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river flows from under them, as though it there had its beginning; down river its waters slip away below them, as into some vast abyss. It comes from nowhere, it vanishes into nothingness. It is a slim streak of water with the jungle hemming it in on all sides, and the burning daylight lashing down upon it relentlessly.
The little steamer is crowded to overflowing. On the low roof of the cabin and engineroom, in the narrow gangways, in the tiny galley aft, squat rows of burly Sikhs, khaki-clad, with turbans laid aside, and fringes of curly black beard trained carefully over the tops of their big ears. They look like ducks in a crate, and they jabber like a basketful of monkeys. One or two of them are fast asleep, in spite of the discomfort of their position, their mouths gaping in close proximity to their companions' feet, their discordant snores keeping time to the beating of the propeller. In the extreme bow stands a Malay lolling above the hand-wheel. He knows the shallow and difficult river like the palm of his own hand, can give you the name of every deserted reach, which, to the unaccustomed eye, looks the exact counterpart of its fellows, and only runs the launch ashore once where a less skilful pilot would spend most of his time aground. He chews betelnut unceasingly, using his toes to guide the wheel when his hands are busy preparing the quid; and from time to time he discusses the news of the outbreak up-country with his
assistants languidly and dispassionately. To him it is only one more bore added to the little worries of life. He is a gambler when ashore, though even play cannot awaken in him anything approaching to enthusiasm, and all things else are to him a weariness of the flesh.
All day the launch ploughs along, grunting, throbbing, groaning, complaining. The Sikhs jabber discordantly; the Malays speak seldom and in low, musical voices; the white man sits with an open book upon his knee, his thoughts far from the printed page, searching the future. Officially these disturbances towards which he is hurrying are a nuisance; but none the less he is conscious of a pleasurable feeling of suppressed excitement. The trouble makes a break in the dead monotony of his days. It calls for energetic action, shrewd thinking, hard work for body and mind. It may be the making or the breaking of him individually. He feels it to be inspiring, full of possibilities, that golden thing for which so many better men than he go hungering all their lives-an opportunity.
At each halting-place where fresh stocks of firewood are taken on board, shreds of unreliable rumour reach the travellers. There has been fighting up-country, somewhere beyond this endless chain of isolated reaches, and distance helped by the "native telegraph" magnifies events. Each fresh item of news makes the white man more eager to get forward. The journey seems interminable.
He wonders how he will find the patience necessary for the endurance of three other days like that which is drawing to a close. When darkness falls the Malay coxswain creeps to his side and prays to be suffered to let go the anchor for the night. The river ahead is shallow, he says, the launch cannot fail to run aground many times before the dawn. If aught goes wrong will the Túan hold him blameless? "Get on," grunts the white man. "If the river turneth traitor 'tis no fault of thine."
The little steamer ploughs onwards, burying its nose in the gloom. Two Malays take up positions one on each side of the steersman, leaning forward eagerly, their eyes peering into the darkness under knitted brows. Every now and again there comes from one or the other of them a murmur of warning or advice. The lamp hanging from the awning-stanchion in the bow casts a greasy light, cutting an irregular patch out of the blackness. The white man can see only this, with the dark figures of the Malays standing back from it prominently, the dim ribbon of sky overhead, and two bulging masses of deeper shadow which he knows to be the banks of jungle on either hand. The Sikhs are silent now; only the pulsing of the screw, the panting breath of the little craft, the swish and plash of the water, make themselves heard. wood smoke from the funnel belches forth volumes of red sparks which wander off and are lost suddenly. Every soul
on board is waiting for the catastrophe, praying that the bow may chance upon something softer than its own copper-sheeting.
For an hour the silence and the suspense last. Then comes the shock, a groaning of sorely tried timbers, a long whispering swish, and a dull thud, followed by a sudden cessation of motion, a feeling of solidarity, as though the little craft had been welded into a continent. The stillness is broken by cries in many tongues. The Malays scream directions to the engine-room, the engineer swears in bastard Hindustani, the Sikhs jabber Punjaubi with the energy of demoniacs, a Tamil hospitaldresser bursts into a torrent of lamentation in his language-the dialect which, it is popularly supposed, is the vernacular spoken in Hell. The engines tug impotently astern, but the steamer does not move, and presently, the white man leading, every one on board leaps over the side. Some of the Sikhs plunge from the stern into deep water, and are with difficulty saved from being washed down by the current. There is a mighty yelling and splashing; the escaping steam roars and rushes; the sparks fly upwards straight into the still air; the open doors of the furnace throw a red glare aft, a ruddy smudge upon the dense blackness of the night. Across this move hurrying figures dimly seen. After some minutes a voice hails from the shadows on the left. It is the coxswain, who has paddled away to seek for a deeper channel, and soon
all hands are busy tugging at before the dawn a raw cold sets the launch to get her off brown arms hugging naked the sand bank into bodies, limbs shivering, teeth water. Each fresh exertion chattering. Speech has fallen calls for its Own torrent of away from these men like a noise, which breaks up the still- cast garment. Even when fresh ness of the eternal forest with labour is demanded of them rude outbreaks of sound. The there is little noise. During boat is fast aground, and she the short intervals of rest they resists all efforts manfully for a sit huddled together in a detime. Then, at last, she moves; jected crowd, pressing against sticks again obstinately; moves one another for comfort and once more; glides smoothly off warmth, chilled, depressed, and the shelving bank, and waddles utterly weary. The white man helplessly down-stream broad- takes his full share of the toil, side-on, into deep water. The for he knows how much more crew and the passengers become work he can wring from his in a moment a frantic mob, people while he endures with struggling, scrambling, tum- them. He is almost worn out. bling, wrestling, getting in It is his second sleepless night, their own and their fellows' and the fierce heat of the dayway, trying without purchase time has robbed him of rest for their feet to climb the during his hours of idleness. slippery sides. Some are ducked His skin is puckered with cold mercilessly as the vessel wallows, and constant wettings; his eyes some are forced to swim for it, burn and ache, and he almost others leap aboard with the expects them to creak audibly, agility of cats. There is a vision as upon rusty hinges, when he seen indistinctly of dim figures turns them in their sockets; but in outlandish attitudes, attitudes, of the place of strife is still far glistening wet limbs flung distant, and the maddening hither and thither in strange suspense goads him forward confusion. There is a noise of pitilessly. laughter, choking, coughing, gurgling yells for help, much splashing, and a babel of weird tongues.
Again the launch forges ahead, and silence settles heavily over the men on board. A dozen times during the long night the incident is repeated, the copper of the hull is peeled or burnished, the men have barely time in which to get dry before they are over the side again, pulling, pushing, tugging, shoving for the life. With the first breath of air that moves
The dawn comes up sallow and grey, with a cloak of mist, white as cotton-wool, hanging low above the river. All created things are blotted out. The travellers are pent within a narrow circle surrounded by those sheer walls of fog. Every now and again the man at the wheel throws up his head mechanically, as though he sought to look over the barrier in front of him. It is an attempt which he knows to be futile, but instinct and habit force him to make it again and
again. Beads of damp gather on the brasswork; the clothes of the men are dripping wet; the awning canvas is drenched and sags limply. The white man lies on the bunk in his cabin, with only his nose protruding above the red blanket. The heavy depression of the early morning hour is upon him; the enthusiasm and excitement, which have sustained him since the news of trouble arrived, wax faint within him; the prospects of failure which, quite illogically, now loom before him as certainties, become haunting spectres. His vitality is at its lowest ebb, and nothing less than some great emergency could wake him from the dreariness of his profound despondency. He feels himself to be the merest fly upon the wheel of Fate, whirled round impotent and unresisting, powerless to control or shape the events which will surely work his undoing. No longer does he know himself to be the mind which animates the brown body of his followers. He is the veriest plaything of the gods, yet all the while he is conscious of the heavy measure of his responsibilities for the welfare of his people and for that of the State he serves.
The picture fades, and another takes its place. The launch is still labouring up-stream, with the same freight of tired human beings. It is early morning again a few days later, and the mist is only partially dispelled by the first watery rays of sunshine peeping slantways through the tree tops on the river's
eastern bank. News of battle has come aboard at each haltingplace-rumour of a Sikh stockade surprised before the dawn, of violent deaths borne swiftly to sleeping men, of disaster, of failure, of fear, an ever-thickening cloud of inchoate report.
Suddenly the man at the wheel cries that there is a strange object afloat a hundred yards ahead. The white man runs up from the cabin, the Malays hang out over the side, with one foot on the bulwarks and one hand clutching the stanchions of the awning. The Sikhs press and crowd, jabbering eagerly, climbing upon one another's shoulders to catch a glimpse of the wallowing thing. As it approaches leisurely it is seen to be the body of a man, revolving slowly, first one way then the other, borne onward by the current. The head and feet are submerged; but the brown back is visible, floating high above the water, for the thing has been dead for many hours. The word spreads among the Sikhs that it is the corpse of one of their castemates who has been killed upcountry, and four men leap overboard and swim to meet it. The engines are stopped, and the launch drifts helplessly. The dead thing sidles away from the swimmers when they touch it, as though resenting their interference, and they have much ado to make fast a rope about its girth. Then they rejoin their fellows, hawking, spitting, and coughing. The Sikhs will not suffer any man save themselves to touch the rope to which is made fast the
body of their comrade; but they haul in furiously, and the dead thing bobs and ducks, flinging its limbs abroad in a horrible travesty of life, as though gesticulating in protest. The slack of the rope falls this way and that among the labouring Sikhs; a widening eddy of disturbed water rings the corpse about. After one last dive, which carries it almost under the keel, it comes to the surface, and is dragged up the side, hanging in a limp bow with head and toes in contact. Every Sikh within reach seizes it with his hands to lift it on board. A horrible odour sickens the air.
Then arises a shrill hubbub, an indescribable clashing of angry falsetto voices, a torrent of oaths and curses, foul epithets, guttural execrations. The body is that of a Malay, and its touch is pollution to the Sikhs. They are spitting as one man, rubbing their bodies with cloths, trying to tear the besmirched skin from the palms of their hands, screaming their anger, their horror, their disgust. One of their number smites the corpse in the face ere it tumbles helplessly back into the water. Its eyes are protruding, its mouth is open, as though propounding some vital question. Its face is disfigured here and there by the nibbling of little fish. A circular stain of a dull purple colour near the heart marks where a bullet has passed. The white man gazes at it with a dreadful fascination. It is to him the thing seen, ever mightier than the thing heard the first man killed in action, the first of
many. That dumb mouth brings its sure message; those dim eyes have looked into the face of death; floundering grotesquely in the wake, it is none the less an awful witness of war, a terrible prophet of the things that are to be.
The Malays are delighted at the incident. They reel about in the cramped space forward, slapping their thighs and one another's backs, stamping their feet, roaring with laughter. The dead man is not known to them, and as they are not professional holy-men, they are in nowise concerned to secure for him a proper burial according to the rites of the Muhammadans. The distress of the Sikhs, added to the little tinge of horror connected with the affair, appeals to their sense of the ludicrous.
Again the picture fades and disappears. Again another rises from out the mists of memory.
A white man sits scanning a filthy note which has just been handed to him by a Malay
"Have arrived here with column. Impossible to get across to you without risking engagement, which would be premature. Can you make your way to us? It is most important that I should have the benefit of your advice and local knowledge."
The note bears date three days earlier, and was written from a place on the borders of the State, forty miles distant from the isolated post which the white man and his com