The Broken Road

Chapter XXXII

Surprises for Captain Phillips

A.E.W. Mason

THE YOUNG NOBLES ceased from their outcry. They went sullenly out and mounted their horses under the ruined wall of the old fort. But as they mounted they whispered together with quick glances towards Captain Phillips. The Resident intercepted the glance and had little doubt as to the subject of the whispering.

“I am in the deuce of a tight place,” he reflected; “it’s seven to one against my ever reaching Kohara, and the one’s a doubtful quantity.”

He looked at Shere Ali, who seemed quite undisturbed by the prospect of mutiny amongst his followers. His face had hardened a little. That was all.

“And your horse?” Shere Ali asked.

Captain Phillips pointed towards the clump of trees where he had tied it up.

“Will you fetch it?” said Shere Ali, and as Phillips walked off, he turned towards the nobles and the old mullah who stood amongst them. Phillips heard his voice, as he began to speak, and was surprised by a masterful quiet ring in it. “The doubtful quantity seems to have grown into a man,” he thought, and the thought gained strength when he rode his horse back from the clump of trees towards the group. Shere Ali met him gravely.

“You will ride on my right hand,” he said. “You need have no fear.”

The seven nobles clustered behind, and the party rode at a walk over the fan of shale and through the defile into the broad valley of Kohara. Shere Ali did not speak. He rode on with a set and brooding face, and the Resident fell once more to pondering the queer scene of which he had been the witness. Even at that moment when his life was in the balance his thoughts would play with it, so complete a piece of artistry it seemed. There was the tomb itself—an earth grave and a rough obelisk without so much as a name or a date upon it set up at its head by some past Resident at Kohara. It was appropriate and seemly to the man without friends, or family, or wife, but to whom the Frontier had been all these. He would have wished for no more himself, since vanity had played so small a part in his career. He had been the great Force upon the Frontier, keeping the Queen’s peace by the strength of his character and the sagacity of his mind. Yet before his grave, invoking him as an unknown saint, the nobles of Chiltistan had knelt to pray for the destruction of such as he and the overthrow of the power which he had lived to represent. And all because his advice had been neglected.

Captain Phillips was roused out of his reflections as the cavalcade approached a village. For out of that village and from the fields about it, the men, armed for the most part with good rifles, poured towards them with cries of homage. They joined the cavalcade, marched with it past their homes, and did not turn back. Only the women and the children were left behind. And at the next village and at the next the same thing happened. The cavalcade began to swell into a small army, an army of men well equipped for war; and at the head of the gathering force Shere Ali rode with an impassive face, never speaking but to check a man from time to time who brandished a weapon at the Resident.

“Your Highness has counted the cost?” Captain Phillips asked. “There will be but the one end to it.”

Shere Ali turned to the Resident, and though his face did not change from its brooding calm, a fire burned darkly in his eyes.

“From Afghanistan to Thibet the frontier will rise,” he said proudly.

Captain Phillips shook his head.

“From Afghanistan to Thibet the Frontier will wait, as it always waits. It will wait to see what happens in Chiltistan.”

But though he spoke boldly, he had little comfort from his thoughts. The rising had been well concerted. Those who flocked to Shere Ali were not only the villagers of the Kohara valley. There were shepherds from the hills, wild men from the far corners of Chiltistan. Already the small army could be counted with the hundred for its unit. To-morrow the hundred would be a thousand. Moreover, for once in a way there was no divided counsel. Jealousy and intrigue were not, it seemed, to do their usual work in Chiltistan. There was only one master, and he of unquestioned authority. Else how came it that Captain Phillips rode amidst that great and frenzied throng, unhurt and almost unthreatened?

Down the valley the roof-tops of Kohara began to show amongst the trees. The high palace on the hill with its latticed windows bulked against the evening sky. The sound of many drums was borne to the Resident’s ears. The Residency stood a mile and a half from the town in a great garden. A high wall enclosed it, but it was a house, not a fortress; and Phillips had at his command but a few levies to defend it. One of them stood by the gate. He kept his ground as Shere Ali and his force approached. The only movement which he made was to stand at attention, and as Shere Ali halted at the entrance, he saluted. But it was Captain Phillips whom he saluted, and not the Prince of Chiltistan. Shere Ali spoke with the same quiet note of confident authority which had surprised Captain Phillips before, to the seven nobles at his back. Then he turned to the Resident.

“I will ride with you to your door,” he said.

The two men passed alone through the gateway and along a broad path which divided the forecourt to the steps of the house. And not a man of all that crowd which followed Shere Ali to Kohara pressed in behind them. Captain Phillips looked back as much in surprise as in relief. But there was no surprise on the face of Shere Ali. He, it was plain, expected obedience.

“Upon my word,” cried Phillips in a burst of admiration, “you have got your fellows well in hand.”

“I?” said Shere Ali. “I am nothing. What could I do who a week ago was still a stranger to my people? I am a voice, nothing more. But the God of my people speaks through me”; and as he spoke these last words, his voice suddenly rose to a shrill trembling note, his face suddenly quivered with excitement.

Captain Phillips stared. “The man’s in earnest,” he muttered to himself. “He actually believes it.”

It was the second time that Captain Phillips had been surprised within five minutes, and on this occasion the surprise came upon him with a shock. How it had come about—that was all dark to Captain Phillips. But the result was clear. The few words spoken as they had been spoken revealed the fact. The veneer of Shere Ali’s English training had gone. Shere Ali had reverted. His own people had claimed him.

“And I guessed nothing of this,” the Resident reflected bitterly. Signs of trouble he had noticed in abundance, but this one crucial fact which made trouble a certain and unavoidable thing—that had utterly escaped him. His thoughts went back to the nameless tomb in the courtyard of the fort.

“Luffe would have known,” he thought in a very bitter humility. “Nay, he did know. He foresaw.”

There was yet a third surprise in store for Captain Phillips. As the two men rode up the broad path, he had noticed that the door of the house was standing open, as it usually did. Now, however, he saw it swing to—very slowly, very noiselessly. He was surprised, for he knew the door to be a strong heavy door of walnut wood, not likely to swing to even in a wind. And there was no wind. Besides, if it had swung to of its own accord, it would have slammed. Its weight would have made it slam. Whereas it was not quite closed. As he reined in his horse at the steps, he saw that there was a chink between the door and the door-post.

“There’s someone behind that door,” he said to himself, and he glanced quietly at Shere Ali. It would be quite in keeping with the Chilti character for Shere Ali politely to escort him home knowing well that an assassin waited behind the door; and it was with a smile of some irony that he listened to Shere Ali taking his leave.

“You will be safe, so long as you stay within your grounds. I will place a guard about the house. I do not make war against my country’s guests. And in a few days I will send an escort and set you and your attendants free from hurt beyond our borders. But”—and his voice lost its courtesy—“take care you admit no one, and give shelter to no one.”

The menace of Shere Ali’s tone roused Captain Phillips. “I take no orders from your Highness,” he said firmly. “Your Highness may not have noticed that,” and he pointed upwards to where on a high flagstaff in front of the house the English flag hung against the pole.

“I give your Excellency no orders,” replied Shere Ali. “But on the other hand I give you a warning. Shelter so much as one man and that flag will not save you. I should not be able to hold in my men.”

Shere Ali turned and rode back to the gates. Captain Phillips dismounted, and calling forward a reluctant groom, gave him his horse. Then he suddenly flung back the door. But there was no resistance. The door swung in and clattered against the wall. Phillips looked into the hall, but the dusk was gathering in the garden. He looked into a place of twilight and shadows. He grasped his riding-crop a little more firmly in his hand and strode through the doorway. In a dark corner something moved.

“Ah! would you!” cried Captain Phillips, turning sharply on the instant. He raised his crop above his head and then a crouching figure fell at his feet and embraced his knees; and a trembling voice of fear cried:

“Save me! Your Excellency will not give me up! I have been a good friend to the English!”

For the second time the Khan of Chiltistan had sought refuge from his own people. Captain Phillips looked round.

“Hush,” he whispered in a startled voice. “Let me shut the door!”

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXXIII - In the Residency

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