"King - Of the Khyber Rifles"
by Talbot Mundy
Lie to a liar, for lies are his coin.
Steal from a thief, for that is easy.
Set a trap for a trickster, and catch him at the first attempt.
But beware of the man who has no axe to grind.
-- EASTERN PROVERB.
IT WAS a musty smelling entrance, so dark that to see was scarcely possible after the hot glare outside. Dimly King made out Rewa Gunga mounting stairs to the left and followed him. The stairs wound backward and forward on themselves four times, growing scarcely any lighter as they ascended, until, when he guessed himself two stories at least above road level, there was a sudden blaze of reflected light and he blinked at more mirrors than he could count. They had been swung on hinges suddenly to throw the light full in his face.
There were curtains reflected in each mirror, and little glowing lamps, so cunningly arranged that it was not possible to guess which were real and which were not. Rewa Gunga offered no explanation, but stood watching with quiet amusement. He seemed to expect King to take a chance and go forward, but if he did he reckoned without his guest. King stood still.
Then suddenly, as if she had done it a thousand times before and surprised a thousand people, a little nut-brown maid parted the middle pair of curtains and said "Salaam!" smiling with teeth that were as white as porcelain. All the other curtains parted too, so that the whereabouts of the door might still have been in doubt has she not spoken and so distinguished herself from her reflections. King looked scarcely interested and not at all disturbed.
Balked of his amusement, Rewa Gunga hurried past him, thrusting the little maid aside, and led the way. King followed him into a long room, whose walls were hung with richer silks than any he remembered to have seen. In a great wide window to one side some twenty women began at once to make flute music. Silken punkahs swung from chains, wafting back and forth a cloud of sandalwood smoke that veiled the whole scene in mysterious, scented mist. Through the open window came the splash of a fountain and the chattering of birds, and the branch of a feathery tree drooped near by. It seemed that the long white wall below was that of Yasmini's garden.
"Be welcome!" laughed Rewa Gunga; "I am to do the honors, since she is not here. Be seated, sahib."
King chose a divan at the room's farthest end, near tall curtains that led into rooms beyond. He turned his back toward the reason for his choice. On a little ivory-inlaid ebony table about ten feet away lay a knife, that was almost the exact duplicate of the one inside his shirt. Bronze knives of ancient date, with golden handles carved to represent a woman dancing, are rare. The ability to seem not to notice incriminating evidence is rarer still--rarest of all when under the eyes of a native of India, for cats and hawks are dullards by comparison to them. But King saw the knife, yet did not seem to see it.
There was nothing there calculated to set an Englishman at ease. In spite of the Rangar's casual manner, Yasmini's reception room felt like the antechamber to another world, where mystery is atmosphere and ordinary air to breathe is not at all. He could sense hushed expectancy on every side--could feel the eyes of many women fixed on him--and began to draw on his guard as a fighting man draws on armor. There and then he deliberately set himself to resist mesmerism, which is the East's chief weapon.
Rewa Gunga, perfectly at home, sprawled leisurely along a cushioned couch with a grace that the West has not learned yet; but King did not make the mistake of trusting him any better for his easy manners, and his eyes sought swiftly for some unrhythmic, unplanned thing on which to rest, that he might save himself by a sort of mental leverage.
Glancing along the wall that faced the big window, he noticed for the first time a huge Afridi, who sat on a stool and leaned back against the silken hangings with arms folded.
"Who is that man?" he asked.
"He? Oh, he is a savage--just a big savage," said Rewa Gunga, looking vaguely annoyed.
"Why is he here?"
He did not dare let go of this chance side-issue. He knew that Rewa Gunga wished him to talk of Yasmini and to ask questions about her, and that if he succeeded to that temptation all his self-control would be cunningly sapped away from him until his secrets, and his very senses, belonged to some one else.
"What is he doing here?" he insisted.
"He? Oh, he does nothing. He waits," purred the Rangar. "He is to be your body-servant on your journey to the North. He is nothing--nobody at all!--except that he is to be trusted utterly because he loves Yasmini. He is Obedience! A big obedient fool! Let him be!"
"No," said King. "If he's to be my man I'll speak to him!"
He felt himself winning. Already the spell of the room was lifting, and he no longer felt the cloud of sandalwood smoke like a veil across his brain.
"Won't you tell him to come here to me?"
Rewa Gunga laughed, resting his silk turban against the wall hangings and clasping both hands about his knee. It was as a man might laugh who has been touched in a bout with foils.
"Oh!--Ismail!" he called, with a voice like a bell, that made King stare.
The Afridi seemed to come out of a deep sleep and looked bewildered, rubbing his eyes and feeling whether his turban was on straight. He combed his beard with nervous fingers as he gazed about him and caught Rewa Gunga's eye. Then he sprang to his feet.
"Come!" ordered Rewa Gunga.
The man obeyed.
"Did you see?" Rewa Gunga chuckled. "He rose from his place like a buffalo, rump first and then shoulder after shoulder! Such men are safe! Such men have no guile beyond what will help them to obey! Such men think too slowly to invent deceit for its own sake!"
The Afridi came and towered above them, standing with gnarled hands knotted into clubs.
"What is thy name?" King asked him.
"Ismail!" he boomed.
"Thou art to be my servant?"
"Aye! So said she. I am her man. I obey!"
"When did she say so?" King asked him blandly, asking unexpected questions being half the art of Secret Service, although the other half is harder to achieve.
The Hillman stroked his great beard and stood considering the question. One could almost imagine the click of slow machinery revolving in his mind, although King entertained a shrew suspicion that he was not so stupid as he chose to seem. His eyes were too hawk-bright to be a stupid man's.
"Before she went away," he answered at last.
"When did she go away?"
He thought again, then "Yesterday," he said.
"Why did you wait before you answered?"
The Afridi's eyes furtively sought Rewa Gunga's and found no aid there. Watching the Rangar less furtively, but even less obviously, King was aware that his eyes were nearly closed, as if they were not interested. The fingers that clasped his knee drummed on it indifferently, seeing which King allowed himself to smile.
"Never mind," he told Ismail. "It is no matter. It is ever well to think twice before speaking once, for thus mistakes die stillborn. Only the monkey-folk thrive on quick answers--is it not so? Thou art a man of many inches--of thew and sinew--Hey, but thou art a man! If the heart within those great ribs of thine is true as thine arms are strong I shall be fortunate to have thee for a servant!"
"Aye!" said the Afridi. "But what are words? She has said I am thy servant, and to hear her is to obey!"
"Then from now thou art my servant?"
"Nay, but from yesterday when she gave the order!"
"Good!" said King.
"Aye, good for thee! May Allah do more to me if I fail!"
"Then, take a telegram!" said King.
He began to write at once on a half-sheet of paper that he tore from a letter he had in his pocket, setting down a row of figures at the top and transposing into cypher as he went along.
"Yasmini has gone North. Is there any reason at our end why I should not follow her at once?"
He addressed it in plain English to his friend the general at Peshawur, taking great care lest the Rangar read it through those sleepy, half-closed eyes of his. Then he tore the cypher from the top, struck a match and burned the strip of paper and handed the code telegram to Ismail, directing him carefully to a government office where the cypher signature would be recognized and the telegram given precedence.
Ismail stalked off with it, striding like Moses down from Sinai--hook-nose--hawk-eye--flowing beard--dignity and all, and King settled down to guard himself against the next attempt on his sovereign self-command.
Now he chose to notice the knife on the ebony table as if he had not seen it before. He got up and reached for it and brought it back, turning it over and over in his hand.
"A strange knife," he said.
"Yes,--from Khinjan," said Rewa Gunga, and King eyed him as one wolf eyes another.
"What makes you say it is from Khinjan?"
"She brought it from Khinjan Caves herself! There is another knife that matches it, but that is not here. That bracelet you now wear, sahib, is from Khinjan Caves too! She has the secret of the Caves!"
"I have heard that the 'Heart of the Hills' is there," King answered. "Is the 'Heart of the Hills' a treasure house?"
Rewa Gunga laughed.
"Ask her, sahib! Perhaps she will tell you! Perhaps she will let you see! Who knows? She is a woman of resource and unexpectedness--Let her women dance for you a while."
King nodded. Then he got up and laid the knife back on the little table. A minute or so later he noticed that at a sign from Rewa Gunga a woman left the great window place and spirited the knife away.
"May I have a sheet of paper?" he asked, for he knew that another fight for his self-command was due.
Rewa Gunga gave an order, and a maid brought him scented paper on a silver tray. He drew out his own fountain pen then and made ready.
In spite of the great silken punkah that swung rhythmically across the full breadth of the room the heat was so great that the pen slipped round and round between his fingers. Yet he contrived to write, and since his one object was go give his brain employment, he wrote down a list of the names he had memorized in the train on the journey from Peshawur, not thinking of a use for the list until he had finished. Then, though, a real use occurred to him.
While he began to write more than a dozen dancing women swept into the room from behind the silk hangings in a concerted movement that was all lithe slumberous grace. Wood-wind music called to them from the great deep window as snakes are summoned from their holes, and as cobras answer the charmer's call the women glided to the center and stood poised beneath the punkah.
There they began to chant, still dreamily, and with the chant the dance began, in and out, round and round, lazily, ever so lazily, wreathed in buoyant gossamer that was scarcely more solid than the sandalwood smoke they wafted into rings.
King watched them and listened to their chant until he began to recognize the strain on the eye-muscles that precedes the mesmeric spell. Then he wrote and read what he had written and wrote again. And after that, for the sake of mental exercise, he switched his thoughts into another channel altogether. He reverted to Delhi railway station.
"The Turks can spy as well as anybody.--They know those men are going to Cerachi to be ready for them.--Therefore, having cut his eye-teeth B. C. several hundred, the Unspeakable Turk will take care not to misbehave UNTIL he's ready. And I suppose our government, being ours and we being us, will let him do it! All of which will take time.--And that again means no trouble in the 'Hills'--probably--until the Turks really do feel ready to begin. They'll preach a holy war just ahead of the date. The tribes will keep quiet because an army at Kerachi might be meant for their benefit. Oh, yes, I'm quite sure they were entraining for Kerachi in readiness to move on Basra. Trucks ready for camels--and camel drivers--and food for camels--and Eresby, who's just come from taking a special camel course. Not a doubt of it!--And then, Corrigan--Elwright--Doby--Gould--all on the platform in a bunch, and all down on the Army List as Turkish interpreters! Not a doubt left!"
"What have you written?" asked a quiet voice at his ear; and he turned to look straight in the eyes of Rewa Gunga, who had leaned forward to read over his shoulder. Just for one second he hovered on the brink of quick defeat. Having escaped the Scylla of the dancing women, Charybdis waited for him in the shape of eyes that were pools of hot mystery. It was the sound of his own voice that brought him back to the world again, and saved his will for him unbound.
"Read it, won't you?" he laughed. "If you know, take this pen and mark the names of whichever of those men are still in Delhi."
Rewa Gunga took pen and paper and set a mark against some thirty of the names, for King had a manner that disarmed refusal.
"Where are the others?" he asked him, after a glance at it.
"In jail, or else over the border."
The Rangar nodded. "Trust Yasmini! She saw to that jolly well before she left Delhi! She would have stayed had there been anything more to do!"
King began to watch the dance again, for it did not feel safe to look too long into the Rangar's eyes. It was not wise just then to look too long at anything, or to think too long on any one subject.
"Ismail is slow about returning," said the Rangar.
"I wrote at the foot of the tar," said King, "that they are to detain him there until the answer comes."
The Rangar's eyes blazed for a second and then grew cold again (as King did not fail to observe. He knew as well as the Rangar that not many en would have kept their will so unfettered in that room as to be able to give independent orders. He recognized resignation, temporary at least, in the Rangar's attitude of leaning back again to watch from under lowered eyelids. It was like being watched by a cat.
All this while the women danced on, in time to wailing flute-music, until, it seemed from nowhere, a lovelier woman than any of them appeared in their midst, sitting cross-legged with a flat basket at her knees. She sat with arms raised and swayed from the waist as if in a delirium. Her arms moved in narrowing circles, higher and higher above the basket lid, and the lid began to rise. Nobody touched it, nor was there any string, but as it rose it swayed with sickening monotony.
It was minutes before the bodies of two great king-cobras could be made out, moving against the woman's spangled dress. The basket lid was resting on their heads, and as the music and the chanting rose to a wild weird shriek the lid rose too, until suddenly the woman snatched the lid away and the snakes were revealed, with hoods raised, hissing the cobra's hate-song that is prelude to the poison-death.
They struck at the woman, one after the other, and she leaped out of their range, swift and as supple as they. Instantly then she joined in the dance, with the snakes striking right and left at her. Left and right she swayed to avoid them, far more gracefully than a matador avoids the bull and courting a deadlier peril than he--poisonous, two to his one. As she danced she whirled both arms above her head and cried as the were-wolves are said to do on stormy nights.
Some unseen hand drew a blind over the great window and an eerie green-and-golden light began to play from one end of the room, throwing the dancers into half-relief and deepening the mystery.
Sweet strange scents were wafted in from under the silken hangings. The room grew cooler by unguessed means. Every sense was treacherously wooed. And ever, in the middle of the moving light among the languorous dancers, the snakes pursued the woman!
"Do you do this often?" wondered King, in a calm aside to Rewa Gunga, turning half toward him and taking his eyes off the dance without any very great effort.
Rewa Gunga clapped his hands and the dance ceased. The woman spirited her snakes away. The blind was drawn upward and in a moment all was normal again with the punkah swinging slowly overhead, except that the seductive smell remained, that was like the early-morning breath of all the different flowers of India.
"If she were here," said the Rangar, a little grimly--with a trace of disappointment in his tone--"you would not snatch your eyes away like that! You would have been jolly well transfixed, my friend! These--she--that woman--they are but clumsy amateurs! If she were here, to dance with her snakes for you, you would have been jolly well dancing with her, if she had wished it! Perhaps you shall see her dance some day! Ah,--here is Ismail," he added in an altered tone of voice. He seemed relieved at sight of the Afridi.
Bursting through the glass-bead curtains at the door, the great savage strode down the room, holding out a telegram. Rewa Gunga looked as if he would have snatched it, but King's hand was held out first and Ismail gave it to him. With a murmur of conventional apology King tore the envelope and in a second his eyes were ablaze with something more than wonder. A mystery, added to a mystery, stirred all the zeal in him. But in a second he had sweated his excitement down.
"Read that, will you?" he said, passing it to Rewa Gunga. It was not in cypher, but in plain every-day English.
"She has not gone North," it ran. "She is still in Delhi. Suit your own movements to your plans."
"Can you explain?" asked King in a level voice. He was watching the Rangar narrowly, yet he could not detect the slightest symptom of emotion.
"Explain?" said the Rangar. "Who can explain foolishness? It means that another fat general has made another fat mistake!"
"What makes you so certain she went North?" King asked.
Instead of answering, Rewa Gunga beckoned Ismail, who had stepped back out of hearing. The giant came and loomed over them like the Spirit of the Lamp of the Arabian Nights.
"Whither went she?" asked the Rangar.
"To the North!" he boomed.
"How knowest thou?"
"I saw her go!"
"When went she?"
"Yesterday, when a telegram came."
The word "came" was the only clue to his meaning, for in the language he used "yesterday" and "to-morrow" are the same word; such is the East's estimate of time.
"By what route did she go?" asked Rewa Gunga
"By the terrain from the isstation."
"How knowest thou that?"
"I was there, bearing her box of jewels."
"Didst thou see her buy the tikkut?"
"Nay, I bought it, for she ordered me."
"For what destination was the tikkut?"
"Peshawur!" said Ismail, filling his mouth with the word as if he loved it.
"Yet"--it was King who spoke now, pointing an accusing finger at him--"a burra sahib sends a tar to me--this is it!--to say she is in Delhi still! Who told thee to answer those questions with those words?"
"She!" the big man answered.
"Aye! May Allah cover her with blessings!"
"Ah!" said King. "You have my leave to depart, out of earshot."
Then he turned on Rewa Gunga.
"Whatever the truth of all this," he said quietly, "I suppose it means she has done what there was to do in Delhi?"
"Sahib,--trust her! Does a tigress hunt where no watercourses are, and where no game goes to drink? She follows the sambur!"
"You are positive she has started for the North?"
"Sahib, when she speaks it is best to believe! She told me she will go. Therefore I am ready to lead King sahib up the Khyber to her!"
"Are you certain you can find her?"
"Aye, sahib,--in the dark!"
"There's a train leaves for the North to-night," said King.
The Rangar nodded.
"You'll want a pass up the line. How many servants? Three--four--how many?"
"One," said the Rangar, and King was instantly suspicious of the modesty of that allowance; however he wrote out a pass for Rewa Gunga and one servant and gave it to him.
"Be there on time and see about your own reservation," he said. "I'll attend to Ismail's pass myself."
He folded the list of names that the Rangar had marked and wrote something on the back. Then he begged an envelope, and Rewa Gunga had one brought to him. He sealed the list in the envelope, addressed it and beckoned Ismail again.
"Take this to Saunders sahib!" he ordered. "Go first to the telegraph office, where you were before, and the babu there will tell you where Saunders sahib may be found. Having found him, deliver the letter to him. Then come and find me at the Star of India hotel and help me to bathe and change my clothes."
"To hear is to obey!" boomed Ismail, bowing; but his last glance was for Rewa Gunga, and he did not turn to go until he had met the Rangar's eyes.
When Ismail had gone striding down the room, with no glance to spare for the whispering women in the window, and with dignity like an aura exuding from him, King looked into the Rangar's eyes with that engaging frankness of his that disarms so many people.
"Then you'll be on the train to-night?" he asked.
"To hear is to obey! With pleasure, sahib!"
"Then good-by until this evening."
King bowed very civilly and walked out, rather unsteadily because his head ached. Probably nobody else, except the Rangar, could have guessed what an ordeal he had passed through or how near he had been to losing his self-command.
But as he felt his way down the stairs, that were dimly lighted now, he knew he had all his senses with him, for the "spotted" and admired the lurking places that had been designed for the undoing of the unwary, or even the overwary. Yasmini's Delhi nest was like a hundred traps in one.
"Almost like a pool table," he reflected. "Pocket 'em at both ends and the middle!"
In the street he found a gharry after a while and drove to his hotel. And before Ismail came he took a stroll through a bazaar, where he made a few strange purchases. In the hotel lobby he invested in a leather bag with a good lock, in which to put them. Later on Ismail came and proved himself an efficient body-servant.
That evening Ismail carried the leather bag and found his place on the train, and that was not so difficult, because the trains running North were nearly empty, although the platforms were all crowded. As he stood at the carriage door with Ismail near him, a man named Saunders slipped through the crowd and sought him out.
"Arrested 'em all!" he grinned.
"Seen anything of her? I recognized Yasmini's scent on your envelope. It's peculiar to her--one of her monopolies!"
"No. I'm told she went North yesterday."
"Not by train, she didn't! It's my business to know that!"
King did not answer; nor did he look surprised. He was watching Rewa Gunga, followed by a servant, hurrying to a reserved compartment at the front end of the train. The Rangar waved to him and he waved back.
"I'd know her in a million!" vowed Saunders. "I can take oath she hasn't gone anywhere by train! Unless she has walked, or taken a carriage, she's in Delhi!"
The engine gave a preliminary shriek and the giant Ismail nudged King's elbow in impatient warning. There was no more sign of Rewa Gunga, who had evidently settled down in his compartment for the night.
"Get my bag out again!" King ordered, and Ismail stared.
"Get out my bag, I said!"
"To hear is to obey!" Ismail grumbled, reaching with his long arm through the window.
The engine shrieked again, somebody whistled, and the train began to move.
"You've missed it!" said Saunders, amused at Ismail's frantic disappointment. The giant was tugging at his bard. "How about your trunk? Better wire ahead and have it spotted for you."
"No," said King; "it's still in the baggage room at the other station. I didn't intend to go by this train. Come down here to see another fellow off, that's all! Have a cigar and then let's go together and look those prisoners over!"
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