The Broken Road

Chapter XVII

News from Mecca

A.E.W. Mason

MR. CHARLES RALSTON, being a bachelor and of an economical mind even when on leave in Calcutta, had taken up his quarters in a grass hut in the garden of his Club. He awoke the next morning with an uncomfortable feeling that there was work to be done. The feeling changed into sure knowledge as he reflected upon the conversation which he had had with Colonel Dewes, and he accordingly arose and went about it. For ten days he went to and fro between the Club and Government House, where he held long and vigorous interviews with officials who did not wish to see him. Moreover, other people came to see him privately—people of no social importance for the most part, although there were one or two officers of the police service amongst them. With these he again held long interviews, asking many inquisitive questions. Then he would go out by himself into those parts of the city where the men of broken fortunes, the jockeys run to seed, and the prize-fighters chiefly preferred to congregate. In the low quarters he sought his information of the waifs and strays who are cast up into the drinking-bars of any Oriental port, and he did not come back empty-handed.

For ten days he thus toiled for the good of the Indian Government, and, above all, of that part of it which had its headquarters at Lahore. And on the morning of the eleventh day, as he was just preparing to leave for Government House, where his persistence had prevailed, a tall, black-bearded and very sunburnt man noiselessly opened the door of the hut and as noiselessly stepped inside. Ralston, indeed, did not at once notice him, nor did the stranger call attention to his presence. He waited, motionless and patient, until Ralston happened to turn and see him.

“Hatch!” cried Ralston with a smile of welcome stealing over his startled face, and making it very pleasant to look upon. “You?”

“Yes,” answered the tall man; “I reached Calcutta last night. I went into the Club for breakfast. They told me you were here.”

Robert Hatch was of the same age as Ralston. But there was little else which they had in common. The two men had met some fifteen years ago for the first time, in Peshawur, and on that first meeting some subtle chord of sympathy had drawn them together; and so securely that even though they met but seldom nowadays, their friendship had easily survived the long intervals. The story of Hatch’s life was a simple one. He had married in his twenty-second year a wife a year younger than himself, and together the couple had settled down upon an estate which Hatch owned in Devonshire. Only a year after the marriage, however, Hatch’s wife died, and he, disliking his home, had gone restlessly abroad. The restlessness had grown, a certain taste for Oriental literature and thought had been fostered by his travels. He had become a wanderer upon the face of the earth—a man of many clubs in different quarters of the world, and of many friends, who had come to look upon his unexpected appearance and no less sudden departure as part of the ordinary tenour of their lives. Thus it was not the appearance of Hatch which had startled Ralston, but rather the silence of it.

“Why didn’t you speak?” he asked. “Why did you stand waiting there for me to look your way?”

Hatch laughed as he sat down in a chair.

“I have got into the habit of waiting, I suppose,” he said. “For the last five months I have been a servant in the train of the Sultan of the Maldive Islands.”

Ralston was not as a rule to be surprised by any strange thing which Hatch might have chosen to do. He merely glanced at his companion and asked:

“What in the world were you doing in the Maldive Islands?”

“Nothing at all,” replied Hatch. “I did not go to them. I joined the Sultan at Suez.”

This time Ralston, who had been moving about the room in search of some papers which he had mislaid, came to a stop. His attention was arrested. He sat down in a chair and prepared to listen.

“Go on,” he said.

“I wanted to go to Mecca,” said Hatch, and Ralston nodded his head as though he had expected just those words.

“I did not see how I was going to get there by myself,” Hatch continued, “however carefully I managed my disguise.”

“Yet you speak Arabic,” said Ralston.

“Yes, the language wasn’t the difficulty. Indeed, a great many of the pilgrims—the people from Central Asia, for instance—don’t speak Arabic at all. But I felt sure that if I went down the Red Sea alone on a pilgrim steamer, landed alone at Jeddah, and went up with a crowd of others to Mecca, living with them, sleeping with them, day after day, sooner or later I should make some fatal slip and never reach Mecca at all. If Burton made one mistake, how many should I? So I put the journey off year after year. But this autumn I heard that the Sultan of the Maldive Islands intended to make the pilgrimage. He was a friend of mine. I waited for him at Suez, and he reluctantly consented to take me.”

“So you went to Mecca,” exclaimed Ralston.

“Yes; I have just come from Mecca. As I told you, I only landed at Calcutta last night.”

Ralston was silent for a few moments.

“I think you may be able to help me,” he said at length. “There’s a man here in Calcutta,” and Ralston related what he knew of the history of Shere Ali, dwelling less upon the unhappiness and isolation of the Prince than upon the political consequences of his isolation.

“He has come to grief in Chiltistan,” he continued. “He won’t marry—there may be a reason for that. I don’t know. English women are not always wise in their attitude towards these boys. But it seems to me quite a natural result of his education and his life. He is suspected by his people. When he goes back, he will probably be murdered. At present he is consorting with the lowest Europeans here, drinking with them, playing cards with them, and going to ruin as fast as he can. I am not sure that there’s a chance for him at all. A few minutes ago I would certainly have said that there was none. Now, however, I am wondering. You see, I don’t know the lad well enough. I don’t know how many of the old instincts and traditions of his race and his faith are still alive in him, underneath all the Western ideas and the Western feelings to which he has been trained. But if they are dead, there is no chance for him. If they are alive—well, couldn’t they be evoked? That’s the problem.”

Hatch nodded his head.

“He might be turned again into a genuine Mohammedan,” he said. “I wonder too.”

“At all events, it’s worth trying,” said Ralston. “For it’s the only chance left to try. If we could sweep away the effects of the last few years, if we could obliterate his years in England—oh, I know it’s improbable. But help me and let us see.”

“How?” asked Hatch.

“Come and dine with me to-morrow night. I’ll make Shere Ali come. I can make him. For I can threaten to send him back to Chiltistan. Then talk to him of Mecca, talk to him of the city, and the shrine, and the pilgrims. Perhaps something of their devotion may strike a spark in him, perhaps he may have some remnant of faith still dormant in him. Make Mecca a symbol to him, make it live for him as a place of pilgrimage. You could, perhaps, because you have seen with your own eyes, and you know.”

“I can try, of course,” said Hatch with a shrug of his shoulders. “But isn’t there a danger—if I succeed? I might try to kindle faith, I might only succeed in kindling fanaticism. Are the Mohammedans beyond the frontier such a very quiet people that you are anxious to add another to their number?”

Ralston was prepared for the objection. Already, indeed, Shere Ali might be seething with hatred against the English rule. It would be no more than natural if he were. Ralston had pondered the question with an uncomfortable vision before his eyes, evoked by certain words of Colonel Dewes—a youth appealing for help, for the only help which could be of service to him, and then, as the appeal was rejected, composing his face to a complete and stolid inexpressiveness, no longer showing either his pain or his desire—reverting, as it were, from the European to the Oriental.

“Yes, there is that danger,” he admitted. “Seeking to restore a friend, we might kindle an enemy.” And then he rose up and suddenly burst out: “But upon my word, were that to come to pass, we should deserve it. For we are to blame—we who took him from Chiltistan and sent him to be petted by the fine people in England.” And once more it was evident from his words that he was thinking not of Shere Ali—not of the human being who had just his one life to live, just his few years with their opportunities of happiness, and their certain irrevocable periods of distress—but of the Prince of Chiltistan who might or might not be a cause of great trouble to the Government of the Punjab.

“We must take the risk,” he cried as one arguing almost against himself. “It’s the only chance. So we must take the risk. Besides, I have been at some pains already to minimise it. Shere Ali has a friend in England. We are asking for that friend. A telegram goes to-day. So come to-morrow night and do your best.”

“Very well, I will,” said Hatch, and, taking up his hat, he went away. He had no great hopes that any good would come of the dinner. But at the worst, he thought, it would leave matters where they were.

In that, however, he was wrong. For there were important moments in the history of the young Prince of Chiltistan of which both Hatch and Ralston were quite unaware. And because they were unaware the dinner which was to help in straightening out the tangle of Shere Ali’s life became a veritable catastrophe. Shere Ali was brought reluctantly to the table in the corner of the great balcony upon the first floor. He had little to say, and it was as evident to the two men who entertained him as it had been to Colonel Dewes that the last few weeks had taken their toll of him. There were dark, heavy pouches beneath his eyes, his manner was feverish, and when he talked at all it was with a boisterous and a somewhat braggart voice.

Ralston turned the conversation on to the journey which Hatch had taken, and for a little while the dinner promised well. At the mere mention of Mecca, Shere Ali looked up with a swift interest. “Mecca!” he cried, “you have been there! Tell me of Mecca. On my way up to Chiltistan I met three of my own countrymen on the summit of the Lowari Pass. They had a few rupees apiece—just enough, they told me, to carry them to Mecca. I remember watching them as they went laughing and talking down the snow on their long journey. And I wondered——” He broke off abruptly and sat looking out from the balcony. The night was coming on. In front stretched the great grass plain of the Maidan with its big trees and the wide carriage-road bisecting it. The carriages had driven home; the road and the plain were empty. Beyond them the high chimney-stacks of the steamers on the river could still be seen, some with a wisp of smoke curling upwards into the still air; and at times the long, melancholy hoot of a steam-syren broke the stillness of the evening.

Shere Ali turned to Hatch again and said in a quiet voice which had some note of rather pathetic appeal: “Will you tell me what you thought of Mecca? I should like to know.”

The vision of the three men descending the Lowari Pass was present to him as he listened. And he listened, wondering what strange, real power that sacred place possessed to draw men cheerfully on so long and hazardous a pilgrimage. But the secret was not yet to be revealed to him. Hatch talked well. He told Shere Ali of the journey down the Red Sea, and the crowded deck at the last sunset before Jeddah was reached, when every one of the pilgrims robed himself in spotless white and stood facing the east and uttering his prayers in his own tongue. He described the journey across the desert, the great shrine of the Prophet in Mecca, the great gathering for prayer upon the plain two miles away. Something of the fervour of the pilgrims he managed to make real by his words, but Shere Ali listened with the picture of the three men in his thoughts, and with a deep envy of their contentment.

Then Hatch made his mistake. He turned suddenly towards Ralston and said:

“But something curious happened—something very strange and curious—which I think you ought to know, for the matter can hardly be left where it is.”

Ralston leaned forward.

“Wait a moment,” he said, and he called to the waiter. “Light a cigar before you begin, Hatch,” he continued.

The cigars were brought, and Hatch lighted one.

“In what way am I concerned?” asked Ralston.

“My story has to do with India,” Hatch replied, and in his turn he looked out across the Maidan. Darkness had come and lights gleamed upon the carriage-way; the funnels of the ships had disappeared, and above, in a clear, dark sky, glittered a great host of stars.

“With India, but not with the India of to-day,” Hatch continued. “Listen”; and over his coffee he told his story. “I was walking down a narrow street of Mecca towards the big tank, when to my amazement I saw written up on a signboard above a door the single word ‘Lodgings.’ It was the English word, written, too, in the English character. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw it. I stood amazed. What was an English announcement, that lodgings were to be had within, doing in a town where no Englishman, were he known to be such, would live for a single hour? I had half a mind to knock at the door and ask. But I noticed opposite to the door a little shop in which a man sat with an array of heavy country-made bolts and locks hung upon the walls and spread about him as he squatted on the floor. I crossed over to the booth, and sitting down upon the edge of the floor, which was raised a couple of feet or so from the ground, I made some small purchase. Then, looking across to the sign, I asked him what the writing on it meant. I suppose that I did not put my question carelessly enough, for the shopkeeper leaned forward and peered closely into my face.

“‘Why do you ask?’ he said, sharply.

“‘Because I do not understand,’ I replied.

“The man looked me over again. There was no mistake in my dress, and with my black beard and eyes I could well pass for an Arab. It seemed that he was content, for he continued: ‘How should I know what the word means? I have heard a story, but whether it is true or not, who shall say?’”

Hatch paused for a moment and lighted his cigar again.

“Well, the account which he gave me was this. Among the pilgrims who come up to Mecca, there are at times Hottentots from South Africa who speak no language intelligible to anyone in Mecca; but they speak English, and it is for their benefit that the sign was hung up.”

“What a strange thing!” said Shere Ali.

“The explanation,” continued Hatch, “is not very important to my story, but what followed upon it is; for the very next day, as I was walking alone, I heard a voice in my ear, whispering: ‘The Englishwoman would like to see you this evening at five.’ I turned round in amazement, and there stood the shopkeeper of whom I had made the inquiries. I thought, of course, that he was laying a trap for me. But he repeated his statement, and, telling me that he would wait for me on this spot at ten minutes to five, he walked away.

“I did not know what to do. One moment I feared treachery and proposed to stay away, the next I was curious and proposed to go. How in the world could there be an Englishwoman in Mecca—above all, an Englishwoman who was in a position to ask me to tea? Curiosity conquered in the end. I tucked a loaded revolver into my waist underneath my jellaba and kept the appointment.”

“Go on,” said Shere Ali, who was leaning forward with a great perplexity upon his face.

“The shopkeeper was already there. ‘Follow me,’ he said, ‘but not too closely.’ We passed in that way through two or three streets, and then my guide turned into a dead alley closed in at the end by a house. In the wall of the house there was a door. My guide looked cautiously round, but there was no one to oversee us. He rapped gently with his knuckles on the door, and immediately the door was opened. He beckoned to me, and went quickly in. I followed him no less quickly. At once the door was shut behind me, and I found myself in darkness. For a moment I was sure that I had fallen into a trap, but my guide laid a hand upon my arm and led me forward. I was brought into a small, bare room, where a woman sat upon cushions. She was dressed in white like a Mohammedan woman of the East, and over her face she wore a veil. But a sort of shrivelled aspect which she had told me that she was very old. She dismissed the guide who had brought me to her, and as soon as we were alone she said:

“‘You are English.’

“And she spoke in English, though with a certain rustiness of speech, as though that language had been long unfamiliar to her tongue.

“‘No,’ I replied, and I expressed my contempt of that infidel race in suitable words.

“The old woman only laughed and removed her veil. She showed me an old wizened face in which there was not a remnant of good looks—a face worn and wrinkled with hard living and great sorrows.

“‘You are English,’ she said, ‘and since I am English too, I thought that I would like to speak once more with one of my own countrymen.’

“I no longer doubted. I took the hand she held out to me and—

“‘But what are you doing here in Mecca?’ I asked.

“‘I live in Mecca,’ she replied quietly. ‘I have lived here for twenty years.’

“I looked round that bare and sordid little room with horror. What strange fate had cast her up there? I asked her, and she told me her story. Guess what it was!”

Ralston shook his head.

“I can’t imagine.”

Hatch turned to Shere Ali.

“Can you?” he asked, and even as he asked he saw that a change had come over the young Prince’s mood. He was no longer oppressed with envy and discontent. He was leaning forward with parted lips and a look in his eyes which Hatch had not seen that evening—a look as if hope had somehow dared to lift its head within him. And there was more than a look of hope; there was savagery too.

“No. I want to hear,” replied Shere Ali. “Go on, please! How did the Englishwoman come to Mecca?”

“She was a governess in the family of an officer at Cawnpore when the Mutiny broke out, more than forty years ago,” said Hatch.

Ralston leaned back in his chair with an exclamation of horror. Shere Ali said nothing. His eyes rested intently and brightly upon Hatch’s face. Under the table, and out of sight, his fingers worked convulsively.

“She was in that room,” continued Hatch, “in that dark room with the other Englishwomen and children who were murdered. But she was spared. She was very pretty, she told me, in her youth, and she was only eighteen when the massacre took place. She was carried up to the hills and forced to become a Mohammedan. The man who had spared her married her. He died, and a small chieftain in the hills took her and married her, and finally brought her out with him when he made the pilgrimage to Mecca. While he was at Mecca, however, he fell ill, and in his turn he died. She was left alone. She had a little money, and she stayed. Indeed, she could not get away. A strange story, eh?”

And Hatch leaned back in his chair, and once more lighted his cigar which for a second time had gone out.

“You didn’t bring her back?” exclaimed Ralston.

“She wouldn’t come,” replied Hatch. “I offered to smuggle her out of Mecca, but she refused. She felt that she wouldn’t and couldn’t face her own people again. She should have died at Cawnpore, and she did not die. Besides, she was old; she had long since grown accustomed to her life, and in England she had long since been given up for dead. She would not even tell me her real name. Perhaps she ought to be fetched away. I don’t know.”

Ralston and Hatch fell to debating that point with great earnestness. Neither of them paid heed to Shere Ali, and when he rose they easily let him go. Nor did their thoughts follow him upon his way. But he was thinking deeply as he went, and a queer and not very pleasant smile played about his lips.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XVIII - Sybil Linforth’s Loyalty

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