The Broken Road

Chapter VI

A Long Walk

A.E.W. Mason

THE FOOTSTEPS sounded overhead with a singular regularity. From the fireplace to the door, and back again from the door to the fireplace. At each turn there was a short pause, and each pause was of the same duration. The footsteps were very light; it was almost as though an animal, a caged animal, padded from the bars at one end to the bars at the other. There was something stealthy in the footsteps too.

In the room below a man of forty-five sat writing at a desk—a very tall, broad-shouldered man, in clerical dress. Twenty-five years before he had rowed as number seven in the Oxford Eight, with an eye all the while upon a mastership at his old school. He had taken a first in Greats; he had obtained his mastership; for the last two years he had had a House. As he had been at the beginning, so he was now, a man without theories but with an instinctive comprehension of boys. In consequence there were no vacancies in his house, and the Headmaster had grown accustomed to recommend the Rev. Mr. Arthur Pollard when boys who needed any special care came to the school.

He was now so engrossed with the preparations for the term which was to begin to-morrow that for some while the footsteps overhead did not attract his attention. When he did hear them he just lifted his head, listened for a moment or two, lit his pipe and went on with his work.

But the sounds continued. Backwards and forwards from the fireplace to the door, the footsteps came and went—without haste and without cessation; stealthily regular; inhumanly light. Their very monotony helped them to pass as unnoticed as the ticking of a clock. Mr. Pollard continued the preparation of his class-work for a full hour, and only when the dusk was falling, and it was becoming difficult for him to see what he was writing, did he lean back in his chair and stretch his arms above his head with a sigh of relief.

Then once more he became aware of the footsteps overhead. He rose and rang the bell.

“Who is that walking up and down the drawingroom, Evans?” he asked of the butler.

The butler threw back his head and listened.

“I don’t know, sir,” he replied.

“Those footsteps have been sounding like that for more than an hour.”

“For more than an hour?” Evans repeated. “Then I am afraid, sir, it’s the new young gentleman from India.”

Arthur Pollard started.

“Has he been waiting up there alone all this time?” he exclaimed. “Why in the world wasn’t I told?”

“You were told, sir,” said Evans firmly but respectfully. “I came into the study here and told you, and you answered ‘All right, Evans.’ But I had my doubts, sir, whether you really heard or not.”

Mr. Pollard hardly waited for the end of the explanation. He hurried out of the room and sprang up the stairs. He had arranged purposely for the young Prince to come to the house a day before term began. He was likely to be shy, ill-at-ease and homesick, among so many strange faces and unfamiliar ways. Moreover, Mr. Pollard wished to become better acquainted with the boy than would be easily possible once the term was in full swing. For he was something more of an experiment than the ordinary Indian princeling from a State well under the thumb of the Viceroy and the Indian Council. This boy came of the fighting stock in the north. To leave him tramping about a strange drawing-room alone for over an hour was not the best possible introduction to English ways and English life. Mr. Pollard opened the door and saw a slim, tall boy, with his hands behind his back and his eyes fixed on the floor, walking up and down in the gloom.

“Shere Ali,” he said, and he held out his hand. The boy took it shyly.

“You have been waiting here for some time,” Mr. Pollard continued, “I am sorry. I did not know that you had come. You should have rung the bell.”

“I was not lonely,” Shere Ali replied. “I was taking a walk.”

“Yes, so I gathered,” said the master with a smile. “Rather a long walk.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy answered seriously. “I was walking from Kohara up the valley, and remembering the landmarks as I went. I had walked a long way. I had come to the fort where my father was besieged.”

“Yes, that reminds me,” said Pollard, “you won’t feel so lonely to-morrow as you do to-day. There is a new boy joining whose father was a great friend of your father’s. Richard Linforth is his name. Very likely your father has mentioned that name to you.”

Mr. Pollard switched on the light as he spoke and saw Shere All’s face flash with eagerness.

“Oh yes!” he answered, “I know. He was killed upon the road by my uncle’s people.”

“I have put you into the next room to his. If you will come with me I will show you.”

Mr. Pollard led the way along a passage into the boys’ quarters.

“This is your room. There’s your bed. Here’s your ‘burry,’” pointing to a bureau with a bookcase on the top. He threw open the next door. “This is Linforth’s room. By the way, you speak English very well.”

“Yes,” said Shere Ali. “I was taught it in Lahore first of all. My father is very fond of the English.”

“Well, come along,” said Mr. Pollard. “I expect my wife has come back and she shall give us some tea. You will dine with us to-night, and we will try to make you as fond of the English as your father is.”

The next day the rest of the boys arrived, and Mr. Pollard took the occasion to speak a word or two to young Linforth.

“You are both new boys,” he said, “but you will fit into the scheme of things quickly enough. He won’t. He’s in a strange land, among strange people. So just do what you can to help him.”

Dick Linforth was curious enough to see the son of the Khan of Chiltistan. But not for anything would he have talked to him of his father who had died upon the road, or of the road itself. These things were sacred. He greeted his companion in quite another way.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Shere Ali,” replied the young Prince.

“That won’t do,” said Linforth, and he contemplated the boy solemnly. “I shall call you Sherry-Face,” he said.

And “Sherry-Face” the heir to Chiltistan remained; and in due time the name followed him to College.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter VII - In the Dauphiné

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