The Broken Road

Chapter XII

On the Polo-ground

A.E.W. Mason

VIOLET OLIVER travelled to India in the late autumn of that year, free from apprehension. Somewhere beyond the high snow-passes Shere Ali would be working out his destiny among his own people. She was not of those who seek publicity either for themselves or for their gowns in the daily papers. Shere Ali would never hear of her visit; she was safe. She spent her Christmas in Calcutta, saw the race for the Viceroy’s Cup run without a fear that on that crowded racecourse the importunate figure of the young Prince of Chiltistan might emerge to reproach her, and a week later went northwards into the United Provinces. It was a year, now some while past, when a royal visitor came from a neighbouring country into India. And in his honour at one great city in those Provinces the troops gathered and the tents went up. Little towns of canvas, gay with bordered walks and flowers, were dotted on the dusty plains about and within the city. Great ministers and functionaries came with their retinues and their guests. Native princes from Rajputana brought their elephants and their escorts. Thither also came Violet Oliver. It was, indeed, to attend this Durbar that she had been invited out from England. She stayed in a small camp on the great Parade Ground where the tents faced one another in a single street, each with its little garden of grass and flowers before the door. The ends of the street were closed in by posts, and outside the posts sentries were placed.

It was a week of bright, sunlit, rainless days, and of starry nights. It was a week of reviews and State functions. But it was also a week during which the best polo to be seen in India drew the visitors each afternoon to the club-ground. There was no more constant attendant than Violet Oliver. She understood the game and followed it with a nice appreciation of the player’s skill. The first round of the competition had been played off on the third day, but a native team organised by the ruler of a Mohammedan State in Central India had drawn a by and did not appear in the contest until the fourth day. Mrs. Oliver took her seat in the front row of the stand, as the opposing teams cantered into the field upon their ponies. A programme was handed to her, but she did not open it. For already one of the umpires had tossed the ball into the middle of the ground. The game had begun.

The native team was matched against a regiment of Dragoons, and from the beginning it was plain that the four English players were the stronger team. But on the other side there was one who in point of skill outstripped them all. He was stationed on the outside of the field farthest away from Violet Oliver. He was a young man, almost a boy, she judged; he was beautifully mounted, and he sat his pony as though he and it were one. He was quick to turn, quick to pass the ball; and he never played a dangerous game. A desire that the native team should win woke in her and grew strong just because of that slim youth’s extraordinary skill. Time after time he relieved his side, and once, as it seemed to her, he picked the ball out of the very goalposts. The bugle, she remembered afterwards, had just sounded. He drove the ball out from the press, leaned over until it seemed he must fall to resist an opponent who tried to ride him off, and then somehow he shook himself free from the tangle of polo-sticks and ponies.

“Oh, well done! well done!” cried Violet Oliver, clenching her hands in her enthusiasm. A roar of applause went up. He came racing down the very centre of the ground, the long ends of his white turban streaming out behind him like a pennant. The seven other players followed upon his heels outpaced and outplayed. He rode swinging his polo-stick for the stroke, and then with clean hard blows sent the ball skimming through the air like a bird. Violet Oliver watched him in suspense, dreading lest he should override the ball, or that his stroke should glance. But he made no mistake. The sound of the strokes rose clear and sharp; the ball flew straight. He drove it between the posts, and the players streamed in behind as though through the gateway of a beleaguered town. He had scored the first goal of the game at the end of the first chukkur. He cantered back to change his pony. But this time he rode along the edge of the stand, since on this side the ponies waited with their blankets thrown over their saddles and the syces at their heads. He ran his eyes along the row of onlookers as he cantered by, and suddenly Violet Oliver leaned forward. She had been interested merely in the player. Now she was interested in the man who played. She was more than interested. For she felt a tightening of the heart and she caught her breath. “It could not be,” she said to herself. She could see his face clearly, however, now; and as suddenly as she had leaned forward she drew back. She lowered her head, until her broad hat-brim hid her face. She opened her programme, looked for and found the names of the players. Shere Ali’s stared her in the face.

“He has broken his word,” she said angrily to herself, quite forgetting that he had given no word, and that she had asked for none. Then she fell to wondering whether or no he had recognised her as he rode past the stand. She stole a glance as he cantered back, but Shere Ali was not looking towards her. She debated whether she should make an excuse and go back to her camp. But if he had thought he had seen her, he would look again, and her empty place would be convincing evidence. Moreover, the teams had changed goals. Shere Ali would be playing on this side of the ground during the next chukkur unless the Dragoons scored quickly. Violet Oliver kept her place, but she saw little of the game. She watched Shere Ali’s play furtively, however, hoping thereby to learn whether he had noticed her. And in a little while she knew. He played wildly, his strokes had lost their precision, he was less quick to follow the twists of the ball. Shere Ali had seen her. At the end of the game he galloped quickly to the corner, and when Violet Oliver came out of the enclosure she saw him standing, with his long overcoat already on his shoulders, waiting for her.

Violet Oliver separated herself from her friends and went forward towards him. She held out her hand. Shere Ali hesitated and then took it. All through the game, pride had been urging him to hold his head high and seek not so much as a single word with her. But he had been alone for six months in Chiltistan and he was young.

“You might have let me know,” he said, in a troubled voice.

Violet Oliver faltered out some beginnings of an excuse. She did not want to bring him away from his work in Chiltistan. But Shere Ali was not listening to the excuses.

“I must see you again,” he said. “I must.”

“No doubt we shall meet,” replied Violet Oliver.

“To-morrow,” continued Shere Ali. “To-morrow evening. You will be going to the Fort.”

There was to be an investiture, and after the investiture a great reception in the Fort on the evening of the next day. It would be as good a place as any, thought Violet Oliver—nay, a better place. There would be crowds of people wandering about the Fort. Since they must meet, let it be there and soon.

“Very well,” she said. “To-morrow evening,” and she passed on and rejoined her friends.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XIII - The Invidious Bar

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