“They’re through now,” said St. John. “The next thing to listen for is the sound of their feet. When that comes I pass the word along. We’re all safe for heaven, so keep your minds easy.”
But the sound of feet was long in coming. Only the soft night airs, and at rare intervals an eagle’s cry, or the bleat of a doe from the valley bottom. The first half-hour of waiting was a cruel strain. In such moments a man’s sins rise up large before him. When his future life is narrowed down to an hour’s compass, he sees with cruel distinctness the follies of his past. A thousand things he had done or left undone loomed on George’s mental horizon. His slackness, his self-indulgence, his unkindness—he went over the whole innocent tale of his sins. To the happy man who lives in the open and meets the world with a square front this forced final hour of introspection has peculiar terrors. Meantime Lewis was sleeping peacefully in the tent by the still cheerful fire. Thank God, he was spared this hideous waiting!
About two Andover turned up with fifteen men, hot and desperate. He listened to St. John’s story in silence.
“Thank God, I’m in time. Who found out this? Haystoun? Good man, Lewis! I wonder who has been firing out there. They can’t have been stopped? It’s getting devilish late for them anyhow, and I believe there’s a little hope. It would be too risky to leave this pass, but I vote we send a scout.”
A man was chosen and dispatched. Two hours later he returned to the mystified watchers at Nazri. He had been on the hill-shoulder and looked into the cleft. There was no sign of men there, but he had heard the sound of men, though where he could not tell. Far down the cleft there was a gleam of fire, but no man near it.
“That’s a Bada dodge,” said Andover promptly. “Now I wonder if Marker trusted too much to these gentry, and they have done us the excellent service of misleading him. They hate us like hell, and they’d sell their souls any day for a dozen cartridges; so it can’t have been done on purpose. Seems to me there has been a slip in his plans somewhere.”
But the sound of voices! The man was questioned closely, and he was strong on its truth. He was a hillman from the west of the Khyber, and he swore that he knew the sound of human speech in the hills many miles off, though he could not distinguish the words.
“In thirty minutes it will be morning,” said George. “Lord, such a night, and Lewis to have missed it all!” His spirits were rising, and he lit a pipe. The north was safe whatever happened, and, as the inertness of midnight passed off, he felt satisfaction in any prospect, however hazardous. He sat down beneath a boulder and smoked, while Andover talked with the others. They were the frontier soldiers, and this was their profession; he was the amateur to whom technicalities were unmeaning.