CAPTAIN PHILLIPS with a sharp gesture ordered the Khan back to the shadowy corner from which he had sprung out. Then he shut the door and, with the shutting of the door, the darkness deepened suddenly in the hall. He shot the bolt and put up the chain. It rattled in his ears with a startling loudness. Then he stood without speech or movement. Outside he heard Shere Ali’s voice ring clear, and the army of tribesmen clattered past towards the town. The rattle of their weapons, the hum of their voices diminished. Captain Phillips took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. He had the sensations of a man reprieved.
“But it’s only a reprieve,” he thought. “There will be no commutation.”
He turned again towards the dark corner.
“How did you come?” he asked in a low voice.
“By the orchard at the back of the house.”
“Did no one see you?”
“I hid in the orchard until I saw the red coat of one of your servants. I called to him and he let me in secretly. But no one else saw me.”
“No one in the city?”
“I came barefoot in a rough cloak with the hood drawn over my face,” said the Khan. “No one paid any heed to me. There was much noise and running to and fro, and polishing of weapons. I crept out into the hill-side at the back and so came down into your orchard.”
Captain Phillips shrugged his shoulders. He opened a door and led the Khan into a room which looked out upon the orchard.
“Well, we will do what we can,” he said, “but it’s very little. They will guess immediately that you are here of course.”
“Once before——” faltered the Khan, and Phillips broke in upon him impatiently.
“Yes, once before. But it’s not the same thing. This is a house, not a fort, and I have only a handful of men to defend it; and I am not Luffe.” Then his voice sharpened. “Why didn’t you listen to him? All this is your fault—yours and Dewes’, who didn’t understand, and held his tongue.”
The Khan was mystified by the words, but Phillips did not take the trouble to explain. He knew something of the Chilti character. They would have put up with the taxes, with the selling into slavery, with all the other abominations of the Khan’s rule. They would have listened to the exhortations of the mullahs without anything coming of it, so long as no leader appeared. They were great accepters of facts as they were. Let the brother or son or nephew murder the ruling Khan and sit in his place, they accepted his rule without any struggles of conscience. But let a man rise to lead them, then they would bethink them of the exhortations of their priests and of their own particular sufferings and flock to his standard. And the man had risen—just because twenty-five years ago the Khan would not listen to Luffe.
“It’s too late, however, for explanations,” he said, and he clapped his hands together for a servant. In a few moments the light of a lamp gleamed in the hall through the doorway. Phillips went quickly out of the room, closing the door behind him.
“Fasten the shutters first,” he said to the servant in the hall. “Then bring the lamp in.”
The servant obeyed, but when he brought the lamp into the room, and saw the Khan of Chiltistan standing at the table with no more dignity of dress or, indeed, of bearing than any beggar in the kingdom, he nearly let the lamp fall.
“His Highness will stay in this house,” said Phillips, “but his presence must not be spoken of. Will you tell Poulteney Sahib that I would like to speak to him?” The servant bowed his forehead to the palms of his hand and turned away upon his errand. But Poulteney Sahib was already at the door. He was the subaltern in command of the half company of Sikhs which served Captain Phillips for an escort and a guard.
“You have heard the news I suppose,” said Phillips.
“Yes,” replied Poulteney. He was a wiry dark youth, with a little black moustache and a brisk manner of speech. “I was out on the hill after chikkor when my shikari saw Shere Ali and his crowd coming down the valley. He knew all about it and gave me a general idea of the situation. It seems the whole country’s rising. I should have been here before, but it seemed advisable to wait until it was dark. I crawled in between a couple of guard-posts. There is already a watch kept on the house,” and then he stopped abruptly. He had caught sight of the Khan in the background. He had much ado not to whistle in his surprise. But he refrained and merely bowed.
“It seems to be a complicated situation,” he said to Captain Phillips. “Does Shere Ali know?” and he glanced towards the Khan.
“Not yet,” replied Phillips grimly. “But I don’t think it will be long before he does.”
“And then there will be ructions,” Poulteney remarked softly. “Yes, there will be ructions of a highly-coloured and interesting description.”
“We must do what we can,” said Phillips with a shrug of his shoulders. “It isn’t much, of course,” and for the next two hours the twenty-five Sikhs were kept busy. The doors were barricaded, the shutters closed upon the windows and loopholed, and provisions were brought in from the outhouses.
“It is lucky we had sense enough to lay in a store of food,” said Phillips.
The Sikhs were divided into watches and given their appointed places. Cartridges were doled out to them, and the rest of the ammunition was placed in a stone cellar.
“That’s all that we can do,” said Phillips. “So we may as well dine.”
They dined with the Khan, speaking little and with ears on the alert, in a room at the back of the house. At any moment the summons might come to surrender the Khan. They waited for a blow upon the door, the sound of the firing of a rifle or a loud voice calling upon them from the darkness. But all they heard was the interminable babble of the Khan, as he sat at the table shivering with fear and unable to eat a morsel of his food.
“You won’t give me up! . . . I have been a good friend to the English. . . . All my life I have been a good friend to the English.”
“We will do what we can,” said Phillips, and he rose from the table and went up on to the roof. He lay down behind the low parapet and looked over towards the town. The house was a poor place to defend. At the back beyond the orchard the hill-side rose and commanded the roof. On the east of the house a stream ran by to the great river in the centre of the valley. But the bank of the stream was a steep slippery bank of clay, and less than a hundred yards down a small water-mill on the opposite side overlooked it. The Chiltis had only to station a few riflemen in the water-mill and not a man would be able to climb down that bank and fetch water for the Residency. On the west stood the stables and the storehouses, and the barracks of the Sikhs, a square of buildings which would afford fine cover for an attacking force. Only in front within the walls of the forecourt was there any open space which the house commanded. It was certainly a difficult—nay, a hopeless—place to defend.
But Captain Phillips, as he lay behind the parapet, began to be puzzled. Why did not the attack begin? He looked over to the city. It was a place of tossing lights and wild clamours. The noise of it was carried on the night wind to Phillips’ ears. But about the Residency there was quietude and darkness. Here and there a red fire glowed where the guards were posted; now and then a shower of sparks leaped up into the air as a fresh log was thrown upon the ashes; and a bright flame would glisten on the barrel of a rifle and make ruddy the dark faces of the watchmen. But there were no preparations for an attack.
Phillips looked across the city. On the hill the Palace was alive with moving lights—lights that flashed from room to room as though men searched hurriedly.
“Surely they must already have guessed,” he murmured to himself. The moving lights in the high windows of the Palace held his eyes—so swiftly they flitted from room to room, so frenzied seemed the hurry of the search—and then to his astonishment one after another they began to die out. It could not be that the searchers were content with the failure of their search, that the Palace was composing itself to sleep. In the city the clamour had died down; little by little it sank to darkness. There came a freshness in the air. Though there were many hours still before daylight, the night drew on towards morning. What could it mean, he wondered? Why was the Residency left in peace?
And as he wondered, he heard a scuffling noise upon the roof behind him. He turned his head and Poulteney crawled to his side.
“Will you come down?” the subaltern asked; “I don’t know what to do.”
Phillips at once crept back to the trap-door. The two men descended, and Poulteney led the way into the little room at the back of the house where they had dined. There was no longer a light in the room; and they stood for awhile in the darkness listening.
“Where is the Khan?” whispered Phillips.
“I fixed up one of the cellars for him,” Poulteney replied in the same tone, and as he ended there came suddenly a rattle of gravel upon the shutter of the window. It was thrown cautiously, but even so it startled Phillips almost into a cry.
“That’s it,” whispered Poulteney. “There is someone in the orchard. That’s the third time the gravel has rattled on the shutter. What shall I do?”
“Have you got your revolver?” asked Phillips.
“Then stand by.”
Phillips carefully and noiselessly opened the shutter for an inch or two.
“Who’s that?” he asked in a low voice; he asked the question in Pushtu, and in Pushtu a voice no louder than his own replied:
“I want to speak to Poulteney Sahib.”
A startled exclamation broke from the subaltern. “It’s my shikari,” he said, and thrusting open the shutter he leaned out.
“Well, what news do you bring?” he asked; and at the answer Captain Phillips for the first time since he had entered into his twilit hall had a throb of hope. The expeditionary troops from Nowshera, advancing by forced marches, were already close to the borders of Chiltistan. News had been brought to the Palace that evening. Shere Ali had started with every man he could collect to take up the position where he meant to give battle.
“I must hurry or I shall be late,” said the shikari, and he crawled away through the orchard.
Phillips closed the shutter again and lit the lamp. The news seemed too good to be true. But the morning broke over a city of women and old men. Only the watchmen remained at their posts about the Residency grounds.