The Half-Hearted by John Buchan - HTML preview
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16. A Movement Op The Powers
At Mrs. Montrayner's dinner parties a world of silent men is sandwiched between a _monde_ of chattering women. The hostess has a taste for busy celebrities who eat their dinner without thought of the cookery, and regard their fair neighbours much as the diners think of the band in a restaurant. She chose her company with care, and if at her table there was not the busy clack of a fluent conversation, there was always the possibility of _bons mots_ and the off-chance of a State secret. So to have dined with the Montrayners became a boast in a small social set, and to the unilluminate the Montrayner banquets seemed scarce less momentous than Cabinet meetings.
Wratislaw found himself staring dully at a snowy bank of flowers and looking listlessly at the faces beyond. He was extremely worried, and his grey face and sunken eyes showed the labour he had been passing through. The country was approaching the throes of a crisis, and as yet the future was a blind alley to him. There was an autumn session, and he had been badgered all the afternoon in the Commons; his even temper had been perilously near its limits, and he had been betrayed unconsciously into certain ineptitudes which he knew would grin in his face on the morrow from a dozen leading articles. The Continent seemed on the edge of an outbreak; in the East especially, Russia by a score of petty acts had seemed to foreshadow an incomprehensible policy. It was a powder-barrel waiting for the spark; and he felt dismally that the spark might come at any moment from some unlooked-for quarter of the globe. He ran over in his mind the position of foreign affairs. All seemed vaguely safe; and yet he was conscious that all was vaguely unsettled. The world was on the eve of one of its cyclic changes, and unrest seemed to make the air murky.
He tried to be polite and listened attentively to the lady on his right, who was telling him the latest gossip about a certain famous marriage. But his air was so manifestly artificial that she turned to the presumably more attractive topic of his doings."You look ill," she said--she was one who adopted the motherly air towards young men, which only a pretty woman can use. "Are they over-working you in the House?"
"Pretty fair," and he smiled grimly. "But really I can't complain. I have had eight hours' sleep in the last four days, and I don't think Beauregard could say as much. Some day I shall break loose and go to a quiet place and sleep for a week. Brittany would do--or Scotland."
"I was in Scotland last week," she said. "I didn't find it quiet. It was at one of those theatrical Highland houses where they pipe you to sleep and pipe you to breakfast. I used to have to sit up all night by the fire and read Marius the Epicurean, to compose myself. Did you ever try the specific?""No," he said, laughing. "I always soothe my nerves with Blue-books." She made a mouth at the thought. "And do you know I met such a nice man up there, who said you were a great friend of his? His name was Haystoun." "Do you remember his Christian name?" he asked. "Lewis," she said without hesitation. He laughed. "He is a man who should only have one name and that his Christian one. I never heard him called 'Haystoun' in my life. How is he?"
"He seemed well, but he struck me as being at rather a loose end. What is wrong with him? You know him well and can tell me. He seems to have nothing to do; to have fallen out of his niche, you know. And he looks so extraordinarily clever."
"He _is_ extraordinarily clever. But if I undertook to tell you what was wrong with Lewie Haystoun, I should never get to the House to-night. The vitality of a great family has run to a close in him. He is strong and able, and yet, unless the miracle of miracles happens, he will never do anything. Two hundred years ago he might have led some mad Jacobite plot to success. Three hundred and he might have been another Raleigh. Six hundred, and there would have been a new crusade. But as it is, he is out of harmony with his times; life is too easy and mannered; the field for a man's courage is in petty and recondite things, and Lewie is not fitted to understand it. And all this, you see, spells a kind of cowardice: and if you have a friend who is a hero out of joint, a great man smothered in the wrong sort of civilization, and all the while one who is building up for himself with the world and in his own heart the reputation of a coward, you naturally grow hot and bitter."The lady looked curiously at the speaker. She had never heard the silent politician speak so earnestly before. "It seems to me a clear case of _chercher la femme_," said she.
"That," said Wratislaw with emphasis, "is the needle-point of the whole business. He has fallen in love with just the wrong sort of woman. Very pretty, very good, a demure puritanical little Pharisee, clever enough, too, to see Lewie's merits, too weak to hope to remedy them, and too full of prejudice to accept them. There you have the makings of a very pretty tragedy.""I am so sorry," said the lady. She was touched by this man's anxiety for his friend, and
Mr. Lewis Haystoun, whom she was never likely to meet again, became a figure of interest in her eyes. She turned to say something more, but Wratislaw, having unburdened his soul to some one, and feeling a little relieved, was watching his chief's face further down the table. That nobleman, hopelessly ill at ease, had given up the pretence of amiability and was now making frantic endeavours to send mute signals across the flowers to his under secretary.The Montrayner guests seldom linger. Within half an hour after the ladies left the table Beauregard and Wratislaw were taking leave and hurrying into their greatcoats.
"You are going down to the House," said the elder man, "and I'll come too. I want to have some talk with you. I tried to catch your eye at dinner to get you to come round and deliver me from old Montrayner, for I had to sit on his right hand and couldn't come round to you. Heigho-ho! I wish I was a Trappist."
The cab had turned out of Piccadilly into St. James's Street before either man spoke again. The tossing lights of a windy autumn evening were shimmering on the wet pavement, and faces looked spectral white in the morris-dance of shine and shadow. Wratislaw, whose soul was sick for high, clean winds and the great spaces of the moors, was thinking of Glenavelin and Lewis and the strong, quickening north. His companion was furrowing his brow over some knotty problem in his duties.In Pall Mall there was a lull in the noise, but neither seemed disposed to talk.
"We had better wait till we get to the House," said Beauregard. "We must have peace, for I have got the most vexatious business to speak about." And again he wrinkled his anxious brows and stared in front of him.
They entered a private room where the fire had burned itself out, and the lights fell on heavy furniture and cheerless solitude. Beauregard spread himself out in an arm-chair, and stared at the ceiling. Wratislaw, knowing his chief's manners, stood before the blackened grate and waited."Fetch me an atlas--that big one, and find the map of the Indian frontier." Wratislaw obeyed and stretched the huge folio on the table. The elder man ran his forefinger in a circle.
"There--that wretched radius is the plague of my life. Our reports stop short at that line, and reliable information begins again some hundreds of miles north. Meanwhile-between?" And he shrugged his shoulders.
"I got news to-day in a roundabout way from Taghati. That's the town just within the Russian frontier there. It seems that the whole country is in a ferment. The hill tribes are out and the Russian frontier line is threatened. So they say. I have the actual names of the people who are making the row. Russian troops are being massed along the line there. The whole place, you know, has been for long a military beehive and absurdly over-garrisoned, so there is no difficulty about the massing. The difficulty lies in the reason. Three thousand square miles or so of mountain cannot be so dangerous. One would think that the whole Afghan nation was meditating a descent on the Amu Daria." He glanced up at his companion, and the two men saw the same anxiety in each other's eyes."Anything more of Marka?" asked Wratislaw.
"Nothing definite. He is somewhere in the Pamirs, up to some devilry or other. Oh, by the by, there is something I have forgotten. I found out the other day that our gentleman had been down quite recently in south-west Kashmir. He was Arthur Marker at the time, the son of a German count and a Scotch mother, you understand. Immensely popular, too, among natives and Europeans alike. He went south from Bardur, and apparently returned north by the Punjab. At Bardur, Logan and Thwaite were immensely fascinated, Gribton remained doubtful. Now the good Gribton is coming home, and so he will have the place for a happy hunting-ground."Wratislaw was puffing his under-lip in deep thought. "It is a sweet business," he said. "But what can we do? Only wait?"
"Yes, one could wait if Marka were the only disquieting feature. But what about Taghati and the Russian activity? What on earth is going on or about to go on in this square inch of mountain land to make all the pother? If it is a tribal war on a first-class scale then we must know about it, for it is in the highest degree our concern too. If it is anything else, things look more than doubtful. All the rest I don't mind. It's open and obvious, and we are on the alert. But that little bit of frontier there is so little known and apparently so remote that I begin to be afraid of trouble in that direction. What do you think?"Wratislaw shook his head. He had no opinion to offer. "At any rate, you need fear no awkward questions in the House, for this sort of thing cannot be public for months." "I am wondering whether somebody should not go out. Somebody quite unofficial and sufficiently clever."
"My thought too," said Beauregard. "The pinch is where to get our man from. I have been casting up possibilities all day, and this one is too clever, another too dull, another too timid, and another too hare-brained."Wratislaw seemed sunk in a brown study. "Do you remember my telling you once about my friend Lewis Haystoun?" he asked. "I remember perfectly. What made him get so badly beaten? He ought to have won."
"That's part of my point," said the other. "If I knew him less well than I do I should say he was the man cut out by Providence for the work. He has been to the place, he knows the ropes of travelling, he is exceedingly well-informed, and he is uncommonly clever. But he is badly off colour. The thing might be the saving of him, or the ruin--in which case, of course, he would also be the ruin of the thing.""As risky as that?" Beauregard asked. "I have heard something of him, but I thought it merely his youth. What's wrong with him?"
"Oh, I can't tell. A thousand things, but all might be done away with by a single chance like this. I tell you what I'll do. After to-night I can be spared for a couple of days. I feel rather hipped myself, so I shall get up to the north and see my man. I know the circumstances and I know Lewis. If the two are likely to suit each other I have your authority to give him your message?""Certainly, my dear Wratislaw. I have all the confidence in the world in your judgment. You will be back the day after to-morrow?"
"I shall only be out of the House one night, and I think the game worth it. I need not tell you that I am infernally anxious both about the business and my friend. It is just on the cards that one might be the solution of the other.""You understand everything?" "Everything. I promise you I shall be exacting enough. And now I had better be looking after my own work."
Beauregard stared after him as he went out of the room and remained for a few minutes in deep thought. Then he deliberately wrote out a foreign telegram form and rang the bell.
"I fancy I know the man," he said to himself. "He will go. Meantime I can prepare things for his passage." The telegram was to the fugitive Gribton at Florence, asking him to meet a certain Mr. Haystoun at the Embassy in Paris within a week for the discussion of a particular question.
17. The Brink Of The Rubicon
The next evening Wratislaw drove in a hired dogcart up Glenavelin from Gledsmuir just as a stormy autumn twilight was setting in over the bare fields. A wild back-end had followed on the tracks of a marvellous summer. Though it was still October the leaves lay heaped beneath the hedgerows, the bracken had yellowed to a dismal hue of decay, and the heather had turned from the purple of its flower to the grey-blue of its passing. Rain had fallen, and the long road-side pools were fired by the westering sun. Glenavelin looked crooked and fantastic in the falling shadows, and two miles farther the high lights of Etterick rose like a star in the bosom of the hills. Seen after many weeks' work in the bustle and confinement of town, the solitary, shadow-haunted world soothed and comforted.
He found Lewis in his room alone. The place was quite dark for no lamp was lit, and only a merry fire showed the occupant. He welcomed his friend with crazy vehemence, pushing him into a great armchair, offering a dozen varieties of refreshment, and leaving the butler aghast with contradictory messages about dinner."Oh, Tommy, upon my soul, it is good to see you here! I was getting as dull as an owl." "Are you alone?" Wratislaw asked. "George is staying here, but he has gone over to Glenaller to a big shoot. I didn't care much about it, so I stayed at home. He will be back to-morrow."
Lewis's face in the firelight seemed cheerful and wholesome enough, but his words belied it. Wratislaw wondered why this man, who had been wont to travel to the ends of the earth for good shooting, should deny himself the famous Glenaller coverts.
At dinner the lamplight showed him more clearly, and the worried look in his eyes could not be hidden. He was listless, too, his kindly, boisterous manner seemed to have forsaken him, and he had acquired a great habit of abstracted silence. He asked about recent events in the House, commenting shrewdly enough, but without interest. When Wratislaw in turn questioned him on his doings, he had none of the ready enthusiasm which had been used to accompany his talk on sport. He gave bare figures and was silent.
Afterwards in his own sanctum, with drawn curtains and a leaping fire, he became more cheerful. It was hard to be moody in that pleasant room, with the light glancing from silver and vellum and dark oak, and a thousand memories about it of the clean, outdoor life. Wratislaw stretched his legs to the blaze and watched the coils of blue smoke mounting from his pipe with a feeling of keen pleasure. His errand was out of the focus of his thoughts.It was Lewis himself who recalled him to the business. "I thought of coming down to town," he said. "I have been getting out of spirits up here, and I wanted to be near you." "Then it was an excellent chance which brought me up to-night. But why are you dull? I thought you were the sort of man who is sufficient unto himself, you know." "I am not," he said sharply. "I never realized my gross insufficiency so bitterly." "Ah!" said Wratislaw, sitting up, "love? "Did you happen to see Miss Wishart's engagement in the papers?" "I never read the papers. But I have heard about this: in fact, I believe I have congratulated Stocks." "Do you know that she ought to have married me?" Lewis cried almost shrilly. "I swear she loved me. It was only my hideous folly that drove her from me."
"Folly?" said Wratislaw, smiling. "Folly? Well you might call it that. I have come up 'ane's errand,' as your people hereabouts say, to talk to you like a schoolmaster, Lewie. Do you mind a good talking-to?""I need it," he said. "Only it won't do any good, because I have been talking to myself for a month without effect. Do you know what I am, Tommy?" "I am prepared to hear," said the other. "A coward! It sounds nice, doesn't it? I am a shirker, a man who would be drummed out of any regiment."
"Rot!" said Wratislaw. "In that sort of thing you have the courage of your kind. You are the wrong sort of breed for common shirking cowards. Why, man, you might get the Victoria Cross ten times over with ease, as far as that goes. Only you wouldn't, for you are something much more subtle and recondite than a coward."It was Lewis's turn for the request. "I am prepared to hear," he said.
"A fool! An arrant, extraordinary fool! A fool of quality and parts, a fool who is the best fellow in the world and who has every virtue a man can wish, but at the same time a conspicuous monument of folly. And it is this that I have come to speak about." Lewis sat back in his chair with his eyes fixed on the glowing coal.
"I want you to make it all plain," he said slowly. "I know it all already; I have got the dull, dead consciousness of it in my heart, but I want to hear it put into words." And he set his lips like a man in pain."It is hard," said Wratislaw, "devilish hard, but I've got to try." He knocked out the ashes from his pipe and leaned forward. "What would you call the highest happiness, Lewie?" he asked. "The sense of competence," was the answer, given without hesitation.
"Right. And what do we mean by competence? Not success! God knows it is something very different from success! Any fool may be successful, if the gods wish to hurt him. Competence means that splendid joy in your own powers and the approval of your own heart, which great men feel always and lesser men now and again at favoured intervals. There are a certain number of things in the world to be done, and we have got to do them. We may fail--it doesn't in the least matter. We may get killed in the attempt--it matters still less. The things may not altogether be worth doing--it is of very little importance. It is ourselves we have got to judge by. If we are playing our part well, and know it, then we can thank God and go on. That is what I call happiness.""And I," said Lewis.
"And how are you to get happiness? Not by thinking about it. The great things of the world have all been done by men who didn't stop to reflect on them. If a man comes to a halt and analyses his motives and distrusts the value of the thing he strives for, then the odds are that his halt is final. You strive to strive and not to attain. A man must have that direct practical virtue which forgets itself and sees only its work. Parsons will tell you that all virtue is self-sacrifice, and they are right, though not in the way they mean. It may all seem a tissue of contradictions. You must not pitch on too fanciful a goal, nor, on the other hand, must you think on yourself. And it is a contradiction which only resolves itself in practice, one of those anomalies on which the world is built up."Lewis nodded his head.
"And the moral of it all is that there are two sorts of people who will never do any good on this planet. One is the class which makes formulas and shallow little ideals its gods and has no glimpse of human needs and the plain issues of life. The other is the egotist whose eye is always filled with his own figure, who investigates his motives, and hesitates and finicks, till Death knocks him on the head and there is an end of him. Of the two give me the second, for even a narrow little egotistical self is better than a formula. But I pray to be delivered from both."
"'Then who shall stand if Thou, O Lord, dost mark iniquity?'" Lewis quoted.
"There are two men only who will not be ashamed to look their work in the face in the end--the brazen opportunist and the rigid Puritan. Suppose you had some desperate frontier work to get through with and a body of men to pick for it, whom would you take? Not the ordinary, colourless, respectable being, and still less academic nonentities! If I had my pick, my companions should either be the narrowest religionists or frank, unashamed blackguards. I should go to the Calvinists and the fanatics for choice, but if I could not get them then I should have the rankers. For, don't you see, the first would have the fear of God in them, and that somehow keeps a man from fearing anything else. They would do their work because they believed it to be their duty. And the second would have the love of the sport in them, and they should also be made to dwell in the fear of me. They would do their work because they liked it, and liked me, and I told them to do it.""I agree with you absolutely," said Lewis. "I never thought otherwise."
"Good," said Wratislaw. "Now for my application. You've had the misfortune to fall between the two stools, Lewie. You're too clever for a Puritan and too good for a ranker. You're too finicking and high-strung and fanciful for a prosaic world. You think yourself the laughing philosopher with an infinite appreciation of everything, and yet you have not the humour to stand aside and laugh at yourself.""I am a coward, as I have told you," said the other dourly.
"No, you are not. But you can't bring yourself down to the world of compromises, which is the world of action. You have lost the practical touch. You muddled your fight with Stocks because you couldn't get out of touch with your own little world in practice, however you might manage it in theory. You can't be single-hearted. Twenty impulses are always pulling different ways with you, and the result is that you become an unhappy, self-conscious waverer."Lewis was staring into the fire, and the older man leaned forward and put his hand very tenderly on his shoulder.
"I don't want to speak about the thing which gives you most pain, old chap; but I think you have spoiled your chances in the same way in another matter-the most important matter a man can have to do with, though it ill becomes a cynical bachelor like myself to say it.""I know," said Lewis dismally.
"You see it is the Nemesis of your race which has overtaken you. The rich, strong blood of you Haystouns must be given room or it sours into moodiness. It is either a spoon or a spoiled horn with you. You are capable of the big virtues, and just because of it you are extraordinarily apt to go to the devil. Not the ordinary devil, of course, but to a very effective substitute. You want to be braced and pulled together. A war might do it, if you were a soldier. A religious enthusiasm would do it, if that were possible for you. As it is, I have something else, which I came up to propose to you."Lewis faced round in an attitude of polite attention. But his eyes had no interest in them. "You know Bardur and the country about there pretty well?" Lewis nodded. "Also I once talked to you about a man called Marka. Do you remember?" "Yes, of course I do. The man who went north from Bardur the week before I turned up there?"
"Well, there's trouble brewing thereabouts. You know the Taghati country up beyond the Russian line. Things are in a ferment there, great military preparations and all the rest of it, and the reason, they say, is that the hill-tribes in the intervening No-man's-land are at their old games. Things look very ugly abroad just now, and we can't afford to neglect anything when a crisis may be at the door. So we want a man to go out there and find out the truth."
Lewis had straightened himself and was on his feet before Wratislaw had done. "Upon my word," he cried, "if it isn't what I expected! We have been far too sure of the safety of that Kashmir frontier. You mean, of course, that there may be a chance of an invasion?""I mean nothing. But things look ugly enough in Europe just now, and Asia would naturally be the starting-point."
Lewis made some rapid calculations in his head which he jotted on the wood of the fireplace. "It would take a week to get from Bardur to Taghati by the ordinary Kashmir rate of travelling, but of course the place is unknown and it might take months. One would have to try it?""I can only give you the bare facts. If you decide to go, Beauregard will give you particulars in town." "When would he want to know?"
"At once. I go back to-morrow morning, and I must have your answer within three days. You would be required to start within a week. You can take time and quiet to make up your mind."
"It's a great chance," said Lewis. "Does Beauregard think it important?"
"I need not say the work will be very difficult. Remember that your errand will not be official, so in case of failure or trouble we could not support you. We might even have to disclaim all responsibility. In the event of success, on the other hand, your fortune is something more than made.""Would you go?" came the question. "No," said Wratislaw, "I shouldn't." "But if you were in my place?"
"I should hope that I would, but then I might not have the courage. I am giving you the brave man's choice, Lewie. You will be going out to uncertainty and difficulty and extreme danger. On the other hand, I believe in my soul it will harden you into the man you ought to be. Lord knows I would rather have you stay at home!"
The younger man looked up for a second and saw something in Wratislaw's face which made him turn away his eyes. The look of honest regret cut him to the heart. Those friends of his, of whom he was in nowise worthy, made the burden of his self-distrust doubly heavy."I will tell you within three days," he said hoarsely. "God bless you, Tommy. I don't deserve to have a man like you troubling himself about me." It was his one spoken tribute to their friendship; and both, with the nervousness of honest men in the presence of emotion, hastened to change the subject.
18. The Further Brink
Wratislaw left betimes the next morning, and a long day faced Lewis with every hour clamouring for a decision. George would be back by noon, and before his return he must seek quiet and the chances of reflection. He was happy with a miserable fluctuating happiness. Of a sudden his horizon was enlarged, but as he gazed it seemed to narrow again. His mind was still unplumbed; somewhere in its depths might lie the shrinking and unwillingness which would bind him to the dreary present.
He went out to the autumn hills and sought the ridge which runs for miles on the lip of the glen. It was a grey day, with snow waiting in cloud-banks in the north sky and a thin wind whistling through the pines. The scene matched his humour. He was in love for the moment with the stony and stormy in life. He hungered morbidly for ill-fortune, something to stamp out the ease in his soul, and weld him into the form of a man.
He had got his chance and the rest lay with himself. It was a chance of high adventure, a great mission, a limitless future. At the thought the old fever began to rise in his blood. The hot, clear smell of rock and sand, the brown depths of the waters, the far white peaks running up among the stars, all spoke to him with the long-remembered call. Once more he should taste life, and, alert in mind and body, hold up his chin among his fellows. It would be a contest of wits, and for all his cowardice this was not the contest he shrank from.
And then there came back on him, like a flood, the dumb misery of incompetence which had weighed on heart and brain. The hatred of the whole struggling, sordid crew, all the cant and ugliness and ignorance of a mad world, his weakness in the face of it, his fall from common virtue, his nerveless indolence--all stung him like needle points, till he cried out in agony. Anything to deliver his soul from such a bondage, and in his extreme bitterness his mind closed with Wratislaw's offer.
He felt--and it is a proof of his weakness--a certain nameless feeling of content when he had once forced himself into the resolution. Now at least he had found a helm and a port to strain to. As his fancy dwelt upon the mission and drew airy pictures of the land, he found to his delight a boyish enthusiasm arising. Old simple pleasures seemed for the moment dear. There was a zest for toils and discomforts, a tolerance of failure, which had been aforetime his chief traveller's heritage.
And then as he came to the ridge where the road passes from Glenavelin to Glen Adler, he stopped as in duty bound to look at the famous prospect. You stand at the shedding of two streams; behind, the green and woodland spaces of the pastoral Avelin; at the feet, a land of stones and dwarf junipers and naked rifts in the hills, with white-falling waters and dark shadows even at midday. And then, beyond and afar, the lines of hillland crowd upon each other till the eye is lost in a mystery of grey rock and brown heather and single bald peaks rising sentinel-like in the waste. The grey heavens lent a chill eeriness to the dim grey distances; the sharp winds, the forerunners of snow, blew over the moors like blasts from a primeval night.
By an odd vagary of temper the love of these bleak hills blazed up fiercely in his heart. Never before had he felt so keenly the nameless glamour of his own heritage. He had not been back six months and yet he had come to accept all things as matters of course, the beauty of the place, its sport, its memories. Rarely had he felt that intimate joy in it which lies at the bottom of all true souls. There is a sentiment which old poets have made into songs and called the "Lilt of the Heather," and which is knit closer to man's heart than love of wife or kin or his own fair fortune. It had not come to him in the time of the hills' glory, but now on the brink of winter the far-off melancholy of the place and its infinite fascination seemed to clutch at his heart-strings. It was his own land, the place of his fathers; and now he must sever himself from it and carry only a barren memory.
And yet he felt no melancholy. Rather it was the immortal gaiety of the wanderer, to whom the homeland is dearest as a memory, who pitches his camp by waters of Babylon and yet as ever the old word on his lip, the old song in his ear, and the kindly picture in his heart. Strange that it is the little races who wander farthest and yet have the eternal home-sickness! And yet not strange, for to the little peoples, their land, bare and uncouth and unfriendly for the needs of life, must be more the ideal, the dream, than the satisfaction. The lush countries give corn and wine for their folks, the little bare places afford no more than a spiritual heritage. Yet spiritual it is, and for two men who in the moment of their extremity will think on meadow, woodland, or placid village, a score will figure the windy hill, the grey lochan, and the mournful sea.
For the moment he felt a self-pity which he cast from him. To this degradation at least he should never come. But as the thought of Alice came up ever and again, his longing for her seemed to be changed from hot pain to a chastened regret. The red hearth-fire was no more in his fancy. The hunger for domesticity had gone, and the girl was now less the wife he had desired than the dream of love he had vainly followed. As he came back across the moors, for the first time for weeks his jealous love left him at peace. His had been a fanciful Sylvia, "holy, fair, and wise"; and what if mortal Sylvia were unkind, there was yet comfort in this elusive lady of his memories.
He found George at the end of a second breakfast, a very ruddy, happy young man hunting high and low for a lost tobacco-jar.
"Oh, first-class," he said in answer to Lewis's question. "Out and out the best day's shooting I've had in my life. You were an ass not to come, you know. A lot of your friends there, tremendously disappointed too, and entrusted me with a lot of messages for you which I have forgotten."
"I had Tommy up last night on a flying visit. He says that Beauregard wants me to go out to Kashmir again. There has been some threatening of a row up there, and he thinks that as I know the place I might be able to get good information.""Official?" asked George.
"Practically, yes; but in theory it's quite off my own bat, and they are good enough to tell me that they will not acknowledge responsibility. However, it's a great chance and I am going.""Good," said the other, and his face and voice had settled into gravity. "Pretty fair sport up in those parts, isn't there?"
"Pretty fair? it's about the best in the world. Your ordinary man who goes the grand tour comes home raving about the sport in the Himalayan foothills, and it's not to be named with this.""Good chance too of a first-rate row, isn't there? Natives troublesome, and Russia near, and that sort of thing?" George's manner showed a growing enthusiasm. "A rather good chance. It is about that I'm going, you know." "Then if you don't mind, I am coming with you." Lewis stared, incredulous. "It's quite true. I am serious enough. I am doing nothing at the Bar, and I want to travel, proper travelling, where you are not coddled with railways and hotels." "But it's hideously risky, and probably very arduous and thankless. You will tire of it in a week." "I won't," said George, "and in any case I'll make my book for that. You must let me come, Lewie. I simply couldn't stand your going off alone." "But I may have to leave you. There are places where one can go when two can't." "When you come to that sort of place I'll stay behind. I'll be quite under your orders." "Well, at any rate take some time to think over it." "Bless you, I don't want time to think over it," cried George. "I know my own mind. It's the chance I've been waiting on for years." "Thanks tremendously then, my dear chap," said Lewis, very ill at ease. "It's very good of you. I must wire at once to Tommy." "I'll take it down, if you like. I want to try that new mare of yours in the dog-cart."
When his host had left the room George forgot to light his pipe, but walked instead to the window and whistled solemnly. "Poor old man," he said softly to himself, "it had to come to this, but I'm hanged if he doesn't take it like a Trojan." And he added certain striking comments on the ways of womankind and the afflictions of life, which, being expressed in Mr. Winterham's curious phraseology, need not be set down.
Alice had gone out after lunch to walk to Gledsmuir, seeking in the bitter cold and the dawning storm the freshness which comes from conflict. All the way down the glen the north wind had stung her cheeks to crimson and blown stray curls about her ears; but when she left the little market-place to return she found a fine snow powdering the earth, and a haze creeping over the hills which threatened storm. A mile of the weather delighted her, but after that she grew weary. When the fall thickened she sought the shelter of a way-side cottage, with the purpose of either sending to Glenavelin for a carriage or waiting for the off-chance of a farmer's gig.
By four o'clock the snow showed no sign of clearing, but fell in the same steady, noiseless drift. The mistress of the place made the girl tea and dispatched her son to Glenavelin. But the errand would take time, for the boy was small, and Alice, ever impatient, stood drumming on the panes, watching the dreary weather with a dreary heart. The goodwife was standing at the door on the look-out for a passing gig, and her cry brought the girl to attention."I see a machine comin'! I think it's the Etterick dowg-cairt. Ye'll get a drive in it." Alice had gone to the door, and lo! through the thick fall a dog-cart came into view driven by a tall young man. He recognized her at once, and drew up. "Hullo, Miss Wishart! Storm-stayed? Can I help you?" The girl looked distrustfully at the very restless horse and he caught her diffidence.
"Don't be afraid. 'What I don't know about 'oases ain't worth knowin','" he quoted with a laugh; and leaning forward he prepared to assist her to mount.
There was nothing for it but to accept, and the next minute she found herself in the high seat beside him. Her wraps, sufficient for walking, were scarcely sufficient for a snowy drive, and this, to his credit, the young man saw. He unbuttoned his tweed shootingcape, and gravely put it round her. A curious dainty figure she made with her face all bright with wind, framed in the great grey cloak.
The horse jibbed for a second and then swung along the wild road with the vigorous ease of good blood skilfully handled. George was puzzling his brain all the while as to how he should tell his companion something which she ought to know. The strong drift and the turns of the road claimed much of his attention, so it is possible that he blurted out his news somewhat baldly."Do you know, Miss Wishart, that Lewis Haystoun and I are going off next week? Abroad, you know." The girl, who had been enjoying the ecstasy of swift motion through the bitter weather, glanced up at him with pain in her eyes. "Where?" she asked. "To the Indian frontier. We are going to be special unpaid unofficial members of the Intelligence Department." She asked the old, timid woman's question about danger.
"It's where Lewis was before. Only, you see, things have got into a mess thereabouts, and the Foreign Office has asked him to go out again. By the by, you mustn't tell any one about this, for it's in strict confidence."
The words were meaningless, and yet they sent a pang through her heart. Had he no guess at her inmost feelings? Could he think that she would talk to Mr. Stocks of a thing which was bound up for her with all the sorrow and ecstasy of life?He looked down and saw that her face had paled and that her mouth was drawn with some emotion. A sudden gleam of light seemed to break in upon him. "Are you sorry?" he asked half-unwittingly.
For answer the girl turned her tragic eyes upon him, tried to speak, and faltered. He cursed him-self for a fool and a brute, and whipped up an already over-active horse, till it was all but unmanageable. It was a wise move, for it absorbed his attention and gave the poor child at his side a chance to recover her composure.
They came to Glenavelin gates and George turned in. "I had better drive you to the door, in this charming weather," he said. The sight of the pale little face had moved him to deep pity. He cursed his blindness, the blindness of a whole world of fools, and at the same time, with the impotence of the honest man, he could only wait and be silent.At the door he stopped to unbutton his cape from her neck, and even in his nervousness he felt the trembling of her body. She spoke rapidly and painfully.
"I want you to take a message from me to--to--Lewis. Tell him I must see him. Tell him to come to the Midburn foot, to-morrow in the afternoon. Oh, I am ashamed to ask you, but you must tell him." And then without thanks or good-bye she fled into the house.
19. The Bridge Of Broken Hearts
Listless leaves were tossing in the light wind or borne downward in the swirl of the flooded Midburn, to the weary shallows where they lay, beached high and sodden, till the frost nipped and shrivelled their rottenness into dust. A bleak, thin wind it was, like a fine sour wine, searching the marrow and bringing no bloom to the cheek. A light snow powdered the earth, the grey forerunner of storms.
Alice stood back in the shelter of the broken parapet. The highway with its modern crossing-place was some hundreds of yards up stream, but here, at the burn mouth, where the turbid current joined with the cold, glittering Avelin, there was a grass-grown track, and an ancient, broken-backed bridge. There were few passers on the high-road, none on this deserted way; but the girl in all her loneliness shrank back into the shadow. In these minutes she endured the bitter mistrust, the sore hesitancy, of awaiting on a certain but unknown grief.
She had not long to wait, for Lewis came down the Avelin side by a bypath from Etterick village. His alert gait covered his very real confusion, but to the girl he seemed one who belonged to an alien world of cheerfulness. He could not know her grief, and she regretted her coming.His manners were the same courteous formalities. The man was torn with emotion, and yet he greeted her with a conventional ease.
"It was so good of you, Miss Wishart, to give me a chance to come and say good-bye. My going is such a sudden affair, that I might have had no time to come to Glenavelin, but I could not have left without seeing you."The girl murmured some indistinct words. "I hope you will have a good time and come back safely," she said, and then she was tongue-tied.
The two stood before each other, awkward and silent--two between whom no word of love had ever been spoken, but whose hearts were clamouring at the iron gates of speech.
Alice's face and neck were dyed crimson, as the impossible position dawned on her mind. No word could break down the palisade, of form. Lewis, his soul a volcano, struggled for the most calm and inept words. He spoke of the weather, of her father, of his aunt's messages.Then the girl held out her hand.
"Good-bye," she said, looking away from him.
He held it for a second. "Good-bye, Miss Wishart," he said hoarsely. Was this the consummation of his brief ecstasy, the end of months of longing? The steel hand of fate was on him and he turned to leave.
He turned when he had gone three paces and came back. The girl was still standing by the parapet, but she had averted her face towards the wintry waters. His step seemed to fall on deaf ears, and he stood beside her before she looked towards him.Passion had broken down his awkwardness. He asked the old question with a shaking voice. "Alice," he said, "have I vexed you?" She turned to him a pale, distraught face, her eyes brimming over with the sorrow of love, the passionate adventurous longing which claims true hearts for ever. He caught her in his arms, his heart in a glory of joy. "Oh, Alice, darling," he cried. "What has happened to us? I love you, I love you, and you have never given me a chance to say it." She lay passive in his arms for one brief minute and then feebly drew back. "Sweetheart," he cried. "Sweetheart! For I will call you sweetheart, though we never meet again. You are mine, Alice. We cannot help ourselves." The girl stood as in a trance, her eyes caught and held by his face.
"Oh, the misery of things," she said half-sobbing. "I have given my soul to another, and I knew it was not mine to give. Why, oh why, did you not speak to me sooner? I have been hungering for you and you never came."A sense of his folly choked him. "And I have made you suffer, poor darling! And the whole world is out of joint for us!"
The hopeless feeling of loss, forgotten for a moment, came back to him. The girl was gone from him for ever, though a bridge of hearts should always cross the chasm of their severance."I am going away," he said, "to make reparation. I have my repentance to work out, and it will be bitterer than yours, little woman. Ours must be an austere love." She looked at him till her pale face flushed and a sad exultation woke in her eyes.
"You will never forget?" she asked wistfully, confident of the answer. "Forget!" he cried. "It is my only happiness to remember. I am going away to be knocked about, dear. Wild, rough work, but with a man's chances!"
For a moment she let another thought find harbour in her mind. Was the past irretrievable, the future predetermined? A woman's word had an old right to be broken. If she went to him, would not he welcome her gladly, and the future might yet be a heritage for both?
The thought endured but a moment, for she saw how little simple was the crux of her destiny. The two of them had been set apart by the fates; each had salvation to work out alone; no facile union would ever join them. For him there was the shaping of a man's path; for her the illumination which only sorrows and parting can bring. And with the thought she thought kindly of the man to whom she had pledged her word. It was but a little corner of her heart he could ever possess; but doubtless in such matters he was not ambitious.
Lewis walked by her side down the by-path towards Glenavelin. Tragedy muffled in the garments of convention was there, not the old picturesque Tragic with sword and cloak and steel for the enemy, but the silent Tragic which pulls at the heart-strings."The summer is over," she said. "It has been a cruel summer, but very bright."
"Romance with the jarring modern note which haunts us all to-day," he said. "This upland country is confused with bustling politics, and pastoral has been worried to death by sickness of heart. You cannot find the old peaceful life without.""And within?" she asked. "That is for you and me to determine, dear. God grant it. I have found my princess, like the man in the fairy-tale, but I may not enter the kingdom." "And the poor princess must sit and mope in her high stone tower? It is a hard world for princesses." "Hard for the knights, too, for they cannot come back and carry off their ladies. In the old days it used to be so, but then simplicity has gone out of life." "And the princess waits and watches and cries herself to sleep? "And the knight goes off to the World's End and never forgets."
They were at Glenavelin gates now, and stood silent against the moment of parting. She flew to his arms, for a second his kisses were on her lips, and then came the sundering. A storm of tears was in her heart, but with dry eyes she said the words of good-bye. Meanwhile from the hills came a drift of snow, and a dreary wind sang in the pines the dirge of the dead summer, the plaint of long farewells.
20. The Eastern Road
If you travel abroad in certain seasons you will find that a type predominates among the travellers. From Dover to Calais, from Calais to Paris, there is an unnatural eagerness on faces, an unrest in gait, a disorder in dress which argues worry and haste. And if you inquire further, being of a speculative turn, you will find that there is something in the air. The papers, French and English, have ugly headlines and mystic leaders. Disquiet is in the atmosphere, each man has a solution or a secret, and far at the back sits some body of men who know that a crisis is near and square their backs for it. The journalist is sick with work and fancied importance; the diplomat's hair whitens with the game which he cannot understand; the statesman, if he be wise, is in fear, knowing the meaning of such movements, while, if he be foolish, he chirps optimistically in his speeches and is applauded in the press. There are grey faces at the seats of the money-changers, for war, the scourge of small cords, seems preparing for the overturning of their tables, and the castigation of their persons.
Lewis and George rang the bell in the Faubourg St. Honoré on a Monday afternoon, and asked for Lord Rideaux. His lordship was out, but, if they were the English gentlemen who had the appointment with M. Gribton, Monsieur would be with them speedily.
Lewis looked about the heavily furnished ante-room with its pale yellow walls and thick, green curtains, with the air of a man trying to recall a memory. "I came over here with John Lambert, when his father had the place. That was just after I left Oxford. Gad, I was a happy man then. I thought I could do anything. They put me next to Madame de Ravignet because of my French, and because old Ankerville declared that I ought to know the cleverest woman in Europe. Séry, the man who was Premier last year, came and wrung my hand afterwards, said my fortune was assured because I had impressed the Ravignet, and no one had ever done it before except Bismarck. Ugh, the place is full of ghosts Poor old John died a year after, and here am I, far enough, God knows, from my good intentions."
A servant announced "Monsieur Gribton," and a little grizzled man hobbled in, leaning heavily on a stick. He wore a short beard, and in his tanned face two clever grey eyes twinkled sedately. He shook hands gravely when Lewis introduced George, but his eyes immediately returned to the former's face.
"You look a fit pair," he said. "I am instructed to give you all the help in my power, but I should like to know your game. It isn't sport this time, is it, Haystoun? Logan is still talking about his week with you. Well, well, we can do things at our leisure. I have letters to write, and then it will be dinner-time, when we can talk. Come to the club at eight, 'Cercle des Voyageurs,' corner of Rue Neuve de St. Michel. I expect you belong, Haystoun; and anyway I'll be there."
He bowed them out with his staccato apologies, and the two returned to their hotel to dress. Two hours later they found Gribton warming his hands in the smoking-room of the Cercle, a fussy and garrulous gentleman, eager for his dinner. He pointed out such people as he knew, and was consumed with curiosity about the others. Lewis wandered about the room before he sat down, shaking hands with several and nodding to many."You seem to know the whole earth," said Gribton.
"I suppose that a world of acquaintance is the only reward of slackness," Lewis said, laughing. "It's a trick I have. I never forget a face and I honestly like to see people again."
George pulled his long moustache. "It's simply hideous the way one is forgotten. It's all right for the busy people, for they shift their sets with their fortune, but for drones like me it's the saddest thing in life. Before we came away, Lewie, I went up for a day to Oxford to see about some things, and stopped a night there. I haven't been down long, and yet I knew nobody at the club except the treasurer, and he had nothing to say to me except to ask after you. I went to dinner with the dons at the high table, and I nearly perished of the blues. Little Riddell chirped about my profession, and that bounder Jackson, who was of our year, pretended that he had been your bosom friend. I got so bored that I left early and wandered back to the club. Somebody was making a racket in our old rooms in the High, windows open, you know, and singing. I stopped to look at them, and then they started, 'Willie brewed a peck o' maut,' and, 'pon my soul, I had to come away. Couldn't stand it. It reminded me so badly of you and Arthur and old John Lambert, and all the honest men that used to be there. It was infernally absurd that I should have got so sentimental, but that wasn't the worst of it. For I met Tony and he made me come round to a dinner, and there I found people I didn't know from Adam drinking the old toasts we started. Gad, they had them all. 'Las Palmas,' 'The Old Guard,' 'The Wandering Scot,' and all the others. It made me feel as low as an owl, and when I got back to the club and saw poor old John's photograph on the wall, I tell you I went to bed in the most wretched melancholy."
Lewis stared open-mouthed at George, the irrepressible, in this new attitude. He, as the hardened traveller, had had little more than a decent pang of home-sickness. His regret was far deeper and more real than the sentimental article of commerce, and he could afford to be almost gay while George sat in the depths.
"I'm coming home, and I'm not happy; you young men are going out, and you have got the blues. There's no pleasing weak humanity. I say, Haystoun, who's that old man?" Gribton's jovial looks belied his words.
Lewis mentioned a name for his host's benefit. The room was emptying rapidly, for the Cercle dined early.
"Now for business," said Gribton, when a waiter had brought the game course, and they sat in the midst of a desert of linen and velvet. "I have given the thing up, but I spent twenty of my best years at Bardur. So, as I am instructed to do all in my power to aid you, I am ready. First, is it sport?"Partly," said George, but Lewis's head gave denial. "Because, if it is, I am not the best man. Well, then, is it geographical? For if it is, there is much to be done." "Partly," said Lewis.
"Then I take it that the residue is political. You are following the popular avenue to polities, I suppose. Leave the 'Varsity very raw, knock about in an unintelligent way for three or four years on some frontier, then come home, go into the House, and pose as a specialist in foreign affairs. I should have thought you had too much humour for that."
"Only, you see, I have been there before. I am merely going back upon my tracks to make sure. I go purely as an adventurer, hoping to pick up some valuable knowledge, but prepared to fail."
Gribton helped himself to champagne. "That's better. Now I know your attitude, we can talk like friends. Better come to the small smoking-room. They've got a '51 brandy here which is beyond words. Have some for a liqueur."
In the smoking-room Gribton fussed about coffee and cigars for many minutes ere he settled down. Then, when he could gaze around and see his two guests in deep armchairs, each smoking and comfortable, he returned to his business.
"I don't mind telling you a secret," he said, "or rather it's only a secret here, for once you get out there you will find 'Gribton's view,' as they call it, well enough known and very much laughed at. I've always been held up to ridicule as an alarmist about that Kashmir frontier, and especially about that Bardur country. Take the whole province. It's well garrisoned on the north, but below that it is all empty and open. The way into the Punjab is as clear as daylight for a swift force, and the way to the Punjab is the way to India."
Lewis rose and went to a rack on the wall. "Do you mind if I get down maps? These French ones are very good." He spread a sheet of canvas on the table, thereby confounding all Gribton's hospitable manoeuvring.
"There," said Gribton, his eyes now free from drowsiness, and clear and bright, "that's the road I fear."
"But these three inches are unknown," said Lewis. "I have been myself as far as these hills."
Gribton looked sharply up. "You don't know the place as I know it. I've never been so far, but I know the sheep-skinned devils who come across from Turkestan. I tell you that place isn't the impenetrable craggy desert that the Government of India thinks it. There's a road there of some sort, and if you're worth your salt you'll find it out.""I know," said Lewis. "I am going to try."
"There's another thing. For the last three years all that north part of Kashmir, and right away south-west to the Punjab borders, has been honoured with visits from plausible Russian gentlemen who may come down by the ordinary caravan routes, or, on the other hand, may not. They turn up quite suddenly with tooth-brushes and dressingcases, and they can't have come from the south. They fool around in Bardur, and then go down to Gilgit, and, I suppose, on to the Punjab. They've got excellent manners, and they hang about the clubs and give dinners and charm the whole neighbourhood. Logan is their bosom friend, and Thwaite declares that their society reconciles him to the place. Then they go away, and the place keeps on the randan for weeks after.""Do you know a man called Marker by any chance?" Lewis asked.
Gribton looked curiously at the speaker. "Have you actually heard about him? Yes, I know him, but not very well, and I can't say I ever cared for him. However, he is easily the most popular man in Bardur, and I daresay is a very good fellow. But you don't call him Russian. I thought he was sort of half a Scotsman.""Very likely he is," said Lewis. "I happen to have heard a good deal about him. But what ails you at him?"
"Oh, small things," and the man laughed. "You know I am getting elderly and cranky, and I like a man to be very fair and four-square. I confess I never got to the bottom of the chap. He was a capital sportsman, good bridge-player, head like a rock for liquor, and all that; but I'm hanged if he didn't seem to me to be playing some sort of game. Another thing, he seemed to me a terribly cold-blooded devil. He was always slapping people on the back and calling them 'dear old fellows,' but I happened to see a small interview once between him and one of his servants. Perhaps I ought not to mention it, but the thing struck me unpleasantly. It was below the club verandah, and nobody happened to be about except myself, who was dozing after lunch. Marker was rating a servant in some Border tongue--Chil, it sounded like; and I remember wondering how he could have picked it up. I saw the whole thing through a chink in the floor, and I noticed that the servant's face was as grey as a brown hillman's can be. Then the fellow suddenly caught his arm and twisted it round, the man's face working with pain, though he did not dare to utter a sound. It was an ugly sight, and when I caught a glimpse of Marker's face, 'pon my soul, those straight black eyebrows of his gave him a most devilish look.""What's he like to look at?" George asked.
"Oh, he's rather tall, very straight, with a sort of military carriage, and he has one of those perfect oval faces that you sometimes see. He has most remarkable black eyes and very neat, thin eyebrows. He is the sort of man you'd turn round to look at if you once passed him in the street; and if you once saw him smile you'd begin to like him. It's the prettiest thing I've ever seen.""I expect I'll run across him somewhere," said Lewis, "and I want badly to know him. Would you mind giving me an introduction?" "Charmed!" said Gribton. "Shall I write it now?" And sitting down at a table he scribbled a few lines, put them in an envelope, and gave it to Lewis.
"You are pretty certain to know him when you see him, so you can give him that line. You might run across him anywhere from Hyderabad to Rawal Pinch, and in any case you'll hear word of him in Bardur. He's the man for your purpose; only, as I say, I never liked him. I suspect a loop somewhere.""What are Logan and Thwaite like?" Lewis asked. "Easy-going, good fellows. Believe in God and the British Government, and the inherent goodness of man. I am rather the other way, so they call me a cynic and an alarmist." "But what do you fear?" said George. "The place is well garrisoned."
"I fear four inches in that map of unknown country," said Gribton shortly. "The people up there call it a 'God-given rock-wall,' and of course there is no force to speak of just near it. But a tribe of devils incarnate, who call themselves the Bada-Mawidi, live on its skirts, and there must be a road through it. It isn't the caravan route, which goes much farther east and is plain enough. But I know enough of the place to know that every man who comes over the frontier to Bardur does not come by the high-road.""But what could happen? Surely Bardur is strongly garrisoned enough to block any secret raid."
"It isn't bad in its way, if the people were not so slack and easy. They might rise to scratch, but, on the other hand, they might not, and once past Bardur you have the open road to India, if you march quick enough."
"Then you have no man sufficiently adventurous there to do a little exploring?" "None. They care only about shooting, and there happens to be little in those rocks. Besides, they trust in God and the Government of India. I didn't, so I became unpopular, and was voted a bore. But the work is waiting for you young men."Gribton rose, yawned, and stretched himself. "Shall I tell you any more?" "I don't think so," said Lewis, smiling; "I fancy I understand, and I am sure we are obliged to you. Hadn't we better have a game?"
They went to the billiard-room and played two games of a hundred up, both of which George, who had the idler's knack in such matters, won with ease. Gribton played so well that he became excessively good-humoured.
"I almost wish I was going out again if I had you two as company. We don't get the right sort out there. Our globe-trotters all want to show their cleverness, or else they are merely fools. You will find it miserably dull. Nothing but bad claret and cheap champagne at the clubs, a cliquey set of English residents, and the sort of stock sport of which you tire in a month. That's what you may expect our frontier towns to be like.""And the neighbourhood?" said Lewis, with lifted eyebrows.
"Oh, the neighbourhood is wonderful enough; but our people there are too slack and stale to take advantage of it. It is a peaceful frontier, you know, and men get into a rut as easily there as elsewhere. The country's too fat and wealthy, and people begin to forget the skeleton up among the rocks in the north.""What are the garrisons like?"
"Good people, but far too few for a serious row, and just sufficiently large to have time hang on their hands. Our friends the Bada-Mawidi now and then wake them up. I see from the _Temps_ that a great stirring of the tribes in the Southern Pamirs is reported. I expect that news came overland through Russia. It's the sort of canard these gentry are always getting up to justify a massing of troops on the Amu Daria in order that some new governor may show his strategic skill. I daresay you may find things a little livelier than I found them."
As they went towards the Faubourg St. Honoré a bitter Paris north-easter had begun to drift a fine powdered snow in their eyes. Gribton shivered and turned up the collar of his fur coat. "Ugh, I can't stand this. It makes me sick to be back. Thank your stars that you are going to the sun and heat, and out of this hideous grey weather."They left him at the Embassy, and turned back to their hotel.
"He's a useful man," said Lewis, "he has given us a cue; life will be pretty well varied out there for you and me, I fancy."
Then, as they entered a boulevard, and the real sweep of the wind met their faces, both men fell strangely silent. To George it was the last word of the north which they were leaving, and his recent home-sickness came back and silenced him. But to Lewis, his mind already busy with his errand, this sting of wind was the harsh disturber which carried him back to a lonely home in a cold, upland valley. It was the wintry weather which was his own, and Alice's face, framed in a cloak, as he had seen it at the Broken Bridge, rose in the gallery of his heart. In a moment he was disillusioned. Success, enterprise, new lands and faces seemed the most dismal vexation of spirit. With a very bitter heart he walked home, and, after the fashion of his silent kind, gave no sign of his mood save by a premature and unreasonable retirement to bed.
21. In The Heart Of The Hills
All around was stone and scrub, rising in terraces to the foot of sheer cliffs which opened up here and there in nullahs and gave a glimpse of great snow hills behind them. On one of the flat ridge-tops a little village of stunted, slaty houses squatted like an ape, with a vigilant eye on twenty gorges. Thin, twisting paths led up to it, and before, on the more clement slopes, some fields of grain were tilled as our Aryan forefathers tilled the soil on the plains of Turkestan. The place was at least 8,000 feet above the sea, so the air was highland, clear and pleasant, save for the dryness which the great stone deserts forced upon the soft south winds. You will not find the place marked in any map, for it is a little beyond even the most recent geographer's ken, but it is none the less a highly important place, for the nameless village is one of the seats of that most active and excellent race of men, the Bada-Mawidi, who are so old that they can afford to look down on their neighbours from a vantage-ground of some thousands of years. It is well known that when God created the earth He first fashioned this tangle of hill land, and set thereon a primitive Bada-Mawidi, the first of the clan, who was the ancestor, in the thousandth degree, of the excellent Fazir Khan, the present father of the tribe.
The houses clustered on the scarp and enclosed a piece of well-beaten ground and one huge cedar tree. Sounds came from the near houses, but around the tree itself the more privileged sat in solemn conclave. Food and wine were going the round, for the Maulai kohammedans have no taboos in eating and drinking. Fazir Khan sat smoking next the tree trunk, a short, sinewy man with a square, Aryan face, clear-cut and cruel. His chiefs were around him, all men of the same type, showing curiously fair skins against their oiled black hair. A mullah sat cross-legged, his straggling beard in his lap, repeating some crazy charm to himself and looking every now and again with anxious eyes to the guest who sat on the chief's right hand.
The guest was a long, thin man, clad in the Cossacks' fur lined military cloak, under which his untanned riding-boots showed red in the moonlight. He was still busy eating goat's flesh, cheese and fruits, and drinking deeply from the sweet Hunza wine, like a man who had come far and fast. He ate with the utmost disregard of his company. He might have been a hunter supping alone in the solitary hills for all the notice he took of the fifty odd men around him.
By and by be finished, pulled forth a little silver toothpick from an inner pocket, and reached a hand for the long cherry-wood pipe which had been placed beside him. He lit it, and blew a few clouds into the calm air.
"Now, Fazir Khan," he said, "I am a new man, and we shall talk. First, have you done my bidding?"
"Thy bidding has been done," said the great man sulkily. "See, I am here with my chiefs. All the twenty villages of my tribe have been warned, and arms have been got from the fools at Bardur. Also, I have the Yarkand powder I was told of, to give the signals on the hills. The Nazri Pass road, which we alone know, has been widened. What more could man do?""That is well," said the other. "It is well for you and your people that you have done this. Your service shall not be forgotten. Otherwise--" "Otherwise?" said the Fazir Khan, his hand travelling to his belt at the sound of a threat.
The man laughed. "You know the tale," he said. "Doubtless your mother told you it when you clutched at her breast. Some day a great white people from the north will come down and swallow up the disobedient. That day is now at hand. You have been wise in time. Therefore I say it is well."
The stranger spoke with perfect coolness. He looked round curiously at the circle of dark faces and laughed quietly to himself. The chief stole one look at him and then said something to a follower.
"I need not speak of the reward," said the stranger. "You are our servants, and duty is duty. But I have authority for saying that we shall hold your work in mind when we have settled our business."
"What would ye be without us?" said the chief in sudden temper. "What do ye know of the Nazri gates or the hill country? What is this talk of duty, when ye cannot stir a foot without our aid?"
"You are our servants, as I said before," said the man curtly. "You have taken our gold and our food. Where would you be, outlaws, vagrants that you are, hated of God and man, but for our help? Your bodies would have rotted long ago on the hills. The kites would be feeding on your sons; your women would be in the Bokhara market. We have saved you a dozen times from the vengeance of the English. When they wished to come up and burn you out, we have put them past the project with smooth words. We have fed you in famine, we have killed your enemies, we have given you life. You are freemen indeed in the face of the world, but you are our servants."
Fazir Khan made a gesture of impatience. "That is as God may direct it," he said. "Who are ye but a people of yesterday, while the Bada-Mawidi is as old as the rocks. The English were here before you, and we before the English. It is right that youth should reverence age."
"That is one proverb," said the man, "but there are others, and in especial one to the effect that the man without a sword should bow before his brother who has one. In this game we are the people with the sword, my friends."
"It is ill working in the dark," he said at length. "Ye speak of this attack and the aid you expect from us, but we have heard this talk before. One of your people came down with some followers in my father's time, and his words were the same, but lo! nothing has yet happened."
"Since your father's time things have changed, my brother. Then the English were very much on the watch, now they sleep. Then there were no roads, or very bad ones, and before an army could reach the plains the whole empire would have been wakened. Now, for their own undoing, they have made roads up to the very foot of yon mountains, and there is a new railway down the Indus through Kohistan waiting to carry us into the heart of the Punjab. They seek out inventions for others to enjoy, as the Koran says, and in this case we are to be the enjoyers.""But what if ye fail?" said the chief. "Ye will be penned up in that Hunza valley like sheep, and I, Fazir Khan, shall be unable to unlock the door of that sheepfold."
"We shall not fail. This is no war of rock-pigeons, my brothers. Our agents are in every town and village from Bardur to Lahore. The frontier tribes, you among the rest, are rising in our favour. There is nothing to stop us but isolated garrisons of Gurkhas and Pathans, with a few overworked English officers at their head. In a week we shall command the north of India, and if we hold the north, in another week we shall hold Calcutta and Bombay."The chief nodded his head. Such far-off schemes pleased his fancy, but only remotely touched his interest. Calcutta was beyond his ken, but he knew Bardur and Gilgit.
"I have little love for the race," he said. "They hanged two of my servants who ventured too near the rifle-room, and they shot my son in the back when we raided the Chitralis. If ye and your friends cross the border I will be with you. But meantime, till that day, what is my duty?"
"To wait in patience, and above all things to let the garrisons alone. If we stir up the hive in the valleys they may come and see things too soon for our success. We must win by secrecy and surprise. All is lost if we cannot reach the railway before the Punjab is stirring."
The mullah had ceased muttering to himself. He scrambled to his feet, shaking down his rags over his knees, a lean, crazy apparition of a man with deep-set, smouldering eyes.
"I will speak," he cried. "Ye listen to the man's words and ye are silent, believing all things. Ye are silent, my children, because ye know not. But I am old and I have seen many things, and these are my words. Ye speak of pushing out the English from the land. Allah knows I love not the breed! I spit upon it, I thirst for the heart of every man, woman, and child, that I might burn them in the sight of all of you. But I have heard this talk before. When I was a young priest at Kufaz, there was word of this pushing out of the foreigner, and I rejoiced, being unwise. Then there was much fighting, and at the end more English came up the valleys and, before we knew, we were paying tribute. Since then many of our people have gone down from the mountains with the same thought, and they have never returned. Only the English and the troops have crept nearer. Now this stranger talks of his Tsar and how an army will come through the passes, and foreigner will fight with foreigner. This talk, too, I have heard. Once there came a man with a red beard who spoke thus, and he went down to Bardur, and lo! our men told me that they saw him hanged there for a warning. Let foreigner war on foreigner if they please, but what have we to do in the quarrel, my children? Ye owe nothing to either."The stranger regarded the speaker with calm eyes of amusement. "Nothing," said he, "except that we have fed you and armed you. By your own acts you are the servants of my master."
The mullah was rapidly working himself into a frenzy. He swung his long bony arms across his breast and turned his face skywards. "Ye hear that, my children. The free people, the Bada-Mawidi, of whose loins sprang Abraham the prophet, are the servants of some foreign dog in the north. If ye were like your fathers, ye would have long ago ere this wiped out the taunt in blood."
The man sat perfectly composed, save that his right hand had grasped a revolver. He was playing a bold game, but he had played it before. And he knew the man he had to deal with.
"I say again, you are my master's servants by your own confession. I did not say his slaves. You are a free people, but you will serve a greater in this affair. As for this dog who blasphemes, when we have settled more important matters we will attend to him."
The mullah was scarcely a popular member of his tribe, for no one stirred at the call. The stranger sat watching him with very bright, eager eyes. Suddenly the priest ceased his genuflexions, there was a gleam of steel among his rags, then something bright flashed in the air. It fell short, because at the very moment of throwing, a revolver had cracked out in the silence, and a bullet had broken two of his fingers. The man flung himself writhing on the ground, howling forth imprecations.The stranger looked half apologetically at the chief, whose glum demeanour had never relaxed. "Sorry," he said; "it had to be done in self-defence. But I ask your pardon for it." Fazir Khan nodded carelessly. "He is a disturber of peace, and to one who cannot fight a hand matters little. But, by Allah, ye northerners shoot quick."
The stranger relinquished the cherry-wood pipe and filled a meerschaum from a pouch which he carried in the pocket of his cloak. He took a long drink from the loving-cup of mulled wine which was passing round.
"Your mad priest has method in his folly," he said. "It is true that we are attacking a great people; therefore the more need of wariness for you and me, Fazir Khan. If we fail there will be the devil to pay for you. The English will shift their frontier-line beyond the mountains, and there will be no more lifting of women and driving of cattle for the BadaMawidi. You will all be sent to school, and your guns will be taken from you."
The chief compressed his attractive features into a savage scowl. "That may not be in my lifetime," he said. "Besides, are there no mountains all around? In five hours I shall be in China, and in a little more I might be beyond the Amu. But why talk of this? The accursed English shall not escape us, I swear by the hilt of my sword and the hearts of my fathers."A subdued murmur of applause ran around the circle. "You are men after my own heart," said the stranger. "Meanwhile, a word in your own ear, Fazir Khan. Dare you come to Bardur with me?"
The chief made a gesture of repugnance. "I hate that place of mud and lime. The blood of my people cries on me when I enter the gates. But if it is your counsel I will come with you."
"I wish to assure myself that the place is quiet. Our success depends upon the whole country being unsuspicious and asleep. Now if word has got to the south, and worse still to England, there will be questions asked and vague instructions sent up to the frontier. We shall find a stir among the garrisons, and perhaps some visitors in the place. And at the very worst we might find some fool inquiring about the Nazri Pass. There was once a man in Bardur who did, but people laughed at him and he has gone.""Where?" asked the chief. "To England. But he was a harmless man, and he is too old to have any vigour."
As the darkness grew over the hills the fires were brightened and the curious game of _khoti_ was played in groups of six. The women came to the house-doors to sit and gossip, and listened to the harsh laughter of their lords from beside the fires. A little after midnight, when the stars were picked out in the deep, velvet sky, Fazir Khan and the stranger, both muffled to the ears, stole beyond the street and scrambled down the perilous path-ways to the south.
22. The Outposts
Towards the close of a wet afternoon two tongas discharged Lewis, George, two native servants, and a collection of gun-cases in the court-yard of the one hotel in Bardur. They had made a record journey up country, stopping to present no letters of introduction, which are the thieves of time. Now, as Lewis found himself in the strait valley, with the eternal snows where the sky should be, and sniffed the dry air from the granite walls, he glowed with the pleasure of recollection.
The place was the same as ever. The same medley of races perambulated the streets. Sheep-skinned Central Asians and Mongolian merchants from Yarkand still displayed their wares and their cunning; Hunza tribesmen, half-clad Chitralis, wild-eyed savages from Yagistan mingled in the narrow stone streets with the civilized Persian and Turcoman from beyond the mountains. Kashmir sepoys, an untidy race, still took their ease in the sun, and soldiers of South India from the Imperial Service Troops showed their odd accoutrements and queer race mixtures. The place looked and smelled like a kind of home, and Lewis, with one eye on the gun-cases and one on the great hills, forgot his heart-sickness and had leisure for the plain joys of expectation.
"I am going to get to work at once," he said, when he had washed the dust out of his eyes and throat. "I shall go and call on the Logans this very minute, and I expect we shall see Thwaite and some of the soldiers at the club to-night." So George, much against his will, was compelled to don a fresh suit and suffer himself to be conducted to the bungalow of the British Resident.
The Sahib was from home, at Gilgit, but Madame would receive the strangers. So the two found themselves in a drawing-room aggressively English in its air, shaking hands with a small woman with kind eyes and a washed-out complexion.
Mrs. Logan was unaffectedly glad to see them. She had that trick of dominating her surroundings which English ladies seem to bear to the uttermost ends of the globe. There, in that land of snows and rock, with savage tribesmen not thirty miles away, and the British frontier-line something less than fifty, she gave them tea and talked small talk with the ease and gusto of an English country home.
"It's the most unfortunate thing in the world," she cried. "If you had only wired, Gilbert would have stayed, but as it is he has gone down to Gilgit about some polo ponies, and won't be back for two days. Things are so humdrum and easy-going up here that one loses interest in one's profession. Gilbert has nothing to do except arrange with the foreman of the coolies who are making roads, and hold stupid courts, and consult with Captain Thwaite and the garrison people. The result is that the poor man has become crazy about golf, and wastes all his spare money on polo ponies. You can have no idea what a godsend a new face is to us poor people. It is simply delightful to see you again, Mr. Haystoun. You left us about sixteen months ago, didn't you? Did you enjoy going back?"Lewis said yes, with an absurd sense of the humour of the question. The lady talked as if home had been merely an interlude, instead of the crisis of his life. "And what did you do? And whom did you see? Please tell me, for I am dying for a gossip." "I have been home in Scotland, you know. Looking after my affairs and idling. I stood for Parliament and got beaten." "Really! How exciting! Where is your home in Scotland, Mr. Haystoun? You told me once, but I have forgotten. You know I have no end of Scotch relatives." "It's in rather a remote part, a place called Etterick, in Glenavelin." "Glenavelin, Glenavelin," the lady repeated. "That's where the Manorwaters live, isn't it?" "My uncle," said Lewis. "I had a letter from a friend who was staying there in the summer. I wonder if you ever met her. A Miss Wishart. Alice Wishart?" Lewis strove to keep any extraordinary interest out of his eyes. This voice from another world bad broken rudely in upon his new composure. "I knew her," he said, and his tone was of such studied carelessness that Mrs. Logan looked up at him curiously.
"I hope you liked her, for her mother was a relation of my husband, and when I have been home the small Alice has always been a great friend of mine. I wonder if she has grown pretty. Gilbert and I used to bet about it on different sides. I said she would be very beautiful some day.""She is very beautiful," said Lewis in a level voice, and George, feeling the thin ice, came to his friend's rescue. He could at least talk naturally of Miss Wishart.
"The Wisharts took the place, you know, Mrs. Logan, so we saw a lot of them. The girl was delightful, good sportswoman and all that sort of thing, and capital company. I wonder she never told us about you. She knew we were coming out here, for I told her, and she was very interested."
"Yes, it's odd, for I suppose she had read Mr. Haystoun's book, where my husband comes in a good deal. I shall tell her about seeing you in my next letter. And now tell me your plans."
Lewis's face had begun to burn in a most compromising way. Those last days in Glenavelin had risen again before the eye of his mind and old wounds were reopened. The thought that Alice was not yet wholly out of his life, that the new world was not utterly severed from the old, affected him with a miserable delight. Mrs. Logan became invested with an extraordinary interest. He pulled himself together to answer her question.
"Oh, our errand is much the same as last time. We want to get all the sport we can, and if possible to cross the mountains into Turkestan. I am rather keen on geographical work just now, and there's a bit of land up here which wants exploring."
The lady laughed. "That sounds like poor dear Mr. Gribton. I suppose you remember him? He left here in the summer, but when he lived in Bardur he had got that northern frontier-line on the brain. He was a horrible bore, for he would always work the conversation round to it sooner or later. I think it was really Mr. Gribton who made people often lose interest in these questions. They had to assume an indolent attitude in pure opposition to his fussiness.""When will your husband be home?" Lewis asked.
"In two days, or possibly three. I am so sorry about it. I'll wire at once, but it's a slow journey, especially if he is bringing ponies. Of course you want to see him before you start. It's such a pity, but Bardur is fearfully empty of men just now. Captain Thwaite has gone off after ibex, and though I think he will be back to-morrow, I am afraid he will be too late for my dance. Oh, really, this is lucky. I had forgotten all about it. Of course you two will come. That will make two more men, and we shall be quite a respectable party. We are having a dance to-morrow night, and as the English people here are so few and uncertain in their movements we can't afford to miss a chance. You _must_ come. I've got the Thwaites and the Beresfords and the Waltons, and some of the garrison people who are down on leave. Oh, and there's a man coming whom you must know. A Mr. Marker, a most delightful person. I don't think you met him before, but you must have heard my husband talk about him. He is the very man for your purpose. Gilbert says he knows the hills better than any of the Hunza tribesmen, and that he is the best sportsman he ever met. Besides, he is such an interesting person, very much a man of the world, you know, who has been everywhere and knows everybody."
Lewis congratulated himself on his luck. "I should like very much to come to the dance, and I especially want to meet Mr. Marker."
"He is half Scotch, too," said the lady. "His mother was a Kirkpatrick or some name like that, and he actually seems to talk English with a kind of Scotch accent. Of course that may be the German part of him. He is a Pomeranian count or something of the sort, and very rich. You might get him to go with you into the hills."
"I suppose because he likes to 'knock about,' as you call it. He is a tremendous traveller. He has been into Tibet and all over Turkestan and Persia. Gilbert says that he is the wonder of the age.""Is he here just now?"
"No, I don't think so. I know he is coming to-morrow, because he wrote me about it, and promised to come to my dance. But he is a very busy man, so I don't suppose he will arrive till just before. He wrote me from Gilgit, so he may find Gilbert there and bring him up with him."
Marker, Marker. The air seemed full of the strange name. Lewis saw again Wratislaw's wrinkled face when he talked of him, and remembered his words. "You were within an ace of meeting one of the cleverest men living, a cheerful being in whom the Foreign Office is more interested than in any one else in the world." Wratislaw had never been in the habit of talking without good authority. This Marker must be indeed a gentleman of parts.
Then conversation dwindled. Lewis, his mind torn between bitter memories and the pressing necessities of his mission, lent a stupid ear to Mrs. Logan's mild complaints, her gossip about Bardur, her eager questions about home. George manfully took his place, and by a fortunate clumsiness steered the flow of the lady's talk from Glenavelin and the Wisharts. Lewis spoke now and then, when appealed to, but he was busy thinking out his own problem. On the morrow night he should meet Marker, and his work would reveal itself. Meanwhile he was in the dark, the flimsiest adventurer on the wildest of errands. This easy, settled place, these Englishmen whose minds held fast by polo and games, these English ladies who had no thought beyond little social devices to relieve the monotony of the frontier, all seemed to make a mockery of his task. He had fondly imagined himself going to a certainty of toil and danger; to his vexation this certainty seemed to be changing into the most conventional of visits to the most normal of places. But to-morrow he should see Marker; and his hope revived at the prospect.
"It is so pleasant seeing two fresh fellow-countrymen," Mrs. Logan was saying. "Do you know, you two people look quite different from our men up here. They are all so dried up and tired out. Our complexions are all gone, and our eyes have got that weariness of the sun in them which never goes away even when we go home again. But you two look quite keen and fresh and enthusiastic. You mustn't mind compliments from an old woman, but I wish our own people looked as nice as you. You will make us all homesick."
A native servant entered, more noiseless and more dignified than any English footman, and announced another visitor. Lewis lifted his head, and saw the lady rise, smiling, to greet a tall man who had come in with the frankness of a privileged acquaintance. "How do you do, Mr. Marker?" he heard. "I am so glad to see you. We didn't dare to expect you till to-morrow. May I introduce two English friends, Mr. Haystoun and Mr. Winterham?"
And so the meeting came about in the simplest way. Lewis found himself shaking hands cordially with a man who stood upright, quite in the English fashion, and smiled genially on the two strangers. Then he took the vacant chair by Mrs. Logan, and answered the lady's questions with the ease and kindliness of one who knows and likes his fellowcreatures. He deplored Logan's absence, grew enthusiastic about the dance, and produced from a pocket certain sweetmeats, not made in Kashmir, for the two children. Then he turned to George and asked pleasantly about the journey. How did they find the roads from Gilgit? He hoped they would get good sport, and if he could be of any service, would they command him? He had heard of Lewis's former visit, and, of course, he had read his book. The most striking book of travel he had seen for long. Of course he didn't agree with certain things, but each man for his own view; and he should like to talk over the matter with Mr. Haystoun. Were they staying long? At Galetti's of course? By good luck that was also his headquarters. And so he talked pleasingly, in the style of a lady's drawing-room, while Lewis, his mind consumed with interest, sat puzzling out the discords in his face.
"Do you know, Mr. Marker, we were talking about you before you came in. I was telling Mr. Haystoun that I thought you were half Scotch. Mr. Haystoun, you know, lives in Scotland."
"Do you really? Then I am a thousand times delighted to meet you, for I have many connections with Scotland. My grandmother was a Scotswoman, and though I have never been in your beautiful land, yet I have known many of your people. And, indeed, I have heard of one of your name who was a friend of my father's--a certain Mr. Haystoun of Etterick.""My father," said Lewis.
"Ah, I am so pleased to hear. My father and he met often in Paris, when they were attached to their different embassies. My father was in the German service." "Your mother was Russian, was she not?" Lewis asked tactlessly, impelled by he knew not what motive.
"Ah, how did you know?" Mr. Marker smiled in reply, with the slightest raising of the eyebrows. "I have indeed the blood of many nationalities in my veins. Would that I were equally familiar with all nations, for I know less of Russia than I know of Scotland. We in Germany are their near neighbours, and love them, as you do here, something less than ourselves."
He talked English with that pleasing sincerity which seems inseparable from the speech of foreigners, who use a purer and more formal idiom than ourselves. George looked anxiously towards Lewis, with a question in his eyes, but finding his companion abstracted, he spoke himself.
"I have just arrived," said the other simply; "but it was from a different direction. I have been shooting in the hills, getting cool air into my lungs after the valleys. Why, Mrs. Logan, I have been down to Rawal Pindi since I saw you last, and have been choked with the sun. We northerners do not take kindly to glare and dust."
"But you are an old hand here, they tell me. I wish you'd show me the ropes, you know. I'm very keen, but as ignorant as a babe. What sort of rifles do they use here? I wish you'd come and look at my ironmongery." And George plunged into technicalities.
When Lewis rose to leave, following unwillingly the convention which forbids a guest to stay more than five minutes after a new visitor has arrived, Marker crossed the room with them. "If you're not engaged for to-night, Mr. Haystoun, will you do me the honour to dine with me? I am alone, and I think we might manage to find things to talk about." Lewis accepted gladly, and with one of his sweetest smiles the gentleman returned to Mrs. Logan's side.
23. The Dinner At Galetti's
"I Have heard of you so much," Mr. Marker said, "and it was a lucky chance which brought me to Bardur to meet you." They had taken their cigars out to the verandah, and were drinking the strong Persian coffee, with a prospect before them of twinkling town lights, and a mountain line of rock and snow. Their host had put on evening clothes and wore a braided dinner-jacket which gave the faintest touch of the foreigner to his appearance. At dinner he had talked well of a score of things. He had answered George's questions on sport with the readiness of an expert; he had told a dozen good stories, and in an easy, pleasant way he had gossiped of books and places, people and politics. His knowledge struck both men as uncanny. Persons of minute significance in Parliament were not unknown to him, and he was ready with a theory or an explanation on the most recondite matters. But coffee and cigars found him a different man. He ceased to be the enthusiast, the omnivorous and versatile inquirer, and relapsed into the ordinary good fellow, who is no cleverer than his neighbours."We're confoundedly obliged to you," said George. "Haystoun is keen enough, but when he was out last time he seems to have been very slack about the sport."
"Sort of student of frontier peoples and politics, as the newspapers call it. I fancy that game is, what you say, 'played out' a little nowadays. It is always a good cry for alarmist newspapers to send up their circulation by, but you and I, my friend, who have mixed with serious politicians, know its value."George nodded. He liked to be considered a person of importance, and he wanted the conversation to get back to ibex.
"I speak as of a different nation," Marker said, looking towards Lewis. "But I find the curse of modern times is this mock-seriousness. Some centuries ago men and women were serious about honour and love and religion. Nowadays we are frivolous and sceptical about these things, but we are deadly in earnest about fads. Plans to abolish war, schemes to reform criminals, and raise the condition of woman, and supply the Bada-Mawidi with tooth-picks are sure of the most respectful treatment and august patronage.""I agree," said Lewis. "The Bada-Mawidi live there?" And he pointed to the hill line. Marker nodded. He had used the name inadvertently as an illustration, and he had no wish to answer questions on the subject. "A troublesome tribe, rather?" asked Lewis, noticing the momentary hesitation. "In the past. Now they are quiet enough." "But I understood that there was a ferment in the Pamirs. The other side threatened, you know." He had almost said "your side," but checked himself.
"Ah yes, there are rumours of a rising, but that is further west. The Bada-Mawidi are too poor to raise two swords in the whole tribe. You will come across them if you go north, and I can recommend them as excellent beaters."
"Is the north the best shooting quarter?" asked Lewis with sharp eyes. "I am just a little keen on some geographical work, and if I can join both I shall be glad. Due north is the Russian frontier?
"Due north after some scores of the most precipitous miles in the world. It is a preposterous country. I myself have been on the verge of it, and know it as well as most. The geographical importance, too, is absurdly exaggerated. It has never been mapped because there is nothing about it to map, no passes, no river, no conspicuous mountain, nothing but desolate, unvaried rock. The pass to Yarkand goes to the east, and the Afghan routes are to the west. But to the north you come to a wall, and if you have wings you may get beyond it. The Bada-Mawidi live in some of the wretched nullahs. There is sport, of course, of a kind, but not perhaps the best. I should recommend you to try the more easterly hills."
The speaker's manner was destitute of all attempt to dissuade, and yet Lewis felt in some remote way that this man was trying to dissuade him. The rock-wall, the BadaMawidi, whatever it was, something existed between Bardur and the Russian frontier which this pleasant gentleman did not wish him to see."Our plans are all vague," he said, "and of course we are glad of your advice."
"And I am glad to give it, though in many ways you know the place better than I do. Your book is the work of a very clever and observant man, if you will excuse my saying so. I was thankful to find that you were not the ordinary embryo-publicist who looks at the frontier hills from Bardur, and then rushes home and talks about invasion.""You think there is no danger, then?"
"On the contrary, I honestly think that there is danger, but from a different direction. Britain is getting sick, and when she is sick enough, some people who are less sick will overwhelm her. My own opinion is that Russia will be the people.""But is not that one of the old cries that you object to?" and Lewis smiled.
"It was; now it is ceasing to be a cry, and passing into a fact, or as much a fact as that erroneous form of gratuity, prophecy, can be. Look at Western Europe and you cannot disbelieve the evidence of your own eyes. In France you have anarchy, the vulgarest frivolity and the cheapest scepticism, joined with a sort of dull capacity for routine work. Germany, the very heart of it eaten out with sentiment, either the cheap military or the vague socialist brand. Spain and Italy shadows, Denmark and Sweden farces, Turkey a sinful anachronism.""And Britain?" George asked.
"My Scotch blood gives me the right to speak my mind," said the man, laughing. "Honestly I don't find things much better in Britain. You were always famous for a dogged common sense which was never tricked with catch-words, and yet the British people seem to be growing nervous and ingenuous. The cult of abstract ideals, which has been the curse of the world since Adam, is as strong with you as elsewhere. The philosophy of 'gush' is good enough in its place, but it is the devil in politics."
"That is true enough," said Lewis solemnly. "And then you are losing grip. A belief in sentiment means a disbelief in competence and strength, and that is the last and fatalest heresy. And a belief in sentiment means a foolish scepticism towards the great things of life. There is none of the blood and bone left for honest belief. You hold your religion half-heartedly. Honest fanaticism is a thing intolerable to you. You are all mild, rational sentimentalists, and I would not give a ton of it for an ounce of good prejudice." George and Lewis laughed."And Russia?" they asked.
"Ah, there I have hope. You have a great people, uneducated and unspoiled. They are physically strong, and they have been trained by centuries of serfdom to discipline and hardships. Also, there is fire smouldering somewhere. You must remember that Russia is the stepdaughter of the East. The people are northern in the truest sense, but they have a little of Eastern superstition. A rational, sentimental people live in towns or market gardens, like your English country, but great lonely plains and forests somehow do not agree with that sort of creed. That slow people can still believe freshly and simply, and some day when the leader arrives they will push beyond their boundaries and sweep down on Western Europe, as their ancestors did thirteen hundred years ago. And you have no walls of Rome to resist them, and I do not think you will find a Charlemagne. Good heavens! What can your latter-day philosophic person, who weighs every action and believes only in himself, do against an unwearied people with the fear of God in their hearts? When that day comes, my masters, we shall have a new empire, the Holy Eastern Empire, and this rotten surface civilization of ours will be swept off. It is always the way. Men get into the habit of believing that they can settle everything by talk, and fancy themselves the arbiters of the world, and then suddenly the great man arrives, your Caesar or Cromwell, and clears out the talkers."
"I've heard something like that before. In fact, on occasions I have said it myself. It's a pretty idea. How long do you give this _Volkerwanderung_ to get started?"
"It will not be in our time," said the man sadly. "I confess I am rather anxious for it to come off. Europe is a dull place at present, given up to Jews and old women. But I am an irreclaimable wanderer, and it is some time since I have been home. Things may be already changing.""Scarcely," said Lewis. "And meantime where is this Slav invasion going to begin? I suppose they will start with us here, before they cross the Channel?"
"Undoubtedly. But Britain is the least sick of the crew, so she may be left in peace till the confirmed invalids are destroyed. At the best it will be a difficult work. Our countrymen, you will permit the name, my friends, have unexpected possibilities in their blood. And even this India will be a hard nut to crack. It is assumed that Russia has but to find Britain napping, buy a passage from the more northerly tribes, and sweep down on the Punjab. I need not tell you how impossible such a land invasion is. It is my opinion that when the time comes the attack will be by sea from some naval base on the Persian Gulf. It is a mere matter of time till Persia is the Tsar's territory, and then they may begin to think about invasion.""You think the northern road impossible! I suppose you ought to know." "I do, and I have some reason for my opinion. I know Afghanistan and Chitral as few Europeans know it." "But what about Bardur, and this Kashmir frontier? I can understand the difficulties of the Khyber, but this Kashmir road looks promising."
Marker laughed a great, good-humoured, tolerant, incredulous laugh. "My dear sir, that's the most utter nonsense. How are you to bring an army over a rock wall which a chamois hunter could scarcely climb? An invading army is not a collection of winged fowl. I grant you Bardur is a good starting-point if it were once reached. But you might as well think of a Chinese as of a Russian invasion from the north. It would be a good deal more possible, for there is a road to Yarkand, and respectable passes to the northeast. But here we are shut off from the Oxus by as difficult a barrier as the Elburz. Go up and see. There is some shooting to be had, and you will see for yourself the sort of country between here and Taghati.""But people come over here sometimes." "Yes, from the south, or by Afghanistan." "Not always. What about the Korabaut Pass into Chitral? Ianoff and the Cossacks came through it." "That's true," said the man, as if in deep thought. "I had forgotten, but the band was small and the thing was a real adventure." "And then you have Gromchevtsky. He brought his people right down through the Pamirs."
For a second the man's laughing ease deserted him. He leaned his head forward and peered keenly into Lewis's face. Then, as if to cover his discomposure, he fell into the extreme of bluff amusement. The exaggeration was plain to both his hearers.
"Oh yes, there was poor old Gromchevtsky. But then you know he was what you call 'daft,' and one never knew how much to believe. He had hatred of the English on the brain, and he went about the northern valleys making all sorts of wild promises on the part of the Tsar. A great Russian army was soon to come down from the hills and restore the valleys to their former owners. And then, after he had talked all this nonsense, and actually managed to create some small excitement among the tribesmen, the good fellow disappeared. No man knows where he went. The odd thing is that I believe he has never been heard of again in Russia to this day. Of course his mission, as he loved to call it, was perfectly unauthorized, and the man himself was a creature of farce. He probably came either by the Khyber or the Korabaut Pass, possibly even by the ordinary caravan-route from Yarkand, but felt it necessary for his mission's sake to pretend he had found some way through the rock barrier. I am afraid I cannot allow him to be taken seriously."
Lewis yawned and reached out his hand for the cigars. "In any case it is merely a question of speculative interest. We shall not fall just yet, though you think so badly of us."
"You will not fall just yet," said Marker slowly, "but that is not your fault. You British have sold your souls for something less than the conventional mess of pottage. You are ruled in the first place by money-bags, and the faddists whom they support to blind your eyes. If I were a young man in your country with my future to make, do you know what I would do? I would slave in the Stock Exchange. I would spend my days and nights in the pursuit of fortune, and, by heaven, I would get it. Then I would rule the market and break, crush, quietly and ruthlessly, the whole gang of Jew speculators and vulgarians who would corrupt a great country. Money is power with you, and I should attain it, and use it to crush the leeches who suck our blood."
"Good man," said George, laughing. "That's my way of thinking. Never heard it better put."
"I have felt the same," said Lewis. "When I read of 'rings' and 'corners' and 'trusts' and the misery and vulgarity of it all, I have often wished to have a try myself, and see whether average brains and clean blood could not beat these fellows on their own ground."
"I expect I was too slack. I wanted to try the thing, but there was so much that was repulsive that I never quite got the length of trying. Besides, I have a bad habit of seeing both sides of a question. The ordinary arguments seemed to me weak, and it was too much fag to work out an attitude for oneself."
Marker looked sharply at Lewis, and George for a moment saw and contrasted the two faces. Lewis's keen, kindly, humorous, cultured, with strong lines ending weakly, a face over-bred, brave and finical; the other's sharp, eager, with the hungry wolf-like air of ambition, every line graven in steel, and the whole transfused, as it were, by the fire of the eyes into the living presentment of human vigour.It was the eternal contrast of qualities, and for a moment in George's mind there rose a delight that two such goodly pieces of manhood should have found a meeting-ground.
"I think, you know, that we are not quite so bad as you make out," said Lewis quietly. "To an outsider we must appear on the brink of incapacity, but then it is not the first time we have produced that impression. You will still find men who in all their spiritual sickness have kept something of that restless, hard-bitten northern energy, and that fierce hunger for righteousness, which is hard to fight with. Scores of people, who can see no truth in the world and are sick with doubt and introspection and all the latter-day devils, have yet something of pride and honour in their souls which will make them show well at the last. If we are going to fall our end will not be quite inglorious."
Marker laughed and rose. "I am afraid I must leave you now. I have to see my servant, for I am off to-morrow. This has been a delightful meeting. I propose that we drink to its speedy repetition."They drank, clinking glasses in continental fashion, and the host shook hands and departed.
"Good chap," was George's comment. "Put us up to a wrinkle or two, and seemed pretty sound in his politics. I wish I could get him to come and stop with me at home. Do you think we shall run across him again?"Lewis was looking at the fast vanishing lights of the town. "I should think it highly probable," he said.
24. The Tactics Of A Chief
There is another quarter in Bardur besides the English one. Down by the stream side there are narrow streets built on the scarp of the rock, hovels with deep rock cellars, and a wonderful amount of cubic space beneath the brushwood thatch. There the trader from Yarkand who has contraband wares to dispose of may hold a safe market. And if you were to go at nightfall into this quarter, where the foot of the Kashmir policeman rarely penetrates, you might find shaggy tribesmen who have been all their lives outlaws, walking unmolested to visit their friends, and certain Jewish gentlemen, members of the great family who have conquered the world, engaged in the pursuit of their unlawful calling.
Marker speedily left the broader streets of the European quarter, and plunged down a steep alley which led to the stream. Half way down there was a lane to the left in the line of hovels, and, after stopping a moment to consider, he entered this. It was narrow and dark, but smelt cleanly enough of the dry granite sand. There were little dark apertures in the huts, which might have been either doors or windows, and at one of these he stopped, lit a match, and examined it closely. The result was satisfactory; for the man, who had hitherto been crouching, straightened himself up and knocked. The door opened instantaneously, and he bowed his tall head to enter a narrow passage. This brought him into a miniature courtyard, about thirty feet across, above which gleamed a patch of violet sky, sown with stars. Below a door on the right a light shone, and this he pushed open, and entered a little room.
The place was richly furnished, with low couches and Persian tables, and on the floor a bright matting. The short, square-set man sitting smoking on the divan we have already met at a certain village in the mountains. Fazir Khan, descendant of Abraham, and father and chief of the Bada-Mawidi, has a nervous eye and an uneasy face to-night, for it is a hard thing for a mountaineer, an inhabitant of great spaces, to sit with composure in a trap-like room in the citadel of a foe who has many acts of rape and murder to avenge on his body. To do Fazir Khan justice he strove to conceal his restlessness under the usual impassive calm of his race. He turned his head slightly as Marker entered, nodded gravely over the bowl of his pipe, and pointed to the seat at the far end of the divan."It is a dark night," he said. "I heard you stumbling on the causeway before you entered. And I have many miles to cover before dawn."
Marker nodded. "Then you must make haste, my friend. You must be in the hills by daybreak, for I have some errands I want you to do for me. I have to-night been dining with two strangers, who have come up from the south."
The chief's eyes sparkled. "Do they suspect?"
"Nothing in particular, everything in general. They are English. One was here before and got far up into your mountains. He wrote a clever book when he returned, which made people think. They say their errand is sport, and it may be. On the other hand I have a doubt. One has not the air of the common sportsman. He thinks too much, and his eyes have a haggard look. It is possible that they are in their Government's services and have come to reconnoitre.""Then we are lost," said Fazir Khan sourly. "It was always a fool's plan, at the mercy of any wandering Englishman."
"Not so," said Marker. "Nothing is lost, and nothing will be lost. But I fear these two men. They do not bluster and talk at random like the others. They are so very quiet that they may mean danger.""They must remain here," said the chief. "Give me the word, and I will send one of my men to hough their horses and, if need be, cripple themselves."
Marker laughed. "You are an honest fool, Fazir Khan. That sort of thing is past now. We live in the wrong times and places for it. We cannot keep them here, but we must send them on a goose-chase. Do you understand?""I understand nothing. I am a simple man and my ways are simple, and not as yours."
"Then attend to my words, my friend. Our expedition must be changed and made two days sooner. That will give these two Englishmen three days only to checkmate it. Besides, they are ignorant, and to-morrow is lost to them, for they go to a ball at the Logan woman's. Still, I fear them with two days to work in. If they go north, they are clever and suspicious, and they may see or fancy enough to wreck our plans. They may have the way barred, and we know how little would bar the way.""Ten resolute men," said the chief. "Nay, I myself, with my two sons, would hold a force at bay there."
"If that is true, how much need is there to be wary beforehand! Since we cannot prevent these men from meddling, we can give them rope to meddle in small matters. Let us assume that they have been sent out by their Government. They are the common make of Englishmen, worshipping a god which they call their honour. They will do their duty if they can find it out. Now there is but one plan, to create a duty for them which will take them out of the way."The chief was listening with half-closed eyes. He saw new trouble for himself and was not cheerful. "Do you know how many men Holm has with him at the Forza camp?" "A score and a half. Some of my people passed that way yesterday, when the soldiers were parading." "And there are two more camps? "There are two beyond the Nazri Pass, on the fringe of the Doorab hills. We call the places Khautmi-sa and Khautmi-bana, but the English have their own names for them." Marker nodded.
"I know the places. They are Gurkha camps. The officers are called Mitchinson and St. John. They will give us little trouble. But the Forza garrison is too near the pass for safety, and yet far enough away for my plans." And for a moment the man's eyes were abstracted, as if in deep thought.
"I have another thing to tell of the Forza camp," the chief interrupted. "The captain, the man whom they call Holm, is sick, so sick that he cannot remain there. He went out shooting and came too near to dangerous places, so a bullet of one of my people's guns found his leg. He will be coming to Bardur to-morrow. Is it your wish that he be prevented?
"Let him come," said Marker. "He will suit my purpose. Now I will tell you your task, Fazir Khan, for it is time that you took the road. You will take a hundred of the BadaMawidi and put them in the rocks round the Forza camp. Let them fire a few shots but do no great damage, lest this man Holm dare not leave. If I know the man at all, he will only hurry the quicker when he hears word of trouble, for he has no stomach for danger, if he can get out of it creditably. So he will come down here to-morrow with a tale of the Bada-Mawidi in arms, and find no men in the place to speak of, except these two strangers. I will have already warned them of this intended rising, and if, as I believe, they serve the Government, they will let no grass grow below their feet till they get to Forza. Then on the day after let your tribesmen attack the place, not so as to take it, but so as to make a good show of fight and keep the garrison employed. This will keep these young men quiet; they will think that all rumours they may have heard culminate in this rising of yours, and they will be content, and satisfied that they have done their duty. Then, the day after, while they are idling at Forza, we will slip through the passes, and after that there will be no need for ruses."
The chief rose and pulled himself up to his full height. "After that," he said, "there will be work for men. God! We shall harry the valleys as our forefathers harried them, and we shall suck the juicy plains dry. You will give us a free hand, my lord?"
"Your hand shall be free enough," said Marker.
"But see that every word of my bidding is done. We fail utterly unless all is secret and swift. It is the lion attacking the village. If he crosses the trap gate safely he may ravage at his pleasure, but there is first the trap to cross. And now it is your time to leave."
The mountaineer tightened his girdle, and exchanged his slippers for deer-hide boots. He bowed gravely to the other and slipped out into the darkness of the court. Marker drew forth some plans and writing materials from his great-coat pocket and spread them before him on the table. It was a thing he had done a hundred times within the last week, and as he made his calculations again and traced his route anew, his action showed the tinge of nervousness to which the strongest natures at times must yield. Then he wrote a letter, and yawning deeply, he shut up the place and returned to Galetti's.