The Broken Road

Chapter IX

Luffe is Remembered

A.E.W. Mason

VIOLET OLIVER took a quick step forward when she caught sight of Linforth’s tall and well-knit figure coming towards her; and the smile with which she welcomed him was a warm smile of genuine pleasure. There were people who called Violet Oliver affected—chiefly ladies. But Phyllis Casson was not one of them.

“There is no one more natural in the room,” she was in the habit of stoutly declaring when she heard the gossips at work, and we know, on her father’s authority, that Phyllis Casson’s judgments were in most instances to be respected. Certainly it was not Violet Oliver’s fault that her face in repose took on a wistful and pathetic look, and that her dark quiet eyes, even when her thoughts were absent—and her thoughts were often absent—rested pensively upon you with an unconscious flattery. It appeared that she was pondering deeply who and what you were; whereas she was probably debating whether she should or should not powder her nose before she went in to supper. Nor was she to blame because at the approach of a friend that sweet and thoughtful face would twinkle suddenly into mischief and amusement. “She is as God made her,” Phyllis Casson protested, “and He made her beautiful.”

It will be recognised, therefore, that there was truth in Sir John’s observation that young men wanted to protect her. But the bald statement is not sufficient. Whether that quick transition from pensiveness to a dancing gaiety was the cause, or whether it only helped her beauty, this is certain. Young men went down before her like ninepins in a bowling alley. There was something singularly virginal about her. She had, too, quite naturally, an affectionate manner which it was difficult to resist; and above all she made no effort ever. What she said and what she did seemed always purely spontaneous. For the rest, she was a little over the general height of women, and even looked a little taller. For she was very fragile, and dainty, like an exquisite piece of china. Her head was small, and, poised as it was upon a slender throat, looked almost overweighted by the wealth of her dark hair. Her features were finely chiselled from the nose to the oval of her chin, and the red bow of her lips; and, with all her fragility, a delicate colour in her cheeks spoke of health.

“You have come!” she said.

Linforth took her little white-gloved hand in his.

“You knew I should,” he answered.

“Yes, I knew that. But I didn’t know that I should have to wait,” she replied reproachfully. “I was here, in this corner, at the moment.”

“I couldn’t catch an earlier train. I only got your telegram saying you would be at the dance late in the afternoon.”

“I did not know that I should be coming until this morning,” she said.

“Then it was very kind of you to send the telegram at all.”

“Yes, it was,” said Violet Oliver simply, and Linforth laughed.

“Shall we dance?” he asked.

Mrs. Oliver nodded.

“Round the room as far as the door. I am hungry. We will go downstairs and have supper.”

Linforth could have wished for nothing better. But the moment that his arm was about her waist and they had started for the door, Violet Oliver realised that her partner was the lightest dancer in the room. She herself loved dancing, and for once in a way to be steered in and out amongst the couples without a bump or even a single entanglement of her satin train was a pleasure not to be foregone. She gave herself up to it.

“Let us go on,” she said. “I did not know. You see, we have never danced together before. I had not thought of you in that way.”

She ceased to speak, being content to dance. Linforth for his part was content to watch her, to hold her as something very precious, and to evoke a smile upon her lips when her eyes met his. “I had not thought of you in that way!” she had said. Did not that mean that she had at all events been thinking of him in some way? And with that flattery still sweet in his thoughts, he was aware that her feet suddenly faltered. He looked at her face. It had changed. Yet so swiftly did it recover its composure that Linforth had not even the time to understand what the change implied. Annoyance, surprise, fear! One of these feelings, certainly, or perhaps a trifle of each. Linforth could not make sure. There had been a flash of some sudden emotion. That at all events was certain. But in guessing fear, he argued, his wits must surely have gone far astray; though fear was the first guess which he had made.

“What was the matter?”

Violet Oliver answered readily.

“A big man was jigging down upon us. I saw him over your shoulder. I dislike being bumped by big men,” she said, with a little easy laugh. “And still more I hate having a new frock torn.”

Dick Linforth was content with the answer. But it happened that Sybil Linforth was looking on from her chair in the corner, and the corner was very close to the spot where for a moment Violet Oliver had lost countenance. She looked sharply at Sir John Casson, who might have noticed or might not. His face betrayed nothing whatever. He went on talking placidly, but Mrs. Linforth ceased to listen to him.

Violet Oliver waltzed with her partner once more round the room. Then she said:

“Let us stop!” and in almost the same breath she added, “Oh, there’s your friend.”

Linforth turned and saw standing just within the doorway his friend Shere Ali.

“You could hardly tell that he was not English,” she went on; and indeed, with his straight features, his supple figure, and a colour no darker than many a sunburnt Englishman wears every August, Shere Ali might have passed unnoticed by a stranger. It seemed that he had been watching for the couple to stop dancing. For no sooner had they stopped than he advanced quickly towards them.

Linforth, however, had not as yet noticed him.

“It can’t be Shere Ali,” he said. “He is in the country. I heard from him only to-day.”

“Yet it is he,” said Mrs. Oliver, and then Linforth saw him.

“Hallo!” he said softly to himself, and as Shere Ali joined them he added aloud, “something has happened.”

“Yes, I have news,” said Shere Ali. But he was looking at Mrs. Oliver, and spoke as though the news had been pushed for a moment into the back of his mind.

“What is it?” asked Linforth.

Shere Ali turned to Linforth.

“I go back to Chiltistan.”

“When?” asked Linforth, and a note of envy was audible in his voice. Mrs. Oliver heard it and understood it. She shrugged her shoulders impatiently.

“By the first boat to Bombay.”

“In a week’s time, then?” said Mrs. Oliver, quickly.

Shere Ali glanced swiftly at her, seeking the meaning of that question. Did regret prompt it? Or, on the other hand, was she glad?

“Yes, in a week’s time,” he replied slowly.

“Why?” asked Linforth. “Is there trouble in Chiltistan?” He spoke regretfully. It would be hard luck if that uneasy State were to wake again into turmoil while he was kept kicking his heels at Chatham.

“Yes, there is trouble,” Shere Ali replied. “But it is not the kind of trouble which will help you forward with the Road.”

The trouble, indeed, was of quite another kind. The Russians were not stirring behind the Hindu Kush or on the Pamirs. The turbulent people of Chiltistan were making trouble, and profit out of the trouble, it is true. That they would be sure to do somewhere, and, moreover, they would do it with a sense of humour more common upon the Frontier than in the Provinces of India. But they were not at the moment making trouble in their own country. They were heard of in Masulipatam and other cities of Madras, where they were badly wanted by the police and not often caught. The quarrel in Chiltistan lay between the British Raj, as represented by the Resident, and the Khan, who was spending the revenue of his State chiefly upon his own amusements. It was claimed that the Resident should henceforth supervise the disposition of the revenue, and it had been suggested to the Khan that unless he consented to the proposal he would have to retire into private life in some other quarter of the Indian Peninsula. To give to the suggestion the necessary persuasive power, the young Prince was to be brought back at once, so that he might be ready at a moment’s notice to succeed. This reason, however, was not given to Shere Ali. He was merely informed by the Indian Government that he must return to his country at once.

Shere Ali stood before Mrs. Oliver.

“You will give me a dance?” he said.

“After supper,” she replied, and she laid her hand within Linforth’s arm. But Shere Ali did not give way.

“Where shall I find you?” he asked.

“By the door, here.”

And upon that Shere Ali’s voice changed to one of appeal. There came a note of longing into his voice. He looked at Violet Oliver with burning eyes. He seemed unaware Linforth was standing by.

“You will not fail me?” he said; and Linforth moved impatiently.

“No. I shall be there,” said Violet Oliver, and she spoke hurriedly and moved by through the doorway. Beneath her eyelids she stole a glance at her companion. His face was clouded. The scene which he had witnessed had jarred upon him, and still jarred. When he spoke to her his voice had a sternness which Violet Oliver had not heard before. But she had always been aware that it might be heard, if at any time he disapproved.

“‘Your friend,’ you called him, speaking to me,” he said. “It seems that he is your friend too.”

“He was with you at La Grave. I met him there.”

“He comes to your house?”

“He has called once or twice,” said Mrs. Oliver submissively. It was by no wish of hers that Shere Ali had appeared at this dance. She had, on the contrary, been at some pains to assure herself that he would not be there. And while she answered Linforth she was turning over in her mind a difficulty which had freshly arisen. Shere Ali was returning to India. In some respects that was awkward. But Linforth’s ill-humour promised her a way of escape. He was rather silent during the earlier part of their supper. They had a little table to themselves, and while she talked, and talked with now and then an anxious glance at Linforth, he was content to listen or to answer shortly. Finally she said:

“I suppose you will not see your friend again before he starts?”

“Yes, I shall,” replied Linforth, and the frown gathered afresh upon his forehead. “He dines to-morrow night with me at Chatham.”

“Then I want to ask you something,” she continued. “I want you not to mention to him that I am paying a visit to India in the cold weather.”

Linforth’s face cleared in an instant.

“I am glad that you have made that request,” he said frankly. “I have no right to say it, perhaps. But I think you are wise.”

“Things are possible here,” she agreed, “which are impossible there.”

“Friendship, for instance.”

“Some friendships,” said Mrs. Oliver; and the rest of their supper they ate cheerily enough. Violet Oliver was genuinely interested in her partner. She was not very familiar with the large view and the definite purpose. Those who gathered within her tiny drawing-room, who sought her out at balls and parties, were, as a rule, the younger men of the day, and Linforth, though like them in age and like them, too, in his capacity for enjoyment, was different in most other ways. For the large view and the definite purpose coloured all his life, and, though he spoke little of either, set him apart.

Mrs. Oliver did not cultivate many illusions about herself. She saw very clearly what manner of men they were to whom her beauty made its chief appeal—lean-minded youths for the most part not remarkable for brains—and she was sincerely proud that Linforth sought her out no less than they did. She could imagine herself afraid of Linforth, and that fancy gave her a little thrill of pleasure. She understood that he could easily be lost altogether, that if once he went away he would not return; and that knowledge made her careful not to lose him. Moreover, she had brains herself. She led him on that evening, and he spoke with greater freedom than he had used with her before—greater freedom, she hoped, than he had used with anyone. The lighted supper-room grew dim before his eyes, the noise and the laughter and the passing figures of the other guests ceased to be noticed. He talked in a low voice, and with his keen face pushed a trifle forward as though, while he spoke, he listened. He was listening to the call of the Road.

He stopped abruptly and looked anxiously at Violet.

“Have I bored you?” he asked. “Generally I watch you,” he added with a smile, “lest I should bore you. To-night I haven’t watched.”

“For that reason I have been interested to-night more than I have been before.”

She gathered up her fan with a little sigh. “I must go upstairs again,” she said, and she rose from her chair. “I am sorry. But I have promised dances.”

“I will take you up. Then I shall go.”

“You will dance no more?”

“No,” he said with a smile. “I’ll not spoil a perfect evening.” Violet Oliver was not given to tricks or any play of the eyelids. She looked at him directly, and she said simply “Thank you.”

He took her up to the landing, and came down stairs again for his hat and coat. But, as he passed with them along the passage door he turned, and looking up the stairs, saw Violet Oliver watching him. She waved her hand lightly and smiled. As the door closed behind him she returned to the ball-room. Linforth went away with no suspicion in his mind that she had stayed her feet upon the landing merely to make very sure that he went. He had left his mother behind, however, and she was all suspicion. She had remarked the little scene when Shere Ali had unexpectedly appeared. She had noticed the embarrassment of Violet Oliver and the anger of Shere Ali. It was possible that Sir John Casson had also not been blind to it. For, a little time afterwards, he nodded towards Shere Ali.

“Do you know that boy?” he asked.

“Yes. He is Dick’s great friend. They have much in common. His father was my husband’s friend.”

“And both believed in the new Road, I know,” said Sir John. He pulled at his grey moustache thoughtfully, and asked: “Have the sons the Road in common, too?” A shadow darkened Sybil Linforth’s face. She sat silent for some seconds, and when she answered, it was with a great reluctance.

“I believe so,” she said in a low voice, and she shivered. She turned her face towards Casson. It was troubled, fear-stricken, and in that assembly of laughing and light-hearted people it roused him with a shock. “I wish, with all my heart, that they had not,” she added, and her voice shook and trembled as she spoke.

The terrible story of Linforth’s end, long since dim in Sir John Casson’s recollections, came back in vivid detail. He said no more upon that point. He took Mrs. Linforth down to supper, and bringing her back again, led her round the ball-room. An open archway upon one side led into a conservatory, where only fairy lights glowed amongst the plants and flowers. As the couple passed this archway, Sir John looked in. He did not stop, but, after they had walked a few yards further, he said:

“Was it pale blue that Violet Oliver was wearing? I am not clever at noticing these things.”

“Yes, pale blue and—pearls,” said Sybil Linforth.

“There is no need that we should walk any further. Here are two chairs,” said Sir John. There was in truth no need. He had ascertained something about which, in spite of his outward placidity, he had been very curious.

“Did you ever hear of a man named Luffe?” he asked.

Sybil Linforth started. It had been Luffe whose continual arguments, entreaties, threats, and persuasions had caused the Road long ago to be carried forward. But she answered quietly, “Yes.”

“Of course you and I remember him,” said Sir John. “But how many others? That’s the penalty of Indian service. You are soon forgotten, in India as quickly as here. In most cases, no doubt, it doesn’t matter. Men just as good and younger stand waiting at the milestones to carry on the torch. But in some cases I think it’s a pity.”

“In Mr. Luffe’s case?” asked Sybil Linforth.

“Particularly in Luffe’s case,” said Sir John.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter X - An Unanswered Question

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