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   Chapter 29 THE WAY TO NAZRI

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 17813

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


OUR traveller did not reach Nazri that night for many reasons, of which the chief shall be told. The way to Nazri is long and the way to Nazri is exceedingly rough. Leaving the table-land you plunge down a trackless gully into the dry bed of a stream. Thence it is an hour's uneasy walking among stagnant pools and granite boulders to the foot of another nullah which runs up to the heart of the hills. From this you pick your way along the precipitous side of a mountain, and if your head is good and your feet sure, may come eventually to a place like the roof of the house, beyond which lies a thicket of thorn-bushes and the Nazri gully. At first sight the thing seems impossible, but by a bold man it can be crossed either in the untanned Kashmir shoes or with the naked feet.

Lewis had not gone a mile and had barely reached the dry watercourse, when the weather broke utterly in a storm of mist and fine rain. At other times this chill weather would have been a comfort, but here in these lonely altitudes, with a difficult path before him, its result was to confound confusion. So long as he stuck to the stream he had some guidance; it was hard, even when the air was like a damp blanket, to mistake the chaos of boulder and shingle which meant the channel. But the mist was close to him and wrapped him in like a quilt, and he looked in vain for the foot of the nullah he must climb. He tried keeping by the edge and feeling his way, but it only landed him in a ditch of stagnant slime. The thing was too vexatious, and his temper went; and with his temper his last chance of finding his road. When he had stumbled for what seemed hours he sat down on a boulder and whistled dismally. The stream belonged to another watershed. If he followed it, assuming that he did not break his neck over a dry cataract, he would be through the mountains and near Taghati quicker than he intended. Meantime the miserable George would wait at Nazri, would rouse the Khautmi garrison on a false alarm, and would find himself irretrievably separated from his friend. The thought was so full of irritation, that he resolved not to stir one step further. He would spend the night if need be in this place and wait till the mist lifted.

He found a hollow among the boulders, and improvidently ate half his store of sandwiches. Then, finding his throat dry, he got up to hunt for water. A trickle afar off in the rocks led him on, and sure enough he found water; but when he tried to retrace his steps to his former resting place he found that he had forgotten the way. This new place was conspicuously less sheltered, but he sat down on the wet gravel, lit a pipe with difficulty, and with his knees close to his chin strove to possess his soul in patience.

He was tired, for he had slept little for two days, and the closer air of the ravine made him drowsy. He had lost any sense of discomfort from the wet, and was in the numb condition of the utterly drenched. He could not spend the night like this, so he roused himself and stood staring, pipe in teeth, into the drizzle. The mist seemed clearer. He was a little stupid, so he did not hear the sound of feet on stones till they were almost on him. Then through the haze he saw a procession of figures moving athwart the channel. They were not his countrymen, for they walked with the stoop forward which no Englishman can ever quite master in his hill-climbing. Lewis turned to flee, but in his numbness of mind and body missed footing, and fell sprawling over a bank of shingle. He scrambled to his feet only to find hands at his throat, and himself a miserable prisoner.

The scene had shifted with a vengeance, and his first and sole impulse was to laugh. It is possible that if the scarf of a brawny tribesman had not been so tight across his chest he would have astonished his captors with hysterical laughter. But the jolt as he was dragged up hill, tied close to a horse's side, was unfavourable to merriment, and raw despondency filled his soul. This was the end of his fine doings. The prisoner of unknown bandits, hurried he knew not whence, a pretty pass for an adventurer. This was the seal on his ineffectiveness. Shot against a rock, held up to some sordid ransom, he was as impotent for good or ill as if he had stayed at home. For a second he longed to pull horse and captor with one wrench over the brink to the kindly gulf where all was quiet.

The bitterest ill-humour possessed this meekest of men. Normally he would have been afraid, for he was an imaginative being who feared horrors and had little relish for them. But there is a certain perfect bad temper which casteth out fear, and this held him in its grip. He cursed the mountain solitude and he cursed the Bada-Mawidi with awful directness. Then he chose silence as the easier part, and trudged like a stolid criminal till, half in a daze of weariness and sleep, he found that the cavalcade had halted.

The place was the edge of a little tableland where in a hollow among rocks lay a collection of mud-walled huts. A fire, in spite of the damp weather, blazed cheerfully in the midst of the clearing. There was commotion in the huts, every door was opened, and evil-smelling people poured forth with cries and questions. The leader of the newly arrived party bowed himself before a short, square man whom we have met before, and spoke something in his ear. Fazir Khan looked up sharply at Lewis, then laughed, and spoke something to his men in his own tongue.

Lewis comprehended barely a few words of Chil, the Bada tongue, and he knew little of the frontier speeches. But to his amazement the chief addressed him in tolerable, if halting, English. It was not for nothing that Fazir Khan had harried the Border and sojourned incognito in every town in North India.

"Allah has given thee to us, my son," he said sweetly. "It is vain to fight against God. I have heard of thee as the Englishman who would know more than is good for man to know. You were at Forza to-day."

Lewis's temper was at its worst. "I was at Forza to-day, and I watched your people running. Had they waited a little longer we should have slain them all, and then have come for you."

The chief smiled unpleasantly. "My people did not fight at Forza to-day. That was but the sport to draw on fools. Soon we shall fight in earnest, but in a different place, and thou shalt not see."

"I am your prisoner," said Lewis grimly, "and it is in your power to do with me as you please. But remember that for every hair of my head my people will take the lives of four of your cattle-lifters."

"That is an old story," said Fazir Khan wearily, "and I have heard it many times before. You speak boldly like a man, and because you are not afraid I will tell you the truth. In a very little there will be not one of your people in the land, only the Bada-Mawidi, and others whom I do not name."

"That is a still older story. I have heard it since I was in my mother's arms. Do you think to frighten me by such a tale?"

"Let us not talk of fear," said the chief with some politeness. "There are two races in your people, one which talks and allies itself with Bengalis and swine, and one which lives in hard places and follows war. The second I love, and had it been possible, I would have allied myself with it and driven the others into the sea." This petty chieftain spoke with the pride of one who ruled the destinies of the earth.

Lewis was unimpressed. "I am tired of your riddles," he said. "If you would kill me have done with it. If you would keep me prisoner, give me food and a place to sleep. But if you would be merciful, let me go and show me the way to Bardur. Life is too short for waiting."

Fazir Khan laughed loudly, and spoke something to his people.

"You shall join in our company for the night," he said. "I have eaten of the salt of your people and I do not murder without cause. Also I love a bold man."

Lewis was led into the largest of the huts and given food and warm Hunza wine. The place was hot to suffocation; large beads of moisture stood on the mud walls, and the smell of uncleanly clothing and sweating limbs was difficult to stand. But the man's complexion was hard, and he made an excellent supper. Thereafter he became utterly drowsy. He had it in his mind to question this Fazir Khan about his dark sayings, but his eyes closed as if drawn by a magnet and his head nodded. It may have been something in the wine; it may have been merely the vigil of the last night, and the toil of the past hours. At any rate his mind was soon a blank, and when a servant pointed out a heap of skins in a corner, he flung himself on them and was at once asleep. He was utterly at their mercy, but his course, had he known it, was the wisest. Even a Bada's treachery has its limits, and he will not knife a confident guest. The men talked and wrangled, a

te and drank, and finally snored around him, but he slept through it all like a sleeper of Ephesus.

When he woke the hut was cleared. The village slept late but he had slept later, for the sun was piercing the unglazed windows and making pattern-work on the earth floor. He had slept soundly a sleep haunted with nightmares, and he was still dazed as he peered out into the square where men were passing. He saw a sentry at the door of his hut, which reminded him of his condition. All the long night he had been far away, fishing, it seemed to him, in a curious place which was Glenavelin, and yet was ever changing to a stranger glen. It was moonlight, still, bright and warm on all the green hill shoulders. He remembered that he caught nothing, but had been deliriously happy. People seemed passing on the bank, Arthur and Wratislaw and Julia Heston, and all his boyhood's companions. He talked to them pleasantly, and all the while he was moving up the glen which lay so soft in the moonlight. He remembered looking everywhere for Alice Wishart, but her face was wanting. Then suddenly the place seemed to change. The sleeping glen changed to a black sword-cut among rocks, his friends disappeared, and only George was left. He remembered that George cried out something and pointed to the gorge, and he knew-though how he knew it he could not tell-that the lost Alice was somewhere there before him in the darkness and he must go towards her. Then he had wakened shivering, for in that darkness there was terror as well as joy.

He went to the door, only to find himself turned back by the sheep-skin sentry, who half unsheathed for his benefit an ugly knife. He found that his revolver, his sole weapon, had been taken while he slept. Escape was impossible till his captors should return.

A day of burning sun had followed on the storm. Out of doors in the scorching glare from the rock there seemed an extraordinary bustle. It was like the preparations for a march, save that there seemed no method in the activity. One man burnished a knife, a dozen were cleaning rifles, and all wore the evil-smelling finery with which the hillman decks his person for war. Their long oiled hair was tied in a sort of rude knot, new and fuller turbans adorned the head, and on the feet were stout slippers of Bokhara make. Lewis had keen eyesight, and he strove to read the marks on the boxes of cartridges which stood in a corner. It was not the well-known Government mark which usually brands stolen ammunition. The three crosses with the crescent above-he had seen them before, but his memory failed him. It might have been at Bardur in the inn; it might have been at home in the house of some great traveller. At any rate the sight boded no good to himself or the border peace. He thought of George waiting alone at Nazri, and then obediently warning the people at Khautmi. By this time Andover would know he was missing, and men would be out on a very hopeless search. At any rate he had done some good, for if the Badas meant marching they would find the garrisons prepared.

About noon there was a bustle in the square and Fazir Khan with a dozen of his tail swaggered in. He came straight to the hut, and two men entered and brought out the prisoner. Lewis stiffened his back and prepared not reluctantly for a change in the situation. He had no special fear of this smiling, sinister chieftain. So far he had been spared, and now it seemed unlikely that in the midst of this bustle of war there would be room for the torture which alone he dreaded. So he met the chief's look squarely, and at the moment he thanked the lot which had given him two more inches of height.

"I have sent for thee, my son," said Fazir Khan, "that you may see how great my people is."

"I have seen," said Lewis, looking round. "You have a large collection of jackals, but you will not bring many back."

The notion tickled Fazir Khan and he laughed with great good-humour. "So, so," he cried. "Behold how great is the wisdom of youth. I will tell you a secret, my son. In a little the Bada-Mawidi, my people, will be in Bardur and a little later in the fat corn lands of the south, and I, Fazir Khan, will sit in King's palaces." He looked contemptuously round at his mud walls, his heart swelling with pride.

"What the devil do you mean?" Lewis asked with rising suspicion. This was not the common talk of a Border cateran.

"I mean what I mean," said the other. "In a little all the world shall see. But because I have a liking for a bold cockerel like thee, I will speak unwisely. The days of your people are numbered. This very night there are those coming from the north who will set their foot on your necks."

Lewis went sick at heart. A thousand half-forgotten suspicions called clamorously. This was the secret of the burlesque at Forza, and the new valour of the Badas. He saw Marker's game with the fatal clearness of one who is too late. He had been given a chance of a little piece of service to avert his suspicions. Marker had fathomed him well as one who must satisfy a restless conscience but had no stomach for anything beyond. Doubtless he thought that now he would be enjoying the rest after labour at Forza, flattering himself on saving a garrison, when all the while the force poured down which was to destroy an empire. An army from the north, backed and guided by every Border half-breed and outlaw-what hope of help in God's name was to be found in the sleepy forts and the unsuspecting Bardur?

And the Kashmir and the Punjab? A train laid in every town and village. Supplies in readiness, communications waiting to be held, railways ready for capture. Europe was on the edge of a volcano. He saw an outbreak there which would keep Britain employed at home, while the great power with her endless forces and bottomless purse poured her men over the frontier. But at the thought of the frontier he checked himself. There was no road by which an army could march; if there was any it could be blocked by a handful. A week's, a day's delay would save the north, and the north would save the empire.

His voice came out of his throat with a crack in it like an old man's.

"There is no road through the mountains. I have been there before and I know."

Again Fazir Khan smiled. "I use no secrecy to my friends. There is a way, though all men do not know it. From Nazri there is a valley running towards the sunrise. At the head there is a little ridge easily crossed, and from that there is a dry channel between high precipices. It is not the width of a man's stature, so even the sharp eyes of my brother might miss it. Beyond that there is a sandy tableland, and then another valley, and then plains."

The plan of the place was clear in Lewis's brain. He remembered each detail. The long nullah on which he had looked from the hill-tops had, then, an outlet, and did not end, as he had guessed, in a dead wall of rock. Fool and blind! to have missed so glorious a chance!

He stood staring dumbly around him, unconscious that he was the laughingstock of all. Then he looked at the chief.

"Am I your prisoner?" he asked hoarsely.

"Nay," said the other good-humouredly, "thou art free. We have over-much work on hand to-day to be saddled with captives."

"Then where is Nazri?" he asked.

The chief laughed a loud laugh of tolerant amusement. "Hear to the bold one," he cried. "He will not miss the great spectacle. See, I will show you the road," and he pointed out certain landmarks. "For one of my own people it is a journey of four hours; for thee it will be something more. But hurry, and haply the game will not have begun. If the northern men take thee I will buy thy life."

Four hours; the words rang in his brain like a sentence. He had no hope, but a wild craving to attempt the hopeless. George might have returned to Nazri to wait; it was the sort of docile thing that George would do. In any case not five miles from Nazri was the end of the north road and a little telegraph hut used by the Khautmi forts. The night would be full moonlight; and by night the army would come. His watch had been stolen, but he guessed by the heavens that it was some two hours after noon. Five hours would bring him to Nazri at six, in another he might be at the hut before the wires were severed. It was a crazy chance, but it was his all, and meanwhile these grinning tribesmen were watching him like some curious animal. They had talked to him freely to mock his feebleness. His dominant wish was to escape from their sight.

He turned to the descent. "I am going to Nazri," he said.

The chief held out his pistol. "Take your little weapon. We have no need of such things when great matters are on hand. Allah speed you, brother! A sure foot and a keen eye may bring you there in time for the sport." And, still laughing, he turned to enter the hut.

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