The Naulahka


Now it is not good for the Christian’s health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”
               Solo from Libretto of Naulahka

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TARVIN stood on the platform of the station at Rawut Junction watching the dust cloud that followed the retreating Bombay mail. When it had disappeared, the heated air above the stone ballast began its dance again, and he turned blinking to India.

It was amazingly simple to come fourteen thousand miles. He had lain still in a ship for a certain time, and then had transferred himself to stretch at full length, in his shirt-sleeves, on the leather-padded bunk of the train which had brought him from Calcutta to Rawut Junction. The journey was long only as it kept him from sight of Kate, and kept him filled with thought of her. But was this what he had come for—the yellow desolation of a Rajputana desert, and the pinched-off perspective of the track? Topaz was cosier when they had got the church, the saloon, the school, and three houses up; the loneliness made him shiver. He saw that they did not mean to do any more of it. It was a desolation which doubled desolateness, because it was left for done. It was final, intended, absolute. The grim solidity of the cut-stone station-house, the solid masonry of the empty platform, the mathematical exactitude of the station name-board looked for no future. No new railroad could help Rawut Junction. It had no ambition. It belonged to the Government. There was no green thing, no curved line, no promise of life that produces, within eyeshot of Rawut Junction. The mauve railroad-creeper on the station had been allowed to die from lack of attention.

Tarvin was saved from the more positive pangs of home-sickness by a little healthy human rage. A single man, fat, brown, clothed in white gauze, and wearing a black velvet cap on his head, stepped out from the building. This stationmaster and permanent population of Rawut Junction accepted Tarvin as a feature of the landscape: he did not look at him. Tarvin began to sympathise with the South in the war of the rebellion.

‘When does the next train leave for Rhatore?’ he asked.

‘There is no train,’ returned the man, pausing with precise deliberation between the words. He sent his speech abroad with an air of detachment, irresponsibly, like the phonograph

‘No train? Where’s your time-table? Where’s your railroad guide? Where’s your Pathfinder?’

‘No train at all of any kind whatever.’

‘Then what the devil are you here for?’

‘Sir, I am the stationmaster of this station, and it is prohibited using profane language to employees of this company.’

‘Oh, are you? Is it? Well, see here, my friend—you stationmaster of the steep-edge of the Jumping-off-place, if you want to save your life you will tell me how I get to Rhatore—quick!’

The man was silent.

‘Well, what do I do, anyway?’ shouted the West.

‘What do I know?’ answered the East.

Tarvin stared at the brown being in white, beginning at his patent-leather shoes, surmounted by open-work socks, out of which the calf of his leg bulged, and ending with the velvet smokingcap on his head. The passionless regard of the Oriental, borrowed from the purple hills behind his station, made him wonder for one profane, faithless, and spiritless moment whether Topaz and Kate were worth all they were costing.

‘Ticket, please,’ said the baboo.

The gloom darkened. This thing was here to take tickets, and would do it though men loved, and fought, and despaired and died at his feet.

‘See here,’ cried Tarvin, ‘you shiny-toed fraud; you agate-eyed pillar of alabaster——’ But he did not go on; speech failed in a shout of rage and despair. The desert swallowed all impartially; and the baboo, turning with awful quiet, drifted through the door of the station-house, and locked it behind him.

Tarvin whistled persuasively at the door with uplifted eyebrows, jingling an American quarter against a rupee in his pocket. The window of the ticket-office opened a little way, and the baboo showed an inch of impassive face.

‘Speaking now in offeshal capacity, your honour can getting to Rhatore viâ country bullock-cart.’

‘Find me the bullock-cart,’ said Tarvin.

‘Your honour granting commission on transaction?’

‘Cert!’ It was the tone that conveyed the idea to the head under the smoking-cap.

The window was dropped. Afterward, but not too immediately afterward, a long-drawn howl made itself heard—the howl of a weary warlock invoking a dilatory ghost.

‘0 Moti! Moti! O-oh!’

‘Ah, there, Moti!’ murmured Tarvin, as he vaulted over the low stone wall, gripsack in hand, and stepped out through the ticket wicket into Rajputana. His habitual gaiety and confidence had returned with the prospect of motion.

Between himself and a purple circle of hills lay fifteen miles of profitless, rolling ground, jagged with laterite rocks, and studded with unthrifty trees—all given up to drought and dust, and all colourless as the sun-bleached locks of a child of the prairies. Very far away to the right the silver gleam of a salt lake showed, and a formless blue haze of heavier forest. Sombre, desolate, oppressive, withering under a brazen sun, it smote him with its likeness to his own prairies, and with its home-sick unlikeness.

Apparently out of a crack in the earth—in fact, as he presently perceived, out of a spot where two waves of plain folded in upon each other and contained a village—came a pillar of dust, the heart of which was a bullock-cart. The distant whine of the wheels sharpened, as it drew near, to the fullbodied shriek that Tarvin knew when they put the brakes suddenly on a freight coming into Topaz on the down grade. But this was in no sense a freight. The wheels were sections of tree butts—square for the most part. Four unbarked poles bounded the corners of a flat body; the sides were made of netted rope of cocoa-nut fibre. Two bullocks, a little larger than Newfoundlands, smaller than Alderneys, drew a vehicle which might have contained the half of a horse’s load.

The cart drew up at the station, and the bullocks, after contemplating Tarvin for a moment, lay down. Tarvin seated himself on his gripsack, rested his shaggy head in his hands, and expended himself in mirth.

‘Sail in,’ he instructed the baboo; ‘make your bargain. I’m in no hurry.’

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Then began a scene of declamation and riot, to which a quarrel in a Leadville gambling saloon was a poor matter. The impassiveness of the stationmaster deserted him like a wind-blown garment. He harangued, gesticulated, and cursed; and the driver, naked except for a blue loin-cloth, was nothing behind him. They pointed at Tarvin; they seemed to be arguing over his birth and ancestry; for all he knew they were appraising his weight. When they seemed to be on the brink of an amicable solution, the question re-opened itself, and they went back to the beginning, and reclassified him and the journey.

Tarvin applauded both parties, sicking one on the other impartially for the first ten minutes. Then he besought them to stop, and when they would not he discovered that it was hot, and swore at them.

The driver had for the moment exhausted himself, when the baboo turned suddenly on Tarvin, and, clutching him by the arm, cried, almost shouting, ‘All arrange, sir! all arrange! This man most uneducated man, sir. You giving me the money, I arrange everything.’

Swift as thought, the driver had caught his other arm, and was imploring him in a strange tongue not to listen to his opponent. As Tarvin stepped back they followed him with uplifted hands of entreaty and representation, the stationmaster forgetting his English, and the driver his respect for the white man. Tarvin, eluding them both, pitched his gripsack into the bullock-cart, bounded in himself, and shouted the one Indian word he knew. It happened, fortunately, to be the word that moves all India, ‘Challo!’ which, being interpreted, is ‘Go on!’

So, leaving strife and desolation behind him, rode out into the desert of Rajputana Nicholas Tarvin of Topaz, Colorado.