“IS IT officially declared yet?”
“They’ve gone as far as to admit ‘extreme local scarcity,’ and they’ve started relief-works in one or two districts, the paper says.”
“That means it will be declared as soon as they can make sure of the men and the rolling-stock. ’Shouldn’t wonder if it were as bad as the ’78 Famine.”
“’Can’t be,” said Scott, turning a little in the long cane chair.
“We’ve had fifteen-anna crops in the north, and Bombay and Bengal report more than they know what to do with. They’ll be able to check it before it gets out of hand. It will only be local.”
Martyn picked the Pioneer from the table, read through the telegrams once more, and put up his feet on the chair-rests. It was a hot, dark, breathless evening, heavy with the smell of the newly watered Mall. The flowers in the Club gardens were dead and black on their stalks, the little lotus-pond was a circle of caked mud, and the tamarisk-trees were white with the dust of weeks. Most of the men were at the band-stand in the public gardens — from the Club verandah you could hear the native Police band hammering stale waltzes — or on the polo-ground, or in the high-walled fives-court, hotter than a Dutch oven. Half a dozen grooms, squatted at the heads of their ponies, waited their masters’ return. From time to time a man would ride at a foot-pace into the Club compound, and listlessly loaf over to the whitewashed barracks beside the main building. These were supposed to be chambers. Men lived in them, meeting the same white faces night after night at dinner, and drawing out their office-work till the latest possible hour, that they might escape that doleful company.
“What are you going to do?.” said Martyn, with a yawn. “Let’s have a swim before dinner.”
“’Water’s hot. I was at the bath today.”
“Play you game o’ billiards — fifty up.”
“It’s a hundred and five in the hall now. Sit still and don’t be so abominably energetic.”
A grunting camel swung up to the porch, his badged and belted rider fumbling a leather pouch.
“Kubber-kargaz — ki — yektraaa,” the man whined, handing down the newspaper extra — a slip printed on one side only, and damp from the press. It was pinned up on the green-baize board, between notices of ponies for sale and fox-terriers missing.
Martyn rose lazily, read it, and whistled. “It’s declared!” he cried. “One, two, three — eight districts go under the operations of the Famine Code ek dum. They’ve put Jimmy Hawkins in charge.”
“Good business!” said Scott, with the first sign of interest he had shown. “When in doubt hire a Punjabi. I worked under Jimmy when I first came out and he belonged to the Punjab. He has more bundobust than most men.”
“Jimmy’s a Jubilee Knight now,” said Martyn.”He’s a good chap, even though he is a thrice-born civilian and went to the Benighted Presidency. What unholy names these Madras districts rejoice in — all ungas or rungas or pillays or polliums.”
A dog-cart drove up in the dusk, and a man entered, mopping his head. He was editor of the one daily paper at the capital of a Province of twenty-five million natives and a few hundred white men: as his staff was limited to himself and one assistant, his office-hours ran variously from ten to twenty a day.
“Hi, Raines; you’re supposed to know everything,” said Martyn, stopping him. “How’s this Madras ‘scarcity’ going to turn out?”
“No one knows as yet. There’s a message as long as your arm coming in on the telephone. I’ve left my cub to fill it out. Madras has owned she can’t manage it alone, and Jimmy seems to have a free hand in getting all the men he needs. Arbuthnot’s warned to hold himself in readiness.”
“The Peshawur chap. Yes: and the Pi wires that Ellis and Clay have been moved from the Northwest already, and they’ve taken half a dozen Bombay men, too. It’s pukka famine, by the looks of it.”
“They’re nearer the scene of action than we are; but if it comes to indenting on the Punjab this early, there’s more in this than meets the eye,” said Martyn.
“Here today and gone tomorrow. ’Didn’t come to stay for ever,” said Scott, dropping one of Marryat’s novels, and rising to his feet. “Martyn, your sister’s waiting for you.”
A rough grey horse was backing and shifting at the edge of the verandah, where the light of a kerosene lamp fell on a brown-calico habit and a white face under a grey-felt hat.
“Right, O!” said Martyn. “I’m ready. Better come and dine with us, if you’ve nothing to do, Scott. William, is there any dinner in the house?”
“I’ll go home and see,” was the rider’s answer. “You can drive him over — at eight, remember.”
Scott moved leisurely to his room, and changed into the evening-dress of the season and the country: spotless white linen from head to foot, with a broad silk cummerbund. Dinner at the Martyns’ was a decided improvement on the goat-mutton, twiney-tough fowl, and tinned entrees of the Club. But it was a great pity that Martyn could not afford to send his sister to the hills for the hot weather. As an Acting District Superintendent of Police, Martyn drew the magnificent pay of six hundred depreciated silver rupees a month, and his little four-roomed bungalow said just as much. There were the usual blue-and-white-striped jail-made rugs on the uneven floor; the usual glass-studded Amritsar phulkaris draped on nails driven into the flaking whitewash of the walls; the usual half-dozen chairs that did not match, picked up at sales of dead men’s effects; and the usual streaks of black grease where the leather punka-thong ran through the wall. It was as though everything had been unpacked the night before to be repacked next morning. Not a door in the house was true on its hinges. The little windows, fifteen feet up, were darkened with wasp-nests, and lizards hunted flies between the beams of the wood-ceiled roof. But all this was part of Scott’s life. Thus did people live who had such an income; and in a land where each man’s pay, age, and position are printed in a book, that all may read, it is hardly worth while to play at pretence in word or deed. Scott counted eight years’ service in the Irrigation Department, and drew eight hundred rupees a month, on the understanding that if he served the State faithfully for another twenty-two years he could retire on a pension of some four hundred rupees a month. His working-life, which had been spent chiefly under canvas or in temporary shelters where a man could sleep, eat, and write letters, was bound up with the opening and guarding of irrigation canals, the handling of two or three thousand workmen of all castes and creeds, and the payment of vast sums of coined silver.
He had finished that spring, not without credit, the last section of the great Mosuhl Canal, and — much against his will, for he hated office-work — had been sent in to serve during the hot weather on the accounts and supply side of the Department, with sole charge of the sweltering sub-office at the capital of the Province. Martyn knew this; William, his sister, knew it; and everybody knew it. Scott knew, too, as well as the rest of the world, that Miss Martyn had come out to India four years ago to keep house for her brother, who, as every one knew, had borrowed the money to pay for her passage, and that she ought, as all the world said, to have married at once. In stead of this, she had refused some half a dozen subalterns, a Civilian twenty years her senior, one Major, and a man in the Indian Medical Department. This, too, was common property. She had “stayed down three hot weathers,” as the saying is, because her brother was in debt and could not afford the expense of her keep at even a cheap hill-station. Therefore her face was white as bone, and in the centre of her forehead was a big silvery scar about the size of a shilling — the mark of a Delhi sore, which is the same as a “Bagdad date.” This comes from drinking bad water, and slowly eats into the flesh till it is ripe enough to be burned out.
None the less William had enjoyed herself hugely in her four years. Twice she had been nearly drowned while fording a river; once she had been run away with on a camel; had witnessed a midnight attack of thieves on her brother’s camp; had seen justice administered, with long sticks, in the open under trees; could speak Urdu and even rough Punjabi with a fluency that was envied by her seniors; had entirely fallen out of the habit of writing to her aunts in England, or cutting the pages of the English magazines; had been through a very bad cholera year, seeing sights unfit to be told; and had wound up her experiences by six weeks of typhoid fever, during which her head had been shaved and hoped to keep her twenty-third birthday that September. It is conceivable that the aunts would not have approved of a girl who never set foot on the ground if a horse were within hail; who rode to dances with a shawl thrown over her skirt; who wore her hair cropped and curling all over her head; who answered indifferently to the name of William or Bill; whose speech was heavy with the flowers of the vernacular; who could act in amateur theatricals, play on the banjo, rule eight servants and two horses, their accounts and their diseases, and look men slowly and deliberately between the eyes — even after they had proposed to her and been rejected.
“I like men who do things,” she had confided to a man in the Educational Department, who was teaching the sons of cloth-merchants and dyers the beauty of Wordsworth’s Excursion in annotated cram-books; and when he grew poetical, William explained that she “didn’t understand poetry very much; it made her head ache,” and another broken heart took refuge at the Club. But it was all William’s fault. She delighted in hearing men talk of their own work, and that is the most fatal way of bringing a man to your feet.
Scott had known her for some three years, meeting her, as a rule, under canvass, when his camp and her brother’s joined for a day on the edge of the Indian Desert. He had danced with her several times at the big Christmas gatherings, when as many as five hundred white people came in to the station; and had always a great respect for her housekeeping and her dinners.
She looked more like a boy than ever when, the meal ended, she sat, rolling cigarettes, her low forehead puckered beneath the dark curls as she twiddled the papers and stuck out her rounded chin when the tobacco stayed in place, or, with a gesture as true as a school-boy’s throwing a stone, tossed the finished article across the room to Martyn, who caught it with one hand, and continued his talk with Scott. It was all “shop,”— canals and the policing of canals; the sins of villagers who stole more water than they had paid for, and the grosser sin of native constables who connived at the thefts; of the transplanting bodily of villages to newly irrigated ground, and of the coming fight with the desert in the south when the Provincial funds should warrant the opening of the long-surveyed Luni Protective Canal System. And Scott spoke openly of his great desire to be put on one particular section of the work where he knew the land and the people; and Martyn sighed for a billet in the Himalayan foot-hills, and said his mind of his superiors, and William rolled cigarettes and said nothing, but smiled gravely on her brother because he was happy.
At ten Scott’s horse came to the door, and the evening was ended.
The lights of the two low bungalows in which the daily paper was printed showed bright across the road. It was too early to try to find sleep, and Scott drifted over to the editor. Raines, stripped to the waist like a sailor at a gun, lay half asleep in a long chair, waiting for night telegrams. He had a theory that if a man did not stay by his work all day and most of the night he laid himself open to fever: so he ate and slept among his files.
“Can you do it?” be said drowsily. “I didn’t mean to bring you over.”
“About what — I’ve been dining at the Martyns’.”
“The Madras famine, of course. Martyn’s warned, too. They’re taking men where they can find ’em. I sent a note to you at the Club just now, asking if you could do us a letter once a week from the south — between two and three columns, say. Nothing sensational, of course, but just plain facts about who is doing what, and so forth. Our regular rates — ten rupees a column.”
“’Sorry, but it’s out of my line,” Scott answered, staring absently at the map of India on the wall. “It’s rough on Martyn — very. ’Wonder what he’lldo with his sister? ’Wonder what the deuce they’ll do with me? I’ve no famine experience. This is the first I’ve heard of it. Am I ordered?”
“Oh, yes. Here’s the wire. They’ll put you on to relief-works,” Raines said, “with a horde of Madrassis dying like flies; one native apothecary and half a pint of cholera-mixture among the ten thousand of you. It comes of your being idle for the moment. Every man who isn’t doing two men’s work seems to have been called upon. Hawkins evidently believes in Punjabis. It’s going to be quite as bad as anything they have had in the last ten years.”
“It’s all in the day’s work, worse luck. I suppose I shall get my orders officially some time tomorrow. I’m awfully glad I happened to drop in. ’Better go and pack my kit now. Who relieves me here — do you know?”
Raines turned over a sheaf of telegrams. “McEuan,” said he, “from Murree.”
Scott chuckled. “He thought he was going to be cool all summer. He’ll be very sick about this. Well, no good talking. ’Night.”
Two hours later, Scott, with a clear conscience, laid himself down to rest on a string cot in a bare room. Two worn bullock trunks, a leather water-bottle, a tin ice-box, and his pet saddle sewed up in sacking were piled at the door, and the Club secretary’s receipt for last month’s bill was under his pillow. His orders came next morning, and with them an unofficial telegram from Sir James Hawkins; who was not in the habit of forgetting good men when he had once met them, bidding him report himself with all speed at some unpronounceable place fifteen hundred miles to the south, for the famine was sore in the land, and white men were needed.
A pink and fattish youth arrived in the red-hot noonday, whimpering a little at fate and famines, which never allowed any one three months’ peace. He was Scott’s successor — another cog in the machinery, moved forward behind his fellow whose services, as the official announcement ran, “were placed at the disposal of the Madras Government for famine duty until further orders.” Scott handed over the funds in his charge, showed him the coolest corner in the office, warned him against excess of zeal, and, as twilight fell, departed from the Club in a hired carriage, with his faithful body-servant, Faiz Ullah, and a mound of disordered baggage atop, to catch the southern mail at the loopholed and bastioned railway-station. The heat from the thick brick walls struck him across the face as if it had been a hot towel; and he reflected that there were at least five nights and four days of this travel before him. Faiz Ullah, used to the chances of service, plunged into the crowd on the stone platform, while Scott, a black cheroot between his teeth, waited till his compartment should be set away. A dozen native policemen, with their rifles and bundles, shouldered into the press of Punjabi farmers, Sikh craftsmen, and greasy-locked Afreedee pedlars, escorting with all pomp Martyn’s uniform-case, water-bottles, ice-box, and bedding-roll. They saw Faiz Ullah’s lifted hand, and steered for it.
“My Sahib and your Sahib,” said Faiz Ullah to Martyn’s man, “will travel together. Thou and I, O brother, will thus secure the servants’ places close by; and because of our masters’ authority none will dare to disturb us.”
When Faiz Ullah reported all things ready, Scott settled down at full length, coatless and bootless, on the broad leather-covered bunk. The heat under the iron-arched roof of the station might have been anything over a hundred degrees. At the last moment Martyn entered, dripping.
“Don’t swear,” said Scott, lazily; “it’s too late to change your carriage; and we’ll divide the ice.”
“What are you doing here?” said the police-man.
“I’m lent to the Madras Government, same as you. By Jove, it’s a bender of a night! Are you taking any of your men down?”
“A dozen. I suppose I shall have to superintend relief distributions. ’Didn’t know you were under orders too.”
“I didn’t till after I left you last night. Raines had the news first. My orders came this morning. McEuan relieved me at four, and I got off at once. ’Shouldn’t wonder if it wouldn’t be a good thing — this famine — if we come through it alive.”
“Jimmy ought to put you and me to work together,” said Martyn; and then, after a pause: “My sister’s here.”
“Good business,” said Scott, heartily. “Going to get off at Umballa, I suppose, and go up to Simla. Who’ll she stay with there?”
“No-o; that’s just the trouble of it. She’s going down with me.”
Scott sat bolt upright under the oil-lamps as the train jolted past Tarn-Taran. “What! You don’t mean you couldn’t afford —”
“’Tain’t that. I’d have scraped up the money somehow.”
“You might have come to me, to begin with,” said Scott, stiffly; “we aren’t altogether strangers.”
“Well, you needn’t be stuffy about it. I might, but — you don’t know my sister. I’ve been explaining and exhorting and all the rest of it all day — lost my temper since seven this morning, and haven’t got it back yet — but she wouldn’t hear of any compromise. A woman’s entitled to travel with her husband if she wants to; and William says she’s on the same footing. You see, we’ve been together all our lives, more or less, since my people died. It isn’t as if she were an ordinary sister.”
“All the sisters I’ve ever heard of would have stayed where they were well off.”
“She’s as clever as a man, confound —” Martyn went on. “She broke up the bungalow over my head while I was talking at her. ’Settled the whole subchiz in three hours — servants, horses, and all. I didn’t get my orders till nine.”
“Jimmy Hawkins won’t be pleased,” said Scott “A famine’s no place for a woman.”
“Mrs. Jim — I mean Lady Jim’s in camp with him. At any rate, she says she will look after my sister. William wired down to her on her own responsibility, asking if she could come, and knocked the ground from under me by showing me her answer.”
Scott laughed aloud. “If she can do that she can take care of herself, and Mrs. Jim won’t let her run into any mischief. There aren’t many women, sisters or wives, who would walk into a famine with their eyes open. It isn’t as if she didn’t know what these things mean. She was through the Jalo cholera last year.”
The train stopped at Amritsar, and Scott went back to the ladies’ compartment, immediately behind their carriage. William, with a cloth riding-cap on her curls, nodded affably.
“Come in and have some tea,” she said. “’Best thing in the world for heat-apoplexy.”
“Do I look as if I were going to have heat-apoplexy?”
“’Never can tell,” said William, wisely. “It’s always best to be ready.”
She had arranged her compartment with the knowledge of an old campaigner. A felt-covered water-bottle hung in the draught of one of the shuttered windows; a tea-set of Russian china, packed in a wadded basket, stood on the seat; and a travelling spirit-lamp was clamped against the woodwork above it.
William served them generously, in large cups, hot tea, which saves the veins of the neck from swelling inopportunely on a hot night. It was characteristic of the girl that, her plan of action once settled, she asked for no comments on it. Life among men who had a great deal of work to do, and very little time to do it in, had taught her the wisdom of effacing, as well as of fending for, herself. She did not by word or deed suggest that she would be useful, comforting, or beautiful in their travels, but continued about her business serenely: put the cups back without clatter when tea was ended, and made cigarettes for her guests.
“This time last night,” said Scott, “we didn’t expect — er — this kind of thing, did we?”
“I’ve learned to expect anything,” said William. “You know, in our service, we live at the end of the telegraph; but, of course, this ought to be a good thing for us all, departmentally — if we live.”
“It knocks us out of the running in our own Province,” Scott replied, with equal gravity. “I hoped to be put on the Luni Protective Works this cold weather, but there’s no saying how long the famine may keep us.”
“Hardly beyond October, I should think,” said Martyn. “It will be ended, one way or the other, then.”
“And we’ve nearly a week of this,” said William. “Sha’n’t we be dusty when it’s over?”
For a night and a day they knew their surroundings, and for a night and a day, skirting the edge of the great Indian Desert on a narrow-gauge railway, they remembered how in the days of their apprenticeship they had come by that road from Bombay. Then the languages in which the names of the stations were written changed, and they launched south into a foreign land, where the very smells were new. Many long and heavily laden grain-trains were in front of them, and they could feel the hand of Jimmy Hawkins from far off. They waited in extemporised sidings while processions of empty trucks returned to the north, and were coupled on to slow, crawling trains, and dropped at midnight, Heaven knew where; but it was furiously hot, and they walked to and fro among sacks, and dogs howled.
Then they came to an India more strange to them than to the untravelled Englishman — the flat, red India of palm-tree, palmyra-palm, and rice — the India of the picture-books, of Little Harry and His Bearer — all dead and dry in the baking heat. They had left the incessant passenger-traffic of the north and west far and far behind them. Here the people crawled to the side of the train, holding their little ones in their arms; and a loaded truck would be left behind, the men and women clustering round it like ants by spilled honey. Once in the twilight they saw on a dusty plain a regiment of little brown men, each bearing a body over his shoulder; and when the train stopped to leave yet another truck, they perceived that the burdens were not corpses, but only foodless folk picked up beside dead oxen by a corps of Irregular troops. Now they met more white men, here one and there two, whose tents stood close to the line, and who came armed with written authorities and angry words to cut off a truck. They were too busy to do more than nod at Scott and Martyn, and stare curiously at William, who could do nothing except make tea, and watch how her men staved off the rush of wailing, walking skeletons, putting them down three at a time in heaps, with their own hands uncoupling the marked trucks, or taking receipts from the hollow-eyed, weary white men, who spoke another argot than theirs. They ran out of ice, out of soda-water, and out of tea; for they were six days and seven nights on the road, and it seemed to them like seven times seven years.
At last, in a dry, hot dawn, in a land of death, lit by long red fires of railway-sleepers, where they were burning the dead, they came to their destination, and were met by Jim Hawkins, the Head of the Famine, unshaven, unwashed, but cheery, and entirely in command of affairs.
Martyn, he decreed then and there, was to live on trains till further orders; was to go back with empty trucks, filling them with starving people as he found them, and dropping them at a famine-camp on the edge of the Eight Districts. He would pick up supplies and return, and his constables would guard the loaded grain-cars, also picking up people, and would drop them at a camp a hundred miles south. Jim Hawkins was very glad to see Scott again — would that same hour take charge of a convoy of bullock-carts, and would go south, feeding as he went, to yet another famine-camp, where he would leave his starving — there would he no lack of starving on the route — and wait for orders by telegraph. Generally, Scott was in all small things to act as he thought best.
William bit her under lip. There was no one in the wide world like her one brother, but Martyn’s orders gave him no discretion.
She came out on the platform, masked with dust from head to foot, a horse-shoe wrinkle on her forehead, put here by much thinking during the past week, but as self-possessed as ever. Mrs. Jim — who should have been Lady Jim but that no one remembered the title — took possession of her with a little gasp.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” she almost sobbed. “You oughtn’t to, of course, but there — there isn’t another woman in the place, and we must help each other, you know; and we’ve all the wretched people and the little babies they are selling.”
“I’ve seen some,” said William.
“Isn’t it ghastly? I’ve bought twenty; they’re in our camp; but won’t you have something to eat first? We’ve more than ten people can do here; and I’ve got a horse for you. Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come, dear. You’re a Punjabi, too, you know.”
“Steady, Lizzie,” said Hawkins, over his shoulder. “We’ll look after you, Miss Martyn. ’Sorry I can’t ask you to breakfast, Martyn. You’ll have to eat as you go. Leave two of your men to help Scott. These poor devils can’t stand up to load carts. Saunders” (this to the engine-driver, who was half asleep in the cab), “back down and get those empties away. You’ve ‘line clear’ to Anundrapillay; they’ll give you orders north of that. Scott, load up your carts from that B.P.P. truck, and be off as soon as you can. The Eurasian in the pink shirt is your interpreter and guide. You’ll find an apothecary of sorts tied to the yoke of the second wagon. He’s been trying to bolt; you’ll have to look after him. Lizzie, drive Miss Martyn to camp, and tell them to send the red horse down here for me.”
Scott, with Faiz Ullah and two policemen, was already busied with the carts, backing them up to the truck and unbolting the sideboards quietly, while the others pitched in the bags of millet and wheat. Hawkins watched him for as long as it took to fill one cart.
“That’s a good man,” he said. “If all goes well I shall work him hard.” This was Jim Hawkins’s notion of the highest compliment one human being could pay another.
An hour later Scott was under way; the apothecary threatening him with the penalties of the law for that he, a member of the Subordinate Medical Department, had been coerced and bound against his will and all laws governing the liberty of the subject; the pink-shirted Eurasian begging leave to see his mother, who happened to be dying some three miles away: “Only verree, verree short leave of absence, and will presently return, sar —”; the two constables,armed with staves, bringing up the rear; and Faiz Ullah, a Mohammedan’s contempt for all Hindoos and foreigners in every line of his face, explaining to the drivers that though Scott Sahib was a man to be feared on all fours, he, Faiz Ullah, was Authority Itself.
The procession creaked past Hawkins’s camp — three stained tents under a clump of dead trees, behind them the famine-shed, where a crowd of hopeless ones tossed their arms around the cooking-kettles.
“’Wish to Heaven William had kept out of it,” said Scott to himself, after a glance. “We’ll have cholera, sure as a gun, when the Rains break.”
But William seemed to have taken kindly to the operations of the Famine Code, which, when famine is declared, supersede the workings of the ordinary law. Scott saw her, the centre of a mob of weeping women, in a calico riding-habit, and a blue-grey felt hat with a gold puggaree.
“I want fifty rupees, please. I forgot to ask Jack before he went away. Can you lend it me? It’s for condensed-milk for the babies,” said she.
Scott took the money from his belt, and handed it over without a word. “For goodness sake, take care of yourself,” he said.
“Oh, I shall be all right. We ought to get the milk in two days. By the way, the orders are, I was to tell you, that you’re to take one of Sir Jim’s horses.There’s a grey Cabuli here that I thought would be just your style, so I’ve said you’d take him. Was that right?”
“That’s awfully good of you. We can’t either of us talk much about style, I am afraid.”
Scott was in a weather-stained drill shooting-kit, very white at the seams and a little frayed at the wrists. William regarded him thoughtfully, from his pith helmet to his greased ankle-boots. “You look very nice, I think. Are you sure you’ve everything you’ll need — quinine, chlorodyne, and so on?”
“’Think so,” said Scott, patting three or four of his shooting-pockets as he mounted and rode alongside his convoy.
“Good-bye,” he cried.
“Good-bye, and good luck,” said William. “I’m awfully obliged for the money.” She turned on a spurred heel and disappeared into the tent, while the carts pushed on past the famine-sheds, past the roaring lines of the thick, fat fires, down to the baked Gehenna of the South.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10