The Winds of the World/Chapter 10
Ranjoor Singh, on the trail of a murderer, shoved with his whole strength against a little door of the House-of-the-Eight-Half-brothers. It yielded suddenly. He shot in headlong, and the door slammed behind him. As he fell forward into pitch blackness he was conscious of shooting bolts behind and of the squeaking of a beam swung into place.
But, having served the Raj for more years than he wanted to remember, through three campaigns in the Himalayas, once against the Masudis, and once in China, he was in full possession of trained soldier senses. Darkness, he calculated instantly, was a shield to him who can use it, and a danger only to the unwary; and there are grades of wariness, just as there are grades of sloth.
Two men who thought themselves so wide awake as to be beyond the reach of government, each threw a noosed rope, and caught each other. Ranjoor Singh could not see the ropes, but he could hear the stifled swearing and the ensuing struggle; and an ear is as good as an eye in the dark.
Something—he never knew what—warned him to duck and step forward. He felt the whistle of a club that missed him by so little as to make the skin twitch on the back of his neck.
His right leg shot sidewise, and he tripped a man. In another second he had the club, and there was no measurable interval of time then before the darkness was a living miracle of blows that came from everywhere and missed nothing.
Three men went down, and Ranjoor Singh was in command of a situation whose wherefore and possibilities he could not guess until an electric torch declared itself some twenty feet away, at more than twice his height, and he stood vignetted in a circle of white light.
"The sahib proves a gentle guest!" purred a voice he thought he recognized. It was a woman's. "Has the sahib a pistol with him?"
Ranjoor Singh, cursing his own neglect of soldierly precaution, saw fit not to answer. A human arm reached like a snake into the ring of light. He struck at it with the club, and a groan announced that he had struck hard enough.
"Does the sahib think that the noise of a pistol would cause his friends to come? Is Ranjoor Singh ashamed? Speak, sahib! Is it well to break into a house and be surly with the hostess?"
Ranjoor Singh stepped backward, and the ring of light followed him, until he stood pressed against the teak door and could feel the heavy beam that ran up and down it, locked firmly above and below. He prodded over his head behind him with the club, trying to find what held the beam, and the ring of light lifted a foot or two, then five feet, until its center was on the center of the club's handle.
A pistol cracked and flashed then, from behind the light, and the club splintered. He dropped it, and the torch-light ceased, leaving him dazed, but not so dazed that he did not hear a man sneak up and carry the splintered club away. He followed after the man, for he knew now that he was in a narrow passage and no man could get by him to attack from behind.
But again the torch-light sought him out. Half-way to the foot of steep stairs that he could dimly outline he halted, for advance against hidden pistol-fire and dazzling light was futile.
"Look!" said the same soft, woman's voice. "Look, sahib! See, Ranjoor Singh! the hooded death! See the hooded death behind you!"
It was not her command that made him look. He knew better than to turn his head at an unseen woman's bidding in the dark. But he heard them hiss, and he turned to see four cobras come toward him, with the front third of their bodies raised from the floor and their hoods extended. He saw that a panel in the wooden wall had slid, and the last snake's tail was yet inside the gap. There was no need of a man to slip between him and the door!
"There are more in the wall, Ranjoor Singh! Will they follow thee up-stairs? See, they come! Step swiftly, for the hooded death is swift!"
The light went out again, and his ears were all he had to warn him of the snakes' approach—ears and imagination. Swift as a well launched charge of light cavalry, he leaped for the stairs and took them four at a time. He reached the top one sooner than he knew it. The torch flashed in his eyes, and he saw a pistol-mouth just beyond arm-reach.
"Stand, Ranjoor Singh!" said a voice that he felt sure he recognized. His eyes began to search beyond the light for glimpses of dim outline.
"Back, Ranjoor Singh! Back to the right—toward that door! In, through that door—so!"
He obeyed, since he knew now with whom he had to deal. There was no sense at all in taking liberties with Yasmini. He stepped into a bare, dark, teak-walled room, and she followed him, and she had scarcely closed the door at her back before another door opened at the farther end, and two of her maids appeared, carrying candle-lamps.
"What do you want with me?" demanded Ranjoor Singh.
"Nay! Did I invite the sahib?"
"I came about a murderer who entered by that door through which I came."
"To pay him the reward, perhaps?" she asked impudently.
"Is this thy house?" asked Ranjoor Singh.
"This is the House-of-the-Eight-Half-brothers, sahib."
"This is a hole where murderers hide! A man of mine was slain in the street below, and the murderer came in here. Where is he now?"
"He and the bigger fool who followed him," said Yasmini, poising herself like a nodding blossom and smiling like the promise of new love, as she paused to be insolent and let the insolence sink home, "are at my mercy!"
Ranjoor Singh did not answer, but she could draw no amusement from his silence, for his eye was unafraid.
"I am from the North, where the quality of mercy is thought weakness," she smiled sweetly.
"Who asks mercy? I was seen and heard to enter. There will be a hundred seeking me within an hour!"
"Sahib, within two hours there will be five thousand around this house, yet none will seek to enter! And they will find no murderer, though thou shalt see thy murderer. Come this way, sahib."
A whiff of warm wind might have blown her, so swiftly, lissomely she ran toward the other door, laughing back at him across her shoulder and leaving a trail of aromatic scent. The two maids held their candle-lanterns high, and, striding like a soldier, Ranjoor Singh followed Yasmini, not caring that the maids shut the heavy door behind him and bolted it. He argued to himself that he was as safe in one room as in another, and she as dangerous; also, that it made no difference in which room he might be when the squadron or his colonel missed him.
"Look, Ranjoor Singh! Look through that hole!"
There was plenty of light in this room, for there was a lantern in every corner. He could see that she was gazing through a hole in the wall at something that amused her, and she motioned to another hole eight feet away from it. He crossed a floor that was solid and age-old; no two planks of it were of even width or length, but none creaked.
At her invitation he looked through the little square hole she pointed out. And then, for the first time, he confessed surprise.
"Thou, Jagut Singh!" he exclaimed.
He stepped back, blinked to reassure himself, and stepped to the hole again. Back to back, tied right hand to right, left hand to left, so that their arms were crossed behind them, and lashed waist to waist, a trooper of D Squadron and the Afridi whom lie had kicked at Yasmini's sat on the floor facing opposite walls. Dumb misery was stamped on the Sikh's face, the despair of evaporated savagery on the Afridi's.
"Jagut Singh!" said the risaldar-major, louder this time; and the trooper looked up, almost as if hope had been that instant born in him.
The trooper grinned. A white row of ivory showed between his black beard and mustache. He tried to look sidewise, but the rope that held him tight to the Afridi hurt his neck.
"I knew it, sahib!" he shouted. "I knew that one would come for me! This hill wildcat has fought until the ropes cut both of us; but take time, sahib! I can wait. Attend to the duty first. Only let him who comes bring water with him, for this is a thirsty place!"
Ranjoor Singh looked sidewise. He could see that Yasmini was absorbed in contemplation of her prisoners. Her little lithe form was pressed tightly against the wall, less than two yards away. He could guess, and he had heard a dozen times, that dancing had made her stronger than a panther and more swift. Yet he thought that if he had her in his arms he could crush those light ribs until she would yield and order her prisoner released. The trooper's confidence deserved immediate, not postponed, reward.
He watched for a minute. He could see that her bosom rose and fell regularly against the woodwork; she was all unconscious of her danger, he was sure of it. He changed his position, and she neither looked nor moved. He changed it again, so that his weight was all on his left foot; he was sure she had not noticed. Then he sprang.
He sprang sidewise, as a horse does that sees a snake by the roadside, every nerve and sinew keyed to the tightest pitch—eye, ear and instinct working together. And she, in the same second, turned to meet him smiling, with outstretched arms, as if she would meet him half-way and hug him to her bosom, only she stepped a pace backward, instead of forward as she had seemed to intend.
He landed where he had meant to, on the spot where she had stood. His left hand clutched at the wall, and a second too late he made a wild grab at the hole she had peered through, trying to get his fingers into it. What she had done he never knew, but the floor she had stood on yielded, and he heard her laugh as he slipped through the opening like a tiger into a pit-trap, and fell downward into blackness.
With a last tremendous effort he caught at the floor and held himself suspended by his finger-ends. But she came and trod on them, and though her weight was light, malice made her skilful, and she hurt him until he had to set his teeth and drop. He would never have believed that those soft slipper-soles could have given so much pain.
"Forget not thy trooper in his need!" she called, as he fell away through the opening. And then the trap shut.
To his surprise he did not fall very far, and though he landed on an elbow and a hip, he struck so softly that for a moment he believed he must be mad, or dead, or dreaming. Then his fingers, numb from Yasmini's pressure, began to recognize the feel of gunny-bags, and of cotton-wool, and of paper. Also, he smelled kerosene or something very like it.
"Forget not the water for thy trooper, Ranjoor Singh!"
He looked up to see Yasmini's face framed in the opening, and he thought there was more devilment expressed in it, for all her loveliness, than in her voice that never quite lost its hint of laughter. He did not answer, and the trap-door closed again.
He knelt and began to grope through the dark on hands and knees, but gave that up presently because the dust from old sacks and piles of rubbish began to choke him. Then rats came to investigate him. He heard several of them scamper close, and one bit his leg; so he made ready to fight for his life against the worst enemy a man may have, praying a little in the Sikh way, that does not reckon God to be far off at any time.
Suddenly the trap-door opened, and the rats scampered away from the light and noise.
"Thus is a soldier answered!" muttered Ranjoor Singh.
"Is the risaldar-major sahib thirsty?" wondered Yasmini.
He could hear her pouring water out of a brass ewer into a dish, and pouring it back again. The metal rang and the water splashed deliriously, but he was not very thirsty yet; he had been thirstier on parade a hundred times.
When her head and shoulders darkened the aperture, he did not trouble this time to look at her.
"Is it dark down there?" she asked him; but he did not answer.
So she struck a match and lit a newspaper. In a moment a ball of fire was floating downward to him, and it was then that the smell of dust and kerosene entered his consciousness as pincers enter the flesh of men in torment. He stood up with hands upstretched to catch the fire—caught it—bore it downward—and smothered it in gunny-bags.
"Still dark?" she said, looking through the aperture once more. "I will send another one!"
So Ranjoor Singh found his tongue and cursed her with a force and comprehensiveness that only Asia can command; he gave her to understand that the next fire she dropped on him should be allowed to work God's will and burn her—her, her rats, her cobras, and her cutthroats. Two honest Sikhs, he swore, would die well to such an end.
"Drop thy fire and I will fan the flame!" he vowed, and she believed him.
"I will send my cobras down to keep the sahib company!" she mocked.
But Ranjoor Singh proposed to take one danger at a time, and he was quite sure that she wanted him alive, not dead, for otherwise he would have been dead already. He held his tongue and listened while she splashed the water.
"Thy trooper is very thirsty, sahib!"
She was on a warmer scent now, for that squadron of his and the men of his squadron were the one love of his warrior life. Some spirit of malice whispered her as much.
"The trooper shall have water when Ranjoor Singh sahib has promised on his Sikh honor."
"Promised what?" His voice betrayed interest at last; it suggested future possibilities instead of a grim present.
"That he will do what is required of him!"
"Is that the price of a drink for Jagut Singh?"
"Aye! Will the sahib pay, or will he let the trooper parch?"
"Ask Jagut Singh! Go, ask him! Let it be as he answers!"
He could hear her hurry away, although she slammed the trap-door shut. Evidently she was not satisfied to speak through the little hole, and he suspected that she was showing the man water, perhaps giving some to the Afridi for sweet suggestion's sake. She was back within five minutes, and by the way she opened the trap and grinned at him he knew what her answer would be.
"He begs that you promise! He begs, sahib! He says he is thy trooper, thy dog, thy menial, and very thirsty!"
"Bring some one who knows better how to lie!" said Ranjoor Singh. "I know what his answer was! He said, 'Say to the risaldar-major sahib that I have eaten salt, but I am not thirsty!' Go, tell him his answer was a good one, and that I know he said it! I know that man, as men know each other. Thou art a woman, and thy knowledge is but emptiness. Thou hast heard now twice what the answer is, once from him and once from me!"
"I will leave thee to the rats!" she said, slamming the trap-door tight.
The rats came, and he began to grope about for a weapon to use against them. He caught one rat in his fingers, squeezed the squealing brute to death and flung it away, and he heard a hundred of its messmates race to devour the carcass.
He began to see little active eyes around him in the blackness, that watched his every movement, and he kept moving since that seemed to puzzle them. Also he wondered, as a drowning man might wonder about things, how long it would be before Colonel Kirby would send for him to ask about the murdered trooper. Something would happen then, he felt quite sure.
The rats by this time had grown very daring, and he had been bitten again twice; he found time to wonder what lies Yasmini would tell to account for her share in things. He did not doubt she would lie herself out of it, but he wondered just how, along what unexpected line. It began to seem to him that the colonel and his squadron were a very long time coming.
"But they will come!" he assured himself.
He was nearer to the mark when he expected unexpectedness from Yasmini, for she did not disappoint him. A door opened at one end of the black dark cellar, and again the rats scampered for cover as Yasmini herself stood framed in it, with a lantern above her head. She was alone, and he could not see that she had any weapon.
"This way, sahib!" she called sweetly to him.
Never—North, South, East or West, in olden days or modern—did a siren call half so seductively. Every move she ever made was poetry expressed, but framed in a golden aura shed by the lamp, and swaying in the velvet blackness of the pit's mouth, she was, it seemed to Ranjoor Singh, as no man had ever yet seen woman.
"Come, sahib!" she called again; and he moved toward her.
"Food and water wait! Thy trooper has drunk his fill. Come, sahib!"
She made no move at all to protect herself from him. She did not lead into the cavern beyond the door. She waited for him, leaning against the door-post and smiling as if she and he were old friends who understood each other.
"I but tried thee, Ranjoor Singh!" she smiled, looking up into his face and holding the lantern closer to his eyes, as if she would read behind them. "Thou art a soldier, and not a buffalo at all! I am sorry that I called thee buffalo. My heart goes out ever to a brave man, Ranjoor Singh!"
He was actually at her side, her clothes touched his, and he could have flung his arms around her. But it was the move next after that which seemed obscure. He wondered what her reply would be; and, moving the lantern a little, she read the hesitation in his eyes—the wavering between desire for vengeance, a soldierly regard for sex, and mistrust of her apparent helplessness. And, being Yasmini, she dared him.
"Like swords I have seen!" she laughed. "Two cutting edges and a point! Not to be held save by the hilt, eh, Ranjoor Singh? Search me for weapons first, and then use that dagger in thy hair—I am unarmed!"
"Lead on!" he commanded in a voice that grated harshly, for it needed all his willpower to prevent his self-command from giving out. He knew that behind temptation of any kind there lie the iron teeth of unexpected consequences.
She let the lantern swing below her knees and leaned back to laugh at him, until the cavern behind her echoed as if all the underworld had seen and was amused.
"I called thee a buffalo!" she panted. "Nay, I was very wrong! I laugh at my mistake! Come, Ranjoor Singh!"
With a swing of the lantern and a swerve of her lithe body, she slipped out of his reach and danced down an age-old hewn-stone passage, out of which doors seemed to lead at every six or seven yards; only the doors were all made fast with iron bolts so huge that it would take two men to manage them.
He hurried after her. But the faster he followed the faster she ran, until it needed little imagination to conceive her a will-o'-the-wisp and himself a crazy man.
"Come!" she kept calling to him. "Come!"
And then she commenced to sing, as if dark passages beneath the Delhi streets were a fit setting for her skill and loveliness. Ranjoor Singh had never heard the song before. It was about a tiger who boasted and fell into a trap. It made him more cautious than he might have been, and when the darkness began to grow less opaque he slowed into a walk. Then he stood still, for he could not see her any longer.
It occurred to him to turn back. But that thought had not more than crossed his mind when a noose was pulled tight around his legs and a big sheet, thrown out of the darkness, was wrapped and wrapped about him until he could neither shout nor move. He knew that they were women who managed the sheet, because he bit one's finger through it and she screamed. Then he heard Yasmini's voice close to his ear.
"Thy colonel sahib and another are outside!" she whispered. "It is not well to wait here, Ranjoor Singh!"
Next he felt a great rush of air, and after that the roar of flame was so unmistakable—although he could feel no heat yet—that he wondered whether he was to be burned alive.
"Is it well alight?" asked Yasmini.
"Yes!" said a maid whose teeth chattered.
"Good! Presently the fools will come and pour water enough to fill this passage. Thus none may follow us! Come!"
Ranjoor Singh was gathered up and carried by frightened women—he could feel them tremble. For a moment he felt the outer air, and he caught the shout of a crowd that had seen flames. Then he was thrown face downward on the floor of some sort of carriage and driven away.
He lost all sense of direction after a moment, though he did not forget to count, and by his rough reckoning he was driven through the streets for about nine minutes at a fast trot. Then the carriage stopped, and he was carried out again, up almost endless stairs, across a floor that seemed yet more endless, and thrown into a corner.
He heard a door slam shut, and almost at the same moment his fingers, that had never once ceased working, tore a corner of the sheet loose.
In another minute he was free.
He threw the sheet from him and looked about, accustoming his eyes to darkness. Presently, not far from him, he made out the sheeted figure of another man, who lay exactly as he had done and worked with tired fingers. He drew the dagger out of his hair and cut the man loose.
"Jagut Singh!" he exclaimed.
The trooper stood up and saluted.
"Who brought thee here?"
"Women, sahib, in a carriage!"
"Where is that Afridi?"
"She brought us water in a brass vessel, saying it was by thy orders, sahib. She cut us loose and gave him water first. Then, while she gave me to drink the Afridi attacked her, and I slew him with my hands, tearing his throat out—thus! While the life yet fluttered in him they threw a sheet over me—and here I am! Salaam, sahib!"
The trooper saluted again.
"Who made thee prisoner in the first place?"
"Hillmen, sahib, at the orders of the Afridi who is now dead. They made ready to torture me, showing me the knives they would use. But she came, and they obeyed her, binding the Afridi fast to me. After that I heard the sahib's voice, and then this happened. That is all, sahib."
"Well!" said Ranjoor Singh. And for the third time his trooper saw fit to salute him.
Who shall be trusted to carry my trust?
(Hither, and answer me, stranger!)
Slow to give ground be he—swifter to thrust—
Instant,—yet wary o' danger!
Hand without craftiness, eye without lust,
Lip without flattery! Such an one must
Prove yet his worthiness—yet earn my trust!
(Closer, and answer me, stranger!)
First let me lead him alone, and apart;
There let me feel of his pulse and his heart!
(Hither, and play with me, stranger!)