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   Chapter 30 EVENING IN THE HILLS

The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 17747

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


THE airless heat of afternoon lay on the rocks and dry pastures. The far snow-peaks, seen for a moment through a rift in the hills, shimmered in the glassy stillness. No cheerful sound of running water filled the hollows, for all was parched and bare with the violence of intemperate suns and storms. Soon he was out of sight and hearing of the village, travelling in a network of empty watercourses, till at length he came to the long side of mountain which he knew of old as the first landmark of the way. A thin ray of hope began to break up his despair. He knew now the exact distance he had to travel, for his gift had always been an infallible instinct for the lie of a countryside. The sun was still high in the heavens; with any luck he should be at Nazri by six o'clock.

He was still sore with wounded pride. That Marker should have divined his weakness and left open to him a task in which he might rest with a cheap satisfaction was bitter to his vanity. The candour of his mind made him grant its truth, but his new-born confidence was sadly dissipated. And he felt, too, the futility of his efforts. That one man alone in this precipitous wilderness should hope to wake the Border seemed a mere nightmare of presumption. But it was possible, he said to himself. Time only was needed. If he could wake Bardur and the north, and the forts on the passes, there would be delay enough to wake India. If George were at Nazri there would be two for the task; if not, there would be one at least willing and able.

It was characteristic of the man that the invasion was bounded for him by Nazri and Bardur. He had no ears for ultimate issues and the ruin of an empire. Another's fancy would have been busy on the future; Lewis saw only that pass at Nazri and the telegraph-hut beyond. He must get there and wake the Border; then the world might look after itself. As he ran, half-stumbling, along the stony hillside he was hard at work recounting to himself the frontier defences. The Forza and Khautmi garrisons might hold the pass for an hour if they could be summoned. It meant annihilation, but that was in the bargain. Thwaite was strong enough in Bardur, but the town might give him trouble of itself, and he was not a man of resources. After Bardur there was no need of thought. Two hours after the telegraph clicked in the Nazri hut, the north of India would have heard the news and be bestirring itself for work. In five hours all would be safe, unless Bardur could be taken and the wires cut. There might be treason in the town, but that again was not his affair. Let him but send the message before sunset, and he would still have time to get to Khautmi, and with good luck hold the defile for sixty minutes. The thought excited him wildly. His face dripped with sweat, his boots were cut with rock till the leather hung in shreds, and a bleeding arm showed through the rents in his sleeve. But he felt no physical discomfort, only the exhilaration of a rock climber with the summit in sight, or a polo player with a clear dribble before him to the goal. At last he was playing a true game of hazard, and the chance gave him the keenest joy.

All the hot afternoon he scrambled till he came to the edge of a new valley. Nazri must lie beyond, he reasoned, and he kept to the higher ground. But soon he was mazed among precipitous shelves which needed all his skill. He had to bring his long stride down to a very slow and cautious pace, and, since he was too old a climber to venture rashly, he must needs curb his impatience. He suffered the dull recoil of his earlier vigour. While he was creeping on this accursed cliff the minutes were passing, and every second lessening his chances. He was in a fever of unrest, and only a happy fortune kept him from death. But at length the place was passed, and the mountain shelved down to a plateau. A wide view lay open to the eye, and Lewis blinked and hesitated. He had thought Nazri lay below him, and lo! there was nothing but a tangle of black watercourses.

The sun had begun to decline over the farther peak, and the man's heart failed him utterly. These unkind stony hills had been his ruin. He was lost in the most formidable country on God's earth, lost! when his whole soul cried out for hurry. He could have wept with misery, and with a drawn face he sat down and forced himself to think.

Suddenly a long, narrow black cleft in the farther tableland caught his eye. He took the direction from the sun and looked again. This must be the Nazri Pass, which he had never before that day heard of. He saw where it ended in a stony valley. Once there he had but to follow the nullah and cross the little ridge to come to Nazri.

Weariness was beginning to grow on him, but the next miles were the quickest of the day. He seemed to have the foot of a chamois. Down the rocky hillside, across the chaos of boulders, and up into the dark nullah he ran like a maniac. His mouth was parched with thirst, and he stopped for a moment in the valley bottom to swallow some rain-water. At last he found himself in the Nazri valley, with the thin sword-cut showing dark in the yellow evening. Another mile and he would be at the camping-place, and in five more at the hut.

He kept high up on the ridge, for the light had almost gone and the valley was perilous. It must be hideously late, eight o'clock or more, he thought, and his despair made him hurry his very weary limbs. Suddenly in the distant hollow he saw the gleam of a fire. He stopped abruptly and then quickened with a cry of joy. It must be the faithful George still waiting in the place appointed. Now there would be two to the task. But it was too late, he bitterly reflected. In a little the moon would rise, and then at any moment the van of the invader might emerge from the defile. He might warn Bardur, but before anything could be done the enemy would be upon them. And then there would be a southward march upon a doubtful and half-awakened country, and then-he knew not.

But there was one other way. It had not occurred to him before, for it is not an expedient which comes often to men nowadays, save to such as are fools and outcasts. We are a wise and provident age, mercantile in our heroics, seeking a solid profit for every sacrifice. But this man-a child of the latter day-had not the new self-confidence, and he was at the best high-strung, unwise, and unworldly. Besides, he was broken with toil and excited with adventure. The last dying rays of the sun were resting on the far snow walls, and the great heart of the west burned in one murky riot of flame. But to the north, whence came danger, there was a sea of yellow light, islanded with faint roseate clouds like some distant happy country. The air of dusk was thin and chill but stirring as wine to the blood, and all the bare land was for the moment a fairy realm, mystic, intangible and untrodden. The frontier line ran below the camping place; here he was over the border, beyond the culture of his kind. He was alone, for in this adventure George would not share. He would earn nothing, in all likelihood he would achieve nothing; but by the grace of God he might gain some minutes' respite. He would be killed; but that, again, was no business of his. At least he could but try, for this was his one shred of hope remaining.

The thought, once conceived, could not be rejected. He was no coward or sophist to argue himself out of danger. He laid no flattering unction to his soul that he had done his best while another way remained untried. For this type of man may be half-hearted and a coward in little matters, but he never deceives himself. We have all our own virtues and their defects. I am a well-equipped and confident person, walking bluffly through the world, looking through and down upon my neighbours, the incarnation of honesty; but I can find excuses for myself when I desire them, I hug my personal esteem too close, and a thousand to one I am too great a coward at heart to tell myself the naked truth. You, on the other hand, are vacillating and ill at your ease. You shrink from the hards of life which I steer happily through. But you have no delusions with yourself, and the odds are that when the time comes you may choose the "high that proved too high" and achieve the impossibly heroic.

A tired man with an odd gleam in his eye came out of the shadows to the firelight and called George by name.

"My God, Lewis, I am glad to see you! I thought you were lost. Food?" and he displayed the resources of his larder.

Lewis hunted for the water-bottle and quenched his thirst. Then he ate ravenously of the cold wild-fowl and oatcake which George had provided. He was silent and incurious till he had satisfied his wants; then he looked up to meet George's questions.

"Where on earth have you been? Andover said you sta

rted out to come here last night. I did as you told me, you know, and when you didn't come I roused the Khautmi people. They swore a good deal but turned out, and after an infernal long climb we got to Forza. We roused up Andover after a lot of trouble, and he took us in and gave us supper. He said you had gone off hours ago, and that the Bada-Mawidi business had been more or less of a fraud. So I slept there and came back here in the morning in case you should turn up. Been shooting all day, but it was lonely work and I didn't get the right hang of the country. These beggars there are jolly little use," and he jerked his head in the direction of the native servants. "What have you been after?"

"I? Oh, I've been in queer places. I fell into the hands of the Badas a couple of hours after I left Forza. There was a storm up there and I got lost in the mist. They took me up to a village and kept me there all night. And then I heard news-my God, such news! They let me go because they thought I could do no harm and I ran most of the way here. Marker has scored this time, old man. You know how he has been going about all North India for the last year or two getting things much his own way. Well, to-night when the moon rises the great blow is to be struck. It seems there is a pass to the north of this; I knew the place but I didn't know of the road. There is an army coming down that place in an hour or so. It is the devil's own business, but it has got to be faced. We must warn Bardur, and trust to God that Bardur may warn the south. You know the telegraph hut at the end of the road, when you begin to climb up the ravine to the place? You must get down there at once, for every moment is precious."

George had listened with staring eyes to the tale. "I can't believe it," he managed to ejaculate. "God, man! it's invasion, an unheard-of thing!"

"It's the most desperate truth, unheard-of or no. The whole thing lies in our hands. They cannot come till after midnight, and by that time Thwaite may be ready in Bardur, and the Khautmi men may be holding the road. That would delay them for a little, and by the time they took Bardur they might find the south in arms. It wouldn't matter a straw if it were an ordinary filibustering business. But I tell you it's a great army, and everything is prepared for it. Marker has been busy for months. There will be outbreaks in every town in the north. The railways and arsenals will be captured before ever the enemy appears. There will be a native rising. That was to be bargained for. But God only knows how the native troops have been tampered with. That man was as clever as they make, and he has had a free hand. Oh the blind fools!"

George had turned, and was buttoning the top button of his shooting-coat against the chilly night wind. "What shall I say to Thwaite?" he asked.

"Oh, anything. Tell him it's life or death. Tell him the facts, and don't spare. You'll have to impress on the telegraph clerk its importance first and that will take time. Tell him to send to Gilgit and Srinagar, and then to the Indus Valley. He must send into Chitral too and warn Armstrong. Above all things the Kohistan railway must be watched, because it must be their main card. Lord! I wish I understood the game better. Heaven knows it isn't my profession. But Thwaite will understand if you scare him enough. Tell him that Bardur must be held ready for siege at any moment. You understand how to work the thing?"

George nodded. "There'll be nobody there, so I suppose I'll have to break the door open. I think I remember the trick of the business. Then, what do I do?"

"Get up to Khautmi as fast as you can shin it. Better take the servants and send them before you while you work the telegraph. I suppose they're trustworthy. Get them to warn Mitchinson and St. John. They must light the fires on the hills and collect all the men they can spare to hold the road. Of course it's a desperate venture. We'll probably all be knocked on the head, but we must risk it. If we can stop the beggars for one half-hour we'll give Thwaite a better chance to set his house in order. How I'd sell my soul to see a strong man in Bardur! That will be the key of the position. If the place is uncaptured to-morrow morning, and your wires have gone right, the chief danger on this side will be past. There will be little risings of wasps' nests up and down the shop, but we can account for them if this army from the north is stopped."

"I wonder how many of us will see to-morrow morning," said George dismally. He was not afraid of death, but he loved the pleasant world.

"Good-bye," said Lewis abruptly, holding out his hand.

The action made George realize for the first time the meaning of his errand.

"But, I say, Lewie, hold on. What the deuce are you going to do?"

"I am dog-tired," said the impostor. "I must wait here and rest. I should only delay you." And always, as if to belie his fatigue, his eyes were turning keenly to the north. At any moment while he stood there bandying words there might come the sound of marching, and the van of the invaders issue from the defile.

"But, hang it, you know. I can't allow this. The Khautmi men mayn't reach you in time, and I'm dashed if I am going to leave you here to be chawed up by Marker. You're coming with me."

"Don't be an ass," said Lewis kindly. This parting, one in ignorance, the other in too certain knowledge, was very bitter. "They can't be here before midnight. They were to start at moonrise, and the moon is only just up. You'll be back in heaps of time, and, besides, we'll soon all be in the same box."

It was a false card to play, for George grew obstinate at once. "Then I'm going to be in the same box as you from the beginning. Do you really think I am going to desert you? Hang it, you're more important than Bardur."

"Oh, for God's sake, listen to reason," Lewis cried in despair. "You must go at once. I can't or I would. It's our only chance. It's a jolly good chance of death anyway, but it's a naked certainty unless you do this. Think of the women and children and the people at home. You may as well talk about letting the whole thing slip and getting back to Bardur with safe skins. We must work the telegraph and then try to hold the road with the Khautmi men, or be cowards for evermore. We're gentlemen, and we are responsible."

"I didn't mean it that way," said George dismally. "But I want you to come with me. I can't bear the thought of your being butchered here alone, supposing the beggars come before we get back. You're sure there is time?"

"You've three hours before you, but every moment is important. This is the frontier line, and this fire will do for one of the signals. You'll find me here. I haven't slept for days." And he yawned with feigned drowsiness.

"Then-good-bye," said George solemnly, holding out his hand a second time. "Remember, I'm devilish anxious about you. It's a pretty hot job for us all; but, gad! if we pull through you get the credit."

Then with a single backward glance he led the way down the narrow track, two mystified servants at his heels.

Lewis watched him disappear, and then turned sadly to his proper business. This was the end of a very old song, and his heart cried out at the thought. He heaped more wood on the blaze from the little pile collected, and soon a roaring, boisterous fire burned in the glen, while giant shadows danced on the sombre hills. Then he rummaged in the tent till he found the rifles, carefully cleaned and laid aside. He selected two express 400 bores, a Metford express and a smooth-bore Winchester repeater. Then he filled his pockets with cartridges, and from a small box took a handful for his revolver. All this he did in a sort of sobbing haste, turning nervous eyes always to the mouth of the ca?on. He filled his flask from a case in the tent, and, being still ravenously hungry, crammed the remnants of supper into a capacious game-pocket. Then, all preparations being made, he looked for a moment down the road where his best friend had just gone out of his ken for ever. The thought was so dreary that he did not dare to delay longer, but with a bundle of ironmongery below his arms began to scramble up the glen to where the north star burned between two peaks of hill.

He did the journey in an hour, for he was in a pitiable state of anxiety. Every moment he looked to hear the tramp of an army before him, and know his errand of no avail. Over the little barrier ridge he scrambled, and then up the straight gully to the little black rift which was the gate of an empire. His unquiet mind peopled the wilderness with voices, but when, breathless and sore, he came into the jaws of the pass, all was still, silent as the grave, save for an eagle which croaked from some eyrie in the cliffs.

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