inner man appeared:
"I suspect you will wait until she wishes to see you," he answered, glancing over his shoulder at two Pathans who stood by the door of the fan-shaped room with bayonets fixed on modern British army rifles.
Gup nodded. "I will report you," he said, "for a plucky attempt to do your duty." He thrust him aside and strode across the square antechamber toward the Pathans, who barred the door against him, bringing down their bayonets to the charge. Without turning he reached for Jonesey's staff, snatched it and thrust at the door between the sentries, striking two resounding blows.
"Announce Gup Bahadur!" he commanded.
The door opened from within, a scant six inches. A man's voice asked angrily what the noise was all about.
"Gup Bahadur!" said one of the sentries.
"Gup Bahadur!" the voice inside the room repeated. There was a moment's pause. The door opened wide. Gup strode in, with Jonesey at his heels.
It seemed a different room, now that the sunlight streamed in through the tinted windows. Rahman was there, with Pepul Das, both of them robed in rich silk over their traveling clothes. They and twelve bearded chieftains sat in a semicircle on the floor before the throne, each with a silver tray in front of him, on which was coffee in Dresden china cups. They were all arrayed like Rahman; it was rather obvious that the silken robes were either a loan for the occasion or a gift; they looked gorgeous in the window-light and were perfectly aware of it.
But she—and she was neither the Ranee now nor Lottie Carstairs but some one who combined the qualities of those two with something spiritual added—outshone them all. A screen of peacock feathers had been set behind the throne chair. She was wearing no turban now; her hair was loosely coiled beneath a golden sari. Her coat was blue, over a rose-colored smock and Moslem trousers. Her diamonds flashed like dew on roses in the sun.
One glance at Gup's face satisfied her. Her lips moved in a slow smile and her eyes laughed triumph. Gup thought she caught her breath, but that might have been his own imagination. Her voice was in perfect control.
"My commander-in-chief," she said, almost casually. "He has come in haste to attend this jirga, Therefore I excuse him, and I request you nobles to excuse him for not wearing more suitable clothes.—Are my servants asleep?" she added suddenly. "Why is he offered no chair?"
There was a servant in every window-recess and four more stood with their backs to the rear wall. Gup wondered how many of them were spies in the British service. Two of them brought a chair and set it, obeying a royal gesture, where the sunlight formed a pool of light on a Persian rug. Gup bowed and sat down, with a window-recess on his left hand and the semicircle of chieftains on his right. On his right there was also the balcony over the door; it was full of women, but they were veiled and he could not be sure that Harriet Dover was among them. Rahman's face was an enigma. Pepul Das blinked at a window-pane. Jonesey sat and leaned back against the door.
"And now," said the Ranee, "I will listen to your views if each noble will speak in turn." But there was a long silence.
Gup noticed that she spoke the uncouth northern dialect with difficulty but he admired her, nevertheless, for not using an interpreter, although he thought he saw two of the chieftains almost shudder at the mispronunciation of their cherished gutturals. Then, for no reason whatever, it dawned on him that she was much more helpless than she knew. She was alone—more utterly alone than he was, and in spite of her women—in spite of her army. He remembered the poison-gas. He almost doubted that she knew about it; he could not imagine her using such stuff against savages for the sake of her own ambition. There was something tragic about her loneliness, as if she were surrounded by false friends whom she had begun to suspect. He sat watching her eyes and wondering why he had been such an idiot as not to know he loved her, in the old days when he might have saved her (and himself) from so much anguish. They two together could have lived a life worth while.
At last a chief spoke, cross-legged on a rug and very upright, but not able to look royal as she did. He was only self- assertive. She was aware of essential dignity, which is different.
"By Allah," he began, "we believe it is true that there are fifty thousand who have sworn to follow you. And some say more. And you offer to set up a government here. But we know it is true that the Punjaub hungers to rebel; and that means opportunity. The Sikhs, it is said, would rise like one man if a lashkar came down from the North to their aid. Peshawar is in the way, like a rock in the way of a mountain torrent, but a torrent can flow past such obstacles. No fortress and no artillery can prevent the will of Allah."
There was a murmur of assent. The Ranee watched the chieftains' faces with eyes that betrayed only interest. Her still hands rested on the chair-arms. The blue, unswollen veins of her bare feet did not suggest excitement or anxiety. Gup crossed his legs and noticed that the pressure of his own heart's beating made it impossible to keep the free foot still; he set it on the floor again. The chieftain resumed:
"You should make cause with the Amir and march with him into India. The Amir of Kabul offers us more than you offer."
"I offer you nothing," she answered, "except honor and what comes of that. I make no promise in advance to men whose courage and good faith I have not yet tested. If you prefer to trust the Amir then you have my leave to go."
It was a royal answer and it made even Gup's blood go leaping in his veins. There was a murmur from the women in the balcony. The chieftains glanced at one another. Rahman sought Gup's eyes, met them and nodded three times. Then another chieftain spoke up, rougher of voice and gesture than the first:
"By Allah, I say a thousand men will follow where I lead. But shall I lead them as a stream flows, knowing neither why nor whither? Allah gave men understanding for their use, so let there be understanding. Therefore, I say this: that the Amir would pay a high price for our friendship. Aye, and by Allah he leaves Kabul for a pledge behind him! Let him play us false or lead unwisely—lo, we turn and plunder Kabul to reimburse ourselves! Furthermore, if we follow him into India, and if Allah wills that our arms are successful, it is stipulated in advance that this one shall have so much gold and so many women and so much land—and this other shall have so much—and this other. All is written. You should make us a better offer."
"I did not even invite you to come and see me," said the Ranee.
Gup rose out of his chair and cleared his throat with a noise like the crash of command on parade. She nodded to him to speak and her eyes glowed as if light shone through them.
"It is not I," said Gup, "who make agreements," and he used their gutturals as harshly as they did; his vowels were solid and rounded; his voice was resonant and deep; it was as Hillmen love to hear their language spoken, "but it is I who will lead this army in the field. And I will lead it northward, against Kabul, if I see fit! If I go by way of your valleys some one's grain shall feed the horses, some one's sheep shall feed our fighting men and some one's gold shall pay them. It is for you to say whose grain and sheep and gold it is to be. As Allah is our witness, if Allah wills that this Ranee shall sit on the throne of Kabul, is there any man here who can prevent it? Ye speak of understanding. Which of you can prophesy whether I lead north, south, east or west? And when I begin? And how swift my marches?"
Silence fell. Dark eyes watching Gup from beneath overshadowing turbans tried to hide consternation. The Ranee sat motionless, that look of ancient Egypt stealing over her face until she seemed like Hatshepsut in an hour of mystic meditation. Gup resumed. He used no gestures and not much emphasis; he understated the strength of his new-found arrogance, thus multiplying its effect:
"I need no more men. I have enough friends. It is agreeable to me now to learn who my enemies are. One false friend is worse than a hundred manly enemies who name the cause of their quarrel and take up arms. If ye prefer the Amir's promises, say so, and let the Amir keep them if he can."
A man who had not yet spoken stroked his beard by way of calling attention to himself. "As Allah is my witness," he said, "this is a page from another book." Gup sat down, praying that this bluff had not succeeded too well. The speaker continued: "It is not our custom to be ruled or led by women. The Amir is a man, but he neither fills the eye, nor the ear, nor makes the spirit burn within a man as you do. What we lack in this land is a leader. By Allah, if you can lead as you speak, you are he! And by my beard, I am no dependent of Kabul. Speak again. Tell us more of this matter."
Gup took his time. It is a mistake to be in too great haste to speak, in any northern gathering; men like deliberate, slow phrases, weighed in the mind before the mouth utters them. And Gup was not sure of himself; he was banking on the scant advice and information he had had from Tom O'Hara. He wanted no more men, lest the Ranee's army grow unmanageable and break through into India in spite of him. What he did want was disaffection in the ranks of the Amir of Afghanistan's adherents—that, and he also wished the news to filter through to Kabul that there was at least dickering to be done, and perhaps a stiff fight to be faced, before the Amir's army could pour down the passes into India. He suspected that every word he uttered would be reported in Kabul within a week or ten days; exaggerated almost beyond recognition, spies would pick up his words in Kabul and relay them to the Indian Government. He hoped, but doubted that the Indian Government would put a right interpretation on them. Funnily, he did not think that Tom O'Hara might be sending word through.
"I have spoken," he said, when he did stand up. "It seems to me, ye think ye know more than I know.
If so, I will eagerly match my ignorance against your knowledge!"
He sat down again. The chieftain who had spoken last stood up. He bowed—twice. The second bow was deeper than the first, but Gup took no notice of it.
"Knowledge and ignorance—who shall judge between them?" he said sententiously. "Nevertheless, it is a reasonable thing that men who are to risk their lives should know why and whither and what next?"
"Do you know to-morrow's events, or can you cancel yesterday's?" Gup retorted. "Who is there in the world whose life is not hourly at stake? And what matters, so be that a man dies fearless?"
"True. Allah judges our hearts. And none knows whom the dark angel shall overtake next. But though a man be fearless, it is just that he should know what to expect in this world. Let us at least learn of the reward."
Gup recognized the beginning of one of those endless, half philosophic and wholly non-committal arguments that Hillmen love. They would be willing to talk in that strain until midnight, whereafter they would weigh each phrase in search of something on which to base further discussion. He decided to end it abruptly. He wanted the news to reach Kabul that he was bold and confident enough to reject overtures of aid.
"It is written," he said, "that in this world there is nothing worth striving for. The Prophet wrote that Isa saith: this world is a bridge; pass over it but build no houses on it. There is no goal that a man can reach in this world, nor any reward, that shall not be as dust and ashes. I am a Ghazi. "It is ghaza that I make! I seek a spiritual goal and the reward of Allah!
Men who question me concerning payment and reward for the loan of their rifles in Allah's name, belong not in the ranks of Allah's lashkar. Let them join our enemies and learn whether or not God guides my fighting arm."
He sat down in awful silence. Not a finger stirred. He looked calm, but his heart was beating like a triphammer and he was wondering how long he might be able to keep up that role of Ghazi. He had read the Koran many times but his theology was woefully weak; almost the first question was likely to expose his weakness. And it came, he wondering why he had blundered into such an egregious indiscretion. He could read fear in the Ranee's eyes. A sidewise glance at Jonesey revealed mischievous amusement. The oldest chieftain stood:
"Your Honor is of our faith? Circumcized and properly provided with a letter saying at which college and by whom he was accepted as a true-believer? It is lawful to demand that such a letter be produced."
Gup took his time again, wishing he had bitten off his tongue before he used phrases that were only meant, in the heat of a moment, to explain ideals in a language they would understand. Exasperated by being taken literally, as he ought to have known he would be, he was on the verge of letting ill-temper get the better of him. If they should call him a false Ghazi and send that accusation leaping from mouth to mouth of fanatics who knew nothing but the dry dead letter of their faith, the game was lost before it was begun. The Ranee's own army would melt; there would be no one to hang on the flank of the invading Afghans. They would burst into India—the Punjaub would rise in revolt—there would be a swath of rapine and of dead and dying, all the way from Khyber-mouth to Bombay! He rose very slowly to his feet, and with his brain as blank as if he had been stunned. But intuition is not seated in the brain; it merely uses it, and uses it more readily when the brain is not busy with suggestions.
"Where," he retorted, "is it written that Allah made you, but not me? And if I swear that there is one God, shall God deny me? And if God deny me not, does your unbelief matter? Shall I answer to God, or to you? And which is better—a written testimonial that any clever rogue might forge—or a man's deeds? Which of the two shall Allah justify?"
He stood, with his teeth set so tightly that the muscles of his jaw rose in knots. The chieftain's pointed question had been a thrust that pricked him where he kept his fury against all dry bones of bigotry encumbering men's inward faith. The very thought of bigotry could make him as bigoted as anybody else. He hated cant with such a livid hatred that he had formed a new cant of his own. He despised intolerance to a point where intolerance entered into him and made him furious. But his fury was magnetic.
And in the ensuing silence the Ranee's calm voice spoke, from the peacock throne, the ancient formula that none may ignore and not name himself an ignorant, ill-mannered fool:
"Ye have my leave to go."
Again silence. Had she opened her lips, that would have amounted to permission to speak while taking leave. They bowed, hesitating, hoping for the chance to get a word in. Stately and solemn and dignified then, they filed out from the presence. It was not until the door had closed behind them that the voice of Jonesey broke on the stillness.
"Allah! The Omnipotent made ingenuity! I will forge you the letter you need. It shall be signed by the Imam of Istamboul. I will spread it across Asia that you are a hajji and a true- believer!"
"Not if you're eager to live, you won't," Gup answered. "If you tell 'em one lie about my religion, I'll break your head with that staff you carry! That's the only point on which I'm touchy."
"You are the least touchy, the least violent, the least unreasonable man I know," said Jonesey. "May I wait outside?"
And they are ignorant who think that Love is meek.
No arrogance, in all uncounted realms
Of endless universes spiraling, can speak
With magic such as Love's, that overwhelms
All opposites and pours its course
So full of tributary forces that a stream
Flood-swollen from a trackless source
Is as a shadow to it, in an idler's dream.
BUT Jonesey changed his mind—something that only a corpse may not do. It was the servants who filed out one by one, obedient to a gesture. One veiled figure remained in the gallery, four ivory- white fingers on the edge of the stone betraying nervousness. Then the Ranee stepped down from her throne; she laid her sari aside; instantly the woman in the gallery removed her veil, revealing Harriet Dover, dark-eyed and intense. There was no sound now. Jonesey approached, his bare feet silent on the three-deep rugs, and they faced one another, Jonesey leaning on his staff.
"What has happened?" the Ranee asked. Her eyes were liquid with a triumph that included doubt and saw beyond doubt to a victory not yet won. Delighted, she was also suspicious and doubly on guard. "You yield as breathlessly as you refused to yield. What has happened?"
"I have been told," said Gup with grim lips, "that my countrymen have condemned me unheard and have posted a reward for me, dead or alive."
"So you turn on them? You accept my offer?"
He nodded. There was silence again in which his windy gray eyes looked into the depth of hers—a long silence, in which even Gup's steady breathing was hardly audible.
"You lie lamely," she said at last. "You are too honest. You can think treason, but you can't hide it."
Silence again, until Jonesey spoke: "Oh, the power of silence!"
It was true. Silence was giving Gup time in which to turn words over in his mind. He hated lying, even after he had recognized the necessity. If he could, he preferred to tell the truth so subtly that she would misinterpret it. Afterward he would be able to quote his own words, in his own defense. It was not yet clear to him that love between two strong characters is a battle-field in which no quarter may be asked or given, but the strength of each devours the weakness of the other until only love is left. He had to conquer her, not explain himself. He could feel that, but he did not understand it yet.
"It is they," he said, "who have done treason against me. They shall regret it."
"Who told you this news?"
He evaded a direct answer: "I will discuss that with you when we are alone."
She glanced at Jonesey. "Did he speak with any one?"
But Jonesey had no opportunity to answer. They were interrupted by the voice of Harriet Dover, ringing low contralto, ominous, as she leaned over the gallery: "In one short paroxysm of grandiose boasting your Nordic blond has undone the work of weeks. I warned you to test him before you trusted him!"
The Ranee ignored that but her eyes darkened angrily. She spoke to Gup again.
"Did you mean what you said about marching on Kabul?"
"How can I answer until I have seen the army I must lead?"
"Are you willing to take oath before the army?"
Gup did not dare to hesitate. "Certainly," he answered.
"You shall review the army, and you shall swear yourself in at the same time," she said, staring at him. "However, I have not forgotten how your countrymen sold Mary Queen of Scots to Elizabeth, and Charles the First to Cromwell."
Gup winced. He hated history; it is too full of the lapses from common decency of every nation under heaven.
"Let us draw up that oath with caution," she went on. "Harriet Dover shall make a draft of it that won't leave you even a beggar's loophole."
He smiled at that. He knew that if he should ever decide to break an oath he would need no loophole. He would smash the thing in fragments.
"All right, draw it," he retorted. "If it suits me, I'll swear it. If it doesn't I won't."
"None," he answered. "I have decided to take up the sword, and by the sword I will win or fail. If I win, you win. If I fail, you will very likely die with me. If you don't give me your complete confidence, I will treat you in the same way. Accept my sword or leave it."
"It isn't your sword that I doubt," she said, looking straight at his eyes. "Nor do I doubt you; you are of the stuff of which heroes are made. But I do doubt your Covenanter's conscience."
"Doubt it then," said Gup. "I don't have to command your army." But if she had taken him at his word, he had already made up his mind to seize command. It may be that she understood that. She was reading him as if his eyes and his face were the score of new, intriguing music.
"If you play me false—was ever another woman placed as I am, rash enough to run that risk? You have nothing to lose—no pledge to offer. As a pledge, even your life is worthless; you would throw it away as some men throw the stump of a cigar. If you should fail me, do you know what I would do?"
"I can guess," said Gup.
"I would realize that my own judgment and my own ideals, my own wit and my own reason were all worthless. I would realize that my life's work is nothing, can amount to nothing and has gone down like a pack of cards. And I would have no compunctions left of any kind."
"Most of us feel like that," said Gup, "until the house of cards falls. Mine fell, so I know the sensation. The trick is, not to try to build another dreamland. Build with bricks next time. Or build some other fellow's house. Our own don't matter much."
"If you fail me, I will never again trust any one," she answered, and Gup wondered at her emphasis. It did him good to hear it. He recognized familiar symptoms. It made him realize that not only he had had to face a crisis, in which the devils of despair had done their utmost. He was emerging, robbed of nothing except trash. He wondered how she would emerge. He intended to spare her all he could.
"Who steals my name," he thought, "steals nothing. But if he should steal my own opinion of myself—"
He smiled at his own sententiousness, reminding himself it was a time for deeds, on which the fate of India might hinge, not for self-examination. Let the Lords of Destiny make use of him as he was; he could not change himself in that hour. He decided to begin now, instantly, to force the underlying secrets to the surface so that he might judge the situation and develop plans. But to do that he had to deal in words first; he had to drive a wedge into the split that he discerned between the Ranee and Harriet Dover.
"How much authority has Miss Dover?" he asked.
"She is the first woman secretary of state who ever lived," the Ranee answered. "Her authority is not very clearly defined; we have had no time for definitions. She and I have worked together from the first."
"Sometimes we have not had time for conference. I have trusted her implicitly."
"You will have to trust me. You will have to work with me," said Gup, "if you propose to look to me to save you from disaster."
"What do you mean, sir, by disaster?" She looked more royal than he had seen her yet.
"I have not yet seen your army. But you lie between two armies, each of them stronger and better supplied than yours. I know that. You will be ground between two millstones unless some one wiser than Miss Dover manages your foreign policy. As commander-in-chief I have a right to know what Miss Dover has been doing."
The Ranee glanced at Jonesey. "Ask Miss Dover to come here."
She and Gup then faced each other in a strained, uncomfortable silence.
"Do you think," she asked at last, "that I would be afraid to have you killed if you should play me false? I suspect you already. Why did you insult those Shinwari tribesmen?"
"Do you call what I said an insult? I don't think they did. I took my cue from you."
"You said too much. It will reach the Amir. You intended that?"
Harriet Dover came in with Jonesey before Gup could answer. As a matter of fact he did not know what to answer: whether to take the credit for a deliberate attempt to offend the Amir, or to admit that he had merely spoken at random, intuitively taking a downright attitude toward men who he thought were bluffing.
Harriet Dover's soft, dark, Celtic eyes observed him calmly, but he thought he detected something else than calmness in their depths. The Ranee spoke first:
"Harriet, what understanding have we with the Amir?"
"Anything tentative?" Gup asked her.
"We have been in communication for some time, through unofficial channels—through spies and so on."
"What was the subject of negotiations?"
"None. He wanted to know what our intentions are. There was some very cautious inquiry as to whether we would make common cause with him if he should decide to invade India. Also he wanted to know what our claims amount to—how much territory we pretend to govern."
"What was your answer?"
"Very evasive. Practically nothing."
"What did you mean just now by saying that I have undone the work of weeks?"
"I regret having said that. I am almost on the verge of a breakdown from overwork. I was annoyed by your taking the reins in your own hands." Suddenly she flared up. "You were chosen for brawn not brains! It is your business to command the army subject to the Ranee's orders; mine to attend to negotiations."
"What are your plans? Why was I chosen, as you call it? What do you wish me to do with the army?" Gup asked her.
"If you wish to know the truth, I had nothing to do with choosing you. That was Rahman's doing. I objected to it, and to you. Nevertheless, I have loyally concurred, since I was overruled."
Gup turned to the Ranee. "Thanks," he said. "That is as much as I need to know at the moment."
But Harriet Dover was not to be dismissed so easily. She declared she was feeling faint and asked whether she might be seated. At a nod from the Ranee she took the chair on which Gup had sat during the conference with the Shinwari chiefs. She sat sidewise, so that Gup saw her in profile; he decided she was suspicious and keyed to alertness, not faint. He turned to the Ranee again:
"You expect to establish a kingdom here. Am I to use this army for defensive purposes?" He knew that was an awkward question. There is only one kind of defense for a new kingdom between two ancient adversaries. Even a dreamer would understand that. Rahman entered and stood silent.
"Harriet and I are not quite in agreement," said the Ranee. "She has tried to persuade me to make an alliance with the Amir. I prefer to let him invade India if he chooses. I see no advantage in an alliance with him. I have forbidden overtures."
Then Rahman spoke: "By Allah, Gup Bahadur, now you know why I was at such pains to choose a man to lead us! By my beard, it is right to let the Amir run his race, and he intends to do it; he will shoot down Khyber like a landslide. Then, say I, fall on his rear! And lo, we have a kingdom! Who shall deny us? The British? They will be grateful. The Amir? He will be caught between two armies and routed. And I say—by my beard I say it—march on Kabul. Half Afghanistan would welcome us; the other half would submit and be taught to be glad we had come. By Allah, I say: March on Kabul while the Amir runs his head into the Indian noose!"
Harriet Dover leaned back in the chair looking tired of an endless argument, but her eyes were bright and her voice was almost savagely dynamic.
"Do you think the Amir is such a fool as that? Well—wait and see. I have done my best. Remember, this army has no artillery."
"We will take the Amir's," Rahman asserted cheerfully.
Gup decided he had driven in his wedge; if he should go too far just yet he might cease to be the unknown quantity that it was necessary that he should be. He even tried to patch up temporary peace with Harriet Dover, although instinct as well as reason warned him that she was a dangerous friend and a deadlier enemy.
"There is time for us all to agree yet," he said, smiling at her.
"Time?" she retorted. "Much you know! The Amir won't wait."
"How do you know that?" he asked her suddenly.
Perhaps he spoke too sharply to a woman who had been living on her nerves for weeks. She winced and glared at him with hatred. For a moment there was almost triumph in her eyes, or so Gup read it; it was as if she forefelt triumph and tried to mask it. However, she mastered herself, and when she spoke her voice was calm:
"One expects to be able to guess things after studying a situation as long and minutely as I have studied this one. We will see whether my guess is right or not."
She got up and went to the Ranee's side, putting an arm around her. "Let Lottie decide it. After all, we must follow her fortune, mustn't we? What do you say, Jonesey?"
"Something funny, I suppose," said Jonesey. "I think Gup Bahadur will spring a surprise on us. Is that funny? Or will it be?"
As a woman who owned an army and was bidding for a kingdom that Iskander of Macedon won and lost, the Ranee surely was entitled to the last word, but Gup deprived her of it.
"Lunch—" she began.
He saluted. "Send me out a sandwich—tea in a bottle—no cream or sugar. Jonesey and Rahman shall show me the stores, ammunition and so on—possibly the men, too. You and Miss Dover can draw up the oath that you want me to swear. Am I excused?"
He saluted again and backed toward the door, where Jonesey and Rahman joined him, Rahman bristling like a hedge-hog with belligerent emotion and exuding friendliness. However, Gup noticed that Jonesey exchanged glances with Harriet Dover before closing the door behind him. He wondered why. He pondered that.
Within this life no moment and no man
May boast the long war won. Each victory reveals
Another view, another challenge in the van,
New opportunity. Faith's magic heals
Old wounds and weariness, re-lights old fires
That died untended, shows in vision vast
A new goal, new resources—then requires
Accounting of to-day, to-morrow, not the past
GUP hardly believed his eyes. Afterward, almost nobody except Tom O'Hara and a few Indian Government spies believed what preparations had been made within those caverns for a war that should alter the map of Asia. There was even a factory for making smokeless powder. There was no artillery, but there were machine- guns by the hundred and enough ammunition to outlast weeks of heavy fighting. In a cavern near where those were stored was a Pathan ex-British-Indian army infantryman with six subordinates, who instructed the tribesmen in squads of twenty, all day long, until squad after squad was sent home competent to handle machine-guns in action. All they needed was mechanical instructions; they were born fighters, of much experience, who knew every trick of taking cover and every yard of their rock- strewn mountainsides and valleys.
Some one had studied the secret of discipline, not of a standing army in rigmarole-routine barracks but of an irregular army in the field whose whole genius and only chance must consist in ferocious attack; an army that should live off an enemy's country and contain within itself small units that could automatically absorb recruits from conquered territory; an army that could move like lightning and strike venomously. Lessons had been learned from Iskander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. Each squad of twenty had elected its own leader, to whom each swore implicit obedience. Those leaders were taught in a school in the caverns. Each ten leaders presently elected one to whom, in turn, they swore obedience, and that one was initiated into a sort of secret aristocracy that flattered vanity while at the same time providing an atmosphere of mystery. Thus the higher ranks were closed against sedition seeping from beneath.
It is mystery, of course, that wrecks conspiracies. Successful ones are those whose leaders avoid the mystery that calls attention to them too soon. Nevertheless, they must have mystery, since without its dramatic cloak their followers would soon lose faith and interest. So each initiate of the inner circle, elected from below, was sworn to secrecy in the presence of his own subordinates, who were required at the same time to take oath not to question him or to discuss his secret comings and goings. From this inner circle selection was made from above with vows of secrecy again renewed, until there were actually only ten men justified in believing themselves in the Ranee's confidence; of the ten, one was a Russian, one was Jonesey and another was Rahman.
Rahman and Jonesey showed Gup through the caverns, introducing to him the individuals who had charge of the various stores. Rahman had been captain of the smuggling of supplies across the border; his horse business was the excuse for passing to and fro. And his pride as he viewed the stuff in store was something that he had to let escape in words, lest it choke him.
"By Allah, we used our wits! It was a simple matter for her agents to buy guns and ammunition, hospital supplies and all sorts of engines for making things. By my beard the money-hunger and the craving for meat and women are one; they cause men to sell what they have, for what they have not; they will sell in the face of the Prophet and in spite of all the laws that were ever made by governments. It was easy to buy. It was easy to bring the stuff to India. But how do you suppose we got delivery?"
Gup betrayed suitable wonder.
"Well—and this, by God, was my thought—we ordered the greater part of it consigned to the Amir of Afghanistan, in Kabul, to be routed by way of the Khyber Pass. And by God, on its way up the Khyber we stole it! He knew nothing. He knew less than nothing. I have a friend in Kabul who is in the Amir's ministry, so when the Indian Government sent telegrams and documents the answer came swiftly; the goods were ordered cleared and sent on up the Khyber. They were supposed to be the Amir's troops that came to act as escort to the camel trains. Wallah! It was I who led them, and I led them hither! There was not a man in the escort who had ever seen Kabul, and by my beard, nine-tenths of them are in these caverns now."
"What has become of the other tenth?" Gup asked.
"Mashallah! It is marvelous how easily a talkative man dies," he answered. "And that is an important matter, concerning which it is well that we should speak now."
They were standing in the jagged mouth of a tunnel, with the huge grim gorge below them and behind, in a cavern at the tunnel's end, millions of rounds of British army ammunition in the original boxes. Rahman stroked his beard and drew attention to the fact that he intended to speak with great discretion and in confidence. He laid a finger on his nose and rubbed it for a moment. He touched his dagger-hilt and glanced at Jonesey. He stared down into the gorge, then up again and met Gup's eyes.
"When a man falls from the summit yonder—to the bottom of this place—he is dead, by God."
"We have had such accidents."
Gup tried to measure with his eye the sheer face of the cliff that Rahman indicated with a gesture. He guessed it at several thousand feet without a visible foothold.
"Hitherto," said Rahman, "since we lacked a man with enough spirit and force of character to rule our Ranee, she has ruled us. And by the beard of him whom Allah loves, we have had to rule ourselves in spite of her, much of the time! For she has issued strange orders, such as no man in these mountains ever heard of. She, who expects to send her lashkars screaming into battle, commanded that none shall be slain for disobedience!"
Jonesey, leaning on his staff and framed in the opening against a blue sky, so that he looked like a saint in a stained- glass window, spoke, with raised eyebrows and scandalized lips:
"Do you realize the full significance of that? The full enormity? The only really popular sport in these mountains is murder. True, there is a secondary sport—that of cutting off the nose of one's rival in love; but that is on the whole more dangerous and is a game that is only played by the strictly Corinthian set. The universal outdoor sport during nine months of every year is murder, without any rules, and no quarter asked or given. It is such sportsmen as those who are to be chidden, not slain for disobedience! And by the Prophet's beard, the strange thing is that we don't dare to disobey her!"
"No," said Rahman, "since to disobey her would end in no man's obeying any one. And after all, it is she who holds the purse- strings. And it was she who thought of all this, and who had the courage to seduce us into it."
"We Moslems," Jonesey remarked, "also believe that Eve persuaded Adam."
"Therefore," said Rahman, "seeing that her law was inconvenient, we appealed to the law of Allah, who made universes and decreed that such as have no wings shall not fly. Who is she, and who are we that we should change the law of Allah?"
"Unthinkable!" said Jonesey.
"And so," said Rahman, "they who disobey in little matters, such as killing one another in anger or stealing one another's goods, are chidden, but they who talk are blindfolded, lest they should behold the fruits of sin and repent too swiftly. It is not good for a bad man's soul to repent in too much haste. And their hands are tied, lest they should do themselves an injury, owing to great grief caused by naughtiness. But since Allah decreed that men shall walk, not fly, their legs are left free. And they are led to that summit yonder, where they are turned around several times and then allowed to walk in whichever direction Allah chooses."
"What if they walk the wrong way?" Gup suggested.
"Bahadur," said Rahman, "there is nothing wrong and no wrong way in all God's universe. There is a precipice on both sides. Ten steps, one way or another, and they test the law of Allah which says weights fall downward. And at the bottom they are dead."
"Well?" said Gup. "What is your point?"
"It pleases us that a man has been found who shall command this army. Let there be no more nonsense about not killing. An army is not the blossom in a cherry orchard breathing perfume for birds to sing about. An army stinks! An army marches! An army fights! And by my beard, and by my father's beard, an army slays or it is slain! It is neither wise nor merciful to wean on pap such children as must fatten on the raw wind! Neither is it wise or merciful to wean young fighting men on punishments that would make an Afghan woman smile!"
Gup avoided argument. "What they probably need," he said, "is to have their noses rubbed into a fight." Fighting was probably unavoidable, there had been so much preparation for it. He could certainly not prevent it by preaching peace to people who think peace is merely a time of making ready for the next invasion of some one else's country. The tide was rising; at the best he could only guide it, narrow its course and make it expend its violence in the direction where it could do least harm. He began to feel sorry for statesmen, instead of rather despising them.
"And the news from Kabul?" he asked. "When will the Amir move?" He was wondering why Rahman, an Afghan who owned property in Kabul, should be at such small pains to disguise contempt for his own Amir. No law can make a man admire his king, but kings who hear rumors of disloyal speech can confiscate, and rumors fly like birds where there is neither road nor telegraph.
"God knows," said Rahman. "He is only an echo in the skin of Abdurrahman, who was a ruler whom Allah loved. It was Allah's will that the great Abdurrahman should eat what he could earn in poverty and exile until the time came when he had learned how to rule. And by my beard, when that time came he did rule. Neither did he poison any one, to reach the throne. But when he died, came Habibullah Khan, who was a weakling. He died by poison. And then this man, who is like a valley-bred stallion fed on poor hay, full of big notions but without stamina and swiftly wearying of hardship. He will snort at a challenge afar off and ignore the danger close at hand. When he does move he will be swift, but he will spend his effort swiftly. He will burst into India and win a victory or two perhaps, and then, because none has faith in him, his generals will get out of hand. From informing him they will turn to advising him, and from advising him to letting him consult with them. And from that it is one short step to ruin—and our opportunity! For I tell you, Gup Bahadur, as Allah is my witness, men whose leader has failed them by being as feeble as themselves desire another leader as dry men thirst for drink!"
"True," said Jonesey. "And a leader must conquer his friends before he may safely tackle enemies."
Gup was thinking furiously, as both men knew; they were watching his every gesture. He was beginning to feel now the reins of this team he must drive. He suspected Jonesey of being the originator of the whole plan, but no matter; Jonesey and Harriet Dover possibly concocted it between them. Rahman was an incident, like himself. They had chosen the ex-Ranee of Jullunder for their purpose because she had youth, charm, wealth and the necessary resentment against the Indian Government to make her welcome the suggestion and accept it as her own idea. Perhaps they had never even thought of it themselves until they saw her. And she had run away with them; she had had too much character and independence to suit Harriet Dover, not enough cynicism to suit Jonesey, and she was of the wrong sex to suit Rahman's notions of what might be accomplished with an army in the field. They had chosen himself to provide the missing element. Well and good; he, too, would run away with them! Rahman and Jonesey exchanged glances, noticing the new expression on his face. They lingered, expecting him to explain himself, but all he said was: "What are we waiting for?"
Presently they introduced to him a Russian—a dun-whiskered man in smoked glasses, whose finger-nails were nearly destroyed by chemicals and whose whole body had been twisted by privation. He spoke very little English but was anxious to talk in fluent German about his soul and about psychic forces that, he said, were changing human beings into something else. He was not mad, but he had run from Czarist and succeeding reigns of terror, southward through Siberia and into Tibet, where they had flogged him and then shown him mysteries that stirred imagination. Enormous altitude and bad food had contributed. Escape from Tibet had been an ordeal that destroyed all interest in anything but psychic life, and he saw that in terms of chemistry, because chemistry had been his first love. Gup was a chemical compound. So was he—and the hills—and men's souls. Everything was chemical. But Gup, who had been paid sixpence a day extra in the army for knowing German, wanted to know what the product of all that theorizing was.
"How much gas have you made?"
"Come and see."
He led through tunnels that made Rahman shudder and howl whole verses from the Koran, so that the tunnels boomed and reechoed with Arabic, and voices seemed to come forth suddenly from caverns that they had gone exploring, driving in front of them gibbering djinns. The Russian's electric torch showed hideous, fantastic crag and somber shadow. There was a warm wind that felt like the breath of some stabled monster; it was sour with the same faint venom that Gup had noticed on the Russian's clothing—a suggestion of bitter almonds. At the mouth of one cavern he paused and sent the torchlight streaming in, not offering to enter but motioning to Gup to step forward and look.
There lay eleven human corpses in a row, but they hardly looked human. They were naked and resembled mummies, only that they were yellow and most of the skin, parts of the dried flesh and even some bone had been eaten away.
"Who are they?" Gup demanded.
"Some of my men. Nichevo," said the Russian. "They were disobedient, but it doesn't matter. They touched what was forbidden, and now what are they? The same, doubtless, only chemically changed. And where are their souls? Nichevo. They are somewhere. Possibly they have gone into the cyanide. But I will show you others—older ones."
He led along a wider tunnel, downward now by steep hewn steps that had been worn by the tread of human feet. They reached a shaft and descended it by a wooden ladder into a cavern that had no other entrance than a hole in the roof. It was a huge place, its floor covered with sand that bore no close resemblance to the rock which formed the roof and walls. There were the rusted remains of what appeared to be a very ancient iron ladder. And around the cavern, their backs to the wall, like ghosts in conference, sat more than a hundred dead men. They were all naked. Some of their heads had fallen to the floor, but some were grinning, their dry drawn lips exposing yellow teeth in shrunken gums.
"Some more of your men? Why are they all naked?" Gup demanded.
"Look," said the Russian. "Some of their hair, their nails and their skin has also vanished. No, these were never my men. I am not so ancient. They have jewelry. Some of them have weapons. Go closer and look, but don't touch! That short man in the center, whose head has fallen into his lap, appears to be the chief."
What with the sand underfoot and the cavernous silence, the weird attitudes of the dead and the light-pools formed by the electric torch, there was a sensation of being under water. Footsteps made no sound. The echo of the Russian's voice and of Rahman's endlessly repeated verses from the Koran suggested the sound of water flopping into far-off crevices. But in sharp contrast to that the dry air made the lips crack and the eyes feel prickly. Gup strode nearer and knelt on one knee on the sand to examine the man who, the Russian had said, was the chief.
He appeared to be holding his head in his hands. It had fallen and lay looking upward at the place where it had been, suggesting an unseen phantom head still in position and gazing down at it. The features were not recognizable, but there were Persian rings on the fingers of both hands, a Persian bracelet on the right wrist, and there was an ivory-hilted double-bladed Persian dagger on the sand near the withered feet. Wherever metal touched, the flesh was eaten to the bone, and the bone seemed rotten with a greenish-yellow fungus.
"Come away," said the Russian. "And don't stir the sand as you walk."
Gup returned to the foot of the ladder. "Who are they? How did they die?"
"Who knows? Nichevo. They are dead," said the Russian. "They are possibly some of Iskander of Macedon's men, and I think they committed suicide. There was an earthquake. You know, this is a great neighborhood for earthquakes; there have been dozens in this place in two thousand years. There is one cave where I have found the feet and hands of men who were crushed under a wall that simply folded down on them. But as I say, I think these committed suicide."
"Who knows, and what does it matter? The hole overhead was open when I found it but the iron ladder had been unhooked and laid on the sand. It may be they were starving, or surrounded by enemies. They were here for the gold, I suppose, but there is no sign of their having found any; most of the gold had been dug out long before their time."
"But what do you think killed them?"
"This sand underfoot. Don't disturb it. There is an inch or two on the surface that is more or less harmless, nowadays. In their day, even the surface was probably poisonous. I think they sat there, said their prayers to whatever gods were fashionable at the moment, kicked their heels into the sand—and died."
"In Allah's name, let us get out of here!" Rahman exploded. "Devils are in this place!"
He began to climb the ladder. Jonesey followed, protesting he was not afraid of devils but of foul air.
"Which is the same thing!" said the Russian. "Watch lest that fool drop his staff into the sand! He might stir something. Some of the ancients had more knowledge than our scientists credit them with. Long before these men's day this cavern was a cyanide tank, although I haven't had time to examine it and study out the process that they used. This sand is a sediment left by evaporation; the lower layers are probably extremely rich in gold; I intend to find out when I have time, but one has to be careful with such stuff. Cyanide is deadly. Let us climb."
Gup followed him up the ladder, demanding his torch for a last look at the hundred-and-one dead men seated where they had sat, perhaps two thousand years ago, for their last conference. The Russian had grown garrulous; he hung like an ape from the ladder and chattered his views in German:
"These are the most amusing caverns in the world. There was everything here formerly, even radium, but there is almost nothing left except death and deadly poison. It is the most incredible geological mixture; it is as if all the left-overs were thrown here when the world was finished and hell was not yet thought of—I mean, of course, before man came and made hell necessary chemically and in every other way. It may have been hell's architect who did the original mining here! There were all the ingredients! Most of the cyanide comes from potassium ferrocyanide in contact with sulphur at high temperature caused by burning oil, but I can't tell you how the distillation takes place; Satan himself could not enter those caverns!—Take a last look. Can't you imagine those poor fools, more than a thousand miles away from home—they may have been deserters from Iskander's army—heartbroken at finding no treasure in here—perhaps hungry and hunted by the sweet philosophers who-live in these mountains—sitting down perhaps to share their last crumbs—probably thinking that the fumes and burning oil and boiling water were the work of Pluto and his devils—perhaps ignorant that the sand was full of deadly poison, or possibly knowing that and—oh, what a pity we can't look back and see! But they'll invent a machine one day for doing that—and then we'll know what idiots our ancestors really were, which will explain why we are idiots and it will all seem so hopeless that we will destroy ourselves and let the insects try to run things. Have you a cigarette?"
Gup had to urge him up the ladder. They followed Jonesey and Rahman to a breathing-hole hewn through the rock where twenty men might stand and stare into the gorge. They were a thousand feet above the boulder-strewn floor, and from another tunnel, near by, came the alternating sob and muffled thunder of underground boiling geysers. Nevertheless, there was no steam.
"There is a natural retort down there," said the Russian. "It condenses against almost ice-cold rock and—but you ought to come and see the stalactites!"
"How much poison-gas have you made?" Gup asked him.
"Very little. Twice enough, perhaps to destroy all the life in this gorge in ten seconds. I can figure it for you mathematically if you wish."
"What is it in?"
"Glass containers. Simply smash them and there you are, wherever that is. Everybody in hell or heaven instantly—in other words, in a different chemical combination. I sometimes think of doing it."
Gup gave him one of the Ranee's cigarettes and held a match for him. Never, even when he thrashed Glint, had he felt so impelled to do murder; one quick shove, and the Russian would have tested Newton's law of gravity and Allah's rule that only they with wings may fly.
"Before we try to use that stuff," he said slowly in English, "I will have to get some instructions from you."
Even Rahman gasped. No ordinary death could trouble Rahman, but—perhaps he was astonished at the sudden change in Gup's attitude; he had not imagined him capable of such thought. He seemed not to know whether to admire or shudder. Jonesey merely blinked. The Russian became genial:
"I am at your service."
"Do me a favor now," said Gup. "Where are your quarters?"
The Russian pointed down into the valley, toward where thin smoke rose above a pile of tumbled boulders. "I used to sleep here but it made me nervous, I have a hut down yonder."
"Writing materials? Good. Then go now and write me a report—in German if you like—on your poison-gas and how to use it. Have it ready when I send for it to-night."
The Russian walked off, looking happy, and Gup waited until his irregular footsteps died away in the distance; he had noticed it was never safe to trust the echoes in those tunnels; sometimes they repeated words distinctly at great distances, and sometimes not.
"Cement?" he asked at last, looking at Jonesey.
"Lots of it—in bags—I showed it to you."
"Take a dozen men and cement up the cavern where he keeps that damned stuff. Use plenty of small rock and make it solid—one cement, two sand, three rock should do it—several feet thick. If you leave an opening that I can find I will stuff you through it. Report to me as soon as you've finished. Come along, Rahman—let's look at something wholesome. Let's see the stables.—Oh, and by the way, Jonesey, take away that Russian's boots and pants and lock
Life's mystery is this: that what appeared
As strength is weakness, and the long-drawn length
Of loneliness, so aching dark, so feared,
So comfortless, shall bring forth strength.
Then Magic needs no Merlin. Then the shroud
That shuddered in the loveless wind of doubt
By instant alchemy is armor! And aloud
Hope shouts within, though none else hears it shout.
AT a reception that night in the throne-room Gup was formally presented to what Jonesey described as "the inside works"—a momentary, whispered lapse from Islamic dignity. Jonesey was on his best behavior, acting his favorite role of fanatical mystery-man. He had secret news for everybody's ear, which no one was to tell to anybody else, and he told no two persons exactly the same story.
"One of the Russians—he who makes poison-gas—is suspected of treason. Gup Bahadur ordered him arrested. It is said that the Russian was offered a lakh of rupees to loose his poison-gas and kill us all. Gup Bahadur saved our lives."
The news spread through the crowded chamber faster than Jonesey could whisper it. It multiplied itself in the fertile soil of feverish imagination. One version was that a British spy had wormed his way into the caverns and actually paid the Russian two lakhs of rupees in paper money; Gup Bahadur had found the money on his person. But an alternative, more plausible tale was to the effect that the Amir of Afghanistan had promised to appoint the Russian governor of a province if he would poison the Ranee and all her principal adherents. That story was made circumstantial by the fact that the Amir's personal representative was present at the reception, with two men in attendance on him who had reputations for intrigue. And Gup Bahadur had been seen emerging from a cavern near where the Russian was known to mix his chemicals; the Russian had vanished; he was said, by whom nobody exactly knew, to have been bricked and cemented up, to perish of his own foul mysteries.
And where was Rahman? And where was Pepul Das? It was known that runners had been sent to summon the army to its secret gathering-place; and on a peak that could be seen for fifty miles around there was a huge fire burning—the anxiously awaited signal to "make ready." There was magnetism in the air.
The Ranee was superb but not communicative. Through the Turkish form of veil that she had adopted for official purposes, she looked more lovely and mysterious than any princess from a story of the Thousand and One Nights; above its subtly curving edge her eyes were like Allah's secrets, marvelous and never to be wholly understood nor exactly the same from one breath to the next—and yet always the same in essence, always glowing with the light of an unfathomable riddle; they outshone her jewels, that men spoke of in the same breath with those of the Queen of Sheba, whom Solomon once envied.
All her companions were there, veiled as she was and making themselves agreeable in an aristocratic way to men who knew of no more thrilling entertainment than to be mystified by ladies whose gauzy veils were like the gossamer that rests on flowers. They have not yet forgotten, those Moslems, the lure of the vaguely perceptible, near, unattainable. It is only the known and possessed that turn to weariness and disillusion; wise men prefer illusion while it lasts, to the far more false reality, which doesn't last long either, as a rule.
Harriet Dover and one companion were beside the Ranee, on chairs on each side of the throne. In deference to the Ranee's wishes Gup had dressed himself in Pathan costume, even to bare feet in crimson slippers. He only lacked a beard to make him look like a descendant of one of those warrior chiefs who led their conquering hordes from the North in olden days; the turban increased his stature; the loose line of the white smock seemed to add to the muscular bulk of his frame; the flowered crimson cloak hung from his great shoulders like a Roman general's, and he wore in the sash at his waist a jeweled Persian scimitar-of- state. Because he was hardly conscious of what he was wearing he stood with almost inimitable dignity.
The Ranee hardly spoke to him. He had plenty of time to observe all the other occupants of the room, particularly a Russian in smoked spectacles with a mustache clipped in the German fashion. He noticed that the Russian talked with the Amir's representatives and that Harriet Dover watched the conversation as if she burned to overhear it.
After a while the Ranee made Gup stand on the edge of the low dais, where he acknowledged the bows of the men who filed past, introduced to him sonorously by Mustapha Kara Khan, the black- bearded captain of her body-guard. He was announced as Gup Bahadur, without other title or explanation and nothing was said at that time, by her or by any one else, about his being commander-in-chief.
That ceremony over, for a while he mingled with the guests, sipping coffee and talking politely about nothing in the world that mattered. The Afghan Amir's men seemed to avoid him, drifting away as he drew near. He had plenty of time to watch the Ranee's face, and he was aware that Harriet Dover's eyes, at no time lusterless and now made doubly brilliant by the contrast of the veil she was wearing, watched every movement he made and noted every person with whom he spoke. He began to wonder whether he could trust Rahman to set spies watching Harriet Dover; he was almost sure it would not be safe to trust Jonesey to do it.
When he backed Rahman into a corner at last where he could question him without being overheard he could see that Harriet Dover's eyes were watching him intently. He saw her make an almost imperceptible signal to Jonesey.
"Rahman," he said, "you spread a net for me and caught me. Nevertheless, I would like to be your friend. But how shall you believe that unless we can share one article of faith between us; for we are neither of one race nor one religion."
"By my beard, I ask no better measure of my manhood than your friendship," Rahman answered. "How shall we pledge each other? There is not an oath on earth that is fit to bind two men who look into each other's eyes. I like you, Gup Bahadur. If my life is as safe in your hands as yours in mine, we two should live long, if Allah wills."
"To you," said Gup, "I will open my heart, if you will open yours to me."
"Speak then," Rahman answered. "And may my tongue be torn out and my heart the food of town-dogs if I lie to you."
"Which do you serve? This vision of a kingdom in the Hills? Or the Ranee herself?"
"By God, I might have known there was a rock in the road! I serve the Ranee. What of it?"
"Well and good, Bahadur, and we believe each other. What then?"
"Why did you drag me into this? It was not because you feared your own lack of ability."
"What else should I fear?" asked Rahman.
"Harriet Dover?" Gup suggested.
"Then by God, we understand each other! Nay. Not her, but the Ranee's love for her! Lo, I went forth looking for a man for her to love, and I think I found him! That other woman is a devil—she and the Bibi Marwarid are twin devils. It was Bibi Harriet Dover who first thought of this madness. And as Allah is my witness, she has driven the roots of her cunning to the bottom of all this business, so that none can trace them or drag them forth."
"Do you believe she is loyal to the Ranee?"
"Allah! Not I. She is loyal to nothing and to no one but the devil in herself."
"Can you prove that?"
"Nay. If I could prove it I would have denounced her long ago. Who shall prove anything against her? It is to her that all our spies report. Little by little she has gathered the power into her hands, though without the appearance of it, until none knows what she is doing or how to prevent her. And she lies to the Ranee; but who shall prove she is a liar?"
"What about Jonesey?"
"He is a mischief in a man's skin. Not a devil, but a mischief. Jonesey is like a moth that turns for ever to the brightest light, but to him a bright light and amusement are the same thing; and what amuses him most of all is to see into the bowels of intrigue."
"What is the secret of Harriet Dover? Ambition?"
"Of a sort, yes. For herself, nothing; money and outward show mean nothing to her. But she loves power. By Allah, she loves the feel of it! She is never amused like Jonesey; she craves power as some men crave opium, and she hardly sleeps, she hardly eats for craving it. When she has some, she demands more. And she is more jealous than a money-lender of his money. It was she who set that Russian to brewing poisons."
"What was her purpose? The gas was an afterthought?"
"God knows it was—and a bad one. This I think, although I have no proof of it: she had a plan to poison the Amir. That might have put the throne of Kabul at our mercy. I would not take oath that she is not still planning that. But I think that she has an alternative plan. She is one of those to whom nothing is of any importance except winning. And I think she thinks that this army of ours can not win because we have no artillery. Therefore, you will notice, three of the Amir's men pay us this unannounced visit. And
I swear by God—for I have taken pains to know it—that she has exchanged messages with the Amir these many weeks past."
"Who are her special pets?" Gup asked him.
"The Russians—of whom that one yonder commands a thousand of our men."
"Do you believe she would betray the Ranee?"
"Aye—and herself also in the end, for the sake of the feel of having done the unexpected thing. Long ago I would have slain her—aye, and she me—had not each of us feared the Ranee's anger. For I tell you, our Ranee is royal and not to be trifled with. Her weakness is that she trusts and believes no tales against her chosen friends."
"Set a spy on the Amir's men," said Gup. "Can you set spies on Harriet Dover?"
"I doubt it."
"Try. Meanwhile, let us annoy her in every way possible. To me, who knows, perhaps, but little of such matters, she looks overwrought—we have been speaking of horses."
"True," said Rahman, and they separated, moving among the crowd.
The ceremony was a bore. It was one of those necessary social gatherings that serve to gild the lily of intrigue and make it look like shop-worn cabbage. One by one the notables were guided to the dais, where they stood in conversation with the Ranee, exchanging compliments, avoiding any reference whatever to the dangerous business in which they were all engaged. Many of them, in fact, had no other reason for being there than to be able, afterward, to brag to envious underlings of being in the Ranee's confidence. Others were there to be made to believe they were in her confidence, and those were led aside by Jonesey or the treasurer or the captain of her body-guard, or even by one of her veiled and subtly scented women, and were asked for advice on minor problems that had already been solved in secret. If they guessed right, they were flattered and told their advice would be taken; if not, their answers were received with solemn assurance that they would be well weighed and considered. It was the ordinary ancient game of politics, made picturesque by costume and important by the use of an air of mystery.
At last the Ranee dismissed them with gracious dignity. But Gup, the treasurer, Jonesey, the captain of the body-guard, Rahman and the Amir's three men grouped themselves as if they meant to file out last. And when the other guests and the servants had withdrawn the Ranee threw off all that air of mystery, although she kept her veil for the sake of the Amir's men, in whose presence she began by reprimanding Gup, in Pushtu:
"You already start imprisoning my experts? How many will be left in a week from now to do their duties? I have ordered that Russian released."
Gup smiled. One glance at Harriet Dover's face explained that speech. He wondered again whether the Ranee knew what deadly stuff the Russian had been brewing. However, he waited before taking up the challenge. Impetuosity and patience had entered into deadly combination in him.
The servants carried in broad divans and spread them with cushions, then withdrew, taking away the throne-chair. The Ranee nestled comfortably, several of her women grouped around her and the others whispering together within call, amid heaped cushions in a window recess. Gup and the other men spread themselves Roman fashion on divans arranged in a semicircle facing the low dais.
"Bakheir braiyed," said the Ranee, which literally means "come safely," but the purport of it was that the Amir's representative had leave to speak on any subject that he pleased and without formality. He sat bolt upright at once, cross-legged. His name was Rafik Khan—a man with sallow skin and Semitic features, of middle height and middle-age. His neat black beard was trimmed in the European style into a point, but he possessed more Oriental dignity than did either of his companions, both of whom bore the obvious marks of European education and the half- contempt for their own native culture that too often goes with it.
"I was chosen," said Rafik Khan, "for this honorable mission because I speak English with ease, as my companions do also."
The Ranee nodded.
"My august employer," he began again, "his Majesty the Amir of Afghanistan, does not consent to negotiations as between one equal and another. By my hand he has sent gifts, which I have delivered; by my lips he presents his compliments, which are sincere, and which he will be proud to have conveyed when I report to him the cordiality of my reception as his agent and the almost overwhelming dignity and beauty of her Highness the ex- Ranee of Jullunder, with whom I have been authorized to discuss certain possibilities—and," he added, "to whom I am instructed to make certain definite complaints."
"Let's hear the complaints first," Gup suggested. Rafik Khan glanced sharply sidewise at him, hesitated, almost visibly removed one layer of his suavity and adopted the suggestion:
"Great liberties have been taken with the Amir's name. Supplies not ordered by him nor intended for him have been dispatched up the Khyber, met by men pretending to be sowars of his Majesty's army and conveyed to this place. This has led to sharp misunderstandings with the Indian Government. Furthermore, there has been a persistent outpouring of rumor from the ex-Ranee of Jullunder's headquarters, to the general effect that his Majesty the Amir of Afghanistan contemplates invading India. This appears to have caused unrest in India, and that again has led to strained relations with the Indian Government. Subjects of the Amir, known by him to be disloyal and even openly rebellious, have been received here and placed in positions of trust. All these are matters that admit of no denial."
"Who wants to deny them?" asked Harriet Dover. "The Amir intends to invade. We know that. Our spies are as good as his, or better, and we know most of what goes on in Kabul. What interests us is: what does the Amir offer us as an inducement for our friendship?"
Gup seized his first chance to be irritating. "Pardon me," he objected, "are you using the 'we' in the editorial or the royal sense? Or are you presuming to speak for everybody present? I ask for information."
Rafik Khan, too, thought he saw his chance to drive a wedge into the ranks opposed to him. "My mission," he said, "is to the ex-Ranee of Jullunder."
But the Ranee only smiled; over the rim of her veil she was watching Gup's face. Gup thought that he read satisfaction in her eyes, as if a long-sought solution were dawning. Harriet Dover sat bolt-upright.
"If you had listened when you were introduced to me," she said, "you would have learned that I am secretary of state to her Highness." She appeared to decide to ignore Gup for the moment, although when she glanced at him her eyes glowed with anger.
Rafik Khan resumed: "His Majesty the Amir of Afghanistan lays claim to all this territory, as having belonged to former Amirs and as being neither effectively occupied, protected nor administered by the Indian Government, who have in fact no right to it whatever. These caverns are the Amir's property, and nine- tenths of the men who occupy them are his men, who owe him allegiance."
Rahman laughed—a risky thing to do in Moslem lands unless there is overwhelming violence in reserve with which to back the laughter. "Why then, in the name of Allah, doesn't he control his men?" he asked. "To-morrow I will show you fifty thousand who repudiate him!"
"What does he offer?" asked Harriet Dover.
"First, he demands that recruiting shall cease from among his subjects," said Rafik Khan. "To recruiting in the Punjaub he offers no present objection. Second he demands that the ex-Ranee of Jullunder and her officers shall accept and acknowledge his rule and shall send to Kabul hostages as guarantees of allegiance and good faith. Third, he demands that his own general shall be put in command of these troops. Subject to those stipulations, he is willing to appoint the ex-Ranee of Jullunder to be titular governor of this province, two-thirds of its gross revenue to be retained by her for administrative purposes and one-third to be sent to Kabul."
"By Allah! Is that all?" asked Jonesey.
"Does he propose himself to name the hostages?"
"Why, yes," said Rafik Khan. "It stands to reason that unimportant hostages would be no guarantee. It is suggested that the ex-Ranee of Jullunder herself might consent to reside in Kabul for the time being. A suitable palace would be provided for her, and she would be treated with all possible respect and consideration. She would be provided with a body-guard from the Amir's own picked sowars."
At last the Ranee spoke: "And what guarantees does the Amir offer in return?"
Rafik Khan made solemn answer, with the air of one who mentions almost superhuman goodness and generosity.
"The hand of one of his own royal relatives in marriage. The title of princess," he added. "And for her ladies, husbands also, each according to her rank."
It was a breathless moment that followed that pronouncement. Nobody cared to speak for fear of letting fall some phrase that might start an explosion of anger. However, Gup decided that an explosion, of sorts, might suit his purpose and was well worth risking. "May I speak?" he asked.
The Ranee nodded. She had changed color. She was biting her lip.
"I suggest that Miss Harriet Dover might be sent to Kabul. How many wives has the Amir? He might care to add to their number. As a member of the Amir's harem Miss Dover's recommendations might be presumed to have considerable influence with us." His eyes, that met Harriet Dover's, laughed at her, although his face was almost somberly serious.
"You beast!" she exclaimed below her breath, and Jonesey wriggled. Rahman watched Gup as a cat does a mouse, not moving. Gup whispered to Jonesey:
"Who invited the Amir to send this envoy?"
"She—Harriet Dover did."
Gup chuckled. Harriet Dover began whispering to the Ranee with almost savage emphasis, the Indian lady on the Ranee's left hand leaning closer to listen. Suddenly the Ranee spoke, with restraint.
"While we take time to consider and frame our reply to these proposals I trust that your Excellencies may rest comfortably in the apartment furnished for you."
Jonesey summoned servants. The Amir's representatives bowed solemnly and let themselves be ushered from the room. Then there was long tense silence, unbroken even by deep breathing until the Ranee removed her veil, which was the signal for everybody to begin talking at once.
"What does it mean? What does the man mean?" she asked, as if utterly mystified, but Gup noticed the gesture of her right hand that invited another woman to sit between her and Harriet Dover, who was forced to make room. Then the other women were invited forth from the window recess and in a moment Harriet Dover found herself so crowded that she chose another divan, with another woman, several paces distant. She was nearer to Gup than she had been and in a position now to turn her shoulder toward him with obvious intention.
"By Allah! It means war!" said Rahman, nudging Jonesey in the ribs so sharply that he winced.
"Who put these ideas into the Amir's head?" the Ranee asked. "Have I become so cheap a thing as this? Who asked the Amir to send envoys? Did you, Harriet?"
"I did not."
"Then in the name of God," Rahman demanded angrily, "why do we sit here hesitating for an answer? I say: March on Kabul!"
Harriet Dover smirked at him: "Without artillery?" She was trying to appear as self-assured as ever, but to Gup, who was watching her closely, she appeared more mortified than the Ranee did. Clearly, something had gone wrong with her calculations.
Haidar Singh, the treasurer, who had held his tongue magnificently hitherto, now smiling as if remembering how often he had said the same thing, remarked, "It costs more money to stand idle than to do business! It is all outgo now—no income! No one but ourselves is ready. It would be cheaper to strike at Kabul first, and there would be less risk. In Kabul there are money and munitions—"
Rahman, roaring again: "By Allah, every mullah in the land despises that weakling Amir. Have at him, I say!"
Harriet Dover was whispering to Bibi Marwarid, the woman who shared her divan. Suddenly she stood to call attention to herself, and gradually silence fell, because all knew that her authority was only second to the Ranee's, so that whatever she might say had weight.
"This ought to be discussed privately," she said, "before ideas are all scrambled in this way. Talk about war with Kabul is ridiculous, as well as treacherous and stupid. There is nothing but female jealousy and fear underlying this first offer from the Amir. His Syrian wife has dictated it. Undoubtedly the Amir's agent has a second offer up his sleeve, which he will produce now that he has saved the Syrian woman's face."
"Music! Let us have music!" said the Ranee, clapping her hands. "There is nothing like music to subdue the wrong sort of excitement and let the right sort usher in ideas. Music!"
But the servants, beyond the door, did not hear the summons. Jonesey had to go and give the order. Harriet Dover, with a glare of dark loathing at Gup, lay again on the divan and turned her shoulder toward him. Gup touched her shoulder, not caring to raise his voice. She faced him with sullen eyes. She was afraid of him; her intuition seemed to warn her that his honest, windy- blue eyes understood her at last.
"How long have you known Lottie?" he asked her.
"Is that your business?"
"Some one on the inside must have aided Glint," he said, "when Glint was working to prevent her being Ranee of Jullunder."
Soft music stole on the senses and Jonesey returned to his place beside Gup. "Some one," said Gup, "made it easy for Glint. And some one put the thought into her head of making herself Ranee of a larger kingdom—some one who craved power and lacked a means of reaching it."
The music swelled into a rambling minor symphony that swept through curving corridors of vague thought, hinting at an unborn concept. Harriet Dover glared, her lips slightly parted, not visibly breathing—a dark pantheress, not to be tempted to speak or spring until she knew her adversary's purpose.
"Not she—some one else engaged that Russian to make poison- gas. Not she—some one else released him after I had ordered his arrest—some one who lied to her. Did you"—suddenly Gup drove his challenge home—"first think of poisoning the Amir's wife, or did the poison put the thought into your head? I ask because I know you wrote secretly to the Amir suggesting he should strengthen his own position by—"
"You insolent blond beast!" she exploded. "You liar!" But Gup knew by the fear in her eyes that he had guessed too near to the truth to need to hesitate another moment. He stood up, and from the gallery the music swelled into galloping sound like the sport of the squadrons of forces that gather before storm bursts on crag and valley.
"May I speak?" he asked, and there was instant silence except for the ominous music.
The Ranee nodded.
"Miss Dover," said Gup, "has given me information that for the moment, I think, should be secret. It should be discussed by you and her and me before any one else hears it. Is that your pleasure?"
The Ranee glanced at the door of the silver-peacock room. Gup nodded. She rose and everybody scrambled to his feet.
"Will you come with me, Harriet? Will you follow us?"
Gup let them cross half of the length of the room before he turned to Jonesey.
"Stand by the door," he commanded, "and see that no one listens. If I catch you listening, I'll kill you!"
Then with long swift strides he overtook the Ranee and, bowing, drew back for her the curtain that concealed the door of the room in which he had made his first bold bid for victory. This time he was going to strike so hard that there should be no doubt left who owned the upper hand and who would keep it, from that day onward.
There is a starry tide of cosmic sweep
Whereon paired harbor-lights of red and green
Sway, beckoning across that wondrous deep,
The stubborn rocks and sucking sands between,
Swift fleets of inspiration that the cry
Of a gallant heart went seeking—Valor red,
Green Virtue. Instant the reply!
But only homing whither harbor-lights have led.
GUP strode to the farther door, opened it, made sure there was no one in the corridor, closed it again and drew the curtain. The Ranee stood at the farther end of the table. Strength seldom betrays itself; it is weakness that resorts to histrionics under stress. Her motionless silence might be masking indecision but it was more dramatic than a thunder-storm. Harriet Dover, the tips of her ivory-white fingers pressed against the polished teak of a chair-back, stood between them. She too was on her mettle, no longer glaring; she had mastered herself for the moment—looked innocent—even amused. The stare with which she favored Gup suggested pity rather than defiance. But she was frightened; it was she who spoke first:
"I suppose you know," she said, "that this man agreed, before ever he came here, to betray us to the Indian Government? I have proof of it and he just confessed it in the other room."
In a way that was clever. It stole Gup's thunder. Counter- accusations and denials seldom have the force of a first indictment; a tu quoque is always feeble. And her calmness was in her favor; Gup was obviously boiling, and her bold lie staggered his sense of decency—a tactical mistake that gained her no more than a moment's triumph.
Men who have successfully tamed outlaw horses without the use of one unnecessary or unmeasured act of violence, are to be trusted even when their indignation is not to be measured in terms of speech. And Gup had done more than that; he had led innocents to their death for the sake of a dim ideal. Taken in flank he might be, but not made to behave irresponsibly.
"I make no charge against you yet," he said. "Tell your own story."
She laughed. "It is short," she said, "but not so sweet. I helped to catch you. I find that the fish wasn't worth the trouble. I know now what you are. That's all."
"I'll give you one more chance," said Gup. "It's probably not fair to expect a woman to—"
Unwittingly, without intention, he had touched her one sensitive spot. Meaning to be magnanimous, he stung her. She showed her hand. Blessed are the undiscoverable few who have no favorite obsession and no rift in their armor of self-control! Hers was inward rage against man's alleged superiority; rebellion against it was the basis on which she had built her whole campaign for power; she could not bear to have that foundation touched. She became a virago. Hatred overwhelmed her genius. It robbed her of even common sense, and Gup let her exhaust herself in squalls of passion that burned her because there were no tears to make it human and no concession to another's dignity to give it self-respect.
"What do you expect of a woman? Should she kiss you for incompetence? Love you for treachery? Praise you for being a pig in spurred boots? Oh, you swaggering cad! Oh, you hypocrite! Have we come all this way and built this temple to our own ideals, only to be mocked and robbed of it by a bird's-nesting Scots fool? You have no manners and no honor! You are supposed to be a guest in this place; you are given leave to go where you please and to see what you please because—incredible though that is—you were trusted! It was not I who trusted you. I had you watched. How did you use your liberty? Spying on us! Giving orders that you had no right to give! Undermining our authority! And I suppose you would call women the treacherous sex! Aren't you proud of yourself? You with a promise in your pocket of a pardon from the Indian Government if you can betray us and ruin our plans!"
The Ranee came straight to the point. "Have you any such promise of a pardon?"
"No," Gup answered.
"Liar!" Harriet Dover drew a letter from her bosom; it was in a square envelope marked "O. H. M. S. SECRET." She glared at Gup—dared him, delightedly, to try to bluff his way out of an unknown new predicament and, since he said nothing, tossed the letter on the table within reach of the Ranee's right hand. It fell face upward; he could read the typewritten address, to himself "in parts unknown—finder please forward." The Ranee opened it and began to read it, but she only read one line before she folded it again.
"This is your private letter."
"I can't say without first seeing it," Gup answered.
Harriet Dover slammed both hands down on the table. "Read it—read it—read it!" she exclaimed excitedly. "Lottie, there's the naked truth in that letter! No, he has not seen it yet. A spy brought it; we caught the spy."
The Ranee glanced at Gup again. "Do you care if I read it?—No, here, read it yourself first."
She held it out. He strode and took it from her.
"Oh, you poor weak thing!" exclaimed Harriet Dover. "That is the sort of misguided magnanimity that turns the ablest women into fools! Can you imagine a man behaving that way to a woman? Oh, well—let him read it! I have had it copied. If he tears it up it doesn't matter. Let us hear him lie about it!"
Gup unfolded the letter and instantly recognized Glint's determined handwriting, as legible as print except for the signature, which symbolized his character as perfectly as two initials and a name could do it. It was smothered beneath a bramble-bush of flourishes; it almost left in doubt the identity of the author of the craftily worded pages.
Angus McLeod, Esq.
Exact whereabouts at present unknown.
My dear sir,
After the disgraceful exhibition of cruelty, amounting on your part to a confession of moral turpitude, if of nothing less, and on my part to severely painful injury in the cause of duty, it could hardly be surprising if I should refuse to have further dealings with you except before such courts as deal with treason against the crown. However, duty first. My personal suffering and my natural impulse to have you punished must be laid aside.
I am presuming that shame for your recent conduct has overtaken you and that natural reaction, such as may be expected of a man of good birth and education, may come to your aid in your bewilderment, which is probably intense. I am willing to help you, not for your sake or my own but for the sake of duty, and I will accept your promise to do everything in your power to upset the ex-Ranee of Jullunder's plans and to bring her to book for her crimes.
In return for that promise, and provided you live up to it with all your might and with every faculty you possess, for my part I will let bygones be and will use the full extent of my influence to procure for you a full pardon for your past offenses. There are numbers of our spies beyond the border. Any one of them should be able to communicate direct with me. I expect to hear from you.
Gup handed back the letter to the Ranee. "Read it," he said. "It was obviously meant to fall into your hands. It's as typical of Glint as the way he passes the plate in church on Sunday." He turned toward Harriet Dover. "Do you pretend to have evidence that I ever made such a promise to Glint or to any one else?"
Harriet Dover waited, her eyes triumphant, until the Ranee had read the letter.
"I don't need to pretend," she said then. "Your own actions are enough. Lottie," she said, "Jonesey showed this man the charts in the number nineteen cavern. Two of the charts are missing! A man supposed to be a mullah from Samarkand or somewhere, who came in with the Shinwari chiefs but left them on the excuse that he wanted to say his prayers, has also vanished, leaving no clue except those missing charts, and this: he was seen to climb up on a ledge overlooking the gorge. It was on that same ledge that this man sat while he pretended to be having pangs of conscience! He and the mullah were there at the same time."
"Is this true?" the Ranee asked. Her voice and her eyes were tragic, but that was entirely unintentional. "You mean about the charts? I don't know."
"Is it true," she asked, "that you confessed just now to Harriet, in the other room?"
"No," Gup answered, "she lied about that, to protect herself from a confession that she made to me." Then the dreaded question came. Gup hated to lie to her but he knew he would have to. He must protect Tom O'Hara at all costs. However, the actual literal wording of the question saved him for the moment from a downright lie. Not that it mattered. It maddened him to have to be forced to love and deceive at the same time. It was a rotten world; he supposed he had to be rotten like the rest of 'em.
"Have you spoken with any mullah?"
"No—excepting Jonesey. I believe he is one."
"Did you see those charts?"
"Yes. Jonesey showed them to me."
The Ranee laid Glint's letter on the table. "Where is the spy who brought this?"
Harriet Dover's shoulders suggested vague indifference. "I understand there was an accident. He fell over the cliff."
"Why was he not brought to me?"
"He fell over the cliff, I told you." The expression was still of complete indifference, but insolence had crept into her voice, and it is the little, half-heard nuances that direct thought into the very channels that the schemer fences to avoid. There was a sudden change in the atmosphere—as sudden as when hornets hum forth, vibrant in the stillness. The Ranee's blue eyes widened and such anger glowed in them as burns up all irrelevancy.
"Harriet! I told you I will hold you answerable if men are murdered without trial and without even my knowledge! I forbade executions. War is one thing—unavoidable and sometimes honorable—sometimes righteous. But to kill men like vermin—I won't have it! Have you dared to order executions? Have you dared to permit them? Have you dared, after what I told you, to ignore them?"
"Do you mistake me for Omnipotence with myriads of eyes?" Harriet Dover retorted. "If you had your way your preventions would be worse than cure. Do you expect to govern savages by signing your name to a treatise on brotherly love? They have the law and the prophets. They don't need you for that!"
But the tide had turned and no sarcasm could hold it back. All kings, all queens are puppets to the extent that others build their thrones and others bring to them the filtered or polluted news on which their judgment must be based. But not even arbitrary rulers can be swindled all the time, and there is no more deadly danger than to let a man or woman of courage learn or suspect that nominal underlings are actually stealing power under a cloak of lip-obedience to principles which they secretly despise and disobey. Gup smiled. He could see what was coming. The Ranee saw his smile and read it rightly, because she was thinking of first principles, not of herself, and intuition surges along that channel.
"Did you say she confessed to you, Gup? What was it?"
Gup bluffed brazenly. "Send for the Amir's representative," he answered. And then, because he knew how little evidence he had and doubted that the Amir's man would fall into any open trap, he bluffed again, turning on Harriet Dover:
"Why did you order that poisonous Russian released?"
"I didn't. She ordered it."
"Why did you ask her to order it? Were you afraid he might send some message to her? And be brought into her presence? And be questioned? Were you afraid he might talk about poison? And the Amir's wife?"
"What does this mean?" the Ranee demanded.
"This," said Gup, "that if the Amir's Syrian wife should die—"
The bluff worked! Harriet Dover lost her grip on insolence and, in a well-masked panic, took the defensive. She was not yet beaten. Gup knew she was probably more dangerous in that mood than in any other.
"Listen," she said. "If the truth will out, let me tell it. Mayn't we sit down?"
The Ranee nodded. Gup pushed up the big chair for her, at the end of the table. He and Harriet Dover faced each other at her right and left hand. Harriet rested her chin on her left hand and Gup noticed that the chin was slightly undershot and longer than it should be; he wondered why he had never noticed that before. He laid his turban on the table; the thing bothered him. Harriet Dover drummed on the polished teak with ivory-white fingers.
"You admit," she said, "that this was all my doing? I mean, the original plan was mine. I thought it out. I conceived it. It is my child. You fell in with the plan and lent your money, reputation, good looks and such brains as you have in return for the title of empress and the opportunity to put into practise certain principles that you believe are practical?"
"I do not," said the Ranee. "I admit that I have listened to you—possibly too often. And that I have trusted you—perhaps not always wisely. My plan is one that I talked over with Jullunder before I had ever heard of you."
"Perhaps there are two plans," Gup suggested grimly. "Perhaps a cuckoo laid an egg in your nest."
Harriet Dover ignored him, or tried to. She leaned her elbow farther on the table, her eyes fixed on the Ranee's. "You will admit, at any rate, that I have done the work."
"I do not," said the Ranee.
"Well, then, most of the work. And you have approved of what I have done."
"Not always," said the Ranee.
"You have given me authority—"
"Too much sometimes."
"And I have actually had authority to act as your state secretary in negotiations with prospective allies and—"
"Within limits," said the Ranee, "subject always to my approval, step by step."
"But it has not been possible to keep you posted step by step. You surely know that. There have been too many wheels within wheels, and my time has been too occupied to permit my discussing with you every possible contingency before it happened. Think of the scores of instances where I have brought a finished negotiation to you, and you have confirmed it although you knew nothing about it until that moment. You knew there simply hadn't been time to waste on preliminary talk, so you trusted me—"
"Perhaps more than I should have done! However, I am listening."
"I have kept numberless plans in my head that I never mentioned to you, Lottie, because they were not yet ripe for discussion. But I have never once swerved from the main idea. I have lived with it day and night. I have thought of everything, including how to make you so strong when the time comes that not even the whole strength of the British Empire can unseat you. I know how you love peace and how you hope to impose peace on these barbarous people. But how can you hope to have peace if the Indian Government should be forced only to make temporary concessions? That might happen. They might even yield the Punjaub in order to gain breathing time, but you know very well you can't fight the whole British Empire for ever. So I have kept my eye on the future."
"And she has tried to do," said Gup, "what every secretary of state with an unmarried ruler on his hands, has tried to do since women were a bargain-counter on the political market. But you will notice this difference: more experienced diplomats have had the decency to be frank about it with their principals. The long and the short of it is, she has offered you, money and army and all, to the Amir of Afghanistan—as his wife, if he poisons the present one—as his queen, if he happens to keep a diplomatic promise. And the Amir has retorted with the offer of a husband from among his seedy relatives."
Harriet Dover almost spat at him. Her livid hatred froze the flow of blood, so that her face grew pale, her lips white and her eyes as darkly angerful as thousand-year-old amber.
"Liar!" she almost shouted.
"Send for the Amir's representative," said Gup.
Gup knew that the only remarkable thing about her breakdown was that he had stumbled on her "crystallization point," as they say of metals. She had cracked. There would be no mending her. Lawyers understand the process well enough; the most imperturbable witness breaks down and becomes almost idiotic when skill or luck or coincidence lays bare the concentration point at which weakness has gathered itself. Genius induces overstrain along one line. The weakness sets up somewhere else. She tried blustering.
"Am I on trial?" she demanded savagely. "If so, I demand a jury of my peers—all women! No man is fit to accuse a woman, let alone judge her! This man in particular is simply Nietzsche's blond beast. He is incapable of thinking. He has only emotions. He is good for nothing but hard labor, or to hurl himself into battle—if he has the courage—which I doubt!"
"No," said the Ranee, "you are not on trial. I won't put you on trial. But what shall I do with you?"
"Do with me? You? Oh, damn such insolence! You with your vaudeville brains—you!—do anything with me! I could have made an empress of you, if you had had the sense to leave yourself in my hands. But you turn aside for that blond animal! Go and show your legs to London! Go and sing balderdash popular songs to the sons of tradesmen! It is not too late—you look more like one of Bourgereau's Psyches than you ever did! They'll talk about your goo-goo eyes, and you can marry a duke and join the church and be respectable, after you've grown sick of this fool! Try me—you? You couldn't understand me in a million years!"
"I suppose," said the Ranee, "you have worked too hard and you've cracked under the strain. But I can't, just because I'm sorry for you, let my aim fail."
Harriet Dover leaned back in her chair and laughed, on the verge of hysterics. "Fail?" she mocked. "It has failed! You went to pieces when you abandoned me for this insufferable cad! God! Never in all my life, until this minute, have I wished I were a man! Oh, if I were a man what misery I might undo! What a sword I would use! What a lancet I would let into the ulcers that are rotting the world's life! And I would show such fools as you no more mercy than the lightning has for fat sheep!"
She was on the verge of collapse, drumming on the table now with the fingers of both hands. Gup strode to the door—opened it—almost caught Jonesey listening at the keyhole.
"Women!" he commanded. "Three or four of 'em!"
They were barely in time. Harriet Dover swayed in her chair and fell sidewise into the arms of one of them.
"Take her to her bed and call the doctor," said the Ranee. "I will come soon."
When the door closed Gup stood facing her and there was silence for such a long time that he began to count his breathing. He was in command now, and he knew it, but he was not sure yet that she knew it. He knew that in that minute the whole destiny of Asia was in his hands. There was nothing he might not do, with fifty thousand men to be hurled into battle—five hundred thousand craving to be led, on any sort of profitable foray, by the first man capable of leading—fifty million waiting on the plains of India to rise and welcome their latest conqueror! Nevertheless, he knew what he would do, and not do. And he believed he knew what passed through her mind; she would try to take the reins now dropped by Harriet Dover. And her pride would enter in. She would wish to show the Amir what it cost to slight the offer of her hand in marriage. He supposed any woman would feel that way.
He strode toward her. She was gazing at him but she neither spoke nor moved. He supposed then that she was grieving for Harriet Dover and he felt awkward, regretting his own lack of skill in consolation phrases. He, too, felt almost sorry for Harriet Dover—almost, but not quite. Nothing could alter the fact that she was a dangerous devil and probably not yet well out of the way. He felt far more sorry for this woman who had trusted her and who felt all her womanhood stung by the-Amir's insolence.
"Oh, I know you!" she said suddenly. "You despise me as she did! I trusted her because I loved her. She has tried to trade me to an Amir, for his harem. What will you do, I wonder? You shall not despise me. I will not endure that."
"Lottie," he said, "what do you want me to do?"
She stared at him. It was the first time he had called her by that name. He saw the light in her eyes soften and glow, and then harden again as she controlled herself. He had to set his teeth. He would not—dammit, he would not make love to a woman to whom he must lie with almost the next breath. Not if it broke his heart and hers too, would he fail to keep that standard of behavior flying.
"I want you," she said, "for my friend. I need one rather badly." It was a wry brave smile that she summoned. "Gup, you are seeing me at my worst. I don't mind—really I don't mind the Amir's insult. But it hurts to lose Harriet Dover—and I think it hurts almost more to know how long I have half-suspected her and refused to believe my own intuition because—Gup, I love my friends."
"What do you want me to do, Lottie?"
"Answer the Amir! Command my army! I will find out what Harriet Dover has done, and undo it."
"If I answer the Amir," said Gup, "I will defy him. And if I defy him, I will fight him."
"I wish that."
"You commission me to answer for you?"
"Yes. I wish it."
Gup, alone, strode through the door into the outer room. He strode straight to the dais. Rahman wished to speak to him but he raised his hand for silence.
"Inform the Amir's representative that we are ready with our answer," he commanded. Jonesey went in haste to do his bidding. Gup, Rahman, everybody remained standing. There was silence for fifteen minutes, seven women staring at the men, and the ticking of Rahman's turnip-watch as audible as a cheap alarm-clock! Then the Amir's representatives came filing in and bowed—to the vacant divan, since the Ranee was not to be seen (but a door creaked behind the curtain leading to the silver-peacock room).
"I am commander-in-chief," said Gup, "of her Highness the ex- Ranee of Jullunder's army."
They bowed again. Jonesey and Rahman exchanged glances. The captain of her body-guard looked better pleased than if he had been decorated on parade.
"I speak for her Highness," said Gup, "and I am authorized to answer, to the Amir's insolence, that such terms as he has offered are beneath our notice and we are no longer in a mood to bargain with him. I am authorized to add, that if your Excellencies' comfort can in any way be served, or your return to Kabul expedited, our resources are at your service."
Bomb-shells might have fallen and produced less consternation—less excitement—less explosions of the Nine-and- ninety Names of Allah. Dignity came to the aid of the Amir's men; they bowed and followed Jonesey to the door. Then Rahman:
"Son of the storms," he exploded, "know you what this means? Know you what Kabul will answer to that speech?"
"No," said Gup. "I am no reader of an Amir's mind. But is the army ready?"
"By my beard, yes, ready!" Rahman answered. "And the word is—?"
"Silence!" said Gup. "Silence until we learn the Amir's answer."
The mystery of inspiration needs
No new materials, no elements of chance.
The selfsame actors to another tune it leads,
Transmuting dead tread to a buoyant dance
Like nature's. Then the ifs and the perhaps
Change sides; sly treachery and dark deceit
Turn swiftly on each other and are traps
That take their own inventors by the feet.
RAHMAN chose Gup's body-guard, and that night Gup slept—on a cot in a bare-walled cavern—four hours, with a sentry at the door. Jonesey slept within hail. Rahman snored in a near-by cave until the tunnel rumbled like a subway. Pepul Das slept like a cat on a mat at the foot of Rahman's bed. Until Gup got up and strode away to breakfast in a cavern where through the window he could see the first pale light limning the savage outlines of the crags around the valley's rim, the tunnel was patrolled by the six-foot Pathans of Rahman's selection. There is nothing on all God's earth more personal than a hand-picked guard of Hillmen sworn to stand between their leader and all violence, of whatsoever enemy, and be it as subtle as slow poison or as menacingly terrible as blazing flame.
He found he might no longer eat until a courteous, hook-nosed giant with a black beard had dared death, sipping the coffee and nibbling fragrant food before he touched it. Even his cigarettes were handed to him by a man who picked the first one from the box at random and, not having any use for such effeminate things, chewed it in his presence. His personal cook and the six-foot stalwart, looking like an ogre from a fairy-tale, whose duty was to clean the pots and pans were ushered in and stood before him. By their fathers' beards and in the Nine-and-ninety Names of Allah, they swore it should be on their heads if their master suffered so much as a twinging bellyache.
A doctor came in—challenged in the tunnel with a noise like fire-irons falling, and saluted with the silent scorn of men who intended to give him lots of blood and mangled bodies to engage his curious zeal. He was a Sikh with diplomas from two European schools of medicine, a frequent correspondent in the columns of the Lancet and accused, by some, of being an authority on Freudian phenomena; by others frowned at as a fogy of the medieval school, half of whose stock-in-trade was superstition.
"Yes," he said, "Harriet Dover is ill, and I am not sure she was ever well. Nervous breakdown is a blanket phrase that may mean genius up a wrong tree. If you wished for a more illuminating label, I would mention hell's bells; it says less and it probably means more. I could draw you a curve of her physical resistance, showing how she simply had to crack. I have always considered her crazy. I am interested in crazy people. I joined this enterprise because nothing else could make me famous in such a short time. If you win—which you won't!—I shall have anything I ask for in the line of hospitals and clinics. If you lose—which you will!—they will shoot you or hang you. They will have to knight me! I shall be like the Spanish doctor, whom the all-conquering Americans had to leave in charge of the Philippine hospitals. Nobody could take his place. Nobody can take mine. I shall, of course, employ a press-agent; only he will be called a secretary. I shall revel in the well-earned and adroitly exploited reputation of being a brilliant organizer, whose ministrations to the wounded of both sides prevented lots of agony and possibly an epidemic. No, I don't practise surgery—much. I leave that to the labor-gang—I mean my specialists. Surgeons haven't any brains; they are mechanics. Come and see my plant."
He showed Gup through a hospital that, on the face of it, at least, would have done credit to the most efficient army in the world. There appeared to be nothing lacking. There were field supplies all ready to be rushed into action. There was a Russian who had licked a hundred Hillmen into shape as orderlies, and each man seemed to know what would be required of him when the murdering game began. There was a corps of stretcher-bearers. There were medical supplies in quantities beyond belief. The nurses were nearly all Anglo-Eurasians and Goanese, who had had experience in British-Indian hospitals, but there were some white women, several of whom were widows of British soldiers. Most of the surgeons and assistant surgeons were Bengalis, but there was a Japanese in charge of them who had won his laurels, as a young man, in the war with Russia—and had lost them after-ward for selling opium to Chinese through the parcel post. The ventilation of the tunnels was a miracle of ingenuity, contrived by making use of the natural flow of warm air upward; it was sucked up by the heat, a quarter of a mile away, of oil that had been burning in the bowels of the mountain, no man knew how many years. There was no pressure such as results from forced draught, but a constant, hardly noticeable flow of fresh cool air through every passage and into every corner.
Dr. Dost Singh did his best to camouflage his pride under a mask of cynicism, but he did not deceive even himself:
"Magnificent out of the dust it came," he quoted. "We made it out of nothing but a lot of caverns filthy from bats and owls. It's pretty, isn't it? But oh, when the slaughter begins! I'd rather be a pig at the gate of a sausage factory—less fuss—sooner over with! It's all on paper like a German army time-sheet, but wait and see what happens when we get the wind up!"
"Could you evacuate?" Gup asked him. "I mean, supposing a plane dropped poison-gas where it might flow in through the ventilating system, how soon could you empty the place?"
The question sounded almost casual, as if Gup were only asking for the sake of showing an encouraging interest.
"Oh, I've thought that out. That comes under the head of fire drill. Fifteen minutes for the patients. Longer, of course, for the stores—perhaps much longer, depending on how many men could be spared from some other department. Might have to abandon a part of the stores."
"What would you do with the wounded?"
"There's a ledge, two thousand feet above us, protected by an overleaning bulge of the cliff—total area an acre and a half—and from there on up there is a practicable pathway leading to the summit. But gas is the last risk we have to consider. No enemy we have to reckon with would use it. Some of our idiots have been making gas from cyanide—suicide gas, I call it—deadly stuff—too deadly—kill us, too! I'd almost bet you that it creeps against the wind! And who knows what tricks a wind will play among these gorges?"
Gup made mental note of all that, but to Dr. Dost Singh he appeared to be skimming the surface of things and in rather a hurry to get to something more important. He betrayed small interest in the radio plant that Jonesey showed him presently; his apparently casual questions leading nowhere in particular that Jonesey could detect. And Jonesey was as keen to detect Gup's ultimate purpose as a medieval monk inquiring into the secret heresies of some one's soul; but all that Jonesey accomplished was to keep Gup thoroughly on guard against his curiosity.
Then Rahman displayed the fruits of genius. He claimed credit for the skeleton battalions that lay, hair-trigger ready, in the subterranean barracks. Numbers of the men wore medal-ribbons; most of them had served at least one period of enlistment in the British-Indian or Afghan army; scores of them had "dug in" in the Flanders mud, and hundreds had sickened and sweltered amid flies in Mesopotamia. There were Afghans who had fought alongside Arabs in the Allenby drive against the Turks in Palestine—and Pathans who had fought with the Turks—Afridis who had lain in London drawing-rooms converted into hospitals and convalescent wards—men who had toiled in the grime of deep-sea bunkers—men who had been submarined—men who were wanted for murder in Indian cities—men who limped from having served a prison sentence in the heavy fetters that they rivet to the legs of felons reckoned likely to escape. There were men who had traded horses all the way from Nizhny Novgorod to Bombay; men who had looted caravans from Trebizond to Pekin. And there were plain men, simply waiting for an opportunity to prove themselves as hard-boiled as the others. Each man was a nucleus, around whom others could gather when summoned by messenger or signal from near or far-off villages.
And to all these men the Ranee was the invisible core of the mystery. Even the majority of the senior officers had hardly more than glimpsed her, and then veiled. They had heard her royal voice, perhaps at night, addressing them in terms of faith in an ideal and a vision of unfolding destiny, but each man's own imagination had been left to fill in details and even to suggest what the ultimate aim might be. Izzat was the one word handed down and tossed from lip to lip; it signifies the personal integrity and honor of the man who uses it. Each interpreted the word as freely as he chose, except that all knew it implied obedience to orders.
Punishments were drastic. There were cells at the ends of tunnels in the mountain, where no light ever entered, and no sound excepting once a day the footsteps of a guard who brought bread and water. There was a pinnacle of rock where a man could be strapped up naked in the sun by day and in the bitter night air, to reflect on the folly of protest against wheels of will when they are once set moving. And there was the grim "Tarpean" crag, so many thousand feet in air that it was painful to gaze at it against the sun; the crag on which the blindfold "accidents" were staged because the Ranee had forbidden murder. At the crag's foot, inaccessible and deep, there was a chasm into which no man had ever looked, unless from the summit; so that no man ever knew what happened to the bodies of men who fell into that dreadful place and there were shuddering hints about the gates of hell. The hints were no less serious because the foot of the cliff shone greenish-yellow in the sun and the fumes of sulphur now and then came stenching forth from only Allah knew what awful throat.
"They'll cut loose if they don't get work to do! They'll either join the Amir and make him invincible, or they'll plunder India on their own account. Or they'll obey me. Can I hold 'em?" Gup had led men into hell and out again, in Flanders mud, by being big and letting all men see him dignified and unafraid. He had the trick of making himself a center of attention, and he knew he had it. He knew that from now on, until the end of this adventure, he must play-act; he must strut his part in buskins on a stage where the applause would be men's obedience. He had nothing, literally no resources but his own height, dignity and mother-wit. He used them.
Obviously, since the Ranee cultivated mystery and unseen purposes behind impenetrable veils, his cue must be to do the opposite. That much was as logical and simple as arithmetic. He must show himself, and make men feel the thrill that follows confident commands delivered in a voice as vibrant as dynamic will can make it. They must think of him as the man on horseback; as the symbol, almost, of a dim ideal flashing into concrete form; as visible, audible, calm, unhesitating, proud authority. And he could do that. He could do it without effort. He could do it so easily that often his own countrymen had thought him arrogant and vain when, if the truth were known, he had been miserable with a sense of his own unimportance, feeling like an insect on the face of blind infinity. Because of his appearance he had been an irritant and an offense to "brass hats" and a target for the gibes of self-assertive weaklings; but a tower of strength to men in doubt and men in trouble. He understood that perfectly. God had given him guts and good looks; he saw no shame in using them, although he would have preferred the wilderness that Omar Khayyam praised, with Lottie singing to him and a book to read.
So he strutted his part, and he took the big black stallion that had been brought up-valley from the hut where Rahman left him—ramping full he was of corn and the whinny of stabled mares, and he rode like a grim Mogul to the long parade-ground where he watched the skeleton battalions put through their drill. They made him choke. The steady tramp of them was like the rhythm of eternal forces moving in the arteries of time, and he knew the emotion, and the craving for more emotion, that has sent the Caesars and Iskanders sailing on a restless tide, believing that they made it.
There was nothing rigid, nothing brittle or numb about those veterans. They swung with an elastic step. The motion of the line responding to Gup's trumpet-throated thunder of command was as exciting as the burst of surf on rock-staked beaches. There was unity of will, not gummed up by the goose-step glue that conscripts are supposed to need to keep them from milling in mobs. Their movement was as laborless and curving as the play- flight of carrier-pigeons—not a straight line in a thousand of them, and no hesitancy, nor a foot set wrong—until they halted at last with a thunder of grounded rifle-butts, and dressed, and stood like statues. Not a sound then, not a ripple in the ranks. But every pair of eyes looked straight at Gup's and seemed to ask him "Whither?" and to urge him with the silent pleading of a hunting dog: "Lead on, Bahadur! North, south, east or west is all one to the lashkar! Lead us!"
Gup avoided the Ranee all that day. He dreaded the thought of answering inevitable questions. Was it impossible to save her from disaster and prevent a war without playing the part of a hypocrite? God, how he hated it!
That drove him. He mastered and memorized details, gathering in mind the total sum of his resources. No planes—no artillery. Even the Amir probably had a half-dozen planes; he certainly had field-guns. The British-Indian army would have planes, artillery, tanks and, it might be, poison-gas, although he doubted that. He must avoid, at all costs and by any means, a sudden onslaught by the British army, which might elect to try to smash this outlaw army first, before the Amir could get into action. That would certainly start the Amir moving, and then who could stop the Ranee's troops from throwing in their lot with the man from the North?
He had no means of knowing that the Amir's spies were stirring such unrest in India that the Indian army had had to be kept at strategic points to prevent rebellion. Nor did he guess how much reliance would be placed on Tom O'Hara's curt report, sent down the O'Hara had escaped from the caverns.
One other point that puzzled him was how to account for the insolent over-confidence of the Amir's message to the Ranee. It was as clear as daylight that Harriet Dover had thought of poisoning the Amir's wife, whether or not she had made the attempt. Gup guessed she had probably made the attempt and had been detected. Certainly she had sought to make herself a power in Asia by offering to betray the Ranee into the Amir's hands, either as wife or prisoner. But how had she proposed to do that? The Russians? Rahman had said there was one Russian who commanded a thousand men. He thought of sending for all the Russians and examining them, but that seemed only likely to put them on their guard; so instead he sent again for Rahman, who was inspecting stables. He had to trust somebody.
"Rahman," he said, "we agreed that you and I are friends. I intend to trust you to the hilt."
"Speak on, Huzoor."
"This business is rotten. It can lead to nothing except ruin for the Ranee and every one of us, unless we act like men, not maniacs. You're an Afghan. But do you wish to see your Ranee in an Afghan harem?"
"No, by God."
"Do you wish to be the Amir's servant?"
"I would die first."
"Will you agree with me, then, that the thing to do is to save the Ranee from disaster and, by doing the Indian Government a good turn, to get amnesty for all of us, including her and you and me?"
"But by God, she will not be saved! I know her! She is proud and not of the sort that fears death."
"That Amir," said Gup, "has a card up his sleeve."
"There is this that I know concerning him," said Rahman, "he sits on a shaking throne and seeks a war to occupy his restless men and bring him wealth and prestige. He would dearly love to control this army of ours. And by my beard, if he could get our Ranee into his hands he might be able to control it. My thought is, that Bibi Harriet Dover has made him some such offer and that she has her plans all laid."
"Yes, but why should she do that?"
"Allah, that is easy to imagine! Our Ranee has compunctions—Bibi Harriet has none whatever! In the beginning, when wrath sat on the Ranee's brow and there was nothing to do but talk and make ready—organize—plan—smuggle, intrigue, it was easy to make the Ranee talk even of conquering India. Bloodshed, Gup Bahadur, looks less crimson on a map of Asia than on a square mile when the guns begin. So the closer we came to actualities the harder it was to persuade our Ranee to make one move that should bring on warfare, and that is a mood that stirs contempt in such as Bibi Harriet, who craves excitement. Allah! That woman would rather be torn on a torture-rack than suffer mediocrity! Her mild eyes are the mask of murder. Her slow smile is a silken sheath concealing treachery. These things I knew, but what could I do? Remonstrate? I was accused of jealousy! Lo, I hunted and trapped me a man who might solve the riddle—and here you stand, Bahadur."
"That doesn't explain the Amir's insolence. He is an Afghan. So are you. Explain it for me."
"Not so difficult. He is a vain man who thinks himself clever. He has heard of Mustapha Kemal and Mussolini—of Lenin and Trotzky—and he remembers the fame of Abdurrahman. He will emulate all those and surpass them in cunning! So—let us say that the Bibi Harriet convinces him, through secret agents, that she has a plan by which she can betray our Ranee to him—what then? How shall he be cunning? Shall he be beholden to the Bibi Harriet if he can help that? Not he! Remember: he is vain and inexperienced; he thinks the glamour of an Amir's name is likelier than not to terrify and turn a woman's head. And he knows that the Ranee no longer dares to retreat to India. So he sends that message, hoping she will realize he never would have sent it unless he knew he could take by force what he demands with insolence."
"Did you set spies to watch the Amir's men?"
"Surely. They were heard to say nothing of any import. But they set forth homeward laughing."
"Is Harriet Dover at liberty?"
"By God, no! I have seen to that. She keeps her room with only the Bibi Marwarid. They two are one twin-devil. Guards are in the corridor."
"Whom does she trust?"
"Jonesey and my man Pepul Das."
"And do you trust either of them?"
"Does she know that you trust Pepul Das?"
"Surely. But she does not know that Pepul Das would rather die than play me false. It is from Pepul Das that I have learned most of what I know about the Bibi Harriet."
"If Pepul Das should go to her and pretend to be indignant with you and me, would she believe him?"
"Insh'allah—probably. And why not? In extremity people lean on any prop that offers."
"As I told you already, Bahadur, that man Jonesey is a mischief, whom nothing but mischief interests. He is no seeker of rewards. He craves no power. If a thing amuses him, he does it. It is all one to him where the sun shines, so be he sits in it. It is all one to him who laughs or suffers, so be Jonesey is amused."
"And Harriet Dover trusts him?"
"Allah! Why not? Are they not two kidneys of one devil? Gup Bahadur, if it had not been for those two, none of this could have happened. Now that it has happened, if it were not for those two it might succeed! Thus wonderful are God's ways. There is no explaining them!"
"Are Jonesey and the Russians friendly?"
"He is friendly with every one."
"Particularly with the Russians?"
"And one of them commands a thousand men? Might not Jonesey have tempted the Russians? Might not six Russians and a thousand men seize the Ranee and surrender her to the Amir?"
"It might be," said Rahman—slowly—grudgingly. "The Amir undoubtedly has spies in this place?" Rahman admitted that more readily. "Spies are like the pox, Bahadur. They break out at all times in all sorts of places. There are good preventives and good remedies, but there is never absolute immunity from spies or sickness."
"So the Amir may be well informed of what goes on here?"
"Insh'allah. Why not?"
"Rahman, if you were the Amir, what would you do?"
"Bahadur, I would have raped this nest so suddenly that there would be no time to summon the troops from their villages. I would have blocked the entrances as boys block up a rat-hole. But for that he is already too late. The troops are already summoned to the swearing in of Gup Bahadur."
"What do you believe the Ranee means to do?" Gup asked him.
"She is a proud woman. She will not abandon her hope of a kingdom. And she is a loyal woman. She will not desert her friends, even though they betray her. Gup Bahadur, saving only Allah and a good horse, there is no such fountain of forgiveness as an honest woman. If the Bibi Harriet pleads sickness and pretends shame and contrition, our Ranee will forgive her. And then may you and I beware of vengeance!"
"But the Ranee, you think, will—"
"Allah! Think? I know, Bahadur! She will talk of attacking the Amir, but she will never fire the first shot. She will keep us bottled up in this place, doing nothing, until the Amir comes and corks us in! Harriet Dover will keep on preaching we have no artillery and after we are corked in, leaving the Amir free to plunder India, Harriet Dover doubtless will seek to escape and become the Amir's evil genius. Umm Kulsum is her true name! Yet if you and I should slay the Bibi Harriet, our Ranee would turn her back on us—because she loves her friends and is loyal to them even though they betray her. She would not command us to be slain—since are we not also her friends? But neither would she forgive us, because thou and I are not liars who would pretend to repent for a deed we had done in good faith. So we gain nothing if we slay the Bibi Harriet. How shall we save our Ranee?
By God, Gup Bahadur, I believe the answer is, we die with her! A man dies once. What of it?"
"Will you back me if I take the law into my hands," said Gup, "and force her to save herself and India and all of us? Will you trust me to try?"
"By God and by my father's beard, I chose you, praying to Allah three times daily lest I make a wrong choice. Shall I then not trust you? Speak your will, Bahadur. I obey."
"All right, Rahman. We agree to trust each other. Do your orders go with the guards at the cavern entrance? And with the Ranee's guards? Very well—make sure then that I can leave the caverns to-night without question. Don't say a word to Jonesey; I will take him with me. How many personal guards have I? Twelve? Pick me twelve more and swear them in; tell them to report to me. I want one Russian; the one will do who made the poison-gas. Arrest all the other Russians suddenly and silently. Lock them up where nobody can get to them. Turn the poison-maker over to my guards and tell them to keep out of sight until we march to- night. I'll need that black stallion, pack-mules, three or four days' provisions, two extra tents and blankets—and of course I'll take my cook and kettle-boy. Then take care that when I go to Miss Dover's apartment after dark to-night the Ranee's guard will let me pass. Will you attend to all that?"
"Insh'allah. And its meaning?"
"I was hunted and caught, to command this army, Rahman. I am going to do my job, that's all. I'm going to depend on your promise to trust me. And I will tell you my plan in detail first—before I trust any one else with it—but not yet."
"It would seem, Bahadur, that you make a poor start at trusting me."
"Not at all. I make a good beginning. If you knew my plan you would be trying to fill in details. Your own genius would be hampered. I would rather leave you free to act on your own judgment in an emergency. Now—when is the swearing in?"
"To-morrow midnight—full moon in the Valley of Doab."
"Be there and bring all the men, except of course the few details needed to guard the caverns. Count on me to be there, too, no matter what you may hear in the meanwhile."
"Very well, Bahadur."
"Send Pepul Das to Miss Harriet Dover. Let him say he hates me—let him say, if he likes, that I kicked him. If she gives him a message for Jonesey or the Russians, let him report to you, and you report to me. Whatever you do, let Jonesey think I trust him. And send Jonesey to me in my room before dinner. Meanwhile, Rahman, I am proud to share this difficulty with you. Shake hands."
Who breaks no vows makes martyr of himself
More stupid than the heathen in his hut
Who worships little godlets on a shelf,
Their idiot maws open and their blind eyes shut.
The inward essence of the spoken vow denies
That Growth is Law and there is seed beneath all sod.
To-day's accepted slogans are to-morrow's lies.
The maker of inviolable vows is God.
THERE was almost no twilight; darkness, in that deep ravine, came suddenly. The sun vanished beyond the ragged rim and, almost at once, pale stars appeared in a sky that was still day-blue. Fire after fire was lighted in cavern-mouths, accentuating gloom; there were fires three thousand feet above where Gup left Rahman standing. A thunder of drum-beats—substitute for bugles—announced roll-call before supper, and a sudden blaze of light showed in the Ranee's windows.
He strode to his quarters, two of his body-guard tramping along behind him. They were marvelously personal. Between splutterings, as they sluiced him down and scrubbed him with hot, and then cold water in his private cavern, he gave them precisely worded orders, noticing their enjoyment of the imposed secrecy—no oath, just orders to tell no one. That, too, was personal. Not trust, but suggested mistrust is what corrupts fidelity; if you know how to trust a Hillman, you may safely do it.
He was shaved, dressed and smoking, sprawling on a cot and waiting for the Ranee's dinner hour, when Rahman came in haste.
"Pepul Das has seen Harriet Dover. She is like a leopard in a cage—first lying down, then standing, then sitting, then pacing the floor. And she believed his story, or so it seems, for she told him to say to Jonesey that he knows what to do, and that the Russians know also."
"All right, Rahman. Where's Jonesey?"
"He is on his way here."
Rahman went and Jonesey came, as usual leaning on his long staff and looking rather comically pious.
"Jonesey, I want you to take charge of my belongings and show me a place to camp where I can get some solitude. I will tell you why later. Be ready to start after dinner, and meanwhile, kindly hold your tongue. Two of my guards will wait with you—they know where."
He gave Jonesey no time to ask questions, but went then, in raiment such as a Ranee's general ought to wear on state occasions, to the throne-room where the Ranee kept him waiting for several minutes. The commander of her body-guard, the treasurer, the doctor and a dozen other executives gathered around him, all of them excited because they had seen him reviewing the troops and knew he had been assuring himself that all was ready for an instant move, but he managed to parry their questions until most of the Ranee's ladies entered. He was afraid then that there was going to be a banquet, which would have ruined his plan, but simultaneously there came a summons for himself to the silver-peacock room, and to all the others to a dinner elsewhere, "where her Highness will join you afterward." The servants vanished. Gup admitted himself into the Ranee's presence.
"Well," she asked, "what do you think of my men?"
She had been crying—he supposed about Harriet Dover. Nevertheless, the merry Lottie Carstairs smile, that once won London, shone forth bravely to mock his solemnity. Gup could not help being solemn when sincerity obliged him to do something he disliked. It is really a sub-subtle sense of humor that makes a Scotsman turn his coat, as it were, inside outward; he is ridiculing his own embarrassment, but it passes for lack of humor which is not the same thing. The Scots lack nothing except immodesty to make them the greatest nation in the world. Lottie Carstairs had the genius to see through that enigma:
"You are wondering what to say to me about Harriet?" she asked. "Don't trouble. I have said it all myself. And now that's over with. When she apologizes I will take her in my arms, and you will see, she won't try to betray me again." She smiled. "How stern you look. Did you come here to preach?"
"No," he said, "I promise I won't preach. I'm going to eat your dinner, pledge you in your own wine, and then declare war."
"On whom? For God's sake—not on the Amir? Gup, you will use up all our strength and leave us at the Indian army's mercy! You mustn't take too seriously that message he sent. If there must be war, let the Amir declare it."
"War on you!" Gup interrupted. "Let's eat and drink. It may be our last meal together." He managed to force himself to smile.
She laughed. She believed he was joking. "Very well," she said, "fight while we eat. What's the trouble?"
"No," he answered. "I will eat with you as evidence of good will. After that I go—away from here. I intend to steal your army. With the army I intend to clean up this mess. Then I'm going to carry you off and marry you."
She suddenly looked almost deathly tired, and it dawned on Gup that not only he had been busy all day long. Thinking is harder work than doing. But she still believed he was joking, although the joke seemed heavy, as her slow smile and her raised brows indicated. The deaf and dumb maid began to wait on them.
"What do you mean, Gup?" The smile died and her face grew serious.
"Please smile," he answered. "I like it. I may never see you smile again. I am delivering a genuine ultimatum."
"Gup—what do you mean?"
"Exactly what I have told you." He signed to the maid to fill one glass with champagne. "Drink, Lottie. Then pass the glass to me."
She obeyed him—sipped the wine. He drank the rest of it in one gulp.
"Gup, I don't understand you."
"It's very simple," he said. "I have known for two days that I love you."
She was silent—staring at him.
"And Lottie, it is not given to a man like me to do things half-way. When I say I love you, I mean that without reservation. I love only you, and I propose to make you love me."
"Make me?" she asked.
"Make you," he said simply. "But I propose to play fair—fair to myself, for instance. It is easy to be fair to you—in fact more than generous. It suddenly dawned on me an hour ago that I have almost never been fair to myself. I propose to begin. Do eat. I am sure you need your dinner."
He set her the example. He was feeling fine now. He knew exactly what he was going to say and do; he found it easier than he expected; he was actually smiling. And she sat wondering at him with blue eyes from which bathing had hardly washed away the tears, saying nothing but with that mystic look of ancient Egypt on her face that made him think of Hatshepsut who sat on the throne of Horus. She made a lame attempt at eating.
"Lottie, I suppose you admit that you trapped me, at the cost of my good name and lawful standing in the Anglo-Indian community?"
"Yes, I admit that."
"That was an act of banditry. I have a right to reprisal. I take it—in the form of my personal guards, four and twenty mules, my horses, these clothes I stand in, and three days' rations."
"Are you mad? You can have anything you want here."
"I want you," said Gup, "but on my own terms. And I am going to have you. I declare war!"
"Aren't you talking a little wildly, Gup? Doesn't it occur to you how easily I could—I have only to summon my guards, you know."
"I am risking that. I am presuming that you know how to play fair as well as I do. I intend to fight you for your army, to- morrow, at midnight."
"Why?" she asked him. She appeared completely bewildered by his change of manner. "Do you imagine my army is not loyal to me?"
"Possibly it is. But I am also loyal to you. I came on this scene almost too late, and I have wasted valuable time pondering a problem that a wise man could have answered in less than ten minutes. You don't love me yet do you?"
"I don't know what to think of you. You make me breathless."
"Well," said Gup, "that's a very moderate reprisal, Lottie, for some very painful hours that you have given me! However, never mind, that's over with. From now on, you and I begin to understand each other, and you will understand me more easily if you remember that I love you with all my heart. Don't have any doubt about that, because it's true. I only wish I had had sense enough to love you in London in the old days."
She smiled: "Gup, do you remember that line of Gilbert's—'It was all very well to dissemble your love, but why did you kick me down-stairs?'—you speak in one and the same breath of loving and fighting—won't you explain?"
"Simple. You needn't fight unless you want to. You may surrender at any time. But, you see, it was you who began the war by making me an outlaw at the end of the first skirmish. I'm going to use your army to regain my standing in a civilized community—and incidentally yours also. If you have moral, or any other kind of right to capture me by force or trickery, I have an equal right to capture you. You propose that I should go your way. I intend that you shall come my way. There is the issue."
"Gup, do you propose to turn on me in a crisis—at a moment when I am shocked by what Harriet Dover did, and when the Amir may come down on us at any minute?"
"That's exactly why I do it," Gup retorted. "Tell me: what would you do if the Amir comes?"
"I would stay here. We could hold this place for ever against him."
"As long as food lasts! And meanwhile he corks you in with the aid of a handful of troops and is free to march on India with nine-tenths of his army! You see, Lottie, you're a wonderful organizer and dreamer, but you know nothing about strategy and nothing about war. Do you know what I intend to do?"
"You mean if I should let you?"
"What I will do is this: use this place as a bait for the Amir. If he is fool enough to take it and bottle up his army in it, all the better! However, I rather expect to catch him on his way here. Win, lose or draw, he will know he has been in a fight. I can promise him that."
"There may be no need to fight," she answered. "An army is a very powerful diplomatic argument. Let him invade India. He will probably agree to yield me all this country in return for neutrality. And he will also almost certainly be defeated."
Gup laughed. "Lottie, neither you nor I could hold this army neutral for two days! You have raised it, paid it, trained it, fed it with enthusiasm and pride in itself—now it has got to fight somebody—no matter whom. Furthermore, the Amir's promises are worth exactly what force can make him fulfill—not a scrap more. In addition to which, you would have India to deal with afterward. However, none of that is important compared with two main points, of which the first is, that I won't see India invaded if my life can prevent it, and the other is, that I love you far too much to let you make such an awful mistake. But arguments won't persuade you. I know that. I will have to prove it to you."
"I wish you would kindly not talk in riddles. What do you mean by prove it to me? And what do you mean about fighting me for my army?"
"To-morrow at midnight I am to be sworn in, am I not? Very well, let us both be there. I will come with four-and-twenty men. You bring as many as you wish—bring all of them. If I win the army, it's mine. If you win it, it's yours."
Her eyes brightened: "If I win, do you yield to me?"
"Never!" he answered. "If you win, you do as you please, or what you can with your army. I go—or the army shoots me—it doesn't matter. But if I win, the army will do as I tell it."
"I will repeat to you what I say now: that I love you."
"And you will expect me to yield to you? But you won't yield to me if I win? Gup, do you call that a fair proposal?"
"Certainly. Because I will lead you on an honorable course, whereas you would want to lead me on a dishonorable one."
"Oh, you Scotsman! You masculine, opinionated, obstinate egotist!"
"Guilty," said Gup. "But I love you."
He rose to his feet. "One more glass of wine, Lottie—just one glass between us, and then I'm off."
The deaf-and-dumb maid filled a glass. She tasted it; Gup drank the rest.
"So long then, Lottie. Next time we meet we join battle. Meanwhile, I pay you the compliment of perfect confidence that you won't try to stop me from leaving the caverns."
He was aching to take her in his arms, but he was the same Gup McLeod he had always been—as diffident toward a woman as if she were a mystical religion. He could smash her expensive impersonal plans and ruin all that she had built of material goods, but her personal self-respect was sacred. It was not that he was afraid of her, nor did he doubt that she liked him; he even half- suspected that she already loved him. But that was all the more reason for waiting until he was sure of it. Meanwhile, she was magnificent—no scorn, no bitter words, no threat, no scene. She stood wondering, watching him go.
Outside, in the tunnel beyond the anteroom was the Russian, buried in a sheepskin overcoat between two of Gup's body-guard. Jonesey was leaning on his long staff, looking more than ever like a stained-glass window saint. Two more Pathans stood near him but Jonesey appeared unconscious of being watched.
"Lead on—to Miss Harriet Dover's quarters."
Even Jonesey showed surprise at that, but he said nothing—led the way up winding passages and a stairway hewn in limestone, to a corridor where bearded Hillmen leaned on rifles. They stared, but saluted and made no effort to prevent Gup's passing. Was he not the new commander of the Ranee's army? Had not Rahman given orders?
Jonesey struck the teak door with his long staff. It was opened by Bibi Marwarid, scandalized.
"Such noise! She is asleep!"
Gup strode in, she backing away before him. There were two rooms, with a door between. He signed to Bibi Marwarid to lead the way into the inner room. She hesitated, but obeyed when she saw he would otherwise go in alone. Not a word was spoken until Gup stood one long pace within the inner room, with Jonesey at his elbow. It was a rather plain room, although the rock walls were hidden by Indian hangings and there was a dressing-table with long mirror and silver fittings. Harriet Dover sat in an armchair, where she seemed to have been dozing. She glared at Gup as if eyes could kill him, but her eyes met relentless destiny and she recognized it. "You two ladies are to come with me at once. Wrap up warmly. Throw what you need into a bag. My guards will carry it." Harriet Dover rose slowly out of the chair. "What does this mean?" she demanded.
"You are under arrest." Gup answered. Not wanting a scene, then, in that place, he added: "No immediate harm will happen to you."
"I am ill," she exclaimed.
"You may be carried if you wish."
"By whose orders?"
"Leave me," she commanded, "while I get dressed." But he did not doubt she had a pistol somewhere in the room and he did not propose to be shot in the back. He strode to the bed and seized the bedding.
"Are you coming?" he asked. "Or shall!"
She accepted that hint, nodding to Marwarid who began tossing toilet things into a bag.
"Haven't you the decency to tell me where I am going or how long I'm to be gone?" Harriet Dover demanded. "How do I know what things I need?"
"It doesn't much matter," said Gup. "You will need no ball- dress."
"No use telling a cad he is one. I am ready." She pulled on a cloak with a hood like a monk's and tossed another to Marwarid. Jonesey took the bag. Gup signed to the women to walk in front of him.
"You will both be gagged if you make any outcry."
Two guards marched in front. Two more followed with the Russian between them. Then the women—Gup and Jonesey—two more guards. Silence, and only the tramp of footsteps echoing down long tunnels—almost endless tunnels, that rose and descended and twisted and turned, until electric light ceased, but the guards had electric torches. At last they reached a cavern hung with stalactites, in which the rest of Gup's guard and the stallion and mules were waiting. Gup chose two mules that were lightly loaded and ordered the women lifted on to them.
"Lead on," he commanded.
And now Jonesey led, along echoing winding passages from cavern to cavern, until at last they came to a ramp that had been a waterfall, where four men had to hold the stallion, leaning against him, and the mules slid down with all four feet together. There were guards at the top of that ramp, who challenged, but accepted Jonesey's password, and then vanished into a cave where a fire was burning. And at the bottom of the ramp they found themselves under the stars in a narrow gulley between cliffs so high that the stars seemed to be set in purple glass that rested on their ragged summit.
One vow—one Vow Inviolable stands,
And none can break it. Neither life nor death
Nor devils; no thing made with hands,
Imagin'd or imbued with living breath,
Nor all eternity can alter it. Not sun nor stars,
Nor mob's opinion, nor law, nor learned lies;
No sin, lack, punishment, nor prison bars
Can change God's word: Who tries, shall rise.
GUP trusted Jonesey to show him a place where he could camp without interference, yet without being too inaccessible or too far from the central stage on which the coming crisis must be set. He knew that Jonesey -was suffering ecstasy of curiosity. He enlightened him enough to keep that curiosity alert and alive, while Jonesey strode along beside him, clinging to a stirrup- leather.
"To empty a tank of difficulties, pull the plug," he remarked. "I've pulled it. Now watch things happen."
"Only Allah can guess what will happen," said Jonesey. "But are you such a fatalist?"
"You'd call yourself an opportunist?"
"No. I'm a man with a job. I'm the plug; I have pulled myself."
"I have heard of pulling camels' noses, and one's own leg. Well—I'll put you where you can look down like an eagle. But of what use are your prisoners?"
"None," said Gup. "I am satisfied if they are no use to the enemy."
But Gup was neither to be drawn so easily nor disposed to let good curiosity go to waste. "I wish I knew," he answered.
"May I talk to them?"
"Talk all you like. Say what you like. But tell me what you learn."
Soon Jonesey vanished, making his excuse that the track was too narrow to cling to the stirrup. But that did not prevent him from walking beside a burdened mule. Gup could hear him, chattering to Harriet Dover as if there were nothing else to talk about beneath those quiet stars, than poets and the difference between Welsh hymns and purely pagan mysticism. He was asking no questions, doing all the talking, offering a frantic woman something else to think about than her own despair. As far as Gup could overhear he dropped no hint of what was really on his mind. He flattered her intellectuality; he made her feel there was no philosophy, no knowledge that she would not fathom. When he asked her a question at last, it was: "Which stirs your soul more: the cry of the muezzin from a minaret, or organ music?"
Gup could not hear her answer, a mule's stumbling interrupted, but her voice seemed to have lost its strained antagonism.
Hour after hour the trail led upward, along sightless ledges, around shoulders of enormous spurs that upheld ponderous, looming cliffs against a moonlit sky, skirting shadowy ravines in which a night-wind moaned of loneliness, until, soon after midnight, they reached a level place, an acre in extent, where once there had been cultivation and a spring wept musically. Once there had been a sangar—one of those rock-built fortress-houses in which Hillmen are weaned on wind and barley, but the Indian troops had burned it in a border-war. It was a cairn now, blackened with smoke. Along the ragged front there was a sheer drop of a thousand feet, but a wall had been built partly for privacy, partly to break the wind and keep cattle safe, but principally for defense against neighbors. Silver and luminous black in the moonlight, less than rifle range away across a grim gorge, was a similar ledge where a sangar once had been. There was a track, such as goats might use, connecting the two ledges, but it was more than two miles long, ribboning in moonlight, like a zigzag pen-stroke, all along the flank of the gorge and back along the farther side.
They pitched the tents. Gup went to the wall, when he had blanketed the stallion, and leaning on its breast-high bulwark, stared at the valley before him, opening a mile away between the edges of a broken range. An earthquake probably had done that havoc. Mile on mile, between enormous hills, there lay a moonlit plain, level and strewn with boulders, two dry rivers wandering across its face. Heaped around its rim there lay the wreckage of shaken hillsides, taking on fantastic shapes in the slow flow of a fluffy mist. And it seemed that under almost every boulder was a crimson fire. Dark shapes, that in the distance seemed like insects, moved in the manner of men in bivouac. No other movement in the world resembles that. They were not big fires; fuel was being husbanded. Gup tried to count them and to estimate the numbers of the lashkar lurking there, but beyond that there were several thousand men he could not guess their number.
Jonesey stole up silently and leaned beside him, spreading his splay-beard on the wall until his head looked like a battle- trophy stuck there to grin at the gates of death.
"I swear there is no god but God," he exclaimed, quoting the Moslem formula. "But what is God? And who are we? Look what a woman's idea can do to men who never saw her! If there is one man there, there are ten thousand. Fuel, food, ammunition—each man has carried his own from some hungry valley, or from some eerie such as the sangar on this ledge once was. You can stir men with the hope of loot. You can summon them with empty promises. But you can't hold them and keep them silent and obedient with less than an idea—an idea that is over their heads, but not too far over them, or they will call you a heretic. Have you a better idea than she had? If so, India is yours, my son. There are the men who will present it to you, seethed in its own red gravy!"
"What have you learned?" Gup asked him.
"Not much yet, except that she thinks you smarter than you are. She accuses you of having intercepted letters she expected from Peshawar."
"Wish I had," Gup answered.
"And she wants to talk to you," said Jonesey. "May I come and listen?"
Gup pondered it, drumming his fingers on the dew-damp stone. "Is she alone in her tent?" he asked at last. "All right. Crawl up behind the tent." He had a notion that the more that Jonesey knew, the more likely he would be able to trap him.
Noisily he summoned guards and posted them just out of earshot of low voices, taking care that Harriet Dover heard him order them to keep every one else at a distance. He whispered to them to let Jonesey do exactly what he pleased. Then he strode up to her tent, where she lay on a cot by the light of a candle- lantern.
"Care to talk to me?" he asked her.
"I may as well," she said. "You are the last card left. It's you or suicide."
"People who really mean suicide don't talk about it," Gup assured her.
"True. But you're the only alternative. That's why I consent to talk to you."
He sat on a mule-pack in the tent-door, where he could watch the camp and see her at the same time. His back was against the tent-pole. Moonlight spread the shadow of the tent in a pool of velvet-black behind him and he supposed that Jonesey lurked there—not that he really cared or thought that Jonesey was important at the moment.
"You are a much smarter man than I thought you were," said Harriet Dover. But Gup had not brought her for that sort of conversation.
"Shall I have that Russian brought up here," he asked, "or would you prefer to talk frankly without his assistance?"
"Are you bluffing?" she asked.
"What do you want to know?"
"About your sending poison to Kabul—and why you did it."
She paused so long that Gup began to suspect his bluff had failed. He heard a movement in the darkness at his back and wondered whether she, too, heard it.
"Oh, well, what difference does it make?" she said at last. "I sent a woman to Kabul with some poison for the Amir's wife."
"What an idiotic question! So that he might make Lottie his queen. Why else?"
"You know her now. You have talked with her. She is as hopeless as you are! Kind—too kind—sentimental. Is there anything worse? She can dream, but she isn't ruthless, and she dreads the mud and blood that make dreams come true. She would make a nice good-looking queen, but as a kingdom-builder she is a disastrous failure. Let the Amir have her!"
There was another long pause, broken by the noisy prayers of a Hillman of Gup's body-guard, who had seen the bivouac fires in the Valley of Doab and remembered what the Koran has to say about the baleful flames of hell.
"It appears to me," Gup said at last, "that in spite of your superior brains and ruthlessness, and her excess of sentiment, you are not so well off as she is. What do you suppose is going to happen to you?" Harriet Dover laughed mirthlessly. "I know you're not going to kill me, if that's what you mean! You're another of life's bitter disappointments. When you first came, what with Rahman's account of you, and your eyes and your great freckled fists and your shoulders, I almost hoped! It took me five whole minutes to undeceive myself. I was right when I called you a blond beast. You are a mere Nordic animal, full of hypocrisy that you think is your soul! Oh, you despiser of opportunity! Can't I tempt you even yet to sin like a hero? Take Lottie if you want to! Seize her—seize her goods and cut loose! I could make you conqueror of half a world. Or take me, if you like. I could never love you, but I could make you love me—and I could turn you into the man you will never be otherwise! But no, you won't—you can't. You have morals. I would rather have measles! Jonesey would be likelier than you—at least he has no morals. But he isn't a man; if he had been, he would have knifed you when you stole his maps."
Again Gup heard quiet movement in the deep black shadow behind him. He hoped Jonesey had heard that comment.
"What would you call failure?" Gup asked tartly.
Harriet Dover sneered: "Oh, I broke down. I know it. But it was too much work and worry, not stupidity such as yours and Lottie's that made me crack at last. But I'll get over it—I'm over it now. Are you the cad I've called you—or don't you kick a person when she's down?"
"What do you suggest?" Gup asked her.
It was her turn to be silent. She lay on her chest with her head toward him and the candle shining near her face. His face was as clear as a cameo in moonlight. He had laid aside his turban; she could study the shape of his head as well as his profile.
"You have imagination," she said at last. "You are a smasher, too, when you once get started. But you get drunk on romance like an imbecile! You are drunk on it now! Try to get sober and listen to me."
"I listen." He was listening again to noises in the shadow at his back, wishing that Jonesey would keep still.
"I am not romantic and not a natural born fool. Ten minutes after you came I knew we were done for! I saw ruin staring at us, with your great fists and feet making it worse every minute. Do you think I was such an idiot as to count only on the Amir, or to trust the Amir? I have taken every possible means of playing safe, and I will save you, even now, if you will listen to me. The Amir is on the move! I know it! That isn't guesswork; I know it! I have written a letter to Glint in Peshawar. I have offered to do what he wants in return for an amnesty. I can include you in that, if you can only intercept Glint's answer before it reaches Lottie's guards."
Gup looked relaxed, but every sinew in his body was ready to leap into instant action. Those sounds in the darkness behind him had become too noticeable not to make him nervous. It seemed impossible that Harriet Dover did not hear them too, although they were not loud. Perhaps she was trying to hold his attention while something happened. She began speaking louder: "Resignation is no refuge for my spirit! I can not be defeated as long as I breathe!"
There came a sudden sound of struggling in the darkness at Gup's back—then a gasp—then a voice: "I knew ut! Look at her knife—a yard long! Might have stuck me with ut! Damn all Afghan womun! Lie still, or I'll brain you with the hilt of ut!"
Gup did not move, except to rest his elbow on his knee. If Tom O'Hara was there, there was nothing to worry about. "Cheerio, Tom!" he said quietly. "Want any help?"
There came the sound of a terrific kick. Bibi Marwarid crawled on hands and knees into the tent in front of Tom O'Hara, who had stuffed her shawl so far into her throat that she was strangling; she got rid of it at last and lay gasping on the tent floor. Tom O'Hara squatted in front of Gup, his nose broadening and descending as he smiled. He was unshaven; reddish hair and wrinkles stirred in whirls around his owl's eyes.
"Where is Jonesey?" Gup asked.
"Slumberland. I hit um. Bad egg—lucky I didn't kill um. Should have. He knew her game. Fixed it up between um—stick you in the back and steal the works!"
"Where were you, Tom?"
"On my way from that other ledge to this one—half-way around the gorge when you arrived on the scene. Sick o' that place—no grub. Got a bite to eat?"
Gup summoned the guard, who commanded the cook, who abused the pot-and-kettle person, who apostrophized a wood-and-water-Joey. Presently a fire was lighted and the smell of coffee stole on the mountain air.
"She said ut," said Tom O'Hara, staring at Harriet Dover, whose face in the lantern-light looked wanly poetic. Her hair had come down; its dark coils shaded away into shadow; she was oval face and thin hands, nothing else—a phantom. "It's true she wrote ut. I saw ut—I've a copy of ut. She wrote ut to Glint and he answered ut. Here's his answer—see the blood on ut? My man Ismail stuck a knife into the runner. I've eleven men out scouting. News of the Amir, too—he's on the move behind a screen o' cavalry—they're half-way to the Khyber."
"Indian army napping?" Gup asked.
"Not much. Plenty o' news comes down the Khyber. A man told me this afternoon—he was hurrying hot-foot to join the Amir, but I think he's one of our men taking a long chance, though he didn't admit ut—told me our crowd acted rough at Amritsar—shot a thousand of 'em with machine-guns. He said it was a general was drunk. But I see ut. I see through ut. Shoot a thousand and save a hundred thousand—maybe a million. Hell to pay—and think of the foreign newspapers!—but they've got the Punjaub meek and afraid to lift a finger. Same with the rest of India—they think they'll get shot if they ask a question! The country's quiet. They can move the army. Dirty work, but I see through ut. Had to do ut. Glad it wasn't me that gave the order, that's all. I'd ha' done ut, though. I said they'd have to do ut—said ut a year ago. I wrote ut—doubt if anybody read ut, but I turned ut in—the report's in Delhi."
"Tell me about Glint."
"He's nasty. He'll live for ever, that man will; he's too mean for the devil to let him die. She wrote him offering to turn loose poison-gas and empty the Ranee's roost—wrote she has a Russian who will do ut if she says so. Stipulates a pardon for herself and any other woman she cares to name, also a hundred thousand rupees and a clean bill for Jonesey. Wants that all in writing, and reserves the right to settle in Kabul if she sees fit."
"Nothing about the Ranee?"
"Not a word. Forgot her, maybe! Glint writes back—see?—here's his letter. Tells her to do ut and trust him—trust him, mind you! Says he'll see she gets paid by results. Reminds her there's a reward for you dead or alive."
"Sure you knocked Jonesey out?"
"Stunned him good. What are you going to do with this young woman?"
"Two of them," said Jonesey. He appeared within the tent; he had crawled in through the far end.
"He has an automatic," Gup said quietly.
"So've I. So've you," said Tom O'Hara. "One of us'll get him. Had he two automatics? I've got the one was in his cummerbund."
Gup reached into the tent and drew out Jonesey by the beard. "Search him," he said, and Tom O'Hara went farther than that; he stripped him, using the Afghan woman's knife to cut the clothing from his back.
"No," he said, "no weapons." Then, to Harriet Dover: "Lend the man a blankut, he's indecunt." Jonesey shrugged himself into a blanket and sat perfectly calm with his back to the moonlight. "In the name of Allah, what next?" he remarked. "Myself and two ladies—three innocents—what will you do with us?"
Said Gup: "If I felt free to follow inclination, I would kick all three of you and turn you loose to walk to Kabul!"
"We could walk to Kabul better if you didn't kick," said Jonesey. "You have big feet."
Gup stared hard at Harriet Dover. "Do you trust Glint?" he asked.
"Then why did you write to him?"
"I hoped to be able to blackmail him. If he had sent a compromising answer—"
"I have ut—I have his answer," said Tom O'Hara. "There's enough in ut to break him when the burrasahib sees ut. They're all looking for a chance to jump on Glint. Negotiating on his own—trying to steal the credut—watch him—Glint goes home on half- pay! Hope I travel by the same ship. I've a girl in Copenhagen and my long leave's overdue."
"What do you want?" Gup asked, and Harriet Dover stared at him. "Shall I send you back to Lottie with a letter telling all I know about you?"
"No," she answered. "I will go with Jonesey."
"I am not sure I will not kick Jonesey over that cliff."
She laughed. "Then let me tell you. You won't do it. Why? Because you are a coward. You are afraid to kill a man."
Gup knew then how much he had risen above what he had been when he whipped Glint. Her sneer made no impression on him. He knew, and he knew it so well that he did not have to prove it, that he was capable of throwing all three of them over the cliff if that should appear to him wise. He could do it without malice, anger or regret. But he did not have to do it. He could see no probable danger in letting all three go. He could prevent their returning to the caverns to make trouble there. No goal was open to them except Kabul, and the Amir's army probably would seize them on its way south.
"The Amir," he said, "is welcome to you—you three and the Russian. The four of you leave this ledge when I do and you shall have a week's provisions."
"Mules, I suppose?" she suggested.
"No," said Gup. "You walk. I need the mules." He summoned the guards and posted them much closer to the tent, then strode away with Tom O'Hara to where coffee and hot cakes waited. To the captain of his guard he said: "If Jonesey, those two women and the Russian steal mules to-night, permit it. When you change the sentries at the tent, tell the relief to pretend to go to sleep."
"Why did you change your mind?" asked Tom O'Hara.
"I didn't change it. But if they think they are running away they will keep on running. I hope I've seen the last of 'em. I don't want to have to do anything drastic."
"Sure," said O'Hara, "I get you. Men in love are always that way. I've a girl of my own in Copenhagen. Me—I wouldn't bump a pimp off if I didn't have to. Gup, do you know this is the first coffee I've had since I left Peshawar! Hey-yeh! But it warms the hungry cockles o' y'r inner man! Here's to the man who invented ut!"
There came a day—a day of wakening
Wherein the essences of knowledge won
By travail set the Soul within the Thing
So swelling, as the seeds swell in the sun,
That habit like a split shell yielded. Deeds
Were as inevitable then as doubt had been.
It dawned in consciousness that all man needs
Is work to do and faith in Force Unseen.
GUP and Tom O'Hara shared one tent that night, Gup on the cot because O'Hara insisted that to "sleep soft" while on a job would ruin him; he seemed to fall asleep the very second that he curled up in a heap of horse-blankets. But Gup did not sleep until he saw four mules go stealing off into the night. The captain of his guard came and whispered to him to make sure that he knew it. Gup sent men to follow and make sure that the mules turned northward.
"Pursue them if they try to get back to the caverns. Otherwise let them go."
Then he, too, slept until the sunlight touched the mountain peaks with silver. When he awoke he saw Tom O'Hara sitting like a vulture in the tent-opening. Before he could speak to him O'Hara had a prayer-mat spread and was setting the example for all the camp, performing the Moslem prayer ritual, bowing toward Mecca.
"You ought to have joined in ut," he said presently. "You never can understand 'em until you pray with 'em. I used to act ut, but I've a girl in Copenhagen that's a saint. She taught me better. She heals 'em—laying on o' hands. She taught me to pray with any man, with 'em, mind you—no tongue in your cheek. I've learned 'em good since I took to doing ut. Cuss 'em and they cuss you. Bless 'em and they maybe wonder who gave you the right. But pray with 'em—I mean pray, not play at ut—and you can tune in on their emotions—catch yourself thinking their thoughts—if you're awake, you think 'em first—forestall 'em. Then the gov'ment says: That fellow's crazy, but he knows his stuff—he knows ut. And I do know ut. How do I understand you? I was an ostrich once myself. I'd be one yet if I hadn't one-time got a crazy notion to spend a sick-leave in Denmark."
"How about being seen here, Tom?"
"That's all right. Jonesey was the only man who knew me. All the others think I'm a mullah, who can talk English from having been in Delhi prison, convicted o' murder. The story is, I escaped by a miracle. But that's dangerous. They have a way of asking for another miracle. I'm good at prophesying, and I've the Koran pretty near by heart. But I can't heal 'em the way my girl does, and tricks—hell, they're too risky. All the same, we're going to have to stage a miracle. Listen to me, now."
They strolled together to the wall and looked over but nothing could be seen. The fluffy mist had gathered in the gorge and lay there like cotton wadding.
Eagles sat preening their wings on the crags, waiting for wind to move the mist and make things visible.
"Midnight to-night," said Tom O'Hara, "there'll be upward of thirty thousand men in that valley below. Maybe you knew ut. I've been there talking with 'em, when they first began to drift in. They say fifty thousand, not counting the Ranee's regulars. I say thirty thousand all told, and I'm nearer the mark. That's thirty thousand sticks o' dynamite. How did you leave the Ranee?"
Gup told him in full detail all that had happened since they last met. The only detail he avoided was the intimate personal one, but Tom O'Hara, with a strange reddish gleam in his eyes, filled in those gaps easily.
"I knew ut. If you scratch a Moslem in Morocco, Gup, a Moslem bleeds in Kandahar. Did you suppose you could even like that woman and all these hills not know you love her? Ostrich! It's all over the hills that you went in there and took her, honest outlaw fashion. Hell! D'you know how fast a rumor travels? It's in Kabul by this time. The Amir knows all about ut, multiplied by X and carried to the nth. He's on his way, behind a screen o' cavalry. He's not moving, I'll bet you, as fast as he thought he would. You can't run India, you know, and snooze on the job. Our folks sent some lively lads a while ago to stir up the Shinwari tribesmen, and some others, and the Amir hasn't got it all his own way. Besides, I fixed um. I wrote ut and they did ut—for a wonder. He had lots o' spies in India and we fed 'em full o' strictly secret information, most o' which was: that if he comes we'll lay the country waste in front of um. You see the force o' that? He thinks he can't live off the country, so he has to bring an awful heavy baggage-train and all the money in the Kabul treasury. Do you know how those lads love looting? Some of his nominal subjects are on his flanks like flies on a sore horse. He has to use half his men, I'm betting you, to guard that baggage-train. That's me—I did ut. He's moving slow; and every hour is an hour against um. Our folks are mobilizing troops along the border faster than the Amir thinks. Now what was your plan?"
Gup hesitated. He had told his plan to no one. He was almost afraid to tell it to Tom O'Hara, dreading Tom's caustic comments. Almost any plan evolved in mental solitude looks good until it is spread before competent eyes.
"I'm to be sworn in to-night as commander-in-chief," he answered. "I propose to tell them that the Amir is coming to seize their Ranee with all her caverns, weapons and supplies. I am hoping to get them to follow me against the Amir, on the ground of izzat—honor. Probably can't stop him, but—I think he'll wish he hadn't started."
"Not likely there'll be any afterward. Lottie refused to be persuaded."
"Lots of the men may refuse to follow me instead of her. I'll do what I can with the remainder. And of course, you can't lead men like those from the rear. I'm pretty sure to get mine. But I think I'll stop the Amir long enough to let our Indian army mobilize against him."
"All right. Suppose you get yours. Nobody minds dying—except me; I'm off for Copenhagen soon as this show's over. What about Lottie, as you call her. What's she to do?"
"Depends on me, Tom. If I pull off what I hope, to-night, she may give in. That will mean I shall have all the troops—perhaps, as you say, thirty thousand. It's no secret from her that I think she has been doing wrong. She knows I intend to try to right it. I've given her the chance to find out whether or not she loves me. If she does, she will come with me—against the Amir. With thirty thousand men we will have a reasonable chance to make things hot for him. If she doesn't love me, what she will do will be none of my business. If she loves me, she will die with me rather than not undo the harm she has done. But we may not have to die."
"And then what?"
"I shall expect the Indian Government to do the decent thing by both of us."
Tom O'Hara's nose behaved exactly like an owl's beak, when he chuckled. His eyes almost vanished amid wrinkles and the reddish stubble of a five-day beard.
"Gov'ments," he said, "aren't decent. They can't afford to be. Gup, you're a cross between a bloody fool, a genius, a good sport and an ostrich. But I like you first rate. Now listen—Lord, look at that mist!"
The morning wind was moving and the mist rolled up in front of it in mother-of-pearl waves, green and the gray of rocks and pinnacle-crags showing where it eddied and broke. Then the sun arose over the range and tinted it with gold and opal. Into that glory an eagle plunged and came up sparkling with his feathers dew-wet.
"And there's idiots who say there isn't any God!" said Tom O'Hara.
Then the wind blew chill and gusty from the northern snow, and in a moment the mist scattered into tails and drifts, until only thin hurrying streams of it were left and the gorge lay naked.
"See um?" Tom O'Hara never pointed but the movement of his head was like an owl's.
Streaming along toward the broken gap that opened into the valley of last night's bivouac fires were men, looking like insects, hurrying in single file and shapeless with the loads they carried. First there were tens—then scores—then hundreds, answering the Ranee's summons.
"Mind you," said Tom O'Hara, "most of 'em are poor. They're tired. They're hungry. Some of 'em, I'll bet you, have met Jonesey on the way. He and the Dover woman and that Afghan she- devil will have told 'em three or four different tales to set 'em by the ears. They know by now the Amir's on the march, likely enough he'll loot the home of every man who isn't loyal to him. They're taking a long chance and they know ut. Soon as they reach the valley they'll hear the tale I told there yesterday."
"What's the matter with my plan, Tom?"
"Might be worse—not bad for an amateur. Let's patch ut. Listen, Gup: no plan's any good that doesn't lead direct to what you want. I want my long leave and a tickut to Copenhagen. You want Lottie. Am I right? Then get her, you big ostrich! Listen: I crossed the border with three thousand dibs in my wallet, a cake o' chocolate and half a loaf of bread. I gave away the bread and chocolate and spent a thousand dibs. That gave me five-and-thirty first-class hairy liars and five fair-to-middling information men. I don't pay liars to sit still and scratch 'emselves. They've gone to work. And I don't pay information men to keep me ignorant. At my game ignorance ain't bliss. So there's five-and- thirty different stories circumlocuting around the hills, not counting the ones I've told. And I know most of what's been happening. I know what the Dover woman did—and you don't know the half of ut. I knew Jonesey's game—and you'd never guess the half o' that. They're both cracked—they're as cracked as coots. She tried to sell you to Glint; she tried to sell the Ranee to the Amir. Unknown to you or the Dover woman or the Ranee, Jonesey tried to sell the whole outfit, you included, to a Shinwari named Bakar Sakao, who's a dark horse and might start a rebellion behind the Amir's back. And what for? She wants power. Jonesey's in love with her. The Afghan female is in love with Jonesey. Don't argue—I know ut. I knew ut three days ago."
"Is that the tale you've been spreading?" Gup asked.
"Hell, no. I've told fairy-tales. But you always have to have some truth in 'em—about as much as you'd put salt on meat. Too much is a mistake. Too little is stoopid. I've sent out five-and- thirty versions of a story that the Amir is on his way to bag the Ranee for his harem and to loot those caverns to supply his ragamuffin army. And I've paid two mullahs—paid 'em handsome—to go into that bivouac yonder and say—they pretending, mind you, that they have ut from the Amir straight—that the Amir intends to burn the homes, sell the wives and daughters and cut the throats of all the men who don't join his army before he gets here. There'll be some who won't believe that—there are always some sensible men—but they'll be outnumbered ten to one. So you see, it's all set for you. All you have to do to-night, at midnight, is to play your ace of trumps."
"What if they take the mullahs at their word and flock over to the Amir?" Gup suggested.
"What if ut snows ink? Things don't happen quite as suddenly as that. Don't they think she's a wonder? Aren't you another wonder? Do you think I haven't spread a yam about you, too? Do you think they won't wait to see to-night what happens? If you do, you don't know Hillmen. They'll be all there, ready for you to turn the trick on 'em to-night."
"Looks pretty much like my plan," Gup answered.
"Yes, but there's more to ut. You've got to keep 'em idle until the Amir passes, if you can. Then swoop down on his baggage-train. That's the worst that can happen if you play your hand right. Better yet, hold 'em and frighten the Amir back to Kabul! Try ut—I doubt you can do ut—he'd lose his control of his own men if he ordered a retreat—but you can try ut. And above all, don't let him seize those caverns! If he gets those he'll have a base that might take us years to smoke him out of. Now you know ut. You know the whole layout. Hullo—see that? Three of our planes. They're following the Khyber, looking for the Amir's cavalry. But they're too high to see much. They're afraid of the broken air among these peaks. Do you know what the Amir did? He has no planes. He made some dummies in the arsenal in Kabul, no engines in 'em, and stood 'em around for the army to see, to give 'em confidence. Fact!"
They breakfasted beside a small fire, and all that morning they watched the gathering lashkar pouring in droves and driblets through the gap into the Valley of Doab. Several times during the day a messenger found Tom O'Hara with news of the Amir's movements, but the news was never twice the same and for the most part Tom ignored it. He appeared to have a sort of instinct for discrimination between true and false. He also appeared to feel that he had shot his own bolt, and he had the rather rare gift of being able to sit still and await events when he had done his utmost.
"What's the tale about me that you've told?" Gup asked him.
"I've said you're Allah's sending. Mind you, I'm a mullah. What I don't know ain't in the Book. I've said you're sent to save the Ranee from the Amir. Listen: Look at me and look at you. You're six foot and how many inches? You're handsome. Have you ever seen an uglier specimun than me?"
"Heart of gold, Tom. Heart of gold," said Gup.
"Heart of impudence. My girl's a saint and she's as sweet to look at as a lily-o'-the-valley. I went up and took her. She thinks I'm wonderful. The Danish bloods were after her like hawks after a partridge. I met her one day, and the second day she was mine and she knew ut. I could whistle her half around the world from Copenhagen and she'd come."
Gup glared moodily across the valley. "Women vary, Tom."
It was then, at last, that Tom O'Hara sprang his knock-out blow at indecision. Even then he did not quite reveal the depth of the anxiety that had kept him all one night and all one valuable morning perched on a ledge while the Afghan army advanced hour by hour on India.
"Don't you see, you ostrich, that unless you grab her you haven't a chance? You walked out on her, and that was genius. And you took Jonesey and the Dover woman; that was genius. It leaves your Ranee up against her own problum. You challenged her, and that was all right if you meant ut. But she's a woman; she's going to have to know you meant ut. Idiot! While you've sat here she's been thinking and doing!"
"What do you mean, Tom?"
"Is she a suicider? No. Is she proud? Yes. Does she want to get caught by our crowd and put in prison for the rest of her life? Not likely! Has she brains? You bet she has. Is she desperut? O' course! She's just about had time to realize what Jonesey and the Dover woman did to her grip on things. Does she want to lose you? If she does, I'll eat my dagger! But will she give in to you or any other man without being made to? Hell! If she's that kind she couldn't have done what she has done. It's her privilege to be conquered—slap-up, good and proper. She has earned ut! And because you're half a genius and half an ostrich, you've made her think you're too romantuc to do any dirty work. Hell! Women aren't romantuc, they're ruthless and they want ut ruthless."
"You've disappointed her, and that was so stoopid it was almost genius! She thinks she understands you perfuct. She can see you riding through that gap tonight all ready to make a fine speech and steal her army from under her beautiful nose. Do you think she'll let you do ut? Hell! Unless she's ten times crazier than the Dover woman she'll set a trap and catch you on your way in! And if I know 'a' from 'izzard,' she'll send Rahman to the Amir to make a brand-new set o' terms. You'll end up in Kabul, a sort of he-concubine like a prince consort; and our Indian army will take a licking, for which I'll be the first to blame you, Gup, and the last to forgive ut."
"What do you suggest?"
"Go grab her—ostrich! Set a trap and catch her! Tell her where she gets off! When you ride into that gap to-night, she comes along obedient, not leading Gup Bahadur by the nose! You not only grab the army then, but you get you a fine woman that'll know there's only one man fit to look at. She won't think ut, she'll know ut! And listen to this, Gup. Listen careful. Gov'ments are no more romantuc than women. They listen to force and to nothing else. It's either force o' circumstance or votes or money, or else force o' bayonets and bullets that makes 'em behave. You've one chance for the two of you to come out o' this mess free and reputable. We might clear you, perhaps, but not her—unless you have an army in the field to bargain with. D'you get that? If you can offer quid pro quo, they'll treat you handsome. If you can't—well—you've heard of the six-foot argument? The hangman's rope—black cap—the Lord have mercy on your soul—a six-foot drop—and nothing more to say—that's over with."
"Not so simple, Tom, to take her in a trap. Suppose we set a trap and fail?"
"You won't fail if I talk to your body-guard."
"Talk to 'em then."
"I knew ut. I knew you'd do ut. I wrote ut. I sent a message to Peshawar yesterday. I said: Gup holds the joker. He'll play ut. Now I'll be in Copenhagen inside of a month!"
A word then that was but a word before—
A dead drop added to a sea of sound,
Whose barren offspring was an echo and no more,
Became more potent than the reeking round
Of massed artillery. One word could swing
Such forces into instant action as the sum
Of man's whole armament on foot and wheel and wing
Could not prevent, nor treason overcome.
BUT even Tom O'Hara had not understood Gup perfectly. He had gained his point but he did not know how he had gained it. Gup had made his utmost sacrifice. He had thrown his self-respect into the scale against the Amir's invading host. To him, with his chivalrous notions, there was nothing conceivable, less honorable than to set an ambush for the woman he loved and do by violence what he had hoped to do by force of character and rigid adherence to principle. To him, it was almost as if he had taken his proud soul and thrown it into hell for the sake of his own countrymen, who had outlawed him on false evidence. He would do what he could to save India—but at a cost that was beyond computing. It left him nothing—not a last shred of his treasured self-respect. But men don't see much while they are on the testing-rack. Some women see much more clearly. Onlookers sometimes see, but almost never understand.
That night, when the bivouac fires were glowing in the Valley of Doab, and before the moon had risen, Gup, with Tom O'Hara on a mule beside him, led the four-and-twenty stalwarts of his body- guard into a dark ravine that was nearly midway between the guarded entrance to the Ranee's caverns and the great grim amphitheater where the lashkar waited. It was darker there than any visible darkness; Gup's disgust was added to it. He was hoping that some accident would save the Ranee from his ambush, and yet knowing that he would use every faculty he possessed to foresee accident and to put her to that last indignity of being kidnaped. He could imagine her sense of hopelessness and crushed pride. He would have preferred that it should happen to himself.
The body-guard had been rehearsed all afternoon by Tom O'Hara, who had told them a marvelous story. They were to save the Ranee from the treachery of her own supposedly loyal protectors. Agents of the Amir, according to this owl-eyed mullah who appeared to know so much, had persuaded the Ranee's bodyguard to run away with her and surrender her, alive and lovely, to the Amir. He even named the exact amounts of money that the culprits would receive. Gup's body-guard, accordingly, was primed with zeal, its edge whetted by indignation. It was understood there should be no waste of gentleness that night. But it was also understood that there should be no noise.
The pass was narrow where that dark ravine loomed into it. The Ranee's regulars, with Rahman leading on a big brown mare, went streaming by like shadows, making scarcely more sound, because there was a sense of drama and of vast events impending. Gup's black stallion Iskander had to be thrown, and his head smothered under blankets, to prevent him from screaming a challenge. The Ranee's men had not brought the machine-guns and there were no impedimenta except their rifles and bandoliers. But almost at the last there came a gift of a hundred oxen from the Ranee, wild- eyed and crowding together in fear of the darkness that echoed their pattering feet. Thereafter, silence and a long wait. The Ranee's sense of drama was too acute to permit her to appear before the stage was set and the full moon rising.
It was certain she would not come unprotected, and not on foot. Gup had sent two men to watch for her coming and to bring specific information. One came back panting with word that fifty horsemen waited for her outside the gorge near the entrance. Presently the other came and said she rode, surrounded by her women, and that another fifty horsemen followed. Gup had four- and-twenty men, himself and Tom O'Hara.
She was coming slowly; four of her women were very indifferent riders, so the horses were held back to a walking pace; besides, the moon was only just appearing over the rim of the world; its light had not yet reached into the gorge, although the sky was aswim with liquid gold that made half of the colored stars look pale. Nothing was more certain than that her body-guard would fight like demons to protect her; that was a point of personal izzat, on which no picked Hillman would have two opinions; they would die to a man rather than let a hair of her head be touched.
But four of Tom O'Hara's hand-picked liars had been summoned and carefully drilled. They, and some unattached villagers, found wandering and bribed with unheard-of munificence, were stationed on a ledge that overhung the route by which the Ranee had to come. Between them they had one old service pistol and ten cartridges from which the bullets had been drawn. They also had sticks and cans and a can with pebbles in it. They were capable of sounding like a hundred men; and they were half a mile from where Gup waited, thus permitting him plenty of scope for action.
The gorge where Gup was hidden was defensible by ten men against ten times their number. There was a back way out of it that led by winding tracks and over a ragged range to a valley that opened southward, but in front there was only an opening ten feet wide, that was flanked by unclimbable rock, and defenders would have the advantage of darkness, whereas an attacking force would have to deploy in moonlight that was growing stronger every minute.
Gup had to spare four of his men to create a diversion in front of the Ranee's advance-guard. Instead of being stationed on a ledge they were concealed amid boulders that no horse could possibly negotiate, at a point where they could sweep the pass with rifle-fire. They were middle-aged men deliberately flattered for the self-restraint that it was hoped they had. Their orders were to make no sound until the men on the ledge, lower down the pass, should set up an alarm. Then they were to wait while they counted two hundred slowly. After that they were to fire one shot apiece at nothing. If, as and when they were attacked they might defend themselves, but until that happened, they were on no account to kill anything but horses, and not horses unless the Ranee's guard should gallop past them to take higher ground; then they might kill horses to prevent the guard from galloping back again. They asked why they should not kill men.
"Because," said Gup, "it will be hard to tell friend from enemy."
It was one of those plans that might go wrong if a flea bit somebody. It was a hair-trigger plan, of the sort that Tom O'Hara loved and Gup detested, but Gup was in no mood to enjoy anything just then. The details of the plan seemed burned into his brain and he could see a hundred flaws in it. To him, as the moon rose slowly and began to flood the narrow pass with silver light, leaving his own side of it in even deeper shadow, it seemed like probably his own last effort, and a shameful one at that. He would have laid odds, had anybody cared to ask him, of a hundred to one that the Ranee would escape. There would be some decent fellows shot, good horses killed, and nothing more accomplished than to arouse indignation. He himself would be left at large without friend or following, since failure is the unforgivable offense in love and war. Thereafter his only hope would be to ask Tom O'Hara to plead his cause with the Anglo-Indian authorities, and that was not hope, it was a vision of hell.
However, a man can suffer pessimism and still steel himself. The first sound of the hoof-beats of the Ranee's guard found him keyed and alert, and his voice, as he talked in low tones to his men, was calm and reassuring, so that they took their cue from him and were no more excited than leopards lying up in ambush. When he ceased speaking there was no sound other than the mysterious, slow drum-beat of the oncoming hoofs of the Ranee's guard—until their leader drew almost abreast of where Gup waited. Then a shot spat from a ledge half a mile lower down. The advance-guard wheeled and clattered back to surround the Ranee and her women. She was easy to see; the moonlight touched the jewels in her turban.
There was another shot from the ledge, followed by a noise that might mean anything—clattering, startling—possibly a hundred men, perhaps more. There was a leather-lunged shout from the commander of the Ranee's guard and the rear-guard galloped back to investigate. Another shot spat from the ledge and they answered it with ragged rifle-fire from horseback, making the whole ravine alive with echoes.
The commander of the Ranee's guard decided to advance, there being small sense in waiting to be fired at in a narrow pass, and he still had fifty men. He spared one more—he sent a galloper to tell the rear-guard what he intended doing, and what they should do. Then he resumed the march, his face in moonlight showing irritation rather than anxiety. He had not ridden fifty paces, and the Ranee was almost abreast of Gup's dark lurking place, when four shots spat forth from the boulders higher up the pass; their echoes went like whip-cracks cannoning from crag to crag.
The commander of the guard was swift. He made sure there were thirty of his men surrounding the Ranee and her women; then he led the remaining nineteen up the pass to investigate. They were met by deliberate fire from four well-hidden rifles. They answered it with vicious volleys. Gup heard the Ranee's voice but it was drowned in the din of echoes, and amid that din he let the stallion Iskander to his feet. He gave no order. It was the stallion who neighed. Gup and his men went bursting two abreast out of the dark mouth of the gorge, Gup leading. They divided right and left. They sent the Ranee's horsemen reeling. There were shots fired—there was saber-slashing, but it was all over in thirty seconds. Gup's great stallion Iskander came up sliding on his heels beside the Ranee's mare; she found herself seized in Gup's right arm, wrenched from the saddle and borne away into engulfing night. Gup shouted and his men wheeled, shepherding the rear. They were all of them back in the pitch-dark gorge before the Ranee's men could form again around the women amid riderless horses, wondering what had happened. Within a minute, a dozen shots fired from the top of the rocks that overhung the entrance of Gup's hiding-place informed them and sent them scattering for cover.
Gup set the Ranee on her feet and sprang to the earth beside her. He could hardly see her, but he seized her in his arms and kissed her on the mouth.
"Do you understand what has happened to you?" he demanded. "I have taken you, Lottie. You're mine, do you understand me?" He could feel her heart surge against his.
His men were keeping up a steady fire against the Ranee's guard, who had dismounted, shepherding the women behind boulders. They were answering the fire excitedly from behind any scrap of cover they could find. The captain of her guard had come galloping back and there was a stuttering din in the pass that almost drowned the Ranee's answer.
"Clever indeed, Gup! However, my men will rescue me.
Then Tom O'Hara stepped out of the darkness, leading Gup's great stallion that had strayed.
"He's done ut, your Highnuss! I knew ut! I knew Gup 'ud save the day. Now it's your turn and you save ut. Give you sixty seconds—sixty times enough for a woman to make up her mind! Yes or no? Is Gup your man or isn't he?"
"For God's sake, mind your own affairs, Tom!" Gup exploded. "Listen to me, Lottie." She struggled but he refused to let her escape out of his arms. She had her hands against his shoulders, pushing him, and even in that darkness they could see each other's eyes. "Either you yield to me now, this minute, on your honor or you come with me to India and leave that army to its own devices!"
"You—you do this treachery—and speak to me of honor?"
"I hate you!"
"No you don't. You only hate your disappointment. You'll recover from that. I'll show you how."
"You expect me to yield to threats?"
"Yes. They're more than threats. I will do what I say." He began to let go of her—loosened the weight of his arm.
"You demand to be loved?"
"Yes, or start for India this minute."
"Well—Gup—then I suppose you'll have to be! I didn't believe you were this kind of man. I had given up hope of you. Do you mind not hugging me in front of that person? Who is he? And besides, you hurt my ribs."
It was Gup who had to leap up on a shelf of a tall crag in moonlight and send his voice bellowing down the gorge to stop the firing. Even so, a dozen bullets splashed against the rocks around him before they ceased shooting in order to hear what he said. But it was Tom O'Hara, self-appointed liar to the Lords of Destiny, who clambered up beside him and explained, appealing to the Prophet of Allah to be his witness:
"Nobles, there has been an error! Word came that the Amir's men had ridden south to seize your Ranee. Word came they had seized her. Gup Bahadur heard it. Gup Bahadur rode with four-and- twenty men to rape her loose again! And lo, in darkness he mistook you nobles for the Amir's misbegotten dogs! But Allah, what a leader! What a Rustum, who can smash such ranks as yours and pluck a prize forth! Akbar! Akbar!"
"Akbar!" they answered, but it was not exultant shouting. They were ashamed of having let their Ranee be snatched away from them. Their izzat was involved, and Gup's men were more than inclined, they were next thing to impossible to keep from glorifying their own izzat at the Ranee's men's expense. The commander of the Ranee's body-guard was furious when he found he had been outwitted and beaten by such a handful. There were eleven of his best men wounded and three good horses slain; he swore he would have revenge for it. There was no calming him until Gup stood out in front of him alone and told him bluntly he might either touch hilt, go away and join the Amir, or fight with any weapon that he chose.
He touched hilt—laid three fingers of his right hand on the hilt of Gup's jeweled scimitar.
"Huzoor," he said, "I am proud of your offer to fight me."
That, though, was not the end of it. It only increased the high spirits of Gup's men, who were delighted, too, by the double deceit that had been practised. They were as pleased with the trick played on themselves by Tom O'Hara as with the grossly untrue explanation that had stopped the fighting. Lo, these were men of a double and mirthful cunning, this Gup Bahadur and this mullah with the owl's eyes! Allah! Moreover, they themselves were crafty fellows—good bold horsemen, who had made eleven picked Afridis bite the dirt! If the Ranee had chosen, she might have set them there and then at one another's throats, and with the rear-guard clattering up there could be no doubt what the end of that would be.
But the Ranee saved that moment. She rode forward, beckoning her women. That gave Gup excuse for thundering indignation. Were they rats or a loyal escort? Would they let their Ranee ride alone and unprotected while they played at who could talk the loudest of his own shame? He rode on and they followed, not without some scuffling to see who should ride first. Finally Gup sent his own men in advance and massed the Ranee's men behind him, riding alone beside her, followed by the women.
"What were you planning to do, Lottie?" he asked her. "Would you have set a trap for me?"
"Yes, Gup, I was desperate. What have you done with Harriet Dover?"
"I sent her and her friend and Jonesey to the Amir. Why?"
"Because I have found out what Harriet Dover was doing. She had several hundred men prepared to seize me and carry me off to the Amir. For all that I know, she and Jonesey may have corrupted more than half the men. They had the Russians working at it."
"What have you done with the Russians?"
"Rahman locked them up."
"What have you done with the men they had corrupted?"
Nothing. That was Rahman s idea. I thought it better to face my whole army to-night and try to win them back to me. But oh, I'm glad you came!"
"We will win them," said Gup. "And we will turn your nightmare, Lottie, into a rather decent job of work! You know that the Amir is on the march? Let's see how far he gets without our leave!" Then suddenly an argument occurred to him that he had never used to her. He wondered he had never thought of it before. "Do you realize that he would overrun Jullunder? You have built up this wonderful army. Now together let us save the Jullunder that you worked so hard to build up when you were Ranee."
He felt jubilant, although he wondered at himself—at the ups and downs from morbid gloom to thrilled expectancy and back again. He felt ashamed of that, and the shame made him more determined.
"Whoever the Lords of Life are, Lottie, and whoever God is, let's live to-day as if we die to-night and will have to answer for our deeds. No more welshing; both of us have had enough of that. Let's play on-side."
"It wasn't always easy to do that, Gup, without some one I believed in, to do it with me. There was only Rahman, and Rahman is simply personal. If I ordered Rahman to march on Delhi or Kabul he would do either with equal readiness. He might grumble, but he would never dream of disobeying me."
"Good," said Gup. "We will give him orders fit to be obeyed."
The moon had risen high above the ragged rim of crags, so that they rode on a silver pathway between gaunt cliffs streaked with soft dark shadow. There was a feeling of unreality. It was like a dream. The sky was almost day-blue, not a cloud in sight. To the east, where the moon was rising, hardly a star was visible, but to the westward they were like clustered, colored jewels. There appeared to be no back to anything. The cliffs and crags were surfaces, not solids, yet it was not like painted scenery. There was magic in the air that night—no other word for it. And Tom O'Hara rode a mule, alone, behind the women, hunched up, with his chin on his chest, in a loose, brown mullah's robe, looking for all the world like some magician in a fairy-tale. He told Gup afterward that he was thinking of Copenhagen, but nobody who saw him would have believed that.
The great gap that opened into the Valley of Doab was a luminous mystery of silver and gloom. The naked rivers lay like crayon strokes where their low banks shed the moonlight. The walls of the valley on one side were in total darkness, jeweled with the crimson flicker of a thousand bivouac fires. The other side was liquid with a mystery of moonlit color. There was no sound. The silence made by thirty thousand men has vibrance of a sort that no word dignifies—a nameless thrill, inaudible yet sensed. Gup's stallion neighed, and he was answered by the whinny of a hundred mares that set the crags reechoing for league on league until the maddening music of it died away in silence.
The path lay straight between the snakelike riverbeds. Gup's horsemen two or three hundred feet ahead, they two rode side by side, Gup's stallion cavorting as if he knew he bore the chieftain on whose shoulders rested hope and faith and the responsibility for thirty thousand lives. He snorted and his arched neck sweated as he tossed his head and ambled to the rhythm of some cosmic symphony.
Rahman had massed the lashkar into solid, serried ranks around three sides of an enormous rock like the lap of a seated mountain. Cliffs at the back of it rose like folds of monstrous drapery, against which fifteen hundred feet in air an enormous bonfire glowed like a ruby set in leaping shadows. Suddenly Rahman spurred his mare and reined her on her heels. He swung his saber and a roar went up from thirty thousand throats that seemed to shake the mountain.
Echoes thunder-clapping through the crags. Then silence, while the Ranee and Gup rode side by side into the square in the midst of the men, where Rahman kissed his saber-hilt and sat his mare like the embodied spirit of armed arrogance obedient to nothing but his chosen leader. He looked solid. The rest were phantoms.
There were scores of mullahs crowded in the front ranks—men on whom the spirit of the Hills depends for energy that stirs and guides the savagery latent in all Hillman hearts. Gup knew, on them depended the result of this night's work. He needed no whisper from Tom O'Hara; he had sensed the key-note of the situation. He gestured, upward, with his right hand.
Tom got off his mule and scrambled up the rock. For a moment he stood recovering his breath. Then he gestured weirdly, like a brown, mad, solitary hermit-mullah whom the hand of God has touched with frenzied vision of the sights unseen by mortal eyes. And suddenly his voice went wailing over all that multitude, clarion clear, yet pleading none-the-less, as if the spirit of the night were giving tongue and wondering why men were faithless.
"La illaha illa 'llah Muhammad Rasulu 'llah!"
They chanted after him in unison the fundamental ritual of Islam, until all that valley murmured it and the rhythmic challenge that there is no god but God went rolling up to heaven through the throat of the thunderous cliffs. When all was still again a man who fed the bonfire on the ledge leaned over and repeated it, hands to his mouth, screaming the magical words that have stirred more hearts to frenzy than ever drink or the love of women did. So they chanted again, and Gup made note of the acoustics of the place. He had no hope of making thirty thousand men hear all he said, but he hoped to make half of them hear it, and it seemed to him that the rock where Tom O'Hara stood, with its cliffs at the rear to throw sound forward, was the key- position.
He dismounted and helped the Ranee to her feet. There was a path that Tom O'Hara had not noticed in his hurry to climb the rock. Up that he led the Ranee, and before the chant was finished she and he and Tom O'Hara stood side by side, looking down at a sea of faces glistening in moonlight.
"Like the old days, Lottie. There's your audience!"
"Speak first," she said. "This is yours. I yield it to you."
And so Gup waited grimly until silence fell, not stage-struck and not doubting, but aware of his own ignorance and grim because he meant to let no ignorance limit inspiration. If the Lords of Time and Tide and Decency and Common Sense had use for him, he and his lips were at their service. It was as if he listened with an inward ear for guidance. And none came. He could think of no word that would grip that audience and bind it to his bidding.
"Always try your voice first," Lottie whispered. "Feel your way. Don't waste effort until you know you've got them by the ears."
"Allaho Akbar!" he shouted, then repeated it. The second time he felt the vibrance that assured him he had pitched into the right key. Then, as suddenly as light leaps when a flint strikes steel, he knew he had the right idea.
"Nobles and men of the lashkar—Hillmen all!" he shouted, and his voice went forth as if it rolled on wheels. "In Allah's sight we stand here willing enough to die, if we may die as men should. There is no man—none, in whom the breath of Allah hath not stirred a love of life. And shall a man love life but not his liberty?"
"Don't tell 'em too much," murmured Tom O'Hara in the long dramatic pause, wherein the champing of a horse's bit was as distinct as sleigh-bells.
"Your Ranee gathered, fitted out and paid this lashkar for a purpose," Gup went on. "But she has summoned it for a different purpose, and as Allah is my witness, I stand here ready to devote my whole integrity and honor to the cause confronting us. Noblemen and stalwarts of this lashkar, I demand the same of you!"
There was a rustling in the ranks, then silence, as a sea of faces strained to listen.
"Is this your land, or another's? Whose salt have you eaten?"
"Good!" said Tom O'Hara. "Now you've got 'em!"
"Does it suit your sense of honor that an upstart Amir on a shaken throne should dare to send his spies to stab or poison her who has been so generous?"
There came an answering snarl of indignation.
"Is it your Honors' pleasure that that same Amir, having failed in his attempted treachery because of the vigilance of faithful men, shall march unchallenged with an army through your land and seize your benefactress? Has izzat no answer to that insolence? Has Hillmen's honor become dung beneath an Afghan Amir's feet?"
A murmur grew and swelled into a roar—a veritable tide of anger. Waves of it leaped backward as the front ranks tossed their repetition of Gup's speech to the men in the dense-packed distance. Gup raised his hand for silence.
"Do your Honors please that an insolent, upstart Amir shall invade your territory with an army—which he will feed on your corn and cattle—pay with the plunder of your villages—reward with the right to seize your wives and daughters?"
"Allah!" Yells began to punctuate the surge of anger. It was more than a minute before Gup's raised hand imposed another stillness.
"Has he asked your leave? Has he offered to pay passage money? Has he guaranteed your liberties? And is his word worth the bleat of a goat without pledged security? And if he plunders India, what profit will you have? Will he not leave you starving at his rear, with your homes burned and your cattle slaughtered? If he fails, will he not try to retreat and leave you to face the revenge of the Indian army? I demand your judgment of this matter!"
They delivered judgment instantly. They made the mountains ring with execration of the Amir, summoning the wrath of Allah to resist him. Gup caught one swift glimpse of Rahman's upturned face and saw him grin; he knew by that, far better than by all the noise, that he had won his audience. He had to wait a long time now for silence, because the mullahs were deliberately stirring passion; they had sensed a changing tide and, like all politicians, they were quick to swim with it and claim the credit for having caused it.
"I offer myself to lead you," Gup said at last. "And I demand in Allah's name your oath of loyalty to these eternal Hills that Allah gave you for a heritage! And if ye follow and obey me, I will pay you from the plunder of the Amir's camp. Whereafter, ye shall find yourselves possessed of grateful friends in place of powerful enemies. And the next Amir and the next will think ten times before they trespass."
Thirty thousand throats let loose a roar that made that vast valley a cauldron of monstrous sound, in which the mullahs began working up the maddening, rhythmic "Din! Din!" and there was no more silence, nor a chance for any man to get a word in. Crags and caverns echoed and reechoed with the "Din! Din!" that cannonaded back and forth from cliff to cliff. Gup took the Ranee in his arms and raised her shoulder-high, as if she were the standard of their savage izzat and the pledge of his fulfilment of his oath of leadership. They went wild. They broke ranks. Men in the outer pools of moonlight began firing off their rifles at the sky, and by the time Gup set the Ranee on her feet there were thirty thousand rifles spitting spurts of flame and Rahman was cursing the mullahs, raging at them, sending them scattering to stop that madness.
"Your one mistake," said Tom O'Hara. "Now they'll expect Lottie to ride with you into the thick of ut."
"Why not?" Gup answered.
"I said ut. All along I said you were as crazy as a march hare! Man alive, she's a woman. You can't take a woman with you into battle."
"Why not? Joan of Arc went in! Why shouldn't a woman purge her soul as simply as a man? She made this situation. She shall mend it."
The Ranee laid her hands in his and looked into his eyes:
"Oh, Gup, I love you!"
"Sing to them then, Lottie."
Rahman's efforts and the mullahs' savage vehemence were restoring quiet. Tom O'Hara gradually drew attention to himself by posturing as if he preached a kutbah from the rock. Officers' voices were already audible above the din. It only needed novelty to restore order. Discipline would follow.
"Sing to them, Lottie."
"Sing what? I can't make my voice heard."
"Yes, you can. Sing that song you promised you would sing to me—that song that you said explains you—the one you wrote yourself and set to music."
"But the words are English."
"No matter. It's the voice that counts—voice and sincerity. Sing to 'em."
He raised both hands in air and silence fell. It fell mysteriously, like the mist that was now creeping in twin streams along the river beds and dimming the crimson bivouac fires. A vapor, shoulder-high, came flowing through the ranks and whitened as it gained intensity, until a horde of turbaned faces seemed to swim on a tide of sea-pearl. But the Ranee's jewels glistened in the moonlight and her face was radiant—unearthly, as she sang:
High have I soared and only
I and the winds were lonely;
Uttermost peak and mountain crest
Mothered the young rain to their breast.
Higher I soared and only I and the winds were lonely;
Rain met the river, snow met the rill.
I and the winds sought still.
Love, I have sought you deeper than wells,
Deep in the anguish no tongue tells,
High in the light of hope. Wide ways I go,
Asking of purple crag, valley and snow:
Where is this depth? Where is this height?
Higher than sky be it, deeper than night,
Farther than footsteps ever have trod,
I'll find though I must steal the key from God.
Then my own soul said: Blind thou art—
Blind, for the door stands open.
Nearer than death, nearer than breath,
Open in some one's heart.
All universes answer to the thrill
Of one man's victory. And one man's fear
Is felt by millions. And one man's will
Can make a vanguard of a beaten rear,
So be he feel the flood of vibrant rays
Like music leaping from the master bell
When each true bell in tune to it obeys
In far-flung carillon— "All's well! All's well!"
THERE was no time lost and none to lose. Gup first of all reduced the risk of treachery; he weeded out such men as Rahman thought were doubtful quantities, deprived them of their weapons, sent them scattering whichever way they pleased and sent scouts, almost on their heels, to bring back news of the enemy's movement.
"And now all prisoners, Rahman. They are a risk and a nuisance; turn them loose too. Where are the Russians?"
"Gup Bahadur, there has been another accident," said Rahman. "They were taken to the summit of that crag for exercise. They fell. And when a man falls all that distance, he is dead, by God."
If Rahman could have had his way he would have "accidented" more than Russians. Some of Gup's scouts guided in an insolent Kabuli Khan commanding a whole squadron of the Amir's mounted sowars. He demanded the surrender of the caverns and delivery of the Ranee's person as a hostage for good behavior, toying with the white flag on a lance as if he thought such social amenities ridiculous. He felt he should have come with more men and have raped that stronghold. Rahman begged to be allowed to introduce him and all his squadron, excepting one man, to the execution crag; one man should be sent back with his head and eyebrows shaved, naked, on a baggage-camel, to relate to the Amir what had happened. But Gup gave the Afghans fifteen minutes to be out of sight and sent two squadrons to pursue them, Rahman objecting sorrowfully:
"Gup Bahadur, to make Hillmen stand and fight it is a wise way to offend their enemy so bitterly, by God, that they know they must fight or the enemy will treat them likewise."
Then, for a space of three hours, there was mutiny. The lashkar was unanimous. To a man they were determined to invade the caverns and defend them, they not realizing that to do so would make them as helpless as bottled-up hornets.
"As a hole in the earth to a fox," said Rahman, "so is a rocky refuge to a Hillman. A fortress fascinates them."
And on top of that, while Gup sat the stallion Iskander in the gorge outside the entrance to the caverns, listening to the arguments of mullahs who had made themselves the spokesmen for the men, there came a runner from Peshawar, shepherded by Orakzai Pathans who had been paid extravagantly to protect him to his destination. He bore an envelope wrapped in a piece of cloth, addressed to "Gup McLeod Bahadur," which was either a sarcastic insult or else a mysterious compliment. Gup tore open the envelope. Within, on plain paper without heading or date, was a note in pencil signed with the initials of the High Commissioner:
"O'Hara's reports have arrived. What can you do on the Amir's right flank? If he once breaks through the Khyber there is no knowing what may happen."
Gup folded that and put it in his pocket. Perfectly he understood that it was meant to be a tactful, unofficial promise of forgiveness by the Indian Government, contingent on his making himself useful now. But he sent no answer. He left liaison work to Tom O'Hara, who was down in the radio cavern, standing over an Eurasian who was trying to send signals to Peshawar. He set his teeth at the thought of any direct communication with the authorities until after something much more definite than that was done to rehabilitate his friends. He set himself last. There was Lottie first to be considered. And he counted as friend each man who dared to stand with him against the Amir's hosts—even the fools with spittle on their lips who clamored at his stirrup to be let into the caverns.
"I will fill the place with death if one man tries to enter!" he announced. "There is poison-gas, made by the Russians. I will turn it loose. But any man who prefers the Amir's service has my leave to go this minute."
"Yes, as Allah is my witness."
Then he and Lottie rode to the Valley of Doab, those mullahs following, and once again they stirred the lashkar's sense of the indignity that any Amir should dare to use their valleys as a high-road for his troops. Again Gup promised plunder from the Amir's camp. Their mood changed and he inflamed it, telling the news, that the scouts had brought already, of a column coming down on them with the smoke of burning villages behind it. Then, because he knew that at any minute, for their own ends, the mullahs might try to resurrect that craving to be safe behind impenetrable walls, he galloped back and ordered Rahman to prepare to evacuate every living man and animal.
"Then bring up all the dynamite we have, and all the loose powder you can lay your hands on. Set half of it in the narrowest gut of the Serpent's Mouth. Put the rest of it near this entrance. Set fuses, and stand a guard ready to blow up both entrances at the first attempt to break in."
Even Rahman almost mutinied at that, but Lottie backed Gup loyally and Rahman, remembering a legend, laughed, though with a wry face:
"By my beard—are you a new Iskander and Bucephalus? Will you slit the throat of safety, to encourage us to win?"
"You know as well as I do, Rahman, that our one chance is as an army in the field, free to move and to smite swiftly."
In the distance, in the clear blue sky above the Khyber, he could see ten British planes observing the Amir's main line of advance; they looked like seagulls circling above shoals of fish, and there were small black dots in the sky that he knew were vultures following the Amir's columns, for the crimson harvest. Scouts brought word that a league-long column of the Amir's men, marching light and without artillery, was pouring through a pass some twenty miles away, to the northward, and all men knew that column could have only one objective. Gup sent at once for Tom O'Hara.
"Tom, write me a laissez-passer, to Peshawar, for every woman in this place, except Lottie, and for all their baggage, with an escort of a hundred mounted men. Ask them to let the men and mules return to me. And tell them that if the women are shown the least discourtesy—"
"No need to mention that, Gup. They'll intern 'em, of course, and send the men back as requested."
"You don't care for a command, I suppose?"
"You said ut. At my own game I'm a useful specimun. Besides, I've a girl in Copenhagen. I'm not looking for the next world. Copenhagen suits me." Gup left more than a thousand men to guard the cavern entrance and to keep communication open. Several hundred more were needed to carry out the ammunition boxes. That attended to, he galloped with Lottie and Rahman to the ledge overlooking the Valley of Doab, on which he had camped two nights before and where the tent-pegs were still upstanding in the ground. From there, without glasses they could see the snakelike movement of the approaching Afghan column. Its speed was noticeably faster than that of Europeans on the march; there were mules and baggage-camels, but not many; and the Afghan general was so reckless, or else in such haste and so ill-informed, that his advance-guard consisted of only a squadron of cavalry riding in close formation.
"The first round will be ours, Rahman! If we can't lick that lot, we don't deserve our dinner!"
There was plenty of time to decide on a plan, and Gup and Rahman found no trouble in agreeing about details. Obviously, they must hurl that column back by the way it had come and, if it should not be badly enough or swiftly enough defeated, drive a wedge between it and the Khyber to prevent its making contact with the Amir's main advance. The chief difficulty was an almost total lack of staff officers and of almost any means of signaling; they were forced to depend on the natural fighting instinct of the Hillmen, who would keep in touch for their own sakes, and who knew the ledges and the tracks that led from ridge to ridge; but to keep them in hand after the first shot was fired looked like a stark impossibility.
Rahman accepted the post of honor in command of the troops who must bear the first shock of engagement. The captain of the Ranee's body-guard had been promoted to command three thousand men, as much to salve his injured feelings as for any other reason; he and his brigade were hidden amid boulders on the lower slope facing the mouth of the Valley of Doab. Another three thousand men, in command of a Sikh named Baba Singh were stationed to block the highroad leading to the caverns. Fifteen hundred more were then spread fanwise across the mouth of the Valley of Doab with orders to retreat up the beds of the rivers and draw the Afghans after them into the valley, where all of the rest of the lashkar was hidden amid the rocks at the foot of the enormous walls. Then Rahman, with only fifteen hundred, marched northward up the gorge to meet the enemy and throw up a barricade of rocks from cliff to cliff in the narrowest place they could find.
And now there were more planes visible above the Khyber. There was a far-off drum-fire of artillery, but it did not sound like weight of metal or effective numbers. Probably the Amir's troops were surging toward India, resisted by a fraction of their number who were holding on, to gain time until divisions could be rushed to their support. Perhaps there was not more than one division of the Anglo-Indian army available; Gup knew nothing about that; neither did Tom O'Hara; all troop movements had been kept so secret that not even Harriet Dover's spies had learned how many hours or days the Indian army might need before it could oppose effective strength against an onslaught. There might be a rebellion in India. The whole Punjaub might have risen. Something was bringing the Amir down in all that haste.
Presently Gup heard Rahman hotly engaged, with the enemy, up the gorge. He left Lottie on horseback, on an eminence inside the Valley of Doab, where she could be seen by all the lashkar; then he galloped up the gorge to see how Rahman fared.
"They bring artillery, by God," said Rahman. "Two mountain batteries are taking up position on that ledge. When they get our range, we can never hold this heap of stones."
Even as he spoke a shell from a screw-gun that had been packed on a mule's back to a mountain ledge fell and exploded about four hundred yards away, killing some of the Afghans' own riflemen, who had thrown up a low wall of rocks. A second shell fell closer to the target. A third fell only fifty yards away.
"Fall back now, Rahman. It will take them twenty minutes to reach another ledge to fire from. Then fall back again before they get the range."
He returned to where he had left Lottie. Her bodyguard and his were clustered near to serve as gallopers. From where they sat their horses they could watch Rahman skilfully managing indignant men, who wished to be reenforced, and falling back too rapidly to be enfiladed from the overhanging ledges of the gorge. He was cleverly encouraging the Afghans' over-confidence. They followed him too eagerly when he reached the mouth of the Valley of Doab and retreated past it toward the highway leading southward to the caverns. Before he reached that he was reenforced—stood—began to fight back savagely. He and his men were a dam that checked the Afghan flood, which spread into the mouth of the Valley of Doab, trying to outflank him. Then Gup's fifteen hundred opened fire, shooting and retreating into the rock-strewn valley. Checked by Rahman, the Afghans turned into the valley, pursuing the fifteen hundred, when suddenly the three thousand commanded by the former captain of the Ranee's body-guard opened a withering fire from their cover of boulders.
The Afghans turned three ways. Their center hurled itself on Rahman's stuttering front; their left wing faced a hail of bullets from three thousand invisible riflemen; their right wing poured into the Valley of Doab, where apparently they hoped to find some outlet that should bring them to the caverns or bring them behind Rahman's rear. And because Gup's fifteen hundred steadily retired along the river-beds in front of them, that seemed the line of least resistance; also, in that valley there was room to form ranks and recover confidence; so into the valley, following his right wing the Afghan general crowded his hurrying men, including his mule batteries, which he hoped to turn on those unseen riflemen among the boulders who were raking his left wing. He left the mouth of the gorge to the northward almost empty.
At last Gup gave the signal to the hidden lashkar, riding into full view and waving his cloak. The valley became a shambles then—no stopping it. The mountain batteries—the one advantage that the Afghans had—were caught between a cross-fire of machine- guns as they tried to take position on some slightly rising ground; they instantly ceased to be anything but carrion and metal. The Afghan general fell with nearly all his staff and there arose a roar of "Din! Din!" as merciless as the howl of winter storms, out-roaring the machine-gun stutter as a chorus drowns orchestral music. There were not many prisoners left to take by the time Gup's gallopers had reached the mullahs and persuaded them to stop the slaughter.
And then came Tom O'Hara, dodging between rocks until he reached Gup's stirrup.
"That's all, Gup—let the doctors clean up the mess. We've the radio working at last. News from the Khyber. Our fellows are catching ut hot and the Amir looks like breaking through. The north end o' the Khyber's chock-a-block with all his baggage- wagons. Get a move on—don't waste men on guarding prisoners—strip 'em, take their weapons and chase 'em back to Kabul! Get your men in hand before they know ut. Clap 'em due east—find your way to the Khyber somehow—over the mountains—a hell of a trail, and you've got to make ut! Leave Lottie to me—I'll get her to Peshawar somehow."
"Care to go with him?" Gup asked her.
"No. You know I won't. I go with you."
"You heard her, Tom?"
"I heard ut."
"Do your job, Tom. Reach as many mullahs as you can and preach loot to 'em. Tell 'em the plunder is all in the Khyber, waiting to be seized. Get busy." Lottie and Gup divided forces for the moment, rallying the men. Her presence on a battle-field astride a red Kabuli mare and escorted by fifty mounted men who did her bidding even to the point of herding away with naked saber-blades the hot-eyed plunderers who were stripping dead and wounded—was something so new, so amazing, so original that men obeyed her, wondering what next the way of Allah would unfold.
And Gup found Rahman—told him the news in almost Tom O'Hara's words.
"By God," said Rahman, "and by my beard, I have seen the impossible come to pass so often that I say no longer: None can do this or that. Nevertheless, I believe this is more than the Prophet himself could bring to pass—be blessings on him! To the Khyber—now—with thirty thousand men—in time to stop Afghans who hurry to loot India's cities?"
"Now!" said Gup. "And in time! And your turn for the read- guard, Rahman. Take five thousand men, load every mule we have with ammunition—load every man with all the rations he can carry—and follow us. Who is the best guide?"
"Send him to me. Is there a trail horses can follow?"
"No, Bahadur. Mules, yes—but in the darkness?"
"Full moon, Rahman. Get a move on."
"All right, Gup Bahadur. By the leave of Allah we have wrought one marvel. Let us do this other. Leave that stallion with me and I will send him to Peshawar for you when the fighting is all over."
"What do you mean?"
"The burra-sahibs in Peshawar will forgive you. They will forgive her. Will they forgive me? Nay, and I will never ask it. Rahman must take to the hills!"
"You must think a hell of a lot of my friendship! Do you suppose that she or I would accept an amnesty in which you weren't included? Either we all go free or none of us. Who are you that you should be too proud to share luck with your friends? Shake hands, you damned old loyal rogue! I'll meet you in Peshawar or the next world. We will all take tea with the High Commissioner!"
Then frenzy, followed by a nightmare. All that evening and all that night Gup led and the lashkar followed him. There were times when he tied Lottie to her mule, in case she should fall asleep and pitch down some almost bottomless crevasse, but he spared her no more than he spared himself; he let her see this thing she had begun, to the dregs of its crimson finish. There was neither military formation nor any attempt at it, nor any possibility of keeping it; the lashkar streamed in endless zigzag lines, in single file, like insects on the face of a dead moon. There were several trails; each had its advocates and each man chose whichever leader took the trail he fancied, over raw grim mountains echoing to the distant thunder of contending guns.
And many a man went down to death that night on rocks where none but kites would ever find him. Many a score of loaded mules slid kicking to the depth of some dark chasm, some blown off the sloping ledges by a graceless wind that howled from the northern snow. There was neither halt nor help for any one.
Whoever could not march, might lag and lose himself; who lost himself might cry his lungs out to the heedless night, where moonlight only made enormous shadows deeper and all sound was changed into mocking echoes flung back from the owl-roosts on the face of tortured rock.
But when the cold dawn touched the mountain-tops with shimmering silver, and then mauve, and it was still dark in the Khyber, Gup Bahadur, with a woman's hand in his, stood staring at the snow-white mist that lay in the bed of the dreadful gorge like a glacier steadily moving—split suddenly, at measured intervals, by flames of crimson and electric blue when shells burst and the crags exploded millions of spastic echoes.
There was an army's rear and all its baggage-train beneath that soft white mist. Perhaps there was an Amir and his staff. There might be wagon-loads of minted money. And beside Gup, and around him, and along the jagged cliffs on either hand, their faces strained with weariness and cruel with anticipation, stood, lay, knelt and leaned the grim, indomitable vanguard of the lashkar—possibly three thousand men. They were starving, but the loot lay underneath the mist. They were so dog-weary that they had to pause and gather strength for the descent into the pass, but they were as hunting dogs that gather new strength from the rock they laid their bellies on, and no man flinched from the final, most exacting effort.
"Lottie, can you lead?" Gup asked her.
"No," she answered. "I could lead them, but I can't lead you. You are Cock o' the North!"
"If I'd pipes," he said, "to play that tune—"
"You've nothing, Gup. You've no more than the Bruce had—just a handful of men and a chance. Save India! You can do it."
"Lottie," he said, "I'm afraid."
"I'm afraid to leave you. I don't know where to leave you."
"Gup, if you can leave me, you are swifter than I think! Lead on, I'm coming too."
"No place for a woman, Lottie. There's grim death down there. I would like you to watch the finish of the thing that you began. Stay up here with the eagles. I can hide you. Perhaps I can persuade some men to stay up here and protect you."
"Gup, if you die down there in the Khyber, I intend to die too. Don't ask me why. Don't argue. Lead on!" But he was adamant. He would not listen to her. "No place for a woman, Lottie."
He seized men by the throat. He threatened them. He praised them. In the name of Allah and his own right hand he promised them money and men's approval if they would be her body-guard and keep her out of harm's way while the fighting lasted. Some men laughed and leaped to the lower rocks to have a good start of the rest when the charge into the Khyber should begin. Some answered him with yells, their comrades echoing. They began that terrible "Din! Din!" that awakens a craving to slay and be slain—the war- cry that announces Hillmen are at war without rule of any kind except their own raw tyranny of devil-take-the-hindmost. The mist perhaps was blanketing the echoes but alarm might leap along the Khyber-bed at any moment and rob surprise of its advantage. There was need for haste. Red-headed Scots ferocity in haste found fifteen men who swore, bruised feet excusing them, that they would keep out of the fight and guard Gup's lady-love for her weight in silver money. Gup would have offered her weight in gold or diamonds in that hour and would have trusted Providence to fill his purse.
Then he led, not loving what he did. He loved it no more than a surgeon loves to slay a mother that a child may live. His own weariness of mind and body was almost absolute. Not even the thought that he was saving India stirred him much. He saw nothing beyond the immediate task—no reward, no goal, no purpose but to drive his lance into the long leg-weary dragon that was the Amir's invading host. He was a man in a dream. He only lacked a little savagery to have been a throw-back to a Highland ancestor, wind-weaned, hungrier than the clansmen whom he led on a merciless foray.
He felt like a ghost as he dropped into the Khyber mist with a thousand men behind him following like devils homing into hell's mouth. Streams of laggards overtook them, pressed forward by Rahman's hurrying rear-guard. Hard-breathing, limping, striving with aching tendons, they scrambled downward from rock to rock—until forms in the mist below took shape and they knew themselves, by Allah's grace, a swarm of hornets loosed on a helpless serpent's flank. The Amir's army turned upon itself and writhed—they into it, into it, slaughtering—men in a dream. No man but bore a grudge against the Afghan Government. There was hardly a man but believed his village had been burned by Afghan foragers, his women raped, his honor trampled in the byre dung.
"Allaho Akbar! Din! Din!"
Plunder they forgot then. They were fighting to be first to enter paradise—God's meadows, where the faithful live for ever amid sensuous delights and there is no more hunger. They were at it hand-to-hand, each butchered enemy a foot-hold hacked on the ascent to everlasting bliss—each carcass fuel for the flames of Eblis.
Gup kept half a hundred in control. They followed him because he was the biggest man in sight—because they saw his sword cut down three Afghan sowars who leaped from behind a broken limber and attacked him three at once. They followed him because he fought like some one from another world. And Gup was two men, one part frenzy and the other a Scotsman calculating how much damage he might do before a tulwar should slit his throat. The frenzy served to throw a spell over his men and make them do his bidding. It gave him speed. The cold calm underlying it wrought more valuable damage than ten times that much frenzy spent on murder could have done.
He and his fifty dubbed themselves the damage-doers—the destroyers. They exploded ammunition. They broke wagon-wheels. They smashed the mechanism of the field-guns. They set torches to the supply-wagons; and in the lurid blaze of those they saw opportunity—a very jest of Allah—red-ripe cataclysm asking to be touched off.
Jammed in a gut of the pass, benighted, waiting for the pressure of the troops in front to yield before they tried to extricate themselves, was an ammunition detail—fifty wagons, some with broken wheels, all locked together in a blinding mist—mules foundered and the men made sullen by abuse. This side of them there lay a thousand camels with their loads beside them.
There was a mob of men half-seen, half-seeing in the gray fog. There were execrations—yells—commands, all different, misunderstood, that only added to terror. Gup and his men burst by the mob like a blast of devils spat from hell's throat, set fire to the nearest wagons, turned again and fled, with the camel-men and all their camels in full rout ahead of them. There were men, there were soldiers in the Afghan army. There was a frantic effort made by thirty or forty men to douse the fires, but they lacked water. They tried shoveled dust. They tried to rake the fire with poles—until suddenly the Khyber seemed to split apart in a spasm of blue-white fire, repeated and again repeated, and all that crowded narrow mile of pass became a cauldron of terror, men, camels, mules all surging away up- Khyber, sweeping along their officers who might as well have tried to stop the River Indus when the snows of the Roof of the World are fleeing seaward from the sun.
It was a tidal wave. It surged until it hove itself against a moving mass of infantry—division by division hurrying to overtake the Amir's van and burst on to the plains—breakfastless, impatient mountaineers commanded by a general whose pattern and inspiration was the ruthless Abdurrahman. Like his hero, he had no charity for cowards; and an obstacle between him and his goal was something to be met and overcome not subtly but with wrath—the wrath of Allah.
"Smite them!" he commanded. "Lo, why cumber they the pass?"
So there was slaughter until an overwhelming weight of numbers turned the tide again and the flow resumed down-Khyber. He was a man of parts, that general. He had a staff who knew his will and did it. He was soon told what had happened and he came down- Khyber like a hail-storm, ice-cold in his anger, thinking himself not deceived. He knew no Hillman army could have caught the Amir's force in flank in sufficient strength to stay its southward march. It was only a foray; he would wipe it out—obliterate it—leave it dead behind him. Such a simple thing is war. Strip it to its essentials. Forward!
But he reckoned without Gup—and Rahman—and the erstwhile Lottie Carstairs, who was not disposed to acquiesce in meek submission to Gup's disposal of her as a mere non-combatant. Rahman had verged on the fringes of magic; he had tongue-lashed, bullied, mocked, encouraged, coaxed and stung the straggling lashkar until he reached the Khyber's rim with foundered mules but plenty of ammunition—no food (he had dumped it all in order to force the men to march in quest of more) but nearly seven thousand hungry-fighting men who knew their only hope of dinner lay in plundering the Amir's column. Lottie led those men into the Khyber, Rahman aiding; for it was as clear as daylight, now that the mist was rolling away before the northern wind, that Gup was caught between two horns of a dilemma.
Word had gone down-Khyber to the Amir that his column was attacked in flank. He sent a brigade of cavalry and guns up-pass to make short work of what he supposed was a mere raid by local tribesmen. But the pass was blocked by his supply-train and by his south-bound troops, who misinterpreted the movement of that galloping brigade. A rumor leaped along ahead of it that the Amir's front had suffered a reverse and was in full flight. British aeroplanes, flying as low as they dared, spread havoc with bombs and machine-gun fire. Shells from British mountain batteries that had worked their way to ledges that overlooked the pass added their toll. They were answered, but far from silenced by the Amir's guns, whose shells fell short. A retreat began—no rout, but a retreat that might have grown into a rout if the rear-guard under a man with a reputation had not swept down-pass to meet it.
Gup and his men were caught between those tides. The aeroplanes, totally unable to distinguish friend from foe, swooped, sprayed their hail and winged back to their base for bombs and fuel. Loaded down with loot Gup's followers took to their heels to scramble to the heights and safety. They were met and swept into the pass again by Lottie, Rahman and the seven thousand.
They will tell of the fight that followed, until the Hills give up their dead and enemy meets enemy again on Judgment Day. Between the very walls of hell, along its steel-swept floor three human tides swayed to and fro for the mastery. A dragon hewn in two became two dragons deadlier than the first, that struggled to reunite—stabbing, blasting, belching death—the one half panic- ridden and the other lashed into a frenzy by a general who neither understood nor tolerated any ultimate save victory or death—a general to whom the slaughter of a hundred thousand men would only mean that they had answered Azrael's summons. Forward! God alone is merciful. There is no mercy in the Khyber.
And again the aeroplanes spraying their impartial hot hail—until a plane hit by an Afghan bullet spilled its fuel and came spiraling to earth not fifty feet from where Gup yelled in an attempt to rally men around him—yelled like a ghost in a hurricane—voiceless and unaware of it—only aware of the need to save the remnant of his men, and of Lottie dragging Rahman by the shoulders from beneath a heap of slain.
They surged toward the fallen plane like wolves at the death of a hunted doe, but Gup was first, hard followed by his body- guard, their hearts and heads on fire with the honor of being living shields for such a chief as he was. He was Allah's own. They loved him. He was good enough to storm the gates of heaven.
It was Gup who dragged the pilot free—a cool young sprig named Percy Simkins, who stooped to make sure that his gunner was dead, not merely injured. He was limber on his feet; he leaped beside Gup to the rock where Lottie knelt trying to staunch Rahman's wound. There he started to light a cigarette but decided not to.
"Looks too stagey. What next? Who's the lady?"
"Lend her a hand, will you?"
"All right. By the way, there was a message for you—unofficial—all that sort of thing. Fellow by the name of Trowbridge—middle-aged old codger—rather decent sort of rotter in the Public Works—crazy about Nelson of the Nile and all that kind of bishop—lots o' gall, though, when he wants something. I flew low to look for you."
"What did he say?"
"He's a kind of a prophet. He said I'd crash, damn him."
"Said he hoped I would—because I cheeked such an important person with a bald head as himself."
"Cheek me then. Get it over with. What's the message?"
"Not much—seemed to think you might be crying for applause. You're doing what he said you would, or words to that effect. He's all cock-a-hoop about it. So are three brass hats and a high commish. You're invited to tea, I believe."
"To hell with them! No orders? No advice? No—"
"I can give you the advice. Get out of here! Our planes mean business and so do the guns. They're bringing up three heavy batteries to egg this section of the pass. Hell won't be a thing to it."
A shell moaned overhead and burst within about three hundred yards. Gup did not wait for further conversation. He seized two men by the throat, shook them to bring them to their senses and sent them to spread the order to retire. But there was no need; every weary savage of them thought of his eternal hills before the second heavy shell came moaning overhead and no man waited to be told where safety lay. Loaded with loot they swarmed back to the heights, well peppered by the Afghan infantry. Gup did not stay to look at Rahman's wound. He lifted him—carried him—climbed with Rahman's weight upon his shoulders, swearing because Lottie would not keep her distance—they were a much too easy target clambering up-hill in a group, with Percy Simkins dragging Lottie by the hand up the difficult places. However, they reached the summit unscathed.
"They say war spoils women. Seems to me it's the other way around," said Percy Simkins. "May I smoke now?"
Gup laid Rahman on a shelf of rock. The old Afghan's teeth were clenched in agony but he managed to force himself to speak:
"Water, for the love of God, Huzoor! I am hit in the belly."
"Then a drink would kill you, Rahman."
"I said water! This is my end. Shall I die dry for the sake of a book of rules?"
It took time to find a full canteen but Gup found one at last and Lottie held up Rahman's head while he drank from it. He drank deep.
"So. In the name of the Prophet, I die gladly. Listen: he who commands those infantry down there is Sirdar Faiz Abdullah. He is some one. He is not a man with weak knees. Watch him—he will be worse to deal with than a wounded bear. So—now I die." But he did not, he only fainted. Gup found men to carry him, on blankets stretched between two tent-poles (Rahman had brought a tent for Lottie, even though he threw away the food.) The Khyber was now full of the din of bursting shells. Gup's leg-weary men lay watching, waiting for new strength with which to carry off their loot—some of them nursing wounds—some dying. None but had something to show for his pains, if it were only a rifle and an Afghan uniform. They were almost dead from weariness and lack of sleep, but they, too, saw what Gup did.
Sirdar Faiz Abdullah, being, as Rahman had said, not a man with weak knees, set to work to storm the heights with the twofold purpose of retaliating and of saving his men from slaughter by the heavy guns. His infantry, as much afraid of him as of any conceivable enemy,—stung, too, by an irritating rifle- fire from Gup's men, who were in no mood to be deprived of their hard-won loot and were too tired to flee with it,—clambered with a vengeance. Gup decided to look for some place more impregnable where he could hold the Afghans in check but at the same time rest his ragged lashkar. He hoped to rest them and then, perhaps, to strike again; it might be possible to swoop like a blast of wind down some ravine upon the Amir's rear. But that hope faded as he strove to rally the lashkar into something like military formation. Discipline was gone. No officer dared to attempt to control his men. Gup seized a big Afridi who was staggering under a load of looted blankets.
"Where is water?" he demanded. "Lots of it?"
The man gestured vaguely. Percy Simkins nodded: "There's a cascade somewhere over there, about a mile away—maybe two miles—shows from the air like a crooked streak of snow."
Water was the key to the situation. Gup tied the Afridi's hands behind him:
"I'll put salt in your mouth unless you lead me straight to water!"
He threw a heap of looted rifles and miscellaneous plunder from the back of a starved, leg-weary mule and mounted Lottie on the animal.
"Your turn," he said, "you lead 'em now. Lead 'em to water and rally 'em there. I'll hold the rear if I can. Simkins, put your pistol in the guide's ribs. Lead on, Lottie."
Then the miracle—the ultimate test of a leader—spiritual alchemy—the transformation of a rabble thinking only of its weariness and of its plunder into a fighting rear-guard that disputed with the advancing Afghans every slowly yielded yard of the rock-strewn ledges, while men slew mules and served the meat in raw strips to the bitterly retiring riflemen and others carried doubled loads of plunder, piling them up and returning for more.
No man, and least of all Gup could have told how he did it. The Afghan general pursued with vigor; word had reached him that the Amir was in full retreat, so he squandered energy to protect his master's flank by making a second raid into the pass impossible; he attacked as if he were deploying all the Amir's rear-guard and reserves to pour along parallel lines on to India's plains. He brought machine-guns into play. He squandered men as if they were mere munitions poured from an inexhaustible storehouse; and he almost drove the attack home in the end, near four o'clock that afternoon, when Gup's men heard the splashing tumult of the cascade and took to their heels like parched cattle that smell water.
But the cascade was screened by a sharp ridge, flanked by an escarpment on the left and by a tumulus of broken boulders on the right that rested on the edge of a sheer ravine. Lottie, Percy Simkins, Pepul Das and half a dozen others stirred enough men from their fitful sleep to hold that ridge until Gup could get his force reorganized; and there the Afghan general was satisfied to hold them at bay until the Amir's army could retire up-Khyber. It was stalemate. No force could seize that ridge without artillery, or without reserves to make a tremendous circuit and assault it from the rear.
"But if we stay here long enough the kites will have us all," said Rahman. He was suffering from disappointment more than from pain in his belly. Death from a wound in battle had been welcome; he felt robbed of his rights—almost of his dignity. "I say: retreat to the caverns. Though we have lost a kingdom, let us keep them! Of thirty thousand men we have perhaps a sixth remaining. Insh'allah, when another day dawns we shall have a sixth of these and they will tell us we are not good leaders. Little they care that we drove a lance into the Amir's liver. What they ask to see is the gates of Kabul or Peshawar open to them.
I say: make a night march."
But the limit of exhaustion had been reached and there was nothing for it but to hold that ridge and listen to the drumfire in the Khyber. Gup sent scouts over the almost impassable intervening ridges, some of whom returned and told him that the Amir's army was in full retreat. But he was helpless; Sirdar Faiz Abdullah kept him all that night on the defensive, snatching sleep between feverish rounds of visiting his outposts and encouraging his men.
It was shortly after dawn when Tom O'Hara came. He was bleary- eyed from lack of sleep, on muleback, followed by a dozen men who seemed to think he was a holy mystery incarnate to be followed to the world's end if he demanded it. Sitting his famished mule like a huge owl meditating on the mystery of mice, he rode up to the notch where Gup and Lottie sat on either side of Rahman's litter.
"Gup," he remarked, "you've fixed ut. It was touch and go all yesterday, but the Amir's flummoxed. He's on the run. You did ut. What now?"
"If I can get these fellows on their feet I'll follow Sirdar Faiz Abdullah soon as he starts to retreat," said Gup. "Another raid into the Khyber—"
"Ostrich! Leave that to the aeroplanes. Send up a scout to the top o' you peak—he'll tell you. Faiz Abdullah fell away at midnight or soon after. He's just left a screen o' men to hold you here and warn him if you leave cover. Your bolt's shot. You shot ut good."
"All right," said Lottie. "Back then to the caverns!"
"Not you! Take my tip and come with me to Copenhagen. Gup 'ud like ut."
"By my beard," said Rahman, "I smell treachery!"
"Not you. If you can smell ut you've a long nose. You're down on the list at G. H. Q. as slated for some sort o' title—Sirdar, prob'ly. Me—I did ut—told 'em in a letter how you played a damn' good game."
"Why not the caverns?" Lottie asked him.
"Blew 'em up. I did ut."
"Flummoxed the Amir. Gup left dynamite and powder in the tunnels. I exploded ut and let the roof fall in."
"But the wounded—"
"Sent 'em to Peshawar. That Sikh doctor ought to stand for parliamunt. He's hot stuff. He evacuated 'em in one hour, each man with a label on um."
"But the guards?"
"Hell! Didn't the wounded need an escort? Didn't I tell 'em you were taken prisoner by a British aeroplane. Didn't I let 'em carry all your money with 'em, so the Amir shouldn't get ut. Didn't I promise 'em half of ut? And didn't they scoot with all of ut, ten miles this side of the border?"
"And all my treasures?"
"Jewelry went with the women. It's in Peshawar. The rest o' the junk—forget ut. They'll be diggun for ut for a hundred years to come."
"But why—why did you blow up the caverns?"
"Had to. Jonesey and Harriet Dover and Bibi Marwarid had the guard all fixed. They'd doubled back and done more talking than ten bishops."
"You mean, they returned there after we left?" Lottie asked.
"Hell, no. They were in there before you came away. No one had told the guard not to admit 'em.
They'd a plan all set to admit the Amir's men; and Jonesey had tipped the Amir's scouts to a path by which he could send all the men he could spare from somewhere near the south end o' the Khyber. He'd have had ut if I hadn't actud. I was nobbut in the nick o' time."
"Where are Harriet and Jonesey and Marwarid?"
"Oh, I told the guard to take 'em to Peshawar. The guard bolted, but the doctor took 'em. Don't worry about 'em—they'll get short shrift—Andaman Islands for the women—rope for Jonesey."
"I won't have that!" Lottie answered.
"Lump ut! Maybe you can save 'em, though. Gup's on velvut. So are you. I said you'll marry um and get to hell out of India. I wrote ut. Am I right? You two leave India with passports O. K. and a clean bill o' health in writing if you want ut—saving and except that you agree to pay for the care o' the wounded that the Sikh took to Peshawar—and et cetera—you pay your own bills. I don't know how rich you are, but they do, and I told 'em you'll act handsome. Glint is on his way home—caught with the goods—I doubt he'll rate a pension—caught him trafficking and proved ut on him. He was corresponding with the Amir—crazy as a coot—offering to arrange terms that 'ud stop the fighting—can you beat ut? He's as crazy as the Amir."
"Who is still in the Khyber. Have they stopped him?" Gup asked.
"Hell! You did ut. The minut you put the wind up his rear he was beaten. It's a shame, though; our men can't take full advantage of ut. India's too rebellious to make anything excep' a quick peace look like turkey to our side. They're crowding him, but they're negotiating while they fight. They're ready to sign 'most any sort o' peace that'll keep him north o' the border and leave our reg'ments free to sit on India. Hell! I said ut. I said they'd have to do ut. I wrote ut. I wrote ut a year ago. I wrote that if they give that Amir rope enough he'll hang himself as sure as my name's Tom O'Hara. Let's go."
"To Peshawar, you ostrich! Come and have a drink with the High Commissioner. He's wild to meet Lottie—only sorry he must keep ut secret—see—I have ut in my pockut—here's his promise to set the drinks up if I bring the two of you umbrageous to his house. I need a drink. I ought to snaffle something out of all this."
"Is a drink all you're likely to get, Tom?"
"Hell, no. I get long leave—and a tickut to Copenhagen. You two'd better travel by the same ship. Come to the wedding. Will you? I said ut! I wrote ut. I told her we'd have a wedding she'll remember to her dying day!"
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