The Broken Road

Chapter XV

A Question Answered

A.E.W. Mason

THEREAFTER both sat silent for a little while. The stream of people across the courtyard had diminished. High up on the great platform by the lighted arches the throng still pressed and shifted. But here there was quietude. The clatter of voices had died down. A band playing somewhere near at hand could be heard. Violet Oliver for the first time in her life had been brought face to face with a real tragedy. She was conscious of it as something irremediable and terribly sad. And for her own share in bringing it about she was full of remorse. She looked at Shere Ali as he sat beside her, his eyes gazing into the courtyard, his face tired and hopeless. There was nothing to be done. Her thoughts told her so no less clearly than his face. Here was a life spoilt at the beginning. But that was all that she saw. That the spoilt life might become an instrument of evil—she was blind to that possibility: she thought merely of the youth who suffered and still must suffer; who was crippled by the very means which were meant to strengthen him: and pity inclined her towards him with an ever-increasing strength.

“I couldn’t do it,” she repeated silently to herself. “I couldn’t do it. It would be madness.”

Shere Ali raised his head and said with a smile, “I am glad they are not playing the tune which I once heard on the Lake of Geneva, and again in London when I said good-bye to you.”

And then Violet sought to comfort him, her mind still working on what he had told her of his life in Chiltistan.

“But it will become easier,” she said, beginning in that general way. “In time you will rule in Chiltistan. That is certain.” But he checked her with a shake of the head.

“Certain? There is the son of Abdulla Mohammed, who fought against my father when Linforth’s father was killed. It is likely enough that those old days will be revived. And I should have the priests against me.”

“The Mullahs!” she exclaimed, remembering in what terms he was wont to speak of them to her.

“Yes,” he answered, “I have set them against me already. They laid their traps for me while I was on the sea, and I would not fall into them. They would have liked to raise the country against my father and the English, just as they raised it twenty-five years ago. And they would have liked me to join in with them.”

He related to Violet the story of his meeting with Safdar Khan at the Gate of Lahore, and he repeated the words which he had used in Safdar Khan’s hearing.

“It did not take long for my threats to be repeated in the bazaar of Kohara, and from the bazaar they were quickly carried to the ears of the Mullahs. I had proof of it,” he said with a laugh.

Violet asked him anxiously for the proof.

“I can tell to a day when the words were repeated in Kohara. For a fortnight after my coming the Mullahs still had hopes. They had heard nothing, and they met me always with salutations and greetings. Then came the day when I rode up the valley and a Mullah who had smiled the day before passed me as though he had not noticed me at all. The news had come. I was sure of it at the time. I reined in my horse and called sharply to one of the servants riding behind me, ‘Who is that?’ The Mullah heard the question, and he turned and up went the palm of his hand to his forehead in a flash. But I was not inclined to let him off so easily.”

“What did you do?” Violet asked uneasily.

“I said to him, ‘My friend, I will take care that you know me the next time we meet upon the road. Show me your hands!’ He held them out, and they were soft as a woman’s. I was close to a bridge which some workmen were repairing. So I had my friend brought along to the bridge. Then I said to one of the workmen, ‘Would you like to earn your day’s wage and yet do no work?’ He laughed, thinking that I was joking. But I was not. I said to him, ‘Very well, then, see that this soft-handed creature does your day’s work. You will bring him to me at the Palace this evening, and if I find that he has not done the work, or that you have helped him, you will forfeit your wages and I will whip you both into the bargain.’ The Mullah was brought to me in the evening,” said Shere Ali, smiling grimly. “He was so stiff he could hardly walk. I made him show me his hands again, and this time they were blistered. So I told him to remember his manners in the future, and I let him go. But he was a man of prominence in the country, and when the story got known he became rather ridiculous.” He turned with a smile to Violet Oliver.

“My people don’t like being made ridiculous—least of all Mullahs.”

But there was no answering smile on Violet’s face. Rather she was troubled and alarmed.

“But surely that was unwise?”

Shere Ali shrugged his shoulders.

“What does it matter?” he said. He did not tell her all of that story. There was an episode which had occurred two days later when Shere Ali was stalking an ibex on the hillside. A bullet had whistled close by his ear, and it had been fired from behind him. He was never quite sure whether his father or the Mullah was responsible for that bullet, but he inclined to attribute it to the Mullah.

“Yes, I have the priests against me,” he said. “They call me the Englishman.” Then he laughed. “A curious piece of irony, isn’t it?”

He stood up suddenly and said: “When I left England I was in doubt. I could not be sure whether my home, my true home, was there or in Chiltistan.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Violet.

“I am no longer in doubt. It is neither in England nor in Chiltistan. I am a citizen of no country. I have no place anywhere at all.”

Violet Oliver stood up and faced him.

“I must be going. I must find my friends,” she said, and as he took her hand, she added, “I am so very sorry.”

The words, she felt, were utterly inadequate, but no others would come to her lips, and so with a trembling smile she repeated them. She drew her hand from his clasp and moved a step or two away. But he followed her, and she stopped and shook her head.

“This is really good-bye,” she said simply and very gravely.

“I want to ask you a question,” he explained. “Will you answer it?”

“How can I tell you until you ask it?”

He looked at her for a moment as though in doubt whether he should speak or not. Then he said, “Are you going to marry—Linforth?”

The blood slowly mounted into her face and flushed her forehead and cheeks.

“He has not even asked me to marry him,” she said, and moved down into the courtyard.

Shere Ali watched her as she went. That was the last time he should see her, he told himself. The last time in all his life. His eyes followed her, noting the grace of her movements, the whiteness of her skin, all her daintiness of dress and person. A madness kindled in his blood. He had a wild thought of springing down, of capturing her. She mounted the steps and disappeared among the throng.

And they wanted him to marry—to marry one of his own people. Shere Ali suddenly saw the face of the Deputy Commissioner at Lahore calmly suggesting the arrangement, almost ordering it. He sat down again upon the couch and once more began to laugh. But the laughter ceased very quickly, and folding his arms upon the high end of the couch, he bowed his head upon them and was still.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XVI - Shere Ali Meets an Old Friend

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