THE AMERICAN COMMISSION

When the American Construction Syndicate, of New York and Chicago,
conceived the idea of laying a railway across Baluchistan, through the
Alexandrian Pass and so into the Lower Indies–thus connecting Asia and
Europe by the shortest possible route–it was regarded as a bold
undertaking even for this gigantic corporation. But the Syndicate
scorned the imputation that any undertaking might be too hazardous or
difficult for it to accomplish; so, when the route was proposed and its
advantages understood, the railway was as good as built, in the minds of
the directors.

There were preliminaries, of course. A commission must be sent to
Baluchistan to secure right of way. And the route must be surveyed. But
these were mere matters of detail. Already the Syndicate had built a
road across the Balkans; even now it was laying rails in Turkestan. And
this Baluchistan route was but a part of a great system wisely and
cleverly projected.

The Alexandrian Pass was the same that nearly proved fatal to Alexander
the Great on the occasion of his invasion of India. Since then little
had been heard of it. But doubtless the Pass was still there, and had
been waiting all these years for some one to utilize it. It was part of
the domain of the Khan of Mekran, who also ruled the greater part of
Baluchistan.

The directors had the histories consulted. Baluchistan seemed
practically unknown to history. There were no books of travel in
Baluchistan. Strange! The country was there–very big on the maps–and
some one ought to know something about it. But no one apparently did.

Well, the Commission would discover all there was to know, and a
semi-barbarous country would be easy to deal with.

Next the Commission itself was considered, and Colonel Piedmont Moore
was selected as its chief. Colonel Moore was one of the Syndicate’s
largest stockholders and most respected officers, and the gentleman
himself directed the selection of the chief, because he had decided to
get away from the office for a time and travel, his health having become
undermined by too close attention to business.

Dr. Warner, his intimate friend, had repeatedly counselled him to break
away from work and take better care of himself. Travel was what he
needed–travel in such remote lands that no temptation would exist to
return to New York to “see how the Syndicate was getting on.”

When the Baluchistan Commission was first spoken of the Colonel
mentioned it to his old friend, who was also a stockholder in the
concern, the doctor having grown wealthy and retired from active
practice several years before.

“Just the thing!” declared the old gentleman. “A trip to Baluchistan
would probably set you on your feet again. Let me see–where is it?
Somewhere in South America, isn’t it?”

“No; I believe it’s in Asia,” returned the Colonel, gravely. “And that
is a long distance to journey alone.”

“Why, bless your soul! I’ll go with you,” declared Dr. Warner,
cheerfully. “I’ve intended to do a bit of travelling myself, as soon as
I got around to it; and Baluchistan has a fine climate, I’m sure.”

“No one seems to know much about it,” answered the Colonel.

“All the better! Why, we’ll be explorers. We’ll find out all about
Darkest Baluchistan, and perhaps write a book on our discoveries. We’ll
combine business and pleasure. I’m in the Syndicate. Have me appointed
as your second on the Commission, and the Syndicate shall pay our
expenses.”

So the plans were made, and afterward amplified to include the Colonel’s
son, Mr. Allison Moore, as official surveyor. Not that Allison Moore was
an especially practical or proficient man in his profession–indeed, the
directors feared just the contrary was true–but this was going to be a
sort of family party, and the Colonel was a person absolutely to be
depended upon. He was willing to vouch for his son, and that settled
the matter.

In fact, the Colonel was glad to have Allison with him on this trip.
Glad to have the young man under his eye, for one thing, and glad of an
opportunity to advance his son professionally. For Allison seemed to
have some difficulty in getting the right sort of a start, even though
he had spent years in making the attempt.

At first the young man declined to go to Baluchistan, and there were
angry words between father and son. But Dr. Warner acted as peacemaker
and Allison finally consented to go provided his father would pay
certain debts he had accumulated and make him an allowance in addition
to his salary from the syndicate. It was the first salary he had ever
received, and although the syndicate thought it liberal enough, it
seemed absurdly small to a gentleman of Allison’s requirements.

All this having been pleasantly settled, the doctor proposed taking
along his daughter Bessie, who had been pleading to go ever since the
trip was suggested.

At first the Colonel demurred.

“It’s a business expedition,” said he.

“Business and pleasure,” amended the doctor, promptly.

“And I don’t know what sort of country we’re going to. It may not be
pleasant for ladies.”

“We’ll make it pleasant for them. Better take Janet with you, Colonel,
and we’ll induce Aunt Lucy to go along as chaperon.”

“She wouldn’t consider such a trip an instant.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Janet.”

“Ask her about it.”

So the Colonel mentioned it at dinner, in a casual way, and Miss Janet
Moore at first opened her beautiful dark eyes in surprise, then
considered the matter silently for a half hour, and at dessert decided
she would go.

The Colonel was pleased. It was difficult to interest Janet in anything,
and if the Baluchistan trip would draw her out of her dreamy lassitude
and awaken in her something of her old bright self, why, the syndicate
be thanked for conceiving the idea of a Commission!

The old gentleman tolerated his son as a cross to be borne with
Christian resignation: he was devoted to his beautiful daughter.

Janet Moore in face and form represented that type of American girl
which has come to be acknowledged in all countries the ideal of womanly
grace and loveliness. The delicate contour of her features did not
destroy nor even abate their unmistakable strength and dignity. The
well-opened eyes were clear as a mountain pool, yet penetrating and
often discomfiting in their steadiness; the mouth was wide, yet sweet
and essentially feminine; the chin, held high and firm, was alluringly
curved and dimpled, displaying beneath it a throat so rarely perfect
that only in the Sicilian Aphrodite has sculptor ever equalled it. Her
head was poised in queenly fashion upon a form so lithe and rounded that
Diana might well have envied it, and while Janet’s expression at all
times bore a trace of sadness, a half smile always lingered upon her
lips–a smile so pathetic in its appeal that one who loved her would be
far less sympathetically affected by a flood of tears. The girl had
suffered a terrible disappointment seven years before. The man she loved
had been proven an arrant scoundrel. He had forged her father’s name;
been guilty of crime and ingratitude; worse than all else, he had run
away to escape punishment. It had been clearly proven against Herbert
Osborne, yet Janet, by a strange caprice, would never accept the proof.
She had a distinctly feminine idea that in spite of everything Herbert
was incapable of crime or any sort of dishonesty. And, knowing full well
that she stood alone in her belief, the girl proudly suffered in
silence.

There was more to Janet’s old romance than anyone ever dreamed; but
whatever the girl’s secret might be, she kept all details safely locked
within her own bosom.

The Colonel was surprised that his daughter should so readily agree to
undertake a tedious and perhaps uninteresting journey to a far-away
country; but he was nevertheless delighted. The change would assuredly
do her good, and Bessie Warner was just the jolly companion she needed
to waken her into new life.

So the doctor was informed that the two girls would accompany the
Commission, and Bessie at once set out to interview her Aunt Lucy and
persuade that very accommodating lady to go with them as chaperon. Aunt
Lucy was without a single tie to keep her in New York, and she was so
accustomed to being dragged here and there by her energetic niece that
she never stopped to enquire where Baluchistan was or how they were
expected to get there. In her mild and pleasant little voice she
remarked:

“Very well, dear. When do we start?”

“Oh, I’ll send you word, auntie. And thank you very much for being so
nice.”

“We’ll be back by Thanksgiving, I suppose?”

“I hardly know, dear. It’s a business trip of papa’s, and of course the
length of our stay depends entirely upon him and the Colonel, who is
some way interested in the matter. By the way, it’s called a Commission,
and we’ll be very important travellers, I assure you! Good bye, auntie,
dear!”

Then she hurried away; for that suggestion of returning by Thanksgiving
day, scarcely a month distant, showed her how little Aunt Lucy really
knew of the far journey she had so recklessly undertaken.

So this was the personnel of the famous Commission that was to invade
Baluchistan and secure from the Khan of Mekran a right of way for a
railroad through the Alexandrian Pass: Col. Piedmont Moore, Chief; Dr.
Luther Warner, Assistant; Allison Moore, Civil Engineer; Janet Moore and
Bessie Warner, chaperoned by Mrs. Lucy Higgins, Accessories and
Appendages.

The Commission crossed the ocean in safety; it reached London without
incident worthy of record, and there the Chief endeavored to secure some
definite knowledge of Baluchistan.

Not until he had presented the British minister’s letter to Lord Marvale
did the Colonel meet with any good fortune in his quest. Then the
atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty suddenly cleared, for a real Baluch
of Baluchistan was then in London and could be secured to pilot the
Americans to their destination.

To be sure this native–Kasam Ullah Raab by name–was uncommunicative at
first regarding the character of the Khan of Mekran or the probability
of the Syndicate’s being able to negotiate for a right of way through
his country; and, indeed, the Baluch could be induced to commit himself
neither to criticism nor encouragement of the plan. But, after all, it
was not to be supposed that much information of value could be secured
from a mere guide. The main point to be considered just then was how to
journey to Mekran with comfort and despatch, and incidentally the
accomplishments and attainments of the guide himself.

Kasam’s charming manners and frank, handsome countenance soon won the
confidence of the entire party. Even Allison Moore did not withhold his
admiration for the “gentlemanly barbarian,” as Aunt Lucy called him,
and the young ladies felt entirely at ease in his company.

“Really,” said Bessie, “our Kasam is quite a superior personage, for a
guide.”

And the prince overheard the remark and smiled.

During the journey the guide proved very thoughtful and gallant toward
the young ladies, and with the friendly familiarity common to Americans
they made Kasam one of themselves and treated him with frank
consideration. It was perhaps natural that the prince should respond by
openly confiding to them his rank and ambition, thus explaining his
reason for journeying with them in the humble capacity of guide. Before
they had reached Quettah the entire party knew every detail of Kasam’s
history, and canvassed his prospect of becoming khan as eagerly as they
did the details of their own vast enterprise. Indeed, the Colonel was
quick to recognize the advantage the Commission would acquire by being
on friendly terms with the future Khan of Mekran, and since Burah Khan
was old and suffered from many wounds received in many battles, the
chances were strongly in favor of the young prince being soon called to
the throne.

“My uncle is vizier to the usurper,” said Kasam, “and I will secure,
through him, an interview for you with Burah Khan. Also my uncle shall
extend to your party his good offices. He is the leader of the party
which is plotting to restore to me the throne of my ancestors, and is
therefore entirely devoted to my interests. Of course you will
understand that I dare not publicly announce my presence in Mekran;
therefore I will guide you as a hired servant, and so escape notice.
Only my uncle Agahr and two of the sirdars–or leaders of the
tribes–are acquainted with my person or know who I really am. But the
spies of the Khan are everywhere, as I have discovered during my former
secret visits to Mekran, and it is best for me to avoid them at this
juncture.”




All this was intensely interesting to every member of the Commission,
and it is no wonder Bessie smiled upon the handsome guide who possessed
so romantic a story. But Bessie’s brightest smiles seemed less desirable
to Kasam than one sympathetic look from Janet’s Moore’s serious dark
eyes.

The evident adoration with which the “foreign prince,” as she called
him, came to regard Miss Moore was a source of much uneasiness to Aunt
Lucy; but Janet did not seem to notice it, and the young man was ever
most humble and discreet while in her presence. In fact, there was
nothing in the prince’s behavior that the gentle old lady might complain
of openly. Yet she had her own suspicions, clinched by experienced
observation, of the foreigner’s intentions, and determined to keep a
sharp lookout in the interests of her charge. Soon they would enter a
barbarous country where this handsome prince would be more powerful than
the great Commission itself. And then?

At Quettah they secured camels and formed a caravan to cross the corner
of the Gedrasian Desert and so journey on to Mekran; but there was more
or less grumbling when this necessity was disclosed. Allison Moore, who
had behaved fairly well so far, flatly declined to go further toward the
wild and unknown country they had come so far to visit. The inn at
Quettah was fairly good. He would stay there. Vainly his father stormed
and argued, alternately; he even threatened to cut his son off with a
dime–the nearest approach to the legendary shilling he could think of;
but Allison proved stubborn. Having once declared his intention, he
answered nothing to the demands of his father or the pleadings of Dr.
Warner. He smoked his pipe, stared straight ahead and would not budge an
inch from Quettah.

“I’ll wait here till you come back,” he said, sullenly. “If you ever
do.”

This was the first disagreeable incident of the journey. Even Bessie was
depressed by Allison’s inference that they were involved in a dangerous
enterprise. As for Aunt Lucy, she suddenly conceived an idea that the
band of Afghans Kasam had employed to accompany the caravan were nothing
more than desperate bandits, who would carry the Commission into the
mountains and either murder every individual outright or hold them for
an impossible ransom.

Kasam’s earnest protestations finally disabused the minds of the ladies
of all impressions of danger. It was true that in Baluchistan they might
meet with lawless bands of Baluchi; but their caravan was too well
guarded to be interfered with. They were supplied with fleet saddle
horses and fleeter dromedaries; the twenty Afghans were bold and
fearless and would fight for them unto death. Really, they had nothing
at all to fear.

So at last they started, an imposing cavalcade, for the Khan’s
dominions, leaving Allison in the doorway of the inn smoking his
everlasting pipe and staring sullenly after them. The ladies rode
dromedaries, and found them less uncomfortable than they had at first
feared they would be. The Colonel did not seem to mind his son’s
desertion, for Kasam had whispered in his ear an amusing plan to conquer
the young surveyor’s obstinacy.

An hour later one of the prince’s Afghans, selected because he spoke
the English language, returned from the caravan to warn Allison that he
was in grave danger. The night before a plot had been overheard to
murder and rob the young man as soon as his friends had departed.

“If you shoot well and are quick with the knife,” added the Afghan,
coolly, “you may succeed in preserving your life till our return. His
Highness the Prince sent me to advise you to fight to the last, for
these scoundrels of Quettah have no mercy on foreigners.”

Then Allison stared again, rather blankly this time, and the next moment
requested the Afghan to secure him a horse.

Kasam was assuring the Colonel for the twentieth time that his son would
soon rejoin them when Allison and the Afghan rode up at a gallop and
attached themselves without a word to the cavalcade. And the Colonel was
undecided whether most to commend the guide’s cunning or his son’s
cautiousness.

This portion of their journey was greatly enjoyed by all members of the
party. The doctor declared he felt more than ever like an explorer, and
the Colonel silently speculated on all that might be gained by opening
this unknown territory to the world by means of the railway. The
distinct novelty of their present mode of progression was delightful to
the ladies, and Aunt Lucy decided she much preferred a camel to an
automobile. Even Janet’s pale cheeks gathered a tint from the desert
air, and despite the uncertainties of their pilgrimage the entire party
retained to a wonderful degree their cheerfulness and good nature.

At the end of four days they halted in a small village where Kasam
intended them to rest while he alone went forward to Mekran to obtain
their passports. For they were now upon the edge of the Khan’s
dominions, and without Burah’s protection the party was liable to
interference by some wandering tribe of Baluchi.

The accommodations they were able to secure in this unfrequented village
were none of the best, and Allison began to grumble anew, thereby
bringing upon himself a stern rebuke from the guide, who frankly
informed the young man that he was making his friends uncomfortable when
nothing could be gained by protesting.

“You cannot go back, and you dare not go forward without passports,”
said Kasam. “Therefore, if you possess any gentlemanly instincts at all,
you will endeavor to encourage the ladies and your father, instead of
adding to their annoyance. When one travels, one must be a philosopher.”

“You are impertinent,” returned Allison, scowling.

“If I yielded to my earnest desire,” said the prince, “I would ask my
men to flog you into a decent frame of mind. If I find, when I return,
that you have been disagreeable, perhaps I shall punish you in that way.
It may be well for you to remember that we are no longer in Europe.”

The young man made no reply, but Kasam remembered the vengeful look that
flashed from his eyes.

Heretofore the prince had worn the European frock coat; now he assumed
the white burnous of his countrymen. When he came to bid adieu to his
employers before starting for Mekran, Bessie declared that their guide
looked more handsome and distinguished than ever–“just like that famous
picture of the Son of the Desert, you know.”

Kasam was about to mount his horse–a splendid Arabian he had purchased
in the village–when a tall Baluch who was riding by cast a shrewd
glance into the young man’s face, sharply reined in his stallion, and
placed a thumb against his forehead, bowing low.

Kasam’s brown face went ashen grey. He gazed steadily into the
stranger’s eyes.

“You are bound for Mekran, my prince?” asked the tall Baluch, in the
native tongue.

“I ride at once.”

“Make all haste possible. Burah Khan is dying.”

“Dying? Blessed Allah!” cried Kasam, striking his forehead in despair.
“Burah Khan dying, and our plans still incomplete! I have waited too
long.”

“Perhaps not,” retorted the other, significantly. “It is a lingering
disease, and you may yet get to Mekran in time.”

“In time? In time for what?” asked Kasam.

“To strike!”

Kasam stared at him. The tall Baluch smiled and shook the rein over his
horse’s ears.

“I am of the tribe of Raab, my prince. May Allah guide you to success.”

Kasam did not reply. His head rested against the arched neck of his
horse, and his form shook with a slight nervous tremor. But next moment
he stood erect. The dazed look inspired by the bitter news he had heard
was giving way to his old eager, cheery expression.

“All is not lost!” he said, speaking aloud. “Fate knocks, and I will
throw open the door. Allah grant that Burah Khan lives until I reach
Mekran!”

He sprang to the saddle, put spurs to his steed and dashed away at full
speed into the desert.

“I hope,” said the Colonel, looking after him anxiously, “that nothing
has gone wrong.”