The Broken Road

Chapter XXXI

An Old Tomb and a New Shrine

A.E.W. Mason

THE MESSENGER whom Ralston sent with a sealed letter to the Resident at Kohara left Peshawur in the afternoon and travelled up the road by way of Dir and the Lowari Pass. He travelled quickly, spending little of his time at the rest-houses on the way, and yet arrived no sooner on that account. It was not he at all who brought his news to Kohara. Neither letter nor messenger, indeed, ever reached the Resident’s door, although Captain Phillips learned something of the letter’s contents a day before the messenger was due. A queer, and to use his own epithet, a dramatic stroke of fortune aided him at a very critical moment.

It happened in this way. While Captain Phillips was smoking a cheroot as he sat over his correspondence in the morning, a servant from the great Palace on the hill brought to him a letter in the Khan’s own handwriting. It was a flowery letter and invoked many blessings upon the Khan’s faithful friend and brother, and wound up with a single sentence, like a lady’s postscript, in which the whole object of the letter was contained. Would his Excellency the Captain, in spite of his overwhelming duties, of which the Khan was well aware, since they all tended to the great benefit and prosperity of his State, be kind enough to pay a visit to the Khan that day?

“What’s the old rascal up to now?” thought Captain Phillips. He replied, with less ornament and fewer flourishes, that he would come after breakfast; and mounting his horse at the appointed time he rode down through the wide street of Kohara and up the hill at the end, on the terraced slopes of which climbed the gardens and mud walls of the Palace. He was led at once into the big reception-room with the painted walls and the silver-gilt chairs, where the Khan had once received his son with a loaded rifle across his knees. The Khan was now seated with his courtiers about him, and was carving the rind of a pomegranate into patterns, like a man with his thoughts far away. But he welcomed Captain Phillips with alacrity and at once dismissed his Court.

Captain Phillips settled down patiently in his chair. He was well aware of the course the interview would take. The Khan would talk away without any apparent aim for an hour or two hours, passing carelessly from subject to subject, and then suddenly the important question would be asked, the important subject mooted. On this occasion, however, the Khan came with unusual rapidity to his point. A few inquiries as to the Colonel’s health, a short oration on the backwardness of the crops, a lengthier one upon his fidelity to and friendship for the British Government and the miserable return ever made to him for it, and then came a question ludicrously inapposite and put with the solemn naïveté, of a child.

“I suppose you know,” said the Khan, tugging at his great grey beard, “that my grandfather married a fairy for one of his wives?”

It was on the strength of such abrupt questions that strangers were apt to think that the Khan had fallen into his second childhood before his time. But the Resident knew his man. He was aware that the Khan was watching for his answer. He sat up in his chair and answered politely:

“So, your Highness, I have heard.”

“Yes, it is true,” continued the Khan. “Moreover, the fairy bore him a daughter who is still alive, though very old.”

“So there is still a fairy in the family,” replied Captain Phillips pleasantly, while he wondered what in the world the Khan was driving at. “Yes, indeed, I know that. For only a week ago I was asked by a poor man up the valley to secure your Highness’s intercession. It seems that he is much plagued by a fairy who has taken possession of his house, and since your Highness is related to the fairies, he would be very grateful if you would persuade his fairy to go away.”

“I know,” said the Khan gravely. “The case has already been brought to me. The fellow will open closed boxes in his house, and the fairy resents it.”

“Then your Highness has exorcised the fairy?”

“No; I have forbidden him to open boxes in his house,” said the Khan; and then, with a smile, “But it was not of him we were speaking, but of the fairy in my family.”

He leaned forward and his voice shook.

“She sends me warnings, Captain Sahib. Two nights ago, by the flat stone where the fairies dance, she heard them—the voices of an innumerable multitude in the air talking the Chilti tongue—talking of trouble to come in the near days.”

He spoke with burning eyes fixed upon the Resident and with his fingers playing nervously in and out among the hairs of his beard. Whether the Khan really believed the story of the fairies—there is nothing more usual than a belief in fairies in the countries bordered by the snow-peaks of the Hindu Kush—or whether he used the story as a blind to conceal the real source of his fear, the Resident could not decide. But what he did know was this: The Khan of Chiltistan was desperately afraid. A whole programme of reform was sketched out for the Captain’s hearing.

“I have been a good friend to the English, Captain Sahib. I have kept my Mullahs and my people quiet all these years. There are things which might be better, as your Excellency has courteously pointed out to me, and the words have never been forgotten. The taxes no doubt are very burdensome, and it may be the caravans from Bokhara and Central Asia should pay less to the treasury as they pass through Chiltistan, and perhaps I do unjustly in buying what I want from them at my own price.” Thus he delicately described the system of barefaced robbery which he practised on the traders who passed southwards to India through Chiltistan. “But these things can be altered. Moreover,” and here he spoke with an air of distinguished virtue, “I propose to sell no more of my people into slavery—No, and to give none of them, not even the youngest, as presents to my friends. It is quite true of course that the wood which I sell to the merchants of Peshawur is cut and brought down by forced labour, but next year I am thinking of paying. I have been a good friend to the English all my life, Colonel Sahib.”

Captain Phillips had heard promises of the kind before and accounted them at their true value. But he had never heard them delivered with so earnest a protestation. And he rode away from the Palace with the disturbing conviction that there was something new in the wind of which he did not know.

He rode up the valley, pondering what that something new might be. Hillside and plain were ablaze with autumn colours. The fruit in the orchards—peaches, apples, and grapes—was ripe, and on the river bank the gold of the willows glowed among thickets of red rose. High up on the hills, field rose above field, supported by stone walls. In the bosom of the valley groups of great walnut-trees marked where the villages stood.

Captain Phillips rode through the villages. Everywhere he was met with smiling faces and courteous salutes; but he drew no comfort from them. The Chilti would smile pleasantly while he was fitting his knife in under your fifth rib. Only once did Phillips receive a hint that something was amiss, but the hint was so elusive that it did no more than quicken his uneasiness.

He was riding over grass, and came silently upon a man whose back was turned to him.

“So, Dadu,” he said quietly, “you must not open closed boxes any more in your house.”

The man jumped round. He was not merely surprised, he was startled.

“Your Excellency rides up the valley?” he cried, and almost he barred the way.

“Why not, Dadu?”

Dadu’s face became impassive.

“It is as your Excellency wills. It is a good day for a ride,” said Dadu; and Captain Phillips rode on.

It might of course have been that the man had been startled merely by the unexpected voice behind him; and the question which had leaped from his mouth might have meant nothing at all. Captain Phillips turned round in his saddle. Dadu was still standing where he had left him, and was following the rider with his eyes.

“I wonder if there is anything up the valley which I ought to know about?” Captain Phillips said to himself, and he rode forward now with a watchful eye. The hills began to close in; the bosom of the valley to narrow. Nine miles from Kohara it became a defile through which the river roared between low precipitous cliffs. Above the cliffs on each side a level of stony ground, which here and there had been cleared and cultivated, stretched to the mountain walls. At one point a great fan of débris spread out from a side valley. Across this fan the track mounted, and then once more the valley widened out. On the river’s edge a roofless ruin of a building, with a garden run wild at one end of it, stood apart. A few hundred yards beyond there was a village buried among bushes, and then a deep nullah cut clean across the valley. It was a lonely and a desolate spot. Yet Captain Phillips never rode across the fan of shale and came within sight of it but his imagination began to people it with living figures and a surge of wild events. He reined in his horse as he came to the brow of the hill, and sat for a moment looking downwards. Then he rode very quickly a few yards down the hill. Before, he and his horse had been standing out clear against the sky. Now, against the background of grey and brown he would be an unnoticeable figure.

He halted again, but this time his eyes, instead of roving over the valley, were fixed intently upon one particular spot. Under the wall of the great ruined building he had seen something move. He made sure now of what the something was. There were half a dozen horses—no, seven—seven horses tethered apart from each other, and not a syce for any one of them. Captain Phillips felt his blood quicken. The Khan’s protestations and Dadu’s startled question, had primed him to expectation. Cautiously he rode down into the valley, and suspense grew upon him as he rode. It was a still, windless day, and noise carried far. The only sound he heard was the sound of the stones rattling under the hoofs of his horse. But in a little while he reached turf and level ground and so rode forward in silence. When he was within a couple of hundred yards of the ruin he halted and tied up his horse in a grove of trees. Thence he walked across an open space, passed beneath the remnant of a gateway into a court and, crossing the court, threaded his way through a network of narrow alleys between crumbling mud walls. As he advanced the sound of a voice reached his ears—a deep monotonous voice, which spoke with a kind of rhythm. The words Phillips could not distinguish, but there was no need that he should. The intonation, the flow of the sentences, told him clearly enough that somewhere beyond was a man praying. And then he stopped, for other voices broke suddenly in with loud and, as it seemed to Phillips, with fierce appeals. But the appeals died away, the one voice again took up the prayer, and again Phillips stepped forward.

At the end of the alley he came to a doorway in a high wall. There was no door. He stood on the threshold of the doorway and looked in. He looked into a court open to the sky, and the seven horses and the monotonous voice were explained to him. There were seven young men—nobles of Chiltistan, as Phillips knew from their chogas of velvet and Chinese silk—gathered in the court. They were kneeling with their backs towards him and the doorway, so that not one of them had noticed his approach. They were facing a small rough-hewn obelisk of stone which stood at the head of a low mound of earth at the far end of the court. Six of them were grouped in a sort of semi-circle, and the seventh, a man clad from head to foot in green robes, knelt a little in advance and alone. But from none of the seven nobles did the voice proceed. In front of them all knelt an old man in the brown homespun of the people. Phillips, from the doorway, could see his great beard wagging as he prayed, and knew him for one of the incendiary priests of Chiltistan.

The prayer was one with which Phillips was familiar: The Day was at hand; the infidels would be scattered as chaff; the God of Mahommed was besought to send the innumerable company of his angels and to make his faithful people invulnerable to wounds. Phillips could have gone on with the prayer himself, had the Mullah failed. But it was not the prayer which held him rooted to the spot, but the setting of the prayer.

The scene was in itself strange and significant enough. These seven gaily robed youths assembled secretly in a lonely and desolate ruin nine miles from Kohara had come thither not merely for prayer. The prayer would be but the seal upon a compact, the blessing upon an undertaking where life and death were the issues. But there was something more; and that something more gave to the scene in Phillips’ eyes a very startling irony. He knew well how quickly in these countries the actual record of events is confused, and how quickly any tomb, or any monument becomes a shrine before which “the faithful” will bow and make their prayer. But that here of all places, and before this tomb of all tombs, the God of the Mahommedans should be invoked—this was life turning playwright with a vengeance. It needed just one more detail to complete the picture and the next moment that detail was provided. For Phillips moved.

His boot rattled upon a loose stone. The prayer ceased, the worshippers rose abruptly to their feet and turned as one man towards the doorway. Phillips saw, face to face, the youth robed in green, who had knelt at the head of his companions. It was Shere Ali, the Prince of Chiltistan.

Phillips advanced at once into the centre of the group. He was wise enough not to hold out his hand lest it should be refused. But he spoke as though he had taken leave of Shere Ali only yesterday.

“So your Highness has returned?”

“Yes,” replied Shere Ali, and he spoke in the same indifferent tone.

But both men knew, however unconcernedly they spoke, that Shere Ali’s return was to be momentous in the history of Chiltistan. Shere Ali’s father knew it too, that troubled man in the Palace above Kohara.

“When did you reach Kohara?” Phillips asked.

“I have not yet been to Kohara. I ride down from here this afternoon.”

Shere Ali smiled as he spoke, and the smile said more than the words. There was a challenge, a defiance in it, which were unmistakable. But Phillips chose to interpret the words quite simply.

“Shall we go together?” he said, and then he looked towards the doorway. The others had gathered there, the six young men and the priest. They were armed and more than one had his hand ready upon his swordhilt. “But you have friends, I see,” he added grimly. He began to wonder whether he would himself ride back to Kohara that afternoon.

“Yes,” replied Shere Ali quietly, “I have friends in Chiltistan,” and he laid a stress upon the name of his country, as though he wished to show to Captain Phillips that he recognised no friends outside its borders.

Again Phillips’ thoughts were swept to the irony, the tragic irony of the scene in which he now was called to play a part.

“Does your Highness know this spot?” he asked suddenly. Then he pointed to the tomb and the rude obelisk. “Does your Highness know whose bones are laid at the foot of that monument?”

Shere Ali shrugged his shoulders.

“Within these walls, in one of these roofless rooms, you were born,” said Phillips, “and that grave before which you prayed is the grave of a man named Luffe, who defended this fort in those days.”

“It is not,” replied Shere Ali. “It is the tomb of a saint,” and he called to the mullah for corroboration of his words.

“It is the tomb of Luffe. He fell in this courtyard, struck down not by a bullet, but by overwork and the strain of the siege. I know. I have the story from an old soldier whom I met in Cashmere this summer and who served here under Luffe. Luffe fell in this court, and when he died was buried here.”

Shere Ali, in spite of himself was beginning to listen to Captain Phillips’ words.

“Who was the soldier?” he asked.

“Colonel Dewes.”

Shere Ali nodded his head as though he had expected the name. Then he said as he turned away:

“What is Luffe to me? What should I know of Luffe?”

“This,” said Phillips, and he spoke in so arresting a voice that Shere Ali turned again to listen to him. “When Luffe was dying, he uttered an appeal—he bequeathed it to India, as his last service; and the appeal was that you should not be sent to England, that neither Eton nor Oxford should know you, that you should remain in your own country.”

The Resident had Shere Ali’s attention now.

“He said that?” cried the Prince in a startled voice. Then he pointed his finger to the grave. “The man lying there said that?”


“And no one listened, I suppose?” said Shere Ali bitterly.

“Or listened too late,” said Phillips. “Like Dewes, who only since he met you in Calcutta one day upon the racecourse, seems dimly to have understood the words the dead man spoke.”

Shere Ali was silent. He stood looking at the grave and the obelisk with a gentler face than he had shown before.

“Why did he not wish it?” he asked at length.

“He said that it would mean unhappiness for you; that it might mean ruin for Chiltistan.”

“Did he say that?” said Shere Ali slowly, and there was something of awe in his voice. Then he recovered himself and cried defiantly. “Yet in one point he was wrong. It will not mean ruin for Chiltistan.”

So far he had spoken in English. Now he turned quickly towards his friends and spoke in his own tongue.

“It is time. We will go,” and to Captain Phillips he said, “You shall ride back with me to Kohara. I will leave you at the doorway of the Residency.” And these words, too, he spoke in his own tongue.

There rose a clamour among the seven who waited in the doorway, and loudest of all rose the voice of the mullah, protesting against Shere Ali’s promise.

“My word is given,” said the Prince, and he turned with a smile to Captain Phillips. “In memory of my friend,”—he pointed to the grave—“For it seems I had a friend once amongst the white people—in memory of my friend, I give you your life.”

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXXII - Surprises for Captain Phillips

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