The Half-Hearted by John Buchan - HTML preview
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25. Mrs. Logan's Ball
When Lewis had finished breakfast next morning, and was sitting idly on the verandah watching the busy life of the bazaar at his feet, a letter was brought him by a hotel servant. "It was left for you by Marker Sahib, when he went away this morning. He sent his compliments to the sahibs and regretted that he had to leave too early to speak with them, but he left this note." Lewis broke the envelope and read:DEAR MR. HAYSTOUN,
When I was thinking over our conversation last night, chance put a piece of information in my way which you may think fit to use. You know that I am more intimate than most people with the hill tribes. Well, let this be the guarantee of my news, but do not ask how I got it, for I cannot betray friends. Some of these, the Bada-Mawidi to wit, are meditating mischief. The Forza camp, which I think you have visited--a place some twenty miles off--is too near those villages to be safe. So to-morrow at latest they have planned to make a general attack upon it, and, unless the garrison were prepared, I should fear for the result, for they are the most cunning scoundrels in the world. What puzzles me is how they have ever screwed up the courage for such a move, for lately they were very much in fear of the Government. It appears as if they looked for backing from over the frontier. You will say that this proves your theory; but to me it merely seems as if some maniac of the Gromchevtsky type had got among them. In any case I wish something could be done. My duties take me away at once, and in a very different direction, but perhaps you could find some means of putting the camp on their guard. I should be sorry to hear of a tragedy; also I should be sorry to see the Bada-Mawidi get into trouble. They are foolish blackguards, but amusing.Yours most sincerely, ARTHUR MARKER.
Lewis read the strange letter several times through, then passed it to George. George read it with difficulty, not being accustomed to a flowing frontier hand. "Jolly decent of him, I call it," was his remark."I would give a lot to know what to make of it. The man is playing some game, but what the deuce it is I can't fathom." "I suppose we had better get up to that Forza place as soon as we can." "I think not," said Lewis.
"The man's honest, surely?
"But he is also clever. Remember who he is. He may wish to get us out of the way. I don't suppose that he can possibly fear us, but he may want the coast clear from suspicious spectators. Besides, I don't see the good of Forza. It is not the part of the hills I want to explore. There can be no frontier danger there, and at the worst there can be nothing more than a little tribal disturbance. Now what on earth would Russia gain by moving the tribes there, except as a blind?"
Lewis spread the letter before him. It was a simple, friendly note, giving him a chance of doing a good turn to friends. His clear course was to lay it before Thwaite and shift the responsibility for action to his shoulders. But he felt all the while that this letter had a personal application which he could not conceal. It would have been as easy for Marker to send the note to Thwaite, whom he had long known. But he had chosen to warn him privately. It might be a ruse, but he had no glimpse of the meaning. Or, again, it might be a piece of pure friendliness, a chance of unofficial adventure given by one wanderer to another. He puzzled it out, lamenting that he was so deep in the dark, and cursing his indecision. Another man would have made up his mind long ago; it was a ruse, therefore let it be neglected and remain in Bardur with open eyes; it was good faith and a good chance, therefore let him go at once. But to Lewis the possibilities seemed endless, and he could find no solution save the old one of the waverer, to wait for further light.He found Thwaite at breakfast, just returned from his travels.
"Hullo, Haystoun. I heard you were here. Awfully glad to see you. Sit down, won't you, and have some breakfast." The officer was a long man, with a thin, long face, a reddish moustache, and small, blue eyes.
"I came to ask you questions, if you don't mind. I have the regular globe-trotter's trick of wanting information. What's the Forza camp like? Do you think that the Bada-Mawidi, supposing they stir again, would be likely to attack it?"
"Not a bit of it. That was the sort of thing that Gribton was always croaking about. Why, man, the Bada-Mawidi haven't a kick in them. Besides, they are very nearly twenty miles off and the garrison's a very fit lot. They're all right. Trust them to look after themselves." "But I have been hearing stories of Bada-Mawidi risings which are to come off soon."
"Oh, you'll always hear stories of that sort. All the old women in the neighbourhood purvey them."
Lewis went away dispirited and out of temper. He had been pitchforked among easygoing people, when all the while mysterious things, dangerous things, seemed to hang in the air. He had not the material for even the first stages of comprehension. No one suspected, every one was satisfied; and at the same time came those broken hints of other things. He felt choked and muffled, wrapped in the cotton-wool of this easy life; and all the afternoon he chafed at his own impotence and the world's stupidity.
When the two travellers presented themselves at the Logans' house that evening, they were immediately seized upon by the hostess and compelled, to their amusement, to do her bidding. They were her discoveries, her new young men, and as such, they had their responsibilities. George, who liked dancing, obeyed meekly; but Lewis, being out of temper and seeing before him an endless succession of wearisome partners, soon broke loose, and accompanied Thwaite to the verandah for a cigar.
The man was ill at ease, and the sight of young faces and the sound of laughter vexed him with a sense of his eccentricity. He could never, like George, take the world as he found it. At home he was the slave of his own incapacity; now he was the slave of memories. He had come out on an errand, with a chance to recover his lost selfrespect, and lo! he was as far as ever from attainment. His lost capacity for action was not to be found here, in the midst of this petty diplomacy and inglorious ease.
From the verandah a broad belt of lawn ran down to the edge of the north road. It lay shining in the moonlight like a field of snow with the highway a dark ribbon beyond it. Thwaite and Lewis walked down to the gate talking casually, and at the gate they stopped and looked down on the town. It lay a little to the left, the fort rising black before it, and the road ending in a patch of shade which was the old town gate. The night was very still, cool airs blew noiselessly from the hills, and a jackal barked hoarsely in some far-off thicket.The men hung listlessly on the gate, drinking in the cool air and watching the blue cigar smoke wreathe and fade. Suddenly down the road there came the sound of wheels. "That's a tonga," said Thwaite. "Wonder who it is." "Do tongas travel this road?" Lewis asked.
"Oh yes, they go ten miles up to the foot of the rocks. We use them for sending up odds and ends to the garrisons. After that coolies are the only conveyance. Gad, I believe this thing is going to stop."The thing in question, which was driven by a sepoy in bright yellow pyjamas, stopped at the Logans' gate. A peevish voice was heard giving directions from within. "It sounds like Holm," said Thwaite, walking up to it, "and upon my soul it is Holm. What on earth are you doing here, my dear fellow?" "Is that you, Thwaite?" said the voice. "I wish you'd help me out. I want Logan to give me a bed for the night. I'm infernally ill." Lewis looked within and saw a pale face and bloodshot eyes which did not belie the words. "What is it?" said Thwaite. "Fever or anything smashed?"
"I've got a bullet in my leg which has got to be cut out. Got it two days ago when I was out shooting. Some natives up in the rocks did it, I fancy. Lord, how it hurts." And the unhappy man groaned as he tried to move."That's bad," said Thwaite sympathetically. "The Logans have got a dance on, but we'll look after you all right. How did you leave things in Forza?"
"Bad. I oughtn't to be here, but Andy insisted. He said I would only get worse and crock entirely. Things look a bit wild up there just now. There has been a confounded lot of rifle-stealing, and the Bada-Mawidi are troublesome. However, I hope it's only their fun.""I hope so," said Thwaite. "You know Haystoun, don't you?" "Glad to meet you," said the man. "Heard of you. Coming up our way? I hope you will after I get this beastly leg of mine better."
"Thwaite will tell you I have been cross-examining him about your place. I wanted badly to ask you about it, for I got a letter this morning from a man called Marker with some news for you.""What did he say?" asked Holm sharply. "He said that he had heard privately that the Bada-Mawidi were planning an attack on you to-morrow or the day after." "The deuce they are," said Holm peevishly, and Thwaite's face lengthened. "And he told me to find some way of letting you know."
"Then why didn't you tell me earlier?" said Thwaite. "Marker should know if anybody does. We should have kept Holm up there. Now it's almost too late. Oh, this is the devil!"Lewis held his peace. He had forgotten the solidity of Marker's reputation. "What's the chances of the place?" Thwaite was asking. "I know your numbers and all that, but are they anything like prepared?"
"I don't know," said Holm miserably. "They might get on all right, but everybody is pretty slack just now. Andy has a touch of fever, and some of the men may get leave for shooting. I must get back at once."
"You can't. Why, man, you couldn't get half way. And what's more, I can't go. This place wants all the looking after it can get. A row in the hills means a very good possibility of a row in Bardur, and that is too dangerous a game. And besides myself there is scarcely a man in the place who counts. Logan has gone to Gilgit, and there's nobody left but boys.""If you don't mind I should like to go," said Lewis shamefacedly. "You," they cried. "Do you know the road?" "I've been there before, and I remember it more or less. Besides, it is really my show this time. I got the warning, and I want the credit." And he smiled. "The road's bound to be risky," said Thwaite thoughtfully. "I don't feel inclined to let you run your neck into danger like this."
Lewis was busy turning over the problem in his mind. The presence of the man Holm seemed the one link of proof he needed. He had his word that there were signs of trouble in the place, and that the Bada-Mawidi were ill at ease. Whatever game Marker was playing, on this matter he seemed to have spoken in good faith. Here was a clear piece of work for him. And even if it was fruitless it would bring him nearer to the frontier; his expedition to the north would be begun."Let me go," he said. "I came out here to explore the hills and I take all risks on my own head. I can give them Marker's message as well as anybody else."
Thwaite looked at Holm. "I don't see why he shouldn't. You're a wreck, and I can't leave my own place."
"Tell Andy you saw me," cried Holm. "He'll be anxious. And tell him to mind the north gate. If the fools knew how to use dynamite they might have it down at once. If they attack it can't last long, but then they can't last long either, for they are hard up for arms, and unless they have changed since last week they have no ammunition to speak of."
"Marker said it looked as if they were being put up to the job from over the frontier." "Gad, then it's my turn to look out," said Thwaite. "If it's the gentlemen from over the frontier they won't stop at Forza. Lord, I hate this border business, it's so hideously in the dark. But I think that's all rot. Any tribal row here is sure to be set down to Russian influence. We don't understand the joint possession of an artificial frontier," he added, with an air of quoting from some book."Did you get that from Marker?" Holm asked crossly. "He once said the same thing to me." His temper had suffered badly among the hills.
"We'd better get you to bed, my dear fellow," said Thwaite, looking down at him. "You look remarkably cheap. Would you mind going in and trying to find Mrs. Logan, Haystoun? I'll carry this chap in. Stop a minute, though. Perhaps he's got something to say to you."
"Mind the north gate . . . tell Andy I'm all right and make him look after himself . . . he's overworking . . . if you want to send a message to the other people you'd better send by Nazri . . . if the Badas mean business they'll shut up the road you go by. That's all. Good luck and thanks very much."
Lewis found Mrs. Logan making a final inspection of the supper-room. She ran to the garden, to find the invalid Holm in Thwaite's arms at the steps of the verandah. The sick warrior pulled off an imaginary cap and smiled feebly. "Oh, Mr. Holm, I'm so sorry. Of course we can have you. I'll put you in the other end of the house where you won't be so much troubled with the noise. You must have had a dreadful journey." And so forth, with the easy condolences of a kind woman.When Thwaite had laid down his burden, he turned to Lewis.
"I wish we had another man, Haystoun. What about your friend Winterham? One's enough to do your work, but if the thing turns out to be serious, there ought to be some means of sending word. Andover will want you to stay, for they are short-handed enough."
"I'll get Winterham to go and wait for me somewhere. If I don't turn up by a certain time, he can come and look for me."
"That will do," said Thwaite, "though it's a stale job for him. Well, good-bye and good luck to you. I expect there won't be much trouble, but I wish you had told us in the morning."
Lewis turned to go and find George. "What a chance I had almost missed," was the word in his heart. The errand might be futile, the message a blind, but it was at least movement, action, a possibility.
26. Friend To Friend
He found George sitting down in the verandah after waltzing. His partner was a sister of Logan's, a dark girl whose husband was Resident somewhere in Lower Kashmir. The lady gave her hand to Lewis and he took the vacant seat on the other side.He apologized for carrying off her companion, escorted her back to the ballroom, and then returned to satisfy the amazed George. "I want to talk to you. Excuse my rudeness, but I have explained to Mrs. Tracy. I have a good many things I want to say to you."
"Where on earth have you been all night, Lewis? I call it confoundedly mean to go off and leave me to do all the heavy work. I've never been so busy in my life. Lots of girls and far too few men. This is the first breathing space I've had. What is it that you want?"
"I am going off this very moment up into the hills. That letter Marker sent me this morning has been confirmed. Holm, who commands up at the Forza fort, has just come down very sick, and he says that the Bada-Mawidi are looking ugly, and that we should take Marker's word. He wanted to go back himself but he is too ill, and Thwaite can't leave here, so I am going. I don't expect there will be much risk, but in case the rising should be serious I want you to do me a favour."
"I suppose I can't come with you," said George ruefully. "I know I promised to let you go your own way before we came out, but I wish you would let me stick by you. What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing desperate," said Lewis, laughing. "You can stay on here and dance till sunrise if you like. But to-morrow I want you to come up to a certain place at the foot of the hills which I will tell you about, and wait there. It's about half distance between Forza and the two Khautmi forts. If the rising turns out to be a simple affair I'll join you there to-morrow night and we can start our shooting. But if I don't, I want you to go up to the Khautmi forts and rouse St. John and Mitchinson and get them to send to Forza. Do you see?"
Lewis had taken out a pencil and began to sketch a rough plan on George's shirt cuff. "This will give you an idea of the place. You can look up a bigger map in the hotel, and Thwaite or any one will give you directions about the road. There's Forza, and there are the Khautmis about twenty miles west. Half-way between the two is that long Nazri valley, and at the top is a tableland strewn with boulders where you shoot mountain sheep. I've been there, and the road between Khautmi and Forza passes over it. I expect it is a very bad road, but apparently you can get a little Kashmir pony to travel it. To the north of that plateau there is said to be nothing but rock and snow for twenty miles to the frontier. That may be so, but if this thing turns out all right we'll look into the matter. Anyway, you have got to pitch your tent to-morrow on that tableland just above the head of the Nazri gully. With luck I should be able to get to you some time in the afternoon. If I don't turn up, you go off to Khautmi next morning at daybreak and give them my message. If I can't come myself I'll find a way to send word; but if you don't hear from me it will be fairly serious, for it will mean that the rising is a formidable thing after all. And that, of course, will mean trouble for everybody all round. In that case you'd better do what St. John and Mitchinson tell you. You're sure to be wanted."
George's face cleared. "That sounds rather sport. I'd better bring up the servants. They might turn out useful. And I suppose I'll bring a couple of rifles for you, in case it's all a fraud and we want to go shooting. I thought the place was going to be stale, but it promises pretty well now." And he studied the plan on his shirt cuff. Then an idea came to him.
"Suppose you find no rising. That will mean that Marker's letter was a blind of some sort. He wanted to get you out of the way or something. What will you do then? Come back here?"
"N--o," said Lewis hesitatingly. "I think Thwaite is good enough, and I should be no manner of use. You and I will wait up there in the hills on the off-chance of picking up some news. I swear I won't come back here to hang about and try and discover things. It's enough to drive a man crazy.""It is rather a ghastly place. Wonder how the Logans thrive here. Odd mixture this. Strauss and hill tribes not twenty miles apart."
Lewis laughed. "I think I prefer the hill tribes. I am not in the humour for Strauss just now. I shall have to be off in an hour, so I am going to change. See you to-morrow, old man."
George retired to the ballroom, where he had to endure the reproaches of Mrs. Logan. He was an abstracted and silent partner, and in the intervals of dancing he studied his cuff. Miss A talked to him of polo, and Miss B of home; Miss C discovered that they had common friends, and Miss D that she had known his sister. Miss E, who was more observant, saw the cause of his distraction and asked, "What queer hieroglyphics have you got on your cuff, Mr. Winterham?"
George looked down in a bewildered way at his sleeve. "Where on earth have I been?" he asked in wonder. "That's the worst of being an absent-minded fellow. I've been scribbling on my cuff with my programme pencil."
Soon he escaped, and made his way down to the garden gate, where Thwaite was standing smoking. A _sais_ held a saddled pony by the road-side. Lewis, in rough shooting clothes, was preparing to mount. From indoors came the jigging of a waltz tune and the sound of laughter, while far in the north the cliffs of the pass framed a dark blue cleft where the stars shone. George drew in great draughts of the cool, fresh air. "I wish I was coming with you," he said wistfully.
"You'll be in time enough to-morrow," said Lewis. "I wish you'd give him all the information you can about the place, Thwaite. He's an ignorant beggar. See that he remembers to bring food and matches. The guns are the only things I can promise he won't forget."Then he rode off, the little beast bucking excitedly at the patches of moonlight, and the two men walked back to the house. "Hope he comes back all right," said Thwaite. "He's too good a man to throw away."
27. The Road To Forza
The road ran in a straight line through the valley of dry rocks, a dull, modern road, engineered and macadamized up to the edge of the hills. The click of hoofs raised echoes in the silence, for in all the great valley, in the chain of pools in the channel, the acres of sun-dried stone, the granite rocks, the tangle of mountain scrub, there seemed no life of bird or beast. It was a strange, deathly stillness, and overhead the purple sky, sown with a million globes of light, seemed so near and imminent that the glen for the moment was but a vast jewel-lit cavern, and the sky a fretted roof which spanned the mountains.
For the first time Lewis felt the East. Hitherto he had been unable to see anything in his errand but its futility. A stupider man, with a sharp, practical brain, would have taken himself seriously and come to Bardur with an intent and satisfied mind. He would have assumed the air of a diplomatist, have felt the dignity of his mission, and in success and failure have borne himself with self-confidence. But to Lewis the business which loomed serious in England, at Bardur took on the colour of comedy. He felt his impotence, he was touched insensibly by the easy content of the place. Frontier difficulties seemed matters for romance and comic opera; and Bardur resolved itself into an English suburb, all tea-parties and tennis. But at times an austere conscience jogged him to remembrance, and in one such fitful craving for action and enterprise he had found this errand. Now at last, astride the little Kashmir pony, with his face to the polestar and the hills, he felt the mystery of a strange world, and his work assumed a tinge of the adventurer. This was new, he told himself; this was romance. He had his eyes turned to a new land, and the smell of dry mountain sand and scrub, and the vault-like, imperial sky were the earnest of his inheritance. This was the East, the gorgeous, the impenetrable. Before him were the hill deserts, and then the great, warm plains, and the wide rivers, and then on and on to the cold north, the steppes, the icy streams, the untrodden forests. To the west and beyond the mountains were holy mosques, "shady cities of palm trees," great walled towns to which north and west and south brought their merchandise. And to the east were latitudes more wonderful, the uplands of the world, the impassable borders of the oldest of human cultures. Names rang in his head like tunes--Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, the goal of many boyish dreams born of clandestine suppers and the Arabian Nights. It was an old fierce world he was on the brink of, and the nervous frontier civilization fell a thousand miles behind him.
The white road turned to the right with the valley, and the hills crept down to the distance of a gun-shot. The mounting tiers of stone and brawling water caught the moonlight in waves, and now he was in a cold pit of shadow and now in a patch of radiant moonshine. It was a world of fantasy, a rousing world of wintry hill winds and sudden gleams of summer. His spirits rose high, and he forgot all else in plain enjoyment. Now at last he had found life, rich, wild, girt with marvels. He was beginning to whistle some air when his pony shied violently and fell back, and at the same moment a pistol-shot cracked out of a patch of thorn.
He turned the beast and rode straight at the thicket, which was a very little one. The ball had wandered somewhere into the void, and no harm was done, but he was curious about its owner. Up on the hillside he seemed to see a dark figure scrambling among the cliffs in the fretted moonlight.
It is unpleasant to be shot at in the dark from the wayside, but at the moment the thing pleased this strange young man. It seemed a token that at last he was getting to work. He found a rope stretched taut across the road, which accounted for the pony's stumble. Laughing heartily, he cut it with his knife, and continued, cheerful as before, but somewhat less fantastic. Now he kept a sharp eye on all wayside patches.
At the head of the valley the waters of the stream forked into two torrents, one flowing from the east in an open glen up which ran the road to Yarkand, the other descending from the northern hills in a wild gully. At the foot stood a little hut with an apology for stabling, where an old and dirty gentleman of the Hunza race pursued his calling till such time as he should attract the notice of his friends up in the hills and go to paradise with a slit throat.
Lewis roused the man with a violent knocking at the door. The old ruffian appeared with a sputtering lamp which might have belonged to a cave man, and a head of matted grey hair which suggested the same origin. He was old and suspicious, but at Lewis's bidding he hobbled forth and pointed out the stabling.
"The pony is to stay here till it is called for. Do you hear? And if Holm Sahib returns and finds that it is not fed he will pay you nothing. So good night, father. Sound sleep and a good conscience."
He turned to the twisting hill road which ran up from the light into the gloom of the cleft with all the vigour of an old mountaineer who has been long forced to dwell among lowlands. Once a man acquires the art of hill walking he will always find flat country something of a burden, and the mere ascent of a slope will have a tonic's power. The path was good, but perilous at the best, and the proximity of yawning precipices gave a zest to the travel. The road would fringe a pit of shade, black but for the gleam of mica and the scattered foam of the stream. It was no longer a silent world. Hawks screamed at times from the cliffs, and a multitude of bats and owls flickered in the depths. A continuous falling of waters, an infinite sighing of night winds, the swaying and tossing which is always heard in the midmost mountain solitudes, the crumbling of hill gravel and the bleat of a goat on some hill-side, all made a cheerful accompaniment to the scraping of his boots on the rocky road.
He remembered the way as if he had travelled it yesterday. Soon the gorge would narrow and he would be almost at the water's edge. Then the path turned to the right and wound into the heart of a side nullah, which at length brought it out on a little plateau of rocks. There the road climbed a long ridge till at last it reached the great plateau, where Forza, set on a small hilltop, watched thirty miles of primeval desert. The air was growing chilly, for the road climbed steeply and already it was many thousand feet above the sea. The curious salt smell which comes from snow and rock was beginning to greet his nostrils. The blood flowed more freely in his veins, and insensibly he squared his shoulders to drink in the cold hill air. It was of the mountains and yet strangely foreign, an air with something woody and alpine in the heart of it, an air born of scrub and snow-clad rock, and not of his own free spaces of heather. But it was hillborn, and this contented him; it was night-born, and it refreshed him. In a little the road turned down to the stream side, and he was on the edge of a long dark pool.
The river, which made a poor show in the broad channel at Bardur, was now, in this straitened place, a full lipping torrent of clear, green water. Lewis bathed his flushed face and drank, and it was as cold as snow. It stung his face to burning, and as he walked the heartsome glow of great physical content began to rise in his heart. He felt fit and ready for any work. Life was quick in his sinews, his brain was a weathercock, his strength was tireless. At last he had found a man's life. He had never had a chance before. Life had been too easy and sheltered; he had been coddled like a child; he had never roughed it except for his own pleasure. Now he was outside this backbone of the world with a task before him, and only his wits for his servant. Eton and Oxford, Eton and Oxford--so it had been for generations--an education sufficient to damn a race. Stocks was right, and he had all along been wrong; but now he was in a fair way to taste the world's iron and salt, and he exulted at the prospect.
It was hard walking in the nullah. In and out of great crevices the road wound itself, on the brink of stupendous waterfalls, or in the heart of a brushwood tangle. Soon a clear vault of sky replaced the out-jutting crags, and he came out on a little plateau where a very cold wind was blowing. The smell of snow was in the air, a raw smell like salt when carried on a north wind over miles of granite crags. But on the little tableland the moon was shining clearly. It was green with small cloud-berries and dwarf juniper, and the rooty fragrance was for all the world like an English bolt or a Highland pasture. Lewis flung himself prone and buried his face among the small green leaves. Then, still on the ground, he scanned the endless yellow distance. Mountains, serrated and cleft as in some giant's play, rose on every hand, while through the hollows gleamed the farther snow-peaks. This little bare plateau must be naked to any eye on any hill-side, and at the thought he got to his feet and advanced.
At first sight the place had looked not a mile long, but before he got to the farther slope he found that it was nearer two. The mountain air had given him extraordinary lightness, and he ran the distance, finding the hard, sandy soil like a track under his feet. The slope, when he had reached it, proved to be abrupt and boulder-strewn, and the path had an ugly trick of avoiding steepness by skirting horrible precipices. Luckily the moon was bright, and the man was an old mountaineer; otherwise he might have found a grave in the crevices which seamed the hill.
He had not gone far when he began to realize that he was not the only occupant of the mountain side. A whistle which was not a bird's seemed to catch his ear at times, and once, as he shrank back into the lee of a boulder, there was the sound of naked feet on the road before him. This was news indeed, and he crept very cautiously up the rugged path. Once, when in shelter, he looked out, and for a second, in a patch of moonlight, he saw a man with the loose breeches and tightened girdle of the hillmen. He was running swiftly as if to some arranged place of meeting.
The sight put all doubts out of his head. An attack on Forza was imminent, and this was the side from which least danger would be expected. If the enemy got there before him they would find an easy entrance. The thought made him quicken his pace. These scattered tribesmen must meet before they attacked, and there might still be time for him to get in front. His ears were sharp as a deer's to the slightest sound. A great joy in the game possessed him. When he crouched in the shelter of a granite boulder or sprawled among the scrub while the light footsteps of a tribesman passed on the road he felt that one point was scored to him in a game in which he had no advantages. He blessed his senses trained by years of sport to a keenness beyond a townsman's; his eye, which could see distances clear even in the misty moonlight; his ear, which could judge the proximity of sounds with a nice exactness. Twice he was on the brink of discovery. A twig snapped as he lay in cover, and he heard footsteps pause, and he knew that a pair of very keen eyes were scanning the brushwood. He blessed his lucky choice in clothes which had made him bring a suit so near the hue of his hiding-place. Then he felt that the eyes were averted, the footsteps died away, and he was safe. Again, as he turned a corner swiftly, he almost came on the back of a man who was stepping along leisurely before him. For a second he stopped, and then he was back round the corner, and had swung himself up to a patch of shadow on the crag-side. He looked down and saw his enemy clearly in the moonlight; a long, ferret-faced fellow, with a rifle hung on his back and an ugly crooked knife in his hand. The man looked round, sniffing the air like a stag, and then, satisfied that there was nothing to fear, turned and went on. Lewis, who had been sitting on a sharp jag of rock, swung an aching body to the ground and advanced circumspectly.
In an hour or two he came to the top of the slope and the beginning of the second tableland. A grey dimness was taking the place of the dark, and it had suddenly grown bitterly cold. Dawn in such high latitudes is not a thing of violent changes, but of slow and subtle gradations of light, of sudden, coy flushes of colour, of thin winds and bright fleeting hazes. He lay for a minute in the scrub of cloud-berries, the collar of his coat buttoned round his throat, and the morning wind, fresh from leagues of snow, blowing chill on his face. Behind was the slope alive with men who at any moment might emerge on the plateau. He waited for the sight of a figure, but none came; clearly the muster was not yet complete. A thought grew in his brain, and a sudden clearness in the air translated it into action; for in the hazy distance across the tableland he saw the walls of Forza fort.
The place could not be two miles off, and between it and him there was the smooth benty plateau. He might make a rush for it and cross unobserved. Even now the early sun was beginning to strike it. The yellow-grey walls stood out clear against the far line of mountains, and the wisp of colour which fluttered in the wind was clearly the British flag. The exceeding glory of the morning gave him a new vigour. Why should not he run with any tribesman of the lot? If he could but avoid the risk of a rifle bullet at the outset, he would have no fear of the issue.
He glanced behind him. The place seemed still, though far down there was a tinkle as of little stones falling. He stood up, straightened himself for one moment till he had filled his lungs with the clean air. Then he started to run quickly towards the fort.
The full orb of the sun topped the mountains and the dazzle was in his eyes from the first. If he covered the first half-mile unpursued he would be safe; otherwise he might expect a bullet. It was a comic feeling-the wide green heath, the fresh air, the easy vigour in his stride, the flush of the morning sun, and that awkward, nervous weakness in the small of his back where a bullet might be expected to find a lodgment.He never looked back till he had gone what seemed to him the proper distance, and then he glanced hurriedly over his shoulder.
Two men had emerged from the scrub and stood on the edge of the slope. They were gazing intently at him, and suddenly one lifted a Snider to his shoulder and fired. The bullet burrowed in the sand to the right of him. Again he looked back and there they were--five of them now--crying out to him. Then with one accord they followed over the plateau.
It was now a clear race for life. He must keep beyond reasonable rifle-shot; otherwise a broken leg might bring him to a standstill. He cursed the deceptive clearness of the hill air which made it impossible for his unpractised eye to judge distances. The fort stood clear in every stone, but it might be miles off though it looked scarcely a thousand yards. Apparently it was still asleep, for no smoke was rising, and, strain his ears as he might, he could hear no sound of a sentry's walk. This looked awkward indeed for him. If the people were not awake to receive him, he would be potted against its wall as surely as a rat in a corner. He grew acutely nervous, and as he drew nearer he made the air hideous with shouts to wake the garrison. A clear race in the open he did not mind; but he had no stomach for a game of hide-and-seek around an unscalable wall with an active enemy.
Apparently the gentry behind him were growing despondent. Two rifle bullets, fired by running men, sang unsteadily in his wake. He was now so near that he could see the rough wooden gate and the pyramidal nails with which it was studded. He could guess the number of paces between him and safety. He was out of breath and a little tired, for the scramble up the nullah had not been a light one. Again he yelled frantically to the dead walls, beseeching their inmates to get out of bed and save his life.
There was still no sound from the sleeping fortress. He was barely a hundred yards off, and he saw now that the walls were too high to climb and that nothing remained but the gate. He picked up a stone and flung it against the woodwork. The din echoed through the empty place, but there was no sound of life. Just at the threshold there was a patch of shadow. It was his one way of escape, and as he reached the door and kicked and hammered at the wood, he cowered down in the shade, praying that his friends behind might be something less than sharpshooters.
The pursuit saw its chance, and running forward to get within easy range, proceeded to target practice. Lewis, kicking diligently at the door, was trying to draw himself into the smallest space, and his mind was far from comfortable. It needs good nerves to fill the position of a target with equanimity, and he was too tired to take it in good part. A disagreeable cold sweat stood on his brow, and his heart beat violently. Then a bullet did what all his knocking had failed to do, for it crashed into the woodwork and woke the garrison. He heard feet hurrying across a yard, and then it seemed to him that men were reconnoitring from the top of the wall. A second later--when the third bullet had buried itself in dust a foot beyond his head--the heavy gate was half opened and a man's hand assisted him to crawl inside.He looked up to see a tall figure in pyjamas standing over him. "Now I wonder who the deuce you are?" it was saying.
"My name's Haystoun. H-a-y-s;" then he broke off and laughed. He had fallen into his old trick of spelling his name to the Oxford tradesmen when he was young and hated to have it garbled.He looked up at the questioner again. "Bless me, Andy, so it's you." The man gave a yell of delight. "Lewis, upon my soul. Who'd have thought it? It is a Providence. By Gad, I believe I'm just in time to save your life."
28. The Hill-FortLewis got to his feet and blinked at the morning sun across the yard. "That was a near shave. Phew, I hate being a target for sharpshooting! These devils are your friends the Bada-Mawidi." "The deuce they are," said Andover lugubriously. "I always knew it. I've told Holm a hundred times, and now here is the beggar away sick and I am left to pay the piper." "I know. I met him in Bardur, and that's why I'm here. He told me to tell you to mind the north gate." "More easily said than done. We're too few by half here if things get nasty. How was the chap looking?" "Pretty miserable. Thwaite and I put him to bed. Then they sent me off here, for I've got news for you. You know a man called Marker?" Andover nodded.
"I was dining with him the day before yesterday, and yesterday morning I got a note from him. He says that he has heard from some private source that the Bada-Mawidi were arming and proposed an attack on Forza to-day. He thinks they may have got their arms from the other side, you know. At any rate he asked me to try to let you hear, and when I saw Holm last night and heard that such a thing was possible, I came off at once. I suppose Marker is the sort of man who should know.""What did Thwaite say?" "He was keen that I should come at once. Do you think that it's a false alarm?"
"Oh, it will be genuine enough on Marker's part, but he may have been misinformed. What beats me is the attack by day. I know the Badas as I know my own name, and they're too few at the best to have any chance of rushing the place. Besides, they are poor fighters in the open. On the other hand they are devils incarnate in a night attack, as we used to find to our cost. You are sure he said to-day?""Sure. Some time this morning."
"Wonder what their game is. However, he ought to be right if anybody is, and we are much obliged to you for your trouble. You had a pretty hard time in the open, but how on earth did you get up the hill?"
"Deerstalking style. It was good sport. But for heaven's sake, Andy, give me breakfast, and tell me what you want me to do. I am under your orders now."
"You'd better feed and then sleep for a bit. If you don't mind I'll leave you, for I've got to be very busy. And poor old Holm looked pretty sick, did he? Well, I am glad he has been saved this affair anyhow."
A Sikh orderly brought Lewis breakfast. Beyond the tent door there was stir in the garrison. Men were deployed in the yard, Gurkhas mainly, with a few Kashmir sepoys, and the loud harsh voice of Andover was raised to give orders. It was a hot still morning, with something thunderous in the air. Hot sulphurous clouds were massing on the western horizon, and the cool early breeze had gone. The whole place smelt of powder.
Half-way through the meal Andover returned, his lean face red with exertion. "I've got things more or less in order. They may easily starve us out, for we are wretchedly provisioned, but I don't think they'll get us with a rush. I wonder when the show is to commence." He drank some coffee, and then filled a pipe.
"I left a man at Nazri. If the thing turns out to be a small affair I am to meet him there tonight; but if I don't come he is to know that it is serious and go and warn the Khautmi people. You haven't a connection by any chance?"
"No. Wish we had. The heliograph is no good, and the telegraph is still under the consideration of some engineer man. But how do you propose to get to Nazri? It's only twelve miles, but they are mostly up on end.""I did it when I was here before. It's easy enough if you have done any rock-climbing, and I can leave with the light. Besides, there's a moon."
Andover laughed. "You've turned over a new leaf, Lewis. Your energy puts us all to shame. I wish I had your physical gifts, my son. The worst of being long and lanky in a place like this is that you're always as stiff as a poker. I shall die of sciatica before I am forty. But upon my word it is queer meeting you here in the loneliest spot in creation. When I saw you in town before I came out, you were going into Parliament or some game of that kind. Then I heard that you had been out here, and gone back; and now for no earthly reason I waken up one fine morning to find you being potted at before my gate. You're as sudden as Marker, and a long chalk more mysterious."
Lewis looked grave. "I wish Marker were only as simple as me, or I as sudden as him. It's a gift not learned in a day. Anyhow I'm here, and we've got a day's sport before us. Hullo, the ball seems about to open." Little puffs of smoke and dust were rising from beyond the wall, and on the heavy air came the faint ping-ping of rifles. Andover stretched himself elaborately. "Lord alive, but this is absurd. What do these beggars expect to do? They can't shell a fort with stolen expresses."
The two men went up to the edge of the wall and looked over the plateau. A hundred yards off stood a group of tribesmen formed in some semblance of military order, each with a smoking rifle in his hand. It was like a parody of a formation, and Andover after rubbing his eyes burst into a roar of laughter.
"The beggars must be mad. What in heaven's name do they expect to do, standing there like mummies and potting at a stone wall? There's two more companies of them over there. It isn't war, it's comic opera." And he sat down, still laughing, on the edge of a gun-case to put on the boots which his orderly had brought.
It was comic opera, but the tinge of melodrama was not absent. When a sufficient number of rounds had been fired, the tribesmen, as if acting on half-understood instructions from some prehistoric manual, slung their rifles on their shoulders and came on. The fire from the fort did not stop them, though it broke their line. In a minute they were clutching at every hand-grip and foothold on the wall, and Andover with a beaming face directed the disposition of his men.
Forza is built of great, rough stones, with ends projecting in places cyclopean-wise, which to an active man might give a foothold. The little garrison was at its posts, and picked the men off with carbines and revolvers, and in emergencies gave a brown chest the straight bayonet-thrust home. The tribesmen fought like fiends, scrambling up silently with long knives between their teeth, till a shot found them and they rolled back to die on the sand at the foot. Now and again a man would reach the parapet and spring down into the courtyard. Then it was the turn of Andover and Lewis to account for him, and they did not miss. One man with matted hair and beard was at Lewis's back before he saw him. A crooked knife had nearly found that young man's neck, but a lucky twisting aside saved him. He dodged his adversary up and down the yard till he got his pistol from his inner pocket. Then it was his turn to face about. The man never stopped and a ball took him between the eyes. He dropped dead as a stone, and his knife flying from his hand skidded along the sand till it stopped with a clatter on the stones. The sound in the hot sulphurous air grated horribly, and Lewis clapped his hands to his ears to find that he too had not come off scathless. The knife had cut the lobe, and, bleeding like a pig, he went in search of water.
The assailants seemed prepared to find paradise speedily, for they were not sparing with their lives. The attacking party was small, and apparently there was no reserve, for in all the wide landscape there was no sign of man. Then for no earthly reason the assault was at an end. One by one the men dropped back and disappeared from the plateau. There was no overt signal, no sound; but in a little the annoyed garrison were looking at vacancy and one another.
"This is the devil's own business," said Andover, rubbing his eyes. The men, too astonished to pick off stragglers, allowed the enemy to melt into space; then they set themselves down with rifles cuddled up to their chins, and stared at Andover."It beats me," said that disturbed man. "How many killed?"
"Seven," said a sergeant. "About five more wounded. None of us touched, barring a bullet in my boot, and two Johnnies slashed on the cheek. Seems to me as if the gen'lman, Mr. 'Aystoun, was 'it, though."
At the word Andover ran for his quarters, where he found his servant dressing Lewis's wounded ear. That young man with a face of great despair was inclining his head over a basin."What's the matter, Andy? Don't tell me the show has stopped. I thought they were game to go on for hours, and I was just coming to join you."
"They've gone, every mother's son of them. I told you it was comic opera all along. Seven of them have found the part too much for them, but the rest have cleared out like smoke. I give it up."
Lewis stared at the speaker, his brain busy with a problem. For a moment before the fight, and for a little during its progress he had been serenely happy. He had done something hard and perilous; he had risked bullets; he had brought authentic news of a real danger. He was happily at peace with himself; the bland quiet of conscience which he had not felt for months had given him the vision of a new life. But the danger had faded away in smoke; and here was Andover with a mystified face asking its meaning.
"I swear that those fellows never had the least intention of beating us. There were far too few of them for one thing. They looked like criminals fighting under sentence, you know, like the Persian fellows. It was more like some religious ceremony than a fight. The whole thing is beyond me, but I think no harm's done. Hang it, I wish Holm were here. He's a depressing beggar, but he takes responsibility off my shoulders."
The dead men were buried as quickly and decently as the place allowed of. Things were generally cleaned up, and by noon the little fort was as spick as if the sound of a rifle had never been heard within its walls. Lewis and Andover had the midday meal in a sort of gun-room which looked over the edge of the plateau to a valley in the hills. It had been arranged and furnished by a former commandant who found in the view a repetition of the one in a much-loved Highland shooting-box. Accordingly it was comfortable and homelike beyond the average of frontier dwellings. Outside a dripping mist had clouded the hills and chilled the hot air.
The two men smoked silently, knocking out their ashes and refilling with the regularity of clockwork. Lewis was thinking hard, thinking of the bitterness of dashed hopes, of selfconfidence clutched at and lost. He saw as if in an inspiration the trend of Marker's plans. He had been given a paltry fictitious errand, like a bone to a dog, to quiet him. Some devilry was afoot and he must be got out of the road. For a second the thought pleased him, the thought that at least one man held him worthy of attention, and went out of his way to circumvent him. But the gleam of satisfaction was gone in a moment. He could not even be sure that there was guile at the back of it. It might be all foolish honesty, and to a man cursed with a sense of weakness the thought of such a pedestrian failure was trebly intolerable.
But honesty was inconceivable. He and he alone in all the frontier country knew Marker and his ways. To Andover, sucking his pipe dismally beside him, the thing appeared clear as the daylight. Marker, the best man alive, had word of some Bada-Mawidi doings and had given a friendly hint. It was not his blame if the thing had fizzled out like damp powder. But to Lewis, Marker was a man of uncanny powers and intelligence beyond others, the iron will of the true adventurer. There must be devilry behind it all, and to the eye of suspicion there was doubt in every detail. And meantime he had fallen an easy victim. Marooned in this frontier fort, the world might be turned topsy-turvy at Bardur, and he not a word the wiser. Things were slipping from his grasp again. He had an intense desire to shut his eyes and let all drift. He had done enough. He had come up here at the risk of his neck; fate had fought against him, and he must succumb. The fatal wisdom of proverbs was all on his side.
But once again conscience assailed him. Why had he believed Marker, knowing what he knew? He had been led by the nose like a crude school-boy. It was nothing to him that he had to believe or remain idle in Bardur. Another proof of his folly! This importunate sense of weakness was the weakest of all qualities. It made him a nervous and awkward follower of strength, only to plunge deeper into the mud of incapacity.
Andover looked at him curiously. His annoyance was of a different stamp--a little disappointment, intense boredom, and the ever-present frontier anxiety. But such were homely complaints to be forgotten over a pipe and in sleep. It struck him that his companion's eyes betrayed something more, and he kicked him on the shins into attention.
"Been seedy lately? Have some quinine. Or if you can't sleep I can tell you a dodge. But you know you are looking a bit cheap, old man."
"I'm pretty fit," said Lewis, and he raised his brown face to a glass. "Why I'm tanned like a nigger and my eye's perfectly clear."
"Then you're in love," said the mysterious Andover. "Trust me for knowing. When a man keeps as quiet as you for so long, he's either in love or seedy. Up here people don't fall in love, so I thought it must be the other thing."
"Rot," said Lewis. "I'm going out of doors. I must be off pretty soon, if I'm to get to Nazri by sundown. I wish you'd come out and show me the sort of lie of the land. There are three landmarks, but I can't remember their order."
An hour later the two men returned, and Lewis sat down to an early dinner. He ate quickly, and made up sandwiches which he stuffed into his pocket. Then he rose and gripped his host's hand."Good-bye, Andy. This has been a pleasant meeting. Wish it could have been longer." "Good-bye, old chap. Glad to have seen you. My love to George, if you get to Nazri. Give you three to one in half-crowns you won't get there to-night." "Done," said Lewis. "You shall pay when I see you next." And in the most approved style of the hero of melodrama he lit a short pipe and went off into Immensity.
29. The Way To Nazri
Our traveller did not reach Nazri that night for many reasons, of which the chief shall be told. The way to Nazri is long and the way to Nazri is exceedingly rough. Leaving the table-land you plunge down a trackless gully into the dry bed of a stream. Thence it is an hour's uneasy walking among stagnant pools and granite boulders to the foot of another nullah which runs up to the heart of the hills. From this you pick your way along the precipitous side of a mountain, and if your head is good and your feet sure, may come eventually to a place like the roof of the house, beyond which lies a thicket of thorn-bushes and the Nazri gully. At first sight the thing seems impossible, but by a bold man it can be crossed either in the untanned Kashmir shoes or with the naked feet.
Lewis had not gone a mile and had barely reached the dry watercourse, when the weather broke utterly in a storm of mist and fine rain. At other times this chill weather would have been a comfort, but here in these lonely altitudes, with a difficult path before him, its result was to confound confusion. So long as he stuck to the stream he had some guidance; it was hard, even when the air was like a damp blanket, to mistake the chaos of boulder and shingle which meant the channel. But the mist was close to him and wrapped him in like a quilt, and he looked in vain for the foot of the nullah he must climb. He tried keeping by the edge and feeling his way, but it only landed him in a ditch of stagnant slime. The thing was too vexatious, and his temper went; and with his temper his last chance of finding his road. When he had stumbled for what seemed hours he sat down on a boulder and whistled dismally. The stream belonged to another watershed. If he followed it, assuming that he did not break his neck over a dry cataract, he would be through the mountains and near Taghati quicker than he intended. Meantime the miserable George would wait at Nazri, would rouse the Khautmi garrison on a false alarm, and would find himself irretrievably separated from his friend. The thought was so full of irritation, that he resolved not to stir one step further. He would spend the night if need be in this place and wait till the mist lifted.
He found a hollow among the boulders, and improvidently ate half his store of sandwiches. Then, finding his throat dry, he got up to hunt for water. A trickle afar off in the rocks led him on, and sure enough he found water; but when he tried to retrace his steps to his former resting place he found that he had forgotten the way. This new place was conspicuously less sheltered, but he sat down on the wet gravel, lit a pipe with difficulty, and with his knees close to his chin strove to possess his soul in patience.
He was tired, for he had slept little for two days, and the closer air of the ravine made him drowsy. He had lost any sense of discomfort from the wet, and was in the numb condition of the utterly drenched. He could not spend the night like this, so he roused himself and stood staring, pipe in teeth, into the drizzle. The mist seemed clearer. He was a little stupid, so he did not hear the sound of feet on stones till they were almost on him. Then through the haze he saw a procession of figures moving athwart the channel. They were not his countrymen, for they walked with the stoop forward which no Englishman can ever quite master in his hill-climbing. Lewis turned to flee, but in his numbness of mind and body missed footing, and fell sprawling over a bank of shingle. He scrambled to his feet only to find hands at his throat, and himself a miserable prisoner.
The scene had shifted with a vengeance, and his first and sole impulse was to laugh. It is possible that if the scarf of a brawny tribesman had not been so tight across his chest he would have astonished his captors with hysterical laughter. But the jolt as he was dragged up hill, tied close to a horse's side, was unfavourable to merriment, and raw despondency filled his soul. This was the end of his fine doings. The prisoner of unknown bandits, hurried he knew not whence, a pretty pass for an adventurer. This was the seal on his ineffectiveness. Shot against a rock, held up to some sordid ransom, he was as impotent for good or ill as if he had stayed at home. For a second he longed to pull horse and captor with one wrench over the brink to the kindly gulf where all was quiet.
The bitterest ill-humour possessed this meekest of men. Normally he would have been afraid, for he was an imaginative being who feared horrors and had little relish for them. But there is a certain perfect bad temper which casteth out fear, and this held him in its grip. He cursed the mountain solitude and he cursed the Bada-Mawidi with awful directness. Then he chose silence as the easier part, and trudged like a stolid criminal till, half in a daze of weariness and sleep, he found that the cavalcade had halted.
The place was the edge of a little tableland where in a hollow among rocks lay a collection of mud-walled huts. A fire, in spite of the damp weather, blazed cheerfully in the midst of the clearing. There was commotion in the huts, every door was opened, and evil-smelling people poured forth with cries and questions. The leader of the newly arrived party bowed himself before a short, square man whom we have met before, and spoke something in his ear. Fazir Khan looked up sharply at Lewis, then laughed, and spoke something to his men in his own tongue.
Lewis comprehended barely a few words of Chil, the Bada tongue, and he knew little of the frontier speeches. But to his amazement the chief addressed him in tolerable, if halting, English. It was not for nothing that Fazir Khan had harried the Border and sojourned incognito in every town in North India.
"Allah has given thee to us, my son," he said sweetly. "It is vain to fight against God. I have heard of thee as the Englishman who would know more than is good for man to know. You were at Forza to-day."
Lewis's temper was at its worst. "I was at Forza to-day, and I watched your people running. Had they waited a little longer we should have slain them all, and then have come for you."
The chief smiled unpleasantly. "My people did not fight at Forza to-day. That was but the sport to draw on fools. Soon we shall fight in earnest, but in a different place, and thou shalt not see."
"I am your prisoner," said Lewis grimly, "and it is in your power to do with me as you please. But remember that for every hair of my head my people will take the lives of four of your cattle-lifters."
"That is an old story," said Fazir Khan wearily, "and I have heard it many times before. You speak boldly like a man, and because you are not afraid I will tell you the truth. In a very little there will be not one of your people in the land, only the Bada-Mawidi, and others whom I do not name.""That is a still older story. I have heard it since I was in my mother's arms. Do you think to frighten me by such a tale?"
"Let us not talk of fear," said the chief with some politeness. "There are two races in your people, one which talks and allies itself with Bengalis and swine, and one which lives in hard places and follows war. The second I love, and had it been possible, I would have allied myself with it and driven the others into the sea." This petty chieftain spoke with the pride of one who ruled the destinies of the earth.
Lewis was unimpressed. "I am tired of your riddles," he said. "If you would kill me have done with it. If you would keep me prisoner, give me food and a place to sleep. But if you would be merciful, let me go and show me the way to Bardur. Life is too short for waiting."Fazir Khan laughed loudly, and spoke something to his people. "You shall join in our company for the night," he said. "I have eaten of the salt of your people and I do not murder without cause. Also I love a bold man."
Lewis was led into the largest of the huts and given food and warm Hunza wine. The place was hot to suffocation; large beads of moisture stood on the mud walls, and the smell of uncleanly clothing and sweating limbs was difficult to stand. But the man's complexion was hard, and he made an excellent supper. Thereafter he became utterly drowsy. He had it in his mind to question this Fazir Khan about his dark sayings, but his eyes closed as if drawn by a magnet and his head nodded. It may have been something in the wine; it may have been merely the vigil of the last night, and the toil of the past hours. At any rate his mind was soon a blank, and when a servant pointed out a heap of skins in a corner, he flung himself on them and was at once asleep. He was utterly at their mercy, but his course, had he known it, was the wisest. Even a Bada's treachery has its limits, and he will not knife a confident guest. The men talked and wrangled, ate and drank, and finally snored around him, but he slept through it all like a sleeper of Ephesus.
When he woke the hut was cleared. The village slept late but he had slept later, for the sun was piercing the unglazed windows and making pattern-work on the earth floor. He had slept soundly a sleep haunted with nightmares, and he was still dazed as he peered out into the square where men were passing. He saw a sentry at the door of his hut, which reminded him of his condition. All the long night he had been far away, fishing, it seemed to him, in a curious place which was Glenavelin, and yet was ever changing to a stranger glen. It was moonlight, still, bright and warm on all the green hill shoulders. He remembered that he caught nothing, but had been deliriously happy. People seemed passing on the bank, Arthur and Wratislaw and Julia Heston, and all his boyhood's companions. He talked to them pleasantly, and all the while he was moving up the glen which lay so soft in the moonlight. He remembered looking everywhere for Alice Wishart, but her face was wanting. Then suddenly the place seemed to change. The sleeping glen changed to a black sword-cut among rocks, his friends disappeared, and only George was left. He remembered that George cried out something and pointed to the gorge, and he knew--though how he knew it he could not tell--that the lost Alice was somewhere there before him in the darkness and he must go towards her. Then he had wakened shivering, for in that darkness there was terror as well as joy.
He went to the door, only to find himself turned back by the sheep-skin sentry, who half unsheathed for his benefit an ugly knife. He found that his revolver, his sole weapon, had been taken while he slept. Escape was impossible till his captors should return.
A day of burning sun had followed on the storm. Out of doors in the scorching glare from the rock there seemed an extraordinary bustle. It was like the preparations for a march, save that there seemed no method in the activity. One man burnished a knife, a dozen were cleaning rifles, and all wore the evil-smelling finery with which the hillman decks his person for war. Their long oiled hair was tied in a sort of rude knot, new and fuller turbans adorned the head, and on the feet were stout slippers of Bokhara make. Lewis had keen eyesight, and he strove to read the marks on the boxes of cartridges which stood in a corner. It was not the well-known Government mark which usually brands stolen ammunition. The three crosses with the crescent above--he had seen them before, but his memory failed him. It might have been at Bardur in the inn; it might have been at home in the house of some great traveller. At any rate the sight boded no good to himself or the border peace. He thought of George waiting alone at Nazri, and then obediently warning the people at Khautmi. By this time Andover would know he was missing, and men would be out on a very hopeless search. At any rate he had done some good, for if the Badas meant marching they would find the garrisons prepared.
About noon there was a bustle in the square and Fazir Khan with a dozen of his tail swaggered in. He came straight to the hut, and two men entered and brought out the prisoner. Lewis stiffened his back and prepared not reluctantly for a change in the situation. He had no special fear of this smiling, sinister chieftain. So far he had been spared, and now it seemed unlikely that in the midst of this bustle of war there would be room for the torture which alone he dreaded. So he met the chief's look squarely, and at the moment he thanked the lot which had given him two more inches of height."I have sent for thee, my son," said Fazir Khan, "that you may see how great my people is." "I have seen," said Lewis, looking round. "You have a large collection of jackals, but you will not bring many back."
The notion tickled Fazir Khan and he laughed with great good-humour. "So, so," he cried. "Behold how great is the wisdom of youth. I will tell you a secret, my son. In a little the Bada-Mawidi, my people, will be in Bardur and a little later in the fat corn lands of the south, and I, Fazir Khan, will sit in King's palaces." He looked contemptuously round at his mud walls, his heart swelling with pride."What the devil do you mean?" Lewis asked with rising suspicion. This was not the common talk of a Border cateran.
"I mean what I mean," said the other. "In a little all the world shall see. But because I have a liking for a bold cockerel like thee, I will speak unwisely. The days of your people are numbered. This very night there are those coming from the north who will set their foot on your necks."
Lewis went sick at heart. A thousand half-forgotten suspicions called clamorously. This was the secret of the burlesque at Forza, and the new valour of the Badas. He saw Marker's game with the fatal clearness of one who is too late. He had been given a chance of a little piece of service to avert his suspicions. Marker had fathomed him well as one who must satisfy a restless conscience but had no stomach for anything beyond. Doubtless he thought that now he would be enjoying the rest after labour at Forza, flattering himself on saving a garrison, when all the while the force poured down which was to destroy an empire. An army from the north, backed and guided by every Border half-breed and outlaw--what hope of help in God's name was to be found in the sleepy forts and the unsuspecting Bardur?
And the Kashmir and the Punjab? A train laid in every town and village. Supplies in readiness, communications waiting to be held, railways ready for capture. Europe was on the edge of a volcano. He saw an outbreak there which would keep Britain employed at home, while the great power with her endless forces and bottomless purse poured her men over the frontier. But at the thought of the frontier he checked himself. There was no road by which an army could march; if there was any it could be blocked by a handful. A week's, a day's delay would save the north, and the north would save the empire.His voice came out of his throat with a crack in it like an old man's. "There is no road through the mountains. I have been there before and I know."
Again Fazir Khan smiled. "I use no secrecy to my friends. There is a way, though all men do not know it. From Nazri there is a valley running towards the sunrise. At the head there is a little ridge easily crossed, and from that there is a dry channel between high precipices. It is not the width of a man's stature, so even the sharp eyes of my brother might miss it. Beyond that there is a sandy tableland, and then another valley, and then plains."
The plan of the place was clear in Lewis's brain. He remembered each detail. The long nullah on which he had looked from the hill-tops had, then, an outlet, and did not end, as he had guessed, in a dead wall of rock. Fool and blind! to have missed so glorious a chance!He stood staring dumbly around him, unconscious that he was the laughingstock of all. Then he looked at the chief. "Am I your prisoner?" he asked hoarsely. "Nay," said the other good-humouredly, "thou art free. We have over-much work on hand to-day to be saddled with captives." "Then where is Nazri?" he asked.
The chief laughed a loud laugh of tolerant amusement. "Hear to the bold one," he cried. "He will not miss the great spectacle. See, I will show you the road," and he pointed out certain landmarks. "For one of my own people it is a journey of four hours; for thee it will be something more. But hurry, and haply the game will not have begun. If the northern men take thee I will buy thy life."
Four hours; the words rang in his brain like a sentence. He had no hope, but a wild craving to attempt the hopeless. George might have returned to Nazri to wait; it was the sort of docile thing that George would do. In any case not five miles from Nazri was the end of the north road and a little telegraph hut used by the Khautmi forts. The night would be full moonlight; and by night the army would come. His watch had been stolen, but he guessed by the heavens that it was some two hours after noon. Five hours would bring him to Nazri at six, in another he might be at the hut before the wires were severed. It was a crazy chance, but it was his all, and meanwhile these grinning tribesmen were watching him like some curious animal. They had talked to him freely to mock his feebleness. His dominant wish was to escape from their sight.
The chief held out his pistol. "Take your little weapon. We have no need of such things when great matters are on hand. Allah speed you, brother! A sure foot and a keen eye may bring you there in time for the sport." And, still laughing, he turned to enter the hut.
30. Evening In The Hills
The airless heat of afternoon lay on the rocks and dry pastures. The far snow-peaks, seen for a moment through a rift in the hills, shimmered in the glassy stillness. No cheerful sound of running water filled the hollows, for all was parched and bare with the violence of intemperate suns and storms. Soon he was out of sight and hearing of the village, travelling in a network of empty watercourses, till at length he came to the long side of mountain which he knew of old as the first landmark of the way. A thin ray of hope began to break up his despair. He knew now the exact distance he had to travel, for his gift had always been an infallible instinct for the lie of a countryside. The sun was still high in the heavens; with any luck he should be at Nazri by six o'clock.
He was still sore with wounded pride. That Marker should have divined his weakness and left open to him a task in which he might rest with a cheap satisfaction was bitter to his vanity. The candour of his mind made him grant its truth, but his new-born confidence was sadly dissipated. And he felt, too, the futility of his efforts. That one man alone in this precipitous wilderness should hope to wake the Border seemed a mere nightmare of presumption. But it was possible, he said to himself. Time only was needed. If he could wake Bardur and the north, and the forts on the passes, there would be delay enough to wake India. If George were at Nazri there would be two for the task; if not, there would be one at least willing and able.
It was characteristic of the man that the invasion was bounded for him by Nazri and Bardur. He had no ears for ultimate issues and the ruin of an empire. Another's fancy would have been busy on the future; Lewis saw only that pass at Nazri and the telegraph-hut beyond. He must get there and wake the Border; then the world might look after itself. As he ran, half-stumbling, along the stony hillside he was hard at work recounting to himself the frontier defences. The Forza and Khautmi garrisons might hold the pass for an hour if they could be summoned. It meant annihilation, but that was in the bargain. Thwaite was strong enough in Bardur, but the town might give him trouble of itself, and he was not a man of resources. After Bardur there was no need of thought. Two hours after the telegraph clicked in the Nazri hut, the north of India would have heard the news and be bestirring itself for work. In five hours all would be safe, unless Bardur could be taken and the wires cut. There might be treason in the town, but that again was not his affair. Let him but send the message before sunset, and he would still have time to get to Khautmi, and with good luck hold the defile for sixty minutes. The thought excited him wildly. His face dripped with sweat, his boots were cut with rock till the leather hung in shreds, and a bleeding arm showed through the rents in his sleeve. But he felt no physical discomfort, only the exhilaration of a rock climber with the summit in sight, or a polo player with a clear dribble before him to the goal. At last he was playing a true game of hazard, and the chance gave him the keenest joy.
All the hot afternoon he scrambled till he came to the edge of a new valley. Nazri must lie beyond, he reasoned, and he kept to the higher ground. But soon he was mazed among precipitous shelves which needed all his skill. He had to bring his long stride down to a very slow and cautious pace, and, since he was too old a climber to venture rashly, he must needs curb his impatience. He suffered the dull recoil of his earlier vigour. While he was creeping on this accursed cliff the minutes were passing, and every second lessening his chances. He was in a fever of unrest, and only a happy fortune kept him from death. But at length the place was passed, and the mountain shelved down to a plateau. A wide view lay open to the eye, and Lewis blinked and hesitated. He had thought Nazri lay below him, and lo! there was nothing but a tangle of black watercourses.
The sun had begun to decline over the farther peak, and the man's heart failed him utterly. These unkind stony hills had been his ruin. He was lost in the most formidable country on God's earth, lost! when his whole soul cried out for hurry. He could have wept with misery, and with a drawn face he sat down and forced himself to think.
Suddenly a long, narrow black cleft in the farther tableland caught his eye. He took the direction from the sun and looked again. This must be the Nazri Pass, which he had never before that day heard of. He saw where it ended in a stony valley. Once there he had but to follow the nullah and cross the little ridge to come to Nazri.
Weariness was beginning to grow on him, but the next miles were the quickest of the day. He seemed to have the foot of a chamois. Down the rocky hillside, across the chaos of boulders, and up into the dark nullah he ran like a maniac. His mouth was parched with thirst, and he stopped for a moment in the valley bottom to swallow some rain-water. At last he found himself in the Nazri valley, with the thin sword-cut showing dark in the yellow evening. Another mile and he would be at the camping-place, and in five more at the hut.
He kept high up on the ridge, for the light had almost gone and the valley was perilous. It must be hideously late, eight o'clock or more, he thought, and his despair made him hurry his very weary limbs. Suddenly in the distant hollow he saw the gleam of a fire. He stopped abruptly and then quickened with a cry of joy. It must be the faithful George still waiting in the place appointed. Now there would be two to the task. But it was too late, he bitterly reflected. In a little the moon would rise, and then at any moment the van of the invader might emerge from the defile. He might warn Bardur, but before anything could be done the enemy would be upon them. And then there would be a southward march upon a doubtful and half-awakened country, and then--he knew not. But there was one other way. It had not occurred to him before, for it is not an expedient which comes often to men nowadays, save to such as are fools and outcasts. We are a wise and provident age, mercantile in our heroics, seeking a solid profit for every sacrifice. But this man--a child of the latter day--had not the new self-confidence, and he was at the best high-strung, unwise, and unworldly. Besides, he was broken with toil and excited with adventure. The last dying rays of the sun were resting on the far snow walls, and the great heart of the west burned in one murky riot of flame. But to the north, whence came danger, there was a sea of yellow light, islanded with faint roseate clouds like some distant happy country. The air of dusk was thin and chill but stirring as wine to the blood, and all the bare land was for the moment a fairy realm, mystic, intangible and untrodden. The frontier line ran below the camping place; here he was over the border, beyond the culture of his kind. He was alone, for in this adventure George would not share. He would earn nothing, in all likelihood he would achieve nothing; but by the grace of God he might gain some minutes' respite. He would be killed; but that, again, was no business of his. At least he could but try, for this was his one shred of hope remaining.
The thought, once conceived, could not be rejected. He was no coward or sophist to argue himself out of danger. He laid no flattering unction to his soul that he had done his best while another way remained untried. For this type of man may be half-hearted and a coward in little matters, but he never deceives himself. We have all our own virtues and their defects. I am a well-equipped and confident person, walking bluffly through the world, looking through and down upon my neighbours, the incarnation of honesty; but I can find excuses for myself when I desire them, I hug my personal esteem too close, and a thousand to one I am too great a coward at heart to tell myself the naked truth. You, on the other hand, are vacillating and ill at your ease. You shrink from the hards of life which I steer happily through. But you have no delusions with yourself, and the odds are that when the time comes you may choose the "high that proved too high" and achieve the impossibly heroic.A tired man with an odd gleam in his eye came out of the shadows to the firelight and called George by name. "My God, Lewis, I am glad to see you! I thought you were lost. Food?" and he displayed the resources of his larder.
Lewis hunted for the water-bottle and quenched his thirst. Then he ate ravenously of the cold wild-fowl and oatcake which George had provided. He was silent and incurious till he had satisfied his wants; then he looked up to meet George's questions.
"Where on earth have you been? Andover said you started out to come here last night. I did as you told me, you know, and when you didn't come I roused the Khautmi people. They swore a good deal but turned out, and after an infernal long climb we got to Forza. We roused up Andover after a lot of trouble, and he took us in and gave us supper. He said you had gone off hours ago, and that the Bada-Mawidi business had been more or less of a fraud. So I slept there and came back here in the morning in case you should turn up. Been shooting all day, but it was lonely work and I didn't get the right hang of the country. These beggars there are jolly little use," and he jerked his head in the direction of the native servants. "What _have_ you been after?"
"I? Oh, I've been in queer places. I fell into the hands of the Badas a couple of hours after I left Forza. There was a storm up there and I got lost in the mist. They took me up to a village and kept me there all night. And then I heard news--my God, such news! They let me go because they thought I could do no harm and I ran most of the way here. Marker has scored this time, old man. You know how he has been going about all North India for the last year or two getting things much his own way. Well, to-night when the moon rises the great blow is to be struck. It seems there is a pass to the north of this; I knew the place but I didn't know of the road. There is an army coming down that place in an hour or so. It is the devil's own business, but it has got to be faced. We must warn Bardur, and trust to God that Bardur may warn the south. You know the telegraph hut at the end of the road, when you begin to climb up the ravine to the place? You must get down there at once, for every moment is precious."George had listened with staring eyes to the tale. "I can't believe it," he managed to ejaculate. "God, man! it's invasion, an unheard-of thing!"
"It's the most desperate truth, unheard-of or no. The whole thing lies in our hands. They cannot come till after midnight, and by that time Thwaite may be ready in Bardur, and the Khautmi men may be holding the road. That would delay them for a little, and by the time they took Bardur they might find the south in arms. It wouldn't matter a straw if it were an ordinary filibustering business. But I tell you it's a great army, and everything is prepared for it. Marker has been busy for months. There will be outbreaks in every town in the north. The railways and arsenals will be captured before ever the enemy appears. There will be a native rising. That was to be bargained for. But God only knows how the native troops have been tampered with. That man was as clever as they make, and he has had a free hand. Oh the blind fools!"George had turned, and was buttoning the top button of his shooting-coat against the chilly night wind. "What shall I say to Thwaite?" he asked.
"Oh, anything. Tell him it's life or death. Tell him the facts, and don't spare. You'll have to impress on the telegraph clerk its importance first and that will take time. Tell him to send to Gilgit and Srinagar, and then to the Indus Valley. He must send into Chitral too and warn Armstrong. Above all things the Kohistan railway must be watched, because it must be their main card. Lord! I wish I understood the game better. Heaven knows it isn't my profession. But Thwaite will understand if you scare him enough. Tell him that Bardur must be held ready for siege at any moment. You understand how to work the thing?"George nodded. "There'll be nobody there, so I suppose I'll have to break the door open. I think I remember the trick of the business. _Then_, what do I do?"
"Get up to Khautmi as fast as you can shin it. Better take the servants and send them before you while you work the telegraph. I suppose they're trustworthy. Get them to warn Mitchinson and St. John. They must light the fires on the hills and collect all the men they can spare to hold the road. Of course it's a desperate venture. We'll probably all be knocked on the head, but we must risk it. If we can stop the beggars for one halfhour we'll give Thwaite a better chance to set his house in order. How I'd sell my soul to see a strong man in Bardur! That will be the key of the position. If the place is uncaptured to-morrow morning, and your wires have gone right, the chief danger on this side will be past. There will be little risings of wasps' nests up and down the shop, but we can account for them if this army from the north is stopped.""I wonder how many of us will see to-morrow morning," said George dismally. He was not afraid of death, but he loved the pleasant world. "Good-bye," said Lewis abruptly, holding out his hand. The action made George realize for the first time the meaning of his errand. "But, I say, Lewie, hold on. What the deuce are you going to do?"
"I am dog-tired," said the impostor. "I must wait here and rest. I should only delay you." And always, as if to belie his fatigue, his eyes were turning keenly to the north. At any moment while he stood there bandying words there might come the sound of marching, and the van of the invaders issue from the defile.
"But, hang it, you know. I can't allow this. The Khautmi men mayn't reach you in time, and I'm dashed if I am going to leave you here to be chawed up by Marker. You're coming with me."
"Don't be an ass," said Lewis kindly. This parting, one in ignorance, the other in too certain knowledge, was very bitter "They can't be here before midnight. They were to start at moonrise, and the moon is only just up. You'll be back in heaps of time, and, besides, we'll soon all be in the same box."
It was a false card to play, for George grew obstinate at once. "Then I'm going to be in the same box as you from the beginning. Do you really think I am going to desert you? Hang it, you're more important than Bardur."
"Oh, for God's sake, listen to reason," Lewis cried in despair. "You must go at once. I can't or I would. It's our only chance. It's a jolly good chance of death anyway, but it's a naked certainty unless you do this. Think of the women and children and the people at home. You may as well talk about letting the whole thing slip and getting back to Bardur with safe skins. We must work the telegraph and then try to hold the road with the Khautmi men, or be cowards for evermore. We're gentlemen, and we are responsible."
"I didn't mean it that way," said George dismally. "But I want you to come with me. I can't bear the thought of your being butchered here alone, supposing the beggars come before we get back. You're sure there is time?"
"You've three hours before you, but every moment is important. This is the frontier line, and this fire will do for one of the signals. You'll find me here. I haven't slept for days." And he yawned with feigned drowsiness.
"Then--good-bye," said George solemnly, holding out his hand a second time. "Remember, I'm devilish anxious about you. It's a pretty hot job for us all; but, gad! if we pull through you get the credit."Then with a single backward glance he led the way down the narrow track, two mystified servants at his heels.
Lewis watched him disappear, and then turned sadly to his proper business. This was the end of a very old song, and his heart cried out at the thought. He heaped more wood on the blaze from the little pile collected, and soon a roaring, boisterous fire burned in the glen, while giant shadows danced on the sombre hills. Then he rummaged in the tent till he found the rifles, carefully cleaned and laid aside. He selected two express 400 bores, a Metford express and a smooth-bore Winchester repeater. Then he filled his pockets with cartridges, and from a small box took a handful for his revolver. All this he did in a sort of sobbing haste, turning nervous eyes always to the mouth of the cañon. He filled his flask from a case in the tent, and, being still ravenously hungry, crammed the remnants of supper into a capacious game-pocket. Then, all preparations being made, he looked for a moment down the road where his best friend had just gone out of his ken for ever. The thought was so dreary that he did not dare to delay longer, but with a bundle of ironmongery below his arms began to scramble up the glen to where the north star burned between two peaks of hill.
He did the journey in an hour, for he was in a pitiable state of anxiety. Every moment he looked to hear the tramp of an army before him, and know his errand of no avail. Over the little barrier ridge he scrambled, and then up the straight gully to the little black rift which was the gate of an empire. His unquiet mind peopled the wilderness with voices, but when, breathless and sore, he came into the jaws of the pass, all was still, silent as the grave, save for an eagle which croaked from some eyrie in the cliffs.
31. Events South Of The Border
Thwaite was finishing a solitary dinner and attempting to find interest in a novel when his butler came with news that the telephone bell was ringing in the gun-room. Thwaite, being tired and cross, told him to answer it himself, expecting some frivolous message about supplies. The man returned in a little with word that he could not understand it. Then Thwaite arose, blessing him, and went to see. The telegraph office proper was on the other side of the river, on the edge of the native town, but a telephone had been established to the garrison.
Thwaite's first impulse was to suspect a gigantic hoax. A scared native clerk was trying to tell him a most appalling tale. George had not spared energy in his message, and the Oriental imagination as a medium had considerably increased it. The telegrams came in a confused order, hard to piece together, but two facts seemed to stand out from the confusion. One was that there was an unknown pass in the hills beyond Nazri through which danger was expected at any moment that night; the other was that treason was suspected throughout the whole north. Then came the name of Marker, which gave Thwaite acute uneasiness. Finally came George's two words of advice--keep strict watch on the native town and hold Bardur in readiness for a siege; and wire the same directions to Yasin, Gilgit, Chitral, Chilas, and throughout Kashmir and the Punjab. Above all, wire to the chief places on the new Indus Valley railway, for in case of success in Bardur, the railway would be the first object of the invader.
Thwaite put down the ear-trumpet, his face very white and perspiring. He looked at his watch; it was just on nine o'clock. The moon had arisen and the telegram said "moonrise." He could not doubt the genuineness of the message when he had heard at the end the names Winterham and Haystoun. Already Marker might be through the pass, and little the Khautmi people could do against him. He must be checked at Bardur, though it cost every life in the garrison. Four hours' delay would arm the north to adequate resistance.
He telephoned to the telegraph office to shut and lock the doors and admit no one till word came from him. Then he summoned his Sikh orderly, his English servant, and the native officers of the garrison. He had one detachment of Imperial Service troops officered by Punjabis, and a certain force of Kashmir Sepoys who made ineffective policemen, and as soldiers were worse than useless. And with them he had to defend the valley, and hold the native town, which might give trouble on his flank. This was the most vexatious part of the business. If Marker had organized the thing, then nothing could be unexpected, and treachery was sure to be thick around them. The men came, saluted, and waited in silence. Thwaite sat down at a table and pulled a sheaf of telegraph forms to pieces. First he wired to Ladcock at Gilgit, beseeching reinforcements. From Bardur to the south there is only one choice of ways--by Yasin and Yagistan to the Indus Valley, or by Gilgit and South Kashmir. Once beyond Gilgit there was small hope of checking an advance, but in case the shorter way to the Indus by the Astor Valley was tried there might be hope of a delay. So he besought Ladcock to post men on the Mazeno Pass if the time was given him. Then he sent a like message to Yasin, though on the high passes and the unsettled country there was small chance of the wires remaining uncut. A force in Yasin might take on the flank any invasion from Afghanistan and in any case command the Chitral district. Then came a series of frantic wires at random--to Rawal Pindi, to the Punjabi centres, to South Kashmir. He had small confidence in these messages. If the local risings were serious, as he believed them to be, they would be too late, and in any case they were beyond the country where strategical points were of advantage against an invader. There remained the stations on the Indus Valley railway, which must be the earliest point of attack. The terminus at Boonji was held by a certain Jackson, a wise man who inspired terror in a mixed force of irregulars, Afridis, Pathans, Punjabis, Swats, and a dozen other varieties of tribesmen. To him he sent the most lengthy and urgent messages, for he held the key of a great telegraphic system with which he might awake Abbotabad and the Punjab. Then, perspiring with heat and anxiety, he gave the bundle into the hands of his English servant, and told off an officer and twenty men to hold the telegraph office. A blue light was to be lit in the window if the native town should prove troublesome and reinforcements be needed.
Soon the force of the garrison was assembled in the yard, all but a few who had been sent on messages to the more isolated houses of the English residents. Thwaite addressed them briefly: "Men, there's the devil's own sweet row up the north, and it's moving down to us. This very night we may have to fight. And, remember, it's not the old game with the hillmen, but an army of white men, servants of the Tsar, come to fight the servants of the Empress. Therefore, it is your duty to kill them all like locusts, else they will swallow up you and your cattle and your wives and your children, and, speaking generally, the whole bally show. We may be killed, but if we keep them back even for a little God will bless us. So be steady at your posts."
The garrison was soon dispersed, the guns in readiness, pointing up the valley. It was ten o'clock by Thwaite's watch ere the last click of the loaders told that Bardur was awaiting an enemy. The town behind was in an uproar, men clamouring at the gates, and seeking passports to flee to the south. Chinese and Turcoman traders from Leh and Lhassa, Yarkand and Bokhara, with scared faces, were getting their goods together and invoking their mysterious gods. Logan, who had returned from Gilgit that very day, rode breathless into the yard, clamouring for Thwaite. He received the tale in half a dozen sentences, whistled, and turned to go, for he had his own work to do. One question he asked:"Who sent the telegrams?" "Haystoun and Winterham." "Then they're alone at Nazri?" "Except for the Khautmi men." "Will they try to hold it?" "I should think so. They're all sportsmen. Gad, there won't be a soul left alive."
Logan galloped off with a long face. It would be a great ending, but what a waste of heroic stuff! And as he remembered Lewis's frank good-fellowship he shut his lips, as if in pain.
The telegrams were sent, and reply messages began to pour in, which kept one man at the end of the telephone. About half-past ten a blue light burned in the window across the river. There seemed something to do in the native town of narrow streets and evilsmelling lanes, for the sound of shouting and desultory firing rose above the stir of the fort. The telegraph office abutted on the far end of the bridge, and Thwaite had taken the precaution of bidding the native officer he had sent across keep his men posted around the end of the passage. Now he himself took thirty men, for the native town was the most dangerous point he had to fear. The wires must not be cut till the last moment, and, as they passed over the bridge and then through the English quarter, there was small danger if the office was held. He found, as he expected, that the place was being maintained against considerable odds. A huge mixed crowd, drawn in the main from the navvies who had been employed on the new road, armed with knives and a few rifles, and encouraged by certain wild, dancing figures which had the look of priests, was surging around the gate. The fighting stuff was Afridi or Chitrali, but there was abundance of yelling from this rabble of fakirs and beggars who accompanied them. Order there was none, and it was clear to Thwaite that this rising had been arranged for but not organized. His men had small difficulty in forcing a way to the office, where they served to complete the cordon of defence and the garrison of the bridge-end. Two men had been killed and some half-dozen of the rioters. He pushed into the building, and found a terrified Kashmir clerk sternly watched by his servant and the Sikh orderly. The man, with tears streaming down his face, was attempting to read the messages which the wires brought.
Thwaite picked up and read the latest, which was a scrawl in quavering characters over three telegraph forms. It was from Ladcock at Gilgit, saying that he was having a row of his own with the navvies there, and that he could send no reinforcements at present. If he quieted the trouble in time he would try and hold the Mazeno Pass, and meanwhile he had done his best to wake the Punjab. As the wires would be probably cut within the next hour there would be no more communications, but he besought Thwaite to keep the invader in the passes, as the whole south country was a magazine waiting for a spark to explode. The message ran in short violent words, and Thwaite had a vision of Ladcock, short, ruddy, and utterly out of temper, stirred up from his easy life to hold a frontier.
There was no word from Yasin, as indeed he had expected, for the tribes on the highlands about Hunza and Punial were the most disaffected on the Border, and doubtless the first to be tampered with. Probably his own message had never gone, and he could only pray that the men there might by the grace of God have eyes in their heads to read the signs of the times. There was a brief word from Jackson at Boonji. There attacks had been made on the terminus and the engine-sheds since sunset, which his men had luckily had time to repulse. A large amount of rolling-stock was lying there, as five freight trains had brought up material for the new bridge the day before. Of this the enemy had probably had word. Anyhow, he hoped to quiet all local disturbances, and he would undertake to see that every station on the line was warned. He would receive reinforcements from Abbotabad by the afternoon of the next day; if Bardur and Gilgit, or Yasin as it might be, could delay the attack till then everything might be safe--unless, indeed, the whole nexus of hill-tribes rose as one man. In which case there would be the devil to pay, and he had no advice to give.
Thwaite read and laughed grimly. It was not a question of a day's delay, but of an hour's, and the hill-tribes, if he judged Marker's cleverness rightly, would act just as Jackson feared. The business had begun among the navvies at Bardur and Gilgit and Boonji. In a little they would have news of real tribal war--Hunzas, Pathans, Chitralis, Punialis, and Chils, tribes whom England had fought a dozen times before and knew the mettle of; now would be the time for their innings. Well supplied with money and arms-this would have been part of Marker's business--they would be the forerunners of the great army. First savage war, then scientific annihilation by civilized hands--a sweet prospect for a peaceful man in the prime of life!
He returned to the fort to find all quiet and in order. It commanded the north road, but though the eye might weary itself with looking on the moonlit sandy valley and the opaque blue hills, there was no sight or sound of men. The stars were burning hard and cold in the vault of sky, and looking down somewhere on the march of an army. It was now close on midnight; in five hours dawn would break in the east and the night of attack would be gone. But death waited between this midnight hour and the morning. What were Haystoun and the men from Khautmi doing? Fighting or beyond all fighting? Well, he would soon know. He was not afraid, but this cursed waiting took the heart out of a man! And he looked at his watch and found it half-past twelve.
At Yasin there was the most severe fighting. It lasted for three days, and in effect amounted to a little tribal war. A man called Mackintosh commanded, and he had the advantage of having regulars with him, Gurkhas for the most part, who were old campaigners. The place had seemed unquiet for some days, and certain precautions had been taken, so that when the rioting broke out at sunset it was easy to get the town under subjection and prepare for external attack. The Chiling Pass into Chitral had given trouble of old, but Mackintosh was scarcely prepared for the systematic assaults of Punialis and Tangiris from the east and south. Having always been famous as an alarmist he put the right interpretation on the business, and settled down to what he half hoped, half feared, might be a great frontier war. The place was strong only on the north side, and the defence was as much a question of engineering as of war. His Sepoys toiled gallantly at the incomplete defences, while the rest fought hand to hand--bayonet against knife, Metford against Enfield--to cover their labour. He lost many men, but on the evening of the next day he had the satisfaction of seeing the fortifications complete, and he awaited a siege with equanimity, as he was well victualled.
On the second night the enemy again attacked, but the moon was bright, and they were no match for his sharpshooters. About two in the morning they fell back, and for the next day it looked as if they proposed to invest the garrison. But by the third evening they began to melt away, taking with them such small plunder as they had won. Mackintosh, who was a man of enterprise, told off a detachment for pursuit, and cursed bitterly the fate which had broken his ankle with a rifle-bullet.
In the south along the railway the warnings came in good time. At Rawal Pindi there was some small difficulty with native officials, a large body of whom seemed to have unaccountably disappeared. This delayed for some time the sending of a freight-train to Abbotabad, but by and by substitutes were found, and the works left under guard. The telegram to Peshawur found things in readiness there, for memories of old trouble still linger, and people sleep lightly on that frontier. Word came of native riots in the south, at Lahore and Amritsar, and the line of towns which mark the way to Delhi. In some places extraordinary accidents were reported. Certain officers had gone off on holiday and had not returned; odd and unintelligible commands had come to perplex the minds of others; whole camps were reported sick where sickness was least expected. A little rising of certain obscure rivers had broken up an important highway by destroying all the bridges save the one which carried the railway. The whole north was on the brink of a sudden disorganization, but the brink had still to be passed. It lay with its masters to avert calamity; and its masters, going about with haggard faces, prayed for daylight and a few hours to prepare.
George had sent his men to Khautmi before he entered the telegraph hut, and he followed himself in twenty minutes. Somewhere upon the hill-road he met St. John with a dozen men, who abused him roundly and besought details.
"A pass beyond Nazri," the man cried. "Why, I was there shooting buck last week. Up the nullah and over the ridge, and then a cleft at the top of the next valley? Does he say there's a pass there? Maybe, but I'll be hanged if an army could get through. If we get there we can hold it."
"We haven't time. They may be here at any moment. Send men to Forza and get them to light the fires. Oh, for God's sake, be quick! I've left Haystoun down there. The obstinate beggar was too tired to move."
Over all the twenty odd miles between Forza and Khautmi there is a chain of fires which can be used for signals in the Border wars. On this night Khautmi was to take the west side of the Nazri gully and Forza the east, and the two quickest runners in the place were sent off to Andover with the news. He was to come towards them, leaving men at the different signal-posts in case of scattered assaults, and if he came in time the two forces would join in holding the Nazri pass. But should the invader come before, then it fell on the Khautmi men to stand alone. It was a smooth green hollow in the stony hills, some hundred yards wide, and at the most they might hope to make a fight of thirty minutes. St. John and George, with their men, ran down the stony road till the sweat dripped from their brows, though the night was chilly. Mitchinson was to follow with the rest and light the fires; meantime, they must get to Nazri, in case the march should forestall them. St. John was cursing his ill-luck. Two hours earlier and they might have held the distant cleft in the hills, and, if they were doomed to perish, have perished to some purpose. But the holding of the easy Nazri pass was sheer idle mania, and yet it was the only chance of gaining some paltry minutes. As for George, he had forgotten his vexatious. His one anxiety was for Lewis; that he should be in time to have his friend at his side. And when at last they came down on the pass and saw the camp-fire blazing fiercely and no trace of the enemy, he experienced a sense of vast relief. Lewis was making himself comfortable, cool beggar that he was, and now was probably sleeping. He should be left alone; so he persuaded St. John that the best point to take their stand on was on a shoulder of hill beyond the fire. It gave him honest pleasure to think that at last he had stolen a march on his friend. He should at least have his sleep in peace before the inevitable end.
He looked at his watch; it was almost half-past eleven.
"Haystoun said they'd be here at midnight," he whispered to his companion. "We haven't long. When do you suppose Andover will come?"
George nodded back to the fire in the hollow, and the tent beside it. "There, I expect, sleeping. He's dog-tired, and he always was a very cool hand in a row. He'll be wakened soon enough, poor chap.""You're sure he can't tell us anything?"
"Nothing. He told me all. Better let him be." Mitchinson came up with the rearguard. Living all but alone in the wilds had made him a silent man compared to whom the taciturn St. John was garrulous. He nodded to George and sat down."How many are we?" George asked. "Forty-three, counting the three of us. Not enough for a good stand. Wonder how it'll turn out. Never had to do such a thing before."
St. John, whose soul longed for Maxims, posted his men as best he could. There was no time to throw up earthworks, but a rough cairn of stone which stood in the middle of the hollow gave at least a central rallying-ground. Then they waited, watching the fleecy night vapours blow across the peaks and straining their ears for the first sound of men.George grew impatient. "It can't be more than five miles to the pass. Shouldn't some of us try to get there? It would make all the difference."
St. John declined sharply. "We've taken our place and we must stick to it. We can't afford to straggle. Hullo! it's just on twelve. Thwaite has had three hours to prepare, and he's bound to have wakened the south. I fancy the business won't quite come off this time."
Suddenly in the chilly silence there rose something like the faint and distant sound of rifles. It was no more than the sound of stone dropping on a rock ledge, for, still and clear and cold though the night was, the narrowness of the valley and the height of the cliffs dulled all distant sounds. But each man had the ear of the old hunter, and waited with head bent forward.Again the drip-drip; then a scattering noise as when one lets peas fall on the floor.
"God! That's carbines. Who the devil are they fighting with?" Mitchinson's eye had lost its lethargy. His scraggy neck was craned forward, and his grim mouth had relaxed into a grimmer smile.
"It's them, sure enough," said St. John, and spoke something to his servant.
"You're bound not to be an ass," said St. John. "Who in the Lord's name could it be? It may be the Badas polishing off some hereditary foes, and it may be Marker getting rid of some wandering hillmen. Man, we're miles beyond the pale. Who's to make a stand but ourselves?"Again came the patter of little sounds, and then a long calm.
"They're through now," said St. John. "The next thing to listen for is the sound of their feet. When that comes I pass the word along. We're all safe for heaven, so keep your minds easy."
But the sound of feet was long in coming. Only the soft night airs, and at rare intervals an eagle's cry, or the bleat of a doe from the valley bottom. The first half-hour of waiting was a cruel strain. In such moments a man's sins rise up large before him. When his future life is narrowed down to an hour's compass, he sees with cruel distinctness the follies of his past. A thousand things he had done or left undone loomed on George's mental horizon. His slackness, his self-indulgence, his unkindness--he went over the whole innocent tale of his sins. To the happy man who lives in the open and meets the world with a square front this forced final hour of introspection has peculiar terrors. Meantime Lewis was sleeping peacefully in the tent by the still cheerful fire. Thank God, he was spared this hideous waiting!About two Andover turned up with fifteen men, hot and desperate. He listened to St. John's story in silence.
"Thank God, I'm in time. Who found out this? Haystoun? Good man, Lewis! I wonder who has been firing out there. They can't have been stopped? It's getting devilish late for them anyhow, and I believe there's a little hope. It would be too risky to leave this pass, but I vote we send a scout."
A man was chosen and dispatched. Two hours later he returned to the mystified watchers at Nazri. He had been on the hill-shoulder and looked into the cleft. There was no sign of men there, but he had heard the sound of men, though where he could not tell. Far down the cleft there was a gleam of fire, but no man near it.
"That's a Bada dodge," said Andover promptly. "Now I wonder if Marker trusted too much to these gentry, and they have done us the excellent service of misleading him. They hate us like hell, and they'd sell their souls any day for a dozen cartridges; so it can't have been done on purpose. Seems to me there has been a slip in his plans somewhere."
But the sound of voices! The man was questioned closely, and he was strong on its truth. He was a hillman from the west of the Khyber, and he swore that he knew the sound of human speech in the hills many miles off, though he could not distinguish the words.
"In thirty minutes it will be morning," said George. "Lord, such a night, and Lewis to have missed it all!" His spirits were rising, and he lit a pipe. The north was safe whatever happened, and, as the inertness of midnight passed off, he felt satisfaction in any prospect, however hazardous. He sat down beneath a boulder and smoked, while Andover talked with the others. They were the frontier soldiers, and this was their profession; he was the amateur to whom technicalities were unmeaning.
Suddenly he sprang up and touched St. John on the shoulder. A great chill seemed to have passed over the world, and on the hill-tops there was a faint light. Both men looked to the east, and there, beyond the Forza hills, was the red foreglow spreading over the grey. It was dawn, and with the dawn came safety. The fires had burned low, and the vagrant morning winds were beginning to scatter the white ashes. Now was the hour for bravado, since the time for silence had gone. St. John gave the word, and it was passed like a roll-call to left and right, the farthest man shouting it along the ribs of mountain to the next watch-fire. The air had grown clear and thin, and far off the dim repetition was heard, which told of sentries at their place, and the line of posts which rimmed the frontier.
Mitchinson moistened his dry lips and filled his lungs with the cold, fresh air. "That," he said slowly, "is the morning report of the last outpost of the Empire, and by the grace of God it's 'All's well.'"
32. The Blessing Of Gad"Gad--a troop shall overcome him, but he shall overcome at the last."
Lewis peered into the gorge and saw only a thin darkness. The high walls made pits of shade at the foot, but above there was a misty column of light which showed the spectres of rock and bush in the nullah beyond. It was all but dark, and the stars were coming out like the lights on a sea-wall, hard and cold and gleaming. Just in the throat of the pass a huge boulder had fallen and left a passage not two yards wide. Beyond there was a sharp descent of a dozen feet to the gravelled bottom which fell away in easier stages to the other watershed. Here was a place made by nature for his plans. With immense pains he rolled the biggest stones he could move to the passage, so that they were poised above the slope. He tried the great boulder, too, with his shoulders, and it seemed to quiver. In the last resort this mass of rock might be sent crashing down the incline, and by the blessing of God it should account for its man.
He brought his rifles forward to the stones, loaded them and felt the cartridges easy in his pocket. They were for the thirty-yards range; his pistol would be kept for closer quarters. He tried one after the other, cuddling the stocks to his cheek. They were all dear-loved weapons, used in deer-stalking at home and on many a wilder beat. He knew the tricks of each, and he had little pet devices laughed at by his friends. This one had clattered down fifty feet of rock in Ross-shire as the scars on the stock bore witness, and another had his initials burned in the wood, the relic of a winter's night in a Finnish camp. A thousand old pleasant memories came back to him, the sights and scents and sounds of forgotten places, the zest of toil and escapade, the joy of food and warmth and rest. Well! he had lived, had tasted to the full the joys of the old earth, the kindly mother of her children. He had faced death thoughtlessly many times, and now the Ancient Enemy was on his heels and he was waiting to give him greeting. A phrase ran in his head, some trophy from his aimless wanderings among books, which spoke of death coming easily to one "who has walked steadfastly in the direction of his dreams." It was a comforting thought to a creature of moods and fancies. He had failed, doubtless, but he had ever kept some select fanciful aim unforgotten. In all his weakness he had never betrayed this ultimate Desire of the Heart.
Some few feet up the cliff was a little thicket of withered thorns. The air was chilly and the cleft was growing very black. Why should not he make a fire behind the great boulder? He gathered some armfuls and heaped them in a space of dry sand. They were a little wet, so they burned slowly with a great smoke, which the rising night wind blew behind him. He was still hungry, so he ate the food he had brought in his pockets; and then he lit his pipe. How oddly the tobacco tasted in this moment of high excitement! It was as if the essence of all the pipes he had ever smoked was concentrated into this last one. The smoke blew back, and as he sniffed its old homely fragrance he seemed to feel the smell of peat and heather, of drenched homespun in the snowy bogs, and the glory of a bright wood fire and the moorland cottage. In a second his thoughts were many thousand miles away. The night wind cooled his brow, and he looked into the dark gap and saw his own past.
The first picture was a cold place on a low western island. Snow was drifting sparsely, and a dull grey Atlantic swell was grumbling on the reefs. He was crouching among the withered rushes, where seaweed and shells had been blown, and snow lay in dirty patches. He felt the thick collar of his shooting-coat tight about his neck, while the December evening grew darker and colder. A gillie, who had no English, was lying at his right hand, and far out at sea a string of squattering geese were slowly drifting shorewards with the wind. He saw the scene clear in every line, and he remembered the moment as if it had been yesterday, It had been one of his periods of great exultation. He had just left Oxford, and had fled northward after some weeks in Paris to wash out the taste of civilization from his mouth among the island north-westers. He had had a great day among the woodcock, and now was finishing with a stalk after wild geese. He was furiously hungry, chilled and soaked to the bone, but riotously happy. His future seemed to stretch before him, a brighter continuation of a bright past, a time for high achievement, bold work, and yet no surcease of pleasure. He had been master of himself in that hour, his body firm and strong, his soul clear, his mind a tempered weapon awaiting his hands.
And then the scene changed to a June evening in his own countryside. He was deep in the very heart of the hills beside a little loch, whose clear waves lapped on beaches of milky sand, it was just on twilight, and an infinite sighing of soft winds was around him, a far-away ineffable brightness of sunset, and the good scents of dusk among thyme and heather. He had fished all the afternoon, and his catch lay on the bent beside him. He was to sleep the night in his plaid, and already a fire of heather-roots behind him was prepared for supper. He had been for a swim, and his hair was still wet on his forehead. Just across a conical hill rose into the golden air, the highest hill in all the countryside, but here but a little thing, for the loch was as high as many a hill-top. Just on its face was a scaur, and there a raven--a speck--was wheeling slowly. Among the little islands broods of mallard were swimming, and trout in a bay were splashing with wide circles. The whole place had seemed caught up into an ecstasy, a riot of gold and crimson and far-off haunting shades and scents and voices. And yet it was no wild spectacle; it was the delicate comfort of it all which had charmed him. Life seemed one glorious holiday, the world a garden of the gods. There was his home across the hills, with its cool chambers, its books and pictures, its gardens and memories. There were his friends up and down the earth. There was the earth itself waiting for his conquest. And, meantime, there was this airy land around him, his own by the earliest form of occupation.
The fire died down to embers and a sudden scattering of ashes woke him out of his dreaming. The old Scots land was many thousand miles away. His past was wiped out behind him. He was alone in a very strange place, cut off by a great gulf from youth and home and pleasure. For an instant the extreme loneliness of an exile's death smote him, but the next second he comforted himself. The heritage of his land and his people was his in this ultimate moment a hundredfold more than ever. The sounding tale of his people's wars--one against a host, a foray in the mist, a last stand among the mountain snows--sang in his heart like a tune. The fierce, northern exultation, which glories in hardships and the forlorn, came upon him with such keenness and delight that, as he looked into the night and the black unknown, he felt the joy of a greater kinship. He was kin to men lordlier than himself, the true-hearted who had ridden the King's path and trampled a little world under foot. To the old fighters in the Border wars, the religionists of the South, the Highland gentlemen of the Cause, he cried greeting over the abyss of time. He had lost no inch of his inheritance. Where, indeed, was the true Scotland? Not in the little barren acres he had left, the few thousands of city-folk, or the contentions of unlovely creeds and vain philosophies. The elect of his race had ever been the wanderers. No more than Hellas had his land a paltry local unity. Wherever the English flag was planted anew, wherever men did their duty faithfully and without hope of little reward--there was the fatherland of the true patriot.
The time was passing, and still the world was quiet. The hour must be close on midnight, and still there was no sign of men. For the first time he dared to hope for success. Before, an hour's delay was all that he had sought. To give the north time for a little preparation, to make defence possible, had been his aim; now with the delay he seemed to see a chance for victory. Bardur would be alarmed hours ago; men would be on the watch all over Kashmir and the Punjab; the railways would be guarded. The invader would find at the least no easy conquest. When they had trodden his life out in the defile they would find stronger men to bar their path, and he would not have died in vain. It was a slender satisfaction for vanity, for what share would he have in the defence? Unknown, unwept, he would perish utterly, and to others would be the glory. He did not care, nay, he rejoiced in the brave obscurity. He had never sought so vulgar a thing as fame. He was going out of life like a snuffed candle. George, if George survived, would know nothing of his death. He was miles beyond the frontier, and if George, after months of war, should make his way to this fatal cleft, what trace would he find of him? And all his friends, Wratislaw, Arthur Mordaunt, the folk of Glenavelin--no word would ever come to them to tell them of his end.
But Alice--and in one wave there returned to him the story which he had striven to put out of his heart. She had known him in his weakness, but she would never think of him in his strength. The whimsical fate pleased him. The last meeting on that grey autumn afternoon at the Broken Bridge had heartened him for his travellings. It had been a compact between them; and now he was redeeming the promise of the tryst. And she would never know it, would only know that somewhere and somehow he had ceased to struggle with an inborn weakness. Well-a-day! It was no world of rounded corners and complete achievements. It was enough if a hint, a striving, a beginning were found in the scheme of man's frailty. He had no clear-cut conception of a future-that was the happy lot of the strong-hearted--but he had a generous intolerance of little success. He did not ask rewards, but he prayed for the hope of a good beginning or a gallant failure. The odd romance which lies in the wanderer's brain welcomed the paradox. Alice and her bright hair floated dim on the horizon of his vision, something exquisite and dear, a memory, a voice, a note of tenderness in this last exhilaration. A sentimental passion was beyond him; he was too critical of folly to worship any lost lady; and he had no love for vain reminiscences. But the girl had become the embodied type of the past. A year ago he had not seen her, now she was home and childhood and friends to him. For a moment there was the old heart-hunger, but the pain had gone. The ineffectual longing which had galled him had perished at the advent of his new strength.
For in this ultimate moment he at last seemed to have come to his own. The vulgar little fears, which, like foxes, gnaw at the roots of the heart, had gone, even the greater perils of faint hope and a halting energy. The half-hearted had become the stout-hearted. The resistless vigour of the strong and the simple was his. He stood in the dark gully peering into the night, his muscles stiff from heel to neck. The weariness of the day had gone: only the wound in his ear, got the day before, had begun to bleed afresh. He wiped the blood away with his handkerchief, and laughed at the thought of this little care. In a few minutes he would be facing death, and now he was staunching a pin-prick.
He wondered idly how soon death would come. It would be speedy, at least, and final. And then the glory of the utter loss. His bones whitening among the stones, the suns of summer beating on them and the winter snowdrifts decently covering them with a white sepulchre. No man could seek a lordlier burial. It was the death he had always craved. From murder, fire, and sudden death, why should we call on the Lord to deliver us? A broken neck in a hunting-field, a slip on rocky mountains, a wounded animal at bay-such was the environment of death for which he had ever prayed. But this--this was beyond his dreams.
And with it all a great humility fell upon him. His battles were all unfought. His life had been careless and gay; and the noble commonplaces of faith and duty had been things of small meaning. He had lived within the confines of a little aristocracy of birth and wealth and talent, and the great melancholy world scourged by the winds of God had seemed to him but a phrase of rhetoric. His creeds and his arguments seemed meaningless now in this solemn hour; the truth had been his no more than his crude opponent's! Had he his days to live over again he would look on the world with different eyes. No man any more should call him a dreamer. It pleased him to think that, halfhearted and sceptical as he had been, a humorist, a laughing philosopher, he was now dying for one of the catchwords of the crowd. He had returned to the homely paths of the commonplace, and young, unformed, untried, he was caught up by kind fate to the place of the wise and the heroic.
Suddenly on his thoughts there broke in a dull tread of men, a sound of slipping stones and feet upon dry gravel. He broke into the cold sweat of tense nerves, and waited, half hidden, with his rifle ready. Then came the light of dull lanterns which showed a thin, endless column beneath the rock walls. They advanced with wonderful quietness, the sound of feet broken only by a soft word of command. He calculated the distance--now it was three hundred yards, now two, now a bare eighty. At fifty his rifle flew to his shoulder and he fired. His nerves were bad, for one bullet clicked on the rock, while the second took the dust a yard before the enemy's feet. Instantly there was a halt and the sound of speech.
The failure had steadied him. The second pair of shots killed their men. He heard the quick cry of pain and shivered. He was new to this work and the cry hurt him. But he picked up his express and fired again, and again there was a cry and a fall. Then he heard a word of command and the sound of men creeping in the side of the nullah. Eye and ear were marvelously acute at the moment, for he picked out the scouts and killed them. Then he loaded his rifles and waited.
He saw a man in the half-light not five yards below him. He fired and the man dropped, but he had used his rifle and the great spattering of earth showed his whereabouts. Now was the time for keen eye and steady arm. The enemy had halted thirty yards off and beneath the slope there was a patch of darkness. He kept one eye on this, for it might contain a man. He fixed his attention on a ray of moonlight which fell across the floor of the gully. When a man crept past this he shot, and he rarely failed.
Then a command was given and the column came forward at the double. He fired two shots, but the advance continued. They passed the ray of light and he saw the whites of their eyes and the gleam of teeth and steel. They paused a second to fire a volley, and a storm of shot rattled about him. He had stepped back into his shelter, and was unscathed, but when he looked out he saw the enemy at the foot of the slope. His weapons were all loaded except the express, and in mad haste he sent shot after shot into the ranks. The fire halted them, and for a second they were on the edge of a panic. This unknown destruction coming out of the darkness was terrifying to the stoutest hearts. All the while there was wrath behind them. This stopping of the advance column was throwing the whole force into confusion. Angry messages came up from the centre, and distracted officers cursed their native guides.
Meanwhile Lewis was something wholly unlike himself, a maddened creature with every sense on the alert, drinking in the glory of the fight. He husbanded the chances of his life with generous parsimony. Every chance meant some minutes' delay and every delay a new link of safety for the north. His cartridges were getting near an end, but there still remained the stones and his pistol and the power of his arm hand to hand.
Suddenly came a second volley which all but killed him, bullets glancing on all sides of him and scraping the rocks with a horrid message of death. Then on the heels of it came a charge up the slope. The turn had come for the last expedient. He rushed to the stone and with the strength of madness rooted it from its foundations. It wavered for a second, and then with a cloud of earth and gravel it plunged downwards. A second and it had ploughed its way with a sickening grinding sound into the ranks of the men below. There was one wild scream of terror, and then a retreat, a flight, almost a panic.
Down in the hollow was a babel of sound, men yelping with fright, officers calming and cursing them, and the shouting of the forces behind. For Lewis the last moment was approaching. The neck of the pass was now bare and wide and half of the slope was gone. He had lost his weapons in the fall, all but his express, and the loosening of the stone had crushed his foot so that he could scarcely stand. Then order seemed, to be restored, for another volley rang out, which passed over his head as he crouched on the ground. The enemy were advancing slowly, resolutely. He knew that now there was something different in their tread.
He was calm and quiet. The mad exhilaration was ebbing and he was calculating chances as dispassionately as a scientist in his study. Two shots, the six chambers of his pistol, and then he would be ground to powder. The moon rode over the top of the cleft and a sudden wave of light fell on the slope, the writhing dead, and below, the advancing column. It gave him a chance for fair shooting, and he did not miss. But the men were maddened with anger and taunts, and they would have charged a battery. They came up on the slope with a fierce rush, cursing in gutturals. He slipped behind the old friendly jag of rock and waited till they were abreast. Then began a strange pistol practice. Crouching in the darkness he selected his men and shot them, making no mistake. The front ranks of the column turned to the right and lunged with their bayonets into the gloom. But the man knew his purpose. He climbed farther back till he was above their heads, looking down on ranks of white inhuman faces mad with slaughter and the courage which is next door to fear. They were still advancing, but with an uncertain air. He saw his chance and took it. Crying out he knew not what, he leapt among them with clutched rifle, striking madly to right and left. There was a roar of fright, and for a moment a space was cleared around him. He fought like a maniac, stumbling with his crushed foot and leaving two men stunned at his feet. But it was only for a moment. A bayonet entered his side and his rifle snapped at the stock. He grappled with the nearest man and pulled him to the ground, for he could stand no longer. Then there came a wild surge around, a dozen bayonets pierced him, and in the article of death he was conscious of a great press which ground him into the earth. The next moment the column was marching over his body.
Dawn came with light and sweet airs to the dark cleft in the hills. Just at that moment, when the red east was breaking into spires and clouds of colour, and the little morning winds were beginning to flutter among the crags, two men were standing in the throat of the pass. The ground about them was ploughed up as if by a battery, the rock seamed and broken, and red stains of blood were on the dry gravel. From the north, in the direction of the plain, came the confused sound of an army in camp. But to the south there was a glimpse through an aperture of hill of a far side of mountain, and on it a gleam as of fire.Marka, clad in the uniform of a captain of Cossacks, looked fiercely at his companion and then at the beacon. "Look," he said, "look and listen!" And sure enough in the morning stillness came the sound as of a watchword cried from post to post. "That," said he, "is the morning signal of an awakened empire and the final proof of our failure."
"It was no fault of mine," said Fazir Khan sourly. "I did as I was commanded, and lo! when I come I find an army in confusion and the frontier guarded." The chief spoke with composure, but he had in his heart an uneasy consciousness that he had had some share in this undoing.
Marka looked down at a body which lay wrinkled across the path. It was trodden all but shapeless, the poor face was unrecognizable, the legs were scrawled like a child's letters. Only one hand with a broken gold signet-ring remained to tell of the poor inmate of the clay.
The Cossack looked down on the dead with a scowling face. "Curse him--curse him eternally. Who would have guessed that this fool, this phrasing fool, would have spoiled our plans? Curse his conscience and his honour, and God pity him for a fool! I must return to my troops, for this is no place to linger in." The man saw his work of years spoiled in a night, and all by the agency of a single adventurer. He saw his career blighted, his reputation gone. It is not to be wondered at if he was bitter.He turned to go, and in leaving pushed the dead man over with his foot. He saw the hand and the broken ring.
"This thing was once a gentleman," he said, and he went down the pass. But Fazir Khan remained by the body. He remembered his guest of two days before, and he cursed himself for underrating this wandering Englishman. He saw himself in evil case. His chances of spoil and glory had departed. He foresaw expeditions of reprisal, and the Bada-Mawidi hunted like partridges upon the mountains. He had staked his all on a desperate chance, and this one man had been his ruin. For a moment the barbarian came out, and in a sudden ferocity he kicked the dead.But as he looked again he was moved to a juster appreciation. "This thing was a man," he said. Then stooping he dipped his finger in blood and touched his forehead. "This man," he said, "was of the race of kings."