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'Now,' said he, when the lama had come to an anchor in the inner courtyard of a decent Hindu house behind the cantonments, 'I go away for a while - to - to buy us victual in the bazar. Do not stray abroad till I return.'
'Thou wilt return? Thou wilt surely return?' The old man caught at his wrist. 'And thou wilt return in this very same shape? Is it too late to look tonight for the River?'
'Too late and too dark. Be comforted. Think how far thou art on the road - an hundred miles from Lahore already.'
'Yea - and farther from my monastery. Alas! It is a great and terrible world.'
Kim stole out and away, as unremarkable a figure as ever carried his own and a few score thousand other folk's fate slung round his neck. Mahbub Ali's directions left him little doubt of the house in which his Englishman lived; and a groom, bringing a dog- cart home from the Club, made him quite sure. It remained only to identify his man, and Kim slipped through the garden hedge and hid in a clump of plumed grass close to the veranda. The house blazed with lights, and servants moved about tables dressed with flowers, glass, and silver. Presently forth came an Englishman, dressed in black and - white, humming a tune. It was too dark to see his face, so Kim, beggar-wise, tried an old experiment.
'Protector of the Poor!'
The man backed towards the voice.
'Mahbub Ali says -'
'Hah! What says Mahbub Ali?' He made no attempt to look for the speaker, and that showed Kim that he knew.
'The pedigree of the white stallion is fully established.'
'What proof is there?' The Englishman switched at the rose-hedge in the side of the drive.
'Mahbub Ali has given me this proof.' Kim flipped the wad of folded paper into the air, and it fell in the path beside the man, who put his foot on it as a gardener came round the corner. When the servant passed he picked it up, dropped a rupee - Kim could hear the clink - and strode into the house, never turning round. Swiftly Kim took up the money; but for all his training, he was Irish enough by birth to reckon silver the least part of any game. What he desired was the visible effect of action; so, instead of slinking away, he lay close in the grass and wormed nearer to the house.
He saw - Indian bungalows are open through and through the Englishman return to a small dressing-room, in a comer of the veranda, that was half office, littered with papers and despatch-boxes, and sit down to study Mahbub Ali's message. His face, by the full ray of the kerosene lamp, changed and darkened, and Kim, used as every beggar must be to watching countenances, took good note.
'Will! Will, dear!' called a woman's voice. 'You ought to be in the drawing-room. They'll be here in a minute.'
The man still read intently.
'Will!' said the voice, five minutes later. 'He's come. I can hear the troopers in the drive.'
The man dashed out bareheaded as a big landau with four native troopers behind it halted at the veranda, and a tall, black haired man, erect as an arrow, swung out, preceded by a young officer who laughed pleasantly.
Flat on his belly lay Kim, almost touching the high wheels. His man and the black stranger exchanged two sentences.
'Certainly, sir,' said the young officer promptly. 'Everything waits while a horse is concerned.'
'We shan't be more than twenty minutes,' said Kim's man. 'You can do the honours -keep 'em amused, and all that.'
'Tell one of the troopers to wait,' said the tall man, and they both passed into the dressing-room together as the landau rolled away. Kim saw their heads bent over Mahbub Ali's message, and heard the voices - one low and deferential, the other sharp and decisive.
'It isn't a question of weeks. It is a question of days - hours almost,' said the elder. 'I'd been expecting it for some time, but this' - he tapped Mahbub Ali's paper - 'clinches it. Grogan's dining here to-night, isn't he?'
'Yes, sir, and Macklin too.'
'Very good. I'll speak to them myself. The matter will be referred to the Council, of course, but this is a case where one is justified in assuming that we take action at once. Warn the Pined and Peshawar brigades. It will disorganize all the summer reliefs, but we can't help that. This comes of not smashing them thoroughly the first time. Eight thousand should be enough.'
'What about artillery, sir?'
'I must consult Macklin.'
'Then it means war?'
'No. Punishment. When a man is bound by the action of his predecessor -'
'But C25 may have lied.'
'He bears out the other's information. Practically, they showed their hand six months back. But Devenish would have it there was a chance of peace. Of course they used it to make themselves stronger. Send off those telegrams at once - the new code, not the old - mine and Wharton's. I don't think we need keep the ladies waiting any longer. We can settle the rest over the cigars. I thought it was coming. It's punishment - not war.'
As the trooper cantered off, Kim crawled round to the back of the house, where, going on his Lahore experiences, he judged there would be food - and information. The kitchen was crowded with excited scullions, one of whom kicked him.
'Aie,' said Kim, feigning tears. 'I came only to wash dishes in return for a bellyful.'
'All Umballa is on the same errand. Get hence. They go in now with the soup. Think you that we who serve Creighton Sahib need strange scullions to help us through a big dinner?'
'It is a very big dinner,' said Kim, looking at the plates.
'Small wonder. The guest of honour is none other than the Jang-i- Lat Sahib [the Commander-in-Chief].'
'Ho!' said Kim, with the correct guttural note of wonder. He had learned what he wanted, and when the scullion turned he was gone.
'And all that trouble,' said he to himself, thinking as usual in Hindustani, 'for a horse's pedigree! Mahbub Ali should have come to me to learn a little lying. Every time before that I have borne a message it concerned a woman. Now it is men. Better. The tall man said that they will loose a great army to punish someone -somewhere - the news goes to Pindi and Peshawur. There are also guns. Would I had crept nearer. It is big news!'
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Kim -by- Rudyard Kipling