“Oh, for God’s sake, listen to reason,” Lewis cried in despair. “You must go at once. I can’t or I would. It’s our only chance. It’s a jolly good chance of death anyway, but it’s a naked certainty unless you do this. Think of the women and children and the people at home. You may as well talk about letting the whole thing slip and getting back to Bardur with safe skins. We must work the telegraph and then try to hold the road with the Khautmi men, or be cowards for evermore. We’re gentlemen, and we are responsible.”
“I didn’t mean it that way,” said George dismally. “But I want you to come with me. I can’t bear the thought of your being butchered here alone, supposing the beggars come before we get back. You’re sure there is time?”
“You’ve three hours before you, but every moment is important. This is the frontier line, and this fire will do for one of the signals. You’ll find me here. I haven’t slept for days.” And he yawned with feigned drowsiness.
“Then—good-bye,” said George solemnly, holding out his hand a second time. “Remember, I’m devilish anxious about you. It’s a pretty hot job for us all; but, gad! if we pull through you get the credit.”
Then with a single backward glance he led the way down the narrow track, two mystified servants at his heels.
Lewis watched him disappear, and then turned sadly to his proper business. This was the end of a very old song, and his heart cried out at the thought. He heaped more wood on the blaze from the little pile collected, and soon a roaring, boisterous fire burned in the glen, while giant shadows danced on the sombre hills. Then he rummaged in the tent till he found the rifles, carefully cleaned and laid aside. He selected two express 400 bores, a Metford express and a smooth-bore Winchester repeater. Then he filled his pockets with cartridges, and from a small box took a handful for his revolver. All this he did in a sort of sobbing haste, turning nervous eyes always to the mouth of the canon. He filled his flask from a case in the tent, and, being still ravenously hungry, crammed the remnants of supper into a capacious game-pocket. Then, all preparations being made, he looked for a moment down the road where his best friend had just gone out of his ken for ever. The thought was so dreary that he did not dare to delay longer, but with a bundle of ironmongery below his arms began to scramble up the glen to where the north star burned between two peaks of hill.
He did the journey in an hour, for he was in a pitiable state of anxiety. Every moment he looked to hear the tramp of an army before him, and know his errand of no avail. Over the little barrier ridge he scrambled, and then up the straight gully to the little black rift which was the gate of an empire. His unquiet mind peopled the wilderness with voices, but when, breathless and sore, he came into the jaws of the pass, all was still, silent as the grave, save for an eagle which croaked from some eyrie in the cliffs.