The Broken Road

Chapter XXI

Shere Ali is Claimed by Chiltistan

A.E.W. Mason

WHILE these thoughts were seething in his mind, while the excitement was still at its height, the cries still at their loudest, Shere All heard a quiet penetrating voice speak in his ear. And the voice spoke in Pushtu.

The mere sound of the language struck upon Shere Ali’s senses at that moment of exultation with a strange effect. He thrilled to it from head to foot. He heard it with a feeling of joy. And then he took note of the spoken words.

“The man who wrote to your Highness from Calcutta waits outside the doors. As you stand under the gas lamps, take your handkerchief from your pocket if you wish to speak with him.”

Shere Ali turned back from the ropes. But the spectators were already moving from their chairs to the steps which led from the stage to the auditorium. There was a crowd about those steps, and Shere Ali could not distinguish among it the man who was likely to have whispered in his ear. All seemed bent upon their own business, and that business was to escape from the close heat-laden air of the building as quickly as might be.

Shere Ali stood alone and pondered upon the words.

The man who had written to him from Calcutta! That was the man who had sent the anonymous letter which had caused him one day to pass through the Delhi Gate of Lahore. A money-lender at Calcutta, but a countryman from Chiltistan. So he had gathered from Safdar Khan, while heaping scorn upon the message.

But now, and on this night of all nights, Shere Ali was in a mood to listen. There were intrigues on foot—there were always intrigues on foot. But to-night he would weigh those intrigues. He went out from the music-hall, and under the white glare of the electric lamps above the door he stood for a moment in full view. Then he deliberately took his handkerchief from his pocket. From the opposite side of the road, a man in native dress, wearing a thick dark cloak over his white shirt and pyjamas, stepped forward. Shere Ali advanced to meet him.

“Huzoor, huzoor,” said the man, bending low, and he raised Shere Ali’s hand and pressed his forehead upon it, in sign of loyalty.

“You wish to speak to me?” said Shere Ali.

“If your Highness will deign to follow. I am Ahmed Ismail. Your Highness has heard of me, no doubt.”

Shere Ali did not so much as smile, nor did he deny the statement. He nodded gravely. After all, vanity was not the prerogative of his people alone in all the world.

“Yes,” he said, “I will follow.”

Ahmed Ismail crossed the road once more out of the lights into the shadows, and walked on, keeping close to the lines of houses. Shere Ali followed upon his heels. But these two were not alone to take that road. A third man, a Bengali, bespectacled, and in appearance most respectable, came down the steps of the musichall, a second after Shere Ali had crossed the road. He, too, had been a witness of the prize-fight. He hurried after Shere Ali and caught him up.

“Very good fight, sir,” he said. “Would Prince of Chiltistan like to utter some few welcome words to great Indian public on extraordinary skill of respective pugilists? I am full-fledged reporter of Bande Mataram, great Nationalist paper.”

He drew out a note-book and a pencil as he spoke. Ahmed Ismail stopped and turned back towards the two men. The Babu looked once, and only once, at the money-lender. Then he stood waiting for Shere Ali’s answer.

“No, I have nothing to say,” said Shere Ali civilly. “Good-night,” and he walked on.

“Great disappointment for Indian public,” said the Bengali. “Prince of Chiltistan will say nothing. I make first-class leading article on reticence of Indian Prince in presence of high-class spectacular events. Good-night, sir,” and the Babu shut up his book and fell back.

Shere Ali followed upon the heels of Ahmed Ismail. The money-lender walked down the street to the Maidan, and then turned to the left. The Babu, on the other hand, hailed a third-class gharry and, ascending into it gave the driver some whispered instructions.

The gharry drove on past the Bengal Club, and came, at length, to the native town. At the corner of a street the Babu descended, paid the driver, and dismissed him.

“I will walk the rest of the way,” he said. “My home is quite near and a little exercise is good. I have large varicose veins in the legs, or I should have tramped hand and foot all the way.”

He walked slowly until the driver had turned his gharry and was driving back. Then, for a man afflicted with varicose veins the Babu displayed amazing agility. He ran through the silent and deserted street until he came to a turning. The lane which ran into the main road was a blind alley. Mean hovels and shuttered booths flanked it, but at the end a tall house stood. The Babu looked about him and perceived a cart standing in the lane. He advanced to it and looked in.

“This is obvious place for satisfactory concealment,” he said, as with some difficulty he clambered in. Over the edge of the cart he kept watch. In a while he heard the sound of a man walking. The man was certainly at some distance from the turning, but the Babu’s head went down at once. The man whose footsteps he heard was wearing boots, but there would be one walking in front of that man who was wearing slippers—Ahmed Ismail.

Ahmed Ismail, indeed, turned an instant afterwards into the lane, passed the cart and walked up to the door of the big house. There he halted, and Shere Ali joined him.

“The gift was understood, your Highness,” he said. “The message was sent from end to end of Chiltistan.”

“What gift?” asked Shere Ali, in genuine surprise.

“Your Highness has forgotten? The melons and the bags of grain.”

Shere Ali was silent for a few moments. Then he said:

“And how was the gift interpreted?”

Ahmed Ismail smiled in the darkness.

“There are wise men in Chiltistan, and they found the riddle easy to read. The melons were the infidels which would be cut to pieces, even as a knife cuts a melon. The grain was the army of the faithful.”

Again Shere Ali was silent. He stood with his eyes upon his companion.

“Thus they understand my gift to the Mullah?” he said at length.

“Thus they understood it,” said Ahmed Ismail. “Were they wrong?” and since Shere Ali paused before he answered, Ahmed repeated the question, holding the while the key of his door between his fingers.

“Were they wrong, your Highness?”

“No,” said Shere Ali firmly. “They were right.”

Ahmed Ismail put the key into the lock. The bolt shot back with a grating sound, the door opened upon blackness.

“Will your Highness deign to enter?” he said, standing aside.

“Yes,” said Shere Ali, and he passed in. His own people, his own country, had claimed and obtained him.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXII - The Casting of the Die

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