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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 8723

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

THERE is another quarter in Bardur besides the English one. Down by the stream side there are narrow streets built on the scarp of the rock, hovels with deep rock cellars, and a wonderful amount of cubic space beneath the brushwood thatch. There the trader from Yarkand who has contraband wares to dispose of may hold a safe market. And if you were to go at nightfall into this quarter, where the foot of the Kashmir policeman rarely penetrates, you might find shaggy tribesmen who have been all their lives outlaws, walking unmolested to visit their friends, and certain Jewish gentlemen, members of the great family who have conquered the world, engaged in the pursuit of their unlawful calling.

Marker speedily left the broader streets of the European quarter, and plunged down a steep alley which led to the stream. Half way down there was a lane to the left in the line of hovels, and, after stopping a moment to consider, he entered this. It was narrow and dark, but smelt cleanly enough of the dry granite sand. There were little dark apertures in the huts, which might have been either doors or windows, and at one of these he stopped, lit a match, and examined it closely. The result was satisfactory; for the man, who had hitherto been crouching, straightened himself up and knocked. The door opened instantaneously, and he bowed his tall head to enter a narrow passage. This brought him into a miniature courtyard, about thirty feet across, above which gleamed a patch of violet sky, sown with stars. Below a door on the right a light shone, and this he pushed open, and entered a little room.

The place was richly furnished, with low couches and Persian tables, and on the floor a bright matting. The short, square-set man sitting smoking on the divan we have already met at a certain village in the mountains. Fazir Khan, descendant of Abraham, and father and chief of the Bada-Mawidi, has a nervous eye and an uneasy face to-night, for it is a hard thing for a mountaineer, an inhabitant of great spaces, to sit with composure in a trap-like room in the citadel of a foe who has many acts of rape and murder to avenge on his body. To do Fazir Khan justice he strove to conceal his restlessness under the usual impassive calm of his race. He turned his head slightly as Marker entered, nodded gravely over the bowl of his pipe, and pointed to the seat at the far end of the divan.

"It is a dark night," he said. "I heard you stumbling on the causeway before you entered. And I have many miles to cover before dawn."

Marker nodded. "Then you must make haste, my friend. You must be in the hills by daybreak, for I have some errands I want you to do for me. I have to-night been dining with two strangers, who have come up from the south."

The chief's eyes sparkled. "Do they suspect?"

"Nothing in particular, everything in general. They are English. One was here before and got far up into your mountains. He wrote a clever book when he returned, which made people think. They say their errand is sport, and it may be. On the other hand I have a doubt. One has not the air of the common sportsman. He thinks too much, and his eyes have a haggard look. It is possible that they are in their Government's services and have come to reconnoitre."

"Then we are lost," said Fazir Khan sourly. "It was always a fool's plan, at the mercy of any wandering Englishman."

"Not so," said Marker. "Nothing is lost, and nothing will be lost. But I fear these two men. They do not bluster and talk at random like the others. They are so very quiet that they may mean danger."

"They must remain here," said the chief. "Give me the word, and I will send one of my men to hough their horses and, if need be, cripple themselves."

Marker laughed. "You are an honest fool, Fazir Khan. That sort of thing is past now. We live in the wrong times and places for it. We cannot keep them here, but we must send them on a goose-chase. Do you understand?"

"I understand nothing. I am a simple man and my ways are simple, and not as yours."

"Then attend to my words, my friend. Our expedition must be changed and made two days sooner. That will give these two Englishmen three days only to checkmate it. Besides, they are ignorant, and to-morrow is lost to them, for they go to a ball at the Logan woman's. Still, I fear them with two days to w

ork in. If they go north, they are clever and suspicious, and they may see or fancy enough to wreck our plans. They may have the way barred, and we know how little would bar the way."

"Ten resolute men," said the chief. "Nay, I myself, with my two sons, would hold a force at bay there."

"If that is true, how much need is there to be wary beforehand! Since we cannot prevent these men from meddling, we can give them rope to meddle in small matters. Let us assume that they have been sent out by their Government. They are the common make of Englishmen, worshipping a god which they call their honour. They will do their duty if they can find it out. Now there is but one plan, to create a duty for them which will take them out of the way."

The chief was listening with half-closed eyes. He saw new trouble for himself and was not cheerful.

"Do you know how many men Holm has with him at the Forza camp?"

"A score and a half. Some of my people passed that way yesterday, when the soldiers were parading."

"And there are two more camps?

"There are two beyond the Nazri Pass, on the fringe of the Doorab hills. We call the places Khautmi-sa and Khautmi-bana, but the English have their own names for them."

Marker nodded.

"I know the places. They are Gurkha camps. The officers are called Mitchinson and St. John. They will give us little trouble. But the Forza garrison is too near the pass for safety, and yet far enough away for my plans." And for a moment the man's eyes were abstracted, as if in deep thought.

"I have another thing to tell of the Forza camp," the chief interrupted. "The captain, the man whom they call Holm, is sick, so sick that he cannot remain there. He went out shooting and came too near to dangerous places, so a bullet of one of my people's guns found his leg. He will be coming to Bardur to-morrow. Is it your wish that he be prevented?

"Let him come," said Marker. "He will suit my purpose. Now I will tell you your task, Fazir Khan, for it is time that you took the road. You will take a hundred of the Bada-Mawidi and put them in the rocks round the Forza camp. Let them fire a few shots but do no great damage, lest this man Holm dare not leave. If I know the man at all, he will only hurry the quicker when he hears word of trouble, for he has no stomach for danger, if he can get out of it creditably. So he will come down here to-morrow with a tale of the Bada-Mawidi in arms, and find no men in the place to speak of, except these two strangers. I will have already warned them of this intended rising, and if, as I believe, they serve the Government, they will let no grass grow below their feet till they get to Forza. Then on the day after let your tribesmen attack the place, not so as to take it, but so as to make a good show of fight and keep the garrison employed. This will keep these young men quiet; they will think that all rumours they may have heard culminate in this rising of yours, and they will be content, and satisfied that they have done their duty. Then, the day after, while they are idling at Forza, we will slip through the passes, and after that there will be no need for ruses."

The chief rose and pulled himself up to his full height. "After that," he said, "there will be work for men. God! We shall harry the valleys as our forefathers harried them, and we shall suck the juicy plains dry. You will give us a free hand, my lord?"

"Your hand shall be free enough," said Marker. "But see that every word of my bidding is done. We fail utterly unless all is secret and swift. It is the lion attacking the village. If he crosses the trap gate safely he may ravage at his pleasure, but there is first the trap to cross. And now it is your time to leave."

The mountaineer tightened his girdle, and exchanged his slippers for deer-hide boots. He bowed gravely to the other and slipped out into the darkness of the court. Marker drew forth some plans and writing materials from his great-coat pocket and spread them before him on the table. It was a thing he had done a hundred times within the last week, and as he made his calculations again and traced his route anew, his action showed the tinge of nervousness to which the strongest natures at times must yield. Then he wrote a letter, and, yawning deeply, he shut up the place and returned to Galetti's.

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