King of the Khyber Rifles

Chapter XII

A scorpion in a corner stings himself to death.
A coward blames the gods. They laugh and let him die
A man goes forward
—Native Proverb

As they disappeared after a scramble through the mouth of the same tunnel they had entered by, a roar went up behind them like the birth of earthquakes. Looking back over his shoulder, King saw Yasmini come back into the hole's mouth, to stand framed in it and bow acknowledgment. She looked so ravishing in contrast to the huge grim wall, and the black river, and the darkness at her back, that Khinjan's thousands tried to storm the bridge and drag her down to them. The guards were hard put to it, with their backs to the bridge end, for two or three minutes.

But Ismail would not let him wait and watch from there. He dragged him down the tunnel and pushed him up on to a ledge where they could both see without being seen, through a fissure in the rock.

For the space of five minutes Yasmini stood in the great hole, smiling and watching the struggle below. Then she went, and the guards began to get the best of it, because the crowd's enthusiasm waned when they could see her no more. Then suddenly the guards began to loose random volleys at the roof and brought down hundredweights of splintered stalactite.

Within a minute there were a hundred men busy on sweeping up the splinters. In another minute twenty Zakka Khels had begun a sword dance, yelling like the damned. A hundred joined them. In three minutes more the whole arena was a dinning whirlpool, and the river's voice was drowned in shouting and the stamping of naked feet on stone.

"Come!" urged Ismail, and led the way.

King's last impression was of earth's womb on fire and of hellions brewing wrath. The stalactites and the hurrying river multiplied the dancing lights into a million, and the great roof hurled the din down again to make confusion with the new din coming up.

Ismail went like a rat down a run, and King failed to overtake him until he found him in the cave of the slippers kicking to right and left at random.

"Choose a good pair!" he growled. "Let late-comers fight for what is left! Nay, I have thine! Choose thou the next best!"

The statement being one of fact, and that no time or place for a quarrel with the only friend in sight, King picked out the best slippers he could see. The instant he had them on Ismail was off again, running like the wind.

They had no torch. They left the little tunnel lamps behind. It became so dark that King had to follow by ear, and so it happened that he missed seeing where the tunnel forked. He imagined they were running back toward the ledge under the waterfall; yet, when Ismail called a halt at last, panting, groped behind a great rock for a lamp and lit the wick with a common safety match, they were in a cave he had never seen before.

"Where are we?" King asked.

"Where none dare seek us."

Ismail held the lamp high, shielding its wick with a hollowed palm and peering about him as if in doubt, his ragged beard looking like smoke in the wind; for a wind blew down all the passages in Khinjan.

King examined the lamp. It was of bronze and almost as surely ancient Greek as it surely was not Indian. There were figures graven on the bowl representing a woman dancing, who looked not unlike Yasmini; but before he had time to look very closely Ismail blew the lamp out and was off again, like a shadow shot into its mother night.

Confused by the sudden darkness King crashed into a rock as he tried to follow. Ismail turned back and gave him the end of a cotton girdle that he unwound from his waist; then he plunged ahead again into Cimmerian blackness, down a passage so narrow that they could touch a wall with either hand.

Once he shouted back to duck, and they passed tinder a low roof where water dripped on them, and the rock underfoot was the bed of a shallow stream. After that the track began to rise, and the grade grew so steep that even Ismail, the furious, had to slacken pace.

They began to climb up titanic stairways all in the dark, feeling their way through fissures in a mountain's framework, up zigzag ledges, and over great broken lumps of rock from one cave to another; until at last in one great cave Ismail stopped and relit the lamp. Hunting about with its aid he found an imported "hurricane" lantern and lit that, leaving the bronze lamp in its place.

Soon after that they lost sight of walls to their left for a time, although there were no stars, nor any light to suggest the outer world—nothing but wind. The wind blew a hurricane.

Their path now was a very narrow ledge formed by a crack that ran diagonally down the face of a black cliff on their right. They hugged the stone because of a sense of fathomless space above—below—on every side but one. The rock wall was the one thing tangible, and the footing the crack in it afforded was the gift of God.

The moaning wind rose to a shriek at intervals and made their clothes flutter like ghosts' shrouds, and in spite of it King's shirt was drenched with sweat, and his fingers ached from clinging as if they were on fire. Crawling against the wind along a wider ledge at the top, they came to a chasm, crossed by a foot-wide causeway. The wind bowled and moaned in it, and the futile lantern rays only suggested unimaginable, things—death the least of them.

"Art thou afraid?" asked Ismail, holding the lantern to King's face.

"Kuch dar nahin hai!" he answered. "There is no such thing as fear!"

It was a bold answer, and Ismail laughed, knowing well that neither of them believed a word of it at that moment. Only, each thought better of the other, that the one should have cared to ask, and that the other should be willing to give the lie to a fear that crawled and could be felt. Too many men are willing to admit they are afraid. Too many would rather condemn and despise than ask and laugh. But it is on the edges of eternity that men find each other out, and sympathize.

Ismail went down on his hands and knees, lifting the lantern along a foot at a time in front of him and carrying it in his teeth by the bail the last part of the way. It seemed like an hour before he stood up, nearly a hundred yards away on the far side, and yelled for King to follow.

The wind snatched the yells away, but the waving lantern beckoned him, and King knelt down in the dark. It happened that he laid his hand on a loose stone, the size of his head, near the edge. He shoved it over and listened. He listened for a minute but did not hear it strike anything, and the shudder, that he could not repress, came from the middle of his backbone and spread outward through each fiber of his being. If he had delayed another second his courage would have failed; he began at once to crawl to where Ismail stood swinging the light.

There was room on the ledge for his knees and no more. Toes and fingers were overside. He sat down as on horseback, and transferred both slippers to his pockets, and then went forward again with bare feet, waiting whenever the wind snatched at him with redoubled fury, to lean against it and grip the rock with numb fingers. Ismail swung the lamp, for reasons best known to himself, and half-way over King sat astride the ridge again to shout to him to hold it still. But Ismail did not understand him.

"Khinjan graves are deep!" he howled back. "Fear and the shadow of death are one!"

He swung the lamp even more violently, as if it were a charm that could exorcise fear and bring a man over safely. The shadows danced until his brain reeled, and King swore he would thrash the fool as soon as he could reach him. He lay belly-downward on the rock and crawled like an insect the remainder of the way.

And as if aware of his intention Ismail started to hurry on while there was yet a yard or two to crawl, and anger not being a load worth carrying, nor revenge a thing permitted to interfere with the sirkar's business, King let both die.

Hunted by the wind, they ran round a bold shoulder of cliff into another black-dark tunnel. There the wind died, swallowed in a hundred fissures, but the track grew worse and steeper until they had to cling with both hands and climb and now and then Ismail set the lantern on a ledge and lowered his girdle to help King up. Sometimes he stood on King's shoulder in order to reach a higher level. They climbed for an hour and dropped at last panting, on a ledge, after squeezing themselves under the corner of a boulder.

The lantern light shone on a tiny trickle of cold water, and there Ismail drank deep, like a bull, before signing to King to imitate him.

"A thirsty throat and a crazy head are one," he counseled. "A man needs wit and a wet tongue who would talk with her!"

"Where is she?" asked King, when he had finished drinking.

"Go and look!"

Ismail gave him a sudden shove, that sent him feet first forward over the edge. He fell a distance rather greater than his own height, to another ledge and stood there looking up. He could see Ismail's red-rimmed eyes blinking down at him in the lantern light, but suddenly the Afridi blew the lamp out, and then the darkness became solid. Thought itself left off less than a yard away.

"Ismail!" he whispered. But Ismail did not answer him.

He faced about, leaning against the rock, with the flat of both bands pressed tight against it for the sake of its company; and almost at once he saw a little bright red light glowing in the distance. It might have been a hundred yards, and it might have been a mile away below him; it was perfectly impossible to judge, for the darkness was not measurable.

"Flowers turn to the light!" droned Ismail's voice above sententiously, and turning, he thought he could see red eyes peering over the rock. He jumped, and made a grab for the flowing beard that surely must be below them, but he missed.

"Little fish swim to the light!" droned Ismail. "Moths fly to the light! Who is a man that he should know less than they?"

He turned again and stared at the light. Dimly, very vaguely be could make out that a causeway led downward from almost where he stood. He was convinced that should he try to climb back Ismail would merely reach out a hand and shove him down again, and there was no sense in being put to that indignity. He decided to go forward, for there was even less sense in standing still.

"Come with me! Come along, Ismail!" he called.

"Allah! Hear him! Nay, nay, nay! Who was it said a little while ago, 'There is no such thing as fear!' I am afraid, but thou and I are two men! Go thou alone!"

Reason is a man's only dependable faculty. Reason told him that at a word from Yasmini he would have been flung into "Earth's Drink" hours ago. Therefore, added reason, why should she forego that spectacular opportunity when his death would have amused Khinjan's thousands, only to kill him now in the dark alone? He had treated a few dozen sick men, surely she had not been afraid to offend them. Had she not dared forbid the sick coming to him altogether? "Forward!" says Cocker, in at least a dozen places. "Go forward and find out! Better a bed in hell than a seat on the horns of a dilemma! Forward!"

There was no sound now anywhere. He stretched a leg downward and felt a rock two or three feet lower down, and the sound of his slipper sole touching it, being the only noise, made the short hair rise on the back of his neck. Then he took himself, so to speak, by the hand and went forward and downward, for action is the only curb imagination knows.

He forgot to count his pulse and judge how long it took him to descend that causeway in the dark. It was not so very rough, nor so very dangerous, but of course he only knew that fact afterward. He had to grope his way inch by inch, trusting to sense of touch and the British army's everlasting luck, with an eye all the while on a red light that was something like the glow through hell's keyhole.

When he reached bottom, after perhaps twenty minutes, and stood at last on comparatively level rock, his legs were trembling from tension, and he had to sit down while he stretched them out and rested. The light still looked a quarter of a mile away, although that was guesswork. It made scarcely more impression on the surrounding darkness than one coal glowing in a cellar. The silence began to make his head ache.

He got up and started forward, but just as he did that he thought he heard a footstep. He suspected Ismail might be following after all.

"Ismail!" he called, trying to peer through the dark.

But all the darkness had its home there. He could not even see his own hand stretched out. His own voice made him jump; after a second's pause it began to crack and rattle from wall to wall and from roof to floor, until at last the echoing word became one again and died with a hiss somewhere in the bowels of the world—Mbisssss!—like the sound of hot iron being plunged into a blacksmith's trough with a little after-murmur of complaining water.

But then he was sure he heard a footstep! He faced about; and now there were two red lights where there had been only one. They seemed rather nearer, perhaps because there were two of them.

"Hullo, King sahib!" said a voice he recognized; and he choked. He felt that if he had coughed his heart would have lain on the floor!

"Are you afraid, King sahib?" said the Rangar Rewa Gunga's voice, and he took a step forward to be closer to his questioner. He found himself beside a rock, looking up at the Rangar's turban, that peered over the top of it. He could dimly make out the Rangar's dark eyes.

"I would be afraid if I were you!"

Rewa Gunga flashed a little electric torch into his eyes, but after a few seconds he shifted it so that both their faces could be seen, although the Rangar's only very faintly.

"I have come to warn you!"

"Very good of you, I'm sure!" said King.

"If she knew I were here, she would jolly well have my liver nailed to a wall! I come to advise you to go back!"

"Have they taken Ali Masjid Fort?" King asked him.

"Never mind, sahib, but listen! I have brought her bracelet! I stole it! She stole it from you, and I stole it back! Take it! Put it on and wear it! Use it as a passport out of Khinjan Caves—for no man dare touch you while you wear it—and as a passport down the Khyber into India! Go back to India and stay there! Take it and go! Quick! Take it!"

"No, thanks!" said King.

The Rangar laughed mirthlessly, shifting the light a little as King stepped aside to get a better view of him. He held the torch more cunningly than a Spanish lady holds a fan.

"All Englishmen are fools—most of them stiff-necked fools," he asserted. "Bah! Do you think I do not know? Do you think anything is hidden from her? I know—and she knows—that you think you have a surprise in store for her! You think you will go to her, and she will say, 'King sahib, why did you throw that head into the river, and put me in danger from my men?' And you will say, will you not, 'Princess, that was my brother's head!'? Was that not what you intended? Is it not true? Does she not know it? She knows more than you know, King sahib! Because you showed me certain little courtesies, I have come to warn you to run away!"

"Do you suppose she knows you are here?" King asked, and the Rangar laughed.

"If she knows so much, and is able to read my mind from a distance, where does she suppose you are?" King insisted.

The Rangar laughed again, leaning his chin on both fists and switching out the light.

"Perhaps she sent me to warn you!"

"Well," said King, "my brother commanded at Ali Masjid Fort. There are things I must ask her. How did she know that head was my brother's? What part had she in taking it from his shoulders? What did she mean by that song of hers?"

The Rangar chuckled softly.

"There are no fools in the world like Englishmen! Listen! You are being offered life and liberty! Here is the key to both!"

He made the gold bracelet ring on the rock by way of explanation.

"Take the key and go!"

"No!" said King.

"Very well, sahib! Hear the other side of it! Beyond those two red lights there is a curtain. This side of that curtain you are Athelstan King of the Khyber Rifles, or Kurram Khan, or whatever you care to call yourself. Beyond it, you are what she calls you! Choose!"

King did not answer, so he continued after a pause.

"You shall pass behind that curtain, if you insist. Beyond it you shall know what she knows about Ali Masjid and your brother's head! You shall know all that she knows! There shall be no secrets between you and her! She shall translate the meaning of her song to you! But you shall never come out again King of the Khyber Rifles, or Kurram Khan! If you ever come out again, it shall be as you never dreamed, bearing arms you never saw yet, and you shall cut with your own hand the ties that bind you to England! Choose!"

"I chose long ago," said King.

"Are the gentle English never serious?" the Rangar asked. "Will you not understand that if you pass that curtain you shall know all things that Yasmini knows, but that you shall cease to be yourself? Cease—to—be—yourself! Is my meaning clear?"

"Not in the least," said King, "but I hope mine is!"

"You will go forward?"

"Yes," said King.

Rewa Gunga made no answer to that, although King waited for an answer. For about a minute there was no sound at all, except the beating of King's heart. Then he moved to try and see the Rangar's turban above the rock. He could not see it. He found a niche in the rock, set his foot in it and mounted three or four feet, until his head was level with the top. The Rangar was gone!

He listened for two or three minutes, but the silence began to make his head ache again; so he stooped to feel the floor with his hand before deciding to go forward. There was no mistaking the finish given by the tread of countless feet. He was on a highway, and there are not often pitfalls where so many feet have been.

For all that he went forward as a certain Agag once did, and it was many minutes before he could see a curtain glowing blood-red in the light behind the two lamps, at the top of a flight of ten stone steps. It was peculiar to him and to his service that he counted the steps before going nearer.

When he went quite close he saw carpet down the middle of the steps, so ancient that the stone showed through in places; all the pattern, supposing it ever had any, was worn or faded away. Carpet and steps glowed red too. His own face, and the hands he held in front of him were red-hot-poker color. Yet outside the little ellipse of light the darkness looked like a thing to lean against, and the silence was so intense that he could hear the arteries singing by his ears.

He saw the curtains move slightly, apparently in a little puff of wind that made the lamps waver. He was very nearly sure he heard a footfall beyond the curtains and a tinkle—as of a tiny silver bell, or a jewel striking against another one.

He kicked his slippers off, because there are no conditions under which bad manners ever are good policy. Wide history and Cocker's famous code. Then he walked up the steps without treading on the carpet, because living scorpions have been known to be placed under carpets on purpose on occasion. And at the top, being a Secret Service man, he stooped to examine the lamps.

They were bronze, cast, polished and graved. All round the circumference of each bowl were figures in half-relief, representing a woman dancing. She was the woman of the knife-hilt, and of the lamps in the arena! She looked like Yasmini! Only she could not be Yasmini because these lamps were so ancient and so rare that he had never seen any in the least like them, although he had visited most of the museums of the East.

Both lamps were alike, for he crossed over to make sure and took each in his hands in turn. But no two figures of the dance were alike on either. It was the same woman dancing, but the artist had chosen twenty different poses with which to immortalize his skill, and hers. Both lamps burned sweet oil with a wick, and each had a chimney of horn, not at all unlike a modern lamp-chimney. The horn was stained red.

As he set the second lamp down he became aware of a subtle interesting smell, and memory took back at once to Yasmini's room in the Chandni Chowk in Delhi where he had smelled it first. It was the peculiar scent he had been told was Yasmini's own—a blend of scents, like a chord of music, in which musk did not predominate.

He took three strides and touched the curtains, discovering now for the first time that there were two of them, divided down the middle. They were about eight feet high, and each three feet wide, of leather, and though they looked old as the "Hills" themselves the leather was supple as good cloth. They had once been decorated with figures in gold leaf, but only a little patch of yellow here and there remained to hint at faded glories.

He decided to remember his manners again, and at least to make opportunity for an invitation.

"Kurram Khan hai!" he announced, forgetting the echo. But the echo was the only answer. It cackled at him, cracking back and forth down the cavern to die with a groan in illimitable darkness.

"Kurram-urram-urram-urram-urram-ahn-hai! Urram-urram-urram-urram-ahn-hai! Urram-urram-urram-ah-hh-ough-ah!"

There was no sound beyond the curtains. No answer. Only he thought the strange scent grew stronger. He decided to go forward. With his heart in his mouth he parted the curtains with both hands, startled by the sharp jangle of metal rings on a rod.

So he stood, with arms outstretched, staring—staring—staring—with eyes skilled swiftly to take in details, but with a brain that tried to explain—formed a hundred wild suggestions—and then reeled. He was face to face with the unexplainable—the riddle of Khinjan Caves.

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