Of Freedom and the Necessity of using her. The Motive and the Scheme that will come to Nothing. A Disquisition upon the Otherness of Things and the Torments of the Damned
When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green,
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen —
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And o’er the world away —
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog its day!
AFTER seven years it pleased Necessity, whom we all serve, to turn to me and say: ‘Now you need do Nothing Whatever. You are free to enjoy yourself. I will take the yoke of bondage from your neck for one year. What do you choose to do with my gift?’ And I considered the matter in several lights. At first I held notions of regenerating Society; but it appeared that this would demand more than a year, and perhaps Society would not be grateful after all. Then I would fain enter upon one monumental ‘bust’; but I reflected that this at the outside could endure but three months, while the headache would last for nine. Then came by the person that I most hate — a Globe-trotter. He, sitting in my chair, discussed India with the unbridled arrogance of five weeks on a Cook’s ticket. He was from England and had dropped his manners in the Suez Canal. ‘I assure you,’ said he, ‘that you who live so close to the actual facts of things cannot form dispassionate judgments of their merits. You are too near. Now I—’ he waved his hand modestly and left me to fill the gap.
I considered him, from his new helmet to his deck-shoes, and I perceived that he was but an ordinary man. I thought of India, maligned and silent India, given up to the ill-considered wanderings of such as he — of the land whose people are too busy to reply to the libels upon their fife and manners. It was my destiny to avenge India upon nothing less than three-quarters of the world. The idea necessitated sacrifices — painful sacrifices — for I had to become a Globe-trotter, with a helmet and deck-shoes. In the interests of our little world I would endure these things and more. I would deliver ‘brawling judgments all day long; on all things unashamed.’ I would go toward the rising sun till I reached the heart of the world and once more smelt London asphalt.
The Indian public never gave me a brief. I took it, appointing myself Commissioner in General for Our Own Sweet Selves. Then all the aspects of life changed, as, they say, the appearance of his room grows strange to a dying man when he sees it upon the last morning, and knows that it will confront him no more. I had wilfully stepped aside from the current of our existence, and had no part in any of Our interests. Up-country the peach was beginning to bud, and men said that by cause of the heavy snows in the Hills the hot weather would be a short one. That was nothing to me. The punkahs and their pullers sat together in the verandah, and the public buildings spawned thermantidotes. The Copper-smith sang in the garden and the early wasp hummed low down by the door-handle, and they prophesied of the hot weather to come. These things were no concern of mine. I was dead, and looked upon the old life without interest and without concern.
It was a strange life; I had lived it for seven years or one day, I could not be certain which. All that I knew was that I might watch men going to their offices, while I slept luxuriously; might go out at any hour of the day and sit up to any hour of the night, secure that each morning would bring no toil. I understood with what emotions the freed convict regards the prison he has quitted — insight which had hitherto been denied me; and I further saw how intense is the selfishness of the irresponsible man. Some said that the coming year would be one of scarcity and distress because unseasonable rains were falling. I was grieved. I feared that the Rains might break the railway line to the sea, and so delay my departure. Again, the season would be a sickly one. I fancied that Necessity might repent of her gift and for mere jest wipe me off the face of the earth ere I had seen anything of what lay upon it. There was trouble on the Afghan frontier; perhaps an army-corps would be mobilised, and perhaps many men would die, leaving folk to mourn for them at the hill-stations. My dread was that a Russian man-of-war might intercept the steamer which carried my precious self between Yokohama and San Francisco. Let Armageddon be postponed, I prayed, for my sake, that my personal enjoyments may not be interfered with. War, famine, and pestilence would be so inconvenient to me. And I abased myself before Necessity, the great Goddess, and said ostentatiously: ‘It is naught, it is naught, and you needn’t look at me when I wander about.’ Surely we are only virtuous by compulsion of earning our daily bread.
So I looked upon men with new eyes, and pitied them very much indeed. They worked. They had to. I was an aristocrat. I could call upon them at inconvenient hours and ask them why they worked, and whether they did it often. Then they grunted, and the envy in their eyes was a delight to me. I dared not, however, mock them too pointedly, lest Necessity should drag me back by the collar to take my still warm place by their side. When I had disgusted all who knew me, I fled to Calcutta, which, I was pained to see, still persisted in being a city and transacting commerce after I had formally cursed it one year ago. That curse I now repeat, in the hope that the unsavoury capital will collapse. One must begin to smoke at five in the morning — which is neither night nor day — on coming across the Howrah Bridge, for it is better to get a headache from honest nicotine than to be poisoned by evil smells. And a man, who otherwise was a nice man, though he worked with his hands and his head, asked me why the scandal of the Simla Exodus was allowed to continue. To him I made answer: ‘It is because this sewer is unfit for human habitation. It is because you are all one gigantic mistake — you and your monuments and your merchants and everything about you. I rejoice to think that scores of lakhs of rupees have been spent on public offices at a place called Simla, that scores and scores will be spent on the Delhi-Kalka line, in order that civilised people may go there in comfort. When that line is opened, your big city will be dead and buried and done with, and I hope it will teach you a lesson. Your city will rot, Sir.’ And he said: ‘When people are buried here, they turn into adipocere in five days if the weather is rainy. They saponify, you know.’ I said: ‘Go and saponify, for I hate Calcutta.’ But he took me to the Eden Gardens instead, and begged me for my own sake not to go round the world in this prejudiced spirit. I was unhappy and ill, but he vowed that my spleen was due to my ‘Simla way of looking at things.’
All this world of ours knows something about the Eden Gardens, which are supposed by the uninitiated of the mofussil to represent the gilded luxury of the metropolis. As a matter of fact they are hideously dull. The inhabitants appear in top-hats and frock-coats, and walk dolorously to and fro under the glare of jerking electric lamps, when they ought to be sitting in their shirt-sleeves round little tables and treating their wives to iced lager beer. My friend — it was a muggy March night — wrapped himself in the prescribed garments and said graciously: ‘You can wear a round hat, but you mustn’t wear deck-shoes; and for goodness’ sake, my dear fellow, don’t smoke on the Red Road — all the people one knows go there.’ Most of the people who were people sat in their carriages, in an atmosphere of hot horse, harness, and panel-lacquer, outside the gardens, and the remnant tramped up and down, by twos and threes, upon squashy green grass, until they were wearied, while a band played at them. ‘And is this all you do?’ I asked. ‘It is,’ said my friend. ‘Isn’t it good enough? We meet every one we know here, and walk with him or her, unless he or she is among the carriages.’
Overhead was a woolly warm sky; underfoot feverish soft grass; and from all quarters the languorous breeze bore faint reminiscences of stale sewage upon its wings. Round the horizon were stacked lines of carriages, and the electric flare bred aches in the strained eyebrow. It was a strange sight and fascinating. The doomed creatures walked up and down without cessation, for when one fled away into the lamp-spangled gloom twenty came to take his place. Slop-hatted members of the mercantile marine, Armenian merchants, Bengal civilians, shop-girls and shop-men, Jews, Parthians, and Mesopotamians, were all there in the tepid heat and the fetid smell.
‘This,’ said my friend, ‘is how we enjoy ourselves. There are the Viceregal liveries. Lady Lansdowne comes here.’ He spoke as though reading to me the Government House list of Paradise. I reflected that these people would continue to walk up and down until they died, drinkless, dusty, sad, and blanched.
In saying this last thing I had made a mistake. Calcutta is no more Anglo-Indian than West Brompton. In common with Bombay, it has achieved a mental attitude several decades in advance of that of the raw and brutal India of fact. An intelligent and responsible financier, discussing the Empire, said: ‘But why do we want so large an army in India? Look at the country all about.’ I think he meant as far as the Circular Road or perhaps Raneegunge. Some of these days, when the voice of the two uncomprehending cities carries to London, and its advice is acted upon, there will be trouble. Till this second journey to Calcutta I was unable to account for the acid tone and limited range of the Presidency journals. I see now that they are ward papers and ought to be treated as such.
In the fulness of time — there was no hurry — imagine that, O you toilers of the land! — I took ship and fled from Calcutta by that which they call the Mutton-Mail, because it takes sheep and correspondence to Rangoon. Half the Punjab was going with us to serve the Queen in the Burma Military Police, and it was grateful to catch once more the raw, rasping up-country speech amid the jabber of Burmese and Bengali.
To Rangoon, then, aboard the Madura, come with me down the Hughli, and try to understand what sort of life is led by the pilots, those strange men who only seem to know the land by watching it from the river.
‘And I fetched up under the North Ridge with six inches o’ water under me, with a sou’west monsoon blowing, an’ me not knowing any more than the dead where in — Paradise — I was taking her,’ says one deep voice.
‘Well, what do you expect?’ says another. ‘They ought not all to be occulting lights. Give me a red with two flashes for outlying danger anyhow. The Hughli’s the worst river in the world. Why, off the Lower Gasper only last year . . .’
‘And look at the way Government treats you!’
The Hughli pilot is human. He may talk Greek in the exercise of his profession, but he can swear at the Government as thoroughly as though he were an Uncovenanted Civilian. His life is a hard one; but he is full of strange stories, and when treated with proper respect may condescend to tell some of them. If he has served on the river for six years as a ‘cub,’ and is neither dead nor decrepit, I believe he can earn as much as fifty rupees by sending two thousand tons of ship and a few hundred souls flying down the reaches at twelve miles an hour. Then he drops over the side with your last love-letters and wanders about the estuary in a tug until he finds another steamer and brings her up. It does not take much to comfort him.
. . . . .
. . . . .
Somewhere in the open sea; some days later. I give it up. I cannot write, and to sleep I am not ashamed. A glorious idleness has taken entire possession of me; Journalism is an imposture; so is Literature; so is Art. All India dropped out of sight yesterday, and the rocking pilot-brig at the Sandheads bore my last message to the prison that I quit. We have reached blue water — crushed sapphire — and a little breeze is bellying the awning. Three flying-fish were sighted this morning; the tea at chotahazri is not nice, but the captain is excellent. Is this budget of news sufficiently exciting, or must I in strict confidence tell you the story of the Professor and the compass? You will hear more about the Professor later, if, indeed, I ever touch pen again. When he was in India he worked about nine hours a day. At noon today he conceived an interest in cyclones and things of that kind — would go to his cabin to get a compass and a meteorological book. He went, but stopped to reflect by the brink of a drink. ‘The compass is in a box,’ said he, drowsily, ‘but the nuisance of it is that to get it I shall have to pull the box out from under my berth. All things considered, I don’t think it’s worth while.’ He loafed on deck, and I think by this time is fast asleep. There was no trace of shame in his voice for his mighty sloth. I would have reproved him, but the words died on my tongue. I was guiltier than he.
‘Professor,’ said I, ‘there is a foolish little paper in Allahabad called the Pioneer. I am supposed to be writing it a letter — a letter with my hands! Did you ever hear of anything so absurd?’
‘I wonder if Angostura bitters really go with whisky,’ said the Professor, toying with the neck of the bottle.
There is no such place as India; there never was a daily paper called the Pioneer. It was all a weary dream. The only real things in the world are crystal seas, clean-swept decks, soft rugs, warm sunshine, the smell of salt in the air, and fathomless, futile indolence.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56