A.E. W. Mason.

The Broken Road online

. (page 19 of 22)
Online LibraryA.E. W. MasonThe Broken Road → online text (page 19 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


She had not heard the story of the respectable old gentleman. That was
clear. They were riding through an open oblong space of ground dotted
with trees. There were shops down the middle, two rows backing upon a
stream, and shops again at the sides. Mrs. Oliver was gazing with a
concentrated look across the space and the people who crowded it towards
an opening of an alley between two houses. But fixed though her gaze was,
there was no longer any fear in her eyes. Rather they expressed a keen
interest, a strong curiosity.

Ralston's eyes followed the direction of her gaze. At the corner of the
alley there was a shop wherein a man sat rounding a stick of wood with a
primitive lathe. He made the lathe revolve by working a stringed bow with
his right hand, while his left hand worked the chisel and his right foot
directed it. His limbs were making three different motions with an
absence of effort which needed much practice, and for a moment Ralston
wondered whether it was the ingenuity of the workman which had attracted
her. But in a moment he saw that he was wrong.

There were two men standing in the mouth of the alley, both dressed in
white from head to foot. One stood a little behind with the hood of his
cloak drawn forward over his head, so that it was impossible to discern
his face. The other stood forward, a tall slim man with the elegance and
the grace of youth. It was at this man Violet Oliver was looking.

Ralston looked again at her, and as he looked the colour rose into her
cheeks; there came a look of sympathy, perhaps of pity, into her eyes.
Almost her lips began to smile. Ralston turned his head again towards the
alley, and he started in his saddle. The young man had raised his head.
He was gazing fixedly towards them. His features were revealed and
Ralston knew them well.

He turned quickly to Mrs. Oliver.

"You know that man?"

The colour deepened upon her face.

"It is the Prince of Chiltistan."

"But you know him?" Ralston insisted.

"I have met him in London," said Violet Oliver.

So Shere Ali was in Peshawur, when he should have been in
Chiltistan! "Why?"

Ralston put the question to himself and looked to his companion for the
answer. The colour upon her face, the interest, the sympathy of her eyes
gave him the answer. This was the woman, then, whose image stood before
Shere Ali's memories and hindered him from marrying one of his own race!
Just with that sympathy and that keen interest does a woman look upon the
man who loves her and whose love she does not return. Moreover, there was
Linforth's hesitation. Linforth had admitted there was an Englishwoman
for whom Shere Ali cared, had admitted it reluctantly, had extenuated her
thoughtlessness, had pleaded for her. Oh, without a doubt Mrs. Oliver was
the woman!

There flashed before Ralston's eyes the picture of Linforth standing in
the hall, turning over the cords and the cotton pad and the thick cloth.
Ralston looked down again upon him from the gallery and heard his voice,
saying in a whisper:

"It can't be he! It can't be he!"

What would Linforth say when he knew that Shere Ali was lurking in
Peshawur?

Ralston was still gazing at Shere Ali when the man behind the Prince made
a movement. He flung back the hood from his face, and disclosing his
features looked boldly towards the riders.

A cry rang out at Ralston's side, a woman's cry. He turned in his saddle
and saw Violet Oliver. The colour had suddenly fled from her cheeks. They
were blanched. The sympathy had gone from her eyes, and in its place,
stark terror looked out from them. She swayed in her saddle.

"Do you see that man?" she cried, pointing with her hand. "The man behind
the Prince. The man who has thrown back his cloak."

"Yes, yes, I see him," answered Ralston impatiently.

"It was he who crept into my room last night."

"You are sure?"

"Could I forget? Could I forget?" she cried; and at that moment, the man
touched Shere Ali on the sleeve, and they both fled out of sight into
the alley.

There was no doubt left in Ralston's mind. It was Shere Ali who had
planned the abduction of Mrs. Oliver. It was his companion who had failed
to carry it out. Ralston turned to the levies behind him.

"Quick! Into that valley! Fetch me those two men who were standing
there!"

The two levies pressed their horses through the crowd, but the alley was
empty when they came to it.




CHAPTER XXX

THE NEEDED IMPLEMENT


Ralston rode home with an uncomfortable recollection of the little
dinner-party in Calcutta at which Hatch had told his story of the
Englishwoman in Mecca. Had that story fired Shere Ali? The time for
questions had passed; but none the less this particular one would force
itself into the front of his mind.

"I would have done better never to have meddled," he said to himself
remorsefully - even while he gave his orders for the apprehension of
Shere Ali and his companion. For he did not allow his remorse to hamper
his action; he set a strong guard at the gates of the city, and gave
orders that within the gates the city should be methodically searched
quarter by quarter.

"I want them both laid by the heels," he said; "but, above all, the
Prince. Let there be no mistake. I want Shere Ali lodged in the gaol here
before nightfall"; and Linforth's voice broke in rapidly upon his words.

"Can I do anything to help? What can I do?"

Ralston looked sharply up from his desk. There had been a noticeable
eagerness, a noticeable anger in Linforth's voice.

"You?" said Ralston quietly. "_You_ want to help? You were Shere
Ali's friend."

Ralston smiled as he spoke, but there was no hint of irony in either
words or smile. It was a smile rather of tolerance, and almost of
regret - the smile of a man who was well accustomed to seeing the flowers
and decorative things of life wither over-quickly, and yet was still
alert and not indifferent to the change. His work for the moment was
done. He leaned back thoughtfully in his chair. He no longer looked at
Linforth. His one quick glance had shown him enough.

"So it's all over, eh?" he said, as he played with his paper-knife.
"Summer mornings on the Cherwell. Travels in the Dauphiné. The Meije and
the Aiguilles d'Arves. Oh, I know." Linforth moved as he stood at the
side of Ralston's desk, but the set look upon his face did not change.
And Ralston went on. There came a kind of gentle mockery into his voice.
"The shared ambitions, the concerted plans - gone, and not even a regret
for them left, eh? _Tempi passati!_ Pretty sad, too, when you come to
think of it."

But Linforth made no answer to Ralston's probings. Violet Oliver's
instincts had taught her the truth, which Ralston was now learning.
Linforth could be very hard. There was nothing left of the friendship
which through many years had played so large a part in his life. A woman
had intervened, and Linforth had shut the door upon it, had sealed his
mind against its memories, and his heart against its claims. The evening
at La Grave in the Dauphiné had borne its fruit. Linforth stood there
white with anger against Shere Ali, hot to join in the chase. Ralston
understood that if ever he should need a man to hunt down that quarry
through peril and privations, here at his hand was the man on whom he
could rely.

Linforth's eager voice broke in again.

"What can I do to help?"

Ralston looked up once more.

"Nothing - for the moment. If Shere Ali is captured in
Peshawur - nothing at all."

"But if he escapes."

Ralston shrugged his shoulders. Then he filled his pipe and lit it.

"If he escapes - why, then, your turn may come. I make no promises," he
added quickly, as Linforth, by a movement, betrayed his satisfaction.
"It is not, indeed, in my power to promise. But there may come work
for you - difficult work, dangerous work, prolonged work. For this
outrage can't go unpunished. In any case," he ended with a smile, "the
Road goes on."

He turned again to his office-table, and Linforth went out of the room.

The task which Ralston had in view for Linforth came by a long step
nearer that night. For all night the search went on throughout the
city, and the searchers were still empty-handed in the morning. Ahmed
Ismail had laid his plans too cunningly. Shere Ali was to be
compromised, not captured. There was to be a price upon his head, but
the head was not to fall. And while the search went on from quarter to
quarter of Peshawur, the Prince and his attendant were already out in
the darkness upon the hills.

Ralston telegraphed to the station on the Malakand Pass, to the fort at
Jamrud, even to Landi Khotal, at the far end of the Khyber Pass, but
Shere Ali had not travelled along any one of the roads those positions
commanded.

"I had little hope indeed that he would," said Ralston with a shrug
of the shoulders. "He has given us the slip. We shall not catch up
with him now."

He was standing with Linforth at the mouth of the well which irrigated
his garden. The water was drawn up after the Persian plan. A wooden
vertical wheel wound up the bucket, and this wheel was made to revolve by
a horizontal wheel with the spokes projecting beyond the rim and fitting
into similar spokes upon the vertical wheel. A bullock, with a bandage
over its eyes, was harnessed to the horizontal wheel, and paced slowly
round and round, turning it; while a boy sat on the bullock's back and
beat it with a stick. Both men stood and listened to the groaning and
creaking of the wheels for a few moments, and then Linforth said:

"So, after all, you mean to let him go?"

"No, indeed," answered Ralston. "Only now we shall have to fetch him out
of Chiltistan."

"Will they give him up?"

Ralston shook his head.

"No." He turned to Linforth with a smile. "I once heard the Political
Officer described as the man who stands between the soldier and his
medal. Well, I have tried to stand just in that spot as far as Chiltistan
is concerned. But I have not succeeded. The soldier will get his medal in
Chiltistan this year. I have had telegrams this morning from Lahore. A
punitive force has been gathered at Nowshera. The preparations have been
going on quietly for a few weeks. It will start in a few days. I shall go
with it as Political Officer."

"You will take me?" Linforth asked eagerly.

"Yes," Ralston answered. "I mean to take you. I told you yesterday there
might be service for you."

"In Chiltistan?"

"Or beyond," replied Ralston. "Shere Ali may give us the slip again."

He was thinking of the arid rocky borders of Turkestan, where flight
would be easy and where capture would be most difficult. It was to that
work that Ralston, looking far ahead, had in his mind dedicated young
Linforth, knowing well that he would count its difficulties light in the
ardour of his pursuit. Anger would spur him, and the Road should be held
out as his reward. Ralston listened again to the groaning of the
water-wheel, and watched the hooded bullock circle round and round with
patient unvarying pace, and the little boy on its back making no
difference whatever with a long stick.

"Look!" he said. "There's an emblem of the Indian administration. The
wheels creak and groan, the bullock goes on round and round with a
bandage over its eyes, and the little boy on its back cuts a fine
important figure and looks as if he were doing ever so much, and somehow
the water comes up - that's the great thing, the water is fetched up
somehow and the land watered. When I am inclined to be despondent, I come
and look at my water-wheel." He turned away and walked back to the house
with his hands folded behind his back and his head bent forward.

"You are despondent now?" Linforth asked.

"Yes," replied Ralston, with a rare and sudden outburst of confession.
"You, perhaps, will hardly understand. You are young. You have a career
to make. You have particular ambitions. This trouble in Chiltistan is
your opportunity. But it's my sorrow - it's almost my failure." He turned
his face towards Linforth with a whimsical smile. "I have tried to stand
between the soldier and his medal. I wanted to extend our political
influence there - yes. Because that makes for peace, and it makes for good
government. The tribes lose their fear that their independence will be
assailed, they come in time to the Political Officer for advice, they lay
their private quarrels and feuds before him for arbitration. That has
happened in many valleys, and I had always a hope that though Chiltistan
has a ruling Prince, the same sort of thing might in time happen there.
Yes, even at the cost of the Road," and again his very taking smile
illumined for a moment his worn face. "But that hope is gone now. A force
will go up and demand Shere Ali. Shere Ali will not be given up. Even
were the demand not made, it would make no difference. He will not be
many days in Chiltistan before Chiltistan is in arms. Already I have sent
a messenger up to the Resident, telling him to come down."

"And then?" asked Linforth.

Ralston shrugged his shoulders.

"More or less fighting, more or less loss, a few villages burnt, and the
only inevitable end. We shall either take over the country or set up
another Prince."

"Set up another Prince?" exclaimed Linforth in a startled voice. "In
that case - "

Ralston broke in upon him with a laugh.

"Oh, man of one idea, in any case the Road will go on to the foot of
the Hindu Kush. That's the price which Chiltistan must pay as security
for future peace - the military road through Kohara to the foot of the
Hindu Kush."

Linforth's face cleared, and he said cheerfully:

"It's strange that Shere Ali doesn't realise that himself."

The cheerfulness of his voice, as much as his words, caused Ralston to
stop and turn upon his companion in a moment of exasperation.

"Perhaps he does." he exclaimed, and then he proceeded to pay a tribute
to the young Prince of Chiltistan which took Linforth fairly by surprise.

"Don't you understand - you who know him, you who grew up with him, you
who were his friend? He's a man. I know these hill-people, and like every
other Englishman who has served among them, I love them - knowing their
faults. Shere Ali has the faults of the Pathan, or some of them. He has
their vanity; he has, if you like, their fanaticism. But he's a man. He's
flattered and petted like a lap-dog, he's played with like a toy. Well,
he's neither a lap-dog nor a toy, and he takes the flattery and the
petting seriously. He thinks it's _meant_, and he behaves accordingly.
What, then? The toy is thrown down on the ground, the lap-dog is kicked
into the corner. But he's not a lap-dog, he's not a toy. He's a man. He
has a man's resentments, a man's wounded heart, a man's determination not
to submit to flattery one moment and humiliation the next. So he strikes.
He tries to take the white, soft, pretty thing which has been dangled
before his eyes and snatched away - he tries to take her by force and
fails. He goes back to his own people, and strikes. Do you blame him?
Would you rather he sat down and grumbled and bragged of his successes,
and took to drink, as more than one down south has done? Perhaps so. It
would be more comfortable if he did. But which of the pictures do you
admire? Which of the two is the better man? For me, the man who
strikes - even if I have to go up into his country and exact the penalty
afterwards. Shere Ali is one of the best of the Princes. But he has been
badly treated and so he must suffer."

Ralston repeated his conclusion with a savage irony. "That's the whole
truth. He's one of the best of them. Therefore he doesn't take bad
treatment with a servile gratitude. Therefore he must suffer still more.
But the fault in the beginning was not his."

Thus it fell to Ralston to explain, twenty-six years later, the saying
of a long-forgotten Political Officer which had seemed so dark to
Colonel Dewes when it was uttered in the little fort in Chiltistan.
There was a special danger for the best in the upbringing of the Indian
princes in England.

Linforth flushed as he listened to the tirade, but he made no answer.
Ralston looked at him keenly, wondering with a queer amusement whether he
had not blunted the keen edge of that tool which he was keeping at his
side because he foresaw the need of it. But there was no sign of any
softening upon Linforth's face. He could be hard, but on the other hand,
when he gave his faith he gave it without reserve. Almost every word
which Ralston had spoken had seemed to him an aspersion upon Violet
Oliver. He said nothing, for he had learned to keep silence. But his
anger was hotter than ever against Shere Ali, since but for Shere Ali the
aspersions would never have been cast.




CHAPTER XXXI

AN OLD TOMB AND A NEW SHRINE


The messenger whom Ralston sent with a sealed letter to the Resident at
Kohara left Peshawur in the afternoon and travelled up the road by way of
Dir and the Lowari Pass. He travelled quickly, spending little of his
time at the rest-houses on the way, and yet arrived no sooner on that
account. It was not he at all who brought his news to Kohara. Neither
letter nor messenger, indeed, ever reached the Resident's door, although
Captain Phillips learned something of the letter's contents a day before
the messenger was due. A queer, and to use his own epithet, a dramatic
stroke of fortune aided him at a very critical moment.

It happened in this way. While Captain Phillips was smoking a cheroot as
he sat over his correspondence in the morning, a servant from the great
Palace on the hill brought to him a letter in the Khan's own
handwriting. It was a flowery letter and invoked many blessings upon the
Khan's faithful friend and brother, and wound up with a single sentence,
like a lady's postscript, in which the whole object of the letter was
contained. Would his Excellency the Captain, in spite of his
overwhelming duties, of which the Khan was well aware, since they all
tended to the great benefit and prosperity of his State, be kind enough
to pay a visit to the Khan that day?

"What's the old rascal up to now?" thought Captain Phillips. He replied,
with less ornament and fewer flourishes, that he would come after
breakfast; and mounting his horse at the appointed time he rode down
through the wide street of Kohara and up the hill at the end, on the
terraced slopes of which climbed the gardens and mud walls of the Palace.
He was led at once into the big reception-room with the painted walls and
the silver-gilt chairs, where the Khan had once received his son with a
loaded rifle across his knees. The Khan was now seated with his courtiers
about him, and was carving the rind of a pomegranate into patterns, like
a man with his thoughts far away. But he welcomed Captain Phillips with
alacrity and at once dismissed his Court.

Captain Phillips settled down patiently in his chair. He was well aware
of the course the interview would take. The Khan would talk away without
any apparent aim for an hour or two hours, passing carelessly from
subject to subject, and then suddenly the important question would be
asked, the important subject mooted. On this occasion, however, the Khan
came with unusual rapidity to his point. A few inquiries as to the
Colonel's health, a short oration on the backwardness of the crops, a
lengthier one upon his fidelity to and friendship for the British
Government and the miserable return ever made to him for it, and then
came a question ludicrously inapposite and put with the solemn _naivet,_
of a child.

"I suppose you know," said the Khan, tugging at his great grey beard,
"that my grandfather married a fairy for one of his wives?"

It was on the strength of such abrupt questions that strangers were apt
to think that the Khan had fallen into his second childhood before his
time. But the Resident knew his man. He was aware that the Khan was
watching for his answer. He sat up in his chair and answered politely:

"So, your Highness, I have heard."

"Yes, it is true," continued the Khan. "Moreover, the fairy bore him a
daughter who is still alive, though very old."

"So there is still a fairy in the family," replied Captain Phillips
pleasantly, while he wondered what in the world the Khan was driving at.
"Yes, indeed, I know that. For only a week ago I was asked by a poor man
up the valley to secure your Highness's intercession. It seems that he is
much plagued by a fairy who has taken possession of his house, and since
your Highness is related to the fairies, he would be very grateful if you
would persuade his fairy to go away."

"I know," said the Khan gravely. "The case has already been brought to
me. The fellow _will_ open closed boxes in his house, and the fairy
resents it."

"Then your Highness has exorcised the fairy?"

"No; I have forbidden him to open boxes in his house," said the Khan; and
then, with a smile, "But it was not of him we were speaking, but of the
fairy in my family."

He leaned forward and his voice shook.

"She sends me warnings, Captain Sahib. Two nights ago, by the flat stone
where the fairies dance, she heard them - the voices of an innumerable
multitude in the air talking the Chilti tongue - talking of trouble to
come in the near days."

He spoke with burning eyes fixed upon the Resident and with his fingers
playing nervously in and out among the hairs of his beard. Whether the
Khan really believed the story of the fairies - there is nothing more
usual than a belief in fairies in the countries bordered by the
snow-peaks of the Hindu Kush - or whether he used the story as a blind to
conceal the real source of his fear, the Resident could not decide. But
what he did know was this: The Khan of Chiltistan was desperately afraid.
A whole programme of reform was sketched out for the Captain's hearing.

"I have been a good friend to the English, Captain Sahib. I have kept my
Mullahs and my people quiet all these years. There are things which might
be better, as your Excellency has courteously pointed out to me, and the
words have never been forgotten. The taxes no doubt are very burdensome,
and it may be the caravans from Bokhara and Central Asia should pay less
to the treasury as they pass through Chiltistan, and perhaps I do
unjustly in buying what I want from them at my own price." Thus he
delicately described the system of barefaced robbery which he practised
on the traders who passed southwards to India through Chiltistan. "But
these things can be altered. Moreover," and here he spoke with an air of
distinguished virtue, "I propose to sell no more of my people into
slavery - No, and to give none of them, not even the youngest, as presents
to my friends. It is quite true of course that the wood which I sell to
the merchants of Peshawur is cut and brought down by forced labour, but
next year I am thinking of paying. I have been a good friend to the
English all my life, Colonel Sahib."

Captain Phillips had heard promises of the kind before and accounted them
at their true value. But he had never heard them delivered with so
earnest a protestation. And he rode away from the Palace with the
disturbing conviction that there was something new in the wind of which
he did not know.

He rode up the valley, pondering what that something new might be.
Hillside and plain were ablaze with autumn colours. The fruit in the
orchards - peaches, apples, and grapes - was ripe, and on the river bank
the gold of the willows glowed among thickets of red rose. High up on the
hills, field rose above field, supported by stone walls. In the bosom of
the valley groups of great walnut-trees marked where the villages stood.

Captain Phillips rode through the villages. Everywhere he was met with
smiling faces and courteous salutes; but he drew no comfort from them.
The Chilti would smile pleasantly while he was fitting his knife in under
your fifth rib. Only once did Phillips receive a hint that something was
amiss, but the hint was so elusive that it did no more than quicken his
uneasiness.

He was riding over grass, and came silently upon a man whose back was
turned to him.

"So, Dadu," he said quietly, "you must not open closed boxes any more in
your house."

The man jumped round. He was not merely surprised, he was startled.

"Your Excellency rides up the valley?" he cried, and almost he
barred the way.

"Why not, Dadu?"

Dadu's face became impassive.

"It is as your Excellency wills. It is a good day for a ride," said Dadu;
and Captain Phillips rode on.

It might of course have been that the man had been startled merely by the
unexpected voice behind him; and the question which had leaped from his


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22

Online LibraryA.E. W. MasonThe Broken Road → online text (page 19 of 22)