THE SIX English officers made it a practice, so far as they could, to dine together; and during the third week of the siege the conversation happened one evening to take a particular turn. Ever afterwards, during this one hour of the twenty-four, it swerved regularly into the same channel. The restaurants of London were energetically discussed, and their merits urged by each particular partisan with an enthusiasm which would have delighted a shareholder. Where you got the best dinner, where the prettiest women were to be seen, whether a band was a drawback or an advantage—not a point was omitted, although every point had been debated yesterday or the day before. To-night the grave question of the proper number for a supper party was opened by Major Dewes of the 5th Gurkha Regiment.
“Two,” said the Political Officer promptly, and he chuckled under his grey moustache. “I remember the last time I was in London I took out to supper—none of the coryphées you boys are so proud of being seen about with, but”—and, pausing impressively, he named a reigning lady of the light-opera stage.
“You did!” exclaimed a subaltern.
“I did,” he replied complacently.
“What did you talk about?” asked Major Dewes, and the Political Officer suddenly grew serious.
“I was very interested,” he said quietly. “I got knowledge which it was good for me to have. I saw something which it was well for me to see. I wished—I wish now—that some of the rulers and the politicians could have seen what I saw that night.”
A brief silence followed upon his words, and during that silence certain sounds became audible—the beating of tom-toms and the cries of men. The dinner-table was set in the verandah of an inner courtyard open to the sky, and the sounds descended into that well quite distinctly, but faintly, as if they were made at a distance in the dark, open country. The six men seated about the table paid no heed to those sounds; they had had them in their ears too long. And five of the six were occupied in wondering what in the world Sir Charles Luffe, K.C.S.I., could have learnt of value to him at a solitary supper party with a lady of comic opera. For it was evident that he had spoken in deadly earnest.
Captain Lynes of the Sikhs broke the silence:
“What’s this?” he asked, as an orderly offered to him a dish.
“Let us not inquire too closely,” said the Political Officer. “This is the fourth week of the siege.”
The rice-fields of the broad and fertile valley were trampled down and built upon with sangars. The siege had cut its scars upon the fort’s rough walls of mud and projecting beams. But nowhere were its marks more visible than upon the faces of the Englishmen in the verandah of that courtyard.
Dissimilar as they were in age and feature, sleepless nights and the unrelieved tension had given to their drawn faces almost a family likeness. They were men tired out, but as yet unaware of their exhaustion, so bright a flame burnt within each one of them. Somewhere amongst the snow-passes on the north-east a relieving force would surely be encamped that night, a day’s march nearer than it was yesterday. Somewhere amongst the snow-passes in the south a second force would be surely advancing from Nowshera, probably short of rations, certainly short of baggage, that it might march the lighter. When one of those two forces deployed across the valley and the gates of the fort were again thrown open to the air the weeks of endurance would exact their toll. But that time was not yet come. Meanwhile the six men held on cheerily, inspiring the garrison with their own confidence, while day after day a province in arms flung itself in vain against their blood-stained walls. Luffe, indeed, the Political Officer, fought with disease as well as with the insurgents of Chiltistan; and though he remained the master-mind of the defence, the Doctor never passed him without an anxious glance. For there were the signs of death upon his face.
“The fourth week!” said Lynes. “Is it, by George? Well, the siege won’t last much longer now. The Sirkar don’t leave its servants in the lurch. That’s what these hill-tribes never seem to understand. How is Travers?” he asked of the Doctor.
Travers, a subaltern of the North Surrey Light Infantry, had been shot through the thigh in the covered waterway to the river that morning.
“He’s going on all right,” replied the Doctor. “Travers had bad luck. It must have been a stray bullet which slipped through that chink in the stones. For he could not have been seen—”
As he spoke a cry rang clearly out. All six men looked upwards through the open roof to the clear dark sky, where the stars shone frostily bright.
“What was that?” asked one of the six.
“Hush,” said Luffe, and for a moment they all listened in silence, with expectant faces and their bodies alert to spring from their chairs. Then the cry was heard again. It was a wail more than a cry, and it sounded strangely solitary, strangely sad, as it floated through the still air. There was the East in that cry trembling out of the infinite darkness above their heads. But the six men relaxed their limbs. They had expected the loud note of the Pathan war-cry to swell sonorously, and with intervals shorter and shorter until it became one menacing and continuous roar.
“It is someone close under the walls,” said Luffe, and as he ended a Sikh orderly appeared at the entrance of a passage into the courtyard, and, advancing to the table, saluted.
“Sahib, there is a man who claims that he comes with a message from Wafadar Nazim.”
“Tell him that we receive no messages at night, as Wafadar Nazim knows well. Let him come in the morning and he shall be admitted. Tell him that if he does not go back at once the sentinels will fire.” And Luffe nodded to one of the younger officers. “Do you see to it, Haslewood.”
Haslewood rose and went out from the courtyard with the orderly. He returned in a few minutes, saying that the man had returned to Wafadar Nazim’s camp. The six men resumed their meal, and just as they ended it a Pathan glided in white flowing garments into the courtyard and bowed low.
“Huzoor,” he said, “His Highness the Khan sends you greeting. God has been very good to him. A son has been born to him this day, and he sends you this present, knowing that you will value it more than all that he has”; and carefully unfolding a napkin, he laid with reverence upon the table a little red cardboard box. The mere look of the box told the six men what the present was even before Luffe lifted the lid. It was a box of fifty gold-tipped cigarettes, and applause greeted their appearance.
“If he could only have a son every day,” said Lynes, and in the laugh which followed upon the words Luffe alone did not join. He leaned his forehead upon his hand and sat in a moody silence. Then he turned towards the servant and bade him thank his master.
“I will come myself to offer our congratulations after dinner if his Highness will receive me,” said Luffe.
The box of cigarettes went round the table. Each man took one, lighted it, and inhaled the smoke silently and very slowly. The garrison had run out of tobacco a week before. Now it had come to them welcome as a gift from Heaven. The moment was one of which the perfect enjoyment was not to be marred by any speech. Only a grunt of satisfaction or a deep sigh of pleasure was now and then to be heard, as the smoke curled upwards from the little paper sticks. Each man competed with his neighbour in the slowness of his respiration, each man wanted to be the last to lay down his cigarette and go about his work. And then the Doctor said in a whisper to Major Dewes:
“That’s bad. Look!”
Luffe, a mighty smoker in his days of health, had let his cigarette go out, had laid it half-consumed upon the edge of his plate. But it seemed that ill-health was not all to blame. He had the look of one who had forgotten his company. He was withdrawn amongst his own speculations, and his eyes looked out beyond that smoke-laden room in a fort amongst the Himalaya mountains into future years dim with peril and trouble.
“There is no moon,” he said at length. “We can get some exercise to-night”; and he rose from the table and ascended a little staircase on to the flat roof of the fort. Major Dewes and the three other officers got up and went about their business. Dr. Bodley, the surgeon, alone remained seated. He waited until the tramp of his companions’ feet had died away, and then he drew from his pocket a briarwood pipe, which he polished lovingly. He walked round the table and, collecting the ends of the cigarettes, pressed them into the bowl of the pipe.
“Thank Heavens I am not an executive officer,” he said, as he lighted his pipe and settled himself again comfortably in his chair. It should be mentioned, perhaps, that he not only doctored and operated on the sick and wounded, but he kept the stores, and when any fighting was to be done, took a rifle and filled any place which might be vacant in the firing-line.
“There are now forty-four cigarettes,” he reflected. “At six a day they will last a week. In a week something will have happened. Either the relieving force will be here, or—yes, decidedly something will have happened.” And as he blew the smoke out from between his lips he added solemnly: “If not to us, to the Political Officer.”
Meanwhile Luffe paced the roof of the fort in the darkness. The fort was built in the bend of a swift, wide river, and so far as three sides were concerned was securely placed. For on three the low precipitous cliffs overhung the tumbling water. On the fourth, however, the fertile plain of the valley stretched open and flat up to the very gates.
In front of the forts a line of sangars extended, the position of each being marked even now by a glare of light above it, which struck up from the fire which the insurgents had lit behind the walls of stone. And from one and another of the sangars the monotonous beat of a tom-tom came to Luffe’s ears.
Luffe walked up and down for a time upon the roof. There was a new sangar to-night, close to the North Tower, which had not existed yesterday. Moreover, the almond trees in the garden just outside the western wall were in blossom, and the leaves upon the branches were as a screen, where only the bare trunks showed a fortnight ago.
But with these matters Luffe was not at this moment concerned. They helped the enemy, they made the defence more arduous, but they were trivial in his thoughts. Indeed, the siege itself was to him an unimportant thing. Even if the fortress fell, even if every man within perished by the sword—why, as Lynes had said, the Sirkar does not forget its servants. The relieving force might march in too late, but it would march in. Men would die, a few families in England would wear mourning, the Government would lose a handful of faithful servants. England would thrill with pride and anger, and the rebellion would end as rebellions always ended.
Luffe was troubled for quite another cause. He went down from the roof, walked by courtyard and winding passage to the quarters of the Khan. A white-robed servant waited for him at the bottom of a broad staircase in a room given up to lumber. A broken bicycle caught Luffe’s eye. On the ledge of a window stood a photographic camera. Luffe mounted the stairs and was ushered into the Khan’s presence. He bowed with deference and congratulated the Khan upon the birth of his heir.
“I have been thinking,” said the Khan—“ever since my son was born I have been thinking. I have been a good friend to the English. I am their friend and servant. News has come to me of their cities and colleges. I will send my son to England, that he may learn your wisdom, and so return to rule over his kingdom. Much good will come of it.” Luffe had expected the words. The young Khan had a passion for things English. The bicycle and the camera were signs of it. Unwise men had applauded his enlightenment. Unwise at all events in Luffe’s opinion. It was, indeed, greatly because of his enlightenment that he and a handful of English officers and troops were beleaguered in the fortress.
“He shall go to Eton and to Oxford, and much good for my people will come of it,” said the Khan. Luffe listened gravely and politely; but he was thinking of an evening when he had taken out to supper a reigning queen of comic opera. The recollection of that evening remained with him when he ascended once more to the roof of the fort and saw the light of the fires above the sangars. A voice spoke at his elbow. “There is a new sangar being built in the garden. We can hear them at work,” said Dewes.
Luffe walked cautiously along the roof to the western end. Quite clearly they could hear the spades at work, very near to the wall, amongst the almond and the mulberry trees.
“Get a fireball,” said Luffe in a whisper, “and send up a dozen Sikhs.”
On the parapet of the roof a rough palisade of planks had been erected to protect the defenders from the riflemen in the valley and across the river. Behind this palisade the Sikhs crept silently to their positions. A ball made of pinewood chips and straw, packed into a covering of canvas, was brought on to the roof and saturated with kerosene oil. “Are you ready?” said Luffe; “then now!” Upon the word the fireball was lit and thrown far out. It circled through the air, dropped, and lay blazing upon the ground. By its light under the branches of the garden trees could be seen the Pathans building a stone sangar, within thirty yards of the fort’s walls.
“Fire!” cried Luffe. “Choose your men and fire.”
All at once the silence of the night was torn by the rattle of musketry, and afar off the tom-toms beat yet more loudly.
Luffe looked on with every faculty alert. He saw with a smile that the Doctor had joined them and lay behind a plank, firing rapidly and with a most accurate aim. But at the back of his mind all the while that he gave his orders was still the thought, “All this is nothing. The one fateful thing is the birth of a son to the Khan of Chiltistan.” The little engagement lasted for about half an hour. The insurgents then drew back from the garden, leaving their dead upon the field. The rattle of the musketry ceased altogether. Behind the parapet one Sikh had been badly wounded by a bullet in the thigh. Already the Doctor was attending to his hurts.
“It is a small thing, Huzoor,” said the wounded soldier, looking upwards to Luffe, who stood above him; “a very small thing,” but even as he spoke pain cut the words short.
“Yes, a small thing”; Luffe did not speak the words, but he thought them. He turned away and walked back again across the roof. The new sangar would not be built that night. But it was a small thing compared with all that lay hidden in the future.
As he paced that side of the fort which faced the plain there rose through the darkness, almost beneath his feet, once more the cry which had reached his ears while he sat at dinner in the courtyard.
He heard a few paces from him the sharp order to retire given by a sentinel. But the voice rose again, claiming admission to the fort, and this time a name was uttered urgently, an English name.
“Don’t fire,” cried Luffe to the sentinel, and he leaned over the wall.
“You come from Wafadar Nazim, and alone?”
“Huzoor, my life be on it.”
“With news of Sahib Linforth?”
“Yes, news which his Highness Wafadar Nazim thinks it good for you to know”; and the voice in the darkness rose to insolence.
Luffe strained his eyes downwards. He could see nothing. He listened, but he could hear no whispering voices. He hesitated. He was very anxious to hear news of Linforth.
“I will let you in,” he cried; “but if there be more than one the lives of all shall be the price.”
He went down into the fort. Under his orders Captain Lynes drew up inside the gate a strong guard of Sikhs with their rifles loaded and bayonets fixed. A few lanterns threw a dim light upon the scene, glistening here and there upon the polish of an accoutrement or a rifle-barrel.
“Present,” whispered Lynes, and the rifles were raised to the shoulder, with every muzzle pointing towards the gate.
Then Lynes himself went forward, removed the bars, and turned the key in the lock. The gate swung open noiselessly a little way, and a tall man, clad in white flowing robes, with a deeply pock-marked face and a hooked nose, walked majestically in. He stood quite still while the gate was barred again behind him, and looked calmly about him with inquisitive bright eyes.
“Will you follow me?” said Luffe, and he led the way through the rabbit-warren of narrow alleys into the centre of the fort.