Shall he who knows not false from true judge treason? —Eastern Proverb.
YOU may well imagine, sahib, in the huts that night there was noise as of bees about to swarm. No man slept. Men flitted like ghosts from hut to hut —not too openly, nor without sufficient evidence of stealth to keep the guards in good conceit of themselves, but freely for all that. What the men of one hut said the men of the next hut knew within five minutes, and so on, back and forth.
I was careful to say nothing. When men questioned me, "Nay," said I. "I am one and ye are many. Choose ye! Could I lead you against your wills?" They murmured at that, but silence is easier to keep than some men think.
Why did I say nothing? In the first place, sahib, because my mind was made at last. With all my heart now, with the oath of a Sikh and the truth of a Sikh I was Ranjoor Singh's man. I believed him true, and I was ready to stand or fall by that belief, in the dark, in the teeth of death, against all odds, anywhere. Therefore there was nothing I could say with wisdom. For if they were to suspect my true thoughts, they would lose all confidence in me, and then I should be of little use to the one man who could help all of us. I judged that what Ranjoor Singh most needed was a silent servant who would watch and obey the first hint. Just as I had watched him in battle and had herded the men for him to lead, so would I do now. There should be deeds, not words, for the foundation of a new beginning.
In the second place, sahib, I knew full well that if Gooja Singh or any of the others could have persuaded me to advance an opinion it would have been pounced on, and changed out of all recognition, yet named my opinion nevertheless. This altered opinion they would presently adopt, yet calling it mine, and when the outcome of it should fail at last to please them they would blame me. For such is the way of the world. So I had two good reasons, and the words I spoke that night could have been counted without aid of pen and paper.
The long and short of it was that morning found them undecided. There was one opinion all held—even Gooja Singh, who otherwise took both sides as to everything—that above all and before all we were all true men, loyal to our friends, the British, and foes of every living German or Austrian or Turk so long as the war should last. The Germans had bragged to us about the Turks being in the war on their side, and we had thought deeply on the subject of their choice of friends. Like and like mingle, sahib. As for us, my grandfather fought for the British in '57, and my father died at Kandahar under Bobs bahadur. On that main issue we were all one, and all ashamed to be prisoners while our friends were facing death. But dawn found almost no two men agreed as to Ranjoor Singh, or in fact on any other point.
Not long after dawn, came the Germans again, with new arguments. And this time they began to let us feel the iron underlying their persuasion. Once, to make talk and gain time before answering a question, I had told them of our labour in the bunkers on the ship that carried us from India. I had boasted of the coal we piled on the fire-room floor. Lo, it is always foolish to give information to the enemy—always, sahib—always! There is no exception.
Said they to us now: "We Germans are devoting all our energy to prosecution of this war. Nearly all our able-bodied men are with the regiments. Every man must do his part, for we are a nation in arms. Even prisoners must do their part. Those who do not fight for us must work to help the men who do fight."
"Work without pay?" said I.
"Aye," said they, "work without pay. There is coal, for instance. We understand that you Sikhs have proved yourselves adept at work with coal. He who can labour in the bunkers of a ship can handle pick and shovel in the mines, and most of our miners have been called up. Yet we need more coal than ever."
So, sahib. So they turned my boast against me. And the men around me, who had heard me tell the tale about our willing labour on the ship, now eyed me furiously; although at the time they had enjoyed the boast and had added details of their own. The Germans went away and left us to talk over this new suggestion among ourselves, and until afternoon I was kept busy speaking in my own defence.
"Who could have foreseen how they would use my words against us?" I demanded. But they answered that any fool could have foreseen it, and that my business was to foresee in any case and to give them good advice. I kept that saying in my heart, and turned it against them when the day came.
That afternoon the Germans returned, with knowing smiles that were meant to seem courteous, and with an air of confidence that was meant to appear considerate. Doubtless a cat at meal-time believes men think him generous and unobtrusive. They went to great trouble to prove themselves our wise counsellors and disinterested friends.
"We have explained to you," said they, "what hypocrites the British are, —what dust they have thrown in your eyes for more than a century —how they have grown rich at your expense, deliberately keeping India in ignorance and subjection, in poverty and vice, and divided against itself. We have told you what German aims are on the other hand, and how successful our armies are on every front as the result of the consistence of those aims. We have proved to you how half the world already takes our side—how the Turks fight for us, how Persia begins to join the Turks, how Afghanistan already moves, and how India is in rebellion. Now—wouldn't you like to join our side—to throw the weight of Sikh honor and Sikh bravery into the scale with us? That would be better fun than working in the mines," said they.
"Are we offered that alternative?" I asked, but they did not answer that question. They went away again and left us to our thoughts.
And we talked all the rest of that day and most of the next night, arriving at no decision. When they asked me for an opinion, I said, "Ranjoor Singh told us this would be, and he gave us orders what to do." When they asked me ought they to obey him, I answered, "Nay, choose ye! Who can make you obey against your wills?" And when they asked me would I abide by their decision, "Can the foot walk one way," I answered, "while the body walks another? Are we not one?" said I.
"Then," said they, "you bid us consider this proposal to take part against our friends?"
"Nay," said I, "I am a true man. No man can make me fight against the British."
They thought on that for a while, and then surrounded me again, Gooja Singh being spokesman for them all. "Then you counsel us," said he, "to choose the hard labour in the coal mines?"
"Nay," said I. "I counsel nothing."
"But what other course is there?" said he.
"There is Ranjoor Singh," said I.
"But he desired to lead us against the British," said he.
"Nay," said I. "Who said so?"
Gooja Singh answered: "He, Ranjoor Singh himself, said so."
"Nay," said I. "I heard what he said. He said he will lead us, but he said nothing of his plan. He did not say he will lead us against the British."
"Then it was the Germans. They said so," said Gooja Singh. "They said he will lead us against the British."
"The Germans said," said I, "that their armies are outside Paris— that India is in rebellion—that Pertab Singh was hanged in Delhi —that the British rule in India has been altogether selfish— that our wives and children have been butchered by the British in cold blood. The Germans," said I, "have told us very many things."
"Then," said he, "you counsel us to follow Ranjoor Singh?"
"Nay," said I. "I counsel nothing."
"You are a coward!" said he. "You are afraid to give opinion!"
"I am one among many!" I answered him.
They left me alone again and talked in groups, Gooja Singh passing from one group to another like a man collecting tickets. Then, when it was growing dusk, they gathered once more about me and Gooja Singh went through the play of letting them persuade him to be spokesman.
"If we decide to follow Ranjoor Singh," said he, "will you be one with us?"
"If that is the decision of you all," I answered, "then yes. But if it is Gooja Singh's decision with the rest consenting, then no. Is that the decision of you all?" I asked, and they murmured a sort of answer.
"Nay!" said I. "That will not do! Either yes or no. Either ye are willing or ye are unwilling. Let him who is unwilling say so, and I for one will hold no judgment against him."
None answered, though I urged again and again. "Then ye are all willing to give Ranjoor Singh a trial?" said I; and this time they all answered in the affirmative.
"I think your decision well arrived at!" I made bold to tell them. "To me it seems you have all seen wisdom, and although I had thoughts in mind," said I, "of accepting work in the collieries and blowing up a mine perhaps, yet I admit your plan is better and I defer to it."
They were much more pleased with that speech than if I had admitted the truth, that I would never have agreed to any other plan. So that now they were much more ready than they might have been to listen to my next suggestion.
"But," said I, with an air of caution, "shall we not keep any watch on Ranjoor Singh?"
"Let us watch!" said they. "Let us be forehanded!"
"But how?" said I. "He is an officer. He is not bound to lay bare his thoughts to us."
They thought a long time about that. It grew dark, and we were ordered to our huts, and lights were put out, and still they lay awake and talked of it. At last Gooja Singh flitted through the dark and came to me and asked me my opinion on the matter.
"One of you go and offer to be his servant," said I. "Let that servant serve him well. A good servant should know more about his master than the master himself."
"Who shall that one be?" he asked; and he went back to tell the men what I had said.
After midnight he returned. "They say you are the one to keep watch on him," said he.
"Nay, nay!" said I, with my heart leaping against my ribs, but my voice belying it. "If I agree to that, then later you will swear I am his friend and condemn me in one judgment with him!"
"Nay," said he. "Nay truly! On the honor of a Sikh!"
"Mine is also the honor of a Sikh," said I, "and I will cover it with care. Go back to them," I directed, "and let them all come and speak with me at dawn."
"Is my word not enough?" said he.
"Was Ranjoor Singh's enough?" said I, and he went, muttering to himself.
I slept until dawn—the first night I had slept in three— and before breakfast they all clustered about me, urging me to be the one to keep close watch on Ranjoor Singh.
"God forbid that I should be stool pigeon!" said I. "Nay, God forbid! Ranjoor Singh need but give an order that ye have no liking for and ye will shoot me in the back for it!"
They were very earnest in their protestations, urging me more and more; but the more they urged the more I hung back, and we ate before I gave them any answer. "This is a plot," said I, "to get me in trouble. What did I ever do that ye should combine against me?"
"Nay!" said they. "By our Sikh oath, we be true men and your friends. Why do you doubt us?"
Then said I at last, as it were reluctantly, "If ye demand it—if ye insist—I will be the go-between. Yet I do it because ye compel me by weight of unanimity!" said I.
"It is your place!" said they, but I shook my head, and to this day I have never admitted to them that I undertook the work willingly.
Presently came the Germans to us again, this time accompanied by officers in uniform who stood apart and watched with an air of passing judgment. They asked us now point-blank whether or not we were willing to work in the coal mines and thus make some return for the cost of keeping us; and we answered with one voice that we were not coal-miners and therefore not willing.
"The alternative," said they, "is that you apply to fight on the side of the Central Empires. Men must all either fight or work in these days; there is no room for idlers."
"Is there no other work we could do?" asked Gooja Singh.
"None that we offer you!" said they. "If you apply to be allowed to fight on the side of the Central Empires, then your application will be considered. However, you would be expected to forswear allegiance to Great Britain, and to take the military oath as provided by our law; so that in the event of any lapse of discipline or loyalty to our cause you could be legally dealt with."
"And the alternative is the mines?" said I.
"No, no!" said the chief of them. "You must not misunderstand. Your present destination is the coal mines, where you are to earn your keep. But the suggestion is made to you that you might care to apply for leave to fight on our side. In that case we would not send you to the coal mines until at least your application had been considered. It is practically certain it would be considered favorably."
The conversation was in English as usual and many of the men had not quite understood. Those on the outside had not heard properly. So I bade four men lift me, and I shouted to them in our own tongue all that the German had said. There fell a great silence, and the four men let me drop to the earth between them.
"So is this the trap Ranjoor Singh would lead us into?" said the trooper nearest me, and though he spoke low, so still were we all that fifty men heard him and murmured. So I spoke up.
Said I, "We will answer when we shall have spoken again with Ranjoor Singh. He shall give our answer. It is right that a regiment should answer through its officer, and any other course is lacking discipline!"
Sahib, I have been surprised a thousand times in this war, but not once more surprised than by the instant effect my answer had. It was a random answer, made while I searched for some argument to use; but the German spokesman turned at once and translated to the officers in uniform. Watching them very closely, I saw them laugh, and it seemed to me they approved my answer and disapproved some other matter. I think they disapproved the civilian method of mingling with us in a mob, for a moment later the order was given us in English to fall in, and we fell in two deep. Then the civilian Germans drew aside and one of the officers in uniform strode toward the entrance gate. We waited in utter silence, wondering what next, but the officer had not been gone ten minutes when we caught sight of him returning with Ranjoor Singh striding along beside him.
Ranjoor Singh and he advanced toward us and I saw Ranjoor Singh speak with him more emphatically than his usual custom. Evidently Ranjoor Singh had his way, for the officer spoke in German to the others and they all walked out of the compound in a group, leaving Ranjoor Singh facing us. He waited until the gate clanged shut behind them before he spoke.
"Well?" said he. "I was told the regiment asked for word with me. What is the word?"
"Sahib," said I, standing out alone before the men, not facing him, but near one end of the line, so that I could raise my voice with propriety and all the men might hear. He backed away, to give more effect to that arrangement. "Sahib," I said, "we are in a trap. Either we go to the mines, or we fight for the Germans against the British. What is your word on the matter?"
"Ho!" said he. "Is it as bad as that? As bad as that?" said he. "If ye go to the mines to dig coal, they will use that coal to make ammunition for their guns! That seems a poor alternative! They fight as much with ammunition as with men!"
"Sahib," said I, "it is worse than that! They seek to compel us to sign a paper, forswearing our allegiance to Great Britain and claiming allegiance to them! Should we sign it, that makes us out traitors in the first place, and makes us amenable to their law in the second place. They could shoot us if we disobeyed or demurred."
"They could do that in the mines," said he, "if you failed to dig enough coal to please them. They would call it punishment for malingering—or some such name. If they take it into their heads to have you all shot, doubt not they will shoot!"
"Yet in that case," said I, "we should not be traitors."
"I will tell you a story," said he, and we held our breath to listen, for this was his old manner. This had ever been his way of putting recruits at ease and of making a squadron understand. In that minute, for more than a minute, men forgot they had ever suspected him.
"When I was a little one," said he, "my mother's aunt, who was an old hag, told me this tale. There was a pack of wolves that hunted in a forest near a village. In the village lived a man who wished to be headman. Abdul was his name, and he had six sons. He wished to be headman that he might levy toll among the villagers for the up-keep of his sons, who were hungry and very proud. Now Abdul was a cunning hunter, and his sons were strong. So he took thought, and chose a season carefully, and set his sons to dig a great trap. And so well had Abdul chosen—so craftily the six sons dug— that one night they caught all that wolf-pack in the trap. And they kept them in the trap two days and a night, that they might hunger and thirst and grow amenable.
"Then Abdul leaned above the pit, and peered down at the wolves and began to bargain with them. 'Wolves,' said he, 'your fangs be long and your jaws be strong, and I wish to be headman of this village.' And they answered, 'Speak, Abdul, for these walls be high, and our throats be dry, and we wish to hunt again!' So he bade them promise that if he let them go they would seek and slay the present headman and his sons, so that he might be headman in his place. And the wolves promised. Then when he had made them swear by a hundred oaths in a hundred different ways, and had bound them to keep faith by God and by earth and sky and sea and by all the holy things he could remember, he stood aside and bade his six sons free the wolves.
"The sons obeyed, and helped the wolves out of the trap. And instantly the wolves fell on all six sons, and slew and devoured them. Then they came and stood round Abdul with their jaws dripping with blood.
"'Oh, wolves,' said he, trembling with fear and anger, 'ye are traitors! Ye are forsworn! Ye are faithless ones!'
"But they answered him, 'Oh, Abdul, shall he who knows not false from true judge treason?' and forthwith they slew him and devoured him, and went about their business.
"Now, which had the right of that—Abdul or the wolves?"
"We are no wolves!" said Gooja Singh in a whining voice. "We be true men!"
"Then I will tell you another story," Ranjoor Singh answered him. And we listened again, as men listen to the ticking of a clock. "This is a story the same old woman, my mother's aunt, told me when I was very little.
"There was a man—and this man's name also was Abdul—who owned a garden, and in it a fish-pond. But in the fish-pond were no fish. Abdul craved fish to swim hither and thither in his pond, but though he tried times out of number he could catch none. Yet at fowling he had better fortune, and when he was weary one day of fishing and laid his net on land he caught a dozen birds.
"'So-ho!' said Abdul, being a man much given to thought, and he went about to strike a bargain. 'Oh, birds,' said he, 'are ye willing to be fish? For I have no fishes swimming in my pond, yet my heart desires them greatly. So if ye are willing to be fish and will stay in my good pond and swim there, gladdening my eyes, I will abstain from killing you but instead will set you in the pond and let you live.'
"So the birds, who were very terrified, declared themselves willing to be fish, and the birds swore even more oaths than he insisted on, so that he was greatly pleased and very confident. Therefore he used not very much precaution when he came to plunge the birds into the water, and the instant he let go of them the birds with feathers scarcely wet flew away and perched on the trees about him.
"Then Abdul grew very furious. 'Oh, birds,' said he, 'ye are traitors. Ye are forsworn! Ye are liars—breakers of oaths—deceitful ones!' And he shook his fist at them and spat, being greatly enraged and grieved at their deception.
"But the birds answered him, 'Oh, Abdul, a captive's gyves* and a captive's oath are one, and he who rivets on the one must keep the other!' And the birds flew away, but Abdul went to seek his advocate to have the law of them! Now, what think ye was the advocate's opinion in the matter, and what remedy had Abdul?"
[* gyves—chains, shackles. The American Heritage Dictionary. ]
Has the sahib ever seen three hundred men all at the same time becoming conscious of the same idea? That is quite a spectacle. There was no whispering, nor any movement except a little shifting of the feet. There was nothing on which a watchful man could lay a finger. Yet between one second and the next they were not the same men, and I, who watched Ranjoor Singh's eyes as if he were my opponent in a duel, saw that he was aware of what had happened, although not surprised. But he made no sign except the shadow of one that I detected, and he did not change his voice—as yet.
"As for me," he said, telling a tale again, "I wrote once on the seashore sand and signed my name beneath. A day later I came back to look, but neither name nor words remained. I was what I had been, and stood where the sea had been, but what I had written in sand affected me not, neither the sea nor any man. Thought I, if one had lent me money on such a perishable note the courts would now hold him at fault, not me; they would demand evidence, and all he could show them would be what he had himself bargained for. Now it occurs to me that seashore sand, and the tricks of rogues, and blackmail, and tyranny perhaps are one!"
Eye met eye, all up and down both lines of men. There was swift searching of hearts, and some of the men at my end of the line began talking in low tones. So I spoke up and voiced aloud what troubled them.
"If we sign this paper, sahib," said I, "how do we know they will not find means of bringing it to the notice of the British?"
"We do not know," he answered. "Let us hope. Hope is a great good thing. If they chained us, and we broke the chains, they might send the broken links to London in proof of what thieves we be. Who would gain by that?"
I saw a very little frown now and knew that he judged it time to strike on the heated metal. But Gooja Singh turned his back on Ranjoor Singh.
"Let him sign this thing," said he, "and let us sign our names beneath his name. Then he will be in the same trap with us all, and must lead us out of it or perish with us!"
So Gooja Singh offered himself, all unintentionally, to be the scapegoat for us all and I have seldom seen a man so shocked by what befell him. Only a dozen words spoke Ranjoor Singh—yet it was as if he lashed him and left him naked. Whips and a good man's wrath are one.
"Who gave thee leave to yelp?" said he, and Gooja Singh faced about like a man struck. By order of the Germans he and I stood in the place of captains on parade, he on the left and I on the right.
"To your place!" said Ranjoor Singh.
Gooja Singh stepped back into line with me, but Ranjoor Singh was not satisfied.
"To your place in the rear!" he ordered. And so I have seen a man who lost a lawsuit slink round a corner of the court.
Then I spoke up, being stricken with self-esteem at the sight of Gooja Singh's shame (for I always knew him to be my enemy).
"Sahib," said I, "shall I pass down the line and ask each man whether he will sign what the Germans ask?"
"Aye!" said he, "like the carrion crows at judgment! Halt!" he ordered, for already I had taken the first step. "When I need to send a havildar,"* said he, "to ask my men's permission, I will call for a havildar! To the rear where you belong!" he ordered. And I went round to the rear, knowing something of Gooja Singh's sensations, but loving him no better for the fellow-feeling. When my footfall had altogether ceased and there was silence in which one could have heard an insect falling to the ground, Ranjoor Singh spoke again. "There has been enough talk," said he. "In pursuance of a plan, I intend to sign whatever the Germans ask. Those who prefer not to sign what I sign—fall out! Fall out, I say!"
[* havildar—in the British Indian armies, a noncommissioned officer of native soldiers, corresponding to a sergeant. For more information, see the Wikipedia article Havildar. ]
Not a man fell out, sahib. But that was not enough for Ranjoor Singh.
"Those who intend to sign the paper,—two paces forward,— march!" said he. And as one man we took two paces forward.
"So!" said he. "Right turn!" And we turned to the right. "Forward! Quick march!" he ordered. And he made us march twice in a square about him before he halted us again and turned us to the front to face him. Then he was fussy about our alignment, making us take up our dressing half a dozen times; and when he had us to his satisfaction finally he stood eying us for several minutes before turning his back and striding with great dignity toward the gate.
He talked through the gate and very soon a dozen Germans entered, led by two officers in uniform and followed by three soldiers carrying a table and a chair. The table was set down in their midst, facing us, and the senior German officer—in a uniform with a very high collar—handed a document to Ranjoor Singh. When he had finished reading it to himself he stepped forward and read it aloud to us. It was in Punjabi, excellently rendered, and the gist of it was like this:
We, being weary of British misrule, British hypocrisy, and British arrogance, thereby renounced allegiance to Great Britain, its king and government, and begged earnestly to be permitted to fight on the side of the Central Empires in the cause of freedom. It was expressly mentioned, I remember, that we made this petition of our own initiative and of our own free will, no pressure having been brought to bear on us, and nothing but kindness having been offered us since we were taken prisoners.
"That is what we are all required to sign," said Ranjoor Singh, when he had finished reading, and he licked his lips in a manner I had never seen before.
Without any further speech to us, he sat down at the table and wrote his name with a great flourish on the paper, setting down his rank beside his name. Then he called to me, and I sat and wrote my name below his, adding my rank also. And Gooja Singh followed me. After him, in single file, came every surviving man of Outram's Own. Some men scowled, and some men laughed harshly, and if one of our race had been watching on the German behalf he would have been able to tell them something. But the Germans mistook the scowls for signs of anger at the British, and the laughter they mistook for rising spirits, so that the whole affair passed off without arousing their suspicion.
Nevertheless, my heart warned me that the Germans would not trust a regiment seduced as we were supposed to have been. And, although Ranjoor Singh had had his way with us, the very having had destroyed the reawakening trust in him. The troopers felt that he had led them through the gates of treason. I could feel their thoughts as a man feels the breath of coming winter on his cheek.
When the last man had signed we stood at attention and a wagonload of rifles was brought in, drawn by oxen. They gave a rifle to each of us, and we were made to present arms while the German military oath was read aloud. After that the Germans walked away as if they had no further interest. Only Ranjoor Singh remained, and he gave us no time just then for comment or discontent.
The Mauser rifles were not so very much unlike our own, and he set us to drilling with them, giving us patient instruction but very little rest until evening. During the longest pause in the drill he sent for knapsacks and served us one each, filled down to the smallest detail with everything a soldier could need, even to a little cup that hung from a hook beneath one corner. We were utterly worn out when he left us at nightfall, but there was a lot of talking nevertheless before men fell asleep.
"This is the second time he has trapped us in deadly earnest!" was the sum of the general complaint they hurled at me. And I had no answer to give them, knowing well that if I took his part I should share his condemnation— which would not help him; neither would it help them nor me.
"My thought, of going to the mines and being troublesome, was best!" said I. "Ye overruled me. Now ye would condemn me for not preventing you! Ye are wind blowing this way and that!"
They were so busy defending themselves to themselves against that charge that they said no more until sleep fell on them; and at dawn Ranjoor Singh took hold of us again and made us drill until our feet burned on the gravel and our ears were full of the tramp-tramp-tramp, and the ek-do-tin* of manual exercise.
[* ek-do-tin (Hindi)—one-two-three.]
"Listen!" said he to me, when he had dismissed us for dinner, and I lingered on parade. "Caution the men that any breach of discipline would be treated under German military law by drum-head court martial and sentence of death by shooting. Advise them to avoid indiscretions of any kind," said he.
So I passed among them, pretending the suggestion was my own, and they resented it, as I knew they would. But I observed from about that time they began to look on Ranjoor Singh as their only possible protector against the Germans, so that their animosity against him was offset by self-interest.
The next day came a staff officer who marched us to the station, where a train was waiting. Impossible though it may seem, sahib, to you who listen, I felt sad when I looked back at the huts that had been our prison, and I think we all did. We had loathed them with all our hearts all summer long, but now they represented what we knew and we were marching away from them to what we knew not, with autumn and winter brooding on our prospects.
Not all our wounded had been returned to us; some had died in the German hospitals ... Two hundred-and-three-and-thirty of us all told, including Ranjoor Singh, lined up on the station platform—fit and well and perhaps a little fatter than was seemly.
Having no belongings other than the rifles and knapsacks and what we stood in it took us but a few moments to entrain. Almost at once the engine whistled and we were gone, wondering whither. Some of the troopers shouted to Ranjoor Singh to ask our destination, but he affected not to hear. The German staff officer rode in the front compartment alone, and Ranjoor Singh rode alone in the next behind him; but they conversed often through the window, and at stations where the two of them got out to stretch their legs along the platform they might have been brothers-in-blood relating love-affairs. Our troopers wondered.
"Our fox grows grey," said they, "and his impudence increases."
"Would it help us out of this predicament," said I, "if he smote that German in the teeth and spat on him?"
They laughed at that and passed the remark along from window to window, until I roared at them to keep their heads in. There were seven of us non- commissioned officers, and we rode in one compartment behind the officers' carriage, Gooja Singh making much unpleasantness because there was not enough room for us all to lie full length at once. We were locked into our compartment, and the only chance we had of speaking with Ranjoor Singh was when they brought us food at stations and he strode down the train to see that each man had his share.
"What is our destination?" we asked him then, repeatedly.
"If ye be true men," he answered, "why are ye troubled about destination? Can the truth lead you into error? Do I seem afraid?" said he.
That was answer enough if we had been the true men we claimed to be, and he gave us no other. So we watched the sun and tried to guess roughly, I recalling all the geography I ever knew, yet failing to reach conclusions that satisfied myself or any one. We knew that Turkey was in the war, and we knew that Bulgaria was not. Yet we traveled eastward, and southeastward.
I know now that we traveled over the edge of Germany into Austria, through Austria into Hungary, and through a great part of Hungary to the River Danube, growing so weary of the train that I for one looked back to the Flanders trenches as to long-lost happiness! Every section of line over which we traveled was crowded with traffic, and dozens of German regiments kept passing and re-passing us. Some cheered us and some were insulting, but all of them regarded us with more or less astonishment.
The Austrians were more openly curious about us than the Germans had been, and some of them tried to get into conversation, but this was not encouraged; when they climbed on the footboards to peer through the windows and ask us questions officers ordered them away.
Of all the things we wondered at on that long ride, the German regiments impressed us most. Those that passed and repassed us were mostly artillery and infantry, and surely in all the world before there never were such regiments as those—with the paint worn off their cannon, and their clothes soiled, yet with an air about them of successful plunderers, confident to the last degree of arrogance in their own efficiency—not at all like British regiments, nor like any others that I ever saw. It was Ranjoor Singh who drew my attention to the fact that regiments passing us in one direction would often pass us again on their way back, sometimes within the day.
"As shuttles in a loom!" said he. "As long as they can do that they can fight on a dozen fronts." His words set me wondering so that I did not answer him. He was speaking through our carriage window and I stared out beyond him at a train-load of troops on the far side of the station.
"One comes to us," said I. I was watching a German sergeant, who had dragged his belongings from that train and was crossing toward us.
"Aye!" said Ranjoor Singh, so that I knew now there had been purpose in his visit. "Beware of him." Then he unlocked the carriage door and waited for the German. The German came, and cursed the man who bore his baggage, and halted before Ranjoor Singh, staring into his face with a manner of impudence new to me. Ranjoor Singh spoke about ten words to him in German and the sergeant there and then saluted very respectfully. I noticed that the German staff officer was watching all this from a little distance, and I think the sergeant caught his eye.
At any rate, the sergeant made his man throw the baggage through our compartment door. The man returned to the other train. The sergeant climbed in next to me. Ranjoor Singh locked the door again, and both trains proceeded. When our train was beginning to gain speed the newcomer shoved me in the ribs abruptly with his elbow—thus.
"So much for knowing languages!" said he to me in fairly good Punjabi. "Curse the day I ever saw India, and triple-curse this system of ours that enabled them to lay finger on me in a moving train and transfer me to this funeral procession! Curse you, and curse this train, and curse all Asia!" Then he thrust me in the ribs again, as if that were a method of setting aside formality.
"You know Cawnpore?" said he, and I nodded.
"You know the Kaiser-I-Hind Saddle Factory?"
I nodded again, being minded to waste no words because of Ranjoor Singh's warning.
"I took a job as foreman there twenty years ago because the pay was good. I lived there fifteen years until I was full to the throat of India— Indian food, Indian women, Indian drinks, Indian heat, Indian smells, Indian everything. I hated it, and threw up the job in the end. Said I to myself, 'Thank God,' said I, 'to see the last of India.' And I took passage on a German steamer and drank enough German beer on the way to have floated two ships her size! Echt deutsches Bier, you understand," said he, nudging me in the ribs with each word. Echt means real, as distinguished from the export stuff in bottles. "I drank it by the barrel, straight off ice, and it went to my head!
"That must be why I boasted about knowing Indian languages before I had been two hours in port. I was drunk, and glad to be home, and on the lookout for another job to keep from starving; so I boasted I could speak and write Urdu and Punjabi. That brought me employment in an export house. But who would have guessed it would end in my being dragged away from my regiment to march with a lot of Sikhs? Eh? Who would have guessed it? There goes my regiment one way, and here go I another! What's our destination? God knows! Who are you, and what are you? God neither knows nor cares! What's to be the end of this? The end of me, I expect—and all because I got drunk on the way home! It I get alive out of this," said he, "I'll get drunk once for the glory of God and then never touch beer again!"
And he struck me on the thigh with his open palm. The noise was like powder detonating, and the pain was acute. I cursed him in his teeth and he grinned at me as if he and I were old friends. Little blue eyes he had, sahib —light blue, set in full red cheeks. There were many little red veins crisscrossed under the skin of his face, and his breath smelt of beer and tobacco. I judged he had the physical strength of a buffalo, although doubtless short of wind.
He had very little hair. Such as he had was yellow, but clipped so short that it looked white. His yellow mustache was turned up thus at either corner of his mouth; and the mouth was not unkind, not without good humor.
"What is your name?" said I.
"Tugendheim," said he. "I am Sergeant Fritz Tugendheim, of the 281 (Pappenheim) Regiment of Infantry, and would God I were with my regiment! What do they call you?"
"Hira Singh," said I.
"And your rank?"
"Havildar," said I.
"Oh-ho!" said he. "So you're all non-commissioned in here, are you? Seven of you, eh? Seven is a lucky number! Well—" He looked us each slowly in the face, narrowing his eyes so that we could scarcely see them under the yellow lashes. "Well," said he, "they won't mistake me for any of you, nor any of you for me—not even if I should grow whiskers!"
He laughed at that joke for about two minutes, slapping me on the thigh again and laughing all the louder when I showed my teeth. Then he drew out a flask of some kind of pungent spirits from his pocket, and offered it to me. When I refused he drank the whole of it himself and flung the glass flask through the window. Then he settled himself in the corner from which he had ousted me, put his feet on the edge of the seat opposite, and prepared to sleep. But before very long our German staff officer shouted for him and he went in great haste, a station official opening the door for him and locking us in again afterward. He rode for hours with the staff officer and Gooja Singh examined the whole of his kit, making remarks on each piece, to the great amusement of us all.
He came back before night to sleep in our compartment, but before he came I had taken opportunity to pass word through the window to the troopers in the carriage next behind.
"Ranjoor Singh," said I, "warns us all to be on guard against this German. He is a spy set to overhear our talk."
That word went all down the train from, window to window and it had some effect, for during all the days that followed Tugendheim was never once able to get between us and our thoughts, although he tried a thousand times.
Night followed day, and day night. Our train crawled, and waited, and crawled, and waited, and we in our compartment grew weary to the death of Tugendheim. A thousand times I envied Ranjoor Singh alone with his thoughts in the next compartment; and so far was he from suffering because of solitude that he seemed to keep more and more apart from us, only passing swiftly down the train at meal-times to make sure we all had enough to eat and that there were no sick.
I reached the conclusion myself that we were being sent to fight against the Russians, and I know not what the troopers thought; they were beginning to be like caged madmen. But suddenly we reached a broad river I knew must be the Danube and were allowed at last to leave the train. We were so glad to move about again that any news seemed good news, and when Ranjoor Singh, after much talk with our staff officer and some other Germans, came and told us that Bulgaria had joined the war on the side of the Central Powers, we laughed and applauded.
"That means that our road lies open before us," Ranjoor Singh said darkly.
"Our road whither?" said I.
"To Stamboul!" said he.
"What are we to do at Stamboul?" asked Gooja Singh, and the staff officer, whose name I never knew, heard him and came toward us.
"At Stamboul," said he, in fairly good Punjabi, "you will strike a blow beside our friends, the Turks. Not very far from Stamboul you shall be given opportunity for vengeance on the British. The next-to-the-last stage of your journey lies through Bulgaria, and the beginning of it will be on that steamer."
We saw the steamer, lying with its nose toward the bank. It was no very big one for our number, but they marched us to it, Ranjoor Singh striding at our head as if all the world were unfolding before him, and all were his. We were packed on board and the steamer started at once, Ranjoor Singh and the staff officer sharing the upper part with the steamer's captain, and Tugendheim elbowing us for room on the open deck. So we journeyed for a whole day and part of a night down the Danube, Tugendheim pointing out to me things I should observe along the route, but grumbling vastly at separation from his regiment.
"You bloody Sikhs!" said he. "I would rather march with lice—yet what can I do? I must obey orders. See that castle!" There were many castles, sahib, at bends and on hilltops overlooking the river. "They built that," said he, "in the good old days before men ever heard of Sikhs. Life was worth while in those days, and a man lived a lifetime with his regiment!"
"Ah!" said I, choosing not to take offense; for one fool can make trouble that perhaps a thousand wise men can not still. If he had thought, he must have known that we Sikhs spend a lifetime with our regiments, and therefore know more about such matters than any German reservist. But he was little given to thought, although not ill-humored in intention.
"Behold that building!" said he. "That looks like a brewery! Consider the sea of beer they brew there once a month, and then think of your oath of abstinence and what you miss!"
So he talked, ever nudging me in the ribs until I grew sore and my very gorge revolted at his foolishness. So we sailed, passing along a river that at another time would have delighted me beyond power of speech. A day and a night we sailed, our little steamer being one of a fleet all going one way. Tugs and tugs and tugs there were, all pulling strings of barges. It was as if all the tugs and barges out of Austria were hurrying with all the plunder of Europe God knew whither.
"Whither are they taking all this stuff?" I asked Ranjoor Singh when he came down among us to inspect our rations. He and I stood together at the stern, and I waved my arm to designate the fleet of floating things. We were almost the only troops, although there were soldiers here and there on the tugs and barges, taking charge and supervising.
"To Stamboul," said he. "Bulgaria is in. The road to Stamboul is open."
"Sahib," said I, "I know you are true to the raj. I know the surrender in Flanders was the only course possible for one to whom the regiment had been entrusted. I know this business of taking the German side is all pretense. Are we on the way to Stamboul?"
"Aye," said he.
"What are we to do at Stamboul?" I asked him.
"If you know all you say you know," said he, "why let the future trouble you?"
"Nay," said he, "there can be no 'but.' There is false and true. The one has no part in the other. What say the men?"
"They are true to the raj," said I.
"All of them?" he asked.
"Nay, sahib," said I. "Not quite all of them, but almost all."
He nodded. "We shall discover before long which are false and which are true," said he, and then he left me.
So I told the men that we were truly on our way to Stamboul, and there began new wondering and new conjecturing. The majority decided at once that we were to be sent to Gallipoli to fight beside the Turks in the trenches there, and presently they all grew very determined to put no obstacle in the Germans' way but to go to Gallipoli with good will. Once there, said they all, it should be easy to cross to the British trenches under cover of the darkness.
"We will take Ranjoor Singh with us," they said darkly. "Then he can make explanation of his conduct in the proper time and place!" I saw one man hold his turban end as if it were a bandage over his eyes, and several others snapped their fingers to suggest a firing party. Many of the others laughed. Men in the dark, thought I, are fools to do anything but watch and listen. Outlines change with the dawn, thought I, and I determined to reserve my judgment on all points except one—that I set full faith in Ranjoor Singh. But the men for the most part had passed judgment and decided on a plan; so it came about that there was no trouble in the matter of getting them to Stamboul—or Constantinople, as Europeans call it.
At a place in Bulgaria whose name I have forgotten we disembarked and became escort to a caravan of miscellaneous stores, proceeding by forced marches over an abominable road. And after I forget how many days and nights we reached a railway and were once more packed into a train. Throughout that march, although we traversed wild country where any or all of us might easily have deserted among the mountains, Ranjoor Singh seemed so well to understand our intention that he scarcely troubled himself to call the roll. He sat alone by a little fire at night, and slept beside it wrapped in an overcoat and blanket. And when we boarded a train again he was once more alone in a compartment to himself. Once more I was compelled to sit next to Tugendheim.
I grew no fonder of Tugendheim, although he made many efforts to convince me of his friendship, making many prophetic statements to encourage me.
"Soon," said he, "you shall have your bayonet in the belly of an Englishman! You will be revenged in them for '57!" My grandfather fought for the British in '57, sahib, and my father, who was little more than old enough to run, carried food to him where he lay on the Ridge before Delhi, the British having little enough food at that time to share among their friends. But I said nothing, and Tugendheim thought I was impressed—as indeed I was. "You will need to fight like the devil," said he, "for if they catch you they'll skin you!"
Partly he wished to discover what my thoughts were, and partly, I think, his intention was to fill me with fighting courage; and, since it would not have done to keep silence altogether, I began to project the matter further and to talk of what might be after the war should have been won. I made him believe that the hope of all us Sikhs was to seek official employment under the German government; and he made bold to prophesy a good job for every one of us. We spent hours discussing what nature of employment would best be suited to our genius, and he took opportunity at intervals to go to the staff officer and acquaint him with all that I had said. By the time we reached Stamboul at last I was more weary of him than an ill-matched bullock of its yoke.
But we did reach Stamboul in the end, on a rainy morning, and marched wondering through its crooked streets, scarcely noticed by the inhabitants. Men seemed afraid to look long at us, but glanced once swiftly and passed on. German officers were everywhere, many of them driven in motor-cars at great speed through narrow thoroughfares, scattering people to right and left; the Turkish officers appeared to treat them with very great respect— although I noticed here and there a few who looked indifferent, and occasionally others who seemed to me indignant.
The mud, though not so bad as that in Flanders, was nearly as depressing. The rain chilled the air, and shut in the view, and few of us had very much sense of direction that first day in Stamboul. Tugendheim, marching behind us, kept up an incessant growl. Ranjoor Singh, striding in front of us with the staff officer at his side, shook the rain from his shoulders and said nothing.
We were marched to a ferry and taken across what I know now was the Golden Horn; and there was so much mist on the water that at times we could scarcely see the ferry. Many troopers asked me if we were not already on our way to Gallipoli, and I, knowing no more than they, bade them wait and see.
On the other side of the Golden Horn we were marched through narrow streets, uphill, uphill, uphill to a very great barrack and given a section of it to ourselves. Ranjoor Singh was assigned private quarters in a part of the building used by many German officers for their mess. Not knowing our tongue, those officers were obliged to converse with him in English, and I observed many times with what distaste they did so, to my great amusement. I think Ranjoor Singh was also much amused by that, for he grew far better humored and readier to talk.
Sahib, that barrack was like a zoo—like the zoo I saw once at Baroda, with animals of all sorts in it!—a great yellow building within walls, packed with Kurds and Arabs and Syrians of more different tribes than a man would readily believe existed in the whole world. Few among them could talk any tongue that we knew, but they were full of curiosity and crowded round us to ask questions; and when Gooja Singh shouted aloud that we were Sikhs from India they produced a man who seemed to think he knew about Sikhs, for he stood on a step and harangued them for ten minutes, they listening with all their ears.
Then came a Turk from the German officers' mess—we were all standing in the rain in an open court between four walls—and he told them truly who we were. Doubtless he added that we were in revolt against the British, for they began to welcome us, shouting and dancing about us, those who could come near enough taking our hands and saying things we could not understand.
Presently they found a man who knew some English, and, urged by them, he began to fill our ears with information. During our train journey I had amused myself for many weary hours by asking Tugendheim for details of the fighting he had seen and by listening to the strings of lies he thought fit to narrate. But what Tugendheim had told were almost truths compared to this man's stories; in place of Tugendheim's studied vagueness there was detail in such profusion that I can not recall now the hundredth part of it.
He told us the British fleet had long been rusting at the bottom of the sea, and that all the British generals and half the army were prisoners in Berlin. Already the British were sending tribute money to their conquerors, and the principal reason why the war continued was that the British could not find enough donkeys to carry all the gold to Berlin, and to prevent trickery of any kind the fighting must continue until the last coin should have been counted.
The British and French, he told us, were all to be compelled, at the point of the sword, to turn Mohammedan, and France was being scoured that minute for women to grace the harems of the Kaiser and his sons and generals, all of whom had long ago accepted Islam. The Kaiser, indeed, had become the new chief of Islam.
I asked him about the fighting in Gallipoli, and lie said that was a bagatelle. "When we shall have driven the remnants of those there into the sea," said he, "one part of us will march to conquer Egypt and the rest will be sent to garrison England and France."
When he had done and we were all under cover at last I repeated to the men all that this fool had said, and they were very much encouraged; for they reasoned that if the Turks and Germans needed to fill up their men with such lies as those, then they must have a poor case indeed. With our coats off, and a meal before us, and the mud and rain for-gotten, we all began to feel almost happy; and while we were in that mood Ranjoor Singh came to us with Tugendheim at his heels.
"The plan now is to keep us here a week," said he. "After that to send us to Gallipoli by steamer."
Sahib, there was uproar! Men could scarcely eat for the joy of getting in sight of British lines again—or rather for joy of the promise of it. They almost forgot to suspect Ranjoor Singh in that minute, but praised him to his face and even made much of Tugendheim.
But I, who followed Ranjoor Singh between the tables in case he should have any orders to give, noticed particularly that he did not say we were going to Gallipoli. He said, "The plan now is to send us to Gallipoli." The trade of a leader of squadrons, thought I, is to confound the laid plans of the enemy and to invent unexpected ones of his own.
"The day we land in Gallipoli behind the Turkish trenches," said I to myself, "is unlikely to be yet if Ranjoor Singh lives."
And I was right, sahib. But If I had been given a thousand years in which to do it, I never could have guessed how Ranjoor Singh would lead us out of the trap. Can the sahib guess?