VIOLET OLIVER told her story later during that day. But there was a certain hesitation in her manner which puzzled Ralston, at all events, amongst her audience.
“When you went to your room,” he asked, “did you find the window again unbolted?”
“No,” she replied. “It was really my fault last night. I felt the heat oppressive. I opened the window myself and went out on to the verandah. When I came back I think that I did not bolt it.”
“You forgot?” asked Ralston in surprise.
But this was not the only surprising element in the story.
“When you touched the man, he did not close with you, he made no effort to silence you,” Ralston said. “That is strange enough. But that he should strike a match, that he should let you see his face quite clearly—that’s what I don’t understand. It looks, Mrs. Oliver, as if he almost wanted you to recognise him.”
Ralston turned in his chair sharply towards her. “Did you recognise him?” he asked.
“Yes,” Violet Oliver replied. “At least I think I did. I think that I had seen him before.”
Here at all events it was clear that she was concealing nothing. She was obviously as puzzled as Ralston was himself.
“Where had you seen him?” he asked, and the answer increased his astonishment.
“In Calcutta,” she answered. “It was the same man or one very like him. I saw him on three successive evenings in the Maidan when I was driving there.”
“In Calcutta?” cried Ralston. “Some months ago, then?”
“How did you come to notice him in the Maidan?” Mrs. Oliver shivered slightly as she answered:
“He seemed to be watching me. I thought so at the time. It made me uncomfortable. Now I am sure. He was watching me,” and she suddenly came forward a step.
“I should like to go away to-day if you and your sister won’t mind,” she pleaded.
Ralston’s forehead clouded.
“Of course, I quite understand,” he said, “and if you wish to go we can’t prevent you. But you leave us rather helpless, don’t you?—as you alone can identify the man. Besides, you leave yourself too in danger.”
“But I shall go far away,” she urged. “As it is I am going back to England in a month.”
“Yes,” Ralston objected. “But you have not yet started, and if the man followed you from Calcutta to Peshawur, he may follow you from Peshawur to Bombay.”
Mrs. Oliver drew back with a start of terror and Ralston instantly took back his words.
“Of course, we will take care of you on your way south. You may rely on that,” he said with a smile. “But if you could bring yourself to stay here for a day or two I should be much obliged. You see, it is impossible to fix the man’s identity from a description, and it is really important that he should be caught.”
“Yes, I understand,” said Violet Oliver, and she reluctantly consented to stay.
“Thank you,” said Ralston, and he looked at her with a smile. “There is one more thing which I should like you to do. I should like you to ride out with me this afternoon through Peshawur. The story of last night will already be known in the bazaars. Of that you may be very sure. And it would be a good thing if you were seen to ride through the city quite unconcerned.”
Violet Oliver drew back from the ordeal which Ralston so calmly proposed to her.
“I shall be with you,” he said. “There will be no danger—or at all events no danger that Englishwomen are unprepared to face in this country.”
The appeal to her courage served Ralston’s turn. Violet raised her head with a little jerk of pride.
“Certainly I will ride with you this afternoon through Peshawur,” she said; and she went out of the room and left Ralston alone.
He sat at his desk trying to puzzle out the enigma of the night. The more he thought upon it, the further he seemed from any solution. There was the perplexing behaviour of Mrs. Oliver herself. She had been troubled, greatly troubled, to find her window unbolted on two successive nights after she had taken care to bolt it. Yet on the third night she actually unbolts it herself and leaving it unbolted puts out her light and goes to bed. It seemed incredible that she should so utterly have forgotten her fears. But still more bewildering even than her forgetfulness was the conduct of the intruder.
Upon that point he took Linforth into his counsels.
“I can’t make head or tail of it,” he cried. “Here the fellow is in the dark room with his cords and the thick cloth and the pad. Mrs. Oliver touches him. He knows that his presence is revealed to her. She is within reach. And she stands paralysed by fear, unable to cry out. Yet he does nothing, except light a match and give her a chance to recognise his face. He does not seize her, he does not stifle her voice, as he could have done—yes, as he could have done, before she could have uttered a cry. He strikes a match and shows her his face.”
“So that he might see hers,” said Linforth. Ralston shook his head. He was not satisfied with that explanation. But Linforth had no other to offer. “Have you any clue to the man?”
“None,” said Ralston.
He rode out with Mrs. Oliver that afternoon down from his house to the Gate of the City. Two men of his levies rode at a distance of twenty paces behind them. But these were his invariable escort. He took no unusual precautions. There were no extra police in the streets. He went out with his guest at his side for an afternoon ride as if nothing whatever had occurred. Mrs. Oliver played her part well. She rode with her head erect and her eyes glancing boldly over the crowded streets. Curious glances were directed at her, but she met them without agitation. Ralston observed her with a growing admiration.
“Thank you,” he said warmly. “I know this can hardly be a pleasant experience for you. But it is good for these people here to know that nothing they can do will make any difference—no not enough to alter the mere routine of our lives. Let us go forward.”
They turned to the left at the head of the main thoroughfare, and passed at a walk, now through the open spaces where the booths were erected, now through winding narrow streets between high houses. Violet Oliver, though she held her head high and her eyes were steady, rode with a fluttering heart. In front of them, about them, and behind them the crowd of people thronged, tribesmen from the hills, Mohammedans and Hindus of the city; from the upper windows the lawyers and merchants looked down upon them; and Violet held all of them in horror.
The occurrence of last night had inflicted upon her a heavier shock than either Ralston imagined or she herself had been aware until she had ridden into the town. The dark wild face suddenly springing into view above the lighted match was as vivid and terrible to her still, as a nightmare to a child. She was afraid that at any moment she might see that face again in the throng of faces. Her heart sickened with dread at the thought, and even though she should not see him, at every step she looked upon twenty of his like—kinsmen, perhaps, brothers in blood and race. She shrank from them in repulsion and she shrank from them in fear. Every nerve of her body seemed to cry out against the folly of this ride.
What were they two and the two levies behind them against the throng? Four at the most against thousands at the least.
She touched Ralston timidly on the arm.
“Might we go home now?” she asked in a voice which trembled; and he looked suddenly and anxiously into her face.
“Certainly,” he said, and he wheeled his horse round, keeping close to her as she wheeled hers.
“It is all right,” he said, and his voice took on an unusual friendliness. “We have not far to go. It was brave of you to have come, and I am very grateful. We ask much of the Englishwomen in India, and because they never fail us, we are apt to ask too much. I asked too much of you.” Violet responded to the flick at her national pride. She drew herself up and straightened her back.
“No,” she said, and she actually counterfeited a smile. “No. It’s all right.”
“I asked more than I had a right to ask,” he continued remorsefully. “I am sorry. I have lived too much amongst men. That’s my trouble. One becomes inconsiderate to women. It’s ignorance, not want of good-will. Look!” To distract her thoughts he began to point her out houses and people which were of interest.
“Do you see that sign there, ‘Bahadur Gobind, Barrister-at-Law, Cambridge B.A.,’ on the first floor over the cookshop? Yes, he is the genuine article. He went to Cambridge and took his degree and here he is back again. Take him for all in all, he is the most seditious man in the city. Meanly seditious. It only runs to writing letters over a pseudonym in the native papers. Now look up. Do you see that very respectable white-bearded gentleman on the balcony of his house? Well, his daughter-in-law disappeared one day when her husband was away from home—disappeared altogether. It had been a great grief to the old gentleman that she had borne no son to inherit the family fortune. So naturally people began to talk. She was found subsequently under the floor of the house, and it cost that respectable old gentleman twenty thousand rupees to get himself acquitted.”
Ralston pulled himself up with a jerk, realising that this was not the most appropriate story which he could have told to a lady with the overstrained nerves of Mrs. Oliver.
He turned to her with a fresh apology upon his lips. But the apology was never spoken.
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Oliver?” he asked.
She had not heard the story of the respectable old gentleman. That was clear. They were riding through an open oblong space of ground dotted with trees. There were shops down the middle, two rows backing upon a stream, and shops again at the sides. Mrs. Oliver was gazing with a concentrated look across the space and the people who crowded it towards an opening of an alley between two houses. But fixed though her gaze was, there was no longer any fear in her eyes. Rather they expressed a keen interest, a strong curiosity.
Ralston’s eyes followed the direction of her gaze. At the corner of the alley there was a shop wherein a man sat rounding a stick of wood with a primitive lathe. He made the lathe revolve by working a stringed bow with his right hand, while his left hand worked the chisel and his right foot directed it. His limbs were making three different motions with an absence of effort which needed much practice, and for a moment Ralston wondered whether it was the ingenuity of the workman which had attracted her. But in a moment he saw that he was wrong.
There were two men standing in the mouth of the alley, both dressed in white from head to foot. One stood a little behind with the hood of his cloak drawn forward over his head, so that it was impossible to discern his face. The other stood forward, a tall slim man with the elegance and the grace of youth. It was at this man Violet Oliver was looking.
Ralston looked again at her, and as he looked the colour rose into her cheeks; there came a look of sympathy, perhaps of pity, into her eyes. Almost her lips began to smile. Ralston turned his head again towards the alley, and he started in his saddle. The young man had raised his head. He was gazing fixedly towards them. His features were revealed and Ralston knew them well.
He turned quickly to Mrs. Oliver.
“You know that man?”
The colour deepened upon her face.
“It is the Prince of Chiltistan.”
“But you know him?” Ralston insisted.
“I have met him in London,” said Violet Oliver.
So Shere Ali was in Peshawur, when he should have been in Chiltistan! “Why?”
Ralston put the question to himself and looked to his companion for the answer. The colour upon her face, the interest, the sympathy of her eyes gave him the answer. This was the woman, then, whose image stood before Shere Ali’s memories and hindered him from marrying one of his own race! Just with that sympathy and that keen interest does a woman look upon the man who loves her and whose love she does not return. Moreover, there was Linforth’s hesitation. Linforth had admitted there was an Englishwoman for whom Shere Ali cared, had admitted it reluctantly, had extenuated her thoughtlessness, had pleaded for her. Oh, without a doubt Mrs. Oliver was the woman!
There flashed before Ralston’s eyes the picture of Linforth standing in the hall, turning over the cords and the cotton pad and the thick cloth. Ralston looked down again upon him from the gallery and heard his voice, saying in a whisper:
“It can’t be he! It can’t be he!”
What would Linforth say when he knew that Shere Ali was lurking in Peshawur?
Ralston was still gazing at Shere Ali when the man behind the Prince made a movement. He flung back the hood from his face, and disclosing his features looked boldly towards the riders.
A cry rang out at Ralston’s side, a woman’s cry. He turned in his saddle and saw Violet Oliver. The colour had suddenly fled from her cheeks. They were blanched. The sympathy had gone from her eyes, and in its place, stark terror looked out from them. She swayed in her saddle.
“Do you see that man?” she cried, pointing with her hand. “The man behind the Prince. The man who has thrown back his cloak.”
“Yes, yes, I see him,” answered Ralston impatiently.
“It was he who crept into my room last night.”
“You are sure?”
“Could I forget? Could I forget?” she cried; and at that moment, the man touched Shere Ali on the sleeve, and they both fled out of sight into the alley.
There was no doubt left in Ralston’s mind. It was Shere Ali who had planned the abduction of Mrs. Oliver. It was his companion who had failed to carry it out. Ralston turned to the levies behind him.
“Quick! Into that alley! Fetch me those two men who were standing there!”
The two levies pressed their horses through the crowd, but the alley was empty when they came to it.