The Broken Road

Chapter V

A Magazine Article

A.E.W. Mason

THE LITTLE WAR of Chiltistan was soon forgotten by the world. But it lived vividly enough in the memories of a few people to whom it had brought either suffering or fresh honours. But most of all it was remembered by Sybil Linforth, so that even after fourteen years a chance word, or a trivial coincidence, would bring back to her the horror and the misery of that time as freshly as if only a single day had intervened. Such a coincidence happened on this morning of August.

She was in the garden with her back to the Downs which rose high from close behind the house, and she was looking across the fields rich with orchards and yellow crops. She saw a small figure climb a stile and come towards the house along a footpath, increasing in stature as it approached. It was Colonel Dewes, and her thoughts went back to the day when first, with reluctant steps, he had walked along that path, carrying with him a battered silver watch and chain and a little black leather letter-case. Because of that memory she advanced slowly towards him now.

“I did not know that you were home,” she said, as they shook hands. “When did you land?”

“Yesterday. I am home for good now. My time is up.” Sybil Linforth looked quickly at his face and turned away.

“You are sorry?” she said gently.

“Yes. I don’t feel old, you see. I feel as if I had many years’ good work in me yet. But there! That’s the trouble with the mediocre men. They are shelved before they are old. I am one of them.”

He laughed as he spoke, and looked at his companion.

Sybil Linforth was now thirty-eight years old, but the fourteen years had not set upon her the marks of their passage as they had upon Dewes. Indeed, she still retained a look of youth, and all the slenderness of her figure.

Dewes grumbled to her with a smile upon his face.

“I wonder how in the world you do it. Here am I white-haired and creased like a dry pippin. There are you——” and he broke off. “I suppose it’s the boy who keeps you young. How is he?”

A look of anxiety troubled Mrs. Linforth’s face; into her eyes there came a glint of fear. Colonel Dewes’ voice became gentle with concern.

“What’s the matter, Sybil?” he said. “Is he ill?”

“No, he is quite well.”

“Then what is it?”

Sybil Linforth looked down for a moment at the gravel of the garden-path. Then, without raising her eyes, she said in a low voice:

“I am afraid.”

“Ah,” said Dewes, as he rubbed his chin, “I see.”

It was his usual remark when he came against anything which he did not understand.

“You must let me have him for a week or two sometimes, Sybil. Boys will get into trouble, you know. It is their nature to. And sometimes a man may be of use in putting things straight.”

The hint of a smile glimmered about Sybil Linforth’s mouth, but she repressed it. She would not for worlds have let her friend see it, lest he might be hurt.

“No,” she replied, “Dick is not in any trouble. But——” and she struggled for a moment with a feeling that she ought not to say what she greatly desired to say; that speech would be disloyal. But the need to speak was too strong within her, her heart too heavily charged with fear.

“I will tell you,” she said, and, with a glance towards the open windows of the house, she led Colonel Dewes to a corner of the garden where, upon a grass mound, there was a garden seat. From this seat one overlooked the garden hedge. To the left, the little village of Poynings with its grey church and tall tapering spire, lay at the foot of the gap in the Downs where runs the Brighton road. Behind them the Downs ran like a rampart to right and left, their steep green sides scarred here and there by landslips and showing the white chalk. Far away the high trees of Chanctonbury Ring stood out against the sky.

“Dick has secrets,” Sybil said, “secrets from me. It used not to be so. I have always known how a want of sympathy makes a child hide what he feels and thinks, and drives him in upon himself, to feed his thoughts with imaginings and dreams. I have seen it. I don’t believe that anything but harm ever comes of it. It builds up a barrier which will last for life. I did not want that barrier to rise between Dick and me—I—” and her voice shook a little—”I should be very unhappy if it were to rise. So I have always tried to be his friend and comrade, rather than his mother.”

“Yes,” said Colonel Dewes, wisely nodding his head. “I have seen you playing cricket with him.”

Colonel Dewes had frequently been puzzled by a peculiar change of manner in his friends. When he made a remark which showed how clearly he understood their point of view and how closely he was in agreement with it, they had a way of becoming reticent in the very moment of expansion. The current of sympathy was broken, and as often as not they turned the conversation altogether into a conventional and less interesting channel. That change of manner became apparent now. Sybil Linforth leaned back and abruptly ceased to speak.

“Please go on,” said Dewes, turning towards her.

She hesitated, and then with a touch of reluctance continued:

“I succeeded until a month or so ago. But a month or so ago the secrets came. Oh, I know him so well. He is trying to hide that there are any secrets lest his reticence should hurt me. But we have been so much together, so much to each other—how should I not know?” And again she leaned forward with her hands clasped tightly together upon her knees and a look of great distress lying like a shadow upon her face. “The first secrets,” she continued, and her voice trembled, “I suppose they are always bitter to a mother. But since I have nothing but Dick they hurt me more deeply than is perhaps reasonable”; and she turned towards her companion with a poor attempt at a smile.

“What sort of secrets?” asked Dewes. “What is he hiding?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, and she repeated the words, adding to them slowly others. “I don’t know—and I am a little afraid to guess. But I know that something is stirring in his mind, something is——” and she paused, and into her eyes there came a look of actual terror—“something is calling him. He goes alone up on to the top of the Downs, and stays there alone for hours. I have seen him. I have come upon him unawares lying on the grass with his face towards the sea, his lips parted, and his eyes strained, his face absorbed. He has been so lost in dreams that I have come close to him through the grass and stood beside him and spoken to him before he grew aware that anyone was near.”

“Perhaps he wants to be a sailor,” suggested Dewes.

“No, I do not think it is that,” Sybil answered quietly. “If it were so, he would have told me.”

“Yes,” Dewes admitted. “Yes, he would have told you. I was wrong.”

“You see,” Mrs. Linforth continued, as though Dewes had not interrupted, “it is not natural for a boy at his age to want to be alone, is it? I don’t think it is good either. It is not natural for a boy of his age to be thoughtful. I am not sure that that is good. I am, to tell you the truth, very troubled.”

Dewes looked at her sharply. Something, not so much in her words as in the careful, slow manner of her speech, warned him that she was not telling him all of the trouble which oppressed her. Her fears were more definite than she had given him as yet reason to understand. There was not enough in what she had said to account for the tense clasp of her hands, and the glint of terror in her eyes.

“Anyhow, he’s going to the big school next term,” he said; “that is, if you haven’t changed your mind since you last wrote to me, and I hope you haven’t changed your mind. All that he wants really,” the Colonel added with unconscious cruelty, “is companions of his own age. He passed in well, didn’t he?”

Sybil Linforth’s face lost for the moment all its apprehension. A smile of pride made her face very tender, and as she turned to Dewes he thought to himself that really her eyes were beautiful.

“Yes, he passed in very high,” she said.

“Eton, isn’t it?” said Dewes. “Whose house?”

She mentioned the name and added: “His father was there before him.” Then she rose from her seat. “Would you like to see Dick? I will show you him. Come quietly.”

She led the way across the lawn towards an open window. It was a day of sunshine; the garden was bright with flowers, and about the windows rose-trees climbed the house-walls. It was a house of red brick, darkened by age, and with a roof of tiles. To Dewes’ eyes, nestling as it did beneath the great grass Downs, it had a most homelike look of comfort. Sybil turned with a finger on her lips.

“Keep this side of the window,” she whispered, “or your shadow will fall across the floor.”

Standing aside as she bade him, he looked into the room. He saw a boy seated at a table with his head between his hands, immersed in a book which lay before him. He was seated with his side towards the window and his hands concealed his face. But in a moment he removed one hand and turned the page. Colonel Dewes could now see the profile of his face. A firm chin, a beauty of outline not very common, a certain delicacy of feature and colour gave to him a distinction of which Sybil Linforth might well be proud.

“He’ll be a dangerous fellow among the girls in a few years’ time,” said Dewes, turning to the mother. But Sybil did not hear the words. She was standing with her head thrust forward. Her face was white, her whole aspect one of dismay. Dewes could not understand the change in her. A moment ago she had been laughing playfully as she led him towards the window. Now it seemed as though a sudden disaster had turned her to stone. Yet there was nothing visible to suggest disaster. Dewes looked from Sybil to the boy and back again. Then he noticed that her eyes were riveted, not on Dick’s face, but on the book which he was reading.

“What is the matter?” he asked.

“Hush!” said Sybil, but at that moment Dick lifted his head, recognised the visitor, and came forward to the window with a smile of welcome. There was no embarrassment in his manner, no air of being surprised. He had not the look of one who nurses secrets. A broad open forehead surmounted a pair of steady clear grey eyes.

“Well, Dick, I hear you have done well in your examination,” said the Colonel, as he shook hands. “If you keep it up I will leave you all I save out of my pension.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Dick with a laugh. “How long have you been back, Colonel Dewes?”

“I left India a fortnight ago.”

“A fortnight ago.” Dick leaned his arms upon the sill and with his eyes on the Colonel’s face asked quietly: “How far does the Road reach now?”

At the side of Colonel Dewes Sybil Linforth flinched as though she had been struck. But it did not need that movement to explain to the Colonel the perplexing problem of her fears. He understood now. The Linforths belonged to the Road. The Road had slain her husband. No wonder she lived in terror lest it should claim her son. And apparently it did claim him.

“The road through Chiltistan?” he said slowly.

“Of course,” answered Dick. “Of what other could I be thinking?”

“They have stopped it,” said the Colonel, and at his side he was aware that Sybil Linforth drew a deep breath. “The road reaches Kohara. It does not go beyond. It will not go beyond.”

Dick’s eyes steadily looked into the Colonel’s face; and the Colonel had some trouble to meet their look with the same frankness. He turned aside and Mrs. Linforth said,

“Come and see my roses.”

Dick went back to his book. The man and woman passed on round the corner of the house to a little rose-garden with a stone sun-dial in the middle, surrounded by low red brick walls. Here it was very quiet. Only the bees among the flowers filled the air with a pleasant murmur.

“They are doing well—your roses,” said Dewes.

“Yes. These Queen Mabs are good. Don’t you think so? I am rather proud of them,” said Sybil; and then she broke off suddenly and faced him.

“Is it true?” she whispered in a low passionate voice. “Is the road stopped? Will it not go beyond Kohara?”

Colonel Dewes attempted no evasion with Mrs. Linforth.

“It is true that it is stopped. It is also true that for the moment there is no intention to carry it further. But—but——”

And as he paused Sybil took up the sentence.

“But it will go on, I know. Sooner or later.” And there was almost a note of hopelessness in her voice. “The Power of the Road is beyond the Power of Governments,” she added with the air of one quoting a sentence.

They walked on between the alleys of rose-trees and she asked:

“Did you notice the book which Dick was reading?”

“It looked like a bound volume of magazines.”

Sybil nodded her head.

“It was a volume of the ‘Fortnightly.’ He was reading an article written forty years ago by Andrew Linforth—” and she suddenly cried out, “Oh, how I wish he had never lived. He was an uncle of Harry’s—my husband. He predicted it. He was in the old Company, then he became a servant of the Government, and he was the first to begin the road. You know his history?”


“It is a curious one. When it was his time to retire, he sent his money to England, he made all his arrangements to come home, and then one night he walked out of the hotel in Bombay, a couple of days before the ship sailed, and disappeared. He has never been heard of since.”

“Had he no wife?” asked Dewes.

“No,” replied Sybil. “Do you know what I think? I think he went back to the north, back to his Road. I think it called him. I think he could not keep away.”

“But we should have come across him,” cried Dewes, “or across news of him. Surely we should!”

Sybil shrugged her shoulders.

“In that article which Dick was reading, the road was first proposed. Listen to this,” and she began to recite:

“The road will reach northwards, through Chiltistan, to the foot of the Baroghil Pass, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Not yet, but it will. Many men will die in the building of it from cold and dysentery, and even hunger—Englishmen and coolies from Baltistan. Many men will die fighting over it, Englishmen and Chiltis, and Gurkhas and Sikhs. It will cost millions of money, and from policy or economy successive Governments will try to stop it; but the power of the Road will be greater than the power of any Government. It will wind through valleys so deep that the day’s sunshine is gone within the hour. It will be carried in galleries along the faces of mountains, and for eight months of the year sections of it will be buried deep in snow. Yet it will be finished. It will go on to the foot of the Hindu Kush, and then only the British rule in India will be safe.”

She finished the quotation.

“That is what Andrew Linforth prophesied. Much of it has already been justified. I have no doubt the rest will be in time. I think he went north when he disappeared. I think the Road called him, as it is now calling Dick.”

She made the admission at last quite simply and quietly. Yet it was evident to Dewes that it cost her much to make it.

“Yes,” he said. “That is what you fear.”

She nodded her head and let him understand something of the terror with which the Road inspired her.

“When the trouble began fourteen years ago, when the road was cut and day after day no news came of whether Harry lived or, if he died, how he died—I dreamed of it—I used to see horrible things happening on that road—night after night I saw them. Dreadful things happening to Dick and his father while I stood by and could do nothing. Oh, it seems to me a living thing greedy for blood—our blood.”

She turned to him a haggard face. Dewes sought to reassure her.

“But there is peace now in Chiltistan. We keep a close watch on that country, I can tell you. I don’t think we shall be caught napping there again.”

But these arguments had little weight with Sybil Linforth. The tragedy of fourteen years ago had beaten her down with too strong a hand. She could not reason about the road. She only felt, and she felt with all the passion of her nature.

“What will you do, then?” asked Dewes.

She walked a little further on before she answered.

“I shall do nothing. If, when the time comes, Dick feels that work upon that road is his heritage, if he wants to follow in his father’s steps, I shall say not a single word to dissuade him.”

Dewes stared at her. This half-hour of conversation had made real to him at all events the great strength of her hostility. Yet she would put the hostility aside and say not a word.

“That’s more than I could do,” he said, “if I felt as you do. By George it is!”

Sybil smiled at him with friendliness.

“It’s not bravery. Do you remember the unfinished letter which you brought home to me from Harry? There were three sentences in that which I cannot pretend to have forgotten,” and she repeated the sentences:

“’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.’ It is quite clear—isn’t it?—that Harry wanted him to take up the work. You can read that in the words. I can imagine him speaking them and hear the tone he would use. Besides—I have still a greater fear than the one of which you know. I don’t want Dick, when he grows up, ever to think that I have been cowardly, and, because I was cowardly, disloyal to his father.”

“Yes, I see,” said Colonel Dewes.

And this time he really did understand.

“We will go in and lunch,” said Sybil, and they walked back to the house.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter VI - A Long Walk

Back    |    Words Home    |    A.E.W. Mason Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback