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- Rung Ho! - 1/52 -


RUNG HO! A Novel by Talbot Mundy

RUNG HO!

CHAPTER I

Howrah City bows the knee More or less to masters three, King, and Prince, and Siva. Howrah City pays in pain Taxes which the royal twain Give to priests, to give again (More or less) to Siva.

THAT was no time or place for any girl of twenty to be wandering unprotected. Rosemary McClean knew it; the old woman, of the sweeper caste, that is no caste at all, - the hag with the flat breasts and wrinkled skin, who followed her dogwise, and was no more protection than a toothless dog, - knew it well, and growled about it in incessant undertones that met with neither comment nor response.

"Leave a pearl of price to glisten on the street, yes!" she grumbled. "Perhaps none might notice it - perhaps! But her - here - at this time- " She would continue in a rumbling growl of half-prophetic catalogues of evil - some that she had seen to happen, some that she imagined, and not any part of which was in the least improbable.

As the girl passed through the stenching, many-hued bazaar, the roar would cease for a second and then rise again. Turbaned and pugreed - Mohammedan and Hindoo - men of all grades of color, language, and belief, but with only one theory on women, would stare first at the pony that she rode, then at her, and then at the ancient grandmother who trotted in her wake. Low jests would greet the grandmother, and then the trading and the gambling would resume, together with the under-thread of restlessness that was so evidently there and yet so hard to lay a finger on.

The sun beat down pitilessly - brass - like the din of cymbals. Beneath the sun helmet that sat so squarely and straightforwardly on the tidy chestnut curls, her face was pale. She smiled as she guided her pony in and out amid the roaring throng, and carefully refused to see the scowls, her brave little shoulders seconded a pair of quiet, brave gray eyes in showing an unconquerable courage to the world, and her clean, neat cotton riding-habit gave the lie and the laugh in one to poverty; but, as the crowd had its atmosphere of secret murmuring, she had another of secret anxiety.

Neither had fear. She did not believe in it. She was there to help her father fight inhuman wrong, and die, if need be, in the last ditch. The crowd had none, for it had begun to realize that it was part a of a two-hundred-million crowd, held down and compelled by less than a hundred thousand aliens. And, least of all, had the man who followed her at a little distance the slightest sense of fear. He was far more conversant with it than she, but - unlike her, and far more than the seething crowd - he knew the trend of events, and just what likelihood there was of insult or injury to Rosemary McClean being avenged in a generation.

He caused more comment than she, and of a different kind. His rose-pink pugree, with the egret and the diamond brooch to hold the egret in its place - his jeweled sabre - his swaggering, almost ruffianly air - were no more meant to escape attention than his charger that clattered and kicked among the crowd, or his following, who cleared a way for him with the butt ends of their lances. He rode ahead, but every other minute a mounted sepoy would reach out past him and drive his lance-end into the ribs of some one in the way.

There would follow much deep salaaming; more than one head would bow very low indeed; and in many languages, by the names of many gods, he would be cursed in undertones. Aloud, they would bless him and call him "Heaven-born!"

But he took no interest whatever in the crowd. His dark-brown eyes were fixed incessantly on Rosemary McClean's back. Whenever she turned a corner in the crowded maze of streets, he would spur on in a hurry until she was in sight again, and then his handsome, swarthy face would light with pleasure - wicked pleasure - self-assertive, certain, cruel. He would rein in again to let her draw once more ahead.

Rosemary McClean knew quite well who was following her, and knew, too, that she could do nothing to prevent him. Once, as she passed a species of caravansary - low-roofed, divided into many lockable partitions, and packed tight with babbling humanity - she caught sight of a pair of long, black thigh boots, silver-spurred, and of a polished scabbard that moved spasmodically, as though its owner were impatient.

"Mahommed Gunga!" she muttered to herself. "I wonder whether he would come to my assistance if I needed him. He fought once - or so he says - for the British; he might be loyal still. I wonder what he is doing here, and what - Oh, I wonder!"

She was very careful not to seem to look sideways, or seek acquaintance with the wearer of the boots; had she done so, she would have gained nothing, for the moment that he caught sight of her through the opened door he drew back into a shadow, and swore lustily. What he said to himself would have been little comfort to her.

"By the breath of God!" he growled. "These preachers of new creeds are the last straw, if one were wanting! They choose the one soft place where Mohammedan and Hindoo think alike, and smite! If I wanted to raise hell from end to end of Hind, I too would preach a new creed, and turn good-looking women loose to wander on the country-side! - Ah!" He drew back even further, as he spied the egret and the sabre and the stallion cavorting down the street - then thought better of it and strode swaggering to the doorway, and stood, crimson-coated, in the sunlight, stroking upward insolently at his black, fierce-barbered beard. There was a row of medal ribbons on his left breast that bore out something at least of his contention; he had been loyal to the British once, whether he was so now or not.

The man on the charger eyed him sideways and passed on. Mahommed Gunga waited. One of the prince's followers rode close to him - leaned low from the saddle - and leered into his face.

"Knowest not enough to salute thy betters?" he demanded.

Mahommed Gunga made a movement with his right hand in the direction of his left hip - one that needed no explanation; the other legged his horse away, and rode on, grinning nastily. To reassure himself of his superiority over everybody but his master, he spun his horse presently so that its rump struck against a tented stall, and upset tent and goods. Then he spent two full minutes in outrageous execration of the men who struggled underneath the gaudy cloth, before cantering away, looking, feeling, riding like a fearless man again. Mahommed Gunga sneered after him, and spat, and turned his back on the sunshine and the street.

"I had a mind to teach that Hindoo who his betters are!" he growled.

"Come in, risaldar-sahib!" said a voice persuasively." By your own showing the hour is not yet - why spill blood before the hour?"

The Rajput swaggered to the dark door, spurs jingling, looking back across his shoulder once or twice, as though he half-regretted leaving the Hindoo horseman's head upon his shoulders.

"Come in, sahib," advised the voice again. "They be many. We are few. And, who knows - our roads may lie together yet."

Mahommed Gunga kicked his scabbard clear, and strode through the door. The shadows inside and the hum of voices swallowed him as though he were a big, red, black-legged devil reassimilated in the brewing broth of trouble; but his voice boomed deep and loud after he had disappeared from view.

"When their road and my road lie together, we will travel all feet foremost!" he asserted.

Ten turnings further away by that time, Rosemary McClean pressed on through the hot, dinning swarm of humanity, missing no opportunity to slip her pony through an opening, but trying, too, to seem unaware that she was followed. She chose narrow, winding ways, where the awnings almost met above the middle of the street, and where a cavalcade of horsemen would not be likely to follow her - only to hear a roar behind her, as the prince's escort started slashing at the awnings with their swords.

There was a rush and a din of shouting beside her and ahead, as the frightened merchants scurried to pull down their awnings before the ruthless horse-men could ride down on them; the narrow street transformed itself almost on the instant into a undraped, cleared defile between two walls. And after that she kept to the broader streets, where there was room in the middle for a troop to follow, four abreast, should it choose. She had no mind to seek her own safety at the expense of men whose souls her father was laboring so hard to save.

She got no credit, though, for consideration - only blame for what the swordsmen had already done. One man - a Maharati trader - half-naked, his black hair coiled into a shaggy rope and twisted up above his neck - followed her, side-tracking through the mazy byways of the bewildering mart, and coming out ahead of her - or lurking beside bales of merchandise and waiting his opportunity to leap from shadow into shadow unobserved.

He followed her until she reached the open, where a double row of trees on each side marked the edge of a big square, large enough for the drilling of an army. Along one side of the square there ran the high brick wall, topped with a kind of battlement, that guarded the Maharajah's palace grounds from the eyes of men.

Just as she turned, just as she was starting to canter her pony beside the long wall, he leaped out at her and seized her reins. The old woman screamed, and ran to the wall and cowered there.

Very likely the man only meant to frighten her and heap insults on her, for in '56, though wrath ran deep and strong, men waited. There was to be sudden, swift whelming when the time came, not intermittent outrage. But he had no time to do more than rein her pony back onto its haunches.

There came a clatter of scurrying hoofs behind, and from a whirl of dust, topped by a rose-pink pugree, a steel blade swooped down on her and him. A surge of brown and pink and cream, and a dozen rainbow tints flashed past her; a long boot brushed her saddle on the off side. There was a sickening sound, as something hard swished and whicked home; her pony reeled from the shock of a horse's shoulder,


Rung Ho! - 1/52

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