The Broken Road

Chapter III

Linforth’s Death

A.E.W. Mason

LUFFE had taken a large bare low-roofed room supported upon pillars for his council-chamber. Thither he conducted his visitor. Camp chairs were placed for himself and Major Dewes and Captain Lynes. Cushions were placed upon the ground for his visitor. Luffe took his seat in the middle, with Dewes upon his right and Lynes upon his left. Dewes expected him at once to press for information as to Linforth. But Luffe knew very well that certain time must first be wasted in ceremonious preliminaries. The news would only be spoken after a time and in a roundabout fashion.

“If we receive you without the distinction which is no doubt your due,” said Luffe politely, “you must remember that I make it a rule not to welcome visitors at night.”

The visitor smiled and bowed.

“It is a great grief to his Highness Wafadar Nazim that you put so little faith in him,” replied the Chilti. “See how he trusts you! He sends me, his Diwan, his Minister of Finance, in the night time to come up to your walls and into your fort, so great is his desire to learn that the Colonel Sahib is well.”

Luffe in his turn bowed with a smile of gratitude. It was not the time to point out that his Highness Wafadar Nazim was hardly taking the course which a genuine solicitude for the Colonel Sahib’s health would recommend.

“His Highness has but one desire in his heart. He desires peace—peace so that this country may prosper, and peace because of his great love for the Colonel Sahib.”

Again Luffe bowed.

“But to all his letters the Colonel Sahib returns the same answer, and truly his Highness is at a loss what to do in order that he may ensure the safety of the Colonel Sahib and his followers,” the Diwan continued pensively. “I will not repeat what has been already said,” and at once he began at interminable length to contradict his words. He repeated the proposals of surrender made by Wafadar Nazim from beginning to end. The Colonel Sahib was to march out of the fort with his troops, and his Highness would himself conduct him into British territory.

“If the Colonel Sahib dreads the censure of his own Government, his Highness will take all the responsibility for the Colonel Sahib’s departure. But no blame will fall upon the Colonel Sahib. For the British Government, with whom Wafadar Nazim has always desired to live in amity, desires peace too, as it has always said. It is the British Government which has broken its treaties.”

“Not so,” replied Luffe. “The road was undertaken with the consent of the Khan of Chiltistan, who is the ruler of this country, and Wafadar, his uncle, merely the rebel. Therefore take back my last word to Wafadar Nazim. Let him make submission to me as representative of the Sirkar, and lay down his arms. Then I will intercede for him with the Government, so that his punishment be light.”

The Diwan smiled and his voice changed once more to a note of insolence.

“His Highness Wafadar Nazim is now the Khan of Chiltistan. The other, the deposed, lies cooped up in this fort, a prisoner of the British, whose willing slave he has always been. The British must retire from our country. His Highness Wafadar Nazim desires them no harm. But they must go now!”

Luffe looked sternly at the Diwan.

“Tell Wafadar Nazim to have a care lest they go never, but set their foot firmly upon the neck of this rebellious people.”

He rose to signify that the conference was at an end. But the Diwan did not stir. He smiled pensively and played with the tassels of his cushion.

“And yet,” he said, “how true it is that his Highness thinks only of the Colonel Sahib’s safety.”

Some note of satisfaction, not quite perfectly concealed, some sly accent of triumph sounding through the gently modulated words, smote upon Luffe’s ears, and warned him that the true meaning of the Diwan’s visit was only now to be revealed. All that had gone before was nothing. The polite accusations, the wordy repetitions, the expressions of good will—these were the mere preliminaries, the long salute before the combat. Luffe steeled himself against a blow, controlling his face and his limbs lest a look or a gesture should betray the hurt. And it was well that he did, for the next moment the blow fell.

“For bad news has come to us. Sahib Linforth met his death two days ago, fifty miles from here, in the camp of his Excellency Abdulla Mahommed, the Commander-in-Chief to his Highness. Abdulla Mahommed is greatly grieved, knowing well that this violent act will raise up a prejudice against him and his Highness. Moreover, he too would live in friendship with the British. But his soldiers are justly provoked by the violation of treaties by the British, and it is impossible to stay their hands. Therefore, before Abdulla Mahommed joins hands with my master, Wafadar Nazim, before this fort, it will be well for the Colonel Sahib and his troops to be safely out of reach.”

Luffe was doubtful whether to believe the words or no. The story might be a lie to frighten him and to discourage the garrison. On the other hand, it was likely enough to be true. And if true, it was the worst news which Luffe had heard for many a long day.

“Let me hear how the accident—occurred,” he said, smiling grimly at the euphemism he used.

“Sahib Linforth was in the tent set apart for him by Abdulla Mahommed. There were guards to protect him, but it seems they did not watch well. Huzoor, all have been punished, but punishment will not bring Sahib Linforth to life again. Therefore hear the words of Wafadar Nazim, spoken now for the last time. He himself will escort you and your soldiers and officers to the borders of British territory, so that he may rejoice to know that you are safe. You will leave his Highness Mir Ali behind, who will resign his throne in favour of his uncle Wafadar, and so there will be peace.”

“And what will happen to Mir Ali, whom we have promised to protect?”

The Diwan shrugged his shoulders in a gentle, deprecatory fashion and smiled his melancholy smile. His gesture and his attitude suggested that it was not in the best of taste to raise so unpleasant a question. But he did not reply in words.

“You will tell Wafadar Nazim that we will know how to protect his Highness the Khan, and that we will teach Abdulla Mahommed a lesson in that respect before many moons have passed,” Luffe said sternly. “As for this story of Sahib Linforth, I do not believe a word of it.”

The Diwan nodded his head.

“It was believed that you would reply in this way.

“Therefore here are proofs.” He drew from his dress a silver watch upon a leather watch-guard, a letter-case, and to these he added a letter in Linforth’s own hand. He handed them to Luffe.

Luffe handed the watch and chain to Dewes, and opened the letter-case. There was a letter in it, written in a woman’s handwriting, and besides the letter the portrait of a girl. He glanced at the letter and glanced at the portrait. Then he passed them on to Dewes.

Dewes looked at the portrait with a greater care. The face was winning rather than pretty. It seemed to him that it was one of those faces which might become beautiful at many moments through the spirit of the woman, rather than from any grace of feature. If she loved, for instance, she would be really beautiful for the man she loved.

“I wonder who she is,” he said thoughtfully.

“I know,” replied Luffe, almost carelessly. He was immersed in the second letter which the Diwan had handed to him.

“Who is it?” asked Dewes.

“Linforth’s wife.”

“His wife!” exclaimed Dewes, and, looking at the photograph again, he said in a low voice which was gentle with compassion, “Poor woman!”

“Yes, yes. Poor woman!” said Luffe, and he went on reading his letter.

It was characteristic of Luffe that he should feel so little concern in the domestic side of Linforth’s life. He was not very human in his outlook on the world. Questions of high policy interested and engrossed his mind; he lived for the Frontier, not so much subduing a man’s natural emotions as unaware of them. Men figured in his thoughts as the instruments of policy; their womenfolk as so many hindrances or aids to the fulfilment of their allotted tasks. Thus Linforth’s death troubled him greatly, since Linforth was greatly concerned in one great undertaking. Moreover, the scheme had been very close to Linforth’s heart, even as it was to Luffe’s. But Linforth’s wife was in England, and thus, as it seemed to him, neither aid nor impediment. But in that he was wrong. She had been the mainspring of Linforth’s energy, and so much was evident in the letter which Luffe read slowly to the end.

“Yes, Linforth’s dead,” said he, with a momentary discouragement. “There are many whom we could more easily have spared. Of course the thing will go on. That’s certain,” he said, nodding his head. A cold satisfaction shone in his eyes. “But Linforth was part of the Thing.”

He passed the second letter to Dewes, who read it; and for a while both men remained thoughtful and, as it seemed, unaware for the moment of the Diwan’s presence. There was this difference, however. Luffe was thinking of “the Thing”; Dewes was pondering on the grim little tragedy which these letters revealed, and thanking Heaven in all simplicity of heart that there was no woman waiting in fear because of him and trembling at sight of each telegraph boy she met upon the road.

The grim little tragedy was not altogether uncommon upon the Indian frontier, but it gained vividness from the brevity of the letters which related it. The first one, that in the woman’s hand, written from a house under the Downs of Sussex, told of the birth of a boy in words at once sacred and simple. They were written for the eyes of one man, and Major Dewes had a feeling that his own, however respectfully, violated their sanctity. The second letter was an unfinished one written by the husband to the wife from his tent amongst the rabble of Abdulla Mahommed. Linforth clearly understood that this was the last letter he would write. “I am sitting writing this by the light of a candle. The tent door is open. In front of me I can see the great snow-mountains. All the ugliness of the lower shale slopes is hidden. By such a moonlight, my dear, may you always look back upon my memory. For it is over, Sybil. They are waiting until I fall asleep. I have been warned of it. But I shall fall asleep to-night. I have kept awake for two nights. I am very tired.”

He had fallen asleep even before the letter was completed. There was a message for the boy and a wish:

“May he meet a woman like you, my dear, when his time comes, and love her as I love you,” and again came the phrase, “I am very tired.” It spoke of the boy’s school, and continued: “Whether he will come out here it is too early to think about. But the road will not be finished—and I wonder. If he wants to, let him! We Linforths belong to the road,” and for the third time the phrase recurred, “I am very tired,” and upon the phrase the letter broke off.

Dewes could imagine Linforth falling forward with his head upon his hands, his eyes heavy with sleep, while from without the tent the patient Chiltis watched until he slept.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

“They cast a noose over his head,” replied the Diwan, “dragged him from the tent and stabbed him.”

Dewes nodded and turned to Luffe.

“These letters and things must go home to his wife. It’s hard on her, with a boy only a few months old.”

“A boy?” said Luffe, rousing himself from his thoughts. “Oh! there’s a boy? I had not noticed that. I wonder how far the road will have gone when he comes out.” There was no doubt in Luffe’s mind, at all events, as to the boy’s destiny. He turned to the Diwan.

“Tell Wafadar Nazim that I will open the gates of this fort and march down to British territory after he has made submission,” he said.

The Diwan smiled in a melancholy way. He had done his best, but the British were, of course, all mad. He bowed himself out of the room and stalked through the alleys to the gates.

“Wafadar Nazim must be very sure of victory,” said Luffe. “He would hardly have given us that unfinished letter had he a fear we should escape him in the end.”

“He could not read what was written,” said Dewes.

“But he could fear what was written,” replied Luffe.

As he walked across the courtyard he heard the crack of a rifle. The sound came from across the river. The truce was over, the siege was already renewed.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter IV - Luffe Looks Forward

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