The Broken Road
A. E. W. Mason
Part 2 out of 6
could plunge was hard ice, in which a ladder of steps must be cut before
the glacier could be reached. The glacier itself was crevassed so that
many a devour was necessary, and occasionally a jump; and evening came
upon them while they were on the Rocher de L'Aigle. It was quite dark
when at last they reached the grass slopes, and still far below them the
lights were gleaming in La Grave. To both men those grass slopes seemed
interminable. The lights of La Grave seemed never to come nearer, never
to grow larger. Little points of fire very far away--as they had been at
first, so they remained. But for the slope of ground beneath his feet and
the aching of his knees, Linforth could almost have believed that they
were not descending at all. He struck a match and looked at his watch and
saw that it was after nine; and a little while after they had come to
water and taken their fill of it, that it was nearly ten, but now the low
thunder of the river in the valley was louder in his ears, and then
suddenly he saw that the lights of La Grave were bright and near at hand.
Linforth flung himself down upon the grass, and clasping his hands
behind his head, gave himself up to the cool of the night and the
"I could sleep here," he said. "Why should we go down to La Grave
"There is a dew falling. It will be cold when the morning breaks. And La
Grave is very near. It is better to go," said Peter.
The question was still in debate when above the roar of the river there
came to their ears a faint throbbing sound from across the valley. It
grew louder and suddenly two blinding lights flashed along the
"A motor-car," said Shere Ali, and as he spoke the lights ceased
"It's stopping at the hotel," said Linforth carelessly.
"No," said Peter. "It has not reached the hotel. Look, not by a hundred
yards. It has broken down."
Linforth discussed the point at length, not because he was at all
interested at the moment in the movements of that or of any other
motor-car, but because he wished to stay where he was. Peter, however,
was obdurate. It was his pride to get his patron indoors each night.
"Let us go on," he said, and Linforth wearily rose to his feet.
"We are making a big mistake," he grumbled, and he spoke with more truth
than he was aware.
They reached the hotel at eleven, ordered their supper and bathed. It was
half-past eleven before Linforth and Shere Ali entered the long
dining-room, and they found another party already supping there. Linforth
heard himself greeted by name, and turned in surprise. It was a party of
four--two ladies and two men. One of the men had called to him, an
elderly man with a bald forehead, a grizzled moustache, and a shrewd
"I remember you, though you can't say as much of me," he said. "I
came down to Chatham a year ago and dined at your mess as the guest
of your Colonel."
Linforth came forward with a smile of recognition.
"I beg your pardon for not recognising you at once. I remember you, of
course, quite well," he said.
"Who am I, then?"
"Sir John Casson, late Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces," said
"And now nothing but a bore at my club," replied Sir John cheerfully. "We
were motoring through to Grenoble, but the car has broken down. You are
mountain-climbing, I suppose. Phyllis," and he turned to the younger of
the two ladies, "this is Mr. Linforth of the Royal Engineers. My
daughter, Linforth!" He introduced the second lady.
"Mrs. Oliver," he said, and Linforth turning, saw that the eyes of Mrs.
Oliver were already fixed upon him. He returned the look, and his eyes
frankly showed her that he thought her beautiful.
"And what are you going to do with yourself?" said Sir John.
"Go to the country from which you have just come, as soon as I can," said
Linforth with a smile. At this moment the fourth of the party, a stout,
red-faced, plethoric gentleman, broke in.
"India!" he exclaimed indignantly. "Bless my soul, what on earth sends
all you young fellows racing out to India? A great mistake! I once went
to India myself--to shoot a tiger. I stayed there for months and never
saw one. Not a tiger, sir!"
But Linforth was paying very little attention to the plethoric gentleman.
Sir John introduced him as Colonel Fitzwarren, and Linforth bowed
politely. Then he asked of Sir John:
"Your car was not seriously damaged, I suppose?"
"Keep us here two days," said Sir John. "The chauffeur will have to go on
by diligence to-morrow to get a new sparking plug. Perhaps we shall see
more of you in consequence."
Linforth's eyes travelled back to Mrs. Oliver.
"We are in no hurry," he said slowly. "We shall rest here probably for a
day or so. May I introduce my friend?"
He introduced him as the son of the Khan of Chiltistan, and Mrs. Oliver's
eyes, which had been quietly resting upon Linforth's face, turned towards
Shere Ali, and as quietly rested upon his.
"Then, perhaps, you can tell me," said Colonel Fitzwarren, "how it was I
never saw a tiger in India, though I stayed there four months. A most
disappointing country, I call it. I looked for a tiger everywhere and I
never saw one--no, not one."
The Colonel's one idea of the Indian Peninsula was a huge tiger waiting
somewhere in a jungle to be shot.
But Shere Ali was paying no more attention to the Colonel's
disparagements than Linforth had done.
"Will you join us at supper?" said Sir John, and both young men replied
simultaneously, "We shall be very pleased."
Sir John Casson smiled. He could never quite be sure whether it was or
was not to Mrs. Oliver's credit that her looks made so powerful an appeal
to the chivalry of young men. "All young men immediately want to protect
her," he was wont to say, "and their trouble is that they can't find
anyone to protect her from."
He watched Shere Ali and Dick Linforth with a sly amusement, and as a
result of his watching promised himself yet more amusement during the
next two days. He was roused from this pleasing anticipation by his
irascible friend, Colonel Fitzwarren, who, without the slightest warning,
flung a loud and defiant challenge across the table to Shere All.
"I don't believe there is one," he cried, and breathed heavily.
Shere Ali interrupted his conversation with Mrs. Oliver. "One what?" he
asked with a smile.
"Tiger, sir, tiger," said the Colonel, rapping with his knuckles upon the
table. "Of what else should I be speaking? I don't believe there's a
tiger in India outside the Zoo. Otherwise, why didn't I see one?"
Colonel Fitzwarren glared at Shere Ali as though he held him personally
responsible for that unhappy omission. Sir John, however, intervened with
smooth speeches and for the rest of supper the conversation was kept to
less painful topics. But the Colonel had not said his last word. As they
went upstairs to their rooms he turned to Shere Ali, who was just behind
him, and sighed heavily.
"If I had shot a tiger in India," he said, with an indescribable look
of pathos upon his big red face, "it would have made a great difference
to my life."
A STRING OF PEARLS
"So you go to parties nowadays," said Mrs. Linforth, and Sir John Casson,
leaning his back against the wall of the ball-room, puzzled his brains
for the name of the lady with the pleasant winning face to whom he had
just been introduced. At first it had seemed to him merely that her
hearing was better than his. The "nowadays," however, showed that it was
her memory which had the advantage. They were apparently old
acquaintances; and Sir John belonged to an old-fashioned school which
thought it discourtesy to forget even the least memorable of his
"You were not so easily persuaded to decorate a ball-room at Mussoorie,"
Mrs. Linforth continued.
Sir John smiled, and there was a little bitterness in the smile.
"Ah!" he said, and there was a hint, too, of bitterness in his voice, "I
was wanted to decorate ball-rooms then. So I didn't go. Now I am not
wanted. So I do."
"That's not the true explanation," Mrs. Linforth said gently, and she
shook her head. She spoke so gently and with so clear a note of sympathy
and comprehension that Sir John was at more pains than ever to discover
who she was. To hardly anyone would it naturally have occurred that Sir
John Casson, with a tail of letters to his name, and a handsome pension,
enjoyed at an age when his faculties were alert and his bodily strength
not yet diminished, could stand in need of sympathy. But that precisely
was the fact, as the woman at his side understood. A great ruler
yesterday, with a council and an organized Government, subordinated to
his leadership, he now merely lived at Camberley, and as he had
confessed, was a bore at his club. And life at Camberley was dull.
He looked closely at Mrs. Linforth. She was a woman of forty, or perhaps
a year or two more. On the other hand, she might be a year or two less.
She had the figure of a young woman, and though her dark hair was flecked
with grey, he knew that was not to be accounted as a sign of either age
or trouble. Yet she looked as if trouble had been no stranger to her.
There were little lines about the eyes which told their tale to a shrewd
observer, though the face smiled never so pleasantly. In what summer, he
wondered, had she come up to the hill station of Mussoorie.
"No," he said. "I did not give you the real explanation. Now I will."
He nodded towards a girl who was at that moment crossing the ball-room
towards the door, upon the arm of a young man.
"That's the explanation."
Mrs. Linforth looked at the girl and smiled.
"The explanation seems to be enjoying itself," she said. "Yours?"
"Mine," replied Sir John with evident pride.
"She is very pretty," said Mrs. Linforth, and the sincerity of her
admiration made the father glow with satisfaction. Phyllis Casson was a
girl of eighteen, with the fresh looks and the clear eyes of her years. A
bright colour graced her cheeks, where, when she laughed, the dimples
played, and the white dress she wore was matched by the whiteness of her
throat. She was talking gaily with the youth on whose arm her hand
"Who is he?" asked Mrs. Linforth.
Sir John raised his shoulders.
"I am not concerned," he replied. "The explanation is amusing itself, as
it ought to do, being only eighteen. The explanation wants everyone to
love her at the present moment. When she wants only one, then it will be
time for me to begin to get flurried." He turned abruptly to his
companion. "I would like you to know her."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Linforth, as she bowed to an acquaintance.
"Would you like to dance?" asked Sir John. "If so, I'll stand aside."
"No. I came here to look on," she explained.
"Lady Marfield," and she nodded towards their hostess, "is my cousin,
and--well, I don't want to grow rusty. You see I have an explanation
too--oh, not here! He's at Chatham, and it's as well to keep up with the
world--" She broke off abruptly, and with a perceptible start of
surprise. She was looking towards the door. Casson followed the direction
of her eyes, and saw young Linforth in the doorway.
At last he remembered. There had been one hot weather, years ago, when
this boy's father and his newly-married wife had come up to the
hill-station of Mussoorie. He remembered that Linforth had sent his wife
back to England, when he went North into Chiltistan on that work from
which he was never to return. It was the wife who was now at his side.
"I thought you said he was at Chatham," said Sir John, as Dick Linforth
advanced into the room.
"So I believed he was. He must have changed his mind at the last moment."
Then she looked with a little surprise at her companion. "You know him?"
"Yes," said Sir John, "I will tell you how it happened. I was dining
eighteen months ago at the Sappers' mess at Chatham. And that boy's face
came out of the crowd and took my eyes and my imagination too. You know,
perhaps, how that happens at times. There seems to be no particular
reason why it should happen at the moment. Afterwards you realise that
there was very good reason. A great career, perhaps, perhaps only some
one signal act, an act typical of a whole unknown life, leaps to light
and justifies the claim the young face made upon your sympathy. Anyhow, I
noticed young Linforth. It was not his good looks which attracted me.
There was something else. I made inquiries. The Colonel was not a very
observant man. Linforth was one of the subalterns--a good bat and a good
change bowler. That was all. Only I happened to look round the walls of
the Sappers' mess. There are portraits hung there of famous members of
that mess who were thought of no particular account when they were
subalterns at Chatham. There's one alive to-day. Another died at
"Yes," said Mrs. Linforth.
"Well, I made the acquaintance of your son that night," said Sir John.
Mrs. Linforth stood for a moment silent, her face for the moment quite
beautiful. Then she broke into a laugh.
"I am glad I scratched your back first," she said. "And as for the
cricket, it's quite true. I taught him to keep a straight bat myself."
Meanwhile, Dick Linforth was walking across the floor of the ball-room,
quite unconscious of the two who talked of him. He was not, indeed,
looking about him at all. It seemed to both his mother and Sir John, as
they watched him steadily moving in and out amongst the throng--for it
was the height of the season, and Lady Marfield's big drawing-room in
Chesterfield Gardens was crowded--that he was making his way to a
definite spot, as though just at this moment he had a definite
"He changed his mind at the last moment," said Sir John with a laugh,
which gave to him the look of a boy. "Let us see who it is that has
brought him up from Chatham to London at the last moment!"
"Would it be fair?" asked Mrs. Linforth reluctantly. She was, indeed, no
less curious upon the point than her companion, and while she asked the
question, her eyes followed her son's movements. He was tall, and though
he moved quickly and easily, it was possible to keep him in view.
A gap in the crowd opened before them, making a lane--and at the end of
the lane they saw Linforth approach a lady and receive the welcome of
her smile. For a moment the gap remained open, and then the bright
frocks and black coats swept across the space. But both had seen, and
Mrs. Linforth, in addition, was aware of a barely perceptible start made
by Sir John at her side.
She looked at him sharply. His face had grown grave.
"You know her?" asked Mrs. Linforth. There was anxiety in her voice.
There was also a note of jealousy.
"Who is she?"
"Mrs. Oliver. Violet Oliver."
"A widow. I introduced her to your son at La Grave in the Dauphine
country last summer. Our motor-car had broken down. We all stayed for a
couple of days together in the same hotel. Mrs. Oliver is a friend of my
daughter's. Phyllis admires her very much, and in most instances I am
prepared to trust Phyllis' instincts."
"But not in this instance," said Mrs. Linforth quietly. She had been
quick to note a very slight embarrassment in Sir John Casson's manner.
"I don't say that," he replied quickly--a little too quickly.
"Will you find me a chair?" said Mrs. Linforth, looking about her. "There
are two over here." She led the way to the chairs which were placed in a
nook of the room not very far from the door by which Linforth had
entered. She took her seat, and when Sir John had seated himself beside
her, she said:
"Please tell me what you know of her."
Sir John spread out his hands in protest.
"Certainly, I will. But there is nothing to her discredit, so far as I
know, Mrs. Linforth--nothing at all. Beyond that she is beautiful--really
beautiful, as few women are. That, no doubt, will be looked upon as a
crime by many, though you and I will not be of that number."
Sybil Linforth maintained a determined silence--not for anything would
she admit, even to herself, that Violet Oliver was beautiful.
"You are telling me nothing," she said.
"There is so little to tell," replied Sir John. "Violet Oliver comes of a
family which is known, though it is not rich. She studied music with a
view to making her living as a singer. For she has a very sweet voice,
though its want of power forbade grand opera. Her studies were
interrupted by the appearance of a cavalry captain, who made love to her.
She liked it, whereas she did not like studying music. Very naturally she
married the cavalry officer. Captain Oliver took her with him abroad,
and, I believe, brought her to India. At all events she knows something
of India, and has friends there. She is going back there this winter.
Captain Oliver was killed in a hill campaign two years ago. Mrs. Oliver
is now twenty-three years old. That is all."
Mrs. Linforth, however, was not satisfied.
"Was Captain Oliver rich?" she asked.
"Not that I know of," said Sir John. "His widow lives in a little house
at the wrong end of Curzon Street."
"But she is wearing to-night very beautiful pearls," said Sybil
Sir John Casson moved suddenly in his chair. Moreover, Sybil Linforth's
eyes were at that moment resting with a quiet scrutiny upon his face.
"It was difficult to see exactly what she was wearing," he said. "The gap
in the crowd filled up so quickly."
"There was time enough for any woman," said Mrs. Linforth with a smile.
"And more than time enough for any mother."
"Mrs. Oliver is always, I believe, exquisitely dressed," said Sir John
with an assumption of carelessness. "I am not much of a judge myself."
But his carelessness did not deceive his companion. Sybil Linforth was
certain, absolutely certain, that the cause of the constraint and
embarrassment which had been audible in Sir John's voice, and noticeable
in his very manner, was that double string of big pearls of perfect
colour which adorned Violet Oliver's white throat.
She looked Sir John straight in the face.
"Would you introduce Dick to Mrs. Oliver now, if you had not done it
before?" she asked.
"My dear lady," protested Sir John, "if I met Dick at a little hotel in
the Dauphine, and did not introduce him to the ladies who were travelling
with me, it would surely reflect upon Dick, not upon the ladies"; and
with that subtle evasion Sir John escaped from the fire of questions. He
turned the conversation into another channel, pluming himself upon his
cleverness. But he forgot that the subtlest evasions of the male mind are
clumsy and obvious to a woman, especially if the woman be on the alert.
Sybil Linforth did not think Sir John had showed any cleverness whatever.
She let him turn the conversation, because she knew what she had set out
to know. That string of pearls had made the difference between Sir John's
estimate of Violet Oliver last year and his estimate of her this season.
LUFFE IS REMEMBERED
Violet Oliver took a quick step forward when she caught sight of
Linforth's tall and well-knit figure coming towards her; and the smile
with which she welcomed him was a warm smile of genuine pleasure. There
were people who called Violet Oliver affected--chiefly ladies. But
Phyllis Casson was not one of them.
"There is no one more natural in the room," she was in the habit of
stoutly declaring when she heard the gossips at work, and we know, on her
father's authority, that Phyllis Casson's judgments were in most
instances to be respected. Certainly it was not Violet Oliver's fault
that her face in repose took on a wistful and pathetic look, and that her
dark quiet eyes, even when her thoughts were absent--and her thoughts
were often absent--rested pensively upon you with an unconscious
flattery. It appeared that she was pondering deeply who and what you
were; whereas she was probably debating whether she should or should not
powder her nose before she went in to supper. Nor was she to blame
because at the approach of a friend that sweet and thoughtful face would
twinkle suddenly into mischief and amusement. "She is as God made her,"
Phyllis Casson protested, "and He made her beautiful."
It will be recognised, therefore, that there was truth in Sir John's
observation that young men wanted to protect her. But the bald statement
is not sufficient. Whether that quick transition from pensiveness to a
dancing gaiety was the cause, or whether it only helped her beauty, this
is certain. Young men went down before her like ninepins in a bowling
alley. There was something singularly virginal about her. She had, too,
quite naturally, an affectionate manner which it was difficult to resist;
and above all she made no effort ever. What she said and what she did
seemed always purely spontaneous. For the rest, she was a little over the
general height of women, and even looked a little taller. For she was
very fragile, and dainty, like an exquisite piece of china. Her head was
small, and, poised as it was upon a slender throat, looked almost
overweighted by the wealth of her dark hair. Her features were finely
chiselled from the nose to the oval of her chin, and the red bow of her
lips; and, with all her fragility, a delicate colour in her cheeks spoke
"You have come!" she said.
Linforth took her little white-gloved hand in his.
"You knew I should," he answered.
"Yes, I knew that. But I didn't know that I should have to wait," she
replied reproachfully. "I was here, in this corner, at the moment."
"I couldn't catch an earlier train. I only got your telegram saying you
would be at the dance late in the afternoon."
"I did not know that I should be coming until this morning," she said.
"Then it was very kind of you to send the telegram at all."
"Yes, it was," said Violet Oliver simply, and Linforth laughed.
"Shall we dance?" he asked.
Mrs. Oliver nodded.
"Round the room as far as the door. I am hungry. We will go downstairs
and have supper."
Linforth could have wished for nothing better. But the moment that his
arm was about her waist and they had started for the door, Violet Oliver
realised that her partner was the lightest dancer in the room. She
herself loved dancing, and for once in a way to be steered in and out
amongst the couples without a bump or even a single entanglement of her
satin train was a pleasure not to be foregone. She gave herself up to it.
"Let us go on," she said. "I did not know. You see, we have never danced
together before. I had not thought of you in that way."
She ceased to speak, being content to dance. Linforth for his part was
content to watch her, to hold her as something very precious, and to
evoke a smile upon her lips when her eyes met his. "I had not thought of
you in that way!" she had said. Did not that mean that she had at all
events been thinking of him in some way? And with that flattery still
sweet in his thoughts, he was aware that her feet suddenly faltered. He
looked at her face. It had changed. Yet so swiftly did it recover its
composure that Linforth had not even the time to understand what the
change implied. Annoyance, surprise, fear! One of these feelings,
certainly, or perhaps a trifle of each. Linforth could not make sure.
There had been a flash of some sudden emotion. That at all events was
certain. But in guessing fear, he argued, his wits must surely have gone
far astray; though fear was the first guess which he had made.
"What was the matter?"
Violet Oliver answered readily.
"A big man was jigging down upon us. I saw him over your shoulder. I
dislike being bumped by big men," she said, with a little easy laugh.
"And still more I hate having a new frock torn."
Dick Linforth was content with the answer. But it happened that Sybil
Linforth was looking on from her chair in the corner, and the corner was
very close to the spot where for a moment Violet Oliver had lost
countenance. She looked sharply at Sir John Casson, who might have
noticed or might not. His face betrayed nothing whatever. He went on
talking placidly, but Mrs. Linforth ceased to listen to him.
Violet Oliver waltzed with her partner once more round the room.
Then she said:
"Let us stop!" and in almost the same breath she added, "Oh, there's
Linforth turned and saw standing just within the doorway his friend
"You could hardly tell that he was not English," she went on; and indeed,
with his straight features, his supple figure, and a colour no darker
than many a sunburnt Englishman wears every August, Shere Ali might have
passed unnoticed by a stranger. It seemed that he had been watching for
the couple to stop dancing. For no sooner had they stopped than he
advanced quickly towards them.
Linforth, however, had not as yet noticed him.
"It can't be Shere Ali," he said. "He is in the country. I heard from him
"Yet it is he," said Mrs. Oliver, and then Linforth saw him.
"Hallo!" he said softly to himself, and as Shere Ali joined them he added
aloud, "something has happened."
"Yes, I have news," said Shere Ali. But he was looking at Mrs. Oliver,
and spoke as though the news had been pushed for a moment into the back
of his mind.
"What is it?" asked Linforth.
Shere Ali turned to Linforth.
"I go back to Chiltistan."
"When?" asked Linforth, and a note of envy was audible in his voice. Mrs.
Oliver heard it and understood it. She shrugged her shoulders
"By the first boat to Bombay."
"In a week's time, then?" said Mrs. Oliver, quickly.
Shere Ali glanced swiftly at her, seeking the meaning of that question.
Did regret prompt it? Or, on the other hand, was she glad?
"Yes, in a week's time," he replied slowly.
"Why?" asked Linforth. "Is there trouble in Chiltistan?" He spoke
regretfully. It would be hard luck if that uneasy State were to wake
again into turmoil while he was kept kicking his heels at Chatham.
"Yes, there is trouble," Shere Ali replied. "But it is not the kind of
trouble which will help you forward with the Road."
The trouble, indeed, was of quite another kind. The Russians were not
stirring behind the Hindu Kush or on the Pamirs. The turbulent people of
Chiltistan were making trouble, and profit out of the trouble, it is
true. That they would be sure to do somewhere, and, moreover, they would
do it with a sense of humour more common upon the Frontier than in the
Provinces of India. But they were not at the moment making trouble in
their own country. They were heard of in Masulipatam and other cities of
Madras, where they were badly wanted by the police and not often caught.
The quarrel in Chiltistan lay between the British Raj, as represented by
the Resident, and the Khan, who was spending the revenue of his State
chiefly upon his own amusements. It was claimed that the Resident should
henceforth supervise the disposition of the revenue, and it had been
suggested to the Khan that unless he consented to the proposal he would
have to retire into private life in some other quarter of the Indian
Peninsula. To give to the suggestion the necessary persuasive power, the
young Prince was to be brought back at once, so that he might be ready at
a moment's notice to succeed. This reason, however, was not given to
Shere Ali. He was merely informed by the Indian Government that he must
return to his country at once.
Shere Ali stood before Mrs. Oliver.
"You will give me a dance?" he said.
"After supper," she replied, and she laid her hand within Linforth's arm.
But Shere Ali did not give way.
"Where shall I find you?" he asked.
"By the door, here."
And upon that Shere Ali's voice changed to one of appeal. There came a
note of longing into his voice. He looked at Violet Oliver with burning
eyes. He seemed unaware Linforth was standing by.
"You will not fail me?" he said; and Linforth moved impatiently.
"No. I shall be there," said Violet Oliver, and she spoke hurriedly and
moved by through the doorway. Beneath her eyelids she stole a glance at
her companion. His face was clouded. The scene which he had witnessed had
jarred upon him, and still jarred. When he spoke to her his voice had a
sternness which Violet Oliver had not heard before. But she had always
been aware that it might be heard, if at any time he disapproved.
"'Your friend,' you called him, speaking to me," he said. "It seems that
he is your friend too."
"He was with you at La Grave. I met him there."
"He comes to your house?"
"He has called once or twice," said Mrs. Oliver submissively. It was by
no wish of hers that Shere Ali had appeared at this dance. She had, on
the contrary, been at some pains to assure herself that he would not be
there. And while she answered Linforth she was turning over in her mind a
difficulty which had freshly arisen. Shere Ali was returning to India. In
some respects that was awkward. But Linforth's ill-humour promised her a
way of escape. He was rather silent during the earlier part of their
supper. They had a little table to themselves, and while she talked, and
talked with now and then an anxious glance at Linforth, he was content to
listen or to answer shortly. Finally she said:
"I suppose you will not see your friend again before he starts?"
"Yes, I shall," replied Linforth, and the frown gathered afresh upon his
forehead. "He dines to-morrow night with me at Chatham."
"Then I want to ask you something," she continued. "I want you not to
mention to him that I am paying a visit to India in the cold weather."
Linforth's face cleared in an instant.
"I am glad that you have made that request," he said frankly. "I have no
right to say it, perhaps. But I think you are wise."
"Things are possible here," she agreed, "which are impossible there."
"Friendship, for instance."
"Some friendships," said Mrs. Oliver; and the rest of their supper they
ate cheerily enough. Violet Oliver was genuinely interested in her
partner. She was not very familiar with the large view and the definite
purpose. Those who gathered within her tiny drawing-room, who sought her
out at balls and parties, were, as a rule, the younger men of the day,
and Linforth, though like them in age and like them, too, in his capacity
for enjoyment, was different in most other ways. For the large view and
the definite purpose coloured all his life, and, though he spoke little
of either, set him apart.
Mrs. Oliver did not cultivate many illusions about herself. She saw very
clearly what manner of men they were to whom her beauty made its chief
appeal--lean-minded youths for the most part not remarkable for
brains--and she was sincerely proud that Linforth sought her out no less
than they did. She could imagine herself afraid of Linforth, and that
fancy gave her a little thrill of pleasure. She understood that he could
easily be lost altogether, that if once he went away he would not return;
and that knowledge made her careful not to lose him. Moreover, she had
brains herself. She led him on that evening, and he spoke with greater
freedom than he had used with her before--greater freedom, she hoped,
than he had used with anyone. The lighted supper-room grew dim before his
eyes, the noise and the laughter and the passing figures of the other
guests ceased to be noticed. He talked in a low voice, and with his keen
face pushed a trifle forward as though, while he spoke, he listened. He
was listening to the call of the Road.
He stopped abruptly and looked anxiously at Violet.
"Have I bored you?" he asked. "Generally I watch you," he added with a
smile, "lest I should bore you. To-night I haven't watched."
"For that reason I have been interested to-night more than I have
She gathered up her fan with a little sigh. "I must go upstairs
again," she said, and she rose from her chair. "I am sorry. But I have
"I will take you up. Then I shall go."
"You will dance no more?"
"No," he said with a smile. "I'll not spoil a perfect evening." Violet
Oliver was not given to tricks or any play of the eyelids. She looked at
him directly, and she said simply "Thank you."
He took her up to the landing, and came down stairs again for his hat and
coat. But, as he passed with them along the passage door he turned, and
looking up the stairs, saw Violet Oliver watching him. She waved her hand
lightly and smiled. As the door closed behind him she returned to the
ball-room. Linforth went away with no suspicion in his mind that she had
stayed her feet upon the landing merely to make very sure that he went.
He had left his mother behind, however, and she was all suspicion. She
had remarked the little scene when Shere Ali had unexpectedly appeared.
She had noticed the embarrassment of Violet Oliver and the anger of Shere
Ali. It was possible that Sir John Casson had also not been blind to it.
For, a little time afterwards, he nodded towards Shere Ali.
"Do you know that boy?" he asked.
"Yes. He is Dick's great friend. They have much in common. His father was
my husband's friend."
"And both believed in the new Road, I know," said Sir John. He pulled at
his grey moustache thoughtfully, and asked: "Have the sons the Road in
common, too?" A shadow darkened Sybil Linforth's face. She sat silent for
some seconds, and when she answered, it was with a great reluctance.
"I believe so," she said in a low voice, and she shivered. She turned her
face towards Casson. It was troubled, fear-stricken, and in that assembly
of laughing and light-hearted people it roused him with a shock. "I wish,
with all my heart, that they had not," she added, and her voice shook and
trembled as she spoke.
The terrible story of Linforth's end, long since dim in Sir John Casson's
recollections, came back in vivid detail. He said no more upon that
point. He took Mrs. Linforth down to supper, and bringing her back again,
led her round the ball-room. An open archway upon one side led into a
conservatory, where only fairy lights glowed amongst the plants and
flowers. As the couple passed this archway, Sir John looked in. He did
not stop, but, after they had walked a few yards further, he said:
"Was it pale blue that Violet Oliver was wearing? I am not clever at
noticing these things."
"Yes, pale blue and--pearls," said Sybil Linforth.
"There is no need that we should walk any further. Here are two chairs,"
said Sir John. There was in truth no need. He had ascertained something
about which, in spite of his outward placidity, he had been very curious.
"Did you ever hear of a man named Luffe?" he asked.
Sybil Linforth started. It had been Luffe whose continual arguments,
entreaties, threats, and persuasions had caused the Road long ago to be
carried forward. But she answered quietly, "Yes."
"Of course you and I remember him," said Sir John. "But how many others?
That's the penalty of Indian service. You are soon forgotten, in India as
quickly as here. In most cases, no doubt, it doesn't matter. Men just as
good and younger stand waiting at the milestones to carry on the torch.
But in some cases I think it's a pity."
"In Mr. Luffe's case?" asked Sybil Linforth.
"Particularly in Luffe's case," said Sir John.
AN UNANSWERED QUESTION
Sir John had guessed aright. Shere Ali was in the conservatory, and
Violet Oliver sat by his side.
"I did not expect you to-night," she said lightly, as she opened and
shut her fan.
"Nor did I mean to come," he answered. "I had arranged to stay in the
country until to-morrow. But I got my letter from the India Office this
morning. It left me--restless." He uttered the word with reluctance, and
almost with an air of shame. Then he clasped his hands together, and
blurted out violently: "It left me miserable. I could not stay away," and
he turned to his companion. "I wanted to see you, if only for five
minutes." It was Violet Oliver's instinct to be kind. She fitted herself
naturally to the words of her companions, sympathised with them in their
troubles, laughed with them when they were at the top of their spirits.
So now her natural kindness made her eyes gentle. She leaned forward.
"Did you?" she asked softly. "And yet you are going home!"
"I am going back to Chiltistan," said Shere Ali.
"Home!" Violet Oliver repeated, dwelling upon the word with a friendly
But the young prince did not assent; he remained silent--so long silent
that Violet Oliver moved uneasily. She was conscious of suspense; she
began to dread his answer. He turned to her quickly as she moved.
"You say that I am going home. That's the whole question," he said. "I am
trying to answer it--and I can't. Listen!"
Into the quiet and dimly lit place of flowers the music of the violins
floated with a note of wistfulness in the melody they played--a
suggestion of regret. Through a doorway at the end of the conservatory
Shere Ali could see the dancers swing by in the lighted ball-room, the
women in their bright frocks and glancing jewels, some of whom had
flattered him, a few of whom had been his friends, and all of whom had
treated him as one of their own folk and their equal.
"I have heard the tune, which they are playing, before," he said slowly.
"I heard it one summer night in Geneva. Linforth and I had come down from
the mountains. We were dining with a party on the balcony of a restaurant
over the lake. A boat passed hidden by the darkness. We could hear the
splash of the oars. There were musicians in the boat playing this melody.
We were all very happy that night. And I hear it again now--when I am
with you. I think that I shall remember it very often in Chiltistan."
There was so unmistakable a misery in his manner, in his voice, in his
dejected looks, that Violet was moved to a deep sympathy. He was only a
boy, of course, but he was a boy sunk in distress.
"But there are your plans," she urged. "Have you forgotten them? You were
going to do so much. There was so much to do. So many changes, so many
reforms which must be made. You used to talk to me so eagerly. No more of
your people were to be sold into slavery. You were going to stop all
that. You were going to silence the mullahs when they preached sedition
and to free Chiltistan from their tyranny."
Violet remembered with a whimsical little smile how Shere All's
enthusiasm had wearied her, but she checked the smile and continued:
"Are all those plans mere dreams and fancies?"
"No," replied Shere Ali, lifting his head. "No," he said again with
something of violence in the emphasis; and for a moment he sat erect,
with his shoulders squared, fronting his destiny. Almost for a moment he
recaptured that for which he had been seeking--his identity with his own
race. But the moment passed. His attitude relaxed. He turned to Violet
with troubled eyes. "No, they are not dreams; they are things which need
to be done. But I can't realise them now, with you sitting here, any more
than I can realise, with this music in my ears, that it is my home to
which I am going back."
"Oh, but you will!" cried Violet. "When you are out there you will.
There's the road, too, the road which you and Mr. Linforth--"
She did not complete the sentence. With a low cry Shere All broke in upon
her words. He leaned forward, with his hands covering his face.
"Yes," he whispered, "there's the road--there's the road." A passion of
self-reproach shook him. Not for nothing had Linforth been his friend. "I
feel a traitor," he cried. "For ten years we have talked of that road,
planned it, and made it in thought, poring over the maps. Yes, for even
at the beginning, in our first term at Eton, we began. Over the passes to
the foot of the Hindu Kush! Only a year ago I was eager, really, honestly
eager," and he paused for a moment, wondering at that picture of himself
which his words evoked, wondering whether it was indeed he--he who sat in
the conservatory--who had cherished those bright dreams of a great life
in Chiltistan. "Yes, it is true. I was honestly eager to go back."
"Less than a year ago," said Violet Oliver quickly. "Less than a week
ago. When did I see you last? On Sunday, wasn't it?"
"But was I honest then?" exclaimed Shere Ali. "I don't know. I thought I
was--right up to to-day, right up to this morning when the letter came.
And then--" He made a despairing gesture, as of a man crumbling dust
between his fingers.
"I will tell you," he said, turning towards her. "I believe that the last
time I was really honest was in August of last year. Linforth and I
talked of the Road through a long day in the hut upon the Meije. I was
keen then--honestly keen. But the next evening we came down to La Grave,
and--I met you."
"No," Violet Oliver protested. "That's not the reason."
"I think it is," said Shere Ali quietly; and Violet was silent.
In spite of her pity, which was genuine enough, her thoughts went out
towards Shere Ali's friend. With what words and in what spirit would he
have received Shere Ali's summons to Chiltistan? She asked herself the
question, knowing well the answer. There would have been no
lamentations--a little regret, perhaps, perhaps indeed a longing to take
her with him. But there would have been not a thought of abandoning the
work. She recognised that truth with a sudden spasm of anger, but yet
admiration strove with the anger and mastered it.
"If what you say is true," she said to Shere Ali gently, "I am very
sorry. But I hope it is not true. You have been ten years here; you have
made many friends. Just for the moment the thought of leaving them behind
troubles you. But that will pass."
"Will it?" he asked quietly. Then a smile came upon his face. "There's
one thing of which I am glad," he whispered.
"You are wearing my pearls to-night."
Violet Oliver smiled, and with a tender caressing movement her fingers
touched and felt the rope of pearls about her neck. Both the smile and
the movement revealed Violet Oliver. She had a love of beautiful things,
but, above all, of jewels. It was a passion with her deeper than any she
had ever known. Beautiful stones, and pearls more than any other stones,
made an appeal to her which she could not resist.
"They are very lovely," she said softly.
"I shall be glad to remember that you wore them to-night," said Shere
Ali; "for, as you know, I love you."
"Hush!" said Mrs. Oliver; and she rose with a start from her chair. Shere
Ali did the same.
"It's true," he said sullenly; and then, with a swift step, he placed
himself in her way. Violet Oliver drew back quietly. Her heart beat
quickly. She looked into Shere Ali's face and was afraid. He was quite
still; even the expression of his face was set, but his eyes burned upon
her. There was a fierceness in his manner which was new to her.
His hand darted out quickly towards her. But Violet Oliver was no less
quick. She drew back yet another step. "I didn't understand," she said,
and her lips shook, so that the words were blurred. She raised her hands
to her neck and loosened the coils of pearls about it as though she meant
to lift them off and return them to the giver.
"Oh, don't do that, please," said Shere Ali; and already his voice and
his manner had changed. The sullenness had gone. Now he besought. His
English training came to his aid. He had learned reverence for women,
acquiring it gradually and almost unconsciously rather than from any
direct teaching. He had spent one summer's holidays with Mrs. Linforth
for his hostess in the house under the Sussex Downs, and from her and
from Dick's manner towards her he had begun to acquire it. He had become
conscious of that reverence, and proudly conscious. He had fostered it.
It was one of the qualities, one of the essential qualities, of the white
people. It marked the sahibs off from the Eastern races. To possess that
reverence, to be influenced and moved and guided by it--that made him one
with them. He called upon it to help him now. Almost he had forgotten it.
"Please don't take them off," he implored. "There was nothing to
And perhaps there was not, except this--that Violet Oliver was of those
who take but do not give. She removed her hands from her throat. The
moment of danger had passed, as she very well knew.
"There is one thing I should be very grateful for," he said humbly. "It
would not cause you very much trouble, and it would mean a great deal to
me. I would like you to write to me now and then."
"Why, of course I will," said Mrs. Oliver, with a smile.
"Yes. But you will come back to England."
"I shall try to come next summer, if it's only for a week," said Shere
Ali; and he made way for Violet.
She moved a few yards across the conservatory, and then stopped for Shere
Ali to come level with her. "I shall write, of course, to Chiltistan,"
she said carelessly.
"Yes," he replied, "I go northwards from Bombay. I travel straight
"Very well. I will write to you there," said Violet Oliver; but it seemed
that she was not satisfied. She walked slowly towards the door, with
Shere Ali at her side.
"And you will stay in Chiltistan until you come back to us?" she asked.
"You won't go down to Calcutta at Christmas, for instance? Calcutta is
the place to which people go at Christmas, isn't it? I think you are
right. You have a career in your own country, amongst your own people."
She spoke urgently. And Shere Ali, thinking that thus she spoke in
concern for his future, drew some pride from her encouragement. He
also drew some shame; for she might have been speaking, too, in pity
for his distress.
"Mrs. Oliver," he said, with hesitation; and she stopped and turned to
him. "Perhaps I said more than I meant to say a few minutes ago. I have
not forgotten really that there is much for me to do in my own country; I
have not forgotten that I can thank all of you here who have shown me so
much kindness by more than mere words. For I can help in Chiltistan--I
can really help."
Then came a smile upon Violet Oliver's face, and her eyes shone.
"That is how I would have you speak," she cried. "I am glad. Oh, I am
glad!" and her voice rang with the fulness of her pleasure. She had been
greatly distressed by the unhappiness of her friend, and in that distress
compunction had played its part. There was no hardness in Violet Oliver's
character. To give pain flattered no vanity in her. She understood that
Shere Ali would suffer because of her, and she longed that he should find
his compensation in the opportunities of rulership.
"Let us say good-bye here," he said. "We may not be alone again
before I go."
She gave him her hand, and he held it for a little while, and then
reluctantly let it go.
"That must last me until the summer of next year," he said with a smile.
"Until the summer," said Violet Oliver; and she passed out from the
doorway into the ball-room. But as she entered the room and came once
more amongst the lights and the noise, and the familiar groups of her
friends, she uttered a little sigh of relief. The summer of next year
was a long way off; and meanwhile here was an episode in her life ended
as she wished it to end; for in these last minutes it had begun to
Shere Ali remained behind in the conservatory. His eyes wandered about
it. He was impressing upon his memory every detail of the place, the
colours of the flowers and their very perfumes. He looked through the
doorway into the ball-room whence the music swelled. The note of regret
was louder than ever in his ears, and dominated the melody. To-morrow the
lights, the delicate frocks, the laughing voices and bright eyes would be
gone. The violins spoke to him of that morrow of blank emptiness softly
and languorously like one making a luxury of grief. In a week's time he
would be setting his face towards Chiltistan; and, in spite of the brave
words he had used to Violet Oliver, once more the question forced itself
into his mind.
"Do I belong here?" he asked. "Or do I belong to Chiltistan?"
On the one side was all that during ten years he had gradually learned to
love and enjoy; on the other side was his race and the land of his birth.
He could not answer the question; for there was a third possibility which
had not yet entered into his speculations, and in that third possibility
alone was the answer to be found.
AT THE GATE OF LAHORE
Shere Ali, accordingly, travelled with reluctance to Bombay, and at that
port an anonymous letter with the postmark of Calcutta was brought to him
on board the steamer. Shere Ali glanced through it, and laughed, knowing
well his countrymen's passion for mysteries and intrigues. He put the
letter in his pocket and took the northward mail. These were the days
before the North-West Province had been severed from the Punjab, and
instructions had been given to Shere Ali to break his journey at Lahore.
He left the train, therefore, at that station, on a morning when the
thermometer stood at over a hundred in the shade, and was carried in a
barouche drawn by camels to Government House. There a haggard and
heat-worn Commissioner received him, and in the cool of the evening took
him for a ride, giving him sage advice with the accent of authority.
"His Excellency would have liked to have seen you himself," said the
Commissioner. "But he is in the Hills and he did not think it necessary
to take you so far out of your way. It is as well that you should get to
Kohara as soon as possible, and on particular subjects the Resident,
Captain Phillips, will be able and glad to advise you."
The Commissioner spoke politely enough, but the accent of authority was
there. Shere Ali's ears were quick to notice and resent it. Some years
had passed since commands had been laid upon him.
"I shall always be glad to hear what Captain Phillips has to say," he
"Yes, yes, of course," said the Commissioner, taking that for granted.
"Captain Phillips has our views."
He did not seem to notice the stiffness of Shere Ali's tone. He was tired
with the strain of the hot weather, as his drawn face and hollow eyes
"On general lines," he continued, "his Excellency would like you to
understand that the Government has no intention and no wish to interfere
with the customs and laws of Chiltistan. In fact it is at this moment
particularly desirable that you should throw your influence on the side
of the native observances."
"Indeed," said Shere Ali, as he rode along the Mall by the Commissioner's
side. "Then why was I sent to Oxford?"
The Commissioner was not surprised by the question, though it was
"Surely that is a question to ask of his Highness, your father," he
replied. "No doubt all you learnt and saw there will be extremely
valuable. What I am saying now is that the Government wishes to give no
pretext whatever to those who would disturb Chiltistan, and it looks to
you with every confidence for help and support."
"And the road?" asked Shere Ali.
"It is not proposed to carry on the road. The merchants in Kohara think
that by bringing more trade, their profits would become less, while the
country people look upon it as a deliberate attack upon their
independence. The Government has no desire to force it upon the people
against their wish."
Shere Ali made no reply, but his heart grew bitter within him. He had
come out to India sore and distressed at parting from his friends, from
the life he had grown to love. All the way down the Red Sea and across
the Indian Ocean, the pangs of regret had been growing keener with each
new mile which was gathered in behind the screw. He had lain awake
listening to the throb of the engine with an aching heart, and with every
longing for the country he had left behind growing stronger, every
recollection growing more vivid and intense. There was just one
consolation which he had. Violet Oliver had enheartened him to make the
most of it, and calling up the image of her face before him, he had
striven so to do. There were his plans for the regeneration of his
country. And lo! here at Lahore, three days after he had set foot on
land, they were shattered--before they were begun. He had been trained
and educated in the West according to Western notions and he was now
bidden to go and rule in the East according to the ideals of the East.
Bidden! For the quiet accent of authority in the words of the unobservant
man who rode beside him rankled deeply. He had it in his thoughts to cry
out: "Then what place have I in Chiltistan?"
But though he never uttered the question, it was none the less answered.
"Economy and quiet are the two things which Chiltistan needs," said the
Commissioner. Then he looked carelessly at Shere Ali.
"It is hoped that you will marry and settle down as soon as possible,"
Shere Ali reined in his horse, stared for a moment at his companion and
then began quietly to laugh. The laughter was not pleasant to listen to,
and it grew harsher and louder. But it brought no change to the tired
face of the Commissioner, who had stopped his horse beside Shere Ali's
and was busy with the buckle of his stirrup leather. He raised his head
when the laughter stopped. And it stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
"You were saying--" he remarked politely.
"That I would like, if there is time, to ride through the Bazaar."
"Certainly," said the Commissioner. "This way," and he turned at right
angles out of the Mall and its avenue of great trees and led the way
towards the native city. Short of it, however, he stopped.
"You won't mind if I leave you here," he said. "There is some work to be
done. You can make no mistake. You can see the Gate from here."
"Is that the Delhi Gate?" asked Shere Ali.
"Yes. You can find your own way back, no doubt"; and the unobservant
Commissioner rode away at a trot.
Shere Ali went forward alone down the narrowing street towards the Gate.
He was aflame with indignation. So he was to be nothing, he was to do
nothing, except to practice economy and marry--a _nigger_. The
contemptuous word rose to his mind. Long ago it had been applied to him
more than once during his early school-days, until desperate battles and
black eyes had won him immunity. Now he used it savagely himself to
stigmatise his own people. He was of the White People, he declared. He
felt it, he looked it. Even at that moment a portly gentleman of Lahore
in a coloured turban and patent-leather shoes salaamed to him as he
passed upon his horse. "Surely," he thought, "I am one of the Sahibs.
This fool of a Commissioner does not understand."
A woman passed him carrying a babe poised upon her head, with silver
anklets upon her bare ankles and heavy silver rings upon her toes. She
turned her face, which was overshadowed by a hood, to look at Shere Ali
as he rode by. He saw the heavy stud of silver and enamel in her nostril,
the withered brown face. He turned and looked at her, as she walked
flat-footed and ungainly, her pyjamas of pink cotton showing beneath her
cloak. He had no part or lot with any of these people of the East. The
face of Violet Oliver shone before his eyes. There was his mate. He
recalled the exquisite daintiness of her appearance, her ruffles of lace,
the winning sweetness of her eyes. Not in Chiltistan would he find a
woman to drive that image from his thoughts.
Meanwhile he drew nearer to the Delhi Gate. A stream of people flowed out
from it towards him. Over their heads he looked through the archway down
the narrow street, where between the booths and under the carved
overhanging balconies the brown people robed and turbaned, in saffron and
blue, pink and white, thronged and chattered and jostled, a kaleidoscope
of colour. Shere Ali turned his eyes to the right and the left as he
went. It was not merely to rid himself of the Commissioner that he had
proposed to ride on to the bazaars by way of the Delhi Gate. The
anonymous letter bearing the postmark of Calcutta, which had been placed
in his hand when the steamer reached Bombay, besought him to pass by the
Delhi Gate at Lahore and do certain things by which means he would hear
much to his advantage. He had no thought at the moment to do the
particular things, but he was sufficiently curious to pass by the Delhi
Gate. Some intrigue was on hand into which it was sought to lure him. He
had not forgotten that his countrymen were born intriguers.
Slowly he rode along. Here and there a group of people were squatting on
the ground, talking noisily. Here and there a beggar stretched out a
maimed limb and sought for alms. Then close to the gate he saw that for
which he searched: a man sitting apart with a blanket over his head. No
one spoke to the man, and for his part he never moved. He sat erect with
his legs crossed in front of him and his hands resting idly on his knees,
a strange and rather grim figure; so motionless, so utterly lifeless he
seemed. The blanket reached almost to the ground behind and hung down
to his lap in front, and Shere Ali noticed that a leathern begging-bowl
at his side was well filled with coins. So he must have sat just in that
attitude, with that thick covering stifling him, all through the fiery
heat of that long day. As Shere Ali looked, he saw a poor bent man in
rags, with yellow caste marks on his forehead, add a copper pi to the
collection in the bowl. Shere Ali stopped the giver.
"Who is he?" he asked, pointing to the draped figure.
The old Hindu raised his hand and bowed his forehead into the palm.
"Huzoor, he is a holy man, a stranger who has lately come to Lahore, but
the holiest of all the holy men who have ever sat by the Delhi Gate. His
fame is already great."
"But why does he sit covered with the blanket?" asked Shere Ali.
"Huzoor, because of his holiness. He is so holy that his face must
not be seen."
Shere Ali laughed.
"He told you that himself, I suppose," he said.
"Huzoor, it is well known," said the old man. "He sits by the road all
day until the darkness comes--"
"Yes," said Shere Ali, bethinking him of the recommendations in his
letter, "until the darkness comes--and then?"
"Then he goes away into the city and no one sees him until the morning";
and the old man passed on.
Shere Ali chuckled and rode by the hooded man. His curiosity increased.
It was quite likely that the blanket hid a Mohammedan Pathan from beyond
the hills. To come down into the plains and mulct the pious Hindu by some
such ingenious practice would appeal to the Pathan's sense of humour
almost as much as to his pocket. Shere Ali drew the letter from his
pocket, and in the waning light read it through again. True, the postmark
showed that the letter had been posted in Calcutta, but more than one
native of Chiltistan had come south and set up as a money-lender in that
city on the proceeds of a successful burglary. He replaced the letter in
his pocket, and rode on at a walk through the throng. The darkness came
quickly; oil lamps were lighted in the booths and shone though the
unglazed window-spaces overhead. A refreshing coolness fell upon the
town, the short, welcome interval between the heat of the day and the
suffocating heat of the night. Shere Ali turned his horse and rode back
again to the gate. The hooded beggar still sat upon the ground, but he
was alone. The others, the blind and the maimed, had crawled away to
their dens. Except this grim motionless man, there was no one squatting
upon the ground.
Shere Ali reined in beside him, and bending forward in his saddle spoke
in a low voice a few words of Pushtu. The hooded figure did not move, but
from behind the blanket there issued a muffled voice.
"If your Highness will ride slowly on, your servant will follow and come
to his side."
Shere Ali went on, and in a few moments he heard the soft patter of a man
running barefoot along the dusty road. He stopped his horse and the
patter of feet ceased, but a moment after, silent as a shadow, the man
was at his side.
"You are of my country?" said Shere Ali.
"I am of Kohara," returned the man. "Safdar Khan of Kohara. May God keep
your Highness in health. We have waited long for your presence."
"What are you doing in Lahore?" asked Shere Ali.
In the darkness he saw a flash of white as Safdar Khan smiled.
"There was a little trouble, your Highness, with one Ishak Mohammed
and--Ishak Mohammed's son is still alive. He is a boy of eight, it is
true, and could not hold a rifle to his shoulder. But the trouble took
place near the road."
Shere Ali nodded his head in comprehension. Safdar Khan had shot his
enemy on the road, which is a holy place, and therefore he came
within the law.
"Blood-money was offered," continued Safdar Khan, "but the boy would not
consent, and claims my life. His mother would hold the rifle for him
while he pulled the trigger. So I am better in Lahore. Moreover, your
Highness, for a poor man life is difficult in Kohara. Taxes are high. So
I came down to this gate and sat with a cloak over my head."
"And you have found it profitable," said Shere Ali.
Again the teeth flashed in the darkness and Safdar Khan laughed.
"For two days I sat by the Delhi Gate and no one spoke to me or dropped a
single coin in my bowl. But on the third day a good man, may God preserve
him, passed by when I was nearly stifled and asked me why I sat in the
heat of the sun under a blanket. Thereupon I told him, what doubtless
your Highness knows, that my face is much too holy to be looked upon, and
since then your Highness' servant has prospered exceedingly. The device
is a good one."
Suddenly Safdar Khan stumbled as he walked and lurched against the
horse and its rider. He recovered himself in a moment, with prayers
for forgiveness and curses upon his stupidity for setting his foot
upon a sharp stone. But he had put out his hand as he stumbled and
that hand had run lightly down Shere Ali's coat and had felt the
texture of his clothes.
"I had a letter from Calcutta," said the Prince, "which besought me to
speak to you, for you had something for my ear. Therefore speak, and
But a change had come over Safdar Khan. Certainly Shere Ali was wearing
the dress of one of the Sahibs. A man passed carrying a lantern, and the
light, feeble though it was, threw into outline against the darkness a
pith helmet and a very English figure. Certainly, too, Shere Ali spoke
the Pushtu tongue with a slight hesitation, and an unfamiliar accent. He
seemed to grope for words.
"A letter?" he cried. "From Calcutta? Nay, how can that be? Some foolish
fellow has dared to play a trick," and in a few short, effective
sentences Safdar Khan expressed his opinion of the foolish fellow and of
his ancestry distant and immediate.
"Yet the letter bade me seek you by the Delhi Gate of Lahore," continued
Shere Ali calmly, "and by the Delhi Gate of Lahore I found you."
"My fame is great," replied Safdar Khan bombastically. "Far and wide it
has spread like the boughs of a gigantic tree."
"Rubbish," said Shere Ali curtly, breaking in upon Safdar's vehemence.
"I am not one of the Hindu fools who fill your begging-bowl," and he
In the darkness he heard Safdar Khan laugh too.
"You expected me," continued Shere Ali. "You looked for my coming. Your
ears were listening for the few words of Pushtu. Why else should you say,
'Ride forward and I will follow'?"
Safdar Khan walked for a little while in silence. Then in a voice of
humility, he said:
"I will tell my lord the truth. Yes, some foolish talk has passed from
one man to another, and has been thrown back again like a ball. I too,"
he admitted, "have been without wisdom. But I have seen how vain such
talk is. The Mullahs in the Hills speak only ignorance and folly."
"Ah!" said Shere Ali. He took the letter from his pocket and tore it into
fragments and scattered the fragments upon the Road. "So I thought. The
letter is of their prompting."
"My lord, it may be so," replied Safdar Khan. "For my part I have no lot
or share in any of these things. For I am now of Lahore."
"Aye," said Shere Ali. "The begging-bowl is filled to overflowing at the
Delhi Gate. So you are of Lahore, though your name is Safdar Khan and you
were born at Kohara," and suddenly he leaned down and asked in a wistful
voice with a great curiosity, "Are you content? Have you forgotten the
hills and valleys? Is Lahore more to you than Chiltistan?"
So perpetually had Shere All's mind run of late upon his isolation that
it crept into all his thoughts. So now it seemed to him that there was
some vague parallel between his mental state and that of Safdar Khan. But
Safdar Khan's next words disabused him:
"Nay, nay," he said. "But the widow of a rich merchant in the city here,
a devout and holy woman, has been greatly moved by my piety. She seeks my
hand in marriage and--" here Safdar Khan laughed pleasantly--"I shall
marry her. Already she has given me a necklace of price which I have had
weighed and tested to prove that she does not play me false. She is very
rich, and it is too hot to sit in the sun under a blanket. So I will be a
merchant of Lahore instead, and live at my ease on the upper balcony of
Shere Ali laughed and answered, "It is well." Then he added shrewdly:
"But it is possible that you may yet at some time meet the man in
Calcutta who wrote the letter to me. If so, tell him what I did with it,"
and Shere Ali's voice became hard and stern. "Tell him that I tore it up
and scattered it in the dust. And let him send the news to the Mullahs in
the Hills. I know that soft-handed brood with their well-fed bodies and
their treacherous mouths. If only they would let me carry on the road!"
he cried passionately, "I would drag them out of the houses where they
batten on poor men's families and set them to work till the palms of
their hands were honestly blistered. Let the Mullahs have a care, Safdar
Khan. I go North to-morrow to Kohara."
He spoke with a greater vehemence than perhaps he had meant to show. But
he was carried along by his own words, and sought always a stronger
epithet than that which he had used. He was sore and indignant, and he
vented his anger on the first object which served him as an opportunity.
Safdar Khan bowed his head in the darkness. Safe though he might be in
Lahore, he was still afraid of the Mullahs, afraid of their curses, and
mindful of their power to ruin the venturesome man who dared to stand
"It shall be as your Highness wishes," he said in a low voice, and he
hurried away from Shere Ali's side. Abuse of the Mullahs was
dangerous--as dangerous to listen to as to speak. Who knew but what the
very leaves of the neem trees might whisper the words and bear witness
against him? Moreover, it was clear that the Prince of Chiltistan was a
Sahib. Shere Ali rode back to Government House. He understood clearly why
Safdar Khan had so unceremoniously fled; and he was glad. If the fool of
a Commissioner did not know him for what he was, at all events Safdar
Khan did. He was one of the White People. For who else would dare to
speak as he had spoken of the Mullahs? The Mullahs would hear what he had
said. That was certain. They would hear it with additions. They would try
to make things unpleasant for him in Chiltistan in consequence. But Shere
Ali was glad. For their very opposition--in so loverlike a way did every
thought somehow reach out to Violet Oliver--brought him a little nearer
to the lady who held his heart. He found the Commissioner sealing up his
letters in his office.
That unobservant man had just written at length, privately and
confidentially, both to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab at the
hill-station and to the Resident at Kohara. And to both he had written to
the one effect:
"We must expect trouble in Chiltistan."
He based his conclusions upon the glimpse which he had obtained into the
troubled feelings of Shere Ali. The next morning Shere Ali travelled
northwards and forty-eight hours later from the top of the Malakand Pass
he saw winding across the Swat valley past Chakdara the road which
reached to Kohara and there stopped.
ON THE POLO-GROUND
Violet Oliver travelled to India in the late autumn of that year, free
from apprehension. Somewhere beyond the high snow-passes Shere Ali would
be working out his destiny among his own people. She was not of those who
seek publicity either for themselves or for their gowns in the daily
papers. Shere Ali would never hear of her visit; she was safe. She spent
her Christmas in Calcutta, saw the race for the Viceroy's Cup run without
a fear that on that crowded racecourse the importunate figure of the
young Prince of Chiltistan might emerge to reproach her, and a week later
went northwards into the United Provinces. It was a year, now some while
past, when a royal visitor came from a neighbouring country into India.
And in his honour at one great city in those Provinces the troops
gathered and the tents went up. Little towns of canvas, gay with bordered
walks and flowers, were dotted on the dusty plains about and within the
city. Great ministers and functionaries came with their retinues and
their guests. Native princes from Rajputana brought their elephants and
their escorts. Thither also came Violet Oliver. It was, indeed, to attend
this Durbar that she had been invited out from England. She stayed in a
small camp on the great Parade Ground where the tents faced one another
in a single street, each with its little garden of grass and flowers
before the door. The ends of the street were closed in by posts, and
outside the posts sentries were placed.
It was a week of bright, sunlit, rainless days, and of starry nights. It
was a week of reviews and State functions. But it was also a week during
which the best polo to be seen in India drew the visitors each afternoon
to the club-ground. There was no more constant attendant than Violet
Oliver. She understood the game and followed it with a nice appreciation
of the player's skill. The first round of the competition had been played
off on the third day, but a native team organised by the ruler of a
Mohammedan State in Central India had drawn a by and did not appear in
the contest until the fourth day. Mrs. Oliver took her seat in the front
row of the stand, as the opposing teams cantered into the field upon
their ponies. A programme was handed to her, but she did not open it. For
already one of the umpires had tossed the ball into the middle of the
ground. The game had begun.
The native team was matched against a regiment of Dragoons, and from the
beginning it was plain that the four English players were the stronger
team. But on the other side there was one who in point of skill
outstripped them all. He was stationed on the outside of the field
farthest away from Violet Oliver. He was a young man, almost a boy, she
judged; he was beautifully mounted, and he sat his pony as though he and
it were one. He was quick to turn, quick to pass the ball; and he never
played a dangerous game. A desire that the native team should win woke in
her and grew strong just because of that slim youth's extraordinary
skill. Time after time he relieved his side, and once, as it seemed to
her, he picked the ball out of the very goalposts. The bugle, she
remembered afterwards, had just sounded. He drove the ball out from the
press, leaned over until it seemed he must fall to resist an opponent who
tried to ride him off, and then somehow he shook himself free from the
tangle of polo-sticks and ponies.
"Oh, well done! well done!" cried Violet Oliver, clenching her hands in
her enthusiasm. A roar of applause went up. He came racing down the very
centre of the ground, the long ends of his white turban streaming out
behind him like a pennant. The seven other players followed upon his
heels outpaced and outplayed. He rode swinging his polo-stick for the
stroke, and then with clean hard blows sent the ball skimming through
the air like a bird. Violet Oliver watched him in suspense, dreading
lest he should override the ball, or that his stroke should glance. But
he made no mistake. The sound of the strokes rose clear and sharp; the
ball flew straight. He drove it between the posts, and the players
streamed in behind as though through the gateway of a beleaguered town.
He had scored the first goal of the game at the end of the first
chukkur. He cantered back to change his pony. But this time he rode
along the edge of the stand, since on this side the ponies waited with
their blankets thrown over their saddles and the syces at their heads.
He ran his eyes along the row of onlookers as he cantered by, and
suddenly Violet Oliver leaned forward. She had been interested merely in
the player. Now she was interested in the man who played. She was more
than interested. For she felt a tightening of the heart and she caught
her breath. "It could not be," she said to herself. She could see his
face clearly, however, now; and as suddenly as she had leaned forward
she drew back. She lowered her head, until her broad hat-brim hid her
face. She opened her programme, looked for and found the names of the
players. Shere Ali's stared her in the face.
"He has broken his word," she said angrily to herself, quite forgetting
that he had given no word, and that she had asked for none. Then she fell
to wondering whether or no he had recognised her as he rode past the
stand. She stole a glance as he cantered back, but Shere Ali was not
looking towards her. She debated whether she should make an excuse and go
back to her camp. But if he had thought he had seen her, he would look
again, and her empty place would be convincing evidence. Moreover, the
teams had changed goals. Shere Ali would be playing on this side of the
ground during the next chukkur unless the Dragoons scored quickly. Violet
Oliver kept her place, but she saw little of the game. She watched Shere
Ali's play furtively, however, hoping thereby to learn whether he had
noticed her. And in a little while she knew. He played wildly, his
strokes had lost their precision, he was less quick to follow the twists
of the ball. Shere Ali had seen her. At the end of the game he galloped
quickly to the corner, and when Violet Oliver came out of the enclosure
she saw him standing, with his long overcoat already on his shoulders,
waiting for her.
Violet Oliver separated herself from her friends and went forward towards
him. She held out her hand. Shere Ali hesitated and then took it. All
through the game, pride had been urging him to hold his head high and
seek not so much as a single word with her. But he had been alone for six
months in Chiltistan and he was young.
"You might have let me know," he said, in a troubled voice.
Violet Oliver faltered out some beginnings of an excuse. She did not want
to bring him away from his work in Chiltistan. But Shere Ali was not
listening to the excuses.
"I must see you again," he said. "I must."
"No doubt we shall meet," replied Violet Oliver.
"To-morrow," continued Shere Ali. "To-morrow evening. You will be going
to the Fort."
There was to be an investiture, and after the investiture a great
reception in the Fort on the evening of the next day. It would be as good
a place as any, thought Violet Oliver--nay, a better place. There would
be crowds of people wandering about the Fort. Since they must meet, let
it be there and soon.
"Very well," she said. "To-morrow evening," and she passed on and
rejoined her friends.
THE INVIDIOUS BAR
Violet Oliver drove back to her camp in the company of her friends and
they remarked upon her silence.
"You are tired, Violet?" her hostess asked of her.
"A little, perhaps," Violet admitted, and, urging fatigue as her excuse,
she escaped to her tent. There she took counsel of her looking-glass.
"I couldn't possibly have foreseen that he would be here," she pleaded to
her reflection. "He was to have stayed in Chiltistan. I asked him and he
told me that he meant to stay. If he had stayed there, he would never
have known that I was in India," and she added and repeated, "It's really
not my fault."
In a word she was distressed and sincerely distressed. But it was not
upon her own account. She was not thinking of the awkwardness to her of
this unexpected encounter. But she realised that she had given pain where
she had meant not to give pain. Shere Ali had seen her. He had been
assured that she sought to avoid him. And this was not the end. She must
go on and give more pain.
Violet Oliver had hoped and believed that her friendship with the young
Prince was something which had gone quite out of her life. She had closed
it and put it away, as you put away upon an upper shelf a book which you
do not mean to read again. The last word had been spoken eight months ago
in the conservatory of Lady Marfield's house. And behold they had met
again. There must be yet another meeting, yet another last interview. And
from that last interview nothing but pain could come to Shere Ali.
Therefore she anticipated it with a great reluctance. Violet Oliver did
not live among illusions. She was no sentimentalist. She never made up
and rehearsed in imagination little scenes of a melting pathos where
eternal adieux were spoken amid tears. She had no appreciation of the
woeful luxury of last interviews. On the contrary, she hated to confront
distress or pain. It was in her character always to take the easier way
when trouble threatened. She would have avoided altogether this meeting
with Shere Ali, had it been possible.
"It's a pity," she said, and that was all. She was reluctant, but she had
no misgiving. Shere Ali was to her still the youth to whom she had said
good-bye in Lady Marfield's conservatory. She had seen him in the flush
of victory after a close-fought game, and thus she had seen him often
enough before. It was not to be wondered at that she noted no difference
at that moment.
But the difference was there for the few who had eyes to see. He had
journeyed up the broken road into Chiltistan. At the Fort of Chakdara, in
the rice fields on the banks of the Swat river, he had taken his luncheon
one day with the English commandant and the English doctor, and there he
had parted with the ways of life which had become to him the only ways.
He had travelled thence for a few hundred yards along a straight strip of
road running over level ground, and so with the levies of Dir to escort
him he swung round to the left. A screen of hillside and grey rock moved
across the face of the country behind him. The last outpost was left
behind. The Fort and the Signal Tower on the pinnacle opposite and the
English flag flying over all were hidden from his sight. Wretched as any
exile from his native land, Shere All went up into the lower passes of
the Himalayas. Days were to pass and still the high snow-peaks which
glittered in the sky, gold in the noonday, silver in the night time,
above the valleys of Chiltistan were to be hidden in the far North. But
already the words began to be spoken and the little incidents to occur
which were to ripen him for his destiny. They were garnered into his
memories as separate and unrelated events. It was not until afterwards
that he came to know how deeply they had left their marks, or that he set
them in an ordered sequence and gave to them a particular significance.
Even at the Fort of Chakdara a beginning had been made.
Shere Ali was standing in the little battery on the very summit of the
Fort. Below him was the oblong enclosure of the men's barracks, the stone
landings and steps, the iron railings, the numbered doors. He looked down
into the enclosure as into a well. It might almost have been a section of
the barracks at Chatham. But Shere Ali raised his head, and, over against
him, on the opposite side of a natural gateway in the hills, rose the
steep slope and the Signal Tower.
"I was here," said the Doctor, who stood behind him, "during the Malakand
campaign. You remember it, no doubt?"
"I was at Oxford. I remember it well," said Shere Ali.
"We were hard pressed here, but the handful of men in the Signal Tower
had the worst of it," continued the Doctor in a matter-of-fact voice. "It
was reckoned that there were fourteen thousand men from the Swat Valley
besieging us, and as they did not mind how many they lost, even with the
Maxims and our wire defences it was difficult to keep them off. We had to
hold on to the Signal Tower because we could communicate with the people
on the Malakand from there, while we couldn't from the Fort itself. The
Amandara ridge, on the other side of the valley, as you can see, just
hides the Pass from us. Well, the handful of men in the tower managed to
keep in communication with the main force, and this is how it was done. A
Sepoy called Prem Singh used to come out into full view of the enemy
through a porthole of the tower, deliberately set up his apparatus, and
heliograph away to the main force in the Malakand Camp, with the Swatis
firing at him from short range. How it was he was not hit, I could never
understand. He did it day after day. It was the bravest and coolest thing
I ever saw done or ever heard of, with one exception, perhaps. Prem Singh
would have got the Victoria Cross--" and the Doctor stopped suddenly
and his face flushed.
Shere Ali, however, was too keenly interested in the incident itself to
take any note of the narrator's confusion. Baldly though it was told,
there was the square, strong tower with its door six feet from the
ground, its machicoulis, its narrow portholes over against him, to give
life and vividness to the story. Here that brave deed had been done and
daily repeated. Shere Ali peopled the empty slopes which ran down from
the tower to the river and the high crags beyond the tower with the
hordes of white-clad Swatis, all in their finest robes, like men who have
just reached the goal of a holy pilgrimage, as indeed they had. He saw
their standards, he heard the din of their firearms, and high above them
on the wall of the tower he saw the khaki-clad figure of a single Sepoy
calmly flashing across the valley news of the defenders' plight.
"Didn't he get the Victoria Cross?" he asked.
"No," returned the Doctor with a certain awkwardness. But still Shere Ali
did not notice.
"And what was the exception?" he asked eagerly. "What was the other brave
deed you have seen fit to rank with this?"
"That, too, happened over there," said the Doctor, seizing upon the
question with relief. "During the early days of the siege we were able to
send in to the tower water and food. But when the first of August came we
could help them no more. The enemy thronged too closely round us, we were
attacked by night and by day, and stone sangars, in which the Swatis lay
after dark, were built between us and the tower. We sent up water to the
tower for the last time at half-past nine on a Saturday morning, and it
was not until half-past four on the Monday afternoon that the relieving
force marched across the bridge down there and set us free."
"They were without water for all that time--and in August?" cried
"No," the Doctor answered. "But they would have been had the Sepoy not
found his equal. A bheestie"--and he nodded his head to emphasise the
word--"not a soldier at all, but a mere water-carrier, a mere
camp-follower, volunteered to go down to the river. He crept out of the
tower after nightfall with his water-skins, crawled down between the
sangars--and I can tell you the hill-side was thick with them--to the
brink of the Swat river below there, filled his skins, and returned
"That man, too, earned the Victoria Cross," said Shere Ali.
"Yes," said the Doctor, "no doubt, no doubt."
Something of flurry was again audible in his voice, and this time Shere
Ali noticed it.
"Earned--but did not get it?" he went on slowly; and turning to the
Doctor he waited quietly for an answer. The answer was given reluctantly,
after a pause.
"Well! That is so."
The question was uttered sharply, close upon the words which had preceded
it. The Doctor looked upon the ground, shifted his feet, and looked up
again. He was a young man, and inexperienced. The question was repeated.
The Doctor's confusion increased. He recognised that his delay in
answering only made the answer more difficult to give. It could not be
evaded. He blurted out the truth apologetically.
"Well, you see, we don't give the Victoria Cross to natives."
Shere Ali was silent for a while. He stood with his eyes fixed upon the
tower, his face quite inscrutable.
"Yes, I guessed that would be the reason," he said quietly.
"Well," said his companion uncomfortably, "I expect some day that will
Shere Ali shrugged his shoulders, and turned to go down. At the gateway
of the Fort, by the wire bridge, his escort, mounted upon their horses,
waited for him. He climbed into the saddle without a word. He had been
labouring for these last days under a sense of injury, and his thoughts
had narrowed in upon himself. He was thinking. "I, too, then, could never
win that prize." His conviction that he was really one of the White
People, bolstered up as it had been by so many vain arguments, was put to
the test of fact. The truth shone in upon his mind. For here was a
coveted privilege of the White People from which he was debarred, he and
the bheestie and the Sepoy. They were all one, he thought bitterly, to
the White People. The invidious bar of his colour was not to be broken.
"Good-bye," he said, leaning down from his saddle and holding out his
hand. "Thank you very much."
He shook hands with the Doctor and cantered down the road, with a smile
upon his face. But the consciousness of the invidious bar was rankling
cruelly at his heart, and it continued to rankle long after he had swung
round the bend of the road and had lost sight of Chakdara and the
He passed through Jandol and climbed the Lowari Pass among the fir trees
and the pines, and on the very summit he met three men clothed in brown
homespun with their hair clubbed at the sides of their heads. Each man
carried a rifle on his back and two of them carried swords besides, and
they wore sandals of grass upon their feet. They were talking as they
went, and they were talking in the Chilti tongue. Shere Ali hailed them
and bade them stop.
"On what journey are you going?" he asked, and one of the three bowed low
and answered him.
"Sir, we are going to Mecca."
"To Mecca!" exclaimed Shere Ali. "How will you ever get to Mecca? Have
"Sir, we have each six rupees, and with six rupees a man may reach Mecca
from Kurrachee. Till we reach Kurrachee, there is no fear that we shall
starve. Dwellers in the villages will befriend us."
"Why, that is true," said Shere Ali, "but since you are countrymen of my
own and my father's subjects, you shall not tax too heavily your friends
upon the road."
He added to their scanty store of rupees, and one after another they
thanked him and so went cheerily down the Pass. Shere Ali watched them as
they went, wondering that men should take such a journey and endure so
much discomfort for their faith. He watched their dwindling figures and
understood how far he was set apart from them. He was of their faith
himself, nominally at all events, but Mecca--? He shrugged his
shoulders at the name. It meant no more to him than it did to the White
People who had cast him out. But that chance meeting lingered in his
memory, and as he travelled northwards, he would wonder at times by night
at what village his three countrymen slept and by day whether their faith
still cheered them on their road.
He came at last to the borders of Chiltistan, and travelled thenceforward
through a country rich with orchards and green rice and golden amaranth.
The terraced slopes of the mountains, ablaze with wild indigo, closed in
upon him and widened out. Above the terraces great dark forests of pines
and deodars, maples and horse chestnuts clung to the hill sides; and
above the forests grass slopes stretched up to bare rock and the
snowfields. From the villages the people came out to meet him, and here
and there from some castle of a greater importance a chieftain would ride
out with his bodyguard, gay in velvets, and silks from Bokhara and chogas
of gold kinkob, and offer to him gold dust twisted up in the petal of a
flower, which he touched and remitted. He was escorted to polo-grounds
and sat for hours witnessing sports and trials of skill, and at night to
the music of kettledrums and pipes men and boys danced interminably
before him. There was one evening which he particularly remembered. He
had set up his camp outside a large village and was sitting alone by his
fire in the open air. The night was very still, the sky dark but studded
with stars extraordinarily bright--so bright, indeed, that Shere Ali
could see upon the water of the river below the low cliff on which his
camp fire was lit a trembling golden path made by the rays of a planet.
And as he sat, unexpectedly in the hush a boy with a clear, sweet voice
began to sing from the darkness behind him. The melody was plaintive and
sweet; a few notes of a pipe accompanied him; and as Shere Ali listened
in this high valley of the Himalayas on a summer's night, the music took
hold upon him and wrung his heart. The yearning for all that he had left
behind became a pain almost beyond endurance. The days of his boyhood and
his youth went by before his eyes in a glittering procession. His school
life, his first summer term at Oxford, the Cherwell with the shadows of
the branches overhead dappling the water, the strenuous week of the
Eights, his climbs with Linforth, and, above all, London in June, a
London bright with lilac and sunshine and the fair faces of women,
crowded in upon his memory. He had been steadily of late refusing to
remember, but the sweet voice and the plaintive melody had caught him
unawares. The ghosts of his dead pleasures trooped out and took life and
substance. Particular hours were lived through again--a motor ride alone
with Violet Oliver to Pangbourne, a dinner on the lawn outside the inn,
the drive back to London in the cool of the evening. It all seemed very
far away to-night. Shere Ali sat late beside his fire, nor when he went
into his tent did he close his eyes.
The next morning he rode among orchards bright with apricots and
mulberries, peaches and white grapes, and in another day he looked down
from a high cliff, across which the road was carried on a scaffolding,
upon the town of Kohara and the castle of his father rising in terraces
upon a hill behind. The nobles and their followers came out to meet him
with courteous words and protestations of good will. But they looked him
over with curious and not too friendly eyes. News had gone before Shere
Ali that the young Prince of Chiltistan was coming to Kohara wearing the
dress of the White People. They saw that the news was true, but no word
or comment was uttered in his hearing. Joking and laughing they escorted
him to the gates of his father's palace. Thus Shere Ali at the last had
come home to Kohara. Of the life which he lived there he was to tell
something to Violet Oliver.
IN THE COURTYARD
The investiture was over, and the guests, thronging from the Hall of
Audience, came out beneath arches and saw the whole length of the great
marble court spread before them. A vast canopy roofed it in, and a soft
dim light pervaded it. To those who came from the glitter of the
ceremonies it brought a sense of coolness and of peace. From the arches a
broad flight of steps led downwards to the floor, where water gleamed
darkly in a marble basin. Lilies floated upon its surface, and marble
paths crossed it to the steps at the far end; and here and there, in its
depth, the reflection of a lamp burned steadily. At the far end steps
rose again to a great platform and to gilded arches through which lights
poured in a blaze, and gave to that end almost the appearance of a
lighted stage, and made of the courtyard a darkened auditorium. From one
flight of steps to the other, in the dim cool light, the guests passed
across the floor of the court, soldiers in uniforms, civilians in their
dress of state, jewelled princes of the native kingdoms, ladies in their
bravest array. But now and again one or two would slip from the throng,
and, leaving the procession, take their own way about the Fort. Among
those who slipped away was Violet Oliver. She went to the side of the
courtyard where a couch stood empty. There she seated herself and waited.
In front of her the stream of people passed by talking and laughing,
within view, within earshot if only one raised one's voice a trifle above
the ordinary note. Yet there was no other couch near. One might talk at
will and not be overheard. It was, to Violet Oliver's thinking, a good
strategic position, and there she proposed to remain till Shere Ali found
her, and after he had found her, until he went away.
She wondered in what guise he would come to her: a picturesque figure
with a turban of some delicate shade upon his head and pearls about his
throat, or--as she wondered, a young man in the evening dress of an
Englishman stepped aside from the press of visitors and came towards her.
Before she could, in that dim light, distinguish his face, she recognised
him by the lightness of his step and the suppleness of his figure. She
raised herself into a position a little more upright, and held out her
hand. She made room for him on the couch beside her, and when he had
taken his seat, she turned at once to speak.
But Shere Ali raised his hand in a gesture of entreaty.
"Hush!" he said with a smile; and the smile pleaded with her as much as
did his words. "Just for a moment! We can argue afterwards. Just for a
moment, let us pretend."
Violet Oliver had expected anger, accusations, prayers. Even for some
threat, some act of violence, she had come prepared. But the quiet
wistfulness of his manner, as of a man too tired greatly to long for
anything, took her at a disadvantage. But the one thing which she surely
understood was the danger of pretence. There had been too much of
"No," she said.
"Just for a moment," he insisted. He sat beside her, watching the clear
profile of her face, the slender throat, the heavy masses of hair so
daintily coiled upon her head. "The last eight months have not
been--could not be. Yesterday we were at Richmond, just you and I. It was
Sunday--you remember. I called on you in the afternoon, and for a wonder
you were alone. We drove down together to Richmond, and dined together in
the little room at the end of the passage--the room with the big windows,
and the name of the woman who was murdered in France scratched upon the
glass. That was yesterday."
"It was last year," said Violet.
"Yesterday," Shere Ali persisted. "I dreamt last night that I had gone
back to Chiltistan; but it was only a dream."
"It was the truth," and the quiet assurance of her voice dispelled Shere
Ali's own effort at pretence. He leaned forward suddenly, clasping his
hands upon his knees in an attitude familiar to her as characteristic of
the man. There was a tenseness which gave to him even in repose a look
"Well, it's the truth, then," he said, and his voice took on an accent of
bitterness. "And here's more truth. I never thought to see you here
"Did you think that I should be afraid?" asked Violet Oliver in a low,
"Afraid!" Shere Ali turned towards her in surprise and met her
"Why, then, should I break my word? Have I done it so often?"
Shere Ali did not answer her directly.
"You promised to write to me," he said, and Violet Oliver replied at
"Yes. And I did write."
"You wrote twice," he cried bitterly. "Oh, yes, you kept your word.
There's a post every day, winter and summer, into Chiltistan. Sometimes
an avalanche or a snowstorm delays it; but on most days it comes. If you
could only have guessed how eagerly I looked forward to your letters,
you would have written, I think, more often. There's a path over a high
ridge by which the courier must come. I could see it from the casement
of the tower. I used to watch it through a pair of field-glasses, that I
might catch the first glimpse of the man as he rose against the sky.
Each day I thought 'Perhaps there's a letter in your handwriting.' And
you wrote twice, and in neither letter was there a hint that you were
coming out to India."
He was speaking in a low, passionate voice. In spite of herself, Violet
Oliver was moved. The picture of him watching from his window in the
tower for the black speck against the skyline was clear before her mind,
and troubled her. Her voice grew gentle.
"I did not write more often on purpose," she said.
"It was on purpose, too, that you left out all mention of your visit
Violet nodded her head.
"Yes," she said.
"You did not want to see me again."
Violet turned her face towards him, and leaned forward a little.
"I don't say that," she said softly. "But I thought it would be better
that we two should not meet again, if meeting could be avoided. I saw
that you cared--I may say that, mayn't I?" and for a second she laid her
hand gently upon his sleeve. "I saw that you cared too much. It seemed to
me best that it should end altogether."
Shere Ali lifted his head, and turned quickly towards her.
"Why should it end at all?" he cried. His eyes kindled and sought hers.
"Violet, why should it end at all?"
Violet Oliver drew back. She cast a glance to the courtyard. Only a few
paces away the stream of people passed up and down.
"It must end," she answered. "You know that as well as I."
"I don't know it. I won't know it," he replied. He reached out his hand
towards hers, but she was too quick for him. He bent nearer to her.
"Violet," he whispered, "marry me!"
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