The Broken Road/XVIII

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A fortnight after Shere Ali had dined with Ralston in Calcutta, a telegram was handed to Linforth at Chatham. It was Friday, and a guest-night. The mess-room was full, and here and there amongst the scarlet and gold lace the sombre black of a civilian caught the eye. Dinner was just over, and at the ends of the long tables the mess-waiters stood ready to draw, with a single jerk, the strips of white tablecloth from the shining mahogany. The silver and the glasses had been removed, the word was given, and the strips of tablecloth vanished as though by some swift legerdemain. The port was passed round, and while the glasses were being filled the telegram was handed to Linforth by his servant.

He opened it carelessly, but as he read the words his heart jumped within him. His importunities had succeeded, he thought. At all events, his opportunity had come; for the telegram informed him of his appointment to the Punjab Commission. He sat for a moment with his thoughts in a whirl. He could hardly believe the good news. He had longed so desperately for this one chance that it had seemed to him of late impossible that he should ever obtain it. Yet here it had come to him, and upon that his neighbour jogged him in the ribs and said:

"Wake up!"

He waked to see the Colonel at the centre of the top table standing on his feet with his glass in his hand.

"Gentlemen, the Queen. God bless her!" and all that company arose and drank to the toast. The prayer, thus simply pronounced amongst the men who had pledged their lives in service to the Queen, had always been to Linforth a very moving thing. Some of those who drank to it had already run their risks and borne their sufferings in proof of their sincerity; the others all burned to do the like. It had always seemed to him, too, to link him up closely and inseparably with the soldiers of the regiment who had fallen years ago or had died quietly in their beds, their service ended. It gave continuity to the regiment of Sappers, so that what each man did increased or tarnished its fair fame. For years back that toast had been drunk, that prayer uttered in just those simple words, and Linforth was wont to gaze round the walls on the portraits of the famous generals who had looked to these barracks and to this mess-room as their home. They, too, had heard that prayer, and, carrying it in their hearts, without parade or needless speech had gone forth, each in his turn, and laboured unsparingly.

But never had Linforth been so moved as he was tonight. He choked in his throat as he drank. For his turn to go forth had at the last come to him. And in all humility of spirit he sent up a prayer on his own account, that he might not fail—and again that he might not fail.

He sat down and told his companions the good news, and rejoiced at their congratulations. But he slipped away to his own quarters very quietly as soon as the Colonel rose, and sat late by himself.

There was one, he knew very well, to whom the glad tidings would be a heavy blow—but he could not—no, not even for her sake—stand aside. For this opportunity he had lived, training alike his body and mind against its coming. He could not relinquish it. There was too strong a constraint upon him.

"Over the passes to the foot of the Hindu Kush," he murmured; and in his mind's eye he saw the road—a broad, white, graded road—snake across the valleys and climb the cliffs.

Was Russia at work? he wondered. Was he to be sent to Chiltistan? What was Shere Ali doing? He turned the questions over in his mind without being at much pains to answer them. In such a very short time now he would know. He was to embark before a month had passed.

He travelled down the very next day into Sussex, and came to the house under the Downs at twelve o'clock. It was early spring, and as yet there were no buds upon the trees, no daffodils upon the lawns. The house, standing apart in its bare garden of brown earth, black trees, and dull green turf, had a desolate aspect which somehow filled him with remorse. He might have done more, perhaps, to fill this house with happiness. He feared that, now that it was too late to do the things left undone. He had been so absorbed in his great plans, which for a moment lost in his eyes their magnitude.

Dick Linforth found his mother in the study, through the window of which she had once looked from the garden in the company of Colonel Dewes. She was writing her letters, and when she saw him enter, she sprang up with a cry of joy.

"Dick!" she cried, coming towards him with outstretched hands. But she stopped half-way. The happiness died out of her. She raised a hand to her heart, and her voice once more repeated his name; but her voice faltered as she spoke, and the hand was clasped tight upon her breast.

"Dick," she said, and in his face she read the tidings he had brought. The blow so long dreaded had at last fallen.

"Yes, mother, it's true," he said very gently; and leading her to a chair, he sat beside her, stroking her hand, almost as a lover might do. "It's true. The telegram came last night. I start within the month."

"For Chiltistan?"

Dick looked at her for a moment.

"For the Punjab," he said, and added: "But it will mean Chiltistan. Else why should I be sent for? It has been always for Chiltistan that I have importuned them."

Sybil Linforth bowed her head. The horror which had been present with her night and day for so long a while twenty-five years ago rushed upon her afresh, so that she could not speak. She sat living over again the bitter days when Luffe was shut up with his handful of men in the fort by Kohara. She remembered the morning when the postman came up the garden path with the official letter that her husband had been slain. And at last in a whisper she said:

"The Road?"

Dick, even in the presence of her pain, could not deny the implication of her words.

"We Linforths belong to the Road," he answered gravely. The words struck upon a chord of memory. Sybil Linforth sat upright, turned to her sort and greatly surprised him. He had expected an appeal, a prayer. What he heard was something which raised her higher in his thoughts than ever she had been, high though he had always placed her.

"Dick," she said, "I have never said a word to dissuade you, have I? Never a word? Never a single word?" and her tone besought him to assure her.

"Never a word, mother," he replied.

But still she was not content.

"When you were a boy, when the Road began to take hold on you—when we were much together, playing cricket out there in the garden," and her voice broke upon the memory of those golden days, "when I might have been able, perhaps, to turn you to other thoughts, I never tried to, Dick? Own to that! I never tried to. When I came upon you up on the top of the Down behind the house, lying on the grass, looking out—always—always towards the sea—oh, I knew very well what it was that was drawing you; but I said nothing, Dick. Not a word—not a word!"

Dick nodded his head.

"That's true, mother. You never questioned me. You never tried to dissuade me."

Sybil's face shone with a wan smile. She unlocked a drawer in her writing-table, and took out an envelope. From the envelope she drew a sheet of paper covered with a faded and yellow handwriting.

"This is the last letter your father ever wrote to me," she said. "Harry wrote on the night that he—that he died. Oh, Dick, my boy, I have known for a long time that I would have one day to show it to you, and I wanted you to feel when that time came that I had not been disloyal."

She had kept her face steady, even her voice calm, by a great effort. But now the tears filled her eyes and brimmed over, and her voice suddenly shook between a laugh and a sob. "But oh, Dick," she cried, "I have so often wanted to be disloyal. I was so often near to it—oh, very, very near."

She handed him the faded letter, and, turning towards the window, stood with her back to him while he read. It was that letter, with its constant refrain of "I am very tired," which Linforth had written in his tent whilst his murderers crouched outside waiting for sleep to overcome him.

"I am sitting writing this by the light of a candle," Dick read. "The tent door is open. In front of me I can see the great snow-mountains. All the ugliness of the shale-slopes is hidden. By such a moonlight, my dear, may you always look back upon my memory. For it is all over, Sybil."

Then followed the advice about himself and his school; and after that advice the message which was now for the first time delivered:

"Whether he will come out here, it is too early to think about. But the Road will not be finished—and I wonder. If he wants to, let him! We Linforths belong to the Road."

Dick folded the letter reverently, and crossing to his mother's side, put his arm about her waist.

"Yes," he said. "My father knew it as I know it. He used the words which I in my turn have used. We Linforths belong to the Road."

His mother took the letter from his hand and locked it away.

"Yes," she said bravely, and called a smile to her face. "So you must go."

Dick nodded his head.

"Yes. You see, the Road has not advanced since my father died. It almost seems, mother, that it waits for me."

He stayed that day and that night with Sybil, and in the morning both brought haggard faces to the breakfast table. Sybil, indeed, had slept, but, with her memories crowding hard upon her, she had dreamed again one of those almost forgotten dreams which, in the time of her suspense, had so tortured her. The old vague terror had seized upon her again. She dreamed once more of a young Englishman who pursued a young Indian along the wooden galleries of the road above the torrents into the far mists. She could tell as of old the very dress of the native who fled. A thick sheepskin coat swung aside as he ran and gave her a glimpse of gay silk; soft high leather boots protected his feet; and upon his face there was a look of fury and wild fear. But this night there was a difference in the dream. Her present distress added a detail. The young Englishman who pursued turned his face to her as he disappeared amongst the mists, and she saw that it was the face of Dick.

But of this she said nothing at all at the breakfast table, nor when she bade Dick good-bye at the stile on the further side of the field beyond the garden.

"You will come down again, and I shall go to Marseilles to see you off," she said, and so let him go.

There was something, too, stirring in Dick's mind of which he said no word. In the letter of his father, certain sentences had caught his eye, and on his way up to London they recurred to his thoughts, as, indeed, they had more than once during the evening before.

"May he meet," Harry Linforth had written to Sybil of his son Dick—"may he meet a woman like you, my dear, when his time comes, and love her as I love you."

Dick Linforth fell to thinking of Violet Oliver. She was in India at this moment. She might still be there when he landed. Would he meet her, he wondered, somewhere on the way to Chiltistan?