The Broken Road/XI

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Shere Ali, accordingly, travelled with reluctance to Bombay, and at that port an anonymous letter with the postmark of Calcutta was brought to him on board the steamer. Shere Ali glanced through it, and laughed, knowing well his countrymen's passion for mysteries and intrigues. He put the letter in his pocket and took the northward mail. These were the days before the North-West Province had been severed from the Punjab, and instructions had been given to Shere Ali to break his journey at Lahore. He left the train, therefore, at that station, on a morning when the thermometer stood at over a hundred in the shade, and was carried in a barouche drawn by camels to Government House. There a haggard and heat-worn Commissioner received him, and in the cool of the evening took him for a ride, giving him sage advice with the accent of authority.

"His Excellency would have liked to have seen you himself," said the Commissioner. "But he is in the Hills and he did not think it necessary to take you so far out of your way. It is as well that you should get to Kohara as soon as possible, and on particular subjects the Resident, Captain Phillips, will be able and glad to advise you."

The Commissioner spoke politely enough, but the accent of authority was there. Shere Ali's ears were quick to notice and resent it. Some years had passed since commands had been laid upon him.

"I shall always be glad to hear what Captain Phillips has to say," he replied stiffly.

"Yes, yes, of course," said the Commissioner, taking that for granted. "Captain Phillips has our views."

He did not seem to notice the stiffness of Shere Ali's tone. He was tired with the strain of the hot weather, as his drawn face and hollow eyes showed clearly.

"On general lines," he continued, "his Excellency would like you to understand that the Government has no intention and no wish to interfere with the customs and laws of Chiltistan. In fact it is at this moment particularly desirable that you should throw your influence on the side of the native observances."

"Indeed," said Shere Ali, as he rode along the Mall by the Commissioner's side. "Then why was I sent to Oxford?"

The Commissioner was not surprised by the question, though it was abruptly put.

"Surely that is a question to ask of his Highness, your father," he replied. "No doubt all you learnt and saw there will be extremely valuable. What I am saying now is that the Government wishes to give no pretext whatever to those who would disturb Chiltistan, and it looks to you with every confidence for help and support."

"And the road?" asked Shere Ali.

"It is not proposed to carry on the road. The merchants in Kohara think that by bringing more trade, their profits would become less, while the country people look upon it as a deliberate attack upon their independence. The Government has no desire to force it upon the people against their wish."

Shere Ali made no reply, but his heart grew bitter within him. He had come out to India sore and distressed at parting from his friends, from the life he had grown to love. All the way down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean, the pangs of regret had been growing keener with each new mile which was gathered in behind the screw. He had lain awake listening to the throb of the engine with an aching heart, and with every longing for the country he had left behind growing stronger, every recollection growing more vivid and intense. There was just one consolation which he had. Violet Oliver had enheartened him to make the most of it, and calling up the image of her face before him, he had striven so to do. There were his plans for the regeneration of his country. And lo! here at Lahore, three days after he had set foot on land, they were shattered—before they were begun. He had been trained and educated in the West according to Western notions and he was now bidden to go and rule in the East according to the ideals of the East. Bidden! For the quiet accent of authority in the words of the unobservant man who rode beside him rankled deeply. He had it in his thoughts to cry out: "Then what place have I in Chiltistan?"

But though he never uttered the question, it was none the less answered.

"Economy and quiet are the two things which Chiltistan needs," said the Commissioner. Then he looked carelessly at Shere Ali.

"It is hoped that you will marry and settle down as soon as possible," he said.

Shere Ali reined in his horse, stared for a moment at his companion and then began quietly to laugh. The laughter was not pleasant to listen to, and it grew harsher and louder. But it brought no change to the tired face of the Commissioner, who had stopped his horse beside Shere Ali's and was busy with the buckle of his stirrup leather. He raised his head when the laughter stopped. And it stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

"You were saying—" he remarked politely.

"That I would like, if there is time, to ride through the Bazaar."

"Certainly," said the Commissioner. "This way," and he turned at right angles out of the Mall and its avenue of great trees and led the way towards the native city. Short of it, however, he stopped.

"You won't mind if I leave you here," he said. "There is some work to be done. You can make no mistake. You can see the Gate from here."

"Is that the Delhi Gate?" asked Shere Ali.

"Yes. You can find your own way back, no doubt"; and the unobservant Commissioner rode away at a trot.

Shere Ali went forward alone down the narrowing street towards the Gate. He was aflame with indignation. So he was to be nothing, he was to do nothing, except to practice economy and marry—a nigger. The contemptuous word rose to his mind. Long ago it had been applied to him more than once during his early school-days, until desperate battles and black eyes had won him immunity. Now he used it savagely himself to stigmatise his own people. He was of the White People, he declared. He felt it, he looked it. Even at that moment a portly gentleman of Lahore in a coloured turban and patent-leather shoes salaamed to him as he passed upon his horse. "Surely," he thought, "I am one of the Sahibs. This fool of a Commissioner does not understand."

A woman passed him carrying a babe poised upon her head, with silver anklets upon her bare ankles and heavy silver rings upon her toes. She turned her face, which was overshadowed by a hood, to look at Shere Ali as he rode by. He saw the heavy stud of silver and enamel in her nostril, the withered brown face. He turned and looked at her, as she walked flat-footed and ungainly, her pyjamas of pink cotton showing beneath her cloak. He had no part or lot with any of these people of the East. The face of Violet Oliver shone before his eyes. There was his mate. He recalled the exquisite daintiness of her appearance, her ruffles of lace, the winning sweetness of her eyes. Not in Chiltistan would he find a woman to drive that image from his thoughts.

Meanwhile he drew nearer to the Delhi Gate. A stream of people flowed out from it towards him. Over their heads he looked through the archway down the narrow street, where between the booths and under the carved overhanging balconies the brown people robed and turbaned, in saffron and blue, pink and white, thronged and chattered and jostled, a kaleidoscope of colour. Shere Ali turned his eyes to the right and the left as he went. It was not merely to rid himself of the Commissioner that he had proposed to ride on to the bazaars by way of the Delhi Gate. The anonymous letter bearing the postmark of Calcutta, which had been placed in his hand when the steamer reached Bombay, besought him to pass by the Delhi Gate at Lahore and do certain things by which means he would hear much to his advantage. He had no thought at the moment to do the particular things, but he was sufficiently curious to pass by the Delhi Gate. Some intrigue was on hand into which it was sought to lure him. He had not forgotten that his countrymen were born intriguers.

Slowly he rode along. Here and there a group of people were squatting on the ground, talking noisily. Here and there a beggar stretched out a maimed limb and sought for alms. Then close to the gate he saw that for which he searched: a man sitting apart with a blanket over his head. No one spoke to the man, and for his part he never moved. He sat erect with his legs crossed in front of him and his hands resting idly on his knees, a strange and rather grim figure; so motionless, so utterly lifeless he seemed. The blanket reached almost to the ground behind and hung down to his lap in front, and Shere Ali noticed that a leathern begging-bowl at his side was well filled with coins. So he must have sat just in that attitude, with that thick covering stifling him, all through the fiery heat of that long day. As Shere Ali looked, he saw a poor bent man in rags, with yellow caste marks on his forehead, add a copper pi to the collection in the bowl. Shere Ali stopped the giver.

"Who is he?" he asked, pointing to the draped figure.

The old Hindu raised his hand and bowed his forehead into the palm.

"Huzoor, he is a holy man, a stranger who has lately come to Lahore, but the holiest of all the holy men who have ever sat by the Delhi Gate. His fame is already great."

"But why does he sit covered with the blanket?" asked Shere Ali.

"Huzoor, because of his holiness. He is so holy that his face must not be seen."

Shere Ali laughed.

"He told you that himself, I suppose," he said.

"Huzoor, it is well known," said the old man. "He sits by the road all day until the darkness comes—"

"Yes," said Shere Ali, bethinking him of the recommendations in his letter, "until the darkness comes—and then?"

"Then he goes away into the city and no one sees him until the morning"; and the old man passed on.

Shere Ali chuckled and rode by the hooded man. His curiosity increased. It was quite likely that the blanket hid a Mohammedan Pathan from beyond the hills. To come down into the plains and mulct the pious Hindu by some such ingenious practice would appeal to the Pathan's sense of humour almost as much as to his pocket. Shere Ali drew the letter from his pocket, and in the waning light read it through again. True, the postmark showed that the letter had been posted in Calcutta, but more than one native of Chiltistan had come south and set up as a money-lender in that city on the proceeds of a successful burglary. He replaced the letter in his pocket, and rode on at a walk through the throng. The darkness came quickly; oil lamps were lighted in the booths and shone though the unglazed window-spaces overhead. A refreshing coolness fell upon the town, the short, welcome interval between the heat of the day and the suffocating heat of the night. Shere Ali turned his horse and rode back again to the gate. The hooded beggar still sat upon the ground, but he was alone. The others, the blind and the maimed, had crawled away to their dens. Except this grim motionless man, there was no one squatting upon the ground.

Shere Ali reined in beside him, and bending forward in his saddle spoke in a low voice a few words of Pushtu. The hooded figure did not move, but from behind the blanket there issued a muffled voice.

"If your Highness will ride slowly on, your servant will follow and come to his side."

Shere Ali went on, and in a few moments he heard the soft patter of a man running barefoot along the dusty road. He stopped his horse and the patter of feet ceased, but a moment after, silent as a shadow, the man was at his side.

"You are of my country?" said Shere Ali.

"I am of Kohara," returned the man. "Safdar Khan of Kohara. May God keep your Highness in health. We have waited long for your presence."

"What are you doing in Lahore?" asked Shere Ali.

In the darkness he saw a flash of white as Safdar Khan smiled.

"There was a little trouble, your Highness, with one Ishak Mohammed and—Ishak Mohammed's son is still alive. He is a boy of eight, it is true, and could not hold a rifle to his shoulder. But the trouble took place near the road."

Shere Ali nodded his head in comprehension. Safdar Khan had shot his enemy on the road, which is a holy place, and therefore he came within the law.

"Blood-money was offered," continued Safdar Khan, "but the boy would not consent, and claims my life. His mother would hold the rifle for him while he pulled the trigger. So I am better in Lahore. Moreover, your Highness, for a poor man life is difficult in Kohara. Taxes are high. So I came down to this gate and sat with a cloak over my head."

"And you have found it profitable," said Shere Ali.

Again the teeth flashed in the darkness and Safdar Khan laughed.

"For two days I sat by the Delhi Gate and no one spoke to me or dropped a single coin in my bowl. But on the third day a good man, may God preserve him, passed by when I was nearly stifled and asked me why I sat in the heat of the sun under a blanket. Thereupon I told him, what doubtless your Highness knows, that my face is much too holy to be looked upon, and since then your Highness' servant has prospered exceedingly. The device is a good one."

Suddenly Safdar Khan stumbled as he walked and lurched against the horse and its rider. He recovered himself in a moment, with prayers for forgiveness and curses upon his stupidity for setting his foot upon a sharp stone. But he had put out his hand as he stumbled and that hand had run lightly down Shere Ali's coat and had felt the texture of his clothes.

"I had a letter from Calcutta," said the Prince, "which besought me to speak to you, for you had something for my ear. Therefore speak, and speak quickly."

But a change had come over Safdar Khan. Certainly Shere Ali was wearing the dress of one of the Sahibs. A man passed carrying a lantern, and the light, feeble though it was, threw into outline against the darkness a pith helmet and a very English figure. Certainly, too, Shere Ali spoke the Pushtu tongue with a slight hesitation, and an unfamiliar accent. He seemed to grope for words.

"A letter?" he cried. "From Calcutta? Nay, how can that be? Some foolish fellow has dared to play a trick," and in a few short, effective sentences Safdar Khan expressed his opinion of the foolish fellow and of his ancestry distant and immediate.

"Yet the letter bade me seek you by the Delhi Gate of Lahore," continued Shere Ali calmly, "and by the Delhi Gate of Lahore I found you."

"My fame is great," replied Safdar Khan bombastically. "Far and wide it has spread like the boughs of a gigantic tree."

"Rubbish," said Shere Ali curtly, breaking in upon Safdar's vehemence. "I am not one of the Hindu fools who fill your begging-bowl," and he laughed.

In the darkness he heard Safdar Khan laugh too.

"You expected me," continued Shere Ali. "You looked for my coming. Your ears were listening for the few words of Pushtu. Why else should you say, 'Ride forward and I will follow'?"

Safdar Khan walked for a little while in silence. Then in a voice of humility, he said:

"I will tell my lord the truth. Yes, some foolish talk has passed from one man to another, and has been thrown back again like a ball. I too," he admitted, "have been without wisdom. But I have seen how vain such talk is. The Mullahs in the Hills speak only ignorance and folly."

"Ah!" said Shere Ali. He took the letter from his pocket and tore it into fragments and scattered the fragments upon the Road. "So I thought. The letter is of their prompting."

"My lord, it may be so," replied Safdar Khan. "For my part I have no lot or share in any of these things. For I am now of Lahore."

"Aye," said Shere Ali. "The begging-bowl is filled to overflowing at the Delhi Gate. So you are of Lahore, though your name is Safdar Khan and you were born at Kohara," and suddenly he leaned down and asked in a wistful voice with a great curiosity, "Are you content? Have you forgotten the hills and valleys? Is Lahore more to you than Chiltistan?"

So perpetually had Shere All's mind run of late upon his isolation that it crept into all his thoughts. So now it seemed to him that there was some vague parallel between his mental state and that of Safdar Khan. But Safdar Khan's next words disabused him:

"Nay, nay," he said. "But the widow of a rich merchant in the city here, a devout and holy woman, has been greatly moved by my piety. She seeks my hand in marriage and—" here Safdar Khan laughed pleasantly—"I shall marry her. Already she has given me a necklace of price which I have had weighed and tested to prove that she does not play me false. She is very rich, and it is too hot to sit in the sun under a blanket. So I will be a merchant of Lahore instead, and live at my ease on the upper balcony of my house."

Shere Ali laughed and answered, "It is well." Then he added shrewdly: "But it is possible that you may yet at some time meet the man in Calcutta who wrote the letter to me. If so, tell him what I did with it," and Shere Ali's voice became hard and stern. "Tell him that I tore it up and scattered it in the dust. And let him send the news to the Mullahs in the Hills. I know that soft-handed brood with their well-fed bodies and their treacherous mouths. If only they would let me carry on the road!" he cried passionately, "I would drag them out of the houses where they batten on poor men's families and set them to work till the palms of their hands were honestly blistered. Let the Mullahs have a care, Safdar Khan. I go North to-morrow to Kohara."

He spoke with a greater vehemence than perhaps he had meant to show. But he was carried along by his own words, and sought always a stronger epithet than that which he had used. He was sore and indignant, and he vented his anger on the first object which served him as an opportunity. Safdar Khan bowed his head in the darkness. Safe though he might be in Lahore, he was still afraid of the Mullahs, afraid of their curses, and mindful of their power to ruin the venturesome man who dared to stand against them.

"It shall be as your Highness wishes," he said in a low voice, and he hurried away from Shere Ali's side. Abuse of the Mullahs was dangerous—as dangerous to listen to as to speak. Who knew but what the very leaves of the neem trees might whisper the words and bear witness against him? Moreover, it was clear that the Prince of Chiltistan was a Sahib. Shere Ali rode back to Government House. He understood clearly why Safdar Khan had so unceremoniously fled; and he was glad. If the fool of a Commissioner did not know him for what he was, at all events Safdar Khan did. He was one of the White People. For who else would dare to speak as he had spoken of the Mullahs? The Mullahs would hear what he had said. That was certain. They would hear it with additions. They would try to make things unpleasant for him in Chiltistan in consequence. But Shere Ali was glad. For their very opposition—in so loverlike a way did every thought somehow reach out to Violet Oliver—brought him a little nearer to the lady who held his heart. He found the Commissioner sealing up his letters in his office.

That unobservant man had just written at length, privately and confidentially, both to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab at the hill-station and to the Resident at Kohara. And to both he had written to the one effect:

"We must expect trouble in Chiltistan."

He based his conclusions upon the glimpse which he had obtained into the troubled feelings of Shere Ali. The next morning Shere Ali travelled northwards and forty-eight hours later from the top of the Malakand Pass he saw winding across the Swat valley past Chakdara the road which reached to Kohara and there stopped.