The Broken Road

Chapter XXX

The Needed Implement

A.E.W. Mason

RALSTON rode home with an uncomfortable recollection of the little dinner-party in Calcutta at which Hatch had told his story of the Englishwoman in Mecca. Had that story fired Shere Ali? The time for questions had passed; but none the less this particular one would force itself into the front of his mind.

“I would have done better never to have meddled,” he said to himself remorsefully—even while he gave his orders for the apprehension of Shere Ali and his companion. For he did not allow his remorse to hamper his action; he set a strong guard at the gates of the city, and gave orders that within the gates the city should be methodically searched quarter by quarter.

“I want them both laid by the heels,” he said; “but, above all, the Prince. Let there be no mistake. I want Shere Ali lodged in the gaol here before nightfall”; and Linforth’s voice broke in rapidly upon his words.

“Can I do anything to help? What can I do?”

Ralston looked sharply up from his desk. There had been a noticeable eagerness, a noticeable anger in Linforth’s voice.

“You?” said Ralston quietly. “You want to help? You were Shere Ali’s friend.”

Ralston smiled as he spoke, but there was no hint of irony in either words or smile. It was a smile rather of tolerance, and almost of regret—the smile of a man who was well accustomed to seeing the flowers and decorative things of life wither over-quickly, and yet was still alert and not indifferent to the change. His work for the moment was done. He leaned back thoughtfully in his chair. He no longer looked at Linforth. His one quick glance had shown him enough.

“So it’s all over, eh?” he said, as he played with his paper-knife. “Summer mornings on the Cherwell. Travels in the Dauphiné. The Meije and the Aiguilles d’Arves. Oh, I know.” Linforth moved as he stood at the side of Ralston’s desk, but the set look upon his face did not change. And Ralston went on. There came a kind of gentle mockery into his voice. “The shared ambitions, the concerted plans—gone, and not even a regret for them left, eh? Tempi passati! Pretty sad, too, when you come to think of it.”

But Linforth made no answer to Ralston’s probings. Violet Oliver’s instincts had taught her the truth, which Ralston was now learning. Linforth could be very hard. There was nothing left of the friendship which through many years had played so large a part in his life. A woman had intervened, and Linforth had shut the door upon it, had sealed his mind against its memories, and his heart against its claims. The evening at La Grave in the Dauphiné had borne its fruit. Linforth stood there white with anger against Shere Ali, hot to join in the chase. Ralston understood that if ever he should need a man to hunt down that quarry through peril and privations, here at his hand was the man on whom he could rely.

Linforth’s eager voice broke in again.

“What can I do to help?”

Ralston looked up once more.

“Nothing—for the moment. If Shere Ali is captured in Peshawur—nothing at all.”

“But if he escapes.”

Ralston shrugged his shoulders. Then he filled his pipe and lit it.

“If he escapes—why, then, your turn may come. I make no promises,” he added quickly, as Linforth, by a movement, betrayed his satisfaction. “It is not, indeed, in my power to promise. But there may come work for you—difficult work, dangerous work, prolonged work. For this outrage can’t go unpunished. In any case,” he ended with a smile, “the Road goes on.”

He turned again to his office-table, and Linforth went out of the room.

The task which Ralston had in view for Linforth came by a long step nearer that night. For all night the search went on throughout the city, and the searchers were still empty-handed in the morning. Ahmed Ismail had laid his plans too cunningly. Shere Ali was to be compromised, not captured. There was to be a price upon his head, but the head was not to fall. And while the search went on from quarter to quarter of Peshawur, the Prince and his attendant were already out in the darkness upon the hills.

Ralston telegraphed to the station on the Malakand Pass, to the fort at Jamrud, even to Landi Khotal, at the far end of the Khyber Pass, but Shere Ali had not travelled along any one of the roads those positions commanded.

“I had little hope indeed that he would,” said Ralston with a shrug of the shoulders. “He has given us the slip. We shall not catch up with him now.”

He was standing with Linforth at the mouth of the well which irrigated his garden. The water was drawn up after the Persian plan. A wooden vertical wheel wound up the bucket, and this wheel was made to revolve by a horizontal wheel with the spokes projecting beyond the rim and fitting into similar spokes upon the vertical wheel. A bullock, with a bandage over its eyes, was harnessed to the horizontal wheel, and paced slowly round and round, turning it; while a boy sat on the bullock’s back and beat it with a stick. Both men stood and listened to the groaning and creaking of the wheels for a few moments, and then Linforth said:

“So, after all, you mean to let him go?”

“No, indeed,” answered Ralston. “Only now we shall have to fetch him out of Chiltistan.”

“Will they give him up?”

Ralston shook his head.

“No.” He turned to Linforth with a smile. “I once heard the Political Officer described as the man who stands between the soldier and his medal. Well, I have tried to stand just in that spot as far as Chiltistan is concerned. But I have not succeeded. The soldier will get his medal in Chiltistan this year. I have had telegrams this morning from Lahore. A punitive force has been gathered at Nowshera. The preparations have been going on quietly for a few weeks. It will start in a few days. I shall go with it as Political Officer.”

“You will take me?” Linforth asked eagerly.

“Yes,” Ralston answered. “I mean to take you. I told you yesterday there might be service for you.”

“In Chiltistan?”

“Or beyond,” replied Ralston. “Shere Ali may give us the slip again.”

He was thinking of the arid rocky borders of Turkestan, where flight would be easy and where capture would be most difficult. It was to that work that Ralston, looking far ahead, had in his mind dedicated young Linforth, knowing well that he would count its difficulties light in the ardour of his pursuit. Anger would spur him, and the Road should be held out as his reward. Ralston listened again to the groaning of the water-wheel, and watched the hooded bullock circle round and round with patient unvarying pace, and the little boy on its back making no difference whatever with a long stick.

“Look!” he said. “There’s an emblem of the Indian administration. The wheels creak and groan, the bullock goes on round and round with a bandage over its eyes, and the little boy on its back cuts a fine important figure and looks as if he were doing ever so much, and somehow the water comes up—that’s the great thing, the water is fetched up somehow and the land watered. When I am inclined to be despondent, I come and look at my water-wheel.” He turned away and walked back to the house with his hands folded behind his back and his head bent forward.

“You are despondent now?” Linforth asked.

“Yes,” replied Ralston, with a rare and sudden outburst of confession. “You, perhaps, will hardly understand. You are young. You have a career to make. You have particular ambitions. This trouble in Chiltistan is your opportunity. But it’s my sorrow—it’s almost my failure.” He turned his face towards Linforth with a whimsical smile. “I have tried to stand between the soldier and his medal. I wanted to extend our political influence there—yes. Because that makes for peace, and it makes for good government. The tribes lose their fear that their independence will be assailed, they come in time to the Political Officer for advice, they lay their private quarrels and feuds before him for arbitration. That has happened in many valleys, and I had always a hope that though Chiltistan has a ruling Prince, the same sort of thing might in time happen there. Yes, even at the cost of the Road,” and again his very taking smile illumined for a moment his worn face. “But that hope is gone now. A force will go up and demand Shere Ali. Shere Ali will not be given up. Even were the demand not made, it would make no difference. He will not be many days in Chiltistan before Chiltistan is in arms. Already I have sent a messenger up to the Resident, telling him to come down.”

“And then?” asked Linforth.

Ralston shrugged his shoulders.

“More or less fighting, more or less loss, a few villages burnt, and the only inevitable end. We shall either take over the country or set up another Prince.”

“Set up another Prince?” exclaimed Linforth in a startled voice. “In that case—”

Ralston broke in upon him with a laugh.

“Oh, man of one idea, in any case the Road will go on to the foot of the Hindu Kush. That’s the price which Chiltistan must pay as security for future peace—the military road through Kohara to the foot of the Hindu Kush.”

Linforth’s face cleared, and he said cheerfully:

“It’s strange that Shere Ali doesn’t realise that himself.”

The cheerfulness of his voice, as much as his words, caused Ralston to stop and turn upon his companion in a moment of exasperation.

“Perhaps he does.” he exclaimed, and then he proceeded to pay a tribute to the young Prince of Chiltistan which took Linforth fairly by surprise.

“Don’t you understand—you who know him, you who grew up with him, you who were his friend? He’s a man. I know these hill-people, and like every other Englishman who has served among them, I love them—knowing their faults. Shere Ali has the faults of the Pathan, or some of them. He has their vanity; he has, if you like, their fanaticism. But he’s a man. He’s flattered and petted like a lap-dog, he’s played with like a toy. Well, he’s neither a lap-dog nor a toy, and he takes the flattery and the petting seriously. He thinks it’s meant, and he behaves accordingly. What, then? The toy is thrown down on the ground, the lap-dog is kicked into the corner. But he’s not a lap-dog, he’s not a toy. He’s a man. He has a man’s resentments, a man’s wounded heart, a man’s determination not to submit to flattery one moment and humiliation the next. So he strikes. He tries to take the white, soft, pretty thing which has been dangled before his eyes and snatched away—he tries to take her by force and fails. He goes back to his own people, and strikes. Do you blame him? Would you rather he sat down and grumbled and bragged of his successes, and took to drink, as more than one down south has done? Perhaps so. It would be more comfortable if he did. But which of the pictures do you admire? Which of the two is the better man? For me, the man who strikes—even if I have to go up into his country and exact the penalty afterwards. Shere Ali is one of the best of the Princes. But he has been badly treated and so he must suffer.”

Ralston repeated his conclusion with a savage irony. “That’s the whole truth. He’s one of the best of them. Therefore he doesn’t take bad treatment with a servile gratitude. Therefore he must suffer still more. But the fault in the beginning was not his.”

Thus it fell to Ralston to explain, twenty-six years later, the saying of a long-forgotten Political Officer which had seemed so dark to Colonel Dewes when it was uttered in the little fort in Chiltistan. There was a special danger for the best in the upbringing of the Indian princes in England.

Linforth flushed as he listened to the tirade, but he made no answer. Ralston looked at him keenly, wondering with a queer amusement whether he had not blunted the keen edge of that tool which he was keeping at his side because he foresaw the need of it. But there was no sign of any softening upon Linforth’s face. He could be hard, but on the other hand, when he gave his faith he gave it without reserve. Almost every word which Ralston had spoken had seemed to him an aspersion upon Violet Oliver. He said nothing, for he had learned to keep silence. But his anger was hotter than ever against Shere Ali, since but for Shere Ali the aspersions would never have been cast.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXXI - An Old Tomb and a New Shrine

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