RAJAH OF AGH BUTHAL
R. T. M. SCOTT
THE Rajah of Agh Buthal strolled through the gem-studded doors of his women’s quarters and the two black guards, with scimitars drawn, bowed low as the huge doors swung together. In the sunset glow, the fountain-splashed garden, in which he stood, seemed to nestle like a raindrop amid the encircling, craggy mountains. Fragrant, flowering bushes lined winding paths and little waterways coursed curiously, here bubbling in plain view and there hidden by cunning drains of native tile.
The Rajah—tall, straight and handsome—wore the faultier evening clothes of Europe. Upon his head, however. was a snow-white trirban edged with gold, and in the front of which gleamed a huge emerald. Two more emeralds, not quite so large, shone from the fingers of his left hand, while the studs of his white shirt consisted of pearls considerably larger than are worn by white men. The appearance of the man was refined yet barbaric, stately yet a trifle sinister. A forcible friend or foe was the Rajah of Agh Buthal, potentate of that troublesome state among the Himalayas just north of India.
For a moment the Rajah gazed deep into the fading sunset before striking a silver gong half concealed among some greenery. The resonant note was still sounding when a servitoran officer of the household—glided down some marble steps and salaamed before his master.
"Great master of all the world!” exclaimed the officer in guttiira! dialect, while his gold and silver costume glistened in the slanting rays of the sun.
‘Have the white devils, who think they are my welcome guests, finished their afternoon tea without which they can not live?”
"Your Highness, they are quite finished. They now play with little packs of cards and call it bridge.”
"It is good.” returned the Rajah. “I will join my guests. Let my musicians be ready and let the devil dancers from Ceylon attend.”
As the officer vanished around a bend in the path, the Rajah w alked slowly to a tiny gate in the wall which surrounded the garden. Through a grating he looked down upon a terrace some ten feet below. It was a small oval ■ >f perfect green backed by the barbaric castle and fronted by a five foot wall which guarded a fifty foot drop to the plain below.
In the very center of the oval was a table around which sat three white men.
One was elderly and dressed in British uniform. A second was short and stocky with close-cropped, black hair contrasting strongly with Ms wMte flannels. The last man was rather tall and reclined in a sIoucMng attitude with his long legs stretched beneath the table—drooping in his white riding-breeches as if he was dead tired or had tost interest in the world.
‘T'HE Rajah of Agh -*■ Buthal smiled grimly to himself 33 he inserted a silver key and opened the gate. As he descended the steps, leading to the terrace, two native attendants, who had been standing near the table, ran swiftly away.
With the first step of the Rajah upon the green grass all the peace and quiet of the scene was blotted out.
As if from nowhere, a hundred native drums broke the mountain stillness and from ail entrances to the oval dashed a score of hideous. naked figures,
grotesquely pair :ed and brandishing torches which they 'ossed and caught :.n the fading light with great skill.
The Rajah paused while twanging, stringed instruments and weird flute notes added to the clamor of the drums. The fire dancers circled the little table and exploded combustible powders, the fire from which they seemed to breath into and out of their mouths. Through it all the military man twisted at his gray moustache, the 1 back Ms chair and half turned around.
The tall, lanky individual failed to change his attitude.
Amid the general pandemonium the Rajah advanced with stately step and was met half way by the dancers, w ho escorted him to the table with wild shrieks and frantic attempts to outdo one another in swallowing fire.
Suddenly the Rajah raised a hand and magically the tumult ceased. Not a sound continued, and the dancers fled back from whence they came.
"Topping afternoon, Colonel, eh what?” exclaimed the Rajah, as he extended a jewelled cigarette-case to the man in uniform.
"Your Highness is amusing himself with my poor nerves,” replied the colonel, taking a cigarette while all three rose.
"Not at all, my dear chap,” returned the Rajah. “To do that I would have to employ shrapnel. My little demonstration was to impress my own people—mere children, you know. If I did not do spectacular things and assume absurd dignities they would soon cease to have proper respect for me.”
“Are these devil-dancers from your country, Your Highness?” asked the short man.
“Oh, no, Baron,” returned the Rajah. “I imported them from Ceylon. We have better magic herè, but I like variety. Next month I shall send them back and import another troop from Burma.”
Turning swiftly to the tall, indolent man he continued:
“Is my young friend who comes with the colonel sahib long in this part of the world?”
“Not long, Your Highness,” broke in the colonel. “Mr. Smith is seeing a little of the country before settling down to steady work in one of the branches of our Government.”
A native servant, approaching with a tray and three glasses, the Rajah, taking a glass, extended it to Smith.
“A Manhattan cocktail, Mr. Smith,” he said suavely. “You will appreciate the American drink, I am sure, before dressing for dinner.”
“Thanks,” said Smith. “How did you know I was from America?”
The Rajah drew himself up proudly at this question, and looked ’round with a slow smile.
“I, too, have my secret service,” he stated, “and I knew several weeks ago that Colonel Marsden would pay me a visit the object of which was to buy my influence in
favor of England—not India, but England, which flatters me to my face and calls me out-cast behind my back. It was but an additional trifle to learn that Colonel Marsden was bringing with him s young American who had recently joined the Criminal Intelligence Department of India.”
Colonel Marsden drank his cocktail and set down the glass.
“Your Highness,” he said, “I could not get so good a drink in all India.”
“And you, Baron Stivenski,” went on the Rajah, “reppresent another power or group of powers. You come for the same purpose and my criticism applies also to you. Very well, gentlemen, it is to be a bargain and after dinner we shall discuss the terms. One thing I shall point out now. I know much moré than you think, and the first one of you who attempts deceit will die as horrible a death as my torturers can invent. During dinner I shall arrange a mild exhibition of their art for your benefit.”
“It would be dangerous to injure one of my rank,” stated the Baron a little pompously.
“It is dangerous to live in Buthal,” retorted the Rajah sharply.
Turning away from his guests, he added:
“Dinner will be ready in one hour. You will pardon me for not drinking with you, gentlemen. My religion forbids it.”
SMITH was already dressed and curiously examining the Oriental furnishings of his room when Colonel Marsden entered in mess-jacket, his golden spurs jingling as he strode across the floor.
“Interesting things,” he exclaimed, standing in the center of the room. “Look at that decoration on the ceiling. It is an ankh design. Comes from Egypt. Every thing meets in this part of the world.”
As Smith approached and looked up, the colonel continued in a lower voice.
“Middle of the room is about the only safe place to talk. You did the right thing when you acknowledged your nationality at once. I was afraid that you were going to parry the thrust.”
“How are things going?” asked Smith.
“Not badly,” returned the colonel, pursing his lips.
“Pretty much as I expected, except for the sudden death threat.” “Would he carry it out?”
“Without a doubt!” was the emphatic reply. “You see the old boy doesn’t know which way to jump. I don’t think he cares very much. He is simply afraid of the side he jumps away from. If anything, he leans to us, since he was educated in England.”
“Then how’ can he come to a decision?” “He may not come to any decision,” answered the colonel musingly. “If he does decide it probably will be by trying to discredit one side in some dramatic way so that he may appear dreadfully shocked and go over at once to the other side.” “There doesn’t appear to be much for me to d o,” commented Smith.
“Yes, there is.” retu rned the colonel quickly. “Watch Stivenski. I depend on you to watch him. Let’s get down.”
The dining-room, where the four men sat, looked over the terrace and beyond that over the great plain banked on the far side by ponderous mountains. Through the open windows came the distant beating of tom-toms, accompanied by the melancholy wailing of some mantram chanting native. A blue sky hung overhead studded with huge stars which seemed so low as scarce to top the distant mountains. From the walled garden above the terrî ri ff or! f Tr» croit f of flow: G « F To heard the light tones of feminine laughter from over the wall.
The dining-room, itself, was large and bulged into a huge bay where the table was placed close to the open windows. The walls were heavily hung with rich embroideries of native work. Heads of trophies of the chase and strange, ugly weapons were suspended in wild confusion. The floor was covered with majestic skins—leopards, tiger and lion.
All was of the East with the exception of the table which was small and rested upon a great, white skin of the polar bear. There was nothing Eastern about the table which gleamed white amid the shadows of the rather gloomy room. The damask cover and sparkling silver shone startlingly beneath the glow of soft shaded candles. Four high-backed, ivory chairs—museum specimens— stood at the four sides.
The Rajah of Agh Buthal faced the open windows across the table.
Upon his right was the Baron Stivenski wearing the blue band of some European order across his white shirt-front. Colonel Marsden sat upon the left of his host, his scarlet mess-jacket making an effective splash of color against the ivorywhite of his chair. Smith faced his host with his back to the windows.
THE dinner which was served might have been the product of the best restaurant in Europe. Wines, entrees and all the courses were perfect and were blended with consummate skill. So exquisite was the food that Baron Stivenski ventured a complimentary remark and the Rajah, sitting with untouched wine glasses, allowed a pleased expression to cross his face.
“My chef is from Paris,” he explained, “and refrigeration permits much to be done in distant places.”
Then he added: “All of the ladies
of my establishment are not from the East and I do what I can to give them their favorite—I was almost about to say native dishes. Such delicate toys must be tended with great care so that they may blossom to their best.”
“And what does your Highness do when they wither?” asked the Baron.
“Sometimes one thing—and sometimes another,” replied the Rajah gravely. “It depends upon their status, but I shall leave the answer to your imagination. I do not wish to run contrary to western ideas more than is necessary. That reminds me that I promised you a little exhibition during dinner.”
Turning to a servant the Rajah spoke a few low words. With a motion of his hand and a curt order he directed the private servants of his guests to leave the room.
“Sometimes,” he explained in English, “men of low caste become emotional and lose their wits during the work of my torturers.”
The Baron’s servant, a sour looking Mongolian, shuttled from the room, but the tall Hindu, who stood behind Smith’s chair, bent to arrange a knife beside his master’s plate so that his ear came very close to his master’s mouth “Jao,” murmured Smith, and the boy, straightening up, marched slowly from the room.
The Rajah looked enquiringly at Colonel Marsden, whose servant, a gigantic Sikh, stood motionless behind his master’s chair.
Adjusting his monocle more securely in his eye, the colonel turned pleasantly to his host.
“My boy and I,” he said very simply, “have stood upon the battle-field together when the bayonet was at its bloody work. Like yourself, Your Highness, he is a rajpoot—a military man. Nothing in Buthal can shake his nerve.”
The Rajah’s eyes dropped to the miniature campaign medals upon the left of the colonel’s mess-jacket.
“As you wish,” he acquiesced. “After all, the performance is to be very slight.”
TWO SERVANTS entered and pinned a white sheet against the wall behind the Rajah. Others brought additional candles and placed them so that their light fell upon the white background.
The Rajah rose and moved around the table so that he might view what wras to come.
“I shall sit between Colonel Marsden and Mr. Smith,” he said,—“between England and America. What a catastrophe that anything ever came between the two!” “I see no catastrophe,” remarked the Baron. “What has Your Highness in mind?”
“Simply that the English speaking people, shoulder to shoulder, could rule the world very poorly, but better than any other nation.”
“The nations can get along much better by themselves,” retorted the Baron.
“They can do so theoretically,” said the Rajah, “but practically they will end, before 1920, in the greatest war that the world has ever seen.”
The Rajah of Agh Buthal had been speaking very seriously and with some degree of warmth, but his manner suddenly changed to lightness.
“Enough of that, gentlemen,” he continued. “Our vaudeville is about to commence. Not as good as the London music-hall, Colonel, but, still, interesting.”
As he spoke, two powerful guards entered, dragging with them a coolie naked except for a scanty loin-cloth. In a trice his hands were secured to two iron rings which had been hanging unnoticed just above the white sheet. The man’s feet barely touched the floor and his knees, limp at first, left most of his weight upon his arms until he straightened up and gazed fearfully about him.
“Bah!” exclaimed the Rajah. “A sickening spectacle! A man with so little courage scarcely deserves our attention. It requires no white sheet to display the fear on his cowrardly face.”
“What is going to be done, Your Highness?” asked the Baron.
“Slow strangling,” returned the Rajah. “It is both quiet and clean.”
The coolie gained a little control of himself and stood more firmly upon his feet although he gazed helplessly
around at his captors with the agony of fear upon his face.
“Is he a murderer?” asked Colonel Marsden, cracking a walnut.
“He was caught upon the wall which surrounds the garden where my women bathe,” returned the Rajah with a harsh and fearful venom.
“When Your Highness sat in judgment, what did the man say that he was doing upon the wall?” questioned the colonel.
“There was no trial,” laughed the Rajah. “He was not questioned. He was caught. That was enough.”
TWO SINUOUS, hard featured natives entered at a signal from the Rajah and approached their victim. Between them was a long, thin cord of white silk.
“They will give one jerk which will not kill,” explained the Rajah. “Afterwards they will apply a very slow and steady pull lasting a full five minutes before death takes place and allowing ample time to study the expressions upon the face and to note the twitching of the limbs.”
“I have seen it done several times before,” said the Baron, gulping a cognac, “and will step out on the terrace.”
“I am doing this for a purpose,” returned the Rajah sternly“If you leave the table, my servants will have your kit at the gates in five minutes and it is a dangerous ride through the pass—unguarded—at night.”
As the Baron slumped back in his chair, the executioners, who had made a noose, advanced upon the condemned man.
“I say!” broke in Colonel Marsden, dipping the end of his cigar into his coffee. “Will Your Highness do me a favor?”
“Speak!” said the Rajah rather sharply.
“Ask the fellow what he was doing —don’t you know—on the bally wall.”
The Rajah frowned, partly at the request and partly at the light manner in 'which it had been made. He had met Colonel Marsden before, and had found that official to be something of an enigma. The colonel knew this and wTas aware that a light manner, at certain times, was best.
At a gesture from their master the stranglers halted with uplifted noose.
“If it amuses my guest, he may question the culprit himself,” said the Rajah ironically.
Rapidly the colonel spoke in Hindustani while Smith for the first time seemed interested enough to move and glance rather sharply at his temporary chief. There was no reply from the prisoner and the colonel spoke again in Tamil and followed with one or two dialects used in the more northern portions of India. No answer was returned to the questions.
“I think,” said the colonel, turning to the Rajah, “that I must impose upon your good nature, Your Highness, and ask you to put the question yourself."
Slowly the Rajah turned and spoke in guttural tones which carried the greatest contempt. The prisoner replied in a few piteous words while his eyes stared frightfully at the silken noose. The Rajah bit his lip but turned to his guests with a laugh.
“The man states that he was just looking in," translated the Rajah, and again waved the executioners to their duty.
Without warning the colonel brought his fist down upon the table with a crash, causing the silver to jump. The sudden blow again halted the executioners. The Baron looked up in astonishment and Smith eased a tail of his evening coat away from a hip pocket. Only the old Sikh, behind his master's chair, failed to move—but his jaws were grimly set since he. too. understood the answer of the condemned man.
Meanwhile Colonel Marsden, dropping his monocle, leaned toward his host and transfixed that august personage with a stare so imperious that it scarcely could have been surpassed.
“Your Highness, the Rajah of Agh Buthal.” enunciated the colonel in icy tones, “I came to you as rajpoot to rajpoot. If you deceive me in small things, how may I have confidence in you when we deal with matters of state? What shall I say to His Excellency the Viceroy of India that will be worthy of being transmitted to His Majesty in London?”
Continued on page 38
Continued from paye 15
An expression of fury passed swiftly ov.er the Rajah’s face, leaving an expressionless blank which foreboded ill.
“Colonel Marsden refers to something in particular?”
“I refer to the prisoner’s answer,” returned the colonel in a withering voice as he again inserted his monocle. “The man said that’ palace guards had stolen his daughter and that he heard her crying upon the other side of the wall.”
“And I refrained from translating out of deference to western ideas of morality,” replied the Rajah indifferently.
The Rajah raised his jewelled hand and once again motioned the stranglers to their task. Before they raised the silken cord, however, Smith struggled indolently to his feet and walked across the skin covered floor to the scene of torture.
“Your Highness,” he spoke over his shoulder, “there is apt to be an accident.”
No one knew what the young man was about to do. His act and remark were so unexpected that there was a silence while he bent over and examined the thin cord without touching it. The Rajah, his features hardening, waited for further explanation, while the Baron showed decided pleasure at the possibility of trouble which would not fall upon him. With the exception, of Smith, the colonel appeared to be the most indifferent maninthe room. Yet he was worried—terribly worried. He knew that Smith was about to try to save the life of the wretched coolie and he could see nothing but disaster in the attempt. •
“The cord is too thin, Your Highness,” said Smith, turning around. “It is almost sure to break. I once saw a hanging where the rope broke because it had been struck by a bullet. It was a ver messy job. Could we not have your men double the cord?”
“My dear fellow,” returned the Rajah, “that cord is strong enough to bear the weight of two men. It has performed its office many times and there is not the slightest chance of breaking.”
“Yet I could snap it with my two hands,” answered Smith.
“Absurd!” ejaculated the Baron. “A thousand crowns against one hundred rupees that you can’t.”
The Rajah laughed quietly. “Very well, I shall call your bluff. I, too, shall lay a wager. If you snap the cord the coolie goes free. If you fail—you shall hold one end of the cord while the man dies. Do you accept?”
“Uh-huh,” said Smith.
Like a flash he turned and grasped the silken cord, holding it high above his head before the two executioners knew what he was doing. With a rapid twist about his hands he gave one jerk and the cord snapped and fell in two pieces to the floor.
The two stranglers, after a moment of astonishment, fell upon the pieces of cord and tore at them with all their strength. Yet neither could break his piece.
As the prisoner was freed and led away the Rajah slipped off one of his emerald ! rings.
“I would buy the secret of your trick,” he said to Smith.
“I could not sell it,” replied Smith.
It was in the same room that the Rajah and his guests chew their chairs about a small table in the great bay and puffed their after-dinner cigars.
As the majestic Sikh followed the last of the household servants from the room I there was a slight interruption caused by j the sudden entrance of Spiith’s Hindu servant who salaamed and offered a cigarette case to his master. Smith unconI cernedly slipped the case into his pocket I and dismissed the servant, although he knew quite well that the same servant had handed him a well-filled case just before dinner.
“Now, gentlemen,” said the Rajah, “let me have your offers and requests. What do you want and what have you to give in return?”
“You must bid against each other. It is my whim for to-night that you both speak openly if at all.”
IN THE s'lence which followed, the Baron, hesitatingly, drew out a notebook and consulted some figures before tearing out a sheet and writing something upon it.
In the meantime Smith had opened the cigarette case which had just been handed to him by his servant. Very slowly he extracted a cigarette and tapped it lazily upon the open case as if undecided about smoking. Only one side of the case was filled and Smith stared blankly at a note tucked into the opposite side. It was crudely written in Hindustani and, being translated, read:
“The drunken son of an owl who serves the Baron sahib boasts that he stole the colonel sahib’s mess-jacket this afternoon and put it back before dinner.”
“Your Highness,” said the Baron, passing his memorandum across the table, “I offer you a loan for this amount.”
The Rajah took the hit of paper, and, after glancing at it, tossed it over to the colonel who turned it face down without looking at it.
“And in return, what am I to do?” asked the Rajah.
“Fortify the southern passes leading into India,” rapped out the Baron.
“That is all?”
“That is all, your Highness.”
Again there was a period of silence. It was partly interrupted by an action upon the part of Smith who rose and bent over Colonel Marsden in order to light his cigarette from the latter’s cigar.
“Colonel Marsden, it is your turn,” said the Rajah.
“Your Highness,” replied the colonel, “my terms are very simple. I offer friendship and ask friendship in return.” The Rajah frowned and the Baron smiled openly.
“Unfortunately my country needs money,” returned the Rajah, “and I can not carry out improvements with kind words.”
Colonel Marsden quietly tapped the Baron’s slip of paper.
“The figures here,” he said pleasantly, “probably represent crowns, rubles or marks. I offer you the same number of pounds sterling if you accept my conditions of friendship.”
“And how must I show my friendship?” asked the Rajah.
“By bringing your polo team to meet the team of His Excellency the Viceroy once a year at Simla and by improving the trade routes to the south.”
“His words are soft,” spoke up the Baron with an ugly gleam, “but his claws are hidden. It is my duty, Your Highness, to inform, you that Colonel Marsden has abused your hospitality. During a ride this morning he made a military sketch of the surrounding country and, no doubt, noted the best places for guns that may be used against you if you do not do as he wishes.”
“Your proof!” demanded the Rajah in a voice vibrant with anger.
“Lies in the colonel’s breast pocket,” returned the Baron in vicious tones. “I am sure he carries so precious a paper on his person. At any rate, Your Highness, 1 must take the risk of being wrong out of the real friendship which my country holds for you.”
Colonel Marsden looked quizzically and with a touch of admiration at Smith as he carelessly turned his breast pocket inside out under the eyes of the Rajah.
“Your wine has been too much for his head, Your Highness,” was the colonel’s corn ment.
“I think that you are wrong, Colonel Marsden,” interposed Smith. “The Baron merely wished to take suspicion away from himself. I fancy I saw a sketch fall from his note-hook a few minutes ago. Your Highness will see it under the Baron’s chair.”
It was a very beautiful bit of military topography that the Rajah picked up— just about a long leg’s length from where Smith sat. Even the colonel showed astonishment at the denouement.
The Baron's face was ghastly as he marched away to his room to prepare for a midnight ride through the mountain pass. Smith alone seemed unmoved, but he, perhaps, was the only one who entirely understood the situation.
“Colonel Marsden,” said the Rajah, in ceremonious manner, “an escort will be at your disposal tomorrow morning and will conduct you in safety to my frontier. Say to His Excellency the Viceroy of India that the Rajah of Agh Buthal will play polo in Simla. Good night, gentlemen.”