The Broken Road/XXVI

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It is a far cry from Peshawur to Ajmere, and Linforth travelled in the train for two nights and the greater part of two days before he came to it. A little State carved out of Rajputana and settled under English rule, it is the place of all places where East and West come nearest to meeting. Within the walls of the city the great Dargah Mosque, with its shrine of pilgrimage and its ancient rites, lies close against the foot of the Taragarh Hill. Behind it the mass of the mountain rises steeply to its white crown of fortress walls. In front, its high bright-blue archway, a thing of cupolas and porticoes, faces the narrow street of the grain-sellers and the locksmiths. Here is the East, with its memories of Akbar and Shah Jehan, its fiery superstitions and its crudities of decoration. Gaudy chandeliers of coloured glass hang from the roof of a marble mosque, and though the marble may crack and no one give heed to it, the glass chandeliers will be carefully swathed in holland bags. Here is the East, but outside the city walls the pile of Mayo College rises high above its playing-grounds and gives to the princes and the chiefs of Rajputana a modern public school for the education of their sons.

From the roof top of the college tower Linforth looked to the city huddled under the Taragarh Hill, and dimly made out the high archway of the mosque. He turned back to the broad playing-fields at his feet where a cricket match was going on. There was the true solution of the great problem, he thought.

"Here at Ajmere," he said to himself, "Shere Ali could have learned what the West had to teach him. Had he come here he would have been spared the disappointments, and the disillusions. He would not have fallen in with Violet Oliver. He would have married and ruled in his own country."

As it was, he had gone instead to Eton and to Oxford, and Linforth must needs search for him over there in the huddled city under the Taragarh Hill. Ralston's Pathan was even then waiting for Linforth at the bottom of the tower.

"Sir," he said, making a low salaam when Linforth had descended, "His Highness Shere Ali is now in Ajmere. Every morning between ten and eleven he is to be found in a balcony above the well at the back of the Dargah Mosque, and to-morrow I will lead you to him."

"Every morning!" said Linforth. "What does he do upon this balcony?"

"He watches the well below, and the water-carriers descending with their jars," said the Pathan, "and he talks with his friends. That is all."

"Very well," said Linforth. "To-morrow we will go to him."

He passed up the steps under the blue portico a little before the hour on the next morning, and entered a stone-flagged court which was thronged with pilgrims. On each side of the archway a great copper vat was raised upon stone steps, and it was about these two vats that the crowd thronged. Linforth and his guide could hardly force their way through. On the steps of the vats natives, wrapped to the eyes in cloths to save themselves from burns, stood emptying the caldrons of boiling ghee. And on every side Linforth heard the name of Shere Ali spoken in praise.

"What does it mean?" he asked of his guide, and the Pathan replied:

"His Highness the Prince has made an offering. He has filled those caldrons with rice and butter and spices, as pilgrims of great position and honour sometimes do. The rice is cooked in the vats, and so many jars are set aside for the strangers, while the people of Indrakot have hereditary rights to what is left. Sir, it is an act of great piety to make so rich an offering."

Linforth looked at the swathed men scrambling, with cries of pain, for the burning rice. He remembered how lightly Shere Ali had been wont to speak of the superstitions of the Mohammedans and in what contempt he held the Mullahs of his country. Not in those days would he have celebrated his pilgrimage to the shrine of Khwajah Mueeyinudin Chisti by a public offering of ghee.

Linforth looked back upon the Indrakotis struggling and scrambling and burning themselves on the steps about the vast caldrons, and the crowd waiting and clamouring below. It was a scene grotesque enough in all conscience, but Linforth was never further from smiling than at this moment. A strong intuition made him grave.

"Does this mark Shere Ali's return to the ways of his fathers?" he asked himself. "Is this his renunciation of the White People?"

He moved forward slowly towards the inner archway, and the Pathan at his side gave a new turn to his thoughts.

"Sir, that will be talked of for many months," the Pathan said. "The Prince will gain many friends who up till now distrust him."

"It will be taken as a sign of faith?" asked Linforth.

"And more than that," said the guide significantly. "This one thing done here in Ajmere to-day will be spread abroad through Chiltistan and beyond."

Linforth looked more closely at the crowd. Yes, there were many men there from the hills beyond the Frontier to carry the news of Shere Ali's munificence to their homes.

"It costs a thousand rupees at the least to fill one of those caldrons," said the Pathan. "In truth, his Highness has done a wise thing if—" And he left the sentence unfinished.

But Linforth could fill in the gap.

"If he means to make trouble."

But he did not utter the explanation aloud.

"Let us go in," he said; and they passed through the high inner archway into the great court where the saint's tomb, gilded and decked out with canopies and marble, stands in the middle.

"Follow me closely," said the Pathan. "There may be bad men. Watch any who approach you, and should one spit, I beseech your Excellency to pay no heed."

The huge paved square, indeed, was thronged like a bazaar. Along the wall on the left hand booths were erected, where food and sweetmeats were being sold. Stone tombs dotted the enclosure; and amongst them men walked up and down, shouting and talking. Here and there big mango and peepul trees threw a welcome shade.

The Pathan led Linforth to the right between the Chisti's tomb and the raised marble court surrounded by its marble balustrade in front of the long mosque of Shah Jehan. Behind the tomb there were more trees, and the shrine of a dancing saint, before which dancers from Chitral were moving in and out with quick and flying steps. The Pathan led Linforth quickly through the groups, and though here and there a man stood in their way and screamed insults, and here and there one walked along beside them with a scowling face and muttered threats, no one molested them.

The Pathan turned to the right, mounted a few steps, and passed under a low stone archway. Linforth found himself upon a balcony overhanging a great ditch between the Dargah and Taragarh Hill. He leaned forward over the balustrade, and from every direction, opposite to him, below him, and at the ends, steps ran down to the bottom of the gulf—twisting and turning at every sort of angle, now in long lines, now narrow as a stair. The place had the look of some ancient amphitheatre. And at the bottom, and a little to the right of the balcony, was the mouth of an open spring.

"The Prince is here, your Excellency."

Linforth looked along the balcony. There were only three men standing there, in white robes, with white turbans upon their heads. The turban of one was hemmed with gold. There was gold, too, upon his robe.

"No," said Linforth. "He has not yet come," and even as he turned again to look down into that strange gulf of steps the man with the gold-hemmed turban changed his attitude and showed Linforth the profile of his face.

Linforth was startled.

"Is that the Prince?" he exclaimed. He saw a man, young to be sure, but older than Shere Ali, and surely taller too. He looked more closely. That small carefully trimmed black beard might give the look of age, the long robe add to his height. Yes, it was Shere Ali. Linforth walked along the balcony, and as he approached, Shere Ali turned quickly towards him. The blood rushed into his dark face; he stood staring at Linforth like a man transfixed.

Linforth held out his hand with a smile.

"I hardly knew you again," he said.

Shere Ali did not take the hand outstretched to him; he did not move; neither did he speak. He just stood with his eyes fixed upon Linforth. But there was recognition in his eyes, and there was something more. Linforth recalled something that Violet Oliver had told to him in the garden at Peshawur—"Are you going to marry Linforth?" That had been Shere Ali's last question when he had parted from her upon the steps of the courtyard of the Fort. Linforth remembered it now as he looked into Shere Ali's face. "Here is a man who hates me," he said to himself. And thus, for the first time since they had dined together in the mess-room at Chatham, the two friends met.

"Surely you have not forgotten me, Shere Ali?" said Linforth, trying to force his voice in to a note of cheery friendliness. But the attempt was not very successful. The look of hatred upon Shere Ali's face had died away, it is true. But mere impassivity had replaced it. He had aged greatly during those months. Linforth recognised that clearly now. His face was haggard, his eyes sunken. He was a man, moreover. He had been little more than a boy when he had dined with Linforth in the mess-room at Chatham.

"After all," Linforth continued, and his voice now really had something of genuine friendliness, for he understood that Shere Ali had suffered—had suffered deeply; and he was inclined to forgive his temerity in proposing marriage to Violet Oliver—"after all, it is not so much more than a year ago when we last talked together of our plans."

Shere Ali turned to the younger of the two who stood beside him and spoke a few words in a tongue which Linforth did not yet understand. The youth—he was a youth with a soft pleasant voice, a graceful manner and something of the exquisite in his person—stepped smoothly forward and repeated the words to Linforth's Pathan.

"What does he say?" asked Linforth impatiently. The Pathan translated:

"His Highness the Prince would be glad to know what your Excellency means by interrupting him."

Linforth flushed with anger. But he had his mission to fulfil, if it could be fulfilled.

"What's the use of making this pretence?" he said to Shere Ali. "You and I know one another well enough."

And as he ended, Shere Ali suddenly leaned over the balustrade of the balcony. His two companions followed the direction of his eyes; and both their faces became alert with some expectancy. For a moment Linforth imagined that Shere Ali was merely pretending to be absorbed in what he saw. But he, too, looked, and it grew upon him that here was some matter of importance—all three were watching in so eager a suspense.

Yet what they saw was a common enough sight in Ajmere, or in any other town of India. The balcony was built out from a brick wall which fell sheer to the bottom of the foss. But at some little distance from the end of the balcony and at the head of the foss, a road from the town broke the wall, and a flight of steep steps descended to the spring. The steps descended along the wall first of all towards the balcony, and then just below the end of it they turned, so that any man going down to the well would have his face towards the people on the balcony for half the descent and his back towards them during the second half.

A water-carrier with an earthen jar upon his head had appeared at the top of the steps a second before Shere Ali had turned so abruptly away from Linforth. It was this man whom the three were watching. Slowly he descended. The steps were high and worn, smooth and slippery. He went down with his left hand against the wall, and the lizards basking in the sunlight scuttled into their crevices as he approached. On his right hand the ground fell in a precipice to the bottom of the gulf. The three men watched him, and, it seemed to Linforth, with a growing excitement as he neared the turn of the steps. It was almost as though they waited for him to slip just at that turn, where a slip was most likely to occur.

Linforth laughed at the thought, but the thought suddenly gained strength, nay, conviction in his mind. For as the water-carrier reached the bend, turned in safety and went down towards the well, there was a simultaneous movement made by the three—a movement of disappointment. Shere Ali did more than merely move. He struck his hand upon the balustrade and spoke impatiently. But he did not finish the sentence, for one of his companions looked significantly towards Linforth and his Pathan. Linforth stepped forward again.

"Shere Ali," he said, "I want to speak to you. It is important that I should."

Shere Ali leaned his elbows on the balustrade, and gazing across the foss to the Taragarh Hill, hummed to himself a tune.

"Have you forgotten everything?" Linforth went on. He found it difficult to say what was in his mind. He seemed to be speaking to a stranger—so great a gulf was between them now—a gulf as wide, as impassable, as this one at his feet between the balcony and the Taragarh Hill. "Have you forgotten that night when we sat in the doorway of the hut under the Aiguilles d'Arve? I remember it very clearly. You said to me, of your own accord, 'We will always be friends. No man, no woman, shall come between us. We will work together and we will always be friends.'"

By not so much as the flicker of an eyelid did Shere Ali betray that he heard the words. Linforth sought to revive that night so vividly that he needs must turn, needs must respond to the call, and needs must renew the pledge.

"We sat for a long while that night, smoking our pipes on the step of the door. It was a dark night. We watched a planet throw its light upwards from behind the amphitheatre of hills on the left, and then rise clear to view in a gap. There was a smell of hay, like an English meadow, from the hut behind us. You pledged your friendship that night. It's not so very long ago—two years, that's all."

He came to a stop with a queer feeling of shame. He remembered the night himself, and always had remembered it. But he was not given to sentiment, and here he had been talking sentiment and to no purpose.

Shere Ali spoke again to his courtier, and the courtier stepped forward more bland than ever.

"His Highness would like to know if his Excellency is still talking, and if so, why?" he said to the Pathan, who translated it.

Linforth gave up the attempt to renew his friendship with Shere Ali. He must go back to Peshawur and tell Ralston that he had failed. Ralston would merely shrug his shoulders and express neither disappointment nor surprise. But it was a moment of bitterness to Linforth. He looked at Shere Ali's indifferent face, he listened for a second or two to the tune he still hummed, and he turned away. But he had not taken more than a couple of steps towards the entrance of the balcony when his guide touched him cautiously upon the elbow.

Linforth stopped and looked back. The three men were once more gazing at the steps which led down from the road to the well. And once more a water-carrier descended with his great earthen jar upon his head. He descended very cautiously, but as he came to the turn of the steps his foot slipped suddenly.

Linforth uttered a cry, but the man had not fallen. He had tottered for a moment, then he had recovered himself. But the earthen jar which he carried on his head had fallen and been smashed to atoms.

Again the three made a simultaneous movement, but this time it was a movement of joy. Again an exclamation burst from Shere Ali's lips, but now it was a cry of triumph.

He stood erect, and at once he turned to go. As he turned he met Linforth's gaze. All expression died out of his face, but he spoke to his young courtier, who fluttered forward sniggering with amusement.

"His Highness would like to know if his Excellency is interested in a Road. His Highness thinks it a damn-fool road. His Highness much regrets that he cannot even let it go beyond Kohara. His Highness wishes his Excellency good-morning."

Linforth made no answer to the gibe. He passed out into the courtyard, and from the courtyard through the archway into the grain-market. Opposite to him at the end of the street, a grass hill, with the chalk showing at one bare spot on the side of it, ridged up against the sky curiously like a fragment of the Sussex Downs. Linforth wondered whether Shere Ali had ever noticed the resemblance, and whether some recollection of the summer which he had spent at Poynings had ever struck poignantly home as he had stood upon these steps. Or were all these memories quite dead within his breast?

In one respect Shere Ali was wrong. The Road would go on—now. Linforth had done his best to hinder it, as Ralston had bidden him to do, but he had failed, and the Road would go on to the foot of the Hindu Kush. Old Andrew Linforth's words came back to his mind:

"Governments will try to stop it; but the power of the Road will be greater than the power of any Government. It will wind through valleys so deep that the day's sunshine is gone within the hour. It will be carried in galleries along the faces of the mountains, and for eight months of the year sections of it will be buried deep in snow. Yet it will be finished."

How rightly Andrew Linforth had judged! But Dick for once felt no joy in the accuracy of the old man's forecast. He walked back through the city silent and with a heavy heart. He had counted more than he had thought upon Shere Ali's co-operation. His friendship for Shere Ali had grown into a greater and a deeper force than he had ever imagined it until this moment to be. He stopped with a sense of weariness and disillusionment, and then walked on again. The Road would never again be quite the bright, inspiring thing which it had been. The dream had a shadow upon it. In the Eton and Oxford days he had given and given and given so much of himself to Shere Ali that he could not now lightly and easily lose him altogether out of his life. Yet he must so lose him, and even then that was not all the truth. For they would be enemies, Shere Ali would be ruined and cast out, and his ruin would be the opportunity of the Road.

He turned quickly to his companion.

"What was it that the Prince said," he asked, "when the first of those water-carriers came down the steps and did not slip? He beat his hands upon the balustrade of the balcony and cried out some words. It seemed to me that his companion warned him of your presence, and that he stopped with the sentence half spoken."

"That is the truth," Linforth's guide replied. "The Prince cried out in anger, 'How long must we wait?'"

Linforth nodded his head.

"He looked for the pitcher to fall and it did not fall," he said. "The breaking of the pitcher was to be a sign."

"And the sign was given. Do not forget that, your Excellency. The sign was given."

But what did the sign portend? Linforth puzzled his brains vainly over that problem. He had not the knowledge by which a man might cipher out the intrigues of the hill-folk beyond the Frontier. Did the breaking of the pitcher mean that some definite thing had been done in Chiltistan, some breaking of the British power? They might look upon the Raj as a heavy burden on their heads, like an earthen pitcher and as easily broken. Ralston would know.

"You must travel back to Peshawur to-night," said Linforth. "Go straight to his Excellency the Chief Commissioner and tell him all that you saw upon the balcony and all that you heard. If any man can interpret it, it will be he. Meanwhile, show me where the Prince Shere Ali lodges in Ajmere."

The policeman led Linforth to a tall house which closed in at one end a short and narrow street.

"It is here," he said.

"Very well," said Linforth, "I will seek out the Prince again. I will stay in Ajmere and try by some way or another to have talk with him."

But again Linforth was to fail. He stayed for some days in Ajmere, but could never gain admittance to the house. He was put off with the politest of excuses, delivered with every appearance of deep regret. Now his Highness was unwell and could see no one but his physician. At another time he was better—so much better, indeed, that he was giving thanks to Allah for the restoration of his health in the Mosque of Shah Jehan. Linforth could not reach him, nor did he ever see him in the streets of Ajmere.

He stayed for a week, and then coming to the house one morning he found it shuttered. He knocked upon the door, but no one answered his summons; all the reply he got was the melancholy echo of an empty house.

A Babu from the Customs Office, who was passing at the moment, stopped and volunteered information.

"There is no one there, Mister," he said gravely. "All have skedaddled to other places."

"The Prince Shere Ali, too?" asked Linforth.

The Babu laughed contemptuously at the title.

"Oho, the Prince! The Prince went away a week ago."

Linforth turned in surprise.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

The Babu told him the very day on which Shere Ali had gone from Ajmere. It was on the day when the pitcher had fallen on the steps which led down to the well. Linforth had been tricked by the smiling courtier like any schoolboy.

"Whither did the Prince go?"

The Babu shrugged his shoulders.

"How should I know? They are not of my people, these poor ignorant hill-folk."

He went on his way. Linforth was left with the assurance that now, indeed, he had really failed. He took the train that night back to Peshawur.