By ACHMED ABDULLAH
Illustrations by Dalton Stevens
TO-DAY he lives In Bokhara, in the old quarter of the desert town that the natives call Bokhara-i-Shereef. He has a store in a bazaar not far from the Samarkand Gate, where he sells the gold-threaded brocades of Khiva and the striped Bokhariot belts that the caravan-men exchange for brick-pressed tea across the border in Chinese Turkestan, and where, methodically filling his pipe with tobacco from the carved pumpkin-shell at his elbow, he praises the greatness of Russia and the wisdom of the czar.
There, at noon every day, his ten-year-old son comes to him, bringing clean and well-spiced food from the market.
"Look at him!" he says often, proudly pinching the supple arms of the lad, and exhibiting him as he would a pedigreed stallion. "Sinews and muscles and a far-seeing eye, and no nerves—none at all. Because of which I give thanks to Allah the Wise-judging, the opener of the door of knowledge with the key of His mercy. For one day my son will wear a plaited, green coat and a tall chugerma cap of white fur, and serve the czar. He will learn to shoot straight, very straight, and then," he adds, with a meaning smile, if he happens to be speaking to one of the three men whom he trusts,—"then he will desert. But he will return, perhaps,"—rapidly snapping his fingers to ward off misfortunes,—"he will return to his regiment, and he will not be very much punished."
A true Russian man he calls himself, and his name, too, has a Russian purring and deep ringing to it—"Pavel Alikhanski." Also there is talk in the town that he is in the pay of that great Bokharan magnate, the kushbegi, friend of the czar, bringing tales to him about his Highness the ameer, and receiving milled gold for the telling of them. And why cannot the kushbegi be the future Ameer of Bokhara if, indeed, the tales be cunningly woven and Russia willing?
But ten years ago, when I called him friend, his name was not Alikhanski. Then he called himself Wazir Ali-Khan Sulaymani, that last name giving clue to his nation and race; for "Sulaymani" means "descendant of King Solomon," and it is known in half the world that the Afghans claim this resplendent Hebrew potentate as their breed's remote sire.
In those days he lived in a certain gray and turbulent city not far from the north-eastern foot-hills of the Himalayas, where three great empires link elbows and swap lies and intrigues and occasional murders, and where the Afghan mist falls down like a veil of purple-gray chiffon. In those days neither Russia nor the czar was on his lips, and he called himself an Herati, an Afghan from Herat, city-bred and city-courteous, but with a strain of maternal blood that linked him to the mountains and the sharp, red feuds of the mountains. But city-bred he was, and as such he lisped Persian, sipped coffee flavored with musk, and gave soft answer to harsh word.
He did not keep shop then, and none knew his business, though we all tried to find out, chiefly I, serving the Ameer of Afghanistan in that far city, and retailing the gossip of the inner bazaars from the border to the rose gardens of Kabul, where the governor sits in state and holds durbar.
But money he had, also breeding, also a certain winsome gentleness of spirit and speech, a soft moving of high-veined hands, well-kept, and finger-nails darkened with henna in an effeminate manner.
He spent many a day in the hills, the Khwadja Hills, called poetically Hill Al2, C5, K-K67, and so forth, in the Russian and British survey-maps. There he would shoot bighorns and an occasional northern tiger that had drifted down in the wake of the outer Mongolian snows. This was strange, for an Afghan does not kill for the sake of killing, the sake of sport. He kills only for the sake of food or of feud.
Nor could he explain even to himself why three or four times every month he left his comfortable town house and went into the hills, up and down, following the call of the wilderness; through the gut of the deep-cleft Nadakshi Pass; up beyond the table-lands, pleasant with apricot- and mulberry-trees; still farther up to the smoke-dimmed height of the Salt Hills, where he stained his soft, city-bred hands with the dirt of the tent-peg and the oily soot of his rifle.
Once I asked him, and he laughed gently.
"My mother came from the hills," he replied, "and it is perhaps her blood screaming in my veins which makes me take to the hills, to kill bighorn and snow-tiger instead of killing brother Afghans."
"You do not believe in feuds?" I was astonished, for I was young in those days.
Again he laughed.
"I do believe in feud," he said; "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. A true saying, and a wise one. But what worth is there to me in killing my enemy if my enemy's son will kill me in the course of time? An unfinished feud is a useless thing. For, tell me, can even the fleetest horse escape its own tail? Can the naked tear their clothes? Can a dead horse eat grass?"
So month after month he went into the hills, and he came back, his soul filled with the sights he had seen, his spirit peopled with the tales and the memories of the hills. Often I spent the evening with him, and he would digest his experiences in the acrid fumes of his bamboo pipe. He smoked opium in those days.
Then one day he came back from the hills a married man.
She was a hillwoman of the Moustaffa-Khel tribe, and her name was Bibi Halima. She was a distant cousin of his on and thus the marriage proper thing, since we of had been a Afghanistan do not believe in mating with strangers.
Tall, hook-nosed, white-skinned, with gray-black, flashing eyes and the build of a lean she-panther, not unbeautiful, and fit mother for a strong man's sons, I saw her often. For these hillwomen despise the customs of the sheltered towns; they will not cover their bodies with the swathing farandjés, nor their faces with the chasband, the horsehair veil of the city women.
Ali-Khan loved her. He loved her with that love which comes to fortunate men once in a lifetime—once and not oftener. His spoken love was as his hands, soft and smooth and courtly and slightly scented. He would fill those hands with gifts for her adornment, and he would write poems to her in the Persian manner.
And she? Did she love him?
Assuredly, though she was silent. The women of Afghanistan do not speak of love unless they are courtezans. They bear children,—sons, if Allah wills,—and what else is there for woman in the eyes of woman or of man? Also, since love is sacrifice, can there be greater proof of love than the pain of giving birth?
No, Bibi Halima did not weave words of love, cunning and soft. Perhaps she thought her husband's spoken love-words in keeping with his henna-stained finger-nails, an effeminacy of the city, smacking of soft Persia and softer Stamboul, the famed town of the West.
She did not speak of love, but the time was near when she was about to give answer, lusty, screaming answer. She expected a child.
"May Allah grant that it be a man-child," she said to her husband and to her mother, a strong-boned, hook-nosed old hag of a hillwoman who had come down into the city to soothe her daughter's pains with her knowledge—"a man-child, broad-bodied and without a blemish!"
"Aye, by God, the holder of the scale o law! A man-child, a twirler of strength, a breaker of stones, a proud stepper in the councils of fighting men!" chimed in the old woman, using a tribal saying of the Moustaffa-Khel.
Ali-Khan, as was his wont, snapped his fingers rapidly to ward off the winds of misfortune. He bent over Bibi Halima's hands, and kissed them very gently, for you must remember that he was a soft man, city-bred, very like a Persian.
"Let it be a man-child," he said in his turn, and his voice was as deep and holy as the voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. "Allah, give me a son, a little son, to complete my house, to give meaning and strength to my life ; and to yours, blood of my soul," he added, again kissing Bibi Halima's hands. "And you, beloved," he continued haltingly, for a great fear was in his heart—"but you, pearl tree of delight—you must live to—"
"Silence, babble-mouth!" the old mother interrupted with a shriek. "Do not speak aloud with naked heart and tongue! You will bring ill luck on your house! Of course she will live. She is my daughter, blood of my blood and bone of my bone. She is of the hills. And I—" she laughed—"Seven sons have I borne to my lord, and still I live." And she pushed Ali-Khan toward the door, mumbling bitter words about foolish men of Persian manners sporting with the jinn of misfortune. "Go now!"
"I go," Ali-Khan said submissively; and he returned, half an hour later, bearing many gifts, silk and bracelets and sweetmeats and perfume from Ispahan.
But Bibi Halima waved them aside with a short, impatient gesture. No, no, no, she did not want these man-made things. She wanted him to go to the hills to bring back to her the flowers of the hills, purple rhododendrons, soft-colored mimosas, and wild hibiscus smelling strongly of summer.
"Go to the hills, O pilgrim," added the old woman as she saw his anxious face. "We women need no man around in the hour of trial. Ho!" she spat out her betel through blackened, stumpy teeth, "let women do women's business. Men in the house are as useless as barren spinsters, fit only to break the household pots. Go to the hills, my lord, and bring back the flowers of the hills. On your return, with the help of Allah, there will be a little son strengthening the house."
And so he went to the hills, his rifle in his arm. Up to the high hills he went to pick flowers for his beloved, a song on his lips.
"O Peacock, cry again," I heard his voice as he passed my house.
Early the next morning Ebrahim Asif came to town. He also was of the Moustaffa-Khel, and a first cousin to Bibi Halima, and upon the blue-misted Salt Hills he was known as a brawler and a swashbuckler. A year before, so I heard afterward, following the custom of the hills, which does not make marriage a matter of jingling silver, he had spoken to her of love, and had been refused. She had married Ali-Khan instead a few months later.
Now he came to her house, bearing gifts, and the old mother stood in the doorway.
"Go away!" she shrilled; for being an Afghan herself, she did not trust the Afghan, her sister's son.
Ebrahim Asif laughed.
"I have come to see my cousin and Ali-Khan. See, I have come bringing gifts."
But still the old woman was suspicious.
"Trust a snake before an Afghan," she replied. "Ali-Khan is away to the hills. Go away, filthy spawn of much evil!"
"Spawn of your sister's blood, you mean," he replied banteringly; and the old woman laughed, for this was a jest after her own heart. "Let me in!" he continued. "Once your daughter blinded my soul with a glance of her eye. Once the fringe of her eyelids took me into captivity without ransom. But time and distance have set me free from the shackles of my love. It is forgotten. Let me bring these gifts to her."
So the old woman let him into the zenana, where the windows were darkened to shut out the strong Northern sun. Bibi Halima gave him pleasant greeting from where she lay on the couch in the corner of the room.
And he also spoke to her with kindly words.
"Live forever, most excellent cousin!" he said, bowing with clasped hands. "Live in the shadow of happiness during the times of day, whilst the west wind bloweth gently over the hills, and during the hours of night, whilst the bird of the tamarisk moaneth like the childless mother!" He took a step nearer. "I have brought you presents, dispenser of delights."
Bibi Halima laughed, knowing of old Ebrahim Asif's facility for turning cunning words. She spoke to her mother.
"Open the blinds, Mother, and let me see what my cousin has brought from the hills."
The old woman drew up the blinds, and Bibi Halima looked.
"See, see, Mother!" she exclaimed with delight, "see the gifts which my cousin has brought me—gifts to adorn the house!"
"Aye, Daughter," the old woman replied, "gifts to adorn the house." And then she added, with the pride of age greedy for grandchildren, "but there will be a gift yet more fit to adorn this house when you lay a man-child into your lord's arms."
Then the terrible rage of the Afghans rose suddenly in Ebrahim Asif's throat. He had come in peace, bearing gifts, as I said; but when he heard that the woman whom once he had loved would give birth to a child, the other man's child, he drew his cheray.
A slashing, downward thrust, and he was out of the house and off to the hills again.
The blow had struck Bibi Halima's temple with full force. She was half dead, but she forced back her ebbing strength because she wanted to hold a man-child in her arms before she died.
"Stop your crying!" She turned to her mother, who had fallen into a moaning heap at the foot of the couch. "Allah el-Mumit—God the dispenser of justice-will not let me die before I have laid a son into my lord's arms. Call a doctor of the English."
So the old woman came to my door, giving word to me of what had occurred. I hurried to the Street of the Mutton Butchers, where the English hakim lived, and together we went to the house of Bibi Halima.
He examined her, dressed her wound, and said:
"A child will be born, but the mother will assuredly die."
The old woman broke into a storm of tears, but Bibi Halima silenced her with a gesture.
"It is as God wills," she said, and the doctor marveled at her vitality. "Let but the child be born first, and let that child be a man-child. The rest matters not. And you"—she turned to me—"and you, my friend, go to the hills and fetch me my lord."
I bowed assent, and went to the door.
"Wait!" Her voice was firm despite her loss of blood. "If on the way you should meet Ebrahim Asif, you must not kill him. Let him be safe against my husband's claiming."
"I shall not touch him," I promised, though the sword at my side was whinnying in its scabbard like a Balkh stallion in the riot of young spring.
All that day and the following night, making no halt, I traveled, crossing the Nadakshi Pass at the lifting of dawn, and smelling the clean snow of the higher range the following noon. Here and there, from mountaineers and the Afghan ameer's rowdy soldiers, I asked if aught had been seen of the two men, both being well known in the land.
Yes, I asked for both men: for while I was hurrying to my friend with the message which was about my heart like a heel-rope of grief, it was also in my soul to keep track of Ebrahim Asif. Kill him I could not, because of the promise I had given to Bibi Halima; but perhaps I could reach Ali-Khan before the other had a chance to make the rock-perched villages of the Moustaffa-Khel, and thus comparative safety.
It was late in the afternoon, with the lights of the camp-fires already twinkling in the gut of the Nadakshi, when I heard the noise of tent-peg speaking to hammer-nose, and the squealing of pack-ponies, free of their burdens, rolling in the snow. It was a caravan of Bokhara tadjiks going south to Kabul with wool and salt and embroidered silks, and perhaps a golden bribe for the governor.
They had halted for a day and a night to rest the sore feet of their animals, and the head-man gave me ready answer.
"Yes, Pilgrim," he said; "two men passed here this day, both going in the same direction," and he pointed it out to me. "I did not know them, being myself a stranger in these parts; but the first was a courteous man who was singing as he walked. He gave us pleasant greeting, speaking in Persian, and dipped hands in our morning meal. Two hours later, traveling on the trail of the first man, another man passed the kafilah, a hillman, with the manners of the hills, and the red lust of killing in his eyes, nosing the ground like a jackal. We did not speak to him. for we do not hold with hillmen and hill-feuds. We be peaceful men, trading into Kabul."
It was clear to me that the hillman intended to forestall just fate by killing Ali-Khan before the latter had heard of what had befallen Bibi Halima. So I thanked the tadjik, and redoubled my speed; and late that evening I saw Ebrahim Asif around the bend of a stone spur in the higher Salt Range, walking carefully, using the shelter of each granite boulder, like a man afraid of breech-bolt snicking from ambush. For a mile I followed him. and he did not see me or hear me. He knew that his enemy was in front, and he did not look behind. Again the sword was whinnying at my side, and the barrel of my rifle throbbed with desire. For Ali-Khan was friend to me, and we of Afghanistan are loyal in living, loyal also in taking life. Thus was there a choking rage in my heart; the young moon above me was bloated and crimson, like a slaughtered soul crying for vengeance; and in my mouth was the taste of dirt.
But there was my promise to Bibi Halima to keep Ebrahim Asif safe against her husband's claiming.
And I kept him safe, quite safe, by Allah, the holder of the balance of right. For using a short cut which I knew, having once had a blood-feud in those very hills, I appeared suddenly in front of Ebrahim Asif, covering him with my rifle.
He did not show fight, for no hillman will battle against impossible odds. Doubtless he thought me a robber of the highways; and so, obeying my command, he dropped his rifle and his cheray, and he suffered me to bind his hands behind his back with my waistband.
But when I spoke to him, when I pronounced the name of Ali-Khan and Bibi Halima, he turned as yellow as a dead man's bones. His knees shook. The fear of death came into his eyes, and also a great cunning; for these Moustaffa-Khel are gray wolves among wolves.
"Walk ahead of me, son of Shaitan and of a she-jackal," I said, gently rubbing his heart with the muzzle of my rifle. "Together you and I shall visit Ali-Khan. Walk ahead of me, son of a swine-fed bazaar-woman."
He looked at me mockingly.
"Bitter words," he said casually, "and they, too, will be washed out in blood."
"A dead jackal does not bite," I said, and laughed; "or do you think that perhaps Ali-Khan will show you mercy? Yes, yes," I added, still laughing, "he is a soft man, with the manners of a Persian. Assuredly he will show you mercy."
"Yes," he replied, "perhaps he will show me mercy." Again the cunning look shone in his eyes, and a second later he broke into riotous, high-shrilling laughter.
"Why the laughter?" I asked, astonished.
"Because you shall behold the impossible."
"When the impossible happens, it is seen," he answered, using the Sufi saying: "for eyes and ears prove the existence of that which cannot exist: a stone swims in the water; an ape sings a Kabuli love-song—"
"Go on!" I interrupted him impatiently, rubbing his side with my rifle.
So we walked along, and every few seconds he would break into mad laughter, and the look of cunning would shine in his gray eyes. Suddenly he was quiet. Only he breathed noisily through his nostrils, and he rolled his head from side to side like a man who has taken too much bhang. And that also was strange, for, with his hands tied behind his back, he could not reach for his opium-box, and I could not make it out at all.
A few minutes later we came in sight of Ali-Khan. He was sitting on a stone ledge near a bend of the road, flowers about him, carefully wrapped in moist, yellow moss so that they would keep fresh for the longing of his beloved, and singing his old song, "O Peacock, cry again—"
Then he saw us, and broke off. Astonishment was in his eyes, and he turned a little pale.
"Ebrahim Asif," he stammered, "what is the meaning of this?" And then to me, who was still covering the hillman with my rifle: "Take away your weapon from Ebrahim! He is blood-cousin to Bibi Halima, distant cousin to me."
"Ho!" Ebrahim's shout cut in as sharp as the point of an Ulwar saber. "Ho! ho! ho!" he shouted again and again. Once more the mad, high-shrilling laughter, and then suddenly he broke into droning chant.
I shivered a little, and so did Ali-Khan. We were both speechless. For it was the epic, impromptu chanting which bubbles to the lips of the Afghan hillmen in moments of too great emotion, the chanting which precedes madness, which in itself is madness—the madness of the she-wolf, heavy with young, which has licked blood.
"Listen to the song of Ebrahim Asif, the Sulaymani, the Moustaffa-Khel," he droned, dancing in front of us with mincing steps, doubly grotesque because his hands were tied behind his back; "listen to the song of Ebrahim Asif, son of Abu Salih Musa, grandson of Abdullah el-Jayli, great-grandson of the Imam Hasan Abu Talib, great-great-grandson of Abd al-Muttalib al-Mahz! I have taken my rifle and my cheray, and I have gone into the plains to kill. I descended into the plains like a whirlwind of destruction, leaving behind me desolation and grief. Blood is on my hands, blood of feud justly taken, and therefore I praise Allah, opener of the locks of hearts with His name, and—"
The words died in his throat, and he threw himself on the ground, mouthing the dirt like a jackal hunting for a buried corpse.
For a moment I stood aghast. Was the man really mad?
But no; I remembered the cunning look which had crept into his eyes when he had said that perhaps Ali-Khan would show him mercy. He was playing at being mad. There was no other way of saving his life, for in the hills madmen are considered especially beloved by Allah, and thus sacrosanct.
"Blood has reddened the palms of my hands," came the droning chant as Ebrahim Asif jumped up again from the ground and began again his whirling dance.
"What has happened?" Ali-Khan whispered in my ear. "Has there been killing? Where? When?"
Instead of replying, I pressed my rifle into his hands.
"Shoot him!" I cried. "Shoot!"
He looked at me, utterly amazed.
"But why? Why should I shoot him?"
Again the droning chant of Ebrahim rose, swelling and decreasing in turns, dying away in a thin, quavery tremolo, then bursting forth thick and palpable.
"I give thanks to Allah the Just, the withdrawer of the veils of hidden things, the raiser of the flag of beneficence! For He guided my footsteps! He led me into the plains. And there I took toll, red toll!" There came a shriek of mad laughter, then very softly he chanted "Once a nightingale warbled in the villages of the Moustaffa-Khel, and now she is dead. The death-gongs are ringing in the city of the plains—"
"Shoot him," I shouted again to Ali-Khan, "or, by Allah, I myself will shoot him." And I picked up the rifle.
But he put his hand across its muzzle.
"But why, why?" he asked. "He is blood-cousin to Bibi Halima. Also does it seem that reason has departed his mind. He is a madman, a man beloved by Allah. Shall I thus burden my soul with a double sin because of your bidding?"
"But—but—" I stammered. The words choked between my lips. My duty to tell him of what had happened in his house while he was away picking flowers for his beloved! My duty to dim the mirror of his life with the breath of bitter news!
"Why should I shoot him?" he asked again.
And then, before I found speech, the answer came, stark, crimson, in the hillman's mad chant:
"Bibi Halima was her name, and she mated with a rat of the cities, a rat of an Herati speaking Persian. Now she is dead. I drew my cheray, and I struck. The blade is red with the blood of my loved one; the death-gongs are ringing—"
Then Ali-Khan understood. He shivered and swayed like a tree cut away from its supporting roots.
"Allah!" he shouted. And the long, lean Afghan knife leaped to his hand like a sentient being. "Allah!" he said again, and a deep rattle was in his throat.
The grief in the man's eyes was horrible to see. I put my hand on his arm.
"She is not dead," I said.
"Is that the truth?" he asked; then, pitifully, as I did not reply, "we have spoken together with naked hearts before this. Tell me, is the tale true?"
"The child will be born," I said, quoting the English doctor's words, "but Bibi Halima will assuredly die."
And then—and at the time it seemed to me that the great sorrow had snatched at the reins of his reason—Ali-Khan sheathed his knife, with a little dry metallic click of finality.
"It is even as Allah wills." he said, and he bowed his head. "Even as Allah wills," he repeated. He turned toward the east, spread out his long, narrow hands, and continued with a low voice, speaking to himself, alone in the presence of God, as it were:
"Against the blackness of the night, when it overtaketh me, I betake me for refuge to Allah, the lord of daybreak."
There came a long silence, the hillman again rolling on the ground, mouthing the dirt after the manner of jackals.
Finally I spoke:
"Kill him, my friend; kill him slowly while I hold him. Let us finish this business, so that we may return to the city."
"Kill him?" he asked, and there was in his voice that which resembled laughter. "Kill a madman, a man beloved by Allah the Just?" He walked over to Ebrahim Asif, touching him gently with the point of his shoe. "Kill a madman?" he repeated, and he smiled sweetly at the prostrate hillman, as a mother smiles at a prattling babe.
"The man is not mad," I interrupted roughly; "he is playing at being mad."
"No! no!" Ali-Khan said with an even voice as passionless as fate; but there was a light in his eyes like a high-eddying flame. "Assuredly the man is mad—mad by the forty-seven true saints. For who but a madman would kill a woman? And so you, being my friend, will take this madman to the villages of the Moustaffa-Khel. See him safely home. For it is not good that harm should come to those whom Allah loves. Tell the head-man of the village, tell the priest, tell the elders, tell everybody, that there is no feud. Tell them that Ebrahim Asif can live out his life in peace. Also his sons, and the sons which the future will bring him. Safe they are in God's keeping because of their father's madness!"
I drew him to one side, and whispered to him:
""What is the meaning of this? What what—"
He interrupted me with a gesture, speaking close to my ear:
"Do as I bid you for the sake of our friendship; for it is said that the mind of a friend is the well of trust, and the stone of confidence sinks therein and is no more seen." He was silent for a moment, then he continued in yet lower voice: "Hold him safe against my claiming? Assuredly him and his sons—and—" then suddenly. "O Allah, send me a man-child!"
And he strode down the hill into the purple dusk, while I, turning over his last words in my mind, said to myself that he was a soft man indeed: but that there is also the softness of forged steel, which bends to the strength of the sword-arm, and which kills on the rebound.
So, obeying my friend's command, I went to the villages of the Moustaffa-Khel. I delivered Ebrahim Asif safe into the hands of the jirgahs, giving them the message with whiich Ali-Khan had intrusted me.
There was a little laughter, a little cutting banter hard to bear, and some talk of cowards, of city-bred Heratis turning the other cheek after the manner of the feringhees, of blind men wanting nothing but their eyes; but I kept my tongue safe between my teeth. For I remembered the softness of steel; I remembered Ali-Khan's love for Bibi Halima; and thirdly I remembered that there is no love as deep as hate.
Four days later I knocked at the door of Ali-Khan's house, and there was the moaning of women, and the ringing of the death-gong.
Ali-Khan was alone in his room, smoking opium.
"A son has been born me, praise Allah!" was his greeting.
"Praise Allah and the prophet and the prophet's family, and peace and many blessings on them all!" I laid my left hand against his, palm to palm, and kissed him on both cheeks.
There was no need to ask after Bibi Halima, for still from the inner rooms came the moaning of women and the ringing of the death-gong. But another question was in my heart, and he must have read it. For he turned to me, smiling gently, and said:
"Heart speaks naked to heart, and the head answers for both. And I am an Herati and a soft man."
There was peace in his eyes, at which I wondered, and he continued:
"Once I spoke to you of feud. I said that an unfinished feud is a useless thing, as useless as horns on a cat or flowers of air. For, if I kill my enemy, my enemy's son, knowing my name and race, will kill me, and thus through the many generations. A life for a life, and yet again a life for a life. And where, then, is the balancing of lives? Where, then, is the profit to me and mine? So I have made peace between Ebrahim Asif and myself, cunningly, declaring him a madman, beloved by Allah, thus sacrosanct. And I shall sell my house here, and take my little son and go north to Bokhara. I shall sit under the shadow of the Russian czar, and I shall prosper exceedingly; for I know central Asia and the intrigues of central Asia, and I shall sell my knowledge to the czar. I shall be not without honor."
"Do you, then, love the bear of the North that you are willing to serve him?"
"Love is of the mind and not of the heart,"—he flung out a bare palm,—"unless it be the love of woman. And Bibi Halima is dead."
"Then why serve the czar?" For be it remembered that in those days I served the Ameer of Afghanistan, and that there was talk in the bazaars of a railway being built from Bokhara to Merv, within striking distance of Herat.
Again he smiled.
"Because I said that love is of the mind. What does me weal, that I love and serve. What does me harm, that I hate and fight. See? Years from now, if it be so written, my son, thanks to the honor which shall be mine under the shadow of the czar, will be a soldier of the czar in the north, in Bokhara. He will be trained after the manner of the North, and he will shoot as straight as a hawk's flight. He will be the pride of the regiment, and he will wear the little silver medal on a green ribbon which is given to the best marksman in the army. And one day the young soldier, bearing a Russian name, even as will his father, will desert from his regiment for a week or a month, and the tale will be spread that he has gone north to Moscow because of his young blood's desire to see new sights and kiss strange women. But He will not have gone north at all. No, by the teeth of God and mine own honor! He will have gone south, to these very hills, and there will be no desire in his heart but the desire to kill. He will kill Ebrahim Asif and his sons—may he have as many as there are hairs in my beard!—and also the women, at night, when they go to the brook to fetch water for the evening meal. He will kill from ambush, wasting no shots, being a soldier trained to war. Ahi! the carrion of the clan of Ebrahim Asif will feed the kites of the Salt Hills, and for many a day to come the jackals of the Nadakshi will not feel the belly-pinch of hunger. And the family of Ebrahim Asif shall be no more, and thus will the feud be stanched, if God be willing. And then my son will return to the north, to Bokhara. And tracking him will be like tracking the mists of dawn to their home. For what is one soldier more or less in the great land of the czar, where there are thousands and thousands and thousands of them? Also, will not the Government's protection be his, since I, his father, too, will be serving the czar not without honor?"
He left the room and returned, a moment later, holding in his arms a little bundle of silk and linen.
"Look," he said, baring carefully the head of the new-born infant. "See the eagle profile, the hooded brow, the creamy skin, the black, curly hair! An Afghan of Afghans! And see—he opens his right eye,—has he not the eye of the killer?"
The child twisted and gave a little cry. Ali-Khan took a long, lean knife from the wall, offering its hilt to his son. The tiny hand gripped it, while the blade, point down, shone in the rays of the afternoon.