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The Half-Hearted By John Buchan Characters: 24495

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

THWAITE was finishing a solitary dinner and attempting to find interest in a novel when his butler came with news that the telephone bell was ringing in the gun-room. Thwaite, being tired and cross, told him to answer it himself, expecting some frivolous message about supplies. The man returned in a little with word that he could not understand it. Then Thwaite arose, blessing him, and went to see. The telegraph office proper was on the other side of the river, on the edge of the native town, but a telephone had been established to the garrison.

Thwaite's first impulse was to suspect a gigantic hoax. A scared native clerk was trying to tell him a most appalling tale. George had not spared energy in his message, and the Oriental imagination as a medium had considerably increased it. The telegrams came in a confused order, hard to piece together, but two facts seemed to stand out from the confusion. One was that there was an unknown pass in the hills beyond Nazri through which danger was expected at any moment that night; the other was that treason was suspected throughout the whole north. Then came the name of Marker, which gave Thwaite acute uneasiness. Finally came George's two words of advice-keep strict watch on the native town and hold Bardur in readiness for a siege; and wire the same directions to Yasin, Gilgit, Chitral, Chilas, and throughout Kashmir and the Punjab. Above all, wire to the chief places on the new Indus Valley railway, for in case of success in Bardur, the railway would be the first object of the invader.

Thwaite put down the ear-trumpet, his face very white and perspiring. He looked at his watch; it was just on nine o'clock. The moon had arisen and the telegram said "moonrise." He could not doubt the genuineness of the message when he had heard at the end the names Winterham and Haystoun. Already Marker might be through the pass, and little the Khautmi people could do against him. He must be checked at Bardur, though it cost every life in the garrison. Four hours' delay would arm the north to adequate resistance.

He telephoned to the telegraph office to shut and lock the doors and admit no one till word came from him. Then he summoned his Sikh orderly, his English servant, and the native officers of the garrison. He had one detachment of Imperial Service troops officered by Punjabis, and a certain force of Kashmir Sepoys who made ineffective policemen, and as soldiers were worse than useless. And with them he had to defend the valley, and hold the native town, which might give trouble on his flank. This was the most vexatious part of the business. If Marker had organized the thing, then nothing could be unexpected, and treachery was sure to be thick around them.

The men came, saluted, and waited in silence. Thwaite sat down at a table and pulled a sheaf of telegraph forms to pieces. First he wired to Ladcock at Gilgit, beseeching reinforcements. From Bardur to the south there is only one choice of ways-by Yasin and Yagistan to the Indus Valley, or by Gilgit and South Kashmir. Once beyond Gilgit there was small hope of checking an advance, but in case the shorter way to the Indus by the Astor Valley was tried there might be hope of a delay. So he besought Ladcock to post men on the Mazeno Pass if the time was given him. Then he sent a like message to Yasin, though on the high passes and the unsettled country there was small chance of the wires remaining uncut. A force in Yasin might take on the flank any invasion from Afghanistan and in any case command the Chitral district. Then came a series of frantic wires at random-to Rawal Pindi, to the Punjabi centres, to South Kashmir. He had small confidence in these messages. If the local risings were serious, as he believed them to be, they would be too late, and in any case they were beyond the country where strategical points were of advantage against an invader. There remained the stations on the Indus Valley railway, which must be the earliest point of attack. The terminus at Boonji was held by a certain Jackson, a wise man who inspired terror in a mixed force of irregulars, Afridis, Pathans, Punjabis, Swats, and a dozen other varieties of tribesmen. To him he sent the most lengthy and urgent messages, for he held the key of a great telegraphic system with which he might awake Abbotabad and the Punjab. Then, perspiring with heat and anxiety, he gave the bundle into the hands of his English servant, and told off an officer and twenty men to hold the telegraph office. A blue light was to be lit in the window if the native town should prove troublesome and reinforcements be needed.

Soon the force of the garrison was assembled in the yard, all but a few who had been sent on messages to the more isolated houses of the English residents. Thwaite addressed them briefly: "Men, there's the devil's own sweet row up the north, and it's moving down to us. This very night we may have to fight. And, remember, it's not the old game with the hillmen, but an army of white men, servants of the Tsar, come to fight the servants of the Empress. Therefore, it is your duty to kill them all like locusts, else they will swallow up you and your cattle and your wives and your children, and, speaking generally, the whole bally show. We may be killed, but if we keep them back even for a little God will bless us. So be steady at your posts."

The garrison was soon dispersed, the guns in readiness, pointing up the valley. It was ten o'clock by Thwaite's watch ere the last click of the loaders told that Bardur was awaiting an enemy. The town behind was in an uproar, men clamouring at the gates, and seeking passports to flee to the south. Chinese and Turcoman traders from Leh and Lhassa, Yarkand and Bokhara, with scared faces, were getting their goods together and invoking their mysterious gods. Logan, who had returned from Gilgit that very day, rode breathless into the yard, clamouring for Thwaite. He received the tale in half a dozen sentences, whistled, and turned to go, for he had his own work to do. One question he asked:

"Who sent the telegrams?"

"Haystoun and Winterham."

"Then they're alone at Nazri?"

"Except for the Khautmi men."

"Will they try to hold it?"

"I should think so. They're all sportsmen. Gad, there won't be a soul left alive."

Logan galloped off with a long face. It would be a great ending, but what a waste of heroic stuff! And as he remembered Lewis's frank good-fellowship he shut his lips, as if in pain.

The telegrams were sent, and reply messages began to pour in, which kept one man at the end of the telephone. About half-past ten a blue light burned in the window across the river. There seemed something to do in the native town of narrow streets and evil-smelling lanes, for the sound of shouting and desultory firing rose above the stir of the fort. The telegraph office abutted on the far end of the bridge, and Thwaite had taken the precaution of bidding the native officer he had sent across keep his men posted around the end of the passage. Now he himself took thirty men, for the native town was the most dangerous point he had to fear. The wires must not be cut till the last moment, and, as they passed over the bridge and then through the English quarter, there was small danger if the office was held. He found, as he expected, that the place was being maintained against considerable odds. A huge mixed crowd, drawn in the main from the navvies who had been employed on the new road, armed with knives and a few rifles, and encouraged by certain wild, dancing figures which had the look of priests, was surging around the gate. The fighting stuff was Afridi or Chitrali, but there was abundance of yelling from this rabble of fakirs and beggars who accompanied them. Order there was none, and it was clear to Thwaite that this rising had been arranged for but not organized. His men had small difficulty in forcing a way to the office, where they served to complete the cordon of defence and the garrison of the bridge-end. Two men had been killed and some half-dozen of the rioters. He pushed into the building, and found a terrified Kashmir clerk sternly watched by his servant and the Sikh orderly. The man, with tears streaming down his face, was attempting to read the messages which the wires brought.

Thwaite picked up and read the latest, which was a scrawl in quavering characters over three telegraph forms. It was from Ladcock at Gilgit, saying that he was having a row of his own with the navvies there, and that he could send no reinforcements at present. If he quieted the trouble in time he would try and hold the Mazeno Pass, and meanwhile he had done his best to wake the Punjab. As the wires would be probably cut within the next hour there would be no more communications, but he besought Thwaite to keep the invader in the passes, as the whole south country was a magazine waiting for a spark to explode. The message ran in short violent words, and Thwaite had a vision of Ladcock, short, ruddy, and utterly out of temper, stirred up from his easy life to hold a frontier.

There was no word from Yasin, as indeed he had expected, for the tribes on the highlands about Hunza and Punial were the most disaffected on the Border, and doubtless the first to be tampered with. Probably his own message had never gone, and he could only pray that the men there might by the grace of God have eyes in their heads to read the signs of the times. There was a brief word from Jackson at Boonji. There attacks had been made on the terminus and the engine-sheds since sunset, which his men had luckily had time to repulse. A large amount of rolling-stock was lying there, as five freight trains had brought up material for the new bridge the day before. Of this the enemy had probably had word. Anyhow, he hoped to quiet all local disturbances, and he would undertake to see that every station on the line was warned. He would receive reinforcements from Abbotabad by the afternoon of the next day; if Bardur and Gilgit, or Yasin as it might be, could delay the attack till then everything might be safe-unless, indeed, the whole nexus of hill-tribes rose as one man. In which case there would be the devil to pay, and he had no advice to give.

Thwaite read and laughed grimly. It was not a question of a day's delay, but of an hour's, and the hill-tribes, if he judged Marker's cleverness rightly, would act just as Jackson feared. The business had begun among the navvies at Bardur and Gilgit and Boonji. In a little they would have news of real tribal war-Hunzas, Pathans, Chitralis, Punialis, and Chils, tribes whom England had fought a dozen times before and knew the mettle of; now would be the time for their innings. Well supplied with money and arms-this would have been part of Marker's business-they would be the forerunners of the great army. First savage war, then scientific annihilation by civilized hands-a sweet prospect for a peaceful man in the prime of life!

He returned to the fort to find all quiet and in order. It commanded the north road, but though the eye might weary itself with looking on the moonlit sandy valley and the opaque blue hills, there was no sight or sound of men. The stars were burning hard and cold in the vault of sky, and looking down somewhere on the march of an army. It was now close on midnight; in five hours dawn would break in the east and the night of attack would be gone. But death waited between this midnight hour and the morning. What were Haystoun and the men from Khautmi doing? Fighting or beyond all fighting? Well, he would soon know. He was not afraid, but this cursed waiting took the heart out of a man! And he looked at his watch and found it half-past twelve.

* * *

At Yasin there was the most severe fighting. It lasted for three days, and in effect amounted to a little tribal war. A man called Mackintosh commanded, and he had the advantage of having regulars with him, Gurkhas for the most part, who were old campaigners. The place had seemed unquiet for some days, and certain precautions had been taken, so that when the rioting broke out at sunset it was easy to get the town under subjection and prepare f

or external attack. The Chiling Pass into Chitral had given trouble of old, but Mackintosh was scarcely prepared for the systematic assaults of Punialis and Tangiris from the east and south. Having always been famous as an alarmist he put the right interpretation on the business, and settled down to what he half hoped, half feared, might be a great frontier war. The place was strong only on the north side, and the defence was as much a question of engineering as of war. His Sepoys toiled gallantly at the incomplete defences, while the rest fought hand to hand-bayonet against knife, Metford against Enfield-to cover their labour. He lost many men, but on the evening of the next day he had the satisfaction of seeing the fortifications complete, and he awaited a siege with equanimity, as he was well victualled.

On the second night the enemy again attacked, but the moon was bright, and they were no match for his sharpshooters. About two in the morning they fell back, and for the next day it looked as if they proposed to invest the garrison. But by the third evening they began to melt away, taking with them such small plunder as they had won. Mackintosh, who was a man of enterprise, told off a detachment for pursuit, and cursed bitterly the fate which had broken his ankle with a rifle-bullet.

In the south along the railway the warnings came in good time. At Rawal Pindi there was some small difficulty with native officials, a large body of whom seemed to have unaccountably disappeared. This delayed for some time the sending of a freight-train to Abbotabad, but by and by substitutes were found, and the works left under guard. The telegram to Peshawur found things in readiness there, for memories of old trouble still linger, and people sleep lightly on that frontier. Word came of native riots in the south, at Lahore and Amritsar, and the line of towns which mark the way to Delhi. In some places extraordinary accidents were reported. Certain officers had gone off on holiday and had not returned; odd and unintelligible commands had come to perplex the minds of others; whole camps were reported sick where sickness was least expected. A little rising of certain obscure rivers had broken up an important highway by destroying all the bridges save the one which carried the railway. The whole north was on the brink of a sudden disorganization, but the brink had still to be passed. It lay with its masters to avert calamity; and its masters, going about with haggard faces, prayed for daylight and a few hours to prepare.

* * *

George had sent his men to Khautmi before he entered the telegraph hut, and he followed himself in twenty minutes. Somewhere upon the hill-road he met St. John with a dozen men, who abused him roundly and besought details.

"Are you sure?" he cried. "For God's sake, say you're mistaken. For, if you're not, upon my soul it's the last hour for all of us."

George was in little mood for jest. He told Lewis's tale in a few words.

"A pass beyond Nazri," the man cried. "Why, I was there shooting buck last week. Up the nullah and over the ridge, and then a cleft at the top of the next valley? Does he say there's a pass there? Maybe, but I'll be hanged if an army could get through. If we get there we can hold it."

"We haven't time. They may be here at any moment. Send men to Forza and get them to light the fires. Oh, for God's sake, be quick! I've left Haystoun down there. The obstinate beggar was too tired to move."

Over all the twenty odd miles between Forza and Khautmi there is a chain of fires which can be used for signals in the Border wars. On this night Khautmi was to take the west side of the Nazri gully and Forza the east, and the two quickest runners in the place were sent off to Andover with the news. He was to come towards them, leaving men at the different signal-posts in case of scattered assaults, and if he came in time the two forces would join in holding the Nazri pass. But should the invader come before, then it fell on the Khautmi men to stand alone. It was a smooth green hollow in the stony hills, some hundred yards wide, and at the most they might hope to make a fight of thirty minutes. St. John and George, with their men, ran down the stony road till the sweat dripped from their brows, though the night was chilly. Mitchinson was to follow with the rest and light the fires; meantime, they must get to Nazri, in case the march should forestall them. St. John was cursing his ill-luck. Two hours earlier and they might have held the distant cleft in the hills, and, if they were doomed to perish, have perished to some purpose. But the holding of the easy Nazri pass was sheer idle mania, and yet it was the only chance of gaining some paltry minutes. As for George, he had forgotten his vexatious. His one anxiety was for Lewis; that he should be in time to have his friend at his side. And when at last they came down on the pass and saw the camp-fire blazing fiercely and no trace of the enemy, he experienced a sense of vast relief. Lewis was making himself comfortable, cool beggar that he was, and now was probably sleeping. He should be left alone; so he persuaded St. John that the best point to take their stand on was on a shoulder of hill beyond the fire. It gave him honest pleasure to think that at last he had stolen a march on his friend. He should at least have his sleep in peace before the inevitable end.

He looked at his watch; it was almost half-past eleven.

"Haystoun said they'd be here at midnight," he whispered to his companion. "We haven't long. When do you suppose Andover will come?"

"Not for an hour and a half at the earliest. Afraid this is going to be our own private show. Where's Haystoun?"

George nodded back to the fire in the hollow, and the tent beside it. "There, I expect, sleeping. He's dog-tired, and he always was a very cool hand in a row. He'll be wakened soon enough, poor chap."

"You're sure he can't tell us anything?"

"Nothing. He told me all. Better let him be." Mitchinson came up with the rearguard. Living all but alone in the wilds had made him a silent man compared to whom the taciturn St. John was garrulous. He nodded to George and sat down.

"How many are we?" George asked.

"Forty-three, counting the three of us. Not enough for a good stand. Wonder how it'll turn out. Never had to do such a thing before."

St. John, whose soul longed for Maxims, posted his men as best he could. There was no time to throw up earthworks, but a rough cairn of stone which stood in the middle of the hollow gave at least a central rallying-ground. Then they waited, watching the fleecy night vapours blow across the peaks and straining their ears for the first sound of men.

George grew impatient. "It can't be more than five miles to the pass. Shouldn't some of us try to get there? It would make all the difference."

St. John declined sharply. "We've taken our place and we must stick to it. We can't afford to straggle. Hullo! it's just on twelve. Thwaite has had three hours to prepare, and he's bound to have wakened the south. I fancy the business won't quite come off this time."

Suddenly in the chilly silence there rose something like the faint and distant sound of rifles. It was no more than the sound of stone dropping on a rock ledge, for, still and clear and cold though the night was, the narrowness of the valley and the height of the cliffs dulled all distant sounds. But each man had the ear of the old hunter, and waited with head bent forward.

Again the drip-drip; then a scattering noise as when one lets peas fall on the floor.

"God! That's carbines. Who the devil are they fighting with?" Mitchinson's eye had lost its lethargy. His scraggy neck was craned forward, and his grim mouth had relaxed into a grimmer smile.

"It's them, sure enough," said St. John, and spoke something to his servant.

"I'm going forward," said George. "It may be somebody else making a stand, and we're bound to help."

"You're bound not to be an ass," said St. John. "Who in the Lord's name could it be? It may be the Badas polishing off some hereditary foes, and it may be Marker getting rid of some wandering hillmen. Man, we're miles beyond the pale. Who's to make a stand but ourselves?"

Again came the patter of little sounds, and then a long calm.

"They're through now," said St. John. "The next thing to listen for is the sound of their feet. When that comes I pass the word along. We're all safe for heaven, so keep your minds easy."

But the sound of feet was long in coming. Only the soft night airs, and at rare intervals an eagle's cry, or the bleat of a doe from the valley bottom. The first half-hour of waiting was a cruel strain. In such moments a man's sins rise up large before him. When his future life is narrowed down to an hour's compass, he sees with cruel distinctness the follies of his past. A thousand things he had done or left undone loomed on George's mental horizon. His slackness, his self-indulgence, his unkindness-he went over the whole innocent tale of his sins. To the happy man who lives in the open and meets the world with a square front this forced final hour of introspection has peculiar terrors. Meantime Lewis was sleeping peacefully in the tent by the still cheerful fire. Thank God, he was spared this hideous waiting!

About two Andover turned up with fifteen men, hot and desperate. He listened to St. John's story in silence.

"Thank God, I'm in time. Who found out this? Haystoun? Good man, Lewis! I wonder who has been firing out there. They can't have been stopped? It's getting devilish late for them anyhow, and I believe there's a little hope. It would be too risky to leave this pass, but I vote we send a scout."

A man was chosen and dispatched. Two hours later he returned to the mystified watchers at Nazri. He had been on the hill-shoulder and looked into the cleft. There was no sign of men there, but he had heard the sound of men, though where he could not tell. Far down the cleft there was a gleam of fire, but no man near it.

"That's a Bada dodge," said Andover promptly. "Now I wonder if Marker trusted too much to these gentry, and they have done us the excellent service of misleading him. They hate us like hell, and they'd sell their souls any day for a dozen cartridges; so it can't have been done on purpose. Seems to me there has been a slip in his plans somewhere."

But the sound of voices! The man was questioned closely, and he was strong on its truth. He was a hillman from the west of the Khyber, and he swore that he knew the sound of human speech in the hills many miles off, though he could not distinguish the words.

"In thirty minutes it will be morning," said George. "Lord, such a night, and Lewis to have missed it all!" His spirits were rising, and he lit a pipe. The north was safe whatever happened, and, as the inertness of midnight passed off, he felt satisfaction in any prospect, however hazardous. He sat down beneath a boulder and smoked, while Andover talked with the others. They were the frontier soldiers, and this was their profession; he was the amateur to whom technicalities were unmeaning.

Suddenly he sprang up and touched St. John on the shoulder. A great chill seemed to have passed over the world, and on the hill-tops there was a faint light. Both men looked to the east, and there, beyond the Forza hills, was the red foreglow spreading over the grey. It was dawn, and with the dawn came safety. The fires had burned low, and the vagrant morning winds were beginning to scatter the white ashes. Now was the hour for bravado, since the time for silence had gone. St. John gave the word, and it was passed like a roll-call to left and right, the farthest man shouting it along the ribs of mountain to the next watch-fire. The air had grown clear and thin, and far off the dim repetition was heard, which told of sentries at their place, and the line of posts which rimmed the frontier.

Mitchinson moistened his dry lips and filled his lungs with the cold, fresh air. "That," he said slowly, "is the morning report of the last outpost of the Empire, and by the grace of God it's 'All's well.'"

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