AHMED KHAN

“Behold the walls of Mekran!” said Kasam proudly.

They had been riding all afternoon through a beautiful and fertile
valley, rich with fields of waving grain, tracts of vegetables,
vineyards and orchards, all tended by the Kendars, Brahoes and Melinos,
for the warlike Baluchi were too dignified to till the soil. It was from
this valley that the city of Mekran derived its main sustenance and
support, and now, as they mounted a little eminence, the city itself
came into view–a huge, whitewashed stone wall above which peeped the
roofs of many dwellings, mosques and palaces.

“The palace of the khan,” said Kasam, “is near the center, beside the
famous bubbling pools of Mekran. You may tell it by the high towers and
minarets. It is all built of marble and its gardens are more beautiful
than any in Europe.”

“You may well be proud of this great city, which you are so soon to
rule,” observed Bessie, instantly connecting the prince with the place
of his nativity. “It is one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen.”

“We must make this an important depot for the new railway,” said the
Colonel, with something like enthusiasm. “The whole world will come to
see Mekran when the journey can be made in Pullmans.”

But as they drew nearer and the sun sank toward the horizon Mekran lost
much of its beauty. The whitewash of the great wall was seen to be grimy
and stained in many places, and the roofs above it showed considerable
discoloration by the weather. It was an old city, and had long since
lost the freshness of youth. Indeed, Allison took occasion to denounce,
with some contempt, a place which seemed “nearly as filthy as the people
of this beastly country themselves,” and Kasam flushed slightly with a
realization that neither Mekran nor his people could be counted quite
immaculate.

Beneath the setting sun, however, the spires and domes glowed golden
red, and even the young engineer ceased reviling the place they had come
so far from civilization to visit.

At dusk the caravan entered at the North Gate, and Kasam called
attention to the thickness of the wall as they rode through, and to the
picturesque watch-tower perched above the gate. Then, coming into the
light of the inner city he gave a start of surprise, for lining the
sides of the narrow street were solid ranks of Baluchi warriors, both
mounted and on foot, who stood so silently in their places that their
presence was all unsuspected until the Prince came full upon them.
Hesitating, he reigned in his horse, and at that moment the iron gates
fell with a clang behind the last of his cavalcade.

“You are going to have a reception, Prince,” remarked Dr. Warner, who
rode near the guide.

Kasam muttered a curse and urged forward his horse. The Baluchi
instantly closed their ranks, surrounding him with a solid phalanx.

“Welcome to Mekran, my lord,” said a voice, and Kasam turned to find the
warrior he had rescued in the desert riding at his stirrup. There was no
mistaking Dirrag. The fresh scratch upon his brow marked his seared face
with a streak of livid red.

“His Highness the Khan has requested your presence at the palace,”
continued the warrior, in respectful tones.

“Me?” asked the young man, startled.

“You are Prince Kasam, I believe.”

“Ah, I begin to understand. You have betrayed me as a fitting return for
having saved your life. It was to be expected in a man of Ugg. But why
does old Burah demand my presence? Am I a prisoner?”

“Burah Khan is in Paradise,” said Dirrag, gravely.

“Dead!… And his son?”

“Now rules as Ahmed Khan.”

Kasam’s bronzed features drew tense. He became silent.

As they turned a corner he noticed they had become detached from the
others of his party and were now alone.

“Where are my companions?” he enquired, with anxiety. “I am guiding a
party of foreigners, who are strange to Mekran.”

“They will be safely cared for,” answered Dirrag, reassuringly.

“And my Afghans?”

“They also. The Khan has provided for all.”

The answers were far from satisfactory, but Kasam had perils of his own
to confront, and dismissed his American friends from his thoughts with
the belief that the new khan would not care to interfere with their
liberties.

His own case was far more embarrassing: for the moment, at least. The
tidings of Burah’s death and his son’s succession to the sovereign
office of Khan had struck him like a blow. It was only the evening of
the sixth day, he reflected, and Agahr had not expected anything
important to happen until the seventh day, at least. How in the world
had Ahmed managed to reach Mekran from Takkatu so soon?

Then the truth flashed upon him, and he groaned aloud. The tall Baluch
he had rescued from the men of Raab and escorted safely to the plains
of Melin was none other than Prince Ahmed himself, and Kasam’s folly in
interfering with his uncle Agahr’s plans had resulted in his own
undoing!

They were at the palace now.

Dirrag held Kasam’s horse while he dismounted and then escorted the
young man into the courtyard and through several winding passages. Soon
they came to a small chamber, the entrance to which was guarded by the
Arab slave Memendama, who allowed them to pass at a word from Dirrag.
Here were more attendants and slaves, richly dressed in the crimson,
white and purple of the House of Ugg. Kasam looked uneasily upon the
expressionless faces, and cast himself upon a divan to await the summons
to the Khan’s presence. It came in a few brief moments, and Dirrag led
the Prince through still another passage to a marble balcony, where two
men were seated at a small fable and a third stood at the carved rail
looking into the gardens below.

Kasam glanced at the two who were seated and failed to recognize them.
One was Merad, the Persian physician; the other the sirdar of the tribe
of Ugg.

The man at the rail turned about, and Kasam knew him at once. He had
been Dirrag’s companion in the desert.

“I am glad to welcome you, Prince Kasam,” said the khan, courteously.
“Pray be seated.”

He motioned toward a chair, but Kasam stood erect.

“Tell me first,” said he, “whether I am to consider myself a guest or a
prisoner.”

“Surely not a prisoner, my cousin. I may use that title, may I not,
since we are related?”

“The relation is distant,” said the other, proudly. “I am of the Tribe
of Raab, and for seven generations my ancestors ruled all Baluchistan.”

“So I understand,” returned the Khan, dryly. “They were also my
ancestors, for the same royal blood flowed in the veins of Keedar Khan.
But why should we speak of the past? Today, by the grace of Allah, I am
myself ruler of Baluchistan.”

“By treachery and cunning, rather than Allah’s grace,” retorted the
Prince, defiantly. “Should right and justice prevail I would myself be
sitting upon the throne of my forefathers.”

“It is a matter of common knowledge,” answered Ahmed, quietly facing the
other and looking calmly down from his superior height into the
passionate face of the younger man, “that neither right nor justice
entitled your forefathers to rule this land. It may comfort you, cousin,
to look into the history of the Tribes, concerning which you seem to be
somewhat misinformed. But it is not worth arguing at present. What
interests us more keenly is the condition that confronts us. Through the
sad ending of Burah Khan, whose body now lies in state in the Mosque of
the Angels, I am suddenly called to the throne. Because of my
inexperience in affairs of state I shall need, as councillors and
advisors, the assistance of all those to whom the welfare of Baluchistan
is dear. Doubtless you love your country, Prince Kasam, and your
European education will have given you broad and intelligent ideas of
modern government. Therefore I value your friendship. Will you become my
vizier, and assist me to rule my people to their greatest good?”

Kasam was astounded. The proposition, coming from one whom he had reason
to consider his greatest foe, was as unexpected as it was impossible.
Moreover, it indicated a weakness of character and lack of sound
judgment in the new ruler that both pleased and encouraged him. Ahmed
was a big and burly fellow, it was true, but he seemed as gentle as a
woman. Evidently a monastery training did not stimulate virility of
mind.

Kasam thought rapidly during the few moments that he stood with downcast
eyes before Ahmed Khan, and his conclusions determined him upon his
course of action. Then, remembering they were not alone, he glanced
toward the table and encountered the physician’s mocking gaze. If Ahmed
was weak, here at least was a strong man. Indignant and alarmed at what
he read in the dark eyes he turned to Abdul, the Sirdar of Ugg, for
reassurance. That white-haired dignitary sat with composed and placid
countenance quietly regarding the khan, whose words and actions alone
seemed to afford him interest.

“What if I refuse?” asked Kasam, sharply, turning again to Ahmed.

“Then you will grieve me.”




The Prince smiled contemptuously.

“But you will put me in prison, or assassinate me?”

“Why should I?”

“Because, if you cannot induce me to serve you, it will be wise to get
me out of your way.”

“I cannot believe that,” returned Ahmed, gently. “The conspiracy of your
uncle, Agahr, to place you upon my throne is well known to me, yet I
have not even reproached him for his apparent disloyalty. I can
understand that the heir of former khans would strive to regain his lost
heritage, and your ambition seems to me a natural one. But I am here,
and shall remain. Your adherents are weak and impotent. You could not be
khan unless they were stronger than my own. Because I appreciate your
disappointment I offer you the highest office within my gift. Be my
vizier; trust me as I trust you, and let us be friends.”

“I refuse!”

“Then you may go free, to act as you deem best.”

“Free! I may go free?”

“Assuredly. I owe you that courtesy, even did I fear you, for having
assisted me in the desert. My act may not balance accounts, but it will
be an earnest of my gratitude.”

“Let us cry quits,” said Kasam, eagerly, “and start a new score. For I
warn you, Ahmed Khan, that from this day I will oppose you with all my
might.”

Ahmed bowed. His face showed neither disappointment nor surprise, and as
if he considered the interview at an end he turned again toward the
railing, looking down into the flower beds and shrubbery.

Kasam hesitated, glancing at the other silent witness of the scene. The
Persian was industriously rolling a cigarette. Dirrag stood with legs
astride, evidently admiring his boots. But the sirdar, Abdul, seemed
annoyed, and said to the Khan:

“The man openly threatens your Highness. We are not sure of his
tribesmen of Raab. Would it not be well to take some action in this
matter?”

“Let him go,” replied the Khan, without turning.

Kasam flushed at the tone of indifference. It seemed to him that he was
being treated like a child.

“The sirdar is old and wise,” he exclaimed, angrily, “and the Khan of
Mekran is young and foolish. Elai! the die is cast. I will go.”

With this he strode from the room, and none hindered. The slaves and
attendants in the outer chamber made no interference with his retreat.
Although he had a vague fear that the Khan’s words were insincere he
traversed the halls, passed through the courtyard, and so left the
palace.

A solitary attendant was leading his horse back and forth, as if
awaiting him. Kasam was amused. The Khan needed a few lessons from his
warlike sirdars if he wished to remain secure in his throne. The Prince
mounted his horse and, filled with exultant thoughts, galloped away to
the house of Agahr the Vizier.

Night had fallen by this time, and as Kasam approached he found Agahr’s
house dark and silent. The lamp that usually swung in the archway was
unlighted; there were no slaves at the door. Kasam was seized with
sudden misgivings. What if, in spite of Ahmed’s assurances, the plotting
vizier had fallen under the new khan’s displeasure? Much depended upon
Agahr, for all of Kasam’s interests were in his keeping. Scarce a day
had passed since Ahmed Khan had come into power; but much may happen in
a day; indeed, much had happened, as he was soon to discover.

Answering his imperative summons a slave cautiously unbolted the door
and, after a stealthy inspection of the visitor, admitted him with
alacrity.

“Is my uncle here?” demanded Kasam.

The slave nodded, caught up a torch and turned to lead the way down a
passage.

The Prince followed.

Suddenly a drapery was pushed aside and he entered a room brilliantly
lighted. Agahr sat upon a divan, and beside him, her fair face scarcely
concealed by her veil, was Maie. Facing them in a close drawn circle
were Zarig, the Sirdar of Raab, a lean priest in a coarse woollen robe,
and several men with restless faces that proved to be strangers to
Kasam.

All were silent, even when the Prince, finding all eyes turned upon him,
slapped his chest rather theatrically and exclaimed: “I am here!”

Maie twisted the rings upon her slender fingers; the vizier nodded
gravely to his nephew and stroked his gray beard; the sirdar sprang to
his feet and strode back and forth in the narrow confines of the room,
pausing anon to cast a shrewd glance into Kasam’s puzzled face. The
others merely exchanged nods of understanding, save the priest, who
frowned and fixed his eyes upon the floor.

At length the vizier broke the embarrassing silence.

“This,” said he, waving a listless hand toward the new arrival, “is
Kasam of Raab.”

“Welcome!” said the sirdar, laconically, and resumed his stride. Without
rising the others turned to bow gravely, but seemed to display little
real interest.

Although at first both hurt and annoyed by the nonchalence of those
assembled, the young prince was quick to decide that the conspirators
were doubtless overwhelmed by the sudden death of Burah and the
accession of his son Ahmed. It should be his part to instil new courage
into their timid hearts.

“I have just come from an interview with the young khan,” he said,
seating himself in the sirdar’s vacant chair and looking around the
circle to note the effect of his announcement.

The company did not seem especially impressed. Perhaps, he reflected,
they were aware that Dirrag had taken him to the palace directly on his
arrival.

“Ahmed Khan,” continued Kasam, “has offered to make me his vizier.”

Ah, they were eager enough now. Every eye was turned curiously upon the
young man.

“I refused,” said Kasam, proudly. “I defied him to his very face, and
bade him beware my power.”

Agahr drew a sigh of relief, and Maie smiled. The sirdar, who had paused
again, renewed his pacing.

“Friends,” cried Kasam, “the die is cast. From this day I will fight
Ahmed Khan for the throne of Mekran. Never will I rest until the usurper
is conquered and I am master of all Baluchistan.”

“A noble ambition,” said the sirdar, nodding approval.

“You have my best wishes, cousin,” added Maie, sweetly.

“But forbear, I pray you, my good Kasam, from telling me of your future
plans,” spoke Agahr, adjusting his robe carefully. “His Highness the
Khan has also accorded me an interview, and offered to retain me as his
vizier in case you refused the office. Therefore–”

“And you accepted?” asked the young man, indignantly.

Agahr frowned.

“I have filled the office for forty-six years,” said he; “and surely
none is better fitted than I for the place. Moreover, his Highness hath
promised to increase my honors and reduce my labors, and since I grow
old in serving the nation this consideration pleases me and renders me
content.”

“Yet you would serve a trickster–a weak, priest-ridden
impostor–instead of me, your kinsman and a Prince of Raab?”

“The man you call weak,” said Agahr, composedly, “has proven himself
strong. In ruling Baluchistan from the throne of Mekran he will be
masterful, energetic and supreme. Within his veins flows the blood of
two mighty khans whom all the nation feared–as they will come to fear
him. Had we considered Ahmed to be really weak, my Kasam, your cause
would have prospered and gained adherents; but to oppose the new khan
would be as foolish as it would prove vain. Already he has seized every
thread of power in an iron grasp.”

The company doubtless approved this speech, for all except the sirdar
nodded wisely and sighed. But Zarig stopped abruptly and gave the Prince
a keen look.

“You are trapped,” said he, harshly; “trapped by friends and foes alike.
What will you do, Prince Kasam?”

“Fight!” answered the young man, stoutly. “Even if I stand alone I will
defy the son of Burah Khan. But I will not stand alone. England, the
greatest of all nations, will support my cause, and Afghanistan will
lend an army to fight for my standard. Before I have done with Ahmed
Khan I will pull down the walls of Mekran about his ears.”

Maie smiled again, and the lean priest laughed outright. But Zarig
strode forward and grasped Kasam’s hand.

“Words–all words!” he cried. “Yet the spirit is the spirit of
conquerors, and you may count the tribe of Raab upon your side. Too long
have I and my people bowed down to the men of Ugg. We are but one tribe
of nine, but we have more wealth than all the others combined, and
enough courage to match any force the young khan may send against us.
Come, Kasam of Raab; let us leave these cowardly croakers to sun
themselves in the favor of the usurper. It is our part to sound the
battle-cry!”

Having delivered this bombastic speech the sirdar left the room,
followed closely by Kasam, and in the stillness that followed their
departure Maie, still smiling, bent forward and whispered:

“Words–all words!”