First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 30 September 1887
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.146-7
Trouville-sur-Khud (Simla: Trouville was a fashionable French resort, and a khud is a steep hillsaide) ) looks its loveliest asleep in the very early morning; its beauty is most heart-renderingly apparent when the loaded-up tonga bugles furiously from the Mall below, and the driver announces that he will reach Kalka — for a con¬sideration — in five hours. To go down by tonga (a light two-wheeled carriage) it is necessary to sit up all night, still more necessary to dance, and most necessary of all to drown the sorrow of the coming morning, in any brew that seems good. About five A.M. arrives the Judgment, in the shape of a crisp and creeping ‘headache in the hair’, vain regrets for time misspent, cobwebs spun and broken, and irritability intensified by the scorn and the silence of the hills. Decidedly, the Himalayas are unsympathetic companions for a sixty-mile ride. They say so little and they imply so much. A few days before this most uncomfortable journey was undertaken, heavy rain had distinctly enlivened the route to the Plains, and the evidences of its work remained in slips of rather respectable size. Also rumours had reached Trouville-sur-Khud of an accident near Umballa and a breach of the Grand Trunk Road — unbreached for seventeen years. Having many rumours of its own, Trouville-sur-Khud paid but little attention to the news from below; and it was only when the tonga-driver announced at Kalka that there was no more work for the Gugger elephants (for fording the river when it flooded) and the Sahib might go his way dry-foot, that the traveller came out of his own thoughts, and began to concern himself with the Plains, so far as these affected his own comfort. In spite of the dust, born of four days’ fierce sunshine, it was easy to see that the Kalka-Umballa road had been water-swept to the bone, and the white tide-marks on the tree trunks showed how high the flood has risen over the face of the land. An Irish bridge (a causeway for crossing at low-water) over which, six short weeks before, the torrent-driven boulders had been leaping like trout in fly-time was reduced to a dusty causeway; but the wash of the stones showed that a stream had but lately flowed that way. As a general rule, the Gugger, except when Viceroys pass over like the Israelites, may be trusted to make itself as objectionable as it can. Three yoke of bullocks were necessary to drag the lumbering dak-gharri (post-cart) across; for there was more water in the pestilent runnel than was right or proper at the end of the Rains.
Then sprang out of the earth a nomad khansamah (steward)who supplied soda-water to wayfarers on the banks of the stream, and demanded conveyance into Umballa; his day’s work being done. He was prepared to give two bottles of soda-water— real Umballa soda-water — in payment of his fare; but, later on, he cheated, explaining that one bottle was empty and borrowing as much of the Sahib’s smoking-tobacco as he could. After all, the Sahib should have known that a khansamah who makes his own cigarettes out of old Civil and Military Gazettes, and talks English, is not the sort of man to be worsted in a bargain.
At Umballa, the waste water hung about in larger patches and there was a faint unwholesome smell of rank greenery in the air. The Station-Master, throned in a comfortable chair, explained that the North Western Railway had ceased booking northwards beyond Rajpura, and that it would take three days, more or less, to go round via Delhi, Rewari, and Ferozepore. There was a break beyond Rajpura of miles, but there were ekkas (see below) waiting at the break and, possibly, dak-gharris. The length of the break he did not exactly know, but it was of several miles. A train would arrive at 10 P.M. in which the traveller might, if he felt so disposed, journey.
Allowing ten minutes for finished and encyclopaedic abuse of the Government, the North West Railway, and everyone connected with it, and twenty minutes for dinner, there still remained two and half hours’ of waiting between seven and ten. Most opportunely, Thomas ('Private Thomas Atkins, Kipling's generic name for a British soldier) snow-white as to his clothes, brass-badged, and heavy-footed, came by on duty — and the rest was easy, for Thomas is a cosmopolitan.
The traveller saw what might or might not have been the beginning of a tragedy. A passenger missed, in some curious way, a down-country train and was stranded on Umballa platform, declaring that all his kit was in the carriage. Thomas — there were two of him — watched the man as cats watch a mouse, and the outcome of their investigation, under bent eye-brows, was: — ‘ ’E’s no civilian’. Indeed, he looked miserably poor and dejected, and hung about the station watching Thomas as intently as Thomas watched him. For half an hour, the two Thomases talked, never taking their eyes off the stranger, of such things as they conceived would interest the traveller. But their minds were on the man who had been left behind. He presently lit a pipe and, with ostentatious free and easiness, came to join the little circle on the bench. Thomas fell into a deep and frozen silence. The man put down his pipe, and jerking his thumb over his shoulder at another Thomas further up the platform said: — ‘ ’E sez ’e’s seen me before. I should like to know where ’e ’as seen me’. Thomas held his peace. ‘I’ll lay ’e asn’t seen me any wheres.’ ‘I never said ’e ’ad,’ said Thomas ‘but ’ow did you come to know ’is name?’ ‘I called ’im that on chanst’ said the man ‘same as I might call you anything on chanst.’ Thomas turned to his cheroot and his fixed stare at the man without collar or tie. The night was a reasonably cool one, but the man began to perspire gently, till his face shone under the lamplight, ‘All my kit’s in that carriage’ he said at last, but the attempt to break the ice failed. He rose and went his way up the platform whistling. Then said the second Thomas, who had, up to that time, held his peace, in the tones of a brooding dove: —‘ ’E’s got regimental socks on. I seed ’em.’ Thomas the first shook his head: — ‘Ay! But ’e asn’t been showed yet. They’ll get ’im at Ghazerabad or Sharanpur if they wants ’im.’ The conversation was not intended for ‘civilian’ ears, any more than was the expression of grief at the possible loss of thirty rupees, or the prophecy that the man ‘would come an’ ’ang about barricks tomorrer’. Over beer, Thomas became more communicative, and, in a perfectly abstract light be it understood, discussed the theory and practice of desertion — up-country and at Calcutta — ‘where a man can make friends with the ships’.
Thomas the first had been eight years a Servant of the Queen, and had no fault to find with the army. Thomas, the Second, explained that desertion ‘didn’t mean much more than twenty- eight days any ’ow, an’ at ’Ome boys was always runnin’ off to see their mammy’. ‘If a boy gets checked too much, sometimes ’e can’t stand it an’ then ’e goes. But that is because of a man and not of a service,’ said Thomas the first. Outside the refreshment room stood the man, and he peered in thirstily. It was the fable of the Wolf and Watch-dog dressed in human clothes, and Thomas the first saw it in this light. ‘‘E’s a civilian,’ said he nodding his head towards the door. ‘An’ a free man’said Thomas the second, who had seen the regimental socks. ‘Well! ’Ere’s luck.’ They went out and grouped themselves in picturesque attitudes near the man, and the lamp-light glinted on the brass letterings on their shoulders.
The up-train came in and with it passengers who had been personally acquainted with the break near Umballa. They had been forced to deal with it in the way of business — which means, in these matters, to risk their lives over it. From their words it was possible to see how big an affair the break had been, and how narrowly the accident of Sunday the 18th instant had escaped ranking as a champion butchery. But of these things Trouville-sur-Khud knew and cared but little, and the sudden change almost from the threshold of the music-filled, dance-throbbing Town Hall to the grim pithy talk on the platform, was like stepping from a Turkish to a cold shower bath. Fifteen miles of line, men said, had been rendered unusable by the biggest flood within the last twenty years. A station- house had been swamped; there were two and twenty breaks in two miles of the Rajpura-Patiala line; most of Patialla city had been cleared out; the Gugger had nearly carried away its bridge; dead cattle and black-buck had been washed on to the line, and at Serai Bunjara a Huge Stink from a cemetery of bullocks awaited the traveller. This was cheering. The account of the actual accident, the smashing up and carrying of help to the train, told after the manner of Herodotus, was a small epic. The train was under charge of one of the most careful drivers on the line. He had got down on to the footplate to look at the permanent way with a lantern, for it was raining in torrents, and, even as he looked, something happened and the wreck began. The generally received opinion among experts seems to be that a rail sunk into the soft slush as the train passed. . . . and the rest was confusion. The actual number of deaths accounted for is three, but as the train turned over into water it is possible that some people may have been killed and washed away. This however cannot be lightly said. Still it seems certain that the loss of life was very small indeed. If compensation be given to the relatives of the dead, the chances are very much in favour of every poor wandering corpse that has been whelmed by the flood being faithfully credited to the Government. After the accident occurred, the guard walked back, it seemed, to the last Station which the train had left as sound and safe as any way-side station need be. When he reached it it was flooded out, so quickly had the flood come down. The Gugger — that stream which is not worth bridging — is credited with having done a good deal of damage, as the reports from the districts will doubtless show.
Leaving Umballa and listening to the story of the break at the same time the traveller presently arrived at Sirnbul station, or rather what was left of it, for the station-house was roofless, windowless and doorless and, in the light of the half-moon, seemed as though gutted by fire. The flood here must have been six or eight feet deep. At Rajpura, ten miles from Umballa, the train stopped for the night; there being three thousand coolies working on the line just ahead. It was necessary to take an ekka from Rajpura to Sirhind, a distance of eighteen miles, to catch a train that would come in at three in the morning and go northward at eight.
One of the least respect-worthy of the characters in Ten Thousand a Year (a popular novel by Samuel Warren), weeps copiously after his fortune has passed into the hands of a counter-jumper (shop-assistant), remembering, as the shades of even fall, that he was once accustomed to dine, sumptuously, at seven o’clock. In like manner, as the traveller went out of Rajpura station and was attacked by a crowd of unwashed ekka-men, he groaned, remembering that he had, in years past, been wont to quit that station in the wake of Ripons and Aitchisons behind four prancing steeds, silver-studded as to their harness, and scarlet as to the raiment of their drivers. Then he fell over the hinder parts of an ekka where the shafts cross like swallow-wings, and thought hard things of the Empire and its Rulers. The third-class passengers meantime had got out, and were cheerfully tramping towards Sirhind.
An ekka is a bundle of tortures, being made up of Ixion’s wheel, in duplicate and triangular, St Lawrence’s gridiron, of country string which covers the body with patterns, and the shirt of Nessus, worn by many Nessuses, spread over all. It allows for no dignity, it is destruction to the liver, its motions are unseemly, and its pony — smells. No man who habitually rides in an ekka can be clean, or moral, self respecting or sturdily fashioned in his bones. An Englishman in an ekka is a racial anomaly, and it is well for him if he does not become the ‘pasture-ground of thousands’, in ten minutes. A mournful procession of three ekkas set out to Sirhind, as the moon began to go down, along the Grand Trunk Road which was being mended in places. The ponies made their own pace — a trot of ‘not less than four, or more than six miles an hour’ — and that trot they maintained without a break till the end. At first — for three minutes, at least — the novelty of an ckka’s motion is attractive, Afterwards, the passenger would fain alight.
The ekka, a tea-trayon wheels, dear,
Later still, he would sell his soul for sleep, and all the while he is only restrained from murdering the driver because of his own inability to drive the car. In time, the ekkas fell violently down a steep place off the road and the passengers had to alight and walk over soft and smelling ground, facetiously called the ‘diversion’ of the Grand Trunk, here broken for the length of two railway carriages. The water had taken out, as one drives a cheese-scoop through cheese, as much of a twelve-foot embankment as it required for its own purposes; and this breach was the direct cause of the break on the railway hard by. So long as the water was still and dammed no great harm arose, but, when the flood raced through the breach, the set of the rush tore up the line to the right of the Trunk road and scattered the ballast across the country. The sides of the breach in the road were sheer, and the low moon looked through the opening and grinned. It was an unpleasant picture-frame.
Once more on the Grand Trunk, the ekkas settled steadily to their work and the beauty of the journey began to declare itself. On either side, half veiled behind the shadows of the fringing trees, lay great pools of water, and in some of the pools floated black blobs which commended themselves to the nose as deceased cattle. The air was full of a marshy smell, and the night began to grow chilly. Then, while the driver was adjusting a foul rag that he called a purdah, the pony ran away and into another ekka. This it did twice, till the purdah fell down and was used as a wrap. There were — call them drawing-pins, or Norfolk-Howards in that purdah, and its esprit de corps, horse for the most part, was indescribable and unequalled, until the night-wind blew across the fields some small portion of the Huge Stink promised at Umballa. The purdah then became a sweet and desirable thing — a wrap to wrap the head in and wind round the nostrils.
For three hours and fifty minutes the ponies trotted through what appeared to be the length and breadth of the Indian Empire. The moon went out and only the star-light showed the white road and the trees and the waste of land on either side. Once, a man came out of the dark and demanded if the ekka plied for hire. He was going to Sirhind and had a child with him. He was taken up and wished to flee, being presumably unaccustomed to Sahibs who sub-let ekkas; but was presently comforted and began to haggle about the fare. One pice, picked out of the corner of a waist-cloth carried him nine English miles. The unclean little coin will be preserved as a memento of a most genial companion and a very wicked little boy who wept continuously and, when not watched, tried to fall out upon the road.
So the child cried, and the man babbled of the weather at Mustaphabad, and the driver beat the pony, and the crying and the speech and the jolt of the ekka, wove themselves into an uneasy dream of a waltz that would change to a polka where the dancers bumped horrible, and of an ‘extra’ that was always being promised and never given, and of a supper that rotted on the tables as it stood, because all the merry-makers had been washed away in a flood, and Simla Town Hall was filled with deserters hiding in corners. . . . Here the leading ekka dropped a wheel and came down with a crash, while the second ekka nearly fell over it, for horse and man were asleep. Half an hour later, the funeral reached Sirhind and the break had been crossed.
But mark the astuteness of the Oriental! The man from Mustaphabad, who had honestly paid a pice for his ride, demanded bakshish, and got it. Just before falling asleep in the train, it struck the donor that the man from Mustaphabad must have travelled in an ekka before, and that the journey could not have damaged him greatly. To an Englishman, jolted, contused, filled with little bamboo splinters, stiff, sore, dusty and bitten, a hundred rupees would have been no sort of consolation.