The Broken Road
A. E. W. Mason
Part 6 out of 6
family, or wife, but to whom the Frontier had been all these. He would
have wished for no more himself, since vanity had played so small a part
in his career. He had been the great Force upon the Frontier, keeping the
Queen's peace by the strength of his character and the sagacity of his
mind. Yet before his grave, invoking him as an unknown saint, the nobles
of Chiltistan had knelt to pray for the destruction of such as he and the
overthrow of the power which he had lived to represent. And all because
his advice had been neglected.
Captain Phillips was roused out of his reflections as the cavalcade
approached a village. For out of that village and from the fields about
it, the men, armed for the most part with good rifles, poured towards
them with cries of homage. They joined the cavalcade, marched with it
past their homes, and did not turn back. Only the women and the children
were left behind. And at the next village and at the next the same thing
happened. The cavalcade began to swell into a small army, an army of men
well equipped for war; and at the head of the gathering force Shere Ali
rode with an impassive face, never speaking but to check a man from time
to time who brandished a weapon at the Resident.
"Your Highness has counted the cost?" Captain Phillips asked. "There will
be but the one end to it."
Shere Ali turned to the Resident, and though his face did not change from
its brooding calm, a fire burned darkly in his eyes.
"From Afghanistan to Thibet the frontier will rise," he said proudly.
Captain Phillips shook his head.
"From Afghanistan to Thibet the Frontier will wait, as it always waits.
It will wait to see what happens in Chiltistan."
But though he spoke boldly, he had little comfort from his thoughts. The
rising had been well concerted. Those who flocked to Shere Ali were not
only the villagers of the Kohara valley. There were shepherds from the
hills, wild men from the far corners of Chiltistan. Already the small
army could be counted with the hundred for its unit. To-morrow the
hundred would be a thousand. Moreover, for once in a way there was no
divided counsel. Jealousy and intrigue were not, it seemed, to do their
usual work in Chiltistan. There was only one master, and he of
unquestioned authority. Else how came it that Captain Phillips rode
amidst that great and frenzied throng, unhurt and almost unthreatened?
Down the valley the roof-tops of Kohara began to show amongst the trees.
The high palace on the hill with its latticed windows bulked against the
evening sky. The sound of many drums was borne to the Resident's ears.
The Residency stood a mile and a half from the town in a great garden. A
high wall enclosed it, but it was a house, not a fortress; and Phillips
had at his command but a few levies to defend it. One of them stood by
the gate. He kept his ground as Shere Ali and his force approached. The
only movement which he made was to stand at attention, and as Shere Ali
halted at the entrance, he saluted. But it was Captain Phillips whom he
saluted, and not the Prince of Chiltistan. Shere Ali spoke with the same
quiet note of confident authority which had surprised Captain Phillips
before, to the seven nobles at his back. Then he turned to the Resident.
"I will ride with you to your door," he said.
The two men passed alone through the gateway and along a broad path which
divided the forecourt to the steps of the house. And not a man of all
that crowd which followed Shere Ali to Kohara pressed in behind them.
Captain Phillips looked back as much in surprise as in relief. But there
was no surprise on the face of Shere Ali. He, it was plain, expected
"Upon my word," cried Phillips in a burst of admiration, "you have got
your fellows well in hand."
"I?" said Shere Ali. "I am nothing. What could I do who a week ago was
still a stranger to my people? I am a voice, nothing more. But the God of
my people speaks through me"; and as he spoke these last words, his voice
suddenly rose to a shrill trembling note, his face suddenly quivered with
Captain Phillips stared. "The man's in earnest," he muttered to himself.
"He actually believes it."
It was the second time that Captain Phillips had been surprised within
five minutes, and on this occasion the surprise came upon him with a
shock. How it had come about--that was all dark to Captain Phillips. But
the result was clear. The few words spoken as they had been spoken
revealed the fact. The veneer of Shere Ali's English training had gone.
Shere Ali had reverted. His own people had claimed him.
"And I guessed nothing of this," the Resident reflected bitterly.
Signs of trouble he had noticed in abundance, but this one crucial
fact which made trouble a certain and unavoidable thing--that had
utterly escaped him. His thoughts went back to the nameless tomb in
the courtyard of the fort.
"Luffe would have known," he thought in a very bitter humility. "Nay, he
did know. He foresaw."
There was yet a third surprise in store for Captain Phillips. As the two
men rode up the broad path, he had noticed that the door of the house was
standing open, as it usually did. Now, however, he saw it swing to--very
slowly, very noiselessly. He was surprised, for he knew the door to be a
strong heavy door of walnut wood, not likely to swing to even in a wind.
And there was no wind. Besides, if it had swung to of its own accord, it
would have slammed. Its weight would have made it slam. Whereas it was
not quite closed. As he reined in his horse at the steps, he saw that
there was a chink between the door and the door-post.
"There's someone behind that door," he said to himself, and he glanced
quietly at Shere Ali. It would be quite in keeping with the Chilti
character for Shere Ali politely to escort him home knowing well that an
assassin waited behind the door; and it was with a smile of some irony
that he listened to Shere Ali taking his leave.
"You will be safe, so long as you stay within your grounds. I will place
a guard about the house. I do not make war against my country's guests.
And in a few days I will send an escort and set you and your attendants
free from hurt beyond our borders. But"--and his voice lost its
courtesy--"take care you admit no one, and give shelter to no one."
The menace of Shere Ali's tone roused Captain Phillips. "I take no orders
from your Highness," he said firmly. "Your Highness may not have noticed
that," and he pointed upwards to where on a high flagstaff in front of
the house the English flag hung against the pole.
"I give your Excellency no orders," replied Shere Ali. "But on the other
hand I give you a warning. Shelter so much as one man and that flag will
not save you. I should not be able to hold in my men."
Shere Ali turned and rode back to the gates. Captain Phillips dismounted,
and calling forward a reluctant groom, gave him his horse. Then he
suddenly flung back the door. But there was no resistance. The door swung
in and clattered against the wall. Phillips looked into the hall, but the
dusk was gathering in the garden. He looked into a place of twilight and
shadows. He grasped his riding-crop a little more firmly in his hand and
strode through the doorway. In a dark corner something moved.
"Ah! would you!" cried Captain Phillips, turning sharply on the instant.
He raised his crop above his head and then a crouching figure fell at his
feet and embraced his knees; and a trembling voice of fear cried:
"Save me! Your Excellency will not give me up! I have been a good friend
to the English!"
For the second time the Khan of Chiltistan had sought refuge from his own
people. Captain Phillips looked round.
"Hush," he whispered in a startled voice. "Let me shut the door!"
IN THE RESIDENCY
Captain Phillips with a sharp gesture ordered the Khan back to the
shadowy corner from which he had sprung out. Then he shut the door and,
with the shutting of the door, the darkness deepened suddenly in the
hall. He shot the bolt and put up the chain. It rattled in his ears with
a startling loudness. Then he stood without speech or movement. Outside
he heard Shere Ali's voice ring clear, and the army of tribesmen
clattered past towards the town. The rattle of their weapons, the hum of
their voices diminished. Captain Phillips took his handkerchief from his
pocket and wiped his forehead. He had the sensations of a man reprieved.
"But it's only a reprieve," he thought. "There will be no commutation."
He turned again towards the dark corner.
"How did you come?" he asked in a low voice.
"By the orchard at the back of the house."
"Did no one see you?"
"I hid in the orchard until I saw the red coat of one of your servants. I
called to him and he let me in secretly. But no one else saw me."
"No one in the city?"
"I came barefoot in a rough cloak with the hood drawn over my face," said
the Khan. "No one paid any heed to me. There was much noise and running
to and fro, and polishing of weapons. I crept out into the hill-side at
the back and so came down into your orchard."
Captain Phillips shrugged his shoulders. He opened a door and led the
Khan into a room which looked out upon the orchard.
"Well, we will do what we can," he said, "but it's very little. They will
guess immediately that you are here of course."
"Once before--" faltered the Khan, and Phillips broke in upon him
"Yes, once before. But it's not the same thing. This is a house, not a
fort, and I have only a handful of men to defend it; and I am not Luffe."
Then his voice sharpened. "Why didn't you listen to him? All this is your
fault--yours and Dewes', who didn't understand, and held his tongue."
The Khan was mystified by the words, but Phillips did not take the
trouble to explain. He knew something of the Chilti character. They would
have put up with the taxes, with the selling into slavery, with all the
other abominations of the Khan's rule. They would have listened to the
exhortations of the mullahs without anything coming of it, so long as no
leader appeared. They were great accepters of facts as they were. Let the
brother or son or nephew murder the ruling Khan and sit in his place,
they accepted his rule without any struggles of conscience. But let a man
rise to lead them, then they would bethink them of the exhortations of
their priests and of their own particular sufferings and flock to his
standard. And the man had risen--just because twenty-five years ago the
Khan would not listen to Luffe.
"It's too late, however, for explanations," he said, and he clapped his
hands together for a servant. In a few moments the light of a lamp
gleamed in the hall through the doorway. Phillips went quickly out of the
room, closing the door behind him.
"Fasten the shutters first," he said to the servant in the hall. "Then
bring the lamp in."
The servant obeyed, but when he brought the lamp into the room, and saw
the Khan of Chiltistan standing at the table with no more dignity of
dress or, indeed, of bearing than any beggar in the kingdom, he nearly
let the lamp fall.
"His Highness will stay in this house," said Phillips, "but his presence
must not be spoken of. Will you tell Poulteney Sahib that I would like to
speak to him?" The servant bowed his forehead to the palms of his hand
and turned away upon his errand. But Poulteney Sahib was already at the
door. He was the subaltern in command of the half company of Sikhs which
served Captain Phillips for an escort and a guard.
"You have heard the news I suppose," said Phillips.
"Yes," replied Poulteney. He was a wiry dark youth, with a little black
moustache and a brisk manner of speech. "I was out on the hill after
chikkor when my shikari saw Shere Ali and his crowd coming down the
valley. He knew all about it and gave me a general idea of the situation.
It seems the whole country's rising. I should have been here before, but
it seemed advisable to wait until it was dark. I crawled in between a
couple of guard-posts. There is already a watch kept on the house," and
then he stopped abruptly. He had caught sight of the Khan in the
background. He had much ado not to whistle in his surprise. But he
refrained and merely bowed.
"It seems to be a complicated situation," he said to Captain Phillips.
"Does Shere Ali know?" and he glanced towards the Khan.
"Not yet," replied Phillips grimly. "But I don't think it will be long
before he does."
"And then there will be ructions," Poulteney remarked softly. "Yes, there
will be ructions of a highly-coloured and interesting description."
"We must do what we can," said Phillips with a shrug of his shoulders.
"It isn't much, of course," and for the next two hours the twenty-five
Sikhs were kept busy. The doors were barricaded, the shutters closed upon
the windows and loopholed, and provisions were brought in from the
"It is lucky we had sense enough to lay in a store of food," said
The Sikhs were divided into watches and given their appointed places.
Cartridges were doled out to them, and the rest of the ammunition was
placed in a stone cellar.
"That's all that we can do," said Phillips. "So we may as well dine."
They dined with the Khan, speaking little and with ears on the alert,
in a room at the back of the house. At any moment the summons might
come to surrender the Khan. They waited for a blow upon the door, the
sound of the firing of a rifle or a loud voice calling upon them from
the darkness. But all they heard was the interminable babble of the
Khan, as he sat at the table shivering with fear and unable to eat a
morsel of his food.
"You won't give me up!... I have been a good friend to the English....
All my life I have been a good friend to the English."
"We will do what we can," said Phillips, and he rose from the table and
went up on to the roof. He lay down behind the low parapet and looked
over towards the town. The house was a poor place to defend. At the back
beyond the orchard the hill-side rose and commanded the roof. On the
east of the house a stream ran by to the great river in the centre of
the valley. But the bank of the stream was a steep slippery bank of
clay, and less than a hundred yards down a small water-mill on the
opposite side overlooked it. The Chiltis had only to station a few
riflemen in the water-mill and not a man would be able to climb down
that bank and fetch water for the Residency. On the west stood the
stables and the storehouses, and the barracks of the Sikhs, a square of
buildings which would afford fine cover for an attacking force. Only in
front within the walls of the forecourt was there any open space which
the house commanded. It was certainly a difficult--nay, a
hopeless--place to defend.
But Captain Phillips, as he lay behind the parapet, began to be puzzled.
Why did not the attack begin? He looked over to the city. It was a place
of tossing lights and wild clamours. The noise of it was carried on the
night wind to Phillips' ears. But about the Residency there was quietude
and darkness. Here and there a red fire glowed where the guards were
posted; now and then a shower of sparks leaped up into the air as a fresh
log was thrown upon the ashes; and a bright flame would glisten on the
barrel of a rifle and make ruddy the dark faces of the watchmen. But
there were no preparations for an attack.
Phillips looked across the city. On the hill the Palace was alive with
moving lights--lights that flashed from room to room as though men
"Surely they must already have guessed," he murmured to himself. The
moving lights in the high windows of the Palace held his eyes--so swiftly
they flitted from room to room, so frenzied seemed the hurry of the
search--and then to his astonishment one after another they began to die
out. It could not be that the searchers were content with the failure of
their search, that the Palace was composing itself to sleep. In the city
the clamour had died down; little by little it sank to darkness. There
came a freshness in the air. Though there were many hours still before
daylight, the night drew on towards morning. What could it mean, he
wondered? Why was the Residency left in peace?
And as he wondered, he heard a scuffling noise upon the roof behind him.
He turned his head and Poulteney crawled to his side.
"Will you come down?" the subaltern asked; "I don't know what to do."
Phillips at once crept back to the trap-door. The two men descended, and
Poulteney led the way into the little room at the back of the house where
they had dined. There was no longer a light in the room; and they stood
for awhile in the darkness listening.
"Where is the Khan?" whispered Phillips.
"I fixed up one of the cellars for him," Poulteney replied in the same
tone, and as he ended there came suddenly a rattle of gravel upon the
shutter of the window. It was thrown cautiously, but even so it startled
Phillips almost into a cry.
"That's it," whispered Poulteney. "There is someone in the orchard.
That's the third time the gravel has rattled on the shutter. What
shall I do?"
"Have you got your revolver?" asked Phillips.
"Then stand by."
Phillips carefully and noiselessly opened the shutter for an inch or two.
"Who's that?" he asked in a low voice; he asked the question in Pushtu,
and in Pushtu a voice no louder than his own replied:
"I want to speak to Poulteney Sahib."
A startled exclamation broke from the subaltern. "It's my shikari," he
said, and thrusting open the shutter he leaned out.
"Well, what news do you bring?" he asked; and at the answer Captain
Phillips for the first time since he had entered into his twilit hall
had a throb of hope. The expeditionary troops from Nowshera, advancing
by forced marches, were already close to the borders of Chiltistan. News
had been brought to the Palace that evening. Shere Ali had started with
every man he could collect to take up the position where he meant to
"I must hurry or I shall be late," said the shikari, and he crawled away
through the orchard.
Phillips closed the shutter again and lit the lamp. The news seemed too
good to be true. But the morning broke over a city of women and old men.
Only the watchmen remained at their posts about the Residency grounds.
ONE OF THE LITTLE WARS
The campaign which Shere Ali directed on the borders of Chiltistan is now
matter of history, and may be read of, by whoso wills, in the Blue-books
and despatches of the time. Those documents, with their paragraphs and
diaries and bare records of facts, have a dry-as-dust look about them
which their contents very often belie. And the reader will not rise from
the story of this little war without carrying away an impression of wild
fury and reckless valour which will long retain its colours in his mind.
Moreover, there was more than fury to distinguish it. Shere Ali turned
against his enemies the lessons which they had taught him; and a military
skill was displayed which delayed the result and thereby endangered the
position of the British troops. For though at the first the neighbouring
tribes and states, the little village republics which abound in those
parts, waited upon the event as Phillips had foretold, nevertheless as
the days passed, and the event still hung in the balance, they took heart
of grace and gathered behind the troops to destroy their communications
and cut off their supplies.
Dick Linforth wrote three letters to his mother, who was living over
again the suspense and terror which had fallen to her lot a quarter of a
century ago. The first letter was brought to the house under the Sussex
Downs at twilight on an evening of late autumn, and as she recognized the
writing for her son's a sudden weakness overcame her, and her hand so
shook that she could hardly tear off the envelope.
"I am unhurt," he wrote at the beginning of the letter, and tears of
gratitude ran down her cheeks as she read the words. "Shere Ali," he
continued, "occupied a traditional position of defence in a narrow
valley. The Kohara river ran between steep cliffs through the bed of the
valley, and, as usual, above the cliffs on each side there were
cultivated maidans or plateaus. Over the right-hand maidan, the
road--_our_ road--ran to a fortified village. Behind the village, a deep
gorge, or nullah, as we call them in these parts, descending from a side
glacier high up at the back of the hills on our right, cut clean across
the valley, like a great gash. The sides of the nullah were
extraordinarily precipitous, and on the edge furthest from us stone
sangars were already built as a second line of defence. Shere Ali
occupied the village in front of the nullah, and we encamped six miles
down the valley, meaning to attack in the morning. But the Chiltis
abandoned their traditional method of fighting behind walls and standing
on the defence. A shot rang out on the outskirts of our camp at three
o'clock in the morning, and in a moment they were upon us. It was
reckoned that there were fifteen thousand of them engaged from first to
last in this battle, whereas we were under two thousand combatants. We
had seven hundred of the Imperial Service troops, four companies of
Gurkhas, three hundred men of the Punjab Infantry, three companies of the
Oxfordshires, besides cavalry, mountain batteries and Irregulars. The
attack was unexpected. We bestrode the road, but Shere Ali brought his
men in by an old disused Buddhist road, running over the hills on our
right hand, and in the darkness he forced his way through our lines into
a little village in the heart of our position. He seized the bazaar and
held it all that day, a few houses built of stone and with stones upon
the roof which made them proof against our shells. Meanwhile the slopes
on both sides of the valley were thronged with Chiltis. They were armed
with jezails and good rifles stolen from our troops, and they had some
old cannon--sher bachas as they are called. Altogether they caused us
great loss, and towards evening things began to look critical. They had
fortified and barricaded the bazaar, and kept up a constant fire from it.
At last a sapper named Manders, with half a dozen Gurkhas behind him, ran
across the open space, and while the Gurkhas shot through the loop holes
and kept the fire down, Manders fixed his gun cotton at the bottom of the
door and lighted the fuse. He was shot twice, once in the leg, once in
the shoulder, but he managed to crawl along the wall of the houses out of
reach of the explosion, and the door was blown in. We drove them out of
that house and finally cleared the bazaar after some desperate fighting.
Shere Ali was in the thick of it. He was dressed from head to foot in
green, and was a conspicuous mark. But he escaped unhurt. The enemy drew
off for the night, and we lay down as we were, dog-tired and with no
fires to cook any food. They came on again in the morning, clouds of
them, but we held them back with the gatlings and the maxims, and towards
evening they again retired. To-day nothing has happened except the
arrival of an envoy with an arrogant letter from Shere Ali, asking why we
are straying inside the borders of his country 'like camels without
nose-rings.' We shall show him why to-morrow. For to-morrow we attack the
fort on the maidan. Good-night, mother. I am very tired." And the last
sentence took away from Sybil Linforth all the comfort the letter had
brought her. Dick had begun very well. He could have chosen no better
words to meet her eyes at the commencement than those three, "I am
unhurt." But he could have chosen no worse with which to end it. For they
had ended the last letter which her husband had written to her, and her
mind flew back to that day, and was filled with fore-bodings.
But by the next mail came another letter in his hand, describing how the
fort had been carried at the point of the bayonet, and Shere Ali driven
back behind the nullah. This, however, was the strongest position of all,
and the most difficult to force. The road which wound down behind the
fort into the bed of the nullah and zigzagged up again on the far side
had been broken away, the cliffs were unscaleable, and the stone sangars
on the brow proof against shell and bullet. Shere Ali's force was
disposed behind these stone breastworks right across the valley on both
sides of the river. For three weeks the British force sat in front of
this position, now trying to force it by the river-bed, now under cover
of night trying to repair the broken road. But the Chiltis kept good
watch, and at the least sound of a pick in the gulf below avalanches of
rocks and stones would be hurled down the cliff-sides. Moreover, wherever
the cliffs seemed likely to afford a means of ascent Shere Ali had
directed the water-channels, and since the nights were frosty these
points were draped with ice as smooth as glass. Finally, however, Mrs.
Linforth received a third letter which set her heart beating with pride,
and for the moment turned all her fears to joy.
"The war is over," it began. "The position was turned this morning. The
Chiltis are in full flight towards Kohara with the cavalry upon their
heels. They are throwing away their arms as they run, so that they may
be thought not to have taken part in the fight. We follow to-morrow. It
is not yet known whether Shere Ali is alive or dead and, mother, it was
I--yes, I your son, who found out the road by which the position could
be turned. I had crept up the nullah time after time towards the glacier
at its head, thinking that if ever the position was to be taken it must
be turned at that end. At last I thought that I had made out a way up
the cliffs. There were some gullies and a ledge and then some rocks
which seemed practicable, and which would lead one out on the brow of
the cliff just between the two last sangars on the enemy's left. I
didn't write a word about it to you before. I was so afraid I might be
wrong. I got leave and used to creep up the nullah in the darkness to
the tongue of the glacier with a little telescope and lie hidden all day
behind a boulder working out the way, until darkness came again and
allowed me to get back to camp. At last I felt sure, and I suggested the
plan to Ralston the Political Officer, who carried it to the
General-in-Command. The General himself came out with me, and I pointed
out to him that the cliffs were so steep just beneath the sangars that
we might take the men who garrisoned them by surprise, and that in any
case they could not fire upon us, while sharpshooters from the cliffs on
our side of the nullah could hinder the enemy from leaving their sangars
and rolling down stones. I was given permission to try and a hundred
Gurkhas to try with. We left camp that night at half-past seven, and
crept up the nullah with our blankets to the foot of the climb, and
there we waited till the morning."
The years of training to which Linforth had bent himself with a definite
aim began, in a word, to produce their results. In the early morning he
led the way up the steep face of cliffs, and the Gurkhas followed. One of
the sharpshooters lying ready on the British side of the nullah said that
they looked for all the world like a black train of ants. There were
thirteen hundred feet of rock to be scaled, and for nine hundred of it
they climbed undetected. Then from a sangar lower down the line where the
cliffs of the nullah curved outwards they were seen and the alarm was
given. But for awhile the defenders of the threatened position did not
understand the danger, and when they did a hail of bullets kept them in
their shelters. Linforth followed by his Gurkhas was seen to reach the
top of the cliffs and charge the sangars from the rear. The defenders
were driven out and bayoneted, the sangars seized, and the Chilti force
enfolded while reinforcements clambered in support. "In three hours the
position, which for eighteen days had resisted every attack and held the
British force immobile, was in our hands. The way is clear in front of
us. Manders is recommended for the Victoria Cross. I believe that I am
for the D.S.O. And above all the Road goes on!"
Thus characteristically the letter was concluded. Linforth wrote it with
a flush of pride and a great joy. He had no doubt now that he would be
appointed to the Road. Congratulations were showered upon him. Down upon
the plains, Violet would hear of his achievement and perhaps claim
proudly and joyfully some share in it herself. His heart leaped at the
thought. The world was going very well for Dick Linforth that night. But
that is only one side of the picture. Linforth had no thoughts to spare
upon Shere Ali. If he had had a thought, it would not have been one of
pity. Yet that unhappy Prince, with despair and humiliation gnawing at
his heart, broken now beyond all hope, stricken in his fortune as sorely
as in his love, was fleeing with a few devoted followers through the
darkness. He passed through Kohara at daybreak of the second morning
after the battle had been lost, and stopping only to change horses,
galloped off to the north.
Two hours later Captain Phillips mounted on to the roof of his house and
saw that the guards were no longer at their posts.
A LETTER FROM VIOLET
Within a week the Khan was back in his Palace, the smoke rose once more
above the roof-tops of Kohara, and a smiling shikari presented himself
before Poulteney Sahib in the grounds of the Residency.
"It was a good fight, Sahib," he declared, grinning from ear to ear at
the recollection of the battles. "A very good fight. We nearly won. I was
in the bazaar all that day. Yes, it was a near thing. We made a mistake
about those cliffs, we did not think they could be climbed. It was a good
fight, but it is over. Now when will your Excellency go shooting? I have
heard of some markhor on the hill."
Poulteney Sahib stared, speechless with indignation. Then he burst
"You old rascal! You dare to come here and ask me to take you out when I
go shooting, and only a week ago you were fighting against us."
"But the fight is all over, Excellency," the Shikari explained. "Now all
is as it was and we will go out after the markhor." The idea that any
ill-feeling could remain after so good a fight was one quite beyond the
shikari's conception. "Besides," he said, "it was I who threw the gravel
at your Excellency's windows."
"Why, that's true," said Poulteney, and a window was thrown up behind
him. Ralston's head appeared at the window.
"You had better take him," the Chief Commissioner said. "Go out with him
for a couple of days," and when the shikari had retired, he explained the
reason of his advice.
"That fellow will talk to you, and you might find out which way Shere
Ali went. He wasn't among the dead, so far as we can discover, and I
think he has been headed off from Afghanistan. But it is important that
we should know. So long as he is free, there will always be
possibilities of trouble."
In every direction, indeed, inquiries were being made. But for the moment
Shere Ali had got clear away. Meanwhile the Khan waited anxiously in the
Palace to know what was going to happen to him; and he waited in some
anxiety. It fell to Ralston to inform him in durbar in the presence of
his nobles and the chief officers of the British force that the
Government of India had determined to grant him a pension and a residence
rent-free at Jellundur.
"The Government of India will rule Chiltistan," said Ralston. "The word
has been spoken."
He went out from the Palace and down the hill towards the place where the
British forces were encamped just outside the city. When he came to the
tents, he asked for Mr. Linforth, and was conducted through the lines. He
found Linforth sitting alone within his tent on his camp chair, and knew
from his attitude that some evil thing had befallen him. Linforth rose
and offered Ralston his chair, and as he did so a letter fluttered from
his lap to the ground. There were two sheets, and Linforth stooped
quickly and picked them up.
"Don't move," said Ralston. "This will do for me," and he sat down upon
the edge of the camp bed. Linforth sat down again on his chair and, as
though he were almost unaware of Ralston's presence, he smoothed out upon
his knee the sheets of the letter. Ralston could not but observe that
they were crumpled and creased, as though they had been clenched and
twisted in Linforth's hand. Then Linforth raised his head, and suddenly
thrust the letter into his pocket.
"I beg your pardon," he said, and he spoke in a spiritless voice. "The
post has just come in. I received a letter which--interested me. Is there
anything I can do?"
"Yes," said Ralston. "We have sure news at last. Shere Ali has fled to
the north. The opportunity you asked for at Peshawur has come."
Linforth was silent for a little while. Then he said slowly:
"I see. I am to go in pursuit?"
It seemed that Linforth's animosity against Shere Ali had died out.
Ralston watched him keenly from the bed. Something had blunted the edge
of the tool just when the time had come to use it. He threw an extra
earnestness into his voice.
"You have got to do more than go in pursuit of him. You have got to find
him. You have got to bring him back as your prisoner."
Linforth nodded his head.
"He has gone north, you say?"
"Yes. Somewhere in Central Asia you will find him," and as Linforth
looked up startled, Ralston continued calmly, "Yes, it's a large order, I
know, but it's not quite so large as it looks. The trade-routes, the only
possible roads, are not so very many. No man can keep his comings and
goings secret for very long in that country. You will soon get wind of
him, and when you do you must never let him shake you off."
"Very well," said Linforth, listlessly. "When do I start?"
Ralston plunged into the details of the expedition and told him the
number of men he was to take with him.
"You had better go first into Chinese Turkestan," he said. "There are a
number of Hindu merchants settled there--we will give you letters to
them. Some of them will be able to put you on the track of Shere Ali. You
will have to round him up into a corner, I expect. And whatever you do,
head him off Russian territory. For we want him. We want him brought back
into Kohara. It will have a great effect on this country. It will show
them that the Sirkar can even pick a man out of the bazaars of Central
Asia if he is rash enough to stand up against it in revolt."
"That will be rather humiliating for Shere Ali," said Linforth, after a
short pause; and Ralston sat up on the bed. What in the world, he
wondered, could Linforth have read in his letter, so to change him? He
was actually sympathising with Shere Ali--he who had been hottest in
"Shere Ali should have thought of that before," Ralston said sharply,
and he rose to his feet. "I rely upon you, Linforth. It may take you a
year. It may take you only a few months. But I rely upon you to bring
Shere Ali back. And when you do," he added, with a smile, "there's the
road waiting for you."
But for once even that promise failed to stir Dick Linforth into
"I will do my best," he said quietly; and with that Ralston left him.
Linforth sat down in his chair and once more took out the crumpled
letter. He had walked with the Gods of late, like one immune from earthly
troubles. But his bad hour had been awaiting him. The letter was signed
Violet. He read it through again, and this was what he read:
"This is the most difficult letter I have ever written. For I don't feel
that I can make you understand at all just how things are. But somehow or
other I do feel that this is going to hurt you frightfully, and, oh,
Dick, do forgive me. But if it will console or help at all, know this,"
and the words were underlined--as indeed were many words in Violet
Oliver's letters--"that I never was good enough for you and you are well
rid of me. I told you what I was, didn't I, Dick?--a foolish lover of
beautiful things. I tried to tell you the whole truth that last evening
in the garden at Peshawur, but you wouldn't let me, Dick. And I must tell
you now. I never sent the pearl necklace back, Dick, although I told you
that I did. I meant to send it back the night when I parted from the
Prince. I packed it up and put it ready. But--oh, Dick, how can I tell
you?--I had had an imitation one made just like it for safety, and in the
night I got up and changed them. I couldn't part with it--I sent back the
false one. Now you know me, Dick! But even now perhaps you don't. You
remember the night in Peshawur, the terrible night? Mr. Ralston wondered
why, after complaining that my window was unbolted, I unbolted it myself.
Let me tell you, Dick! Mr. Ralston said that 'theft' was the explanation.
Well, after I tried to tell you in the garden and you would not listen, I
thought of what he had said. I thought it would be such an easy way out
of it, if the thief should come in when I was asleep and steal the
necklace and go away again before I woke up. I don't know how I brought
myself to do it. It was you, Dick! I had just left you, I was full of
thoughts of you. So I slipped back the bolt myself. But you see, Dick,
what I am. Although I wanted to send that necklace back, I couldn't, I
_simply couldn't_, and it's the same with other things. I would be very,
very glad to know that I could be happy with you, dear, and live your
life. But I know that I couldn't, that it wouldn't last, that I should be
longing for other things, foolish things and vanities. Again, Dick, you
are well rid of a silly vain woman, and I wish you all happiness in that
riddance. I never would have made you a good wife. Nor will I make any
man a good wife. I have not the sense of a dog. I know it, too! That's
the sad part of it all, Dick. Forgive me, and thanks, a thousand thanks,
for the honour you ever did me in wanting me at all." Then followed--it
seemed to Linforth--a cry. "Won't you forgive me, dear, dear Dick!" and
after these words her name, "Violet."
But even so the letter was not ended. A postscript was added:
"I shall always think of the little dreams we had together of our future,
and regret that I couldn't know them. That will always be in my mind.
Remember that! Perhaps some day we will meet. Oh, Dick, good-bye!"
Dick sat with that letter before his eyes for a long while. Violet had
told him that he could be hard, but he was not hard to her. He could read
between the lines, he understood the struggle which she had had with
herself, he recognised the suffering which the letter had caused her. He
was touched to pity, to a greater humanity. He had shown it in his
forecasts of the humiliation which would befall Shere Ali when he was
brought back a prisoner to Kohara. Linforth, in a word, had shed what was
left of his boyhood. He had come to recognise that life was never all
black and all white. He tore up the letter into tiny fragments. It
required no answer.
"Everything is just wrong," he said to himself, gently, as he thought
over Shere Ali, Violet, himself. "Everything is just not what it might
And a few days later he started northwards for Turkestan.
"THE LITTLE LESS--"
Three years passed before Linforth returned on leave to England. He
landed at Marseilles towards the end of September, travelled to his home,
and a fortnight later came up from Sussex for a few days to London. It
was the beginning of the autumn season. People were returning to town.
Theatres were re-opening with new plays; and a fellow-officer, who had a
couple of stalls for the first production of a comedy about which public
curiosity was whetted, meeting Linforth in the hall of his club,
suggested that they should go together.
"I shall be glad," said Linforth. "I always go to the play with the
keenest of pleasure. The tuning-up of the orchestra and the rising of the
curtain are events to me. And, to be honest, I have never been to a first
night before. Let us do the thing handsomely and dine together before we
go. It will be my last excitement in London for another three or four
years, I expect."
The two young men dined together accordingly at one of the great
restaurants. Linforth, fresh from the deep valleys of Chiltistan, was
elated by the lights, the neighbourhood of people delicately dressed, and
the subdued throb of music from muted violins.
"I am the little boy at the bright shop window," he said with a laugh,
while his eyes wandered round the room. "I look in through the glass from
the pavement outside, and--"
His voice halted and stopped; and when he resumed he spoke without his
former gaiety. Indeed, the change of note was more perceptible than the
brief pause. His friend conjectured that the words which Linforth now
used were not those which he had intended to speak a moment ago.
"--and," he said slowly, "I wonder what sort of fairyland it is actually
to live and breathe in?"
While he spoke, his eyes were seeking an answer to his question, and
seeking it in one particular quarter. A few tables away, and behind
Linforth's friend and a little to his right, sat Violet Oliver. She was
with a party of six or eight people, of whom Linforth took no note. He
had eyes only for her. Bitterness had long since ceased to colour his
thoughts of Violet Oliver. And though he had not forgotten, there was no
longer any living pain in his memories. So much had intervened since he
had walked with her in the rose-garden at Peshawur--so many new
experiences, so much compulsion of hard endeavour. When his recollections
went back to the rose-garden at Peshawur, as at rare times they would, he
was only conscious at the worst that his life was rather dull when tested
by the high aspirations of his youth. There was less music in it than he
had thought to hear. Instead of swinging in a soldier's march to the
sound of drums and bugles down the road, it walked sedately. To use his
own phrase, everything was--_just not_. There was no more in it than
that. And indeed at the first it was almost an effort for him to realise
that between him and this woman whom he now actually saw, after three
years, there had once existed a bond of passion. But, as he continued to
look, the memories took substance, and he began to wonder whether in her
fairyland it was "just not," too. She had what she had wanted--that was
clear. A collar of pearls, fastened with a diamond bow, encircled her
throat. A great diamond flashed upon her bosom. Was she satisfied? Did no
memory of the short week during which she had longed to tread the road of
fire and stones, the road of high endeavour, trouble her content?
Linforth was curious. She was not paying much heed to the talk about the
table. She took no part in it, but sat with her head a little raised, her
eyes dreamily fixed upon nothing in particular. But Linforth remembered
with a smile that there was no inference to be drawn from that not
unusual attitude of hers. It did not follow that she was bored or filled
with discontent. She might simply be oblivious. A remark made about her
by some forgotten person who had asked a question and received no answer
came back to Linforth and called a smile to his face. "You might imagine
that Violet Oliver is thinking of the angels. She is probably considering
whether she should run upstairs and powder her nose."
Linforth began to look for other signs; and it seemed to him that the
world had gone well with her. She had a kind of settled look, almost a
sleekness, as though anxiety never came near to her pillow. She had
married, surely, and married well. The jewels she wore were evidence, and
Linforth began to speculate which of the party was her husband. They were
young people who were gathered at the table. In her liking for young
people about her she had not changed. Of the men no one was noticeable,
but Violet Oliver, as he remembered, would hardly have chosen a
noticeable man. She would have chosen someone with great wealth and no
ambitions, one who was young enough to ask nothing more from the world
than Violet Oliver, who would not, in a word, trouble her with a career.
She might have chosen anyone of her companions. And then her eyes
travelled round the room and met his.
For a moment she gazed at him, not seeing him at all. In a moment or two
consciousness came to her. Her brows went up in astonishment. Then she
smiled and waved her hand to him across the room--gaily, without a trace
of embarrassment, without even the colour rising to her cheeks. Thus
might one greet a casual friend of yesterday. Linforth bethought him,
with a sudden sting of bitterness which surprised him by its sharpness,
of the postscript in the last of the few letters she had written to him.
That letter was still vivid enough in his memories for him to be able to
see the pages, to recognise the writing, and read the sentences.
"I shall always think of the little dreams we had together of our future,
and regret that I couldn't know them. That will always be in my mind.
How much of that postscript remained true, he wondered, after these three
years. Very little, it seemed. Linforth fell to speculating, with an
increasing interest, as to which of the men at her table she had mated
with. Was it the tall youth with the commonplace good looks opposite to
her? Linforth detected now a certain flashiness in his well grooming
which he had not noticed before. Or was it the fat insignificant young
man three seats away from her?
A rather gross young person, Linforth thought him--the offspring of some
provincial tradesman who had retired with a fortune and made a gentleman
of his son.
"Well, no doubt he has the dibs," Linforth found himself saying with an
unexpected irritation, as he contemplated the possible husband. And his
friend broke in upon his thoughts.
"If you are going to eat any dinner, Linforth, it might be as well to
begin; we shall have to go very shortly."
Linforth fell to accordingly. His appetite was not impaired, he was happy
to notice, but, on the whole, he wished he had not seen Violet Oliver.
This was his last night in London. She might so easily have come
to-morrow instead, when he would already have departed from the town. It
was a pity.
He did not look towards her table any more, but the moment her party rose
he was nevertheless aware of its movement. He was conscious that she
passed through the restaurant towards the lobby at no great distance from
himself. He was aware, though he did not raise his head, that she was
looking at him.
Five minutes afterwards the waiter brought to him a folded piece of
paper. He opened it and read:
"Dick, won't you speak to me at all? I am waiting.--VIOLET."
Linforth looked up at his friend.
"There is someone I must go and speak to," he said. "I won't be
He rose from the table and walked out of the restaurant. His heart was
beating rather fast, but it was surely curiosity which produced that
effect. Curiosity to know whether with her things were--just not, too. He
passed across the hall and up the steps. On the top of the steps she was
waiting for him. She had her cloak upon her shoulders, and in the
background the gross young man waited for her without interposing--the
very image of a docile husband.
"Dick," she said quickly, as she held out her hand to him, "I did so want
to talk to you. I have to rush off to a theatre. So I sent in for you.
Why wouldn't you speak to me?"
That he should have any reason to avoid her she seemed calmly and
completely unconscious. And so unembarrassed was her manner that even
with her voice in his ears and her face before him, delicate and pretty
as of old, Dick almost believed that never had he spoken of love to her,
and never had she answered him.
"You are married?" he asked.
Violet nodded her head. She did not, however, introduce her husband. She
took no notice of him whatever. She did not mention her new name.
"And you?" she asked.
Linforth laughed rather harshly.
Perhaps the harshness of the laugh troubled her. Her forehead puckered.
She dropped her eyes from his face.
"But you will," she said in a low voice.
Linforth did not answer, and in a moment or two she raised her head
again. The trouble had gone from her face. She smiled brightly.
"And the Road?" she asked. She had just remembered it. She had almost an
air of triumph in remembering it. All these old memories were so dim. But
at the awkward difficult moment, by an inspiration she had remembered the
great long-cherished aim of Dick Linforth's life. The Road! Dick wondered
whether she remembered too that there had been a time when for a few days
she had thought to have a share herself in the making of that road which
was to leave India safe.
"It goes on," he said quietly. "It has passed Kohara. It has passed the
fort where Luffe died. But I beg your pardon. Luffe belongs to the past,
too, very much to the past--more even than I do."
Violet paid no heed to the sarcasm. She had not heard it. She was
thinking of something else. It seemed that she had something to say, but
found the utterance difficult. Once or twice she looked up at Dick
Linforth and looked down again and played with the fringe of her cloak.
In the background the docile husband moved restlessly.
"There's a question I should like to ask," she said quickly, and
Linforth helped her out.
"Perhaps I can guess the question."
"It's about--" she began, and Linforth nodded his head.
"Shere Ali?" he said.
"Yes," replied Violet.
Linforth hesitated, looking at his companion. How much should he tell
her, he asked himself? The whole truth? If he did, would it trouble her?
He wondered. He had no wish to hurt her. He began warily:
"After the campaign was over in Chiltistan I was sent after him."
"Yes. I heard that before I left India," she replied.
"I hunted him," and it seemed to Linforth that she flinched. "There's no
other word, I am afraid. I hunted him--for months, from the borders of
Tibet to the borders of Russia. In the end I caught him."
"I heard that, too," she said.
"I came up with him one morning, in a desert of stones. He was with three
of his followers. The only three who had been loyal to him. They had
camped as best they could under the shelter of a boulder. It was very
cold. They had no coverings and little food. The place was as desolate as
you could imagine--a wilderness of boulders and stones stretching away to
the round of the sky, level as the palm of your hand, with a ragged tree
growing up here and there. If we had not come up with them that day I
think they would have died."
He spoke with his eyes upon Violet, ready to modify his words at the
first evidence of pain. She gave that evidence as he ended. She drew her
cloak closer about her and shivered.
"What did he say?" she asked.
"To me? Nothing. We spoke only formally. All the way back to India we
behaved as strangers. It was easier for both of us. I brought him down
through Chiltistan and Kohara into India. I brought him down--along the
Road which at Eton we had planned to carry on together. Down that road we
came together--I the captor, he the prisoner."
Again Violet flinched.
"And where is he now?" she asked in a low voice.
Suddenly Linforth turned round and looked down the steps, across the hall
to the glass walls of the restaurant.
"Did he ever come here with you?" he asked. "Did he ever dine with you
there amongst the lights and the merry-makers and the music?"
"Yes," she answered.
Linforth laughed, and again there was a note of bitterness in the
"How long ago it seems! Shere Ali will dine here no more. He is in Burma.
He was deported to Burma."
He told her no more than that. There was no need that she should know
that Shere Ali, broken-hearted, ruined and despairing, was drinking
himself to death with the riffraff of Rangoon, or with such of it as
would listen to his abuse of the white women and his slanders upon their
honesty. The contrast between Shere Ali's fate and the hopes with which
he had set out was shocking enough. Yet even in his case so very little
had turned the scale. Between the fulfilment of his hopes and the great
failure what was there? If he had been sent to Ajmere instead of to
England, if he and Linforth had not crossed the Meije to La Grave in
Dauphine, if a necklace of pearls he had offered had not been
accepted--very likely at this very moment he might be reigning in
Chiltistan, trusted and supported by the Indian Government, a helpful
friend gratefully recognised. To Linforth's thinking it was only "just
not" with Shere Ali, too.
Linforth saw his companion coming towards him from the restaurant. He
held out his hand.
"I have got to go," he said.
"I too," replied Violet. But she detained him. "I want to tell you," she
said hurriedly. "Long ago--in Peshawur--do you remember? I told you there
was someone else--a better mate for you than I was. I meant it, Dick, but
you wouldn't listen. There is still the someone else. I am going to tell
you her name. She has never said a word to me--but--but I am sure. It may
sound mean of me to give her away--but I am not really doing that. I
should be very happy, Dick, if it were possible. It's Phyllis Casson. She
has never married. She is living with her father at Camberley." And
before he could answer she had hurried away.
But Linforth was to see her again that night. For when he had taken his
seat in the stalls of the theatre he saw her and her husband in a box. He
gathered from the remarks of those about him that her jewels were a
regular feature upon the first nights of new plays. He looked at her now
and then during the intervals of the acts. A few people entered her box
and spoke to her for a little while. Linforth conjectured that she had
dropped a little out of the world in which he had known her. Yet she was
contented. On the whole that seemed certain. She was satisfied with her
life. To attend the first productions of plays, to sit in the
restaurants, to hear her jewels remarked upon--her life had narrowed
sleekly down to that, and she was content. But there had been other
possibilities for Violet Oliver.
Linforth walked back from the theatre to his club. He looked into a room
and saw an old gentleman dozing alone amongst his newspapers.
"I suppose I shall come to that," he said grimly. "It doesn't look over
cheerful as a way of spending the evening of one's days," and he was
suddenly seized with the temptation to go home and take the first train
in the morning for Camberley. He turned the plan over in his mind for a
moment, and then swung away from it in self-disgust. He retained a
general reverence for women, and to seek marriage without bringing love
to light him in the search was not within his capacity.
"That wouldn't be fair," he said to himself--"even if Violet's tale were
true." For with his reverence he had retained his modesty. The next
morning he took the train into Sussex instead, and was welcomed by Sybil
Linforth to the house under the Downs. In the warmth of that welcome, at
all events, there was nothing that was just not.
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