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MY experience in the literary way has been so small that it was only after great persuasion that I was induced to commence this history. Being conscious of my shortcomings, I wished to hand over the task to some one more capable of doing it justice; and it was not until my friends, the Hon. Eric Trevanion and Mr. Francis Lee, of Nepaul, had used considerable pressure that I gave in to them. They said that as I had been leader it was my duty to give an account of our marvellous adventures to the world, and no one else had any right to do it. So, in the end, I consented, though it was with much reluctance.
Before beginning, however, it may be necessary for me to remind the reader that there is an ancient proverb to the effect that "Truth is stranger than fiction." Otherwise, he or she may be apt to forget that this is a true narrative, and not the creation of an imaginative novelist's brain. The incidents I intend to relate, especially in the latter half of this volume (always provided, of course, that I do not throw up the whole thing in disgust by that time) may appear, to say the least of it, strange and uncommon, as, indeed, they appeared to us ourselves at the time; but it is known, on the authority of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Strange things we saw, and strange things we did, as shall be related in their proper places—things of which, in our philosophy, we never at one time even dreamt. But we are wiser now, thanks to the expedition above referred to; and I hope that my readers, before they finish all that I mean to write, may be in the same condition.
Well, making the best of an uncongenial job—for, even at college, I was more at home with a bat or an oar than a pen—I suppose I shall have to begin at the beginning. Know, then, that on a certain spring morning in the year of grace 187—, I, Douglas Dalziel of Airth, Esquire, was in my twenty-fourth year. Airth, which, as every one knows, is in Inverness-shire, N.B., had passed into my possession on attaining my majority, my father having died nine years previously. He had had one younger brother, who, all through my boyhood and youth, was a mystery to me. For a long time all that I knew of him was that he had died or been killed somewhere abroad; that his loss had been so acutely felt by my parents that they could hardly bear to hear his name mentioned; and that a monument had been erected to his memory in the family burying-place, the inscription on which ran:
ALISTER DOUGLAS DALZIEL.
Born, 1825. Died, 1851.
"He, the young and strong, who cherished
Noble longings for the strife,
By the roadside fell and perished.
Weary with the march of life."
Often in my boyhood, while my father was still alive, have I stood by this monument, musing on my uncle's probable fate, and wishing I could know more of one whom I placed alongside of Richard Coeur de Lion, Ivanhoe, the Knight of the Leopard, and my other favourite heroes of chivalry.
One day, when I was about twelve, I summoned up courage to ask my father concerning him. I don't know why I had not done so before, unless it was that intuitively I had felt that it was a subject about which he did not care to talk, and accordingly I had curbed my impatience until it was no longer possible to do so.
I shall never forget the look of pain which crossed his face when I put my question; but after considering for a minute or two he merely replied:
"Not just now, Douglas; you are still too young to understand. When you are older I may tell you the story of his death. But never speak to me of him again, my boy, for it costs me more pain than I like to own even to think of him."
After that I said no more, though my curiosity underwent no abatement.
Then my father died, and shortly afterwards I was sent to Rugby, whence I passed to Oxford. In the midst of the work and play of school and college, I thought less of the mystery surrounding my uncle's death, and it was only on rare occasions during vacation time that the desire to unravel it returned to me.
At Rugby and Brasenose my greatest chum was the Hon. Eric Trevanion, the youngest of the four sons of Lord Trevanion. In school and out of it, we were well-nigh inseparable; and so our common delight may be imagined when Eric's father bought the castle and estate of Loch-Eyt, which was, as it were, next door to our house in Lochaber. We had now finished our careers at Oxford (doing nothing very distinguished, I am afraid), and what we should do, or where we should go next, was still a controversial matter. But during this spring we were enjoying ourselves at home—a thing which at no time presented any great difficulties to us.
Well, on this April morning in 187—, I had occasion to pass my uncle's monument, and I stood still, as in my boyhood, to read the inscription. Doing so, the same desire as of old came over me, but more irresistibly than it had ever done before; and, as I remembered my father's words before his death, I determined to ask my mother to tell me my uncle's story. Surely it was now time that I should know!
The resolution was no sooner taken than I acted upon it. Returning at once to the house, I sought my mother's room, and finding her disengaged, I asked her to tell me all about my Uncle Alister.
Contrary to my expectation, she made no demur, but only said:
"I have been anticipating such a request for a long time, Douglas, and have only wondered that it was not made sooner. Your poor father, before he died, told me that he had promised to tell you the whole story, and asked me to do so instead. The tale is a sad one to me, and I do not like to dwell upon it; but you may as well hear it just now as later."
Settling herself comfortably in her chair, while I took possession of another by her side, she commenced.
"You know that your Uncle Alister was your father's younger brother, and they were passionately fond of each other, so much so that they were seldom apart. After our marriage, Alister, at that time about your age, continued to stay with us. He was a tall and good-looking young fellow, and one of the strongest men in the county; and he was such a general favourite that I believe he could have raised a regiment from amongst his admirers.
"Your father, like many more of the family, had been a great traveller before he succeeded to the estates, and had been over most of America and Africa. He had been about to start for India when his father died, and the principal ambition of his life was to thoroughly explore the unknown places of Asia before he died. He had curious ideas of the wealth that perhaps lay in many of the out-of-the-way parts of that vast continent; and, had he lived, I believe he would have carried out his intentions.
"Well, Alister had also the family craze for travel—a craze which I see is developing itself in you, Douglas; and this your father, in default of going himself, strove to turn into an Asiatic channel. But Alister inclined to Africa, and seemed to care little for Asia. I saw that your father would, for very little cause, be off himself to Central Asia, and that the only way to prevent such a thing would be to get Alister to go in his stead. Accordingly I added my influence to Evan's—your father's— and, his brain once fired by thoughts of adventure, he was not difficult to manage.
"In 1850 he started for India, his only companion being an Anglo-Indian of the name of John Nimmo, who had been introduced to him in London as a traveller who had gone through Southern China from Canton to Burma. Nimmo was desirous of further travel, and as he knew much of the languages and manners of many of the peoples of Eastern Central Asia, he seemed just the partner for Alister.
"We first heard from him when he reached Calcutta. He had by that time, in conjunction with Nimmo, decided his course, which was to strike through Assam to the frontier of Burma and Thibet. Then they meant to see if it were possible to cross the intervening mountains and follow the Yang-tse-Kiang northward by way of Bathang and Miniak to its sources; and passing through the Tartar province of the Koko-Nor and the Chinese one of Kansuh, reach the great wall of China, which he and Nimmo would attempt to follow eastward to Peking. This enterprise was bold even to rashness, for at that time the Chinese Empire was shut to foreigners, or rather Europeans, on pain of death. But Alister and his friend apparently thought little of the danger, and we on our part could only hope that he would return all right.
"About three months later we got another letter which had been given to a native guide on the frontiers of Burma, and brought by him to Calcutta. This told of their progress through Assam. Everything had gone well so far—natives friendly, country splendid, and game plentiful.
"This was the last letter your uncle wrote. A year passed without any further news of the travellers, and we were just beginning to feel anxious when a letter arrived from Nimmo from Rangoon containing the sad news that Alister had been murdered by a band of roving brigands in the region of the lakes of the Koko- Nor. But get the letter from my escritoire. It is in the top right-hand drawer above the other papers. Here are the keys."
Deeply interested in the narrative, I hastened to obey, and in a few seconds returned with the letter, of which I give a verbatim copy:—
At Messrs. J. and A. Swan's, Rangoon,
31st October, 1851.
My Dear Sir,
I only arrived here this morning, and consequently can only send you a few lines at present to tell you of the sad fate of your brother, Mr. Alister Dalziel. Fuller particulars will arrive by next mail.
After passing the frontier into Thibet we struck northward—slightly north-west—keeping as far as possible out of the track of native villages, and after incredible difficulties had been surmounted, we reached Sourmang in September. There finding the natives favourably disposed towards us we wintered, starting again in April, and reaching the fertile plains of the Koko-Nor shortly after. Hearing that it would be impossible to penetrate eastward without being discovered and arrested by the Chinese authorities, we determined to go westward through Turkestan and so into Kashmir.
On the evening of the 15th of May we encamped on the banks of one of the small lakes near the Koko-Nor, or Blue Sea. About eight o'clock Alister saw a cloud of dust approaching from the south-east, and by the aid of his glass he made out this to be caused by a large troop of mounted Kolo (brigands, the terror of the peaceful Tartars) coming directly towards us. There was no time to flee. They soon sighted us, and rode down upon us, spear in hand. We held up our hands in token of surrender, but they either did not understand us or did not wish to do so; and in a few minutes we were completely surrounded. I was at once knocked down by a blow on the back of the head, and as I lay on the ground I saw your brother empty his revolver amongst them. He was then set upon by at least six Kolo, and he had received many thrusts, which must have been fatal, before I lost consciousness.
When I recovered I was being cared for by an honest Tartar family, who had found me after the brigands left. On inquiring for your brother I learned that the dead had been thrown by the Kolo into the lake. After my recovery I retraced my steps, eventually reaching Burma in safety.
There can be no doubt, my dear sir, that your brother was killed, and before closing this letter (the post leaves in ten minutes) I must express to you my deep sorrow at the occurrence. Alister had become like a brother to me, and I feel his loss acutely. I will write fuller to-morrow, and meanwhile am, yours very sincerely,
John G. Nimmo.
"We waited for several days," continued my mother, "for the promised letter, but on its non-arrival your father telegraphed to the firm mentioned in Mr. Nimmo's letter, Messrs: J. and A. Swan, bankers, of Rangoon, and from them he received the intelligence that Nimmo had gone up country immediately, with what purpose no one knew.
"Inquiries were set on foot, but all in vain. To this day no more has been heard of Nimmo; and at the time it was conjectured that he had been killed by dacoits in Upper Burma. But, unfortunately, there could be no doubt about the truth of his story. Everything pointed to the same conclusion—the wound on the back of his head, the condition in which he reached Rangoon, and the story he told so circumstantially to the people there. His disappearance was the only doubtful point, and he might have had powerful reasons of his own for it.
"Your father's inquiries regarding the Kolo only served to confirm Nimmo's statements. These brigands are hordes of Si- fan, or Eastern Thibetans, who, descending from their mountains like the Highlanders of old, pillage and murder the Mongol tribes who wander over the fruitful plains of the Koko-Nor. They very seldom take prisoners; they are not averse to murder if their purpose can be accomplished in no other way; and, in short, nothing could be more likely than that your uncle had been killed by them.
"That is all the story, Douglas, for it would be too painful for me to tell you how the news affected your father and myself. Indirectly, we were responsible for Alister's death; and I believe your father was never the same man again. He could not bear to hear the incident spoken of, and to the day of his death he reproached himself, perhaps too much, for his share in the matter."
So this was my uncle's sad story! I confess that I was strangely affected while my mother was narrating the events that led up to his death; and after thinking over the matter in all its bearings, I cried, impulsively:
"Mother, I don't believe my uncle was killed by these brigands!"
"Why?" she asked, with more indifference than I had expected.
"That fellow Nimmo wasn't killed, and why should uncle be? True, he fired at them, and Nimmo saw him receive several thrusts; but, all the same, he had fully as much chance as his friend, and I believe he's alive yet, though perhaps in captivity. Then Nimmo's disappearance looks rather queer, to say the least of it, and that letter of his strikes me as somewhat hypocritical. No, I don't think he was killed, and I've a good mind to go in search of him—or, at least, to make sure."
I may here mention that my mother was quite right when she said that I was developing a craze for travel. Such crazes are, I think, hereditary; certainly my father's had descended to me; and this story had served to give mine the impetus it needed. I had always longed to be an explorer, and Central Asia would do as well as, perhaps better than, any other part of the globe; it was certainly less known and much more difficult of access, and there was more than the usual danger when one got there—things not to be despised in this latter end of the nineteenth century.
No wonder, then, that I was quite excited over my new idea. My brain seemed on fire as I pondered over the story I had heard, and considered the chances of finding my uncle still alive. Thibet!—Tartars!—there was magic in the very names; and it was a magic which, in my case at, least, did not take long in accomplishing its purpose.
With my usual impulsiveness—my friends tell me I am very impulsive—I wished to bring down atlases and books of travel at once; but my mother interposed with a still better suggestion.
"I think you might do worse than take a walk over to Loch-Eyt to see Eric; and perhaps you may be able to discuss the matter more calmly on your return."
I was all eagerness to find out what my friend thought of the matter; so I adopted the proposal on the instant, and, five minutes later, I was striding across the moors to Loch-Eyt Castle, with my faithful dog Tray trotting by my side.
THE Hon. Eric Trevanion was three months my junior as regards age, but there was little to choose between us in all other particulars save one. That one was his physique. And, considering that he stood six feet three in his stockings, and his breadth and strength were proportionate, it is not to be wondered at that I came off second-best in this respect. A better specimen of an Englishman than Eric, taking him all round, it would have been difficult to find.
Clear-cut features, hair and eyes of a chestnut-brown colour, and a frank and open expression—these had my friend in common with his three brothers; and as for his accomplishments, when I say that he was a dead shot, an indefatigable deerstalker, a bold rider to hounds, as good a swimmer as Byron is said to have been, and had as much coolness, courage, and determination as any one I ever knew—you should have a pretty good idea of Eric.
As may be supposed, he was a general favourite in the county. He had a word, a joke, or a quotation from his favourite poets for every one; and his bright and cheery presence was, I am told, sadly missed during the periods he was absent.
In short, he was just such a man as one would care to have as a companion when in a tight place; for he could be relied upon to stand by one in every emergency.
He was standing on the steps of the terrace in front of Loch- Eyt Castle—a hoary old pile dating from the time of Harlaw—when Tray and I came up; and he had with him his brother Harold and a stranger. My dog was not long in announcing our arrival. He had been a present to me from Eric, who had named him after the harper's "poor dog Tray" of Thomas Campbell; and I verily believe he had as great an affection for his late master as for his present one. At all events, he always greeted him with great vehemence; and on this occasion he bounded forward and jumped upon him in great glee the moment he caught sight of him.
Eric, as he came down the avenue to meet me, hailed me in his characteristic manner, in the words of Scott:
"'Thy name and purpose! Saxon, stand!'"
"Who is your friend, Eric?" I asked, when I had returned his greeting.
"A sort of half-cousin of ours—an East Indian, immensely rich, and a jolly fellow all round. Come on; I'll introduce you."
I followed him up to the terrace, and, addressing the stranger, he said, "Frank, allow me to introduce to you Dalziel of Airth. Douglas—my cousin Mr. Frank Lee."
Mr. Lee was so dark as to be almost brown, taking the word as it is used in connection with Hindu colour, and his whole appearance gave one the impression that he was not English. Jet- black hair, heavily ringleted, and eyes which seemed almost as black as the hair, denoted that he had at least a strain of foreign blood in his veins. His mouth was almost covered by a heavy moustache, but had a kindly expression hovering round its corners; and, altogether, judging from a first impression, he seemed as nice a fellow as one could wish to meet.
We stood chatting for a few minutes, and then Harold Trevanion called him away to see the kennels; and during his absence I took the opportunity of asking Eric concerning him.
"He only arrived this morning," he answered, "along with his servant, a pure-bred Ghoorka. You may have noticed that he's rather dark, which is not strange, considering that he's a half- breed. His father was my mother's full cousin, and had a somewhat romantic career. During a shooting expedition to Nepaul he fell in love with a dusky beauty, the only daughter and heiress of a wealthy old Ghoorka chief. The father would have nothing to do with him, so he waited until he died, and then married her. After a couple of years in Calcutta, they took up their residence somewhere on the Himalayas, where Frank—who, by the way, is more generally known as 'the Sahib,' a name which was first conferred upon him at school, and which he has no objection to, but rather likes—well, Frank was born and brought up there. Both his parents died lately; like you, he has no brothers or sisters, and, as I have remarked, he is as rich as old Croesus. His servant, Sirikisson, they call him, is a sort of hereditary body- guard, he having done the same duty to old Lee and his Ghoorka wife, and his father to the Sahib's maternal grandfather, and so on."
"And is he (the Sahib) touchy regarding his descent?" I asked.
"Not he. There is nothing he likes better than to talk of his Ghoorka progenitors and their deeds. You know these Ghoorkas, under a fellow called Prithi Nareyan, conquered Nepaul in the middle of last century; and one of the Sahib's ancestors was the most active of the lot, as far as plundering was concerned. No doubt that is how the family got their riches—like some of our own old families, the Trevanions not excepted."
"He must be an interesting sort of fellow, Eric, and I'm glad, for several reasons, that I've met him. How long does he intend to stay?"
"No more than a week or ten days, and then he returns to India. At his place in Nepaul, on the Himalayan slopes, he keeps up royal state; and he has invited me to return with him, promising me as many lions, tigers, and other big game as I wish. If you were only to come, Douglas, by Jove! see if I shouldn't accept."
I had been waiting for an opportunity of opening up the subject nearest my heart; and, now that my chum seemed so set upon going to India, I felt that there would be little difficulty in taking him further.
"It's certainly an enticing prospect," I said, "and I should like nothing better—the more so because I have just heard all about my mysterious uncle, and therefore I'm anxious to get both you and myself off to Central Asia."
"That's good news, although I don't quite see the connection between your uncle, who, according to his epitaph, died nearly a quarter of a century ago, and Central Asia."
"I'll soon make everything clear even to your thick skull," I retorted. "The story is a rather long—But here comes your friend; let us see what he has to say on the subject of Central Asia."
Before I had time to broach the subject to Mr. Lee, however, Eric proposed that the three of us—Harold had taken himself off— should adjourn to the morning-room, in which we could discuss any question, from the income-tax to the Eastern difficulty, more comfortably than in the open air, where the breeze off the sea was still very keen.
Accordingly, we took possession of the room, and, to ensure secrecy, after Eric had brought half-a-dozen atlases and special maps from the library, we locked the door.
Then I told my uncle's story, and read Nimmo's letter, which I had brought over with me. After I had finished, Eric asked:—
"And what is your opinion of it all?"
"That he was not killed at the time, whether he has died since or not."
"It would be worth while to go out just to settle the point. Of course we have the chances of getting served in the same way, you know; but, after all, there is no fun without danger, as the Irishmen say at Donnybrook. And there's sure to be plenty of adventure and sport. What do you say, Sahib, as a man who knows all about it?"
"I can't pretend to know much about it," answered the Indian; "but all the same, I have no difficulty in vouching for the sport. As to your uncle being alive, Mr. Dalziel, I hardly think it probable. Surely, during all these years, he would have had at least one opportunity of escaping and returning home. But if you have any doubts on the subject, it may be better, as Eric says, to settle the matter once and for all. You may rely upon me to give you every assistance in my power."
"Thanks. I will do so if I decide to go."
"Which," interposed Eric, "there is nothing to prevent us doing. Your mother has too much common sense to keep you at home; and my father told me yesterday that all I needed was a couple of years abroad—the more danger the better. So, you see, we may as well look upon it as decided that we go to Asia."
"You are jumping very quickly to decisions."
"And why not? America, North and South, is now as civilized as France; the Arctic regions are out of fashion for the present; Africa is becoming stale, though I admit there is still something to be done in that quarter; so that we have only Asia left. And I have always had a fancy for that quarter of the world. Like your father, Douglas, I believe there's a lot of treasure knocking about in the centre of it; and, as I am not particularly well off—younger sons never are—some of it would be welcome enough to me. Take Thibet for instance. What do we know of it? That not more than four Europeans have penetrated to Lhassa, its capital, during this century; that throughout its immense extent it is practically unexplored; and that it is very rich in gold, silver, and all other minerals. Where is there a better field for a good explorer? Why, for all we know, there may be half a dozen other peoples within it who are utterly unknown to us."
"Speaking of that," said the Sahib, "reminds me of a legend we have in Nepaul, to which it has been exported from the other side of the Himalayas—Thibet. You know that long ago, before British diplomatic blundering in 1792 caused the Thibetans to close the passes between their country and Hindostan, a large trade was carried on; and, even yet, Nepaul, as an independent country, does something with the Thibetans. By means of this intercourse the legend of which I am speaking has reached Nepaul; and as it is a very curious one, and has, besides, some bearing on Eric's conjectures, I will, with your permission, relate it. There is also another reason for attaching importance to it; but of that more in a minute or two.
"The legend, as told by the natives, is as follows: Long ago, hundreds of years before the birth of Tsong-Kaba, the regenerator of the Buddhist religion, which took place in 1357, there was a great war between the Chinese and a portion of the Eastern Thibetans; and the latter, being conquered by superior numbers, retired westward until they came to great mountains. At the foot of these they rested for nine days; but at the end of that time a fierce people swept down upon them from behind the mountains and well-nigh annihilated them. A few were captured, blindfolded, and conducted into a large valley, wherein was a city surrounded by a ring of small mountains, out of which issued white smoke. There were also many more valleys and plains, exceedingly rich, with gold, and silver, and precious stones in abundance. In this El Dorado the prisoners remained for a long time, after which they were again blindfolded, led to where they had been captured, and set free, being warned not to return on pain of death. They reached their own country in safety, and told the story; and since that day many expeditions have striven to reach the mountains, but in vain, for no one knows in which direction they lie—at least with any certainty. Such is the legend of the Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains, generally shortened into the Mountain Kingdom."
"'Gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance,'" repeated Eric, when his cousin had concluded; "it must be a jolly sort of place, that Mountain Kingdom."
"No doubt—if it exists," I replied.
"Every one's not so sceptical as you, old man, and I, for one, am a firm believer in legends. Like Montgomery—
All that old traditions tell
I tremblingly believe.
"But, seriously, there may be some foundation in fact for this one, don't you think? What's your opinion, Frank?"
"I agree with you that it may be true—it would be strange if I, a native of Nepaul, did not believe in a Nepaulese legend."
This was said with a peculiar smile, as if he still knew something more than he had told.
"And what can these 'mountains out of which issued white smoke' be?" continued Eric.
"Volcanoes, no doubt," I said, "though I never heard of them so far inland. It's a remarkable story altogether, and in the course of ages it may have grown from some trifling fact into its present dimensions; but that, again, is scarcely so probable as that there has been at one time a strange people amongst the Thibetan mountains. But legends, however interesting, are not facts, whatever Montgomery or any one else may say."
"Well, the only way to settle it and convince you, Douglas, is to go in search of it and your uncle at the same time."
This bold proposal, thrown out in Eric's most offhand manner, fairly took away our breaths; and before we had recovered, he went on:
"And I'll give either or both of you an even bet of a hundred that we discover this Mountain Kingdom before the end of the year!"
"Done!" I cried. "I know my money's safe enough. Take it up, Lee."
"Thanks, but I'd rather not"
"Because, as I said before, I've another very weighty reason in favour of my legend; and when you have heard this you won't be so confident of the safety of your money."
"Have you seen the Mountain Kingdom?" asked Eric, in excitement.
"No; but I think you know my man Sirikisson Teli? Well, I rather think he can throw some light upon the story; and, with your permission, I'll call him up."
"Do so, by all means," said Eric, himself ringing the bell; and when the servant appeared he told him to send up Mr. Lee's man.
A few minutes later Sirikisson Teli entered the room.
SIRIKISSON Teli appeared to be a little over forty years of age, and his keen and intelligent countenance gave one a good idea of his mental powers. He was short, wiry, and lithe, as be≠came a mountaineer born and bred; and he looked capable of enduring any amount of suffering and fatigue. In almost perfect English—which, as I afterwards heard, he had learned while attending the Sahib during his schooldays—he asked:
"What might the gentlemen sahibs be pleased to require?"
"Sirikisson," replied his master, "this gentleman, Mr. Douglas Dalziel, Mr. Eric, and I have been speaking about Thibet, and we should like to hear all you know about the Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains."
"So you shall," answered the Ghoorka; and, standing where he was, he commenced without any further preliminaries:
"In the days"—
But this did not suit Eric, and he interrupted: "Take a chair, Sirikisson; it's no good standing when there are seats to be had for the asking. And as it's dry work talking, help yourself to whatever you please"—indicating the tray with various liquid refreshments.
Sirikisson availed himself of the chair, respectfully refused the proffered drink, and went on with the story, which I give as I remember it, though I regret exceedingly that I cannot reproduce the Ghoorka's native wealth of imagery and metaphor.
"In the days of old, when the Ghoorkas were at the height of their power, they invaded and conquered Nepaul. Then, hearing of the great riches which lay stored in the palace of the Panshen Lama, then a minor, at Teshu Lumbo, in Thibet, they determined to invade that country, and raised a large army for this purpose. Of this army the great-grandfather of the Sahib was one of the leaders, and my grandfather, Teli, was his servant and trooper.
"At the call of the chiefs, eighteen thousand Ghoorkas assembled at Khatmandu; the passes through the mountains were seized; and our army marched to Teshu Lumbo without the least resistance being offered by the Thibetans. Hearing of our approach, the Regent fled to Lhassa, taking with him the young Lama; and our army captured and sacked the place, took and divided the plunder, and pitched their tents with the intention of remaining.
"But by this time the Regent had sent messages to the Old Buddha at Peking"—(the Emperor of China)—"who despatched an envoy to demand the return of our spoil, on pain of extermination. The Ghoorkas were not afraid of the Chinese, and told them so; while, as for giving up the plunder; our army was determined to fight to the last before doing any such thing. So General Sun-Fo was sent against us with seventy thousand men, and, by means of his cannon, we were defeated."*
(*This Nepaulese invasion took place in 1792, and, after the defeat mentioned by Sirikisson, the Ghoorkas were again routed at the passes. Sun-Fo followed them into Nepaul, defeated them a third time near Khatmandu, and dictated his own terms. The plunder had to be restored, and, to prevent future raids, the passes were closed against natives of India, as they remain to this day.—D.D.)
"Teli, my grandfather, after doing his utmost—but what could one do against four?—fled when he saw that there was no hope of victory; but, being cut off from the rest of the Ghoorka army, he was forced, to save his life, to flee in the direction of the setting sun. For eight months, mostly winter, through snow and ice, he wandered over mountain and valley, hardly knowing or caring whither, and living on the hares and wild fowl he snared, the fish he caught, and the black barley he stole from the huts.
"In this way he came to a river, which, confined between walls of rock, was nevertheless broad and calm, flowing on so placidly that it seemed out of place amidst such scenery, where one would rather expect a wild and turbulent mountain stream. He swam across this at a point at which the walls were low, and climbed the opposite bank, only to find mountains which, rising up almost as high into the air as the Himalayas, were little less than perpendicular, and absolutely impossible to climb. He followed their base for many miles, but nowhere could he reach more than a few hundred feet up; until, despairing of finding another way onward, or so much as a pass, he recrossed the river. The next morning he saw in the distance a mountain whose summit appeared to be higher than those he had attempted to climb; and determined to find out, if possible, what was behind, he made his way to it, and, after difficulties which would have appalled any one but a Himalayan Ghoorka, he reached the summit as the sun was setting. There he spent the night, and on the morn, when the sun had dispersed the clouds, he looked westwards and saw, over the belt of protecting mountains, several small peaks out of which white smoke was issuing.
"It was the Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains!
"But the summits of these were all he could see from his post, although the mountain he was on was the highest for miles around. For more than a week he searched for a pass which should lead him into the Mountain Kingdom, but all in vain: search as he might he found nothing but impassable mountains and sterile ravines.
"At last, his patience and his provisions exhausted, he gave up the quest, retraced his steps, and wandered back to the Himalayas and reached his home, where he had long been mourned for as dead. He never again crossed the Himalayas into Thibet, but on his death-bed he told my father this story, and from him it has descended to me. I believe it to be true, and I am ready to start for the spot at any time."
I have given the narrative of the Ghoorka in as few words as I could; but it is as impossible for me to describe its effect upon Eric and myself as to present an adequate idea of the animated manner in which it was told. Personally, I had been determined to go to Central Asia since hearing the story told by my mother; and, as may be imagined, the Sahib's legend and its subsequent confirmation had in no wise lessened the force of this resolution. As for Eric, he whistled softly to himself, and then repeated under his breath:
"Gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance—by Jove!"
Lee, on his part, watched for some time and with a little amusement the effect of the story on us, before he broke the silence by asking:
"Well, what do you think of it now?"
"The story," I said, "certainly is 'confirmation strong' of the legend, and I have now no doubt that some strange people, unknown to the rest of the world, exist behind these mountains, wherever they are. That is for some one to find out, and, if we decide on going to Central Asia, why not we?"
"Correct, Douglas," cried Eric, with enthusiasm. "Wouldn't it be jolly for the three of us to discover this terra incognita away in the wilds of Asia! But, I say, Sahib, has either of you ever been in Thibet?"
"I haven't; but I believe Sirikisson has—eh?"
"Yes—often," replied the Ghoorka. "As you know, gentlemen sahibs, I was born on the great snowy mountains, and from my boyhood upwards I have been trained as a mountain guide. So, although the passes have been closed, I have often been into Thibet. It is a dreary country, all mountain and ravine, with only a fertile valley here and there."
"Were you ever at Lhassa?" I asked.
"Once, in 1861. At that time the blockade was very strict; but I got over by a pass known only to a few of us guides. I reached Lhassa, and stayed there six months. It is a grand city, with many splendid Lamaseries and much riches—a fine city to pillage."
"So I should suppose," laughed Eric. "But what about this pass? Is it practicable for us?"
"That'll do," I interrupted. "You're taking it for granted, Eric, that we're going"—
"As we are, with you as commander-in-chief, the Sahib as aide, Sirikisson as principal guide, and I as commissary-general and master of ordnance."
"With an eye to the precious stones and other valuables. But proceed, Sirikisson: what about the pass?"
"It is hardly a pass, sahib, and highly dangerous. But, as I have said, I have gone by it, and may do so again; so, if you decide to proceed into Thibet in that way—the only one I know of—I am ready to lead you."
"Well said, Sirikisson," cried Eric; "'your actions to your words accord.' We accept your offer."
"That's all very well," I said, "but you seem to overlook one point. What are we to do after reaching Thibet?"
"Find the Mountain Kingdom!" was the ready reply.
"But how? We have nothing save the faintest idea of the direction in which these mountains lie. The legend says westward; Sirikisson's grandfather wandered towards the setting sun; so that they must lie somewhere in the western portion of Thibet. But that country is vast and unexplored, and we might search over it for years without coming upon this mountain-encircled kingdom, if it really exists."
"There is something in that," gravely responded the Sahib. "And, besides, Teli must have wandered in all directions during these eight months, and his 'setting sun' is really no guide."
While we were discussing this knotty point, Eric intently studied the latest map of Central Asia; and in a few minutes he gave us the results of his investigations.
"Look here," he said, pointing to a spot in the north-west of Thibet, "that must be the place, or near it. All the rest of the map is pretty well filled in, but here it is quite vacant, which shows that it is unexplored and unknown. Moreover, the mountains are very dense around it."
"Sirikisson mentioned a broad river: is it to be seen on the map?"
"No," replied Eric, after a close examination; "there are no signs of one here; but, you know, this part of the country has probably never been explored."
"In that case, should we decide to go, we must be guided greatly by chance. If we escape arrest, the perils of the country, and brigands, not to mention many other dangers, we may make a great discovery; if not, you two will have had your apprenticeship in travel, and perhaps—who knows?—be elected Fellows of the R.G.S."
The mention of brigands recalled to my memory what I had almost been forgetting—that in the first place I had determined to proceed to Asia for the purpose of searching for my uncle, and not of discovering any unknown nation whatever; and thinking that my companions were equally forgetful, I asked:
"And what about my uncle?"
"Just the question I was anticipating," said Eric. "We must manage to kill the two dogs—don't think I am referring to you, Tray—with one bone, as we say in Scotland here, and search simultaneously for both your uncle and the Mountain Kingdom. How is it to be done?"
"I don't know. The Koko-Nor must be more than a thousand miles from this part of Thibet."
"I have a plan," said the Sahib. "After Sirikisson pilots us over the Himalayas, let us strike across Thibet in the direction of the spot Eric imagines to be the Kingdom; and then, if we find no traces of it, we may continue our journey over the Kuen-Lun Mountains into Turkestan, go eastward, and so reach the Koko- Nor."
"A very feasible project," I said; "but don't you think, before pledging ourselves, it would be better to take a little time and consider the matter well? I, for one, know very little of that portion of Central Asia, and I should like to find out something about it before finally deciding."
"What's the use?" said Eric. "I intend to go, so do you, and so does Frank there, not to mention Sirikisson. The best way to find out about anything is by experience."
"Another thing," said the Sahib, "it is now April, and we haven't a day to lose. We should reach the Himalayas by the end of May, cross them and Thibet before the winter—which, I believe, is terribly severe there—comes on, and finish the year in the Mountain Kingdom, if we find it."
"Hear, hear!" approvingly cried Eric. "So you see, old man, you must decide before dinner to-night."
"I don't exactly say that," continued Lee, "and I have a proposition to make—that you consider the matter overnight, consult your people, and meet here in the morning to decide finally."
To this very sensible proposal both Eric and I gave in our assent.
"As for myself, if you two go, Sirikisson and I go with you; and, if not—well, I suppose we shall remain on the southern side of the Himalayas."
After some further discussion the door was unlocked. Refusing an invitation to remain to dinner, I returned to Airth, with Tray at my heels, building castles in the air—castles which, it is needless to say, had the mysterious Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains as foundation.
I HAVE spent more time than I intended over these preliminary notes; and it may be as well, to prevent unnecessary repetitions, to hurry over the few details which still remain to be told concerning our doings at home.
My mother at first positively refused to assent to my journey to Central Asia, giving as her reason that I was certain to meet with the same fate as my uncle; but when I pointed out to her that we should be in much greater force, and were, moreover, going to a different part of the continent, she so far relented as to argue the matter. Then I went over the whole facts of the case, putting particular stress on our guide's knowledge of the country; and in the end, seeing that I was completely bent upon the project, and perhaps knowing the uselessness of trying to dissuade me, she gave a conditional assent.
"Bring over Eric and this Mr. Lee to-morrow," she said, "and, if their arguments are as strong as yours, I may see my way to give in to you. But you must distinctly understand, Douglas, that nothing is more against my wishes; and if I consent, I only do so because I see that you will never rest until you have become tired of travelling."
Knowing that my friends' arguments would be much more cogent and persuasive than mine own, I had little doubt of the final result; so little, indeed, that as we took our usual after-dinner walk I said to Tray:
"Three months hence we'll be tramping over Thibet instead of old Lochaber. What do you think of the prospect, doggie?"
Tray, who, as a year-old collie of the best breed, was as wise as dog can be, looked up into my face affectionately, whisked his big, bushy tail, and barked delightedly, as if to say:
"Yes, won't it be splendid?"
"I see you're as bad as I am, Tray. All the same, we'll take your delight as a good omen."
As my mother desired, I brought over Mr. Lee and Eric to Airth; and the result of their visit was just what I had anticipated. Eric, especially, was fervid in his arguments; so much so, that my mother was fain to ask:
"I am sure that you have some great reason of your own for this expedition, Eric. What is it?"
"Really, now, Mrs. Dalziel, this is hardly fair. You shouldn't ask such personal questions. But I admit that to me the prospects of this journey are very fascinating."
"In what way?"
"In the adventure and sport, for one thing. And then there are—"
"The chances of discovering this Mountain Kingdom of which Frank has been telling you, with all its gold, silver, and precious stones!"
So, when my mother saw that she was overruled, she, like the wise little woman she was, gave in with as good a grace as possible; and, although I now know that she felt my departure much more keenly than she showed, she raised no further objections.
And thus it was decided that we should, ten days later, sail in the steamer Victoria for Calcutta, en route for Thibet.
Were I to detail the various steps we took in preparing for our expedition to Central Asia, my reader would doubtless consider them both tedious and uninteresting; and, accordingly, I only venture to remark that, with the help of the Sahib and Sirikisson, everything was done in a thoroughly efficient and trustworthy manner. To make sure that our instructions were being properly carried out by the London firms to whom we had entrusted our commissions, Lee ran up to town three days after that on which we decided, and there he stayed—Sirikisson, of course, being with him—during our remaining week, while Eric and I made the best of our last days in Lochaber for many a month, possibly many a year, to come.
The seven days fled quickly away. Eric and I had bidden farewell to our friends; the tenantry on both estates, although they had such short notice, had given us a farewell banquet; and now, on this our last day in Scotland, we had only to part with our relatives and our homes.
Partings, whether from individuals or from places with which we are familiar and which we love, are invariably sad, and it is not less so when on one hand it is known that a thousand dangers are sure to block the wanderer's path, and that there are ten chances to one against his safe return. Ours was no exception to the general rule; and, even when it was all over, and Eric, Tray, and I were being whirled south to London, we felt terribly downcast. Should we ever return to our native country? or would it be our lot to perish in the pathless wilds of the Great Forbidden Land, our very fate unknown to those nearest and dearest to us?
But our youth and natural buoyancy soon reasserted themselves; we banished all such gloomy forebodings from our minds, and long before we reached the great metropolis we were in our normal spirits, chatting gaily on the prospects of an adventurous journey.
The Sahib and his servant were waiting for us at Euston, and we were conducted to the hotel of the former, where we heard how our preparations had been advanced.
"Your places in the Victoria, which sails to-morrow, have been booked; and everything, from the ropes and tinned meats up to the arms and scientific instruments, is carefully packed, and by this time stowed away in the vessel's hold. In short, we have nothing further to do but go on board with our personal luggage."
This we did next morning, the good P. and O. steamer weighed anchor, and, before evening, we were in the Channel. Next day we caught a last glimpse of Old England, gradually receding from view; and we realized for the first time the full significance of the words—outward bound!
For the reasons I have already given, I will not dwell upon the voyage, although much of what passed was new and fascinating to Eric and me, but not to Lee, who had already been three voyages to and from our Eastern Empire.
Of our various fellow-passengers, and what they said and did; of the first storm and its consequences; of the various interesting matters connected with her Majesty's mails, and the guardian thereof; of the numberless devices invented to make time fly: of all these many interesting details could be told. But the subject has already been treated by other and abler writers; and so we pass on to other matters, more directly concerning our narrative.
The passenger who occupied the berth adjoining mine was a man whose age might have been fifty, and whose whole appearance and demeanour showed that he had travelled much. Of average height, but seemingly very strong, with a deeply-bronzed face, a long, shaggy, brown beard, and hair of the same colour, and a scar on his face, from his brow down his right cheek to his beard—such was Mr. G. Graham Edwards outwardly; and he appeared so ferocious that more than once I have seen the children scatter and flee at his approach. But from what I saw of him at dinner he was by no means a bad fellow, and I suppose that it was his scar more than anything else that frightened the youngsters.
My attention was first particularly drawn to him through my dog Tray. Tray was perhaps the most popular—I can hardly say person, but he fairly eclipsed every "person" on board—animal carried by the Victoria, and every one, from the mighty captain down to the child in arms, vied in doing him honour. I had more than one very high offer for him from rich Indian officials and others; but no fancy prices could tempt me to sell him. His tricks never became stale, however often performed, and as a source of amusement to the passengers he was invaluable.
Well, when we were at Malta I went on shore, and happening to return two or three hours before the others, I was in time to see a strange sight. This was Edwards, surrounded by an admiring crowd of boys and girls—who had apparently conquered their antipathy for the time being—feeding Tray and two other dogs with choice tidbits, after making them go through various evolutions. On seeing me he said:
"We must amuse the youngsters, you know."
I made some commonplace answer, and no more was said; but it struck me as rather curious that a man of his age and position should have grown anxious so suddenly about the amusement of his juniors.
BUT for one event our voyage would have been as monotonous as a voyage to India via the Canal usually is. This solitary event caused some excitement at the time, and formed a fruitful subject of conversation until our arrival at Calcutta.
Steaming down the Red Sea one night, above a week after our departure from Malta, our vessel had almost run down an Arab dhow. It was a beautiful moonlit night, and the three of us—Lee, Eric, and I—were seated on deck, discussing the matter, when we saw that something was exciting those forward. A minute afterwards we heard a splash, and, before we had time to rush forward, the cry which "those who go down to the sea in ships" know so well arose:
We immediately, on hearing the cry, ran forward to where the sailors and passengers were standing; but the moon at this unlucky moment became obscured, and we could see nothing.
Fortunately, we were not going at full speed, and no time was lost in reversing the engines. As soon as the cry had been heard a boat had been lowered, and now, manned by willing tars, it was ready to go to the rescue.
"In which direction?" inquired the second mate as he jumped into it and prepared to cast off.
"By this time he must be at least a quarter of a mile astern," said one of the passengers, whom by his voice I knew to be Mr. Graham Edwards. "I threw him a belt which I am almost sure he caught."
The boat at once pulled off, its officer crying loudly to attract the attention of the "man overboard," should he be above water; while we on the deck of the Victoria waited in terrible suspense, praying for the moon to come out again.
"Who is it? How did it happen?" asked Eric of Edwards.
"Don't you know? It's your black servant!"
"Sirikisson! Heavens! he cannot swim a stroke!" cried Lee in great excitement.
"The sea is as smooth as glass, and he will easily keep up. Besides, he has a belt. But hear that! They are cheering; they must have rescued him!"
From across the water we heard a long cheer; and, just at the minute, like the proverbial policeman who appears when he is not needed, and at no other time, the moon again showed her face, lighting up the scene almost as effectively as if it were day.
Then we saw that the boat was being rapidly rowed towards us; and as it came nearer we distinguished our hardy little Ghoorka sitting beside the steersman, looking none the worse. He stepped on board as nonchalantly as if nothing out of the way had happened; he and his rescuers being greeted with a loud cheer by the passengers, who had assembled in full force at the prospect of some excitement.
The Sahib said something to his servant in the native dialect, and Sirikisson answered at length, seemingly describing the accident. Then he was hurried below to change his clothing, and Lee, turning to Mr. Edwards, said:
"My servant tells me that it is to you, sir, he owes his life. Will you allow me to thank you, both in his name and in my own?"
"It was nothing, I assure you!" answered Edwards. "I happened to be standing near; I saw him topple overboard, and threw him a belt, which he caught—that is all."
"How did it happen?" asked Eric.
"Sirikisson will tell us when he has had a change," answered the Sahib.
"If you will allow me," said our new friend. "I saw it all, from beginning to end."
"Come down to our crib, then," I suggested, "and let us have the story over a glass of wine. It's getting rather cold up here for the tropics."
Mr. Graham Edwards had no objection to accept the invitation so kindly issued; and, accordingly, we descended to our private cabin to discuss the matter with some degree of comfort.
"Your servant," began our guest, after emptying his glass, "was sitting on the bulwark, talking to some of the sailors. I was about a couple of yards off. He had been describing some native tricks, and his hands were in the air, when suddenly the vessel gave a lurch, he lost his balance, and went overboard. There happened to be a belt at my hand, and I tossed it towards a black spot in the water which I judged to be him; but just at that moment the moon retired, so that I could not be exactly sure whether he caught it or not. The only thing I am surprised at is that his head did not strike the side of the vessel as he fell."
"It wouldn't have hurt him, anyhow," laughed Eric. "He is as hard as nails, and has as many lives as a cat."
"What part of the peninsula is he from?" he asked.
"He is a Nepaulese Ghoorka," answered the Sahib.
"Ah! a fine race these Ghoorkas—best in India in my opinion. A matter of ten years ago I was up Nepaul way, shooting big game on the Himalayas, and I saw a lot of them then. Liked them very well. By-the-by, that was where I got this scratch on my face, in a rough-and-tumble with a bear. The bear got the worst of it."
And so on he went until the small hours, telling us tales reminiscent of other days, when he had hunted lions in Africa, grizzlies in the Rockies, tigers in the Sunderbunds, and buffaloes on the plains of the Great North-West. He was a most entertaining companion—and no wonder, for, according to himself, there was hardly a country on the face of the globe he had not at one time or another visited. Even the Arctic regions, we discovered incidentally, were known to him by experience, although of his adventures there he was strangely reticent. When we parted, it was with the prospect of having such another "night" soon.
And we had—more than one of them. On board ship friendships rapidly spring up—much more quickly than on shore; and, in our case, our intimacy with Mr. Graham Edwards soon ripened. Before we reached Aden he had, as it were, become one of ourselves, and the three of us began to look upon him as more than an ordinary acquaintance.
On one occasion, while he was speaking of having been in every part of the world, it struck me to ask if he had ever visited Thibet, and I was just about to do so, when, after some skirmishing to lead up to the question, he inquired if he might join our party.
This took us a little by surprise, and I, as leader, asked him if he was aware of our destination and object.
"Not with any certainty," he responded; "but I can guess. You are going to the Himalayas, aren't you? I've been that way before, and I should like to have another shot at the big game— that is to say, if you care to have me. Of course, I'll pay my share of the expenses. What do you say?"
"We never reckoned on an addition to our party," I answered; "but we'll talk over the matter among ourselves and tell you to- morrow."
"Nothing could be more reasonable," replied Edwards; and then the subject dropped.
A little afterwards I took the opportunity of asking him if he had ever been in Central Asia. He darted a quick look at me before asking:
"Thibet, or thereabouts."
"Once, in '65 and '66. Know the country pretty well; but it's not much worth, except as regards minerals. Speaking of Central Asia reminds me of a question I intended to ask you, Mr. Dalziel. Are you any relation to a fellow called Alister Dalziel, who was killed about twenty years ago—perhaps more—somewhere in Chinese Tartary?"
"Yes," I replied, not a little surprised; "he was my uncle."
"Indeed! How strangely things occasionally turn up! Why, Mr. Dalziel, I knew your uncle very well in London before he started on his ill-fated journey."
This was news, in faith, and I am not sure that I was not drawn to Mr. Edwards more than ever by the knowledge that he had known the uncle whom I had never seen.
"Did you know Nimmo?" I asked.
"Nimmo! Who was he?"
"My uncle's travelling companion."
"Ah, I remember now. He managed to get off, didn't he, and was afterwards killed somewhere? No; I never happened to meet him."
After considering the matter well, the Sahib, Eric, and I agreed to accept Edwards' proposal, provided he stuck to it after we had told him everything. His experience would no doubt be of much value to us, and, moreover, every addition to our party lessened whatever danger there might be.
So next morning I took him aside and explained fully what we intended to do and where we intended to go; told him all we knew concerning the Mountain Kingdom, and also told him that, failing to discover such a place, we meant to search for my uncle. He listened with much attention until I had finished, and then said:
"You have marked out for yourselves a formidable programme, but I don't say you won't succeed. I think you will."
"Succeed in finding the Mountain Kingdom, do you mean?" I cried, excitedly.
"Yes, if it exists."
"And do you think it exists?"
"I cannot say; but I have seen so many strange things in my travels that I am beyond surprise. As to your offer, I'll certainly go with you, on the understanding you name. I place my services most unreservedly at your disposal, and perhaps my experience may be of some use to you."
In this way the bargain was concluded, and we shook hands over it.
"There is only one detail," he went on, "in which I think your plan is faulty, From what I have seen of the Himalayas, they appear little less than impassable; and I can't imagine how we are to get over, baggage and everything."
"We have considered that," I answered, "and made sure of the matter. Mr. Lee's Ghoorka, the fellow you saved, is familiar with the ground; and he is to lead us over the mountains by a pass with which he is perfectly intimate."
"That is all right. But here are your other two friends, and my future comrades."
Eric and the Sahib shook hands with our new comrade in ratification of our agreement; and henceforth he was regarded as one of our regular party, admitted into our many councils, and consulted on every knotty point that arose. And his advice was really valuable; his experience, as he had hinted, was of much use to us, extending as it did over everything connected with travel and sport. We had the less hesitation in taking advantage of his counsel on account of the pleasant way in which it was given—never ostentatiously, or as if relying on his superior age and experience. He was, moreover, always ready to concede to us any controversial matter; and he carried this to such perfection that I don't believe we had a quarrel, or even anything approaching a heated argument, during the remainder of our voyage.
Pleasantly the days flitted past as our good vessel cleaved the waters of the Indian Ocean on her way Eastward ho! At last we touched Ceylon; the southern point was rounded, and we steamed up the Bay of Bengal, the heart of every one on board beating as he thought of the wondrous Eastern land we were nearing.
And then, two days afterwards, the Victoria let go her anchor in the Hoogly alongside Calcutta. We were in India!
"BY Jove!" exclaimed Eric, "this is rough work. It completely knocks the Alps out of time. As the Wizard says:
No pathway meets the wanderer's ken,
Unless he climb, with footing nice,
A far projecting precipice."
It was exactly ten days after the arrival of the Victoria at Calcutta, and we were already amongst the Himalayas, and, by my aneroid, close upon ten thousand feet above the level of the sea. Before us stretched a glorious picture, of which Nature was the only artist. We were standing upon the edge of a cliff, which sheered down almost perpendicularly for more than fifteen hundred feet; the opposite bank, hardly less steep, but much higher, was clothed from head to foot as with a garment by a forest of magnificent deodar cedars; while at the bottom of the ravine a turbulent mountain stream raced on to join some tributary of the sacred Ganges. To the north we saw a vast and seemingly interminable range of snowy peaks, raising their silvery heads into cloudland—it was to these we were journeying; and these we must pass before we reached the confines of the Great Forbidden Land of Thibet. And above all stretched the blue sky, not a cloud, even in these altitudes, to be seen over its whole expanse, the tropical sun pouring down his rays upon our devoted heads with merciless vigour.
It was a grand scene, as much beyond the small powers of man to describe as the stars are beyond his reach.
From Calcutta we had passed to Darjeeling, on the lower spurs of the Himalayas, but still more than seven thousand five hundred feet above the sea, and to which the railway did not then, as now, penetrate. There we heard that the two principal passes into Thibet, the Jeylepla and the Parijong, were so firmly closed that we could not hope to get through; and that, in fact, several sportsmen had been turned back only a few weeks previously.
Three days afterwards we arrived at the Sahib's place in Nepaul, charmingly situated in a valley amongst the mountains. I have no space to tell of the patriarchal welcome he got there; of what we said and did during our short stay at his little estate; and of how we heard our national bagpipes, which are said to be now the national music of the Nepaulese also.
We had here to face a very serious question, which at one time threatened to bring our plans to the ground. We had a considerable amount of baggage of various kinds—a large bell- tent, our arms and ammunition, hatchets and knives, scientific instruments, changes of clothing, ropes and a rope-ladder, a supply of food and medicine, a few books, lighting materials, and the various nondescript but not less necessary articles which go to make up the outfit of an exploring expedition. We had nothing but what was absolutely needful; but how were we to get such an amount of luggage over the Himalayas? It would be far more than we could ourselves carry, even if we were only to walk over level ground, instead of having to climb almost impassable mountains.
We were all at loggerheads on the subject, until Lee solved it in his usual quiet way.
"Leave it to Sirikisson and me," he said, "and be ready to start to-morrow morning at ten o'clock."
We were quite willing to do so. And, sure enough, next morning, when we were ready to commence our march, imagine our surprise when we saw six sturdy little hillmen shouldering our stores, each taking a load which would have more than sufficed for two English porters!
"And do you mean us to take these men with us also?" inquired Eric.
"Certainly; why not? Besides their load, each carries his own provisions—enough to last him over the mountains and back again; for I do not intend to take them any further. After that Sirikisson will manage for us. These men all know the road; two of them are brothers of Sirikisson and the others kinsmen. Depend upon it I have done the best thing under the circumstances— indeed, it was the only thing we could do."
So we were obliged to make the best of it, and it was really a very comfortable arrangement for us. With only a light load each of the more valuable things, and our rifles in our hands or slung over our shoulders, we were free to do as we pleased.
Thus, when Eric made the exclamation which begins this chapter, we had just scaled a steep precipice, or khad, as it is called by the natives, and he and I had halted a minute to rest on the broad ledge above it. The others were all in front; Sirikisson and one of his brothers, accompanied by the delighted Tray, leading, Edwards and the Sahib next, with the other carriers straggling behind. The four Europeans—I include Lee under this category, though I am by no means sure whether he himself would have liked it so—wore white pith helmets, which are about the best things going for keeping out the sun, which at such a height is terribly hot. Eric in his helmet looked a perfect giant, if one may imagine giants with genuine repeating- rifles.
"Yes," I said, in reply to his exclamation, "it is rough work, and the sun is confoundedly strong. All the same, it's hardly as bad as I expected; but perhaps we have still the worst before us."
The others had halted on a miniature plateau under the shadow of a group of pines, and were beckoning on us to come up. By the time we did so they had lit a fire and were cooking a brace of chickore (hill partridges), which Edwards had managed to bring down.
Luncheon over, we resumed our march along the face of the rocks, Eric and the dog a good distance in front, and the Sahib, Edwards, and I in rear. A little afterwards we heard a shot from the rifle of the first-named, and saw a buck bound away on the other side of the ravine.
"Eric has missed," cried Lee. "The shot was too far for him."
After firing, Eric neglected to reload his rifle, but, carrying it under his arm, strode on, looking on every side for more game. But all kinds of animals appeared to be scarce on this part of the mountains, and it was only occasionally that any of us could get a good shot.
Coming to a spot where the ledge he was on widened out to five yards, on which several trees were growing, Eric stopped, intending to wait for the rest of us. Placing his gun against a tree, he took out his pipe and tobacco-pouch, and was about to fill the former, when, to his consternation, he saw a large bear leisurely rounding a tree and coming towards him. Tray gave several barks, but retreated towards his late master, as if uncertain what to do, while Eric, on his part, dropped his pipe and tobacco hastily and made for his gun.
But that, alas! was not loaded, and the only other arms he had were a dirk and a revolver, the latter being, like his rifle, empty. He accordingly could only unsheath his dagger, and, seeing that the huge animal blocked his way to safety prepare for her coming—we found afterwards that she was a mother-bear—as well as he could.
On she came until she was within a yard of him; and then, raising herself upon her hind legs, she wobbled towards him until she was so near that he could feel her foul breath upon his cheek. With his dirk he stabbed her with all his strength; and, just at the critical moment, Tray, with an angry growl at the brute's presumption in daring to attack a Trevanion, sprang upon her back. This created a slight diversion in Eric's favour, but only for a moment; and the bear, shaking off her canine adversary as contemptuously as we brush off a fly, again made for her enemy.
This time there was no escape from her clutches, and Eric, for the first time in his life, was clasped in a bear's embrace, but not before he had succeeded in slashing her over the face with his dirk. Blinded with her own blood, and tormented by the plucky attacks which Tray, with many a bark and growl, was making in her rear, Mrs. Bruin was now in a thorough rage; and it looked as if it would go hard with my friend, struggling ineffectually in the animal's iron grip.
And hard it assuredly would have gone had it not been that, alarmed by my dog's peculiar barks, we hurried up in time to prevent a catastrophe.
My gun, by good fortune, was loaded, and taking in the situation at a glance, I came up behind her, and, placing the muzzle in her ear, pulled the trigger. She fell like a stone, drawing down Eric with her.
Luckily, with the exception of some trifling bruises, he was little the worse, and a sip of brandy set him upon his feet almost immediately. The animal was a magnificent specimen, and, thinking that her skin might be of some use should we ever reach Thibet, the hillmen relieved her of it. On examining her body we found that Eric's first stab had penetrated to within an inch of the heart, while his second had rendered her right eye useless. My bullet had lodged in her brain, killing her instantaneously.
These animals, it is said, are as a rule quiet, unless when attacked; but in the latter case they become so ferocious— especially if they are mothers with one or two cubs—that they are almost as much to be feared as tigers. Indeed, it is seldom that a native escapes from their clutches without a permanent disfiguration—if, that is to say, he gets off with his life. This being so, we could not understand the cause of the unprovoked attack on Eric, until we surmised that, as the animal was a female, her lair was not far away, and that she had merely been defending it. A search was accordingly organized, and, sure enough, we discovered it not a hundred yards distant, occupied by two three-months-old cubs. These Sirikisson despatched.
On our return from this little expedition, we found Eric engaged in loading his rifle and revolver, and when he had received our congratulations he said:
"It was a narrow shave, and no mistake, and, for one thing, it'll teach me in future to keep my arms loaded."
"You've managed to come off better than I did, Trevanion," said Edwards. "It was down country a little that I met my bear, and he left his mark on my face before I polished him off."
This was our first real adventure, and as we sat round our roaring fire on the spot where the combat had taken place—for it had been resolved to spend the night here, both to allow Eric to recover fully from the effects of the encounter, and because it was a favourable place in which to camp—we had reason to feel pleased that it had turned out so well. Tray, especially, was more than satisfied at his share in the transaction; and as he licked his lips after a savoury supper of bear's steaks, he no doubt wished for a few more fights of the same kind.
Next morning we continued our journey, the route being along a ledge three feet (less in some parts) wide, which wound up and down the south front of a mountain. It was a precarious foot- path, for one false step would have sufficed to hurl us hundreds of feet down the khad to death and annihilation. But it was the only one available, and with moderate care safe enough to people used to mountaineering, as all of us were.
I could easily fill a volume with our experiences in the Himalayas, telling of the wonderful varieties of animal and vegetable life we saw at such an altitude, and of our various doings; but keeping in mind how much has lately been written about life amongst these mountains, and that I have still to relate the particulars of our journey across an unknown country, I do not think you will quarrel with me if I only touch upon our more remarkable adventures, and upon points which have a direct bearing on my narrative. Minor incidents I must pass over— unwillingly enough, but yet of necessity.
One of these remarkable adventures took place that very day. We were proceeding slowly along the ledge in single file, with a considerable distance between each, Sirikisson first, followed in order by Edwards, Eric, the Sahib, Tray, and myself, with the hillmen behind. Beautiful white and red rhododendron bushes were blooming above and below us, sometimes over the path, and we found it hard to fix our attention closely upon our footsteps, while all around nature was so lavishly beautiful, literally "wasting its sweetness on the desert air."
Sirikisson had more than once warned us to take care at places where the ledge had crumbled away, and now he did so again. Edwards and Eric passed safely, but the Sahib had been more occupied in watching the evolutions of a golden eagle than in paying attention to the guide. In consequence he stepped on the dangerous spot carelessly, his foot slipped on the crumbling earth, and before he could put out a hand to save himself he had disappeared over the khad.
I HAD been about fifty yards behind Frank Lee, and, immediately on seeing him miss his footing and disappear over the khad, I rushed forward with a cry of horror, entirely careless of the danger of haste on such a precarious path. But, long before I reached the spot, my dog Tray was at it; and, when I came up, he was standing on the extreme edge of the precipice, howling piteously. This alarmed those in front, who, looking back, missed the Sahib, and, at once realizing that an accident had taken place, retraced their steps.
In the meantime I had got upon my knees, and almost sick with apprehension—though I am by no means a nervous man—looked over the khad. I hardly know what I expected to see; I had a dim idea that if I saw my comrade at all it would be lying mangled and shapeless on the sharp rocks at the bottom of the ravine. Judge, then, of my joy when I saw that, not fifty feet below, a magnificent gnarled deodar tree (which in the Himalayas is something widely different from the puny specimens to be met with in England) grew outwards from a crevice in the hillside; and entangled amongst its branches the Sahib was lying, they having proved thick enough to bear his weight.
"Hurrah, Eric! he's safe!" I cried, forgetting in my excitement that our comrade was still in a rather tight place, to extract him from which might turn out a very difficult job.
Eric, Edwards, Sirikisson, and the carriers had by this time joined me, and were now engaged in gazing over the all but perpendicular cliff.
"Hullo, Frank! how do you find yourself down there?" shouted Eric. "Keep up your spirits, and we'll have you up in a jiffy."
"He must be insensible," I said.
"He is, so far as I can see," announced Edwards who had been looking at him through a field-glass. "I can't see his face very well; but from the way he's lying I'm sure he's unconscious."
"We must get him up somehow," I said; "but how is it to be managed? The khad is absolutely unclimbable—"
"I have it!" exclaimed Eric; and then, without deigning to inform us further, he asked Sirikisson which of the hillmen had the ropes.
The particular carrier found, his load was unpacked with all haste, and the rope-ladder and ropes taken out.
One end of the ladder was affixed to a stout young cheel pine, as also was one of the ropes, on the other end of which we made a running knot. The other end of the ladder was then thrown over the khad, and Eric, taking the looped rope in his hand, descended it until he reached the deodar.
He found the Sahib lying across one of the largest branches, his head supported by another, and one of his legs dangling in mid-air. He himself dared not leave the trunk of the tree, for his extra weight might have broken the branch, and doomed them both to a frightful death; and, therefore, seeing that the Sahib could do nothing for himself, he had some difficulty in adjusting the rope round his body.
At length, after many futile attempts, he succeeded in placing the noose below Lee's arm-pits, and, after drawing it tight, he gave us the signal to hoist up. This was a work of no little danger on such a narrow ledge; and it was naturally much more so for Eric, ascending the swaying ladder with the help of one hand and steadying his cousin with the other. But, every one aiding, it was safely accomplished, and our unconscious friend raised and laid upon the path.
Fortunately no bones were broken, and the Sahib soon recovered from the effects of his disagreeable adventure; and after a couple of hours' rest we were able to continue our journey. But the incident had one good effect: it taught us a lesson we much needed—to be more careful of every step we took, and to follow implicitly the advice of our guide, as one who was better qualified than we ourselves to know what to do.
As our journey continued we penetrated deeper and deeper into the unexplored recesses of the mightiest mountain range on the face of the globe experiencing as we went every vicissitude that travellers can go through. Now we were on the summit of a tree- clad cliff, ten thousand feet high; and again we were at the bottom of a gloomy gorge, darkened by the close-growing vegetation everywhere abounding, and not more than six thousand feet above the level of the Indian plains. More than once we had to climb the precipitous sides of ravines on our hands and knees, helped upwards by jutting rocks and decaying roots; and we were continually crossing brawling torrents by such means as nature had supplied. At other times our path wound along the face of a khad over loose shale, which, if dislodged, was sufficient to cause a miniature landslip, and so ensure our destruction. And, above all, we had to be lowered by means of ropes over perpendicular cliffs, while the agile little hillmen descended in a manner which would have done credit to a monkey or a cat.
Such were some of our ordinary difficulties; but on we went, trusting in Providence and in our own powers, and taking "Nil desperandum" as our motto.
The further we penetrated amongst the mountains, the more abundant did we find all kinds of game, big and little; until, ten days' journey inland, it became so plentiful that we could easily have kept a company ten times our strength supplied with fresh meat. There was only one drawback to our sport—it was easier to shoot our quarry than to bag it. This especially held good regarding fowl. The chances were that if you shot a bird of any kind it would drop at such a distance—generally on the wrong side of an impassable ravine—that it was impossible to reach it. This led to some ludicrous incidents, and not a little vituperation on the part of our more eager sportsmen.
On one occasion Edwards, who was really a splendid shot—as good as Eric, which is saying a great deal—managed to bring down a magnificent minaul pheasant while on the wing, which is a feat very few people manage to accomplish, on account of the speed and comparative rarity of the bird, in itself one of the most beautiful of the species. At the time we were on the face of a cliff which sloped gently down for three or four hundred feet below us. The minaul, as usual, fell to the bottom of the ravine; and Edwards, not liking to lose the first bird of the kind he had shot, took Tray with him, and went to look for it.
They reached the bottom of the cliff all right, and, cutting through the undergrowth, got into the open. Here, as a stream stopped their further progress, Tray was sent across for the pheasant. But it was very heavy, and in recrossing the stream the dog dropped it; and Edwards, liking still less to lose it after so much trouble, went to the rescue. But in stepping upon a stone in midstream he lost his balance, and went head foremost into the water, which at this spot was pretty deep; while Tray, standing by, wagged his tail as if he enjoyed the spectacle!
Eric happened to appear at this moment, and asked Edwards if he were trying to catch trout in the Himalayas.
"No; only pheasants," replied that gentleman, good-humouredly, holding up the bird in proof of his assertion as he scrambled out of the water, looking, Eric said, more like a legendary merman than a respectable British citizen.
We had still another difficulty—the greatest of all, I am inclined to think—upon which I have only incidentally touched. This was the sudden climatic changes. Throughout the day the heat of the sun was excessive, beating down upon us through the clear air mercilessly; and, indeed, we were so much affected in some instances that it was impossible for us to continue our journey. Looking back, I only wonder that we did not take sunstroke. Also, there was hardly any humidity in the air; and altogether very little rain fell after we had left the lower spurs of the mountains behind.
Nor was the alternation much to be preferred. The nights were invariably intensely cold, and even our large fires barely sufficed to keep us and our servants sufficiently warm. There was, luckily, no scarcity of fuel anywhere, and we could always reckon on finding plenty of pine and other trees, wherever we camped.
On the afternoon following Edwards' adventure, our guide led us higher than we had yet gone, to an altitude which would have been much above the snow-line had we been on the Alps. Reaching a small plateau eleven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea, we again beheld a grand sight. On three sides the mountains rose to still greater heights, covered with eternal snow; while on the fourth we caught a glimpse of peak upon peak rising into cloudland—or what would have been cloudland had there been any clouds—yet so high up were we ourselves, and all was mapped out in such perfect proportions, that it needed our utmost mental efforts to realize the stupendous height of those peaks before us. One especially was conspicuous, but only because it was visibly higher than the others, and not because it had a markedly striking appearance.
And yet we stood upon a part of the great snowy range, only three thousand feet below the snow-line, and the high peak in the distance was Mount Everest.
"Mount Everest!" repeated Eric, with a whistle. "If that is Mount Everest, it should be ashamed of itself. Why, Mont Blanc has a better appearance from a distance!"
And this, ridiculous as it may seem to say so, expressed the general feeling of disappointment on the occasion of our first sight of the peak which is supposed to be the highest on the world's surface.
Leaving the plateau, our difficulties increased as we proceeded. We still ascended, gradually but surely, until we reached what we imagined to be the culminating point, after which we expected to go downhill; but to our surprise we saw beyond another and apparently still higher range. Belonging to this were several noble peaks, at least one of which seemed to us, judging from appearances, to be considerably higher than Mount Everest.*
(* This must be the range referred to by Mr. Graham and other Himalayan travellers, who also refer to summits apparently higher than Mount Everest.—D.D.)
For two days we ascended this range, which, from what I saw, I believe to be the true watershed; and on the third day reached the limit of eternal snow, sixteen thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea! Contrast this snowline with that of the Alps. There the average limit is calculated at, in round numbers, nine thousand feet, while on the Himalayas it is averaged at sixteen thousand on the southern, and fifteen hundred or two thousand higher on the northern side.
We were above the snow-line for two days, and the only bad effect of our elevation was that two of our hillmen were attacked with snow-blindness, caused by the glare of the sun upon the spotless snow. During the time they were thus afflicted they had to be led by the hand; but it passed away as we got lower down, and in the end they seemed little affected by it. Luckily, we escaped the infliction.
Crossing this last range, and descending from the snow-line, Sirikisson led us down into a dark and gloomy ravine, through which a stream of ice-water from a glacier flowed, amongst tremendous piles of black rocks, uncovered by verdure. This gorge was apparently bounded on every side by the mountains, and we could see no outlet of any description.
"I say, Sirikisson," said Eric, "is there any way out of this place? because, you know, if there isn't we needn't go any further."
"All in time, sahib," was the Ghoorka's quiet reply; from which we concluded that he knew what he was doing, and that an outlet of some kind existed, to which he would lead us.
And he did. That afternoon we reached a part of the ravine where one of the banks was only a hundred feet high, climbing which, we found that we stood upon a shelf of rock about ten yards square. In front of us was a jumble of peaks and ravines, very much like those we had already traversed; but away down below, hundreds of feet beneath us, we saw a more passable valley than we had met with since leaving the lower spurs. Flowing through it was a stream, by following which, Sirikisson said, we should reach Thibet.
"Very probably we shall," said the irrepressible Eric; "but, in the first place, we must reach the stream, and how on earth are we to get down?"
True, the precipice sheered perpendicularly down for two thousand feet; and it seemed morally impossible for even a cat to get to the bottom of it.
We all looked to Sirikisson, who said:
"Have we not the ropes?"
"Yes," I replied, "but none of them are of such a length. Moreover, how did you get down in your former journeys? I suppose you had no ladders?"
"Neither I had, and I will show you how to do it to-morrow morning, as it is now too late in the day."
With this assurance we were forced to be content; and, accordingly, we unpacked, set up our tent on the ledge, which was almost covered by it, and prepared to spend the night where we were.
"NOW, Sirikisson," said Eric, next morning, "you must get us to the foot of this wall of rock somehow, else we shall never see the Mountain Kingdom with its gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance."
"I will do it, sahib; never fear," answered Sirikisson, smiling.
Meanwhile, our carriers had folded up the tent, and divided the luggage into a number of square packages. These were securely roped by the Ghoorka himself; and, this done, he asked us to look over the cliff.
"Do the gentlemen sahibs see the leaves of two trees away down the khad?" he inquired.
About four hundred feet down, the precipice sloped inwardly, and we could only discern the dark foliage of two pines by stretching our necks uncomfortably.
"At that place," continued our guide, when we had replied in the affirmative, "is a cliff as broad as this: that will be our first step. When I was here before, alone, I slid down a rope, and pulled it after me"—
"How could you do that?" Eric interrupted.
"This way," he replied, as, suiting his action to the word, he put a rope at the middle round the only tree on the ledge, let both ends dangle over the precipice, and then, grasping it thus double, slid down a few feet.
"Now, we have the ladder," he went on, "and only the last man will have to use the rope. I think I should go first, knowing the ground; you may then pass down the packages and the dog to me, and follow yourselves; then the men, except my brother, who will stay to the last, throw down the ladder, and come down by a rope."
It so happened that the ladder was just the required length, slightly above four hundred feet, (I think Sirikisson must have had the precipice in his mind when he and his master purchased it in London); and, nobody having any objections to the plan proposed, preparations for the descent were at once commenced.
One end of the ladder was affixed to the solitary tree, and the other thrown so skilfully by the guide that it became entangled in the branches of the pines. Sirikisson, after testing it, descended to the ledge below with as much agility as that possessed by a monkey—and especially a Himalayan one.
Our stores were passed down next, with care or otherwise, as they happened to be breakable or soft goods; and all reached Sirikisson safely except one parcel, which, getting free from its control, went merrily down the ravine until it reached the bottom, considerably quicker than we did. But as it only contained clothing, no harm was done.
Now came Tray's turn. That sagacious animal, however, had no fancy for dangling in mid-air with only a frail rope round his body; and he accordingly resisted to the utmost everything tending to that end, showing his teeth so ferociously when any of the Ghoorkas approached, rope in hand, that they drew back in mortal terror.
"Come, Tray," I said, persuasively, "you know you have to go down some time or other, and why not now?"
But it was of no use. Tray only barked discontentedly and wagged his tail, as much as to say:
"I'll be hanged if I go! so there!"
At last a compromise was effected, and one of the men descended, carrying him in his arms, he making no objection to this arrangement.
Edwards, the Sahib, Eric, and I followed suit; each in turn, when he had completed his dizzy journey, finding himself on a ledge somewhat similar in size to the one we had just left. The rock overhead shelved considerably outwards, the trees on the extreme edge of our standing-place being, indeed, on a plumb with the ledge above, and we were thus in a sort of alcove on a huge scale.
After all the hillmen save Sirikisson's brother had descended, the latter let go the ladder, and himself swarmed down in the way described by our guide. Very neatly he did it, too—in a way which, had the late Mr. Darwin seen it, would have gone far to confirm him in his theory regarding the descent of man.
Our next stage, a narrow ridge, was rather less than three hundred feet below us, and when we reached it, our standing space was much smaller; however, we managed to pass from it to the next without casualty. In the same way we went on until we came to the last ledge, which seemed to us to be more than four hundred feet from the ground. This was confirmed when we let down the ladder, for then we saw that it was not long enough to reach terra firma, but how far it was from it we could not judge at such a height. Sirikisson, as usual, descended first, taking with him a rope to affix to the foot of the ladder, should it be more than a few feet from the ground. His task was no easy one, seeing that he swayed to and fro with every step he took, and, on reaching the last round, fully thirty feet off solid earth, he had some difficulty in tying the rope thoroughly. But, that done, he quickly reached the ground, and steadied the ladder for our descent.
After this our journey was luxury compared to what we had been undergoing for the last week or so. The valley we had arrived at, although close upon eight thousand feet above the sea, had a comparatively gentle gradient, and was, moreover, remarkably open; so that we congratulated ourselves on our mountaineering experiences being at an end, at least so far as the Himalayas were concerned. This, however, proved to be a case of counting our chickens before they were hatched, as the reader will learn in due course.
We followed the mountain stream, a clear, almost pellucid, burn; but, although we camped on its banks, we dared not bathe in it nor drink of it, the penalty of which might have been an attack of that hideous disease, goÓtre. Sirikisson told us that drinking of ice-water almost invariably brought it on; and yet it was hard to resist the temptation during a day of broiling heat.
"This would be perfectly jolly, Douglas," said Eric, on one occasion, "if only you could get a good bathe once or twice a day."
But there was one of our party who would be deterred by no such considerations of danger. This was Tray, who bathed and danced in the Lochaber—as, presuming the stream had no name, we had christened it—at his own sweet will, without, I am bound to say, any bad result following.
As we proceeded along the valley in a northerly direction we found that the heat of the sun became much less intense. The vegetation, also, was not nearly so luxuriant as on the other side of the mountains, and the sides of the ravines began to wear a sterile and stony appearance. From these facts we concluded that we were nearing the Great Forbidden Land; indeed, so far as the strict boundaries are concerned, I have reason to believe that we were actually within it.
But, providentially, the game still continued as plentiful as ever, and the roebucks, antelopes, and hares, the partridges, pheasants, and divers kinds of wild fowl, afforded us fair sport, besides keeping our larder plentifully supplied with fresh meat.
"I suppose, Sahib," I observed one evening, "we have no more mountains to scale, or precipices to fall over, until we arrive in Thibet?"
"As to that, I don't suppose we shall have much further trouble; but Sirikisson tells me we have still to surmount another barrier—the last."
"Anything stupendous, Sirikisson?" Eric asked.
The Ghoorka, not being used to big words, looked puzzled, until his master put the question in simpler language.
"That depends, sahib," was his quiet reply.
"I suppose so—everything does; but in this case on what?"
"The state of the stream, and other things."
"Sirikisson, like Napoleon,
Laughs at impossibilities, and says it shall be done,
and therefore we are pretty sure of getting over this barrier some time. When should we reach it?"
And, sure enough, on the afternoon of the next day we did so. During the whole of that march the sides of the valley had been gradually closing in; until, at last, they narrowed to such dimensions that there was barely room for the stream and half a dozen feet on either side of it.
It was then that we came in sight of our last Himalayan difficulty. We had arrived at the end of the valley; and the stream (which, it must be understood, carried down a large body of water, greater than that of many British "rivers") found its outlet between the two walls of rock, here seven feet apart, throwing itself over a ledge into the ravine below.
There was no apparent means of continuing our journey; the rushing, eddying, foam-crested water filled the whole passage, with the exception of a flat rock in the middle of it, while the walls of smooth granite rose up perpendicularly for hundreds of feet.
We stopped at the entrance to this pass, and with one accord turned to Sirikisson, who had been anxiously scrutinizing it, and who now said something to his master in Hindostanee.
"What does he say?" I asked.
"That, luckily, it's passable."
"I confess I don't see it. How?"
"When the river is in flood, and covers that black rock, we cannot proceed; but when it is as at present, the way is open for us. In fact, we must reach that islet in midstream; after which we shall see for ourselves."
"As a matter of taste," Eric said, "I shouldn't like to risk it, for I've no fancy for going over a waterfall bodily; but, if Sirikisson says it must be done, and shows the example, why, I, for one, won't say him nay—I conscientiously promise so much. And, as the poet says:
The wise and active conquer difficulties
By daring to attempt them."
"There is little danger," put in our guide, "and to show you so, my brother will swim across to the rock with a rope. I would do so myself, but as the gentlemen sahibs know, I cannot swim without aid."
So saying, he spoke a few words to his brother (the one who had brought up the rear at the precipice), who at once stripped to the skin, tied one end of the rope round his body, and plunged boldly into the water, striking out for the middle of the stream. He made his calculations well, for he was carried right down to the rock by the current. Where the waters divided there was an eddy, into which he got with little difficulty, and in a minute he had clambered upon the rock and tied his rope to a jutting pinnacle.
We affixed the other end to a tree, and, thus aided, joined the plucky little guide upon the rocky islet without any great difficulty. The provisions, &c., were drawn across in like manner.
Once upon the rock, we saw how Sirikisson meant us to descend the waterfall. It was by means of an enormous slide! Yes; the fall was divided into two by a large mass of granite, which, about two feet wide, sloped gently down for three hundred and fifty feet, until it ended in the soft ground below; and this (especially the upper part of it, for, the fall being of course sheer down, and the "slide" sloping, the lower part was not so liable to the action of the water as the upper) had been rendered so smooth and slippery by the action of the water and the spray that we had nothing to do but slide down it!
And yet it looked ticklish work. As I have mentioned, it was two feet wide, and the least thing—so smooth was it—would have sufficed to send us over either side, into the waterfall at the top, and into the rapids below.
So, for the second time, our guides had to show us an example. Having first allowed our various packages to slide down, steadying them by means of a rope, Sirikisson—after, of course, dressing himself—seated himself on his haunches at the top of the slide, grasping a stout stick with which to steady himself. Then, when everything was ready, away he went, gathering impetus as he proceeded, until, arriving at the bottom safely, he tumbled head over heels over our luggage.
We had no doubt that it was practice which had made Sirikisson perfect in this mode of locomotion, and no one volunteered to go next until an idea struck me, and I said:
"Why not go down in the same way as the luggage?"
"By Jove!" cried Eric, "a good idea! And I'll go first."
Tying the rope under his arms, he seated himself in the same way as Sirikisson had done, and glided gently down the slide, we above, by means of the rope, preventing him from going too fast. When he reached the bottom he untied the rope, which we pulled up, and Edwards, the Sahib, and I were lowered in the same way. Then our carriers slid down as Sirikisson had done, seeming to derive huge delight from the operation, and especially from the tumble with which each finished up.
The two branches of the stream reunited five hundred yards down, so that we had again to cross. This done, we resumed our march in earnest along a ravine so bleak and bare that we longed for the pleasant verdure, if greater difficulties, of the other side of the mountains.
After two days' travel, during which the country became more and more open, and the white peaks behind us more and more distant, we reached a point at which our stream joined a larger one. From this we saw before us a table-land, which, to our eyes, so long accustomed to mountain and ravine appeared flat. In the distance mountains rose to a great altitude.
"Gentlemen sahibs," announced Sirikisson, as we instinctively came to a stop, "you are now in Thibet!"
THIS, our first glimpse of Thibet, was not a prepossessing one. Right across the table-land to the mountains not a sign of life was to be seen—not even an indication of man, beast, or bird; the country was uninhabited, incapable of supporting any living thing.
Standing at the junction of the two streams, we gazed across the landscape for fully ten minutes; and our hearts fell—we hardly knew why.
"This won't do," said Eric, who, as I think I have said before, cannot easily be discouraged; "we can't afford to get down in the mouth already, else there'll be a precious small chance of reaching the gold, silver, and precious stones. So I propose that we hold a council of war on the spot, to determine our future proceedings and take our present bearings."
This was carried nem. con.; we unpacked, and selecting a sheltered spot by the side of the larger stream, sat down to discuss our prospects.
But even before the council began we, one and all, were agreed upon one thing, and that was, that our word should still be En avant! We must have no turning back, no half-heartedness: we must go on, whatever the difficulties, and however great the danger; and if we did not succeed in our double quest, then the blame would not lie at our door!
Having taken our bearings, we found that to reach the point we had agreed upon before leaving England we must strike in a north- westerly direction, or, in other words, across the table-land to the range of mountains in the distance.
The direction settled, our next step was to decide the manner in which we should proceed. At the Sahib's suggestion Sirikisson was called in to help us to determine this point.
"Gentlemen sahibs," he said, in answer to our question what he would now advise us to do, "at the back of yonder mountain shaped like a temple"—pointing to a peak at the western end of the range which in shape bore a slight resemblance to a Hindu temple— "lies a village called PrishŻ, where, if you please, I will buy mules and yaks—the mules to carry the sahibs, and the yaks for the luggage. It is for the sahibs to speak."
"But," said Eric, doubtfully, "is it safe to venture into a village in that way? Will it not rouse suspicion?"
"Not so, Sahib Eric"—such was the name the Ghoorka had imposed upon my friend. "I have been there before. The head man of the village knows me. They are simple and unsuspicious folk— all but the Lamas; and I promise you I will buy everything you need without raising any suspicion."
"And what about us?"
"You must remain hidden in a ravine I will show you."
"I don't like the look of that fellow," whispered Edwards aside to me. "I shouldn't be surprised if he were to bolt with the money, or sell us to the natives."
He had never spoken in the same tone before, and I was so surprised that I turned and looked in his eyes, seeing there a sinister light which gave me my first doubt of my latest recruit. He at once turned away his head.
"Nonsense," I replied, hotly, but in a whisper; "he is as honest as the day, and as trustworthy as the Grand Lama. Pray put such ideas from your head, or, at least, if you value my friendship or your own comfort, don't let the others hear them." Then, aloud: "We leave matters in your hands Sirikisson, and you can arrange details with your master and Mr. Eric, who will give you the money you require."
Before we started on our laborious journey across the rocky table-land, our guide effected a complete transformation of raiment. Out of his personal pack he brought a blouse and trousers of some coarse woollen material, and an upper jacket of deerskin; and this, the ordinary Thibetan dress, he assumed instead of his neat mountaineering costume. When the change was complete he looked a perfect Thibetan, or he would have done so had his hair been as unkempt as that of the natives—who, I am told, never comb it from the day of their birth to the day of their death—usually is. Eric gravely congratulated him on his disguise, in which, however, he did not look so well as in his own dress, and Tray was seemingly of the same opinion, for he sniffed around him in a puzzled manner, as if uncertain whether he were really Sirikisson or not.
"Tray is not sure of you, Sirikisson," I said, "and no wonder. But, I say, do you mean to pass off as a Thibetan?"
"No, sahib, that would be impossible; but it is the custom for the Nepaulese of our tribe, when they come into this country, to assume the native dress, or, at least, partly. So, if I did not do so, the men of PrishŻ might think it strange."
This matter settled, I gave the word to march. Leaving the stream we had followed so long, and which, after joining the other, flowed in an easterly direction, we commenced our march across the table-land. It was tedious in the extreme. In the first place, the atmospheric conditions were peculiarly trying, for, in consequence of the remarkable dryness of the Thibetan air, the sun's rays strike through it with such power that the heat is more intense while it lasts than in more tropical countries; and this, aided by the merciless wind which seldom ceases blowing over the table-lands, is so severe upon the face that a covering of some kind is absolutely indispensable. The ground, too, was rough and tiring, and the mountains towards which we were journeying never seemed to be any nearer; but on we plodded, devoutly wishing for shelter of some kind, even that of a fir-tree. But neither tree nor shrub was visible.
The afternoon was far gone when we struck the base of the mountains, which were only a degree less bare than the plain, there being a few mountain shrubs growing on their sides. I should judge that their average height was three thousand feet— above the table-land, be it understood, and not above the level of the sea.
Sirikisson led us towards the temple-shaped peak, which, by the way, lost more and more its resemblance the nearer we approached it. Skirting it, and always ascending, we reached a ravine, towards the upper end of which we followed our guide. Thence we saw, below us, a valley with a pretty large stream flowing through it; and on the banks of the stream stood a small village, surrounded by a few fields of withered-looking black barley, the principal agricultural product of the Thibetans. Scattered over the valley were herds of camels, horses, mules, and long-haired oxen (yaks).
I have reason to believe that the Thibetans of the lower orders are not so generally opposed to foreign intercourse as they are represented to be; and that it is principally the Lamas or priests who maintain the prohibition against Europeans entering the country. But the common people are very ignorant; they know next to nothing of us, except what they hear from Nepaulese and Kashmirin traders, who themselves are not without bias; and as is natural, the Lamas have contrived to foster their prejudices in such a way that, unless they are forced to change the policy of ages by outside interference too strong to be resisted, it will doubtless be years before Thibet is thrown open to foreigners.
So that, everything considered, it was better for us to keep out of the way, and allow Sirikisson to carry through the business.
Eric, who was commissary-general and paymaster, gave him enough money to buy the beasts of burden; he descended the mountain, and through our glasses we saw him enter the village. Not long after he reappeared, accompanied by the whole population of the place, and moved towards the herds. There he doubtless selected the best; but we saw no more, for just then the darkness began to fall, and soon the valley was obscured from our sight.
An hour later we heard sounds at the lower end of the ravine, and while we were getting our guns ready for any emergency we made out our guide's welcome shout. Going forward to meet him, we found that he had with him the four mules and two yaks.
Of the mules I need say nothing, save that for sure-footedness their equal cannot be found over the whole world. They will climb the highest precipices, and go along a ledge so narrow that a goat would shirk it, with as much nonchalance as if they were on a forty-feet road, and as safely.
The yak, the long-haired ox of Thibet (Bos grunniens) is an animal whose utility cannot be over- estimated. Almost as sure-footed as the mule, it is capable of carrying the heaviest loads; it can subsist upon the scantiest fare, or almost upon none at all; and in the valleys it supplies delicious milk, its hair makes silky and warm garments, while in harness it is simply invaluable. In appearance it is thick-set, hardly as big as an ordinary cow, and covered with long, silky hair, which usually reaches to the ground. In colour it is generally black and white; in common with other varieties of Asiatic cattle, it has a camel-like hump; its horns are short and beautifully curved; and its crooked hoofs, resembling those of the goat, no doubt contribute much to its mountaineering abilities.
The two yaks which Sirikisson had bought for us were splendid animals, capable of carrying with the greatest ease all our luggage and the guide himself. As for the mules, they were well-trained and quiet, and used to mountain passes.
"I had no difficulty in getting them," reported Sirikisson: "they were in need of money, and willing to sell without asking questions. I said I was going on to the Abode of Spirits, Lhassa. I chose the best in the herds, and the headman, who knows me of old, saw that I was not cheated."
We remained in the ravine all that night, and in the morning the faithful hillmen were dismissed, the Sahib giving each of them a sum equal to five pounds sterling, which was more than sufficient to take them home by the passes (it had been decided that they were to return that way, as Nepaulese have never any difficulty in getting from Thibet into India) and leave them a handsome balance besides. So we parted with mutual good wishes; they went on their homeward way, and we, mounting our steeds, continued on our way, in search of the Mountain Kingdom. Whether we were ever destined to meet again was a question none of us would have liked to answer.
We were a strange cavalcade. The four of us on small black mules, Tray running before with his nose to the ground, occasionally chasing and killing a rabbit, and our two beasts of burden bringing up the rear, with Sirikisson perched upon the hump of one of them—all this was very different from our appearance on the preceding morning, when we held our council on the banks of the Lochaber.
Keeping as nearly as possible in a north-westerly direction, we passed from one sterile ravine into another, through the most wretched country imaginable. Trees and shrubs were as few and far between as the proverbial angels' visits, game all but non- existent, and most of the streams dried up by the drought.
But our journey on mule-back was much more comfortable than on foot, even although the ground covered was so rocky. In passing over difficult defiles we had personal experience of the sure- footedness of all our animals; and, ever after, we trusted them on spots which we should hardly have cared to traverse on foot.
In two or three days' time the country became more open, the vegetation grew more luxuriant, and we came in sight of a considerable river, which we presumed to be the San-poo or Brahmapootra, though, according to our map, it should have been further to the south. Here it was a mountain torrent, and we thought we should have some difficulty in crossing it; but we found a tolerable bridge of pine trees a few miles up. On the other side of the river a path struck westward along the river bank; but, as this would have taken us too far out of our way, and the probability was that it led to some village, we again turned our mules' heads to the north, and plunged into the wilds of Central Asia.
IT was, if I remember rightly, three days after crossing the San-poo that an extremely unpleasant incident occurred, which threatened at one time to mar the harmony of the party, even if it did not altogether break it up.
The reader may remember that when we agreed to allow Edwards to join us in our search for the Mountain Kingdom, I made one stipulation. Well, that stipulation was that he was not to interfere with our plans in any way; and that, should a dispute arise, I was to be obeyed by all as captain of the expedition. On our journey across the Himalayas he was eminently agreeable, and really a pleasant companion. So far, so good. But he changed— why, none of us had any idea—immediately on entering Thibet; in small matters at first, but getting bolder with every attempt, he began to question my decisions and interfere with my orders; until, at last, I had to give him a rebuff, which went against my grain, seeing that he was so much older than I. But I felt that it was my duty to keep him in his place; for, if he got the upper hand, what chance was there of succeeding in either of our objects?
So, one afternoon, when I had given the order to camp, having reached what seemed to me a favourable spot for that purpose, Edwards dissented, and urged me to push on. I peremptorily refused, by a word, and leaped from my mule to help Eric and Sirikisson to unpack. But one refusal was not enough for Edwards.
"Look here, Dalziel," he said, in a tone which seemed to me— and to Eric also—to be little less than insolent, "aren't you going to move on? We can easily do another five miles."
"Perhaps Mr. Edwards will allow me to remind him," I answered, "that he is only here by our leave, and that so far as I am aware, he has no voice in the leadership of the expedition."
"Hear, hear!" approvingly chimed in Eric, with whom I had had a talk on the subject during the previous night, and who had been keeping his eye on Edwards's movements for a day or two.
Clearly that gentleman liked neither my speech nor Eric's commentary; but he thought it best to stifle his feelings and make no reply; and so, shooting a wrathful glance at both of us, he turned on his heel and walked off.
But that was not the end of it; the episode I have narrated only served to lead up to what was to follow. And it had one immediate consequence: it put Edwards in a thoroughly bad temper.
As Edwards had told us himself, he had once before been in Thibet; but so far he had been able to give us very little information regarding the country, and what he did tell us we could see with our own eyes. This led the Sahib—who, I may remark, knew nothing of the incident between Edwards and me—to ask him, as we sat round the fire that night, whether he had ever been in this part of the country before.
"No," he answered, very shortly, without even looking up.
"In which part were you, the last time you were here?"
"Further east than this."
The answer was still in the same hard tones; but the Sahib was not easily discouraged, and, besides, he knew of no reason for not engaging in conversation with Edwards. Perhaps the latter, on his part, thought Lee had been put up by us to question him, though, of course, he had no reason to do so; and, in this belief, looked at him through the spectacles of distrust and suspicion.
"And is the country any better than this?" the Sahib continued.
To this Edwards returned no answer.
Lee flushed beneath his dusky skin, but, controlling himself by an effort, repeated his question in the same words.
Still no answer.
This was more than our friend could stand. You must remember that he was half an Oriental, deeply passionate; and therefore more prone to consider an incident insulting than a more phlegmatic Englishman would be. On this occasion all the wild Ghoorka spirit he had inherited from a long line of maternal ancestors came to the surface; and he leaped to his feet, seized his revolver, and cried something in an Indian dialect. Then, seeing our glances, he controlled himself with a visible effort, but remained standing, revolver in hand.
His exclamation had a strange effect on his servant, who, on hearing it, desisted from what he was doing, and drew his kookeree—a broad, curved, and very deadly knife, which every Ghoorka wears and uses. With this weapon in his hand he stood at attention, looking in his master's face, and ready, it seemed to me, to spring on Edwards.
That gentleman, meanwhile, remained where he was, smoking his meerschaum in affected indifference, but I noticed that one hand had wandered to his belt, where it grasped a revolver; and he kept his eyes steadily fixed on his adversary.
Then Lee spoke, so calmly and quietly that I was surprised, not having had experience of the calm which proverbially precedes a storm.
"Mr. Edwards," he said, "I asked you a question. Did you hear it?"
"I did," coolly replied Edwards.
"May I ask why you did not answer it?"—still in the same calm tones.
I think this misled Edwards, although he was such an experienced man of the world; for I saw that he removed his hand from his revolver and shrugged his shoulders disdainfully; and he answered in an off-hand manner:
"And may I ask what right you have to question me at all?"
"I merely asked you a courteous question; you take no notice of it, although you heard it, which by inference is a slight to me."
He paused for a moment, obviously waiting for Edwards's disclaimer; but none coming, he went on:
"And for which you, as a gentleman, ought to apologize."
"And," I broke in, which, I see now, I had no right to do; but in the heat of the moment a man cannot always think so calmly as in church, "I for one consider Mr. Lee in the right, and should advise you to apologize."
"And so do I," echoed Eric.
"When I ask for your advice you may give it," he sneeringly said to us. Then, to the Sahib: "Am I right in presuming that you inferred I was not a gentleman?"
"If you refuse to apologize—yes!"
"Then allow me to inform you that you are a liar!" hissed rather than spoke Edwards. His temper had been steadily rising, and now it burst out.
As the word reached our ears we simultaneously jumped to our feet and, in the greatest excitement, faced each other across the fire. As for the Sahib, the blood again rushed to his face, his whole frame quivered with indignation, and he made the same exclamation as formerly.
This, and the sight of his master's excitement, was enough for Sirikisson. With one spring he was upon Edwards, and before the latter could make the least movement of defence he was lying upon the ground, the Ghoorka's left hand compressing his throat, and his right flourishing the deadly kookeree. Edwards, though a man of more than average strength, was as helpless as a babe in Sirikisson's hands; and, indeed, he dared not for fear of the knife above him move a muscle.
It may have been the Sahib's intention to punish Edwards personally; but when he saw that his servant had forestalled him, he remained where he was, watching the scene with an ugly smile on his face.
Seeing this, and also that Sirikisson was likely to work his own sweet will on Edwards, I thought it time to interfere, and so I made my first appeal to Lee, before taking forcible measures.
"For Heaven's sake, Lee, call him off!" I cried, "or there'll be mischief done."
Luckily, the first heat of his passion had by this time passed away; he felt that he himself was not altogether blameless; and, moreover, to give him his due, he was always amenable to reason. So he said a few words to his over-faithful servant, who, after giving Edwards a final shake, released him, and returned to his place with dignity, as if he had done a meritorious action.
It might have been as well to let matters remain where they were, and allow the affair to blow over; but at the time I did not think so, and, as it turned out, I was right. For one thing, if we were to have continual quarrels in our midst, we might as well consider our search a failure at once. Thus it seemed to me that our best policy was to effect a reconciliation if possible, and if not, to let Edwards go his own way. The opportunity for the former was given me by Edwards himself, who by this time had shaken off the effects of the encounter, and who now said:
"Mr. Dalziel, if you are leader here, I must ask you what guarantee I have that a second unprovoked attack such as this will not be made on me?"
"I think I am within the mark," I replied, "in saying that Mr. Lee's servant would never have thought of attacking you had you not used such an insulting expression—an expression for which I certainly think you should apologize. Unless you do so, and promise to respect at least the bare amenities of life here, I can give you no guarantee whatever; and in that case it will be better for every one concerned if we part company. I regret that any unpleasantness has occurred; as, also, I am sure, do both Mr. Trevanion and Mr. Lee. But you know on whose side the fault lies. You remember the promise you gave me on board the Victoria; and I hope I need say no more."
Whether my words had really any effect upon him or he thought it best to hide his genuine feelings under a show of apology, I know not; but, at all events, his tone underwent a remarkable change for the better when next he spoke.
"Perhaps you are right, Mr. Dalziel," he said; "and I acknowledge that I have acted under the influence of my temper— which, as you may have observed, is a diabolically bad one—in a way I ought not to have done. If I have hurt Mr. Lee's feelings in any way, I sincerely ask his pardon; and if he overlooks it this time, I will undertake not to give offence again. And I willingly give you the promise you require, Mr. Dalziel."
In this way peace was assured for the time being, to my great satisfaction, and it only remained for the Sahib to ratify it. This he did handsomely.
"Mr. Edwards may be sure," he said, "that, on my part at least, no more shall be said concerning this unfortunate affair. Perhaps I acted injudiciously myself, and for my servant's haste I am sorry. And I hope that our relations will remain as cordially complete as formerly."
After this there was no more to be said. We again resumed our seats round the fire, endeavoured to forget the altercation, and, when Sirikisson brought us our supper, were chatting as if nothing malapropos had happened.
At least one good effect followed this row, so that it was not altogether to be regretted. The Edwards of Thibet became more like the Himalayan Edwards, suave and agreeable; and if it had not been for an occasional outburst of petulance, which no one minded, we might have forgotten all about his strange behaviour.
Our northward journey was for a time positively uninteresting, consisting as it did of a daily ride over the same kind of country—stony ravines and rough table-lands. The latter was the worse of the two, for when crossing such country we could get no shade from the rays of the hot midsummer sun, and on some occasions almost dropped from the backs of our mules in sheer exhaustion.
Never were travellers more thankful for anything than we were when we entered a more hospitable country. True, it still left much to be desired, but after our late experiences we were not hard to please; and it cannot be denied that a country with occasional woods of holly, birch, cedar, or pine—especially the former, which in Thibet reaches the size of a large tree—and an abundance of game, is an improvement upon one whose only scenery is bare and sterile rocks.
The game, in particular, was a godsend, and more than compensated us for the additional trouble of fording streams or making detours to avoid them; for one consequence of increased vegetation was that there was plenty of water. Here Eric was in his glory. Everything was fair sport to him; his deadly shooting- iron spared neither beast nor fowl; all—lynx, deer, antelope, chamois, wild goat, fox, hare, and birds of every description, from the vulture to the partridge—fell under his deadly aim. And this love of sport on his part almost let us into an awkward adventure, which might have had a serious ending.
We were proceeding along a valley partially covered with clumps of hollies and cedars, and through which a stream meandered. As there was probably a village near, we were keeping a sharp look-out—all except Eric, who was in advance, firing whenever he saw a good chance, careless of possible consequences. Seeing something black—not having his field-glass with him, he could not distinguish what—moving on the opposite side of the valley, he determined to have a shot at it; and, jumping from his mule, he knelt down to take a more careful aim. It was a long shot, but he concluded that it had been a good one, for his quarry moved no more. Waiting until we came up, he got Sirikisson to go with him to find the animal, whatever it was, and then struck across the valley to the spot.
They had some difficulty in finding it, but, when they did so, you may imagine Eric's surprise and disgust when he saw that it was a tame yak cow he had killed. He was at first disposed to curse his luck and leave it where it was; but, on Sirikisson suggesting that we were short of fresh meat, he changed his mind, and whistled to us to come across.
When we arrived we had a quiet laugh at Eric, which he took in good part; but we were brought to our senses again by Sirikisson.
"There must be a village near," he said. "This cow is tame and has been sent out to graze. The villagers may have heard the report of the rifle."
"By Jove! you are right," said Eric. "Look! yonder are more yaks among the trees. We had better get over to our beasts as quickly as we can, and then show a clean pair of heels."
This was done, and in a few minutes we were again under way, keeping as far as possible under cover of trees and rocks, and watching more vigilantly than ever. Seeing no sign of either village or villager, however, we began to think that they were non-existent; but from this dream we were rudely awakened when, coming from behind a wood into the open, we almost ran against a Thibetan on horseback—a dirty, flat-faced, dilapidated-looking fellow, with an old musket and a spear.
He stared at us in amazement for a moment, as if uncertain whether we were beings from another sphere or not; and then dashed off towards a wood half a mile distant, at the back of which we could see smoke rising.
"Shall I shoot him before he is out of range?" asked Eric, with his rifle to his shoulder.
"No, no," quickly replied Sirikisson. "He is an armed tribesman; no doubt there are more of them in yonder village. We must flee before they can pursue. This way."
Unfortunately our yaks could not proceed at any great rate of speed, and it was impossible to leave them behind, so that we were likely to have a fight after all.
Retreating behind the wood, we began at once to scale the side of the valley; and when we reached the summit we saw below us a ravine closely covered by trees and brushwood. Into this we led our mules and yaks, and, leaving Sirikisson to guard them and keep them quiet we returned to the summit, whence we could see over the whole valley, though the village itself was invisible behind the trees.
"Here they come!" cried Eric.
By means of our field-glasses we saw a body of twenty-four horsemen sweeping across the valley to the wood below us; and when they came nearer we saw also that the cavalier we had encountered so unluckily was at their head.
WHEN the Thibetans reached the scene of our encounter with their leader they stopped, and, from the gesticulations of that gentleman, we conjectured that he was explaining to them how it had happened. Seeing no evidence of us, they were obviously perplexed, and after a short search in the vicinity, they separated into two parties, one of which rode round the wood and out of sight, while the other continued the search.
It was with an anxiety such as a mouse feels when it sees or hears a cat that we watched the latter; but we did not lose the hope that they would not be able to discover the way we had fled. We might as well have wished to fall asleep and find ourselves, on awakening, in the Mountain Kingdom; for one of them, more sharp-sighted than the others pointed to the displaced stones and other marks of our animals' upward progress; and, after examining them, the whole party dismounted and began to climb the hill.
"Back!" I whispered. "Into the ravine."
Quickly but silently we descended into the ravine, and joined Sirikisson, Tray, and our beasts of burden behind the bushes. Then we loaded all our arms, and otherwise prepared for the fight which was almost inevitable. We were five against twelve—or twenty-four, if the other party came to the help of their friends, as they were almost certain to do on hearing the firing— but all the other advantages, those of position and arms, were on our side, and we by no means gave up hope of escape.
From my place I had a good view of the summit, and soon I saw the leading Thibetan appear and look cautiously around. Nobody was visible, and he beckoned on his companions, who thereupon joined him. A second look round having failed to unearth us, they separated, each taking a different route, with the exception of one man left to guard the summit.
For a few minutes there was passing to and fro one or two of the Thibetans even descending into the ravine and searching it; and, while they were in the vicinity, we were in continual fear of discovery. But, fortunately, we escaped attention, and soon all was quiet again. Had it not been for the sentry we might have made a successful dash for liberty.
"Patience!" I whispered. "We are quite safe here; the enemy will soon tire and depart, and then we shall be able to continue our journey."
But just as I said this, Tray, who had been growing more and more restive under the unusual restraint, and could stand it no longer, gave a short bark, and though I quickly caught the animal by the throat and suppressed the cry, it was loud enough to reach the Thibetan. This it did, unluckily for himself, and as it turned out, luckily for us. As he had been looking down into the valley, he was a little uncertain about the direction of the sound; but after a moment of hesitation he made up his mind, and came directly towards us.
It was a critical moment, for we could not hope to elude discovery any longer. But the Fates were propitious, and Tray, who had brought on the mischief, was to be the means of ridding us of it. The dog, whose temper had been sorely ruffled by my unceremonious treatment, wriggled out of my grasp as soon as he saw the sentry; and when the latter was near enough for his purpose, he crept from his shelter and sprang at his throat. Down the Thibetan went without a cry, and before he could throw off Tray and rise, Sirikisson had bound and gagged him, and drawn him out of sight.
"He's merely stunned by the fall," I reported, when I had examined him, "and will be all right in an hour. He'll soon manage to untie his ropes, but by that time we must be 'over the hills and far away.'"
Sirikisson, in the meantime, had crept to the mouth of the ravine to reconnoitre, and he now returned with the welcome intelligence that, so far as he could see, the road was clear. He advised us to be off at once, for, if any of the searchers returned and found their sentry missing, they were pretty sure to do everything possible to discover him.
This being so, a start was made without delay. Of course we were quite aware of the risk of being seen by one of the Thibetans—some of whom must have gone in the direction we now took; but in our opinion there was greater danger in remaining in the ravine than in pushing on. We had also another cause for haste; the afternoon was already far spent, and it was absolutely imperative that before night we should put two or three miles between us and our Vale of Troubles. So that, taking everything into account, all we could do was to push on at our best speed.
Once over the summit, we descended into a second valley, and, fearful of coming upon another village—for there could be no doubt that we were passing through an inhabited country—climbed the opposite hill also. Still not an indication was there of any of the band which had separated to search for us.
By the time we had completed the ascent it was dark, and, thoroughly tired out as we all were, we lost no time in selecting a quiet nook and pitching our tent. Nor did the fear of discovery prevent us from lighting a fire, and by means of it cooking a good supper.
But, though each of us took a turn at watching throughout the night, we were not disturbed by bands of armed tribesmen; and we saw no more of our pursuers—if pursuers they can be called—so that I am utterly ignorant of the ultimate fate of our captive. Not having any grudge against him, I sincerely hope, and so does Eric, that he eventually managed to wriggle loose.
"What did you say our distance was, Douglas?" asked Eric.
"Three hundred miles; and three hundred miles of Thibet is no joke."
It was early in July, and, having calculated how far we had journeyed since leaving the Himalayas, I found that it was a trifle over the distance above mentioned. We had passed through every kind of country—mountain, valley, table-land, and ravine, inhabited and uninhabitable, bare and tree-covered, arid and fruitful. We had experienced the most severe extremes of heat and cold, wind, rain, and even frost. And still on we went, all in the best of health, our hopes of success rising as we went deeper into the unexplored regions of Central Asia, nearing the Mountain Kingdom, as we hoped, with every day's progress.
But before this we had crossed a table-land, cultivated in many parts, and with not a few villages scattered here and there; but now we were again penetrating into the "wilds," amongst these stupendous mountains and ravines, whose primitive grandeur had seldom been seen by man. I cannot with truth say that I regretted the change, for it is undoubtedly more pleasant to know that one may ride without fear of molestation than to watch every movement in case of detection.
Just before leaving this table-land for the mountains, we crossed a broad camel-road running east and west, and which, we saw from its good condition, was habitually used.
"This road, gentlemen sahibs," said Sirikisson, in reply to our inquiries, "goes eastward to Lhassa and westward to Kashmir. As you know, there are great numbers of Kashmir merchants in Lhassa, and this is the road they always use in passing to and from their country."
Leaving this track behind us, we passed into the midst of a solitude as deep as that on Robinson Crusoe's island before the appearance of Friday. We hear of Nature reigning alone, "monarch of all she surveys;" but if there is one place on this globe where she has no rivals, nor need fear them, it is in the wilds of Thibet.
Since our encounter with the natives we had had no adventures worth recording; but, if we had only known it, there were plenty in store for us, some of them of a kind of which we should have preferred to remain in ignorance. These adventures followed one another in quick succession, and the first of the series occurred that very afternoon.
Our track lay along a natural ledge perched midway up the face of one side of an abyss so deep that we could not see the bottom; and the path itself was so narrow that on it our mules had no room to turn. It was, in fact, a counterpart of those we had passed in the Himalayas, but ten times more dangerous. A single look into the depths of the chasm was enough to unsteady one's equilibrium: it was as though some occult power was forcing us to precipitate ourselves into destruction. The only thing we could do, suspended as we were, like the Prophet's coffin, between heaven and earth, where the least giddiness or the tiniest false step might have been fatal, was to trust to our mules, which were infinitely more sure-footed than we ourselves.
I was leading, with Eric directly behind, and Tray trotting alongside wherever the path was broad enough. Edwards, the Sahib, and Sirikisson with his oxen were a good distance in the rear. All of us were keeping our heads turned towards the cliff to prevent giddiness, and so we were ignorant of any danger in front of us until my mule drew up so suddenly that I was nearly thrown. The ledge here was broader than usual, being nearly six feet, but it was so rough and uneven that this was little of an advantage.
When I had recovered my seat I looked ahead, and there saw the cause of my mule's fright—four large, gaunt wolves advancing along the ledge directly towards us. To say that we were surprised but inadequately expresses our feelings, for these were the first specimens of the kind we had met since entering Thibet.
But our astonishment quickly disappeared as we realized our imminent danger. The wolves were coming towards us without fear, from which we concluded that they were in a state of starvation; the least struggle on the ledge would in all probability suffice to precipitate us into the abyss, and it was as impossible to dismount as to turn back, so that unless we could shoot the brutes before they reached us, we—and especially those in front, Eric and I—were likely to be in a rather uncomfortable fix. But there was nothing for it but to face the difficulty as men, and to do our best to dispose of it as effectually as we could.
Beyond standing stock-still, my animal showed no further signs of fear, and, indeed, it acted all through the affair as well as a thoroughbred could have done. My rifle was unloaded, but I had a couple of very trustworthy Derringers in my belt, which I got ready.
"Now, Eric," I cried, "be prepared for a tussle when they come within range."
Tray commenced hostilities. With a growl of anger he darted between my mule's legs, and, disregarding my whistle, made for the wolves. These animals stopped for a minute, partly, I suppose, in fear, and partly in surprise, and then, recovering their courage, continued their forward journey abreast.
This was my opportunity. Taking a careful aim, I fired at the brute nearest the side of the cliff, and had the satisfaction of seeing it make one wild bound into the air, and then disappear over the khad.
"Well shot, Douglas!" cried Eric, close at my back. "Another three like that will polish them off beautifully."
My shot, however, had no effect whatever on the remaining wolves, unless it made them move forward faster and more fiercely than ever; and Tray considered it wise to retreat before them, which he did with many a growl and snap.
A second shot, and the spirit of another wolf took flight to the happy hunting-grounds, where, it is to be hoped for its own sake, hunger and revolvers are not.
But I got no opportunity of disposing of the other two, for by this time they were upon me, and, with keeping my mule quiet and watching the brutes, my hands were only too full. The foremost wolf jumped at once upon the neck of the mule, which, roused from its passiveness, began to kick and rear. I gave myself up for lost—there seemed little hope of escaping both the wolf and the chasm. But it was not so to be; almost simultaneously with the attack of the animal, and, indeed, before I had time to raise my revolver, I heard a shot, saw a flash, and the wolf fell, its brains blown out by Eric.
The remaining wolf received its coup de gr‚ce without aid of ours. My mule was shying in an alarming manner, and all my energies were required to prevent myself being thrown over into the abyss. The terrified animal at length made a more vigorous leap than usual, and one of its fore-hoofs came in violent contact with the head of the wolf, which was thereby sent to join its companions at the foot of the chasm. In this way was the last of the four disposed of.
IN the meantime my mule had been curvetting about in a manner highly dangerous both to itself and to me; and every instant I expected the worst. I managed, however, to calm it, and not a moment too soon, for it was on the extreme verge of the precipice, and the result of another step would have been sudden and awful destruction.
While I thanked God for my safety, and mentally congratulated myself on my providential fortune, I heard Eric's cry:—
"Back, for Heaven's sake, or you're a dead man!"
The moment the cry reached my ears I knew from its tones that I was in some terrible danger; but what it was I had no idea. There was no time for hesitation; and as it was impossible to turn my mule, I could only urge it to advance. This I did, using my knife as a spur, and it bounded forward as if it realized that both its own life and that of its rider depended on the movement.
That onward bound saved me from a horrible death. Had I delayed another minute, or tried to carry out my friend's advice by turning back, that minute had been my last!
The reverberations caused by our shots had been the means of disturbing the equilibrium of a large rock poised far above our heads; this Eric had seen just in time to warn me of my danger. The huge mass of granite, after swaying for a few seconds, crashed down upon the spot where I had a moment before stood, and then bounded off into the depths below, carrying with it more than half of the narrow ledge.
During my life I have many times met death face to face, and always, I trust, as a man; but I am not ashamed to confess that on this occasion, as the narrowness of my escape became apparent to me, my heart sickened so that I with difficulty kept my seat on my mule. Nor were the effects less on the animal itself, which trembled like an aspen. But, in my case at least, it was a momentary feeling, which soon changed to one of joy and thankfulness to Him through whom I had twice been snatched from death that day.
The whole affair, from the death of the last wolf to the disappearance of the rock, lasted no longer than five minutes; and the others, who had been watching the episode with painful eagerness, now gave a loud cheer, the effect of which was to bring down upon their heads an avalanche of small stones.
As I have said, more than half of the path had been carried away, so that there only remained a breadth of something like two feet. Over this narrow and precarious footway my comrades must pass to join me. After having seen my late experiences, it was no pleasant prospect; and even the mules may be excused for looking doubtfully at the small shelf of rock. But there was no escape; it had to be done; and Eric, recognizing this, moved his mule forward. The animal stepped upon the spot gingerly, but without hesitation, and crossed safely; and Eric took up his old position behind me with an audible sigh of relief.
"Jupiter Tonans! this is hot work," he said. "I tell you, Douglas, that a second ago I thought we were little likely to reach the gold, silver, and precious stones of the Mountain Kingdom!"
Edwards and Lee joined us without misadventure, but we had more difficulty with the yaks, which for a time utterly refused to venture upon the broken path. At last Sirikisson had to slip over the head of the first animal, and lead it across to us; go back, and do the same to the other. In this manner was the danger surmounted, the only loss being a couple of fowling-pieces, which slipped from the back of one of the yaks.
We resumed our journey in higher spirits than ordinary, for did it not seem as if we were travelling under a fortunate star? For three hours we followed the ledge, which gradually widened out until it ended in a miniature plateau, on which there was not much more than space for all of us. But, better than anything else, the plateau was covered with verdure: a short, prickly grass carpeted the ground, ferns of divers families nestled in the nooks and crannies, while, above all, more than a score of splendid pines, upright as masts, rose to a height of a hundred feet, covered to the top with clematis. It was truly an oasis in the desert, a spot of verdure amidst a scene of desolation as great as that around the Dead Sea.
Here it was decided to camp for the night, the more so because our further progress seemed stopped, for the plateau was encompassed on every side by perpendicular cliffs and unfathomable chasms. Whether we should turn back or seek another way onward was still an open question.
"I have been looking at the opposite side of the ravine," said the Sahib at supper, "and it seems to me that it would be a matter of no great difficulty to scale it. So I propose that we should at least try to advance that way before making a retrograde movement."
"No doubt that would be the best way," said Edwards, a little sarcastically, "if only we could manage to cross the chasm. Pegasus would be handy here, instead of these mules. But perhaps some of you can show us a way?"
"Ay, that's the question," I said. "It seems a pity to turn back, and yet we must do it if we can't move forward. How far might it be to the other side?"
"Seventy feet, I should say," answered Lee.
"Seventy feet?" repeated Eric. "Then I wonder how on earth the wolves crossed. They couldn't jump it, could they?"
"Hardly; but it really doesn't follow that they crossed at all. Like ourselves, they may have been on a journey of investigation, and turned back when they saw that they could get no further. But about the chasm. How are we to cross these seventy feet?"
"Nothing easier," said Eric, who had been minutely examining the pines, which, as I have mentioned, rose to a great height without a bend; "or at least, I see nothing difficult in it."
And he looked round the circle and smiled "superior like," patting Tray's head the while. The dog, also, had a most knowing expression on his countenance, as if he, too, knew all about it.
"Pray condescend to unfold your plan," I said, "and admit us as well as Tray into your confidence."
"Oh, it is only by reason of his superior intelligence that Tray understands me. To come to the points, like Arnold von Winklereid at Sempach when he threw himself on the Austrian spears,—you say that the chasm is seventy feet broad. Well, those pines are a hundred feet high, certainly not a foot less, and what is there to hinder us making a bridge across?"
"There are several small difficulties in the way," Edwards began, "such as—"
But Eric interrupted.
"You needn't trouble to enumerate them. In the first place, kindly observe that there are five trees growing together near the edge of the precipice. Secondly, that directly opposite them is a plateau resembling this, but minus the verdure. Thirdly, that if our calculations are right, as I presume they are, the trees, if we fell them, should fall upon the said plateau; and, by the aid of some exertion, we may make them into a bridge. And lastly, that if we don't take such a chance, we deserve to be kicked."
After some more discussion, the result of which was that we virtually agreed to give Eric's project a chance, we made a detailed examination of our position, which on every point confirmed my friend's conjectures. We saw, also, that on the other side a gentle ascent led up from the plateau to the summit of the hill. In short, everything seemed favourable to the purpose we had in view; and so it was determined to commence operations at dawn on the following morning.
Accordingly, after a good night's rest, we unpacked our axes and began our tasks with vigour. Eric's tree, on the extreme right, was the first to fall. This it did most successfully, the upper branches and fully twenty feet of trunk finding a resting- place on the opposite bank. The others followed in due course, until we had a tolerably secure foundation; and our next step was to floor it by means of wood, nails, and ropes. By night our task was completely accomplished; and early on the following morning a start was made, Sirikisson leading the way with his yaks, to test the strength of our first essay at engineering. He crossed in safety, but advised us to mount our mules before following his example.
We did so, and I went first. I was not long in becoming aware of the sense of our guide's advice; for the bridge, when all is said, seemed but a frail and precarious support from the depths of the abyss below it. And, from experience, we could trust our mules better than our own legs.
None of us being light-headed, we passed over safely, with the exception of Edwards. That gentleman, who was last, saw fit to neglect our advice to mount, and decided to walk over. All went well until he arrived at the middle of the bridge, when, chancing to look down at the torrent roaring hundreds of feet beneath, he became giddy, slipped his foot on a rope, and, making a wild grasp at the air, fell!
"Take care, Edwards, or you'll be over!" cried Eric, in warning.
But it was too late: he had already fallen, and now, rolling over the smooth trunks of the pines, threatened to disappear over the side of the bridge As quickly as possible, Eric, the Sahib, and I rushed to his aid; but we were just in time to see him grasp a branch as he fell, and to hear his agonized cry:
When we reached the spot we found that his legs were dangling in the air, and that his hold of the branch was the only thing that intervened between him and destruction. With our help, however, he again regained his footing on the bridge, though not without the exercise of a considerable amount of strength on our part; and it may be supposed that he—not to speak of the rest of us—lost no more time than was necessary in reaching terra firma.
"This is neither more nor less than rank folly!" he began, as, putting our little caravan in order, we began to breast the gentle ascent which led up from the plateau to the summit. "That we should have dangers and adventures of an ordinary kind was to be expected; but that we should be called upon to risk our lives half a dozen times a day to gratify the curiosity of a few boys, is more than I for one intend to stand! Why, it is beyond human endurance!"
I was prevented from replying to this outburst of petulance by our arrival, at this moment, at the summit of the hill; and the others were too much occupied in scrutinizing the landscape to heed Mr. Graham Edwards. The prospect in itself was neither extensive nor inviting; before our eyes was a sterile valley, covered with large masses of rock, and bounded on the north by a range considerably higher than that on which we were. In fact, the country was in nowise different from that with which we were already so familiar, and the characteristics of which may be summed up in a few words—rocks, torrents, and no vegetation.
Ten days later saw us encamped on the side of a mountain. Our tent was set up beneath a natural arch of rock, and in front of it we were sitting enjoying the cool of the summer eve. The animals were picketed a good distance to our right, with the stores around them; and between them and the tent was the camp- fire, at which Sirikisson was cooking the supper, which, when it was ready, he brought to us.
"Gentlemen sahibs," he said, "I do not like this position for a camp, and neither do the animals, for, see, they are very restless and uneasy."
"Why, Sirikisson, what is the matter?" asked his master.
"You see, sahib, there are marks of landslips all around; and, after the heavy rains yesterday, I am afraid we are likely to have more."
"It's not probable," said Eric; "and, at any rate, should we not be sheltered by this arch affair?"
"I've no doubt, Sahib Eric. But what about the animals and baggage? They are completely unsheltered."
"Sirikisson is right," I said, "and, seeing that we cannot remove to-night, we may as well take his advice. It is best, you know, to 'make assurance doubly sure.' So, after supper, Sirikisson, you may move everything to our left here, where there is plenty of room."
"Good, sahib," said the Ghoorka, as he departed.
I soon had reason to regret most poignantly that I had not told him to do so at once; but one never imagines that disasters are so near that there is barely time to avert their consequences.
It was while we were discussing our supper that we heard a rumbling noise as of distant thunder; then a shower of small stones rattled down from above and passed us by; and before we had time to put out a hand to save our things, a landslip was upon us. Through the darkening air, filled with falling stones and earth, we only caught a glimpse of a black mass sweeping away our animals and their loads into the valley below; and, our eyes blinded by the clouds of dust, we saw no more.
DARKNESS descended ere the landslip was altogether over, and, apprehensive as we were of further misadventures, we could do nothing but await the morning to discover the full extent of our misfortune. So we withdrew into the tent, lighted the lamps, and examined our personal injuries. The Sahib was the most seriously hurt, his leg having been grazed by a large piece of rock, and, although no bones were broken, the injury was sufficiently severe to prevent him from walking for a few days. Sirikisson, who had been at the fire when the landslip commenced, had his head cut by a stone; Eric was wounded in like manner; while the rest of us had escaped without a bruise.
That night was passed in serious talk over the plight in which we now found ourselves, after all the trouble we had undergone; but by common consent a decision was postponed until we should find out how much we had really suffered.
As soon as the darkness began to give way to the first grey light of dawn we commenced our examination, and a glance was sufficient to assure us that the disaster had not been so complete as we had feared. Our animals and many of the packages had indeed disappeared, but behind where these had been we found the greater part of our baggage, which had luckily been protected by an overhanging crag, and which had sustained no injury beyond a slight bruising from the small stones. The stores which had been carried away were principally food, medicine, and our spare clothing; but the more valuable effects, such as the arms and ammunition, instruments, tools, and ropes, were safe.
Our next step was to descend into the valley to ascertain if it were possible to reclaim any of the lost things. We did so, lowering our remaining paraphernalia by means of ropes, and carrying our injured comrade; and we easily discovered the last resting-place of the destructive landslip. The first thing that met our eyes was one of the mules, lying apart from the mass of earth and rock, with its head crushed to a jelly by a piece of granite weighing at least two tons. Little more than a superficial examination enabled us to unearth the other animals, all mangled in a horrible manner.
"Poor brutes!" said Eric. "They served us well and faithfully, and carried us through many difficulties, and it is hard that they should be killed in this way, after escaping so many dangers!"
Our search for the packages occupied more time, and was a much more difficult matter; and it was not until we had removed a good few tons of rocks and soil that we came upon the first—the medicine chest, everything in it smashed to atoms. The others were excavated with still more trouble, but the general result was satisfactory; for our clothing was not much the worse, and a large amount of the food, especially the tinned meats, was comparatively uninjured.
When everything was done that could be done, we had time to look around, and we found that we were in a valley covered with large masses of laminated slate and schist, which, as the mountains were of granite, must have been brought there by some deluge—if, indeed, the valley had not at one time been part of an ocean bed. The latter hypothesis seemed the more plausible when we examined the mountains themselves, which were perforated in every direction by holes and caverns of every size and shape. On the other side of the valley we saw two defiles, which seemed the only means of exit.
In one of the larger of the caverns, through which flowed a small stream of delicious water, Frank Lee had already been laid, and thither we now went to discuss the situation, which was serious enough to cause some alarm. We were, and had been for more than a week, in an uninhabitable country, with little game and less vegetation; our beasts of burden and much of our food were gone, though we had still enough stores to load treble our number; and the Sahib was injured, so that for a time he was incapacitated from walking. We appeared, without exaggeration, to be in a very tight fix indeed, and none of us saw very clearly how to get out of it.
"It just comes to this," I summed up, after we had discussed the matter in all its bearings for more than an hour, "we must either go ahead or turn back. We all know by experience the difficulties of the latter—how we must climb mountains, pass defiles, &c., on foot, and carrying our luggage. Why, it is next to impossible; so that it is much a case of Hobson's choice— we must go onward. And, at any rate, we surely have more pluck than to turn back when we are within fifty miles of where the Mountain Kingdom, if it exists, must be found."
"And how do you propose to push on?" asked Edwards.
"I have a plan which seems to me feasible. The Sahib cannot walk for at least a week, and this time, which would otherwise be lost, I mean to utilize, if he is agreeable, in this way: He will remain here to watch the stores; we shall divide into two parties, and, taking each enough provisions to last a week, explore the country beyond those defiles in front of us. As you see, one of them apparently runs due north, the other north-west. Well, let Eric and Edwards take the north one, and strike up country for three days, looking out for a village or lamasery at which they may procure mules. If they discover nothing in three days, they are to return; and if Sirikisson and I, who will take the other pass, are also unsuccessful, other plans may then be devised. Anyway, failure will leave us exactly where we are at present, and we shall also have gained some knowledge of the country."
The Sahib warmly seconded my proposal, and in the end it was agreed to as the best under the circumstances, though with some unwillingness by Sirikisson, who did not like the idea of leaving his injured master. But the latter soon convinced him that he would be all right; and, like a dutiful servant, Sirikisson gave way with a good grace. It was decided to start next morning, the rest of that day being devoted to preparations.
The Sahib was left comfortably ensconced in the cave, his gun, revolvers, ammunition, and plenty of food by his side, and Tray to share with him his solitude. We parted with heavy hearts, for it was our first separation since leaving Calcutta; and then started on our various ways, gun in hand and knapsack on back, the Sahib's cheery cry ringing in our ears:
"Be sure and turn up in a week with good news."
Sirikisson and I covered twenty miles that day, the ground being comparatively level, but in other particulars much as ordinary—sterile and uninhabitable. In the afternoon we passed a side defile, running westward, but the exploration of this we decided to reserve until the return journey.
The second and third days resembled the first in their absolute barrenness of incident, and on the evening of the latter we ascended the nearest hill, it having been decided between us that we should go no further unless we saw definite grounds for so doing. But we did not. There was nothing visible except the everlasting hills, valleys, and ravines; and reluctantly we turned to descend to the spot on which we had settled as our camp for the night. In doing so I slipped, fell, and caught a rock to save myself from descending the hill at a pace faster than was pleasant; but the strain was too much for the strap of my knapsack, which gave way, and the bag went merrily bounding down from crag to crag, as if rejoicing in its newly-found freedom.
Here was another misfortune, and no small one, either, if we failed to find the knapsack, which contained, besides other things, all my rations for the return journey. Nothing could be done that night, as it was already quite dark, and next morning our search was altogether fruitless of result.
"It cannot be helped, sahib," said Sirikisson, philosophically; "and there is nothing for it but to be content with half-rations, as there is no game in this country to shoot. The journey will perhaps take us a few hours longer; that is all."
Conjecturing that we should take no more than three days to cover the distance, Sirikisson's provisions were divided into twelve equal parts, which gave us each two meals a day. After that, even if we did not reach the Sahib, we reckoned that, barring accidents, we should be near enough to do without food for the remainder of the journey.
Under these conditions we commenced our return travel. All went well the first two days, during which we covered as much of the ground as we had done coming; but, after that, the unusual lack of food began to tell upon me, accustomed as I was to full and generous fare. As for Sirikisson, it would have taken a little more than a few days' partial starvation to curtail the energy of that wiry little Ghoorka.
When, on the third day, we reached the side defile which we had agreed to explore, I did not feel equal to further exertion, and I urged Sirikisson to abandon the thought, telling him that there was little likelihood of any result.
"It may be so, sahib," was his reply; "but I think not from certain indications; and, if you will allow me, I should like to explore it. I tell you what to do—you return to the Sahib, while I follow this for one day. I promise to return by to-morrow night at the latest."
To this plan I agreed, gave Sirikisson all the remaining food— unfortunately, there was not much of it to give—and parted from him with a cordial hand-shake. Wearily I resumed my journey, which, in my present faint and foot-sore condition, seemed of treble the length than when I last covered the ground. But mile after mile was traversed, until at last, just as the setting sun was bathing the tops of the hills in floods of blood-red light, I saw before me the valley, and joyfully realized that I was at the end of my journey!
Firing my rifle to apprise Frank of my approach, I almost ran across to the cave, in the mouth of which, as I drew nigh, I saw that my comrade was standing. Then Tray darted out to meet me, welcomed me with effusive joy, and frisked about as I accomplished the rest of the distance.
"You are the first to arrive, Douglas," Lee said as he shook hands, "and I hope you have good news. Anyhow, I was never more glad to see any one. I can tell you, I'm rather tired of 'single blessedness.' But what's the matter?"—in some alarm, as he noticed my tired appearance—"and where's Sirikisson?"
"He's all right, much more so than I am," I returned. "But if you love me, give me something to eat and drink—I'm perfectly famished—and then I'll tell you my adventures."
In five minutes' time I was discussing a dinner of tinned salmon, biscuits, and cocoa, the result of which was to make of me a new man. During its progress I heard that by this time the Sahib's leg was completely cured; that not a living thing of any kind had appeared to disturb his solitude; and that, but for Tray and a few books, the monotony of his existence would have been too much for him.
Such was his report, and, in return, I gave him a summary of that which had happened to Sirikisson and me during our absence.
"And if Eric and Edwards have fared no better," I concluded, "we are indeed in a pretty bad plight."
Before the words had been a minute out of my mouth, we heard the report of a gun in the distance, followed by a long train of echoes as the sound reverberated amongst the rocks.
"Eric and Edwards!" cried the Sahib, in some excitement, as he limped to the mouth of the cave. "Yes, it must be; the sound comes from their direction."
Snatching up my cap, and forgetting my fatigue in my eagerness, I followed Lee into the open air, where the day was now merging into twilight; and together we crossed the valley to meet our friends. We soon sighted them, walking slowly and painfully towards us; but they brightened up considerably when they saw us.
"What cheer, Eric?" I cried. "I hope you've had better luck than we have."
"I hardly know," he answered; "but, at any rate, we have discovered one thing—that the story of Sirikisson's grandfather is quite correct, for I've seen the Mysterious River!"
"THE Mysterious River!"
I repeated the words in a dazed manner, hardly crediting for a minute or two the evidence of my ears, and the Sahib was no less surprised.
"Yes, the Mysterious River, and no other," answered Eric, laughing at our obvious perplexity; "and, if you 'lend me your ears' for five minutes, the story shall be yours."
"But before doing so," put in Edwards, "it may be as well, seeing that we have tasted nothing for fifteen hours, to get a bite of supper."
My own experience of hunger was too recent to allow me, although my impatience and curiosity were at boiling-point, to do less than agree to this reasonable proposal. Accordingly, when we arrived at our temporary home, the Sahib and I lost no time in preparing a royal repast; and, when the wanderers had partaken of it, I urged Eric to relieve our feelings, now pent up like the waters of the Danube after heavy rains.
"All serene, Douglas!" he replied. "My hunger being satisfied and my thirst quenched, I am now as willing as Mr. Barkis, and so here goes. After leaving this, we struck through the defile, and came out upon a table-land of moderate size; crossing which, and traversing a few hills and ravines, we, early on the third morning, found ourselves at the base of a high range of mountains. Needless to say, we had come across no signs of life of any kind. Well, it was decided between us that we should climb what seemed the highest peak of the range, as the point from which to get the best view. For a time it was easy work, the ascent being no steeper than the lower slopes of Ben Nevis; but before we were half way up it became a different matter, and more than once we had serious thoughts of turning back. The worst came when, on jumping a crevice, Edwards hurt his foot, and I was obliged to leave him behind."
(Parenthetically, I may here remark that Eric afterwards told me in confidence that it was his humble opinion that Edwards' hurt was neither more nor less than a ruse—"dodge" was the word he used—to hide the fact that he was completely done up, and could go no further. But this between ourselves.)
"After parting from Edwards," Eric went on, "the ascent became more and more difficult, in some parts being almost perpendicular. In fact, I have climbed many of the Alps and Pyrenees with greater ease. But I was determined not to cave in; I would reach the summit if it were at all possible.
"Despite my utmost exertions, it was late in the afternoon before I got to the top; but when I did get there, what I saw more than recompensed me for all my trouble. On every side there were mountains—bare and stony mountains: to the north and east a range much higher than the one I was on; and around and below me peaks of every description. But my attention was soon drawn from these to what seemed a broad streak of silver, running east and west, with a bend at the west, lying directly below me; and when I got my telescope adjusted I saw that the streak was a river, and one of a goodly size. For a little it did not dawn upon me that it might be that referred to by Sirikisson's grandfather; but then I saw that it tallied exactly with his description— flowing between 'walls of rock,' apparently calm and smooth, and with a high range beyond. A more detailed examination showed me that to the east of the peak on which I was standing was a pass, by following which, I am convinced, we may reach the river without any great trouble.
"After taking the bearings as well as I could, I descended to Edwards, who, on hearing my story, agreed with me that it could be no other than the Mysterious River, pointing the way to the land of the gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance! That night we slept on the mountain, and on the following morning commenced our return journey, our only hardship being our scarcity of provisions, which gave out yesterday night. But here we are, none the worse, and ready to show you the way to success and to the Mountain Kingdom!"
This narrative, as may be supposed, raised our excitement to its highest possible point, and for an hour or two we could not discuss it calmly; we could do nought but speculate whether we were verily at the gates, so to speak, of this Hidden Kingdom. The only conclusion we arrived at was that it was our duty to explore the river and beyond it; and then, if we did not discover the Mountain Kingdom, the blame would not be ours. And it is unnecessary to say that, although we tried to depreciate our chances, our hopes ran high; and I know for certain that more of us than Eric fell asleep that evening only to dream of a land full of riches.
Next morning we were able to talk over the matter more calmly, but our decision remained the same—to push on to the river when Sirikisson arrived, carrying all our baggage if he brought mules, and, if not, only such of it as was absolutely needful.
Towards midday, while I was engaged in packing, I heard a bustle outside the cave, which I found to be caused by our guide's arrival with what we most required—five mules.
"Why, Sirikisson," I cried, "this is just what we were wishing for, but hardly dared to expect. Where and how did you manage to procure these?"
"That is easily told, sahib," he answered. "You remember that I thought the defile was likely to lead to some habitation; and this was confirmed when, before I had gone many miles, I saw clouds of sparrows, which, as you know, are only to be found where man is. Nor was I wrong; for in a valley ten miles up I came upon a small Lamasery,* which had large flocks around it. Early this morning I stole from these five mules, and drove them off. They have so many that they will never be missed."
(*The Buddhist Lamaseries are analogous in many essential features to Roman Catholic monasteries. It would be interesting to know if the existence of the "Mysterious River" was known to the inhabitants of this one.—D.D.)
The morality of this proceeding of Sirikisson's is no doubt open to grave question; but as I was only too glad at the time to get the mules to impugn the manner of getting them, it would hardly be fair to do so now, at this late day.
"I suppose," I asked, "you have heard of Mr. Eric's discovery of the river your grandfather saw, Sirikisson?"
"Yes," he replied. "I met Sahib Eric coming across the valley, and he told me."
"That's all right. What we have to do now is to get the animals loaded, and then make tracks for the river."
An hour later we left the valley in high spirits, everything wearing a much more roseate hue than on the preceding day, and after three days' tramp we reached the pass mentioned by Eric. The journey through it was a much more difficult matter than he had imagined; and in many places, indeed, we had to pull up the mules by means of our ropes. But at last we reached the highest point of the pass, and began to go downhill—a somewhat easier matter than ascending. A rapid march brought us into the open beyond, and we saw—nothing!
No; there was not a sign of river, stream, or water of any kind: the country was apparently as barren as on the other side of the mountains.
To say that we were disappointed but inadequately expresses what we really felt, and even Eric looked as puzzled as it was possible for him to do.
"Strange!" he muttered. "I could have sworn that the Mysterious River would have been found here, and now, behold! there's not a vestige of it."
"Mysterious River indeed!" grumbled Edwards. "It should rather be called the Phantom River, for it seems to have the power of disappearing at man's approach. I am half afraid that Trevanion never saw it."
"I assure you I did," answered Eric, "and it cannot be far off. There's the peak, and it seemed directly below it. But, eureka!" he cried, his face brightening, "I have it! If we climb yonder low cliffs"—pointing to a line of cliffs, not two hundred feet high, in front of us—"and not find the river, I'll admit Edwards' soft impeachment."
The suggestion was no sooner made than we acted upon it, and moved forward to the cliffs, breasting which, we came upon a strange scene—the river, a broad, smooth stream, flowing between two lines of cliffs, which rose up on each side from its bosom perpendicularly for one hundred and fifty feet. There could be no doubt that this was the river of which we were in search; and, before doing anything else, we gave three loud cheers for our successful discovery of the Victoria (as we called it in honour of the Queen-Empress), and in anticipation of our success, as we hoped, to come.
"Now that we have got so far," said the Sahib, "what is next to be done?"
"Which way does the river flow?" asked Edwards.
"That is easily ascertained," said Eric, throwing an empty match-box into the river, and as it floated towards the west, we knew that in that direction the river flowed.
"That chain of mountains on the other side, rising so high and precipitously, must be those surrounding the Mountain Kingdom"— by this time, be it observed, we had dismissed all doubt from our minds—"and perhaps that peak away to the east is the one from which Teli saw the smoking mountains. Eric says that the river takes a bend to the westward, and from that I conclude that it enters the kingdom; so that our best plan is to follow the river."
Follow the river we accordingly did, and it was as well that we did so; for before night we reached a spot where the cliffs on each side gradually receded until we could get down to the banks, on which grew several groups of stunted pines and firs. Here a project which had for some time been forming in my mind took firm shape, and I broached it to my companions.
"Here are trees: we have tools and everything needful—why shouldn't we make a raft?"
"A raft!" repeated Eric, a little doubtfully. "Don't you think that would be rather a risky concern?"
"Not at all," I answered; "and I'll tell you why. We have agreed to follow this river, and it stands to reason that the best way to do it is by sailing down it, if at all possible. As to danger, we have only to ascertain the speed of the current; but from appearances, I'm sure it's nothing extraordinary."
Nor was it; for on tossing an empty basket into the water, it floated down at a speed which, if more than perceptible, was still not in the least alarming. By the way, for a long time I puzzled my brains to account for the anomaly of a smooth, slow river flowing through what was hardly less than a mountain gorge; but it was not until long after that a solution was suggested to me—how, you shall hear in due time. Indeed, the river reminded me more of a canal than anything else, the "walls of rock" being very good substitutes for artificial embankments.
But to return to my proposal. I easily talked the others over, the more so that we were all thoroughly tired of our present mode of locomotion, and the construction of the raft was commenced forthwith. In the course of a day and a half it was finished; fir poles were fashioned for the purposes of steering and poling, and, the luggage having been carried on board and firmly secured, we were ready to start.
But before doing so we had to turn our mules loose—a proceeding to which nothing but stern necessity could ever have reconciled us. There was not much subsistence to be had around, but it is said that a Thibetan mule can live where any other animal would starve; and besides, we hoped to find them again, should we be compelled to return. However, of their future fate I am ignorant; and whether they starved or wandered back to their old home is to me unknown.
Then we launched our little vessel on the Mysterious River, trusting to it to carry us—whither? It was afternoon when we pushed off from the bank, and allowed our raft to float gently down with the stream. After the fatigue and hardships of our recent journey, it was an exquisite pleasure to sit and do nothing except watch the high banks as they glided gently past, and listen to the soft plash of the water as it rippled against the sides of our barque.
The "walls of rock"—I prefer to use Sirikisson's words, as the most expressive possible—again closed in before we had gone many furlongs; and we became apprehensive that we should be compelled to remain afloat all night. But this we were enabled to avoid by reaching, just as it became dark, another open space, at which we moored the raft to a tree on the bank.
Early next morning we resumed our journey, and before noon had arrived at the beginning of the bend to the westward, seen by Eric from the peak. After taking the turn the river seemed to be making directly for the precipitous range of mountains; and we surmised that it either skirted their base or passed through some defile so narrow as to be invisible at any great distance.
In the afternoon, as we were approaching nearer and nearer to the mountains, which rose up perpendicularly, like a vast wall, into cloudland, Eric called my attention to the fact that the current was now running much more swiftly than before. So greatly, indeed, had the pace increased that it would have been difficult for us to stop the raft had we wished to do so; but, as the sides rose up as sheer as ever, we could do nothing but drift on.
Then we heard in the distance a sound as of cannonading, which grew louder and louder every minute, until it seemed to our excited imaginations as if all the big guns ever made were being discharged at once.
"If it's a fall, God help us!" I cried, while my comrades gazed ahead, their faces betraying the anxiety they could not hide.
Swiftly and still more swiftly were we borne on towards the rocky barriers of the Unknown Land; and louder and louder became the noise of that which we dreaded, while knowing nothing of it.
"Good heavens! look there!" cries Eric.
A slight bend, and before us lies a reach of half a mile to the mountains, along which the river is rushing with the velocity of a mill-race. Where the stream strikes the mountains a vast cavern is seen, into which it rushes and leaps down an unfathomable abyss, relieving the darkness above with clouds of spray. An eerie feeling comes over one gazing at it; it looks fit to be the entrance to those infernal regions in which the damned are condemned to suffer everlasting tortures.
But there is little time for a closer inspection of it; all our efforts are directed to bring the raft to a stop. In vain! By this time the current is so strong that it carries us forward as easily and irresistibly as if we were no heavier than a straw; and, despite our utmost efforts, we are carried on to certain and sure destruction.
A quarter of a mile from the chasm—the sound of the subterranean fall is now deafening—and on we rush to the opening, with as little hope of life as if we were already in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And above us is God's blue sky, and around us are His mountains and peaks, and before us is the cavern towards which we are being borne, with Hope dead within our breasts, and the fear of the Grim Fiend upon our souls.
BUT, although we have abandoned hope, we do not cease to watch earnestly for the least chance of being saved; and, just as a drowning man clutches at a straw, so we are ready to take advantage of any loophole of escape, however small. It is well for us that in this terrible crisis we do not lose our heads, that we manage to retain our presence of mind—especially Eric, who, kneeling in the front of the raft, is as cool as if no such thing as danger existed in the world.
Although we are being carried towards destruction with awful swiftness, we have still time to notice the grim, overpowering, and almost palpable darkness of the immense cavern; and the nearer we approach it the more is the infernal shades suggested, until the idea takes possession of me to such an extent that I half expect to see in letters of fire Dante's words:—
"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate."
On we speed, the waters under us now so violently agitated that our raft spins round like a top, and we are literally forced to hold on with tooth and nail. Again they become smooth, and the vessel resumes its gentle, undulating motion; but still on we rush, faster and faster as we are drawn towards the chasm, like a needle towards a magnet. Then Eric's cry rings out above the din of the underground fall:
"Into the north side and we are saved!"
I seize my fir-pole, followed by the others as soon as they see my purpose, and, while striving with might and main to get the raft out of the centre of the current, look eagerly ahead for the cause of my friend's cry. There I see our only hope—a chain of rocky islets not a hundred feet from the brink of the cavern, the water eddying round them tumultuously.
"Into that eddy, and we are all right!" Eric cries.
We work, all of us, as we had never worked before, to accomplish the all but superhuman task of propelling our clumsy craft to one side; but the instinct of life is strong in every breast; and in this case it is indeed for life or death!
For a time it looks as if we should be unsuccessful in striking even the nearest islet—as if, despite our most extreme efforts, the racing current would carry us with it to annihilation. The perspiration stands out in great beads upon our brows, our backs bend as if they would break; but on we work, heeding nothing, caring for nothing, so long as there is the least prospect of victory.
One hundred yards from the islets—the stream races on with ever-increasing velocity—the chasm frowns down upon us, ready and eager to swallow us as Jonah was swallowed by the great fish. One moment it seems as if we are out of the full influence of the current, and certain of striking the islets; but the next we are borne back, and our endeavours rendered as nought.
"Look out, lads!" I cry. "One great effort all together. If we only reach that eddy we are safe!"
Now comes the real struggle, compared to which all we had as yet undergone was nothing but child's play. Our efforts are redoubled; we fight against the Grim Fiend with the united strengths of youth and despair; and, after a struggle short but sharp, we are successful! The raft reaches the edge of the eddy, one last supreme effort forces it into it, and, as it spins round and round, hope once more resumes her sway, and the fear of death is lifted from oft our souls.
But there is still much to be done. More than once, as we are whirled round, the eddy threatens to shoot us back into the current, and we strive to reach one of the islets which stretch in an irregular chain to the north shore. In this also we are successful, chiefly through the medium of Sirikisson, who, as we near the outermost of the group, skilfully throws a rope over a pinnacle of rock, pulls it taut, and, we using our poles to the best advantage, the raft strikes heavily against the side of the islet, which is only a few yards square. We leap ashore, and not a minute too soon, for the poor raft, already sadly injured by the buffeting of the current, is unable to bear the strain now imposed upon it, and parts in two. Of these the larger part, containing most of our food and some other things, is whirled off, shot into the current, and disappears before our eyes into the cavern. As we think of our fate had we been on board it, and how narrowly we have escaped, we shudder and turn away.
The other part of the raft, containing our guns and ammunition, instruments, clothing, and one package of food, its equipoise disturbed, threatened to capsize, and for a minute or two we were busily engaged in relieving it of its burdens. Some of these had a narrow escape, especially the one containing the bulk of the scientific instruments. Indeed, had it not been for Sirikisson, who saw it slipping into the water, and saved it at some risk to himself, we might have had a serious loss; and, as it was, one at least of the instruments—the aneroid—never recovered from the effects of the day. Ever after it remained so elevated that it indicated something like thirty thousand feet above the sea-level. Notwithstanding its uselessness, however, I carried it with me during the whole of my Asiatic travels, brought it home, and now, hanging up before me as I write, it still persistently denotes, if I am to believe it, that the altitude of my house is above that of the summit of Mount Everest.
Having recovered as much of the baggage as remained, our next step was to discover some way of reaching the shore, which here sloped gently up. As I have mentioned, we were on the last of a chain of islets which stretched to the north bank in more or less broken array. The width of the channels between these varied from a few inches to seven or eight yards; and to cross the latter presented a serious difficulty. This we solved by raising the raft—now no longer heavy—and using it as a bridge. In this precarious way, after a considerable amount of trouble, not to speak of danger, we managed to reach the mainland safely; and, for the first time that afternoon, we were able to look around us without being reminded of the nearness of death.
We at once ascended the slope, and how thankful we were to turn our backs upon that grim cavern, and the river—more mysterious and uncanny than ever—which it receives within its recesses, I need not tell. There after, five minutes' walk brought us to the base of what Teli called "the belt of protecting mountains."
So far as we could see, the old Ghoorka had indeed spoken truly when he said that the mountains could not be climbed. I hardly know how to give an idea of their smooth, perpendicular precipitousness, rising sheer up for thousands of feet, affording no visible footstep for any animal larger than a mouse. If you have seen Slieve League, on the west coast of Ireland, and can imagine a precipice quadruple its height, but resembling it in other respects, you may form some estimate of the outer appearance of the mountains which, we had every reason to suppose, surrounded the terra incognita of which we were in search. More wonderful still, there seemed to be no material difference for miles, or, as our subsequent investigations caused us to believe, along the whole course of the range.
We were all so utterly exhausted and worn out by the tremendous exertions we had made in defence of our lives, that we should have liked nothing better than to lie down where we were and bask in the sunshine. But common prudence suggested that we should retire to a more sheltered spot; and to search for such was the first thing we did.
Following the line of the mountains, we came to an offshoot of the main range; and in the angle of the two, commanding an extensive prospect, we found a place exactly suited to the purpose in view. A stream of water issuing from the cliff a hundred yards above, and falling upon a broad platform eight feet from the ground, had, in the course of ages, hollowed it out into a large basin; but the stream itself had by some means been diverted to the east, where it now utilized its energies in another way. In this basin, as admirably adapted to defence, we decided to take up our quarters. On three sides it was bounded by the solid rock, and on the fourth there was a sheer drop of eight feet for half the distance, whilst for the remainder a gentle ascent led up from the ground to the basin. The basin itself sloped down on all sides to the middle, except at the "ascent," which was thus the only point, open to attack, and it was a point that, in the event of warfare, we should easily be able to hold against a regiment.
To this spot we brought our remaining packages, and, when this had been done, we held a council of war to consider the situation, which was black indeed. Only one package of food, containing barely enough for a week, had survived the wreck; and what we should do when that was consumed we knew not. True, we had still our arms and ammunition, but in a country where game was practically non-existent, of what use were they?
But, bad as our case was, it might easily have been much worse. We had escaped by the skin of our teeth from a horrible death; here we were, uninjured, as sound in body and limb as when we left the old country; and, considering how often we had wriggled out of tight places, we were not disposed to give up the hope of being able to do so again, and that at no distant date.
"To put the matter in a nutshell," said Eric, who, as usual, looked on the bright rather than on the black side, "I see no reason why we should be down in the mouth. We wished to discover the Mountain Kingdom, and here we are. True, we have only provisions for one week; but in that time we must and shall penetrate into the said kingdom. The alternative is starvation, and I tell you frankly that I, being a younger son, should infinitely prefer to be amongst the gold, silver, and precious stones."
"It's all very well to talk," said Edwards, oracularly, "but the question is, how is it to be done?"
"That is still to be solved," answered Eric. "But, you know, 'where there's a will there's a way,' and that way, which must exist, it is our duty to find."
"I fear it'll prove a much more difficult undertaking than you suppose," I said; "but, while I don't mean to discourage either you or myself, I can't hide the fact that the situation must be faced. We have the testimony of Sirikisson's grandfather that there is no pass into the country; but, from his making no mention of the underground falls, we may conclude that he didn't explore in this direction. So that some way into it may be found, but not, in all probability, easily."
"And what do you propose to do?" asked the Sahib.
"As to that, there is not much choice. All we can do is to search for some means of passing the mountains, using this as a common rendezvous. If we succeed, well and good, and if we fail— but we need not consider that contingency just yet."
"Sirikisson, knowing more about mountaineering than any of us, proposes to start early to-morrow morning—it is too late to do anything to-night—and examine our vicinity. He will return by early afternoon, and, if unsuccessful, a general search may then be organized. At any rate, if you agree to this plan, it will, give us a little extra rest, and some of us need it."
So announced the Sahib after a short conference with his servant, and very gladly did we agree to his proposal. Accordingly, at daybreak next morning, he took a rifle and his indispensable kookeree, and trudged off on his voluntary journey. He never returned to that camp, and the next time we saw him he was—But I am slightly anticipating, and must have patience.
We spent the earlier part of the day in going over our baggage and summing up our losses. Except the aneroid, all the instruments were "safe and in good condition;" so were the guns, ammunition, knives, and axes; and, as regards the clothing and personal effects, they had not suffered the least damage, thanks to the excellent waterproof cases in which they we packed.
"I think I shall go and take a look round," said Eric, after our frugal midday meal; "this idleness is becoming intolerable. Perhaps I may meet Sirikisson, or—who knows?—discover an entrance into the Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains."
"All right," I said, "but you had better take a rifle. And don't stay too long; you may miss Sirikisson, and keep us waiting for hours."
"Don't be alarmed; I won't be above a couple of hours. But I can't be bothered with a rifle; I've a couple of pistols here equal to any emergency. So, for the present, au revoir."
But, instead of the two hours he set as his outside time, he was not half an hour in returning. Then I saw him turning a ridge of rock, and running towards us at full speed. As soon as he was within hailing distance he cried:
"Quick! out with the powder and arms! The Philistines are upon us! A large body of soldiers are following me and Sirikisson is captured!"
ASTOUNDED as we were by Eric's unexpected appearance and cry, we did not for a moment doubt his accuracy; and, in accordance with his command, we again unpacked our ammunition (which had been tied up in safety an hour or two before), and got it and all our arms ready.
By the time this was done our comrade had joined us, hatless, and out of breath. When he had in some degree recovered his wind, he hurriedly explained the cause of his haste.
"After rounding that ridge," he said, pointing to the one which we had seen him turning, "I saw a pass which led up to the mountains; and, keeping my eyes open for Sirikisson, I went along it, and in a few minutes found myself at the foot. There the first thing that met my astonished gaze was a regiment of soldiers drawn up in order, and in their midst I made out Sirikisson—a prisoner. They saw me, too, and at once five or six of them were sent against me. My first impulse was to attempt Sirikisson's rescue; but, even putting out of mind that such a thing was next to impossible, I soon realized that my best course was to warn you. So, after dropping a brace of my pursuers, I bolted. Who they are, and where they come from, I cannot say, and"—
Here Eric's narrative was cut short by an exclamation from the Sahib, who had been keeping watch as well as listening to the story.
"Look! There they are!"
We looked, and saw the front rank coming round the corner, and taking up a position directly before us, but half a mile away. In five minutes the whole of the regiment was in view, and, judging from appearances, we put down their numbers at three hundred. They made a splendid show, with the sun shining on their arms and accoutrements—for they were by no means naked savages; but at that time we had more important matters to attend to than to admire them.
They halted immediately on coming in sight of us, and, by aid of our glasses, we made out that they were holding a consultation.
"Can you see Sirikisson?" the Sahib anxiously asked.
"No," I answered. "But—yes, I believe I do. Yes, that must be he to the left of that group of officers talking together."
"I hope he comes to no ill," said Eric; "but I hardly think he will."
"Conjectures are of no practical value," said Edwards. "The question is, what are we to do in view of this unexpected visit?"
"That must be decided by the majority—and there is no time to lose. We must either fight, or give ourselves up. There can be little doubt that their purpose is hostile, but still they might spare us if we were to surrender. But are we justified in doing so? We do not know who these men are—whether they belong to the Mountain Kingdom or not."
"All the worse if they are," said Lee. "Remember what the legend says—a fierce people who threatened to kill their captives if they ever returned; and I think that they are as likely to kill us. So, if they approach us as if to fight, I say, let us fight, and render a good account of ourselves."
"I agree with you, Frank," said Eric, heartily. "Surely we're equal to any number of barbarians, armed as we are with guns and revolvers, and in such a favourable position."
"It seems to me that what Eric and the Sahib propose is the wisest course to pursue. If we surrender, they may think us white-livered and kill us; whereas, even if we are captured after fighting, they may respect our prowess. So I vote with Lee. What do you say, Edwards?"
"Fight," laconically replied that gentleman; and so, taking Tray's permission for granted, it was decided.
Hardly had this been agreed upon, when we noticed that the enemy's forces were in violent commotion. Raising my telescope, I saw that a scuffle was taking place in the front rank, and, although I could not distinguish faces, I made out a figure struggling amongst the soldiers. At last it was thrown down, a sword flashed in the sunshine, and a shrill cry announced that all was over.
"Sirikisson is murdered!" cried the Sahib.
"Perhaps it was some one else," I suggested, though my opinion coincided with his own.
"It could be no other than Sirikisson. I wish I were at his assassin's throat!"
And he would have leapt from the platform and thrown himself amongst the enemy had not Eric held him back.
"Patience, Frank!" he said. "It won't be long before you'll get an ample revenge—till then, patience. But poor Sirikisson deserved a better fate, and if an opportunity occurs of paying out his murderers, Eric Trevanion won't be long in taking advantage of it!"
The foul outrage on our guide, as we considered it, besides giving us an earnest of what we might expect should we fall into the hands of our assailants, raised our ire to its highest point, and henceforth there were no waverers. It was now "War to the knife, and no quarter!"
At length the conference of the leaders came to an end; they separated to their different commands, and, to the sound of something very like a cracked bugle, part of the enemy began to move forward. The rest, numbering perhaps a hundred men, remained where they were, doubtless to act as a reserve.
"I wonder," I said, "if the sound of our shots would have any effect on them?"
"I hardly think so," replied Eric; "for they have had some experience of mine, you know."
"We might try our rifles, though, altogether. It could do no harm."
Accordingly, as the van of the enemy came nearer, the four of us fired over their heads, though not without a grumble from Edwards that "the cartridges would have been better employed lower down." The effect was instantaneous. They stopped as if a thunderbolt had fallen amongst them; but, on seeing that nobody was hurt, moved forward with some hesitation.
"You see they are insensible to ordinary persuasion," said Eric; "so we'll give them a little of the moral kind. I'll pick off that fellow in front with the peculiar head-gear"—indicating the man who appeared to be guide.
Bending on one knee and taking careful aim, he fired, and the leader fell. Again the assailants halted in consternation, and appeared to be making an examination of the fallen man. From the gesticulations of those in the front ranks, we concluded that they were unwilling to proceed; whereupon an officer in armour made a speech, they raised a loud shout, and continued to advance, dividing into three columns of fifty or sixty men each. The first of these struck up a song, which was not without a wild music of its own; and which, sung to the accompaniment of cracked bugles and clashing cymbals, was sufficiently inspiriting to raise to their highest pitch the war-spirits of the soldiers.
As they slowly approached, we had time to observe them in detail. They marched in a very soldier-like manner, and appeared to be disciplined to a degree which would have brought no discredit on a European regiment; and, though few of them—and these few chiefly officers—were above five feet six or seven in height, they made a very good appearance.
The common soldiers were clothed in tanned leather, with head- pieces resembling mitres; and their arms consisted of a short spear, a triangular shield, studded with nails of either gold or brass, a sword hanging at the side; and, slung at the back, a bow and arrows of intricate workmanship, tipped with the same metal as on the shield. The officers, of whom there was one to every twenty-five men, were much more gorgeously clad. Above dresses of some gaily-coloured stuff they wore armour of silver, highly burnished; on their heads were curiously-shaped helmets, also of silver; and their only arms were swords, shields studded with silver nails, and short daggers, not unlike Highland dirks.
For the third time they halted when they came within fifty yards of the foot of the ascent to our platform, apparently still reluctant to face men with such diabolical help as there was no doubt we had.
The interval I took advantage of to make a last disposition of my forces. You may remember that only on one side could we be attacked, half of which side was a sheer drop of eight feet, and the other half the top of the "ascent" referred to. All our arms of whatever kind had been loaded, and these we placed beside Lee, who was to defend the "drop." Edwards was posted a little further back, with revolver and gun; and Eric and I took up our positions at the top of the ascent, with axe in one hand and revolver in the other, and a couple of pistols in our belts. On us, therefore, devolved the duty of repulsing the enemy when they came to close quarters, as they must do sooner or later.
"Here they come!" I shouted, as they at length advanced. "Ready, lads! and, if possible, don't allow them up the ascent."
On they came, after changing their order a little; and, as soon as they reached the foot of the ascent, we poured into their close ranks a volley which did deadly execution. But this seemed to have no other effect than to rouse the vengeance of the remainder; and with another ominous shout, and dashing their spears against their shields, they continued their march. Five times we fired, picking them off by scores, but they heeded us not. As soon as a man fell, he was carried to the rear, and his place filled by another.
On they came, until the foremost rank reached the top of the ascent, and then the battle commenced in earnest. The mÍlťe in all its aspects I am utterly unable to describe. We were four against a host, and well for us was it that no more than five could reach us at a time; and as it was we were more than once hard pressed.
I was immediately beset by two—a spear was about to enter my side, when a shot from my revolver disposed of one of them. It was the first man who had died by my hand! A bullet from behind, either from the Sahib or Edwards, found its billet in the body of the other; their places were at once filled by others, and as quickly as I struck down a man, so quickly did I find another to strike down.
Eric, meanwhile, was doing his duty characteristically—with his whole heart and soul. As the enemy closed with us I heard him mutter, "Poor Sirikisson! now for revenge!" and I think this nerved his heart; for, with brows knit and mouth firmly set, he plied his axe as I believe an axe has seldom been plied before. Disdaining or forgetting to use his revolver, he wielded the axe with both hands; and every time it fell a foeman went down before it, few of them to rise again. Time after time it circled and came down with the strength of that giant arm; until even the enemy, courageous as they were, grew afraid to venture within its deadly circuit.
Lee and Edwards at their posts had by no means been idle. The former, besides picking off a troublesome assailant at our side now and then, had to prevent the enemy scaling the "drop;" and this he did by rapping with the butt-end of a rifle the fingers of those who tried it—and rapping them so severely, too, that they were useless for the remainder of the day.
It has been said that man is naturally a blood-thirsty animal; but it was only as the fight went on that I realized the truth of this saying. Personally I must admit I was not long in conquering my first repugnance to slaying, the rather that it was done in self-defence. Then, as my blood rose, the thirst for life became strong within me; and with axe and revolver, I did my utmost to relieve the earth of some of its superfluous human freight.
As the combat continued, we sometimes found it hard to hold our own; and, though the enemy went down thick and fast, we were again and again pressed back by force of numbers, and had to make more than one vigorous rally to recover the lost ground. But our opponents were too stubborn, not to say confident of ultimate victory, to retire, even if the press of those behind would have allowed them to do so. The most energetic of the officers was a young fellow more gorgeous than any of his comrades, who encouraged his men by word and deed, taking good care, however, to keep out of the sweep of Eric's weapon.
In parrying the thrust of a spear, my axe slipped from my hand, and I could not recover it. Misfortunes never come singly; and, just at that moment, a more vigorous charge than ordinary separated Eric and me. Before we could be rejoined, the leader gave a sharp command, I was carried off my feet, and in another moment lay at the foot of the ascent, with my dog Tray, who during the fight had kept at my side, on the top of me.
I sprang up at once and emptied my revolver amongst those surrounding me (without, I fear, doing much damage); and then, using my fists freely, I burst through them, and darted up the hill, closely pursued by the leader and many of his men. So close were they, indeed, that had it not been for the Sahib, who shot the two first, I might never have regained the platform.
I had hardly reached Eric's side and turned when they were again upon us, led by the indefatigable leader. Tray, whose dander was now thoroughly up, looked for some one to immolate; and, being annoyed by the cries of the leader, flew at his throat whilst Eric and I were otherwise engaged. The unexpected attack was successful, and down went the officer. He was not long, however, in shaking off the dog, and it looked as if Tray in the end would get the worst of it. But Eric observed the situation just in time, impetuously dashed aside those in his way, and raising the leader above his head as easily as if he had been a baby, threw him from him down the ascent. As he fell he carried many of the soldiers with him; and the others, astounded at this display of Herculean strength, drew off in alarm, which was not decreased by Lee and Edwards shooting down several of the more prominent as they retreated.
"That's a Cornish trick," Eric complacently observed, as, leaning on his axe, he wiped the sweat from his brow, "and only a Trevanion of Cornwall could have done it properly. And now, so long as we have an opportunity, we may as well have a biscuit."
The enemy had drawn off to a distance, where the officers were holding another council of war; and we had thus time to take a rough lunch in comparative safety. As Eric said, it would be needed—we were still, notwithstanding our exertions, anywhere but out of danger. But there was some consolation in the knowledge that we had made a very good fight of it, without, so far, any of us having received the least scratch.
"I wonder," said Edwards, reflectively, when we had finished our repast—"I wonder why they don't use their bows and arrows? One would think that would be the easiest way of polishing us off."
"Depend upon it," answered Eric, "they have some reason for it; but we have no time to speculate on the subject, for see, the conference is ended, and here they come again. To arms! Let us show them that we at least aren't afraid."
This time we saw that the assault was to be made by new men, who had not engaged in the previous attack; but they seemed not the less belligerent on that account. On the contrary, their guttural shouts of defiance indicated that they meant to lower our colours—or share the fate of their comrades.
In a most determined manner they charged up the ascent, unheeding their losses; and, holding their spears by the middle, much in the same way as a South African does, they tried to press us back. Eric with his deadly axe, I with mine, and the others with their firearms, soon raised up a wall of bodies, which the enemy felt a natural repugnance to cross. They solved the difficulty by carrying them off at some risk to themselves; and then renewed the attack in phalanx array, keeping closely together, and using their shields more to cover their bodies. This made it a matter of increased difficulty for us to throw them into disorder, and, indeed, we ourselves had several narrow escapes from being rendered hors de combat.
To make matters worse, our guns and pistols became one by one empty, and, of course, we were all too busily engaged to have time to reload them. The Sahib's stock lasted the longest, as he proved by saving both Eric and me more than once by well-timed shots; but even he gave out at last, and was forced to follow the example of Edwards by using his rifle as he would have done a cudgel.
"Look out there, Douglas!" cried Eric, as a well-sustained rush was made against me.
But his cry was too late. Hardly had my axe (which I had recovered) broken the head of one man than other two dashed their shields against me, and, a little stunned by the shock, I fell back a step, stumbling in doing so. The enemy took the opportunity afforded by my slip, charged with redoubled vigour, and in a second had gained the platform.
What followed was nothing but a hand-to-hand fight, difficult to describe. We were literally fighting against hope, for, crushed into a corner as we were, and striving with such odds, what prospect was there of even holding our own? But we fought on, hope or no hope, and many a lusty man, before the end came, fell under the blows of our axes and butt-ends. Down went one; another took his place only to share his fate;—in these words may the next half-hour's hand-to-hand conflict be described. Gradually were we hemmed in on every side, until the throng was such that we could scarcely wield our weapons; and then, while I was doing my utmost to keep off several assailants, I received a blow on the back of the head which knocked me unconscious. As the darkness closed around me to the confused din of the battle, the last words I heard were from Edwards:
"The game's up, Trevanion: Dalziel's down!"
MY first sensations on recovering consciousness were those of being rolled to and fro as in a hammock at sea; and it was not until I opened my eyes that I could disabuse myself of the idea that this was really the case. Then, the sight that met them was so strange that I was fain to shut them again, and ask myself if I were not under the influence of some morbid hallucination. A second time I opened them—the scene was still the same; and I could not but conclude that it was reality, and not a page from the Arabian Nights.
And this was what I saw. I was lying on my back upon what appeared to be a huge mattress, borne by eight men, and surrounded by large numbers of soldiers bearing torches, by which the darkness was as efficiently dispelled as if the electric light had been in full operation. By this light I saw that I was being carried through spacious caves, from the roof of which hung stalactites of every size and shape, most of them of the greatest delicacy and beauty. I was afterwards told that the whole of the caves were lined with pillars of the same kind, and that many more could be seen in process of formation; but these, unfortunately, I did not see myself. But what I did see, the white stalactites against the dark background of the granite rocks, illuminated by the red glare of the torches, formed a scene of truly magnificent grandeur.
For a long time I lay on my back admiring this handiwork of Dame Nature, which presented ever-changing features of beauty as I was carried on by my bearers. At first I had no recollection of what had passed, and no curiosity to know where I was. But soon this indifferent feeling passed off, and I began to speculate in a vague manner on my whereabouts. Then, with a view of finding out the circumstances in which I was placed, I tried to raise myself up, and found out for the first time that I was so weak that I was unable to do so. The wound on the back of my head was also painful, so that I was very glad to fall asleep without troubling myself any further concerning "why and wherefore."
How long I slept I had no idea, but it must have been a considerable time; for when I awoke my weakness had altogether passed away, and I felt quite refreshed. I was on a deliciously soft bed or couch, and bending over me were my friend Eric and a stranger with a hat of fox-skin of the shape (in front) of a triangle, the base of which was on his head and the apex half a foot higher. In his hand he held a bowl containing perfumed water and a cloth with which he had been bathing my head. In appearance the stranger was only a couple of shades darker than myself, and less so, indeed, than the Sahib. He wore moustaches, but no beard, and was of medium height.
"Hullo, old man," said Eric, cheerily, "how do you feel? Do you think yourself capable of despatching a few more natives to the happy hunting-grounds?"
"Not as yet," I answered. "But on what part of the earth's surface do we happen to be?"
"Speaking generally, in the Mountain Kingdom, I should suppose; or, more particularly, in
A prison room
Of stern security and gloom,
Yet not a dungeon,
as Sir Walter puts it."
"And who is this?"—indicating the gentleman with the triangular head-piece.
"So far as I can make out," he replied, "he is the resident M.D.; and his unfailing remedy for all diseases is cold water, diluted with various scents. But take a look round, and see what you think of our 'durance vile.'"
I did so, and saw that we were in a large, square room, well- lighted by half a dozen windows of some transparent stuff resembling glass. The door was of oak, or some such wood, heavily barred, and the floor was covered with rushes much in the same way as rooms were in England in the middle ages, and much later. Round the walls were several couches covered with the skins of divers animals; while, better than everything else, the whole of our luggage, &c., down to the very guns and ammunition, was neatly arranged on the floor. Not a thing was missing, except a bottle of brandy, which—not the missing brandy—showed that our captors were not such bad fellows after all. In fact, the whole place had a cosy and comfortable appearance.
"Not bad at all," I said, in answer to Eric's inquiry; "I've seen worse rooms in the old country. But what on earth can these sounds be?"
The louder of the sounds referred to was a rumbling noise as if we were on the top of a tunnel, and a dozen heavy trains were thundering beneath. The other was a low, continuous, hissing sound, as if innumerable taps of steam were being turned on at one time.
"I wish I knew," replied Eric; "it seems to me as if some fairy had transported us to a big manufacturing town in the Midlands."
At the far end of the apartment two figures were sitting on a couch, talking earnestly, with Tray sleeping at their feet; and I had to rub my eyes more than once before I could credit their evidence. One of the figures was the Sahib—there was nothing surprising in that. But the other passed my comprehension altogether, and in deep perplexity I asked Eric:
"Who's that talking to the Sahib? Is it really Sirikisson, or am I dreaming?"
"Come here, Sirikisson," cried Eric in reply, "and convince Mr. Douglas that you are really yourself, and no phantom, as he appears to think."
Accordingly my two friends approached, and as I shook hands and made sure that both of them were really flesh and blood, I felt thankful that we had all been spared.
"And how did you escape, Sirikisson?" I asked. "We were sure that we saw you cut down."
"That's easily told, Sahib," he answered. "What you saw was, I think, a sacrifice to their god of war, which it seems they must always offer up before commencing a fight.* As for my own adventures, it won't take long to tell them. A little after leaving you I reached what seemed the entrance to a great cave, and this I determined to explore. But I had proceeded scarcely a hundred yards when several men surrounded and captured me, and led me through many passages into a large cave lighted by torches, in which a great many soldiers were drawn up. I could not understand what they said. Not long after, they all marched outside, and then the Sahib Eric came up and shot two, after which, though they were a little afraid, they attacked you, never thinking you would fight. But you did, and so well that"—
(*This curious and—to us—barbarous custom is rigidly adhered to by the standing army of the Mountain Kingdom. The victim is chosen by lot, and in most cases has no particular objections to being immolated, as thereby he is supposed to secure a passport to Heaven, while his earthly relations are well cared for by the Government.—D.D.)
"That, in fact," concluded the Sahib, "they regard us as superior beings."
"But where is Edwards?" I asked, noticing for the first time that he was absent.
"As to that," said Eric, "we're as much in the dark as you. Coming through the caves he was close to Sirikisson, who declares that he heard him talking to the commander of the soldiers, though in what language he was not near enough to distinguish. When we arrived here he was not forthcoming, so that it is to be presumed he has established some kind of understanding with the natives."
"All the better for us if he has, Eric, my boy. But he may be killed, though it's not likely. By-the-bye, what did you say about caves? I have not been dreaming, then, after all."
"What did you dream?"
"Of caves, and stalactites, and torches, and such like."
"Then it was no dream, but stern reality. To begin at the beginning—as I suppose you know nothing of what happened after you were struck down from behind—when Edwards cried that you were down, I looked round, and saw that the game was indeed up. So we all surrendered at discretion, expecting nothing but a speedy death; but, instead, they merely took our guns from us— handling them rather gingerly, I am bound to say—and gave us into the custody of a file of soldiers. Then they packed up all our things, and shouldered them along with their wounded and you, and marched off."
"And what did they do to Tray?"
"They were rather chary of going near the dog at first, and seemed to regard him as something supernatural. But little did Tray care for all this, and marched with us as nonchalantly as if he had been at home. In due time we came to the hole in the rock at which Sirikisson had met his fate, and thence reached a large, stalactic cave, in which were more soldiers with torches, besides stretchers for you and the other wounded."
"Curious!" I interrupted. "They had surely been expecting us."
"I don't know. Well, by this time it was night, and we were dead-tired; but we were at once marshalled and set off. All night we journeyed through cave after cave of the same kind, all alike beautiful, with massive pillars of stalactite rising right up to the roof. The strange thing of it all was that we went steadily down hill, the gradient in some places being exceedingly steep. At length, just at the darkest hour before the dawn, we reached the last and largest of the caves, and saw above the moon and stars, while away down below we could see the innumerable lights of a large town. If I am right, we were on the slope of a hill of no mean height. At any rate, we descended a tolerably easy but awfully tortuous road for at least three-quarters of an hour, before we reached level ground. By this time we were literally on our last legs, and we could not have gone much further; so you may imagine that we were by no means displeased when we were shown into this place, and left to do as we liked. As for Edwards, he had disappeared, and has not yet turned up.
"We slept till we were awakened about eleven this forenoon by our friend the physician, and then we found that the good old soul had got our luggage carried in. A couple of young ladies, not at all bad-looking, though rather scantily attired, brought us a tolerable breakfast of hot steaks, native bread, and something tasting like negus; and then the doctor dismissed them, and attended to you in a highly scientific manner. And that is all up to date—namely, four p.m. on the fourth of August."
"And is it your real opinion, Eric, that we are in the Mountain Kingdom?" I asked.
"It is," was his answer. "If not, I should like to know where we can be. It is certain that we are amongst some strange people, not related in any way to the other nations of Central Asia. So unless it is all a very bad dream, I am prepared to stake any amount of money that we have found out the truth of the old Thibetan legend. By the way, that reminds me that you have lost your bet, Douglas—the one you so promptly and confidently took up at Loch-Eyt."
To tell the truth, I had completely forgotten all about the small wager we had made at home on first hearing the legend of the Kingdom of the Smoking Mountains; and perhaps my readers may be in the same predicament.
"Very well," I said; "if you are right, I'll give you my I O U; and I'll honestly pay the money to your bankers should we ever return to England."
This I did, a good many months afterwards, but I have since heard that Eric at once handed the one hundred pounds to a well- known and deserving charity. This by the way.
A few minutes later the door was opened, admitting two maidens bearing trays; and, as they were the first females belonging to the Mountain Kingdom that I had seen, I scrutinized them with some curiosity. As I afterwards found, they were fair specimens of their kind, so that in describing them I describe the womankind of the country generally. They were fully as tall as the men, and exceedingly well-formed, their costume, which is a short kirtle reaching to the knees, with a loose bodice of some gaily coloured stuff, laced in front, showing off their fine figures to the best advantage. Their legs are bare below the knees, as also are their arms and shoulders, but their shapely form renders this anything but a draw-back. Their features are soft, refined, and regular, inclining to the aquiline; their eyes are invariably dark, and usually quite black; and their hair, though rather lanker than we are used to, is capable of being made to look well when it is braided and ornamented with jewels in the native fashion. In demeanour they bear themselves very modestly and quietly; and though they are as curious as women all the world over, they do not show it so readily as the ladies of some European nations I could name. In short, our first impression was that they were handsome and well-bred; and this our subsequent investigations in no wise tended to modify.
On their part the two young ladies, neither of whom could have been more than twenty, regarded us with equal curiosity, and seemed to be particularly struck with Eric's great breadth and height. He, on his part, had no eyes for any one save the taller of the two, who was a girl of really striking beauty; and, knowing by experience his susceptible nature, I was a little afraid that it would be a case of love at first sight. However, he had not much time just then in which to indulge his amorous tendencies, for at a command from our physician, the girls deposited the trays on a couch, and, after a parting glance at us, departed.
"Pretty girl that," said Eric to me. "I wonder what she is called?"
"Sorry I can't enlighten you, but we may find some way of discovering the next time they appear—that is, if you are very hard hit. Now for dinner: our friend is getting quite impatient."
The physician by signs asked us to seat ourselves, and taking the head of the table-couch himself, helped us to the viands, of which the principal were roasted mutton, boiled fish, bread with a peculiar but not unpleasant taste, and dried grapes. For liquids we had milk and excellent wine.
Our repast ended, we filled and lit our pipes, the various steps, and especially the striking of the lucifer, causing our host the liveliest surprise. But this changed to something akin to fear when he saw the smoke issuing from our mouths; and, jumping up from his seat, he retreated to the far end of the room—such was the extremity of his terror. There he stood, no doubt expecting something dreadful to happen; but when it didn't, he summoned up courage to approach us for a closer examination.
"Now for a lark with the old fellow!" cried Eric, as, stepping up to where he stood, he handed him the meerschaum, and indicated that he wished him to smoke it.
With some hesitation he accepted the pipe, and, coached by Eric, raised it to his mouth and took a long draw. Naturally the smoke went the wrong way, and the next moment, much to our amusement, he was lying on his back on the floor, kicking his legs spasmodically in the air, and trying with all his might to get rid of the fumes in the region of his larynx.
While we were thus enjoying ourselves, we were startled by hearing a loud crash of trumpets and cymbals, apparently directly below us. On one at least of us, the doctor, the effect of this was instantaneous. He recovered with miraculous energy on hearing the sound, and bounding to the door, disappeared from sight, leaving us to speculate on his undignified retreat and its seeming cause.
A FEW minutes later the noise was renewed; but this time, apparently, at the very back of the door, which was then thrown open, and the physician entered, followed by a large company of strangers. First was a tall man of middle age, every look and gesture of whom plainly showed that he was accustomed to have his commands obeyed. Behind him were a company of soldiers, richly dressed, and, last of all, the musicians, whose strains were still ringing in our ears.
The servile and almost abject way in which the physician behaved to the tall man made us imagine that he was somebody of consequence; and accordingly, we returned his looks of curiosity with more than interest. He was rather less than six feet in height, and his age appeared to be about fifty. He wore neither beard nor moustache, his dark hair was beginning to turn into grey, and his high and intellectual-looking brow surmounted a countenance full of expression. He was attired in a long robe of purple, over which was a tunic of the same colour, curiously embroidered with silver threads. Round his waist was a girdle of pure silver; inlaid with precious stones, any one of which would have sufficed to buy a small estate. His sandal-shoes were also glittering with brilliants, as was his head-piece, which was shaped like a mitre, and covered with plates of silver, thickly encrusted with diamonds and rubies. From his girdle hung a small sabre and a dagger, each of them worth at least ten thousand pounds, so valuable were the jewels with which the hilts were ornamented. In short, he was literally flashing with precious stones, all of them large and of the first water, ranging from twenty to a hundred carats in weight.
After looking us over for a few minutes, this gorgeous native turned round and issued some orders to his men, a dozen of whom thereupon entered the apartment, while the others departed, shutting the door behind them. Then, as he stepped forward, Tray moved towards him to reconnoitre; and he, showing none of the fear with which the other natives regarded the dog, bent down and patted his head—a proceeding which the soldiers watched with undisguised horror. As for Tray, he barked delightedly and seemed quite pleased, which, as he is by no means partial to strangers, struck me as somewhat odd.
This done, the chief (as we judged him to be) spoke for the first time, in a deep bass voice; but of course we could not make out what he said.
"Although I don't suppose he knows any of the languages we know, we may as well try," I said, and then gave him several choice specimens of English, German, French, Greek, and Latin. Eric followed up with Italian and Spanish; and the Sahib tried him with Sanscrit and several modern Indian dialects. But all to no purpose: he merely stared at us as stolidly as if these languages had never existed.
"Hang it all!" said Eric, "this shows a lamentable want of knowledge somewhere. I suppose we have exhausted our list—unless Sirikisson can fill the breach."
"I think he knows Thibetan, if that is of any use," put in the Sahib.
"Perhaps they know that—they should, seeing that Thibet is their next neighbour. At any rate you can try, Sirikisson."
Sirikisson had no objections, and asked his master what to say.
"Whatever Mr. Douglas tells you," was the reply.
"Ask him, Sirikisson, if he speaks Thibetan."
Accordingly, our Ghoorka spoke a few words in Thibetan, and, to my joy, he was at once understood by the chief, who thereupon delivered himself of an exordium, which was rather freely translated by Sirikisson, as follows:—
"On what errand come ye into the land—ye who come from beyond the mountains and the silent river, who have the strength of many oxen, who strike down and keep at bay the soldiers of the king, and from whose mouths proceedeth smoke? I ask what ye seek, I, the Dadchierka CaŽn, head of the great council of chiefs, punisher of evildoers, and chief man to Timrac the mighty and powerful—Timrac, Lord and King of Kisni‚, the country encircled by high mountains."
From this we made out that our visitor was what may be called Premier of the Mountain Kingdom, or Kisni‚, as it appeared was its proper designation.
"I wonder what answer we should give his CaŽnship," said Eric, in English, when Sirikisson had translated. "I don't suppose we need refer to the gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance, and, besides, it might be rather awkward if Edwards has given them a different story. By-the-by, Sirikisson may as well ask what has become of Edwards."
"Do so, Sirikisson," I said, "and say also that we have come as strangers to view this wonderful country, and claim the hospitality of Timrac, the king, and of the Dadchierka CaŽn."
Our guide obeyed, and his address did not fail of its effect.
"Hospitality claimed in a right manner can never be refused," answered Dadchierka, sententiously; "and, therefore, ye may rest assured that no harm shall come to ye as long as ye respect the king."
As may be imagined, this assurance lifted a great load from our minds, though whether we were justified in trusting in it, we did not at the time know.
"As for the other stranger of whom thy servant askest," continued our visitor, "he is in safe keeping at the king's palace, and can speak in this language to the wise men of Kisni‚."
"This language" being presumably Thibetan, the statement surprised us a little; for Edwards had never spoken to us of any proficiency in Thibetan, and, indeed, he had on several occasions led us to believe that he was entirely ignorant of it. However, so many strange things were happening and about to happen, that we were rapidly losing our sense of wonder.
"Was it by chance, O Dadchierka CaŽn," I instructed Sirikisson to ask, "that the soldiers of Timrac the king were sent against us, or didst thou know that we were on our way to see the land of Kisni‚?"
"It was in this way. It so happened two days ago that a hunter penetrated through the great caves to the country beyond the mountains; and coming to the silent river, saw on its bosom a flat boat with men upon it, the like of whom he had never seen before. So he returned with all speed, and told the tale to the commander of the bodyguard; and I, hearing of it, gave orders that a company of soldiers should be sent to bring them in alive, death to be the penalty of those who should shed the blood of the strangers."
This then was the explanation of their whole behaviour—why they had not used their bows and arrows, and treated us so well after the fight—though, to be sure, they erred grievously in treating us at first as enemies and not as friends.
"Yea," went on the Premier, "it was a good battle, and manfully did ye strive against great numbers. Ye are men—such men as there are not in Kisni‚—and as men shall honour be done to your prowess! Under thy strokes, O man of height"—indicating Eric—"the soldiers of Timrac the king went down as grass before the sickle, and were no more! And the hollow staffs dealt out death and destruction until ye were overpowered by numbers, and the conflict ended. Yea! Ye are men! It is the Dadchierka CaŽn who sayest it, and he knoweth a man in temple or in marketplace."
We seized this opportunity to inquire how many of the soldiers we had placed hors de combat, and learned that the number of dead was twenty-eight, while treble that number were wounded, more or less seriously.
"Good heavens!" said I, "we surely haven't killed that number! Why, it is a wonder that we weren't massacred on the spot. Tell the old gentleman, Sirikisson, will you, how sorry we are for having polished off so many of Timrac's valuable subjects."
Sirikisson did so, though rather less idiomatically.
"It matters not, O stranger," returned Dadchierka, indifferently; "trouble not thyself concerning that. Thou and thy friends hast but rid us of a few men—others take their places— and in a few days they are forgotten as if they had never been!"
After some more amicable talk the Dadchierka CaŽn informed us that it was his purpose to present us to the king that afternoon, and therefore desired us to get ready to proceed to the palace at once. Fortunately, I was by this time fully recovered, and my own preparations and those of my friends did not take long. In ten minutes' time we were ready to accompany the Premier.
"I say, Douglas," said Eric, while the natives were engaged near the door, "I suppose we may as well take our guns with us, in case of treachery, you know."
"I don't see why we shouldn't," I replied, "seeing they've been so kind as to allow us them. It's always best to be on the safe side."
Perhaps Dadchierka guessed from our tones what we were saying; but, at any rate, he turned round and said:
"The strangers need fear nothing; with the Dadchierka CaŽn they are as safe as in their own land."
"I hope so," muttered Eric, and no more was said on the subject; but, as it was, each of us took an express rifle and a revolver, in case of emergencies.
Then, at a signal from the Prime Minister, the soldiers shouldered the rest of our luggage, and carried it away, leaving not one article behind them.
"It is a law with the people of Kisni‚," observed Dadchierka, "that whatsoever belongs to a man, even though that man be an enemy, be freely at his use until his death, in prison or out of it. To separate them from him would be a crime, punishable by death."
When the last of our goods and chattels had been removed, Dadchierka signed to us to follow the soldiers, and, preceded by the physician, we passed through the open doorway into a sort of courtyard bounded by high walls of dressed stone. Here four companies of soldiers, on the whole much finer-looking men than those with whom we had fought, were drawn up, and received the Prime Minister by clashing their spears against their shields. At the word of command they marched through the gate of the courtyard, and when we had done likewise, we found ourselves gazing upon as magnificent a panorama as Asia or any other continent can show.
We stood upon an eminence, and before us, like a map, lay a landscape, which, to do it justice, would require the pen of a Ruskin or the pencil of a Turner. At our feet lay a large city, its towers and minarets glistening in the sun. Beyond, a vast expanse of level country, apparently highly cultivated, stretched away to the distant horizon, dotted here and there with villages and hamlets. Not a mile to our right a range of mountains rose sheer up to such a height that their summits were lost in cloudland; and these, no doubt, were the barriers which separated Kisni‚ from the world. To the left the prospect was even grander. In the foreground large patches of cultivated ground, literally swarming with life, were mingled with forest, wood, and stream; and in the distance range after range of low hills, covered to the top with verdure, were backed by mountains still higher.
For I don't know how long we gazed in ecstasy at this scene, hardly noticing how soft and balmy the air was, and how highly civilized everything appeared to be. Then Sirikisson—who, it must be confessed, is by no means sentimental—spoke.
"If the gentlemen sahibs look behind them they will see the Smoking Mountains."
Mechanically we did so, and saw what I believe is not to be seen elsewhere on the face of the globe. Imagine five immense cone-shaped hills, each two thousand two hundred feet high, connected with each other at the base, and extending in the form of a half-circle. Each hill is exactly the facsimile of its neighbour, sloping up precipitously to the summit, where it is not more than a hundred yards in circumference. And, to crown all, from the summit of each of these five mountain-peaks proceeded a column of steam—not smoke—which, after rising for fifty feet, fell in the form of a gigantic sheaf, with a peculiar hissing sound (the same, evidently, we had heard in prison). In fact, the "Smoking Mountains" were nothing less than geysers.
It was upon the lower slopes of the first of this chain of water-volcanoes that our prison was situated; and as we afterwards discovered, only one of them—the central, with which we were destined to become better acquainted—could be climbed higher than five hundred feet. Up to that height the slopes of the mountains were covered with vines, which, as Dadchierka told us, would grow nowhere else in Kisni‚. Whether this peculiar circumstance was owing to the situation or to the soil, I was never able to discover.
We might have stood for hours admiring this, our first view of the Mountain Kingdom, had not the Prime Minister become impatient, and told Sirikisson to ask us when we should be ready. So, after a last look, we followed him down the hill by a path well-made and kept, winding among the vines, on which the grapes were ripening, and ending in another courtyard at the foot of the mountain. In this the soldiers were drawn up in square, surrounding what we made out to be two vehicles, each drawn by a pair of black horses. The vehicles could hardly be called carriages, but resembled more the chariots of ancient Rome. They were seated for three, and covered with splendid skins.
At the invitation of Dadchierka, Eric and the Sahib entered the first chariot, and the Prime Minister, Sirikisson, and I the second, followed, as a matter of course, by Tray. The soldiers then separated into two parties, one preceding and the other following us; and, the word having been given to start, we began to move, though at little more than a snail's pace.
Turning out of the courtyard, we drove along a broad and smooth road, which cut through a wood to one of the city entrances. When we reached this, we saw before us street after street of houses, each one storey high, built of stone, and surrounded by a garden.
"Thou seest before thee Dhama, the principal city of the land of Kisni‚," said the Prime Minister to me through Sirikisson.
Presently we entered Dhama, and found the streets lined with crowds of eager sightseers, probably attracted by some rumour of our arrival, or by the strains of the Premier's musicians. Of the astonishment of the simple Kisnians at our dress and appearance we took little notice, being too much engaged in examining their appearance.
We found that the women were dressed much in the same way as the ones we had seen in prison, while the men wore, in addition, a blouse of divers colours, and shoes which were half sandals. This, however, is only their summer dress; during the rigorous winter both men and women are much more warmly clad. One thing we noticed was that there seemed to be no scarcity of jewels, every dame and maiden being ornamented with more than one, mostly small. As we passed, the men saluted the Premier, and the ladies clapped their hands.
After driving at the same slow pace through a couple of miles of streets, we came to a wide fosse of water surrounding a fortification at least a mile in circumference. The fosse itself was four hundred and fifty yards wide all round, almost meriting the name of a lake; and it was bridged by four stupendous causeways at the cardinal points. These causeways were of dressed stone, each sixty feet wide, and protected on either side by a low parapet. As a piece of engineering, I have never seen anything to equal them and the fosse, which was also artificial; though I am told that the ancient Mexicans had many things of the same kind.
Towards one of these we drove, Dadchierka observing:
"Yonder, on the further side of the water, thou mayest see the palace of Timrac the King, and those of his principal men."
AT the near end of the causeway a sentinel challenged our escort, and on the officer giving a password, we were allowed to continue our journey. The other end was flanked by two small towers, between which was a heavy iron gate, which swung open at our approach, disclosing another regiment drawn up to receive us. Here we descended, to find ourselves in a huge quadrangle, the most conspicuous object in which was a high tower of a peculiar shape, situated in the centre, and evidently used as a look-out. On every side of us there were "all sorts and conditions" of edifices, built of a greyish-coloured stone, of an architecture strangely resembling that known as Greek. These buildings seemed to serve many purposes, some of them being private residences, and others barracks for the large numbers of soldiers garrisoned here.
But it was to the north side of the quadrangle that our attention was particularly directed. There the whole side was occupied by a building of immense size and noble proportions, built entirely of polished marble, with, as frontage, a colonnade surpassing in beauty anything of the kind I ever saw. The pillars, two hundred in number, were round and smooth, covered in front with curious hieroglyphics; and each of them was cut out of a single piece of marble. There was but one entrance to this splendid building, but it was of such dimensions that half-a- dozen carriages alongside could have been driven through.
This, as we rightly judged from the numbers of soldiers and other officials about, was Timrac's palace.
The Dadchierka CaŽn led the way into a great hall, along the walls of which were ranged statues of no mean workmanship. Thence we passed into a second but smaller room, occupied by a score or two of soldiers in various uniforms. To one of these Dadchierka spoke, and he departed presumably to apprise the king of our approach; and while we were waiting for his return, the Premier gave us some details regarding the military organization of the country. It appears that the standing army consists of seven thousand men, divided into ten regiments in a rather unusual way— by their height. Thus, every man in a stated regiment must be a certain height, there being degrees from five feet two up to five feet eleven. The officers are the only exception to this rule— they can be of any height they please, but generally they are taller than their men, and thus acquire a sort of superiority. Besides these ten regiments, there is the king's bodyguard of five hundred men, each of whom is at least six feet in height, and who receives the pay of an officer. We expressed our surprise to the CaŽn that Kisni‚, with no outside enemies, had so many highly-disciplined troops; but he told us that civil wars were constantly arising, so that the soldiers were by no means idle.
The messenger soon returned, and, leaving our escort, except the men carrying our kit, we passed along a corridor to a curtained archway guarded by twenty soldiers six feet high, whose uniform seemed to us to be of little else than gold and silver. By these Dadchierka was received in the usual manner—by dashing their spears against their shields—a salute which he acknowledged by raising his hand.
"Ye shall now see Timrac the king," he said to Sirikisson, as, drawing aside the matting, he motioned to us to follow him into the room.
We did so, and found ourselves in a large apartment open on one side to the fosse. Round the walls were niches containing statues, doubtless of former kings, and in front of these, standing round the three sides of the room, was a double row of six-feet soldiers in golden armour—the royal body-guard. The floor was formed of slabs of marble of various tints, so arranged that they composed an harmonious whole.
At the upper end of the room a large company was assembled, and as we advanced towards them they treated us to a prolonged stare, which we returned to the best of our ability. Foremost amongst them all, seated on a chair placed on a daÔs, was a man whom, from the magnificence of his jewels, we had no difficulty in recognizing as the king. He was a few years older than his Premier, at least in appearance, and wore above his black robes— black, curiously enough, is the royal colour in Kisni‚, and may be worn by none save those of the blood royal—a girdle such as Dadchierka's, and a circlet of silver on his head, with five diamonds larger than pigeon eggs in front, and innumerable smaller ones.
Sharing with Timrac the royal daÔs were his two nephews, also robed in sombre black. The elder, Asoka, was a man of about forty, with a very sinister expression on his face, and if his looks meant anything, he was the reverse of friendly towards us. His cousin, Pellas, was little more than twenty—of him more anon.
Grouped behind the king were above thirty men of all ages, the majority of whom wore the same dress as the Premier, while the remainder were apparently officers. Amongst them Edwards was prominent, and we also recognized the officer who had led the attack upon us, and received the token of Eric's strength.
We halted directly in front of Timrac, and Dadchierka, after saluting him by doffing his mitre and placing it upon the ground, engaged in earnest conversation with him for more than ten minutes.
Meanwhile, Edwards reached forward and shook hands with me; and, in doing so, passed to me a pencilled note, whispering at the same time:
"Read it at once."
Opening it out, I did so, and this is what it said:
If you are asked, say nothing regarding our real purposes in coming here. I have led them to believe that it was mainly by chance. Warn Trevanion, Lee, and his servant also.
Now, I was a little puzzled to know what this meant, seeing that our "real purposes" were merely ordinary curiosity and love of adventure. However, I thought it best to carry out our comrade's request, and so communicated the contents of the note to my three friends.
This done, we took the opportunity of observing the lord and king of Kisni‚ more closely than we had yet done. As I have said, he was above fifty; he was considerably darker than Dadchierka, and had not nearly so intelligent a look; and his corpulency and high colour implied that he had a considerable taste for good living. His eyes, also, were bloodshot, and had the shifty expression which tells its own tale; and, altogether, we did not form a high estimate either of his ability or of his abstemiousness.
"Two to one," whispered Eric to me, "that he drinks like a fish, and is under the thumb of our friend the Premier."
As we afterwards found, Eric was right in both his conjectures. In regard to the first, it seems that the Kisnians have a certain herb, which, when added to the wine, gives it increased intoxicating qualities; and it was for this beverage that Timrac had acquired so decided a taste that he was seldom sober for two consecutive days.
"If that is the case," I returned, "I wonder if it would be a good stroke to present him with a flask of our brandy?"
"Good idea, by Jove! Do so, by all means," said Eric.
At this moment the king finished his talk with Dadchierka, and, turning round to us, addressed us in Thibetan, which Sirikisson made out to be an inquiry how we had fared since the great fight.
We replied that we had been treated so well that we had nothing to complain of.
"That is as it should be," he answered; "I would not that visitors from afar to the land of Kisni‚ were treated otherwise than as hospitality demands. But tell me, O strangers from beyond the mountains, how it is that ye can strike down from afar with nought but a noise, and be yourselves unhurt—that is, indeed," he added, "if the dog who brought me the tale hast not lied unto me."
And he turned upon the officer whom Eric had punished, a look under which he quailed.
"He has not lied, O Timrac, King of Kisni‚," I told Sirikisson to answer. "It is the magic of our country."
"It is a magic I should like to see," he said somewhat sceptically.
"And which thou shalt see," I replied.
As I have said, the room was open at one side to the fosse, and at that moment I saw near the other side of the water a covey of tame swans.
"You're the best shot amongst us, Eric," I said, "and I depend upon you to bring down one of those birds."
He looked at them rather doubtfully.
"It's risky," he said. "It's four hundred yards if it's an inch, and the light is deceptive. However, I'll try."
"You must do it; it would be rather awkward to fail in a case of this kind. Fire when I give the word, and let them have both barrels."
Then I told Sirikisson to draw his Majesty's attention to what Eric was about to do. He did so, and the next moment the whole court was looking over the water. Eric raised his gun and took careful aim.
Simultaneously with the report every native in the room clapped his hands to his ears, and some of them gave a little shriek. Then a cry of astonishment rose when they saw three swans lying on the water, and the rest of the covey fluttering away in fright. Another cry of amazement went up when I sent in my dog Tray for the birds, and the good animal, swimming as if water were his natural element, brought them to me one by one and laid them at my feet. One of them was blown almost to atoms, and the heads of the other two had been shot off.
After Timrac had examined them they were passed round, and the king said something which met with general approbation.
"The power ye have is marvellous," he said to us, "or ye could not tame wolves to be as that one"—pointing to Tray; from which it was evident that there were no domesticated dogs in Kisni‚. "They tell me also that the strength ye possess is as great as your magic is wonderful and deadly. Ye are not as the men of Kisni‚: well would it be for the men of Kisni‚ if they were as ye are!"
After this compliment he paused, and from the courtiers arose a murmur of acquiescence. I seized the opportunity to present him with the brandy and a loaded revolver. The latter he tried at once by pulling the trigger as he had seen Eric do, and the consequence was that the bullet narrowly missed the head of one of the soldiers, deprived a statue of its nose, and finally lodged in the wall. Thereupon he handed it to one of his attendants, and would have nothing more to do with it.
But, as I had reckoned, it was with the brandy he was most pleased. Having found the smell of it satisfactory, he raised the flask to his lips and took a sip of its insinuating contents, and finding it well suited to his palate, tossed the whole of it off at one gulp.
Then his Majesty, still smacking his lips and gazing regretfully at the empty flask, turned upon us his eyes.
"Thy wine is fiery, and yet agreeable, O thou to whom the tame wolf belongs! And Timrac the king, to show thee and thy friends that he is not an ingrate, now maketh this proclamation. Listen!"
So saying, he rose to his feet, and leaning on Dadchierka and his nephew Pellas, stretched forth his hand, and addressed us and the assembled company in Thibetan.
"Ye who are CaŽns and of the great council of the nation, listen! Ye who command the soldiers of the king, and lead them forth to battle, listen! Ye strangers, who come from beyond the mountains, and have wondrous power to destroy and to save, listen! It is I, Timrac, Lord and King of Kisni‚, the land encircled by high mountains, who speak!
"This law I now give forth, that the strangers are the guests of the king, and whosoever harms even one hair of their heads shall die. Their bodies are sacred to Val-Balltra,"—the Kisnian goddess of hospitality—"and while they remain in Kisni‚ they are even as I, the king! It is a law—I have spoken! Let it be published abroad to the people, that the people may know; and on his own head be the blood of him who wilfully breaks this law!"
He then spoke in the native language, presumably repeating his proclamation; and when he had finished, the body-guard, at a signal from him, dashed their spears against their shields, and simultaneously burst out with an exclamation, which was afterwards translated to us as follows:
"It is a law! Timrac the king has spoken, and we, his subjects, obey! B'lŻp!"
B'lŻp, as we were told, was a word corresponding to "Hurrah" or "Vive;" and when it had been repeated three times by the body-guard, Timrac resumed his seat. As we understood the meaning of the ceremony, we had received the freedom of Kisni‚, so to speak, and were safe so long as we kept in the good graces of its monarch.
Again Timrac spoke, this time to his nephew Pellas.
"Pellas, stand forth!"
Pellas did so.
"To thee, Pellas, I commit the strangers whom thou seest before thee, and I charge thee to keep thy trust well. Remember they are the guests of Timrac the king, and of Val-Balltra, the god whom he worships. Let them have such quarters in the palace as becomes their rank, for one can see from their prowess that they are of royal blood." [We did not contradict him.] "And see that everything is theirs which is thine and those under thee. To-morrow I start for the city of Or, and if all is right on my return, well shall it be for thee."
Pellas replied that we should be to him as brothers.
"It is well, Pellas," replied Timrac, and then turning to us, he continued: "As for ye, O strangers, I would have further talk with ye, were it not that to-morrow I go on a journey, from which I may not return till the moon is again full. So I charge ye to learn the language of this country with all speed, so that on my return I may speak to ye without the mouth of thy servant who is black. Meanwhile, that ye want for nothing, I have given my commands to Pellas, my nephew. For the present, farewell."
So, after Pellas had saluted Timrac, and we had raised our caps to him and to the company in general, we followed the former, being in turn followed by the soldiers with our luggage. Somewhat to our surprise, Edwards did not accompany us. After walking along seemingly unending stretches of corridor, Pellas reached and opened a richly-carved door, and ushered us into a large room carpeted with skins. The walls were hidden by some stuff resembling tapestry; it had three windows looking into the quadrangle; and it was comfortably furnished with tables, chairs, and other less useful articles. Opening out of this room, and separated from it by light curtains, were six smaller ones, each containing a couch and a bath.
"These are the rooms which Timrac the king has given to the strangers," said Pellas, in Thibetan. "Mine is the next one."
"And I must acknowledge that I've seen much worse quarters," said Eric; and we agreed with him.
UNDER the able tuition of Pellas and his assistants we were not long in mastering the rudiments of Kisnian, and by the time Timrac and his Court returned from the city of Or we could speak it well enough to make ourselves understood. Regarding the language itself, it is sufficient to say here that it is a rich, sonorous, and not unmusical one, in these respects approximating more to the tongues of Western Europe than to those of Central Asia. Indeed, I was surprised to find that in nothing do the people themselves resemble their neighbours; and it is obvious that they are of quite a different race from the Tartars or Thibetans. It would occupy too much space to give in detail the reasons for this belief; but these, along with all matters not actually connected with our adventures, will be duly set forth in a future work.
Of Edwards we saw no more after our interview with the king, but learned from Pellas that he had accompanied the royal party on their tour.
Our life during this period was by no means unpleasant, though somewhat monotonous. We were not allowed to cross the fosse, for some reason unknown even to Pellas; but otherwise we had perfect freedom to do what and go where we liked. Our apartments were comfortable, the cheer good and well cooked, and as much attendance as we could wish was at our disposal, so that, taken altogether, we might have been in worse straits.
As the days wore on, and we improved in our knowledge of the language, we gradually dispensed with Thibetan and spoke in Kisnian, which in many respects is a much superior tongue. By- the-by, it may have seemed strange that the former language was known in the Mountain Kingdom. An explanation was given by Pellas. Twenty years previously, two Thibetan Lamas (priests) strayed to the borders of the kingdom, and were captured by a party of hunters. Brought to Dhama, they soon learned Kisnian, and in return taught their instructors Thibetan. The king heard of it, was himself taught, and commanded that every man of the rank of a CaŽn should also learn the new language.
"And what became of the priests?" I asked.
"They are long dead; but their work shall never die, for, by a decree of the king, every man who is of the Kalla, or a CaŽn, must have it taught to his children."
This led us to inquire who the Kalla might be; and in reply the whole system of their society was explained to us. Briefly, there are four estates in Kisni‚—the king, the CaŽns, the Kalla, and the commonalty. The first and last require no explanation. As to the Kalla, they are, strictly speaking, the aristocracy of the land, and include every one of any consequence. The distinction is hereditary, and from their ranks are drawn the officers of the army and all the higher officials.
The CaŽns, as a body of peculiar construction, merit a more detailed description. Their number is limited to thirty; they are usually drawn from the Kalla, and they are not hereditary, but appointed for life by the king. As a whole, they form what may be called the Council of State, and the king is bound to consult them only. They include the sons or heirs of the reigning monarch, the Prime Minister, the chief priest, the commander of the forces, and the commander of the body-guard; and, thus formed, are practically the government of the kingdom. Their dress is distinctive, such as I have described the Dadchierka CaŽn's; and amongst their other privileges is that of being allowed two wives, each of the Kalla having only one.
The commonalty, in the matter of matrimony at least, are not so well off as the Kalla, and much less so than the CaŽns. They have not, in most cases, even one wife each. In fact polyandry universally exists throughout Kisni‚, being, indeed, one of the means adopted to keep down an undesirable increase of population. Thus, it is the duty of the head of the house to choose a wife for himself and all his brothers; and whatever children there may be are common property, loved in the same degree by all the family. This social system may appear to us unnatural and revolting, but it is not so regarded by the Kisnians themselves, who have been used to it for centuries. Polyandry is not so unusual as is generally supposed, for it is common in many other parts of Asia, notably in Thibet and several districts of Hindostan.
In Kisni‚ the superfluous women are used as priestesses, the only males in the clergy being the chief priest and a few superiors. Of this ingenious method of getting rid of so many maids, who otherwise might be very much in the way, I shall perhaps have more to say.
For Pellas, our "guide, counsellor, and friend," we soon entertained a genuine affection, which he reciprocated warmly in his innocent, unaffected way. He was a specimen of all that was good and noble in the Kisnian nature, and whatever faults he had were more due to the way in which he had been brought up than to the promptings of his own nature. At first in Thibetan, and then in his own language, he conversed with us upon many subjects, but especially the wonders of the West—that outside world which was even more unknown to the Kisnians than the Mountain Kingdom had been to us.
"Thy country must be a wonderful one," he said to me on one occasion, when I had been describing to him Britain and her colonial empire, "with wonderful people in it, as far above the people of Kisni‚ as the golden eagle is above the sparrow. Would that I could see it before I die! But it is impossible."
"Why?" I asked. "Why shouldst thou not return with us to our land, and see with thine own eyes the wonders of which I have spoken to thee?"
"Nay, Maritaba"—such was the name, signifying "leader," which had been bestowed upon me—"it may not be, though I should like it well. If I were away, my cousin Asoka would seize the opportunity of dethroning the king, my uncle; for then he would be sole prince of the blood, as well as heir to the throne."
"Is not Asoka heir to the throne just now?" I asked, in some surprise.
"Not so; it is I, Pellas. Timrac has willed it so, for he is distrustful of Asoka. But Asoka has powerful friends, especially among the soldiers, and, I fear, is preparing to seize the throne, whether I am absent or present. But if I stay he may be restrained; so it is my duty to stay and abide by the king, who has been as a second father to me."
"If Asoka provoked a rebellion, would he have any great chance of success?"
"I cannot say as yet, but I fear he would. Timrac, my uncle, has now but a precarious seat upon the throne, and, had it not been for his chief man, the Dadchierka CaŽn, would have fallen ere this. But time was when for courage and wisdom there was not his equal; and it would have been so until this moment had it not been for the juice of the grape."
"Which has wasted many a good man and true besides thine uncle, Pellas. But the Dadchierka CaŽn—to me it seems that he is not of the people of Dhama; perhaps he cometh of another stock?"
"Thine eyes are sharp, Maritaba, and thou art right. No one knoweth much of him, for he is a prudent man; but 'tis said he is of a hill tribe in the north, and, having saved the life of the king while hunting, was received into his favour. That was before my birth. Yea, he is a wise man, and more king than my uncle. I bear him no ill-will, for it was by his good offices that I was made heir to the throne; though it was chiefly done because he is hated by Asoka, who would have killed him had he been chosen king."
"Why," asked Eric, "if you know the fellow is plotting against you and your uncle, don't you get him out of the way by clapping him in prison, or, better still, by sticking a spear through him? I know I should if I were king, or even in Dadchierka's place."
I translated this as nearly as I could to Pellas, who smiled when he heard the question.
"That may be done in the land of the strangers," he said, "but for many reasons it is not possible here. But he is closely watched, and we hope to be ready for him. When the time comes—if perchance it come when thou, Maritaba, and thy friends are in Kisni‚—whether wilt thou fight on our side or on the side of the pretender?"
"We desire not to mix ourselves in warfare Pellas, for we are peaceful men"—he smiled rather ironically—"but we have eaten of the king's bread, and been treated kindly by thee; and it would ill become us to desert thee and thine uncle in the hour of need. That is not the way of us people of the West; so thou mayst count upon whatever help we can render to thee."
With this assurance he seemed hugely delighted, though with what reason I don't know, unless he really believed in the greatly exaggerated versions of our fight with the soldiers.
While at breakfast on the following morning we were roused by the sound of bugles, and, rushing to the window, were just in time to see the van of a brilliant pageant pass through the gateway and enter the quadrangle.
"It is the king!" cried Pellas; "he has returned to attend the great festival of the gods which is held to-night."
First came two couriers on horseback, and then a regiment of the line in full dress, making a brave show as their brightly burnished arms reflected back the rays of the morning sun. They were followed by the royal body-guard, looking thoroughly regal in their golden armour and gaily-coloured plumes, and in their midst was the king, mounted upon a powerful black horse. Behind him rode Asoka, with Edwards by his side; and he was surrounded by the majority of the CaŽns, all on horseback also. Several empty chariots—doubtless for the accommodation of the Court when tired—came next, and the rear was brought up by a second regiment of infantry. The whole procession drew up in front of the palace, and Timrac and his courtiers dismounted, and, attended by the body-guard, disappeared within the great entrance.
Pellas at once went off to greet his royal relatives; and five minutes later two heralds, dressed in black, entered, followed by Edwards.
"Timrac, Lord and King of Kisni‚, sends greeting to the strangers from beyond the great mountains," announced one of the former; "and desires them to attend his nephew Pellas tonight at the Temple of the Gods, that they may witness the great festival of the summer season."
"Tell thy master the king that we shall be there without fail," I answered; and the men withdrew, bowing profoundly.
"Well, how do you find yourselves now that you have discovered the Mountain Kingdom?" asked Edwards, when he had shaken hands all round.
"Pretty well so far. And you?"
"Oh! I'm all right. Fact is, I found out that they could speak a dialect I learned in Eastern Thibet, and, once into their good graces, all the rest was easy. Then Asoka, the king's nephew— and, I suppose, heir—took a fancy to me, and carried me off with him on this tour. He's not at all a bad fellow, and, unless I'm mistaken, will soon be king. And, by Jove! this Kisni‚ is a magnificent country, taking it all round. Gold is seemingly more plentiful than iron, and diamonds scarcely less so. So, if we keep our eyes open, our fortunes are made; and, between ourselves, I know how it is to be done."
"Indeed!" I simply said; while Eric, more impatient, cried, "Out with it, then!"
"I'm sorry," he answered, "that I'm not at liberty to say anything at present, but you may find out a little for yourselves at this festival to-night, which, it seems, generally ends in a shindy between the people and the soldiers. But I'll give you a hint in time—you may depend upon me. Excuse me just now, for I haven't been in bed for something like thirty hours."
We excused him with the greatest pleasure, and were, truth to tell, glad to get rid of him; for somehow, his tone had become intolerably overbearing and condescending, not to say insolent. As to his vague hints, though we did not put too much faith in them, we thought it as well to tell Pellas to keep a good watch on Asoka's movements, especially at the festival.
During the remainder of the day we saw no more of Edwards, and little of Pellas until evening. Then, just as the short twilight was merging into night he came to tell us that the king awaited us in the reception-room; and so, strapping on our revolvers in case of need, we followed him into the corridor. There we found an escort of ten men of the body-guard, and were by them conducted to the king, who received us graciously, and motioned us to follow at his immediate back, beside Asoka, the Dadchierka CaŽn, and Edwards.
The Temple of the Gods, a solid and imposing structure as regards exterior, was, as we knew, situated on the opposite side of the quadrangle; and to it we walked at a slow pace, surrounded by the never-absent body-guard. When we were within a hundred yards of the temple we halted; and, at a signal from the king, the heralds advanced and announced:
"To the Gods of Kisni‚—yea! who reign over the world—to Val- Ena, Val-Isa, and Val-Balltra—it is the king, even Timrac the king, who advanceth and craveth permission to enter the Temple of the Gods."
From the recesses of the building came back the answer:
"Advance, Timrac; thy prayer is granted."
With that the procession moved forward to the entrance, where the king was received by the chief priest, who was robed in white, and wore a magnificent tiara of pure diamonds. He whispered something to Timrac in so low a tone that we could not hear what it was; and the latter turned to us with some hesitation.
"It seems," he said, "that strangers may not pass into the Temple of the Gods until the chief priest has asked their permission in prayer. So I entreat ye, O strangers, not to think that Timrac breaks his word in asking ye to stay in this chamber until such time as ye can be sent for."
Of course we told him not to mind us, and so the Court passed on, leaving us five foreigners and our dog in a small room leading out of the vestibule to await the promised summons with impatience.
HALF an hour passed, and then one of the heralds arrived to inform us that the chief priest had made his supplication, and as the gods had given no adverse omen, it was his pleasant duty to conduct us to the temple. Accordingly, we followed him along a succession of passages to a small door, which, on being opened, admitted us into a vast hall, filled with an immense throng of people of all conditions and ages, and illuminated by thousands of small coloured lamps, which shed a dim and half-mystical light over the sea of upturned faces.
At the near end of the hall was a platform raised two feet from the level of the floor, and running the whole breadth of the room; and it was on this platform that we now found ourselves. In front, facing the audience, was the royal seat—a high, pulpit- shaped chair, which Timrac shared with the chief priest. The chair was open only in front, where a dozen marble steps led up to it from the floor of the temple. Stretching along on either side of it were two rows of low seats, each row capable of accommodating ten persons, To the left these seats were occupied by the Dadchierka CaŽn and others of the "Council;" to the right the only occupants of the first row were Asoka, Pellas, and two others, while the second was quite full. It was to the first, consequently, that we were shown by the officious herald, and when we were seated we found ourselves in the following order, counting from the left, or pulpit end, to the right—Asoka, two CaŽns, Edwards, Sirikisson, the Sahib, Eric, myself (with Tray at my feet), and Pellas.
Closely packed behind us were some scores of men, whom, from their appearance and the description Pellas had given us of them, we judged to be the Kalla or nobles. In this we were right. At the back and on each side of the Kalla were the royal body- guard, forming three sides of a square, the open side being of course the front of the platform. The parties I have described filled about three-fourths of the platform, and the rest of it was occupied by the priestesses of the gods and their effects. The latter consisted of broad tables on each side, covered by hundreds of goblets of a large size, filled to the brim with what we subsequently discovered to be consecrated wine. Under each table was a huge metal barrel, from which the empty goblets were presumably refilled. The priestesses themselves, of whom there were about a hundred, standing in treble rows before the tables, were of all ages from eighteen to fifty; and were simply clad in a white robe, fastened at the shoulder by a diamond brooch, and at the waist by a girdle of pure gold, fashioned into many strange devices.
Our scrutiny of the picturesque scene on the platform ended, we turned our attention to the front of us, where the vast hall was closely packed by a crowd whose numbers could not have been less than five thousand. The division of the temple nearest to us was occupied by soldiers, with a slight sprinkling of civilians: further back, by civilians, with a slight sprinkling of the military element. Along the length of the place, from the platform to the doors, were three paths, of which two fifteen feet broad, ran along each wall, and the third, which could not have been less than forty feet in width, right up the middle of the room, cleaving the people into two masses of equal size.
In the exact centre of the temple, and facing the platform, was one of the most beautiful pieces of statuary I have ever seen. It represented the three presiding divinities of Kisni‚, Val-Ena, Val-Isa, and Val-Balltra; and each of them, though at least sixteen feet high, was proportioned with the most exquisite grace. The features of Val-Ena, the "Jupiter" of the Mountain Kingdom, were calm and inscrutable, as became the god who reigned over the whole world, and whom, when once his purpose was fixed, nothing could move. On the other hand, Val-Isa—the counterpart of Mars, being the god of war, and all relating thereto— presented an appearance of intense military ardour, as he stood, one foot advanced, ready to strike down an imaginary adversary with his upraised spear. But the third statue was perhaps, as regards artistic execution, the best of the triad, the sculptor having succeeded in imparting to the countenance a marvellously realistic smile of benevolence and hospitality. It may be as well to say here, to prevent misapprehension on the part of the reader, that the Kisnians do not worship the statues, but only look upon them as earthly reminders of the fact that there are gods, powerful though unseen, to whom they must offer their allegiance. In truth, the people as a whole are remarkably free from idolatry, and are, moreover, eminently religious in their own way, in this being not far behind some so-called Christian nations. One day in ten is held as a Sunday, and devoted to public worship of the gods, the priestesses officiating; and, altogether, there is a splendid opening here for some enterprising missionary society.
The whole scene, on this occasion, was impressive to a degree. The thousands of people, making hardly a sound to disturb the deep silence; the three gods towering above, as if dominating the proceedings; the king and the chief men of the land as still as if the fear of death were upon them; and the priestesses in their vestal garments;—these, added to the deep religious feeling which I doubt not all felt, were enough to show us, strangers in a strange land, that there was little to laugh at in the mistaken rites of our hosts, at least so far as we had yet seen them.
This pause lasted for a quarter of an hour, during which time we had to undergo the concentrated gaze of these five thousand pairs of eyes; and then, to our great relief, the king rose. Everybody stood at attention, so to speak, and from the circumstance we knew that the service was about to begin.
"'Tis now the second hour before midnight," said Timrac, in a clear voice, which penetrated to the remotest recesses of the temple; "so let the service begin, that those who have come from a far land to visit Kisni‚ may see how we, its people, do honour to the great gods—Val-Ena, Val-Isa, and Val-Balltra."
With that he sat down, and the chief priest rose in his stead, the people, as he did so, bowing as low as their cramped position allowed them.
"Bend ye to the ground, O king, CaŽns, and Kalla of Kisni‚," he began; "bend ye, O people, before the great and powerful gods, Val-Ena, Val-Isa, and Val-Balltra. Before them who live for ever ye are but as the leaves upon the trees, which live for a time, and then are carried away by the wild west wind! Prostrate ye your bodies in all humility, that the great gods may know that ye worship them, and them only."
He paused for a moment, and from the crowd came back a shout so deafening that it seemed to shake the building, massive as it was.
"Behold, we bend to Val-Ena, to Val-Isa, and to Val-Balltra— to them, the great gods, we prostrate our bodies."
As the priest went on with his address and warmed to his work, we could no longer follow his rapid utterances; but we caught enough of their drift to make out that they were the words of an accomplished orator. Indeed, had there been any doubt in our minds regarding the matter, it would have been swept away by their effect upon the congregation, who were profoundly moved during the whole half-hour he spoke. At every pause their responses were both loud and passionate—direct from the heart. He concluded with what was evidently a powerful and moving peroration, for its visible effects on his hearers did not pass away for fully five minutes after he sat down.
Again there was a deep silence, and then—so suddenly that we were almost startled—the white-robed priestesses began to sing a song which, at first sad and plaintive, rose by slow degrees to the heights of triumph and victory. The audience, silent as the preliminary notes rang out, soon joined in and echoed back the chorus; and the immense volume of symphony first rolled up to the roof and then died gradually away.
A second time the chief priest rose, and, turning round to us, spoke slowly, so that we should be able to make out what he said:
"As the winds blow upon us from the four quarters of heaven, rising no one knoweth where, so ye strangers came into this land encircled by high mountains, and not even the wise men knew of your coming, or whence ye came. It is known that ye are wise men and brave, with such powers as we of Kisni‚ do not possess; and the brave at all times are the beloved of the gods. Therefore, though mayhap the religion of your country be not as our religion, still ye have the sanction of Val-Ena, Val-Isa, and Val-Balltra to worship in their temples, even as ye would worship in the temples of your own land. And that in this ye may be blessed, ye have my blessing, the blessing of the chief priest of the Temple of the Gods."
From this we inferred that we had in a way been accepted into their religion; and, as they doubtless meant it as a compliment and an honour, we looked at it in that light, and bowed our thanks.
This concluded the regular service, and the chief priest, after announcing that it was over, resumed his seat. The congregation, on their part, at once threw off their reserve, and in an instant the place was filled with the indistinct noise of humming and whispering, contrasting sharply with the dead silence which had previously prevailed.
"The sacred service is now at an end," whispered Pellas to me, "and the populace think themselves justified in doing what they please. It may be that we shall soon see a strange sight. But, look! the priestesses are about to distribute the consecrated wine."
As he spoke, a venerable old lady of some seventy years, who occupied the position of "Lady Superior" of the priestesses, took a couple of the goblets, and stepping from the platform at one side, ascended the marble steps to the royal pulpit. The wine she presented to the two occupants on bended knee; and Timrac, rising to his feet, with the golden goblet in his hand, pledged the audience,
"That the wine consecrated by the gods and by their chief priest may bless the nation, Timrac the king quaffs it to the people and to their priests. B'lŻp!"
Which he did forthwith, to ringing cries of "Timrac! B'lŻp!" from the multitude.
When the king and his sacerdotal companion had been satisfied, each priestess took a tray containing ten goblets, and served those on the platform. We noticed that, although each goblet contained a considerable amount of liquor, every one was expected to drink it to the last drop; and I am bound to say, most of them did it with the greatest gusto. In due course our turn came, and each of us, including Sirikisson, was presented with a goblet, and, whatever scruples we might have in thus taking part in a heathen festival, we saw that if we refused to drink it would give deadly offence. Eric settled the matter by raising his goblet and saying in English:
"A toast to the people of the Mountain Kingdom, and may we see more of them before long!"
To this, accordingly, we drained our goblets as best we could, the audience cheering us as we did so. And, really, the wine was very good, having no unpleasant after effects.
It took a considerable time to go over the Kalla and body- guard on the platform; but at last it was done, the goblets were refilled, and the priestesses turned their attention to the commonalty, who awaited their turn with marked impatience. The priestesses were divided into four parties, two of which were despatched down the central path, and the other two at each side. As I have said, the front part of the temple was mainly filled with soldiers, who naturally were served first; and the people behind, resenting this, as mobs are liable to do all the world over, became clamorous. Not being attended to with sufficient promptitude, they followed up their words by actions, and began to press forward upon the soldiers. The latter, on their part, would not budge an inch, and the consequence was that in a few minutes a free fight was being waged all over the hall. The civilians produced bludgeons and knives, the soldiers retaliated with their spears, and it appeared to us that we were witnessing what was likely to turn out a most sanguinary encounter. Those on the platform, however, regarded it with comparative indifference, so that it must have been an event of frequent occurrence; while the priestesses, who lost no time in retiring to their old places, were the only ones who looked upon it with anything like horror.
"I told you it would end in a shindy," shouted Edwards to us; "and keep your weather eye open for more squalls."
"Does this often happen?" I asked Pellas.
"At every festival," was the reply. "But there is seldom much bloodshed, unless something more serious happens. Great crimes may be committed here with comparative impunity, for nothing that is done in the temple can be punished unless the chief priest so orders, and it is his duty to pardon evil-doers."
Suddenly, while Pellas was speaking, six men darted out from the throng and mounted the marble steps with one bound; and, before any one could realize what had happened, Timrac the king had been seized, and thrown down the steps to the floor of the temple. The pulpit-chair was only open in front, and, even had it been otherwise, nobody on the platform could have interposed to save the king, so sudden and unexpected was the movement.
For my part, I hardly realized our royal host's imminent danger until I saw him lying on the ground, with his would-be assassins around, and one of them making ready to plunge his knife into his body. But then, I flatter myself, I acted with promptitude. In an instant my revolver was out, I had covered my man, and the next moment he fell across the king, shot through the brain. At the report the soldiers and civilians—scarcely aware as yet of what was going on—ceased fighting in sheer amazement, and the five villains fell back a step. But only for a moment: again they moved forward to finish their diabolical work; and, as they did so, three shots were fired, and three of them fell. Two of the shots had been fired by Eric and the Sahib; but the third had come from the other side, and from no other than the Dadchierka CaŽn, who had by some means become possessed of the pistol I had presented to the king, and now showed that he knew how to use it by shooting his man through the head as fairly as I myself could have done.
By this time the gentlemen of the body-guard, in common with every one else in the place, had in some degree recovered their wits, and now came to the rescue. Seeing the movement, the two remaining assassins turned to depart, but for one of them Sirikisson was too quick. Leaping down upon him from the platform, kookeree in hand, he seized him by the waist; and a short but sharp struggle resulted in the total victory of the little Ghoorka, his adversary being wounded so severely that he died shortly afterwards. The four men shot were all dead. The last man, when he saw that the game was up, took refuge at the base of the statue of the three gods, which, we understood, was looked upon as a sanctuary.
The king, meanwhile, had been assisted to rise, and now ascended to his seat, unhurt in body, but sorely ruffled in temper. Thence the first thing he saw was the ruffian cowering at the feet of the gods, and the sight acted upon him much as a red cloth acts upon a bull.
"Guards," he shouted, "kill me that man where he stands!"
But the officer to whom he gave the command, having a lively horror of the possible consequence of violating the sanctuary, ventured to point out that the man had thrown himself upon the mercy of Val-Ena.
"It matters not," he answered; "do as thou art commanded! But stay! Let one of the strangers kill him with the wonderful magic."
I was about to refuse, on the ground that it was against our feelings to shoot a man in cold blood, when the chief priest saved me the trouble by interposing; and Timrac gave way with an expression which plainly showed that he thought there was nothing more to be said.
"O king," began the priest, "the case is not in thy hands, but in mine, as chief priest of the gods." The king nodded; and, turning to the man, the speaker continued, "Thou hast claimed sanctuary of the gods, and it cannot be refused. But go, ere worse befall, and never again enter the temples of this land. Thou art an outcast, cut off from thy fellows as verily as if thou hadst never been born, and the curse of the gods is upon thy head. Go!" Thoroughly abashed, the man slunk away, and was soon out of sight.
The audience, who had remained quiet throughout the course of this remarkable scene, soon recovered their spirits when the cause of excitement was removed, and began to clamour for the renewal of the interrupted distribution of wine. But this by no means suited the temper of the king, who thereupon issued a peremptory order to clear the temple, which was accomplished in a few minutes by the guards. Then, turning to us, he said:
"To thy prowess, Maritaba, and that of thy friends, I owe much; and that Timrac the king is not ungrateful ye shall see with the morrow's light. But 'tis now midnight, and time we sought our couches."
He gave a signal; the procession was re-formed, and by the light of torches we crossed the quadrangle to the palace.
Thus ended the summer "Festival of the Gods."
"I SAY, old man," said Eric next morning, coming into my bedroom and taking a seat on my couch—"I say, what do you think of our position now?"
"What do you mean?—if you mean anything at all," I replied, drowsily.
"You see—that is, if your eyes are open yet, which, considering that it's past nine o'clock, they ought to be—well, as I was saying, I think we have materially improved our position since yesterday night. Point one, we've managed to save Timrac's life, and, if he's anything like a decent fellow—as, barring his slight infirmity of thirst, he seems to be—he'll do us a good turn by way of gratitude. And—But hang me if the lazy beggar hasn't gone to sleep again! Here, Douglas, wake up;" and at each word he pulled off one of the skins which did the duty of blankets, until I was forced by want of suitable covering to rise and dress.
"You were remarking?"—I suggested while engaged in my toilet.
"That you were the laziest duffer I ever saw. 'I never saw thy like before'"—
"Nor ever shall again." I concluded. "But about last night. As you say, it may better our position, and give us some influence with Timrac, which we may be able to turn to advantage."
"Especially," interrupted Eric, "as regards the gold, silver, and precious stones in abundance, which, I must confess, I haven't come across as yet. But patience, and our luck may improve in time. To return to the subject, what do you think of the 'shindy.' to quote our friend Mr. Graham Edwards?"
"That both he and his friend Asoka know more about it than either of us. That, however, is only conjecture, but a conjecture which we shall not be long in knowing the truth of, no doubt. I only hope that he doesn't involve us in any of his plots, for, if it came to a row, I'd rather fight for Timrac and Pellas than for that scoundrel Asoka, who, you may be sure, if our suspicions have any foundation whatever, owes us no goodwill for last night's work."
"Correct, my boy; and Edwards is of the kind—but speak of the devil and he'll appear!"
Eric's last exclamation was caused by the arrival of the gentleman in question, Edwards, upon the scene. He had entered the ante-room by the open door, and seeing nobody in it, but hearing voices, had made for my recess. So he said, at least, but whether he had overheard any of our conversation I had no idea— nor, for that part of it, cared; but I rather think not. At any rate, he was as suave and polite as usual, though his tone had become a trifle more supercilious since his arrival in the Mountain Kingdom.
"Well," he began, "do you feel any remorse yet for your 'slaughter of the innocents' yesterday night? No?—that's curious. I hear you've made a great sensation; the masses regard you as wizards of the first class, if not gods."
"And have you no share in the honour?" asked Eric, dryly.
"To tell the truth, I suppose I have. But that is not what I came up to tell you. It seems that the king is so pleased with our conduct last night that he has been considering how to reward us." ("A lot you did!" muttered Eric, parenthetically.) "The Kisnians being early risers, the council has already been assembled, and I have it on the best authority that it has been decided to make us CaŽns."
"Who told you this?" inquired Eric, somewhat incredulously.
"A friend on whose word I can rely. But here comes his Royal Highness Prince Pellas, who no doubt will confirm my information; and so I'll take myself off. The next time we meet we'll all be gazetted; for the present, I wish you good morning."
And away he went, giving Pellas a slight nod as he passed him— a salutation, half-contemptuous though it was, which that prince courteously returned.
"Any news, Pellas?" asked Eric, burning to find out if Edwards' information were correct, at the same time motioning him to take a seat.
"News there is, O Lanric"—Lanric, meaning "man of Herculean strength," was Eric's Kisnian name; Vruna ("black-beard") being the Sahib's; Sh‚stor ("the stabber"), Sirikisson's; and Khur ("scarred-face") that of Edwards—"news there is, which I rejoice to tell thee. My uncle, the king, whatever his other faults, is not ungrateful to those who serve him; and knowing how much he is indebted to thy prowess, Maritaba, and thine, Lanric, and the prowess of Vruna and Sh‚stor, and knowing, also, how wonderful are the magical powers ye possess, hath it in his head to make ye CaŽns of Kisni‚. At the present time there are but twenty-one CaŽns instead of thirty, and these twenty-one are not adverse to the project, for it is evident that ye are CaŽns in your own land. So it was decided this morning, and Timrac the king despatched me to tell ye that the purple robes are preparing, and that ye will be made CaŽns to-day at the hour past noon."
"What advantages shall we have, Pellas, as CaŽns of Kisni‚?" I asked.
"Advantages too many to name, Maritaba, the principal being that ye may see the king at all times; that ye be conducted to the treasure chamber to choose the CaŽn-pahr of silver* and diamonds; that ye may have two wives; and that ye cannot be condemned to death unless after trial by the rest of the council."
(* I think I have omitted to mention that silver, being scarcer, is more valuable than gold in Kisni‚, is the legal tender, and may be worn by none below the rank of the Kalla.—D.D.)
"A goodly list," quoth Eric, "especially the clause having reference to the wives—you needn't look shocked, Douglas, seeing we're not in Scotland just now. And what do we get to uphold this dignity, Pellas?"
"Whatsoever the king wills, and he is little likely to forget your claims."
"We are much obliged to him, I'm sure," said my incorrigible friend. "And what passes when we are made CaŽns?"
"Ye are first robed in purple by the king, who then takes off his own girdle and places it in succession upon each of ye, afterwards doing the same with sandals and headpiece. That done, the king commands several of the CaŽns, along with the captain of the bodyguard, to conduct ye on a suitable day to the treasure- chamber, where ye may choose each your pahr—girdle, headpiece, sandals, sword, and dagger—from such as may be there. There are but thirty pahrs, which have descended to us from the remotest times; and each belongs to the CaŽn who wears it, for the period of his life, and till three days after his death, when the valuables are taken from him by the king, and returned to the treasure-chamber. Just now there are nine there from which to choose; but when once ye put them on ye must always wear them in public, for that is the law."
"And it is a law," Eric assured him, "we won't quarrel with. Why, Douglas, if all the girdles, &c., are as valuable as Dadchierka's, we'll have 'precious stones in abundance' on our persons, and no mistake. The gems seem literally priceless; we'll be amongst the richest men in England when we return!"
"We're not there yet, and it's hardly likely they'll allow us to take them out of the country."
"That's nonsense. Doesn't Pellas say that they can only be taken from us three days after our deaths?"
"Yes; but such laws, you know, are easily broken. But we'll see." To Pellas: "Is our servant Sh‚stor to be made a CaŽn also?"
"No, Maritaba. My uncle Timrac wished it so, but my cousin Asoka and the Dadchierka CaŽn induced him to change his mind. He is, however, to be made one of the Kalla, a dignity almost equal to that of CaŽn."
"And which will please him quite as much as the other," I said.
Shortly afterwards he left, conveying our thanks to the king, with the assurance that we should have much pleasure in attending at one o'clock to receive the proffered honour at his hands.
The next thing was to inform Lee and Sirikisson of what was in store for them; and, this done, the forenoon was spent in preparations for the ceremony. Eric and I shaved with native soap, or, at least, an article which was a very good substitute for it; and the Sahib and his servant trimmed their beards, which were by this time quite luxuriant. Then we brought out our best tunics, carefully brushed them, and put them on. When everything was done, we looked, to use a homely simile, as fresh as daisies; and, in Eric's words, "If there's nothing gorgeous about us, it won't be for long."
Shortly before one a guard of honour arrived to conduct us to the "investiture," which was to be held, not in the familiar reception-room, but in a smaller one in the private apartments of the king. There, besides his Majesty, we found Edwards, the whole of the CaŽns, and a few officers of the bodyguard. Timrac was seated on the State chair, on each side of which were other two chairs, those on the right being occupied by the chief priest and Asoka, and one on the left by the Dadchierka CaŽn, the other being empty. The CaŽns stood grouped behind, and there were six chairs facing the king's for us and our sponsor, Pellas. Directly at the back of the royal seat was a huge cushion, on which lay four purple robes and one red one, and at the side stood an official whom we ascertained to be the Court tailor.
At a sign from the king we took our seats, and the ceremony commenced by the chief priest invoking the triad of gods to take us under their protection—an invocation which, fortunately, we were not expected to second in any way.
When the priest sat down, the Dadchierka CaŽn, as Premier, read the proclamation of the king, appointing us to the rank and dignity of CaŽns of the land of Kisni‚, arid thereafter produced four scrolls in hieroglyphics, signed by the king and each of the council. Taking, the first of these and presenting it to me, Timrac said:
"By this scroll thou art made the Maritaba CaŽn of Kisni‚, one of the council of Timrac the king, and free of the privileges pertaining to the high rank to which thou hast been raised. Stand forth, that thou mayest be robed in the dress to which thou art entitled."
I stood forth accordingly, and, under Timrac's directions, my tunic was stripped off by the Court tailor, and one of the robes adjusted above the rest of my clothing. A tunic of the same stuff, embroidered with silver threads, was next placed upon me; and the king wound up the matter by taking off his own girdle and clasping it round my waist.
"I congratulate thee, Maritaba," he said, "on thy new dignity, and I hope that as long as thou remainest in Kisni‚ thou wilt be a friend unto me."
"Thou mayest depend upon me, O king," I replied, as I passed on to the Dadchierka CaŽn, who, after adding his congratulation to the king's, relieved me of the girdle, which he returned to his master, placing in its stead one of solid gold, which, he said, might do until we could choose our own from the treasure chamber.
Exactly the same ceremony was gone through with Edwards, Eric, and Lee in turn, after which each of us had the honour of having the king's sandals on our feet and his crown on our heads for the space of a minute or so. Then we retired to the background, and Sirikisson was presented with a scroll as one of the Kalla, after being robed in red.
This done, Timrac appointed his nephews Pellas and Asoka to conduct us to the treasure-chamber on the sixth day following; and with another invocation from the chief priest the investiture came to an end.
Altogether, it was a very simple affair, and was carried through with hardly less ceremony than is necessary when an English commoner is raised to the peerage.
At first we felt rather queer in our robes, not being used to dresses of such length, and in private we were glad to dispense with them altogether. But in a few days we had grown accustomed to their use, and were able to wear them in public without embarrassment, and as if to the manner born.
Timrac, when he was completely sober—which was about one day out of every three—never tired of hearing all we could tell him of the rest of the world; and as I could express myself in Kisnian better than any of the others, I had to spend hours in his room, giving him particulars of Europe and European ways. We also made many friends among the CaŽns in the same way, though I am afraid more than one of them did not altogether believe in what we said. Of the Dadchierka CaŽn, however, we saw little; he always seemed too busy to listen to us as the others did; and we never had an opportunity of speaking more than a few words to him.
During the five days which passed before our visit to the treasure-chamber, we saw more of Kisni‚ than we had hitherto done. By Timrac's orders the royal chariots were placed at our disposal, and, accompanied by Pellas, we drove to the various points of interest in Dhama and its neighbourhood. In one of these drives we were taken to the base of the fifth of the Smoking Mountains, and ascended it as far as we could, learning by the way much that was interesting of its formation and so on. We could find no explanation, however, of the rumbling sound of which I have spoken, and which was heard all over Dhama; nor could the natives help us with the least suggestion. In the end we gave it up as a mystery, little thinking that we were destined to solve it in a manner as strange as it was unexpected.
In all our peregrinations we were received with much warmth by the people, whom we everywhere found to be of an open and hospitable nature. Although there are no written books except the ancient records, the Kisnians are generally well educated, and have, moreover, a considerable taste for the fine arts, especially sculpture, which is dabbled in by a surprisingly large number of the lower orders.
Architecture is also well advanced, there being many buildings of considerable beauty in Dhama, which is a town of nearly fifty thousand inhabitants, watered by a river, which, formed by streams from the five Smoking Mountains, flows through a large part of the country before emptying itself in Lake Larak.
The climate of the Mountain Kingdom was warm and balmy while we were there, having more resemblance to that of Southern Italy or Greece than any country I know. But our experience of it only covered the summer, and the winters, I am told, are usually terribly rigorous, in this respect being little behind the surrounding countries, though the kingdom is in a manner sheltered from the cold winds. Curiously enough, the west wind is the most violent in Kisni‚, but it is seldom that storms of any magnitude happen.
Agriculture is far advanced, especially in the plain on which the capital stands. A system of peasant-proprietorships extensively prevails, which, as it may give a hint to several English politicians, I intend to describe at length "in another place." In the valleys more distant from Dhama farms are generally held in vassalage from some CaŽn or influential member of the Kalla; and in the mountainous parts the tribes subsist by hunting, fishing, or breeding cattle, which are sent to the towns for sale. It is from these hillmen, too, as being more hardy than the lowlanders, that the soldiers are principally drawn.
The metals are worked either by the State or by private companies paying a heavy royalty. Gold, being plentiful all over the country, takes a lower place as regards monetary value than either iron or silver; and the latter, indeed, can only be had in one district. Diamonds also are comparatively scarce, though, as the mines have been worked for hundreds of years, there must be an immense number in the country; but several other kinds of gems, and especially rubies, are so plentiful that their value is scarcely that of common glass in England.
All these things we found out for ourselves before our visit to the treasure-chamber, of which we had heard so much—a visit which was destined to have the most important consequences, and be fruitful of experiences as wonderful as any we had yet gone through.
WHILE we were at breakfast on the morning appointed by the king for our visit to the treasure-chamber, Pellas entered with the tidings that Asoka and the rest of our company awaited us below, and that horses had been provided for us if we cared to ride them. We lost no time in finishing our preparations for departure, and then accompanied our friend to the quadrangle, where, besides Edwards and Asoka, we found the commander of the bodyguard and thirty men, all mounted on grey horses. We had never seen the guards acting as "mounted infantry" before, and it is a question whether they did not make a better appearance as such than as foot.
Asoka, when we made our appearance, hastened to dismount and greet us; and, as he did so, Tray, who as usual was at my heels, received him with a considerable display of ill-feeling, barking and snapping at him as if he were the Arch-enemy in person. The Kisnian, as was natural, retired to his horse with more precipitance than dignity; and Tray, emboldened by the action, might have proceeded to further extremities, had I not called him off in time, and chastised him for his incivility. It was a more difficult matter to appease Asoka, whose dignity had received a severe shock; and all I could get out of him was a request to "kill the tame wolf." This, of course, I refused to do, so he mounted his horse in high dudgeon, and would have nothing more to do with us.
Of what had caused the dog to burst out in such an unusual way I had no idea, unless his natural antipathy to strangers had been developed to positive hate by some circumstance of which I knew nothing. However it was, there could be little doubt that he looked upon the king's elder nephew with even less favour than we did; and, from what we knew of Asoka's nature, we had still less doubt that he would endeavour to pay off the dog in some way. Indeed, so assured was Pellas (who was one of Tray's favourites) of the animal's danger, that he advised me to leave him behind with Sirikisson, who on this occasion did not accompany us; but this I declined to do, preferring to keep him under my own eyes.
When this incident was over, we mounted the horses brought to us—large, powerful animals, with more strength than grace, and yet capable of much speed and endurance; and the cavalcade started at a moderate pace, Tray trotting contentedly alongside me. Passing over the western causeway, we rode through the streets of Dhama to a gate on the north-western side; and then, coming out into the open country, traversed it in the direction of the last of the Smoking Mountains.
"In what direction do we go?" I asked Pellas, who was on my right hand.
"The treasure chamber is situated on the central Smoking Mountain," he returned; "but, being on the other side, we must skirt the mountains to reach it."
Shortly afterwards Edwards rode up to my left hand, and called to Eric and the Sahib to take a place on his left, as he had something important to communicate to us. At the same time, he looked at Pellas in a way that indicated that he didn't want him; but the prince refusing to take the hint, he was compelled to put up with his presence as best he might.
"It may be as well to say," he began, "that our friend in front"—pointing to Asoka, who was riding in advance, still in the sulks—"is very much offended at the conduct of that brute of yours, Dalziel; and if you value his friendship, I should advise you to apologize to him."
"Thank you," I replied. "But you have forgotten that I have apologized already, and I don't intend to do so again. As for Asoka's friendship or enmity, I am equally indifferent to either."
"Since you take it in that way," answered Edwards, after a short pause, "I have nothing more to say than that it would have been a fitting preface to the proposal I am about to make if you could have seen your way to conciliate Asoka. As it is, it doesn't much matter. He won't be long in forgiving you when—But to proceed. You remember I spoke to you the other day of a way whereby the fortunes of all of us could be made?"
"Yes. Go on."
"Well, I am now at liberty to point out that way. As you know, I enjoy the confidence of Asoka, and, looking upon me as a man of wisdom,"—Eric involuntarily gave a low whistle, of which, however, Edwards took no notice,—"he has divulged to me his plans for seizing the throne from the drunkard who holds it at present. These plans are almost ready for execution, and, in short, will be executed soon. I have already promised my help, and have been commissioned to secure yours."
"By Asoka?" asked Eric.
"By Asoka, who has a high opinion of your fighting powers."
"And what are the terms?" I inquired.
"Your own—whatever you like to name."
"And where should we find ourselves if the plot were to fail— as plots are apt to do?"
"I assure you that it cannot fail. I myself have examined all the details, and am positive that it will succeed. The populace and hill tribes to a man are with us, as also are most of the army. Besides, Asoka being the heir—"
"Excuse me," I said, "but you seem to be ignorant of the fact that Pellas, and not Asoka, has been chosen heir by Timrac."
"What matters it? The people think Asoka is heir by right, and no beardless boy like Pellas has any chance against him."
As he said this, I glanced at Pellas, and saw that, though he seemed to be taking no interest in the conversation, a deep flush had mounted to his brow. This convinced me that he knew enough of English—which I had been teaching him—to understand much of what we said; but I did not think it necessary to impart this conviction to Edwards.
"In fact," continued that gentleman, "the whole country is in favour of Asoka, and he only bides his time to effect a revolution. If you join us, I'll give you sufficient proof of what I say. Indeed, it is the only sensible thing you can do, for I warn you that otherwise you are doomed men."
Silence followed this declaration, and the three of us— perhaps also Pellas—turned it over in our minds. The Sahib was the first to give an answer.
"To tell the truth," he said, "it looks hardly fair to abet rebellion in a country whose guests we are, and against a man who has shown us so much kindness. It might be different if he were a tyrannical despot, but he isn't, and the country is well governed in every way. So I think, Edwards, you had better have nothing to do with what the divine bard calls 'the rude eye of rebellion.'"
"Right you are, Sahib, my boy," said Eric. "Plots like this are always risky; and if it does come to fighting, well, let us fight for those who have befriended us most—to wit, Timrac and Pellas, and not for such a scowling scoundrel as Asoka."
"I agree with both Trevanion and Lee," I concluded, "and so advise you, Edwards, not to mix in such affairs."
"Thanks for the advice," he returned coldly, "but pardon me if I don't take it. You have refused my proposal; don't expect me to help you when Timrac is knocked on the head. I wash my hands of you; henceforth you may go your way, and I'll go mine. I think that's what was suggested on a certain occasion in Thibet, which perhaps you, Lee, may remember. Meanwhile, au revoir. Kindly consider this conversation as confidential."
And, without waiting for an answer, he rode forward and joined Asoka, doubtless to communicate the result of his embassy, leaving us doubtful whether to laugh or be serious at his renunciation of us. While Eric and the Sahib indulged in some ironical references to his importance, Pellas leant forward and whispered in my ear:
"Thanks, Maritaba; thou art as staunch a friend as courageous in war and wise in council. I know much of Asoka's plans beyond what Khur hath told thee; and now I know that the thunderbolt will fall soon!"
While Edwards had been trying to seduce us from our allegiance to Timrac, we had gradually been skirting the base of the last of the Smoking Mountains; and now, as Pellas spoke, we turned a sharp angle, and saw for the first time a lovely view. Before us a stretch of richly-cultivated land, thickly dotted with prosperous-looking farmhouses, reached right to the great barrier mountains, whose summits, covered with eternal snow, scintillated under the rays of the bright sun. On our left hand were the Smoking Mountains, the sheaf-like caps of vapour surmounting their five peaks, their bases clothed with vines, and their insurmountable sides, uncovered with vegetation, looming dark against the blue sky.
But it was the central peak of the group that, though distant about a mile from us, at once claimed our attention. Its base was partly occupied by a large fort, apparently of considerable strength; and not only this—the building seemed to be continued right up the side of the mountain, ending in a graceful dome, surmounted by a figure, the crown of which was only a few hundred feet below the summit. The whole pile of masonry—which, as I was told by Pellas, took the Kisnians a generation to raise—was solidly built, and from a distance had a strange and yet an imposing appearance.
As we drew nearer we saw that a guard of soldiers was drawn up to receive us at the entrance to the fort. By these we were greeted with the usual salute, and, after acknowledging it, we passed into the central court of the citadel, which, it appears, is always garrisoned by at least one regiment. There we dismounted, and were received by the governor, who asked the commander if we intended to ascend to the chamber at once. Being answered in the affirmative, he led the way towards the upper end of the court, and, passing under a huge archway, we reached a passage guarded by a large iron gate. Here the governor made an obeisance and left us, and to our surprise was followed by all the guards.
"None but CaŽns may pass this gate," explained Pellas, on hearing our expression of surprise at this, "unless a special injunction is given by the king or the chief priest."
Asoka now produced an immense bunch of keys, unlocked the gate, and, after we had passed, locked it behind him. At the end of the passage we came to a broad flight of stairs, ascending which we came to a second door, which was opened by Asoka as before, and then relocked. On either side of this passage was a large statue holding a huge spear of iron, the spears of the two meeting and crossing each other in mid-air.
"But for these," said Pellas, "many attempts might be made to steal the immense stores of wealth in the chamber above. As it is, no man dare do it—no, not if he had a regiment at his back. There are twenty such iron doors as these, which it would take months to remove; but, even if the way were open, no one dares pass the statues of the gods without an injunction from the chief priest. 'Tis said that long ago a robber chief tried to do so, when the spears descended and clave his skull. But move we on; we have still much to do."
After passing under the spears—which we did somewhat hastily— we traversed eight passages, ascended eight flights of stairs, and went through eight ponderous doors, all of which were opened by Asoka, and closed behind us. Then we came to a circular room commanding a splendid view of the country; and here we were glad to rest and take some refreshment before accomplishing the remaining half of our upward ascent to the treasure-chamber.
Nine more flights ascended, other nine doors passed, and we found ourselves under the great dome we had seen from outside. Directly in our path stood the last door, an immense one of iron, which, when unlocked, it took our united strength to push open. We passed in, with a loud clank it shut, and Asoka locked it.
"What a chance," I whispered to Pellas, "if Asoka wished to get rid of us! He has the keys—he has only to lock the doors; and we are caught so securely that we must starve to death. Think whom he has in his power—thou, his rival; the commander of the body-guard, Timrac's most powerful adherent; and we strangers, who have refused to help him."
Pellas coloured, and looked uneasily about him.
"There is much in thy words, my friend," he answered; "and it behoves us to watch him as closely as the she-wolf watches her young."
No more was said, and we followed the others, who were already a good distance in advance—the commander leading, followed by Asoka and Edwards, who were in turn followed by Eric and Lee, attended by Tray.
As we went on, the passage gradually narrowed until it was less than three feet wide; and then we saw that it was no longer built of masonry, but hewn out of the solid rock. The light, too, was fainter, being only the reflection of that behind us.
"Thou art right, Maritaba," said Pellas, in answer to my inquiry; "we are now in the heart of the central Smoking Mountain, and yonder is the door to the treasure chamber!"
I looked, but the light was too dim to see anything, and at that moment Asoka turned and addressed me.
"Thou, the Maritaba CaŽn," he said, "hast with thee a tame wolf; and as none save CaŽns may enter the chamber beyond that door, I must request thee to leave the tame wolf behind thee."
No doubt this request was dictated by a spirit of petty annoyance; but, as it happened, it was only what I was about to do of my own free will; but it was for a reason which, had Asoka known it, would have effectually kept him from interfering with the dog. So I told Tray to stay where he was, whispering to him at the same time not to allow any one to pass. This command I knew he would obey to the letter, and accordingly moved forward to the door with an easier mind.
"Look, Douglas," whispered Eric, in an awed voice, as I came up; "the door is of gold!"
"Nonsense," I returned; for who ever heard of a door, twelve feet high and apparently very thick, made altogether of gold?
But at that moment Asoka unlocked it and threw it open, and by the soft light from within I was enabled to examine it more closely, and it is a solemn fact that that door, twelve inches thick, was of solid gold! I could hardly believe my eyes, and it was not until I remembered the abundance of the precious metal in Kisni‚ that I credited the fact. Yet, when one thinks of the value of that door, and how it is absolutely of no use where it stands, it is enough to make even a clergyman use unparliamentary language.
"Come on, old man!" shouted Eric, who, along with the others, had entered the treasure chamber; and thither I followed them.
We were in a room thirty feet long by twenty broad, and the first thing that attracted our gaze was the opposite wall. I can neither describe nor explain the wonderful sight that there met our eyes—a sight which I believe has no counterpart anywhere. It seemed as if the whole wall was an immense piece of frosted glass, at the back of which steam was constantly rising, and that thence came the soft light which illuminated the chamber. Its surface was as smooth as if it really were glass, and by putting our ears to it we could hear a low, hissing sound. From our examination of it we could not decide whether it was natural or artificial; nor could Pellas help us with a solution; but I incline to the opinion that man had no part in its making, and that it was really one of those wonders of nature which are beyond our finite human minds. But I reserve a full account of it for a future work, in which geologists may find data to help them to a decision.
Whether the chamber itself was artificial or otherwise, we could not make out, for the simple reason that the other three sides were lined with thin plates of gold. On the right-hand side from the door were hundreds of bars of silver, each bar about a foot long by three inches thick, piled away high up above our heads. Alongside was gold, though less of it, but still enough to make its possessor a millionaire.
"Look here, you fellows;" cried Eric, in excitement, from the opposite side, "here are enough diamonds to turn the world upside down!"
Crossing the floor, I saw my friend bending over what appeared to be a row of herring-barrels, open at the top. Only, instead of herrings, the barrels were full of what, as soon as our eyes grew accustomed to the brilliancy which dazzled them, we made out to be diamonds. And not only diamonds, but rubies and sapphires also lay there, and in such enormous quantities that our minds failed to grasp the full significance of what awaited any one who should reach the world with even one barrel of them. The four of us literally stood and gasped—we were bewitched in the face of so much wealth; and we might have been gasping to this day had not the disagreeable voice of Asoka roused us as from a pleasant dream.
"'Tis said ye strangers are from a wonderful land," he was saying, "but the bright stones, white and red and blue, are doubtless unknown there, else ye would show less surprise. And now, if ye are ready, ye shall choose each your CaŽn-pahr."
So saying, he led the way to the upper end of the apartment, and stopped before a large box painted black, with an inscription in hieroglyphics upon it signifying that it was the box containing the CaŽn-pahrs. After unlocking this, he retired into the background; and Pellas, before I went forward, whispered to me:
"Thou mayst choose first. Choose thou the pahr at the extreme left."
Meanwhile the others had been eagerly examining the contents of the box, and had even chosen the sets they fancied, Edwards (unknown at the time to me) having indicated the first from the left as his choice, when the commander damped their ardour by pointing out that we must chose in the order in which we were made CaŽns. In this way I had first choice.
There seemed little difference between the nine sets, each of which lay on a separate cushion in the box. The girdles were all of the purest silver, none of the diamonds less than thirty carats, and some of them above a hundred. It was the same with the sandals, swords, daggers, and mitres, the rubies on the latter being really magnificent. But, if anything, the pahr pointed out by Pellas was the best—or, at least, it seemed to me that its diamonds were more brilliant; and so I chose it, notwithstanding the malignant looks of Edwards.
Assisted by Pellas and the commander, we lost no time in arraying ourselves in our new possessions; and, when this had been done, we felt almost oppressed by the riches upon us. Each of us had enough on his person to make him an exceedingly opulent man, if not a millionaire; and the feeling was by no means an unpleasant one. While this world remains as it is, you may trust me that there are worse things than to be rich; and I take it that the feeling which impels man to seek wealth is anything but a reprehensible one.
My reverie was interrupted by an exclamation from Eric:
"Good heavens! where's Asoka? The scoundrel's disappeared!"
And just at that moment, as if to answer the question, we heard a loud cry from the passage, and recognized it as in Asoka's voice:
"Help! help! For the sake of Val-Ena—help!"
ON hearing Asoka's agonized cry, I immediately realized that he had fallen a victim to Tray's zeal; and knowing that the dog bore him no good-will, I rushed to his aid, followed closely by the others. The passage, as I have said, was dark and narrow, and as I ran down it I might have fallen over the combatants had I not been pulled up by Asoka's cries:
"Help! help! Val-Ena, help!"
So far as I could make out in the darkness, the unfortunate prince was lying at full length on the floor, with Tray keeping careful watch over him, without, however, proceeding to violent extremes. The dog seemed to consider his guard at an end when he saw my approach, for he scampered across Asoka's body with scant ceremony, and ran to meet me. As for his late captive, as soon as he found himself free he rose and shook himself, and then, having made sure that he was unhurt, gave an audible sigh of relief.
The others, in the meantime, had gathered at my back, and Pellas hastened to demand of his cousin the cause of the encounter.
"I am a Prince of Kisni‚," was the reply of Asoka, who had not yet fully recovered from the effects of Tray's spring, "and it is strange if I cannot walk where I please without being attacked by a stranger's tame wolf."
"Thou knowest that is no answer," said Pellas; "and I demand to know, by the three gods of Kisni‚, and by the bones of our common grandfather, for what reason thou wert in the passage."
"Thou demandest!" answered Asoka, enraged by his cousin's question—"thou, a beardless boy! Thou darest to demand of me— me, Asoka!"
"Yes," returned Pallas, calmly, "I demand of thee, in the presence of the Rashuta CaŽn, commander of the royal body-guard, of the Maritaba CaŽn, the Lanric CaŽn, the Khur CaŽn, and the Vruna CaŽn; and thou shalt answer me, be it here, or in the chamber of Timrac the king."
The veiled threat in the latter words of Pellas seemed to bring Asoka to his senses, for the next time he spoke it was in a less angry and contemptuous tone.
"There is little to explain. I did but intend to walk to the gate of iron and back—and I hope a Prince of Kisni‚ may do so when he pleases—when the tame wolf sprang upon me before I knew of its vicinity, and bore me down. And," he added, fiercely, "could I have but reached my sword, the land would no more have been cursed by its presence."
The commander and Pellas laughed dryly.
"Then 'tis well for thee," said the latter, scornfully, "that thou didst not reach thy sword, and mayhap well for us that the tame wolf prevented thee from reaching the gate of iron."
We had again entered the treasure-chamber, and as Pellas said this in a meaning tone, Asoka changed countenance. But he made no answer, and, after a malevolent scowl at Tray, who returned it with complacent dignity, busied himself in locking up the pahr- box.
A few minutes later the commander gave the word to start, and we passed out of the treasure-chamber, turning our backs upon, perhaps, the greatest collection of wealth on the world's surface. With a sigh we saw the golden door closed on these barrels of diamonds, and sapphires, and rubies, and on these bars of silver and gold; and with another sigh we followed our guides in single file down the narrow passage, wondering if a day would ever come when that flood of wealth, instead of being dammed up in this obscure corner of Kisni‚, would be let free on the great world, and what would be the consequences it would bear along with it.
"Though, perhaps, we have no reason to complain," said Eric to me in an undertone, "it seems to me a gross neglect to leave such an amount of treasure in such a place. But it can't be helped, though it does wring one's heart. At least so Edwards thinks; for didn't you notice him, as he came out, helping himself to a handful of diamonds?"
"No," I answered, a little startled; "are you sure?"
"Quite. Saw him as plainly as I see you, putting them in the pocket of his tunic. It was a good handful, too, and, if I'm right, out of the barrel with the biggest gems."
"Well, it doesn't matter a great deal to us," I said, "and I wish him luck of them."
"So do I; but I'd have wished him more if I'd had the presence of mind to do the same thing. However, as it can't be helped now, it's no good crying over spilt milk."
But, all the same, I'm afraid that for some time afterwards my friend hankered over the lost chance a good deal more than was compatible with his peace of mind.
Pellas and the commander kept their eyes on Asoka until we had passed through the twenty doorways; and whether from this fact or that he had never any thoughts of treachery, we reached the courtyard in safety. By this time it was four o'clock in the afternoon, and we were somewhat hungry; but, fortunately, the governor had a plentiful repast ready for us, to which we did ample justice. Then we mounted our horses, the guards closed round us, and we started on our return journey to the palace.
By the way, I took occasion to ask Pellas if he knew how long the treasure-chamber had been used as such.
"For generation and generation," he answered, "for century and century, from time immemorial, since the world was young! It has ever been the treasure-chamber, but 'tis only within ten generations that the fort has been built. Before that time a precarious pathway led up to it, guarded only by the statues of the gods."
"And the CaŽn-pahrs? Thou sayest they are ancient—how ancient?"
"Nigh as ancient as the chamber. Listen to the legend. In the days of the first king of our dynasty* an artificer in silver lived, who was so marvellously clever that all metals under his hands became whatsoever he willed. By the king he was commissioned to fashion a pahr (literally a 'set of official ornaments') which should exceed in brilliancy everything in the whole world; and for that purpose he was allowed to choose at his will from the store of metals and bright stones in the treasure- chamber. The result was the pahr which Timrac now wears. Then the king commanded him to form a pahr for each of the forty CaŽns of the land; but when he had completed thirty he sickened and died; and so the number of CaŽns was reduced to thirty. All the pahrs having been fashioned by him without assistance, his skill descended to no successor; and whatever secrets he had perished with him at his death. And this is the legend of the artificer of the CaŽn-pahrs."
(* Who, we afterwards found by the "Records," reigned during a period corresponding to our 838-872 A.D.—D.D.)
"Is it only a legend," I asked; "or is it confirmed in any way?"
"The story is also given in the records of the land."
"The records of the land!" I exclaimed, never having suspected such things in connection with Kisni‚. "What are they?"
"Scrolls in the keeping of the chief priest, in which may be read the history of the nation since the time of Philates the king. Of the records there are six score—one, 'tis said, for each king since the time of Philates. When a king dies, his chief priest writes a scroll telling all the deeds of his reign; and this scroll is then deposited amongst the other records."
These records I examined next day, and my surprise may be imagined when I found that the date of the first corresponded to 120 B.C. I have mentioned that the architecture of the country resembles that of ancient Greece, and that the natives excel in sculpture; and, in connection with these facts, a curious story is given in the first record to the effect that, two centuries before (say 320 B.C.), a large number of white men had reached the mountains, and been brought into the kingdom. Their leader married the daughter of the king, and a son of the marriage in time occupied the throne, from whom Philates was lineally descended. The story closes with a mention of the learning and military prowess of the men; and Pellas supplemented this by informing me that from them the natives had learned to raise their buildings in such a way, and also to carve beautiful figures out of stone and marble. This made me surmise that the wanderers had been Greeks, and probably, considering the date, stragglers from one of the armies of Alexander the Great; a supposition which was confirmed when we found in the early language many words of undoubted Greek extraction. I have in my possession copies of several of the records referred to; but I am compelled to reserve them on account of their length and comparative want of interest, save to archaeologists.
In speaking of these things, the tedium of the ride home was in a manner relieved, and we reached the palace in time to take part in Timrac's evening meal, which was always open to such of the Council as cared to attend. Before we parted that night Pellas said to me:
"If thou lovest thy dog, Maritaba, keep it by thee, and out of Asoka's sight, else it will not be alive for long."
I hardly thought that his Highness would dare to touch Tray, after the lesson he had already received, and said so to Pellas; but he only replied, sadly, that Asoka always found some means of avenging what he considered insults. Accordingly, I determined to keep the animal by my side for the next few days, in case of accidents.
But misfortunes occasionally happen in spite of the best precautions; and in this case, had it not been for Eric's promptitude, Tray would have fallen a victim to Asoka's vindictive hate. It came about in this way. A few days later, Eric and I, accompanied by Tray, were paying a visit to the commander of the body-guard, between whom and ourselves a warm friendship had grown up. Rashuta resided at the other end of the palace; and his reception-rooms were two in number—an ante-room, looking out to the quadrangle, and a smaller one, separated from the other by a thick curtain. In the latter he received his personal friends, and thither we were shown when we arrived. Tray, however, inquisitive as usual, lingered behind in the ante- room, unknown to us; and in consequence he had a narrow escape of being cut off in his prime.
We were conversing with Rashuta on the events which had occurred in the treasure chamber, when we heard a suppressed howl from the other side of the curtain. Eric, instantly divining that Tray was in some mischief, dashed aside the curtains and went to the rescue; and the commander and I, following with more dignity, were just in time to see him lift Asoka bodily, and drop him over a window.
"Don't try it on again, for you'll not get off so easily next time," he then shouted in English to the discomfited Kisnian, who, not at all pleased with his twenty-feet drop, departed abashed, yet mightily amazed by my friend's display of strength.
Tray was lying panting on the ground, and by his side was a dagger of the shape of a Highland dirk; so that we needed no explanation of what Asoka's purpose had been.
"A minute later," said Eric, "and I should have been too late. When I got into the room he had Tray by the throat with his left hand, and was about to stick the half-smothered animal with the dagger in his right. But he saw me, dropped both Tray (who was nearly gone) and the knife, and made for the door. But he was too late; in a second I had him by the neck, and over the window he went like any other common ruffian. And, by Jove! I never did anything in my life with more pleasure!"
Whilst the commander gazed at Eric in surprise, such strength being unknown in the Mountain Kingdom, I turned my attention to Tray, and found the faithful dog little the worse. In a few minutes he recovered his wind, and the only apparent consequence of the adventure was a want of friskiness for the rest of the day.
Whether Asoka had come into the room by accident, and, seeing the dog alone, had thought it a good opportunity of paying off old scores, or he had followed us on purpose, we had no means of knowing; but I incline to the latter idea, the more so that Rashuta told us that the prince had seldom or never visited his quarters before. At any rate, we were certain of one thing—that he would only consider the incident another addition to the score against us.
We met Pellas a little afterwards, and I told him of the episode.
"Ah, Maritaba!" he said, "Lanric has foiled him once, but his ways are many and dark, and his cunning is as that of the fox. But ye are secure for a time, for I know that he is preparing for a sudden spring at the throne. The preparations will take time, but in a month the country may run with blood, to the cries of 'B'lŻp, Timrac!' 'B'lŻp, Asoka!' Val-Ena help the right! Farewell for the present; I go to see that all the arrangements are made for to-morrow's review and display of archery."
Ah! Pellas might not have been so lighthearted had he known that the danger was so much more imminent than he supposed—that on the morrow,
"Ere the ruddy sun be set,
Pikes must shiver, javelins sing;
Blade with clattering buckler meet,
Hauberk clash, and helmet ring."
THE review mentioned by Pellas in the last chapter was to be a military display of some magnitude, in which all the regulars and most of the militia then in Dhama were to take part. It was to be held in a large park about half a mile from the palace. There was also to be a display of archery, and thereafter the king, as was the custom on such an occasion, would listen to whatever grievances the populace had.
That morning we saw all the regiments garrisoning the citadel file off one by one, and in some apprehension I asked Pellas if this would not be a good opportunity for Asoka to inaugurate his rebellion.
"A good opportunity—yes," he replied; "but it will not be taken. His preparations cannot be complete; we know that the hill tribes are quiet; and who ever heard of any one starting a rebellion without the aid of the hill tribes?"
All the same, I had an ugly presentiment that all was not right, though, at the same time, I was forced to confess that Pellas was more likely to read the signs correctly than a complete stranger.
Early in the forenoon the whole force of the body-guard, five hundred men, mounted on strong grey horses, drew up in front of the palace; and, shortly after, the king, attended by such of the CaŽns as did not hold military rank, took his place in their centre. Timrac was on his favourite steed, a jet-black mare, and he had Pellas and the Dadchierka CaŽn on either side. Eric, the Sahib, and I, also on black horses, were directly behind, Sirikisson—who was slightly indisposed—being left at home with Tray. Asoka was at the head of a regiment of which he was honorary commander; and Edwards, for some deep reason of his own, was with him.
We rode through the streets of Dhama at a gallop, and in a short time entered the park, which, twenty acres in extent, was already almost completely filled. For our progress a broad path was kept by the soldiers; but as we passed along not a cheer was raised by either populace or military. Instead, an ominous silence pervaded the whole assemblage, and it seemed to me that the very air was permeated with treason.
"I don't half like the looks of the people," I said to Eric; "and if there's not trouble by afternoon, call me a Dutchman."
"I'm afraid you're right," he answered, thoughtfully, as he glanced over the sea of sullen faces.
By this time we had reached what may be called the saluting- point—a flat-topped knoll in the middle of the park. On this the king and we CaŽns took our places without dismounting; and the body-guard closed round its base in such a way that the approach to it was completely blocked. From the knoll to the confines of the park was one surging mass of human beings, with the exception of a vacant space directly in front, which had the appearance of a large circus-ring encircling a smaller one. Between this and the knoll the "regulars" were grouped in order, with a space between each regiment; behind it stood regiment upon regiment of militia, clad in all kinds of uniforms; and further back still were the onlookers, who apparently included the whole population of Dhama.
Timrac glanced with some pride over the bright scene, and then his brow darkened as he saw the sullen looks of the people. But this cleared away as he noted the gallant appearance of the army, in which, apparently, he implicitly trusted; and, raising the small silver b‚ton he carried, he gave orders to the royal trumpeters to sound a fanfare as a signal for the commencement of the review.
Before the sound had died away the regiments began to move, and at the word of their commanders they went through a variety of evolutions in a way which would have done no discredit to an English or a German army. At first only the regulars were engaged, but after a short time another blast of the trumpets called the militia into action. Though much less steady than the troops, the "amateurs" were by no means to be despised as a fighting force; and, most of them being strong and athletic men, they presented a very soldier-like appearance as they went through their various paces. Then at a third signal the regulars and the militia formed up in close array at opposite sides; and an animated sham-fight took place, which was so realistic that to this day it is a wonder to me that no blood was shed. The militia were of course routed, and fell back to their old places, while the soldiers stood at ease, evidently awaiting another signal.
"Thou shalt now behold the strength of Kisni‚, Maritaba," said Pellas, with pride, forgetting for a moment his uncle's precarious lease of power, "and as each regiment passes, see in it a pillar of the State!"
Again the signal was given; simultaneously the bands of twenty regiments clashed out a warlike tune; and, led by the Commander- in-chief of the army, the march past was begun. Each regiment marched past at a fine, swinging pace, which said much for the soldiers' capabilities; as the king was passed the usual salute of spear against shield was given; and then the regiment rounded the knoll, and returned to its old place.
"Look!" whispered Lee, "here comes Asoka at the head of his regiment, looking as black as thunder, and accompanied by our late friend Edwards."
As the Pretender passed, Edwards riding by his side in all the glory of his CaŽn-pahr, heightened by a couple of revolvers stuck alongside the jewelled dagger, he hardly deigned to give the usual salute to the king; and his regiment followed his example by clashing their spears against their shields with less than half-hearted vigour. Timrac, however, apparently took no notice, but I saw that there was an angry gleam in his eyes as he returned the salutations.
When all the regular regiments had passed, the militia did likewise, though in less perfect order; and thereafter the combined forces stood at ease.
For a time I had been puzzling my brains as to the use of the double ring in front of us; and now, when the march past had ended, I saw that it was for the display of archery of which Pellas had spoken. This was proved by the appearance of about fifty mounted archers, who, with bow in hand and quiver at belt, assembled at the gate to the ring. The rings themselves were marked out by a low parapet of stone, and between the outer and inner ones there was a space of thirty feet. Round the rim of the inner were placed five life-size effigies, the first one being twenty paces left from the entrance, the second forty paces further on, the third fifty paces from the second, and the remaining two the same distance apart. The entrance was double— that is, it was intended for both entrance and exit.
The fifty archers were marshalled in single file by an officer, there being a distance of twenty feet between each. The leader was ten feet from the entrance, his bow bent, his finger on the string, and his horse ready. The king gave the signal, the horse darted forward to the space between the rings, and the first arrow struck the first figure. As the horse galloped on, the archer took a second arrow from his quiver, placed it in his bow, and discharged it at the next figure; and so on round the ring, the horse meanwhile going at full speed. By the time the fourth effigy was reached, the archer had to turn slightly in his saddle; and as to the fifth, he had to turn round altogether. Yet he missed none of them—a truly astonishing piece of skill when one remembers the difficulty of keeping himself firm in the stirrups, manoeuvring his horse to prevent him going beyond the mark, and the scant time he had for drawing, fixing, and discharging the arrow. To add to the difficulties, the second archer started when the leader was passing the third effigy, and the third was just entering the ring as he left it. So, if an arrow missed its figure, it was almost certain to find a more deadly target.*
(* Since returning to England I have discovered that the Tartars of Manchouria display their archery in a manner somewhat similar to that described above, as may be seen in Abbe Huc's interesting "Souvenirs d'un Voyage dans le Thibet et la Tartarie."—D.D.)
It was a grand sight to see these men dashing round that ring in such order, and discharging their arrows with such marvellous precision that not one missed; and yet to the Kisnians, judging from their apathy, it appeared a spectacle so common that it excited no wonder. At length it ended, and, after some ordinary shooting, the display came to a close.
Though the review was now concluded, the events of the day were not. Hardly had the archers taken up their places within the ring, when some commotion was discernible amongst the crowd, and then half-a-dozen men advanced boldly through the soldiers to the foot of the knoll, the body-guard making way for them.
"It is a petition," explained Pellas to us.
Timrac demanded of the men what they wanted; and the spokesman, speaking in a voice which was heard for a great distance, delivered a long and eloquent speech, in which he set forth a number of grievances. But, as the most important news in a lady's letter is sure to be in the postscript, so it was in the end of the speech that the real petition lay; and its effect, when it was demanded, was electrical.
"And what we, the people of Kisni‚, demand of our king," said the man, "is that he do a simple act of justice—substitute Asoka as heir to the throne instead of Pellas. We want no boy to reign over us—we wish Asoka, and in spite of Pellas and those who support him we will have Asoka!"
As if to show that his title to speak for the people of Dhama was no vain one, the mob backed his remarks with an enthusiastic cheer, whilst Timrac's face became perfectly livid with the rage he could not conceal. But when he spoke it was with calmness—a calmness which only served to accentuate the rage within him.
"Ye have demanded," he answered, in a voice heard all over the park, "what ye have no right to demand, and my answer to that demand is—No!"
The "No" was so emphatic that the petitioners lost no time in getting out of sight, and again the guards closed round.
Then suddenly, rising no one knew how, was heard a loud shout of execration; before it had died away every one in the crowd had brought forth a club or a knife; and then the air was rent by the cries of the populace as they shouted:
"B'lŻp Asoka! D'van Timrac!" [Long live Asoka! Down with Timrac!]
"Thou wert right, Maritaba," whispered Pellas, "but I little thought that Asoka had brains to conceive a plan such as this! Now the rebellion has come; but, though sudden, all is not ended yet!"
As he spoke we heard a sharp, whistling sound an arrow flashed by Timrac's head, and buried itself in the brain of one of the guards behind. The first blow had been struck!
Instantly we drew our revolvers, and were ready to defend the king. But he waved us back, rose in his stirrups, and, looking more regal than I had ever seen him do, commanded silence by one gesture as he spoke.
"Is it thus, ye base-born fools," he demanded, "that ye dare to defy your master—the king who has reigned over ye since the Year of Famine? Is it thus that ye set him at nought, and then basely try to assassinate him? But I tell ye it shall not be; that, as Val-Ena is my witness, I will tame the pride of ye who thus insult me; and it is I, Timrac the king, who have said it! And now, soldiers of my regiments, clear the park!"
Not a soldier stirred. Instead, the regiments, as it were, instinctively formed up more closely, and as one man looked towards the central corps, at the head of which was Asoka. There could no longer be any doubt that the whole thing was a preconcerted plan; and it only needed a word from Asoka to give the rebellion its finishing touch. That word he was not long in speaking. Spurring forward a little, so as to be in full view of everybody, he addressed his supporters and the king alternately:
"Soldiers! obey not the tyrant who refuseth ye your rights. Show him that the soldiers of Kisni‚ are yet soldiers, and the men, men! And thou, Timrac, I give thee warning that thou art no longer king; that thou hast been dethroned by thy people for thy tyranny and drunkenness; and that I, the rightful heir, reign in thy stead. Soldiers, forward! Let not the tyrant escape! Five hundred pieces of silver to him who brings me Timrac's head, and a hundred for each of his CaŽns'! Forward!"
A loud and prolonged shout of "Asoka is king! Long live Asoka!" rose from soldiers, militia, and populace alike when the Pretender finished his inflammatory address; and then, in obedience to his command, they moved forward to surround the knoll. But as yet the body-guard was faithful, and the rebels hesitated to come to close quarters with such redoubtable champions. Still nearer and nearer they surged, pressed forward by the mob behind, and apparently thirsting for the blood of those who, a few days previously, had been their greatest idols.
"Quick!" cried the Dadchierka CaŽn, seeing the advantage of the hesitation; "we must retreat to the citadel, which we can hold against any number."
Timrac nodded assent, and, turning to us, the Premier continued:
"Are ye with us, strangers? Or do ye prefer to follow your friend yonder?"—pointing to Edwards, who, still by Asoka's side, seemed to take a prominent part in commanding.
"We are not in the habit of deserting our friends," answered Eric, in English; and the Premier nodded, as if he understood.
The king issued a rapid order; we descended the hillock, and the guards closed compactly around us. Thus, in phalanx array, we were prepared, if needful, to cut a path through the rebel army, which, on its part, gave no signs of opening up before us.
Full and clear the word rang out, and simultaneously we put our horses to the gallop and headed directly for the gate by which we had entered. Asoka and Edwards strove to form their men against us; but the soldiers, surprised as they were at the sudden movement, had no heart to be cut down or ridden over by the crack regiment, and so gave way on every side as we advanced. The populace and militia opened up with even greater alacrity, but those at a safe distance showed their courage by throwing at us their clubs and knives. Owing to our speed, however, these did little damage, and in a minute's time we were clear.
Through the empty streets at full gallop we thundered, and never slackened our pace until we had passed over one of the causeways, and for the moment were safe. The citadel reached, the Dadchierka CaŽn, by common consent, took the command, and by his orders the four causeways were blocked, archers placed on the towers, and a look-out kept from the observatory in the middle of the square. There being only one boat on the fosse, and that at our side, the causeways were the only vulnerable points; and these our five hundred men were amply sufficient to defend. Fortunately, we had enough rations to last us a month.
Hardly had these precautions been taken, when the vanguard of Asoka's army was seen approaching. Instead of attacking us at once, however, they proceeded to sit down at the end of the causeways, thus blockading us.
"Ah!" said Dadchierka, when he saw the manoeuvre, "they will not attack us for a time. Now, let each of ye CaŽns take some refreshment, that ye may be able for the battle which is to come. And, ye strangers "—addressing us—"I have something to say to ye. Come ye to this tower when ye have dined."
Accordingly we adjourned to our quarters, where we found Sirikisson boiling over with curiosity as to the cause of the uproar. We told him.
"It is good, gentlemen sahibs!" he cried, his eyes gleaming with the anticipated excitement of the fray; and, springing from his couch and forgetting all about his illness, he seized his kookeree, and announced himself ready for anything.
While we were at our meal some servants entered with a load of luggage, which, to our surprise, we saw to be the personal effects of Edwards, including his various firearms and ammunition. Evidently the rebels had not reckoned on our prompt retreat to the citadel, else Edwards would have taken care to have his things removed.
Our dinner ended, we repaired to the central tower as requested by Dadchierka, taking with us our expresses and revolvers, but exchanging the ornamental CaŽn-pahr sword and dagger for more serviceable weapons. Eric also took the axe which had served him so well in our first fight with the Kisnians; and, thus armed, we looked forward to the approaching fight—if fight there was to be—with some little hope of a favourable result.
I HAVE now arrived at the strangest part of my narrative, and have to tell an event at which, if the reader feels half the surprise I did, he will be amazed indeed. It may seem marvellous at first sight, but that the truth of it may be relied upon I need not say—this whole history, I should think, bears upon it the impress of veracity.
Well, to get to the point as straightforwardly and in as few words as possible,—when we reached the tower we found the Premier there waiting for us, thoughtfully gazing over the wide fosse to the land beyond, on which Asoka and his subordinates were putting the rebel army in order. Motioning us to a seat, he turned round, and in a low voice said, in English:
"I have brought you here to tell you that, like yourselves, I am British!"
The effect of these words, spoken quietly and with the hesitation of a man who has not conversed in his native language for years, it is impossible to imagine; and all the idea of it any description of mine can give is that we were literally stricken dumb.
"Yes," Dadchierka continued—"British, if a quarter of a century in Kisni‚ has not made me a Kisnian."
Having by this time recovered a little from my surprise, I was able to turn this over in my mind. Twenty-five years—what a time! Suddenly, shooting like an electrical flash through my brain, came the idea—Can he be my uncle? I had almost forgotten the one motive for our expedition in the success of the other; and I don't know, unless it was an inspiration, what caused me to think of it at the moment. But, once having thought of it, I looked more closely at the Premier than I had yet done. I thought I could trace in his features some resemblance to the "Alister Dalziel" whose portrait hung at Airth; and, in short, I determined to end the matter by asking him direct:
"Are you my uncle, Alister Dalziel, who left Scotland for Central Asia in 1850, and never returned?"
But I got no further than "Dalziel." When I had said as much, Dadchierka leaped to his feet as if he were a maniac, began shaking my hands until I thought they would drop off, and then recovered enough breath to say:
"I am Alister Dalziel, and you must be a friend to know it. But not my nephew—I had no sisters: and your name is Douglas, isn't it?"
Almost without waiting for an answer he recommenced his pump- handling operations, but this time on Eric, the Sahib, and Sirikisson; and when I had in some degree recovered from my joy— for surprise, which never lasts long, had by this time given way to joy—I returned a suitable reply.
"Yes," I said, "I am your nephew, as you may make sure by asking my friend Mr. Trevanion; and my name is Douglas Dalziel."
"The son of my brother Evan—you must have been born after I left. Hurrah!"—again letting off superfluous steam by another cordial handshaking. "And how is Evan?"
This gave me a shock, though of course, as I soon realized, my uncle could not be supposed to know, or even conjecture, of my father's death.
"Dead!" I answered; and the one word was sufficient to cast a gloom over the man who, a minute before, had been so joyous.
For a time we spoke of family affairs, which can have no interest to the reader, and I put my uncle in possession of our history down to date, and also of the primary reasons of our search for him and the Mountain Kingdom.
"And how did that scoundrel Nimmo get into your way?" he asked, pointing over the fosse to the rebel army.
"Nimmo? Who on earth is he?" inquired Eric, who along with the others, was listening to the Premier with eager interest. "How many more Englishmen are there in Kisni‚?"
"I mean your friend who has deserted to Asoka. Nimmo is his name."
"He calls himself Edwards, at least," said Eric, looking at my newly recovered relative as if he thought his head had been turned by the strange events of the day.
"Perhaps; but I know that his name is Nimmo, for he was my companion in '50-'51."
"Good heavens!" I cried, "you're surely wrong! That Nimmo died in Burma the year you were lost."
"It's he, and no other," persisted my uncle, "as I'll show you when he's captured. But what do you know of the blackguard, Douglas?"
For reply I detailed to him my mother's story, and finally showed him Nimmo's letter from Rangoon, a copy of which I had in my pocket-book, and also told him the result of the inquiries after the man's disappearance.
"The thrice—villain!" he exclaimed, when he had read the remarkable document, and using in his excitement an extra strong word. "No fear of him being killed in Upper Burma—it was only a clever dodge on his part to avoid unpleasant inquiries. And that's why he changed his name—the double-dyed scoundrel! In his letter he says we left Sourmang in April, and so far he is right. But there is not one word of truth concerning me after that. Instead of making for the Koko-Nor, as he says, and as we at first intended, we struck north-west, taking with us four travelling lamas [priests] as guides. But after the first few days they were useless—knew no more of the country than we did. I was for dispensing with their services, but this on no account would Nimmo agree to; for they were as thick as thieves, teaching him Thibetan, and so on. And he had his own reasons for retaining them—the unhung ruffian!
"Towards the end of May we arrived at a range of high mountains, which it was my intention to climb. Here, though the country was anything but fertile, we were in a perfect paradise of game. But, one night, while we were at supper, Nimmo raised a quarrel (with no good object, you may be sure), and finished up by calling me a liar and a coward! This I could not stand, and we fought. While we were fighting, one of the lamas crept up behind me, and, incited no doubt by Nimmo, stuck his knife into my back. I fell insensible, and when I came to myself my companions were off, and with them everything, even to the last bit of food. They left me for dead, knowing that even if I survived my wounds I must starve, as I had no gun. In my opinion it was all a premeditated plot of Nimmo's, for I had a large sum of money on me; and in that plot he succeeded only too well."
"The atrocious villain!" muttered Eric, while Sirikisson, who was also listening intently, grasped his kookeree threateningly.
"It is very probable," resumed my uncle, "that I should have starved to death, had I not been picked up by a good Samaritan in the person of the head of a hunting-party. By him I was tended like a brother, and when I had recovered I was brought into Kisni‚. In fact, the young man was Timrac, who had just ascended the throne, and had been out on a hunting expedition to the north side of the mountains. As may be supposed, a great attachment gradually rose between us, which the king showed in a practical manner by making me his right-hand man. I learned the language, and settled down here for life, as I supposed. By degrees I raised myself, made myself indispensable to Timrac, and ten years ago became his chief man, or Premier, and a CaŽn. Since then, though I have practically ruled the land, I have had many attacks of home sickness, have wished to see my own people again, to exchange all this fawning and cringing for the healthy equality of civilization. And now that you are here, I will do it—I know the way. Only let us see this business through, Asoka smashed up, and Timrac and Pellas safe, and then—hurrah for old England!"
"Why did you not announce yourself a countryman at first?" I asked.
"Had I known your surname was Dalziel I might; but, to tell the truth, the sight of Nimmo, or Edwards, banished all such thoughts from my mind. When the scout brought in the news of strangers on the river, I determined to reveal myself should you prove to be British; but, as luck would have it, I saw Nimmo first, and immediately recognized him. He doesn't know me yet— doubtless thinks I perished where he left me. Seeing him, I naturally thought you were in Kisni‚ with no good intentions, and, actuated by curiosity, visited you. Strangely enough I was immediately struck with your face, Douglas, though you don't resemble either your father or mother as I knew them. Well, though I was confirmed in my suspicions by your friend Eric's remarks in English, I was by no means sure of your motives, and determined to watch you for a little. Nimmo's note at your first interview with the king, and which I heard, also acted against you, as did various other things, ending up with his remark to you in the Temple of the Gods."
"When," said Eric, "you were much too ready with your pistol to be a Kisnian, if we had only seen it."
"Yes. Then Nimmo joined Asoka's party, and, he having informed me that he was virtually leader, though you were such in name, I thought you were with him. Indeed. I was going to order you all under arrest several times, but I was reassured by your evident devotion to Pellas. Another thing, Douglas—you were always called Douglas in my presence, and never Dalziel. It is a pity I did not see you oftener, when we might have found out our relationship sooner.
"And that is how we two, uncle and nephew, have lived together for the past two months, and never known it! But it is really wonderful how things are brought about by Providence, and—But there are the rebels beginning to move, with those accursed scoundrels Asoka and Nimmo at their head!"
The sudden change of tone on the part of my uncle was caused by a movement in the enemy's camp, which his practised eye readily made out to be the preliminary to an attack. With our glasses we saw that the rebels were being formed into four parties, one, doubtless, to storm each causeway.
"We may not have long to enjoy our new relationship, Douglas— nor your friendship, gentlemen—for we have a stiff fight before us. But somehow I think we shall come out of it all right. And now—to the gates!"
And thus it was that I found my uncle, in a manner so strange that it may seem more like fiction than sober reality. What to think of it I hardly knew: I could scarcely realize it for the moment; and it was perhaps as well that, in the clash of war and opposing factions, we had soon something more urgent to think about.
As we hurried down into the quadrangle I handed my uncle my express, with ammunition for it and his revolver; and then sent Sirikisson for Edwards' rifle and as many cartridges as he could carry.
"It's a long time since I had such a thing in my hand," he remarked, "and I am not sure that I know how to work it."
I showed him, and in a few seconds he had mastered it.
By this time the men were all at their places on the towers commanding the various causeways, and at other favourable positions, with bows in hand, arrows ready, and spears at side. The higher officers were in the quadrangle, awaiting Dadchierka's orders. To the commander of the body-guard, who was aided by Sirikisson, he gave one gate; to the king, with whom was the Sahib, the second; and to Pellas and Eric the third. Of the fourth he had command in person, and of course I and Tray were with him.
We took our posts, and not a moment too soon; for the enemy had been formed into their divisions, and now began to move forward. In the one against us, which we saw was led by Asoka and Edwards personally, there could not have been less than two thousand men, against our paltry hundred and fifty. But each of the guards was a host in himself, while Asoka's men were for the most part raw militia and effeminate civilians.
When the enemy reached the beginning of the causeway they raised a loud shout, to which our men replied by one equally defiant. Fortunately, the width of the causeway only allowed twenty or so abreast, and this gave us an immense advantage. On they came, however, in a dense and compact mass, alternately crying to their three gods and shouting taunts to us. When they arrived within two hundred yards they halted, and a victim was sacrificed to Val-Isa, their god of war, in the manner described in a previous chapter. Then, as they resumed their onward march, my uncle gave the word, and a flight of arrows from our men made terrible havoc in their close ranks.
"Well done, Douglas, isn't it?" cried my uncle. "Look! they have halted. And, by Jove! yonder are Nimmo and Asoka trying to rally them! See if we cannot bring them down."
Taking careful aim, we fired simultaneously. But though our quarry was well within range, the shot, owing to the ever-moving mass of people, was a very difficult one, and we succeeded in killing neither Edwards nor his chief, though at the moment I should have liked nothing better than to do so. The latter, however, was apparently wounded, by whose shot it is impossible to conjecture, for we saw him helped to the rear by his friend; but in a few minutes he returned to his post, so that the wound could not have been very serious.
Just as we were reloading we heard reports from the other gates, and this, added to the peculiar hissing sound of the arrows, told us that the attack was general.
But we were too much occupied with our own affairs to have any time for those of our friends. The enemy speedily rallied, and despite our constant fire, which more than decimated them, came steadily on until the gate was reached. Here the real struggle took place. The gate was of iron, formed of thick plates overlying each other, and in default of forcing it open, it was the purpose of the rebels to dislodge one or more of these plates. For this purpose, as soon as they came up, a company of men were set apart, while the others protected them as well as they could from the flights of arrows which came down on every side.
"This won't do," said the Premier to me, as the enemy, heedless of their heavy losses, went doggedly on with their work; "in five minutes they'll have a plate off, and then we're done for. We've only one resource." To his attendants, in Kisnian: "Quick! bring the pitch!"
While I was wondering what this order meant (all the time keeping up a running fire on Asoka's men), a gang of non- combatants brought forward several large cauldrons full of boiling and seething pitch. To my horror, these were placed in position, and I understood now what my friends intended to do, and protested against the barbarity with all my might.
"It does go against the grain to do it, Douglas," was the answer; "but it can't be helped. I assure you it wouldn't be used unless otherwise the capture of the place was inevitable, and that is the case just now."
I saw the force of this reasoning, and said no more; but I had to turn away my head while a huge pot was poised directly above the storming-party, and then tilted over. A chorus of loud screams, a shout of dismay from below, a discharge of arrows on the part of our men—and it was over. Then I ventured to look down, and saw that the rebels had retreated a short distance, while in front of the gate was a terrible barrier of dead bodies.
"Saved for the present!" cried my uncle, in glee.
But as he spoke an officer came up with the intelligence that one of the plates was nearly off, hanging by a single rivet. And the enemy knew it, and were again preparing to advance, as we could see for ourselves.
"Then," said Dadchierka, with a groan, "if they make a dash nothing can save us."
"But why shouldn't we make the dash?" I asked, as an idea struck me. "Look, there are no more than three hundred men there— the rest are a hundred yards behind. You say the gate can be swung open in a moment: well, when these men advance, have ours ready, throw open the doors, rush out, and annihilate them."
"A bold plan, but the more likely to succeed on that account. We'll do it, and see if we don't throw them into the fosse before the others come up! After that, I hope we'll have time to fix the plate."
He followed this up in a practical manner by issuing an order, at which all the guards, save a party of the best archers, were withdrawn from the towers, and massed below, ready to rush out the moment the gate was opened. How this was done I am unable to explain, though I apprehend that it was by some simple pulley arrangement, worked from within; but, at least, the mechanism was of such a nature that the gate could be thrown open and shut with the greatest silence and despatch.
One and all stood ready, spear in hand and shield on arm; ready, or I read them wrong, to convert a forlorn hope into a victory, or to die, if need be, in defence of their king! And what a gleam of joy momentarily lighted their grim features when the look-out from above reported that the rebels were moving forward, and they realized that the critical moment was at hand! No fear nor shrinking was there in those brave hearts—and none, I trust, in ours.
"Now, men, be ready," whispered my uncle, "and forward when you hear the word Charge!"
FOR the space of a minute, but which seemed to us an hour, we stood as motionless as statues, and not a sound was heard but the far-off din of battle at the other causeways. Then my uncle raised his spear and gave the word:
As if by magic, the gate swung open; and at a run, though keeping our ranks, we charged through the open gateway at the advancing enemy, who seemed literally thunder-struck at our audacity. In a second we were upon them, my uncle and I leading, with Tray alongside. The rebels, taken by surprise in such a way, were no match for the superior guards, with their long spears; and, after a momentary struggle, they gave way, we passed over them, and the remnant of their force was swept over the low parapet into the fosse. Not one man of the three hundred survived, whilst our total loss did not exceed a score.
"Close up, guards!" shouted my uncle, who, ever in the front of the battle, had accounted for more than one of the enemy; "here come reinforcements, with Nimmo at their head!"
It was true. As soon as Asoka's reserve had seen our sally, they had started forward to the rescue; but so short a time had we taken to dispose of their friends, they were too late. Edwards, however, who was ten yards or so in front, seemed not to be aware of this at first; and my uncle, over whom a change came the moment he found himself face to face, as it were, with his cowardly assassin, whispered to me in a strangely altered voice:
"We must shoot or capture him, Douglas."
But, as it happened, my revolvers were empty, and my uncle's in the same state; and Edwards, as he came nearer and saw that not one of his men had escaped, slackened his pace, as if to wait for those behind. As he did so I heard a low growl from my side. Before I was aware of it, my dog had darted forward at full speed, and when I next looked, Edwards was lying on his back, with Tray above him.
"Forward and surround him!" cried Dadchierka, himself showing the example.
The rebels also advanced at a run, and both parties reached the prostrate man almost simultaneously. One of Asoka's men, in making a dig with his spear at Tray, who easily eluded him, stabbed Edwards in the side, and the next moment fell by my hand. At this the battle closed in; but, as before, we easily pressed the foe back, and succeeded in surrounding our man, who by this time was insensible.
"Into the citadel with him," I shouted; "here come the enemy!"
Four strong men obeyed the command, lifted Edwards as easily as if he had been an infant, and bore him to the rear, their comrades opening up to allow them to pass. Then we slowly retreated, keeping off the enemy with some difficulty. As it was, they came so close that there was some danger that they would press into the citadel before the gate could be shut; and, seeing this, my uncle gave the word to stand firm. At that moment a well-directed discharge of arrows from the towers threw our opponents into some disorder; we advanced and completed the work; and then retreated at the double into safety. The rebels being too disorganized to follow us, we got the gate closed and the loose plate fixed without further hindrance.
In the meantime, Edwards had been laid by his bearers on a hastily-improvised bed at the base of the central tower; and thither my uncle and I bent our steps when we had made sure that there was no present prospect of a renewed attack. One of the men reported that he only recovered from one swoon to fall into another; and that the spear-wound in his side looked dangerous. I saw that he was right as soon as I had examined it; the danger was so great that, in my opinion, his chance of life was a poor one. To settle the matter, we called the Court physician (whom we found consoling the ladies of the palace), who, after examining him carefully, pronounced that he would not last out the night.
"Will he remain insensible?" I asked.
"I cannot say"—
The physician got no further, for, while he was speaking, we heard a tumult at the southern causeway (that under the command of Pellas and Eric); and, to our consternation, we saw that the enemy had burst the gate open, and were now pressing the guards hard.
"To the rescue!" shouted my uncle; and, followed by me and the majority of his own detachment, he rushed off and dashed into the fray.
We were not an instant too soon. Eric (his axe by this time red with blood) and Pellas had been forced to fall back step by step, pressed by superior numbers, and in another moment the enemy would have been in. But our arrival was sufficient to turn the scales; we gave our friends fresh courage, and, just as victory was within the rebels' grasp, they in turn were forced to fall back. Then, we pressed our advantage home in such a forcible manner, that, after a stubborn resistance at the gate, they broke and retreated; and the gate was shut behind them.
"How did they manage to force their way in?" asked Dadchierka of Pellas.
"I hardly know," was the reply. "After being beaten off several times they made a sudden dash against the gate, which flew open; and, had we not been ready for them, they would have captured the place. As you see, they are the 1st Regiment, and therefore make the most gallant attack;" the 1st Regiment being the crack corps of the line, and each man in it five feet eleven in height.
Neither Eric nor Pellas was wounded, and it was the same with our friends at the other two gates, where the rebels had never even succeeded in coming to close quarters.
The enemy, now thoroughly discouraged, retired, beaten at every point; and, as afternoon was drawing to a close, there was little expectation of a second attack that day. When we had made sure of this, we returned to Edwards, whom we found conscious. As soon as he saw me he motioned to me, and, bending down, I made out that he wished to know the doctor's opinion of his case.
"He says you are mortally injured, Edwards," I gravely replied; "that your lungs are affected, and that you have not many hours to live."
He seemed stunned for a moment.
"Good God!" he said, "it is surely not so bad as that. Can nothing be done to save me?" He paused for a moment, as if for breath, and then went on with savage vindictiveness: "you say no— curse you! Curse the infatuation which brought me here at your footsteps!—curse that dog, the cause of all this trouble!—curse the hand that struck me down!"
"Curse not, John Nimmo, when you are so near eternity," I returned.
I expected that my announcement of the name if it really were his, would come to him as a shock of surprise; but his energy had somewhat exhausted the small strength remaining to him; and the only apparent effect of my words was a quick and startled glance at my face. Simply, and in a weak voice, he asked:
"How did you discover my name?"
Then he was John Nimmo, the would-be murderer of my uncle—a fact of which, under the impression that the latter might have been mistaken by a chance resemblance, I was not altogether sure until then.
"You are dying, John Nimmo," I said solemnly, without replying to his question, "and have you no remorse for the black deed you did to Alister Dalziel in 1851?"
With a cry he started up, weak as he was, and turned upon me his wild, hunted-like eyes, burning with an unnatural light.
"Remorse!" he cried, with fierce energy—"remorse! Who talks to me of remorse? Has it not chased me like a phantom from that day to this? I tell you that for twenty-five years I have never had a moment's peace. I have been a wanderer on the face of the earth, resting nowhere, seeing ghosts and phantoms of the dead in everything I did. Remorse!—it has dogged my footsteps unceasingly, never leaving me even for an hour. Speak to me of everlasting tortures!—all these years have been one foretaste of that which is the lot of the damned; and am I to suffer to all eternity? Remorse! What I have felt cannot be remorse; one crime could never carry with it such a punishment!"
His paroxysm passed over, and he fell back exhausted.
"Poor devil!" muttered Eric, who was not a little affected, as, indeed, were all of us; "how he must have suffered! But 'Conscience makes cowards of us all.'"
At this point my uncle pushed me aside and took my place. When Nimmo again opened his eyes he addressed him.
"Look at me well, Nimmo, and tell me if you know me."
The dying man started when he heard the voice, and looked long and eagerly into my uncle's face. At length he seemed to trace some resemblance, and his weak voice had less of its accent of despair when he spoke, as if to himself.
"Like, but very different. No, it cannot be. But the eyes, the hair—gracious Heaven! is it really Alister Dalziel in the flesh?"
"It is," answered my uncle, sternly, "but through no help of yours, John Nimmo."
"I know that," was the reply, after another minute or two of silence; "and yet I am glad you escaped, Dalziel, though you may not believe me. But why shouldn't you? God knows I have suffered enough—if you only knew how much, you would pity instead of condemning me. Rather than go through these years again it would be preferable to lie where I left you and suffer your fate!"
Nobody hearing the man could doubt his sincerity, and my uncle's face involuntarily softened.
"I believe you, Nimmo, little though you deserve belief," he said; "and if my forgiveness will do you any good, you have it, if you can only assure me that the deed was not premeditated, but the effect of hasty passion."
"It was. I swear to you by my soul that on that day, before the quarrel, I had no malice in my heart towards you. And how bitterly I have repented that deed I cannot say. Month by month and year by year has its shadow followed me, causing me to fly from one spot to another, until I have been in every country in the world, and found peace in none!"
Anxious to divert his mind from this theme, my uncle asked him what had happened after leaving him.
"The lamas robbed me in turn, hardly leaving me enough to reach Sourmang. Thence I retraced my steps and arrived in Rangoon by autumn, whence I wrote a letter to your brother. Fearing subsequent inquiries, I took French leave, departing ostensibly for Upper Burmah, but really for Moulmein, where I shipped for America under a false name. Since then I have been everywhere. Early this year I started for India in the same vessel as your nephew, and seeing his name on his boxes, divined at once his purpose. Although certain that you were dead, I determined to join his party for security's sake. How I managed this he has no doubt told you; and—there is no more to tell."
"Ah, Nimmo, 'the ways of transgressors are hard,'" said my uncle, "and that one crime of yours has wrecked your life. You have been punished, terribly punished, for it, by One greater than we poor mortals. And who am I that I should continue to bear you a grudge?"
But Nimmo, completely done up by his efforts at speaking and by the excitement, had again relapsed into a swoon, from which he was long in recovering. When he did so, he was visibly weaker, and we had to bend over him to hear what he said.
"I am becoming blind—I cannot see. Are you there, Dalziel, and your nephew, and Trevanion, and Lee? I am getting weak, too— I haven't long to live. Listen to me; it may save all your lives. Asoka had a council just before your sally, and I heard all his plans. Your king has no chance; the whole country and the hill tribes have declared for Asoka. If his attacks are unsuccessful, he intends to blockade you—to starve you out. And he will do it; he is thoroughly in earnest. Take this warning, and escape if you can."
Here a large amount of blood came up, and it was a few minutes before he could proceed.
"But that isn't all. He is bitter against you for refusing to join him, and intends—he will do it—to kill you all, every one of you—Timrac, Pellas, you, Dalziel, Trevanion, Lee, and the black servant. Not one of you will be spared. Be warned in time. This is the only thing I can do for you now."
He shut his eyes, and we thought he was asleep. But, a few minutes later, he opened them, and asked for me. I knelt down by his side, and tried to catch his disjointed words:—
"Forgive me—all of you—warning—misspent life— Farewell!"
I pressed his hand, he returned the grasp feebly, and the next moment he had fallen back—dead!
And just at that moment the sun disappeared behind the Temple of the Gods.
"He is dead!" I said.
"Let the grave cover his faults also," said my uncle, softly. "He was once my friend, and, though he deeply wronged me, I forgive him as freely as I can. Peace be with his soul."
No more was said. Reverently we covered up the body of our old comrade, and then slowly departed, thinking less of what he had told us than of how he had suffered and been punished.
Yes! Death, in whatever form it is met, is solemn and awe- inspiring; and not less so, surely, when he who has died has been our deadliest enemy!
THE enemy made no attempt to surprise us during the night following Edwards' death, which was, perhaps, as well for them; for if they had, they would have got a warm reception. As it was, the severe lesson we had given them amply sufficed for the time. Even by next morning they had not fully recovered from its effects; and, though we had the towers manned and everything prepared for them by dawn, they did not move from their camps at the ends of the causeways. The whole of the forenoon passed in this way—watchfulness on our part, and inaction on that of the rebels.
"It looks as if Nimmo's information is correct," said my uncle, "and that they intend to starve us out. But they'll find us a harder nut to crack than they suppose, or I'm much mistaken. I don't despair of foiling Asoka yet. I've done it before, and I may do it again."
Exactly at noon we saw several men crossing the causeway towards us, and as they approached it was evident, from their appearance and unarmed condition, that they came as heralds. The leader was dressed in black uniform, which implied that Asoka had ascended the throne.
When they came up to the gate, my uncle hailed them from a small barred window in one of the towers, and demanded to know their errand. For answer the leader handed through a scroll of parchment, simply saying:
"From Asoka, chosen by the people of Kisni‚, the land encircled by high mountains, their lord and king, to Timrac of the royal blood."
After which he and his companions took themselves off without waiting for an answer.
When they were gone, my uncle handed the scroll to Timrac, who at once called a council of the faithful CaŽns to consider it. It was short and peremptory, if not altogether sweet, and freely translated, ran:
"Asoka the king demandest of Timrac the immediate surrender of the citadel, himself and Pellas of the royal blood, and all the CaŽns with him, promising to the former their lives, and to the latter a fair trial by a full council of CaŽns. Unless these terms are accepted, and the gates opened within an hour, Asoka the king shall carry the citadel by storm, and not one of those named shall be spared."
On reading this remarkable epistle, Timrac became absolutely violent in his rage, and, with the recklessness common to those of unevenly-balanced minds, was for mounting the guards and fighting Asoka on his own ground. Only the influence of my uncle the Prime Minister—and his power over the king was by no means small—prevented him from carrying out such a suicidal scheme.
"To my mind," said Dadchierka, "there can only be one way of dealing with these terms of Asoka's, and that is—ignore them altogether, and let him do his worst. There is no doubt that he has the advantage at present; but we are not so hard pressed that we need abandon hope."
This thoroughly expressed the sentiment of the whole council, and so the gates were not opened, as demanded by the usurper.
As the prescribed hour passed away, the opposite camps showed renewed signs of activity, which increased as every moment lessened the rebels' hopes of our surrender. At length, just as our watches indicated one o'clock, a signal was given from the other side; and simultaneously the four attacking parties, composed in much the same way as on the preceding day, moved forward to our attack. If their shouts meant anything, they were determined to wipe out their former defeat; and, indeed, it seemed to me that they were now more firm in their bearing.
"They mean business," I said to my uncle, as we watched their approach from our posts on the towers.
"You are right, Douglas," he replied, "and it will take all our arrows, spears, and pitch to beat them off this time. But we'll do it. Look at our men, and see if Asoka's aren't likely to meet their match!"
I glanced round the rows of warriors in their golden armour, and truly it was a sight well calculated to reassure the wavering. The great size, Herculean strength, and tried courage and fidelity of the men, the look of determination on their grim and firm-set features, and the manner in which they grasped their bows or spears, all went to counteract forcibly the impression made by the numbers of the enemy; and instinctively I felt that if the day were lost it would be through no fault of the royal body-guard.
It was not long before both parties had an opportunity of proving their mettle. On came the enemy fearlessly until they were well within range; and then a well-directed discharge of arrows did so much-execution that of the front ranks hardly a man was left standing. They wavered, as well they might, and for the first time halted. But only for a moment; and, rallying, they passed over the bodies of their slain comrades, and came steadily on. Unceasingly the arrows rained down upon them, ending the life of one man out of every three; but still forward they advanced—
Each stepping where his comrade stood,
The instant that he fell."
At length the gate was reached, and thereafter was enacted a scene similar to that already described, with the exception that the pitch was used before the enemy could have time to loosen a plate—viz., at once. As before, the assailants recoiled when the boiling liquid was poured down upon their heads; but, with a courage we hardly credited them with possessing, and which we could not but admire, they advanced a second time, and again were repulsed in the same way.
After these failures they drew off for a time, but they had no intentions of giving up the game altogether without another struggle. In a few minutes they formed up again in phalanx array, advanced slowly, as if to attack as before, and then, when they were within twenty yards of the gate, made a sudden rush and dashed their shields against it. But, being barricaded behind, it stoutly withstood the shock; and the rebels, now thoroughly discouraged, retired precipitately and for good, leaving more than two-thirds of their number on the ground.
"Hurrah! B'lŻp!" exclaimed my uncle; and the cry was taken up by the men. "They won't attack us a third time, we may be sure, and, if the rest have done as well, we are free to lay our plans for a coup-d'ťtat. Now we may as well see how our friends have succeeded."
So, taking with us fifty of our guards in case of need, we began our round of the citadel, paying Pellas and Eric the first visit. Here we were just in time to help them to beat off the rebels finally. The slaughter had been great at this causeway also, the assailants having made five or six most determined attacks, without, however, succeeding in forcing the gate.
We next visited the gate under the charge of the commander and Frank Lee, who, we found, had been comparatively little troubled. The enemy, demoralized by the effects of the archery, had halted within range, and stayed there so long that our archers had time to pick off their best men one by one. Then they had made a feeble charge forward; but, after losing half their remaining men, had retreated, without coming to close quarters at all.
At the fourth gate we found Timrac still in the throes of battle, and so our appearance was doubly welcome. Sirikisson's ammunition had been long expended, and, when we had supplied him, our united fire at such close quarters did not a little to turn the tide. After a severe struggle—the most severe, I think, of all—the enemy retired at this point also; and with a sigh of relief I told myself that the danger was over for the present. Timrac plainly thought the same, for, with a smile, he turned and thanked us for our devotion. As he did so we heard a warning shout from the soldiers; and, the next moment, the king gave a low cry and fell back into his Premier's arms, his shoulder pierced by an arrow. I turned, only in time to see Sirikisson firing at a man who was rapidly retreating. A report followed, and the man fell, shot through the brain.
Meanwhile, my uncle had been examining the king's wound, and now whispered the result to me in English.
"A poisoned arrow—he cannot live ten minutes.* We must get him into the palace without telling the soldiers of it." Then, to the guards: "The king is only slightly wounded, and will, I hope, soon recover. Let him be removed to the palace."
(*Deaths caused by poisoned arrows are not uncommon in Kisni‚, the poison used being exceedingly deadly, and also quick in taking effect. Indeed, blood once drawn, recovery is impossible.—D.D.)
The monarch, whose eyes were already becoming glazed, was lifted by four stalwart guardsmen, and carried by them to his own chamber. There, after the soldiers had been dismissed, he was examined more carefully by my uncle; but by this time it was evident to the most superficial observer that Timrac the king's hours were numbered. And so it proved: before his nephew Pellas and the other CaŽns had arrived, he expired without speaking a word—the victim, not of fair fight, but of the poisoned arrow of an unknown assassin.
I did not realize the full consequences of Timrac's death at the moment; and it was not until I noticed the grave looks of those around the death-bed that I had the least suspicion. The commander, Pellas, Eric, and the Sahib having joined my uncle and me, we sat down to consider the situation.
"The guards are loyal, and would have fought for Timrac to the death," said the first mentioned; "but I am afraid that as Pellas is not king, they will not fight for him in like manner."
"What, then, is to be done?" I asked.
"We have only one resource," he replied: "to keep the king's death a secret, and surrender on the best terms we can."
"I don't think," the Sahib said, "that will help us much. Asoka in his ultimatum announced that none of us would be spared; and Edwards, when he was dying, said the same. Only thou wast not mentioned, Rashuta, and so thou alone hast a chance."
"Thou art right," answered the commander; "to kill me would be to make every man of the guards his enemy; and thus, as a matter of policy, if as nothing else, I shall be pardoned. But ye—all of ye—must escape to the mountains; and after a time Asoka may see his way to pardon ye."
During the course of this conversation my uncle had been thinking deeply, and now he spoke.
"Thou sayest well, Rashuta," he said, "that we must escape. But to give us a chance of doing so in safety, the citadel must not be surrendered until to-morrow. Is it possible?"
"Perfectly so," was the reply. "The attack will not be renewed to-night; and the guards think the king only slightly wounded. But the secret cannot be kept longer than to-morrow morning, for then I must make terms with Asoka."
"It will not be required longer; if we escape at all, it must be to-night."
Both were evidently agreed that surrender was inevitable, and the fact that they were so awakened us to the imminence of our danger. Anxiously we awaited the unfolding of my uncle's plans.
"In short," he resumed, "we have only two courses. If we stay here we are certain to be killed—I think that is plain. Alternatively, if we flee in the manner I am about to describe, we have at least a chance of escape. So, all things considered, I think we should take the chance."
Eric, the Sahib, and I cordially agreed with him, and he continued:
"As you know, there is a small boat at the back of the palace for the use of the king; and at the other side of the fosse a flight of stairs. By means of these I propose to cross. Asoka may have a guard at the stairs—that is where the chance comes in; but, if so, we can only trust to fortune; and, if not, we are absolutely safe. But instead of taking to the mountains, as Rashuta proposes, I intend, with your concurrence, to leave Kisni‚ altogether, to visit the lands beyond the encircling mountains." (Aside, to us: "In fact, to return to England for good.") "I am enabled to do this by means of a subterranean passage which was discovered by a workman—now dead—some twenty years since, and known only to the late king and myself. Thus, if we can only elude Asoka, my knowledge of this passage will enable us to be in safety by morning; and if all is well, we shall be in India by Christmas!"
"But about Pellas?" I asked, glancing at the prince, who had not as yet joined in the discussion.
"I forgot him altogether," said Dadchierka; adding, in some perplexity, "What can we do?"
"I don't know—unless he goes with us."
This was an afterthought, suggested by some memory of a previous conversation in which Pellas had expressed a wish to accompany us home; and I blurted it out without thinking what I was saying. But it was taken up at once as the solution of the question.
"The very thing!" cried my uncle and my two friends in unison, while Rashuta echoed their words in Kisnian.
As for Pellas himself, who had been in a brown study, he now pulled himself together, so to speak, and seemed to take a sudden resolution. Then he spoke quietly:
"I will go with thee, Dadchierka, for three reasons. Firstly, if I stay I shall be killed by Asoka sooner or later, for he will not brook a claimant to his throne; and my life is too sweet for me to throw it away. Secondly ye are the only friends, save Rashuta, remaining to me. And, lastly, I would see thy wonderful land, and the other countries of the world, and be wise, which, surely, is better than to be killed. For these reasons I will go with ye, though it wrings my heart to tear myself for ever from the land of my forefathers."
And so it was settled that as soon as it was thoroughly dark that night, we—I, my uncle, Eric, Pellas, Frank Lee, Sirikisson, and Tray—should cross the fosse, and, if all went well, bid the land of Kisni‚ a long and last adieu.
The rest of the day was spent in sleep and in preparations for our departure. Concerning the latter, our first step was to weed from our luggage everything superfluous, and divide what remained into six loads. These mainly consisted of ammunition and food. Several of the guns we decided to leave behind, along with the less important of the instruments; but each of us took a rifle and a revolver. As for food, we could only carry enough with us to last us a week, but we hoped to make up for this by shooting some game.
The next question was how the two Kisnians were to be clad, it being clearly impossible for them to march several hundred miles in their robes. This was solved by my uncle donning a suit of Edwards', while Pellas, who was just my size, was accommodated with my spare things. They felt rather queer in them at first, no doubt, but the feeling soon wore off.
In addition, we took with us some substantial souvenirs of our stay in Kisni‚, for we were determined not to leave it empty- handed. At my uncle's suggestion we retained possession of such articles of our CaŽn-pahrs as were portable under the circumstances, leaving behind only the head-pieces. We placed the girdles with their swords and daggers under our tunics, and the sandals amongst our loads. Nor were these all the valuables we took. Eric happened to remember the handful of diamonds Edwards— who little thought they would be of such small value to him—had taken at the treasure-chamber, and, on searching for them, they were found in a small bag in one of his pockets. There were thirty of them, each weighing at least a hundred carats. On the same principle Sirikisson took the pahr lately belonging to our dead comrade.
"If we escape," remarked Eric, "we shall have been the means of lessening the State's CaŽn-pahrs by six; and what on earth will be the consequence?"
"Probably the reduction of the number of the CaŽns to twenty- four," answered Pellas.
At last the hour arrived at which it had been decided to make our dash for liberty. Everything was propitious—the night dark and stormy, the citadel quiet as a city of the dead, and the camps on shore apparently the same. The boat was silently brought round to a convenient window, and our loads placed on board, as also a bunch of resinous torches, with which the foresight of the commander had provided us. In addition we had the small bull's- eye lantern which we had brought with us from England. The boat loaded, Tray, securely muzzled, took his place on the top of the luggage, and we were ready.
Previous to starting, however, we took a cordial farewell of Rashuta, the commander of the bodyguard, who was the only witness of our departure. For him the three of us, and especially Eric, had come to entertain a genuine affection; by my uncle and Pellas he was regarded as a son or a brother; and so we parted from him with anything but joyful feelings. As each of us, before stepping into the boat, wrung his hand heartily, he could only say:
"Farewell! May Val-Ena bless ye to all time, and guide ye to your journey's end in safety!"
Then we pushed off, and began to row across the four hundred and fifty yards of water with a little noise as possible. It was tedious work, for the boat was so heavily laden that the gunwale almost touched the water; but inch by inch it was accomplished, until we were steered alongside the steps. We strained our eyes in an effort to make out if there was any one on the shore; but the darkness was of such intensity that we could see nothing.
"Carefully, now," whispered my uncle; "our lives depend upon it. Let every one shoulder his load and have his revolver ready. Have you the dog in hand, Douglas? Now, to the top of the stairs, and wait for me. I must sink the boat!"
We did as we were commanded, and in two minutes were rejoined by our leader, who reported that he had accomplished his task safely. Then, he leading, and Pellas bringing up the rear, we moved cautiously forward, holding our breaths, and apprehensive at every step of running against some of Asoka's soldiers. Nor was the fear unfounded; for, before we had gone a hundred yards, we heard my uncle's warning whisper.
Quickly we closed up, ready for the worst, and he continued:
"They are right in front of us—apparently a whole regiment of them. Stay here while I move forward to reconnoitre, and don't make a movement for your lives!"
And so saying, He disappeared into the darkness.
IN a few minutes my uncle reappeared, gliding out of the darkness like a shadow of the night.
"A large camp of them," he reported, in a whisper, "but apparently all asleep; and with great care we may manage to pass through them. But the least noise, and we are dead men. So, for heaven's sake, Douglas, keep that dog quiet. Ready? Then follow me."
In single file, and with bated breath, we followed him closely as he cut to the right, and, walking with the greatest care, made directly for the enemy. In a minute we were amongst them, and on every side of us were dark, indistinct masses, representing row upon row of sleeping soldiers, each wrapped in his own cloak. Through these we threaded our way, now in one direction and again in another, striving with moderate success to prevent ourselves stumbling over the recumbent figures. Every moment as we glided past we expected to hear the alarm given; but the Kisnians slept well, and everything was as silent as the grave. At length we were almost free, and were becoming a little easier in our minds, when a warning "Hist!" from my uncle caused us to halt, and thereafter, following his example, to drop to the ground. Not a couple of yards from where we lay, we could just see in the darkness the outline of the standing figure of a soldier, who had evidently been roused by our approach. For a few seconds we lay in the greatest suspense, knowing that the slightest circumstance would turn the scale against us; but, fortunately, after a look round, the man again lay down, and soon his deep breathing told us that he was asleep. Then on we glided until we had passed the last of the rebels and were safe, thanks to the fact that sentries had been considered superfluous by the officers of Asoka's army.
Once beyond the camp, we lost no time in crossing the broad space between the fosse and the streets of Dhama, which, the Kisnians being anything but night-birds, were completely deserted at that hour. Under the shadow of the first house we paused to get our marching-orders, as Eric put it.
"These are easily given," said our leader. "The entrance to the passage I spoke of is from a building with which you are all acquainted—the prison on the slope of the first Smoking Mountain; and thither we must go by the shortest route and as fast as we can. Luckily, there are no policemen in Dhama to ask embarrassing questions. And now let us be moving."
Half an hour's brisk walking brought us to the outskirts of the city, and, passing through the gate which is never shut unless when the place is invested by an enemy, we shortly afterwards reached the foot of the mountain. Here my uncle produced the keys of the prison, of which, as "Punisher of Evil- doers," he was ex officio the possessor; and with one of them he opened the gate of the first courtyard.
Climbing the vine-bordered path, we came to the point from which we had first had a general view of the Mountain Kingdom; and now again, as we were leaving it, we turned for a moment, though the darkness hid everything from our view. Here we bade the country farewell, so to speak; and although we were in a sense glad to get away, we could not altogether rid ourselves of a sneaking feeling of fondness for it. Such had been the attraction and novelty of everything, indeed, that our whole stay in Kisni‚ had acted upon us like a tonic, and this effect was not lessened, but rather increased, by our abrupt departure.
"This is probably the last we shall ever see of Kisni‚—though it's not much we see of it at present," said Eric; "and I for one can honestly say that, barring Asoka, I'm sorry to leave the place."
"And I the same," said the Sahib; "for, somehow, I had got to like both the people and the country."
As for Pellas, he gazed down into the darkness as long as he could, and I think I can realize his feelings at leaving, for once and all, his native land. The wrench must have been a terribly severe one—how severe I cannot tell; but as he turned away there was a suspicious lump in his throat which kept him silent until we had turned our backs, and for ever, upon the Land of the Smoking Mountains.
Then we entered the second courtyard, and so passed into the vestibule of the prison, which seemed to be entirely deserted. Here the lantern was lit, and my uncle led the way to a room at the back of the building, built against the side of the mountain. The walls, as is usual in Kisni‚, were composed of large flags of dressed stone, alternating with pillars; and one of those flags, on being manipulated by my uncle, swung round on a pivot, disclosing the way by which we were expected to depart.
"Light the torches," said our leader.
We did so, and saw below us nothing but steps as far as the light penetrated.
"There should be five hundred steps," said my uncle; "so the artisan who discovered the passage told me, and he is the only man, I suppose, who ever explored it. In repairing the flags he accidentally found out the secret, and told only me and the king. He died shortly afterwards, so that now nobody in Kisni‚ has the secret. But we had better begone at once, in case Asoka should track us, though, to be sure, he cannot track us far."
"No," said Eric; "he'll think that, like the lover of Lenorť, we've 'dissolved at once in empty air.'"
So, each bearing his torch so that its light was thrown as much in advance as possible, we began our downward progress, and the slab swung back into its place behind us. The steps, which, after the twentieth, were cut out of the solid rock, were terribly steep, and it required an effort to preserve our equilibrium. But at length the bottom was reached—and, as the workman had said, there were exactly five hundred steps—and we entered a narrow passage striking in a south-westerly direction. Whether it was the work of man or of Nature we had no time to determine; possibly it was a natural passage broadened and levelled by human agency. The air in it was very pure, considering the situation, and we felt not the slightest inconvenience from it.
For fully two hours we hurried along this subterranean tunnel, and then, as it began to broaden out, we saw unmistakable signs of man's work in the smoothness of the floor, some parts of which were altogether artificial. At this point, too, we first heard a distant murmur, which grew louder and louder as we advanced, until there could be no mistake that it was the sound of rushing water. What new wonder were we about to see? we asked ourselves as we hurried forward, the passage now widening out to such an extent that we could no longer see the walls on either side.
"Good heavens! look there!" suddenly cried Eric, who was leading; and we pulled up, just in time to escape a wetting, if nothing worse.
By the light of the torches we saw at our feet a dark, wine- coloured flood rushing tumultuously along, and evidently carrying with it an immense body of water. How wide it was we could not make out, for the other side was beyond our narrow circle of light; but its whole effect in that underground tunnel, under the gleam of our torches, was at once eerie and awe-inspiring—as if, one could not help thinking, it was one of the fabled rivers of the lower regions.
"How on earth has a river of such a size got here?" I asked, as we stood gazing at the water swirling past.
"Don't you see?" said Eric. "Why, man it must be the Mysterious River!"
"Mr. Trevanion is right," said my uncle. "It is the river by which you reached the mountains."
"And where does it go to?"
"That is more than I can tell, but I conjecture that it has something to do with the Smoking Mountains. You see that it makes directly for them, so that I shouldn't be surprised if it were a sort of feeder. Apropos, the natives have a legend that the river was formed by their ancestors long ago, and that when it had been made from the lake where it rises to the mountains, it was cursed by Val-Ena, who sent it underground, and at the same time raised the Smoking Mountains. Perhaps some great convulsion of Nature gave rise to the legend, but I don't know what amount of fact there is in it. However, it is here—"
"And seems to block our progress somewhat," interposed Eric, "for I see no means of crossing."
"My informant provided for that," replied my uncle. "Six hundred yards down, he said, it narrows to fifteen feet, with a rock in the middle and at this place we must cross—there is no other. So let us search for it ."
With that he led the way down the stream, which, sure enough, did narrow until we could see the opposite bank; but, of course, the river rushed on much more turbulently than before—so much so, indeed, that our ears were deafened by the noise.
"It must be about here," said our leader, coming to a full stop. "Yes; here it is. And look here, Douglas! what on earth's this?"
I hurried up, and saw that my uncle was indicating a narrow point of the channel, with, in the middle of it, a pinnacle of rock as sharp as a spear. But this was not all. Wedged in by the two banks, its course stopped by the rock, was a something which rose and fell as the water swept on under it; but what it was I could not at first make out in the dim light. Then suddenly I recognized it—it was the portion of our raft which had been carried over the falls!
Hastily I called to Eric, the Sahib, and Sirikisson, and one by one, as they came up, they confirmed me in my opinion.
"It is the old boat, by Jove!" said Eric. "I recognize it, though it's upside down. But, I say, our joinery is really a credit to us!"
And, truly, it seemed wonderful that the craft should have sustained the many buffets it must have received until it had been pulled up short at this point; and still more wonderful that we, fleeing for our lives, should come to that place in such a manner! But by this time we were past wonder, and, besides, we wished to put as many miles as possible between ourselves and Asoka; and so, instead of conjecturing on the subject, we prepared to cross the underground river as best we might.
This, however, was no easy matter, and for the life of me I cannot imagine how the workman crossed—if, that is, he crossed at all. As a leap, it was rather too far; while the rock in the middle being, as I have said, as sharp as a spear, was of little use. We ourselves might have been in a fix had we not had the raft, which; though not so stable as we should have liked, was still firm enough to lessen the danger by seventy-five per cent.
"Now, then," cried my uncle, "volunteers to the fore! Who goes first?"
A pause, nobody caring for the post of honour. Then sturdy little Sirikisson spoke up.
"I am light, sahib," he said; "let me go."
There were no objections.
"Keep to the right, Sirikisson," said my uncle, "and do not go too fast."
The Ghoorka nodded assent, and then, stepping upon the heaving and slippery planks, began cautiously to cross. Every moment, as the raft bobbed up and down, we expected to see him lose his balance, and were prepared to go to the rescue; but he kept his position well, and always managed to recover himself before falling. In this way he accomplished the precarious journey, and landed safely on the other side.
The Sahib and Eric went next, followed by Pellas, who had one very narrow shave, and only saved himself by a hair's breadth.
"Now, Douglas, go ahead!" said my uncle; and I followed my companions, with Tray dutifully at my heels. As may be supposed, it was no easy matter crossing (at least to me, but Tray seemed quite at home)—indeed, I have done few things more difficult in my day; but when it is a matter of life or death, "impossible" is a word one doesn't know. I managed it, but I may safely say I was glad to get to the solid rock again.
My uncle was the last to come over, which he did as well as any of us; and then we turned our backs upon the river, and strode on. Soon the noise of the water had dwindled down to a musical murmur, and then it faded away altogether.*
(* The underground river also, no doubt, affords an explanation of the curious rumbling sound heard overhead in Kisni‚.—D.D.)
The passage again gradually narrowed, and became more and more steep and uphill as we went on. A stiff walk of three hours, during which we must have covered at least ten miles, brought us into the open air by means of a hole perched away up on the face of the cliff. We clambered down at some risk to life and limb, and when we reached the ground, found ourselves once more outside the Mountain Kingdom, though not at the same place as before.
Here we breakfasted, and then in full council decided to strike south-west, so as to reach Kashmir, if possible. Then on again, and before noon we had seen the last of the high mountains which encircle the land of Kisni‚.
IT is not my intention to describe minutely our return journey after taking French leave of the Mountain Kingdom, for, now that we have left that country behind,—
"Why, then, a final note prolong,
Or lengthen out a closing song,
Unless to bid the gentles speed,
Who long have listed to my rede?"
Suffice it, then, to say, that for hardships and perils this journey fully equalled, if not surpassed, our first one across Thibet; but the incidents were so much of the same character, that to narrate them would merely be to repeat what has already been told. The route was, if anything, worse; the country was as poor and barren in game and everything else as it could well be; and, to make matters worse, our food gave out long before we were in sight of civilization. Then the severe winter came on, and for a time it was a matter of "touch-and-go." But we struggled on somehow, knowing that perseverance has its own reward; and at length, just as we were at our last resources, we fell in with a company of Thibetan traders on their way to Kashmir. Thereafter we were, comparatively speaking, in clover, and the remainder of our journey was accomplished with some comfort.
We reached Leh as November was wearing on to December; and here we parted with the kind-hearted traders, after suitably recompensing them for their services. At the first telegraph- station I wired a message to my mother, telling her of our safety, and letting her know what to expect.
The railway—at which Pellas, though he tried not to show it, was at first mightily afraid—soon whirled us eastward to Calcutta, which had been fixed upon as the place of breaking-up, if such a thing was inevitable. Pellas, as may be supposed, was in a perpetual state of wonder during our passage through the north-west provinces and Bengal; but he was not altogether sure that some of the "triumphs of science" of the nineteenth century were really improvements on Nature.
"No, Maritaba," he said to me, "the people of Kisni‚ have not such wonders as these; but the want of them does not prevent them from being happier and more contented than the folks of this country."
And, no doubt, there is some truth in what he said, for the Kisnians are undoubtedly more contented than, and at least as high in the scale of civilization as, any other Asiatic nation.
At Calcutta my uncle proposed that we should put all our valuables into one lot, and divide it amongst us in equal proportions. This was agreed to, and not till then did we discover that he and Pellas (who originally proposed the idea) had put in diamonds of treble the value of those of the rest of us. When the gems had been valued, we found that we were exceedingly rich—quite rich enough, in fact, to satisfy the utmost wishes of any of us.
We spent Christmas all together in Calcutta, and then the first parting took place, Frank Lee and Sirikisson going off to Nepaul, while the rest of us set sail on board our old acquaintance, the Victoria, for London. Sirikisson speaks of founding a family of his own, and becoming in time the Rajah Sirikisson; but I do not think he will ever leave the Sahib, who, by-the-by, was not long in paying a flying visit to us in the old country.
In the early spring we arrived in England—a very different England from that which my uncle had left a quarter of a century before. There were great rejoicings at Airth and Loch Eyt over our return, and especially over that of "the late Alister Douglas Dalziel," the monument to whom in the family burying-place has since been removed.
Pellas, being a man of much intelligence, lost no time in becoming conversant with English history, manners, and customs; and now, at the time of writing, he speaks of entering Parliament as the exponent of his own peculiar views.
As for Eric and Tray, they are still in the ranks of the living, and occasionally make their presence known. The former, as of yore, is the most popular man in the county, and is always (when at home) in much request as a raconteur. The latter, for his part, is the same old dog, barking and frisking his way through the world, beloved by all sorts and conditions of people. But I sometimes think that, like the rest of us, he has still a fancy for the land encircled by high mountains, and looks back regretfully upon the pleasant days spent there.
My task is done, and it only remains for me to bid farewell to those who have accompanied me thus far, and who, I trust, have found at least a little entertainment in this account of our various adventures while in search of, and when we had discovered, the land of Kisni‚. More than once since that time while wandering in divers parts of the world, a desire to pay another visit to the country has come over me; but, if our friend Asoka is still on the throne, as it may be presumed he is, it would be a rather risky venture. But the great continent is being rapidly opened up, and in the days to come some one may follow in our footsteps to the great barrier mountains, and have as good luck as we had in discovering the Mountain Kingdom.