The Broken Road/VII

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The day broke tardily among the mountains of Dauphine. At half-past three on a morning of early August light should be already stealing through the little window and the chinks into the hut upon the Meije. But the four men who lay wrapped in blankets on the long broad shelf still slept in darkness. And when the darkness was broken it was by the sudden spit of a match. The tiny blue flame spluttered for a few seconds and then burned bright and yellow. It lit up the face of a man bending over the dial of a watch and above him and about him the wooden rafters and walls came dimly into view. The face was stout and burned by the sun to the colour of a ripe apple, and in spite of a black heavy moustache had a merry and good-humoured look. Little gold earrings twinkled in his ears by the light of the match. Annoyance clouded his face as he remarked the time.

"Verdammt! Verdammt!" he muttered.

The match burned out, and for a while he listened to the wind wailing about the hut, plucking at the door and the shutters of the window. He climbed down from the shelf with a rustle of straw, walked lightly for a moment or two about the hut, and then pulled open the door quickly. As quickly he shut it again.

From the shelf Linforth spoke:

"It is bad, Peter?"

"It is impossible," replied Peter in English with a strong German accent. For the last three years he and his brother had acted as guides to the same two men who were now in the Meije hut. "We are a strong party, but it is impossible. Before I could walk a yard from the door, I would have to lend a lantern. And it is after four o'clock! The water is frozen in the pail, and I have never known that before in August."

"Very well," said Linforth, turning over in his blankets. It was warm among the blankets and the straw, and he spoke with contentment. Later in the day he might rail against the weather. But for the moment he was very clear that there were worse things in the world than to lie snug and hear the wind tearing about the cliffs and know that there was no chance of facing it.

"We will not go back to La Berarde," he said. "The storm may clear. We will wait in the hut until tomorrow."

And from a third figure on the shelf there came in guttural English:

"Yes, yes. Of course."

The fourth man had not wakened from his sleep, and it was not until he was shaken by the shoulder at ten o'clock in the morning that he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

The fourth man was Shere Ali.

"Get up and come outside," said Linforth.

Ten years had passed since Shere Ali had taken his long walk from Kohara up the valley in the drawing-room of his house-master at Eton. And those ten years had had their due effect. He betrayed his race nowadays by little more than his colour, a certain high-pitched intonation of his voice and an extraordinary skill in the game of polo. There had been a time of revolt against discipline, of inability to understand the points of view of his masters and their companions, and of difficulty to discover much sense in their institutions.

It is to be remembered that he came from the hill-country, not from the plains of India. That honour was a principle, not a matter of circumstance, and that treachery was in itself disgraceful, whether it was profitable or not—here were hard sayings for a native of Chiltistan. He could look back upon the day when he had thought a public-house with a great gilt sign or the picture of an animal over the door a temple for some particular sect of worshippers.

"And, indeed, you are far from wrong," his tutor had replied to him. "But since we do not worship at that fiery shrine such holy places are forbidden us."

Gradually, however, his own character was overlaid; he was quick to learn, and in games quick to excel. He made friends amongst his schoolmates, he carried with him to Oxford the charm of manner which is Eton's particular gift, and from Oxford he passed to London. He was rich, he was liked, and he found a ready welcome, which did not spoil him. Luffe would undoubtedly have classed him amongst the best of the native Princes who go to England for their training, and on that very account, would have feared the more for his future. Shere Ali was now just twenty-four, he was tall, spare of body and wonderfully supple of limbs, and but for a fulness of the lower lip, which was characteristic of his family, would have been reckoned more than usually handsome.

He came out of the door of the hut and stood by the side of Linforth. They looked up towards the Meije, but little of that majestic mass of rock was visible. The clouds hung low; the glacier below them upon their left had a dull and unillumined look, and over the top of the Breche de la Meije, the pass to the left of their mountain, the snow whirled up from the further side like smoke. The hut is built upon a great spur of the mountain which runs down into the desolate valley des Etancons, and at its upper end melts into the great precipitous rock-wall which forms one of the main difficulties of the ascent. Against this wall the clouds were massed. Snow lay where yesterday the rocks had shone grey and ruddy brown in the sunlight, and against the great wall here and there icicles were hung.

"It looks unpromising," said Linforth. "But Peter says that the mountain is in good condition. To-morrow it may be possible. It is worth while waiting. We shall get down to La Grave to-morrow instead of to-day. That is all."

"Yes. It will make no difference to our plans," said Shere Ali; and so far as their immediate plans were concerned Shere Ali was right. But these two men had other and wider plans which embraced not a summer's holiday but a lifetime, plans which they jealously kept secret; and these plans, as it happened, the delay of a day in the hut upon the Meije was deeply to affect.

They turned back into the room and breakfasted. Then Linforth lit his pipe and once more curled himself up in his rug upon the straw. Shere Ali followed his example. And it was of the wider plans that they at once began to talk.

"But heaven only knows when I shall get out to India," cried Linforth after a while. "There am I at Chatham and not a chance, so far as I can see, of getting away. You will go back first."

It was significant that Linforth, who had never been in India, none the less spoke habitually of going back to it, as though that country in truth was his native soil. Shere Ali shook his head.

"I shall wait for you," he said. "You will come out there." He raised himself upon his elbow and glanced at his friend's face. Linforth had retained the delicacy of feature, the fineness of outline which ten years before had called forth the admiration of Colonel Dewes. But the ten years had also added a look of quiet strength. A man can hardly live with a definite purpose very near to his heart without gaining some reward from the labour of his thoughts. Though he speak never so little, people will be aware of him as they are not aware of the loudest chatterer in the room. Thus it was with Linforth. He talked with no greater wit than his companions, he made no greater display of ability, he never outshone, and yet not a few men were conscious of a force underlying his quietude of manner. Those men were the old and the experienced; the unobservant overlooked him altogether.

"Yes," said Shere Ali, "since you want to come you will come."

"I shall try to come," said Linforth, simply. "We belong to the Road," and for a little while he lay silent. Then in a low voice he spoke, quoting from that page which was as a picture in his thoughts.

"Over the passes! Over the snow passes to the foot of the Hindu Kush!"

"Then and then only India will be safe," the young Prince of Chiltistan added, speaking solemnly, so that the words seemed a kind of ritual.

And to both they were no less. Long before, when Shere Ali was first brought into his room, on his first day at Eton, Linforth had seen his opportunity, and seized it. Shere Ali's father retained his kingdom with an English Resident at his elbow. Shere Ali would in due time succeed. Linforth had quietly put forth his powers to make Shere Ali his friend, to force him to see with his eyes, and to believe what he believed. And Shere Ali had been easily persuaded. He had become one of the white men, he proudly told himself. Here was a proof, the surest of proofs. The belief in the Road—that was one of the beliefs of the white men, one of the beliefs which marked him off from the native, not merely in Chiltistan, but throughout the East. To the white man, the Road was the beginning of things, to the Oriental the shadow of the end. Shere Ali sided with the white men. He too had faith in the Road and he was proud of his faith because he shared it with the white men.

"We shall be very glad of these expeditions, some day, in Chiltistan," said Linforth.

Shere Ali stared.

"It was for that reason—?" he asked.

"Yes."

Shere Ali was silent for a while. Then he said, and with some regret:

"There is a great difference between us. You can wait and wait. I want everything done within the year."

Linforth laughed. He knew very well the impulsiveness of his friend.

"If a few miles, or even a few furlongs, stand to my credit at the end, I shall not think that I have failed."

They were both young, and they talked with the bright and simple faith in their ideals which is the great gift of youth. An older man might have laughed if he had heard, but had there been an older man in the hut to overhear them, he would have heard nothing. They were alone, save for their guides, and the single purpose for which—as they then thought—their lives were to be lived out made that long day short as a summer's night.

"The Government will thank us when the work is done," said Shere Ali enthusiastically.

"The Government will be in no hurry to let us begin," replied Linforth drily. "There is a Resident at your father's court. Your father is willing, and yet there's not a coolie on the road."

"Yes, but you will get your way," and again confidence rang in the voice of the Chilti prince.

"It will not be I," answered Linforth. "It will be the Road. The power of the Road is beyond the power of any Government."

"Yes, I remember and I understand." Shere Ali lit his pipe and lay back among the straw. "At first I did not understand what the words meant. Now I know. The power of the Road is great, because it inspires men to strive for its completion."

"Or its mastery," said Linforth slowly. "Perhaps one day on the other side of the Hindu Kush, the Russians may covet it—and then the Road will go on to meet them."

"Something will happen," said Shere Ali. "At all events something will happen."

The shadows of the evening found them still debating what complication might force the hand of those in authority. But always they came back to the Russians and a movement of troops in the Pamirs. Yet unknown to both of them the something else had already happened, though its consequences were not yet to be foreseen. A storm had delayed them for a day in a hut upon the Meije. They went out of the hut. The sky had cleared; and in the sunset the steep buttress of the Promontoire ran sharply up to the Great Wall; above the wall the small square patch of ice sloped to the base of the Grand Pic and beyond the deep gap behind that pinnacle the long serrated ridge ran out to the right, rising and falling, to the Doight de Dieu.

There were some heavy icicles overhanging the Great Wall, and Linforth looked at them anxiously. There was also still a little snow upon the rocks.

"It will be possible," said Peter, cheerily. "Tomorrow night we shall sleep in La Grave."

"Yes, yes, of course," said his brother.

They walked round the hut, looked for a little while down the stony valley des Etancons, with its one green patch up which they had toiled from La Berarde the day before, and returned to watch the purple flush of the sunset die off the crags of the Meije. But the future they had planned was as a vision before their eyes, and even along the high cliffs of the Dauphine the road they were to make seemed to wind and climb.

"It would be strange," said Linforth, "if old Andrew Linforth were still alive. Somewhere in your country, perhaps in Kohara, waiting for the thing he dreamed to come to pass. He would be an old man now, but he might still be alive."

"I wonder," said Shere Ali absently, and he suddenly turned to Linforth. "Nothing must come between us," he cried almost fiercely. "Nothing to hinder what we shall do together."

He was the more emotional of the two. The dreams to which they had given utterance had uplifted him.

"That's all right," said Linforth, and he turned back into the hut. But he remembered afterwards that it was Shere Ali who had protested against the possibility of their association being broken.

They came out from the hut again at half-past three in the morning and looked up to a cloudless starlit sky which faded in the east to the colour of pearl. Above their heads some knobs of rock stood out upon the thin crest of the buttress against the sky. In the darkness of a small couloir underneath the knobs Peter was already ascending. The traverse of the Meije even for an experienced mountaineer is a long day's climb. They reached the summit of the Grand Pic in seven hours, descended into the Breche Zsigmondy, climbed up the precipice on the further side of that gap, and reached the Pic Central by two o'clock in the afternoon. There they rested for an hour, and looked far down to the village of La Grave among the cornfields of the valley. There was no reason for any hurry.

"We shall reach La Grave by eight," said Peter, but he was wrong, as they soon discovered. A slope which should have been soft snow down which they could plunge was hard ice, in which a ladder of steps must be cut before the glacier could be reached. The glacier itself was crevassed so that many a devour was necessary, and occasionally a jump; and evening came upon them while they were on the Rocher de L'Aigle. It was quite dark when at last they reached the grass slopes, and still far below them the lights were gleaming in La Grave. To both men those grass slopes seemed interminable. The lights of La Grave seemed never to come nearer, never to grow larger. Little points of fire very far away—as they had been at first, so they remained. But for the slope of ground beneath his feet and the aching of his knees, Linforth could almost have believed that they were not descending at all. He struck a match and looked at his watch and saw that it was after nine; and a little while after they had come to water and taken their fill of it, that it was nearly ten, but now the low thunder of the river in the valley was louder in his ears, and then suddenly he saw that the lights of La Grave were bright and near at hand.

Linforth flung himself down upon the grass, and clasping his hands behind his head, gave himself up to the cool of the night and the stars overhead.

"I could sleep here," he said. "Why should we go down to La Grave to-night?"

"There is a dew falling. It will be cold when the morning breaks. And La Grave is very near. It is better to go," said Peter.

The question was still in debate when above the roar of the river there came to their ears a faint throbbing sound from across the valley. It grew louder and suddenly two blinding lights flashed along the hill-side opposite.

"A motor-car," said Shere Ali, and as he spoke the lights ceased to travel.

"It's stopping at the hotel," said Linforth carelessly.

"No," said Peter. "It has not reached the hotel. Look, not by a hundred yards. It has broken down."

Linforth discussed the point at length, not because he was at all interested at the moment in the movements of that or of any other motor-car, but because he wished to stay where he was. Peter, however, was obdurate. It was his pride to get his patron indoors each night.

"Let us go on," he said, and Linforth wearily rose to his feet.

"We are making a big mistake," he grumbled, and he spoke with more truth than he was aware.

They reached the hotel at eleven, ordered their supper and bathed. It was half-past eleven before Linforth and Shere Ali entered the long dining-room, and they found another party already supping there. Linforth heard himself greeted by name, and turned in surprise. It was a party of four—two ladies and two men. One of the men had called to him, an elderly man with a bald forehead, a grizzled moustache, and a shrewd kindly face.

"I remember you, though you can't say as much of me," he said. "I came down to Chatham a year ago and dined at your mess as the guest of your Colonel."

Linforth came forward with a smile of recognition.

"I beg your pardon for not recognising you at once. I remember you, of course, quite well," he said.

"Who am I, then?"

"Sir John Casson, late Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces," said Linforth promptly.

"And now nothing but a bore at my club," replied Sir John cheerfully. "We were motoring through to Grenoble, but the car has broken down. You are mountain-climbing, I suppose. Phyllis," and he turned to the younger of the two ladies, "this is Mr. Linforth of the Royal Engineers. My daughter, Linforth!" He introduced the second lady.

"Mrs. Oliver," he said, and Linforth turning, saw that the eyes of Mrs. Oliver were already fixed upon him. He returned the look, and his eyes frankly showed her that he thought her beautiful.

"And what are you going to do with yourself?" said Sir John.

"Go to the country from which you have just come, as soon as I can," said Linforth with a smile. At this moment the fourth of the party, a stout, red-faced, plethoric gentleman, broke in.

"India!" he exclaimed indignantly. "Bless my soul, what on earth sends all you young fellows racing out to India? A great mistake! I once went to India myself—to shoot a tiger. I stayed there for months and never saw one. Not a tiger, sir!"

But Linforth was paying very little attention to the plethoric gentleman. Sir John introduced him as Colonel Fitzwarren, and Linforth bowed politely. Then he asked of Sir John:

"Your car was not seriously damaged, I suppose?"

"Keep us here two days," said Sir John. "The chauffeur will have to go on by diligence to-morrow to get a new sparking plug. Perhaps we shall see more of you in consequence."

Linforth's eyes travelled back to Mrs. Oliver.

"We are in no hurry," he said slowly. "We shall rest here probably for a day or so. May I introduce my friend?"

He introduced him as the son of the Khan of Chiltistan, and Mrs. Oliver's eyes, which had been quietly resting upon Linforth's face, turned towards Shere Ali, and as quietly rested upon his.

"Then, perhaps, you can tell me," said Colonel Fitzwarren, "how it was I never saw a tiger in India, though I stayed there four months. A most disappointing country, I call it. I looked for a tiger everywhere and I never saw one—no, not one."

The Colonel's one idea of the Indian Peninsula was a huge tiger waiting somewhere in a jungle to be shot.

But Shere Ali was paying no more attention to the Colonel's disparagements than Linforth had done.

"Will you join us at supper?" said Sir John, and both young men replied simultaneously, "We shall be very pleased."

Sir John Casson smiled. He could never quite be sure whether it was or was not to Mrs. Oliver's credit that her looks made so powerful an appeal to the chivalry of young men. "All young men immediately want to protect her," he was wont to say, "and their trouble is that they can't find anyone to protect her from."

He watched Shere Ali and Dick Linforth with a sly amusement, and as a result of his watching promised himself yet more amusement during the next two days. He was roused from this pleasing anticipation by his irascible friend, Colonel Fitzwarren, who, without the slightest warning, flung a loud and defiant challenge across the table to Shere All.

"I don't believe there is one," he cried, and breathed heavily.

Shere Ali interrupted his conversation with Mrs. Oliver. "One what?" he asked with a smile.

"Tiger, sir, tiger," said the Colonel, rapping with his knuckles upon the table. "Of what else should I be speaking? I don't believe there's a tiger in India outside the Zoo. Otherwise, why didn't I see one?"

Colonel Fitzwarren glared at Shere Ali as though he held him personally responsible for that unhappy omission. Sir John, however, intervened with smooth speeches and for the rest of supper the conversation was kept to less painful topics. But the Colonel had not said his last word. As they went upstairs to their rooms he turned to Shere Ali, who was just behind him, and sighed heavily.

"If I had shot a tiger in India," he said, with an indescribable look of pathos upon his big red face, "it would have made a great difference to my life."