I am poor Brother Lippo by your leave.
You need not clap your torches to my face. (Fra Lippo Lippi.)
SO, at sixteen years and nine months, but looking four or five years older, and adorned with real whiskers which the scandalised Mother abolished within one hour of beholding, I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not. Other Indian-born boys have told me how the same thing happened to them.There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.
That was a joyous home-coming. For—consider!—I had returned to a Father and Mother of whom I had seen but little since my sixth year. I might have found my Mother ‘the sort of woman I don’t care for,’ as in one terrible case that I know; and my Father intolerable. But the Mother proved more delightful than all my imaginings or memories. My Father was not only a mine of knowledge and help, but a humorous, tolerant, and expert fellow-craftsman. I had my own room in the house; my servant, handed over to me by my father’s servant, whose son he was, with the solemnity of a marriage-contract; my own horse, cart, and groom; my own office-hours and direct responsibilities; and—oh joy!—my own office-box, just like my Father’s, which he took daily to the Lahore Museum and School of Art. I do not remember the smallest friction in any detail of our lives. We delighted more in each other’s society than in that of strangers; and when my sister came out, a little later, our cup was filled to the brim. Not only were we happy, but we knew it.
But the work was heavy. I represented fifty per cent of the ‘editorial staff’ of the one daily paper of the Punjab—a small sister of the great Pioneer at Allahabad under the same proprietorship. And a daily paper comes out every day even though fifty per cent of the staff have fever.
My Chief took me in hand, and for three years or so I loathed him. He had to break me in, and I knew nothing. What he suffered on my account I cannot tell; but the little that I ever acquired of accuracy, the habit of trying at least to verify references, and some knack of sticking to desk-work, I owed wholly to Stephen Wheeler.
I never worked less than ten hours and seldom more than fifteen per diem; and as our paper came out in the evening did not see the midday sun except on Sundays. I had fever too, regular and persistent, to which I added for a while chronic dysentery. Yet I discovered that a man can work with a temperature of 104, even though next day he has to ask the office who wrote the article. Our native Foreman, on the News side, Mian Rukn Din, a Muhammedan gentleman of kind heart and infinite patience, whom I never saw unequal to a situation, was my loyal friend throughout. From the modern point of view I suppose the life was not fit for a dog, but my world was filled with boys, but a few years older than I, who lived utterly alone, and died from typhoid mostly at the regulation age of twenty-two. As regarding ourselves at home, if there were any dying to be done, we four were together. The rest was in the day’s work, with love to sweeten all things.
Books, plays, pictures, and amusements, outside what games the cold weather allowed, there were none. Transport was limited to horses and such railways as existed. This meant that one’s normal radius of travel would be about six miles in any direction, and—one did not meet new white faces at every six miles. Death was always our near companion. When there was an outbreak of eleven cases of typhoid in our white community of seventy, and professional nurses had not been invented, the men sat up with the men and the women with the women. We lost four of our invalids and thought we had done well. Otherwise, men and women dropped where they stood. Hence our custom of looking up any one who did not appear at our daily gatherings.
The dead of all times were about us—in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh’s wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts.
This was the setting in which my world revolved. Its centre for me—a member at seventeen—was the Punjab Club, where bachelors, for the most part, gathered to eat meals of no merit among men whose merits they knew well. My Chief was married and came there seldom, so it was mine to be told every evening of the faults of that day’s issue in very simple language. Our native compositors ‘followed copy’ without knowing one word of English. Hence glorious and sometimes obscene misprints. Our proof-readers (sometimes we had a brace of them) drank, which was expected; but systematic and prolonged D.T. on their part gave me more than my share of their work. And in that Club and elsewhere I met none except picked men at their definite work—Civilians, Army, Education, Canals, Forestry, Engineering, Irrigation, Railways, Doctors, and Lawyers—samples of each branch and each talking his own shop. It follows then that that ‘show of technical knowledge’ for which I was blamed later came to me from the horse’s mouth, even to boredom.
So soon as my paper could trust me a little, and I had behaved well at routine work, I was sent out, first for local reportings; then to race-meetings which included curious nights in the lottery-tent. (I saw one go up in flame once, when a heated owner hove an oil-lamp at the handicapper on the night the owner was coming up for election at the Club. That was the first and last time I had seen every available black ball expended and members begging for more.) Later I described openings of big bridges and such-like, which meant a night or two with the engineers; floods on railways—more nights in the wet with wretched heads of repair gangs; village festivals and consequent outbreaks of cholera or small-pox; communal riots under the shadow of the Mosque of Wazir Khan, where the patient waiting troops lay in timber-yards or side-alleys till the order came to go in and hit the crowds on the feet with the gun-butt (killing in Civil Administration was then reckoned confession of failure), and the growling, flaring, creed-drunk city would be brought to hand without effusion of blood, or the appearance of any agitated Viceroy; visits of Viceroys to neighbouring Princes on the edge of the great Indian Desert, where a man might have to wash his raw hands and face in soda-water; reviews of Armies expecting to move against Russia next week; receptions of an Afghan Potentate, with whom the Indian Government wished to stand well (this included a walk into the Khyber, where I was shot at, but without malice, by a rapparee who disapproved of his ruler’s foreign policy); murder and divorce trials, and (a really filthy job) an inquiry into the percentage of lepers among the butchers who supplied beef and mutton to the European community of Lahore. (Here I first learned that crude statements of crude facts are not well-seen by responsible official authorities.) It was Squeers’ method of instruction, but how could I fail to be equipped with more than all I might need? I was saturated with it, and if I tripped over detail, the Club attended to me.
My first bribe was offered to me at the age of nineteen when I was in a Native State where, naturally, one concern of the Administration was to get more guns of honour added to the Ruler’s official salute when he visited British India, and even a roving correspondent’s good word might be useful. Hence in the basket of fruits (dali is its name) laid at my tent door each morning, a five-hundred-rupee note and a Cashmere shawl. As the sender was of high caste I returned the gift at the hands of the camp-sweeper, who was not. Upon this my servant, responsible to his father, and mine, for my well-being, said without emotion; ‘Till we get home you eat and drink from my hands.’ This I did.
On return to work I found my Chief had fever, and I was in sole charge. Among his editorial correspondence was a letter from this Native State setting forth the record during a few days’ visit of ‘your reporter, a person called Kipling’; who had broken, it seemed, the Decalogue in every detail from rape to theft. I wrote back that as Acting-Editor I had received the complaints and would investigate, but they must expect me to be biassed because I was the person complained of.
I visited the State more than once later, and there was not a cloud on our relations. I had dealt with the insult more Asiatico—which they understood; the ball had been returned more Asiatico—which I understood; and the incident had been closed.
My second bribe came when I worked under Stephen Wheeler’s successor, Kay Robinson, brother of Phil Robinson who wrote In My Indian Garden. With him, thanks to his predecessor having licked me into some shape, my relations were genial. It was the old matter of gun-salutes again; the old machinery of the basket of fruit and shawls and money for us both, but this time left impudently on the office verandah. Kay and I wasted a happy half-hour pricking ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ into the currency notes, mourned that we could not take either them or the shawls, and let the matter go.
My third and most interesting bribe was when reporting a divorce case in Eurasian society. An immense brown woman penned me in a corner and offered ‘if I would but keep her name out of it’ to give me most intimate details, which she began at once to do. I demanded her name before bargaining. ‘Oah! I am the Respondent. Thatt is why I ask you.’ It is hard to report some dramas without Ophelias if not Hamlets. But I was repaid for her anger when Counsel asked her if she had ever expressed a desire to dance on her husband’s grave. Till then she had denied everything. ‘Yess,’ she hissed, ’and I jolly-damn-well would too.’
A soldier of my acquaintance had been sentenced to life-imprisonment for a murder which, on evidence not before the court, seemed to me rather justified. I saw him later in Lahore gaol at work on some complicated arrangement of nibs with different coloured inks, stuck into a sort of loom which, drawn over paper, gave the ruling for the blank forms of financial statements. It seemed wickedly monotonous. But the spirit of man is undefeatable. ‘If I made a mistake of an eighth of an inch in spacing these lines, I’d throw out all the accounts of the Upper Punjab,’ said he.
As to our reading public, they were at the least as well educated as fifty per cent of our ‘staff’; and by force of their lives could not be stampeded or much ‘thrilled.’ Double headlines we had never heard of, nor special type, and I fear that the amount of ‘white’ in the newspapers to-day would have struck us as common cheating. Yet the stuff we dealt in would have furnished modern journals of enterprise with almost daily sensations.
My legitimate office-work was sub-editing, which meant eternal cuttings-down of unwieldy contributions—such as discourses on abstruse questions of Revenue and Assessment from a great and wise Civilian who wrote the vilest hand that even our compositors ever saw; literary articles about Milton. (And how was I to know that the writer was a relative of one of our proprietors, who thought our paper existed to air his theories?) Here Crom Price’s training in précis-work helped me to get swiftly at what meat there might be in the disorderly messes. There were newspaper exchanges from Egypt to Hong-Kong to be skimmed nearly every morning and, once a week, the English papers on which one drew in time of need; local correspondence from outstations to vet for possible libels in their innocent allusions; ‘spoofing’ letters from subalterns to be guarded against (twice I was trapped here); always, of course, the filing of cables, and woe betide an error then! I took them down from the telephone—a primitive and mysterious power whose native operator broke every word into mono syllables. One cut-and-come-again affliction was an accursed Muscovite paper, the Novoie Vremya, written in French, which, for weeks and weeks, published the war diaries of Alikhanoff, a Russian General then harrying the Central Russian Khanates. He gave the name of every camp he halted at, and regularly reported that his troops warmed themselves at fires of sax-aul, which I suppose is perhaps sage-brush. A week after I had translated the last of the series every remembrance of it passed from my normal memory.
Ten or twelve years later, I fell sick in New York and passed through a long delirium which, by ill-chance, I remembered when I returned to life. At one stage of it I led an enormous force of cavalry mounted on red horses with brand-new leather saddles, under the glare of a green moon, across steppes so vast that they revealed the very curve of earth. We would halt at one of the camps named by Alikhanoff in his diary (I would see the name of it heaving up over the edge of the planet), where we warmed ourselves at fires of sax-aul, and where, scorched on one side and frozen on the other, I sat till my infernal squadrons went on again to the next fore-known halt; and so through the list.
In the early ’80s a Liberal Government had come into power at Home and was acting on liberal ‘principle,’ which so far as I have observed ends not seldom in bloodshed. Just then, it was a matter of principle that Native Judges should try white women. Native in this case meant overwhelmingly Hindu; and the Hindu’s idea of women is not lofty. No one had asked for any such measure—least of all the Judiciary concerned. But principle is principle, though the streets swim. The European community were much annoyed. They went to the extremity of revolt—that is to say even the officials of the Service and their wives very often would not attend the functions and levees of the then Viceroy, a circular and bewildered recluse of religious tendencies. A pleasant English gentleman called C.P. Ilbert had been imported to father and god-father the Bill. I think he, too, was a little bewildered. Our paper, like most of the European Press, began with stern disapproval of the measure, and, I fancy, published much comment and correspondence which would now be called ‘disloyal.’
One evening, while putting the paper to bed, I looked as usual over the leader. It was the sort of false-balanced, semi-judicial stuff that some English journals wrote about the Indian White Paper from 1932 to ’34, and like them it furnished a barely disguised exposition of the Government’s high ideals. In after-life one got to know that touch better, but it astonished me at the time, and I asked my Chief what it all meant. He replied, as I should have done in his place; ‘None of your dam’ business,’ and, being married, went to his home. I repaired to the Club which, remember, was the whole of my outside world.
As I entered the long, shabby dining-room where we all sat at one table, everyone hissed. I was innocent enough to ask; ‘What’s the joke? Who are they hissing?’ ‘You,’ said the man at my side. ‘Your dam’ rag has ratted over the Bill.’
It is not pleasant to sit still when one is twenty while all your universe hisses you. Then uprose a Captain, our Adjutant of Volunteers, and said: ‘Stop that! The boy’s only doing what he’s paid to do.’ The demonstration tailed off, but I had seen a great light. The Adjutant was entirely correct. I was a hireling, paid to do what I was paid to do, and—I did not relish the idea. Someone said kindly; ‘You damned young ass! Don’t you know that your paper has the Government printing-contract?’ I did know it, but I had never before put two and two together.
A few months later one of my two chief proprietors received the decoration that made him a Knight. Then I began to take much interest in certain smooth Civilians, who had seen good in the Government measure and had somehow been shifted out of the heat to billets in Simla. I followed under shrewd guidance, often native, the many pretty ways by which a Government can put veiled pressure on its employees in a land where every circumstance and relation of a man’s life is public property. So, when the great and epoch-making India Bill turned up fifty years later, I felt as one re-treading the tortuous byways of his youth. One recognised the very phrases and assurances of the old days still doing good work, and waited, as in a dream, for the very slightly altered formulas in which those who were parting with their convictions excused themselves. Thus; ‘I may act as a brake, you know. At any rate I’m keeping a more extreme man out of the game.’ ‘There’s no sense running counter to the inevitable,’—and all the other Devil-provided camouflage for the sinner-who-faces-both-ways.
In ’85 I was made a Freemason by dispensation (Lodge Hope and Perseverance 782 E.C.), being under age, because the Lodge hoped for a good Secretary. They did not get him, but I helped, and got the Father to advise, in decorating the bare walls of the Masonic Hall with hangings after the prescription of Solomon’s Temple. Here I met Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, members of the Arya and Brahmo Samaj, and a Jew tyler, who was priest and butcher to his little community in the city. So yet another world opened to me which I needed.
My Mother and sister would go up to the Hills for the hot weather, and in due course my Father too. My own holiday came when I could be spared. Thus I often lived alone in the big house, where I commanded by choice native food, as less revolting than meat-cookery, and so added indigestion to my more intimate possessions.
In those months—mid-April to mid-October—one took up one’s bed and walked about with it from room to room, seeking for less heated air; or slept on the flat roof with the waterman to throw half-skinfuls of water on one’s parched carcase. This brought on fever but saved heat-stroke.
Often the night got into my head as it had done in the boarding-house in the Brompton Road, and I would wander till dawn in all manner of odd places-liquor-shops, gambling-and opium-dens, which are not a bit mysterious, wayside entertainments such as puppet-shows, native dances; or in and about the narrow gullies under the Mosque of Wazir Khan for the sheer sake of looking. Sometimes, the Police would challenge, but I knew most of their officers, and many folk in some quarters knew me for the son of my Father, which in the East more than anywhere else is useful. Otherwise, the word ‘Newspaper’ sufficed; though I did not supply my paper with many accounts of these prowls. One would come home, just as the light broke, in some night-hawk of a hired carriage which stank of hookah-fumes, jasmine-flowers, and sandalwood; and if the driver were moved to talk, he told one a good deal. Much of real Indian life goes on in the hot-weather nights. That is why the native staff of the offices are not much use next morning. All native offices aestivate from May at least till September. Files and correspondence are then as a matter of course pitched unopened into corners, to be written up or faked when the weather gets cooler. But the English who go Home on leave, having imposed the set hours of a northern working day upon the children of children, are surprised that India does not work as they do. This is one of the reasons why autonomous India will be interesting.
And there were ‘wet’ nights too at the Club or one Mess, when a tableful of boys, half-crazed with discomfort, but with just sense enough to stick to beer and bones which seldom betray, tried to rejoice and somehow succeeded. I remember one night when we ate tinned haggis with cholera in the cantonments ‘to see what would happen,’ and another when a savage stallion in harness was presented with a very hot leg of roast mutton, as he snapped. Theoretically this is a cure for biting, but it only made him more of a cannibal.
I got to meet the soldiery of those days in visits to Fort Lahore and, in a less degree, at Mian Mir Cantonments. My first and best beloved Battalion was the 2nd Fifth Fusiliers, with whom I dined in awed silence a few weeks after I came out. When they left I took up with their successors, the 30th East Lancashire, another North-country regiment; and, last, with the 31st East Surrey—a London recruited confederacy of skilful dog-stealers, some of them my good and loyal friends. There were ghostly dinners too with Subalterns in charge of the Infantry Detachment at Fort Lahore, where, all among marble-inlaid, empty apartments of dead Queens, or under the domes of old tombs, meals began with the regulation thirty grains of quinine in the sherry, and ended—as Allah pleased!
I am, by the way, one of the few civilians who have turned out a Quarter-Guard of Her Majesty’s troops. It was on a chill winter morn, about 2 A.M. at the Fort, and though I suppose I had been given the countersign on my departure from the Mess, I forgot it ere I reached the Main Guard, and when challenged announced myself spaciously as ‘Visiting Rounds.’ When the men had clattered out I asked the Sergeant if he had ever seen a finer collection of scoundrels. That cost me beer by the gallon, but it was worth it.
Having no position to consider, and my trade enforcing it, I could move at will in the fourth dimension. I came to realise the bare horrors of the private’s life, and the unnecessary torments he endured on account of the Christian doctrine which lays down that ‘the wages of sin is death.’ It was counted impious that bazaar prostitutes should be inspected; or that the men should be taught elementary precautions in their dealings with them. This official virtue cost our Army in India nine thousand expensive white men a year always laid up from venereal disease. Visits to Lock Hospitals made me desire, as earnestly as I do to-day, that I might have six hundred priests—Bishops of the Establishment for choice—to handle for six months precisely as the soldiers of my youth were handled.
Heaven knows the men died fast enough from typhoid, which seemed to have something to do with water, but we were not sure; or from cholera, which was manifestly a breath of the Devil that could kill all on one side of a barrack-room and spare the others; from seasonal fever; or from what was described as ‘blood-poisoning.’
Lord Roberts, at that time Commander-in-Chief in India, who knew my people, was interested in the men, and—I had by then written one or two stories about soldiers—the proudest moment of my young life was when I rode up Simla Mall beside him on his usual explosive red Arab, while he asked me what the men thought about their accommodation, entertainment-rooms and the like. I told him, and he thanked me as gravely as though I had been a full Colonel.
My month’s leave at Simla, or whatever Hill Station my people went to, was pure joy—every golden hour counted. It began in heat and discomfort, by rail and road. It ended in the cool evening, with a wood fire in one’s bedroom, and next morn—thirty more of them ahead!—the early cup of tea, the Mother who brought it in, and the long talks of us all together again. One had leisure to work, too, at whatever play-work was in one’s head, and that was usually full.
Simla was another new world. There the Hierarchy lived, and one saw and heard the machinery of administration stripped bare. There were the Heads of the Viceregal and Military staffs and their Aides-de-Camp; and playing whist with Great Ones, who gave him special news, was the Correspondent of our big sister paper the Pioneer, then a power in the land.
The dates, but not the pictures, of those holidays are blurred. At one time our little world was full of the aftermaths of Theosophy as taught by Madame Blavatsky to her devotees. My Father knew the lady and, with her, would discuss wholly secular subjects; she being, he told me, one of the most interesting and unscrupulous impostors he had ever met. This, with his experience, was a high compliment. I was not so fortunate, but came across queer, bewildered, old people, who lived in an atmosphere of ‘manifestations’ running about their houses. But the earliest days of Theosophy devastated the Pioneer, whose Editor became a devout believer, and used the paper for propaganda to an extent which got on the nerves not only of the public but of a proof-reader, who at the last moment salted an impassioned leader on the subject with, in brackets; ‘What do you bet this is a dam’ lie?’ The Editor was most untheosophically angry!
On one of my Simla leaves—I had been ill with dysentery again—I was sent off for rest along the Himalaya-Tibet road in the company of an invalid officer and his wife. My equipment was my servant—he from whose hands I had fed in the Native State before-mentioned; Dorothea Darbishoff, alias Dolly Bobs, a temperamental she-pony; and four baggage-coolies who were recruited and changed at each stage. I knew the edge of the great Hills both from Simla and Dalhousie, but had never marched any distance into them. They were to me a revelation of ‘all might, majesty, dominion, and power, henceforth and for ever,’ in colour, form, and substance indescribable. A little of what I realised then came back to me in Kim.
On the day I turned back for Simla—my companions were going further—my servant embroiled himself with a new quartette of coolies and managed to cut the eye of one of them. I was a few score miles from the nearest white man, and did not wish to be haled before any little Hill Rajah, knowing as I did that the coolies would unitedly swear that I had directed the outrage. I therefore paid blood-money, and strategically withdrew—on foot for the most part because Dolly Bobs objected to every sight and most of the smells of the landscape. I had to keep the coolies who, like the politicians, would not stay put, in front of me on the six-foot-wide track, and, as is ever the case when one is in difficulties, it set in to rain. My urgent business was to make my first three days’ march in one—a matter of thirty odd miles. My coolies wanted to shy off to their village and spend their ill-gotten silver. On me developed the heartbreaking job of shepherding a retreat. I do not think my mileage that day could have been much less than forty miles of sheer up-hill and down-dale slogging. But it did me great good, and enabled me to put away bottles of strong Army beer at the wet evening’s end in the resthouse. On our last day, a thunderstorm, which had been at work a few thousand feet below us, rose to the level of the ridge we were crossing and exploded in our midst. We were all flung on our faces, and when I was able to see again I observed the half of a well-grown pine, as neatly split lengthwise as a match by a penknife, in the act of hirpling down the steep hillside by itself. The thunder drowned everything, so that it seemed to be posturing in dumb show, and when it began to hop—horrible vertical hops—the effect was of pure D.T. My coolies, however, who had had the tale of my misdeeds from their predecessors, argued that if the local Gods missed such a sitting shot as I had given them, I could not be altogether unlucky.
It was on this trip that I saw a happy family of four bears out for a walk together, all talking at the tops of their voices; and also—the sun on his wings, a thousand feet below me—I stared long at a wheeling eagle, himself thousands of feet above the map-like valley he was quartering.
On my return I handed my servant over to his father, who dealt faithfully with him for having imperilled my Father’s son. But what I did not tell him was that my servant, a Punjabi Muslim, had in his first panic embraced the feet of the injured hill-coolie, a heathen, and begged him to ‘show mercy.’ A servant, precisely because he is a servant, has his izzat—his honour—or, as the Chinese say, his ‘face.’ Save that, and he is yours. One should never rate one’s man before others; nor, if he knows that you know the implication of the words that you are using on him, should you ever use certain words and phrases. But to a young man raw from England, or to an old one in whose service one has grown grey, anything is permitted. In the first case; ‘He is a youngster. He slangs as his girl has taught him,’ and the man keeps his countenance even though his master’s worst words are inflected woman-fashion. In the second case, the aged servitor and deputy-conscience says; ‘It is naught. We were young men together. Ah! you should have heard him then!’
The reward for this very small consideration is service of a kind that one accepted as a matter of course—till one was without it. My man would go monthly to the local Bank and draw my pay in coined rupees, which he would carry home raw in his waist-band, as the whole bazaar knew, and decant into an old wardrobe, whence I would draw for my needs till there remained no more.
Yet, it was necessary to his professional honour that he should present me monthly a list of petty disbursements on my personal behalf—such as oil for the buggy-lamps, bootlaces, thread for darning my socks, buttons replaced and the like—all written out in bazaar-English by the letter-writer at the corner of the road. The total rose, of course, with my pay, and on each rupee of this bill my man took the commission of the East, say one-sixteenth or perhaps one-tenth of each rupee.
For the rest, till I was in my twenty-fourth year, I no more dreamed of dressing myself than I did of shutting an inner door or—I was going to say turning a key in a lock. But we had no locks. I gave myself indeed the trouble of stepping into the garments that were held out to me after my bath, and out of them as I was assisted to do. And—luxury of which I dream still—I was shaved before I was awake!
One must set these things against the taste of fever in one’s mouth, and the buzz of quinine in one’s ears; the temper frayed by heat to breakingpoint but for sanity’s sake held back from the break; the descending darkness of intolerable dusks; and the less supportable dawns of fierce, stale heat through half of the year.
When my people were at the Hills and I was alone, my Father’s butler took command. One peril of solitary life is going to seed in details of living. As our numbers at the Club shrank between April and mid-September, men grew careless, till at last our conscience-stricken Secretary, himself an offender, would fetch us up with a jerk, and forbid us dining in little more than singlet and riding-breeches.
This temptation was stronger in one’s own house, though one knew if one broke the ritual of dressing for the last meal one was parting with a sheet-anchor. (Young gentlemen of larger views to-day consider this ‘dress-for-dinner’ business as an affectation ranking with ‘the old school tie.’—I would give some months’ pay for the privilege of enlightening them.) Here the butler would take charge. ‘For the honour of the house there must be a dinner. It is long since the Sahib has bidden friends to eat.’ I would protest like a fretful child. He would reply; ‘Except for the names of the Sahibs to be invited all things are on my head.’ So one dug up four or five companions in discomfort; the pitiful, scorched marigold blooms would appear on the table and, to a full accompaniment of glass, silver, and napery, the ritual would be worked through, and the butler’s honour satisfied for a while.
At the Club, sudden causeless hates flared up between friends and died down like straw fires; old grievances were recalled and brooded over aloud; the complaint-book bristled with accusations and inventions. All of which came to nothing when the first Rains fell, and after a three days’ siege of creeping and crawling things, whose bodies stopped our billiards and almost put out the lamps they sizzled in, life picked up in the blessed cool.
But it was a strange life. Once, suddenly, in the Club ante-room a man asked a neighbour to pass him the newspaper. ‘Get it yourself,’ was the hot-weather answer. The man rose but on his way to the table dropped and writhed in the first grip of cholera. He was carried to his quarters, the Doctor came, and for three days he went through all the stages of the disease even to the characteristic baring of discoloured gums. Then he returned to life and, on being condoled with, said; ‘I remember getting up to get the paper, but after that, give you my word, I don’t remember a thing till I heard Lawrie say that I was coming out of it.’ I have heard since that oblivion is sometimes vouchsafed.
Though I was spared the worst horrors, thanks to the pressure of work, a capacity for being able to read, and the pleasure of writing what my head was filled with, I felt each succeeding hot weather more and more, and cowered in my soul as it returned.
This is fit place for a ‘pivot’ experience to be set side by side with the affair of the Adjutant of Volunteers at the Club. It happened one hotweather evening, in ’86 or thereabouts, when I felt that I had come to the edge of all endurance. As I entered my empty house in the dusk there was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not know. Late at night I picked up a book by Walter Besant which was called All in a Garden Fair. It dealt with a young man who desired to write; who came to realise the possibilities of common things seen, and who eventually succeeded in his desire. What its merits may be from today’s ‘literary’ standpoint I do not know. But I do know that that book was my salvation in sore personal need, and with the reading and re-reading it became to me a revelation, a hope and strength. I was certainly, I argued, as well equipped as the hero and—and—after all, there was no need for me to stay here for ever. I could go away and measure myself against the doorsills of London as soon as I had money. Therefore I would begin to save money, for I perceived there was absolutely no reason outside myself why I should not do exactly what to me seemed good. For proof of my revelation I did, sporadically but sincerely, try to save money, and I built up in my head—always with the book to fall back upon—a dream of the future that sustained me. To Walter Besant singly and solely do I owe this—as I told him when we met, and he laughed, rolled in his chair, and seemed pleased.
In the joyous reign of Kay Robinson, my second Chief, our paper changed its shape and type. This took up for a week or so all hours of the twenty-four and cost me a break-down due to lack of sleep. But we two were proud of the results. One new feature was a daily ‘turnover’—same as the little pink Globe at Home—of one column and a quarter. Naturally, the ‘office’ had to supply most of them and once more I was forced to ‘write short.’
All the queer outside world would drop into our workshop sooner or later—say a Captain just cashiered for horrible drunkenness, who reported his fall with a wry, appealing face, and then—disappeared. Or a man old enough to be my father, on the edge of tears because he had been overpassed for Honours in the Gazette. Or three troopers of the Ninth Lancers, one of whom was an old schoolmate of mine who became a General with an expedition of his own in West Africa in the Great War. The other two also were gentlemen-rankers who rose to high commands. One met men going up and down the ladder in every shape of misery and success.
There was a night at the Club when some silly idiot found a half-dead viper and brought it to dinner in a pickle-bottle. One man of the company kept messing about with the furious little beast on the table-cloth till he had to be warned to take his hands away. A few weeks after, some of us realised it would have been better had he accomplished what had been in his foreboding mind that night.
But the cold weather brought ample amends. The family were together again and—except for my Mother’s ukase against her men bringing bound volumes of the Illustrated London News to meals (a survival of hot-weather savagery)—all was bliss. So, in the cold weather of ’85 we four made up a Christmas annual called Quartette, which pleased us a great deal and attracted a certain amount of attention. (Later, much later, it became a ‘collector’s piece’ in the U.S. bookmarket, and to that extent smudged the happy memories of its birth.) In ’85 I began a series of tales in the Civil and Military Gazette which were called Plain Tales from the Hills. They came in when and as padding was needed. In ’86 also I published a collection of newspaper verses on Anglo-Indian life, called Departmental Ditties, which, dealing with things known and suffered by many people, were well received. I had been allowed, further, to send stuff that we, editorially, had no use for, to far-off Calcutta papers, such as the Indigo Planters’ Gazette, and elsewhere. These things were making for me the beginnings of a name even unto Bengal.
But mark how discreetly the cards were being dealt me. Up till ’87 my performances had been veiled in the decent obscurity of the far end of an outlying province, among a specialised community who did not interest any but themselves. I was like a young horse entered for small, up-country events where I could get used to noise and crowds, fall about till I found my feet, and learn to keep my head with the hoofs drumming behind me. Better than all, the pace of my office-work was ‘too good to inquire,’ and its nature—that I should realise all sorts and conditions of men and make others realise them—gave me no time to ‘realise’ myself.
Here was my modest notion of my own position at the end of my five years’ Viceroyalty on the little Civil and Military Gazette. I was still fifty per cent of the editorial staff, though for a while I rose to have a man under me. But just are the Gods!—that varlet was ‘literary’ and must needs write Elia-like ‘turnovers’ instead of sticking to the legitimate! Any fool, I knew to my sorrow, could write. My job was to sub-edit him or her into some sort of shape. Any other fool could review; (I myself on urgent call have reviewed the later works of a writer called Browning, and what my Father said about that was unpublishable). Reporting was a minor ‘feature,’ although we did not use that word. I myself qua reporter could turn in stuff one day and qua subeditor knock it remorselessly into cocked hats the next. The difference, then, between me and the vulgar herd who ‘write for papers’ was, as I saw it, the gulf that divides the beneficed clergyman from ladies and gentlemen who contribute pumpkins and dahlias to Harvest Festival decorations. To say that I magnified my office is to understate. But this may have saved me from magnifying myself beyond decency.
In ’87 orders came for me to serve on the Pioneer, our big sister-paper at Allahabad, hundreds of miles to the southward, where I should be one of four at least and a new boy at a big school.
But the North-West Provinces, as they were then, being largely Hindu, were strange ‘air and water’ to me. My life had lain among Muslims, and a man leans one way or other according to his first service. The large, well-appointed Club, where Poker had just driven out Whist and men gambled seriously, was full of large-bore officials, and of a respectability all new. The Fort where troops were quartered had its points; but one bastion jutted out into a most holy river. Therefore, partially burned corpses made such a habit of stranding just below the Subalterns’ quarters that a special expert was entertained to pole them off and onward. In Fort Lahore we dealt in nothing worse than ghosts.
Moreover, the Pioneer lived under the eye of its chief proprietor, who spent several months of each year in his bungalow over the way. It is true that I owed him my chance in life, but when one has been second in command of even a third-class cruiser, one does not care to have one’s Admiral permanently moored at a cable’s length. His love for his paper, which his single genius and ability had largely created, led him sometimes to ‘give the boys a hand.’ On those hectic days (for he added and subtracted to the last minute) we were relieved when the issue caught the down-country mail.
But he was patient with me, as were the others, and through him again I got a wider field for ‘outside stuff.’ There was to be a weekly edition of the Pioneer for Home consumption. Would I edit it, additional to ordinary work? Would I not? There would be fiction—syndicated serial-matter bought by the running foot from agencies at Home. That would fill one whole big page. The ‘sight of means to do ill deeds’ had the usual effect. Why buy Bret Harte, I asked, when I was prepared to supply home-grown fiction on the hoof? And I did.
My editing of the Weekly may have been a shade casual—it was but a re-hash of news and views after all. My head was full of, to me, infinitely more important material. Henceforth no mere twelve-hundred Plain Tales jammed into rigid frames, but three- or five-thousand-word cartoons once a week. So did young Lippo Lippi, whose child I was, look on the blank walls of his monastery when he was bidden decorate them ’Twas ‘ask and have; Choose, for more’s ready,’ with a vengeance.
I fancy my change of surroundings and outlook precipitated the rush. At the beginning of it I had an experience which, in my innocence, I mistook for the genuine motions of my Daemon. I must have been loaded more heavily than I realised with ‘Gyp,’ for there came to me in scenes as stereoscopically clear as those in the crystal an Anglo-Indian Autour du Mariage. My pen took charge and I, greatly admiring, watched it write for me far into the nights. The result I christened The Story of the Gadsbys, and when it first appeared in England I was complimented on my ‘knowledge of the world.’ After my indecent immaturity came to light, I heard less of these gifts. Yet, as the Father said loyally; ‘It wasn’t all so dam’ bad, Ruddy.’
At any rate it went into the Weekly, together with soldier tales, Indian tales, and tales of the opposite sex. There was one of this last which, because of a doubt, I handed up to the Mother, who abolished it and wrote me; Never you do that again. But I did and managed to pull off, not unhandily, a tale called ‘A Wayside Comedy,’ where I worked hard for a certain ‘economy of implication,’ and in one phrase of less than a dozen words believed I had succeeded. More than forty years later a Frenchman, browsing about some of my old work, quoted this phrase as the clou of the tale and the key to its method. It was a belated ‘workshop compliment’ that I appreciated. Thus, then, I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line of my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.
These things occupied and contented me, but—outside of them—I felt that I did not quite fit the Pioneer’s scheme of things and that my superiors were of the same opinion. My work on the Weekly was not legitimate journalism. My flippancy in handling what I was trusted with was not well-seen by the Government or the departmental officialism, on which the Pioneer rightly depended for advance and private news, gathered in at Simla or Calcutta by our most important Chief Correspondent. I fancy my owners thought me safer on the road than in my chair; for they sent me out to look at Native State mines, mills, factories and the like. Here I think they were entirely justified. My proprietor at Allahabad had his own game to play (it brought him his well-deserved knighthood in due course) and, to some extent, my vagaries might have embarrassed him. One, I know, did. The Pioneer editorially, but cautiously as a terrier drawing up to a porcupine, had hinted that some of Lord Roberts’ military appointments at that time verged on nepotism. It was a regretful and well-balanced allocution. My rhymed comment (and why my Chief passed it I know not!) said just the same thing, but not quite so augustly. All I remember of it are the last two flagrant lines:
|And if the Pioneer is wrath
Oh Lord, what must you be!
I don’t think Lord Roberts was pleased with it, but I know he was not half so annoyed as my chief proprietor.
On my side I was ripe for change and, thanks always to All in a Garden Fair, had a notion now of where I was heading. My absorption in the Pioneer Weekly stories, which I wanted to finish, had put my plans to the back of my head, but when I came out of that furious spell of work towards the end of ’88 I rearranged myself. I wanted money for the future. I counted my assets. They came to one book of verse; one ditto prose; and—thanks to the Pioneer’s permission—a set of six small paper-backed railway-bookstall volumes embodying most of my tales in the Weekly—copyright of which the Pioneer might well have claimed. The man who then controlled the Indian railway bookstalls came of an imaginative race, used to taking chances. I sold him the six paper-backed books for £200 and a small royalty. Plain Tales from the Hills I sold for £50, and I forget how much the same publisher gave me for Departmental Ditties. (This was the first and last time I ever dealt direct with publishers.)
Fortified with this wealth, and six months’ pay in lieu of notice, I left India for England by way of the Far East and the United States, after six and a half years of hard work and a reasonable amount of sickness. My God-speed came from the managing director, a gentleman of sound commercial instincts, who had never concealed his belief that I was grossly overpaid, and who, when he paid me my last wages, said; ‘Take it from me, you’ll never be worth more than four hundred rupees a month to anyone.’ Common pride bids me tell that at that time I was drawing seven hundred a month.
Accounts were squared between us curiously soon. When my notoriety fell upon me, there was a demand for my old proofs, signed and unsigned stuff not included in my books, and a general turning-out of refuse-bins for private publication and sale. This upset my hopes of editing my books decently and responsibly, and wrought general confusion. But I was told later that the Pioneer had made as much out of its share in this remnant-traffic as it had paid me in wages since I first landed. (Which shows how one cannot get ahead of gentlemen of sound commercial instincts.)
Yet a man must needs love anything that he has worked and suffered under. When, at long last, the Pioneer—India’s greatest and most important paper which used to pay twenty-seven per cent to its shareholders—fell on evil days and, after being bedevilled and bewitched, was sold to a syndicate, and I received a notification beginning; ‘We think you may be interested to know that,’ etc., I felt curiously alone and unsponsored. But my first mistress and most true love, the little Civil and Military Gazette, weathered the storm. Even if I wrote them, these lines are true:—
|Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose
From his first love, no matter who she be.
Oh, was there ever sailor free to choose,
That didn’t settle somewhere near the sea?Parsons in pulpits, tax-payers in pews,
Kings on your thrones, you know as well as me,
We’ve only one virginity to lose,
And where we lost it there our hearts will be!
And, besides, there is, or was, a tablet in my old Lahore office asserting that here I ‘worked.’ And Allah knows that is true also!