ON THE OLD SALT ROAD.
By F. A. STEEL.*
AFTER the discussion on a certain story told by the gray man had reached dissolution point from sheer want of coherence, I observed that the Major—though still standing in his usual place by the fire—was looking into the embers instead of warming his coat tails at them. This fact, and the expression of his face, convinced me that he had forgotten the present in some past experience.
“The Major remembers a story,” I remarked aloud. He looked up with a smile.
“I must have a very transparent face,” he said, “but it is quite true. I have been wondering if I ought not to tell you something that happened to some one—to me, in fact—a great many years ago. It seems to me that I ought. You see most of you are inclined to scoff at the story we have just heard; unwilling to allow anything but a rational explanation of the mysterious summons. I am not, simply because I happen to have had certain experiences which most of you have not had. The question therefore arises as to whether I am not bound to give my evidence, and so, perhaps, prevent you from forming a hasty judgment?”
He looked inquiringly round the room, but no one spoke. We were so much accustomed to accept the Major's decisions as, above all things, equitable, that we were content to let him arrive at one unbiased by our views. During the pause which followed I found myself thinking, that weight for weight, inches for inches, brains for brains, I knew no man who had made a better use of life than our Major. Not over clever, certainly not handsome, handicapped heavily by having to start at scratch in worldly matters, he had a distinct personality of his own, which influenced every society he entered. You felt somehow that your estimate of that society rose from his presence, and that he brought an element of sound, healthy strength of heart and mind into the mêlée which you would not willingly spare from the struggle for existence. It came to this. Had he not been there the world would have been the worse for his absence; high praise, indeed, for any man.
“Yes!” continued the Major after a pause, “I'll have to tell my tale like the Ancient Mariner; and if in so doing I bore you with a few uninteresting confidences about myself, I can't help it. You shall have as little of them as possible.”
He was so long settling himself in a chair, pulling up his trousers in his careful economical way, and poking the fire that our attention had begun to waver, when his opening words startled us into renewed curiosity.
“I don't suppose,” he began, “that any of you know I am a widower; but I am. My wife died a year after our marriage; and the child too—a girl. If you search the whole wide world through you won't find a more desolate creature than a boy of two-and-twenty coming back alone in a strange country from the grave of his wife and child. Perhaps, as Rudyard Kipling says, he has no business to have a wife and child. Anyhow he feels a mistake somewhere in the universe when he tries to behave like a man in the little drawing-room she made so pretty. The twopenny-halfpenny fans put up to hide the bare walls—the little dodges to make the sticks of furniture look nice which seemed to you so clever and over which you have both laughed so often—the unused basket thing done up with lace and frills over which she was so happy that last evening, while you sat by wondering it it could be true, and that your child would lie amongst the dainty furbelows. Well! I suppose it has to be sometimes—but it drove me mad. I was like the boy in another of Kipling's tales, and could think of nothing but death to end it all; just to creep away and die by myself somewhere. I did not want so much to be dead, but to be quite alone—by myself. You see I had lost everything—for ever—and the rest of the stupid world drove me wild with impatience.
So I went out on leave to the old Salt Road which ran right across the loneliest part of the district. Perhaps some of you don't know what a Salt Road is? Simply the Customs line which in old days used to be patrolled day and night in order to prevent smuggling. The cactus hedge had been cut down when the protection system was given up, but the road behind it was still passable, and the patrol houses, more or less dilapidated, stood at intervals of ten or twelve miles. I had seen some of them when out on shooting expeditions, and the remembrance of their desolation came back on me now with a sort of fascination.
After I settled to go, I used to lie awake wondering which of them would be the place. Not the first. That was within hail of other people and help; besides I could not so soon get rid of the servant whom I had to take with me in order to avoid suspicion. My plan was to send the man on early with orders to do two stages, and have everything ready for me at night in bungalow Number Three; then I should have all the day to myself. Would it be bungalow Number Two, at noon, I wondered? As there were five patrol houses in all, it would most likely be Two, or Four; but if I liked any of the others better I could easily find some excuse for getting rid of the servant.
This may seem unnatural, but I was really quite mad with a sort of rage and spite against everything and everybody; so utterly absorbed in myself that I felt as if I were taking a revenge on life by quitting it. My own pain being the axis of the universe, the world must surely be the loser by its removal. In fact my mental position at this time might be fairly represented by that of a man quitting a pleasant society because some one has been rude to him. I had no hopes of bettering my condition; I simply wanted to show my resentment.
I don't believe I ever slept sounder in my life than on the first night after leaving cantonments. Perhaps it was the change; but I remember being disappointed and disgusted with myself when I woke to find broad daylight streaming in through the broken windows of Number One. My servant according to his orders had started at dawn, for the weather was still hot enough to make early marching necessary. He had, however, left me a bottle of cold tea and some provisions which I ate with appetite. And now comes a curious thing. Though I had quite made up my mind to face death, and all the dangers it might bring, I positively hesitated about starting for a ten mile walk in the sun from fear of heat apoplexy. It was very unreasonable, but it shows the force of habit. After I had decided on remaining where I was till the evening, I walked round the tumble-down mud building, wondering if it would do for the final tableau. It did not please me; so I lay down and slept, feeling that I ought really to have remained awake and brooded over my grief. But an unconquerable drowsiness was upon me, making me sleep like a child. How well I remember the ten-mile walk to the next bungalow! The afternoon shadows lengthened across the half effaced road as I tramped along in solitary silence. I had nothing with me save my revolver and a small writing case with which to inscribe my last words of defiance. My thoughts were full of what these should be, for I had now quite made up my mind that bungalow Number Two was to be the place, and that a very short time would rid me of all my foes. I felt distinctly easier than I had done before, and being as it were wound up to tragedy pitch, the cheerful appearance of Number Two as I came up to it in the sunset, disappointed me. In cutting down the thorn and cactus hedge they had, as usual, left the kikar bushes, and these had grown into trees forming an avenue, while a few more shaded the house itself. This was also far less dilapidated than Number One; not only were the doors and windows intact, but at a few of them still hung the usual reed blinds or chicks. As I wandered round the house before entering it, I noticed what one might call the graves of a garden. Broken mounds of earth giving a reminiscence of walks and beds, with here and there a globe amaranth doing chief mourner. Evidently bungalow Number Two had been the permanent residence of a patrol. It annoyed me to find myself wondering if he had had a wife and child, so I hastily entered the centre room, determined to put an end to all useless sympathies without delay. To my surprise it contained a few half-broken sticks of furniture; but telling myself that it would make my last task easier, I laid my revolver on the table and taking out my case sat down to write. Again I felt curiously drowsy more than once I rested my head on my hands and rubbed my eyes in the endeavour to collect my thoughts.
[Illustration: “IF I OUGHT NOT TO TELL YOU SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED TO SOME ONE—TO ME IN FACT A GREAT MANY YEARS AGO.”]
A sudden increase of light in the room, visible even through my shading fingers, made me look up. The chick was turned aside, and, holding it back with one chubby hand stood a little child about three years old. I think, without exception, the loveliest little girl I ever saw. great mischievous brown eyes, and fluffy curls of that pale gold which turns black in after years. She raised her hand from le door-jamb, and placed her finger to her ps, brimming over with laughter.
“Hush!! Ma-mas a-teep. Dot's 'un away.”
Such a ripple of a voice, musical with happiness. I was always fond of, and this one was of the sort any man would notice—perhaps covet. I laid down my pen, forgetful of interruption.
“Dot has run away, has she? That's very naughty of Dot, isn't it? But as she has run away she had better come in here. You are not afraid of me, are you?”
She was already in the room; then I noticed for the first time that she was in her nightgown. A straight white thing like they put the angels into, and her small bare feet made no noise on the floor.
“Dot's not af'aid. Dot's never af'aid. Dot's a b'aave girl. Dada says so.”
She spoke more to herself than to me, and the words were evidently a formula well known and often repeated.
“Who is Dada?” I asked, feeling the first curiosity that had had power to touch me for many days.
Dot had raised herself to the level of the table with her tiny hands, and now stood on tiptoe opposite me. Her fair curls framed her face, as her laughing brown eyes fixed themselves on my revolver.
“Dada's?” she said, coaxingly. “Dot wants to make a puff-puff-boom.”
The childish words evoked a quick horror, why, I cannot tell; but a sudden vision of myself as I should be in that lonely room after the dull report rose up and blinded me. Somehow the coaxing babyish phrase filled me with an awful revulsion of feeling. My head sank into my hands; when I raised it the child had gone.
I went into the verandah uncertain what to do. The room next mine had a chick also, so that I could not see in from the outside, but from within came a low crooning song like a lullaby. Every now and again little bursts of a child's voice. Dot, no doubt, recaptured and soothed to sleep. It was evident that the bungalow was occupied by others beside myself, for in the gathering dusk I thought I saw some white forms flitting about the servants' quarters. I wondered faintly at the latter, for I had a half recollection of noticing that the huts were entirely in ruins. My mind, however, had now reverted to its original purpose with increased strength, and I returned to the room considering what had best be done. The child's words, “Dot's not af'aid! Dot wants to make a puff-puff-boom,” would not keep out of my head. After all, was it not only another way of phrasing my own desire? I was not afraid. Not afraid of what? Amid these questionings one thing was certain. It could not be bungalow Number Two—— I would not frighten the child. Ah no! I could not frighten Dot for ever with the awful puff-puff-boom I had set myself to make.
It must therefore be Number Four, so I packed up my writing things and set off to rejoin my servant at Number Three. How childish we are! As I trudged along I caught myself smiling more than once over the recollection of Dot's mischievous face at the door. My servant was patiently awaiting my arrival beside the dinner he had cooked for me. Supposing I had not turned up—according to my original plan—he would have waited calmly all night long, keeping his “clear soup, chikkun cutlet, custel puddeen” hot for a dead man. I must have been less mad, for the humour of the idea struck me at the time, and I laughed. He gravely asked why I had not brought on my pillow and sheets, and I laughed again as I told him I meant to do without them in the future. Everything was clear now. Fate had settled on Number Four, so there was nothing to worry or hustle about. I bade him call me early, determined this time to have all the day to myself. Then I fell asleep to dream the night long of Dot and the revolver. Indeed my thoughts were so full of her, that even when I woke I fancied, more than once, that I heard her voice in the verandah, though I knew it could only be a trick of fancy, for the bungalow was a perfect wreck, and even the room I occupied had but half a roof.
It must have been about eleven o'clock ere I reached Number Four, which stood off the road a little and was much smaller than any of the other bungalows. Indeed it consisted of but two rooms opening the one into the other. It looked the very picture of desolation, planted square in the open with a single kikar tree struggling for life in one corner of the inclosure. Yet it was the best preserved of all the patrol-houses; perhaps because of its smaller size and greater compactness. Anyhow it needed little to fit it for habitation, and as I found out afterwards it was constantly used by the civil officers when on their tours of inspection. At the time, however, I was surprised to find signs of recent occupation about it in the shape of earthen pots and half burnt sticks in a mud fireplace. Going into the outer room I found it contained, like Number Two, a few bits of furniture, and feeling weary I sat down by the table without looking into the other room, only a portion of which was visible through the half closed door.
Once more I laid my revolver beside me and took out my writing materials. I had just begun my task when a deadly disgust at the whole business came over me and I resolved to end everything without further delay. My hand sought the revolver, and fingered it mechanically to see if it were loaded. A sense of strangeness made me look at it, when, to my intense surprise, I found it was not my own weapon. This was an old-fashioned heavy revolver, and one of the chambers had evidently been recently fired. As I laid it down, astonished beyond measure, I saw my own on the table beside it!
Whose then was the other? Did it belong to some one else in the bungalow? Was I once more to be disturbed? I rose instinctively and pushed open the door leading into the inner room. To my still greater surprise I found it littered with half-open boxes and various things lying about in great confusion. A few common toys were on the floor; on the bare string-bed a bundle of bedding; on the table a heap of towels, and a basin of water ominously tinged with red. The fireplace was on the other side of the room beyond the table, and crouched beside it on the floor was a woman closely huddled up in a common grey shawl. She held something under its folds on her knee; something that drew breath in long gasping sighs with a fateful pause between them.
“I beg your pardon,” I stammered, intending to retire. Just then the woman looking up, showed me a young face, so wild with grief and terror that I paused irresolute.
“Will no one come!” she wailed, seeming to look past me with eyes blind with grief. “Oh God—dear God! will no one ever come?” Then as her face fell again over the burden on her lap she moaned like an animal in mortal agony. But above the moan I could still hear that curious gasping sigh. “Can I not help?” I asked. She gave no reply so I went up and stood beside her. Still she seemed unconscious of my presence, for once more came the wail. “Will nobody come? Oh my God! will nobody come to help?” “I have come,” I answered, touching her on the arm. She looked at me then, and a curious thrill made me feel quite dizzy for a moment. Perhaps that was the reason why both face and voice seemed to me changed and altered. Her eyes met mine doubtfully.
“You did not come before,” she said. “No one ever came—no one, no one.”
As I removed my hand she bent once more over her burden with the same piteous moan.
Evidently she was stupefied by horror and suspense, so I gently raised her shawl to see what was the matter.
Great heavens! What a sight! After all these years I seem to see it now. Fair silky curls dabbled in blood that welled up from under the handkerchief which the woman held convulsively to the little white breast. One chubby hand thrown out stiff and clenched; great brown eyes glazed and dim; gray lips where each gasping sigh sent a tinge of red.
“Dot,” I exclaimed, dropping on my knees the better to assure myself of the awful truth.
The familiar name seemed to rouse the wavering life.
“Dot's not af'aid. Dot—only—wanted to make—a puff-puff-boom.”
The words seemed to float in the air.
I heard them as in a dream; and as in a dream also came an insight into what had happened. Dada's revolver within reach of those tiny hands. Oh, Dot! poor little brave Dot! I felt helpless before the awful tragedy. Once I tried to take the child, but the woman resisted silently, nor could I get her to listen to my entreaties that she should at least move to an easier position. At last, seeing I could do nothing, and acknowledging sorrowfully that nothing I could do was likely to be of any avail, I contented myself with waiting beside her in silence, until the end. And as I waited a coherent story grew out of what I knew, and what I guessed. They had come on early that morning, the father on his way further afield, the mother and child to remain in the little bungalow till his return. Then all in a minute the accident; and then the only servant had been sent forth wildly for help whilst the wretched woman waited alone. Yes! that must have been it. So clear, so simple, so awful in its very simplicity.
There was not a sound in the house save at intervals the woman's moan, “Will no one ever come! Oh, God! will no one ever come!” and always distinct above it the child's gasping sigh with a soft rattle in it.
How long this lasted I cannot say. It was like some hideous nightmare, until suddenly the sighing ceased, and I became conscious of an immeasurable relief. Yet I knew the silence meant death.
The woman did not move or notice me in any way, so once more I touched her on the arm.
There is no need to watch longer,” I said; “Dot is asleep at last. It is your turn to rest. Give me the child, and believe me there is nothing to be done now.”
As before, she raised her face to mine, and the same thrill came over me as I recognised an unmistakable change in features and voice; a deadening of expression, a hardening of the tone into a certain fretfulness.
“But there is a great deal to be done,” she replied rapidly. “Oh! so much. How can you know? We must dig the grave under the kikar tree and bury her in the sand—for it is sand below, and it creeps and creeps into the grave and will not leave room for Dot. And the night must fall—oh, so dark!—before her father gets home. There will hardly be time to dig the little grave before sunrise; and it must be dug'—you know it must”—
Her words seemed to me wild and distraught. To soothe her I repeated that there was plenty of time.
She frowned, closed her eyes with one hand, and again replied in a curiously rapid, even tone.
“No! no! there never has been time. It is always a hurry. Out in the dark digging the grave, and the sand slipping, slipping, slipping till there is no room. I have done it,—oh! so many times.”
I was puzzled what to do or say. The wisest course seemed to leave her to herself until help arrived. So after one or two ineffectual attempts at consolation I went outside in despair to see if the assistance so sorely needed was not in sight. Surely it could not be delayed much longer. I was surprised to find how late it was: noon had long passed and cool shadows were stretching themselves athwart the parched ground. One, darker and cooler than the rest, lay eastward of the solitary kikar tree. Here it was that the little grave was to be dug if the mother's wish were fulfilled. Quite mechanically I strolled to the spot impelled by sad curiosity.
As I approached, the fragments of a low railing, half-standing, half-lying, in a small oblong, made me wonder if the inclosure had already been a resting-place. That might account for the mother's wish. Yes! there was a grave; a tiny grave no bigger than little Dot's would be, with a roughly-hewn cross as a headstone.
I bent to read the inscription:
OUR LITTLE DARLING DOT.
Dot! I Stood up with heart and brain in a whirl. Dot! 1840. Five and twenty years ago, and Dot had died but half-an-hour before. What did it mean? What did it mean?
A sudden fear of the solitude and silence of the place fell upon me. But for shame I would have turned tail on it then and there. As it was, scorn of my own suspicions made me return to the house. How still it was! how desolate. I remember standing at the outer door listening in vain for some sound within; I remember seeing my revolver and writing case on the table in the outer room; I remember nerving myself to push open the inner door, but I remember no more.
They told me in hospital that I must have tripped over the broken flooring between the two rooms, and in falling have cut my head against the lintel.
Perhaps I did. Perhaps I didn't. I only know that something—God knows what—stood between me and my madness, so that when I came to myself it was gone for ever. In its place had grown up a craving to live—to hear, to see, to know, to understand.
As I got better I used to lie and cry like a woman. Then the other fellows would say it was all weakness, and that I must be a man and bear up. And sometimes I would lie and smile. Then they said I was a trump with more pluck than they had. And as often as not I wasn't thinking of myself or my own troubles at all, but of brave little Dot and her desire for a puff-puff-boom.
They sent me down the Indus to Bombay, so as to avoid the rattle of the train, for my head was still weak. We stuck on a sand bank at Sukkhur, being made unmanageable by two flats we were towing. They were laden mostly with cargo, but carried a good many third-class passengers. I don't know why I had risen from my sick bed full of a great curiosity, but I had. Somehow I never seemed to have looked at life before, whereas now everything interested me. So I went down to the flats and talked to the people. There was a cabin on one, carrying a few second-class passengers, and as I was walking along a gangway between some bales I saw an Englishwoman, holding a child on her lap. The crouching attitude struck me as familiar, I stopped and spoke—about the weather or something. She looked up, and then I knew where I had seen that attitude, for it was Dot's mother. I don't think I should have recognised her—for she was an old woman with gray hair—but for the remembrance of the changed look which, as you may recollect, she had when I roused her in the bungalow by touching her arm.
“Is that your child?” I asked courteously, for poorly dressed as she was, her face was unmistakably refined. “No!” she replied; and I recognised the somewhat querulous voice. “It's my granddaughter, but I am as fond of her as if she were my own—almost.”
As she spoke she shifted the child's head higher up on her arm, and I saw a mass of fluffy light gold curls.
“Perhaps she reminds you of your own?” I continued at a venture, anxious only to make her talk.
A faint curiosity came to her worn face.
“It's funny you should say so—just as if you had seen our Dot. So like—so wonderfully like. Sometimes it seems as if she had come back again, yet it is five and twenty years since I lost her.”
“That is a long time.”
“A long, long time to remember, isn't it? And I've had so many and lost so many. But I never forgot Dot—she was so pretty! Ah, well! I daresay it would have been against her, poor lamb. 'Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain.'”
She lulled the child on her lap to deeper slumber with a gentle rocking. It seemed to me as if she were soothing regret to sleep also.
“She had curls like this one?” I remarked, cruelly anxious to keep her to the subject.
Once more she looked at me with that oddly familiar bewilderment.
“I can't think where I've seen you before,” she said after a pause. “I never met you in those old days, did I? Ah well! I've lived so long and travelled so far that I can't remember it all. Sometimes I seem to forget everything except what I see—and Dot. I never forget her. Only last month I was coming down the river not far from the place where the little dear shot herself—she was playing with her father's revolver, you know—and I seemed to go through it all again. Her father—he left the Salt soon after—was downright vexed with me because I fretted so. He said no good could come of remembering grief so long. But I don't know. I've heard it said that there is only so much sorrow and happiness in the world; then if one person gets a lot there must be less trouble left for others. I've held on to my share anyhow, though maybe, as father says, it isn't any good.”
Her tired eyes sought the distant sand-hills wistfully and her mouth trembled a little.
Just then the whistle sounded, bidding all stragglers go on board the steamer.
“Good-bye,” said I, holding out my hand. “To-morrow, if I may, I will come again and tell you what your unforgotten grief did for me.”
[Illustration: AT DOT'S GRAVE]
But next morning I found that the flat had been left at its destination during the night. That is all.
There was a long pause.
“And your explanation,” asked a somewhat tremulous voice from a dark corner.
“Gentlemen,” said the Major, “I have none to offer. What I know is this. Somehow—God knows how—I saw that mother's unforgotten grief, and it saved me from shirking my share.”