The Broken Road

Chapter I

The Breaking of the Road

A.E.W. Mason

IT WAS the Road which caused the trouble. It usually is the road. That and a reigning prince who was declared by his uncle secretly to have sold his country to the British, and a half-crazed priest from out beyond the borders of Afghanistan, who sat on a slab of stone by the river-bank and preached a djehad. But above all it was the road—Linforth’s road. It came winding down from the passes, over slopes of shale; it was built with wooden galleries along the precipitous sides of cliffs; it snaked treacherously further and further across the rich valley of Chiltistan towards the Hindu Kush, until the people of that valley could endure it no longer.

Then suddenly from Peshawur the wires began to flash their quiet and ominous messages. The road had been cut behind Linforth and his coolies. No news had come from him. No supplies could reach him. Luffe, who was in the country to the east of Chiltistan, had been informed. He had gathered together what troops he could lay his hands on and had already started over the eastern passes to Linforth’s relief. But it was believed that the whole province of Chiltistan had risen. Moreover it was winter-time and the passes were deep in snow. The news was telegraphed to England. Comfortable gentlemen read it in their first-class carriages as they travelled to the City and murmured to each other commonplaces about the price of empire. And in a house at the foot of the Sussex Downs Linforth’s young wife leaned over the cot of her child with the tears streaming from her eyes, and thought of the road with no less horror than the people of Chiltistan. Meanwhile the great men in Calcutta began to mobilise a field force at Nowshera, and all official India said uneasily, “Thank Heaven, Luffe’s on the spot.”

Charles Luffe had long since abandoned the army for the political service, and, indeed, he was fast approaching the time-limit of his career. He was a man of breadth and height, but rather heavy and dull of feature, with a worn face and a bald forehead. He had made enemies, and still made them, for he had not the art of suffering fools gladly; and, on the other hand, he made no friends. He had no sense of humour and no general information. He was, therefore, of no assistance at a dinner-party, but when there was trouble upon the Frontier, or beyond it, he was usually found to be the chief agent in the settlement.

Luffe alone had foreseen and given warning of the danger. Even Linforth, who was actually superintending the making of the road, had been kept in ignorance. At times, indeed, some spokesman from among the merchants of Kohara, the city of Chiltistan where year by year the caravans from Central Asia met the caravans from Central India, would come to his tent and expostulate.

“We are better without the road, your Excellency. Will you kindly stop it!” the merchant would say; and Linforth would then proceed to demonstrate how extremely valuable to the people of Chiltistan a better road would be:

“Kohara is already a great mart. In your bazaars at summer-time you see traders from Turkestan and Tibet and Siberia, mingling with the Hindoo merchants from Delhi and Lahore. The road will bring you still more trade.”

The spokesman went back to the broad street of Kohara seemingly well content, and inch by inch the road crept nearer to the capital.

But Luffe was better acquainted with the Chiltis, a soft-spoken race of men, with musical, smooth voices and polite and pretty ways. But treachery was a point of honour with them and cold-blooded cruelty a habit. There was one particular story which Luffe was accustomed to tell as illustrative of the Chilti character.

“There was a young man who lived with his mother in a little hamlet close to Kohara. His mother continually urged him to marry, but for a long while he would not. He did not wish to marry. Finally, however, he fell in love with a pretty girl, made her his wife, and brought her home, to his mother’s delight. But the mother’s delight lasted for just five days. She began to complain, she began to quarrel; the young wife replied, and the din of their voices greatly distressed the young man, besides making him an object of ridicule to his neighbours. One evening, in a fit of passion, both women said they would stand it no longer. They ran out of the house and up the hillside, but as there was only one path they ran away together, quarrelling as they went. Then the young Chilti rose, followed them, caught them up, tied them in turn hand and foot, laid them side by side on a slab of stone, and quietly cut their throats.

“‘Women talk too much,’ he said, as he came back to a house unfamiliarly quiet. ‘One had really to put a stop to it.’”

Knowing this and many similar stories, Luffe had been for some while on the alert. Whispers reached him of dangerous talk in the bazaars of Kohara, Peshawur, and even of Benares in India proper. He heard of the growing power of the old Mullah by the river-bank. He was aware of the accusations against the ruling Khan. He knew that after night had fallen Wafadar Nazim, the Khan’s uncle, a restless, ambitious, disloyal man, crept down to the river-bank and held converse with the priest. Thus he was ready so far as he could be ready.

The news that the road was broken was flashed to him from the nearest telegraph station, and within twenty-four hours he led out a small force from his Agency—a battalion of Sikhs, a couple of companies of Gurkhas, two guns of a mountain battery, and a troop of irregular levies—and disappeared over the pass, now deep in snow.

“Would he be in time?”

Not only in India was the question asked. It was asked in England, too, in the clubs of Pall Mall, but nowhere with so passionate an outcry as in the house at the foot of the Sussex Downs.

To Sybil Linforth these days were a time of intolerable suspense. The horror of the Road was upon her. She dreamed of it when she slept, so that she came to dread sleep, and tried, as long as she might, to keep her heavy eyelids from closing over her eyes. The nights to her were terrible. Now it was she, with her child in her arms, who walked for ever and ever along that road, toiling through snow or over shale and finding no rest anywhere. Now it was her boy alone, who wandered along one of the wooden galleries high up above the river torrent, until a plank broke and he fell through with a piteous scream. Now it was her husband, who could go neither forward nor backward, since in front and behind a chasm gaped. But most often it was a man—a young Englishman, who pursued a young Indian along that road into the mists. Somehow, perhaps because it was inexplicable, perhaps because its details were so clear, this dream terrified her more than all the rest. She could tell the very dress of the Indian who fled—a young man—young as his pursuer. A thick sheepskin coat swung aside as he ran and gave her a glimpse of gay silk; soft leather boots protected his feet; and upon his face there was a look of fury and wild fear. She never woke from this dream but her heart was beating wildly. For a few moments after waking peace would descend upon her.

“It is a dream—all a dream,” she would whisper to herself with contentment, and then the truth would break upon her dissociated from the dream. Often she rose from her bed and, kneeling beside the boy’s cot, prayed with a passionate heart that the curse of the Road—that road predicted by a Linforth years ago—might overpass this generation.

Meanwhile rumours came—rumours of disaster. Finally a messenger broke through and brought sure tidings. Luffe had marched quickly, had come within thirty miles of Kohara before he was stopped. In a strong fort at a bend of the river the young Khan with his wife and a few adherents had taken refuge. Luffe joined the Khan, sought to push through to Kohara and rescue Linforth, but was driven back. He and his troops and the Khan were now closely besieged by Wafadar Nazim.

The work of mobilisation was pressed on; a great force was gathered at Nowshera; Brigadier Appleton was appointed to command it.

“Luffe will hold out,” said official India, trying to be cheerful.

Perhaps the only man who distrusted Luffe’s ability to hold out was Brigadier Appleton, who had personal reasons for his views. Brigadier Appleton was no fool, and yet Luffe had not suffered him gladly. All the more, therefore, did he hurry on the preparations. The force marched out on the new road to Chiltistan. But meanwhile the weeks were passing, and up beyond the snow-encumbered hills the beleaguered troops stood cheerfully at bay behind the thick fort-walls.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter II - Inside the Fort

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