Out of the Indian Night
WILLIAM J. MAKIN
A tale of the Northwest Frontier and the courage that drives frail flesh to heroism
THE LAX and comfortable figures in the club stiffened as they saw him. It was guest night at the Peshawar Club, which meant all were dressed in their whitest best, even if they behaved expansively. For six months there had not been even an incident on the Northwest Frontier of India. Major Barton of the Frontier Force Regiment (The Guides) had been heard to admit that he was applying for long leave on the return of the general from Delhi.
That was why the entrance of this ragged, dusty figure caused a tremor of distaste and one memsahib to giggle. The hatless figure, half-naked except for a dirty white singlet and torn khaki shorts, was staggering up the gravel drive toward the lighted club.
“He’s disgustingly drunk!” From beneath the protection of levelled lorgnettes, a district officer’s wife accused loudly. “How ever did he get past the sentries?”
Toward the brilliantly lighted verandah with its swirling maze of insects, the ragged figure swayed. Then, without warning, he pitched forward. A hand clawed at the stonework. A wildly scarred face with dribbling mouth turned to the shrinking groups. There was a desperate pleading in his eyes.
“Why, he’s a white man ! At least, he looks like one.”, Mary Barton, the major’s wife, one of the few-Women who had not twitched aside her dance frock as tlie man staggered forward, turned to her husband. The major frowned down upon the intruder. He jerked his head ¿d?, another officer.
“Get the verandah cleared. Tell the band to play another waltz.”
Then he turned to meet a khaki-clad corporal who came up the drive at the double. The corporal saluted, and sweated.
“Sorry about this, sir. Fellow sneaked past us at the gate. Said he wanted to see the G.O.C. Urgent. 1 was just making enquiries, sir, when ”
“Did he say who he was?” demanded the major.
“Gave his name as Captain Ryan. 5th Bengal Lancers, sir.”
The major looked at the prone figure and doubted it. He understood why the corporal had chosen to make enquiries. The fellow looked like a white man who had gone native and lx*en living in the bazaars on cheap liquor.
"All right, better give me a hand with him into the card room. And give instructions that I'm not to be disturbed there.”
T)ANTING a little, they raised the Ixxly and staggered -*• along the verandah with it. They entered the room by the o(x*n French window. The lights were switched on and the figure on the leather couch was revealed in all his misery. One glimpse at that face and the major drew back, wincing.
“He’s had a terrible time, somewhere.”
“Your handkerchief, dear.” To his surprise he discovered his wife bending over the prone figure, a bowl of iced water in her hands. "Now lift his head. That’s better !”
She began to damp the sun-blackened face with its ridge of scars. A face that had been twisted by agonies. She did not flinch.
"I think we ought to take this filthy rag off his back.”
Obediently, the major helped her to tear the singlet over the long, dusty grey hair of the man. ( hu e again he winc ed. The meagre body was also badly scarred as though from the bite of a lash.
“He smells pretty awful, but not of drink,” he commented.
“Of course he’s not drunk,” snapped his wife. “But if ever a man needed a whisky and soda, he does. Go and get him one. A burra peg.”
When Major Barton returned he discovered his wife propping up that tortured body with cushions. The iced water began to have its effect. The eyes rolled open, frightened hazel eyes.
“Now that’s all right. Swallow this!”
Obediently the bruised mouth lolled ojien and the throat gurgled as the whisky went down. When the empty glass was removed, the figure on the couch gave a harsh laugh. “Feeling better?” ventured the major.
The man tried hard to sjx*ak. His tongue twisted in a tremendous effort, but only a slight moan came forth. He raised a hand, feebly. It was then the major saw the thin chain and the identity disc. As the luscious strains of last year’s waltz came floating into the quietude of the room, he read aloud :
“Captain George Ryan, 5th Bengal Lancers.”
The name sjx>ken aloud seemed to awaken memories in those hazel eyes. Once again the mouth twisted to speak. The major bent his head.
“. . Must see G.O.C. urgent. Native rising— Ryan—F. and P.”
“F. and I\?” puzzled Mary Barton.
“Foreign and Political Department.” explained the major. "It may mean that he’s on Intelligence. I wonder?” He went over to a bookshelf and took down the Army List. Rapidly, he thumbed the jiages.
“Ryan Ryan. No, he’s not listed. Let's look at his regiment. 5th Bengal Lancers." More fluttering of jiages. He laid the book down and shook his head. "No, George Ryan doesn’t exist.”
Querulous, the man on the couch moved his head to one side.
“Where’s G.O.C.? Why doesn’t someone--bring him?” The major tightened his cummerbund. Then he stood over the prone figure.
“The general is in Delhi,” he said distinctly. “A conference at Army Headquarters. I'm Major Barton, temjx>rarily in command."
The meagre Ixxly tried to struggle into a sitting posture, but gave it up with a groan.
“I I’m Captain Ryan F. and P. Sjx'cial mission.” “Yes, yes,” replied the major testily. "You’ve told us that. What else have you to report?”
The hazel eyes at him with a puzzled expression. Then a vacant expression took its place. The mouth lolled
“I know nothing nothing,” he cackled harshly, and pawed the air as though the electric light was burning into his brain.
Understandingly, Mary Barton clicked off all but one solitary lamp. Then she her husband by the arm. He was still gazing down, fascinated, at the tortured face.
"Isn't there any means of finding out who he really is?” she asked.
“I could telejihone Delhi the Foreign and Political Department.” he considerer!.
"Then why not?”
"At this hour! It’s nearly midnight. Better wait till tomorrow.”
"I'll be surprised if he’s alive tomorrow,” she said. "He’s pretty far gone.”
“Oh. very well." said the major, shrugging his shoulders. "They’ll probably curse like the devil and make me pay for the telejihone call myself.”
She patted him, smilingly.
"Go ahead. I'll watch over him here.”
F)R THIRTY [x>rspiring minutes on one of the hottest nights known on the Northwest Frontier. Major Barton wrestled with the telej)hone and a languorous civil servant in far-off Delhi. He was very much a ruffled rag when he emerged, but there was a strange gleam in lus grizzled face as he came back to his wife and the still figure in the cardroom.
“Well?” she asked.
"Ttyere was a Captain George Ryan in the 5th Bengal Lancers,” he said, dabbing the damp handkerchief at his own perspiring neck and face. “But that was eight years ago. F. and P. singled him out for a sjjecial mission. Sent him through the Khyber. Seems he’d got a first-class in Pushtu and border languages generally. Once through the Khyber. he disappeared. They waited two, three years. Never heard a word from him. Then a babu agent of ours who came back from Mahsud country said Ryan liad been killed. They’d tortured the poor devil and left him to the vultures. That’s the dossier of Captain George Ryan read out to me over the phone. Eight years old. and practically forgotten.”
"Is that all?” asked Mary Barton shrewdly.
"Er—no—as a matter of fact, it isn't.”
“Er I supjx>se you’ve noticed Mrs. Aylesbury here at the club tonight ? Wife of the district officer, you know?”
Mary Barton tightened her lips.
“Is there a woman who hasn’t noticed her?” she replied. “Or any of the men either? She’s flaunting an evening frock that must have cost every jxmny of fifty guineas. And telling her admirers so. Also, despite the fact she has sharjxir eyes than any other woman in Peshawar, she’s affecting lorgnettes when she wishes to devastate. My dear, you simjily can’t help noticing her.”
“You memsahibs realize that she was married before?”
“Of course, she was a widow and ...”
She stopped. The major nodded.
“There was also a Mrs. George Ryan,” he said quietly. “And it was she.”
For once. Mary Barton gasped. Then she gave a quick glance at that wracked figure on the couch. Promptly she moved to the door.
“Where are you going?” demanded the major.
“For that woman, of course. If anyone can recognize a husband, a wife can. Or ought to. I’ll bring her here.”
“For heaven’s sake, be tactful.”
“Tact is the one thing useless in dealing with that woman,” snorted Mary.
FIVE MINUTES later the door opened again. The major heard the swish of dance frocks and turned. There was no doubt that Mrs. Aylesbury had been told of the ordeal awaiting her. A good deal of her assurance had ebbed away. She held her skirt closely as Mary Barton led her remorselessly to the couch.
“I -er—I’m sorry to imjx)se this—er—on you, Mrs. Aylesbury,” stammered the major, "but—”
"Be quiet, dear!”
Mary Barton brought the solitary lamp nearer to the couch. Fearfully Mrs. Aylesbury bent over the prone figure. Her jierspiring hands clutched her lorgnettes. But she did not use them. The silence seemed to last several minutes.
“You see the identity disc,” said Mary Barton, gently raising the arm.
“Yes. yes. Of course that belonged to George,” whispered the other woman. “I don’t deny that, but ...”
And once again her horrified gaze travelled to the sunblackened face with its ridge of scars.
At that same moment, the eyes of the prone man lolled ojxm. The vacant stare came forth. He looked at the shrinking woman. This time, with a convulsive effort, he raised himself. His tongue began to work, and the strange moaning sounds issued forth.
“No, no,” shouted the woman, covering her face with her hands. “It isn’t George. I know it isn’t.”
“Please look very carefully,” insisted Mary Barton.
“I won’t look . . It’s horrible. I tell you it isn’t George. Let me out of this room !”
She began to struggle vehemently. Relentlessly, Mary Barton held on to her.
“You were married to George Ryan for— how long?”
“Five years. I told you. They reported him dead. And now. let me go!”
She was weeping unrestrainedly. Major Barton felt more uncomfortable than ever. He dabbed again at his face with the damp handkerchief.
“A terrible ordeal for you, Mrs. Aylesbury.” he stammered. “But it's most important that we should know the truth about this man.”
She broke away. Fiercely, she faced them both.
“Whoever he is. he's not George Ryan." she shouted. “I never met this man before in my life. And I hope 1 never see him again !”
Sobbing, on the verge of hysteria, she wrenched open the door and swished away. The gaze of the man with the tortured face followed her. He was still trying desj>erately to speak. At last, the word broke from his lips.
Once again Mary Barton tightened her lips in grim fashion and nodded at the questioning glance of her husband.
Weakened by the effort, the man had fallen back on the
couch, breathing heavily. In the distance the band was playing a lively fox trot. Some of the dancers had become lively, too. for the joyous stamping of their feet could be heard. Somewhere in the cantonments a bugle blared. The sound seemed to rouse the tortured man.
"Must see the G.O.C.,” he babbled. “Urgent, priority. Mahsud rebellion F. and P.— Ryan.”
“I’d better get the medical officer," decided the major. “I doubt whether much can be done for the poot devil, but—”
His wife moved to the door with him.
“And I think he needs that woman who says she is not his wife,” she said. “I’ll tackle her myself, and—”
They both turned at the sudden scuffle from the couch. Mary Barton gave a cry of alarm. The half-naked figure had risen and was lurching toward the open French window leading to the verandah. Some hidden reserve of strength was helping him. Even as they reached the window, he was staggering toward the drive.
Out of the hot darkness came the sudden gleam of a car’s headlights. It revealed Mrs. Aylesbury standing there, her expensive dance frock clutched about her knees. At her side, the district officer called loudly for his chauffeur.
“ Juldee! Juldee jao!”
The man with the tortured face saw her in the fierce glare of those headlights At the same time the scutter of feet caused her to glance fearfully over her shoulder. She saw* that macabre figure bearing down on her. She screamed.
“There he is. He’s coming after me. Oh, don’t let him touch me!”
The district officer swivelled round. He saw the thin body in khaki shorts staggering towrard the woman. He saw lier shrinking fearfully from the outstretched hand. He did not hesitate.
“Take your filthy carcass away!” •
His fist shot out. There was a smashing blow, and the figure sprawled helplessly on the gravel.
“Aylesbury! Leave him alone!” shouted the major.
“I’ll kill the swine if he comes annoying my wfife!” shouted the district officer.
“Better take your w-ife home,” interposed Mary Barton.
Then she turned to help the major with the sprawled, bleeding figure on the ground. She was oblivious to the crowd of startled guests on the club verandah, and the sobbing, hysterical Mrs. Aylesbury Ix'ing heljxxi into a car.
BACK IN the cardroom, the medical officer Ix'iit over the wracked Ixxly. He removed his stethoscope andO his head.
"I le’s all in, major. I don’t give him another hour to live. Ikxjr devil. Someone’s played havoc with his Ixxly.” "IVyou think he’ll recover consciousness?” asked the major.
“That blow in the face must have about finished him.” was the reply. "Aylesbury is a hard hitter, particularly after a few drinks. Perhaps it’ll lx* lx‘st for the jxx>r devil to go out like this.”
Even as he spoke he drew in his breath sharply. The eyes beneath him were opening. A look of unutterable peace was coming to the scarred face. The lips quivered.
“Hello!” he said.
The M. O. nodded.
“Take it easy, my boy.”
“I’m done for. eh?”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Something like a chuckle escaixd the dying man.
“I guess I know the truth,” he sighed. “And l haven’t got much use for life in this Ixxly of mine now', anyhow.” “You’ve had a bad time, my boy.”
"I have.” he groaned. "Those torturing devils. Half killed me, and then kept me as a tame exhibit in their village . . . Where am I?”
“In Peshawar, at the club.”
“Peshawar. The frontier!” He tried desperately to struggle into a sitting posture. “Where’s the G.O.C.? It’s urgent. I must see him.”
The major stepped forward.
“I’m Major Barton, temporarily in command. The general is in Delhi. Have you anything to tell me, my boy?” The dying man stared eagerly at him.
“Captain Ryan, 5th Bengal Lancers, reporting, sir. Concentration of Mahsud tribesmen, entrance to the Jirgha Pass. Attack fixed for the morning of the twentysixth. lx*d by the Fakir of Altana. I.ocal chiefs and lashkars been told British withdrawing from positions. They reckon to sweep through Peshawar in two days.”
"Concentration of Mahsuds!” exclaimed the major. “I can’t believe it. Why, the tribes have never been so quiet.” “Must believe me, sir. Concentration tribesmen— entrance Jirgha Pass,” wrent on the wracked man, as though repeating a long-memorized lesson. “Attack fixed for morning twenty-sixth Fakir of Altana leading.’
He slumped back on the couch. The M. O. sighed. "That’s all, major. He’s given you his last message.” Continued on page 57
Continued from page 9—Starts on page 7 -
HE MAJOR gazed sadly at the dead man.
“Poor devil! Those tribesmen sent his brain to pieces. A pity they didn’t put him out of his misery sooner. Queer how an idea will fix itself and persist in the mind for all these years.”
The M. O. looked up in surprise.
“Then you don’t believe in his story of the Mahsuds preparing an attack on the twenty-sixth?” he said. “It took my breath away, seeing that it’s the twentyfourth—or rather, the twenty-fifth of August today.”
“I know,” nodded the major, with a sad smile. “He almost convinced me at first. Then I remembered that the last time the Mahsuds blazed up in revolt on the Frontier was seven years ago, actually on August the twenty-sixth. And their leader was that troublesome fellow, the Fakir of Altana. Yes. and they did concentrate at the entrance to the Jirgha Pass. I ought to remember. I was in that campaign.”
“Then you think?”
“Exactly,” said the major decisively. “That poor boy was seven years too late with his intelligence report. He learned those facts before the natives got him. They put him through such tortures that the rest of time has been a blank to him. He remembered it all, the message he wanted to send seven years ago, just 'as he was dying.”
A snort came from behind the two men. They turned. Mary Barton was regarding them with undisguised contempt.
“So that’s all you dunderheads think of the information that poor boy brought to you?”
“But I know, my dear,” insisted the major. “Only yesterday I received a report from one of our agents that the Mahsuds are thoroughly peaceful. Seven years ago we gave them a bad beating. They went back to their villages, worked, and paid over the indemnities we imposed upon them. They’ve just gathered in one of the best harvests they’ve had for many years and—■”
“And to me it all points to the fact that they’re ripe for mischief again,” said his wife grimly. “I think, my dear, before you start hurrying preparations to bury that poor boy, you’ll find out whether he was speaking the truth or not.”
“But the dates, the place of concentration, everything points to it being the campaign of seven years ago,” insisted her husband.
“Did the troops capture the Fakir of Altana in that campaign?” she asked.
“No, the blackguard escaped, but—”
“These frontier tribes never forget anniversaries,” she said. “They’re not like some men I know who forget even the anniversary of their wedding day. For everybody’s peace of mind, my dear, I suggest you make certain of that boy’s dying message.”
“Meaning, for my own peace of mind,” sighed the major. “Well, I suppose I could ask the Air Force to reconnoitre.”
“Flight Commander Wingate is still in the club,” smiled Mary Barton triumphantly. “I believe I offered to dance with him. I’ll bring him to you.”
She sailed out of the room. The M. O. looked at the major. The major turned his back upon that look. He was glad when the silence was broken by the arrival of Flight Commander Wingate. The major explained, apologetically.
“Just as a matter of routine, Wingate, I’d like you to send a machine over the Jirgha Pass. If there is any concentration of tribesmen, an observer can spot it easily enough.”
The flight commander glanced at his watch.
“I’ll have a machine over there at dawn. The observer can radio his report. It won’t take me five minutes to give the.
necessary orders. Then perhaps we might have that waltz you promised me, Mrs. Barton?”
The major’s wife smiled.
“You’ll have earned it,” she said.
AT SIX O’CLOCK that same morning, the radio operator at the Peshawar military aerodrome began jerking his pencil as the Morse squeaked into his earphones:
K.B.A. First Flight to O.C. Peshawar. Urgent. Have observed heavy concentration Mahsuds entrance Jirgha Pass. Natives now firing on machine. Consider big attack pending. Am returning for instructions. End message.
That message was the beginning of tremendous activity in Peshawar. Within half an hour a flight of heavily-laden bombers were droning over the scarred, sun-crumbling heights toward the gathering of the Mahsud warriors. A group of armored cars were whirling in the dust of the Khyber. Before noon, two companies of Gurkhas with machine guns and mountain batteries were proceeding steadily in their wake. Five tanks, under the command of a sweating, beret-capped officer, were lumbering through the Khyber as once the elephants of the old Indian Army had trailed with their guns through that historic Pass. And the telegraph wires between Peshawar and Army Headquarters at Delhi were humming with urgent messages ...
In five days it was all over. The sudden attack by the British surprised the Mahsuds into surrender. The Fakir of Altana squatted philosophically in the Peshawar gaol, indulging in a fasting penance. The old rifles used by the tribesmen had been laid down. And, in the quietude of his bungalow, with the satisfaction that long-awaited promotion could not now be denied him, Major Barton was concluding his dispatch upon the short and glorious campaign :
“Furthermore (he concluded) I strongly recommend that the Victoria Cross be awarded posthumously to Captain George Ryan, 5th Bengal Lancers, for conspicuously gallant conduct*. Having been a prisoner of the Mahsuds for over seven years, he escaped and brought news of the impending rising. But for his timely warning, the enemy would have had the advantage of surprise. He died bravely in the execution of his duty. I strongly urge that the Commander-in-Chief will consider this brave action worthy of immediate award.”
The major looked up. His wife was bending over his shoulder.
"Yes, my dear?”
“I thought you might like to know,” she said. “Mrs. Aylesbury has gone to Bombay. She’s leaving for England. Her husband tells me that he’s retiring at the end of the year.”
The major sighed.
“I feel sorry for that man,” he remarked. “Some men are blessed with wives, others cursed,” she smiled cryptically. “What would you like for dinner, my dear?”
+ * ♦ ♦ *
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