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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v1 - 2/11 -
At the doorways the worker in brass and silver hammered away at his metal, a sleepy, musical assonance. The naked seller of sweetmeats went by calling his wares in a gentle, unassertive voice; in dark doorways worn-eyed women and men gossiped in voices scarce above a whisper; and brown children fondled each other, laughing noiselessly, or lay asleep on rugs which would be costly elsewhere. In the bazaars nothing was selling, and no man did anything but mumble or eat, save the few scholars who, cross-legged on their mats, read and laboured towards Nirvana. Priests in their yellow robes and with bare shoulders went by, oblivious of all things.
Yet, too, the keen observer could have seen gathered into shaded corners here and there, a few sombre, low-voiced men talking covertly to each other. They were not the ordinary gossipers; in the faces of some were the marks of furtive design, of sinister suggestion. But it was all so deadly still.
The gayest, cheeriest person in Mandakan was Colonel Cumner's son. Down at the opal beach, under a palm-tree, he sat, telling stories of his pranks at college to Boonda Broke, the half-breed son of a former Dakoon who had ruled the State of Mandakan when first the English came. The saddest person in Mandakan was the present Dakoon, in his palace by the Fountain of the Sweet Waters, which was guarded by four sacred warriors in stone and four brown men armed with the naked kris.
The Dakoon was dying, though not a score of people in the city knew it. He had drunk of the Fountain of Sweet Waters, also of the well that is by Bakbar; he had eaten of the sweetmeat called the Flower of Bambaba, his chosen priests had prayed, and his favourite wife had lain all day and all night at the door of his room, pouring out her soul; but nothing came of it.
And elsewhere Boonda Broke was showing Cumner's Son how to throw a kris towards one object and make it hit another. He gave an illustration by aiming at a palm-tree and sticking a passing dog behind the shoulder. The dog belonged to Cumner's Son, and the lad's face suddenly blazed with anger. He ran to the dog, which had silently collapsed like a punctured bag of silk, drew out the kris, then swung towards Boonda Broke, whose cool, placid eyes met his without emotion.
"You knew that was my dog," he said quickly in English, "and--and I tell you what, sir, I've had enough of you. A man that'd hit a dog like that would hit a man the same way."
He was standing with the crimson kris in his hand above the dog. His passion was frank, vigorous, and natural.
Boonda Broke smiled passively.
"You mean, could hit a man the same way, honoured lord."
"I mean what I said," answered the lad, and he turned on his heel; but presently he faced about again, as though with a wish to give his foe the benefit of any doubt. Though Boonda Broke was smiling, the lad's face flushed again with anger, for the man's real character had been revealed to him on the instant, and he was yet in the indignant warmth of the new experience. If he had known that Boonda Broke had cultivated his friendship for months, to worm out of him all the secrets of the Residency, there might have been a violent and immediate conclusion to the incident, for the lad was fiery, and he had no fear in his heart; he was combative, high-tempered, and daring. Boonda Broke had learned no secrets of him, had been met by an unconscious but steady resistance, and at length his patience had given way in spite of himself. He had white blood in his veins--fighting Irish blood--which sometimes overcame his smooth, Oriental secretiveness and cautious duplicity; and this was one of those occasions. He had flung the knife at the dog with a wish in his heart that it was Cumner's Son instead. As he stood looking after the English lad, he said between his teeth with a great hatred, though his face showed no change:
"English dog, thou shalt be dead like thy brother there when I am Dakoon of Mandakan."
At this moment he saw hurrying towards him one of those natives who, a little while before, had been in close and furtive talk in the Bazaar.
Meanwhile the little cloud of smoke kept curling out of the Governor's door, and the orderly could catch the fitful murmur of talk that followed it. Presently rifle shots rang out somewhere. Instantly a tall, broad- shouldered figure, in white undress uniform, appeared in the doorway and spoke quickly to the orderly. In a moment two troopers were galloping out of the Residency Square and into the city. Before two minutes had passed one had ridden back to the orderly, who reported to the Colonel that the Dakoon had commanded the shooting of five men of the tribe of the outlaw hill-chief, Pango Dooni, against the rear wall of the Palace, where the Dakoon might look from his window and see the deed.
The Colonel sat up eagerly in his chair, then brought his knuckles down smartly on the table. He looked sharply at the three men who sat with him.
"That clinches it," said he. "One of those fellows was Pango Dooni's nephew, another was his wife's brother. It's the only thing to do--some one must go to Pango Dooni, tell him the truth, ask him to come down and save the place, and sit up there in the Dakoon's place. He'll stand by us, and by England."
No one answered at first. Every face was gloomy. At last a grey-haired captain of artillery spoke his mind in broken sentences:
"Never do--have to ride through a half-dozen sneaking tribes--Pango Dooni, rank robber--steal like a barrack cat--besides, no man could get there. Better stay where we are and fight it out till help comes."
"Help!" said Cumner bitterly. "We might wait six months before a man- of-war put in. The danger is a matter of hours. A hundred men, and a score of niggers--what would that be against thirty thousand natives?"
"Pango Dooni is as likely to butcher us as the Dakoon," said McDermot, the captain of artillery. Every man in the garrison had killed at least one of Pango Dooni's men, and every man of them was known from the Kimar Gate to the Neck of Baroob, where Pango Dooni lived and ruled.
The Colonel was not to be moved. "I'd ride the ninety miles myself, if my place weren't here--no, don't think I doubt you, for I know you all! But consider the nest of murderers that'll be let loose here when the Dakoon dies. Better a strong robber with a strong robber's honour to perch there in the Palace, than Boonda Broke and his cut-throats--"
"Honour--honour?--Pango Dooni!" broke out McDermot the gunner scornfully.
"I know the man," said the Governor gruffly; "I know the man, I tell you, and I'd take his word for ten thousand pounds, or a thousand head of cattle. Is there any of you will ride to the Neck of Baroob for me? For one it must be, and no more--we can spare scarce that, God knows!" he added sadly. "The women and children--"
"I will go," said a voice behind them all; and Cumner's Son stepped forward. "I will go, if I may ride the big sorrel from the Dakoon's stud."
The Colonel swung round in his chair and stared mutely at the lad. He was only eighteen years old, but of good stature, well-knit, and straight as a sapling.
Seeing that no one answered him, but sat and stared incredulously, he laughed a little, frankly and boyishly. "The kris of Boonda Broke is for the hearts of every one of us," said he. "He may throw it soon-- to-night--to-morrow. No man can leave here--all are needed; but a boy can ride; he is light in the saddle, and he may pass where a man would be caught in a rain of bullets. I have ridden the sorrel of the Dakoon often; he has pressed it on me; I will go to the master of his stud, and I will ride to the Neck of Baroob."
"No, no," said one after the other, getting to his feet, "I will go."
The Governor waved them down. "The lad is right," said he, and he looked him closely and proudly in the eyes. "By the mercy of God, you shall ride the ride," said he. "Once when Pango Dooni was in the city, in disguise, aye, even in the Garden of the Dakoon, the night of the Dance of the Yellow Fire, I myself helped him to escape, for I stand for a fearless robber before a cowardly saint." His grey moustache and eyebrows bristled with energy as he added: "The lad shall go. He shall carry in his breast the bracelet with the red stone that Pango Dooni gave me. On the stone is written the countersign that all hillsmen heed, and the tribe-call I know also."
"The danger--the danger--and the lad so young!" said McDermot; but yet his eyes rested lovingly on the boy.
The Colonel threw up his head in anger. "If I, his father, can let him go, why should you prate like women? The lad is my son, and he shall win his spurs--and more, and more, maybe," he added.
He took from his pocket Pango Dooni's gift and gave it to the lad, and three times he whispered in his ear the tribe-call and the countersign that he might know them. The lad repeated them three times, and, with his finger, traced the countersign upon the stone.
That night he rode silently out of the Dakoon's palace yard by a quiet gateway, and came, by a roundabout, to a point near the Residency.
He halted under a flame-tree, and a man came out of the darkness and laid a hand upon his knee.
"Ride straight and swift from the Kimar Gate. Pause by the Koongat Bridge an hour, rest three hours at the Bar of Balmud, and pause again where the roof of the Brown Hermit drums to the sorrel's hoofs. Ride for the sake of the women and children and for your own honour. Ride like a Cumner, lad."
The last sound of the sorrel's hoofs upon the red dust beat in the Colonel's ears all night long, as he sat waiting for news from the Palace, the sentinels walking up and down, the orderly at the door, and Boonda Broke plotting in the town.
"REST AT THE KOONGAT BRIDGE AN HOUR"
There was no moon, and but few stars were shining. When Cumner's Son first set out from Mandakan he could scarcely see at all, and he kept his way through the native villages more by instinct than by sight. As time passed he saw more clearly; he could make out the figures of natives lying under trees or rising from their mats to note the flying horseman. Lights flickered here and there in the houses and by the roadside. A
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