THE BROKEN ROAD
BY A.E.W. MASON
AUTHOR OF "FOUR FEATHERS," "THE TRUANTS," "RUNNING WATER," ETC.
I. THE BREAKING OF THE ROAD
II. INSIDE THE FORT
III. LINFORTH'S DEATH
IV. LUFFE LOOKS FORWARD
V. A MAGAZINE ARTICLE
VI. A LONG WALK
VII. IN THE DAUPHINE
VIII. A STRING OF PEARLS
IX. LUFFE IS REMEMBERED
X. AN UNANSWERED QUESTION
XI. AT THE GATE OF LAHORE
XII. ON THE POLO-GROUND
XIII. THE INVIDIOUS BAR
XIV. IN THE COURTYARD
XV. A QUESTION ANSWERED
XVI. SHERE ALI MEETS AN OLD FRIEND
XVII. NEWS FROM MECCA
XVIII. SYBIL LINFORTH'S LOYALTY
XIX. A GIFT MISUNDERSTOOD
XX. THE SOLDIER AND THE JEW
XXI. SHERE ALI IS CLAIMED BY CHILTISTAN
XXII. THE CASTING OF THE DIE
XXIII. SHERE ALI'S PILGRIMAGE
XXIV. NEWS FROM AJMERE
XXV. IN THE ROSE GARDEN
XXVI. THE BREAKING OF THE PITCHER
XXVII. AN ARRESTED CONFESSION
XXVIII. THE THIEF
XXIX. MRS. OLIVER RIDES THROUGH PESHAWUR
XXX. THE NEEDED IMPLEMENT
XXXI. AN OLD TOMB AND A NEW SHRINE
XXXII. SURPRISES FOR CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
XXXIII. IN THE RESIDENCY
XXXIV. ONE OF THE LITTLE WARS
XXXV. A LETTER FROM VIOLET
XXXVI. "THE LITTLE LESS—"
THE BREAKING OF THE ROAD
It was the Road which caused the trouble. It usually is the road. That and a reigning prince who was declared by his uncle secretly to have sold his country to the British, and a half-crazed priest from out beyond the borders of Afghanistan, who sat on a slab of stone by the river-bank and preached a djehad. But above all it was the road—Linforth's road. It came winding down from the passes, over slopes of shale; it was built with wooden galleries along the precipitous sides of cliffs; it snaked treacherously further and further across the rich valley of Chiltistan towards the Hindu Kush, until the people of that valley could endure it no longer.
Then suddenly from Peshawur the wires began to flash their quiet and ominous messages. The road had been cut behind Linforth and his coolies. No news had come from him. No supplies could reach him. Luffe, who was in the country to the east of Chiltistan, had been informed. He had gathered together what troops he could lay his hands on and had already started over the eastern passes to Linforth's relief. But it was believed that the whole province of Chiltistan had risen. Moreover it was winter-time and the passes were deep in snow. The news was telegraphed to England. Comfortable gentlemen read it in their first-class carriages as they travelled to the City and murmured to each other commonplaces about the price of empire. And in a house at the foot of the Sussex Downs Linforth's young wife leaned over the cot of her child with the tears streaming from her eyes, and thought of the road with no less horror than the people of Chiltistan. Meanwhile the great men in Calcutta began to mobilise a field force at Nowshera, and all official India said uneasily, "Thank Heaven, Luffe's on the spot."
Charles Luffe had long since abandoned the army for the political service, and, indeed, he was fast approaching the time-limit of his career. He was a man of breadth and height, but rather heavy and dull of feature, with a worn face and a bald forehead. He had made enemies, and still made them, for he had not the art of suffering fools gladly; and, on the other hand, he made no friends. He had no sense of humour and no general information. He was, therefore, of no assistance at a dinner-party, but when there was trouble upon the Frontier, or beyond it, he was usually found to be the chief agent in the settlement.
Luffe alone had foreseen and given warning of the danger. Even Linforth, who was actually superintending the making of the road, had been kept in ignorance. At times, indeed, some spokesman from among the merchants of Kohara, the city of Chiltistan where year by year the caravans from Central Asia met the caravans from Central India, would come to his tent and expostulate.
"We are better without the road, your Excellency. Will you kindly stop it!" the merchant would say; and Linforth would then proceed to demonstrate how extremely valuable to the people of Chiltistan a better road would be:
"Kohara is already a great mart. In your bazaars at summer-time you see traders from Turkestan and Tibet and Siberia, mingling with the Hindoo merchants from Delhi and Lahore. The road will bring you still more trade."
The spokesman went back to the broad street of Kohara seemingly well content, and inch by inch the road crept nearer to the capital.
But Luffe was better acquainted with the Chiltis, a soft-spoken race of men, with musical, smooth voices and polite and pretty ways. But treachery was a point of honour with them and cold-blooded cruelty a habit. There was one particular story which Luffe was accustomed to tell as illustrative of the Chilti character.
"There was a young man who lived with his mother in a little hamlet close to Kohara. His mother continually urged him to marry, but for a long while he would not. He did not wish to marry. Finally, however, he fell in love with a pretty girl, made her his wife, and brought her home, to his mother's delight. But the mother's delight lasted for just five days. She began to complain, she began to quarrel; the young wife replied, and the din of their voices greatly distressed the young man, besides making him an object of ridicule to his neighbours. One evening, in a fit of passion, both women said they would stand it no longer. They ran out of the house and up the hillside, but as there was only one path they ran away together, quarrelling as they went. Then the young Chilti rose, followed them, caught them up, tied them in turn hand and foot, laid them side by side on a slab of stone, and quietly cut their throats.
"'Women talk too much,' he said, as he came back to a house unfamiliarly quiet. 'One had really to put a stop to it.'"
Knowing this and many similar stories, Luffe had been for some while on the alert. Whispers reached him of dangerous talk in the bazaars of Kohara, Peshawur, and even of Benares in India proper. He heard of the growing power of the old Mullah by the river-bank. He was aware of the accusations against the ruling Khan. He knew that after night had fallen Wafadar Nazim, the Khan's uncle, a restless, ambitious, disloyal man, crept down to the river-bank and held converse with the priest. Thus he was ready so far as he could be ready.
The news that the road was broken was flashed to him from the nearest telegraph station, and within twenty-four hours he led out a small force from his Agency—a battalion of Sikhs, a couple of companies of Gurkhas, two guns of a mountain battery, and a troop of irregular levies—and disappeared over the pass, now deep in snow.
"Would he be in time?"
Not only in India was the question asked. It was asked in England, too, in the clubs of Pall Mall, but nowhere with so passionate an outcry as in the house at the foot of the Sussex Downs.
To Sybil Linforth these days were a time of intolerable suspense. The horror of the Road was upon her. She dreamed of it when she slept, so that she came to dread sleep, and tried, as long as she might, to keep her heavy eyelids from closing over her eyes. The nights to her were terrible. Now it was she, with her child in her arms, who walked for ever and ever along that road, toiling through snow or over shale and finding no rest anywhere. Now it was her boy alone, who wandered along one of the wooden galleries high up above the river torrent, until a plank broke and he fell through with a piteous scream. Now it was her husband, who could go neither forward nor backward, since in front and behind a chasm gaped. But most often it was a man—a young Englishman, who pursued a young Indian along that road into the mists. Somehow, perhaps because it was inexplicable, perhaps because its details were so clear, this dream terrified her more than all the rest. She could tell the very dress of the Indian who fled—a young man—young as his pursuer. A thick sheepskin coat swung aside as he ran and gave her a glimpse of gay silk; soft leather boots protected his feet; and upon his face there was a look of fury and wild fear. She never woke from this dream but her heart was beating wildly. For a few moments after waking peace would descend upon her.
"It is a dream—all a dream," she would whisper to herself with contentment, and then the truth would break upon her dissociated from the dream. Often she rose from her bed and, kneeling beside the boy's cot, prayed with a passionate heart that the curse of the Road—that road predicted by a Linforth years ago—might overpass this generation.
Meanwhile rumours came—rumours of disaster. Finally a messenger broke through and brought sure tidings. Luffe had marched quickly, had come within thirty miles of Kohara before he was stopped. In a strong fort at a bend of the river the young Khan with his wife and a few adherents had taken refuge. Luffe joined the Khan, sought to push through to Kohara and rescue Linforth, but was driven back. He and his troops and the Khan were now closely besieged by Wafadar Nazim.
The work of mobilisation was pressed on; a great force was gathered at Nowshera; Brigadier Appleton was appointed to command it.
"Luffe will hold out," said official India, trying to be cheerful.
Perhaps the only man who distrusted Luffe's ability to hold out was Brigadier Appleton, who had personal reasons for his views. Brigadier Appleton was no fool, and yet Luffe had not suffered him gladly. All the more, therefore, did he hurry on the preparations. The force marched out on the new road to Chiltistan. But meanwhile the weeks were passing, and up beyond the snow-encumbered hills the beleaguered troops stood cheerfully at bay behind the thick fort-walls.
INSIDE THE FORT
The six English officers made it a practice, so far as they could, to dine together; and during the third week of the siege the conversation happened one evening to take a particular turn. Ever afterwards, during this one hour of the twenty-four, it swerved regularly into the same channel. The restaurants of London were energetically discussed, and their merits urged by each particular partisan with an enthusiasm which would have delighted a shareholder. Where you got the best dinner, where the prettiest women were to be seen, whether a band was a drawback or an advantage—not a point was omitted, although every point had been debated yesterday or the day before. To-night the grave question of the proper number for a supper party was opened by Major Dewes of the 5th Gurkha Regiment.
"Two," said the Political Officer promptly, and he chuckled under his grey moustache. "I remember the last time I was in London I took out to supper—none of the coryphees you boys are so proud of being seen about with, but"—and, pausing impressively, he named a reigning lady of the light-opera stage.
"You did!" exclaimed a subaltern.
"I did," he replied complacently.
"What did you talk about?" asked Major Dewes, and the Political Officer suddenly grew serious.
"I was very interested," he said quietly. "I got knowledge which it was good for me to have. I saw something which it was well for me to see. I wished—I wish now—that some of the rulers and the politicians could have seen what I saw that night."
A brief silence followed upon his words, and during that silence certain sounds became audible—the beating of tom-toms and the cries of men. The dinner-table was set in the verandah of an inner courtyard open to the sky, and the sounds descended into that well quite distinctly, but faintly, as if they were made at a distance in the dark, open country. The six men seated about the table paid no heed to those sounds; they had had them in their ears too long. And five of the six were occupied in wondering what in the world Sir Charles Luffe, K.C.S.I., could have learnt of value to him at a solitary supper party with a lady of comic opera. For it was evident that he had spoken in deadly earnest.
Captain Lynes of the Sikhs broke the silence:
"What's this?" he asked, as an orderly offered to him a dish.
"Let us not inquire too closely," said the Political Officer. "This is the fourth week of the siege."
The rice-fields of the broad and fertile valley were trampled down and built upon with sangars. The siege had cut its scars upon the fort's rough walls of mud and projecting beams. But nowhere were its marks more visible than upon the faces of the Englishmen in the verandah of that courtyard.
Dissimilar as they were in age and feature, sleepless nights and the unrelieved tension had given to their drawn faces almost a family likeness. They were men tired out, but as yet unaware of their exhaustion, so bright a flame burnt within each one of them. Somewhere amongst the snow-passes on the north-east a relieving force would surely be encamped that night, a day's march nearer than it was yesterday. Somewhere amongst the snow-passes in the south a second force would be surely advancing from Nowshera, probably short of rations, certainly short of baggage, that it might march the lighter. When one of those two forces deployed across the valley and the gates of the fort were again thrown open to the air the weeks of endurance would exact their toll. But that time was not yet come. Meanwhile the six men held on cheerily, inspiring the garrison with their own confidence, while day after day a province in arms flung itself in vain against their blood-stained walls. Luffe, indeed, the Political Officer, fought with disease as well as with the insurgents of Chiltistan; and though he remained the master-mind of the defence, the Doctor never passed him without an anxious glance. For there were the signs of death upon his face.
"The fourth week!" said Lynes. "Is it, by George? Well, the siege won't last much longer now. The Sirkar don't leave its servants in the lurch. That's what these hill-tribes never seem to understand. How is Travers?" he asked of the Doctor.
Travers, a subaltern of the North Surrey Light Infantry, had been shot through the thigh in the covered waterway to the river that morning.
"He's going on all right," replied the Doctor. "Travers had bad luck. It must have been a stray bullet which slipped through that chink in the stones. For he could not have been seen—"
As he spoke a cry rang clearly out. All six men looked upwards through the open roof to the clear dark sky, where the stars shone frostily bright.
"What was that?" asked one of the six.
"Hush," said Luffe, and for a moment they all listened in silence, with expectant faces and their bodies alert to spring from their chairs. Then the cry was heard again. It was a wail more than a cry, and it sounded strangely solitary, strangely sad, as it floated through the still air. There was the East in that cry trembling out of the infinite darkness above their heads. But the six men relaxed their limbs. They had expected the loud note of the Pathan war-cry to swell sonorously, and with intervals shorter and shorter until it became one menacing and continuous roar.
"It is someone close under the walls," said Luffe, and as he ended a Sikh orderly appeared at the entrance of a passage into the courtyard, and, advancing to the table, saluted.
"Sahib, there is a man who claims that he comes with a message from Wafadar Nazim."
"Tell him that we receive no messages at night, as Wafadar Nazim knows well. Let him come in the morning and he shall be admitted. Tell him that if he does not go back at once the sentinels will fire." And Luffe nodded to one of the younger officers. "Do you see to it, Haslewood."
Haslewood rose and went out from the courtyard with the orderly. He returned in a few minutes, saying that the man had returned to Wafadar Nazim's camp. The six men resumed their meal, and just as they ended it a Pathan glided in white flowing garments into the courtyard and bowed low.
"Huzoor," he said, "His Highness the Khan sends you greeting. God has been very good to him. A son has been born to him this day, and he sends you this present, knowing that you will value it more than all that he has"; and carefully unfolding a napkin, he laid with reverence upon the table a little red cardboard box. The mere look of the box told the six men what the present was even before Luffe lifted the lid. It was a box of fifty gold-tipped cigarettes, and applause greeted their appearance.
"If he could only have a son every day," said Lynes, and in the laugh which followed upon the words Luffe alone did not join. He leaned his forehead upon his hand and sat in a moody silence. Then he turned towards the servant and bade him thank his master.
"I will come myself to offer our congratulations after dinner if his Highness will receive me," said Luffe.
The box of cigarettes went round the table. Each man took one, lighted it, and inhaled the smoke silently and very slowly. The garrison had run out of tobacco a week before. Now it had come to them welcome as a gift from Heaven. The moment was one of which the perfect enjoyment was not to be marred by any speech. Only a grunt of satisfaction or a deep sigh of pleasure was now and then to be heard, as the smoke curled upwards from the little paper sticks. Each man competed with his neighbour in the slowness of his respiration, each man wanted to be the last to lay down his cigarette and go about his work. And then the Doctor said in a whisper to Major Dewes:
"That's bad. Look!"
Luffe, a mighty smoker in his days of health, had let his cigarette go out, had laid it half-consumed upon the edge of his plate. But it seemed that ill-health was not all to blame. He had the look of one who had forgotten his company. He was withdrawn amongst his own speculations, and his eyes looked out beyond that smoke-laden room in a fort amongst the Himalaya mountains into future years dim with peril and trouble.
"There is no moon," he said at length. "We can get some exercise to-night"; and he rose from the table and ascended a little staircase on to the flat roof of the fort. Major Dewes and the three other officers got up and went about their business. Dr. Bodley, the surgeon, alone remained seated. He waited until the tramp of his companions' feet had died away, and then he drew from his pocket a briarwood pipe, which he polished lovingly. He walked round the table and, collecting the ends of the cigarettes, pressed them into the bowl of the pipe.
"Thank Heavens I am not an executive officer," he said, as he lighted his pipe and settled himself again comfortably in his chair. It should be mentioned, perhaps, that he not only doctored and operated on the sick and wounded, but he kept the stores, and when any fighting was to be done, took a rifle and filled any place which might be vacant in the firing-line.
"There are now forty-four cigarettes," he reflected. "At six a day they will last a week. In a week something will have happened. Either the relieving force will be here, or—yes, decidedly something will have happened." And as he blew the smoke out from between his lips he added solemnly: "If not to us, to the Political Officer."
Meanwhile Luffe paced the roof of the fort in the darkness. The fort was built in the bend of a swift, wide river, and so far as three sides were concerned was securely placed. For on three the low precipitous cliffs overhung the tumbling water. On the fourth, however, the fertile plain of the valley stretched open and flat up to the very gates.
In front of the forts a line of sangars extended, the position of each being marked even now by a glare of light above it, which struck up from the fire which the insurgents had lit behind the walls of stone. And from one and another of the sangars the monotonous beat of a tom-tom came to Luffe's ears.
Luffe walked up and down for a time upon the roof. There was a new sangar to-night, close to the North Tower, which had not existed yesterday. Moreover, the almond trees in the garden just outside the western wall were in blossom, and the leaves upon the branches were as a screen, where only the bare trunks showed a fortnight ago.
But with these matters Luffe was not at this moment concerned. They helped the enemy, they made the defence more arduous, but they were trivial in his thoughts. Indeed, the siege itself was to him an unimportant thing. Even if the fortress fell, even if every man within perished by the sword—why, as Lynes had said, the Sirkar does not forget its servants. The relieving force might march in too late, but it would march in. Men would die, a few families in England would wear mourning, the Government would lose a handful of faithful servants. England would thrill with pride and anger, and the rebellion would end as rebellions always ended.
Luffe was troubled for quite another cause. He went down from the roof, walked by courtyard and winding passage to the quarters of the Khan. A white-robed servant waited for him at the bottom of a broad staircase in a room given up to lumber. A broken bicycle caught Luffe's eye. On the ledge of a window stood a photographic camera. Luffe mounted the stairs and was ushered into the Khan's presence. He bowed with deference and congratulated the Khan upon the birth of his heir.
"I have been thinking," said the Khan—"ever since my son was born I have been thinking. I have been a good friend to the English. I am their friend and servant. News has come to me of their cities and colleges. I will send my son to England, that he may learn your wisdom, and so return to rule over his kingdom. Much good will come of it." Luffe had expected the words. The young Khan had a passion for things English. The bicycle and the camera were signs of it. Unwise men had applauded his enlightenment. Unwise at all events in Luffe's opinion. It was, indeed, greatly because of his enlightenment that he and a handful of English officers and troops were beleaguered in the fortress.
"He shall go to Eton and to Oxford, and much good for my people will come of it," said the Khan. Luffe listened gravely and politely; but he was thinking of an evening when he had taken out to supper a reigning queen of comic opera. The recollection of that evening remained with him when he ascended once more to the roof of the fort and saw the light of the fires above the sangars. A voice spoke at his elbow. "There is a new sangar being built in the garden. We can hear them at work," said Dewes.
Luffe walked cautiously along the roof to the western end. Quite clearly they could hear the spades at work, very near to the wall, amongst the almond and the mulberry trees.
"Get a fireball," said Luffe in a whisper, "and send up a dozen Sikhs."
On the parapet of the roof a rough palisade of planks had been erected to protect the defenders from the riflemen in the valley and across the river. Behind this palisade the Sikhs crept silently to their positions. A ball made of pinewood chips and straw, packed into a covering of canvas, was brought on to the roof and saturated with kerosene oil. "Are you ready?" said Luffe; "then now!" Upon the word the fireball was lit and thrown far out. It circled through the air, dropped, and lay blazing upon the ground. By its light under the branches of the garden trees could be seen the Pathans building a stone sangar, within thirty yards of the fort's walls.
"Fire!" cried Luffe. "Choose your men and fire."
All at once the silence of the night was torn by the rattle of musketry, and afar off the tom-toms beat yet more loudly.
Luffe looked on with every faculty alert. He saw with a smile that the Doctor had joined them and lay behind a plank, firing rapidly and with a most accurate aim. But at the back of his mind all the while that he gave his orders was still the thought, "All this is nothing. The one fateful thing is the birth of a son to the Khan of Chiltistan." The little engagement lasted for about half an hour. The insurgents then drew back from the garden, leaving their dead upon the field. The rattle of the musketry ceased altogether. Behind the parapet one Sikh had been badly wounded by a bullet in the thigh. Already the Doctor was attending to his hurts.
"It is a small thing, Huzoor," said the wounded soldier, looking upwards to Luffe, who stood above him; "a very small thing," but even as he spoke pain cut the words short.
"Yes, a small thing"; Luffe did not speak the words, but he thought them. He turned away and walked back again across the roof. The new sangar would not be built that night. But it was a small thing compared with all that lay hidden in the future.
As he paced that side of the fort which faced the plain there rose through the darkness, almost beneath his feet, once more the cry which had reached his ears while he sat at dinner in the courtyard.
He heard a few paces from him the sharp order to retire given by a sentinel. But the voice rose again, claiming admission to the fort, and this time a name was uttered urgently, an English name.
"Don't fire," cried Luffe to the sentinel, and he leaned over the wall.
"You come from Wafadar Nazim, and alone?"
"Huzoor, my life be on it."
"With news of Sahib Linforth?"
"Yes, news which his Highness Wafadar Nazim thinks it good for you to know"; and the voice in the darkness rose to insolence.
Luffe strained his eyes downwards. He could see nothing. He listened, but he could hear no whispering voices. He hesitated. He was very anxious to hear news of Linforth.
"I will let you in," he cried; "but if there be more than one the lives of all shall be the price."
He went down into the fort. Under his orders Captain Lynes drew up inside the gate a strong guard of Sikhs with their rifles loaded and bayonets fixed. A few lanterns threw a dim light upon the scene, glistening here and there upon the polish of an accoutrement or a rifle-barrel.
"Present," whispered Lynes, and the rifles were raised to the shoulder, with every muzzle pointing towards the gate.
Then Lynes himself went forward, removed the bars, and turned the key in the lock. The gate swung open noiselessly a little way, and a tall man, clad in white flowing robes, with a deeply pock-marked face and a hooked nose, walked majestically in. He stood quite still while the gate was barred again behind him, and looked calmly about him with inquisitive bright eyes.
"Will you follow me?" said Luffe, and he led the way through the rabbit-warren of narrow alleys into the centre of the fort.
Luffe had taken a large bare low-roofed room supported upon pillars for his council-chamber. Thither he conducted his visitor. Camp chairs were placed for himself and Major Dewes and Captain Lynes. Cushions were placed upon the ground for his visitor. Luffe took his seat in the middle, with Dewes upon his right and Lynes upon his left. Dewes expected him at once to press for information as to Linforth. But Luffe knew very well that certain time must first be wasted in ceremonious preliminaries. The news would only be spoken after a time and in a roundabout fashion.
"If we receive you without the distinction which is no doubt your due," said Luffe politely, "you must remember that I make it a rule not to welcome visitors at night."
The visitor smiled and bowed.
"It is a great grief to his Highness Wafadar Nazim that you put so little faith in him," replied the Chilti. "See how he trusts you! He sends me, his Diwan, his Minister of Finance, in the night time to come up to your walls and into your fort, so great is his desire to learn that the Colonel Sahib is well."
Luffe in his turn bowed with a smile of gratitude. It was not the time to point out that his Highness Wafadar Nazim was hardly taking the course which a genuine solicitude for the Colonel Sahib's health would recommend.
"His Highness has but one desire in his heart. He desires peace—peace so that this country may prosper, and peace because of his great love for the Colonel Sahib."
Again Luffe bowed.
"But to all his letters the Colonel Sahib returns the same answer, and truly his Highness is at a loss what to do in order that he may ensure the safety of the Colonel Sahib and his followers," the Diwan continued pensively. "I will not repeat what has been already said," and at once he began at interminable length to contradict his words. He repeated the proposals of surrender made by Wafadar Nazim from beginning to end. The Colonel Sahib was to march out of the fort with his troops, and his Highness would himself conduct him into British territory.
"If the Colonel Sahib dreads the censure of his own Government, his Highness will take all the responsibility for the Colonel Sahib's departure. But no blame will fall upon the Colonel Sahib. For the British Government, with whom Wafadar Nazim has always desired to live in amity, desires peace too, as it has always said. It is the British Government which has broken its treaties."
"Not so," replied Luffe. "The road was undertaken with the consent of the Khan of Chiltistan, who is the ruler of this country, and Wafadar, his uncle, merely the rebel. Therefore take back my last word to Wafadar Nazim. Let him make submission to me as representative of the Sirkar, and lay down his arms. Then I will intercede for him with the Government, so that his punishment be light."
The Diwan smiled and his voice changed once more to a note of insolence.
"His Highness Wafadar Nazim is now the Khan of Chiltistan. The other, the deposed, lies cooped up in this fort, a prisoner of the British, whose willing slave he has always been. The British must retire from our country. His Highness Wafadar Nazim desires them no harm. But they must go now!"
Luffe looked sternly at the Diwan.
"Tell Wafadar Nazim to have a care lest they go never, but set their foot firmly upon the neck of this rebellious people."
He rose to signify that the conference was at an end. But the Diwan did not stir. He smiled pensively and played with the tassels of his cushion.
"And yet," he said, "how true it is that his Highness thinks only of the Colonel Sahib's safety."
Some note of satisfaction, not quite perfectly concealed, some sly accent of triumph sounding through the gently modulated words, smote upon Luffe's ears, and warned him that the true meaning of the Diwan's visit was only now to be revealed. All that had gone before was nothing. The polite accusations, the wordy repetitions, the expressions of good will—these were the mere preliminaries, the long salute before the combat. Luffe steeled himself against a blow, controlling his face and his limbs lest a look or a gesture should betray the hurt. And it was well that he did, for the next moment the blow fell.
"For bad news has come to us. Sahib Linforth met his death two days ago, fifty miles from here, in the camp of his Excellency Abdulla Mahommed, the Commander-in-Chief to his Highness. Abdulla Mahommed is greatly grieved, knowing well that this violent act will raise up a prejudice against him and his Highness. Moreover, he too would live in friendship with the British. But his soldiers are justly provoked by the violation of treaties by the British, and it is impossible to stay their hands. Therefore, before Abdulla Mahommed joins hands with my master, Wafadar Nazim, before this fort, it will be well for the Colonel Sahib and his troops to be safely out of reach."
Luffe was doubtful whether to believe the words or no. The story might be a lie to frighten him and to discourage the garrison. On the other hand, it was likely enough to be true. And if true, it was the worst news which Luffe had heard for many a long day.
"Let me hear how the accident—occurred," he said, smiling grimly at the euphemism he used.
"Sahib Linforth was in the tent set apart for him by Abdulla Mahommed. There were guards to protect him, but it seems they did not watch well. Huzoor, all have been punished, but punishment will not bring Sahib Linforth to life again. Therefore hear the words of Wafadar Nazim, spoken now for the last time. He himself will escort you and your soldiers and officers to the borders of British territory, so that he may rejoice to know that you are safe. You will leave his Highness Mir Ali behind, who will resign his throne in favour of his uncle Wafadar, and so there will be peace."
"And what will happen to Mir Ali, whom we have promised to protect?"
The Diwan shrugged his shoulders in a gentle, deprecatory fashion and smiled his melancholy smile. His gesture and his attitude suggested that it was not in the best of taste to raise so unpleasant a question. But he did not reply in words.
"You will tell Wafadar Nazim that we will know how to protect his Highness the Khan, and that we will teach Abdulla Mahommed a lesson in that respect before many moons have passed," Luffe said sternly. "As for this story of Sahib Linforth, I do not believe a word of it."
The Diwan nodded his head.
"It was believed that you would reply in this way.
"Therefore here are proofs." He drew from his dress a silver watch upon a leather watch-guard, a letter-case, and to these he added a letter in Linforth's own hand. He handed them to Luffe.
Luffe handed the watch and chain to Dewes, and opened the letter-case. There was a letter in it, written in a woman's handwriting, and besides the letter the portrait of a girl. He glanced at the letter and glanced at the portrait. Then he passed them on to Dewes.
Dewes looked at the portrait with a greater care. The face was winning rather than pretty. It seemed to him that it was one of those faces which might become beautiful at many moments through the spirit of the woman, rather than from any grace of feature. If she loved, for instance, she would be really beautiful for the man she loved.
"I wonder who she is," he said thoughtfully.
"I know," replied Luffe, almost carelessly. He was immersed in the second letter which the Diwan had handed to him.
"Who is it?" asked Dewes.
"His wife!" exclaimed Dewes, and, looking at the photograph again, he said in a low voice which was gentle with compassion, "Poor woman!"
"Yes, yes. Poor woman!" said Luffe, and he went on reading his letter.
It was characteristic of Luffe that he should feel so little concern in the domestic side of Linforth's life. He was not very human in his outlook on the world. Questions of high policy interested and engrossed his mind; he lived for the Frontier, not so much subduing a man's natural emotions as unaware of them. Men figured in his thoughts as the instruments of policy; their womenfolk as so many hindrances or aids to the fulfilment of their allotted tasks. Thus Linforth's death troubled him greatly, since Linforth was greatly concerned in one great undertaking. Moreover, the scheme had been very close to Linforth's heart, even as it was to Luffe's. But Linforth's wife was in England, and thus, as it seemed to him, neither aid nor impediment. But in that he was wrong. She had been the mainspring of Linforth's energy, and so much was evident in the letter which Luffe read slowly to the end.
"Yes, Linforth's dead," said he, with a momentary discouragement. "There are many whom we could more easily have spared. Of course the thing will go on. That's certain," he said, nodding his head. A cold satisfaction shone in his eyes. "But Linforth was part of the Thing."
He passed the second letter to Dewes, who read it; and for a while both men remained thoughtful and, as it seemed, unaware for the moment of the Diwan's presence. There was this difference, however. Luffe was thinking of "the Thing"; Dewes was pondering on the grim little tragedy which these letters revealed, and thanking Heaven in all simplicity of heart that there was no woman waiting in fear because of him and trembling at sight of each telegraph boy she met upon the road.
The grim little tragedy was not altogether uncommon upon the Indian frontier, but it gained vividness from the brevity of the letters which related it. The first one, that in the woman's hand, written from a house under the Downs of Sussex, told of the birth of a boy in words at once sacred and simple. They were written for the eyes of one man, and Major Dewes had a feeling that his own, however respectfully, violated their sanctity. The second letter was an unfinished one written by the husband to the wife from his tent amongst the rabble of Abdulla Mahommed. Linforth clearly understood that this was the last letter he would write. "I am sitting writing this by the light of a candle. The tent door is open. In front of me I can see the great snow-mountains. All the ugliness of the lower shale slopes is hidden. By such a moonlight, my dear, may you always look back upon my memory. For it is over, Sybil. They are waiting until I fall asleep. I have been warned of it. But I shall fall asleep to-night. I have kept awake for two nights. I am very tired."
He had fallen asleep even before the letter was completed. There was a message for the boy and a wish:
"May he meet a woman like you, my dear, when his time comes, and love her as I love you," and again came the phrase, "I am very tired." It spoke of the boy's school, and continued: "Whether he will come out here it is too early to think about. But the road will not be finished—and I wonder. If he wants to, let him! We Linforths belong to the road," and for the third time the phrase recurred, "I am very tired," and upon the phrase the letter broke off.
Dewes could imagine Linforth falling forward with his head upon his hands, his eyes heavy with sleep, while from without the tent the patient Chiltis watched until he slept.
"How did it happen?" he asked.
"They cast a noose over his head," replied the Diwan, "dragged him from the tent and stabbed him."
Dewes nodded and turned to Luffe.
"These letters and things must go home to his wife. It's hard on her, with a boy only a few months old."
"A boy?" said Luffe, rousing himself from his thoughts. "Oh! there's a boy? I had not noticed that. I wonder how far the road will have gone when he comes out." There was no doubt in Luffe's mind, at all events, as to the boy's destiny. He turned to the Diwan.
"Tell Wafadar Nazim that I will open the gates of this fort and march down to British territory after he has made submission," he said.
The Diwan smiled in a melancholy way. He had done his best, but the British were, of course, all mad. He bowed himself out of the room and stalked through the alleys to the gates.
"Wafadar Nazim must be very sure of victory," said Luffe. "He would hardly have given us that unfinished letter had he a fear we should escape him in the end."
"He could not read what was written," said Dewes.
"But he could fear what was written," replied Luffe.
As he walked across the courtyard he heard the crack of a rifle. The sound came from across the river. The truce was over, the siege was already renewed.
LUFFE LOOKS FORWARD
It was the mine underneath the North Tower which brought the career of Luffe to an end. The garrison, indeed, had lived in fear of this peril ever since the siege began. But inasmuch as no attempt to mine had been made during the first month, the fear had grown dim. It was revived during the fifth week. The officers were at mess at nine o'clock in the evening, when a havildar of Sikhs burst into the courtyard with the news that the sound of a pick could be heard from the chamber of the tower.
"At last!" cried Dewes, springing to his feet. The six men hurried to the tower. A long loophole had been fashioned in the thick wall on a downward slant, so that a marksman might command anyone who crept forward to fire the fort. Against this loophole Luffe leaned his ear.
"Do you hear anything, sir?" asked a subaltern of the Sappers who was attached to the force.
"Hush!" said Luffe.
He listened, and he heard quite clearly underneath the ground below him the dull shock of a pickaxe. The noise came almost from beneath his feet; so near the mine had been already driven to the walls. The strokes fell with the regularity of the ticking of a clock. But at times the sound changed in character. The muffled thud of the pick upon earth became a clang as it struck upon stone.
"Do you listen!" said Luffe, giving way to Dewes, and Dewes in his turn leaned his ear against the loophole.
"What do you think?" asked Luffe.
Dewes stood up straight again.
"I'll tell you what I am thinking. I am thinking it sounds like the beating of a clock in a room where a man lies dying," he said.
Luffe nodded his head. But images and romantic sayings struck no response from him. He turned to the young Sapper.
"Can we countermine?"
The young Engineer took the place of Major Dewes.
"We can try, but we are late," said he.
"It must be a sortie then," said Luffe.
"Yes," exclaimed Lynes eagerly. "Let me go, Sir Charles!"
Luffe smiled at his enthusiasm.
"How many men will you require?" he asked. "Sixty?"
"A hundred," replied Dewes promptly.
All that night Luffe superintended the digging of the countermine, while Dewes made ready for the sortie. By daybreak the arrangements were completed. The gunpowder bags, with their fuses attached, were distributed, the gates were suddenly flung open, and Lynes raced out with a hundred Ghurkhas and Sikhs across the fifty yards of open ground to the sangar behind which the mine shaft had been opened. The work of the hundred men was quick and complete. Within half an hour, Lynes, himself wounded, had brought back his force, and left the mine destroyed. But during that half-hour disaster had fallen upon the garrison. Luffe had dropped as he was walking back across the courtyard to his office. For a few minutes he lay unnoticed in the empty square, his face upturned to the sky, and then a clamorous sound of lamentation was heard and an orderly came running through the alleys of the Fort, crying out that the Colonel Sahib was dead.
He was not dead, however. He recovered conciousness that night, and early in the morning Dewes was roused from his sleep. He woke to find the Doctor shaking him by the shoulder.
"Luffe wants you. He has not got very long now. He has something to say."
Dewes slipped on his clothes, and hurried down the stairs. He followed the Doctor through the little winding alleys which gave to the Fort the appearance of a tiny village. It was broad daylight, but the fortress was strangely silent. The people whom he passed either spoke not at all or spoke only in low tones. They sat huddled in groups, waiting. Fear was abroad that morning. It was known that the brain of the defence was dying. It was known, too, what cruel fate awaited those within the Fort, if those without ever forced the gates and burst in upon their victims.
Dewes found the Political Officer propped up on pillows on his camp-bed. The door from the courtyard was open, and the morning light poured brightly into the room.
"Sit here, close to me, Dewes," said Luffe in a whisper, "and listen, for I am very tired." A smile came upon his face. "Do you remember Linforth's letters? How that phrase came again and again: 'I am very tired.'"
The Doctor arranged the pillows underneath his shoulders, and then Luffe said:
"All right. I shall do now."
He waited until the Doctor had gone from the room and continued:
"I am not going to talk to you about the Fort. The defence is safe in your hands, so long as defence is possible. Besides, if it falls it's not a great thing. The troops will come up and trample down Wafadar Nazim and Abdulla Mahommed. They are not the danger. The road will go on again, even though Linforth's dead. No, the man whom I am afraid of is—the son of the Khan."
Dewes stared, and then said in a soothing voice:
"He will be looked after."
"You think my mind's wandering," continued Luffe. "It never was clearer in my life. The Khan's son is a boy a week old. Nevertheless I tell you that boy is the danger in Chiltistan. The father—we know him. A good fellow who has lost all the confidence of his people. There is hardly an adherent of his who genuinely likes him; there's hardly a man in this Fort who doesn't believe that he wished to sell his country to the British. I should think he is impossible here in the future. And everyone in Government House knows it. We shall do the usual thing, I have no doubt—pension him off, settle him down comfortably outside the borders of Chiltistan, and rule the country as trustee for his son—until the son comes of age."
Dewes realised surely enough that Luffe was in possession of his faculties, but he thought his anxiety exaggerated.
"You are looking rather far ahead, aren't you, sir?" he asked.
"Twenty-one years. What are twenty-one years to India? My dear Dewes!"
He was silent. It seemed as though he were hesitating whether he would say a word more to this Major who in India talked of twenty-one years as a long span of time. But there was no one else to whom he could confide his fears. If Dewes was not brilliant, he was at all events all that there was.
"I wish I was going to live," he cried in a low voice of exasperation. "I wish I could last just long enough to travel down to Calcutta and make them listen to me. But there's no hope of it. You must do what you can, Dewes, but very likely they won't pay any attention to you. Very likely you'll believe me wrong yourself, eh? Poor old Luffe, a man with a bee in his bonnet, eh?" he whispered savagely.
"No, sir," replied Dewes. "You know the Frontier. I know that."
"And even there you are wrong. No man knows the Frontier. We are all stumbling in the dark among these peoples, with their gentle voices and their cut-throat ways. The most that you can know is that you are stumbling in the dark. Well, let's get back to the boy here. This country will be kept for him, for twenty-one years. Where is he going to be during those twenty-one years?"
Dewes caught at the question as an opportunity for reassuring the Political Officer.
"Why, sir, the Khan told us. Have you forgotten? He is to go to Eton and Oxford. He'll see something of England. He will learn—" and Major Dewes stopped short, baffled by the look of hopelessness upon the Political Officer's face.
"I think you are all mad," said Luffe, and he suddenly started up in his bed and cried with vehemence, "You take these boys to England. You train them in the ways of the West, the ideas of the West, and then you send them back again to the East, to rule over Eastern people, according to Eastern ideas, and you think all is well. I tell you, Dewes, it's sheer lunacy. Of course it's true—this boy won't perhaps suffer in esteem among his people quite as much as others have done. He belongs and his people belong to the Maulai sect. The laws of religion are not strict among them. They drink wine, they eat what they will, they do not lose caste so easily. But you have to look at the man as he will be, the hybrid mixture of East and West."
He sank back among his pillows, exhausted by the violence of his outcry, and for a little while he was silent. Then he began again, but this time in a low, pleading voice, which was very unusual in him, and which kept the words he spoke vivid and fresh in Dewes' memory for many years to come. Indeed, Dewes would not have believed that Luffe could have spoken on any subject with so much wistfulness.
"Listen to me, Dewes. I have lived for the Frontier. I have had no other interest, almost no other ties. I am not a man of friends. I believed at one time Linforth was my friend. I believed I liked him very much. But I think now that it was only because he was bound up with the Frontier. The Frontier has been my wife, my children, my home, my one long and lasting passion. And I am very well content that it has been so. I don't regret missed opportunities of happiness. What I regret is that I shall not be alive in twenty-one years to avert the danger I foresee, or to laugh at my fears if I am wrong. They can do what they like in Rajputana and Bengal and Bombay. But on the Frontier I want things to go well. Oh, how I want them to go well!"
Luffe had grown very pale, and the sweat glistened upon his forehead. Dewes held to his lips a glass of brandy which stood upon a table beside the bed.
"What danger do you foresee?" asked Dewes. "I will remember what you say."
"Yes, remember it; write it out, so that you may remember it, and din it into their ears at Government House," said Luffe. "You take these boys, you give them Oxford, a season in London—did you ever have a season in London when you were twenty-one, Dewes? You show them Paris. You give them opportunities of enjoyment, such as no other age, no other place affords—has ever afforded. You give them, for a short while, a life of colour, of swift crowding hours of pleasure, and then you send them back—to settle down in their native States, and obey the orders of the Resident. Do you think they will be content? Do you think they will have their heart in their work, in their humdrum life, in their elaborate ceremonies? Oh, there are instances enough to convince if only people would listen. There's a youth now in the South, the heir of an Indian throne—he has six weeks' holiday. How does he use it, do you think? He travels hard to England, spends a week there, and travels back again. In England he is treated as an equal; here, in spite of his ceremonies, he is an inferior, and will and must be so. The best you can hope is that he will be merely unhappy. You pray that he won't take to drink and make his friends among the jockeys and the trainers. He has lost the taste for the native life, and nevertheless he has got to live it. Besides—besides—I haven't told you the worst of it."
Dewes leaned forward. The sincerity of Luffe had gained upon him. "Let me hear all," he said.
"There is the white woman," continued Luffe. "The English woman, the English girl, with her daintiness, her pretty frocks, her good looks, her delicate charm. Very likely she only thinks of him as a picturesque figure; she dances with him, but she does not take him seriously. Yes, but he may take her seriously, and often does. What then? When he is told to go back to his State and settle down, what then? Will he be content with a wife of his own people? He is already a stranger among his own folk. He will eat out his heart with bitterness and jealousy. And, mind you, I am speaking of the best—the best of the Princes and the best of the English women. What of the others? The English women who take his pearls, and the Princes who come back and boast of their success. Do you think that is good for British rule in India? Give me something to drink!"
Luffe poured out his vehement convictions to his companion, wishing with all his heart that he had one of the great ones of the Viceroy's Council at his side, instead of this zealous but somewhat commonplace Major of a Sikh regiment. All the more, therefore, must he husband his strength, so that all that he had in mind might be remembered. There would be little chance, perhaps, of it bearing fruit. Still, even that little chance must be grasped. And so in that high castle beneath the Himalayas, besieged by insurgent tribes, a dying Political Officer discoursed upon this question of high policy.
"I told you of a supper I had one night at the Savoy—do you remember? You all looked sufficiently astonished when I told you to bear it in mind."
"Yes, I remember," said Dewes.
"Very well. I told you I learned something from the lady who was with me which it was good for me to know. I saw something which it was good for me to see. Good—yes, but not pleasant either to know or see. There was a young Prince in England then. He dined in high places and afterwards supped at the Savoy with the coryphees; and both in the high places and among the coryphees his jewels had made him welcome. This is truth I am telling you. He was a boaster. Well, after supper that night he threw a girl down the stairs. Never mind what she was—she was of the white ruling race, she was of the race that rules in India, he comes back to India and insolently boasts. Do you approve? Do you think that good?"
"I think it's horrible," exclaimed Dewes.
"Well, I have done," said Luffe. "This youngster is to go to Oxford. Unhappiness and the distrust of his own people will be the best that can come of it, while ruin and disasters very well may. There are many ways of disaster. Suppose, for instance, this boy were to turn out a strong man. Do you see?"
Dewes nodded his head.
"Yes, I see," he answered, and he answered so because he saw that Luffe had come to the end of his strength. His voice had weakened, he lay with his eyes sunk deep in his head and a leaden pallor upon his face, and his breath laboured as he spoke.
"I am glad," replied Luffe, "that you understand."
But it was not until many years had passed that Dewes saw and understood the trouble which was then stirring in Luffe's mind. And even then, when he did see and understand, he wondered how much Luffe really had foreseen. Enough, at all events, to justify his reputation for sagacity. Dewes went out from the bedroom and climbed up on to the roof of the Fort. The sun was up, the day already hot, and would have been hotter, but that a light wind stirred among the almond trees in the garden. The leaves of those trees now actually brushed against the Fort walls. Five weeks ago there had been bare stems and branches. Suddenly a rifle cracked, a little puff of smoke rose close to a boulder on the far side of the river, a bullet sang in the air past Dewes' head. He ducked behind the palisade of boards. Another day had come. For another day the flag, manufactured out of some red cloth, a blue turban and some white cotton, floated overhead. Meanwhile, somewhere among the passes, the relieving force was already on the march.
Late that afternoon Luffe died, and his body was buried in the Fort. He had done his work. For two days afterwards the sound of a battle was heard to the south, the siege was raised, and in the evening the Brigadier-General in Command rode up to the gates and found a tired and haggard group of officers awaiting him. They received him without cheers or indeed any outward sign of rejoicing. They waited in a dead silence, like beaten and dispirited men. They were beginning to pay the price of their five weeks' siege.
The Brigadier looked at the group.
"What of Luffe?" he asked.
"Dead, sir," replied Dewes.
"A great loss," said Brigadier Appleton solemnly. But he was paying his tribute rather to the class to which Luffe belonged than to the man himself. Luffe was a man of independent views, Brigadier Appleton a soldier clinging to tradition. Moreover, there had been an encounter between the two in which Luffe had prevailed.
The Brigadier paid a ceremonious visit to the Khan on the following morning, and once more the Khan expounded his views as to the education of his son. But he expounded them now to sympathetic ears.
"I think that his Excellency disapproved of my plan," said the Khan.
"Did he?" cried Brigadier Appleton. "On some points I am inclined to think that Luffe's views were not always sound. Certainly let the boy go to Eton and Oxford. A fine idea, your Highness. The training will widen his mind, enlarge his ideas, and all that sort of thing. I will myself urge upon the Government's advisers the wisdom of your Highness' proposal."
Moreover Dewes failed to carry Luffe's dying message to Calcutta. For on one point—a point of fact—Luffe was immediately proved wrong. Mir Ali, the Khan of Chiltistan, was retained upon his throne. Dewes turned the matter over in his slow mind. Wrong definitely, undeniably wrong on the point of fact, was it not likely that Luffe was wrong too on the point of theory? Dewes had six months furlong too, besides, and was anxious to go home. It would be a bore to travel to Bombay by way of Calcutta. "Let the boy go to Eton and Oxford!" he said. "Why not?" and the years answered him.
A MAGAZINE ARTICLE
The little war of Chiltistan was soon forgotten by the world. But it lived vividly enough in the memories of a few people to whom it had brought either suffering or fresh honours. But most of all it was remembered by Sybil Linforth, so that even after fourteen years a chance word, or a trivial coincidence, would bring back to her the horror and the misery of that time as freshly as if only a single day had intervened. Such a coincidence happened on this morning of August.
She was in the garden with her back to the Downs which rose high from close behind the house, and she was looking across the fields rich with orchards and yellow crops. She saw a small figure climb a stile and come towards the house along a footpath, increasing in stature as it approached. It was Colonel Dewes, and her thoughts went back to the day when first, with reluctant steps, he had walked along that path, carrying with him a battered silver watch and chain and a little black leather letter-case. Because of that memory she advanced slowly towards him now.
"I did not know that you were home," she said, as they shook hands. "When did you land?"
"Yesterday. I am home for good now. My time is up." Sybil Linforth looked quickly at his face and turned away.
"You are sorry?" she said gently.
"Yes. I don't feel old, you see. I feel as if I had many years' good work in me yet. But there! That's the trouble with the mediocre men. They are shelved before they are old. I am one of them."
He laughed as he spoke, and looked at his companion.
Sybil Linforth was now thirty-eight years old, but the fourteen years had not set upon her the marks of their passage as they had upon Dewes. Indeed, she still retained a look of youth, and all the slenderness of her figure.
Dewes grumbled to her with a smile upon his face.
"I wonder how in the world you do it. Here am I white-haired and creased like a dry pippin. There are you—" and he broke off. "I suppose it's the boy who keeps you young. How is he?"
A look of anxiety troubled Mrs. Linforth's face; into her eyes there came a glint of fear. Colonel Dewes' voice became gentle with concern.
"What's the matter, Sybil?" he said. "Is he ill?"
"No, he is quite well."
"Then what is it?"
Sybil Linforth looked down for a moment at the gravel of the garden-path. Then, without raising her eyes, she said in a low voice:
"I am afraid."
"Ah," said Dewes, as he rubbed his chin, "I see."
It was his usual remark when he came against anything which he did not understand.
"You must let me have him for a week or two sometimes, Sybil. Boys will get into trouble, you know. It is their nature to. And sometimes a man may be of use in putting things straight."
The hint of a smile glimmered about Sybil Linforth's mouth, but she repressed it. She would not for worlds have let her friend see it, lest he might be hurt.
"No," she replied, "Dick is not in any trouble. But—" and she struggled for a moment with a feeling that she ought not to say what she greatly desired to say; that speech would be disloyal. But the need to speak was too strong within her, her heart too heavily charged with fear.
"I will tell you," she said, and, with a glance towards the open windows of the house, she led Colonel Dewes to a corner of the garden where, upon a grass mound, there was a garden seat. From this seat one overlooked the garden hedge. To the left, the little village of Poynings with its grey church and tall tapering spire, lay at the foot of the gap in the Downs where runs the Brighton road. Behind them the Downs ran like a rampart to right and left, their steep green sides scarred here and there by landslips and showing the white chalk. Far away the high trees of Chanctonbury Ring stood out against the sky.
"Dick has secrets," Sybil said, "secrets from me. It used not to be so. I have always known how a want of sympathy makes a child hide what he feels and thinks, and drives him in upon himself, to feed his thoughts with imaginings and dreams. I have seen it. I don't believe that anything but harm ever comes of it. It builds up a barrier which will last for life. I did not want that barrier to rise between Dick and me—I—" and her voice shook a little—"I should be very unhappy if it were to rise. So I have always tried to be his friend and comrade, rather than his mother."
"Yes," said Colonel Dewes, wisely nodding his head. "I have seen you playing cricket with him."
Colonel Dewes had frequently been puzzled by a peculiar change of manner in his friends. When he made a remark which showed how clearly he understood their point of view and how closely he was in agreement with it, they had a way of becoming reticent in the very moment of expansion. The current of sympathy was broken, and as often as not they turned the conversation altogether into a conventional and less interesting channel. That change of manner became apparent now. Sybil Linforth leaned back and abruptly ceased to speak.
"Please go on," said Dewes, turning towards her.
She hesitated, and then with a touch of reluctance continued:
"I succeeded until a month or so ago. But a month or so ago the secrets came. Oh, I know him so well. He is trying to hide that there are any secrets lest his reticence should hurt me. But we have been so much together, so much to each other—how should I not know?" And again she leaned forward with her hands clasped tightly together upon her knees and a look of great distress lying like a shadow upon her face. "The first secrets," she continued, and her voice trembled, "I suppose they are always bitter to a mother. But since I have nothing but Dick they hurt me more deeply than is perhaps reasonable"; and she turned towards her companion with a poor attempt at a smile.
"What sort of secrets?" asked Dewes. "What is he hiding?"
"I don't know," she replied, and she repeated the words, adding to them slowly others. "I don't know—and I am a little afraid to guess. But I know that something is stirring in his mind, something is—" and she paused, and into her eyes there came a look of actual terror—"something is calling him. He goes alone up on to the top of the Downs, and stays there alone for hours. I have seen him. I have come upon him unawares lying on the grass with his face towards the sea, his lips parted, and his eyes strained, his face absorbed. He has been so lost in dreams that I have come close to him through the grass and stood beside him and spoken to him before he grew aware that anyone was near."
"Perhaps he wants to be a sailor," suggested Dewes.
"No, I do not think it is that," Sybil answered quietly. "If it were so, he would have told me."
"Yes," Dewes admitted. "Yes, he would have told you. I was wrong."
"You see," Mrs. Linforth continued, as though Dewes had not interrupted, "it is not natural for a boy at his age to want to be alone, is it? I don't think it is good either. It is not natural for a boy of his age to be thoughtful. I am not sure that that is good. I am, to tell you the truth, very troubled."
Dewes looked at her sharply. Something, not so much in her words as in the careful, slow manner of her speech, warned him that she was not telling him all of the trouble which oppressed her. Her fears were more definite than she had given him as yet reason to understand. There was not enough in what she had said to account for the tense clasp of her hands, and the glint of terror in her eyes.
"Anyhow, he's going to the big school next term," he said; "that is, if you haven't changed your mind since you last wrote to me, and I hope you haven't changed your mind. All that he wants really," the Colonel added with unconscious cruelty, "is companions of his own age. He passed in well, didn't he?"
Sybil Linforth's face lost for the moment all its apprehension. A smile of pride made her face very tender, and as she turned to Dewes he thought to himself that really her eyes were beautiful.
"Yes, he passed in very high," she said.
"Eton, isn't it?" said Dewes. "Whose house?"
She mentioned the name and added: "His father was there before him." Then she rose from her seat. "Would you like to see Dick? I will show you him. Come quietly."
She led the way across the lawn towards an open window. It was a day of sunshine; the garden was bright with flowers, and about the windows rose-trees climbed the house-walls. It was a house of red brick, darkened by age, and with a roof of tiles. To Dewes' eyes, nestling as it did beneath the great grass Downs, it had a most homelike look of comfort. Sybil turned with a finger on her lips.
"Keep this side of the window," she whispered, "or your shadow will fall across the floor."
Standing aside as she bade him, he looked into the room. He saw a boy seated at a table with his head between his hands, immersed in a book which lay before him. He was seated with his side towards the window and his hands concealed his face. But in a moment he removed one hand and turned the page. Colonel Dewes could now see the profile of his face. A firm chin, a beauty of outline not very common, a certain delicacy of feature and colour gave to him a distinction of which Sybil Linforth might well be proud.
"He'll be a dangerous fellow among the girls in a few years' time," said Dewes, turning to the mother. But Sybil did not hear the words. She was standing with her head thrust forward. Her face was white, her whole aspect one of dismay. Dewes could not understand the change in her. A moment ago she had been laughing playfully as she led him towards the window. Now it seemed as though a sudden disaster had turned her to stone. Yet there was nothing visible to suggest disaster. Dewes looked from Sybil to the boy and back again. Then he noticed that her eyes were riveted, not on Dick's face, but on the book which he was reading.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"Hush!" said Sybil, but at that moment Dick lifted his head, recognised the visitor, and came forward to the window with a smile of welcome. There was no embarrassment in his manner, no air of being surprised. He had not the look of one who nurses secrets. A broad open forehead surmounted a pair of steady clear grey eyes.
"Well, Dick, I hear you have done well in your examination," said the Colonel, as he shook hands. "If you keep it up I will leave you all I save out of my pension."
"Thank you, sir," said Dick with a laugh. "How long have you been back, Colonel Dewes?"
"I left India a fortnight ago."
"A fortnight ago." Dick leaned his arms upon the sill and with his eyes on the Colonel's face asked quietly: "How far does the Road reach now?"
At the side of Colonel Dewes Sybil Linforth flinched as though she had been struck. But it did not need that movement to explain to the Colonel the perplexing problem of her fears. He understood now. The Linforths belonged to the Road. The Road had slain her husband. No wonder she lived in terror lest it should claim her son. And apparently it did claim him.
"The road through Chiltistan?" he said slowly.
"Of course," answered Dick. "Of what other could I be thinking?"
"They have stopped it," said the Colonel, and at his side he was aware that Sybil Linforth drew a deep breath. "The road reaches Kohara. It does not go beyond. It will not go beyond."
Dick's eyes steadily looked into the Colonel's face; and the Colonel had some trouble to meet their look with the same frankness. He turned aside and Mrs. Linforth said,
"Come and see my roses."
Dick went back to his book. The man and woman passed on round the corner of the house to a little rose-garden with a stone sun-dial in the middle, surrounded by low red brick walls. Here it was very quiet. Only the bees among the flowers filled the air with a pleasant murmur.
"They are doing well—your roses," said Dewes.
"Yes. These Queen Mabs are good. Don't you think so? I am rather proud of them," said Sybil; and then she broke off suddenly and faced him.
"Is it true?" she whispered in a low passionate voice. "Is the road stopped? Will it not go beyond Kohara?"
Colonel Dewes attempted no evasion with Mrs. Linforth.
"It is true that it is stopped. It is also true that for the moment there is no intention to carry it further. But—but—"
And as he paused Sybil took up the sentence.
"But it will go on, I know. Sooner or later." And there was almost a note of hopelessness in her voice. "The Power of the Road is beyond the Power of Governments," she added with the air of one quoting a sentence.
They walked on between the alleys of rose-trees and she asked:
"Did you notice the book which Dick was reading?"
"It looked like a bound volume of magazines."
Sybil nodded her head.
"It was a volume of the 'Fortnightly.' He was reading an article written forty years ago by Andrew Linforth—" and she suddenly cried out, "Oh, how I wish he had never lived. He was an uncle of Harry's—my husband. He predicted it. He was in the old Company, then he became a servant of the Government, and he was the first to begin the road. You know his history?"
"It is a curious one. When it was his time to retire, he sent his money to England, he made all his arrangements to come home, and then one night he walked out of the hotel in Bombay, a couple of days before the ship sailed, and disappeared. He has never been heard of since."
"Had he no wife?" asked Dewes.
"No," replied Sybil. "Do you know what I think? I think he went back to the north, back to his Road. I think it called him. I think he could not keep away."
"But we should have come across him," cried Dewes, "or across news of him. Surely we should!"
Sybil shrugged her shoulders.
"In that article which Dick was reading, the road was first proposed. Listen to this," and she began to recite:
"The road will reach northwards, through Chiltistan, to the foot of the Baroghil Pass, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Not yet, but it will. Many men will die in the building of it from cold and dysentery, and even hunger—Englishmen and coolies from Baltistan. Many men will die fighting over it, Englishmen and Chiltis, and Gurkhas and Sikhs. It will cost millions of money, and from policy or economy successive Governments will try to stop it; but the power of the Road will be greater than the power of any Government. It will wind through valleys so deep that the day's sunshine is gone within the hour. It will be carried in galleries along the faces of mountains, and for eight months of the year sections of it will be buried deep in snow. Yet it will be finished. It will go on to the foot of the Hindu Kush, and then only the British rule in India will be safe."
She finished the quotation.
"That is what Andrew Linforth prophesied. Much of it has already been justified. I have no doubt the rest will be in time. I think he went north when he disappeared. I think the Road called him, as it is now calling Dick."
She made the admission at last quite simply and quietly. Yet it was evident to Dewes that it cost her much to make it.
"Yes," he said. "That is what you fear."
She nodded her head and let him understand something of the terror with which the Road inspired her.
"When the trouble began fourteen years ago, when the road was cut and day after day no news came of whether Harry lived or, if he died, how he died—I dreamed of it—I used to see horrible things happening on that road—night after night I saw them. Dreadful things happening to Dick and his father while I stood by and could do nothing. Oh, it seems to me a living thing greedy for blood—our blood."
She turned to him a haggard face. Dewes sought to reassure her.
"But there is peace now in Chiltistan. We keep a close watch on that country, I can tell you. I don't think we shall be caught napping there again."
But these arguments had little weight with Sybil Linforth. The tragedy of fourteen years ago had beaten her down with too strong a hand. She could not reason about the road. She only felt, and she felt with all the passion of her nature.
"What will you do, then?" asked Dewes.
She walked a little further on before she answered.
"I shall do nothing. If, when the time comes, Dick feels that work upon that road is his heritage, if he wants to follow in his father's steps, I shall say not a single word to dissuade him."
Dewes stared at her. This half-hour of conversation had made real to him at all events the great strength of her hostility. Yet she would put the hostility aside and say not a word.
"That's more than I could do," he said, "if I felt as you do. By George it is!"
Sybil smiled at him with friendliness.
"It's not bravery. Do you remember the unfinished letter which you brought home to me from Harry? There were three sentences in that which I cannot pretend to have forgotten," and she repeated the sentences:
"'Whether he will come out here, it is too early to think about. But the road will not be finished—and I wonder. If he wants to, let him.' It is quite clear—isn't it?—that Harry wanted him to take up the work. You can read that in the words. I can imagine him speaking them and hear the tone he would use. Besides—I have still a greater fear than the one of which you know. I don't want Dick, when he grows up, ever to think that I have been cowardly, and, because I was cowardly, disloyal to his father."
"Yes, I see," said Colonel Dewes.
And this time he really did understand.
"We will go in and lunch," said Sybil, and they walked back to the house.
A LONG WALK
The footsteps sounded overhead with a singular regularity. From the fireplace to the door, and back again from the door to the fireplace. At each turn there was a short pause, and each pause was of the same duration. The footsteps were very light; it was almost as though an animal, a caged animal, padded from the bars at one end to the bars at the other. There was something stealthy in the footsteps too.
In the room below a man of forty-five sat writing at a desk—a very tall, broad-shouldered man, in clerical dress. Twenty-five years before he had rowed as number seven in the Oxford Eight, with an eye all the while upon a mastership at his old school. He had taken a first in Greats; he had obtained his mastership; for the last two years he had had a House. As he had been at the beginning, so he was now, a man without theories but with an instinctive comprehension of boys. In consequence there were no vacancies in his house, and the Headmaster had grown accustomed to recommend the Rev. Mr. Arthur Pollard when boys who needed any special care came to the school.
He was now so engrossed with the preparations for the term which was to begin to-morrow that for some while the footsteps overhead did not attract his attention. When he did hear them he just lifted his head, listened for a moment or two, lit his pipe and went on with his work.
But the sounds continued. Backwards and forwards from the fireplace to the door, the footsteps came and went—without haste and without cessation; stealthily regular; inhumanly light. Their very monotony helped them to pass as unnoticed as the ticking of a clock. Mr. Pollard continued the preparation of his class-work for a full hour, and only when the dusk was falling, and it was becoming difficult for him to see what he was writing, did he lean back in his chair and stretch his arms above his head with a sigh of relief.
Then once more he became aware of the footsteps overhead. He rose and rang the bell.
"Who is that walking up and down the drawingroom, Evans?" he asked of the butler.
The butler threw back his head and listened.
"I don't know, sir," he replied.
"Those footsteps have been sounding like that for more than an hour."
"For more than an hour?" Evans repeated. "Then I am afraid, sir, it's the new young gentleman from India."
Arthur Pollard started.
"Has he been waiting up there alone all this time?" he exclaimed. "Why in the world wasn't I told?"
"You were told, sir," said Evans firmly but respectfully. "I came into the study here and told you, and you answered 'All right, Evans.' But I had my doubts, sir, whether you really heard or not."
Mr. Pollard hardly waited for the end of the explanation. He hurried out of the room and sprang up the stairs. He had arranged purposely for the young Prince to come to the house a day before term began. He was likely to be shy, ill-at-ease and homesick, among so many strange faces and unfamiliar ways. Moreover, Mr. Pollard wished to become better acquainted with the boy than would be easily possible once the term was in full swing. For he was something more of an experiment than the ordinary Indian princeling from a State well under the thumb of the Viceroy and the Indian Council. This boy came of the fighting stock in the north. To leave him tramping about a strange drawing-room alone for over an hour was not the best possible introduction to English ways and English life. Mr. Pollard opened the door and saw a slim, tall boy, with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed on the floor, walking up and down in the gloom.
"Shere Ali," he said, and he held out his hand. The boy took it shyly.
"You have been waiting here for some time," Mr. Pollard continued, "I am sorry. I did not know that you had come. You should have rung the bell."
"I was not lonely," Shere Ali replied. "I was taking a walk."
"Yes, so I gathered," said the master with a smile. "Rather a long walk."
"Yes, sir," the boy answered seriously. "I was walking from Kohara up the valley, and remembering the landmarks as I went. I had walked a long way. I had come to the fort where my father was besieged."
"Yes, that reminds me," said Pollard, "you won't feel so lonely to-morrow as you do to-day. There is a new boy joining whose father was a great friend of your father's. Richard Linforth is his name. Very likely your father has mentioned that name to you."
Mr. Pollard switched on the light as he spoke and saw Shere All's face flash with eagerness.
"Oh yes!" he answered, "I know. He was killed upon the road by my uncle's people."
"I have put you into the next room to his. If you will come with me I will show you."
Mr. Pollard led the way along a passage into the boys' quarters.
"This is your room. There's your bed. Here's your 'burry,'" pointing to a bureau with a bookcase on the top. He threw open the next door. "This is Linforth's room. By the way, you speak English very well."
"Yes," said Shere Ali. "I was taught it in Lahore first of all. My father is very fond of the English."
"Well, come along," said Mr. Pollard. "I expect my wife has come back and she shall give us some tea. You will dine with us to-night, and we will try to make you as fond of the English as your father is."
The next day the rest of the boys arrived, and Mr. Pollard took the occasion to speak a word or two to young Linforth.
"You are both new boys," he said, "but you will fit into the scheme of things quickly enough. He won't. He's in a strange land, among strange people. So just do what you can to help him."
Dick Linforth was curious enough to see the son of the Khan of Chiltistan. But not for anything would he have talked to him of his father who had died upon the road, or of the road itself. These things were sacred. He greeted his companion in quite another way.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Shere Ali," replied the young Prince.
"That won't do," said Linforth, and he contemplated the boy solemnly. "I shall call you Sherry-Face," he said.
And "Sherry-Face" the heir to Chiltistan remained; and in due time the name followed him to College.
IN THE DAUPHINE
The day broke tardily among the mountains of Dauphine. At half-past three on a morning of early August light should be already stealing through the little window and the chinks into the hut upon the Meije. But the four men who lay wrapped in blankets on the long broad shelf still slept in darkness. And when the darkness was broken it was by the sudden spit of a match. The tiny blue flame spluttered for a few seconds and then burned bright and yellow. It lit up the face of a man bending over the dial of a watch and above him and about him the wooden rafters and walls came dimly into view. The face was stout and burned by the sun to the colour of a ripe apple, and in spite of a black heavy moustache had a merry and good-humoured look. Little gold earrings twinkled in his ears by the light of the match. Annoyance clouded his face as he remarked the time.
"Verdammt! Verdammt!" he muttered.
The match burned out, and for a while he listened to the wind wailing about the hut, plucking at the door and the shutters of the window. He climbed down from the shelf with a rustle of straw, walked lightly for a moment or two about the hut, and then pulled open the door quickly. As quickly he shut it again.
From the shelf Linforth spoke:
"It is bad, Peter?"
"It is impossible," replied Peter in English with a strong German accent. For the last three years he and his brother had acted as guides to the same two men who were now in the Meije hut. "We are a strong party, but it is impossible. Before I could walk a yard from the door, I would have to lend a lantern. And it is after four o'clock! The water is frozen in the pail, and I have never known that before in August."
"Very well," said Linforth, turning over in his blankets. It was warm among the blankets and the straw, and he spoke with contentment. Later in the day he might rail against the weather. But for the moment he was very clear that there were worse things in the world than to lie snug and hear the wind tearing about the cliffs and know that there was no chance of facing it.
"We will not go back to La Berarde," he said. "The storm may clear. We will wait in the hut until tomorrow."
And from a third figure on the shelf there came in guttural English:
"Yes, yes. Of course."
The fourth man had not wakened from his sleep, and it was not until he was shaken by the shoulder at ten o'clock in the morning that he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
The fourth man was Shere Ali.
"Get up and come outside," said Linforth.
Ten years had passed since Shere Ali had taken his long walk from Kohara up the valley in the drawing-room of his house-master at Eton. And those ten years had had their due effect. He betrayed his race nowadays by little more than his colour, a certain high-pitched intonation of his voice and an extraordinary skill in the game of polo. There had been a time of revolt against discipline, of inability to understand the points of view of his masters and their companions, and of difficulty to discover much sense in their institutions.
It is to be remembered that he came from the hill-country, not from the plains of India. That honour was a principle, not a matter of circumstance, and that treachery was in itself disgraceful, whether it was profitable or not—here were hard sayings for a native of Chiltistan. He could look back upon the day when he had thought a public-house with a great gilt sign or the picture of an animal over the door a temple for some particular sect of worshippers.
"And, indeed, you are far from wrong," his tutor had replied to him. "But since we do not worship at that fiery shrine such holy places are forbidden us."
Gradually, however, his own character was overlaid; he was quick to learn, and in games quick to excel. He made friends amongst his schoolmates, he carried with him to Oxford the charm of manner which is Eton's particular gift, and from Oxford he passed to London. He was rich, he was liked, and he found a ready welcome, which did not spoil him. Luffe would undoubtedly have classed him amongst the best of the native Princes who go to England for their training, and on that very account, would have feared the more for his future. Shere Ali was now just twenty-four, he was tall, spare of body and wonderfully supple of limbs, and but for a fulness of the lower lip, which was characteristic of his family, would have been reckoned more than usually handsome.
He came out of the door of the hut and stood by the side of Linforth. They looked up towards the Meije, but little of that majestic mass of rock was visible. The clouds hung low; the glacier below them upon their left had a dull and unillumined look, and over the top of the Breche de la Meije, the pass to the left of their mountain, the snow whirled up from the further side like smoke. The hut is built upon a great spur of the mountain which runs down into the desolate valley des Etancons, and at its upper end melts into the great precipitous rock-wall which forms one of the main difficulties of the ascent. Against this wall the clouds were massed. Snow lay where yesterday the rocks had shone grey and ruddy brown in the sunlight, and against the great wall here and there icicles were hung.
"It looks unpromising," said Linforth. "But Peter says that the mountain is in good condition. To-morrow it may be possible. It is worth while waiting. We shall get down to La Grave to-morrow instead of to-day. That is all."
"Yes. It will make no difference to our plans," said Shere Ali; and so far as their immediate plans were concerned Shere Ali was right. But these two men had other and wider plans which embraced not a summer's holiday but a lifetime, plans which they jealously kept secret; and these plans, as it happened, the delay of a day in the hut upon the Meije was deeply to affect.
They turned back into the room and breakfasted. Then Linforth lit his pipe and once more curled himself up in his rug upon the straw. Shere Ali followed his example. And it was of the wider plans that they at once began to talk.
"But heaven only knows when I shall get out to India," cried Linforth after a while. "There am I at Chatham and not a chance, so far as I can see, of getting away. You will go back first."
It was significant that Linforth, who had never been in India, none the less spoke habitually of going back to it, as though that country in truth was his native soil. Shere Ali shook his head.
"I shall wait for you," he said. "You will come out there." He raised himself upon his elbow and glanced at his friend's face. Linforth had retained the delicacy of feature, the fineness of outline which ten years before had called forth the admiration of Colonel Dewes. But the ten years had also added a look of quiet strength. A man can hardly live with a definite purpose very near to his heart without gaining some reward from the labour of his thoughts. Though he speak never so little, people will be aware of him as they are not aware of the loudest chatterer in the room. Thus it was with Linforth. He talked with no greater wit than his companions, he made no greater display of ability, he never outshone, and yet not a few men were conscious of a force underlying his quietude of manner. Those men were the old and the experienced; the unobservant overlooked him altogether.