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   Chapter 26 FRIEND TO FRIEND

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 6206

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


HE found George sitting down in the verandah after waltzing. His partner was a sister of Logan's, a dark girl whose husband was Resident somewhere in Lower Kashmir. The lady gave her hand to Lewis and he took the vacant seat on the other side.

He apologized for carrying off her companion, escorted her back to the ballroom, and then returned to satisfy the amazed George.

"I want to talk to you. Excuse my rudeness, but I have explained to Mrs. Tracy. I have a good many things I want to say to you."

"Where on earth have you been all night, Lewis? I call it confoundedly mean to go off and leave me to do all the heavy work. I've never been so busy in my life. Lots of girls and far too few men. This is the first breathing space I've had. What is it that you want?"

"I am going off this very moment up into the hills. That letter Marker sent me this morning has been confirmed. Holm, who commands up at the Forza fort, has just come down very sick, and he says that the Bada-Mawidi are looking ugly, and that we should take Marker's word. He wanted to go back himself but he is too ill, and Thwaite can't leave here, so I am going. I don't expect there will be much risk, but in case the rising should be serious I want you to do me a favour."

"I suppose I can't come with you," said George ruefully. "I know I promised to let you go your own way before we came out, but I wish you would let me stick by you. What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing desperate," said Lewis, laughing. "You can stay on here and dance till sunrise if you like. But to-morrow I want you to come up to a certain place at the foot of the hills which I will tell you about, and wait there. It's about half distance between Forza and the two Khautmi forts. If the rising turns out to be a simple affair I'll join you there to-morrow night and we can start our shooting. But if I don't, I want you to go up to the Khautmi forts and rouse St. John and Mitchinson and get them to send to Forza. Do you see?"

Lewis had taken out a pencil and began to sketch a rough plan on George's shirt cuff. "This will give you an idea of the place. You can look up a bigger map in the hotel, and Thwaite or any one will give you directions about the road. There's Forza, and there are the Khautmis about twenty miles west. Half-way between the two is that long Nazri valley, and at the top is a tableland strewn with boulders where you shoot mountain sheep. I've been there, and the road between Khautmi and Forza passes over it. I expect it is a very bad road, but apparently you can get a little Kashmir pony to travel it. To the north of that plateau there is said to be nothing but rock and snow for twenty miles to the frontier. That may be so, but if this thing turns out all right we'll look into the matter. Anyway, you have got to pitch your tent to-morrow on that tableland just above the head of the Nazri gully. With luck I should be able to get to you some time in the afternoon. If I don't turn up, you go off to Khautmi next morning at daybreak and give them my message. If I can't come myself I'll find a wa

y to send word; but if you don't hear from me it will be fairly serious, for it will mean that the rising is a formidable thing after all. And that, of course, will mean trouble for everybody all round. In that case you'd better do what St. John and Mitchinson tell you. You're sure to be wanted."

George's face cleared. "That sounds rather sport. I'd better bring up the servants. They might turn out useful. And I suppose I'll bring a couple of rifles for you, in case it's all a fraud and we want to go shooting. I thought the place was going to be stale, but it promises pretty well now." And he studied the plan on his shirt cuff. Then an idea came to him.

"Suppose you find no rising. That will mean that Marker's letter was a blind of some sort. He wanted to get you out of the way or something. What will you do then? Come back here?"

"N-o," said Lewis hesitatingly. "I think Thwaite is good enough, and I should be no manner of use. You and I will wait up there in the hills on the off-chance of picking up some news. I swear I won't come back here to hang about and try and discover things. It's enough to drive a man crazy."

"It is rather a ghastly place. Wonder how the Logans thrive here. Odd mixture this. Strauss and hill tribes not twenty miles apart."

Lewis laughed. "I think I prefer the hill tribes. I am not in the humour for Strauss just now. I shall have to be off in an hour, so I am going to change. See you to-morrow, old man."

George retired to the ballroom, where he had to endure the reproaches of Mrs. Logan. He was an abstracted and silent partner, and in the intervals of dancing he studied his cuff. Miss A talked to him of polo, and Miss B of home; Miss C discovered that they had common friends, and Miss D that she had known his sister. Miss E, who was more observant, saw the cause of his distraction and asked, "What queer hieroglyphics have you got on your cuff, Mr. Winterham?"

George looked down in a bewildered way at his sleeve. "Where on earth have I been?" he asked in wonder. "That's the worst of being an absent-minded fellow. I've been scribbling on my cuff with my programme pencil."

Soon he escaped, and made his way down to the garden gate, where Thwaite was standing smoking. A sais held a saddled pony by the road-side. Lewis, in rough shooting clothes, was preparing to mount. From indoors came the jigging of a waltz tune and the sound of laughter, while far in the north the cliffs of the pass framed a dark blue cleft where the stars shone. George drew in great draughts of the cool, fresh air. "I wish I was coming with you," he said wistfully.

"You'll be in time enough to-morrow," said Lewis. "I wish you'd give him all the information you can about the place, Thwaite. He's an ignorant beggar. See that he remembers to bring food and matches. The guns are the only things I can promise he won't forget."

Then he rode off, the little beast bucking excitedly at the patches of moonlight, and the two men walked back to the house.

"Hope he comes back all right," said Thwaite. "He's too good a man to throw away."

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