The Broken Road

Chapter XXIII

Shere Ali’s Pilgrimage

A.E.W. Mason

THERE WERE TIMES when Ralston held aloft his hands and cursed the Indian administration by all his gods. But he never did so with a more whole-hearted conviction than on the day when he received word that Linforth had been diverted to Rawal Pindi, in order that he might take up purely military duties. It took Ralston just seven months to secure his release, and it was not until the early days of autumn had arrived that Linforth at last reached Peshawur. A landau, with a coachman and groom in scarlet liveries, was waiting for him at the station, and he drove along the broad road through the cantonment to Government House. As the carriage swung in at the gates, a tall, thin man came from the croquet-ground on the left. He joined Dick in the porch.

“You are Mr. Linforth?” he said.


For a moment a pair of grey, tired eyes ran Dick over from head to foot in a careless scrutiny. Apparently, however, the scrutiny was favourable.

“I am the Chief Commissioner. I am glad that you have come. My sister will give you some tea, and afterwards, if you are not tired, we might go for a ride together. You would like to see your room first.”

Ralston spoke with his usual indifference. There was no intonation in his voice which gave to any one sentence a particular meaning; and for a particular meaning Dick Linforth was listening with keen ears. He followed Ralston across the hall to his room, and disappointment gained upon him with every step. He had grown familiar with disappointment of late years, but he was still young enough in years and spirit to expect the end of disappointment with each change in his fortunes. He had expected it when the news of his appointment had reached him in Calcutta, and disappointment had awaited him in Bombay. He had expected it again when, at last, he was sent from Rawal Pindi to Peshawur. All the way up the line he had been watching the far hills of Cashmere, and repeating to himself, “At last! At last!”

The words had been a song at his heart, tuned to the jolt and rhythm of the wheels. Ralston of Peshawur had asked for him. So much he had been told. His longing had explained to him why Ralston of Peshawur had asked for him, and easily he had believed the explanation. He was a Linforth, one of the Linforths of the Road. Great was his pride. He would not have bartered his position to be a General in command of a division. Ralston had sent for him because of his hereditary title to work upon the Road, the broad, permanent, graded Road which was to make India safe.

And now he walked behind a tired and indifferent Commissioner, whose very voice officialdom had made phlegmatic, and on whose aspect was writ large the habit of routine. In this mood he sat, while Miss Ralston prattled to him about the social doings of Peshawur, the hunt, the golf; and in this mood he rode out with Ralston to the Gate of the City.

They passed through the main street, and, turning to the right, ascended to an archway, above which rose a tower. At the archway they dismounted and climbed to the roof of the tower. Peshawur, with its crowded streets, its open bazaars, its balconied houses of mud bricks built into wooden frames, lay mapped beneath them. But Linforth’s eyes travelled over the trees and the gardens northwards and eastwards, to where the foothills of the Himalayas were coloured with the violet light of evening.

“Linforth,” Ralston cried. He was leaning on the parapet at the opposite side of the tower, and Dick crossed and leaned at his side.

“It was I who had you sent for,” said Ralston in his dull voice. “When you were at Chatham, I mean. I worried them in Calcutta until they sent for you.”

Dick took his elbows from the parapet and stood up. His face took life and fire, there came a brightness as of joy into his eyes. After all, then, this time he was not to be disappointed.

“I wanted you to come to Peshawur straight from Bombay six months ago,” Ralston went on. “But I counted without the Indian Government. They brought you out to India, at my special request, for a special purpose, and then, when they had got you, they turned you over to work which anyone else could have done. So six months have been wasted. But that’s their little way.”

“You have special work for me?” said Linforth quietly enough, though his heart was beating quickly in his breast. An answer came which still quickened its beatings.

“Work that you alone can do,” Ralston replied gravely. But he was a man who had learned to hope for little, and to expect discouragements as his daily bread, and he added:

“That is, if you can do it.”

Linforth did not answer at once. He was leaning with his elbows on the parapet, and he raised a hand to the side of his face, that side on which Ralston stood. And so he remained, shutting himself in with his thoughts, and trying to think soberly. But his head whirled. Below him lay the city of Peshawur. Behind him the plains came to an end, and straight up from them, like cliffs out of the sea, rose the dark hills, brown and grey and veined with white. Here on this tower of Northern India, the long dreams, dreamed for the first time on the Sussex Downs, and nursed since in every moment of leisure—in Alpine huts in days of storm, in his own quarters at Chatham—had come to their fulfilment.

“I have lived for this work,” he said in a low voice which shook ever so little, try as he might to quiet it. “Ever since I was a boy I have lived for it, and trained myself for it. It is the Road.”

Linforth’s evident emotion came upon Ralston as an unexpected thing. He was carried back suddenly to his own youth, and was surprised to recollect that he, too, had once cherished great plans. He saw himself as he was to-day, and, side by side with that disillusioned figure, he saw himself as he had been in his youth. A smile of friendliness came over his face.

“If I had shut my eyes,” he said, “I should have thought it was your father who was speaking.”

Linforth turned quickly to Ralston.

“My father. You knew him?”


“I never did,” said Dick regretfully.

Ralston nodded his head and continued:

“Twenty-six years ago we were here in Peshawur together. We came up on to the top of this tower, as everyone does who comes to Peshawur. He was like you. He was dreaming night and day of the Great Road through Chiltistan to the foot of the Hindu Kush. Look!” and Ralston pointed down to the roof-tops of the city, whereon the women and children worked and played. For the most part they were enclosed within brick walls, and the two men looked down into them as you might look in the rooms of a doll’s house by taking off the lid. Ralston pointed to one such open chamber just beneath their eyes. An awning supported on wooden pillars sheltered one end of it, and between two of these pillars a child swooped backwards and forwards in a swing. In the open, a woman, seated upon a string charpoy, rocked a cradle with her foot, while her hands were busy with a needle, and an old woman, with a black shawl upon her shoulders and head, sat near by, inactive. But she was talking. For at times the younger woman would raise her head, and, though at that distance no voice could be heard, it was evident that she was answering. “I remember noticing that roof when your father and I were talking up here all those years ago. There was just the same family group as you see now. I remember it quite clearly, for your father went away to Chiltistan the next day, and never came back. It was the last time I saw him, and we were both young and full of all the great changes we were to bring about.” He smiled, half it seemed in amusement, half in regret. “We talked of the Road, of course. Well, there’s just one change. The old woman, sitting there with the shawl upon her shoulders now, was in those days the young woman rocking the cradle and working with her needle. That’s all. Troubles there have been, disturbances, an expedition or two—but there’s no real change. Here are you talking of the Road just as your father did, not ambitious for yourself,” he explained with a kindly smile which illumined his whole face, “but ambitious for the Road, and the Road still stops at Kohara.”

“But it will go on—now,” cried Linforth.

“Perhaps,” said Ralston slowly. Then he stood up and confronted Linforth.

“It was not that you might carry on the Road that I brought you out from England,” he skid. “On the contrary.”

Once more disappointment seized upon Dick Linforth, and he found it all the more bitter in that he had believed a minute since that his dreams were to be fulfilled. He looked down upon Peshawur, and the words which Ralston had lately spoken, half in amusement, half with regret, suddenly took for him their full meaning. Was it true that there was no change but the change from the young woman to the old one, from enthusiasm to acquiescence? He was young, and the possibility chilled him and even inspired him with a kind of terror. Was he to carry the Road no further than his father had done? Would another Linforth in another generation come to the tower in Peshawur with hopes as high as his and with the like futility?

“On the contrary?” he asked. “Then why?”

“That you might stop the Road from going on,” said Ralston quietly.

In the very midst of his disappointment Linforth realised that he had misjudged his companion. Here was no official, here was a man. The attitude of indifference had gone, the air of lassitude with it. Here was a man quietly exacting the hardest service which it was in his power to exact, claiming it as a right, and yet making it clear by some subtle sympathy that he understood very well all that the service would cost to the man who served.

“I am to hinder the making of that Road?” cried Linforth.

“You are to do more. You are to prevent it.”

“I have lived so that it should be made.”

“So you have told me,” said Ralston quietly, and Dick was silent. With each quiet sentence Ralston had become more and more the dominating figure. He was so certain, so assured. Linforth recognised him no longer as the man to argue with; but as the representative of Government which overrides predilections, sympathies, ambitions, and bends its servants to their duty.

“I will tell you more,” Ralston continued. “You alone can prevent the extension of the Road. I believe it—I know it. I sent to England for you, knowing it. Do your duty, and it may be that the Road will stop at Kohara—an unfinished, broken thing. Flinch, and the Road runs straight to the Hindu Kush. You will have your desire; but you will have failed.”

There was something implacable and relentless in the tone and the words. There was more, too. There was an intimation, subtly yet most clearly conveyed, that Ralston who spoke had in his day trampled his ambitions and desires beneath his feet in service to the Government, and asked no more now from Linforth than he himself had in his turn performed.

“I, too, have lived in Arcady,” he added.

It twas this last intimation which subdued the protests in Linforth’s mind. He looked at the worn face of the Commissioner, then he lifted his eyes and swept the horizon with his gaze. The violet light upon the hills had lost its brightness and its glamour. In the far distance the hills themselves were withdrawn. Somewhere in that great barrier to the east was the gap of the Malakand Pass, where the Road now began. Linforth turned away from the hills towards Peshawur.

“What must I do?” he asked simply.

Ralston nodded his head. His attitude relaxed, his voice lost its dominating note.

“What you have to understand is this,” he explained. “To drive the Road through Chiltistan means war. It would be the cause of war if we insisted upon it now, just as it was the cause of war when your father went up from Peshawur twenty-six years ago. Or it might be the consequence of war. If the Chiltis rose in arms, undoubtedly we should carry it on to secure control of the country in the future. Well, it is the last alternative that we are face to face with now.”

“The Chiltis might rise!” cried Linforth.

“There is that possibility,” Ralston returned. “We don’t mean on our own account to carry on the Road; but the Chiltis might rise.”

“And how should I prevent them?” asked Dick Linforth in perplexity.

“You know Shere Ali?” said Ralston


“You are a friend of his?”


“A great friend. His chief friend?”


“You have some control over him?”

“I think so,” said Linforth.

“Very well,” said Ralston. “You must use that control.”

Linforth’s perplexity increased. That danger should come from Shere Ali—here was something quite incredible. He remembered their long talks, their joint ambition. A day passed in the hut in the Promontoire of the Meije stood out vividly in his memories. He saw the snow rising in a swirl of white over the Brèche de la Meije, that gap in the rock-wall between the Meije and the Rateau, and driving down the glacier towards the hut. He remembered the eagerness, the enthusiasm of Shere Ali.

“But he’s loyal,” Linforth cried. “There is no one in India more loyal.”

“He was loyal, no doubt,” said Ralston, with a shrug of his shoulders, and, beginning with his first meeting with Shere Ali in Lahore, he told Linforth all that he knew of the history of the young Prince.

“There can be no doubt,” he said, “of his disloyalty,” and he recounted the story of the melons and the bags of grain. “Since then he has been intriguing in Calcutta.”

“Is he in Calcutta now?” Linforth asked.

“No,” said Ralston. “He left Calcutta just about the time when you landed in Bombay. And there is something rather strange—something, I think, very disquieting in his movements since he left Calcutta. I have had him watched, of course. He came north with one of his own countrymen, and the pair of them have been seen at Cawnpore, at Lucknow, at Delhi.”

Ralston paused. His face had grown very grave, very troubled.

“I am not sure,” he said slowly. “It is difficult, however long you stay in India, to get behind these fellows’ minds, to understand the thoughts and the motives which move them. And the longer you stay, the more difficult you realise it to be. But it looks to me as if Shere Ali had been taken by his companion on a sort of pilgrimage.”

Linforth started.

“A pilgrimage!” and he added slowly, “I think I understand. A pilgrimage to all the places which could most inflame the passions of a native against the English race,” and then he broke out in protest. “But it’s impossible. I know Shere Ali. It’s not reasonable——”

Ralston interrupted him upon the utterance of the word.

“Reasonable!” he cried. “You are in India. Do ever white men act reasonably in India?” and he turned with a smile. “There was a great-uncle of yours in the days of the John Company, wasn’t there? Your father told me about him here on this tower. When his time was up, he sent his money home and took his passage, and then came back—came back to the mountains and disappeared. Very likely he may be sitting somewhere beyond that barrier of hills by a little shrine to this hour, an old, old man, reverenced as a saint, with a strip of cloth about his loins, and forgetful of the days when he ruled a district in the Plains. I should not wonder. It’s not a reasonable country.”

Ralston, indeed, was not far out in his judgment. Ahmed Ismail had carried Shere Ali off from Calcutta. He had taken him first of all to Cawnpore, and had led him up to the gate of the enclosure, wherein are the Bibigarh, where the women and children were massacred, and the well into which their bodies were flung. An English soldier turned them back from that enclosure, refusing them admittance. Ahmed Ismail, knowing well that it would be so, smiled quietly under his moustache; but Shere Ali angrily pointed to some English tourists who were within the enclosure.

“Why should we remain outside?” he asked.

“They are Bilati,” said Ahmed Ismail in a smooth voice as they moved away. “They are foreigners. The place is sacred to the foreigners. It is Indian soil; but the Indian may not walk on it; no, not though he were born next door. Yet why should we grumble or complain? We are the dirt beneath their feet. We are dogs and sons of dogs, and a hireling will turn our Princes from the gate lest the soles of our shoes should defile their sacred places. And are they not right, Huzoor?” he asked cunningly. “Since we submit to it, since we cringe at their indignities and fawn upon them for their insults, are they not right?”

“Why, that’s true, Ahmed Ismail,” replied Shere Ali bitterly. He was in the mood to make much of any trifle. This reservation of the enclosure at Cawnpore was but one sign of the overbearing arrogance of the foreigners, the Bilati—the men from over the sea. He had fawned upon them himself in the days of his folly.

“But turn a little, Huzoor,” Ahmed whispered in his ear, and led him back. “Look! There is the Bibigarh where the women were imprisoned. That is the house. Through that opening Sirdar Khan and his four companions went—and shut the door behind them. In that room the women of Mecca knelt and prayed for mercy. Come away, Huzoor. We have seen. Those were days when there were men upon the plains of India.”

And Shere Ali broke out with a fierce oath.

“Amongst the hills, at all events, there are men today. There is no sacred ground for them in Chiltistan.”

“Not even the Road?” asked Ahmed Ismail; and Shere Ali stopped dead, and stared at his companion with startled eyes. He walked away in silence after that; and for the rest of that day he said little to Ahmed Ismail, who watched him anxiously. At night, however, Ahmed was justified of his policy. For Shere Ali appeared before him in the white robes of a Mohammedan. Up till then he had retained the English dress. Now he had discarded it. Ahmed Ismail fell at his feet, and bowed himself to the ground.

“My Lord! My Lord!” he cried, and there was no simulation in his outburst of joy. “Would that your people could behold you now! But we have much to see first. To-morrow we go to Lucknow.”

Accordingly the two men travelled the next day to Lucknow. Shere Ali was led up under the broken archway by Evans’s Battery into the grounds of the Residency. He walked with Ahmed Ismail at his elbow on the green lawns where the golden-crested hoopoes flashed in the sunlight and the ruined buildings stood agape to the air. They looked peaceful enough, as they strolled from one battery to another, but all the while Ahmed Ismail preached his sermon into Shere Ali’s ears. There Lawrence had died; here at the top of the narrow lane had stood Johannes’s house whence Nebo the Nailer had watched day after day with his rifle in his hand. Hardly a man, be he never so swift, could cross that little lane from one quarter of the Residency to another, so long as daylight lasted and so long as Nebo the Nailer stood behind the shutters of Johannes’s house. Shere Ali was fired by the story of that siege. By so little was the garrison saved. Ahmed Ismail led him down to a corner of the grounds and once more a sentry barred the way.

“This is the graveyard,” said Ahmed Ismail, and Shere Ali, looking up, stepped back with a look upon his face which Ahmed Ismail did not understand.

“Huzoor!” he said anxiously, and Shere Ali turned upon him with an imperious word.

“Silence, dog!” he cried. “Stand apart. I wish to be alone.”

His eyes were on the little church with the trees and the wall girding it in. At the side a green meadow with high trees, had the look of a playing-ground—the playing-ground of some great public school in England. Shere Ali’s eyes took in the whole picture, and then saw it but dimly through a mist. For the little church, though he had never seen it before, was familiar and most moving. It was a model of the Royal Chapel at Eton, and, in spite of himself, as he gazed the tears filled his eyes and the memory of his schooldays ached at his heart. He yearned to be back once more in the shadow of that chapel with his comrades and his friends. Not yet had he wholly forgotten; he was softened out of his bitterness; the burden of his jealousy and his anger fell for awhile from his shoulders. When he rejoined Ahmed Ismail, he bade him follow and speak no word. He drove back to the town, and then only he spoke to Ahmed Ismail.

“We will go from Lucknow to-day,” he said. “I will not sleep in this town.”

“As your Highness wills,” said Ahmed Ismail humbly, and he went into the station and bought tickets for Delhi. It was on a Thursday morning that the pair reached that town; and that day Ahmed Ismail had an unreceptive listener for his sermons. The monument before the Post Office, the tablets on the arch of the arsenal, even the barracks in the gardens of the Moghul Palace fired no antagonism in the Prince, who so short a time ago had been a boy at Eton. The memories evoked by the little church at Lucknow had borne him company all night and still clung to him that day. He was homesick for his school. Only twice was he really roused.

The first instance took place when he was driving along the Chandni Chauk, the straight broad tree-fringed street which runs from the Lahore Gate to the Fort. Ahmed Ismail sat opposite to him, and, leaning forward, he pointed to a tree and to a tall house in front of the tree.

“My Lord,” said he, “could that tree speak, what groans would one hear!”

“Why?” said Shere Ali listlessly.

“Listen, your Highness,” said Ahmed Ismail. Like the rest of his countrymen, he had a keen love for a story. And the love was the keener when he himself had the telling of it. He sat up alertly. “In that house lived an Englishman of high authority. He escaped when Delhi was seized by the faithful. He came back when Delhi was recaptured by the infidels. And there he sat with an English officer, at his window, every morning from eight to nine. And every morning from eight to nine every native who passed his door was stopped and hanged upon that tree, while he looked on. Huzoor, there was no inquiry. It might be some peaceable merchant, some poor man from the countryside. What did it matter? There was a lesson to be taught to this city. And so whoever walked down the Chandni Chauk during that hour dangled from those branches. Huzoor, for a week this went on—for a whole week.”

The story was current in Delhi. Ahmed Ismail found it to his hand, and Shere Ali did not question it. He sat up erect, and something of the fire which this last day had been extinct kindled again in his sombre eyes. Later on he drove along the sinuous road on the top of the ridge, and as he looked over Delhi, hidden amongst its foliage, he saw the great white dome of the Jumma Musjid rising above the tree-tops, like a balloon. “The Mosque,” he said, standing up in his carriage. “To-morrow we will worship there.”

Before noon the next day he mounted the steep broad flight of steps and passed under the red sandstone arch into the vast enclosure. He performed his ablutions at the fountain, and, kneeling upon the marble tiles, waited for the priest to ascend the ladder on to the wooden platform. He knelt with Ahmed Ismail at his side, in the open, amongst the lowliest. In front of him rows of worshippers knelt and bowed their foreheads to the tiles—rows and rows covering the enclosure up to the arches of the mosque itself. There were others too—rows and rows within the arches, in the dusk of the mosque itself, and from man to man emotion passed like a spark upon the wind. The crowd grew denser, there came a suspense, a tension. It gained upon all, it laid its clutch upon Shere Ali. He ceased to think, even upon his injuries, he was possessed with expectancy. And then a man kneeling beside him interrupted his prayers and began to curse fiercely beneath his breath.

“May they burn, they and their fathers and their children, to the last generation!” And he added epithets of a surprising ingenuity. The while he looked backwards over his shoulder.

Shere Ali followed his example. He saw at the back of the enclosure, in the galleries which surmounted the archway and the wall, English men and English women waiting. Shere Ali’s blood boiled at the sight. They were laughing, talking. Some of them had brought sandwiches and were eating their lunch. Others were taking photographs with their cameras. They were waiting for the show to begin.

Shere Ali followed the example of his neighbour and cursed them. All his anger kindled again and quickened into hatred. They were so careful of themselves, so careless of others!

“Not a Mohammedan,” he cried to himself, “must set foot in their graveyard at Lucknow, but they come to our mosque as to a show.”

Suddenly he saw the priest climb the ladder on to the high wooden platform in front of the central arch of the mosque and bow his forehead to the floor. His voice rang out resonant and clear and confident over that vast assemblage.

“There is only one God.”

And a shiver passed across the rows of kneeling men, as though unexpectedly a wind had blown across a ripe field of corn. Shere Ali was moved like the rest, but all the while at the back of his mind there was the thought of those white people in the galleries.

“They are laughing at us, they are making a mock of us, they think we are of no account.” And fiercely he called upon his God, the God of the Mohammedans, to root them out from the land and cast them as weeds in the flame.

The priest stood up erect upon the platform, and with a vibrating voice, now plaintive and conveying some strange sense of loneliness, now loud in praise, now humble in submission, he intoned the prayers. His voice rose and sank, reverberating back over the crowded courtyard from the walls of the mosque. Shere Ali prayed too, but he prayed silently, with all the fervour of a fanatic, that it might be his hand which should drive the English to their ships upon the sea.

When he rose and came out from the mosque he turned to Ahmed Ismail.

“There are some of my people in Delhi?”

Ahmed Ismail bowed.

“Let us go to them,” said Shere Ali; he sought refuge amongst them from the thought of those people in the galleries. Ahmed Ismail was well content with the results of his pilgrimage. Shere Ali, as he paced the streets of Delhi with a fierce rapt look in his eyes, had the very aspect of a Ghazi fresh from the hills and bent upon murder and immolation.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXIV - News from Ajmere

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