"King - Of the Khyber Rifles"
by Talbot Mundy
The only things which can not be explained are facts. So use 'em.
A riddle is proof there is a key to it. Nor is it a riddle when you've got the key.
Life is as simple as all that. -- COCKER.
DELHI boasts a round half-dozen railway stations, all of them designed with regard to war, so that to King there was nothing unexpected in the fact that the train had brought him to an unexpected station. He plunged into the crowd much as a man in the mood might plunge into a whirlpool,--laughing as he plunged, for it was the most intoxicating splurge of color, din and smell that even India, the many-peopled--even Delhi, mother of dynasties--ever had evolved.
The station echoed--reverberated--hummed. A roar went up of human voices, babbling in twenty tongues, and above that rose in differing degrees the ear-splitting shriek of locomotives, the blare of bugles, the neigh of horses, the bray of mules, the jingle of gun-chains and the thundering cadence of drilled feet.
At one minute the whole building shook to the thunder of a grinning regiment; an instant later it clattered to the wrought-steel hammer of a thousand hoofs, as led troop-horses danced into formation to invade the waiting trucks. Loaded trucks banged into one another and thunderclapped their way into the sidings. And soldiers of nearly every Indian military caste stood about everywhere, in what was picturesque confusion to the uninitiated, yet like the letters of an index to a man who knew. And King knew. Down the back fo each platform Tommy Atkins stood in long straight lines, talking or munching great sandwiches or smoking.
The heat smelt and felt of another world. The din was from the same sphere. Yet everywhere was hope and geniality and by-your-leave as if weddings were in the wind and not the overture to death.
Threading his way in and out among the motley swarm with a great black cheroot between his teeth and sweat running into his eyes from his helmet-band, Athelstan King strode at ease--at home--intent--amused--awake--and almost awfully happy. He was not in the least less happy because perfectly aware that a native was following him at a distance, although he did wonder how the native had contrived to pass within the lines.
The general at Peshawur had compressed about a ton of miscellaneous information into fifteen hurried minutes, but mostly he had given him leave and orders to inform himself; so the fun was under way of winning exact knowledge in spite of officers, not one of whom would not have grown instantly suspicious at the first asked question. At the end of fifteen minutes there was not a glib staff-officer there who could have deceived him as to the numbers and destination of the force entraining.
"Kerachi!" he told himself, chewing the butt of his cigar and keeping well ahead of the shadowing native. Always keep a "shadow" moving until you're ready to deal with him is one of Cocker's soundest rules.
"Turkey hasn't taken a hand yet--the general said so. No holy war yet. These'll be held in readiness to cross to Basra in case the Turks begin. While they wait for that at Kerachi the tribes won't dare begin anything. One or two spies are sure to break North and tell them what this force is for--but the tribes won't believe. They'll wait until the force has moved to Basra before they take chances. Good! That means no especial hurry for me!"
He did not have to return salutes, because he did not look for them. Very few people noticed him at all, although he was recognized once or twice by former messmates, and one officer stopped him with an out-stretched hand.
"Shake hands, you old tramp! Where are you bound for next? Tibet by any chance--or is it Samarkand this time?"
"Oh, hullo, Carmichael!" he answered, beaming instant good-fellowship. "Where are you bound for?" And the other did not notice that his own question had not been answered.
"Wish you luck!" laughed King, passing on. Every living man there, with the exception of a few staff-officers, believed himself en route for Europe; their faces said as much. Yet King took another look at the piles of stores and at the kits the men carried.
"Who'd take all that stuff to Europe, where they make it?" he reflected. "And what 'u'd they use camel harness for in France?"
At his leisure--in his own way, that was devious and like a string of miracles--he filtered toward the telegraph office. The native who had followed him all this time drew closer, but he did not let himself be troubled by that.
He whispered proof of his identity to the telegraph clerk, who was a Royal Engineer, new to that job that morning, and a sealed telegram was handed to him at once. The "shadow" came very close indeed, presumably to try and read over his shoulder from behind, but he side-stepped into a corner and read the telegram with his back to the wall.
It was in English, no doubt to escape suspicion; and because it was war-time, and the censorship had closed on India like a throttling string, it was not in code. So the wording, all things considered, had to be ingenious, for the Mirza Ali, of the Fort, Bombay, to whom it was addressed, could scarcely be expected to read more than between the lines. The lines had to be there to read between.
"Cattle intended for slaughter," it ran, "despatched Bombay on Fourteen down. Meet train. Will be inspected en route, but should be dealt with carefully on arrival. Cattle inclined to stampede owing to bad scare received North of Delhi. Take all precautions and notify Abdul." It was signed "Suliman."
"Good!" he chuckled. "Let's hope we get Abdul too. I wonder who he is!"
Still uninterested in the man who shadowed him, he walked back to the office window and wrote two telegrams; one to Bombay, ordering the arrest of Ali Mirza of the Fort, with an urgent admonition to discover who his man Abdul might be, and to seize him as soon as found; the other to the station in the north, insisting on close confinement for Suliman.
"Don't let him out on any terms at all!" he wired.
That being all the urgent business, he turned leisurely to face his shadow, and the native met his eyes with the engaging frankness of an old friend, coming forward with outstretched hand. They did not shake hands, for King knew better than to fall into the first trap offered him. But the man made a signal with his fingers that is known to not more than a dozen men in all the world, and that changed the situation altogether.
"Walk with me," said King, and the man fell into stride beside him.
He was a Rangar,--which is to say a Rajput who, or whose ancestors had turned Muhammadan. Like many Rajputs he was not a big man, but he looked fit and wiry; his head scarcely came above the level of King's chin, although his turban distracted attention from the fact. The turban was of silk and unusually large.
The whitest of well-kept teeth, gleaming regularly under a little black waxed mustache betrayed no trace of betel-nut or other nastiness, and neither his fine features nor his eyes suggested vice of the sort that often undermines the character of Rajput youth.
On second thoughts, and at the next opportunity to see them, King was not so sure that the eyes were brown, and he changed his opinion about their color a dozen times within the hour. Once he would even have sworn they were green.
The man was well-to-do, for his turban was of costly silk, and he was clad in expensive Jodpur riding breeches and spurred black riding boots, all perfectly immaculate. The breeches, baggy above and tight below, suggested the clean lines of cat-like agility and strength.
The upper part of his costume was semi-European. He was a regular Rangar dandy, of the type that can be seen playing polo almost any day at Mount Abu--that gets into mischief with a grace due to practise and heredity--but that does not manage its estates too well, as a rule, nor pay its debts in a hurry.
"My name is Rewa Gunga," he said in a low voice, looking up sidewise at King a shade to guilelessly. Between Cape Comorin and the Northern Ice guile is normal, and its absence makes the wise suspicious.
"I am Captain King."
"I have a message for you."
"From her!" said the Rangar, and without exactly knowing why, or being pleased with himself, King felt excited.
They were walking toward the station exit. King had a trunk check in his hand, but returned it to his pocket, not proposing just yet to let the Rangar overhear instructions regarding the trunk's destination; he was too good-looking and too overbrimming with personal charm to be trusted thus early in the game. Besides, there was that captured knife, that hinted at lies and treachery. Secret signs as well as loot have been stolen before now.
"I'd like to walk through the streets and see the crowd."
He smiled as he said that, knowing well that the average young Rajput of good birth would rather fight a tiger with cold steel than walk a mile or two. He drew fire at once.
"Why walk, King sahib? Are we animals? There is a carriage waiting--her carriage--and a coachman whose ears were born dead. We might be overheard in the street. Are you and I children, tossing stones into a pool to watch the rings widen?"
"Lead on, then," answered King.
Outside the station was a luxuriously modern victoria, with C springs and rubber tires, with horses that would have done credit to a viceroy. The Rangar motioned King to get in first, and the moment they were both seated the Rajput coachman set the horses to going like the wind. Rewa Gunga opened a jeweled cigarette case.
"Will you have one?" he asked with the air of royalty entertaining a blood-equal.
King accepted a cigarette for politeness' sake and took occasion to admire the man's slender wrist, that was doubtless hard and strong as woven steel, but was not much more than half the thickness of his own.
The Rajputs as a race are proud of their wrists and hands. Their swords are made with a hilt so small that none save a Rajput of the blood could possibly use one; yet there is no race in all warring India, nor any in the world, that bears a finer record for hard fighting and sheer derring-do. One of the questions that occurred to King that minute was why this well-bred youngster whose age he guessed at twenty-two or so had not turned his attention to the army.
The man had read his thoughts!
"Not quite tall enough. Besides--you are a soldier, are you not? And do you fight?"
He nodded toward a dozen water-buffaloes, that slouched along the street with wet goatskin mussuks slung on their blue flanks.
"They can fight," he said smiling. "So can any other fool!" Then, after a minute of rather strained silence: "My message is from her."
King accepted the rebuke with a little inclination of the head. He spoke as little as possible, because he was puzzled. He had become conscious of a puzzled look in the Rangar's eyes--of a subtle wonderment that might be intentional flattery (for Art and the East are one). Whenever the East is doubtful, and recognizes doubt, it is as dangerous as a hillside in the rains, and it only added to his problem if the Rangar found in him something inexplicable. The West can only get the better of the East when the East is too cock-sure.
"She has jolly well gone North!" said the Rangar suddenly, and King shut his teeth with a snap. He sat bolt upright, and the Rangar allowed himself to look amused.
"She was too jolly well excited to wait, sahib! She is of the North, you know. She loves the North, and the men of the 'Hills'; and she knows them because she loves them. There came a tar (telegram) from Peshawur, from a general, to say King sahib comes to Delhi; but already she had completed all arrangements here. She was in a great stew, I can assure you. Finally she said, "Why should I wait? Nobody could answer her."
He spoke English well enough. Few educated foreign gentlemen could have spoken it better, although there was the tendency to use slang that well-bred natives insist on picking up from British officers; and as he went on, here and there the native idiom crept through, translated. King said nothing, but listened and watched, puzzled more than he would have cared to admit by the look in the Rangar's eyes. It was not suspicion--nor respect. Yet there was a suggestion of both.
"At last she said, 'It is well; I will not wait! I know of this sahib. He is a man whose feet stand under him and he will not tread my growing flowers into garbage! He will be clever enough to pick up the end of the thread that I shall leave behind and follow it and me! He is a true hound, with a nose that reads the wind, or the general sahib never would have sent him!'--So she left me behind, sahib, to--to present to you the end of the thread of which she spoke."
King tossed away the stump of the cigarette and rolled his tongue round the butt of a fresh cheroot. The word "hound" is not necessarily a compliment in any of a thousand Eastern tongues and gains little by translation. It might have been a slip, but the East takes advantage of its own slips as well as of other peoples' unless watched.
The carriage swayed at high speed round three sharp corners in succession before the Rangar spoke again.
"She has often heard of you," he said then. That was not unlikely, but not necessarily true either. If it were true, it did not help to account for the puzzled look in the Rangar's eyes, that increased rather than diminished.
"I've heard of her," said King.
"Of course! Who has not? She has desired to meet you, sahib, ever since she was told you are the best man in your service."
King grunted, thinking of the knife beneath his shirt.
"She is very glad that you and she are on the same errand." He leaned forward for the sake of emphasis and laid a finger on King's hand. It was a delicate, dainty finger with an almond nail. "She is very glad. She is far more glad than you imagine, or than you would believe. King sahib, she is all bucked up about it! Listen--her web is wide! Her agents are here--there--everywhere, and she is obeyed as few kings have ever been! Those agents shall all be held answerable for you life, sahib,--for she has said so! They are one and all your bodyguard, from now forward!"
King inclined his head politely, but the weight of the knife inside his shirt did not encourage credulity. True, it might not be Yasmini's knife, and the Rangar's emphatic assurance might not be an unintentional admission that the man who had tried to use it was Yasmini's man. But when a man has formed the habit of deduction, he deduces as he goes along, and is prone to believe what his instinct tells him.
Again, it was as if the Rangar read a part of his thoughts, if not all of them. It is not difficult to counter that trick, but to do it a man must be on his guard, or the East will know what he has thought and what he is going to think, as many have discovered when it was too late.
"Her men are able to protect anybody's life from any God's number of assassins, whatever may lead you to think the contrary. From now forward your life is in her men's keeping!"
"Very good of her, I'm sure," King murmured. He was thinking of the general's express order to apply for a "passport" that would take him into Khinjan Caves--mentally cursing the necessity for asking any kind of favor,--and wondering whether to ask this man for it or wait until he should meet Yasmini. He had about made up his mind that to wait would be quite within a strict interpretation of his orders, as well as infinitely more agreeable to himself, when the Rangar answered his thoughts again as if he had spoken them aloud.
"She left this with me, saying I am to give it to you! I am to say that wherever you wear it, between here and Afghanistan, your life shall be safe and you may come and go!"
King stared. The Rangar drew a bracelet from an inner pocket and held it out. It was a wonderful, barbaric thing of pure gold, big enough for a grown man's wrist, and old enough to have been hammered out in the very womb of time. It looked almost like ancient Greek, and it fastened with a hinge and clasp that looked as if they did not belong to it and might have been made by a not very skilful modern jeweler.
"Won't you wear it?" asked Rewa Gunga, watching him. "It will prove a true talisman! What was the name of the Johnny who had a lamp to rub? Aladdin? It will be better than what he had! He could only command a lot of bogies. This will give you authority over flesh and blood! Take it, sahib!"
So King put it on, letting it slip up his sleeve out of sight,--with a sensation as the snap closed of putting handcuffs on himself. But the Rangar looked relieved.
"That is your passport, sahib! Show it to a Hill man whenever you suppose yourself in danger. The Raj might go to pieces, but while Yasmini lives--"
"Her friends will boast about her, I suppose!"
King finished the sentence for him because it is not considered good form for natives to hint at possible dissolution of the Anglo-Indian Government. Everybody knows that the British will not govern India forever, but the British--who know it best of all, and work to that end most fervently--are the only ones encouraged to talk about it.
For a few minutes after that Rewa Gunga held his peace, while the carriage swayed at breakneck speed through the swarming streets. They had to drive slower in the Chandni Chowk, for the ancient Street of the Silversmiths that is now the mart of Delhi was ablaze with crude colors, and was thronged with more people than ever since '57. There were a thousand signs worth studying by a man who could read them.
Watching and saying nothing, reached the conclusion that Delhi was in hand--excited undoubtedly, more than a bit bewildered, watchful, but in hand. Without exactly knowing how he did it, he grew aware of a certain confidence that underlay the surface fuss. After that the sea of changing patterns and raised voices ceased to have any particular interest for him and he lay back against the cushions to pay stricter attention to his own immediate affairs.
He did not believe for a second the lame explanation Yasmini had left
behind. She must have some good reason for wishing to be first up the Khyber, and he was very sorry indeed she had slipped away. It might be only jealousy, yet why should she be jealous? It might be fear--yet why should she be afraid?
It was the next remark of the Rangar's that set him entirely on his guard, and thenceforward whoever could have read his thoughts would have been more than human. Perhaps it is the most dominant characteristic of the British race that it will not defend itself until it must. He had known of that thought-reading trick ever since his ayah (native nurse) taught him to lisp Hindustanee; just as surely he knew that its impudent, repeated use was intended to sap his belief in himself. There is not much to choose between the native impudence that dares intrude on a man's thoughts, and the insolence that understands it, and is rather too proud to care.
"I'll bet you a hundred dibs," said the Rangar, "that she jolly well didn't fancy your being on the scene ahead of her! I'll bet you she decided to be there first and get control of the situation! Take me? You'd lose if you did! She's slippery, and quick, and like all women, she's jealous!"
The Rangar's eyes were on his, but King was not to be caught again. It is quite easy to think behind a fence, so to speak, if one gives attention to it.
"She will be busy presently fooling those Afridis," he continued, waving his cigarette. "She had fooled them always, to the limit of their bally bent. They all believe she is their best friend in the world--oh, dear yes, you bet they do! And so she is--so she is--but not in the way they think! They believe she plots with them against the Raj! Poor silly devils! Yet Yasmini loves them! They want war--blood--loot! It is all they think about! They are seldom satisfied unless their wrists and elbows are bally well red with other peoples' gore! And while they are picturing the loot, and the slaughter of unbelievers--(as if they believed anything but foolishness themselves!)--Yasmini plays her own game, for amusement and power--a good game--a deep game! You have seen already how India has to ask her aid in the 'Hills'! She loves power, power, power--not for its name, for names are nothing, but to use it. She loves the feel of it! Fighting is not power! Blood-letting is foolishness. If there is any blood spilt it is none of her doing--unless--"
"Unless what?" asked King.
"Oh--sometimes there were fools who interfered. You can not blame her for that."
"You seem to be a champion of hers! How long have you known her?"
The Rangar eyed him sharply.
"A long time. She and I played together when we were children. I know her whole history--and that is something nobody else in the world knows but she herself. You see, I am favored. It is because she knows me very will that she chose me to travel North with you, when you start to find her in the 'Hills'!"
King cleared his throat, and the Rangar nodded, looking into his eyes with the engaging confidence of a child who never has been refused anything, in or out of reason. King made no effort to look pleased, so the Rangar drew on his resources.
"I have a letter from her," he stated blandly.
From a pocket in the carriage cushions he brought out a silver tube, richly carved in the Kashmiri style and closed at either end with a tightly fitting silver cap. King accepted it and drew the cap from one end. A roll of scented paper fell on his lap, and a puff of hot wind combined with a lurch of the carriage springs came near to lose it for him; he snatched it just in time and unrolled it to find a letter written to himself in Urdu, in a beautiful flowing hand.
Urdu is perhaps the politest of written tongues and lends itself most readily to indirectness; but since he did not expect to read a catalogue of exact facts, he was not disappointed.
Translated, the letter ran:
"To Athelstan King sahib, by the hand of Rewa Gunga. Greeting. The bearer is my well-trusted servant, whom I have chosen to be the sahib's guide until Heaven shall be propitious and we meet. He is instructed in all that he need know concerning what is now in hand, and he will tell by word of mouth such things as ought not to be written. By all means let Rewa Gunga travel with you, for he is of royal blood, of the House of Ketchawa and will not fail you. His honor and mine are one. Praying that the many gods of India may heap honors on your honor's head, providing each his proper attribute toward entire ability to succeed in all things, but especially in the present undertaking.
"I am Your Excellency's humble servant,
He had barely finished reading it when the coachman took a last corner at a gallop and drew the horses up on their haunches at a door in a high white wall. Rewa Gunga sprang out of the carriage before the horses were quite at a standstill.
"Here we are!" he said, and King, gathering up the letter and the silver tube, noticed that the street curved here so that no other door and no window overlooked this one.
He followed the Rangar, and he was no sooner into the shadow of the door than the coachman lashed the horses and the carriage swung out of view.
"This way," said the Rangar over his shoulder. "Come!"
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