The River of the Lost Footsteps and the Golden Mystery upon its Banks. Shows how a Man may go to the Shway Dagon Pagoda and see it not and to the Pegu Club and hear too much. A Dissertation on Mixed Drinks
I am a part of all that I have met,
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
THERE was a river and a bar, a pilot and a great deal of nautical mystery, and the Captain said the journey from Calcutta was ended and that we should be in Rangoon in a few hours. It is not an impressive stream, being low-banked, scrubby, and muddy; but as we gave the staggering rice-boats the go-by, I reflected that I was looking upon the River of the Lost Footsteps — the road that so many, many men of my acquaintance had travelled, never to return, within the past three years. Such an one had gone up to open out Upper Burma, and had himself been opened out by a Burmese dah in the cruel scrub beyond Minhla; such another had gone to rule the land in the Queen’s name, but could not rule a hill stream and was carried down under his horse. One had been shot by his servant; another by a dacoit while he sat at dinner; and a pitifully long list had found in jungle-fever their sole reward for ‘the difficulties and privations inseparably connected with military service,’ as the Bengal Army Regulations put it. I ran over half a score of names — policemen, subalterns, young civilians, employes of big trading firms, and adventurers. They had gone up the river and they had died. At my elbow stood one of the workers in New Burma, going to report himself at Rangoon, and he told tales of interminable chases after evasive dacoits, of marchings and counter-marchings that came to nothing, and of deaths in the wilderness as noble as they were sad.
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizona beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?
‘There’s the old Shway Dagon’ (pronounced Dagone, not like the god in the Scriptures), said my companion. ‘Confound it!’ But it was not a thing to be sworn at. It explained in the first place why we took Rangoon, and in the second why we pushed on to see what more of rich or rare the land held. Up till that sight my uninstructed eyes could not see that the land differed much in appearance from the Sunderbuns, but the golden dome said: ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ ‘It’s a famous old shrine o’ sorts,’ said my companion, ‘and now the Tounghoo-Manadlay line is open, pilgrims are flocking down by the thousand to see it. It lost its big gold top —’thing that they call a ’htee — in an earthquake: that’s why it’s all hidden by bamboo-work for a third of its height. You should see it when it’s all uncovered. They’re regilding it now.’
Why is it that when one views for the first time any of the wonders of the earth a bystander always strikes in with, ‘You should see it, etc.’? Such men given twenty minutes from the tomb at the Day of Judgment, would patronise the naked souls as they hurried up with the glare of Tophet on their faces, and say: ‘You should have seen this when Gabriel first began to blow.’ What the Shway Dagon really is and how many books may have been written upon its history and archaeology is no part of my business. As it stood overlooking everything it seemed to explain all about Burma — why the boys had gone north and died, why the troopers bustled to and fro, and why the steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla lay like black-backed gulls upon the water.
Then we came to a new land, and the first thing that one of the regular residents said was ‘This place isn’t India at all. They ought to have made it a Crown colony.’ Judging the Empire as it ought to be judged, by its most prominent points — videlicet, its smells — he was right; for though there is one stink in Calcutta, another in Bombay, and a third and most pungent one in the Punjab, yet they have a kinship of stinks, whereas Burma smells quite otherwise. It is not exactly what China ought to smell like, but it is not India. ‘What is it?’ I asked; and the man said ‘Napi,’ which is fish pickled when it ought to have been buried long ago. This food, in guide-book language, is inordinately consumed by . . but everybody who has been within downwind range of Rangoon knows what napi means, and those who do not will not understand.
Yes, it was a very new land — a land where the people understood colour — a delightfully lazy land full of pretty girls and very bad cheroots.
The worst of it was that the Anglo-Indian was a foreigner, a creature of no account. He did not know Burman — which was no great loss — and the Madrassi insisted upon addressing him in English. The Madrassi, by the way, is a great institution. He takes the place of the Burman, who will not work, and in a few years returns to his native coast with rings on his fingers and bells on his toes. The consequences are obvious. The Madrassi demands, and receives, enormous wages, and gets to know that he is indispensable. The Burman exists beautifully, while his women-folk marry the Madrassi and the Chinaman, because these support them in affluence. When the Burman wishes to work he gets a Madrassi to do it for him. How he finds the money to pay the Madrassi I was not informed, but all men were agreed in saying that under no circumstances will the Burman exert himself in the paths of honest industry. Now, if a bountiful Providence had clothed you in a purple, green, amber or puce petticoat, had thrown a rose-pink scarf-turban over your head, and had put you in a pleasant damp country where rice grew of itself and fish came up to be caught, putrefied and pickled, would you work? Would you not rather take a cheroot and loaf about the streets seeing what was to be seen? If two-thirds of your girls were grinning, good-humoured little maidens and the remainder positively pretty, would you not spend your time in making love?
The Burman does both these things, and the Englishman, who after all worked himself to Burma, says hard things about him. Personally I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King’s silk, that has been made in Mandalay, about my body, and a succession of cigarettes between my lips. I will wave the cigarette to emphasise my conversation, which shall be full of jest and repartee, and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.
Seriously, the Burmese girls are very pretty, and when I saw them I understood much that I had heard about — about our army in Flanders let us say.
Providence really helps those who do not help themselves. I went up a street, name unknown, attracted by the colour that was so wantonly flashed down its length. There is colour in Rajputana and in Southern India, and you can find a whole paletteful of raw tints at any down-country durbar; but the Burmese way of colouring is different. With the women the scarf, petticoat, and jacket are of three lively hues, and with the men putso and head-wrap are gorgeous. Thus you get your colours dashed down in dots against a background of dark timber houses set in green foliage. There are no canons of Art anywhere, and every scheme of colouring depends on the power of the sun above. That is why men in a London fog do still believe in pale greens and sad reds. Give me lilac, pink, vermilion, lapis lazuli, and blistering blood red under fierce sunlight that mellows and modifies all. I had just made this discovery and was noting that the people treated their cattle kindly, when the driver of an absurd little hired carriage built to the scale of a fat Burma pony, volunteered to take me for a drive, and we drove in the direction of the English quarter of the town where the sahibs live in dainty little houses made out of the sides of cigar boxes. They looked as if they could be kicked in at a blow and (trust a Globe-trotter for evolving a theory at a minute’s notice!) it is to avoid this fate that they are built for the most part on legs. The houses are not cantonment-bred in any way — nor does the uneven ground and dusty reddish roads fit in with any part of the Indian Empire except, it may be, Ootacamund.
The pony wandered into a garden studded with lovely little lakes which, again, were studded with islands, and there were sahibs in flannels in the boats. Outside the park were pleasant little monasteries full of clean-shaved gentlemen in gold amber robes learning to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil by chatting furiously amongst themselves, and at every corner stood the three little maids from school, almost exactly as they had been dismissed from the side scenes of the Savoy after the Mikado was over: and the strange part of it all was that every one laughed — laughed, so it seemed, at the sky above them because it was blue, at the sun because it was sinking, and at each other because they had nothing better to do. A small fat child laughed loudest of all, in spite of the fact that it was smoking a cheroot that ought to have made it deathly sick. The pagoda was always close at hand — as brilliant a mystery as when first sighted far down the river; but it changed its shape as we came nearer, and showed in the middle of a nest of hundreds of smaller pagodas. There appeared suddenly two colossal tigers (after the Burmese canons) in plaster on a hillside, and they were the guardians of Burma’s greatest pagoda. Round them rustled a great crowd of happy people in pretty dresses, and the feet of all were turned towards a great stoneway that ran from between the tigers even to the brow of the mound. But the nature of the stairs was peculiar. They were covered in for the most part by a tunnel, or it may have been a walled-in colonnade, for there were heavily gilt wooden pillars visible in the gloom. The afternoon was drawing on as I came to this strange place and saw that I should have to climb up a long, low hill of stairs to get to the pagoda.
Once or twice in my life I have seen a Globe-trotter literally gasping with jealous emotion because India was so much larger and more lovely than he had ever dreamed, and because he had only set aside three months to explore it in. My own sojourn in Rangoon was countable by hours, so I may be forgiven when I pranced with impatience at the bottom of the staircase because I could not at once secure a full, complete, and accurate idea of everything that was to be seen. The meaning of the guardian tigers, the inwardness of the main pagoda, and the countless little ones, was hidden from me. I could not understand why the pretty girls with cheroots sold little sticks and coloured candles to be used before the image of Buddha. Everything was incomprehensible to me, and there was none to explain. All that I could gather was that in a few days the great golden ’htee that has been defaced by the earthquake would be hoisted into position with feasting and song, and that half Upper Burma was coming down to see the show.
I went forward between the two great beasts, across a whitewashed court, till I came to a flatheaded arch guarded by the lame, the blind, the leper, and the deformed. These plucked at my clothes as I passed, and moaned and whined: but the stream that disappeared up the gentle slope of the stairway took no notice of them. And I stepped into the semidarkness of a long, long corridor flanked by booths, and floored with stones worn very smooth by human feet.
At the far end of the roofed corridor there was a breadth of evening sky, and at this point rose a second and much steeper flight of stairs, leading directly to the Shwedagon (this, by the way, is its real spelling). Down this staircase fell, from gloom to deeper gloom, a cascade of colour. At this point I stayed, because there was a beautiful archway of Burmese build, and adorned with a Chinese inscription, directly in front of me, and I conceived foolishly that I should find nothing more pleasant to look at if I went farther. Also, I wished to understand how such a people could produce the dacoit of the newspaper, and I knew that a great deal of promiscuous knowledge comes to him who sits down by the wayside. Then I saw a Face — which explained a good deal. The chin, jowl, lips, and neck were modelled faithfully on the lines of the worst of the Roman Empresses — the lolloping, walloping women that Swinburne sings about, and that we sometimes see pictures of. Above this gross perfection of form came the Mongoloid nose, narrow forehead, and flaring pig’s eyes. I stared intently, and the man stared back again, with admirable insolence, that puckered one corner of his mouth. Then he swaggered forward, and I was richer by a new face and a little knowledge. ‘I must make further inquiries at the Club,’ said I, ‘but that man seems to be of the proper dacoit type. He could crucify on occasion.’
Then a brown baby came by in its mother’s arms and laughed, wherefore I much desired to shake hands with it, and grinned to that effect. The mother held out the tiny soft pud and laughed, and the baby laughed, and we all laughed together, because that seemed to be the custom of the country, and returned down the now dark corridor where the lamps of the stall-keepers were twinkling and scores of people were helping us to laugh. They must be a mild mannered nation, the Burmese, for they leave little three-year-olds in charge of a whole wilderness of clay dolls or a menagerie of jointed tigers.
I had not actually entered the Shwedagon, but I felt just as happy as though I had.
In the Pegu Club I found a friend — a Punjabi — upon whose broad bosom I threw myself and demanded food and entertainment. He had not long since received a visit from the Commissioner of Peshawar, of all places in the world, and was not to be upset by sudden arrivals. But he had come down in the world hideously. Years ago in the Black North he used to speak the vernacular as it should be spoken, and was one of Us.
‘Daniel, how many socks master got?’
The unfinished peg fell from my fist. ‘Good Heavens!’ said I, ‘is it possible that you — you — speak that disgusting pidgin-talk to your nauker? It’s enough to make one cry. You’re no better than a Bombaywallah.’
‘I’m a Madrassi,’ said he calmly. ‘We all talk English to our boys here. Isn’t it beautiful? Now come along to the Gymkhana and then we’ll dine here. Daniel, master’s hat and stick get.’
There must be a few hundred men who are fairly behind the scenes of the Burma War — one of the least known and appreciated of any of our little affairs. The Pegu Club seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.
‘See that man over there? He was cut over the head the other day at Zoungloung-goo. Awfully tough man. That chap next him has been on the dacoit-hunt for about a year. He broke up Boh Mango’s gang: caught the Boh in a paddy field, y’ know. The other man’s going home on sick leave — got a lump of iron somewhere in his system. Try our mutton: I assure you the Club is the only place in Rangoon where you get mutton. Look here, you must not speak vernacular to our boys. Hi, boy! get master some more ice. They’re all Bombay men or Madrassis. Up at the front there are some Burman servants: but a real Burman will never work. He prefers being a simple little daku.’
‘Dear little dacoit. We call ’em dakus for short-sort o’ pet name. That’s the butter-fish. I forgot you didn’t get much fish up-country. Yes, I s’pose Rangoon has its advantages. You pay like a Prince. Take an ordinary married establishment. Little furnished house — one hundred and fifty rupees. Servants’ wages two twenty or two fifty. That’s four hundred at once. My dear fellow, a sweeper won’t take less than twelve or sixteen rupees a month here, and even then he’ll work for other houses. It’s worse than Quetta. Any man who comes to Lower Burma in the hope of living on his pay is a fool.’
Voice from lower end of table. ‘Dee fool. It’s different in Upper Burma, where you get command and travelling allowances.’
Another voice in the middle of a conversation. ‘They never got that story into the papers, but I can tell you we weren’t quite as quick in rushing the fort as they made believe. You see Boh Gwee had us in a regular trap, and by the time we had closed the line our men were being peppered front and rear. That jungle-fighting is the deuce and all. More ice please.’
Then they told me of the death of an old school-fellow under the ramp of the Minhla redoubt — does any one remember the affair at Minhla that opened the third Burmese ball?
‘I was close to him,’ said a voice. ‘He died in A.’s arms, I fancy, but I’m not quite sure. Anyhow, I know he died easily. He was a good fellow.’
‘Thank you,’ said I, ‘and now I think I’ll go’; and I went out into the steamy night, my head ringing with stories of battle, murder, and sudden death. I had reached the fringe of the veil that hides Upper Burma, and I would have given much to have gone up the river and seen a score of old friends, now jungle-worn men of war. All that night I dreamed of interminable staircases down which swept thousands of pretty girls, so brilliantly robed that my eyes ached at the sight. There was a great golden bell at the top of the stairs, and at the bottom, his face turned to the sky, lay poor old D—— dead at Minhla, and a host of unshaven ragamuffins in khaki were keeping guard aver him.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10