‘Then he is not dead, think you?’
’Fever might kill him. I do not fear for the boy otherwise. A monkey does not fall among trees.’
Next morning, on the same course, Mahbub’s stallion ranged alongside the Colonel.
‘It is as I had thought,’ said the horse-dealer. ’He has come through Umballa at least, and there he has written a letter to me, having learned in the bazar that I was here.’
‘Read,’ said the Colonel, with a sigh of relief. It was absurd that a man of his position should take an interest in a little country-bred vagabond; but the Colonel remembered the conversation in the train, and often in the past few months had caught himself thinking of the queer, silent, self-possessed boy. His evasion, of course, was the height of insolence, but it argued some resource and nerve.
Mahbub’s eyes twinkled as he reined out into the centre of the cramped little plain, where none could come near unseen.
‘"The Friend of the Stars, who is the Friend of all the World -"’
‘What is this?’
’A name we give him in Lahore city. “The Friend of all the World takes leave to go to his own places. He will come back upon the appointed day. Let the box and the bedding-roll be sent for; and if there has been a fault, let the Hand of Friendship turn aside the Whip of Calamity.” There is yet a little more, but -’
‘No matter, read.’
’"Certain things are not known to those who eat with forks. It is better to eat with both hands for a while. Speak soft words to those who do not understand this that the return may be propitious.” Now the manner in which that was cast is, of course, the work of the letter-writer, but see how wisely the boy has devised the matter of it so that no hint is given except to those who know!’
‘Is this the Hand of Friendship to avert the Whip of Calamity?’ laughed the Colonel.
’See how wise is the boy. He would go back to the Road again, as I said. Not knowing yet thy trade -’
‘I am not at all sure of that,’ the Colonel muttered.
’He turns to me to make a peace between you. Is he not wise? He says he will return. He is but perfecting his knowledge. Think, Sahib! He has been three months at the school. And he is not mouthed to that bit. For my part, I rejoice. The pony learns the game.’
‘Ay, but another time he must not go alone.’
’Why? He went alone before he came under the Colonel Sahib’s protection. When he comes to the Great Game he must go alone — alone, and at peril of his head. Then, if he spits, or sneezes, or sits down other than as the people do whom he watches, he may be slain. Why hinder him now? Remember how the Persians say: The jackal that lives in the wilds of Mazanderan can only be caught by the hounds of Mazanderan.’
’True. It is true, Mahbub Ali. And if he comes to no harm, I do not desire anything better. But it is great insolence on his part.’