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   Chapter 25 MRS. LOGAN’S BALL

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 14822

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


WHEN Lewis had finished breakfast next morning, and was sitting idly on the verandah watching the busy life of the bazaar at his feet, a letter was brought him by a hotel servant. "It was left for you by Marker Sahib, when he went away this morning. He sent his compliments to the sahibs and regretted that he had to leave too early to speak with them, but he left this note." Lewis broke the envelope and read:

DEAR MR. HAYSTOUN,

When I was thinking over our conversation last night, chance put a piece of information in my way which you may think fit to use. You know that I am more intimate than most people with the hill tribes. Well, let this be the guarantee of my news, but do not ask how I got it, for I cannot betray friends. Some of these, the Bada-Mawidi to wit, are meditating mischief. The Forza camp, which I think you have visited-a place some twenty miles off-is too near those villages to be safe. So to-morrow at latest they have planned to make a general attack upon it, and, unless the garrison were prepared, I should fear for the result, for they are the most cunning scoundrels in the world. What puzzles me is how they have ever screwed up the courage for such a move, for lately they were very much in fear of the Government. It appears as if they looked for backing from over the frontier. You will say that this proves your theory; but to me it merely seems as if some maniac of the Gromchevtsky type had got among them. In any case I wish something could be done. My duties take me away at once, and in a very different direction, but perhaps you could find some means of putting the camp on their guard. I should be sorry to hear of a tragedy; also I should be sorry to see the Bada-Mawidi get into trouble. They are foolish blackguards, but amusing.

Yours most sincerely,

ARTHUR MARKER.

Lewis read the strange letter several times through, then passed it to George. George read it with difficulty, not being accustomed to a flowing frontier hand. "Jolly decent of him, I call it," was his remark.

"I would give a lot to know what to make of it. The man is playing some game, but what the deuce it is I can't fathom."

"I suppose we had better get up to that Forza place as soon as we can."

"I think not," said Lewis.

"The man's honest, surely?"

"But he is also clever. Remember who he is. He may wish to get us out of the way. I don't suppose that he can possibly fear us, but he may want the coast clear from suspicious spectators. Besides, I don't see the good of Forza. It is not the part of the hills I want to explore. There can be no frontier danger there, and at the worst there can be nothing more than a little tribal disturbance. Now what on earth would Russia gain by moving the tribes there, except as a blind?"

"Still, you know, the man admits all that in his letter. And if the people up there are going to be in trouble we ought to go and give them notice."

"I'll take an hour to think over it, and then I'll go and see Thwaite. He was to be back this morning."

Lewis spread the letter before him. It was a simple, friendly note, giving him a chance of doing a good turn to friends. His clear course was to lay it before Thwaite and shift the responsibility for action to his shoulders. But he felt all the while that this letter had a personal application which he could not conceal. It would have been as easy for Marker to send the note to Thwaite, whom he had long known. But he had chosen to warn him privately. It might be a ruse, but he had no glimpse of the meaning. Or, again, it might be a piece of pure friendliness, a chance of unofficial adventure given by one wanderer to another. He puzzled it out, lamenting that he was so deep in the dark, and cursing his indecision. Another man would have made up his mind long ago; it was a ruse, therefore let it be neglected and remain in Bardur with open eyes; it was good faith and a good chance, therefore let him go at once. But to Lewis the possibilities seemed endless, and he could find no solution save the old one of the waverer, to wait for further light.

He found Thwaite at breakfast, just returned from his travels.

"Hullo, Haystoun. I heard you were here. Awfully glad to see you. Sit down, won't you, and have some breakfast." The officer was a long man, with a thin, long face, a reddish moustache, and small, blue eyes.

"I came to ask you questions, if you don't mind. I have the regular globe-trotter's trick of wanting information. What's the Forza camp like? Do you think that the Bada-Mawidi, supposing they stir again, would be likely to attack it?"

"Not a bit of it. That was the sort of thing that Gribton was always croaking about. Why, man, the Bada-Mawidi haven't a kick in them. Besides, they are very nearly twenty miles off and the garrison's a very fit lot. They're all right. Trust them to look after themselves."

"But I have been hearing stories of Bada-Mawidi risings which are to come off soon."

"Oh, you'll always hear stories of that sort. All the old women in the neighbourhood purvey them."

"Who are in charge at Forza?"

"Holm and Andover. Don't care much for Holm, but Andy is a good chap. But what's this new interest of yours? Are you going up there?

"I'm out here to shoot and explore, you know, so Forza comes into my beat. Thanks very much. See you to-night, I suppose."

Lewis went away dispirited and out of temper. He had been pitchforked among easy-going people, when all the while mysterious things, dangerous things, seemed to hang in the air. He had not the material for even the first stages of comprehension. No one suspected, every one was satisfied; and at the same time came those broken hints of other things. He felt choked and muffled, wrapped in the cotton-wool of this easy life; and all the afternoon he chafed at his own impotence and the world's stupidity.

When the two travellers presented themselves at the Logans' house that evening, they were immediately seized upon by the hostess and compelled, to their amusement, to do her bidding. They were her discoveries, her new young men, and as such, they had their responsibilities. George, who liked dancing, obeyed meekly; but Lewis, being out of temper and seeing before him an endless succession of wearisome partners, soon broke loose, and accompanied Thwaite to the verandah for a cigar.

The man was ill at ease, and the sight of young faces and the sound of laughter vexed him with a sense of his eccentricity. He could never, like George, take the world as he found it. At home he was the slave of his own incapacity; now he was the slave of memories. He had come out on an errand, with a chance to recover his lost self-respect, and lo! he was as far as ever from attainment. His lost capacity for action was not to be found here, in the midst of this petty diplomacy and inglorious ease.

From the verandah a broad belt of lawn ran down to the edge of the north road. It lay shining in the moonlight like a field of snow with the highway a dark ribbon beyond it. Thwaite and Lewis walked down to the gate talking casually, and at the gate they stopped and looked down on the town. It lay a little to the left, the fort rising black before it, and the road ending in a patch of shade which was the old town gate. The night was very still, cool airs blew noiselessly from the hills, and a jackal barked hoarsely in

some far-off thicket.

The men hung listlessly on the gate, drinking in the cool air and watching the blue cigar smoke wreathe and fade. Suddenly down the road there came the sound of wheels.

"That's a tonga," said Thwaite. "Wonder who it is."

"Do tongas travel this road?" Lewis asked.

"Oh yes, they go ten miles up to the foot of the rocks. We use them for sending up odds and ends to the garrisons. After that coolies are the only conveyance. Gad, I believe this thing is going to stop."

The thing in question, which was driven by a sepoy in bright yellow pyjamas, stopped at the Logans' gate. A peevish voice was heard giving directions from within.

"It sounds like Holm," said Thwaite, walking up to it, "and upon my soul it is Holm. What on earth are you doing here, my dear fellow?"

"Is that you, Thwaite?" said the voice. "I wish you'd help me out. I want Logan to give me a bed for the night. I'm infernally ill."

Lewis looked within and saw a pale face and bloodshot eyes which did not belie the words.

"What is it?" said Thwaite. "Fever or anything smashed?"

"I've got a bullet in my leg which has got to be cut out. Got it two days ago when I was out shooting. Some natives up in the rocks did it, I fancy. Lord, how it hurts." And the unhappy man groaned as he tried to move.

"That's bad," said Thwaite sympathetically. "The Logans have got a dance on, but we'll look after you all right. How did you leave things in Forza?"

"Bad. I oughtn't to be here, but Andy insisted. He said I would only get worse and crock entirely. Things look a bit wild up there just now. There has been a confounded lot of rifle-stealing, and the Bada-Mawidi are troublesome. However, I hope it's only their fun."

"I hope so," said Thwaite. "You know Haystoun, don't you?"

"Glad to meet you," said the man. "Heard of you. Coming up our way? I hope you will after I get this beastly leg of mine better."

"Thwaite will tell you I have been cross-examining him about your place. I wanted badly to ask you about it, for I got a letter this morning from a man called Marker with some news for you."

"What did he say?" asked Holm sharply.

"He said that he had heard privately that the Bada-Mawidi were planning an attack on you to-morrow or the day after."

"The deuce they are," said Holm peevishly, and Thwaite's face lengthened.

"And he told me to find some way of letting you know."

"Then why didn't you tell me earlier?" said Thwaite. "Marker should know if anybody does. We should have kept Holm up there. Now it's almost too late. Oh, this is the devil!"

Lewis held his peace. He had forgotten the solidity of Marker's reputation.

"What's the chances of the place?" Thwaite was asking. "I know your numbers and all that, but are they anything like prepared?"

"I don't know," said Holm miserably. "They might get on all right, but everybody is pretty slack just now. Andy has a touch of fever, and some of the men may get leave for shooting. I must get back at once."

"You can't. Why, man, you couldn't get half way. And what's more, I can't go. This place wants all the looking after it can get. A row in the hills means a very good possibility of a row in Bardur, and that is too dangerous a game. And besides myself there is scarcely a man in the place who counts. Logan has gone to Gilgit, and there's nobody left but boys."

"If you don't mind I should like to go," said Lewis shamefacedly.

"You," they cried. "Do you know the road?"

"I've been there before, and I remember it more or less. Besides, it is really my show this time. I got the warning, and I want the credit." And he smiled.

"The road's bound to be risky," said Thwaite thoughtfully. "I don't feel inclined to let you run your neck into danger like this."

Lewis was busy turning over the problem in his mind. The presence of the man Holm seemed the one link of proof he needed. He had his word that there were signs of trouble in the place, and that the Bada-Mawidi were ill at ease. Whatever game Marker was playing, on this matter he seemed to have spoken in good faith. Here was a clear piece of work for him. And even if it was fruitless it would bring him nearer to the frontier; his expedition to the north would be begun.

"Let me go," he said. "I came out here to explore the hills and I take all risks on my own head. I can give them Marker's message as well as anybody else."

Thwaite looked at Holm. "I don't see why he shouldn't. You're a wreck, and I can't leave my own place."

"Tell Andy you saw me," cried Holm. "He'll be anxious. And tell him to mind the north gate. If the fools knew how to use dynamite they might have it down at once. If they attack it can't last long, but then they can't last long either, for they are hard up for arms, and unless they have changed since last week they have no ammunition to speak of."

"Marker said it looked as if they were being put up to the job from over the frontier."

"Gad, then it's my turn to look out," said Thwaite. "If it's the gentlemen from over the frontier they won't stop at Forza. Lord, I hate this border business, it's so hideously in the dark. But I think that's all rot. Any tribal row here is sure to be set down to Russian influence. We don't understand the joint possession of an artificial frontier," he added, with an air of quoting from some book.

"Did you get that from Marker?" Holm asked crossly. "He once said the same thing to me." His temper had suffered badly among the hills.

"We'd better get you to bed, my dear fellow," said Thwaite, looking down at him. "You look remarkably cheap. Would you mind going in and trying to find Mrs. Logan, Haystoun? I'll carry this chap in. Stop a minute, though. Perhaps he's got something to say to you."

"Mind the north gate ... tell Andy I'm all right and make him look after himself ... he's overworking ... if you want to send a message to the other people you'd better send by Nazri ... if the Badas mean business they'll shut up the road you go by. That's all. Good luck and thanks very much."

Lewis found Mrs. Logan making a final inspection of the supper-room. She ran to the garden, to find the invalid Holm in Thwaite's arms at the steps of the verandah. The sick warrior pulled off an imaginary cap and smiled feebly.

"Oh, Mr. Holm, I'm so sorry. Of course we can have you. I'll put you in the other end of the house where you won't be so much troubled with the noise. You must have had a dreadful journey." And so forth, with the easy condolences of a kind woman.

When Thwaite had laid down his burden, he turned to Lewis.

"I wish we had another man, Haystoun. What about your friend Winterham? One's enough to do your work, but if the thing turns out to be serious, there ought to be some means of sending word. Andover will want you to stay, for they are short-handed enough."

"I'll get Winterham to go and wait for me somewhere. If I don't turn up by a certain time, he can come and look for me."

"That will do," said Thwaite, "though it's a stale job for him. Well, good-bye and good luck to you. I expect there won't be much trouble, but I wish you had told us in the morning."

Lewis turned to go and find George. "What a chance I had almost missed," was the word in his heart. The errand might be futile, the message a blind, but it was at least movement, action, a possibility.

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