The Broken Road/XIX

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The month was over before Linforth at last steamed out of the harbour at Marseilles. He was as impatient to reach Bombay as a year before Shere Ali had been reluctant. To Shere Ali the boat had flown with wings of swiftness, to Linforth she was a laggard. The steamer passed Stromboli on a wild night of storm and moonlight. The wrack of clouds scurrying overhead, now obscured, now let the moonlight through, and the great cone rising sheer from a tempestuous sea glowed angrily. Linforth, in the shelter of a canvas screen, watched the glow suddenly expand, and a stream of bright sparkling red flow swiftly along the shoulder of the mountain, turn at a right angle, and plunge down towards the sea. The bright red would become dull, the dull red grow black, the glare of light above the cone contract for a little while and then burst out again. Yet men lived upon the slope of Stromboli, even as Englishmen—the thought flashed into his mind—lived in India, recognising the peril and going quietly about their work. There was always that glare of menacing light over the hill-districts of India as above the crater of Stromboli, now contracting, now expanding and casting its molten stream down towards the plains.

At the moment when Linforth watched the crown of light above Stromboli, the glare was widening over the hill country of Chiltistan. Ralston so far away as Peshawur saw it reddening the sky and was the more troubled in that he could not discover why just at this moment the menace should glow red. The son of Abdulla Mohammed was apparently quiet and Shere Ali had not left Calcutta. The Resident at Kohara admitted the danger. Every despatch he sent to Peshawur pointed to the likelihood of trouble. But he too was at fault. Unrest was evident, the cause of it quite obscure. But what was hidden from Government House in Peshawur and the Old Mission House at Kohara was already whispered in the bazaars. There among the thatched booths which have their backs upon the brink of the water-channel in the great square, men knew very well that Shere Ali was the cause, though Shere Ali knew nothing of it himself. One of those queer little accidents possible in the East had happened within the last few weeks. A trifling gift had been magnified into a symbol and a message, and the message had run through Chiltistan like fire through a dry field of stubble. And then two events occurred in Peshawur which gave to Ralston the key of the mystery.

The first was the arrival in that city of a Hindu lady from Gujerat who had lately come to the conclusion that she was a reincarnation of the Goddess Devi. She arrived in great pomp, and there was some trouble in the streets as the procession passed through to the temple which she had chosen as her residence. For the Hindus, on the one hand, firmly believed in her divinity. The lady came of a class which, held in dishonour in the West, had its social position and prestige in India. There was no reason in the eyes of the faithful why she should say she was the Goddess Devi if she were not. Therefore they lined the streets to acclaim her coming. The Mohammedans, on the other hand, Afghans from the far side of the Khyber, men of the Hassan and the Aka and the Adam Khel tribes, Afridis from Kohat and Tirah and the Araksai country, any who happened to be in that wild and crowded town, turned out, too—to keep order, as they pleasantly termed it, when their leaders were subsequently asked for explanations. In the end a good many heads were broken before the lady was safely lodged in her temple. Nor did the trouble end there. The presence of a reincarnated Devi at once kindled the Hindus to fervour and stimulated to hostility against them the fanatical Mohammedans. Futteh Ali Shah, a merchant, a municipal councillor and a landowner of some importance, headed a deputation of elderly gentlemen who begged Ralston to remove the danger from the city.

Danger there was, as Ralston on his morning rides through the streets could not but understand. The temple was built in the corner of an open space, and upon that open space a noisy and excited crowd surged all day; while from the countryside around pilgrims in a mood of frenzied piety and Pathans spoiling for a fight trooped daily in through the gates of Peshawur. Ralston understood that the time had come for definite steps to be taken; and he took them with that unconcerned half-weary air which was at once natural to him and impressive to these particular people with whom he had to deal.

He summoned two of his native levies and mounted his horse.

"But you will take a guard," said Colonel Ward, of the Oxfordshires, who had been lunching with Ralston. "I'll send a company down with you."

"No, thank you," said Ralston listlessly, "I think my two men will do."

The Colonel stared and expostulated.

"You know, Ralston, you are very rash. Your predecessor never rode into the City without an escort."

"I do every morning."

"I know," returned the Colonel, "and that's where you are wrong. Some day something will happen. To go down with two of your levies to-day is madness. I speak seriously. The place is in a ferment."

"Oh, I think I'll be all right," said Ralston, and he rode at a trot down from Government House into the road which leads past the gaol and the Fort to the gate of Peshawur. At the gate he reduced the trot to a walk, and so, with his two levies behind him, passed up along the streets like a man utterly undisturbed. It was not bravado which had made him refuse an escort. On the contrary, it was policy. To assume that no one questioned his authority was in Ralston's view the best way and the quickest to establish it. He pushed forward through the crowd right up to the walls of the temple, seemingly indifferent to every cry or threat which was uttered as he passed. The throng closed in behind him, and he came to a halt in front of a low door set in the whitewashed wall which enclosed the temple and its precincts. Upon this door he beat with the butt of his crop and a little wicket in the door was opened. At the bars of the wicket an old man's face showed for a moment and then drew back in fear.

"Open!" cried Ralston peremptorily.

The face appeared again.

"Your Excellency, the goddess is meditating. Besides, this is holy ground. Your Excellency would not wish to set foot on it. Moreover, the courtyard is full of worshippers. It would not be safe."

Ralston broke in upon the old man's fluttering protestations. "Open the door, or my men will break it in."

A murmur of indignation arose from the crowd which thronged about him. Ralston paid no heed to it. He called to his two levies:

"Quick! Break that door in!"

As they advanced the door was opened. Ralston dismounted, and bade one of his men do likewise and follow him. To the second man he said,

"Hold the horses!"

He strode into the courtyard and stood still.

"It will be touch and go," he said to himself, as he looked about him.

The courtyard was as thronged as the open space without, and four strong walls enclosed it. The worshippers were strangely silent. It seemed to Ralston that suspense had struck them dumb. They looked at the intruder with set faces and impassive eyes. At the far end of the courtyard there was a raised stone platform, and this part was roofed. At the back in the gloom he could see a great idol of the goddess, and in front, facing the courtyard, stood the lady from Gujerat. She was what Ralston expected to see—a dancing girl of Northern India, a girl with a good figure, small hands and feet, and a complexion of an olive tint. Her eyes were large and lustrous, with a line of black pencilled upon the edges of the eyelids, her eyebrows arched and regular, her face oval, her forehead high. The dress was richly embroidered with gold, and she had anklets with silver bells upon her feet.

Ralston pushed his way through the courtyard until he reached the wall of the platform.

"Come down and speak to me," he cried peremptorily to the lady, but she took no notice of his presence. She did not move so much as an eyelid. She gazed over his head as one lost in meditation. From the side an old priest advanced to the edge of the platform.

"Go away," he cried insolently. "You have no place here. The goddess does not speak to any but her priests," and through the throng there ran a murmur of approval. There, was a movement, too—a movement towards Ralston. It was as yet a hesitating movement—those behind pushed, those in front and within Ralston's vision held back. But at any moment the movement might become a rush.

Ralston spoke to the priest.

"Come down, you dog!" he said quite quietly.

The priest was silent. He hesitated. He looked for help to the crowd below, which in turn looked for leadership to him. "Come down," once more cried Ralston, and he moved towards the steps as though he would mount on to the platform and tear the fellow down.

"I come, I come," said the priest, and he went down and stood before Ralston.

Ralston turned to the Pathan who accompanied him. "Turn the fellow into the street."

Protests rose from the crowd; the protests became cries of anger; the throng swayed and jostled. But the Pathan led the priest to the door and thrust him out.

Again Ralston turned to the platform.

"Listen to me," he called out to the lady from Gujerat. "You must leave Peshawur. You are a trouble to the town. I will not let you stay."

But the lady paid no heed. Her mind floated above the earth, and with every moment the danger grew. Closer and closer the throng pressed in upon Ralston and his attendant. The clamour rose shrill and menacing. Ralston cried out to his Pathan in a voice which rang clear and audible even above the clamour:

"Bring handcuffs!"

The words were heard and silence fell upon all that crowd, the sudden silence of stupefaction. That such an outrage, such a defilement of a holy place, could be contemplated came upon the worshippers with a shock. But the Pathan levy was seen to be moving towards the door to obey the order, and as he went the cries and threats rose with redoubled ardour. For a moment it seemed to Ralston that the day would go against him, so fierce were the faces which shouted in his ears, so turbulent the movement of the crowd. It needed just one hand to be laid upon the Pathan's shoulder as he forced his way towards the door, just one blow to be struck, and the ugly rush would come. But the hand was not stretched out, nor the blow struck; and the Pathan was seen actually at the threshold of the door. Then the Goddess Devi came down to earth and spoke to another of her priests quickly and urgently. The priest went swiftly down the steps.

"The goddess will leave Peshawur, since your Excellency so wills it," he said to Ralston. "She will shake the dust of this city from her feet. She will not bring trouble upon its people." So far he had got when the goddess became violently agitated. She beckoned to the priest and when he came to her side she spoke quickly to him in an undertone. For the last second or two the goddess had grown quite human and even feminine. She was rating the priest well and she did it spitefully. It was a crestfallen priest who returned to Ralston.

"The goddess, however, makes a condition," said he. "If she goes there must be a procession."

The goddess nodded her head emphatically. She was clearly adamant upon that point.

Ralston smiled.

"By all means. The lady shall have a show, since she wants one," said he, and turning towards the door, he signalled to the Pathan to stop.

"But it must be this afternoon," said he. "For she must go this afternoon."

And he made his way out of the courtyard into the street. The lady from Gujerat left Peshawur three hours later. The streets were lined with levies, although the Mohammedans assured his Excellency that there was no need for troops.

"We ourselves will keep order," they urged. Ralston smiled, and ordered up a company of Regulars. He himself rode out from Government House, and at the bend of the road he met the procession, with the lady from Gujerat at its head in a litter with drawn curtains of tawdry gold.

As the procession came abreast of him a little brown hand was thrust out from the curtains, and the bearers and the rabble behind came to a halt. A man in a rough brown homespun cloak, with a beggar's bowl attached to his girdle, came to the side of the litter, and thence went across to Ralston.

"Your Highness, the Goddess Devi has a word for your ear alone." Ralston, with a shrug of his shoulders, walked his horse up to the side of the litter and bent down his head. The lady spoke through the curtains in a whisper.

"Your Excellency has been very kind to me, and allowed me to leave Peshawur with a procession, guarding the streets so that I might pass in safety and with great honour. Therefore I make a return. There is a matter which troubles your Excellency. You ask yourself the why and the wherefore, and there is no answer. But the danger grows."

Ralston's thoughts flew out towards Chiltistan. Was it of that country she was speaking?

"Well?" he asked. "Why does the danger grow?"

"Because bags of grain and melons were sent," she replied, "and the message was understood."

She waved her hand again, and the bearers of the litter stepped forward on their march through the cantonment. Ralston rode up the hill to his home, wondering what in the world was the meaning of her oracular words. It might be that she had no meaning—that was certainly a possibility. She might merely be keeping up her pose as a divinity. On the other hand, she had been so careful to speak in a low whisper, lest any should overhear.

"Some melons and bags of grain," he said to himself. "What message could they convey? And who sent them? And to whom?"

He wrote that night to the Resident at Kohara, on the chance that he might be able to throw some light upon the problem.

"Have you heard anything of a melon and a bag of grain?" he wrote. "It seems an absurd question, but please make inquiries. Find out what it all means."

The messenger carried the letter over the Malakand Pass and up the road by Dir, and in due time an answer was returned. Ralston received the answer late one afternoon, when the light was failing, and, taking it over to the window, read it through. Its contents fairly startled him.

"I have made inquiries," wrote Captain Phillips, the Resident, "as you wished, and I have found out that some melons and bags of grain were sent by Shere Ali's orders a few weeks ago as a present to one of the chief Mullahs in the town."

Ralston was brought to a stop. So it was Shere Ali, after all, who was at the bottom of the trouble. It was Shere Ali who had sent the present, and had sent it to one of the Mullahs. Ralston looked back upon the little dinner party, whereby he had brought Hatch and Shere Ali together. Had that party been too successful, he wondered? Had it achieved more than he had wished to bring about? He turned in doubt to the letter which he held.

"It seems," he read, "that there had been some trouble between this man and Shere Ali. There is a story that Shere Ali set him to work for a day upon a bridge just below Kohara. But I do not know whether there is any truth in the story. Nor can I find that any particular meaning is attached to the present. I imagine that Shere Ali realised that it would be wise—as undoubtedly it was—for him to make his peace with the Mullah, and sent him accordingly the melons and the bags of grain as an earnest of his good-will."

There the letter ended, and Ralston stood by the window as the light failed more and more from off the earth, pondering with a heavy heart upon its contents. He had to make his choice between the Resident at Kohara and the lady of Gujerat. Captain Phillips held that the present was not interpreted in any symbolic sense. But the lady of Gujerat had known of the present. It was matter of talk, then, in the bazaars, and it would hardly have been that had it meant no more than an earnest of good-will. She had heard of the present; she knew what it was held to convey. It was a message. There was that glare broadening over Chiltistan. Surely the lady of Gujerat was right.

So far his thoughts had carried him when across the window there fell a shadow, and a young officer of the Khyber Rifles passed by to the door. Captain Singleton was announced, and a boy—or so he looked—dark-haired and sunburnt, entered the office. For eighteen months he had been stationed in the fort at Landi Kotal, whence the road dips down between the bare brown cliffs towards the plains and mountains of Afghanistan. With two other English officers he had taken his share in the difficult task of ruling that regiment of wild tribesmen which, twice a week, perched in threes on some rocky promontory, or looking down from a machicolated tower, keeps open the Khyber Pass from dawn to dusk and protects the caravans. The eighteen months had written their history upon his face; he stood before Ralston, for all his youthful looks, a quiet, self-reliant man.

"I have come down on leave, sir," he said. "On the way I fetched Rahat Mian out of his house and brought him in to Peshawur."

Ralston looked up with interest.

"Any trouble?" he asked.

"I took care there should be none."

Ralston nodded.

"He had better be safely lodged. Where is he?"

"I have him outside."

Ralston rang for lights, and then said to Singleton: "Then, I'll see him now."

And in a few minutes an elderly white-bearded man, dressed from head to foot in his best white robes, was shown into the room.

"This is his Excellency," said Captain Singleton, and Rahat Mian bowed with dignity and stood waiting. But while he stood his eyes roamed inquisitively about the room.

"All this is strange to you, Rahat Mian," said Ralston. "How long is it since you left your house in the Khyber Pass?"

"Five years, your Highness," said Rahat Mian, quietly, as though there were nothing very strange in so long a confinement within his doors.

"Have you never crossed your threshold for five years?" asked Ralston.

"No, your Highness. I should not have stepped back over it again, had I been so foolish. Before, yes. There was a deep trench dug between my house and the road, and I used to crawl along the trench when no-one was about. But after a little my enemies saw me walking in the road, and watched the trench."

Rahat Mian lived in one of the square mud windowless houses, each with a tower at a corner which dot the green wheat fields in the Khyber Pass wherever the hills fall back and leave a level space. His house was fifty yards from the road, and the trench stretched to it from his very door. But not two hundred yards away there were other houses, and one of these held Rahat Mian's enemies. The feud went back many years to the date when Rahat Mian, without asking anyone's leave or paying a single farthing of money, secretly married the widowed mother of Futteh Ali Shah. Now Futteh Ali Shah was a boy of fourteen who had the right to dispose of his mother in second marriage as he saw fit, and for the best price he could obtain. And this deprivation of his rights kindled in him a great anger against Rahat Mian. He nursed it until he became a man and was able to buy for a couple of hundred rupees a good pedigree rifle—a rifle which had belonged to a soldier killed in a hill-campaign and for which inquiries would not be made. Armed with his pedigree rifle, Futteh Ali Shah lay in wait vainly for Rahat Mian, until an unexpected bequest caused a revolution in his fortunes. He went down to Bombay, added to his bequest by becoming a money-lender, and finally returned to Peshawur, in the neighbourhood of which city he had become a landowner of some importance. Meanwhile, however, he had not been forgetful of Rahat Mian. He left relations behind to carry on the feud, and in addition he set a price on Rahat Mian's head. It was this feud which Ralston had it in his mind to settle.

He turned to Rahat Mian.

"You are willing to make peace?"

"Yes," said the old man.

"You will take your most solemn oath that the feud shall end. You will swear to divorce your wife, if you break your word?"

For a moment Rahat Mian hesitated. There was no oath more binding, more sacred, than that which he was called upon to take. In the end he consented.

"Then come here at eight to-morrow morning," said Ralston, and, dismissing the man, he gave instructions that he should be safely lodged. He sent word at the same time to Futteh Ali Shah, with whom, not for the first time, he had had trouble.

Futteh Ali Shah arrived late the next morning in order to show his independence. But he was not so late as Ralston, who replied by keeping him waiting for an hour. When Ralston entered the room he saw that Futteh Ali Shah had dressed himself for the occasion. His tall high-shouldered frame was buttoned up in a grey frock coat, grey trousers clothed his legs, and he wore patent-leather shoes upon his feet.

"I hope you have not been waiting very long. They should have told me you were here," said Ralston, and though he spoke politely, there was just a suggestion that it was not really of importance whether Futteh Ali Shah was kept waiting or not.

"I have brought you here that together we may put an end to your dispute with Rahat Mian," said Ralston, and, taking no notice of the exclamation of surprise which broke from the Pathan's lips, he rang the bell and ordered Rahat Mian to be shown in.

"Now let us see if we cannot come to an understanding," said Ralston, and he seated himself between the two antagonists.

But though they talked for an hour, they came no nearer to a settlement. Futteh Ali Shah was obdurate; Rahat Mian's temper and pride rose in their turn. At the sight of each other the old grievance became fresh as a thing of yesterday in both their minds. Their dark faces, with the high cheek-bones and the beaked noses of the Afridi, became passionate and fierce. Finally Futteh Ali Shah forgot all his Bombay manners; he leaned across Ralston, and cried to Rahat Mian:

"Do you know what I would like to do with you? I would like to string my bedstead with your skin and lie on it."

And upon that Ralston arrived at the conclusion that the meeting might as well come to an end.

He dismissed Rahat Mian, promising him a safe conveyance to his home. But he had not yet done with Futteh Ali Shah.

"I am going out," he said suavely. "Shall we walk a little way together?"

Futteh Ali Shah smiled. Landowner of importance that he was, the opportunity to ride side by side through Peshawur with the Chief Commissioner did not come every day. The two men went out into the porch. Ralston's horse was waiting, with a scarlet-clad syce at its head. Ralston walked on down the steps and took a step or two along the drive. Futteh Ali Shah lagged behind.

"Your Excellency is forgetting your horse."

"No," said Ralston. "The horse can follow. Let us walk a little. It is a good thing to walk."

It was nine o'clock in the morning, and the weather was getting hot. And it is said that the heat of Peshawur is beyond the heat of any other city from the hills to Cape Comorin. Futteh Ali Shah, however, could not refuse. Regretfully he signalled to his own groom who stood apart in charge of a fine dark bay stallion from the Kirghiz Steppes. The two men walked out from the garden and down the road towards Peshawur city, with their horses following behind them.

"We will go this way," said Ralston, and he turned to the left and walked along a mud-walled lane between rich orchards heavy with fruit. For a mile they thus walked, and then Futteh Ali Shah stopped and said:

"I am very anxious to have your Excellency's opinion of my horse. I am very proud of it."

"Later on," said Ralston, carelessly. "I want to walk for a little"; and, conversing upon indifferent topics, they skirted the city and came out upon the broad open road which runs to Jamrud and the Khyber Pass.

It was here that Futteh Ali Shah once more pressingly invited Ralston to try the paces of his stallion. But Ralston again refused.

"I will with pleasure later on," he said. "But a little exercise will be good for both of us; and they continued to walk along the road. The heat was overpowering; Futteh Ali Shah was soft from too much good living; his thin patent-leather shoes began to draw his feet and gall his heels; his frock coat was tight; the perspiration poured down his face. Ralston was hot, too. But he strode on with apparent unconcern, and talked with the utmost friendliness on the municipal affairs of Peshawur."

"It is very hot," said Futteh Ali Shah, "and I am afraid for your Excellency's health. For myself, of course, I am not troubled, but so much walking will be dangerous to you"; and he halted and looked longingly back to his horse.

"Thank you," said Ralston. "But my horse is fresh, and I should not be able to talk to you so well. I do not feel that I am in danger."

Futteh Ali Shah mopped his face and walked on. His feet blistered; he began to limp, and he had nothing but a riding-switch in his hand. Now across the plain he saw in the distance the round fort of Jamrud, and he suddenly halted:

"I must sit down," he said. "I cannot help it, your Excellency, I must stop and sit down."

Ralston turned to him with a look of cold surprise.

"Before me, Futteh Ali Shah? You will sit down in my presence before I sit down? I think you will not."

Futteh Ali Shah gazed up the road and down the road, and saw no help anywhere. Only this devilish Chief Commissioner stood threateningly before him. With a gesture of despair he wiped his face and walked on. For a mile more he limped on by Ralston's side, the while Ralston discoursed upon the great question of Agricultural Banks. Then he stopped again and blurted out:

"I will give you no more trouble. If your Excellency will let me go, never again will I give you trouble. I swear it."

Ralston smiled. He had had enough of the walk himself.

"And Rahat Mian?" he asked.

There was a momentary struggle in the zemindar's mind. But his fatigue and exhaustion were too heavy upon him.

"He, too, shall go his own way. Neither I nor mine shall molest him."

Ralston turned at once and mounted his horse. With a sigh of relief Futteh Ali Shah followed his example.

"Shall we ride back together?" said Ralston, pleasantly. And as on the way out he had made no mention of any trouble between the landowner and himself, so he did not refer to it by a single word on his way back.

But close to the city their ways parted and Futteh Ali Shah, as he took his leave, said hesitatingly,

"If this story goes abroad, your Excellency—this story of how we walked together towards Jamrud—there will be much laughter and ridicule."

The fear of ridicule—there was the weak point of the Afridi, as Ralston very well knew. To be laughed at—Futteh Ali Shah, who was wont to lord it among his friends, writhed under the mere possibility. And how they would laugh in and round about Peshawur! A fine figure he would cut as he rode through the streets with every ragged bystander jeering at the man who was walked into docility and submission by his Excellency the Chief Commissioner.

"My life would be intolerable," he said, "were the story to get about."

Ralston shrugged his shoulders.

"But why should it get about?"

"I do not know, but it surely will. It may be that the trees have ears and eyes and a mouth to speak." He edged a little nearer to the Commissioner. "It may be, too," he said cunningly, "that your Excellency loves to tell a good story after dinner. Now there is one way to stop that story."

Ralston laughed. "If I could hold my tongue, you mean," he replied.

Futteh Ali Shah came nearer still. He rode up close and leaned a little over towards Ralston.

"Your Excellency would lose the story," he said, "but on the other hand there would be a gain—a gain of many hours of sleep passed otherwise in guessing."

He spoke in an insinuating fashion, which made Ralston disinclined to strike a bargain—and he nodded his head like one who wishes to convey that he could tell much if only he would. But Ralston paused before he answered, and when he answered it was only to put a question.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

And the reply came in a low quick voice.

"There was a message sent through Chiltistan."

Ralston started. Was it in this strange way the truth was to come to him? He sat his horse carelessly. "I know," he said. "Some melons and some bags of grain."

Futteh Ali Shah was disappointed. This devilish Chief Commissioner knew everything. Yet the story of the walk must not get abroad in Peshawur, and surely it would unless the Chief Commissioner were pledged to silence. He drew a bow at a venture.

"Can your Excellency interpret the message? As they interpret it in Chiltistan?" and it seemed to him that he had this time struck true. "It is a little thing I ask of your Excellency."

"It is not a great thing, to be sure," Ralston admitted. He looked at the zemindar and laughed. "But I could tell the story rather well," he said doubtfully. "It would be an amusing story as I should tell it. Yet—well, we will see," and he changed his tone suddenly. "Interpret to me that present as it is interpreted in the villages of Chiltistan."

Futteh Ali Shah looked about him fearfully, making sure that there was no one within earshot. Then in a whisper he said: "The grain is the army which will rise up from the hills and descend from the heavens to destroy the power of the Government. The melons are the forces of the Government; for as easily as melons they will be cut into pieces."

He rode off quickly when he had ended, like a man who understands that he has said too much, and then halted and returned.

"You will not tell that story?" he said.

"No," answered Ralston abstractedly. "I shall never tell that story."

He understood the truth at last. So that was the message which Shere Ali had sent. No wonder, he thought, that the glare broadened over Chiltistan.