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   Chapter 20 THE EASTERN ROAD

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 16952

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


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 Turkest

an. 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 dressing-cases, 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.

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