“NEITHER A FOREIGNER, NOR A CANTONESE.”
THE waters of the little lake were unruffled. In the intense peace, the absolute silence of that bowl amid the hills, pierced a thin reedy sound. Sir Fandi stirred and spoke under his breath.
“A fish. This is the lake of singing fishes——”
“Quiet!” snapped Severn.
The Rajput scowled and obeyed. Severn was putting all his concentration of will into the effort he was making. Backed by the thought-impulse of Sir Fandi Singh, he was formulating in Mongol the message bidding Esrun come forth.
“The white men have seized the temple. Bring us gold for them, and they will go.”
Suddenly he became conscious of the impact of another thought beating at his brain. He was utterly relaxed in every nerve and muscle, and it was a moment before he realized the import of this attacking thought. It was an assent, a bidding to be at peace. Under its compellant force Severn reached out and touched the arm of Sir Fandi.
“Be ready,” he said quietly. “He is coming.”
The Rajput gazed at him in startled wonder, not unmixed with awe. This transference of thought was something outside the cosmos of Sir Fandi; indeed, Severn himself was by no means sure of it. He had spoken on impulse, by intuition;
The two men came to their feet, pistol in hand. They did not know what to look for. Indeed, they were prepared for some eery and unearthly demonstration as they watched that unruffled lake where no wind ever touched. Upon them was a strange sense of awed expectation, of something about to happen beyond the ordinary.
Yet, when it came, it was simple.
Sir Fandi was first to perceive it and touched the American's arm. Severn looked, and from among the rocks to the right saw a rude canoe shoving out into the lake. He marked the spot, and fancied that the craft came from around some projecting corner of the cliff which must mask an opening.
A single figure stood erect in the canoe. It was a figure muffled from head to foot in a faded winding of yellow cloths. The canoe and paddle seemed rude and rough.
Sir Fandi threw up his automatic, but Severn checked him, laid finger to lips in a gesture of silent caution. That singular figure in the canoe was turning the craft toward shore; it seemed perfectly sentient, yet quite unaware that enemies were waiting. Severn could perceive no eye-holes in the mask of yellow cloth, and an odd fear came upon him. There was something uncanny in this slow but unfaltering approach, in this blind automaton! Yet he knew the explanation must be simple enough.
The two men stared. If Esrun had eyes in his head, he could see that they were not his priests but the dreaded white men. Still he swept the canoe in straight for the shore, silent and unswerving. Suddenly Esrun bent down, caught the gunnel, waited. The high bow of the rude craft floated forward and grated upon the shore. The saffron figure straightened, stepped into the water, pulled up the craft.
Now, bending above his canoe, Esrun brought into sight a heavy bundle, wrapped in a skin. Staggering with its weight, he dropped this on the ore, then stood erect and made a gesture as if inviting approach. Sir Fandi looked at Severn, but the latter shook his head in negation.
For a moment Esrun waited, then turned. Slowly that yellow figure made its way along the shore to the little bed of crocus. There it paused, and put forth a hand to touch the fence of boulders. At this gesture a light broke upon Severn; he could barely repress an ejaculation.
Esrun was blind!
The Rajput had seen it also. He gave Severn a startled glance of inquiry, and Severn nodded. Esrun knelt and touched the unopened buds of the saffron flowers with brown fingers. Then, together, the two men ran forward.
At their approach Esrun came erect, facing toward them inquiringly. They gave him no chance to escape; at the first movement Severn caught an upflung arm, while Sir Fandi tore away that muffling yellow cloth. Under his hand, Severn felt no attempt at escape, no bulge of muscle; the arm in his hands was withered, wooden, horrible to the touch.
The yellow cloths were half torn away. Esrun stood there before them half-naked—and the two men took a backward step with horror in their eyes. For the thing which they had captured was a leper, grimacing and leering frightfully toward them—and further, this leprous Esrun was, or had been, a woman!
Severn dropped an oath. An old woman she was, a hag in all truth, ravaged by the fearful disease, and she stood there without attempting to evade them. None the less, the two men knew that in this frightful body dwelt a perilous brain which threatened to engulf them and their comrades unless it were killed.
“Do it, Rajput,” said Severn curtly, half-turning away.
Sir Fandi flung him a look of wild scorn and fury. “Do it, American!” he snapped back. “The honor of a Rajput is as a sword-blade, and I do not choose to sully mine with the blood of a leprous Kashmiri woman! Do it!”
But Severn knew that he could not do it. The unreality of the scene was maddening—this ancient scarred remnant of humanity grimacing at them, the two of them standing there armed yet helpless, and the lives of better men hanging upon the extinguishment of that rotten brain! Yet, because this was a woman, Severn could not lift his hand to pistol.
In that instant of silence and thwarted endeavor Severn perceived what the words of Sir Fandi implied. This woman had come from the far south, from Kashmir in India—no doubt a leper who had fled from British jurisdiction. She had brought into the waste places the sacred saffron bulbs, the memory of her lost ways and blood and tradition. By what means she had found this place, there was no telling; but she had found it, and had taken the name of Brahma, or Esrun, and——
From the creature broke a wild laugh, a laugh that sickened Severn, and then she spoke in broken English.
“Aye, do it! Do it, sahibs—burra sahibs, do it!”
“Peace, unclean thing,” growled Sir Fandi.
At this, without warning, the hideous being whipped a pistol from her half-removed cloths and fired pointblank. The Rajput staggered, threw out his hands, fell without a cry. Esrun fired again, this time at Severn, and the bullet almost touched his head.
Something broke in him and before he knew what happened he found himself standing with a smoking pistol in his hand, the nameless creature sprawled dead upon the saffron flowers, horror and fury boiling in his brain. He flung aside his weapon and knelt above Sir Fandi Singh, who had been shot through the body. The Rajput was unconscious.
A swift examination showed Severn that the bullet had gone clean through, missing any vital part, and that with care Sir Fandi would make recovery. With care! How was he to find care in this place—where, with night, would come the mists that produced sleep and death—where there was no shelter, no help, nothing?
Severn darted up and went to their camping-place, where he procured some material for bandages. Returning, he halted beside the boat, scanning the cliffs. No, that was out of the question; whether the abode of Esrun were the tomb of Genghis Khan or not, it had been the home of a leper—and Severn dared not take the chance of infecting the Rajput's wound.
He glanced down at the bundle Esrun had brought ashore. The skin had burst open, for it was some ancient and rotted hide; a stream of gold-pieces poured forth upon the sand. Severn stooped, thrust a few of the broad gold disks into his pocket, then leaped up and ran to his companion, cursing his own folly.
As he bandaged the wounded man, his thoughts raced ahead. To stay in this place were madness; to attempt to reach the temple and get help were equal madness, until Sir Fandi recovered his senses, at least. Another man might have left the Rajput, and spurred out to bring help—but something held back Severn. Some premonition, some acute sense of danger, held him here. Perhaps it was his own strong instinct of self-dependence.
He decided upon a middle course. Within a few moments he had caught and saddled the horses and led the white stallion back to the Rajput. As he bent to raise the senseless body, a blade of the purplish grass drew across his left thumb, cutting into the skin. The sharp sting of the pain made him start; then he smiled at the occurrence. To pass through what he had met, and then to flinch at the cut of a grass-blade!
Presently Severn got his companion limply into the saddle, intent upon getting out of this hell-pit before night brought the deathly mist from the water. He bound the drooping figure in place, knowing that he dared not take Sir Fandi far in this wise, since the motion of the horse would hold open the wound and drain the body of blood; but it would serve.
Getting into his own saddle, he took the bridle of the stallion and set forth. Already the sun had gone from sight in the sky above, although in the outer world it would not yet be sunset. Severn directed the horses at a fast walk for the entrance defile.
HOURS later, it seemed, Severn found himself in a makeshift camp beside the hot spring in the defile. He had set out canteens of the water to cool. They had food enough to last for days. Farther than this he had not dared to come, for the jolting was too severe on the wounded Rajput, who had lost much blood. Severn himself felt a singular light-headedness, and he was bitterly conscious of that slight slit in his left thumb, which caused much annoyance as such small things will.
When morning came Severn found that a swirling fever was getting a grip upon him, and the thumb was swollen and painful. Alarmed, he tried to open it up and alleviate the inflammation, but without much result. Sir Fandi had gone into a deep coma of exhaustion, and Severn did not disturb him. He could see that the Rajput's wound was looking in bad shape.
With noon Severn prepared some food and forced the Rajput to eat. Sir Fandi wakened but seemed like a drunken man, and fell asleep again immediately after eating. Severn, who now perceived clearly that he himself was growing hourly worse and that he must have been given some septic infection from that purplish grass, was intensely alarmed.
When the afternoon drew on toward evening. Sir Fandi Singh wakened in great weakness, but with a clear head. Severn, flushed and almost incoherent, related to him all that had taken place. The Rajput raised himself to his elbow and smiled.
“To the temple, Severn! I'm in a bad way, but you're in worse. We must get there at all costs. Place me in the saddle, and I'll stick there—born to it. You're the one to be tied on. If we start at once, we'll get to the temple some time tonight—possibly not until morning. But we must get there. Kilgore had drugs and medicines.”
Severn assented. They made another meal, and then got into the saddle. The effort of saddling and of helping Sir Fandi up almost finished Severn, but he clambered aboard and they were off by dark. There was no losing the way in this defile.
To Severn, that night was a purgatory of swirling torment and mad visions. Before his fevered brain danced the horrible figure of Esrun, the Kashmiri woman; Sir Fandi stated that she was beyond doubt a Rajput of some high blood, but Severn was past reasoning the thing out. The hours dragged in terror and frightful agony.
With the dawn the horses were picking their own way toward the temple. Sir Fandi was riding in grim silence, saying nothing of the broken dots that let his wound bleed afresh. Severn saw the flag waving over the gateway of the temple and in a mad fantasy put spurs to his horse and went ahead at a gallop. The Rajput followed slowly, silently.
Severn reined up in the courtyard. His fevered brain was astonished by the silence which greeted him—no shout of welcome, no sound at all! On the walls he could see the figures of the Sikhs. In the courtyard he could see the machine gun trained on the gateway, with three Sikhs seated beside it. Yet they did not rise at his approach.
When Sir Fandi rode into that courtyard he saw Severn lying senseless on the sand. And down upon them looked the Sikhs from the walls, with dead eyes that saw not. The Rajput painfully got out of the saddle, staggered, fell, came to his feet again. He drew his pistol and fired twice in the air.
There was no response.