The Broken Road

Chapter X

An Unanswered Question

A.E.W. Mason

SIR JOHN had guessed aright. Shere Ali was in the conservatory, and Violet Oliver sat by his side.

“I did not expect you to-night,” she said lightly, as she opened and shut her fan.

“Nor did I mean to come,” he answered. “I had arranged to stay in the country until to-morrow. But I got my letter from the India Office this morning. It left me—restless.” He uttered the word with reluctance, and almost with an air of shame. Then he clasped his hands together, and blurted out violently: “It left me miserable. I could not stay away,” and he turned to his companion. “I wanted to see you, if only for five minutes.” It was Violet Oliver’s instinct to be kind. She fitted herself naturally to the words of her companions, sympathised with them in their troubles, laughed with them when they were at the top of their spirits. So now her natural kindness made her eyes gentle. She leaned forward.

“Did you?” she asked softly. “And yet you are going home!”

“I am going back to Chiltistan,” said Shere Ali.

“Home!” Violet Oliver repeated, dwelling upon the word with a friendly insistence.

But the young prince did not assent; he remained silent—so long silent that Violet Oliver moved uneasily. She was conscious of suspense; she began to dread his answer. He turned to her quickly as she moved.

“You say that I am going home. That’s the whole question,” he said. “I am trying to answer it—and I can’t. Listen!”

Into the quiet and dimly lit place of flowers the music of the violins floated with a note of wistfulness in the melody they played—a suggestion of regret. Through a doorway at the end of the conservatory Shere Ali could see the dancers swing by in the lighted ball-room, the women in their bright frocks and glancing jewels, some of whom had flattered him, a few of whom had been his friends, and all of whom had treated him as one of their own folk and their equal.

“I have heard the tune, which they are playing, before,” he said slowly. “I heard it one summer night in Geneva. Linforth and I had come down from the mountains. We were dining with a party on the balcony of a restaurant over the lake. A boat passed hidden by the darkness. We could hear the splash of the oars. There were musicians in the boat playing this melody. We were all very happy that night. And I hear it again now—when I am with you. I think that I shall remember it very often in Chiltistan.”

There was so unmistakable a misery in his manner, in his voice, in his dejected looks, that Violet was moved to a deep sympathy. He was only a boy, of course, but he was a boy sunk in distress.

“But there are your plans,” she urged. “Have you forgotten them? You were going to do so much. There was so much to do. So many changes, so many reforms which must be made. You used to talk to me so eagerly. No more of your people were to be sold into slavery. You were going to stop all that. You were going to silence the mullahs when they preached sedition and to free Chiltistan from their tyranny.”

Violet remembered with a whimsical little smile how Shere All’s enthusiasm had wearied her, but she checked the smile and continued:

“Are all those plans mere dreams and fancies?”

“No,” replied Shere Ali, lifting his head. “No,” he said again with something of violence in the emphasis; and for a moment he sat erect, with his shoulders squared, fronting his destiny. Almost for a moment he recaptured that for which he had been seeking—his identity with his own race. But the moment passed. His attitude relaxed. He turned to Violet with troubled eyes. “No, they are not dreams; they are things which need to be done. But I can’t realise them now, with you sitting here, any more than I can realise, with this music in my ears, that it is my home to which I am going back.”

“Oh, but you will!” cried Violet. “When you are out there you will. There’s the road, too, the road which you and Mr. Linforth——”

She did not complete the sentence. With a low cry Shere All broke in upon her words. He leaned forward, with his hands covering his face.

“Yes,” he whispered, “there’s the road—there’s the road.” A passion of self-reproach shook him. Not for nothing had Linforth been his friend. “I feel a traitor,” he cried. “For ten years we have talked of that road, planned it, and made it in thought, poring over the maps. Yes, for even at the beginning, in our first term at Eton, we began. Over the passes to the foot of the Hindu Kush! Only a year ago I was eager, really, honestly eager,” and he paused for a moment, wondering at that picture of himself which his words evoked, wondering whether it was indeed he—he who sat in the conservatory—who had cherished those bright dreams of a great life in Chiltistan. “Yes, it is true. I was honestly eager to go back.”

“Less than a year ago,” said Violet Oliver quickly. “Less than a week ago. When did I see you last? On Sunday, wasn’t it?”

“But was I honest then?” exclaimed Shere Ali. “I don’t know. I thought I was—right up to to-day, right up to this morning when the letter came. And then——” He made a despairing gesture, as of a man crumbling dust between his fingers.

“I will tell you,” he said, turning towards her. “I believe that the last time I was really honest was in August of last year. Linforth and I talked of the Road through a long day in the hut upon the Meije. I was keen then—honestly keen. But the next evening we came down to La Grave, and—I met you.”

“No,” Violet Oliver protested. “That’s not the reason.”

“I think it is,” said Shere Ali quietly; and Violet was silent.

In spite of her pity, which was genuine enough, her thoughts went out towards Shere Ali’s friend. With what words and in what spirit would he have received Shere Ali’s summons to Chiltistan? She asked herself the question, knowing well the answer. There would have been no lamentations—a little regret, perhaps, perhaps indeed a longing to take her with him. But there would have been not a thought of abandoning the work. She recognised that truth with a sudden spasm of anger, but yet admiration strove with the anger and mastered it.

“If what you say is true,” she said to Shere Ali gently, “I am very sorry. But I hope it is not true. You have been ten years here; you have made many friends. Just for the moment the thought of leaving them behind troubles you. But that will pass.”

“Will it?” he asked quietly. Then a smile came upon his face. “There’s one thing of which I am glad,” he whispered.


“You are wearing my pearls to-night.”

Violet Oliver smiled, and with a tender caressing movement her fingers touched and felt the rope of pearls about her neck. Both the smile and the movement revealed Violet Oliver. She had a love of beautiful things, but, above all, of jewels. It was a passion with her deeper than any she had ever known. Beautiful stones, and pearls more than any other stones, made an appeal to her which she could not resist.

“They are very lovely,” she said softly.

“I shall be glad to remember that you wore them to-night,” said Shere Ali; “for, as you know, I love you.”

“Hush!” said Mrs. Oliver; and she rose with a start from her chair. Shere Ali did the same.

“It’s true,” he said sullenly; and then, with a swift step, he placed himself in her way. Violet Oliver drew back quietly. Her heart beat quickly. She looked into Shere Ali’s face and was afraid. He was quite still; even the expression of his face was set, but his eyes burned upon her. There was a fierceness in his manner which was new to her.

His hand darted out quickly towards her. But Violet Oliver was no less quick. She drew back yet another step. “I didn’t understand,” she said, and her lips shook, so that the words were blurred. She raised her hands to her neck and loosened the coils of pearls about it as though she meant to lift them off and return them to the giver.

“Oh, don’t do that, please,” said Shere Ali; and already his voice and his manner had changed. The sullenness had gone. Now he besought. His English training came to his aid. He had learned reverence for women, acquiring it gradually and almost unconsciously rather than from any direct teaching. He had spent one summer’s holidays with Mrs. Linforth for his hostess in the house under the Sussex Downs, and from her and from Dick’s manner towards her he had begun to acquire it. He had become conscious of that reverence, and proudly conscious. He had fostered it. It was one of the qualities, one of the essential qualities, of the white people. It marked the sahibs off from the Eastern races. To possess that reverence, to be influenced and moved and guided by it—that made him one with them. He called upon it to help him now. Almost he had forgotten it.

“Please don’t take them off,” he implored. “There was nothing to understand.”

And perhaps there was not, except this—that Violet Oliver was of those who take but do not give. She removed her hands from her throat. The moment of danger had passed, as she very well knew.

“There is one thing I should be very grateful for,” he said humbly. “It would not cause you very much trouble, and it would mean a great deal to me. I would like you to write to me now and then.”

“Why, of course I will,” said Mrs. Oliver, with a smile.

“You promise?”

“Yes. But you will come back to England.”

“I shall try to come next summer, if it’s only for a week,” said Shere Ali; and he made way for Violet.

She moved a few yards across the conservatory, and then stopped for Shere Ali to come level with her. “I shall write, of course, to Chiltistan,” she said carelessly.

“Yes,” he replied, “I go northwards from Bombay. I travel straight to Kohara.”

“Very well. I will write to you there,” said Violet Oliver; but it seemed that she was not satisfied. She walked slowly towards the door, with Shere Ali at her side.

“And you will stay in Chiltistan until you come back to us?” she asked. “You won’t go down to Calcutta at Christmas, for instance? Calcutta is the place to which people go at Christmas, isn’t it? I think you are right. You have a career in your own country, amongst your own people.”

She spoke urgently. And Shere Ali, thinking that thus she spoke in concern for his future, drew some pride from her encouragement. He also drew some shame; for she might have been speaking, too, in pity for his distress.

“Mrs. Oliver,” he said, with hesitation; and she stopped and turned to him. “Perhaps I said more than I meant to say a few minutes ago. I have not forgotten really that there is much for me to do in my own country; I have not forgotten that I can thank all of you here who have shown me so much kindness by more than mere words. For I can help in Chiltistan—I can really help.”

Then came a smile upon Violet Oliver’s face, and her eyes shone.

“That is how I would have you speak,” she cried. “I am glad. Oh, I am glad!” and her voice rang with the fulness of her pleasure. She had been greatly distressed by the unhappiness of her friend, and in that distress compunction had played its part. There was no hardness in Violet Oliver’s character. To give pain flattered no vanity in her. She understood that Shere Ali would suffer because of her, and she longed that he should find his compensation in the opportunities of rulership.

“Let us say good-bye here,” he said. “We may not be alone again before I go.”

She gave him her hand, and he held it for a little while, and then reluctantly let it go.

“That must last me until the summer of next year,” he said with a smile.

“Until the summer,” said Violet Oliver; and she passed out from the doorway into the ball-room. But as she entered the room and came once more amongst the lights and the noise, and the familiar groups of her friends, she uttered a little sigh of relief. The summer of next year was a long way off; and meanwhile here was an episode in her life ended as she wished it to end; for in these last minutes it had begun to disquiet her.

Shere Ali remained behind in the conservatory. His eyes wandered about it. He was impressing upon his memory every detail of the place, the colours of the flowers and their very perfumes. He looked through the doorway into the ball-room whence the music swelled. The note of regret was louder than ever in his ears, and dominated the melody. To-morrow the lights, the delicate frocks, the laughing voices and bright eyes would be gone. The violins spoke to him of that morrow of blank emptiness softly and languorously like one making a luxury of grief. In a week’s time he would be setting his face towards Chiltistan; and, in spite of the brave words he had used to Violet Oliver, once more the question forced itself into his mind.

“Do I belong here?” he asked. “Or do I belong to Chiltistan?”

On the one side was all that during ten years he had gradually learned to love and enjoy; on the other side was his race and the land of his birth. He could not answer the question; for there was a third possibility which had not yet entered into his speculations, and in that third possibility alone was the answer to be found.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XI - At the Gate of Lahore

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