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Part 5

Interlude - Into the North

Kohat, guarding the mouth of Kohat Pass--just one little post on the long line of the North-West Frontier defenses. All compact and tight-set, fit for the grim work it faces. Beds of blue violets along its streets. Beds of blue violets in gardens, for somehow your Briton will have flowers, wherever you strand him. Barbed wire entanglements girdling the town. Lights every hundred paces, and heavy-armed sentries. Big arc searchlights at each corner of each house, turned on full blaze at dusk. No shrubs, no trees or other cover for skulkers, allowed too near a dwelling. No white woman permitted outside the wire after daylight begins to fail; not because of fears, but because of things that have happened. Army officers' wives they are, the few white women in Kohat; the quiet, comradely sort that play the whole game to the finish.

And not one moment of any day or night, in this or any Frontier post, is free from mortal danger.

Under the wing of the Post, an Indian town, ringed about by high mud walls. Bazaars, mosques, temples, blind-faced houses in pinched and tortuous streets, where hawk-nosed men in sheepskin coats, with rifles lying in the crook of their arms, shoulder bullocks and asses for passage. Hundreds of little stalls, like booths in a country fair, reflect the Afghan boundary. Wonderful shining slippers, heelless and curly-toed, for the little feet of Muslim ladies; Persian bed-posts, gayly lacquered; beautiful gauzes; block-printed silks and cottons; vessels inlaid in tin and brass or copper; peacock pottery; fine fox-skins from the mountains; red rugs from Bokhara; meat, for this is a Muslim country; rice and curry and sugar, because certain Hindus have ventured in, lending money while they sell their wares and getting always richer with their money-lending.

Getting too rich, maybe, and a little too confident. For though the hawk-nosed man in the big sheepskin coat may not be their match in playing with money, that lurks in his half-humorous, wholly piercing hawk-eye that should warn the boldest.

Besides, this hawk-nosed, hawk-eyed citizen is here in his own country. And no more than a revolver-shot away, in the gray, impending crags of the Frontier mountains lurk his brother Muslims, the wild tribes who call no man king or master, who know no business other than that of raiding, and whose favorite year-round sport is the kidnapping of Hindu money-lenders to hear the queer sounds they emit in the course of the subsequent entertainment.

In all this world, say the men who, day and night, year in, year out, guard the frontier of India--in all this world are no fighters better than the tribesmen. Also, behind them lies Afghanistan, like a couchant leopard, green eyes fixed on the glittering bait of India. And behind Afghanistan--nay, in Kabul itself, lurks "the Man that walks like a Bear," fingering gold and whispering ceaselessly of the glories of a rush across the border that shall sweep the Crescent through the strong Muslim Punjab, gathering Islam in its train; that shall raise the Muslims of the South and so shall close from both sides, like a tide, forever, over the heads of the Hindus.

"Why not?" asks the Bear. "Are you feebler men than your fathers? What stops you? The English? But look! I worry them on the other flank, stirring up the silly Hindus, North and South, against them. Already these English relax their hand, as the councils of their home-country weaken. And, I, the Bear, am behind you. Look at the loot and the killings! Drive in your wedge! Strike!"