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   Chapter 27 THE ROAD TO FORZA

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 18179

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


THE road ran in a straight line through the valley of dry rocks, a dull, modern road, engineered and macadamized up to the edge of the hills. The click of hoofs raised echoes in the silence, for in all the great valley, in the chain of pools in the channel, the acres of sun-dried stone, the granite rocks, the tangle of mountain scrub, there seemed no life of bird or beast. It was a strange, deathly stillness, and overhead the purple sky, sown with a million globes of light, seemed so near and imminent that the glen for the moment was but a vast jewel-lit cavern, and the sky a fretted roof which spanned the mountains.

For the first time Lewis felt the East. Hitherto he had been unable to see anything in his errand but its futility. A stupider man, with a sharp, practical brain, would have taken himself seriously and come to Bardur with an intent and satisfied mind. He would have assumed the air of a diplomatist, have felt the dignity of his mission, and in success and failure have borne himself with self-confidence. But to Lewis the business which loomed serious in England, at Bardur took on the colour of comedy. He felt his impotence, he was touched insensibly by the easy content of the place. Frontier difficulties seemed matters for romance and comic opera; and Bardur resolved itself into an English suburb, all tea-parties and tennis. But at times an austere conscience jogged him to remembrance, and in one such fitful craving for action and enterprise he had found this errand. Now at last, astride the little Kashmir pony, with his face to the polestar and the hills, he felt the mystery of a strange world, and his work assumed a tinge of the adventurer. This was new, he told himself; this was romance. He had his eyes turned to a new land, and the smell of dry mountain sand and scrub, and the vault-like, imperial sky were the earnest of his inheritance. This was the East, the gorgeous, the impenetrable. Before him were the hill deserts, and then the great, warm plains, and the wide rivers, and then on and on to the cold north, the steppes, the icy streams, the untrodden forests. To the west and beyond the mountains were holy mosques, "shady cities of palm trees," great walled towns to which north and west and south brought their merchandise. And to the east were latitudes more wonderful, the uplands of the world, the impassable borders of the oldest of human cultures. Names rang in his head like tunes-Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, the goal of many boyish dreams born of clandestine suppers and the Arabian Nights. It was an old fierce world he was on the brink of, and the nervous frontier civilization fell a thousand miles behind him.

The white road turned to the right with the valley, and the hills crept down to the distance of a gun-shot. The mounting tiers of stone and brawling water caught the moonlight in waves, and now he was in a cold pit of shadow and now in a patch of radiant moonshine. It was a world of fantasy, a rousing world of wintry hill winds and sudden gleams of summer. His spirits rose high, and he forgot all else in plain enjoyment. Now at last he had found life, rich, wild, girt with marvels. He was beginning to whistle some air when his pony shied violently and fell back, and at the same moment a pistol-shot cracked out of a patch of thorn.

He turned the beast and rode straight at the thicket, which was a very little one. The ball had wandered somewhere into the void, and no harm was done, but he was curious about its owner. Up on the hillside he seemed to see a dark figure scrambling among the cliffs in the fretted moonlight.

It is unpleasant to be shot at in the dark from the wayside, but at the moment the thing pleased this strange young man. It seemed a token that at last he was getting to work. He found a rope stretched taut across the road, which accounted for the pony's stumble. Laughing heartily, he cut it with his knife, and continued, cheerful as before, but somewhat less fantastic. Now he kept a sharp eye on all wayside patches.

At the head of the valley the waters of the stream forked into two torrents, one flowing from the east in an open glen up which ran the road to Yarkand, the other descending from the northern hills in a wild gully. At the foot stood a little hut with an apology for stabling, where an old and dirty gentleman of the Hunza race pursued his calling till such time as he should attract the notice of his friends up in the hills and go to paradise with a slit throat.

Lewis roused the man with a violent knocking at the door. The old ruffian appeared with a sputtering lamp which might have belonged to a cave man, and a head of matted grey hair which suggested the same origin. He was old and suspicious, but at Lewis's bidding he hobbled forth and pointed out the stabling.

"The pony is to stay here till it is called for. Do you hear? And if Holm Sahib returns and finds that it is not fed he will pay you nothing. So good night, father. Sound sleep and a good conscience."

He turned to the twisting hill road which ran up from the light into the gloom of the cleft with all the vigour of an old mountaineer who has been long forced to dwell among lowlands. Once a man acquires the art of hill walking he will always find flat country something of a burden, and the mere ascent of a slope will have a tonic's power. The path was good, but perilous at the best, and the proximity of yawning precipices gave a zest to the travel. The road would fringe a pit of shade, black but for the gleam of mica and the scattered foam of the stream. It was no longer a silent world. Hawks screamed at times from the cliffs, and a multitude of bats and owls flickered in the depths. A continuous falling of waters, an infinite sighing of night winds, the swaying and tossing which is always heard in the midmost mountain solitudes, the crumbling of hill gravel and the bleat of a goat on some hill-side, all made a cheerful accompaniment to the scraping of his boots on the rocky road.

He remembered the way as if he had travelled it yesterday. Soon the gorge would narrow and he would be almost at the water's edge. Then the path turned to the right and wound into the heart of a side nullah, which at length brought it out on a little plateau of rocks. There the road climbed a long ridge till at last it reached the great plateau, where Forza, set on a small hilltop, watched thirty miles of primeval desert. The air was growing chilly, for the road climbed steeply and already it was many thousand feet above the sea. The curious salt smell which comes from snow and rock was beginning to greet his nostrils. The blood flowed more freely in his veins, and insensibly he squared his shoulders to drink in the cold hill air. It was of the mountains and yet strangely foreign, an air with something woody and alpine in the heart of it, an air born of scrub and snow-clad rock, and not of his own free spaces of heather. But it was hill-born, and this contented him; it was night-born, and it refreshed him. In a little the road turned down to the stream side, and he was on the edge of a long dark pool.

The river, which made a poor show in the broad channel at Bardur, was now, in this straitened place, a full lipping torrent of clear, green water. Lewis bathed his flushed face and drank, and it was as cold as snow. It stung his face to burning, and as he walked the heartsome glow of great physical content began to rise in his heart. He felt fit and ready for any work. Life was quick in his sinews, his brain was a weathercock, his strength was tireless. At last he had found a man's life. He had never had a chance before. Life had been too easy and sheltered; he had been coddled like a child; he had never roughed it except for his own pleasure. Now he was outside this backbone of the world with a task before him, and only his wits for his servant. Eton and Oxford, Eton and Oxford-so it had been for generations-an education sufficient to damn a race. Stocks was right, and he had all along been wrong; but now he was in a fair way to taste the world's iron and salt, and he exulted at the prospect.

It was hard walking in the nullah. In and out of great crevices the road wound itself, on the brink of stupendous waterfalls, or in the heart of a brushwood tangle. Soon a clear vault of sky replaced the out-jutting crags, and he came out on a little plateau where a very cold wind was blowing. The smell of snow was in the air, a raw smell like salt when carried on a north wind over miles of granite crags. But on the little tableland the moon was shining clearly. It was green with small cloud-berries and dwarf juniper, and the rooty fragrance was for all the world like an English bolt or a Highland pasture. Lewis flung himself prone and buried his face among the small green leaves. Then, still on the ground, he scanned the endless yellow distance. Mountains, serrated and cleft as in some giant's play, rose on every hand, while through the hollows gleamed the farther snow-peaks. This little bare plateau must be naked t

o any eye on any hill-side, and at the thought he got to his feet and advanced.

At first sight the place had looked not a mile long, but before he got to the farther slope he found that it was nearer two. The mountain air had given him extraordinary lightness, and he ran the distance, finding the hard, sandy soil like a track under his feet. The slope, when he had reached it, proved to be abrupt and boulder-strewn, and the path had an ugly trick of avoiding steepness by skirting horrible precipices. Luckily the moon was bright, and the man was an old mountaineer; otherwise he might have found a grave in the crevices which seamed the hill.

He had not gone far when he began to realize that he was not the only occupant of the mountain side. A whistle which was not a bird's seemed to catch his ear at times, and once, as he shrank back into the lee of a boulder, there was the sound of naked feet on the road before him. This was news indeed, and he crept very cautiously up the rugged path. Once, when in shelter, he looked out, and for a second, in a patch of moonlight, he saw a man with the loose breeches and tightened girdle of the hillmen. He was running swiftly as if to some arranged place of meeting.

The sight put all doubts out of his head. An attack on Forza was imminent, and this was the side from which least danger would be expected. If the enemy got there before him they would find an easy entrance. The thought made him quicken his pace. These scattered tribesmen must meet before they attacked, and there might still be time for him to get in front. His ears were sharp as a deer's to the slightest sound. A great joy in the game possessed him. When he crouched in the shelter of a granite boulder or sprawled among the scrub while the light footsteps of a tribesman passed on the road he felt that one point was scored to him in a game in which he had no advantages. He blessed his senses trained by years of sport to a keenness beyond a townsman's; his eye, which could see distances clear even in the misty moonlight; his ear, which could judge the proximity of sounds with a nice exactness. Twice he was on the brink of discovery. A twig snapped as he lay in cover, and he heard footsteps pause, and he knew that a pair of very keen eyes were scanning the brushwood. He blessed his lucky choice in clothes which had made him bring a suit so near the hue of his hiding-place. Then he felt that the eyes were averted, the footsteps died away, and he was safe. Again, as he turned a corner swiftly, he almost came on the back of a man who was stepping along leisurely before him. For a second he stopped, and then he was back round the corner, and had swung himself up to a patch of shadow on the crag-side. He looked down and saw his enemy clearly in the moonlight; a long, ferret-faced fellow, with a rifle hung on his back and an ugly crooked knife in his hand. The man looked round, sniffing the air like a stag, and then, satisfied that there was nothing to fear, turned and went on. Lewis, who had been sitting on a sharp jag of rock, swung an aching body to the ground and advanced circumspectly.

In an hour or two he came to the top of the slope and the beginning of the second tableland. A grey dimness was taking the place of the dark, and it had suddenly grown bitterly cold. Dawn in such high latitudes is not a thing of violent changes, but of slow and subtle gradations of light, of sudden, coy flushes of colour, of thin winds and bright fleeting hazes. He lay for a minute in the scrub of cloud-berries, the collar of his coat buttoned round his throat, and the morning wind, fresh from leagues of snow, blowing chill on his face. Behind was the slope alive with men who at any moment might emerge on the plateau. He waited for the sight of a figure, but none came; clearly the muster was not yet complete. A thought grew in his brain, and a sudden clearness in the air translated it into action; for in the hazy distance across the tableland he saw the walls of Forza fort.

The place could not be two miles off, and between it and him there was the smooth benty plateau. He might make a rush for it and cross unobserved. Even now the early sun was beginning to strike it. The yellow-grey walls stood out clear against the far line of mountains, and the wisp of colour which fluttered in the wind was clearly the British flag. The exceeding glory of the morning gave him a new vigour. Why should not he run with any tribesman of the lot? If he could but avoid the risk of a rifle bullet at the outset, he would have no fear of the issue.

He glanced behind him. The place seemed still, though far down there was a tinkle as of little stones falling. He stood up, straightened himself for one moment till he had filled his lungs with the clean air. Then he started to run quickly towards the fort.

The full orb of the sun topped the mountains and the dazzle was in his eyes from the first. If he covered the first half-mile unpursued he would be safe; otherwise he might expect a bullet. It was a comic feeling-the wide green heath, the fresh air, the easy vigour in his stride, the flush of the morning sun, and that awkward, nervous weakness in the small of his back where a bullet might be expected to find a lodgment.

He never looked back till he had gone what seemed to him the proper distance, and then he glanced hurriedly over his shoulder.

Two men had emerged from the scrub and stood on the edge of the slope. They were gazing intently at him, and suddenly one lifted a Snider to his shoulder and fired. The bullet burrowed in the sand to the right of him. Again he looked back and there they were-five of them now-crying out to him. Then with one accord they followed over the plateau.

It was now a clear race for life. He must keep beyond reasonable rifle-shot; otherwise a broken leg might bring him to a standstill. He cursed the deceptive clearness of the hill air which made it impossible for his unpractised eye to judge distances. The fort stood clear in every stone, but it might be miles off though it looked scarcely a thousand yards. Apparently it was still asleep, for no smoke was rising, and, strain his ears as he might, he could hear no sound of a sentry's walk. This looked awkward indeed for him. If the people were not awake to receive him, he would be potted against its wall as surely as a rat in a corner. He grew acutely nervous, and as he drew nearer he made the air hideous with shouts to wake the garrison. A clear race in the open he did not mind; but he had no stomach for a game of hide-and-seek around an unscalable wall with an active enemy.

Apparently the gentry behind him were growing despondent. Two rifle bullets, fired by running men, sang unsteadily in his wake. He was now so near that he could see the rough wooden gate and the pyramidal nails with which it was studded. He could guess the number of paces between him and safety. He was out of breath and a little tired, for the scramble up the nullah had not been a light one. Again he yelled frantically to the dead walls, beseeching their inmates to get out of bed and save his life.

There was still no sound from the sleeping fortress. He was barely a hundred yards off, and he saw now that the walls were too high to climb and that nothing remained but the gate. He picked up a stone and flung it against the woodwork. The din echoed through the empty place, but there was no sound of life. Just at the threshold there was a patch of shadow. It was his one way of escape, and as he reached the door and kicked and hammered at the wood, he cowered down in the shade, praying that his friends behind might be something less than sharpshooters.

The pursuit saw its chance, and running forward to get within easy range, proceeded to target practice. Lewis, kicking diligently at the door, was trying to draw himself into the smallest space, and his mind was far from comfortable. It needs good nerves to fill the position of a target with equanimity, and he was too tired to take it in good part. A disagreeable cold sweat stood on his brow, and his heart beat violently. Then a bullet did what all his knocking had failed to do, for it crashed into the woodwork and woke the garrison. He heard feet hurrying across a yard, and then it seemed to him that men were reconnoitring from the top of the wall. A second later-when the third bullet had buried itself in dust a foot beyond his head-the heavy gate was half opened and a man's hand assisted him to crawl inside.

He looked up to see a tall figure in pyjamas standing over him. "Now I wonder who the deuce you are?" it was saying.

"My name's Haystoun. H-a-y-s;" then he broke off and laughed. He had fallen into his old trick of spelling his name to the Oxford tradesmen when he was young and hated to have it garbled.

He looked up at the questioner again. "Bless me, Andy, so it's you."

The man gave a yell of delight. "Lewis, upon my soul. Who'd have thought it? It is a Providence. By Gad, I believe I'm just in time to save your life."

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