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   Chapter 21 IN THE HEART OF THE HILLS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 13637

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


ALL around was stone and scrub, rising in terraces to the foot of sheer cliffs which opened up here and there in nullahs and gave a glimpse of great snow hills behind them. On one of the flat ridge-tops a little village of stunted, slaty houses squatted like an ape, with a vigilant eye on twenty gorges. Thin, twisting paths led up to it, and before, on the more clement slopes, some fields of grain were tilled as our Aryan forefathers tilled the soil on the plains of Turkestan. The place was at least 8,000 feet above the sea, so the air was highland, clear and pleasant, save for the dryness which the great stone deserts forced upon the soft south winds. You will not find the place marked in any map, for it is a little beyond even the most recent geographer's ken, but it is none the less a highly important place, for the nameless village is one of the seats of that most active and excellent race of men, the Bada-Mawidi, who are so old that they can afford to look down on their neighbours from a vantage-ground of some thousands of years. It is well known that when God created the earth He first fashioned this tangle of hill land, and set thereon a primitive Bada-Mawidi, the first of the clan, who was the ancestor, in the thousandth degree, of the excellent Fazir Khan, the present father of the tribe.

The houses clustered on the scarp and enclosed a piece of well-beaten ground and one huge cedar tree. Sounds came from the near houses, but around the tree itself the more privileged sat in solemn conclave. Food and wine were going the round, for the Maulai Mohammedans have no taboos in eating and drinking. Fazir Khan sat smoking next the tree trunk, a short, sinewy man with a square, Aryan face, clear-cut and cruel. His chiefs were around him, all men of the same type, showing curiously fair skins against their oiled black hair. A mullah sat cross-legged, his straggling beard in his lap, repeating some crazy charm to himself and looking every now and again with anxious eyes to the guest who sat on the chief's right hand.

The guest was a long, thin man, clad in the Cossacks' fur lined military cloak, under which his untanned riding-boots showed red in the moonlight. He was still busy eating goat's flesh, cheese and fruits, and drinking deeply from the sweet Hunza wine, like a man who had come far and fast. He ate with the utmost disregard of his company. He might have been a hunter supping alone in the solitary hills for all the notice he took of the fifty odd men around him.

By and by he finished, pulled forth a little silver toothpick from an inner pocket, and reached a hand for the long cherry-wood pipe which had been placed beside him. He lit it, and blew a few clouds into the calm air.

"Now, Fazir Khan," he said, "I am a new man, and we shall talk. First, have you done my bidding?"

"Thy bidding has been done," said the great man sulkily. "See, I am here with my chiefs. All the twenty villages of my tribe have been warned, and arms have been got from the fools at Bardur. Also, I have the Yarkand powder I was told of, to give the signals on the hills. The Nazri Pass road, which we alone know, has been widened. What more could man do?"

"That is well," said the other. "It is well for you and your people that you have done this. Your service shall not be forgotten. Otherwise-"

"Otherwise?" said the Fazir Khan, his hand travelling to his belt at the sound of a threat.

The man laughed. "You know the tale," he said. "Doubtless your mother told you it when you clutched at her breast. Some day a great white people from the north will come down and swallow up the disobedient. That day is now at hand. You have been wise in time. Therefore I say it is well."

The stranger spoke with perfect coolness. He looked round curiously at the circle of dark faces and laughed quietly to himself. The chief stole one look at him and then said something to a follower.

"I need not speak of the reward," said the stranger. "You are our servants, and duty is duty. But I have authority for saying that we shall hold your work in mind when we have settled our business."

"What would ye be without us?" said the chief in sudden temper. "What do ye know of the Nazri gates or the hill country? What is this talk of duty, when ye cannot stir a foot without our aid?"

"You are our servants, as I said before," said the man curtly. "You have taken our gold and our food. Where would you be, outlaws, vagrants that you are, hated of God and man, but for our help? Your bodies would have rotted long ago on the hills. The kites would be feeding on your sons; your women would be in the Bokhara market. We have saved you a dozen times from the vengeance of the English. When they wished to come up and burn you out, we have put them past the project with smooth words. We have fed you in famine, we have killed your enemies, we have given you life. You are freemen indeed in the face of the world, but you are our servants."

Fazir Khan made a gesture of impatience. "That is as God may direct it," he said. "Who are ye but a people of yesterday, while the Bada-Mawidi is as old as the rocks. The English were here before you, and we before the English. It is right that youth should reverence age."

"That is one proverb," said the man, "but there are others, and in especial one to the effect that the man without a sword should bow before his brother who has one. In this game we are the people with the sword, my friends."

The hillman shrugged his shoulders. His men looked on darkly, as if little in love with the stranger's manner of speech.

"It is ill working in the dark," he said at length. "Ye speak of this attack and the aid you expect from us, but we have heard this talk before. One of your people came down with some followers in my father's time, and his words were the same, but lo! nothing has yet happened."

"Since your father's time things have changed, my brother. Then the English were very much on the watch, now they sleep. Then there were no roads, or very bad ones, and before an army could reach the plains the whole empire would have been wakened. Now, for their own undoing, they have made roads up to the very foot of yon mountains, and there is a new railway down the Indus through Kohistan waiting to carry us into the heart of the Punjab. They seek out inventions for others to enjoy, as the Koran says, and in this case we are to be the enjoyers."

"But what if ye fail?" said the chief. "Ye will be penned up in that Hunza valley like sheep, and I, Fazir Khan, shall be unable to unlock the door of that sheepfold."

"We shall not fail. This is no war of rock-pigeons, my brothers. Our agents are in every town and village from Bardur to Lahore. The frontier tribes, you among the rest, are rising i

n our favour. There is nothing to stop us but isolated garrisons of Gurkhas and Pathans, with a few overworked English officers at their head. In a week we shall command the north of India, and if we hold the north, in another week we shall hold Calcutta and Bombay."

The chief nodded his head. Such far-off schemes pleased his fancy, but only remotely touched his interest. Calcutta was beyond his ken, but he knew Bardur and Gilgit.

"I have little love for the race," he said. "They hanged two of my servants who ventured too near the rifle-room, and they shot my son in the back when we raided the Chitralis. If ye and your friends cross the border I will be with you. But meantime, till that day, what is my duty?"

"To wait in patience, and above all things to let the garrisons alone. If we stir up the hive in the valleys they may come and see things too soon for our success. We must win by secrecy and surprise. All is lost if we cannot reach the railway before the Punjab is stirring."

The mullah had ceased muttering to himself. He scrambled to his feet, shaking down his rags over his knees, a lean, crazy apparition of a man with deep-set, smouldering eyes.

"I will speak," he cried. "Ye listen to the man's words and ye are silent, believing all things. Ye are silent, my children, because ye know not. But I am old and I have seen many things, and these are my words. Ye speak of pushing out the English from the land. Allah knows I love not the breed! I spit upon it, I thirst for the heart of every man, woman, and child, that I might burn them in the sight of all of you. But I have heard this talk before. When I was a young priest at Kufaz, there was word of this pushing out of the foreigner, and I rejoiced, being unwise. Then there was much fighting, and at the end more English came up the valleys and, before we knew, we were paying tribute. Since then many of our people have gone down from the mountains with the same thought, and they have never returned. Only the English and the troops have crept nearer. Now this stranger talks of his Tsar and how an army will come through the passes, and foreigner will fight with foreigner. This talk, too, I have heard. Once there came a man with a red beard who spoke thus, and he went down to Bardur, and lo! our men told me that they saw him hanged there for a warning. Let foreigner war on foreigner if they please, but what have we to do in the quarrel, my children? Ye owe nothing to either."

The stranger regarded the speaker with calm eyes of amusement.

"Nothing," said he, "except that we have fed you and armed you. By your own acts you are the servants of my master."

The mullah was rapidly working himself into a frenzy. He swung his long bony arms across his breast and turned his face skywards. "Ye hear that, my children. The free people, the Bada-Mawidi, of whose loins sprang Abraham the prophet, are the servants of some foreign dog in the north. If ye were like your fathers, ye would have long ago ere this wiped out the taunt in blood."

The man sat perfectly composed, save that his right hand had grasped a revolver. He was playing a bold game, but he had played it before. And he knew the man he had to deal with.

"I say again, you are my master's servants by your own confession. I did not say his slaves. You are a free people, but you will serve a greater in this affair. As for this dog who blasphemes, when we have settled more important matters we will attend to him."

The mullah was scarcely a popular member of his tribe, for no one stirred at the call. The stranger sat watching him with very bright, eager eyes. Suddenly the priest ceased his genuflexions, there was a gleam of steel among his rags, then something bright flashed in the air. It fell short, because at the very moment of throwing, a revolver had cracked out in the silence, and a bullet had broken two of his fingers. The man flung himself writhing on the ground, howling forth imprecations.

The stranger looked half apologetically at the chief, whose glum demeanour had never relaxed. "Sorry," he said; "it had to be done in self-defence. But I ask your pardon for it."

Fazir Khan nodded carelessly. "He is a disturber of peace, and to one who cannot fight a hand matters little. But, by Allah, ye northerners shoot quick."

The stranger relinquished the cherry-wood pipe and filled a meerschaum from a pouch which he carried in the pocket of his cloak. He took a long drink from the loving-cup of mulled wine which was passing round.

"Your mad priest has method in his folly," he said. "It is true that we are attacking a great people; therefore the more need of wariness for you and me, Fazir Khan. If we fail there will be the devil to pay for you. The English will shift their frontier-line beyond the mountains, and there will be no more lifting of women and driving of cattle for the Bada-Mawidi. You will all be sent to school, and your guns will be taken from you."

The chief compressed his attractive features into a savage scowl. "That may not be in my lifetime," he said. "Besides, are there no mountains all around? In five hours I shall be in China, and in a little more I might be beyond the Amu. But why talk of this? The accursed English shall not escape us, I swear by the hilt of my sword and the hearts of my fathers."

A subdued murmur of applause ran around the circle.

"You are men after my own heart," said the stranger. "Meanwhile, a word in your own ear, Fazir Khan. Dare you come to Bardur with me?"

The chief made a gesture of repugnance. "I hate that place of mud and lime. The blood of my people cries on me when I enter the gates. But if it is your counsel I will come with you."

"I wish to assure myself that the place is quiet. Our success depends upon the whole country being unsuspicious and asleep. Now if word has got to the south, and worse still to England, there will be questions asked and vague instructions sent up to the frontier. We shall find a stir among the garrisons, and perhaps some visitors in the place. And at the very worst we might find some fool inquiring about the Nazri Pass. There was once a man in Bardur who did, but people laughed at him and he has gone."

"Where?" asked the chief.

"To England. But he was a harmless man, and he is too old to have any vigour."

As the darkness grew over the hills the fires were brightened and the curious game of khoti was played in groups of six. The women came to the house-doors to sit and gossip, and listened to the harsh laughter of their lords from beside the fires. A little after midnight, when the stars were picked out in the deep, velvet sky, Fazir Khan and the stranger, both muffled to the ears, stole beyond the street and scrambled down the perilous path-ways to the south.

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