WITHIN a week the Khan was back in his Palace, the smoke rose once more above the roof-tops of Kohara, and a smiling shikari presented himself before Poulteney Sahib in the grounds of the Residency.
“It was a good fight, Sahib,” he declared, grinning from ear to ear at the recollection of the battles. “A very good fight. We nearly won. I was in the bazaar all that day. Yes, it was a near thing. We made a mistake about those cliffs, we did not think they could be climbed. It was a good fight, but it is over. Now when will your Excellency go shooting? I have heard of some markhor on the hill.”
Poulteney Sahib stared, speechless with indignation. Then he burst out laughing:
“You old rascal! You dare to come here and ask me to take you out when I go shooting, and only a week ago you were fighting against us.”
“But the fight is all over, Excellency,” the Shikari explained. “Now all is as it was and we will go out after the markhor.” The idea that any ill-feeling could remain after so good a fight was one quite beyond the shikari’s conception. “Besides,” he said, “it was I who threw the gravel at your Excellency’s windows.”
“Why, that’s true,” said Poulteney, and a window was thrown up behind him. Ralston’s head appeared at the window.
“You had better take him,” the Chief Commissioner said. “Go out with him for a couple of days,” and when the shikari had retired, he explained the reason of his advice.
“That fellow will talk to you, and you might find out which way Shere Ali went. He wasn’t among the dead, so far as we can discover, and I think he has been headed off from Afghanistan. But it is important that we should know. So long as he is free, there will always be possibilities of trouble.”
In every direction, indeed, inquiries were being made. But for the moment Shere Ali had got clear away. Meanwhile the Khan waited anxiously in the Palace to know what was going to happen to him; and he waited in some anxiety. It fell to Ralston to inform him in durbar in the presence of his nobles and the chief officers of the British force that the Government of India had determined to grant him a pension and a residence rent-free at Jellundur.
“The Government of India will rule Chiltistan,” said Ralston. “The word has been spoken.”
He went out from the Palace and down the hill towards the place where the British forces were encamped just outside the city. When he came to the tents, he asked for Mr. Linforth, and was conducted through the lines. He found Linforth sitting alone within his tent on his camp chair, and knew from his attitude that some evil thing had befallen him. Linforth rose and offered Ralston his chair, and as he did so a letter fluttered from his lap to the ground. There were two sheets, and Linforth stooped quickly and picked them up.
“Don’t move,” said Ralston. “This will do for me,” and he sat down upon the edge of the camp bed. Linforth sat down again on his chair and, as though he were almost unaware of Ralston’s presence, he smoothed out upon his knee the sheets of the letter. Ralston could not but observe that they were crumpled and creased, as though they had been clenched and twisted in Linforth’s hand. Then Linforth raised his head, and suddenly thrust the letter into his pocket.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, and he spoke in a spiritless voice. “The post has just come in. I received a letter which—interested me. Is there anything I can do?”
“Yes,” said Ralston. “We have sure news at last. Shere Ali has fled to the north. The opportunity you asked for at Peshawur has come.”
Linforth was silent for a little while. Then he said slowly:
“I see. I am to go in pursuit?”
It seemed that Linforth’s animosity against Shere Ali had died out. Ralston watched him keenly from the bed. Something had blunted the edge of the tool just when the time had come to use it. He threw an extra earnestness into his voice.
“You have got to do more than go in pursuit of him. You have got to find him. You have got to bring him back as your prisoner.”
Linforth nodded his head.
“He has gone north, you say?”
“Yes. Somewhere in Central Asia you will find him,” and as Linforth looked up startled, Ralston continued calmly, “Yes, it’s a large order, I know, but it’s not quite so large as it looks. The trade-routes, the only possible roads, are not so very many. No man can keep his comings and goings secret for very long in that country. You will soon get wind of him, and when you do you must never let him shake you off.”
“Very well,” said Linforth, listlessly. “When do I start?”
Ralston plunged into the details of the expedition and told him the number of men he was to take with him.
“You had better go first into Chinese Turkestan,” he said. “There are a number of Hindu merchants settled there—we will give you letters to them. Some of them will be able to put you on the track of Shere Ali. You will have to round him up into a corner, I expect. And whatever you do, head him off Russian territory. For we want him. We want him brought back into Kohara. It will have a great effect on this country. It will show them that the Sirkar can even pick a man out of the bazaars of Central Asia if he is rash enough to stand up against it in revolt.”
“That will be rather humiliating for Shere Ali,” said Linforth, after a short pause; and Ralston sat up on the bed. What in the world, he wondered, could Linforth have read in his letter, so to change him? He was actually sympathising with Shere Ali—he who had been hottest in his anger.
“Shere Ali should have thought of that before,” Ralston said sharply, and he rose to his feet. “I rely upon you, Linforth. It may take you a year. It may take you only a few months. But I rely upon you to bring Shere Ali back. And when you do,” he added, with a smile, “there’s the road waiting for you.”
But for once even that promise failed to stir Dick Linforth into enthusiasm.
“I will do my best,” he said quietly; and with that Ralston left him.
Linforth sat down in his chair and once more took out the crumpled letter. He had walked with the Gods of late, like one immune from earthly troubles. But his bad hour had been awaiting him. The letter was signed Violet. He read it through again, and this was what he read:
“This is the most difficult letter I have ever written. For I don’t feel that I can make you understand at all just how things are. But somehow or other I do feel that this is going to hurt you frightfully, and, oh, Dick, do forgive me. But if it will console or help at all, know this,” and the words were underlined—as indeed were many words in Violet Oliver’s letters—“that I never was good enough for you and you are well rid of me. I told you what I was, didn’t I, Dick?—a foolish lover of beautiful things. I tried to tell you the whole truth that last evening in the garden at Peshawur, but you wouldn’t let me, Dick. And I must tell you now. I never sent the pearl necklace back, Dick, although I told you that I did. I meant to send it back the night when I parted from the Prince. I packed it up and put it ready. But—oh, Dick, how can I tell you?—I had had an imitation one made just like it for safety, and in the night I got up and changed them. I couldn’t part with it—I sent back the false one. Now you know me, Dick! But even now perhaps you don’t. You remember the night in Peshawur, the terrible night? Mr. Ralston wondered why, after complaining that my window was unbolted, I unbolted it myself. Let me tell you, Dick! Mr. Ralston said that ‘theft’ was the explanation. Well, after I tried to tell you in the garden and you would not listen, I thought of what he had said. I thought it would be such an easy way out of it, if the thief should come in when I was asleep and steal the necklace and go away again before I woke up. I don’t know how I brought myself to do it. It was you, Dick! I had just left you, I was full of thoughts of you. So I slipped back the bolt myself. But you see, Dick, what I am. Although I wanted to send that necklace back, I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t, and it’s the same with other things. I would be very, very glad to know that I could be happy with you, dear, and live your life. But I know that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t last, that I should be longing for other things, foolish things and vanities. Again, Dick, you are well rid of a silly vain woman, and I wish you all happiness in that riddance. I never would have made you a good wife. Nor will I make any man a good wife. I have not the sense of a dog. I know it, too! That’s the sad part of it all, Dick. Forgive me, and thanks, a thousand thanks, for the honour you ever did me in wanting me at all.” Then followed—it seemed to Linforth—a cry. “Won’t you forgive me, dear, dear Dick!” and after these words her name, “Violet.”
But even so the letter was not ended. A postscript was added:
“I shall always think of the little dreams we had together of our future, and regret that I couldn’t know them. That will always be in my mind. Remember that! Perhaps some day we will meet. Oh, Dick, good-bye!”
Dick sat with that letter before his eyes for a long while. Violet had told him that he could be hard, but he was not hard to her. He could read between the lines, he understood the struggle which she had had with herself, he recognised the suffering which the letter had caused her. He was touched to pity, to a greater humanity. He had shown it in his forecasts of the humiliation which would befall Shere Ali when he was brought back a prisoner to Kohara. Linforth, in a word, had shed what was left of his boyhood. He had come to recognise that life was never all black and all white. He tore up the letter into tiny fragments. It required no answer.
“Everything is just wrong,” he said to himself, gently, as he thought over Shere Ali, Violet, himself. “Everything is just not what it might have been.”
And a few days later he started northwards for Turkestan.