"King - Of the Khyber Rifles"
by Talbot Mundy
Grand was thy good! Thy vision new!
Conquest? Ends of the Earth thy view?
To sow--to reap--to play God's game?
How many Cæsars did that same
Until the great, grim Reaper came?
Who ploughs with death shall garner rue,
And under all skies is nothing new.
TELLING the story afterward King never made any effort to describe his own sensations. It was surely enough to state what he saw, after a breath less climb among the rat-runs of a mountain with his imagination fired already by what had happened in the Cavern of Earth's Drink.
The leather curtains slipped through his fingers and closed behind him with the clash of rings on a rod. But he was beyond being startled. He was not really sure he was in the world. He knew he was awake, and he knew he was glad he had left his shoes outside. But he was not certain whether it was the twentieth century, or fifty-five B. C., or earlier yet; or whether time had ceased. Very vividly in that minute there flashed before his mind Mark Twain's suggestion of the Transportation of Epochs.
The place where he was did not look like a cave, but a palace chamber, for the rock walls had been trimmed square and polished smooth; then they had been painted pure white, except for a wide blue frieze, with a line of gold-leaf drawn underneath it. And on the frieze, done in gold leaf too, was the Grecian lady of the lamps, always dancing. There were fifty or sixty figures of her, no two the same.
A dozen lamps were burning, set in niches cut in the walls at measured intervals. They were exactly like the two outside, except that their horn chimneys were stained yellow instead of red, suffusing everything in a golden glow.
Opposite him was a curtain, rather like that through which he had entered. Near to the curtain was a bed, whose great wooden posts were cracked with age. And it was at the bed he stared, with eyes that took in every detail but refused to believe.
In spite of its age it was spread with fine new linen. Richly embroidered, not very ancient Indian draperies hung down from it to the floor on either side. On it, above the linen, a man and a woman lay hand-in-hand, and the woman was so exactly like Yasmini, even to her clothing, and her naked feet, that it was not possible for a man to be self-possessed.
They both seemed asleep. It was as if Yasmini, weary from the dancing, had laid herself to sleep beside her lord. But who was she? And why did he wear Roman armor? And why was there no guard to keep intruders out?
It was minutes before he satisfied himself that the man's breast did not rise and fall under the bronze armor and that the woman's jeweled gauzy stuff was still. Imagination played such tricks with him that in the stillness he imagined he heard breathing.
After he was sure they were both dead, he went nearer, but it was a minute yet before he knew the woman was not she. At first a wild thought possessed him that she had killed herself.
The only thing to show who he had been were the letters S. P. Q. R. on a great plumed helmet, on a little table by the bed. But she was the woman of the lamp-bowls and the frieze. A life-size stone statue in a corner was so like her, and like Yasmini too, that it was difficult to decide which of the two it represented.
She had lived when he did, for her fingers were locked in his. And he had lived two thousand years ago, because his armor was about as old as that, and for proof that he had died in it part of his breast had turned to powder inside the breastplate. The rest of his body was whole and perfectly preserved.
Stern, handsome in a high-beaked Roman way, gray on the temples, firm-lipped, he lay like an emperor in harness. But the pride and resolution on his face were outdone by the serenity of hers. Very surely those two had been lovers.
Something--could not decide what--about the man's appearance kept him staring for ten minutes, holding his breath unconsciously and letting it out in little silent gasps. It annoyed him that he could not pin down the elusive thing; and when he went on presently to be curious about more tangible things, it was only to be faced with the unexplainable at every turn.
How had the bodies been preserved, for instance? They were perfect, except for that one detail of the man's breast. The air was full of the perfume he had learned to recognize as Yasmini's, but there was no sniff about the bodies of pitch or bitumen, or of any other chemical Nor was there any sign of violence about them, or means of telling how they died, or when, except for the probable date of the man's armor.
Both of them looked young and healthy--the woman younger than thirty--twenty-five at a guess--and the man perhaps forty, perhaps forty-five.
He bent over them. Every stitch of the man's clothing had decayed in the course of centuries, so that his armor rested on the naked skin, except for a dressed leather kilt about his middle. The leather was as old as the curtains at the entrance, and as well preserved.
But the woman's silken clothing was as new as the bedding; and that was so new that it had been woven in Belfast, Ireland, by machinery and bor eth mark of the firm that made it!
Yet, they both died at about the same time, or how could their fingers have been interlaced? And some of the jewelry on the woman's clothes was very ancient as well as priceless.
He looked closer at the fingers for signs of force and suddenly caught his breath. Under the woman's flimsy sleeve was a wrought gold bracelet, smaller than that one he himself had worn in Delhi and up the Khyber--exactly like the little one that Yasmini wore on her wrist in the Cavern of Earth's Drink! He raised the loose sleeve to look more closely at it.
The sleeve overlay the man's forearm, and the movement laid bare another bracelet, on the man's right wrist. Size for size, this was the same as the one that had been stolen from himself.
Memory prompted him. He felt its outer edge with a finger-nail. There was the little nick that he had made in the soft gold when he struck it against the cell bars in the jail at the Mir Khan Palace!
That put another thought in his head. It was less than two hours since Yasmini danced in the arena. It might well be much less than that since she had taken off her bracelets. He laid a finger on the dead man's stone-cold hand and let it rest so for a minute. Then, running it slowly up the wrist he touched the gold. It was warm. He repeated the test on the woman's wrist. Hers was warm, too. Both bracelets had been worn by a living being within an hour--
"Probably within minutes!"
He muttered and frowned in thought, and then suddenly jumped backward. The leather curtain near the bed had moved on its bronze rod.
"Aren't they dears?" a voice said in English behind him. "Aren't they sweet?"
He had jumped so as to face about, and somebody laughed at him. Yasmini stood not two arms' lengths away, lovelier than the dead woman because of the merry life in her, young and warm, aglow, but looking like the dead woman and the woman of the frieze--the woman of the lamp-bowls--the statue--come to life, speaking to him in English more sweetly than if it had been her mother tongue. The English abuse their language. Yasmini caressed it and made it do its work twice over.
Being dressed as a native, he salaamed low. Knowing him for what he was, she gave him the senna-stained tips of her warm fingers to kiss, and he thought she trembled when he touched them. But a second later she had snatched them away and was treating him to raillery.
"Man of pills and blisters!" she said, "tell me how those bodies are preserved! Spill knowledge from that learned skull of thine!"
He did not answer. He never shone in conversation at any time, having made as many friends as enemies by saying nothing until the spirit moved him. But she did not know that yet.
"If I knew for certain why those two did not turn to worms," she went on, "almost I would choose to die now, while I am beautiful! Think of the fogy museum men! (She called them by a far less edifying name, really, for the east is frank in that way, especially in its use of other tongues.) What would they say, think you, King sahib, if they found us two dead beside those two? Would not that be a mystery? Don't you love mysteries? Speak, man, speak! Has Khinjan struck you dumb?"
But he did not speak. He was staring at her arm, where two whitish marks on the skin betrayed that bracelets had been.
"Oh, those! They are theirs. I would not rob the dead, or the gods would turn on me. I robbed you, instead, while you slept. Fie, King sahib, while you slept!"
But her steel did not strike on flint. It was her eyes that flashed. He would have done better to have seemed ashamed, for then he might have fooled her, at least for a while. But having judged himself, he did not care a fig for her judgment of him. She realized that instantly and having found a tool that would not work, discarded it for a better one. She grew confidential.
"I borrow them," she explained, "but I put them back. I take them for so many days, and when the day comes--the gods like us to be exact! Once there was an Englishman to whom I lent the larger one, and he refused to return it. He wanted to wear, to bring him luck. Collins, of the Ghurkas. A cobra bit him."
King's eyes changed, for Collins of the Ghurkas had died in his two arms, saying never a word. He had always wondered why the native who ran in to kill the cobra had run away again and left Collins lying there after seeming to shake hands with him. Yasmini, watching his eyes and reading his memory, missed nothing.
"You saw!" she said excitedly. "You remember? Then you understand! You yourself were near death when I took the bracelet last night. The time was up. I would have stabbed you if you had tried to prevent me!"
Now he spoke at last and gave her a first glimpse of an angle of his mind she had not suspected.
"Princess," he said. He used the word with the deference some men can combine with effrontery, so that very tenderness has barbs. "You might have had that thing back if you had sent a messenger for it at any time. A word by a servant would have been enough."
"You could never have reached Khinjan then!" she retorted. Her eyes flashed again, but his did not waver.
"Princess," he said, "why speak of what you don't know?"
He thought she would strike like a snake, but she smiled at him instead. And when Yasmini has smiled on a man he has never been just the same man afterward. He knows more, for one thing. He has had a lesson in one of the finer arts.
"I will speak of what I do know," she said. "No, there is no need. Look! Look!"
She pointed at the bed--at the man on the bed--fingers locked in those of a woman who looked so like herself.
"You see--yet you do not see! Men are blind! Men look into a mirror, and see only whiskers they forgot to shave the day before. Women look once and then remember! Look again!"
He looked, knowing well there was something to be understood, that stared him in the face. But for the life of him he could not determine question or answer.
"What is in your bosom?" she asked him.
He put his hand to his shirt.
"Draw it out!" she said, as a teacher drills a child.
He drew out the gold-hilted knife with the bronze blade, with which a man had meant to murder him. He let it lie on the palm of his hand and looked from it to her and back again. The hilt might have been a portrait of her modeled from the life.
"Here is another like it," she said, stepping to the bedside. She drew back the woman's dress at the bosom and showed a knife exactly like that in King's hand. "One lay on her bosom and one on his when I found them!" she said. "Now, think again!"
He did think, of thirty thousand possibilities, and of one impossible idea that stood up prominent among them all and insisted on seeming the only likely one.
"I saw the knife in your bosom last night," she said, "and laughed so that I nearly wakened you. Man! Are you stupid? Will that ready wit of yours not work? Have I bewildered you? Is it my perfume? My eyes? My jewels? What is it? Think, man! Think!"
But if she wanted to make him guess aloud for her amusement she was wasting time. Had he known the answer he would have held his tongue. As he did not know it, he had all the more reason to wait--indefinitely, if need be. But interminable waiting was no part of her plan. Words were welling out of her.
"I gave a fool that knife to use, because he was afraid. It gave him courage. When he failed I knew it by telegram, and I sent another fool before the wires were cold, to kill him in the police-station cell for having failed. One fool has been stabbed and the English will hang the other. Then I sent twenty men to turn India inside out and find the knife again, for like the bracelets it has its place. And that is why I laughed. They are hunting. They will hunt until I call them off!"
"Why didn't you take it with the bracelet?" King asked her, holding it out. "Take it now. I don't want it."
She accepted it and laid it on the man's bronze armor. Then, however, she resumed it and played with it.
"Look again!" she said. "Think and look again!"
He looked, and he knew now. But he still preferred that she should tell him, and his lips shut tight.
"Why, having ordered your death, did I countermand the order when your life had been attempted once? Why, as soon as Rewa Gunga had seen you, did I order you to be aided in every way?"
Still he did not answer, although the solution to that riddle, too, was beginning to dawn on his consciousness. He suspected she would be annoyed if he deprived her of the fun of telling him, so that by being silent he played both her game and his own.
"Why did I order your death in the first place?"
The answer to that question was obvious, but she answered it for him.
"Because, since the sirkar insisted that one man must come with me to Khinjan, I preferred a fool, who could be lost on the way. I knew your reputation. I never heard any man call you a fool."
She laughed. He nodded. She was obviously telling truth.
"Can you guess why I changed my mind about you--wise man?"
She looked from him to the man on the bed and back to him again. Having solved her riddle, King had leisure to be interested in her eyes, and watched them analytically, like a jeweler appraising diamonds. They were strangely reminiscent, but much more changeable and colorful than any he had ever seen. They had the baffling trick of changing while he watched them.
"Having sent a man to kill you, why did I cease to want you killed? Instead of losing you on the way to Khinjan, why did I run risks to protect you after you reached here? Why did I save your life in the Cavern of Earth's Drink to-night? You do not know yet? Then I will tell you something else you do not know. I was in Delhi when you were! I watched and listened while you and Rewa Gunga talked in my house! I was in Rewa Gunga's carriage on the train that he took and you did not! I have learned at first hand that you are not a fool. But that was not enough! You had to be three things--clever and brave and one other. The other one you are! Brave you have proved yourself to be! Clever you must be, to trick your way into Khinjan Caves, even with Ismail at your elbow! That is why I saved your life--because you are those two things and--and--one other!"
She snatched a mirror from a little ivory table--a modern mirror--bad glass, bad art, bad workmanship, but silver warranted.
"Look in it, and then at him!" she ordered.
But he did not need to look. The man on the bed was not so much like himself as the woman was like her, but the resemblance seemed to grow under his eyes, as such things do. It was helped out by the stain his brother had applied to his face in the Khyber. King was the taller and the younger by several years, but the noses were the same, and the wrinkled foreheads; both men had the same firm mouth; both looked like Romans.
"How did you get that scar?"
She came closer and took his hand, holding it in both hers, and he felt the same thrill Samson knew. He steeled himself as Samson did not.
"A Mahsudi got me with a martini at long range in the blockade of 1902," he said dryly.
"Look! Did he get his from a spear or from an arrow?"
Almost in the same spot, also on the dead man's left hand, was a scar so nearly like it that it needed a third and a fourth glance to tell the difference. They both bent over the bed to see it, and she laid a hand on his shoulder. Touch and scent and confidence, all three were bewitching; all three were calculated, too! He could have killed her, and she knew he could have killed her, just as she knew he would not. Yet what right had she to know it!
She pronounced his given name as if she loved the word, standing straight again and looking into his eyes. There were high lights in hers that outgleamed the diamonds on her dress.
"Your gods and mine have done this, Athelstan. When the gods combine they lay plans well indeed!"
"I only know one God," he answered simply, as a man speaks of the deep things in his heart.
"I know of many! They love me! They shall love you, too! Many are better than one! You shall learn to know my gods, for we are to be partners, you and I!"
She laughed at him, looking like a goddess herself, but he frowned. And the more he frowned the better she seemed to like him.
"Partners in what, Princess?"
"Thou--Ismail dubbed thee Ready o' wit!--answer thine own question!"
She took his hand again, her eyes burning with excitement and mysticism and ambition like a fever. She seemed to take more than physical possession of him.
"What brought them here? Tell me that!" she demanded, pointing to the bed. "You think he brought her? I tell you she was the spur that drove him! Is it a wonder that men called her the 'Heart of the Hills'? I found them ten years ago and clothed her and put new linen on their bed, for the old was all rags and dust. There have always been hundreds--and sometimes thousands--who knew the secret of Khinjan Caves, but this had been a secret within a secret. Some one, who knew the secret before I, sawed those bracelets through and fitted hinges and clasps. The men you saw in the Cavern of Earth's Drink have no doubt I am the 'Heart of the Hills' come to life! They shall know thee as Him within a little while!"
She held his hand a little tighter and pressed closer to him, laughing softly. He stood as if made of iron, and that only made her laugh the more.
"Tales of the 'Heart of the Hills' have puzzled the Raj, haven't they, these many years? They sent me to find the source of them. Me! They chose well! There are not many like me! I have found this one dead woman who was like me. And in ten years, until you came, I have found no man like Him!"
She tried to look into his eyes, but he frowned straight in front of him. His native costume and Rangar turban did not make him seem any less a man. His jowl, that was beginning to need shaving, was as grim and as satisfying as the dead Roman's. She stroked his left hand with soft fingers.
"I used to think I knew how to dance!" she laughed. "For ten years I have taken those pictures of her for my model and have striven to learn what she knew. I have surpassed her! I used to think I knew how to amuse myself with men's dreams--until I found this! Then I dreamed on my own account! My dream was true, my warrior! You have come! Our hour has come!"
She tugged at his hand. He was hers, soul and harness, if outward signs could prove it.
"Come!" she said. "Is this my hospitality? You are weary and hungry. Come!"
She led him by the hand, for it would have needed brute force to pry her fingers loose. She drew aside the leather curtain that hung on a bronze rod near the bed, led him through it, and let it clash to again behind them.
Now they were in the dark together, and it was not comprehended in her scheme of things to let circumstance lie fallow. She pressed his hand and sighed, and then hurried, whispering tender words he could scarcely catch. When they burst together through a curtain at the other end of a passage in the rock, his skin was red under the tan and for the first time her eyes refused to meet his.
"Why did they choose that cave to sleep in?" she asked him. "Is not this a better one? Who laid them there?"
He stared about. They were in a great room far more splendid than the first. There was a fountain in the center splashing in the midst of flowers. They were cut flowers. The "Hills" must have been scoured for them within a day.
There were great cushioned couches all about and two thrones made of ivory and gold. Between two couches was a table, laden with golden plates and a golden jug, on pure white linen. There were two goblets of beaten gold and knives with golden handles and bronze blades. The whole room seemed to be drenched in the scent Yasmini favored, and there was the same frieze running around all four walls, with the woman depicted on it dancing.
"Come, we shall eat!" she said, leading him by the hand to a couch. She took the one facing him, and they lay like two Romans of the Empire with the table in between.
She struck a golden gong then, and a native woman came in who stared at King as if she had seen him before and did not like him. Except for the jewels, she was dressed exactly like Yasmini, which is to say that her gauzy stuff was all but transparent. But Yasmini uses raiment as she does her eyes; it is part of her, and of her art. The maid, who would have shone among many women, looked stiff and dull by contrast.
"I trust no Hill woman--they are cattle with human tongues," Yasmini said, frowning at the maid. "Even in Delhi there was only this one woman whom I dared bring here with me. You brought my men-servants! They are loyal, but as clumsy as the bears in their cold 'Hills'! Rewa Gunga brought me this one disguised as a man--you remember?"
She nodded to the servant, who clapped her hands. At once came a stream of Hillmen, robed in white, who carried sherbet in bottles cooled in snow and dishes fragrant with hot food. He recognized his own prisoners from the Mir Khan Palace jail, and nodded to them as they set the things down under the maid's direction. When they had done the woman chased them out and came and stood behind Yasmini with a fan, for though it was not too hot, she liked to have her golden hair blown into movement.
"My cook was a viceroy's," she said, beginning to eat. "He killed an officer who said the curry had pig's fat in it. That made him free of Khinjan but of not many other places! I have promised him a swim in Earth's Drink when he ever forgets his art!"
King ate, because a man can not talk and eat at once. It was true that he was hungry, that hunger is a piquant sauce, and that artist was an adjective too mild to apply to the cook. But the other reason was his chief one. Yasmini ate daintily, as if only to keep him company.
"You would rather have wine?" she asked suddenly. "All sahibs drink wine. Bring wine!" she ordered.
But King shook his head, and she looked pleased. He had thought she would be disappointed. When he had finished eating she drove the maid away with a aharp word; and when King jumped to his feet she led him toward the gold-and-ivory thrones, taking her seat on one of them and bidding him adjust the footstool.
"Would I might offer you the other!" she said, merrily enough, "but you must sit at my feet until our hearts are one!"
It was clear that she took no delight in easy victories, for she laughed aloud at the quizzical expression on his face. He guessed that if she could have conquered him at the first attempt a day would have found her weary of him; there was deliberate wisdom in his plan for the present to seem to let her win by little inches at a time. He reasoned that so she would tell him more than if he defied her outright.
He brought an ivory footstool and set it about a yard away from her waxen toes. And she, watching him with burning eyes, wound tresses of her hair around the golden dagger handle, making her jewels glitter with each movement.
"You pleased me by refusing wine," she said. "You please me--oh, you please me! Christians drink wine and eat beef and pig-meat. Ugh! Hindu and Muslim both despise them, having each a little understanding of his own. The gods of India, who are the only real gods, what do they think of it all! They have been good to the English, but they have had no thanks. They will stand aside now and watch a greater jihad than the world has ever seen! And the Hindu, who holds the cow sacred, will not support Christians who hold nothing sacred, against Muhammadans who loathe the pig! Christianity has failed! The English must go down with it--just as Rome went down when she dabbled in Christianity. Oh, I know all about Rome!"
"And the gods of India?" he asked, to keep her to the point now that she seemed well started.
He was there to learn, not to teach.
"I know them, too! I know them as nobody else does! They are neither Hindu, nor Muhammadan, but are older by a thousand ages than either foolishness! I love them, and they love me--as you shall love me, too! If they did not love both of us, we would not both be here! We must obey them!"
None of the East's amazing ways of courtship are ever tedious. Love springs into being on an instant and lives a thousand years inside an hour. She left no doubt as to her meaning. She and King were to love, as the East knows love, and then the world might have just what they two did not care to take from it.
His only possible course as yet was the defensive, and there is no defense like silence. He was still.
"The sirkar," she went on, "the silly sirkar fears that perhaps Turkey may enter the war. Perhaps a jihad may be proclaimed. So much for fear! I know! I have known for a very long time! And I have not let fear trouble me at all!"
Her eyes were on his steadily, and she read no fear in his, either, for none was there. In hers he saw ambition--triumph already--excitement--the gambler's love of all the hugest risks. Behind them burned genius and the devilry that would stop at nothing. As the general had told him in Peshawur, she would dar open Hell's gate and ride the devil down the Khyber for the fun of it.
"Au diable, diable et demie!" the French say; and like most French proverbs it is a wise one. But whence the devil and a half should come to thwart her was not obvious.
"I must be a devil and a half," he told himself, and very nearly laughed aloud at the idea. She mistook the sudden humor in his eyes for admiration of herself, being used to that from men.
"Listen, while I tell you all from the beginning! The sirkar went me to discover what may be this 'Heart of the Hills' men talk about. I found these caves--and this! I told the sirkar a little about the Caves, and nothing at all about the Sleepers. But even at that they only believed the third of what I said. And I--back in Delhi I bought books--borrowed books--sent to Europe for more books--and hired babu Sita Ram to read them to me, until his tongue grew dry and swollen and he used to fall asleep in a corner. I know all about Rome! Days I spent--weeks!--months!--listening to the history of their great Cæsar, and their little Cæsars--of their conquests and their games! It was good, and I understood it all! Rome should have been true to the old gods, and they would have been true to her! She fell when she fooled with Christianity!"
She was speaking dreamily now, with her chin resting on a hand and an elbow on the ivory arm of the throne, remembering as she told her story. And it meant so much to her, she was so in earnest, that her voice conjured up pictures for King to see.
"When I had read enough I came back here to think. I knew enough now to be sure that the Sleeper is a Roman, and the 'Heart of the Hills' a Grecian maid. She is like me. That is why I know she drove him to make an empire, choosing for a beginning these 'Hills' where Rome had never penetrated. He found her in Greece. He plunged through Persia to build a throne for her! I have seen it all in dreams, and again in the crystal! And because I was all alone, I saw that I would need all the skill I could learn, and much patience. So I began to learn to dance as she danced, using those pictures of her as a model. I have surpassed her! I can dance better than she ever did!
"Between times I would go to Delhi and dance there a little, and a little in other places--once indeed before a viceroy, and once for the king of England--and all men--the king, too!--told me that none in the world can dance as I can! And all the while I kept looking for the man--the man who should be like the Sleeper, even as I am like her whom he loved!
"Many a man--many and many a man I have tried and found wanting! For I was impatient in spite of resolutions. I burned to find him at once, and begin! But you are the first of all the men I have tested who answered all the tests! Languages--he must speak the native tongues. Brave he must be--and clever--resembling the Sleeper in appearance. I began to think long ago that I must forego that last test, for there was none like the Sleeper until you came. And when this world war broke--for it is a world war, a world war I tell you!--I thought at last that I must manage all alone. And then you came!
"But there were many I tried--many--especially after I abandoned the thought that the men must resemble the Sleeper. There was a Prince of Germany who came to India on a hunting trip. You remember?"
King pricked up his ears and allowed himself to grin, for in common with many hundred other men who had been lieutenants at the time, he would once have given an ear and an eye to know the truth of that affair. The grin transformed his whole appearance, until Yasmini beamed on him.
"I'm listening, Princess!" he reminded her.
"Well--he came--the Prince of Germany--the borrower!"
"Borrower of what, Princess?"
"Of wit! Of brains! Of platitudes! Of reputation! There came a crowd with him of such clumsy plunderers, asking such rude questions, that even the sirkar could not shut its ears and eyes!
"I did not know all about sahibs in those days. I thought that, although this man is what he is, yet he is a prince, and perhaps I can fire him with my genius. I could have taught him the native tongues. I thought he had ambition, but I learned that he is only greedy. You see, I was foolish, not knowing yet that in good time if I am patient my man will come to me! But I learned all about Germans--all!
"I offered him India first, then Asia, then the world--even as I now offer them to you. The sirkar sent him to see me dance, and he stayed to hear me talk. When I saw at last that he has the head and heart of a hyena I told him lies. But he, being drunk, told me truths that I remembered.
"Later he sent two of his officers to ask me questions, and they were little better than he, although a little better mannered. I told them lies, too, and they told me lies, but they told me much that was true.
"Then the prince came again, a last time. And I was weary of him. The sirkar was very weary of him, too. He offered me money to go to Germany and dance for the kaiser in Berlin. He said I will be shown there much that will be to my advantage. I refused. He made me other offers. So I spat in his face and threw food at him.
"He complained to the sirkar against me, sending one of his high officers to demand that I be whipped. So I told the sirkar some--not much, indeed, but enough--of the things he and his officers had told me. And the sirkar said at once that there was both cholera and bubonic plague, and he must go home!
"I have heard--three men told me--that he said he will never rest until I have been whipped! But I have heard that his officers laughed behind his back. And ever since that time there have always been Germans in communication with me. I have had more money from Berlin than would bribe the viceroy's council, and I have not once been in the dark about Germany's plans--although they have always thought I am in the dark.
"I went on looking for my man--studying all, Germans, English, Turks, French--and there was a Frenchman whom I nearly chose--and an American, a man who used the strangest words, and laughed at me. I studied Hindu, Muslim, Christian, every good-looking fighting man who came my way, knowing well that all creeds are one when the gods have named their choice.
"There came that old Bull-with-a-beard, Muhammad Anim, and for a time I thought he is the man, for he is a man whatever else he is. But I tired of him. I called him Bull-with-a-beard, and the 'Hills' took it up and mocked him, until the new name stuck. He still thinks he is the man, having more strength to hope and more will to will wrongly than any man I ever met, except a German. I have even been sure sometimes that Muhammad Anim is a German; yet now I am not sure.
"From all the men I met and watched I have learned all they knew! And I have never neglected to tell the sirkar sufficient of what men have told me, to keep the sirkar pleased with me!
"Nor have I ever played Germany's game--no, no! I have talked with a prince of Germany, and I understand too well! Who sups with a boar may get good roots to eat, but most endure pigs' feet in the trough! Pigs' hides make good saddles; I have used the Germans, as they think they have used me! I have used them ruthlessly.
"Knowing all I knew, and being ready except that I had not found my man yet, I dallied in India on the eve of war, watching a certain Sikh to discover whether he is the man or not. But he lacked imagination, and I was caught in Delhi when war broke and the English closed the Khyber Pass. Yet I had to come up the Khyber, to reach Khinjan.
"So it was fortunate that I knew of a German plot that I could spoil at the last minute. I fooled the Germans by letting the Sikh whom I had watched discover it. The Germans still believe me their accomplice. And the sirkar was so pleased that I think if I had asked for an English peerage they would have answered me soberly. A million dynamite bombs was a big haul for the sirkar! My offer to go to Khinjan and keep the 'Hills' quiet was accepted that same day!
"But what are a million dynamite bombs! Dynamite bombs have been coming into Khinjan month by month these three years! Bombs and rifles and cartridges! Muhammad Anim's men, whom he trusts because he must, hid it all in a cave I showed them, that they think, and he thinks, has only one entrance to it. Muhammad Anim sealed it, and he has the key. But I have the ammunition!
"There was another way out of that cave, although there is none now, for I have blocked it. My men, whom I trust because I know them, carried everything out by the back way, and I have it all. I will show it to you presently.
"I know all Muhammad Anim's plans. Bull-with-a-beard believes himself a statesman, yet he told me all he knows! He has told hem how Germany plans to draw Turkey in and to force Turkey to proclaim a jihad. As if I did not know it first, almost before the Germans knew it! Fools! The jihad will recoil on them! It will be like a cobra, striking whoever stirs it! A typhoon, smiting right and left! Christianity is doomed, and the Germans call themselves Christians! Fools! Rome called herself Christian--and where is Rome?
"But we, my warrior, when Muhammad Anim gets the word from Germany and gives the sign, and the 'Hills' are afire, and the whole East roars in the flame of the jihad--we will put ourselves at the head of that jihad, and the East and the world is ours!"
King smiled at her.
"The East isn't very well armed," he objected. "Mere numbers--"
"Numbers?" She laughed at him. "The West has the West by the throat! It is tearing itself! They will drag in America! There will be no armed nation with its hands free--and while those wolves fight, other wolves shall come and steal the meat! The old gods, who built these caverns in the 'Hills,' are laughing! They are getting ready! Thou and I--"
As she coupled him and herself together in one plan she read the changed expression of his face--the very quickly passing cloud that even the best-trained man can not control.
"I know!" she asserted, sitting upright and coming out of her dream to face facts as their master. She looked more lovely now than ever, although twice as dangerous. "You are thinking of your brother--of his head! That I am a murderess who can never be your friend! Is that not so?"
He did not answer, but his eyes may have betrayed something, for she looked as if he had struck her. Leaning forward, she held the gold-hilted dagger out to him, hilt first.
"Take it and stab me!" she ordered. "Stab--if you blame me for your brother's death! I should have known him for your brother if I had come on him in the dark!--His head might have come from your shoulders!--You were like a man holding up his own head, as I have seen in pictures in a book! I would never have killed him!"
Her golden hair fell all about his shoulders, and its scent was not intended to be sobering. She ran warm fingers through his hair while she held the knife toward him with the other hand.
"Take it and stab!"
"No," he said.
"No!" she laughed. "No! You are my warrior--my man--my well-beloved! You have come to me alone out of all the world! You would no more stab me than the gods would forget me!"
Their eyes were on each other's--deep looking into deep.
"Strength!" she said, flinging him away and leaning back to look at him, almost as a fed cat stretches in the sunlight. "Courage! Simplicity! Directness! Strength I have, too, and courage never failed me, but my mind is a river winding in and out, gathering as it goes. I have no directness--no simplicity! You go straight from point to point, my sending from the gods! I have needed you! Oh, I have needed you so much, these many years! And now that you have come you want to hate me because you think I killed your brother! Listen--I will tell you all I know about your brother."
Without a scrap of proof of any kind he knew she was telling truth unadorned--or at least the truth as she saw it. Eye to eye, there are times when no proof is needed.
"Without my leave, Muhammad Anim sent five hundred men on a foray toward the Khyber. Bull-with-a-beard needed an Englishman's head, for proof for a spy of his who could not enter Khinjan Caves. They trapped your brother outside Ali Masjid with fifty of his men. They took his head after a long fight, leaving more than a hundred of their own in payment.
"Bull-with-a-beard was pleased. But he was careless, and I sent my men to steal the head from his men. I needed evidence for you. And I swear to you--I swear to you by my gods who have brought us two together--that I first knew it was your brother's head when you held it up in the Cavern of Earth's Drink! Then I knew it could not be anybody else's head!"
"Why bid me throw it to them, then?" he asked her, and he was aware of her scorn before the words had left his lips.
She leaned back again and looked at him through lowered eyes, as if she must study him all anew. She seemed to find it hard to believe that he really thought so in the commonplace.
"What is a head to me, or to you--a head with no life in it--carrion!--compared to what shall be? Would you have known it was his head if you had thrown it to them when I ordered you?"
He understood. Some of her blood was Russian, some Indian.
"A friend is a friend, but a brother is a rival," says the East, out of world-old experience, and in some ways Russia is more eastern than the East itself.
"Muhammad Anim shall answer to you for your brother's head!" she said with a little nod, as if she were making concessions to a child. "At present we need him. Let him preach his jihad, and loose it at the right time. After that he will be in the way! You shall name his death--Earth's Drink--slow torture--fire! Will that content you?"
"No," he said, with a dry laugh.
"What more can you ask?"
"Less! My brother died at the head of his men. He couldn't ask more. Let Bull-with-a-beard alone."
She set both elbows on her knees and laid her chin on both hands to stare at him again. He began to remember long-forgotten schoolboy lore about chemical reagents, that dissolve materials into their component parts, such was the magic of her eyes. There were no eyes like hers that he had ever seen, although Rewa Gunga's had been something like them. Only Rewa Gunga's had not changed so. Thought of the Rangar no sooner crossed his mind than she was speaking of him.
"Rewa Gunga met you in the dark, beyond those outer curtains, did he not?" she asked.
"Did he tell you that if you pass the curtains you shall be told all I know?"
He nodded again, and she laughed.
"It would take time to tell you all I know! First, I think I will show you things. Afterward you shall ask me questions, and I will answer them."
She stood up, and of course he stood up, too. So, she on the footstool of the throne, her eyes and his were on a level. She laid hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes until he could see his own twin portraits in hers that were glowing sunset pools. Heart of the Hills? The Heart of all the East seemed to burn in her, rebellious!
"Are you believing me?" she asked him.
He nodded, for no man could have helped believing her. As she knew the truth, she was telling it to him, as surely as she was doing her skilful best to mesmerize him. But the Secret Service is made up of men trained against that.
"Come!" she said, and stepping down she took his arm.
She led him past the thrones to other leather curtains in a wall, and through them into long hewn passages from cavern into cavern, until even the Rock of Gibraltar seemed like a doll's house in comparison.
In one cave there were piles of javelins that had been stacked there by the Sleeper and his men. In another were sheaves of arrows; and in one were spears in racks against a wall. There were empty stables, with rings made fast into the rock where a hundred horses could have stood in line.
She showed him a cave containing great forges, where the bronze had been worked, with charcoal still piled up against the wall at one end. There were copper and tin ingots in there of a shape he had never seen.
"I know where they came from," she told him. "I have made it my business to know all the 'Hills.' I know things the Hillmen's great-great-great-grandfathers forgot! I know old workings that would make a modern nation rich! We shall have money when we need it, never fear! We shall conquer India while the English backs are turned ant he best troops are oversea. We will bring a hundred thousand slaves back here to work our mines! With what they dig from the mines, copper and gold and tin, we will make ready to buy the English off when they are free to turn this way again. The English will do anything for money! They will be in debt when this war is over, and their price will be less than now!"
She laughed merrily at him because his face showed that he did not appreciate that stricture. Then she called him her Warrior and her Well-beloved and took him down a long passage, holding his hand all the way, to show him slots cut in the floor for the use of archers.
"You entered Khinjan Caves by a tunnel under this floor, Well-beloved. There is no other entrance!"
By this time Well-beloved was her name for him, although there was no air of finality about it. It was as if she paved the way for use of Athelstan and that was a sacred name. It was amazing how she conveyed that impression without using words.
"The Sleeper cut these slots for his archers. Then he had another thought and set these cauldrons in place, to boil oil to pour down. Could any army force its way through by the route by which you entered?"
"No," he said, marveling at the ton-weight copper cauldrons, one to each hole.
"Even without rifles for the defense?"
"No," he said.
"And I have more than a thousand Mauser rifles here, and more than a million rounds of ammunition!"
"How did you get them?"
"I shall tell you that later. Come and see some other things. See and believe!"
She showed him a cave in which boxes were stacked in high square piles.
"Dynamite bombs!" she boasted. "How many boxes? I forget! Too many to count! Women brought them all the way from the sea, for even Muhammad Anim could not make Afridi riflemen carry loads. I have wondered what Bull-with-a-beard will say when he misses his precious dynamite!"
"You've enough in there to blow the mountain up!" King advised her. "If somebody fired a pistol in here, the least would be the collapse of this floor into the tunnel below with a hundred thousand tons of rock on top of it. There is no other way out?"
"Earth's Drink!" she said, and he made a grimace that set her to laughing.
But she looked at him darkly after that and he got the impression that the thought was not new to her, and that she did not thank him for the advice. He began to wonder whether there was anything she had not thought of--any loophole she had left him for escape--any issue she had not foreseen.
"Kill her!" a secret voice urged him. But that was the voice of the "Hills," that are violent first and regretful afterward. He did not listen to it. And then the wisdom of the West came to him, as epitomized by Cocker along the lines laid down by Solomon.
"It isn't possible to make a puzzle that has no solution to it. The fact that it's a puzzle is the proof that there's a key! Go ahead!"
It was the "Go ahead!" that Solomon omitted, and that makes Cocker such cheerful reading. King ceased conjecturing and gave full attention to his guide.
She showed him where eleven hundred Mauser rifles stood in racks in another cave, with boxes of ammunition piled beside them--each rifle and cartridge worth its weight in silver coin--a very rajah's ransom!
"The Germans are generous in some things--only in some things--very mean in others!" she told him. "They sent no medical stores, and no blankets!"
Past caves where provisions of every imaginable kind were stored, sufficient for an army, she led him to where her guards slept together with the thirty special men whom King had brought with him up the Khyber.
"I have five hundred others whom I dare trust to come in here," she said, "but they shall stay outside until I want them. A mystery is a good thing! IT is good for them all to wonder what I keep in here! It is good to keep this sanctuary; it makes for power!"
Pressing very close to him, she guided him down another dark tunnel until he and she stood together in the jaws of the round hole above the river, looking down into the cavern of Earth's Drink.
Nobody looked up at them. The thousands were too busy working up a frenzy for the great jihad that was to come.
Stacks of wood had been piled up, six-man high in the middle, and then fired. The heat came upward like a furnace blast, and the smoke was a great red cloud among the stalactites. Round and round that holocaust the thousands did their sword-dance, yelling as the devils yelled at Khinjan's birth. They needed no wine to craze them. They were drunk with fanaticism, frenzy, lust!
"The women brought that wood from fifty miles away!" Yasmini shouted in his ear; for the din, mingling with the river's voice, made a volcano chord. "It is a week's supply of wood! But so they are--so they will be! They will lay waste India! They will butcher and plunder and burn! It will be what they leave of India that we shall build anew and govern, for India herself will rise to help them lay her own cities waste! It is always so! Conquests are always so! Come!"
She tugged at him and led him back along the tunnel and through other tunnels to the throne room, where she made him sit at her feet again.
The food had been cleared away in their absence. Instead, on the ebony table there were pens and ink and paper.
She leaned back on her throne, with bare feet pressed tight against the footstool, staring, staring at the table and the pens, and then at King, as if she would compose an ultimatum to the world and send King to deliver it.
"I said I will tell you," she said slowly. "Listen!"
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