« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
across the river. He is in a tingle of expectation and hope, and the reaches of black water which sing their song of defiance in the gloom fret his nerves with impatience and suspense. Narrowly he watches the stream, seeking to recognise the point he only remembers vaguely, a place seen long ago, observed carelessly as a thing of slight importance, the discovery of which now means success wrenched from the jaws of a failure,-a failure which would make all the suffering and the labour farcical, the night-march, for which he alone is responsible, a dismal ineptitude. Suddenly he gives a grunt of satisfaction. He has found the place for which he is seeking. Will it prove to be passable? The bare uncertainty is maddening.
At a point where the river takes a bold sweep to the left the bank runs out in a shelving sand-spit, now more than half submerged. Down this slope he walks and wades into the water. It is cold as ice, for the rain has fallen heavily in the neighbouring mountains, and as it rises from knees to waist, from waist to the centre of his chest, he gasps loudly. The current is tugging at him with mighty hands; his feet, ground into the shingle of the bed, are strangely buoyant, and with difficulty are kept in place; he is forced to shoulder the waters with all his might, like a man thrusting his way through a dense throng. More than once he is nearly washed away by the current, down the river into the impenetrable darkness,
which is shadowed by the jungle on the banks. He fights for his life to maintain his footing, for, strong swimmer though he be, the river in spate would bear him a mile or so into the enemy's country before he could win to the shore, and that would mean the certainty of an ugly death. He is personally known to every rebel in the land. It is their conviction that it is he who is warring with them. Oriental - like, they do not recognise the hand of the British Government. The man
they know is their enemy. A price is set upon his head. The river seems to be in league with the rebels, to be fighting hard in the cause of those who have come and gone upon its banks for countless generations. The white man is sore spent when at last he reaches the shallows. He stands there shivering, a forlorn figure dripping with water, palsied with cold, gathering his strength for the return journey. It is the raw hour before the dawn, when vitality is ever at its lowest ebb. The vast darkness of the night is around him: a sense of his utter loneliness strikes him suddenly; a full knowledge of his insignificance, of the paltry nature of the miniature war in which he is engaged, a momentary lack of faith in the mission of the white races to interfere with the impossible practices of their brown kindred shake him as he stands there, making him miserable and melancholy. It is the faith that is in them which keeps the white folk moving on their painful paths in Asia. Take
this from them but for an instant, and they are children crying in the dark. The full weight of the burden is pressing on them sorely; the hopes for the realisation of which they strive, the hopes which nerve them to endure, vanish. Giant Despair holds them in his iron grip.
The Englishman turns about and wades once more into the current. In a moment he is fighting for his life with the furious river. The struggle wakes his powers anew. He is no longer the despondent thinker of a few minutes ago; he is now a man of action, with something to fight with and overcome. As he flounders out of the shallows and rejoins his Malays he has no thought but for the work which lies before him. "Tahan!" (It will do!) he pants, and with the dawnwind breathing chilly on his drenched clothing, he trots back to the waiting column.
The men have formed up in close order during his short absence, and he guides them to the ford in a compact body. Then twenty burly Sikhs strip to the buff, and, joining hands, wade into mid-stream. Some of them lose their foothold and flounder under water, to be pulled up by their fellows coughing and spitting; but no one is washed away, and presently a chain of men extends from bank to bank, forming a breakwater against which the spate charges impotently, roaring and chafing. Above this barrier a body of armed Sikhs cross to the farther side, there to guard the passage of the
column from the possibility of attack. Arms and ammunition are passed across, and next the frightened Chinese coolies, spluttering, protesting, jabbering, with their loads on their heads, and their legs swaying this way and that with the tug of the current, are bundled across amid the laughter of the Sikhs and Malays. Last of all comes the gun, remounted now upon its carriage, which is dragged through the river, running along its bed, with a wave of broken water to mark its passage, and a dozen gunners floundering ahead of it.
"All across before the dawn, and not a load or a man lost!" says the commander through teeth which chatter with cold. "I call that a real good business!"
"Yes," says the political officer. "And now we'll make these beggars sit up!"
The coolies and their loads are left with a small baggageguard in a clump of jungle. The rest of the force, about eighty strong, splits up into three parties, the centre, with the gun, taking up a position about a hundred yards from the village, the others wheeling off to right and left to outflank the enemy and get as far to the rear of the place as may be possible. A faint tinge of greyish yellow is visible in the east, showing amid lowering masses of purple cloud. The dawn is beginning to break. From the scrub in which the men are posted in the front of the attack the village can be seen distinctly,
the thatched roofs within the stockade running in long ridges at right angles to the trunks of the clustering palm-trees. The cocks are crowing loudly; a few sleepy fowls fly down from their perches with a faint rustling of feathers; dogs whine dismally; the door of a house opens, and a figure appears huddled to the chin in a bedcloth, looking dreamily forth at the coming day. From a hut near at hand rises the sound of Muhammadan prayer chanted by a single voice in shrill falsetto. Then another door is hitched aside, and a woman, bearing a baby on her arm and a cluster of empty gourds in her other hand, climbs painfully down the steep stair ladder. Two or three naked brats follow her, scrambling earthwards in grotesque attitudes.
At the sight the political officer swears aloud. "The place is crammed with women and children," he says to the commander of the force.
"Will the beggars give in if we call upon them to surrender?" asks the latter.
"Not they. They'll bolt like rabbits if they find they are in too tight a place, and with all this thick jungle so close we shan't really knock them if they don't stand up to us."
The commander swears in his turn. "Then what shall I do?" he asks.
The political officer knits his forehead into anxious puckers. Theoretically he holds the opinion that it is a mistake to introduce civilised practices, which the enemy can neither
be expected to understand nor appreciate, into warfare waged with a semi-barbarous people; but theory and the real thing are ever far apart. One of the little naked creatures whimpers plaintively as it runs behind its mother, and its cry is borne to the agent on the still air of the morning. The word lies with him. The success of the little expedition may depend upon the attack being a complete surprise; but he knows that besides the women and children there are many in the rebel village who have no quarrel with the Government, who are merely following their chiefs from sheer force of habit, and who, even if they run away from the white men at first, will readily come in if once the chiefs are put to flight. For the sake of these innocent men and women is it not worth sacrificing a momentary success; will not the more merciful course, even though it mean a blow to personal ambition, prove in the end the better for the State he serves? Again the whimper of the child comes to him, mingled with the soft tones of the mother's voice. He turns to the commander with something like a groan. "It may be all wrong," he says, "but I must give them a chance of coming in."
The noseless scout Jĕlâyang is at his side, and he bids him go to the village. He tears a leaf from his pocket-book and scribbles a few lines in sprawling Arabic characters from right to left.
"Give this to the chief," he says, "and tell him from me
that he is in the hollow of our hands. That he is surrounded on all sides by the Government's folk; that we have guns, rice-pots of fire (shells), and fiery blow-pipes (rocket-tubes). If he will bow his head, he and all his people shall be pardoned. If he be obstinate, we will smite the village, and bid him make ready his breast against our attack. Go speedily, and bid him send me an answer in no longer a time than it takes to chew a quid of betel-nut."
Jělâyang steps out of cover and strolls towards the village. The people are all afoot now, making their way down to the stream for the morning ablutions which they never omit, and a cluster of elders swaddled in clothes against the cold meets the scout at the gateway of the stockade. The white men squat on the ground smoking placidly, awaiting the return of their messenger.
Presently the ugly face of Jělâyang peeps through the brushwood. He squats deliberately before the white man, and a question is needed before he can be induced to speak. The calmness of Malays on such occasions is always irritating in its completeness.
"What does he say?" queries the white man.
"He says, Tûan, that he is afraid," replies the scout. The frank manner in which Malays lay claim to a total absence of courage without extenuation or apology is often bewildering.
"Does he say nothing more? "No, Tuan, nothing more, only that he is afraid that perchance the white folk will
trap him. Therefore, being afraid, he will have no dealings with white people."
The white man leaps to his "He won't come in," he cries almost exultingly. have done all I can, and now the show is in your hands. Kill and spare not!"
Sharp words of command ring out. The gun is run into position nose forward, and a shell sings loudly on its way to the stockade. It bursts in the roof of a house, and a yell of defiance comes back in a thready cheer from the Malays in the village, mingled with the cries of women and little children. From twenty points in the line of the stockade little puffs of smoke leap out fiercely, and the bullets sing and whistle overhead. Some peck up the ground in front; others make splashes in the rice-swamps a couple of hundred yards to the rear. A rocket-tube is run out, and the dart from the “ fiery blow - pipe"
rushes forward hissing and screaming like a flying dragon of ancient story. A house bursts into flames. The gun drops shell after shell into the stockade, the bugle sounds the charge, and with a bass roar the Sikhs rush out of cover and tear across the divides swampy open which them from the village. Some few of their number get hopelessly bogged; others flounder along unchecked by the kneedeep mire; the white men lead, pistol in hand, roaring like their men. It is a moment worth living for. The rapid run forward, the sweep down the hill, through the swamps, up
the grass to the stockade, every stride taking them nearer to the enemy. As the line approaches the fire of the Malays slackens. "D-n it all, they're bolting already!" yells the political officer as he flounders forward. The stockade is reached, pulled apart, hacked down, passed over as though it did not exist, and the place is empty! A few mangled bodies lie here and there sprawling grotesquely, yet looking impossibly small; a house is blazing with a roar of scarlet flames, and later charred bones are found among the ashes; the doors at the rear of the stockade are thrown wide; a few stray shots sound from the heavy jungle behind the village, showing that the flanking parties are trying vainly to shoot down the fugitives; but the place itself is empty save for fowls and dogs, and the victory in a moment is felt to be farcical, absurd.
Presently the flanking parties come in and make their reports. The jungle was too thick for much good to be done; a few runaways had been captured, some others have been shot; but the chief and most of his people have got away unharmed.
people may read it clearly. Meanwhile the political agent and his scouts are busy-they in hunting out the refugees and their families, he in accepting the submission of the minor chiefs, fixing fines, appointing new headmen, busily building up anew all that he has been at such pains to demolish.
As he lies on his mat at the end of a long day smoking and thinking, he is weary unto death. "Could anything have been more inglorious?" he asks the commander. beggars killed, one or two with ugly wounds which will make them go halting all their days, a few insignificant natives punished, and the real culprits suffered to escape with nothing worse than a fright. It seems to me that this thicket-thumping business is now going to begin in real earnest. They will never stand up to us again in stockades, and we shall have to do all our fighting in dense jungle. And it will always be miserable, heart-breaking, squalid, ineffective. A few dead to bury, a few wounded to patch, an enemy that you can't see, that bolts before you can get a fair slap at him, lots of hardship, plenty of blame, not an atom of kudos, and the best you can look for, a quick death and a clean one! I tell you the game is played out. It does not do to think about it."
"A few poor
"Buck up," says the commander. "I daresay it will pan out all right in the end."
"Yes, if there be an end," replies the political officer grimly.
The commander eyes him