The Broken Road

Chapter XXVII

An Arrested Confession

A.E.W. Mason

LINFORTH related the history of his failure to Ralston in the office at Peshawur.

“Shere Ali went away on the day the pitcher was broken,” he said. “It was the breaking of the pitcher which gave him the notice to go; I am sure of it. If one only knew what message was conveyed——” and Ralston handed to him a letter.

The letter had been sent by the Resident at Kohara and had only this day reached Peshawur. Linforth took it and read it through. It announced that the son of Abdulla Mahommed had been murdered.

“You see?” said Ralston. “He was shot in the back by one of his attendants when he was out after Markhor. He was the leader of the rival faction, and was bidding for the throne against Shere Ali. His murder clears the way. I have no doubt your friend is over the Lowari Pass by this time. There will be trouble in Chiltistan. I would have stopped Shere Ali on his way up had I known.”

“But you don’t think Shere Ali had this man murdered!” cried Linforth.

Ralston shrugged his shoulders.

“Why not? What else was he waiting for from ten to eleven in the balcony above the well, except just for this news?”

He stopped for a moment, and went on again in a voice which was very grave.

“That seems to you horrible. I am very much afraid that another thing, another murder much more horrible, will be announced down to me in the next few days. The son of Abdulla Mahommed stood in Shere Ali’s way a week ago and he is gone. But the way is still not clear. There’s still another in his path.”

Linforth interpreted the words according to the gravity with which they were uttered.

“His father!” he said, and Ralston nodded his head.

“What can we do?” he cried. “We can threaten—but what is the use of threatening without troops? And we mayn’t use troops. Chiltistan is an independent kingdom. We can advise, but we can’t force them to follow our advice. We accept the status quo. That’s the policy. So long as Chiltistan keeps the peace with us we accept Chiltistan as it is and as it may be. We can protect if our protection is asked. But our protection has not been asked. Why has Shere Ali fled so quickly back to his country? Tell me that if you can.”

None the less, however, Ralston telegraphed at once to the authorities at Lahore. Linforth, though he had failed to renew his old comradeship with Shere Ali, had not altogether failed. He had brought back news which Ralston counted as of great importance. He had linked up the murder in Chiltistan with the intrigues of Shere Ali. That the glare was rapidly broadening over that country of hills and orchards Ralston was very well aware. But it was evident now that at any moment the eruption might take place, and fire pour down the hills. In these terms he telegraphed to Lahore. Quietly and quickly, once more after twenty-five years, troops were being concentrated at Nowshera for a rush over the passes into Chiltistan. But even so Ralston was urgent that the concentration should be hurried.

He sent a letter in cipher to the Resident at Kohara, bidding him to expect Shere Ali, and with Shere Ali the beginning of the trouble.

He could do no more for the moment. So far as he could see he had taken all the precautions which were possible. But that night an event occurred in his own house which led him to believe that he had not understood the whole extent of the danger.

It was Mrs. Oliver who first aroused his suspicions. The four of them—Ralston and his sister, Linforth and Violet Oliver were sitting quietly at dinner when Violet suddenly said:

“It’s a strange thing. Of course there’s nothing really in it, and I am not at all frightened, but the last two nights, on going to bed, I have found that one of my windows was no longer bolted.”

Linforth looked up in alarm. Ralston’s face, however, did not change.

“Are you sure that it was bolted before?”

“Yes, quite sure,” said Violet. “The room is on the ground floor, and outside one of the windows a flight of steps leads down from the verandah to the ground. So I have always taken care to bolt them myself.”

“When?” asked Ralston.

“After dressing for dinner,” she replied. “It is the last thing I do before leaving the room.”

Ralston leaned back in his chair, as though a momentary anxiety were quite relieved.

“It is one of the servants, no doubt,” he said. “I will speak about it afterwards”; and for the moment the matter dropped.

But Ralston returned to the subject before dinner was finished.

“I don’t think you need be uneasy, Mrs. Oliver,” he said. “The house is guarded by sentinels, as no doubt you know. They are native levies, of course, but they are quite reliable”; and in this he was quite sincere. So long as they wore the uniform they would be loyal. The time might come when they would ask to be allowed to go home. That permission would be granted, and it was possible that they would be found in arms against the loyal troops immediately afterwards. But they would ask to be allowed to go first.

“Still,” he resumed, “if you carry valuable jewellery about with you, it would be as well, I think, if you locked it up.”

“I have very little jewellery, and that not valuable,” said Violet, and suddenly her face flushed and she looked across the table at Linforth with a smile. The smile was returned, and a minute later the ladies rose.

The two men were left alone to smoke.

“You know Mrs. Oliver better than I do,” said Ralston. “I will tell you frankly what I think. It may be a mere nothing. There may be no cause for anxiety at all. In any case anxiety is not the word” he corrected himself, and went on. “There is a perfectly natural explanation. The servants may have opened the window to air the room when they were preparing it for the night, and may easily have forgotten to latch the bolt afterwards.”

“Yes, I suppose that is the natural explanation,” said Linforth, as he lit a cigar. “It is hard to conceive any other.”

“Theft,” replied Ralston, “is the other explanation. What I said about the levies is true. I can rely on them. But the servants—that is perhaps a different question. They are Mahommedans all of them, and we hear a good deal about the loyalty of Mahommedans, don’t we?” he said, with a smile. “They wear, if not a uniform, a livery. All these things are true. But I tell you this, which is no less true. Not one of those Mahommedan servants would die wearing the livery, acknowledging their service. Every one of them, if he fell ill, if he thought that he was going to die, would leave my service to-morrow. So I don’t count on them so much. However, I will make some inquiries, and to-morrow we will move Mrs. Oliver to another room.”

He went about the business forthwith, and cross-examined his servants one after another. But he obtained no admission from any one of them. No one had touched the window. Was a single thing missing of all that the honourable lady possessed? On their lives, no!

Meanwhile Linforth sought out Violet Oliver in the drawing-room. He found her alone, and she came eagerly towards him and took his hands.

“Oh, Dick,” she said, “I am glad you have come back. I am nervous.”

“There’s no need,” said Dick with a laugh. “Let us go out.”

He opened the window, but Violet drew back.

“No, let us stay here,” she said, and passing her arm through his she stared for a few moments with a singular intentness into the darkness of the garden.

“Did you see anything?” he asked.

“No,” she replied, and he felt the tension of her body relax. “No, there’s nothing. And since you have come back, Dick, I am no longer afraid.” She looked up at him with a smile, and tightened her clasp upon his arm with a pretty air of ownership. “My Dick!” she said, and laughed.

The door-handle rattled, and Violet proved that she had lost her fear.

“That’s Miss Ralston,” she said. “Let us go out,” and she slipped out of the window quickly. As quickly Linforth followed her. She was waiting for him in the darkness.

“Dick,” she said in a whisper, and she caught him close to her.


He looked up to the dark, clear, starlit sky and down to the sweet and gentle face held up towards his. That night and in this Indian garden, it seemed to him that his faith was proven and made good. With the sense of failure heavy upon his soul, he yet found here a woman whose trust was not diminished by any failure, who still looked to him with confidence and drew comfort and strength from his presence, even as he did from hers. Alone in the drawing-room she had been afraid; outside here in the garden she had no fear, and no room in her mind for any thought of fear.

“When you spoke about your window to-night, Violet,” he said gently, “although I was alarmed for you, although I was troubled that you should have cause for alarm——”

“I saw that,” said Violet with a smile.

“Yet I never spoke.”

“Your eyes, your face spoke. Oh, my dear, I watch you,” and she drew in a breath. “I am a little afraid of you.” She did not laugh. There was nothing provocative in her accent. She spoke with simplicity and truth, now as often, what was set down to her for a coquetry by those who disliked her. Linforth was in no doubt, however. Mistake her as he did, he judged her in this respect more truly than the worldly-wise. She had at the bottom of her heart a great fear of her lover, a fear that she might lose him, a fear that he might hold her in scorn, if he knew her only half as well as she knew herself.

“I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” he said, quietly. “There is no reason for it.”

“You are hard to others if they come in your way,” she replied, and Linforth stopped. Yes, that was true. There was his mother in the house under the Sussex Downs. He had got his way. He was on the Frontier. The Road now would surely go on. It would be a strange thing if he did not manage to get some portion of that work entrusted to his hands. He had got his way, but he had been hard, undoubtedly.

“It is quite true,” he answered. “But I have had my lesson. You need not fear that I shall be anything but very gentle towards you.”

“In your thoughts?” she asked quickly. “That you will be gentle in word and in deed—yes, of that I am sure. But will you think gently of me—always? That is a different thing.”

“Of course,” he answered with a laugh.

But Violet Oliver was in no mood lightly to be put off.

“Promise me that!” she cried in a low and most passionate voice. Her lips trembled as she pleaded; her dark eyes besought him, shining starrily. “Oh, promise that you will think of me gently—that if ever you are inclined to be hard and to judge me harshly, you will remember these two nights in the dark garden at Peshawur.”

“I shall not forget them,” said Linforth, and there was no longer any levity in his tones. He spoke gravely, and more than gravely. There was a note of anxiety, as though he were troubled.

“I promise,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Violet simply; “for I know that you will keep the promise.”

“Yes, but you speak”—and the note of trouble was still more audible in Linforth’s voice—“you speak as if you and I were going to part to-morrow morning for the rest of our lives.”

“No,” Violet cried quickly and rather sharply. Then she moved on a step or two.

“I interrupted you,” she said. “You were saying that when I spoke about my window, although you were troubled on my account——”

“I felt at the same time some relief,” Linforth continued.

“Relief?” she asked.

“Yes; for on my return from Ajmere this morning I noticed a change in you.” He felt at once Violet’s hand shake upon his arm as she started; but she did not interrupt him by a word.

“I noticed it at once when we met for the first time since we had talked together in the garden, for the first time since your hands had lain in mine and your lips touched mine. And afterwards it was still there.”

“What change?” Violet asked. But she asked the question in a stifled voice and with her face averted from him.

“There was a constraint, an embarrassment,” he said. “How can I explain it? I felt it rather than noticed it by visible signs. It seemed to me that you avoided being alone with me. I had a dread that you regretted the evening in the garden, that you were sorry we had agreed to live our lives together.”

Violet did not protest. She did not turn to him with any denial in her eyes. She walked on by his side with her face still turned away from his, and for a little while she walked in silence. Then, as if compelled, she suddenly stopped and turned. She spoke, too, as if compelled, with a kind of desperation in her voice.

“Yes, you were right,” she cried. “Oh, Dick, you were right. There was constraint, there was embarrassment. I will tell you the reason—now.”

“I know it,” said Dick with a smile.

Violet stared at him for a moment. She perceived his contentment. He was now quite unharassed by fear. There was no disappointment, no anger against her. She shook her head and said slowly:

“You can’t know it.”

“I do.”

“Tell me the reason then.”

“You were frightened by this business of the window.”

Violet made a movement. She was in the mood to contradict him. But he went on, and so the mood passed.

“It was only natural. Here were you in a frontier town, a wild town on the borders of a wild country. A window bolted at dinner-time and unlocked at bedtime—it was easy to find something sinister in that. You did not like to speak of it, lest it should trouble your hosts. Yet it weighed on you. It occupied your thoughts.”

“And to that you put down my embarrassment?” she asked quietly. They had come again to the window of the drawing-room.

“Yes, I do,” he answered.

She looked at him strangely for a few moments. But the compulsion which she had felt upon her a moment ago to speak was gone. She no longer sought to contradict him. Without a word she slipped into the drawing-room.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXVIII - The Thief

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