I heard this story in a rail-trolly on the Pind-Dadur line, so I always think of it with a running accompaniment; a rhythmic whir of wheels in which, despite its steadiness, you feel the propelling impulse of the unseen coolies behind, then the swift skimming as they set their feet on the trolly for the brief rest which merges at the first hint of lessened speed into the old racing measure. Whir and slide, racing and resting!—while the wheels spin like bobbins and the brick rubble in the permanent way slips under your feet giddily, until you could almost fancy yourself sitting on a stationary engine, engaged in winding up an endless red ribbon. A ribbon edged, as if with tinsel, by steel rails stretching away in ever narrowing lines to the level horizon. Stretching straight as a die across a sandy desert, rippled and waved by wrinkled sand hills into the semblance of a sandy sea.
And that, from its size, must be a seventh wave. I was just thinking this when the buzz of the brake jarred me through to the marrow of my bones.
“What’s up? A train?” I asked of my companion who was giving me a lift across his section of the desert.
“No!” he replied laconically. “Now, then! hurry up, men.”
Nothing in the wide world comes to pieces in the hand like a trolly. It was dismembered and off the line in a moment; only however, much to my surprise, to be replaced upon the rails some half a dozen yards further along them. I was opening my lips for one question when something I saw at my feet among the brick rubble made me change it for another.
“Hullo! what the dickens is that?”
To the carnal eye it was two small squares of smooth stucco, the one with an oval black stone set in it perpendicularly, the other with a round purplish one—curiously ringed with darker circles—set in it horizontally. On the stucco of one were a few dried tulsi leaves and grains of rice; on the other suspicious-looking splashes of dark red.
“What’s what?” echoed my friend, climbing up to his seat again.
“Why, man, that thing!—that thing in the permanent way!” I replied, nettled at his manner.
He gave an odd little laugh, just audible above the first whir of the wheels as we started again.
“That’s about it. In the permanent way—considerably.” He paused, and I thought he was going to relapse into the silence for which he was famous; but he suddenly seemed to change his mind.
“Look here,” he said, “it’s a fifteen mile run to the first curve, and no trains due, so if you like I’ll tell you why we left the track.”
And he did.
* * * * *
When they were aligning this section I was put on to it—preliminary survey work under an R.E. man who wore boiled shirts in the wilderness, and was great on “Departmental Discipline.” He is in Simla now, of course. Well, we were driving a straight line through the whole solar system and planting it out with little red flags, when one afternoon, just behind that big wave of a sand hill, we came upon something in the way. It was a man. For further description I should say it was a thin man. There is nothing more to be said. He may have been old, he may have been young, he may have been tall, he may have been short, he may have been halt and maimed, he may have been blind, deaf, or dumb, or any or all of these. The only thing I know for certain is that he was thin. The kalassies said he was some kind of a Hindu saint, and they fell at his feet promptly. I shall never forget the R.E.’s face as he stood trying to classify the creature according to Wilson’s Hindu Sects, or his indignation at the kalassies’ ignorant worship of a man who, for all they knew, might be a follower of Shiva, while they were bound to Vishnu, or vice versa. He was very learned over the Vaishnavas and the Saivas; and all the time that bronze image with its hands on its knees squatted in the sand staring into space perfectly unmoved. Perhaps the man saw us, perhaps he didn’t. I don’t know; as I said before, he was thin.
So after a time we stuck a little red flag in the ground close to the small of his back, and went on our way rejoicing until we came to our camp, a mile further on. It doesn’t look like it, but there is a brackish well and a sort of a village away there to the right, and of course we always took advantage of water when we could.
It must have been a week later, just as we came to the edge of the sand hills, and could see a landmark or two, that I noticed the R.E. come up from his prismatic compass looking rather pale. Then he fussed over to me at the plane table.
“We’re out,” he said, “there is a want of Departmental Discipline in this party, and we are out.” I forget how many fractions he said, but some infinitesimal curve would have been required to bring us plumb on the next station, and as that would have ruined the R.E.’s professional reputation we harked back to rectify the error. We found the bronze image still sitting on the sand with its hands on its knees; but apparently it had shifted its position some three feet or so to the right, for the flag was fully that distance to the left of it. That night the R.E. came to my tent with his hands full of maps and his mind of suspicions.
“It seems incredible,” he said, “but I am almost convinced that byragi or jogi, or gosain or sunyasi, whichever he may be, has had the unparalleled effrontery to move my flag. I can’t be sure, but if I were, I would have him arrested on the spot.”
I suggested he was that already; but it is sometimes difficult to make an R.E. see a Cooper’s Hill joke, especially when he is your superior officer. So we did that bit over again. As it happened, my chief was laid up with sun fever when we came to the bronze image, and I had charge of the party. I don’t know why, exactly, but it seemed to me rough on the thin man to stick a red flag at the small of his back, as a threat that we meant to annex the only atom of things earthly to which he still clung; time enough for that when the line was actually under construction. So I told the kalassies to let him do duty as a survey mark; for, from what I had heard, I knew that once a man of that sort fixes on a place in which to gain immortality by penance, he sticks to it till the mortality, at any rate, comes to an end. And this one, I found out from the villagers, had been there for ten years. Of course they said he never ate, or drank, or moved, but that, equally of course, was absurd.
A year after this I came along again in charge of a construction party, with an overseer called Craddock, a big yellow-headed Saxon who couldn’t keep off the drink, and who had in consequence been going down steadily in one department or another for years. As good a fellow as ever stepped when he was sober. Well, we came right on the thin one again, plump in the very middle of the permanent way. We dug round him and levelled up to him for some time, and then one day Craddock gave a nod at me and walked over to where that image squatted staring into space. I can see the two now, Craddock in his navvy’s dress, his blue eyes keen yet kind in the red face shaded by the dirty pith hat, and the thin man without a rag of any sort to hide his bronze anatomy.
“Look here, sonny,” said Craddock, stooping over the other, “you’re in the way—in the permanent way.”
Then he just lifted him right up, gently, as if he had been a child, and set him down about four feet to the left. It was to be a metre gauge, so that was enough for safety. There he sat after we had propped him up again with his byraga or cleft stick under the left arm, as if he were quite satisfied with the change. But next day he was in the old place. It was no use arguing with him. The only thing to be done was to move him out of the way when we wanted it. Of course when the earthwork was finished there was the plate-laying and ballasting and what not to be done, so it came to be part of the big Saxon’s regular business to say in his Oxfordshire drawl:
“Sonny, yo’re in the waiy—in the permanent waiy.”
Craddock, it must be mentioned, was in a peculiarly sober, virtuous mood, owing, no doubt, to the desolation of the desert; in which, by the way, I found him quite a godsend as a companion, for when he was on the talk the quaintness of his ideas was infinitely amusing, and his knowledge of the natives, picked up as a loafer in many a bazaar and serai, was surprisingly wide, if appallingly inaccurate.
“There is something, savin’ yo’r presence, sir, blamed wrong in the whole blamed business,” he said to me, with a mild remonstrance in his blue eyes, one evening after he had removed the obstruction to progress. “That pore fellar, sir, ‘e’s a meditatin’ on the word Hom-Hommipuddenhome it is, sir, I’ve bin told—an’ doin’ ‘is little level to make the spiritooal man subdoo ‘is fleshly hinstinckts. And I, Nathaniel James Craddock, so called in Holy Baptism, I do assure you, a-eatin’ and a-drinkin’ ‘earty, catches ‘im right up like a babby, and sets ‘im on one side, as if I was born to it. And so I will—an’ willin’, too—so as to keep ‘im from ‘arm’s way; for ‘eathin or Christian, sir, ‘e’s an eggsample to the spiritooal part of me which, savin’ your presence, sir, is most ways drink.”
Poor Craddock! He went on the spree hopelessly the day after we returned to civilisation, and it was with the greatest difficulty that I succeeded in getting him a trial as driver to the material train which commenced running up and down the section. The first time I went with it on business I had an inspection carriage tacked on behind the truck loads of coolies and ballast, so that I could not make out why on earth we let loose a danger whistle and slowed down to full stop in the very middle of the desert until I jumped down and ran forward. Even then I was only in time to see Craddock coming back to his engine with a redder face than ever.
“It’s only old Meditations, sir,” he said apologetically, as I climbed in beside him. “It don’t take a minute; no longer nor a cow, and them’s in the reg’lations. You see, sir, I wouldn’t ‘ave ‘arm come to the pore soul afore ‘is spiritooal nater ‘ad the straight tip hoäm. Neither would none of us, sir, coolie nor driver, sir, on the section. We all likes old Hommipuddenhome, ‘e sticks to it so stiddy, that’s where it is.”
“Do you mean to say that you always have to get out and lift him off the line?” I asked, wondering rather at the patience required for the task.
“That’s so, sir,” he replied slowly, in the same apologetic tones. “It don’t take no time you see, sir, that’s where it is. P’r’aps you may ‘ave thought, like as I did first time, that ‘e’d save ‘is bacon when the engine come along. Lordy! the cold sweat broke out on me that time. I brought ‘er up, sir, with the buffers at the back of ‘is ‘ed like them things the photographers jiminy you straight with. But ‘e ain’t that sort, ain’t Meditations.” Here Craddock asked leave to light his pipe, and in the interval I looked ahead along the narrowing red ribbon with its tinsel edge, thinking how odd it must have been to see it barred by that bronze image.
“No! that ain’t his sort,” continued Craddock meditatively, “though wot ‘is sort may be, sir, is not my part to say. I’ve ar’st, and ar’st, and ar’st them pundits, but there ain’t one of them can really tell, sir, ‘cos he ain’t got any marks about him. You see, sir, it’s by their marks, like cattle, as you tell ’em. Some says he worships bloody Shivers—’im ‘oos wife you know, sir, they calls Martha Davy—a Christian sort o’ name, ain’t it, sir, for a ‘eathin idol?—and some says ‘e worships Wishnyou Lucksmi an’ that lot, an’ Holy too, though, savin’ your presence, sir, it ain’t much holiness I see at them times, but mostly drink. It makes me feel quite ‘omesick, I do assure you, sir, more as if they was humans like me, likewise.”
“And which belief do you incline to?” I asked, for the sake of prolonging the conversation.
He drew his rough hand over his corn-coloured beard, and quite a grave look came to the blue eyes. “I inclines to Shiver,” he said decisively, “and I’ll tell you why, sir. Shiver’s bloody; but ‘e’s dead on death. They calls ‘im the Destroyer. ‘E don’t care a damn for the body; ‘e’s all for the spiritooal nater, like old Meditations there. Now Wishnyou Lucksmi an’ that lot is the Preservers. They eats an’ drinks ‘earty, like me. So it stands to reason, sir, don’t it? that ‘e’s a Shiver, and I’m a Wishnyou Lucksmi.” He stood up under pretence of giving a wipe round a valve with the oily rag he held, and looked out to the horizon where the sun was setting, like a huge red signal right on the narrowing line. “So,” he went on after a pause, “that’s why I wouldn’t ‘ave ‘arm come to old Meditations. ‘E’s a Shiver, I’m a Wishnyou Lucksmi. That’s what I am.”
His meaning was quite clear, and I am not ashamed to say that it touched me.
“Look here,” I said, “take care you don’t run over that old chap some day when you are drunk, that’s all.”
He bent over another valve, burnishing it. “I hope to God I don’t,” he said in a low voice. “That’d about finish me altogether, I expect.”
We returned the next morning before daybreak; but I went on the engine, being determined to see how that bronze image looked on the permanent way when you were steaming up to it.
“You ketch sight of ‘im clear this side,” said Craddock, “a good two mile or more; ef you had a telescope ten for that matter. It ain’t so easy t’other side with the sun a-shining bang inter the eyes. And there ain’t no big wave as a signal over there. But Lordy! there ain’t no fear of my missin’ old Meditations.”
Certainly, none that morning. He showed clear, first against the rosy flush of dawn, afterwards like a dark stain on the red ribbon.
“I’ll run up close to him to-day, sir,” said Craddock, “so as you shall see wot ‘e’s made of.”
The whistle rang shrill over the desert of sand, which lay empty of all save that streak of red with the dark stain upon it; but the stain never moved, never stirred, though the snorting demon from the west came racing up to it full speed.
“Have a care, man! Have a care!” I shouted; but my words were almost lost in the jar of the brake put on to the utmost. Even then I could only crane round the cab with my eyes fixed on that bronze image straight ahead of us. Could we stop in time—would it move? Yes! no! yes! Slower and slower—how many turns of the flywheel to so many yards?—I felt as if I were working the sum frantically in my head, when, with a little backward shiver, the great circle of steel stopped dead, and Craddock’s voice came in cheerful triumph.
“There! didn’t I tell you, sir? Ain’t ‘e stiddy? Ain’t ‘e a-subdooin’ of mortality beautiful?” The next instant he was out, and as he stooped to his task he flung me back a look.
“Now, sonny, you’ll ‘ave to move. You’re in the way—the permanent way, my dear.”
That was the last I saw of him for some time, for I fell sick and went home. When I returned to work I found, much to my surprise, that Craddock was in the same appointment; in fact, he had been promoted to drive the solitary passenger train which now ran daily across the desert. He had not been on the spree once, I was told; indeed, the R.E., who was of the Methodist division of that gallant regiment, took great pride in a reformation which, he informed me, was largely due to his religious teaching combined with Departmental Discipline.
“And how is Meditations?” I asked, when the great rough hand had shaken mine vehemently.
Craddock’s face seemed to me to grow redder than ever. “‘E’s very well, sir, thanking you kindly. There’s a native driver on the Goods now. ‘E’s a Shiver-Martha Davy lot, so I pays ‘im five rupee a month to nip out sharp with the stoker an’ shovel ‘is old saint to one side. I’m gettin’ good pay now, you know, sir.”
I told him there was no reason to apologise for the fact, and that I hoped it might long continue; whereat he gave a sheepish kind of laugh, and said he hoped so too.
Christmas came and went uneventfully without an outbreak, and I could not refrain from congratulating Craddock on one temptation safely over.
He smiled broadly.
“Lor’ bless you, sir,” he said, “you didn’t never think, did you, that Nathaniel James Craddock, which his name was given to ‘im in Holy Baptism, I do assure you, was going to knuckle down that way to old Hommipuddenhome? ‘Twouldn’t be fair on Christmas noways, sir, and though I don’t set the store ‘e does on ‘is spiritooal nater, I was born and bred in a Christyan country, I do assure you.”
I congratulated him warmly on his sentiments, and hoped again that they would last; to which he replied as before that he hoped so too.
And then Holi time came round, and, as luck would have it, the place was full of riff-raff low whites going on to look for work in a further section. I had to drive through the bazaar on my way to the railway station and it beat anything I had ever seen in various vice. East and West were outbidding each other in iniquity, and to make matters worse an electrical dust-storm was blowing hard. You never saw such a scene; it was pandemonium, background and all. I thought I caught a glimpse of a corn-coloured beard and a pair of blue eyes in a wooden balcony among tinkling sútáras and jasmine chaplets, but I wasn’t sure. However, as I was stepping into the inspection carriage which, as usual, was the last in the train, I saw Craddock crossing the platform to his engine. His white coat was all splashed with the red dye they had been throwing at each other, Holi fashion, in the bazaar; his walk, to my eyes, had a lilt in it, and finally, the neck of a black bottle showed from one pocket.
Obedient to one of those sudden impulses which come, heaven knows why, I took my foot off the step and followed him to the engine.
“Comin’ aboard, sir,” he said quite collectedly. “You’d be better be’ind to-night, for it’s blowin’ grit fit to make me a walkin’ sandpaper inside and out.” And before I could stop him the black bottle was at his mouth. This decided me. Perhaps my face showed my thoughts, for as I climbed into the cab he gave an uneasy laugh. “Don’t be afraid, sir: it’s black as pitch, but I knows where old Meditation comes by instinck, I do assure you. One hour an’ seventeen minutes from the distance signal with pressure as it oughter be. Hillo! there’s the whistle and the baboo a-waving. Off we goes!”
As we flashed past a red light I looked at my watch.
“Don’t you be afraid, sir,” he said, again looking at his. “It’s ten to ten now, and in one hour an’ seventeen minutes on goes the brake. That’s the ticket for Shivers and Martha Davy; though I am a Wishnyou Lucksmi.” He paused a moment, and as he stood put his hand on a stanchion to steady himself.
“Very much of a Wishnyou Lucksmi,” he went on with a shake of the head. “I’ve ‘ad a drop too much and I know it; but it ain’t fair on a fellar like me, ‘aving so many names to them, when they’re all the same—a eatin’ an’ drinkin’ lot like me. There’s Christen—you’d ‘ave thought he’d ‘ave been a decent chap by ‘is name, but ‘e went on orful with them Gopis—that’s Hindu for milkmaids, sir. And Harry—well, he wasn’t no better than some other Harrys I’ve heard on. And Canyer, I expect he could just about. To say nothin’ of Gopi-naughty; and naughty he were, as no doubt you’ve heard tell, sir. There’s too many on them for a pore fellar who don’t set store by ‘is spiritooal nater; especially when they mixes themselves up with Angcore whisky, an’ ginger ale.”
His blue eyes had a far-away look in them, and his words were fast losing independence, but I understood what he meant perfectly. In that brief glimpse of the big bazaar I had seen the rows of Western bottles standing cheek by jowl with the bowls of dolee dye, the sour curds and sweetmeats of Holi-tide.
“You had better sit down, Craddock,” I said severely, for I saw that the fresh air was having its usual effect. “Perhaps if you sleep a bit you’ll be more fit for work. I’ll look out and wake you when you’re wanted.”
He gave a silly laugh, let go the stanchion, and drew out his watch.
“Don’t you be afraid, sir! One hour and seventeen minutes from the distance signal. I’ll keep ‘im out o’ ‘arm’s way, an’ willing to the end of the chapter.”
He gave a lurch forward to the seat, stumbled, and the watch dropped from his hand. For a moment I thought he might go overboard, and I clutched at him frantically; but with another lurch and an indistinct admonition to me not to be afraid, he sank into the corner of the bench and was asleep in a second. Then I stooped to pick up the watch, and, rather to my surprise, found it uninjured and still going.
Craddock’s words, “ten minutes to ten,” recurred to me. Then it would be twenty-seven minutes past eleven before he was wanted. I sat down to wait, bidding the native stoker keep up the fire as usual. The wind was simply shrieking round us, and the sand drifted thick on Craddock’s still, upturned face. More than once I wiped it off, feeling he might suffocate. It was the noisiest, and at the same time the most silent, journey I ever undertook. Pandemonium, with seventy times seven of its devils let loose outside the cab; inside Craddock asleep, or dead—he might have been the latter from his stillness. It became oppressive after a time, as I remembered that other still figure, miles down the track, which was so strangely bound to this one beside me. The minutes seemed hours, and I felt a distinct relief when the watch, which I had held in my hand most of the time, told me it was seventeen minutes past eleven. Only ten minutes before the brake should be put on; and Craddock would require all that time to get his senses about him.
I might as well have tried to awaken a corpse, and it was three minutes to the twenty-seven when I gave up the idea as hopeless. Not that it mattered, since I could drive an engine as well as he; still the sense of responsibility weighed heavily upon me. My hand on the brake valve trembled visibly as I stood watching the minute hand of the watch. Thirty seconds before the time I put the brake on hard, determining to be on the safe side. And then when I had taken this precaution a perfectly unreasoning anxiety seized on me. I stepped on to the footboard and craned forward into the darkness which, even without the wind and the driving dust, was blinding. The lights in front shot slantways, showing an angle of red ballast, barred by gleaming steel; beyond that a formless void of sand. But the centre of the permanent way, where that figure would be sitting, was dark as death itself. What a fool I was, when the great circle of the fly-wheel was slackening, slackening, every second! And yet the fear grew lest I should have been too late, lest I should have made some mistake. To appease my own folly I drew out my watch in confirmation of the time. Great God! a difference of two minutes!—two whole minutes!—yet the watches had been the same at the distance signal?—the fall, of course! the fall!!
I seemed unable to do anything but watch that slackening wheel, even though I became conscious of a hand on my shoulder, of some one standing beside me on the footboard. No! not standing, swaying, lurching——
“Don’t!” I cried. “Don’t! it’s madness!” But that some one was out in the darkness. Then I saw a big white figure dash across the angle of light with outspread arms.
“Now then, sonny! yo’re in the way—the permanent way.”
* * * * *
The inspector paused, and I seemed to come back to the sliding whir of the trolly wheels. In the distance a semaphore was dropping its red arm and a pointsman, like a speck on the ribbon, was at work shunting us into a siding.
“Well?” I asked.
“There isn’t anything more. When a whole train goes over two men who are locked in each other’s arms it is hard—hard to tell—well, which is Shivers Martha Davy, and which is Wishnyou Lucksmi. It was right out in the desert in the hot weather, no parsons or people to object; so I buried them there in the permanent way.”
“And those are tombstones, I suppose?”
He laughed. “No; altars. The native employés put them up to their saint. The oval black upright stone is Shiva, the Destroyer’s lingam; those splashes are blood. The flat one, decorated with flowers, is the salagrama sacred to Vishnu the Preserver. You see nobody really knew whether old Meditations was a Saiva or a Vaishnava; so I suggested this arrangement as the men were making a sectarian quarrel out of the question.” He paused again and added:
“You see it does for both of them.”
The jar of the points prevented me from replying.