The Hundred Days - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Hundred Days ebook

Talbot Mundy



Probably the spies deliberately provided false information about the raid in this quarter to ensure the passage of large squads elsewhere. Or the tribes learned to hide from aviation, which is not very difficult among those breeds and gorges, or even in open terrain, where the high grass at a distance resembled the waves of the sea with wind currents. Another probability lies in the rear. Raids from this Northwest border were so frequent for a thousand years that the invasion was no less probable than the desert rain.

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CHAPTER 1. “They said you have a tale for me; and so, by Allah, I am here to listen.”

CHAPTER 2. “Those fools will prod a hornet’s nest.”

CHAPTER 3. “Thou and I are birds who love the storm, Sahiba.”

CHAPTER 4. “What the hell do you know about women?”

CHAPTER 5. “A most wise, excellent Sahiba!”

CHAPTER 6. “Of such stuff are women made!”

CHAPTER 7. “I know a thousand gods superior to Allah.”

CHAPTER 8. “We’ve one chance in a million. Are we all set?”

CHAPTER 9. “Sure, lend a hand!”

CHAPTER 10. “Thou wilt have the blessed Prophet’s tooth, so who can harm thee!”

CHAPTER 11. “So let us fight.”

CHAPTER 1. “They said you have a tale for me; and so, by Allah, I am here to listen.”

THEY kept this out of the papers at the time, there being a fine-meshed censorship in force. Enough months have elapsed since, and enough events have happened to smoke-screen this one as effectually as if Julius Caesar and the Gauls had played the leading parts. The Prince went home alive. India resumed worrying about the price of homespun cotton, the next monsoon, and whether rupee-paper was likely to rise or fall. The Pioneer found front-page space for an account of spooks in a planter’s bungalow. And all was well again.

“Set it down, why don’t you?” King said; and Grim nodded. I demurred. Either King or Grim could have told the story better. But as they sat on the end of my bed in the little white-washed ward, the one cleaning spurs and the other resplicing the wire-woven handle of a Persian scimitar, it was small use arguing with them.

King’s excuse, that he had sore fingers and could not punch a typewriter, was possibly half-valid. It was why he was cleaning spurs, for instance, instead of playing polo to get fit for the next adventure Fate might hold in store for him. Grim’s argument, that he should not write the account because he had a hand in the affair, was more ridiculous, but just as useful, since it cloaked his incurable delight in doing lots and saying nothing, or, rather, less than nothing. What he does say usually adds to his obscurity.

“Write it, and omit me,” Grim suggested. But you might as well omit Hamlet from the play.

Well, here I am, with a month of convalescence still ahead of me, sore from head to foot, sick of reading, and still more sick of the Peshawar climate, hospital diet, the squeak of a punkah, and the view of Allah’s Slagheap from the window. So they’ve set a table for me in a corner where the flap of the punkah won’t scatter the paper all over the place. My jaw being bandaged, the sweat, in all likelihood, won’t drop down and make the ink run. Lord knows there’s paper enough; the genial sawbones who runs this outfit (between bouts of preaching to wounded border-thieves) seems to think I propose to rewrite the Encyclopaedia – or one of his sermons. He has lent me his dictionary and a big jar of tobacco. Here begins:

Joan Angela came to India. That’s the prelude to anything whatever except common-place. I believe she is twenty-six. I will bet she has twenty-six hundred admirers, including me, who would like to act Herod and kill off eligibles in order to destroy beforehand the inevitable lucky, but as yet unknown, blade who will some day persuade her to marry. And I daresay twenty- six million dollars would look rather small beside her fortune since they brought in oil on her land in California. (Not that that matters; she would be Joan Angela Leich if she had only twenty-six cents.)

She came because the Prince’s visit was likely to prove spectacular, and when we’re young most of us will go a long way to see a circus. But it soon palled. The home papers got wind of it, too, and drew conclusions, the Prince being still a bachelor and about her age. So she cut short the round of visits and started to see India for herself, without so much as a by-your-leave or a hint to the Indian Government, which was a great deal too busy just then to notice much that wasn’t obviously dangerous.

In times like that a Government falls back on odds and ends of stray resources. Undesirables are given short shrift, with apologies in the proper quarter later on, if called for. Men whose courses up and down the earth will bear investigation find surprising details forced on them, without much explanation and no insurance. You carry unexpected overloads at your own expense and risk, with no more prospect of reward than any decent fellow gets who likes to know he did not grudge the gift of manliness and muscle.

So Athelstan King, James Schuyler Grim and I – an Englishman and two Americans – with Narayan Singh, who is a Sikh and was a sepoy once, were under canvas by the left bank of Jumna River, swatting flies, smoking much more than was wholesome, and wishing the Prince were in London in the care of Scotland Yard.

There was a brigade of Indian Cavalry camped on our left hand, about two miles away; we could hear the horses neighing, as bored as we felt. On our right, two miles away again, was a regiment of Bombay Infantry. And there was a rumour to the effect that the Cavalry were there to watch the Infantry almost as much as to keep a sharp eye on the border. But rumours are rife in these days, and the mere fact that a Bombay regiment had been ordered north was no proof that its loyalty had really been undermined by agitators. The men had their rifles. There was ammunition. And the officers looked more or less at ease, with their long legs sticking out from under home newspapers beneath the awnings, and all routine as usual.

To our rear, about ten miles away, was a fairly strong contingent of the Air Force, with Cavalry and Infantry to guard them from prowling border- thieves. Their ‘planes were growling overhead all the time, patrolling in search of a reported lashkar of Pathans. Spies (and everyone is a potential spy for either side across the border) had brought word that the tribes were concentrating and admiring the notion of a row. The mullahs were said to be haranguing them, and the women were carrying about a month’s supply of food and fuel. However, the airmen kept reporting they could see nothing, and their cameras told the same tale; and that meant either one of several probabilities.

It was possible the spies were deliberately arousing false expectations of a raid in that quarter in order to cover extensive preparations elsewhere. Or the tribes might have learned how to conceal themselves from the airmen, which should not be very difficult among those rocks and gorges, or even in the open, where the harsh grass in the distance resembled sea with wind across the tide. The other probability lay in the rear. Raids from over that North-West Frontier have been so frequent for a thousand years that an incursion was no more unlikely than rain is in some lands. It would be good strategy for folk who contemplated an uprising on the Indian side of the border to broadcast rumours of Pathan activity and so keep the military alert in the wrong quarter. However, danger of an uprising, and especially of concerted action between the tribes and the disaffected Punjab, presupposes leadership and some lines of communication; which was how we came to be there. Athelstan King, who was a Colonel until recently, is supposed to understand that border better than the devils do who built it, and the devils’ offspring who brew hell there. Jim Grim knows Arabs better, but has made himself a name in India too. I am their friend, which sufficiently accounts for me; they rang me in on it. Narayan Singh would rather risk his neck in Grim’s company than be a maharajah.

We looked peaceful and innocent enough, but in fact we were a baited trap. Our servants, knowing no better, informed the world at large that I was the leader of a party contemplating an expedition across the border and into Persia – madness sufficient to account for trade goods lying loose in process of repacking, and for our incessant enquiries about camels, interpreters, guides, and what not else.

Great hairy ruffians oiled themselves and crept along the streams of mist at night to steal the trade-goods. One by one we caught them; for we had pitched camp by a deep, narrow nullah up which they were certain to come; barbed wire, broken glass, some dogs, and two acetylene searchlights made any other approach almost impossible. We noosed some, clubbed others, and caught a round half-dozen in a blunted bear-trap. Narayan Singh was fertile in new expedients; but as to the outcome, we treated all alike.

As soon as they recovered from the usually necessary man-handling we set them on their hunkers in a tent and talked the situation over, offering them liberty, and promising reward if they would put us in communication with a certain Kangra Khan.

“We’re Americans,” King would explain, telling two-thirds of the truth, which is plenty in that land. “We don’t want our business known.” That was absolutely true, and ample, since whatever we had said our real business was they would not have believed us. “We have a proposal that will interest Kangra Khan. If he will come to us here, we will talk with him alone by night. And if he comes with no more than a two-man escort we will guarantee his personal safety.”

They believed the last implicitly. That part of the game has always been played straight by the men who hold the border-line, and generally, too, by the wind-weaned rascals whose profitable sport it is to violate line, life, women, and most promises whenever possible. A verbal promise of safe-conduct is as good as a Chinaman’s trade acceptance, flood, fire and Act of God alone excepted from the guarantee.

So on the eleventh night after we pitched camp the dogs barked furiously, which they would not have done if there had been another miscreant sneaking up the nullah. This was someone taking chances from the west, where by day we used to open a gap in the barbed wire tangle. We turned a searchlight on, and after a curt exchange of challenge and reply we saw him rise like a bear, dripping wet, out of a wisp of grey mist. His boat must have upset crossing the river.

Narayan Singh opened a gap in the wire, and he strode in with a British Service rifle in one hand and the other held over his eyes because the searchlight dazzled him. A fine, upstanding man he was; and I like that sort. His dripping sheepskin jacket increased an air of cavalierly independence; but it stank like the deuce, and King invited him to take it off and hang it on a stick in front of the fire to dry. He did that, but remained standing with his back toward the river, so I motioned him to a chair on the other side of the fire, between Grim and me.

“By Allah,” he answered, opening a great gap of a grin in the midst of his black beard, “if my men should lose sight of me I might die with you, and I have business elsewhere! It is not so easy aiming in the dark.”

So I set the chair where his men could see him in the firelight; and the first thing he demanded when he sat down – awkwardly, unused to canvas chairs – was a rag and some oil for his wet rifle.

Narayan Singh, next on his left, offered to dry the rifle for him.

“I am a soldier. I can do it properly,” he said.

“I will leave my life in a Sikh’s hands when I have no more use for it!” Kangra Khan answered, and then waited, saying nothing, until Grim fetched him oil and rags. Thereafter he cleaned while he talked, squinting down the barrel at the firelight. I judged him a man of forethought and determination, to be trusted unconditionally in some ways, not at all in others, the latter perhaps predominating.

He was nearly as heavy as I am. And he was handsome, for his nose was not so hooked, nor his eye so cunning, as is usual along that frontier. The edge of a coil of black hair showed beneath his turban. His forehead was a thinker’s, broad and level, with two heavy lines across it. First and last, there was nothing about him that suggested cowardice or even respect for heavy odds.

“They said you have a tale for me; and so, by Allah, I am here to listen,” he said simply, all eyes for me. (They like big men where he came from, and I wore a beard at that time, which was another point in my favour.) However, King took up the argument – since argument there must be in the North, whatever else happens.

“The tale is this,” he said, leaning forward to knock the ashes out of his pipe; and with his dark skin and Roman nose he looked in the firelight like one of Julius Caesar’s men: “that you, Kangra Khan, are planning a raid while the Prince is in this part of India; and that I am told off to prevent you.” He sat back and filled his pipe again. He might have just remarked it was a fine night.

“Then by Allah’s Prophet, thou and I are well met!” the hillman answered, showing his yellow teeth again. King struck a match, and it served to show his manly, unpretending smile.

“So now we understand each other,” he said, puffing away at the pipe.

“Maybe. But it is Allah who prevents!” said Kangra Khan, with his eye on my servant, who was bringing out whisky from the tent. I poured him a straight tumblerful, and he tossed it off at a gulp. “The river was wet, and not warm,” he remarked by way of thanks, offering no apology for drinking in defiance of the Koran; for which I liked him. Apology and explanation are due to one you may have injured; otherwise they are indecent. He said nothing about how he had managed to swim the hurrying Jumna, rifle in hand.

“Why should you choose this particular time?” King demanded, sailing as close to the eye of the wind as he could carry way.

“It is a good time,” the hillman answered simply. Neither seemed inclined to ease his helm. They were coming at each other head on, so at a whisper from Grim I strode among the shadows and ordered the servants out of earshot.

“It is the worst time you could choose,” King assured him.

“The eagle’s opportunity – the hare’s disadvantage – are one!” said Kangra Khan.

“You are not dealing with hares,” King retorted. “You are blind if you think the eagles are not on our side.”

“Aye, I have seen them. They have buzzed above us now for half a month.”

“They lay eggs on the wing, those birds!” King suggested meaningly. “There is Cavalry and Infantry to right and left of us, and guns at the rear.”

“Aye, but this is women’s talk. I know the chances,” Kangra Khan answered.

“Talk like a man, then!” growled Narayan Singh. It seemed to me that that was what the hillman had done, but the Sikh knew what he was doing.

“Meet me across the border, and I will show thee how a man fights!” the other retorted.

Narayan Singh was about to answer, but Grim interrupted him.

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