‘Then in God’s name take blue for red,’ said Mahbub, alluding to the Hindu colour of Kim’s disreputable turban.
Kim countered with the old proverb, ‘I will change my faith and my bedding, but thou must pay for it.’
The dealer laughed till he nearly fell from his horse. At a shop on the outskirts of the city the change was made, and Kim stood up, externally at least, a Mohammedan.
Mahbub hired a room over against the railway station, sent for a cooked meal of the finest with the almond-curd sweet-meats (balushai we call it) and fine-chopped Lucknow tobacco.
‘This is better than some other meat that I ate with the Sikh,’ said Kim, grinning as he squatted, ‘and assuredly they give no such victuals at my madrissah.’
‘I have a desire to hear of that same madrissah.’ Mahbub stuffed himself with great boluses of spiced mutton fried in fat with cabbage and golden-brown onions. ‘But tell me first, altogether and truthfully, the manner of thy escape. For, O Friend of all the World,’ — he loosed his cracking belt — ‘I do not think it is often that a Sahib and the son of a Sahib runs away from there.’
‘How should they? They do not know the land. It was nothing,’ said Kim, and began his tale. When he came to the disguisement and the interview with the girl in the bazar, Mahbub Ali’s gravity went from him. He laughed aloud and beat his hand on his thigh.
‘Shabash! Shabash! Oh, well done, little one! What will the healer of turquoises say to this? Now, slowly, let us hear what befell afterwards — step by step, omitting nothing.’
Step by step then, Kim told his adventures between coughs as the full-flavoured tobacco caught his lungs.
‘I said,’ growled Mahbub Ali to himself, ‘I said it was the pony breaking out to play polo. The fruit is ripe already —except that he must learn his distances and his pacings, and his rods and his compasses. Listen now. I have turned aside the Colonel’s whip from thy skin, and that is no small service.’
‘True.’ Kim pulled serenely. ‘That is true.’
‘But it is not to be thought that this running out and in is any way good.’
‘It was my holiday, Hajji. I was a slave for many weeks. Why should I not run away when the school was shut? Look, too, how I, living upon my friends or working for my bread, as I did with the Sikh, have saved the Colonel Sahib a great expense.’
Mahbub’s lips twitched under his well-pruned Mohammedan moustache.
‘What are a few rupees’ — the Pathan threw out his open hand carelessly — ‘to the Colonel Sahib? He spends them for a purpose, not in any way for love of thee.’
‘That,’ said Kim slowly, ‘I knew a very long time ago.’
‘The Colonel Sahib himself. Not in those many words, but plainly enough for one who is not altogether a mud-head. Yea, he told me in the te-rain when we went down to Lucknow.’
‘Be it so. Then I will tell thee more, Friend of all the World, though in the telling I lend thee my head.’
‘It was forfeit to me,’ said Kim, with deep relish, ‘in Umballa, when thou didst pick me up on the horse after the drummer-boy beat me.’
‘Speak a little plainer. All the world may tell lies save thou and I. For equally is thy life forfeit to me if I chose to raise my finger here.’
‘And this is known to me also,’ said Kim, readjusting the live charcoal-ball on the weed. ‘It is a very sure tie between us. Indeed, thy hold is surer even than mine; for who would miss a boy beaten to death, or, it may be, thrown into a well by the roadside? Most people here and in Simla and across the passes behind the Hills would, on the other hand, say: “What has come to Mahbub Ali?” if he were found dead among his horses. Surely, too, the Colonel Sahib would make inquiries. But again,’— Kim’s face puckered with cunning, — ‘he would not make overlong inquiry, lest people should ask: “What has this Colonel Sahib to do with that horse-dealer?” But I — if I lived —’
‘As thou wouldst surely die —’
‘Maybe; but I say, if I lived, I, and I alone, would know that one had come by night, as a common thief perhaps, to Mahbub Ali’s bulkhead in the serai, and there had slain him, either before or after that thief had made a full search into his saddlebags and between the soles of his slippers. Is that news to tell to the Colonel, or would he say to me — (I have not forgotten when he sent me back for a cigar-case that he had not left behind him) — “What is Mahbub Ali to me?”?’
Up went a gout of heavy smoke. There was a long pause: then Mahbub Ali spoke in admiration: ‘And with these things on thy mind, dost thou lie down and rise again among all the Sahibs’ little sons at the madrissah and meekly take instruction from thy teachers?’
‘It is an order,’ said Kim blandly. ‘Who am I to dispute an order?’
‘A most finished Son of Eblis,’ said Mahbub Ali. ‘But what is this tale of the thief and the search?’
‘That which I saw,’ said Kim, ‘the night that my lama and I lay next thy place in the Kashmir Seral. The door was left unlocked, which I think is not thy custom, Mahbub. He came in as one assured that thou wouldst not soon return. My eye was against a knot-hole in the plank. He searched as it were for something — not a rug, not stirrups, nor a bridle, nor brass pots — something little and most carefully hid. Else why did he prick with an iron between the soles of thy slippers?’
‘Ha!’ Mahbub Ali smiled gently. ‘And seeing these things, what tale didst thou fashion to thyself, Well of the Truth?’
‘None. I put my hand upon my amulet, which lies always next to my skin, and, remembering the pedigree of a white stallion that I had bitten out of a piece of Mussalmani bread, I went away to Umballa perceiving that a heavy trust was laid upon me. At that hour, had I chosen, thy head was forfeit. It needed only to say to that man, “I have here a paper concerning a horse which I cannot read.” And then?’ Kim peered at Mahbub under his eyebrows.
‘Then thou wouldst have drunk water twice — perhaps thrice, afterwards. I do not think more than thrice,’ said Mahbub simply.
‘It is true. I thought of that a little, but most I thought that I loved thee, Mahbub. Therefore I went to Umballa, as thou knowest, but (and this thou dost not know) I lay hid in the garden-grass to see what Colonel Creighton Sahib might do upon reading the white stallion’s pedigree.’
‘And what did he?’ for Kim had bitten off the conversation.
‘Dost thou give news for love, or dost thou sell it?’ Kim asked.
‘I sell and — I buy.’ Mahbub took a four-anna piece out of his belt and held it up.
‘Eight!’ said Kim, mechanically following the huckster instinct of the East.
Mahbub laughed, and put away the coin. ‘It is too easy to deal in that market, Friend of all the World. Tell me for love. Our lives lie in each other’s hand.’
‘Very good. I saw the Jang-i-Lat Sahib [the Commander-in-Chief] come to a big dinner. I saw him in Creighton Sahib’s office. I saw the two read the white stallion’s pedigree. I heard the very orders given for the opening of a great war.’
‘Hah!’ Mahbub nodded with deepest eyes afire. ‘The game is well played. That war is done now, and the evil, we hope, nipped before the flower — thanks to me — and thee. What didst thou later?’
‘I made the news as it were a hook to catch me victual and honour among the villagers in a village whose priest drugged my lama. But I bore away the old man’s purse, and the Brahmin found nothing. So next morning he was angry. Ho! Ho! And I also used the news when I fell into the hands of that white Regiment with their Bull!’
‘That was foolishness.’ Mahbub scowled. ‘News is not meant to be thrown about like dung-cakes, but used sparingly — like bhang.’
‘So I think now, and moreover, it did me no sort of good. But that was very long ago,’ he made as to brush it all away with a thin brown hand — ‘and since then, and especially in the nights under the punkah at the madrissah, I have thought very greatly.’
‘Is it permitted to ask whither the Heaven-born’s thought might have led?’ said Mahbub, with an elaborate sarcasm, smoothing his scarlet beard.
‘It is permitted,’ said Kim, and threw back the very tone. ‘They say at Nucklao that no Sahib must tell a black man that he has made a fault.’
Mahbub’s hand shot into his bosom, for to call a Pathan a ‘black man’ [kala admi] is a blood-insult. Then he remembered and laughed. ‘Speak, Sahib. Thy black man hears.’
‘But,’ said Kim, ‘I am not a Sahib, and I say I made a fault to curse thee, Mahbub Ali, on that day at Umballa when I thought I was betrayed by a Pathan. I was senseless; for I was but newly caught, and I wished to kill that low-caste drummer-boy. I say now, Hajji, that it was well done; and I see my road all clear before me to a good service. I will stay in the madrissah till I am ripe.’
‘Well said. Especially are distances and numbers and the manner of using compasses to be learned in that game. One waits in the Hills above to show thee.’
‘I will learn their teaching upon a condition — that my time is given to me without question when the madrissah is shut. Ask that for me of the Colonel.’
‘But why not ask the Colonel in the Sahibs’ tongue?’
‘The Colonel is the servant of the Government. He is sent hither and yon at a word, and must consider his own advancement. (See how much I have already learned at Nucklao!) Moreover, the Colonel I know since three months only. I have known one Mahbub Ali for six years. So! To the madrissah I will go. At the madrissah I will learn. In the madrissah I will be a Sahib. But when the madrissah is shut, then must I be free and go among my people. Otherwise I die!’
‘And who are thy people, Friend of all the World?’
‘This great and beautiful land,’ said Kim, waving his paw round the little clay-walled room where the oil-lamp in its niche burned heavily through the tobacco-smoke. ‘And, further, I would see my lama again. And, further, I need money.’
‘That is the need of everyone,’ said Mahbub ruefully. ‘I will give thee eight annas, for much money is not picked out of horses’ hooves, and it must suffice for many days. As to all the rest, I am well pleased, and no further talk is needed. Make haste to learn, and in three years, or it may be less, thou wilt be an aid — even to me.’
‘Have I been such a hindrance till now?’ said Kim, with a boy’s giggle.
‘Do not give answers,’ Mahbub grunted. ‘Thou art my new horse-boy. Go and bed among my men. They are near the north end of the station, with the horses.’
‘They will beat me to the south end of the station if I come without authority.’
Mahbub felt in his belt, wetted his thumb on a cake of Chinese ink, and dabbed the impression on a piece of soft native paper. From Balkh to Bombay men know that rough-ridged print with the old scar running diagonally across it.
‘That is enough to show my headman. I come in the morning.’
‘By which road?’ said Kim.
‘By the road from the city. There is but one, and then we return to Creighton Sahib. I have saved thee a beating.’
‘Allah! What is a beating when the very head is loose on the shoulders?’
Kim slid out quietly into the night, walked half round the house, keeping close to the walls, and headed away from the station for a mile or so. Then, fetching a wide compass, he worked back at leisure, for he needed time to invent a story if any of Mahbub’s retainers asked questions.
They were camped on a piece of waste ground beside the railway, and, being natives, had not, of course, unloaded the two trucks in which Mahbub’s animals stood among a consignment of country-breds bought by the Bombay tram-company. The headman, a broken-down, consumptive-looking Mohammedan, promptly challenged Kim, but was pacified at sight of Mahbub’s sign-manual.
‘The Hajji has of his favour given me service,’ said Kim testily. ‘If this be doubted, wait till he comes in the morning. Meantime, a place by the fire.’
Followed the usual aimless babble that every low-caste native must raise on every occasion. It died down, and Kim lay out behind the little knot of Mahbub’s followers, almost under the wheels of a horse-truck, a borrowed blanket for covering. Now a bed among brickbats and ballast-refuse on a damp night, between overcrowded horses and unwashed Baltis, would not appeal to many white boys; but Kim was utterly happy. Change of scene, service, and surroundings were the breath of his little nostrils, and thinking of the neat white cots of St Xavier’s all arow under the punkah gave him joy as keen as the repetition of the multiplication-table in English.
‘I am very old,’ he thought sleepily. ‘Every month I become a year more old. I was very young, and a fool to boot, when I took Mahbub’s message to Umballa. Even when I was with that white Regiment I was very young and small and had no wisdom. But now I learn every day, and in three years the Colonel will take me out of the madrissah and let me go upon the Road with Mahbub hunting for horses’ pedigrees, or maybe I shall go by myself; or maybe I shall find the lama and go with him. Yes; that is best. To walk again as a chela with my lama when he comes back to Benares.’
The thoughts came more slowly and disconnectedly. He was plunging into a beautiful dreamland when his ears caught a whisper, thin and sharp, above the monotonous babble round the fire. It came from behind the iron-skinned horse-truck.
‘He is not here, then?’
‘Where should he be but roystering in the city. Who looks for a rat in a frog-pond? Come away. He is not our man.’
‘He must not go back beyond the Passes a second time. It is the order.’
‘Hire some woman to drug him. It is a few rupees only, and there is no evidence.’
‘Except the woman. It must be more certain; and remember the price upon his head.’
‘Ay, but the police have a long arm, and we are far from the Border. If it were in Peshawur, now!’
‘Yes — in Peshawur,’ the second voice sneered. ‘Peshawur, full of his blood-kin — full of bolt-holes and women behind whose clothes he will hide. Yes, Peshawur or Jehannum would suit us equally well.’
‘Then what is the plan?’
‘O fool, have I not told it a hundred times? Wait till he comes to lie down, and then one sure shot. The trucks are between us and pursuit. We have but to run back over the lines and go our way. They will not see whence the shot came. Wait here at least till the dawn. What manner of fakir art thou, to shiver at a little watching?’
‘Oho!’ thought Kim, behind close-shut eyes. ‘Once again it is Mahbub. Indeed a white stallion’s pedigree is not a good thing to peddle to Sahibs! Or maybe Mahbub has been selling other news. Now what is to do, Kim? I know not where Mahbub houses, and if he comes here before the dawn they will shoot him. That would be no profit for thee, Kim. And this is not a matter for the police. That would be no profit for Mahbub; and’ — he giggled almost aloud — ‘I do not remember any lesson at Nucklao which will help me. Allah! Here is Kim and yonder are they. First, then, Kim must wake and go away, so that they shall not suspect. A bad dream wakes a man — thus —’
He threw the blanket off his face, and raised himself suddenly with the terrible, bubbling, meaningless yell of the Asiatic roused by nightmare.
‘Urr-urr-urr-urr! Ya-la-la-la-la! Narain! The churel! The churel!’
A churel is the peculiarly malignant ghost of a woman who has died in child-bed. She haunts lonely roads, her feet are turned backwards on the ankles, and she leads men to torment.
Louder rose Kim’s quavering howl, till at last he leaped to his feet and staggered off sleepily, while the camp cursed him for waking them. Some twenty yards farther up the line he lay down again, taking care that the whisperers should hear his grunts and groans as he recomposed himself. After a few minutes he rolled towards the road and stole away into the thick darkness.
He paddled along swiftly till he came to a culvert, and dropped behind it, his chin on a level with the coping-stone. Here he could command all the night-traffic, himself unseen.
Two or three carts passed, jingling out to the suburbs; a coughing policeman and a hurrying foot-passenger or two who sang to keep off evil spirits. Then rapped the shod feet of a horse.
‘Ah! This is more like Mahbub,’ thought Kim, as the beast shied at the little head above the culvert.
‘Ohe’, Mahbub Ali,’ he whispered, ‘have a care!’
The horse was reined back almost on its haunches, and forced towards the culvert.
‘Never again,’ said Mahbub, ‘will I take a shod horse for night-work. They pick up all the bones and nails in the city.’ He stooped to lift its forefoot, and that brought his head within a foot of Kim’s.
‘Down — keep down,’ he muttered. ‘The night is full of eyes.’
‘Two men wait thy coming behind the horse-trucks. They will shoot thee at thy lying down, because there is a price on thy head. I heard, sleeping near the horses.’
‘Didst thou see them? ... Hold still, Sire of Devils!’ This furiously to the horse.
‘Was one dressed belike as a fakir?’
‘One said to the other, “What manner of fakir art thou, to shiver at a little watching?”’
‘Good. Go back to the camp and lie down. I do not die tonight.’
Mahbub wheeled his horse and vanished. Kim tore back down the ditch till he reached a point opposite his second resting-place, slipped across the road like a weasel, and re-coiled himself in the blanket.
‘At least Mahbub knows,’ he thought contentedly. ‘And certainly he spoke as one expecting it. I do not think those two men will profit by tonight’s watch.’
An hour passed, and, with the best will in the world to keep awake all night, he slept deeply. Now and again a night train roared along the metals within twenty feet of him; but he had all the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise, and it did not even weave a dream through his slumber.
Mahbub was anything but asleep. It annoyed him vehemently that people outside his tribe and unaffected by his casual amours should pursue him for the life. His first and natural impulse was to cross the line lower down, work up again, and, catching his well-wishers from behind, summarily slay them. Here, he reflected with sorrow, another branch of the Government, totally unconnected with Colonel Creighton, might demand explanations which would be hard to supply; and he knew that south of the Border a perfectly ridiculous fuss is made about a corpse or so. He had not been troubled in this way since he sent Kim to Umballa with the message, and hoped that suspicion had been finally diverted.
Then a most brilliant notion struck him.
‘The English do eternally tell the truth,’ he said, ‘therefore we of this country are eternally made foolish. By Allah, I will tell the truth to an Englishman! Of what use is the Government police if a poor Kabuli be robbed of his horses in their very trucks. This is as bad as Peshawur! I should lay a complaint at the station. Better still, some young Sahib on the Railway! They are zealous, and if they catch thieves it is remembered to their honour.’
He tied up his horse outside the station, and strode on to the platform.
‘Hullo, Mahbub Ali’ said a young Assistant District Traffic Superintendent who was waiting to go down the line — a tall, tow-haired, horsey youth in dingy white linen. ‘What are you doing here? Selling weeds — eh?’
‘No; I am not troubled for my horses. I come to look for Lutuf Ullah. I have a truck-load up the line. Could anyone take them out without the Railway’s knowledge?’
‘Shouldn’t think so, Mahbub. You can claim against us if they do.’
‘I have seen two men crouching under the wheels of one of the trucks nearly all night. Fakirs do not steal horses, so I gave them no more thought. I would find Lutuf Ullah, my partner.’
‘The deuce you did? And you didn’t bother your head about it? ‘Pon my word, it’s just almost as well that I met you. What were they like, eh?’
‘They were only fakirs. They will no more than take a little grain, perhaps, from one of the trucks. There are many up the line. The State will never miss the dole. I came here seeking for my partner, Lutuf Ullah.’
‘Never mind your partner. Where are your horse-trucks?’
‘A little to this side of the farthest place where they make lamps for the trains.’
‘The signal-box! Yes.’
‘And upon the rail nearest to the road upon the right-hand side — looking up the line thus. But as regards Lutuf Ullah — a tall man with a broken nose, and a Persian greyhound Aie!’
The boy had hurried off to wake up a young and enthusiastic policeman; for, as he said, the Railway had suffered much from depredations in the goods-yard. Mahbub Ali chuckled in his dyed beard.
‘They will walk in their boots, making a noise, and then they will wonder why there are no fakirs. They are very clever boys — Barton Sahib and Young Sahib.’
He waited idly for a few minutes, expecting to see them hurry up the line girt for action. A light engine slid through the station, and he caught a glimpse of young Barton in the cab.
‘I did that child an injustice. He is not altogether a fool,’ said Mahbub Ali. ‘To take a fire-carriage for a thief is a new game!’
When Mahbub Ali came to his camp in the dawn, no one thought it worth while to tell him any news of the night. No one, at least, but one small horseboy, newly advanced to the great man’s service, whom Mahbub called to his tiny tent to assist in some packing.
‘It is all known to me,’ whispered Kim, bending above saddlebags. ‘Two Sahibs came up on a te-train. I was running to and fro in the dark on this side of the trucks as the te-train moved up and down slowly. They fell upon two men sitting under this truck — Hajji, what shall I do with this lump of tobacco? Wrap it in paper and put it under the salt-bag? Yes — and struck them down. But one man struck at a Sahib with a fakir’s buck’s horn’ (Kim meant the conjoined black-buck horns, which are a fakir’s sole temporal weapon) — ‘the blood came. So the other Sahib, first smiting his own man senseless, smote the stabber with a short gun which had rolled from the first man’s hand. They all raged as though mad together.’
Mahbub smiled with heavenly resignation. ‘No! That is not so much dewanee [madness, or a case for the civil court — the word can be punned upon both ways] as nizamut [a criminal case]. A gun, sayest thou? Ten good years in jail.’
‘Then they both lay still, but I think they were nearly dead when they were put on the te-train. Their heads moved thus. And there is much blood on the line. Come and see?’
‘I have seen blood before. Jail is the sure place — and assuredly they will give false names, and assuredly no man will find them for a long time. They were unfriends of mine. Thy fate and mine seem on one string. What a tale for the healer of pearls! Now swiftly with the saddle-bags and the cooking-platter. We will take out the horses and away to Simla.’
Swiftly — as Orientals understand speed — with long explanations, with abuse and windy talk, carelessly, amid a hundred checks for little things forgotten, the untidy camp broke up and led the half-dozen stiff and fretful horses along the Kalka road in the fresh of the rain-swept dawn. Kim, regarded as Mahbub Ali’s favourite by all who wished to stand well with the Pathan, was not called upon to work. They strolled on by the easiest of stages, halting every few hours at a wayside shelter. Very many Sahibs travel along the Kalka road; and, as Mahbub Ali says, every young Sahib must needs esteem himself a judge of a horse, and, though he be over head in debt to the money-lender, must make as if to buy. That was the reason that Sahib after Sahib, rolling along in a stage-carriage, would stop and open talk. Some would even descend from their vehicles and feel the horses’ legs; asking inane questions, or, through sheer ignorance of the vernacular, grossly insulting the imperturbable trader.
‘When first I dealt with Sahibs, and that was when Colonel Soady Sahib was Governor of Fort Abazai and flooded the Commissioner’s camping-ground for spite,’ Mahbub confided to Kim as the boy filled his pipe under a tree, ‘I did not know how greatly they were fools, and this made me wroth. As thus —,’ and he told Kim a tale of an expression, misused in all innocence, that doubled Kim up with mirth. ‘Now I see, however,’ — he exhaled smoke slowly — ‘that it is with them as with all men — in certain matters they are wise, and in others most foolish. Very foolish it is to use the wrong word to a stranger; for though the heart may be clean of offence, how is the stranger to know that? He is more like to search truth with a dagger.’
‘True. True talk,’ said Kim solemnly. ‘Fools speak of a cat when a woman is brought to bed, for instance. I have heard them.’
‘Therefore, in one situate as thou art, it particularly behoves thee to remember this with both kinds of faces. Among Sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib; among the folk of Hind, always remembering thou art —’ He paused, with a puzzled smile.
‘What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard knot.’
‘Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my Law — or I think it does. But thou art also my Little Friend of all the World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. The wise man knows horses are good — that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself — but that I am a good Sunni and hate the men of Tirah — I could believe the same of all the Faiths. Now manifestly a Kathiawar mare taken from the sands of her birthplace and removed to the west of Bengal founders — nor is even a Balkh stallion (and there are no better horses than those of Balkh, were they not so heavy in the shoulder) of any account in the great Northern deserts beside the snow-camels I have seen. Therefore I say in my heart the Faiths are like the horses. Each has merit in its own country.’
‘But my lama said altogether a different thing.’
‘Oh, he is an old dreamer of dreams from Bhotiyal. My heart is a little angry, Friend of all the World, that thou shouldst see such worth in a man so little known.’
‘It is true, Hajji; but that worth do I see, and to him my heart is drawn.’
‘And his to thine, I hear. Hearts are like horses. They come and they go against bit or spur. Shout Gul Sher Khan yonder to drive in that bay stallion’s pickets more firmly. We do not want a horse-fight at every resting-stage, and the dun and the black will be locked in a little ... Now hear me. Is it necessary to the comfort of thy heart to see that lama?’
‘It is one part of my bond,’ said Kim. ‘If I do not see him, and if he is taken from me, I will go out of that madrissah in Nucklao and, and — once gone, who is to find me again?’
‘It is true. Never was colt held on a lighter heel-rope than thou.’ Mahbub nodded his head.
‘Do not be afraid.’ Kim spoke as though he could have vanished on the moment. ‘My lama has said that he will come to see me at the madrissah —’
‘A beggar and his bowl in the presence of those young Sa —’
‘Not all!’ Kim cut in with a snort. ‘Their eyes are blued and their nails are blackened with low-caste blood, many of them. Sons of mehteranees — brothers-inlaw to the bhungi [sweeper].’
We need not follow the rest of the pedigree; but Kim made his little point clearly and without heat, chewing a piece of sugar-cane the while.
‘Friend of all the World,’ said Mahbub, pushing over the pipe for the boy to clean, ‘I have met many men, women, and boys, and not a few Sahibs. I have never in all my days met such an imp as thou art.’
‘And why? When I always tell thee the truth.’
‘Perhaps the very reason, for this is a world of danger to honest men.’ Mahbub Ali hauled himself off the ground, girt in his belt, and went over to the horses.
‘Or sell it?’
There was that in the tone that made Mahbub halt and turn. ‘What new devilry?’
‘Eight annas, and I will tell,’ said Kim, grinning. ‘It touches thy peace.’
‘O Shaitan!’ Mahbub gave the money.
‘Rememberest thou the little business of the thieves in the dark, down yonder at Umballa?’
‘Seeing they sought my life, I have not altogether forgotten. Why?’
‘Rememberest thou the Kashmir Serai?’
‘I will twist thy ears in a moment — Sahib.’
‘No need — Pathan. Only, the second fakir, whom the Sahibs beat senseless, was the man who came to search thy bulkhead at Lahore. I saw his face as they helped him on the engine. The very same man.’
‘Why didst thou not tell before?’
‘Oh, he will go to jail, and be safe for some years. There is no need to tell more than is necessary at any one time. Besides, I did not then need money for sweetmeats.’
‘Allah kerim!’ said Mahbub Ah. ‘Wilt thou some day sell my head for a few sweetmeats if the fit takes thee?’
Kim will remember till he dies that long, lazy journey from Umballa, through Kalka and the Pinjore Gardens near by, up to Simla. A sudden spate in the Gugger River swept down one horse (the most valuable, be sure), and nearly drowned Kim among the dancing boulders. Farther up the road the horses were stampeded by a Government elephant, and being in high condition of grass food, it cost a day and a half to get them together again. Then they met Sikandar Khan coming down with a few unsaleable screws — remnants of his string — and Mahbub, who has more of horse-coping in his little fingernail than Sikandar Khan in all his tents, must needs buy two of the worst, and that meant eight hours’ laborious diplomacy and untold tobacco. But it was all pure delight — the wandering road, climbing, dipping, and sweeping about the growing spurs; the flush of the morning laid along the distant snows; the branched cacti, tier upon tier on the stony hillsides; the voices of a thousand water-channels; the chatter of the monkeys; the solemn deodars, climbing one after another with down-drooped branches; the vista of the Plains rolled out far beneath them; the incessant twanging of the tonga-horns and the wild rush of the led horses when a tonga swung round a curve; the halts for prayers (Mahbub was very religious in dry-washings and bellowings when time did not press); the evening conferences by the halting-places, when camels and bullocks chewed solemnly together and the stolid drivers told the news of the Road — all these things lifted Kim’s heart to song within him.
‘But, when the singing and dancing is done,’ said Mahbub Ali, ‘comes the Colonel Sahib’s, and that is not so sweet.’
‘A fair land — a most beautiful land is this of Hind — and the land of the Five Rivers is fairer than all,’ Kim half chanted. ‘Into it I will go again if Mahbub Ali or the Colonel lift hand or foot against me. Once gone, who shall find me? Look, Hajji, is yonder the city of Simla? Allah, what a city!’
‘My father’s brother, and he was an old man when Mackerson Sahib’s well was new at Peshawur, could recall when there were but two houses in it.’
He led the horses below the main road into the lower Simla bazar — the crowded rabbit-warren that climbs up from the valley to the Town Hall at an angle of forty-five. A man who knows his way there can defy all the police of India’s summer capital, so cunningly does veranda communicate with veranda, alley-way with alley-way, and bolt-hole with bolt-hole. Here live those who minister to the wants of the glad city — jhampanis who pull the pretty ladies’ ‘rickshaws by night and gamble till the dawn; grocers, oil-sellers, curio-vendors, firewood-dealers, priests, pickpockets, and native employees of the Government. Here are discussed by courtesans the things which are supposed to be profoundest secrets of the India Council; and here gather all the sub-sub-agents of half the Native States. Here, too, Mahbub Ali rented a room, much more securely locked than his bulkhead at Lahore, in the house of a Mohammedan cattle-dealer. It was a place of miracles, too, for there went in at twilight a Mohammedan horseboy, and there came out an hour later a Eurasian lad — the Lucknow girl’s dye was of the best — in badly-fitting shop-clothes.
‘I have spoken with Creighton Sahib,’ quoth Mahbub Ali, ‘and a second time has the Hand of Friendship averted the Whip of Calamity. He says that thou hast altogether wasted sixty days upon the Road, and it is too late, therefore, to send thee to any Hill-school.’
‘I have said that my holidays are my own. I do not go to school twice over. That is one part of my bond.’
‘The Colonel Sahib is not yet aware of that contract. Thou art to lodge in Lurgan Sahib’s house till it is time to go again to Nucklao.’
‘I had sooner lodge with thee, Mahbub.’
‘Thou dost not know the honour. Lurgan Sahib himself asked for thee. Thou wilt go up the hill and along the road atop, and there thou must forget for a while that thou hast ever seen or spoken to me, Mahbub Ali, who sells horses to Creighton Sahib, whom thou dost not know. Remember this order.’
Kim nodded. ‘Good,’ said he, ‘and who is Lurgan Sahib? Nay’ — he caught Mahbub’s sword-keen glance — ‘indeed I have never heard his name. Is he by chance — he lowered his voice — ‘one of us?’
‘What talk is this of us, Sahib?’ Mahbub Ali returned, in the tone he used towards Europeans. ‘I am a Pathan; thou art a Sahib and the son of a Sahib. Lurgan Sahib has a shop among the European shops. All Simla knows it. Ask there ... and, Friend of all the World, he is one to be obeyed to the last wink of his eyelashes. Men say he does magic, but that should not touch thee. Go up the hill and ask. Here begins the Great Game.’