The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter X. A Change of Prisoners
Heavens, how the night crawled! Phil Turner, bound hand and foot, and cruelly cramped in every limb, hitched himself to a sitting posture and began to calculate how long he probably had to live.
There was no moon, but the starlight entered his prison--it was no more than a mud hut, but had it been built of stone walls many feet thick his chance would scarcely have been lessened. It was merely a question of time, he knew, and he marvelled that his fate had been delayed so long.
To use his comrade's descriptive language, he had expected "a knife and good-bye" full twenty hours before. But neither had been his portion. He had been made a prisoner before he was fully awake, and hustled away to the native fort before sunrise. He had been given chupatties to eat and spring water to drink, and, though painfully stiff from his bonds, he was unwounded.
It had been a daring capture, he reflected; but what were they keeping him for? Not for the sake of hospitality--of that he was grimly certain. There had been no pretence at any friendly feeling on the part of his captors. They had glared hatred at him from the outset, and Phil was firmly convinced, without any undue pessimism, that they had not the smallest intention of sparing his life.
But why they postponed the final deed was a problem, that he found himself quite unable to solve. It had worried him perpetually for twenty hours, and, combined with the misery of his bonds, made sleep an impossibility.
Sleep! The very thought of it was horrible to him. It had never struck him before as a criminal waste of the precious hours of life, for Phil was young, and he had not done with mortal existence. There were in it deeps he had not sounded, heights he had never scaled. He was not prepared to forego these at the will of a parcel of murderous ruffians who chanced to object to the white man's rule. He had friends, too--friends he could not afford to lose--friends who could not afford to lose him.
Doubtless his murder would be avenged in due course; but--He grimaced wrily to himself in the darkness, and tried once more to ease his cramped limbs.
From outside came the murmur of voices. He could just see the shoulder of one of his guards at the entrance and the steel glint of a rifle-barrel. He gazed at the latter hungrily. Oh, for just a sporting chance--to be free even in the midst of his enemies with that in his hand!
A shadow fell across the entrance, and he saw the rifle no more. He saw the two Wari sentinels salaaming profoundly, and he began to wonder who the newcomer might be--a personage of some importance apparently.
There followed an interval of some minutes, during which Phil began to chafe with feverish impatience. Then at last the shadow became substance, moving into his line of vision, and a man, wrapped in a long, native garment and wearing a chuddah that concealed the greater part of his face, glided into the hut on noiseless, sandalled feet.
He held a naked knife in his hand, and Phil's heart began to thud unpleasantly. It taxed all a man's self-control to face death in cold blood, trussed hand and foot and helpless as an infant. But he gripped himself hard, and faced the weapon without flinching. It would not do to let these murderous ruffians see a white man afraid.
"Hullo!" he said contemptuously. "Come to put the finishing touch, I suppose? You'll hang for it, you infernal, treacherous brute; but that's a detail you border thieves don't seem to mind."
It eased the tension to hurl verbal defiance at his murderer, and there was just the chance that the fellow might understand a little English. But when his visitor stooped over him and deliberately cut his bonds, he was astounded into silence.
He waited dumfounded, and a muscular hand gripped his shoulder, holding him motionless.
"You'll be all right," a quiet voice said, "if you don't make a confounded fool of yourself."
Phil gave a great start, and the hand that gripped him tightened. Through the gloom he made out the outline of a grim, bearded face.
"Control yourself!" the quiet voice ordered. "Do you think I've done this for nothing? We are alone--it may be for five minutes, it may be for less. Get out of your things--sharp, and let me have them."
"Great Jupiter--Tudor!" gasped Phil.
"Yes--Tudor!" came the curt response. "Don't stop to jaw. Do as I tell you."
He took his hand from Phil's shoulder and stood up, backing into the shadows.
Phil stood up, too, straightening himself with an effort. The suddenness of this thing had thrown him momentarily off his balance.
"Quick!" commanded Tudor in a fierce whisper. "Take off your clothes. There isn't a second to lose."
But Phil stood uncertain.
"What's the game, Major?" he asked.
Tudor's hand gripped him again and violently.
"You fool!" he whispered savagely. "Don't stand gaping there! Can't you see it's a matter of life and death? Do you want to be killed?"
Phil broke off. Tudor in that frame of mind was a stranger to him, but he was none the less one who must be obeyed. Mechanically almost he yielded to the man's insistence and began to strip off his clothes.
Tudor helped him with an energy that neither fumed nor faltered. Mute obedience was all he required. But when he dropped the garment he wore from his own shoulders, Phil paused to protest.
"I am not going to wear that!" he said. "What about you?"
"I can look after myself," Tudor answered curtly. "Get into it--quick! There is no time for arguing. You're going to wear these, too."
He pulled the ragged, black beard from his face and the chuddah from his head.
But Phil's eyes were opened, and he resisted.
"Heavens above, sir!" he said. "Do you think I'm going to do a thing like that?"
"You must!" Tudor answered.
He spoke quietly, but there was deadly determination behind his quietude. They faced one another in the gloom, and suddenly there ran between them a passion of feeling that blazed unseen like the hidden current in an electric wire.
For a few seconds it burnt fiercely, silently; then Tudor laid a firm hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"You must," he said again. "The choice does not rest with you. It is made already. It only remains for you to yield--whatever it may cost you--as I am doing."
Phil started as if he had struck him.
"You are wrong, sir," he exclaimed. "On my oath, you are wrong. You don't understand. You never have understood. I--I--"
Tudor silenced him summarily with a hand upon his lips.
"I know, I know!" he said. "There is no time for this. Leave it and go. If it is any comfort to you to know it, I think no evil of you. I realise that what has happened had to happen, was in a sense inevitable, and I blame myself alone. Listen to me. This disguise will take you through all right if you keep your mouth shut. You are a priest, remember, preaching the Jehad, only I've done all the preaching necessary. You have simply to walk straight through them, down the hill till you come to the pass, and then along the river-bed till you strike the road to the Frontier. It's six miles away, but you will do it before sunrise. No, don't speak! I haven't finished yet. You are going to do this not for your own sake or for mine. You think you are going to refuse, but you are not. As for me, your going or staying could make no difference. I have come with a certain object in view, but I shall remain, whether I gain that object or not. That I swear to you most solemnly."
He turned away with the words and began to loosen his sandals. Phil watched him dumbly. He was face to face with a difficulty of such monstrous proportions that he was utterly nonplussed. From the distance came the sound of voices.
"You had better go," observed Tudor, in steady tones. "The guards are coming back. It will hasten matters for both of us if we are discovered like this."
"Sir!" Phil burst out suddenly. "I--can't!"
Tudor wheeled swiftly. It was almost as if he had been waiting for that desperate appeal. He caught up the native garment and flung it over Phil's shoulders. He dragged the beard down over his face and secured the chuddah about his head. He did it all with incredible rapidity and a strength that would not be gainsaid.
Then, holding Phil fast in a merciless, irresistible grasp, he spoke:
"If you attempt to disobey me now, I'll kill myself with my own hands."
There was no mistaking the resolution of his voice, and it wrought the end of the battle--an end inevitable. Phil realised it and accepted it with a groan. He did not utter another word of protest. He was conquered, humiliated, powerless. Only when at last he was ready to depart he stood up and faced Tudor, as he had faced him on the day that the latter had refused to give him a hearing.
"I've given in to you," he said; "but it's to save your life, if possible, and for no other reason. You can think what you like of me, but not--of her! Because, before Heaven, I believe this will break her heart."
He would have said more, but Tudor cut him short.
"Go!" he said. "Go! I know what I am doing--better than you think!"
And Phil turned in silence and went out into the world-wide starlight.