The Broken Road/XXII
Ahmed Ismail crossed the threshold behind Shere Ali. He closed the door quietly, bolted and locked it. Then for a space of time the two men stood silent in the darkness, and both listened intently—Ahmed Ismail for the sound of someone stirring in the house, Shere Ali for a quiet secret movement at his elbow. The blackness of the passage gaping as the door opened had roused him to suspicion even while he had been standing in the street. But he had not thought of drawing back. He had entered without fear, just as now he stood, without fear, drawn up against the wall. There was, indeed, a smile upon his face. Then he reached out his hand. Ahmed Ismail, who still stood afraid lest any of his family should have been disturbed, suddenly felt a light touch, like a caress, upon his face, and then before he could so much as turn his head, five strong lean fingers gripped him by the throat and tightened.
"Ahmed, I have enemies in Chiltistan," said Shere Ali, between a whisper and a laugh. "The son of Abdulla Mohammed, for instance," and he loosened his grip a little upon Ahmed's throat, but held him still with a straight arm. Ahmed did not struggle. He whispered in reply:
"I am not of your Highness's enemies. Long ago I gave your Highness a sign of friendship when I prayed you to pass by the Delhi Gate of Lahore."
Shere Ali turned Ahmed Ismail towards the inner part of the house and loosed his neck.
"Go forward, then. Light a lamp," he said, and Ahmed moved noiselessly along the passage. Shere Ali heard the sound of a door opening upstairs, and then a pale light gleamed from above. Shere Ali walked to the end of the passage, and mounting the stairs found Ahmed Ismail in the doorway of a little room with a lighted lamp in his hand.
"I was this moment coming down," said Ahmed Ismail as he stood aside from the door. Shere Ali walked in. He crossed to the window, which was unglazed but had little wooden shutters. These shutters were closed. Shere Ali opened one and looked out. The room was on the first floor, and the window opened on to a small square courtyard. A movement of Ahmed Ismail's brought him swiftly round. He saw the money-lender on his knees with his forehead to the ground, grovelling before his Prince's feet.
"The time has come, oh, my Lord," he cried in a low, eager voice, and again, "the time has come."
Shere Ali looked down and pleasure glowed unwontedly within him. He did not answer, he did not give Ahmed Ismail leave to rise from the ground. He sated his eyes and his vanity with the spectacle of the man's abasement. Even his troubled heart ached with a duller pain.
"I have been a fool," he murmured, "I have wasted my years. I have tortured myself for nothing. Yes, I have been a fool."
A wave of anger swept over him, drowning his pride—anger against himself. He thought of the white people with whom he had lived.
"I sought for a recognition of my equality with them," he went on. "I sought it from their men and from their women. I hungered for it like a dog for a bone. They would not give it—neither their men, nor their women. And all the while here were my own people willing at a sign to offer me their homage."
He spoke in Pushtu, and Ahmed Ismail drank in every word.
"They wanted a leader, Huzoor," he said.
"I turned away from them like a fool," replied Shere Ali, "while I sought favours from the white women like a slave."
"Your Highness shall take as a right what you sought for as a favour."
"As a right?" cried Shere Ali, his heart leaping to the incense of Ahmed Ismail's flattery. "What right?" he asked, suddenly bending his eyes upon his companion.
"The right of a conqueror," cried Ahmed Ismail, and he bowed himself again at his Prince's feet. He had spoken Shere Ali's wild and secret thought. But whereas Shere Ali had only whispered it to himself, Ahmed Ismail spoke it aloud, boldly and with a challenge in his voice, like one ready to make good his words. An interval of silence followed, a fateful interval as both men knew. Not a sound from without penetrated into that little shuttered room, but to Shere Ali it seemed that the air throbbed and was heavy with unknown things to come. Memories and fancies whirled in his disordered brain without relation to each other or consequence in his thoughts. Now it was the two Englishmen seated side by side behind the ropes and quietly talking of what was "not good for us," as though they had the whole of India, and the hill-districts, besides, in their pockets. He saw their faces, and, quietly though he stood and impassive as he looked, he was possessed with a longing to behold them within reach, so that he might strike them and disfigure them for ever. Now it was Violet Oliver as she descended the steps into the great courtyard of the Fort, dainty and provoking from the arched slipper upon her foot to the soft perfection of her hair. He saw her caught into the twilight swirl of pale white faces and so pass from his sight, thinking that at the same moment she passed from his life. Then it was the Viceroy in his box at the racecourse and all Calcutta upon the lawn which swept past his eyes. He saw the Eurasian girls prinked out in their best frocks to lure into marriage some unwary Englishman. And again it was Colonel Dewes, the man who had lost his place amongst his own people, even as he, Shere Ali, had himself. A half-contemptuous smile of pity for a moment softened the hard lines of his mouth as he thought upon that forlorn and elderly man taking his loneliness with him into Cashmere.
"That shall not be my way," he said aloud, and the lines of his mouth hardened again. And once more before his eyes rose the vision of Violet Oliver.
Ahmed Ismail had risen to his feet and stood watching his Prince with eager, anxious eyes. Shere Ali crossed to the table and turned down the lamp, which was smoking. Then he went to the window and thrust the shutters open. He turned round suddenly upon Ahmed.
"Were you ever in Mecca?"
"Yes, Huzoor," and Ahmed's eyes flashed at the question.
"I met three men from Chiltistan on the Lowari Pass. They were going down to Kurachi. I, too, must make the pilgrimage to Mecca."
He stood watching the flame of the lamp as he spoke, and spoke in a monotonous dull voice, as though what he said were of little importance. But Ahmed Ismail listened to the words, not the voice, and his joy was great. It was as though he heard a renegade acknowledge once more the true faith.
"Afterwards, Huzoor," he said, significantly. "Afterwards." Shere Ali nodded his head.
"Yes, afterwards. When we have driven the white people down from the hills into the plains."
"And from the plains into the sea," cried Ahmed Ismail. "The angels will fight by our side—so the Mullahs have said—-and no man who fights with faith will be hurt. All will be invulnerable. It is written, and the Mullahs have read the writing and translated it through Chiltistan."
"Is that so?" said Shere Ali, and as he put the question there was an irony in his voice which Ahmed Ismail was quick to notice. But Shere Ali put it yet a second time, after a pause, and this time there was no trace of irony.
"But I will not go alone," he said, suddenly raising his eyes from the flame of the lamp and looking towards Ahmed Ismail.
Ahmed did not understand. But also he did not interrupt, and Shere Ali spoke again, with a smile slowly creeping over his face.
"I will not go alone to Mecca. I will follow the example of Sirdar Khan."
The saying was still a riddle to Ahmed Ismail.
"Sirdar Khan, your Highness?" he said. "I do not know him."
Shere Ali turned his eyes again upon the flame of the lamp, and the smile broadened upon his face, a thing not pleasant to see. He wetted his lips with the tip of his tongue and told his story.
"Sirdar Khan is dead long since," he said, "but he was one of the five men of the bodyguard of Nana, who went into the Bibigarh at Cawnpore on July 12 of the year 1857. Have you heard of that year, Ahmed Ismail, and of the month and of the day? Do you know what was done that day in the Bibigarh at Cawnpore?"
Ahmed Ismail watched the light grow in Shere Ali's eyes, and a smile crept into his face, too.
"Huzoor, Huzoor," he said, in a whisper of delight. He knew very well what had happened in Cawnpore, though he knew nothing of the month or the day, and cared little in what year it had happened.
"There were 206 women and children, English women, English children, shut up in the Bibigarh. At five o'clock—and it is well to remember the hour, Ahmed Ismail—at five o'clock in the evening the five men of the Nana's bodyguard went into the Bibigarh and the doors were closed upon them. It was dark when they came out again and shut the doors behind them, saying that all were dead. But it was not true. There was an Englishwoman alive in the Bibigarh, and Sirdar Khan came back in the night and took her away."
"And she is in Mecca now?" cried Ahmed Ismail.
"Yes. An old, old woman," said Shere Ali, dwelling upon the words with a quiet, cruel pleasure. He had the picture clear before his eyes, he saw it in the flame of the lamp at which he gazed so steadily—an old, wizened, shrunken woman, living in a bare room, friendless and solitary, so old that she had even ceased to be aware of her unhappiness, and so coarsened out of all likeness to the young, bright English girl who had once dwelt in Cawnpore, that even her own countryman had hardly believed she was of his race. He set another picture side by side with that—the picture of Violet Oliver as she turned to him on the steps and said, "This is really good-bye." And in his imagination, he saw the one picture merge and coarsen into the other, the dainty trappings of lace and ribbons change to a shapeless cloak, the young face wither from its beauty into a wrinkled and yellow mask. It would be a just punishment, he said to himself. Anger against her was as a lust at his heart. He had lost sight of her kindness, and her pity; he desired her and hated her in the same breath.
"Are you married, Ahmed Ismail?" he asked.
Ahmed Ismail smiled.
"Do you carry your troubles to your wife? Is she your companion as well as your wife? Your friend as well as your mistress?"
Ahmed Ismail laughed.
"Yet that is what the Englishwomen are," said Shere Ali.
"Perhaps, Huzoor," replied Ahmed, cunningly, "it is for that reason that there are some who take and do not give."
He came a little nearer to his Prince.
"Where is she, Huzoor?"
Shere Ali was startled by the question out of his dreams. For it had been a dream, this thought of capturing Violet Oliver and plucking her out of her life into his. He had played with it, knowing it to be a fancy. There had been no settled plan, no settled intention in his mind. But to-night he was carried away. It appeared to him there was a possibility his dream might come true. It seemed so not alone to him but to Ahmed Ismail too. He turned and gazed at the man, wondering whether Ahmed Ismail played with him or not. But Ahmed bore the scrutiny without a shadow of embarrassment.
"Is she in India, Huzoor?"
Shere Ali hesitated. Some memory of the lessons learned in England was still alive within him, bidding him guard his secret. But the memory was no longer strong enough. He bowed his head in assent.
"Your Highness shall point her out to me one evening as she drives in the Maidan," said Ahmed Ismail, and again Shere Ali answered—
But he caught himself back the next moment. He flung away from Ahmed Ismail with a harsh outburst of laughter.
"But this is all folly," he cried. "We are not in the days of the uprising," for thus he termed now what a month ago he would have called "The Mutiny." "Cawnpore is not Calcutta," and he turned in a gust of fury upon Ahmed Ismail. "Do you play with me, Ahmed Ismail?"
"Upon my head, no! Light of my life, hope of my race, who would dare?" and he was on the ground at Shere Ali's feet. "Do I indeed speak follies? I pray your Highness to bethink you that the summer sets its foot upon the plains. She will go to the hills, Huzoor. She will go to the hills. And your people are not fools. They have cunning to direct their strength. See, your Highness, is there a regiment in Peshawur whose rifles are safe, guard them howsoever carefully they will? Every week they are brought over the hills into Chiltistan that we may be ready for the Great Day," and Ahmed Ismail chuckled to himself. "A month ago, Huzoor, so many rifles had been stolen that a regiment in camp locked their rifles to their tent poles, and so thought to sleep in peace. But on the first night the cords of the tents were cut, and while the men waked and struggled under the folds of canvas, the tent poles with the rifles chained to them were carried away. All those rifles are now in Kohara. Surely, Huzoor, if they can steal the rifles from the middle of a camp, they can steal a weak girl among the hills."
Ahmed Ismail waited in suspense, with his forehead bowed to the ground, and when the answer came he smiled. He had made good use of this unexpected inducement which had been given to him. He knew very well that nothing but an unlikely chance would enable him to fulfil his promise. But that did not matter. The young Prince would point out the Englishwoman in the Maidan and, at a later time when all was ready in Chiltistan, a fine and obvious attempt should be made to carry her off. The pretence might, if occasion served, become a reality, to be sure, but the attempt must be as public as possible. There must be no doubt as to its author. Shere Ali, in a word, must be committed beyond any possibility of withdrawal. Ahmed Ismail himself would see to that.
"Very well. I will point her out to you," said Shere Ali, and Ahmed Ismail rose to his feet. He waited before his master, silent and respectful. Shere Ali had no suspicion that he was being jockeyed by that respectful man into a hopeless rebellion. He had, indeed, lost sight of the fact that the rebellion must be hopeless.
"When," he asked, "will Chiltistan be ready?"
"As soon as the harvest is got in," replied Ahmed Ismail.
Shere Ali nodded his head.
"You and I will go northwards to-morrow," he said.
"To Kohara?" asked Ahmed Ismail.
For a little while Ahmed Ismail was silent. Then he said: "If your Highness will allow his servant to offer a contemptible word of advice—"
"Speak," said Shere Ali.
"Then it might be wise, perhaps, to go slowly to Kohara. Your Highness has enemies in Chiltistan. The news of the melons and the bags of grain is spread abroad, and jealousy is aroused. For there are some who wish to lead when they should serve."
"The son of Abdulla Mohammed," said Shere Ali.
Ahmed Ismail shrugged his shoulders as though the son of Abdulla Mohammed were of little account. There was clearly another in his mind, and Shere Ali was quick to understand him.
"My father," he said quietly. He remembered how his father had received him with his Snider rifle cocked and laid across his knees. This time the Snider would be fired if ever Shere Ali came within range of its bullet. But it was unlikely that he would get so far, unless he went quickly and secretly at an appointed time.
"I had a poor foolish thought," said Ahmed Ismail, "not worthy a moment's consideration by my Prince."
Shere Ali broke in impatiently upon his words.
"If we travelled slowly to Ajmere, we should come to that town at the time of pilgrimage. There in secret the final arrangements can be made, so that the blow may fall upon an uncovered head."
"The advice is good," said Shere Ali. But he spoke reluctantly. He wanted not to wait at all. He wanted to strike now while his anger was at its hottest. But undoubtedly the advice was good.
Ahmed Ismail, carrying the light in his hand, went down the stairs before Shere Ali and along the passage to the door. There he extinguished the lamp and cautiously drew back the bolts. He looked out and saw that the street was empty.
"There is no one," he said, and Shere Ali passed out to the mouth of the blind alley and turned to the left towards the Maidan. He walked thoughtfully and did not notice a head rise cautiously above the side of a cart in the mouth of the alley. It was the head of the reporter of Bande Mataram, whose copy would be assuredly too late for the press.
Shere Ali walked on through the streets. It was late, and he met no one. There had come upon him during the last hours a great yearning for his own country. He ran over in his mind, with a sense of anger against himself, the miserable wasted weeks in Calcutta—the nights in the glaring bars and halls, the friends he had made, the depths in which he had wallowed. He came to the Maidan, and, standing upon that empty plain, gazed round on the great silent city. He hated it, with its statues of Viceroys and soldiers, its houses of rich merchants, its insolence. He would lead his own people against all that it symbolised. Perhaps, some day, when all the frontier was in flame, and the British power rolled back, he and his people might pour down from the hills and knock even against the gates of Calcutta. Men from the hills had come down to Tonk, and Bhopal, and Rohilcund, and Rampur, and founded kingdoms for themselves. Why should he and his not push on to Calcutta?
He bared his head to the night wind. He was uplifted, and fired with mad, impossible dreams. All that he had learned was of little account to him now. It might be that the English, as Colonel Dewes had said, had something of an army. Let them come to Chiltistan and prove their boast.
"I will go north to the hills," he cried, and with a shock he understood that, after all, he had recovered his own place. The longing at his heart was for his own country—for his own people. It might have been bred of disappointment and despair. Envy of the white people might have cradled it, desire for the white woman might have nursed it into strength. But it was alive now. That was all of which Shere Ali was conscious. The knowledge filled all his thoughts. He had his place in the world. Greatly he rejoiced.