The Broken Road

Chapter XX

The Soldier and the Jew

A.E.W. Mason

THESE TWO EVENTS took place at Peshawur, while Linforth was still upon the waters of the Red Sea. To be quite exact, on that morning when Ralston was taking his long walk towards Jamrud with the zemindar Futteh Ali Shah, Linforth was watching impatiently from his deck-chair the high mosque towers, the white domes and great houses of Mocha, as they shimmered in the heat at the water’s edge against a wide background of yellow sand. It seemed to him that the long narrow city so small and clear across the great level of calm sea would never slide past the taffrail. But it disappeared, and in due course the ship moved slowly through the narrows into Aden harbour. This was on a Thursday evening, and the steamer stopped in Aden for three hours to coal. The night came on hot, windless and dark. Linforth leaned over the side, looking out upon the short curve of lights and the black mass of hill rising dimly above them. Three and a half more days and he would be standing on Indian soil. A bright light flashed towards the ship across the water and a launch came alongside, bearing the agent of the company.

He had the latest telegrams in his hand.

“Any trouble on the Frontier?” Linforth asked.

“None,” the agent replied, and Linforth’s fever of impatience was assuaged. If trouble were threatening he would surely be in time—since there were only three and a half more days.

But he did not know why he had been brought out from England, and the three and a half days made him by just three and a half days too late. For on this very night when the steamer stopped to coal in Aden harbour Shere Ali made his choice.

He was present that evening at a prize-fight which took place in a music-hall at Calcutta. The lightweight champion of Singapore and the East, a Jew, was pitted against a young soldier who had secured his discharge and had just taken to boxing as a profession. The soldier brought a great reputation as an amateur. This was his first appearance as a professional, and his friends had gathered in numbers to encourage him. The hall was crowded with soldiers from the barracks, sailors from the fleet, and patrons of the fancy in Calcutta. The heat was overpowering, the audience noisy, and overhead the electric fans, which hung downwards from the ceiling, whirled above the spectators with so swift a rotation that those looking up saw only a vague blur in the air. The ring had been roped off upon the stage, and about three sides of the ring chairs for the privileged had been placed. The fourth side was open to the spectators in the hall, and behind the ropes at the back there sat in the centre of the row of chairs a fat red-faced man in evening-dress who was greeted on all sides as Colonel Joe. “Colonel Joe” was the referee, and a person on these occasions of great importance.

There were several preliminary contests and before each one Colonel Joe came to the front and introduced the combatants with a short history of their achievements. A Hindu boy was matched against a white one, a couple of wrestlers came next, and then two English sailors, with more spirit than skill, had a set-to which warmed the audience into enthusiasm and ended amid shouts, whistles, shrill cat-calls, and thunders of applause. Meanwhile the heat grew more and more intense, the faces shinier, the air more and more smoke-laden and heavy.

Shere Ali came on to the stage while the sailors were at work. He exchanged a nod with “Colonel Joe,” and took his seat in the front row of chairs behind the ropes.

It was a rough gathering on the whole, though there were some men in evening-dress besides Colonel Joe, and of these two sat beside Shere Ali. They were talking together, and Shere Ali at the first paid no heed to them. The trainers, the backers, the pugilists themselves were the men who had become his associates in Calcutta. There were many of them present upon the stage, and in turn they approached Shere Ali and spoke to him with familiarity upon the chances of the fight. Yet in their familiarity there was a kind of deference. They were speaking to a patron. Moreover, there was some flattery in the attention with which they waited to catch his eye and the eagerness with which they came at once to his side.

“We are all glad to see you, sir,” said a small man who had been a jockey until he was warned off the turf.

“Yes,” said Shere Ali with a smile, “I am among friends.”

“Now who would you say was going to win this fight?” continued the jockey, cocking his head with an air of shrewdness, which said as plainly as words, “You are the one to tell if you will only say.”

Shere Ali expanded. Deference and flattery, however gross, so long as they came from white people were balm to his wounded vanity. The weeks in Calcutta had worked more harm than Ralston had suspected. Shy of meeting those who had once treated him as an equal, imagining when he did meet them that now they only admitted him to their company on sufferance and held him in their thoughts of no account, he had become avid for recognition among the riff-raff of the town.

“I have backed the man from Singapore,” he replied, “I know him. The soldier is a stranger to me”; and gradually as he talked the voices of his two neighbours forced themselves upon his consciousness. It was not what they said which caught his attention. But their accents and the pitch of their voices arrested him, and swept him back to his days at Eton and at Oxford. He turned his head and looked carelessly towards them. They were both young; both a year ago might have been his intimates and friends. As it was, he imagined bitterly, they probably resented his sitting even in the next chair to them.

The stage was now clear; the two sailors had departed, the audience sat waiting for the heroes of the evening and calling for them with impatient outbursts of applause. Shere Ali waited too. But there was no impatience on his part, as there was no enthusiasm. He was just getting through the evening; and this hot and crowded den, with its glitter of lights, promised a thrill of excitement which would for a moment lift him from the torture of his thoughts.

But the antagonists still lingered in their dressing-rooms while their trainers put the final touch to their preparations. And while the antagonists lingered, the two young men next to him began again to talk, and this time the words fell on Shere Ali’s ears.

“I think it ought to be stopped,” said one. “It can’t be good for us. Of course the fellow who runs the circus doesn’t care, although he is an Englishman, and although he must have understood what was being shouted.”

“He is out for money, of course,” replied the other.

“Yes. But not half a mile away, just across the Maidan there, is Government House. Surely it ought to be stopped.”

The speaker was evidently serious. He spoke, indeed, with some heat. Shere Ali wondered indifferently what it was that went on in the circus in the Maidan half a mile from the Government House. Something which ought to be stopped, something which could not be “good for us.” Shere Ali clenched his hands in a gust of passion. How well he knew the phrase! Good for us, good for the magic of British prestige! How often he had used the words himself in the days when he had been fool enough to believe that he belonged to the white people. He had used it in the company of just such youths as those who sat next to him now, and he writhed in his seat as he imagined how they must have laughed at him in their hearts. What was it that was not “good for us” in the circus on the Maidan?

As he wondered there was a burst of applause, and on the opposite side of the ring the soldier, stripped to the waist, entered with his two assistants. Shere Ali was sitting close to the lower corner of the ring on the right-hand side of the stage; the soldier took his seat in the upper corner on the other side. He was a big, heavily-built man, but young, active, and upon his open face he had a look of confidence. It seemed to Shere Ali that he had been trained to the very perfection of his strength, and when he moved the muscles upon his shoulders and back worked under his skin as though they lived. Shouts greeted him, shouts in which his surname and his Christian name and his nicknames were mingled, and he smiled pleasantly back at his friends. Shere Ali looked at him. From his cheery, honest face to the firm set of his feet upon the floor, he was typical of his class and race.

“Oh, I hope he’ll be beaten!”

Shere Ali found himself repeating the words in a whisper. The wish had suddenly sprung up within him, but it grew in intensity; it became a great longing. He looked anxiously for the appearance of the Jew from Singapore. He was glad that, knowing little of either man, he had laid his money against the soldier.

Meanwhile the two youths beside him resumed their talk, and Shere Ali learned what it was that was not “good for us”!

“There were four girls,” said the youth who had been most indignant. “Four English girls dancing a pas de quatre on the sand of the circus. The dance was all right, the dresses were all right. In an English theatre no one would have had a word to say. It was the audience that was wrong. The cheaper parts at the back of the tent were crowded with natives, tier above tier—and I tell you—I don’t know much Hindustani, but the things they shouted made my blood boil. After all, if you are going to be the governing race it’s not a good thing to let your women be insulted, eh?”

Shere Ali laughed quietly. He could picture to himself the whole scene, the floor of the circus, the tiers of grinning faces rising up against the back walls of the tent.

“Did the girls themselves mind?” asked the other of the youths.

“They didn’t understand.” And again the angry utterance followed. “It ought to be stopped! It ought to be stopped!”

Shere Ali turned suddenly upon the speaker.

“Why?” he asked fiercely, and he thrust a savage face towards him.

The young man was taken by surprise; for a second it warmed Shere Ali to think that he was afraid. And, indeed, there was very little of the civilised man in Shere Ali’s look at this moment. His own people were claiming him. It was one of the keen grim tribesmen of the hills who challenged the young Englishman. The Englishman, however, was not afraid. He was merely disconcerted by the unexpected attack. He recovered his composure the next moment.

“I don’t think that I was speaking to you,” he said quietly, and then turned away.

Shere Ali half rose in his seat. But he was not yet quite emancipated from the traditions of his upbringing. To create a disturbance in a public place, to draw all eyes upon himself, to look a fool, eventually to be turned ignominiously into the street—all this he was within an ace of doing and suffering, but he refrained. He sat down again quickly, feeling hot and cold with shame, just as he remembered he had been wont to feel when he had committed some gaucherie in his early days in England.

At that moment the light-weight champion from Singapore came out from his dressing-room and entered the ring. He was of a slighter build than his opponent, but very quick upon his feet. He was shorter, too. Colonel Joe introduced the antagonists to the audience, standing before the footlights as he did so. And it was at once evident who was the favourite. The shouts were nearly all for the soldier.

The Jew took his seat in a chair down in the corner where Shere Ali was sitting, and Shere Ali leaned over the ropes and whispered to him fiercely,

“Win! Win! I’ll double the stake if you do!”

The Jew turned and smiled at the young Prince.

“I’ll do my best.”

Shere Ali leaned back in his chair and the fight began. He followed it with an excitement and a suspense which were astonishing even to him. When the soldier brought his fist home upon the prominent nose of the Singapore champion and plaudits resounded through the house, his heart sank with bitter disappointment. When the Jew replied with a dull body-blow, his hopes rebounded. He soon began to understand that in the arts of prize-fighting the soldier was a child compared with the man from Singapore. The Champion of the East knew his trade. He was as hard as iron. The sounding blows upon his forehead and nose did no more than flush his face for a few moments. Meanwhile he struck for the body. Moreover, he had certain tricks which lured his antagonist to an imprudent confidence. For instance, he breathed heavily from the beginning of the second round, as though he were clean out of condition. But each round found him strong and quick to press an advantage. After one blow, which toppled his opponent through the ropes, Shere Ali clapped his hands.

“Bravo!” he cried; and one of the youths at his side said to his companion:

“This fellow’s a Jew, too. Look at his face.”

For twelve rounds the combatants seemed still to be upon equal terms, though those in the audience who had knowledge began to shake their heads over the chances of the soldier. Shere Ali, however, was still racked by suspense. The fight had become a symbol, almost a message to him, even as his gift to the Mullah had become a message to the people of Chiltistan. All that he had once loved, and now furiously raged against, was represented by the soldier, the confident, big, heavily built soldier, while, on the other hand, by the victory of the Jew all the subject peoples would be vindicated. More and more as the fight fluctuated from round to round the people and the country of Chiltistan claimed its own. The soldier represented even those youths at his side, whose women must on no account be insulted.

“Why should they be respected?” he cried to himself.

For at the bottom of his heart lay the thought that he had been set aside as impossible by Violet Oliver. There was the real cause of his bitterness against the white people. He still longed for Violet Oliver, still greatly coveted her. But his own people and his own country were claiming him; and he longed for her in a different way. Chivalry—the chivalry of the young man who wants to guard and cherish—respect, the desire that the loved one should share ambitions, life work, all—what follies and illusions these things were!

“I know,” said Shere Ali to himself. “I know. I am myself the victim of them,” and he lowered his head and clasped his hands tightly together between his knees. He forgot the prize-fight, the very sound of the pugilists’ feet upon the bare boards of the stage ceased to be audible to his ears. He ached like a man bruised and beaten; he was possessed with a sense of loneliness, poignant as pain. “If I had only taken the easier way, bought and never cared!” he cried despairingly. “But at all events there’s no need for respect. Why should one respect those who take and do not give?”

As he asked himself the question, there came a roar from the audience. He looked up. The soldier was standing, but he was stooping and the fingers of one hand touched the boards. Over against the soldier the man from Singapore stood waiting with steady eyes, and behind the ropes Colonel Joe was counting in a loud voice:

“One, two, three, four.”

Shere Ali’s eyes lit up. Would the soldier rise? Would he take the tips of those fingers from the floor, stand up again and face his man? Or was he beaten?

“Five, six, seven, eight”—the referee counted, his voice rising above the clamour of voices. The audience had risen, men stood upon their benches, cries of expostulation were shouted to the soldier.

“Nine, ten,” counted the referee, and the fight was over. The soldier had been counted out.

Shere Ali was upon his feet like the rest of the enthusiasts.

“Well done!” he cried. “Well done!” and as the Jew came back to his corner Shere Ali shook him excitedly by the hand. The sign had been given; the subject race had beaten the soldier. Shere Ali was livid with excitement. Perhaps, indeed, the young Englishmen had been right, and some dim racial sympathy stirred Shere Ali to his great enthusiasm.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXI - Shere Ali is Claimed by Chiltistan

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