The Broken Road

Chapter XVI

Shere Ali Meets an Old Friend

A.E.W. Mason

THE CARRIAGE which was to take Violet Oliver and her friends back to their camp had been parked amongst those farthest from the door. Violet stood for a long while under the awning, waiting while the interminable procession went by. The generals in their scarlet coats, the ladies in their satin gowns, the great officers of state attended by their escorts, the native princes, mounted into their carriages and were driven away. The ceremony and the reception which followed it had been markedly successful even in that land of ceremonies and magnificence. The voices about her told her so as they spoke of this or that splendour and recalled the picturesque figures which had given colour to the scene. But the laughter, the praise, the very tones of enjoyment had to her a heartless ring. She watched the pageantry of the great Indian Administration dissolve, and was blind to its glitter and conscious only of its ruthlessness. For ruthless she found it to-night. She had been face to face with a victim of the system—a youth broken by it, needlessly broken, and as helpless to recover from his hurt as a wounded animal. The harm had been done no doubt with the very best intention, but the harm had been done. She was conscious of her own share in the blame and she drove miserably home, with the picture of Shere Ali’s face as she had last seen it to bear her company, and with his cry, that he had no place anywhere at all, sounding in her ears.

When she reached the privacy of her own tent, and had dismissed her maid, she unlocked one of her trunks and took out from it her jewel case. She had been careful not to wear her necklace of pearls that night, and she took it out of the case now and laid it upon her knees. She was very sorry to part with it. She touched and caressed the pearls with loving fingers, and once she lifted it as though she would place it about her neck. But she checked her hands, fearing that if she put it on she would never bring herself to let it go. Already as she watched and fingered it and bent her head now and again to scrutinise a stone, small insidious voices began to whisper at her heart.

“He asked for nothing when he gave it you.”

“You made no promise when you took it.”

“It was a gift without conditions hinted or implied.”

Violet Oliver took the world lightly on the whole. Only this one passion for jewels and precious stones had touched her deeply as yet. Of love she knew little beyond the name and its aspect in others. She was familiar enough with that, so familiar that she gave little heed to what lay behind the aspect—or had given little heed until to-night. Her husband she had accepted rather than actively welcomed. She had lived with him in a mood of placid and unquestioning good-humour, and she had greatly missed him when he died. But it was the presence in the house that she missed, rather than the lover. To-night, almost for the first time, she had really looked under the surface. Insight had been vouchsafed to her; and in remorse she was minded to put the thing she greatly valued away from her.

She rose suddenly, and, lest the temptation to keep the necklace should prove too strong, laid it away in its case.

A post went every day over the passes into Chiltistan. She wrapped up the case in brown paper, tied it, sealed it, and addressed it. There was need to send it off, she well knew, before the picture of Shere Ali, now so vivid in her mind, lost its aspect of poignant suffering and faded out of her thoughts.

But she slept ill and in the middle of the night she rose from her bed. The tent was pitch dark. She lit her candle; and it was the light of the candle which awoke her maid. The tent was a double one; the maid slept in the smaller portion of it and a canvas doorway gave entrance into her mistress’ room. Over this doorway hung the usual screen of green matting. Now these screens act as screens, are as impenetrable to the eye as a door—so long as there is no light behind them. But place a light behind them and they become transparent. This was what Violet Oliver had done. She had lit her candle and at once a part of the interior of her tent was visible to her maid as she lay in bed.

The maid saw the table and the sealed parcel upon it. Then she saw Mrs. Oliver come to the table, break the seals, open the parcel, take out a jewel case—a jewel case which the maid knew well—and carry it and the parcel out of sight. Mrs. Oliver crossed to a corner of the room where her trunks lay; and the next moment the maid heard a key grate in a lock. For a little while the candle still burned, and every now and then a distorted shadow was flung upon the wall of the tent within the maid’s vision. It seemed to her that Mrs. Oliver was sitting at a little writing table which stood close by the trunk. Then the light went out again. The maid would have thought no more of this incident, but on entering the room next morning with a cup of tea, she was surprised to see the packet once more sealed and fastened on the centre table.

“Adela,” said Mrs. Oliver, “I want you to take that parcel to the Post Office yourself and send it off.”

The maid took the parcel away.

Violet Oliver, with a sigh of relief, drank her tea. At last, she thought, the end was reached. Now, indeed, her life and Shere Ali’s life would touch no more. But she was to see him again. For two days later, as the train which was carrying her northwards to Lahore moved out of the station, she saw from the window of her carriage the young Prince of Chiltistan standing upon the platform. She drew back quickly, fearing that he would see her. But he was watching the train with indifferent eyes; and the spectacle of his indifference struck her as something incongruous and strange. She had been thinking of him with remorse as a man twisting like Hamlet in the coils of tragedy, and wearing like Hamlet the tragic mien. Yet here he was on the platform of a railway station, waiting, like any commonplace traveller, with an uninterested patience for his train. The aspect of Shere Ali diminished Violet Oliver’s remorse. She wondered for a moment why he was not travelling upon the same train as herself, for his destination must be northwards too. And then she lost sight of him. She was glad that after all the last vision of him which she was to carry away was not the vision of a youth helpless and despairing with a trouble-tortured face.

Shere Ali was following out the destiny to which his character bound him. He had been made and moulded and fashioned, and though he knew he had been fashioned awry, he could no more change and rebuild himself than the hunchback can will away his hump. He was driven down the ways of circumstance. At present he saw and knew that he was so driven. He knew, too, that he could not resist. This half-year in Chiltistan had taught him that.

So he went southwards to Calcutta. The mere thought of Chiltistan was unendurable. He had to forget. There was no possibility of forgetfulness amongst his own hills and the foreign race that once had been his own people. Southwards he went to Calcutta, and in that city for a time was lost to sight. He emerged one afternoon upon the racecourse, and while standing on the grass in front of the Club stand, before the horses cantered down to the starting post, he saw an elderly man, heavy of build but still erect, approach him with a smile.

Shere Ali would have avoided that man if he could. He hesitated, unwilling to recognise and unable quite to ignore. And while he hesitated, the elderly man held out his hand.

“We know each other, surely. I used to see you at Eton, didn’t I? I used to run down to see a young friend of mine and a friend of yours, Dick Linforth. I am Colonel Dewes.”

“Yes, I remember,” said Shere Ali with some embarrassment; and he took the Colonel’s outstretched hand. “I thought that you had left India for good.”

“So did I,” said Dewes. “But I was wrong.” He turned and walked along by the side of Shere Ali. “I don’t know why exactly, but I did not find life in London so very interesting.”

Shere Ali looked quickly at the Colonel.

“Yet you had looked forward to retiring and going home?” he asked with a keen interest. Colonel Dewes gave himself up to reflection. He sounded the obscurities of his mind. It was a practice to which he was not accustomed. He drew himself erect, his eyes became fixed, and with a puckered forehead he thought.

“I suppose so,” he said. “Yes, certainly. I remember. One used to buck at mess of the good time one would have, the comfort of one’s club and one’s rooms, and the rest of it. It isn’t comfortable in India, is it? Not compared with England. Your furniture, your house, and all that sort of thing. You live as if you were a lodger, don’t you know, and it didn’t matter for a little while whether you were comfortable or not. The little while slips on and on, and suddenly you find you have been in the country twenty or thirty years, and you have never taken the trouble to be comfortable. It’s like living in a dak-bungalow.”

The Colonel halted and pulled at his moustache. He had made a discovery. He had reflected not without result. “By George!” he said, “that’s right. Let me put it properly now, as a fellow would put it in a book, if he hit upon anything as good.” He framed his aphorism in different phrases before he was satisfied with it. Then he delivered himself of it with pride.

“At the bottom of the Englishman’s conception of life in India, there is always the idea of a dak-bungalow,” and he repeated the sentence to commit it surely to memory. “But don’t you use it,” he said, turning to Shere Ali suddenly. “I thought of that—not you. It’s mine.”

“I won’t use it,” said Shere Ali.

“Life in India is based upon the dak-bungalow,” said Dewes. “Yes, yes”; and so great was his pride that he relented towards Shere Ali. “You may use it if you like,” he conceded. “Only you would naturally add that it was I who thought of it.”

Shere Ali smiled and replied:

“I won’t fail to do that, Colonel Dewes.”

“No? Then use it as much as you like, for it’s true. Out here one remembers the comfort of England and looks forward to it. But back there, one forgets the discomfort of India. By George! that’s pretty good, too. Shall we look at the horses?”

Shere Ali did not answer that question. With a quiet persistence he kept Colonel Dewes to the conversation. Colonel Dewes for his part was not reluctant to continue it, in spite of the mental wear and tear which it involved. He felt that he was clearly in the vein. There was no knowing what brilliant thing he might not say next. He wished that some of those clever fellows on the India Council were listening to him.

“Why?” asked Shere Ali. “Why back there does one forget the discomfort of India?”

He asked the question less in search of information than to discover whether the feelings of which he was conscious were shared too by his companion.

“Why?” answered Dewes wrinkling his forehead again. “Because one misses more than one thought to miss and one doesn’t find half what one thought to find. Come along here!”

He led Shere Ali up to the top of the stand.

“We can see the race quite well from here,” he said, “although that is not the reason why I brought you up. This is what I wanted to show you.”

He waved his hand over towards the great space which the racecourse enclosed. It was thronged with natives robed in saffron and pink, in blue and white, in scarlet and delicate shades of mauve and violet. The whole enclosure was ablaze with colour, and the colours perpetually moved and grouped themselves afresh as the throng shifted. A great noise of cries rose up into the clear air.

“I suppose that is what I missed,” said Dewes, “not the noise, not the mere crowd—you can get both on an English racecourse—but the colour.”

And suddenly before Shere Ali’s eyes there rose a vision of the Paddock at Newmarket during a July meeting. The sleek horses paced within the cool grove of trees; the bright sunlight, piercing the screen of leaves overhead, dappled their backs with flecks of gold. Nothing of the sunburnt grass before his eyes was visible to him. He saw the green turf of the Jockey Club enclosure, the seats, the luncheon room behind with its open doors and windows.

“Yes, I understand,” he said. “But you have come back,” and a note of envy sounded in his voice. Here was one point in which the parallel between his case and that of Colonel Dewes was not complete. Dewes had missed India as he had missed England. But Dewes was a free man. He could go whither he would. “Yes, you were able to come back. How long do you stay?”

And the answer to that question startled Shere Ali.

“I have come back for good.”

“You are going to live here?” cried Shere Ali.

“Not here, exactly. In Cashmere. I go up to Cashmere in a week’s time. I shall live there and die there.”

Colonel Dewes spoke without any note of anticipation, and without any regret. It was difficult for Shere Ali to understand how deeply he felt. Yet the feeling must be deep. He had cut himself off from his own people, from his own country. Shere Ali was stirred to yet more questions. He was anxious to understand thoroughly all that had moved this commonplace matter-of-fact man at his side.

“You found life in England so dull?” he asked.

“Well, one felt a stranger,” said Dewes. “One had lost one’s associations. I know there are men who throw themselves into public life and the rest of it. But I couldn’t. I hadn’t the heart for it even if I had the ability. There was Lawrence, of course. He governed India and then he went on the School Board,” and Dewes thumped his fist upon the rail in front of him. “How he was able to do it beats me altogether. I read his life with amazement. He was just as keen about the School Board as he had been about India when he was Viceroy here. He threw himself into it with just as much vigour. That beats me. He was a big man, of course, and I am not. I suppose that’s the explanation. Anyway, the School Board was not for me. I put in my winters for some years at Corfu shooting woodcock. And in the summer I met a man or two back on leave at my club. But on the whole it was pretty dull. Yes,” and he nodded his head, and for the first time a note of despondency sounded in his voice. “Yes, on the whole it was pretty dull. It will be better in Cashmere.”

“It would have been still better if you had never seen India at all,” said Shere Ali.

“No; I don’t say that. I had my good time in India—twenty-five years of it, the prime of my life. No; I have nothing to complain of,” said Dewes.

Here was another difference brought to Shere Ali’s eyes. He himself was still young; the prime years were before him, not behind. He looked down, even as Dewes had done, over that wide space gay with colours as a garden of flowers; but in the one man’s eyes there was a light of satisfaction, in the other’s a gleam almost of hatred.

“You are not sorry you came out to India,” he said. “Well, for my part,” and his voice suddenly shook with passion, “I wish to heaven I had never seen England.”

Dewes turned about, a vacant stare of perplexity upon his face.

“Oh, come, I say!” he protested.

“I mean it!” cried Shere Ali. “It was the worst thing that could have happened. I shall know no peace of mind again, no contentment, no happiness, not until I am dead. I wish I were dead!”

And though he spoke in a low voice, he spoke with so much violence that Colonel Dewes was quite astounded. He was aware of no similiarity between his own case and that of Shere Ali. He had long since forgotten the exhortations of Luffe.

“Oh, come now,” he repeated. “Isn’t that a little ungrateful—what?”

He could hardly have chosen a word less likely to soothe the exasperated nerves of his companion. Shere Ali laughed harshly.

“I ought to be grateful?” said he.

“Well,” said Dewes, “you have been to Eton and Oxford, you have seen London. All that is bound to have broadened your mind. Don’t you feel that your mind has broadened?”

“Tell me the use of a broad mind in Chiltistan,” said Shere Ali. And Colonel Dewes, who had last seen the valleys of that remote country more than twenty years before, was baffled by the challenge.

“To tell the truth, I am a little out of touch with Indian problems,” he said. “But it’s surely good in every way that there should be a man up there who knows we have something in the way of an army. When I was there, there was trouble which would have been quite prevented by knowledge of that kind.”

“Are you sure?” said Shere Ali quietly; and the two men turned and went down from the roof of the stand.

The words which Dewes had just used rankled in Shere Ali’s mind, quietly though he had received them. Here was the one definite advantage of his education in England on which Dewes could lay his finger. He knew enough of the strength of the British army to know also the wisdom of keeping his people quiet. For that he had been sacrificed. It was an advantage—yes. But an advantage to whom? he asked. Why, to those governing people here who had to find the money and the troops to suppress a rising, and to confront at the same time an outcry at home from the opponents of the forward movement. It was to their advantage certainly that he should have been sent to England. And then he was told to be grateful!

As they came out again from the winding staircase and turned towards the paddock Colonel Dewes took Shere Ali by the arm, and said in a voice of kindliness:

“And what has become of all the fine ambitions you and Dick Linforth used to have in common?”

“Linforth’s still at Chatham,” replied Shere Ali shortly.

“Yes, but you are here. You might make a beginning by yourself.”

“They won’t let me.”

“There’s the road,” suggested Dewes.

“They won’t let me add an inch to it. They will let me do nothing, and they won’t let Linforth come out. I wish they would,” he added in a softer voice. “If Linforth were to come out to Chiltistan it might make a difference.”

They had walked round to the rails in front of the stand, and Shere Ali looked up the steps to the Viceroy’s box. The Viceroy was present that afternoon. Shere Ali saw his tall figure, with the stoop of the shoulders characteristic of him, as he stood dressed in a grey frock-coat, with the ladies of his family and one or two of his aides-de-camp about him. Shere Ali suddenly stopped and nodded towards the box.

“Have you any influence there?” he asked of Colonel Dewes; and he spoke with a great longing, a great eagerness, and he waited for the answer in a great suspense.

Dewes shook his head.

“None,” he replied; “I am nobody at all.”

The hope died out of Shere Ali’s face.

“I am sorry,” he said; and the eagerness had changed into despair. There was just a chance, he thought, of salvation for himself if only Linforth could be fetched out to India. He might resume with Linforth his old companionship, and so recapture something of his old faith and of his bright ideals. There was sore need that he should recapture them. Shere Ali was well aware of it. More and more frequently sure warnings came to him. Now it was some dim recollection of beliefs once strongly clung to, which came back to him with a shock. He would awaken through some chance word to the glory of the English rule in India, the lessening poverty of the Indian nations, the incorruptibility of the English officials and their justice.

“Yes, yes,” he would say with astonishment, “I was sure of these things; I knew them as familiar truths,” even as a man gradually going blind might one day see clearly and become aware of his narrowing vision. Or perhaps it would be some sudden unsuspected revulsion of feeling in his heart. Such a revulsion had come to him this afternoon as he had gazed up to the Viceroy’s box. A wild and unreasoning wrath had flashed up within him, not against the system, but against that tall stooping man, worn with work, who was at once its representative and its flower. Up there the great man stood—so his thoughts ran—complacent, self-satisfied, careless of the harm which his system wrought. Down here upon the grass walked a man warped and perverted out of his natural course. He had been sent to Eton and to Oxford, and had been filled with longings and desires which could have no fruition; he had been trained to delicate thoughts and habits which must daily be offended and daily be a cause of offence to his countrymen. But what did the tall stooping man care? Shere Ali now knew that the English had something in the way of an army. What did it matter whether he lived in unhappiness so long as that knowledge was the price of his unhappiness? A cruel, careless, warping business, this English rule.

Thus Shere Ali felt rather than thought, and realised the while the danger of his bitter heart. Once more he appealed to Colonel Dewes, standing before him with burning eyes.

“Bring Linforth out to India! If you have any influence, use it; if you have none, obtain it. Only bring Linforth out to India, and bring him very quickly!”

Once before a passionate appeal had been made to Colonel Dewes by a man in straits, and Colonel Dewes had not understood and had not obeyed. Now, a quarter of a century later another appeal was made by a man sinking, as surely as Luffe had been sinking before, and once again Dewes did not understand.

He took Shere Ali by the arm, and said in a kindly voice:

“I tell you what it is, my lad. You have been going the pace a bit, eh? Calcutta’s no good. You’ll only collect debts and a lot of things you are better without. Better get out of it.”

Shere Ali’s face closed as his lips had done. All expression died from it in a moment. There was no help for him in Colonel Dewes. He said good-bye with a smile, and walked out past the stand. His syce was waiting for him outside the railings.

Shere Ali had come to the races wearing a sun-helmet, and, as the fashion is amongst the Europeans in Calcutta, his syce carried a silk hat for Shere Ali to take in exchange for his helmet when the sun went down. Shere Ali, like most of the Europeanised Indians, was more scrupulous than any Englishman in adhering to the European custom. But to-day, with an angry gesture, he repelled his syce.

“I am going,” he said. “You can take that thing away.”

His sense of humour failed him altogether. He would have liked furiously to kick and trample upon that glossy emblem of the civilised world; he had much ado to refrain. The syce carried back the silk hat to Shere Ali’s smart trap, and Shere Ali drove home in his helmet. Thus he began publicly to renounce the cherished illusion that he was of the white people, and must do as the white people did.

But Colonel Dewes pointed unwittingly the significance of that trivial matter on the same night. He dined at the house of an old friend, and after the ladies had gone he moved up into the next chair, and so sat beside a weary-looking official from the Punjab named Ralston, who had come down to Calcutta on leave. Colonel Dewes began to talk of his meeting with Shere Ali that afternoon. At the mention of Shere Ali’s name the official sat up and asked for more.

“He looked pretty bad,” said Colonel Dewes. “Jumpy and feverish, and with the air of a man who has been sitting up all night for a week or two. But this is what interested me most,” and Dewes told how the lad had implored him to bring Linforth out to India.

“Who’s Linforth?” asked the official quickly. “Not the son of that Linforth who——”

“Yes, that’s the man,” said the Colonel testily. “But you interrupt me. What interested me was this—when I refused to help, Shere Ali’s face changed in a most extraordinary way. All the fire went from his eyes, all the agitation from his face. It was like looking at an open box full of interesting things, and then—bang! someone slaps down the lid, and you are staring at a flat piece of wood. It was as if—as if—well, I can’t find a better comparison.”

“It was as if a European suddenly changed before your eyes into an Oriental.”

Dewes was not pleased with Ralston’s success in supplying the simile he could not hit upon himself.

“That’s a little fanciful,” he said grudgingly; and then recognised frankly the justness of its application. “Yet it’s true—a European changing into an Oriental! Yes, it just looked like that.”

“It may actually have been that,” said the official quietly. And he added: “I met Shere Ali last year at Lahore on his way north to Chiltistan. I was interested then; I am all the more interested now, for I have just been appointed to Peshawur.”

He spoke in a voice which was grave—so grave that Colonel Dewes looked quickly towards him.

“Do you think there will be trouble up there in Chiltistan?” he asked.

The Deputy-Commissioner, who was now Chief Commissioner, smiled wearily.

“There is always trouble up there in Chiltistan,” he said. “That I know. What I think is this—Shere Ali should have gone to the Mayo College at Ajmere. That would have been a compromise which would have satisfied his father and done him no harm. But since he didn’t—since he went to Eton, and to Oxford, and ran loose in London for a year or two—why, I think he is right.”

“How do you mean—right?” asked the Colonel.

“I mean that the sooner Linforth is fetched out to India and sent up to Chiltistan, the better it will be,” said the Commissioner.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XVII - News from Mecca

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