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TOLD IN THE EAST By Talbot Mundy
[[Original Book edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1920. Source of the following edition is the omnibus "Romances of India" which was a reprint of three of Talbot Mundy's novels.]]
Romances of India By Talbot Mundy - King of the Khyber Rifles - Guns of the Gods - Told in the East
Hookum Hai.............1 For The Salt Which He Had Eaten............129 Machassan Ah............235
TOLD IN THE EAST
A Blood-red sun rested its huge disk upon a low mud wall that crested a rise to westward, and flattened at the bottom from its own weight apparently. A dozen dried-out false-acacia-trees shivered as the faintest puff in all the world of stifling wind moved through them; and a hundred thousand tiny squirrels kept up their aimless scampering in search of food that was not there.
A coppersmith was about the only living thing that seemed to care whether the sun went down or not. He seemed in a hurry to get a job done, and his reiterated "Bong-bong-bong!"--that had never ceased since sunrise, and had driven nearly mad the few humans who were there to hear it--quickened and grew louder. At last Brown came out of a square mud house, to see about the sunset.
He was nobody but plain Bill Brown--or Sergeant William Brown, to give him his full name and entitlements--and the price of him was two rupees per day.
He stared straight at the dull red disk of the sun, and spat with eloquence. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and scratched a place where the prickly heat was bothering him. Next, he buttoned up his tunic, and brushed it down neatly and precisely. There was official business to be done, and a man did that with due formality, heat or no heat.
"Guard, turn out!" he ordered.
Twelve men filed out, one behind the other, from the hut that he had left. They seemed to feel the heat more than Brown did, as they fell in line before Brown's sword. There was no flag, and no flag-pole in that nameless health-resort, so the sword, without its scabbard, was doing duty, point downward in the ground, as a totem-pole of Empire. Brown had stuck it there, like Boanerges' boots, and there it stayed from sunrise until sunset, to be displaced by whoever dared to do it, at his peril.
They had no clock. They had nothing, except the uniforms and arms of the Honorable East India Company, as issued in this year of Our Lord, 1857--a cooking-pot or two, a kettle, a little money and a butcher-knife. Their supper bleated miserably some twenty yards away, tied to a tree, and a lean. Punjabi squatted near it in readiness to buy the skin. It was a big goat, but it was mangy, so he held only two annas in his hand. The other anna (in case that Brown should prove adamant) was twisted in the folds of his pugree, but he was prepared to perjure himself a dozen times, and take the names of all his female ancestors in vain, before he produced it.
The sun flattened a little more at the bottom, and began to move quickly, as it does in India--anxious apparently to get away from the day's ill deeds.
"Shoulder umms!" commanded Brown. "General salute! Present-umms!"
The red sun slid below the sky-line, and the night was on them, as though somebody had shut the lid. Brown stepped to the sword, jerked it out of the ground and returned it to his scabbard in three motions.
"Shoulder-umms! Order-umms! Dismiss!" The men filed back into the hut again, disconsolately, without swearing and without mirth. They had put the sun to bed with proper military decency. They would have seen humor--perhaps--or an excuse for blasphemy in the omission of such a detail, but it was much too hot to swear at the execution of it.
Besides, Brown was a strange individual who detested swearing, and it was a very useful thing, and wise, to humor him. He had a way of his own, and usually got it.
Brown posted a sentry at the hut-door, and another at the crossroads which he was to guard, then went round behind the but to bargain with the goatskin-merchant. But he stopped before he reached the tree.
"Boy!" he called, and a low-caste native servant came toward him at a run.
"Is that fakir there still?"
"Ha? Can't you learn to say `yes,' like a human being?"
"All right. I'm going to have a talk with him. Kill the goat, and tell the Punjabi to wait, if he wants to buy the skin."
Brown spun round on his heel, and the servant wilted.
"Yes, sahib!" he corrected.
Brown left him then, with a nod that conveyed remission of cardinal sin, and a warning not to repeat the offence. As the native ran off to get the butcher-knife and sharpen it, it was noticeable that he wore a chastened look.
"Send Sidiki after me!" Brown shouted after him, and a minute later a nearly naked Beluchi struck a match and emerged from the darkness, with the light of a lantern gleaming on his skin. He followed like a snake, and only Brown's sharp, authority-conveying footfalls could be heard as he trudged sturdily--straight-backed, eyes straight in front of him--to where an age-old baobab loomed like a phantom in the night. He marched like a man in armor. Not even the terrific heat of a Central-Indian night could take the stiffening out of him.
The Beluchi ran ahead, just before they reached the tree. He stopped and held the lantern up to let its light fall on some object that was close against the tree-trunk. At a good ten-pace distance from the object Brown stopped and stared. The lamplight fell on two little dots that gleamed. Brown stepped two paces nearer. Two deadly, malicious human eyes blinked once, and then stared back at him.
"Does he never sleep?" asked Brown.
The Beluchi said something or other in a language that was full of harsh hard gutturals, and the owner of the eyes chuckled. His voice seemed to be coming from the tree itself, and there was nothing of him visible except the cruel keen eyes that had not blinked once since Brown drew nearer.
"Sahib, he does not answer."
"Tell him I'm tired of his not answering. Tell him that if he can't learn to give a civil answer to a civilly put question I'll exercise my authority on him!"
The Beluchi translated, or pretended to. Brown was not sure which, for he was rewarded with nothing but another chuckle, which sounded like water gurgling down a drain.
"Does he still say nothing?"
"Absolutely nothing, sahib."
Brown stepped up closer yet, and peered into the blackness, looking straight into the eyes that glared at him, and from them down at the body of the owner of them. The Beluchi shrank away.
"Have a care, sahib! It is dangerous! This very holy--most holy-- most religious man!"
"Bring that lantern back."
"He will curse you, sahib!"
"Do you hear me?"
The Beluchi came nearer again, trembling with fright. Brown snatched the lamp away from him, and pushed it forward toward the fakir, moving it up and down to get a view of the whole of him. There was nothing that he saw that would reassure or comfort or please a devil even. It was ultradevilish; both by design and accident--conceived and calculated ghastliness, peculiar to India. Brown shuddered as he looked, and it took more than the merely horrible to make him betray emotion.
"What god do you say he worships?"
"Sahib, I know not. I am a Mussulman. These Hindus worship many gods."
The fakir chuckled again, and Brown held the lantern yet nearer to him to get a better view. The fakir's skin was not oily, and for all the blanket-heat it did not glisten, so his form was barely outlined against the blackness that was all but tangible behind him.
Brown spat again, as he drew away a step. He could contrive to express more disgust and more grim determination in that one rudimentary act than even a Stamboul Softa can.
"So he's holy, is he?"
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