SOMETHING of this pilgrimage Ralston understood; and what he understood he explained to Dick Linforth on the top of the tower at Peshawur. Linforth, however, was still perplexed, still unconvinced.
“I can’t believe it,” he cried; “I know Shere Ali so well.”
Ralston shook his head.
“England overlaid the real man with a pretty varnish,” he said. “That’s all it ever does. And the varnish peels off easily when the man comes back to an Indian sun. There’s not one of these people from the hills but has in him the makings of a fanatic. It’s a question of circumstances whether the fanaticism comes to the top or not. Given the circumstances, neither Eton, nor Oxford, nor all the schools and universities rolled into one would hinder the relapse.”
“But why?” exclaimed Linforth. “Why should Shere Ali have relapsed?”
“Disappointment here, flattery in England—there are many reasons. Usually there’s a particular reason.”
“And what is that?” asked Linforth.
“The love of a white woman.”
Ralston was aware that Linforth at his side started. He started ever so slightly. But Ralston was on the alert. He made no sign, however, that he had noticed anything.
“I know that reason held good in Shere Ali’s case,” Ralston went on; and there came a change in Linforth’s voice. It grew rather stern, rather abrupt.
“Why? Has he talked?”
“Not that I know of. Nevertheless, I am sure that there was one who played a part in Shere Ali’s life,” said Ralston. “I have known it ever since I first met him—more than a year ago on his way northwards to Chiltistan. He stopped for a day at Lahore and rode out with me. I told him that the Government expected him to marry as soon as possible, and settle down in his own country. I gave him that advice deliberately. You see I wanted to find out. And I did find out. His consternation, his anger, answered me clearly enough. I have no doubt that there was someone over there in England—a woman, perhaps an innocent woman, who had been merely careless—perhaps——”
But he did not finish the sentence. Linforth interrupted him before he had time to complete it. And he interrupted without flurry or any sign of agitation.
“There was a woman,” he said. “But I don’t think she was thoughtless. I don’t see how she could have known that there was any danger in her friendliness. For she was merely friendly to Shere Ali. I know her myself.”
The answer was given frankly and simply. For once Ralston was outwitted. Dick Linforth had Violet Oliver to defend, and the defence was well done. Ralston was left without a suspicion that Linforth had any reason beyond the mere truth of the facts to spur him to defend her.
“Yes, that’s the mistake,” said Ralston. “The woman’s friendly and means no more than she says or looks. But these fellows don’t understand such friendship. Shere Ali is here dreaming of a woman he knows he can never marry—because of his race. And so he’s ready to run amuck. That’s what it comes to.”
He turned away from the city as he spoke and took a step or two towards the flight of stone stairs which led down from the tower.
“Where is Shere Ali now?” Linforth asked, and Ralston stopped and came back again.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I shall know, and very soon. There may be a letter waiting for me at home. You see, when there’s trouble brewing over there behind the hills, and I want to discover to what height it has grown and how high it’s likely to grow, I select one of my police, a Pathan, of course, and I send him to find out.”
“You send him over the Malakand,” said Linforth, with a glance towards the great hill-barrier. He was to be astonished by the answer Ralston gave.
“No. On the contrary, I send him south. I send him to Ajmere, in Rajputana.”
“In Ajmere?” cried Linforth.
“Yes. There is a great Mohammedan shrine. Pilgrims go there from all parts, but mostly from beyond the frontier. I get my fingers on the pulse of the frontier in Ajmere more surely than I should if I sent spies up into the hills. I have a man there now. But that’s not all. There’s a great feast in Ajmere this week. And I think I shall find out from there where Shere Ali is and what he’s doing. As soon as I do find out, I want you to go to him.”
“I understand,” said Linforth. “But if he has changed so much, he will have changed to me.”
“Yes,” Ralston admitted. He turned again towards the steps, and the two men descended to their horses. “That’s likely enough. They ought to have sent you to me six months ago. Anyway, you must do your best.” He climbed into the saddle, and Linforth did the same.
“Very well,” said Dick, as they rode through the archway. “I will do my best,” and he turned towards Ralston with a smile. “I’ll do my best to hinder the Road from going on.”
It was a queer piece of irony that the first real demand made upon him in his life was that he should stop the very thing on the accomplishment of which his hopes were set. But there was his friend to save. He comforted himself with that thought. There was his friend rushing blindly upon ruin. Linforth could not doubt it. How in the world could Shere Ali, he wondered. He could not yet dissociate the Shere Ali of to-day from the boy and the youth who had been his chum.
They passed out of the further gate of Peshawur and rode along the broad white road towards Government House. It was growing dark, and as they turned in at the gateway of the garden, lights shone in the windows ahead of them. The lights recalled to Ralston’s mind a fact which he had forgotten to mention.
“By the way,” he said, turning towards Linforth, “we have a lady staying with us who knows you.”
Linforth leaned forward in his saddle and stooped as if to adjust a stirrup, and it was thus a second or two before he answered.
“Indeed!” he said. “Who is she?”
“A Mrs. Oliver,” replied Ralston, “She was at Srinagar in Cashmere this summer, staying with the Resident. My sister met her there, I think she told Mrs. Oliver you were likely to come to us about this time.”
Dick’s heart leaped within him suddenly. Had Violet Oliver arranged her visit so that it might coincide with his? It was at all events a pleasant fancy to play with. He looked up at the windows of the house. She was really there! After all these months he would see her. No wonder the windows were bright. As they rode up to the porch and the door was opened, he heard her voice. She was singing in the drawing-room, and the door of the drawing-room stood open. She sang in a low small voice, very pretty to the ear, and she was accompanying herself softly on the piano. Dick stood for a while listening in the lofty hall, while Ralston looked over his letters which were lying upon a small table. He opened one of them and uttered an exclamation.
“This is from my man at Ajmere,” he said, but Dick paid no attention. Ralston glanced through the letter.
“He has found him,” he cried. “Shere Ali is in Ajmere.”
It took a moment or two for the words to penetrate to Linforth’s mind. Then he said slowly:
“Oh! Shere Ali’s in Ajmere. I must start for Ajmere to-morrow.”
Ralston looked up from his letters and glanced at Linforth. Something in the abstracted way in which Linforth had spoken attracted his attention. He smiled:
“Yes, it’s a pity,” he said. But again it seemed that Linforth did not hear. And then the voice at the piano stopped abruptly as though the singer had just become aware that there were people talking in the hall. Linforth moved forward, and in the doorway of the drawing-room he came face to face with Violet Oliver. Ralston smiled again.
“There’s something between those two,” he said to himself. But Linforth had kept his secrets better half an hour ago. For it did not occur to Ralston to suspect that there had been something also between Violet Oliver and Shere Ali.