The Broken Road

Chapter XIV

In the Courtyard

A.E.W. Mason

THE INVESTITURE was over, and the guests, thronging from the Hall of Audience, came out beneath arches and saw the whole length of the great marble court spread before them. A vast canopy roofed it in, and a soft dim light pervaded it. To those who came from the glitter of the ceremonies it brought a sense of coolness and of peace. From the arches a broad flight of steps led downwards to the floor, where water gleamed darkly in a marble basin. Lilies floated upon its surface, and marble paths crossed it to the steps at the far end; and here and there, in its depth, the reflection of a lamp burned steadily. At the far end steps rose again to a great platform and to gilded arches through which lights poured in a blaze, and gave to that end almost the appearance of a lighted stage, and made of the courtyard a darkened auditorium. From one flight of steps to the other, in the dim cool light, the guests passed across the floor of the court, soldiers in uniforms, civilians in their dress of state, jewelled princes of the native kingdoms, ladies in their bravest array. But now and again one or two would slip from the throng, and, leaving the procession, take their own way about the Fort. Among those who slipped away was Violet Oliver. She went to the side of the courtyard where a couch stood empty. There she seated herself and waited. In front of her the stream of people passed by talking and laughing, within view, within earshot if only one raised one’s voice a trifle above the ordinary note. Yet there was no other couch near. One might talk at will and not be overheard. It was, to Violet Oliver’s thinking, a good strategic position, and there she proposed to remain till Shere Ali found her, and after he had found her, until he went away.

She wondered in what guise he would come to her: a picturesque figure with a turban of some delicate shade upon his head and pearls about his throat, or—as she wondered, a young man in the evening dress of an Englishman stepped aside from the press of visitors and came towards her. Before she could, in that dim light, distinguish his face, she recognised him by the lightness of his step and the suppleness of his figure. She raised herself into a position a little more upright, and held out her hand. She made room for him on the couch beside her, and when he had taken his seat, she turned at once to speak.

But Shere Ali raised his hand in a gesture of entreaty.

“Hush!” he said with a smile; and the smile pleaded with her as much as did his words. “Just for a moment! We can argue afterwards. Just for a moment, let us pretend.”

Violet Oliver had expected anger, accusations, prayers. Even for some threat, some act of violence, she had come prepared. But the quiet wistfulness of his manner, as of a man too tired greatly to long for anything, took her at a disadvantage. But the one thing which she surely understood was the danger of pretence. There had been too much of pretence already.

“No,” she said.

“Just for a moment,” he insisted. He sat beside her, watching the clear profile of her face, the slender throat, the heavy masses of hair so daintily coiled upon her head. “The last eight months have not been—could not be. Yesterday we were at Richmond, just you and I. It was Sunday—you remember. I called on you in the afternoon, and for a wonder you were alone. We drove down together to Richmond, and dined together in the little room at the end of the passage—the room with the big windows, and the name of the woman who was murdered in France scratched upon the glass. That was yesterday.”

“It was last year,” said Violet.

“Yesterday,” Shere Ali persisted. “I dreamt last night that I had gone back to Chiltistan; but it was only a dream.”

“It was the truth,” and the quiet assurance of her voice dispelled Shere Ali’s own effort at pretence. He leaned forward suddenly, clasping his hands upon his knees in an attitude familiar to her as characteristic of the man. There was a tenseness which gave to him even in repose a look of activity.

“Well, it’s the truth, then,” he said, and his voice took on an accent of bitterness. “And here’s more truth. I never thought to see you here to-night.”

“Did you think that I should be afraid?” asked Violet Oliver in a low, steady voice.

“Afraid!” Shere Ali turned towards her in surprise and met her gaze. “No.”

“Why, then, should I break my word? Have I done it so often?”

Shere Ali did not answer her directly.

“You promised to write to me,” he said, and Violet Oliver replied at once:

“Yes. And I did write.”

“You wrote twice,” he cried bitterly. “Oh, yes, you kept your word. There’s a post every day, winter and summer, into Chiltistan. Sometimes an avalanche or a snowstorm delays it; but on most days it comes. If you could only have guessed how eagerly I looked forward to your letters, you would have written, I think, more often. There’s a path over a high ridge by which the courier must come. I could see it from the casement of the tower. I used to watch it through a pair of field-glasses, that I might catch the first glimpse of the man as he rose against the sky. Each day I thought ‘Perhaps there’s a letter in your handwriting.’ And you wrote twice, and in neither letter was there a hint that you were coming out to India.”

He was speaking in a low, passionate voice. In spite of herself, Violet Oliver was moved. The picture of him watching from his window in the tower for the black speck against the skyline was clear before her mind, and troubled her. Her voice grew gentle.

“I did not write more often on purpose,” she said.

“It was on purpose, too, that you left out all mention of your visit to India?”

Violet nodded her head.

“Yes,” she said.

“You did not want to see me again.”

Violet turned her face towards him, and leaned forward a little.

“I don’t say that,” she said softly. “But I thought it would be better that we two should not meet again, if meeting could be avoided. I saw that you cared—I may say that, mayn’t I?” and for a second she laid her hand gently upon his sleeve. “I saw that you cared too much. It seemed to me best that it should end altogether.”

Shere Ali lifted his head, and turned quickly towards her.

“Why should it end at all?” he cried. His eyes kindled and sought hers. “Violet, why should it end at all?”

Violet Oliver drew back. She cast a glance to the courtyard. Only a few paces away the stream of people passed up and down.

“It must end,” she answered. “You know that as well as I.”

“I don’t know it. I won’t know it,” he replied. He reached out his hand towards hers, but she was too quick for him. He bent nearer to her.

“Violet,” he whispered, “marry me!”

Violet Oliver glanced again to the courtyard. But it was no longer to assure herself that friends of her own race were comfortably near at hand. Now she was anxious that they should not be near enough to listen and overhear.

“That’s impossible!” she answered in a startled voice.

“It’s not impossible! It’s not!” And the desperation in his voice betrayed him. In the depths of his heart he knew that, for this woman, at all events, it was impossible. But he would not listen to that knowledge.

“Other women, here in India, have had the courage.”

“And what have their lives been afterwards?” she asked. She had not herself any very strong feeling on the subject of colour. She was not repelled, as men are repelled. But she was aware, nevertheless, how strong the feeling was in others. She had not lived in India for nothing. Marriage with Shere Ali was impossible, even had she wished for it. It meant ostracism and social suicide.

“Where should I live?” she went on. “In Chiltistan? What life would there be there for me?”

“No,” he replied. “I would not ask it. I never thought of it. In England. We could live there!” and, ceasing to insist, he began wistfully to plead. “Oh, if you knew how I have hated these past months. I used to sit at night, alone, alone, alone, eating my heart for want of you; for want of everything I care for. I could not sleep. I used to see the morning break. Perhaps here and there a drum would begin to beat, the cries of children would rise up from the streets, and I would lie in my bed with my hands clenched, thinking of the jingle of a hansom cab along the streets of London, and the gas lamps paling as the grey light spread. Violet!”

Violet twisted her hands one within the other. This was just what she had thought to avoid, to shut out from her mind—the knowledge that he had suffered. But the evidence of his pain was too indisputable. There was no shutting it out. It sounded loud in his voice, it showed in his looks. His face had grown white and haggard, the face of a tortured man; his hands trembled, his eyes were fierce with longing.

“Oh, don’t,” she cried, and so great was her trouble that for once she did not choose her words. “You know that it’s impossible. We can’t alter these things.”

She meant by “these things” the natural law that white shall mate with white, and brown with brown; and so Shere Ali understood her. He ceased to plead. There came a dreadful look upon his face.

“Oh, I know,” he exclaimed brutally. “You would be marrying a nigger.”

“I never said that,” Violet interrupted hastily.

“But you meant it,” and he began to laugh bitterly and very quietly. To Violet that laughter was horrible. It frightened her. “Oh, yes, yes,” he said. “When we come over to England we are very fine people. Women welcome us and are kind, men make us their friends. But out here! We quickly learn out here that we are the inferior people. Suppose that I wanted to be a soldier, not an officer of my levies, but a soldier in your army with a soldier’s chances of promotion and high rank! Do you know what would happen? I might serve for twenty years, and at the end of it the youngest subaltern out of Sandhurst, with a moustache he can’t feel upon his lip, would in case of war step over my head and command me. Why, I couldn’t win the Victoria Cross, even though I had earned it ten times over. We are the subject races,” and he turned to her abruptly. “I am in disfavour to-night. Do you know why? Because I am not dressed in a silk jacket; because I am not wearing jewels like a woman, as those Princes are,” and he waved his hand contemptuously towards a group of them. “They are content,” he cried. “But I was brought up in England, and I am not.”

He buried his face in his hands and was silent; and as he sat thus, Violet Oliver said to him with a gentle reproach:

“When we parted in London last year you spoke in a different way—a better way. I remember very well what you said. For I was glad to hear it. You said: ‘I have not forgotten really that there is much 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.’”

Shere All raised his face from his hands with the air of a man listening to strange and curious words.

“I said that?”

“Yes,” and in her turn Violet Oliver began to plead. “I wish that to-night you could recapture that fine spirit. I should be very glad of it. For I am troubled by your unhappiness.”

But Shere Ali shook his head.

“I have been in Chiltistan since I spoke those words. And they will not let me help.”

“There’s the road.”

“It must not be continued.”

“There is, at all events, your father,” Violet suggested. “You can help him.”

And again Shere Ali laughed. But this time the bitterness had gone from his voice. He laughed with a sense of humour, almost, it seemed to Violet, with enjoyment.

“My father!” he said. “I’ll tell you about my father,” and his face cleared for a moment of its distress as he turned towards her. “He received me in the audience chamber of his palace at Kohara. I had not seen him for ten years. How do you think he received me? He was sitting on a chair of brocade with silver legs in great magnificence, and across his knees he held a loaded rifle at full cock. It was a Snider, so that I could be quite sure it was cocked.”

Violet stared at him, not understanding.

“But why?” she asked.

“Well, he knew quite well that I was brought back to Kohara in order to replace him, if he didn’t mend his ways and spend less money. And he didn’t mean to be replaced.” The smile broke out again on Shere Ali’s face as he remembered the scene. “He sat there with his great beard, dyed red, spreading across his chest, a long velvet coat covering his knees, and the loaded rifle laid over the coat. His eyes watched me, while his fingers played about the trigger.”

Violet Oliver was horrified.

“You mean—that he meant to kill you!” she cried incredulously.

“Yes,” said Shere Ali calmly. “I think he meant to do that. It’s not so very unusual in our family. He probably thought that I might try to kill him. However, he didn’t do it. You see, my father’s very fond of the English, so I at once began to talk to him about England. It was evening when I went into the reception chamber; but it was broad daylight when I came out. I talked for my life that night—and won. He became so interested that he forgot to shoot me; and at the end I was wise enough to assure him that there was a great deal more to tell.”

The ways of the Princes in the States beyond the Frontier were unknown to Violet Oliver. The ruling family of Chiltistan was no exception to the general rule. In its annals there was hardly a page which was not stained with blood. When the son succeeded to the throne, it was, as often as not, after murdering his brothers, and if he omitted that precaution, as often as not he paid the penalty. Shere Ali was fortunate in that he had no brothers. But, on the other hand, he had a father, and there was no great security. Violet was startled, and almost as much bewildered as she was startled. She could not understand Shere Ali’s composure. He spoke in so matter-of-fact a tone.

“However,” she said, grasping at the fact, “he has not killed you. He has not since tried to kill you.”

“No. I don’t think he has,” said Shere Ali slowly. But he spoke like one in doubt. “You see he realised very soon that I was not after all acceptable to the English. I wouldn’t quite do what they wanted,” and the humour died out of his face.

“What did they want?”

Shere Ali looked at her in hesitation.

“Shall I tell you? I will. They wanted me to marry—one of my own people. They wanted me to forget,” and he broke out in a passionate scorn. “As if I could do either—after I had known you.”

“Hush!” said she.

But he was not to be checked.

“You said it was impossible that you should marry me. It’s no less impossible that I should marry now one of my own race. You know that. You can’t deny it.”

Violet did not try to. He was speaking truth then, she was well aware. A great pity swelled up in her heart for him. She turned to him with a smile, in which there was much tenderness. His life was all awry; and both were quite helpless to set it right.

“I am very sorry,” she said in a whisper of remorse. “I did not think. I have done you grave harm.”

“Not you,” he said quietly. “You may be quite sure of that. Those who have done me harm are those who sent me, ten years ago, to England.”

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XV - A Question Answered

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