IT WAS the mine underneath the North Tower which brought the career of Luffe to an end. The garrison, indeed, had lived in fear of this peril ever since the siege began. But inasmuch as no attempt to mine had been made during the first month, the fear had grown dim. It was revived during the fifth week. The officers were at mess at nine o’clock in the evening, when a havildar of Sikhs burst into the courtyard with the news that the sound of a pick could be heard from the chamber of the tower.
“At last!” cried Dewes, springing to his feet. The six men hurried to the tower. A long loophole had been fashioned in the thick wall on a downward slant, so that a marksman might command anyone who crept forward to fire the fort. Against this loophole Luffe leaned his ear.
“Do you hear anything, sir?” asked a subaltern of the Sappers who was attached to the force.
“Hush!” said Luffe.
He listened, and he heard quite clearly underneath the ground below him the dull shock of a pickaxe. The noise came almost from beneath his feet; so near the mine had been already driven to the walls. The strokes fell with the regularity of the ticking of a clock. But at times the sound changed in character. The muffled thud of the pick upon earth became a clang as it struck upon stone.
“Do you listen!” said Luffe, giving way to Dewes, and Dewes in his turn leaned his ear against the loophole.
“What do you think?” asked Luffe.
Dewes stood up straight again.
“I’ll tell you what I am thinking. I am thinking it sounds like the beating of a clock in a room where a man lies dying,” he said.
Luffe nodded his head. But images and romantic sayings struck no response from him. He turned to the young Sapper.
“Can we countermine?”
The young Engineer took the place of Major Dewes.
“We can try, but we are late,” said he.
“It must be a sortie then,” said Luffe.
“Yes,” exclaimed Lynes eagerly. “Let me go, Sir Charles!”
Luffe smiled at his enthusiasm.
“How many men will you require?” he asked. “Sixty?”
“A hundred,” replied Dewes promptly.
All that night Luffe superintended the digging of the countermine, while Dewes made ready for the sortie. By daybreak the arrangements were completed. The gunpowder bags, with their fuses attached, were distributed, the gates were suddenly flung open, and Lynes raced out with a hundred Ghurkhas and Sikhs across the fifty yards of open ground to the sangar behind which the mine shaft had been opened. The work of the hundred men was quick and complete. Within half an hour, Lynes, himself wounded, had brought back his force, and left the mine destroyed. But during that half-hour disaster had fallen upon the garrison. Luffe had dropped as he was walking back across the courtyard to his office. For a few minutes he lay unnoticed in the empty square, his face upturned to the sky, and then a clamorous sound of lamentation was heard and an orderly came running through the alleys of the Fort, crying out that the Colonel Sahib was dead.
He was not dead, however. He recovered conciousness that night, and early in the morning Dewes was roused from his sleep. He woke to find the Doctor shaking him by the shoulder.
“Luffe wants you. He has not got very long now. He has something to say.”
Dewes slipped on his clothes, and hurried down the stairs. He followed the Doctor through the little winding alleys which gave to the Fort the appearance of a tiny village. It was broad daylight, but the fortress was strangely silent. The people whom he passed either spoke not at all or spoke only in low tones. They sat huddled in groups, waiting. Fear was abroad that morning. It was known that the brain of the defence was dying. It was known, too, what cruel fate awaited those within the Fort, if those without ever forced the gates and burst in upon their victims.
Dewes found the Political Officer propped up on pillows on his camp-bed. The door from the courtyard was open, and the morning light poured brightly into the room.
“Sit here, close to me, Dewes,” said Luffe in a whisper, “and listen, for I am very tired.” A smile came upon his face. “Do you remember Linforth’s letters? How that phrase came again and again: ‘I am very tired.’”
The Doctor arranged the pillows underneath his shoulders, and then Luffe said:
“All right. I shall do now.”
He waited until the Doctor had gone from the room and continued:
“I am not going to talk to you about the Fort. The defence is safe in your hands, so long as defence is possible. Besides, if it falls it’s not a great thing. The troops will come up and trample down Wafadar Nazim and Abdulla Mahommed. They are not the danger. The road will go on again, even though Linforth’s dead. No, the man whom I am afraid of is—the son of the Khan.”
Dewes stared, and then said in a soothing voice:
“He will be looked after.”
“You think my mind’s wandering,” continued Luffe. “It never was clearer in my life. The Khan’s son is a boy a week old. Nevertheless I tell you that boy is the danger in Chiltistan. The father—we know him. A good fellow who has lost all the confidence of his people. There is hardly an adherent of his who genuinely likes him; there’s hardly a man in this Fort who doesn’t believe that he wished to sell his country to the British. I should think he is impossible here in the future. And everyone in Government House knows it. We shall do the usual thing, I have no doubt—pension him off, settle him down comfortably outside the borders of Chiltistan, and rule the country as trustee for his son—until the son comes of age.”
Dewes realised surely enough that Luffe was in possession of his faculties, but he thought his anxiety exaggerated.
“You are looking rather far ahead, aren’t you, sir?” he asked.
“Twenty-one years. What are twenty-one years to India? My dear Dewes!”
He was silent. It seemed as though he were hesitating whether he would say a word more to this Major who in India talked of twenty-one years as a long span of time. But there was no one else to whom he could confide his fears. If Dewes was not brilliant, he was at all events all that there was.
“I wish I was going to live,” he cried in a low voice of exasperation. “I wish I could last just long enough to travel down to Calcutta and make them listen to me. But there’s no hope of it. You must do what you can, Dewes, but very likely they won’t pay any attention to you. Very likely you’ll believe me wrong yourself, eh? Poor old Luffe, a man with a bee in his bonnet, eh?” he whispered savagely.
“No, sir,” replied Dewes. “You know the Frontier. I know that.”
“And even there you are wrong. No man knows the Frontier. We are all stumbling in the dark among these peoples, with their gentle voices and their cut-throat ways. The most that you can know is that you are stumbling in the dark. Well, let’s get back to the boy here. This country will be kept for him, for twenty-one years. Where is he going to be during those twenty-one years?”
Dewes caught at the question as an opportunity for reassuring the Political Officer.
“Why, sir, the Khan told us. Have you forgotten? He is to go to Eton and Oxford. He’ll see something of England. He will learn——” and Major Dewes stopped short, baffled by the look of hopelessness upon the Political Officer’s face.
“I think you are all mad,” said Luffe, and he suddenly started up in his bed and cried with vehemence, “You take these boys to England. You train them in the ways of the West, the ideas of the West, and then you send them back again to the East, to rule over Eastern people, according to Eastern ideas, and you think all is well. I tell you, Dewes, it’s sheer lunacy. Of course it’s true—this boy won’t perhaps suffer in esteem among his people quite as much as others have done. He belongs and his people belong to the Maulai sect. The laws of religion are not strict among them. They drink wine, they eat what they will, they do not lose caste so easily. But you have to look at the man as he will be, the hybrid mixture of East and West.”
He sank back among his pillows, exhausted by the violence of his outcry, and for a little while he was silent. Then he began again, but this time in a low, pleading voice, which was very unusual in him, and which kept the words he spoke vivid and fresh in Dewes’ memory for many years to come. Indeed, Dewes would not have believed that Luffe could have spoken on any subject with so much wistfulness.
“Listen to me, Dewes. I have lived for the Frontier. I have had no other interest, almost no other ties. I am not a man of friends. I believed at one time Linforth was my friend. I believed I liked him very much. But I think now that it was only because he was bound up with the Frontier. The Frontier has been my wife, my children, my home, my one long and lasting passion. And I am very well content that it has been so. I don’t regret missed opportunities of happiness. What I regret is that I shall not be alive in twenty-one years to avert the danger I foresee, or to laugh at my fears if I am wrong. They can do what they like in Rajputana and Bengal and Bombay. But on the Frontier I want things to go well. Oh, how I want them to go well!”
Luffe had grown very pale, and the sweat glistened upon his forehead. Dewes held to his lips a glass of brandy which stood upon a table beside the bed.
“What danger do you foresee?” asked Dewes. “I will remember what you say.”
“Yes, remember it; write it out, so that you may remember it, and din it into their ears at Government House,” said Luffe. “You take these boys, you give them Oxford, a season in London—did you ever have a season in London when you were twenty-one, Dewes? You show them Paris. You give them opportunities of enjoyment, such as no other age, no other place affords—has ever afforded. You give them, for a short while, a life of colour, of swift crowding hours of pleasure, and then you send them back—to settle down in their native States, and obey the orders of the Resident. Do you think they will be content? Do you think they will have their heart in their work, in their humdrum life, in their elaborate ceremonies? Oh, there are instances enough to convince if only people would listen. There’s a youth now in the South, the heir of an Indian throne—he has six weeks’ holiday. How does he use it, do you think? He travels hard to England, spends a week there, and travels back again. In England he is treated as an equal; here, in spite of his ceremonies, he is an inferior, and will and must be so. The best you can hope is that he will be merely unhappy. You pray that he won’t take to drink and make his friends among the jockeys and the trainers. He has lost the taste for the native life, and nevertheless he has got to live it. Besides—besides—I haven’t told you the worst of it.”
Dewes leaned forward. The sincerity of Luffe had gained upon him. “Let me hear all,” he said.
“There is the white woman,” continued Luffe. “The English woman, the English girl, with her daintiness, her pretty frocks, her good looks, her delicate charm. Very likely she only thinks of him as a picturesque figure; she dances with him, but she does not take him seriously. Yes, but he may take her seriously, and often does. What then? When he is told to go back to his State and settle down, what then? Will he be content with a wife of his own people? He is already a stranger among his own folk. He will eat out his heart with bitterness and jealousy. And, mind you, I am speaking of the best—the best of the Princes and the best of the English women. What of the others? The English women who take his pearls, and the Princes who come back and boast of their success. Do you think that is good for British rule in India? Give me something to drink!”
Luffe poured out his vehement convictions to his companion, wishing with all his heart that he had one of the great ones of the Viceroy’s Council at his side, instead of this zealous but somewhat commonplace Major of a Sikh regiment. All the more, therefore, must he husband his strength, so that all that he had in mind might be remembered. There would be little chance, perhaps, of it bearing fruit. Still, even that little chance must be grasped. And so in that high castle beneath the Himalayas, besieged by insurgent tribes, a dying Political Officer discoursed upon this question of high policy.
“I told you of a supper I had one night at the Savoy—do you remember? You all looked sufficiently astonished when I told you to bear it in mind.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Dewes.
“Very well. I told you I learned something from the lady who was with me which it was good for me to know. I saw something which it was good for me to see. Good—yes, but not pleasant either to know or see. There was a young Prince in England then. He dined in high places and afterwards supped at the Savoy with the coryphées; and both in the high places and among the coryphées his jewels had made him welcome. This is truth I am telling you. He was a boaster. Well, after supper that night he threw a girl down the stairs. Never mind what she was—she was of the white ruling race, she was of the race that rules in India, he comes back to India and insolently boasts. Do you approve? Do you think that good?”
“I think it’s horrible,” exclaimed Dewes.
“Well, I have done,” said Luffe. “This youngster is to go to Oxford. Unhappiness and the distrust of his own people will be the best that can come of it, while ruin and disasters very well may. There are many ways of disaster. Suppose, for instance, this boy were to turn out a strong man. Do you see?”
Dewes nodded his head.
“Yes, I see,” he answered, and he answered so because he saw that Luffe had come to the end of his strength. His voice had weakened, he lay with his eyes sunk deep in his head and a leaden pallor upon his face, and his breath laboured as he spoke.
“I am glad,” replied Luffe, “that you understand.”
But it was not until many years had passed that Dewes saw and understood the trouble which was then stirring in Luffe’s mind. And even then, when he did see and understand, he wondered how much Luffe really had foreseen. Enough, at all events, to justify his reputation for sagacity. Dewes went out from the bedroom and climbed up on to the roof of the Fort. The sun was up, the day already hot, and would have been hotter, but that a light wind stirred among the almond trees in the garden. The leaves of those trees now actually brushed against the Fort walls. Five weeks ago there had been bare stems and branches. Suddenly a rifle cracked, a little puff of smoke rose close to a boulder on the far side of the river, a bullet sang in the air past Dewes’ head. He ducked behind the palisade of boards. Another day had come. For another day the flag, manufactured out of some red cloth, a blue turban and some white cotton, floated overhead. Meanwhile, somewhere among the passes, the relieving force was already on the march.
Late that afternoon Luffe died, and his body was buried in the Fort. He had done his work. For two days afterwards the sound of a battle was heard to the south, the siege was raised, and in the evening the Brigadier-General in Command rode up to the gates and found a tired and haggard group of officers awaiting him. They received him without cheers or indeed any outward sign of rejoicing. They waited in a dead silence, like beaten and dispirited men. They were beginning to pay the price of their five weeks’ siege.
The Brigadier looked at the group.
“What of Luffe?” he asked.
“Dead, sir,” replied Dewes.
“A great loss,” said Brigadier Appleton solemnly. But he was paying his tribute rather to the class to which Luffe belonged than to the man himself. Luffe was a man of independent views, Brigadier Appleton a soldier clinging to tradition. Moreover, there had been an encounter between the two in which Luffe had prevailed.
The Brigadier paid a ceremonious visit to the Khan on the following morning, and once more the Khan expounded his views as to the education of his son. But he expounded them now to sympathetic ears.
“I think that his Excellency disapproved of my plan,” said the Khan.
“Did he?” cried Brigadier Appleton. “On some points I am inclined to think that Luffe’s views were not always sound. Certainly let the boy go to Eton and Oxford. A fine idea, your Highness. The training will widen his mind, enlarge his ideas, and all that sort of thing. I will myself urge upon the Government’s advisers the wisdom of your Highness’ proposal.”
Moreover Dewes failed to carry Luffe’s dying message to Calcutta. For on one point—a point of fact—Luffe was immediately proved wrong. Mir Ali, the Khan of Chiltistan, was retained upon his throne. Dewes turned the matter over in his slow mind. Wrong definitely, undeniably wrong on the point of fact, was it not likely that Luffe was wrong too on the point of theory? Dewes had six months furlong too, besides, and was anxious to go home. It would be a bore to travel to Bombay by way of Calcutta. “Let the boy go to Eton and Oxford!” he said. “Why not?” and the years answered him.