WORKING from the East to the West of England, through a countryside alive with troops of all arms, the car came at dusk into a cathedral town entirely inhabited by one type of regiment. The telegraph-office was an orderly jam of solid, large, made men, with years of discipline behind them and the tan of Indian suns on their faces – Englishmen still so fresh from the troopships that one of them asked me, ‘What’s the day o’ the month?’ They were advising friends of their arrival in England, or when they might be expected on short leave at the week’s end; and the fresh-faced telegraph girls behind the grilles worked with six pairs of hands apiece and all the goodwill and patience in the world to back them. That same young woman who, with nothing to do, makes you wait ten minutes for a penny stamp while she finishes a talk with a lady -friend, will, at a crisis, go on till she drops, and keep her temper throughout. ‘Well, if that’s her village,’I heard one of the girls say to an anxious soul, ‘I tell you that that will be her telegraph-office. You leave it to me. She’ll get it all right.’
He backed out, and a dozen more quietly took his place. Their regiments hailed from all the old known stations of the East and beyond that into the Far East again. They cursed their cool barrack accommodation; they rejoiced in the keen autumn smells, and paraded the long street all filled with ‘Europe shops’; while their officers and their officers’ wives, and, I think, mothers who had come down to snatch a glimpse of their boys, crowded the hotels, and the little unastonished Anglo-Indian children circulated round the knees of big friends they had made aboardship and asked, ‘Where are you going now?’
One caught scraps of our old gipsy talk – names of boarding-houses, agents’ addresses: ‘Milly stays with mother, of course.’ ‘I’m taking Jack down to school to-morrow. It’s past half-term, but that doesn’t matter nowadays ‘; and cheery farewells between men and calm-eyed women. Except for the frocks, it might have been an evening assembly at any station bandstand in India.
Outside, on the surging pavements, a small boy cried: ‘Paper! Evenin’ paper!’ Then seductively: ‘Kargus!’
‘What?’ I said, thinking my ears had cheated me.
‘Dekko! Kargus!’ said he. (‘Look here! Paper!’)
‘Why on earth d’you say that?’
‘Because the men like it,’ he replied, and slapped an evening paper (no change for a penny) into the hand of a man in a helmet.
Who shall say that the English are not adaptable?
The car swam bonnet-deep through a mile of troops; and a mile up the road one could hear the deep hum of all those crowded streets that the cathedral bells were chiming over. It was only one small block of Anglo-India getting ready to take its place in the all-devouring Line.
An hour later at ——— (Shall we ever be able to name people and places outright again ?) the wind brought up one whiff – one unmistakable whiff – of ghi. Somewhere among the English pines that, for the moment, pretended to be the lower slopes of the Dun, there were native troops. A mule squealed in the dark and set off half-a-dozen others. It was screw-guns – batteries of them, waiting their turn also at the game. Morning showed them in their immaculate lines as though they had just marched in from Jutogh – little, low guns with their ammunition; very big English gunners in disengaged attitudes which, nevertheless, did not encourage stray civilians to poke and peer into things; and the native drivers all busied over their charges. True, the wind was bitter, and many of the drivers had tied up their heads, but so one does at Quetta in the cold weather – not to mention Peshawur – and, said a naick of drivers:
‘It is not the cold for which we have no liking. It is the wet. The English air is good, but water falls at all seasons. Yet notwithstanding, we of this battery (and, oh, the pride men can throw into a mere number!) have not lost one mule. Neither at sea nor on land have we one lost. That can be shown, sahib.’
Then one heard the deep racking tobacco-cough in the lee of a tent where four or five men – Kangra folk by the look of them – were drinking tobacco out of a cow’s horn. Their own country’s tobacco, be sure, for English tobacco… But there was no need to explain. Who would have dreamed to smell bazaar-tobacco on a south country golf links ?
A large proportion of the men are, of course, Sikhs, to whom tobacco is forbidden; the Havildar Major himself was a Sikh of the Sikhs. He spoke, of all things in this strange world, of the late Mr. M. McAuliffe’s monumental book on the Sikh religion, saying, not without warrant, that McAuliffe Sahib had translated into English much of the Holy Book – the great Grunth Sahib that lives at Amritzar. He enlarged, too, on the ancient prophecy among the Sikhs – that a hatted race should some day come out of the sea and lead them to victory all the earth over. So spoke Bir Singh, erect and enormous beneath the grey English skies. He hailed from a certain place called Banalu, near Patiala, where many years ago two Sikh soldiers executed a striking but perfectly just vengeance on certain villagers who had oppressed their young brother, a cultivator. They had gone to the extreme limits of abasement and conciliation. This failing, they took leave for a week-end and slew the whole tribe of their enemies. The story is buried in old Government reports, but when Bir Singh implied that he and his folk were orthodox I had no doubt of it. And behind him stood another giant, who knew, for his village was but a few miles up the Shalimar road, every foot of Lahore city. He brought word that there had been great floods at home, so that the risen Ravi river had touched the very walls of Runjit Singh’s Fort. And that was only last rains – and, behold! – here he was now in England waiting orders to go to this fight which, he understood, was not at all a small fight, but a fight of fights, in which all the world and ‘our Raj’ was engaged. The trouble in India was that all the young men – the mere jiwans – wanted to come out at once, which, he said, was manifestly unjust to older men, who had waited so long. However, merit and patience had secured their reward, and the battery was here, and it would do the hot jiwans no harm to stay at home, and be zealous at drill until orders came for them in their turn. ‘Young men think that everything good in this world is theirs by right, sahib.’
Then came the big, still English gunners, who are trained to play with the little guns. They took one such gun and melted it into trifling pieces of not more than a hundred and fifty pounds each, and reassembled it, and explained its innermost heart till even a layman could understand. There is a lot to understand about screw-guns – specially the new kind. But the gunner of to-day, like his ancestor, does not talk much, except in his own time and place, when he is as multitudinously amazing as the Blue Marine.
We went over to see the mule lines. I detest the whole generation of these parrot-mouthed hybrids, American, Egyptian, Andalusian, or up-country: so it gave me particular pleasure to hear a Pathan telling one chestnut beast who objected to having its mane hogged any more, what sort of lady -horse his mamma had been. But qua animals, they were a lovely lot, and had long since given up blowing and finicking over English fodder.
‘Is there any sickness? Why is yonder mule lying down?’ I demanded, as though all the lines could not see I was a shuddering amateur.
‘There is no sickness, sahib? That mule lies down for his own pleasure. Also, to get out of the wind. He is very clever. He is from Hindu- stan.’ said the man with the horse-clippers.
‘I am a Pathan,’ said he with impudent grin and true border cock of the turban, and he did me the honour to let me infer.
The lines were full of talk as the men went over their animals. They were not worrying themselves over this new country of Belait. It was the regular gossip of food and water and firewood, and where So-and-so had hid the curry-comb.
Talking of cookery, the orthodox men have been rather put out by English visitors who come to the cook-houses and stare directly at the food while it is being prepared. Sensible men do not object to this, because they know that these Englishmen have no evil intention nor any evil eye; but sometimes a narrow-souled purist (toothache or liver makes a man painfully religious) will ‘spy strangers’ and insist on the strict letter of the law, and then every one who wishes to be orthodox must agree with him – on an empty stomach, too – and wait till a fresh mess has been cooked. This is taklif – a burden – for where the intention is good and war is afoot much can and should be overlooked. Moreover, this war is not like any other war. It is a war of our Raj – ‘everybody’s war,’ as they say in the bazaars. And that is another reason why it does not matter if an Englishman stares at one’s food. This I gathered in small pieces after watering time when the mules had filed up to the troughs in the twilight, hundreds of them, and the drivers grew discursive on the way to the lines.
The last I saw of them was in the early cold morning, all in marching order, jinking and jingling down a road through woods.
‘Where are you going?’
It might have been for exercise merely, or it might be down to the sea and away to the front for the battle of ‘Our Raj’. The quiet hotel where people sit together and talk in earnest strained pairs is well used to such departures. The officers of a whole Division – the raw cuts of their tent-circles lie still unhealed on the links – dined there by scores; mothers and relatives came down from the uttermost parts of Scotland for a last look at their boys, and found beds goodness knows where: very quiet little weddings, too, set out from its doors to the church opposite. The Division went away a century of weeks ago by the road that the mule-battery took. Many of the civilians who pocketed the wills signed and witnessed in the smoking-room are full-blown executors now; some of the brides are widows.
And it is not nice to remember that when the hotel was so filled that not even another pleading mother could be given a place in which to lie down and have her cry out – not at all nice to remember that it never occurred to any of the comfortable people in the large but sparsely inhabited houses around that they might have offered a night’s lodging, even to an unintroduced stranger.
There were hospitals up the road preparing and being prepared for the Indian wounded. In one of these lay a man of, say, a Biluch regiment, sorely hit. Word had come from his colonel in France to the colonel’s wife in England that she should seek till she found that very man and got news from his very mouth – news to send to his family and village. She found him at last, and he was very bewildered to see her there, because he had left her and her child on the verandah of the bungalow, long and long ago, when he and his colonel a nd the regiment went down to take ship for the war. How had she come? Who had guarded her during her train-journey of so many days? And, above all, how had the baba endured that sea which caused strong men to collapse? Not till all these matters had been cleared up in fullest detail did Greatheart on his cot permit his colonel’s wife to waste one word on his own insignificant concerns. And that she should have wept filled him with real trouble. Truly, this is the war of ‘Our Raj!’