For The Salt He Had Eaten - Talbot Mundy - ebook

For The Salt He Had Eaten ebook

Talbot Mundy



Almost unknown today, Footner was a Candadian journalist and author of many adventure and mystery novels. His first works were primarily travelogues of various river trips in Canada and the U.S., although he did produce some adventure novels. He is also credited with introducing the first American female investigator in Madame Storey and her plain assistant who explains the evolving solutions to her boss’ cases. So we are introduced to the fascinating Madame Rosika Storey, fearless and intelligent, who plays cat-and-mouse with killers, goes undercover to break up criminal gangs, and unravels deadly mysteries. This is the third book of the succesful mystery series Madame Storey, by canadian-american author Hulbert Footner.

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Liczba stron: 118

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To the northward of Hanadra, blue in the sweltering heat- haze, lay Siroeh, walled in with sun-baked mud and listless. Through a wooden gate at one end of the village filed a string of women with their water-pots. Oxen, tethered underneath the thatched eaves or by the thirsty-looking trees, lay chewing the cud, almost too lazy to flick the flies away. Even the village goats seemed overcome with lassitude. Here and there a pariah dog sneaked in and out among the shadows or lay and licked his sores beside an offal-heap; but there seemed to be no energy in anything. The bone-dry, hot-weather wind had shriveled up verdure and ambition together.

But in the mud-walled cottages, where men were wont to doze through the long, hot days, there were murmurings and restless movement. Men lay on thong-strung beds, and talked instead of dreaming, and the women listened and said nothing–which is the reverse of custom. Hanadra was what it always had been, thatched, sun-baked lassitude; but underneath the thatch there thrummed a beehive atmosphere of tension.

In the center of the village, where the one main road that led from the main gate came to an abrupt end at a low mud wall, stood a house that was larger than the others and somewhat more neatly kept; there had been an effort made at sweeping the enclosure that surrounded it on all four sides, and there was even whitewash, peeling off in places but still comparatively white, smeared on the sun-cracked walls.

Here, besides murmurings and movement, there was evidence of real activity. Tethered against the wall on one side of the house stood a row of horses, saddled and bridled and bearing evidence of having traveled through the heat; through the open doorway the sunshine glinted on a sword-hilt and amid the sound of many voices rang the jingling of a spur as some one sat cornerwise on a wooden table and struck his toe restlessly against the leg.

Another string of women started for the water-hole, with their picturesque brass jars perched at varying angles on their heads; and as each one passed the doorway of this larger house she turned and scowled. A Rajput, lean and black-bearded and swaggering, came to the door and watched them, standing proudly with his arms folded across his breast. As the last woman showed her teeth at him, he laughed aloud.

“Nay!” said a voice inside. “Have done with that! Is noticing the Hindu women fit sport for a Rajput?”

The youngster turned and faced the old, black-bearded veteran who spoke.

“If I had my way,” he answered, “I would ride roughshod through this village, and fire the thatch. They fail to realize the honor that we pay them by a visit!”

“Aye, hothead! And burn thy brother’s barn with what is in it! The Hindus here are many, and we are few, and there will be burnings and saberings a- plenty before a week is past, if I read the signs aright! Once before have I heard such murmurings. Once before I have seen chapattis sent from house to house at sunset–and that time blood ran red along the roadside for a month to follow! Keep thy sword sharp a while and wait the day!”

“But why,” growled another deep-throated Rajput voice, “does the Sirkar wait? Why not smite first and swiftly?”

Mahommed Khan moved restlessly and ran his fingers through his beard.

“I know not!” he answered. “In the days when I was Risaldar in the Rajput Horse, and Bellairs sahib was colonel, things were different! But we conquered, and after conquest came security. The English have grown overconfident; they think that Moslem will always war with Hindu, the one betraying the other; they will not understand that this lies deeper than jealousy–they will not listen! Six months ago I rode to Jundhra and whispered to the general sahib what I thought; but he laughed back at me. He said ‘Wolf! wolf!’ to me and drew me inside his bungalow and bade me eat my fill.”

“Well–what matters it! This land has always been the playground of new conquerors!”

“There will be no new conquerors,” growled the old Risaldar, “so long as I and mine have swords to wield for the Raj!”

“But what have the English done for thee or us?”

“This, forgetful one! They have treated us with honor, as surely no other conquerors had done! At thy age, I too measured my happiness in cattle and coin and women, but then came Bellairs sahib, and raised the Rajput Horse, and I enlisted. What came of that was better than all the wealth of Ind!”

He spread his long legs like a pair of scissors and caught a child between them and lifted him.

“Thou ruffian, thou!” he chuckled. “See how he fights! A true Rajput! Nay, beat me not. Some day thou too shalt bear a sword for England, great- grandson mine. Ai-ee! But I grow old.”

“For England or the next one!”

“Nay! But for England!” said the Risaldar, setting the child down on his knee. “And thou too, hot-head. Before a week is past! Think you I called my sons and grandsons all together for the fun of it? Think you I rode here through the heat because I needed the exercise or to chatter like an ape or to stand in the doorway making faces at a Hindu woman or to watch thee do it? Here I am, and here I stay until yet more news comes!”

“Then are we to wait here? Are we to swelter in Siroeh, eating up our brother’s hospitality, until thy messengers see fit to come and tell us that this scare of thine is past?”

“Nay!” said the Risaldar. “I said that I wait here! Return now to your own homes, each of you. But be in readiness. I am old, but I can ride still. I can round you up. Has any a better horse than mine? If he has, let him make exchange.”

“There will be horses for the looting if this revolt of thine breaks out!”

“True! There will be horses for the looting! Well, I wait here then and, when the trouble comes, I can count on thirteen of my blood to carry swords behind me?”

“Aye, when the trouble comes!”

There was a chorus of assent, and the Risaldar arose to let his sons and grandsons file past him. He, who had beggared himself to give each one of them a start in life, felt a little chagrined that they should now refuse to exchange horses with him; but his eye glistened none the less at the sight of their stalwart frames and at the thought of what a fighting unit he could bring to serve the Raj.

“All, then, for England!” he exclaimed.

“Nay, all for thee!” said his eldest-born. “We fight on whichever side thou sayest!”

“Disloyal one!” growled the Risaldar with a scowl. But he grinned into his beard.

“Well, to your homes, then–but be ready!”


The midnight jackals howled their discontent while heat- cracked India writhed in stuffy torment that was only one degree less than unendurable. Through the stillness and the blackness of the night came every now and then the high-pitched undulating wails of women, that no one answered-for, under that Tophet-lid of blackness, punctured by the low-hung, steel-white stars, men neither knew nor cared whose child had died. Life and hell-hot torture and indifference–all three were one.

There was no moon, nothing to make the inferno visible, except that here and there an oil lamp on some housetop glowed like a blood-spot against the blackness. It was a sensation, rather than sight or sound, that betrayed the neighborhood of thousands upon thousands of human beings, sprawling, writhing, twisting upon the roofs, in restless suffering.

There was no pity in the dry, black vault of heaven, nor in the bone-dry earth, nor in the hearts of men, during that hot weather of ‘57. Men waited for the threatened wrath to come and writhed and held their tongues. And while they waited in sullen Asiatic patience, through the restless silence and the smell–the suffocating, spice-fed, filth-begotten smell of India–there ran an undercurrent of even deeper mystery than India had ever known.

Priest-ridden Hanadra, that had seen the downfall of a hundred kings, watched through heat-wearied eyes for another whelming the blood-soaked, sudden flood that was to burst the dam of servitude and rid India of her latest horde of conquerors. But eight hundred yards from where her high brick walls lifted their age-scars in the stifling reek, gun-chains jingled in a courtyard, and, sharp-clicking on age-old flagstones, rose the ring of horses’ feet.

Section Number One of a troop of Bengal Horse Artillery was waiting under arms. Sabered and grim and ready stood fifty of the finest men that England could produce, each man at his horse’s head; and blacker even than the night loomed the long twelve-pounders, in tow behind their limbers. Sometimes a trace-chain jingled as a wheel-horse twitched his flank; and sometimes a man spoke in a low voice, or a horse stamped on the pavement; but they seemed like black graven images of war-gods, half-smothered in the reeking darkness. And above them, from a window that overlooked the courtyard, shone a solitary lamp that glistened here and there upon the sleek black guns and flickered on the saber-hilts, and deepened the already dead-black atmosphere of mystery.

From the room above, where the lamp shone behind gauze curtains came the sound of voices; and in the deepest, death-darkest shadow of the door below there stood a man on guard whose fingers clutched his sword-hilt and whose breath came heavily. He stood motionless, save for his heaving breast; between his fierce, black mustache and his up-brushed, two-pointed beard, his white teeth showed through parted lips. But he gave no other sign that he was not some Rajput princeling’s image carved out of the night.

He was an old man, though, for all his straight back and military carriage. The night concealed his shabbiness; but it failed to hide the medals on his breast, one bronze, one silver, that told of campaigns already a generation gone. And his patience was another sign of age; a younger man of his blood and training would have been pacing to and fro instead of standing still.

He stood still even when footsteps resounded on the winding stair above and a saber-ferrule clanked from step to step. The gunners heard and stood squarely to their horses. There was a rustling and a sound of shifting feet, and, a “Whoa,–you!” to an irritated horse; but the Rajput stayed motionless until the footsteps reached the door. Then he took one step forward, faced about and saluted.

“Salaam, Bellairs sahib!” boomed his deep-throated voice, and Lieutenant Bellairs stepped back with a start into the doorway again–one hand on his sword-hilt. The Indian moved sidewise to where the lamplight from the room above could fall upon his face.

“Salaam, Bellairs sahib!” he boomed again.

Then the lieutenant recognized him.

“You, Mahommed Khan!” he exclaimed. “You old war-dog, what brought you here? Heavens, how you startled me! What good wind brought you?”

“Nay! It seems it was an ill wind, sahib!”

“What ill wind? I’m glad to see you!”

“The breath of rumor, sahib!”

“What rumor brought you?”

“Where a man’s honor lies, there is he, in the hour of danger! Is all well with the Raj, sahib?”

“With the Raj? How d’you mean, Risaldar?”

Mahommed Khan pointed to the waiting guns and smiled.

“In my days, sahib,” he answered, “men seldom exercised the guns at night!”

“I received orders more than three hours ago to bring my section in to Jundhra immediately–immediately–and not a word of explanation!”

“Orders, sahib? And you wait?”

“They seem to have forgotten that I’m married, and by the same token, so do you! What else could I do but wait? My wife can’t ride with the section; she isn’t strong enough, for one thing; and besides, there’s no knowing what this order means; there might be trouble to face of some kind. I’ve sent into Hanadra to try to drum up an escort for her and I’m waiting here until it comes.”

The Risaldar stroked at his beard reflectively.

“We of the service, sahib,” he answered, “obey orders at the gallop when they come. When orders come to ride, we ride!”’

Bellairs winced at the thrust.

“That’s all very fine, Risaldar. But how about my wife? What’s going to happen to her, if I leave her here alone and unprotected?”

“Or to me, sahib? Is my sword-arm withered? Is my saber rusted home?”

“You, old friend! D’you mean to tell me–”

The Risaldar saluted him again.

“Will you stay here and guard her?”

“Nay, sahib! Being not so young as thou art, I know better!”

“What in Tophet do you mean, Mahommed Khan?”

“I mean, sahib,”–the Indian’s voice was level and deep, but it vibrated strangely, and his eyes glowed as though war-lights were being born again behind them–“that not for nothing am I come! I heard what thy orders were and–”

“How did you hear what my orders were?”

“My half-brother came hurrying with the news, sahib. I hastened! My horse lies dead one kos from Hanadra here!”

The lieutenant laughed.

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