Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
IN Calcutta they grumbled that the hot weather was beginning already. Mornings were steamy, days sticky, and the municipal impurities rose rankly. The carter squatted over his bullocks with his shining body stark naked but for a loin-cloth.
At Siliguri, the bottom of the ascent to Darjiling, the rough grass and the tea-gardens were sheeted at sunrise in a silver frost. What few natives appeared happed their heads in shawls as if they had toothache.
It takes you an afternoon and a night to get as far as Siliguri. What you principally notice on the way is the dulness of the flat, moist richness of Bengal, and the extraordinary fulness of the first-class carriages. Even at this winter season the residents of Calcutta snatch at the chance of being cold for twenty-four hours. When you get out of your carriage at the junction station, you see on the other side of the platform a dumpy little toy train — a train at the wrong end of a telescope with its wheels cut from beneath it. Engines and trucks and carriages seem to be crawling like snakes on their bellies. Six miniature easy-chairs, three facing three, on an open truck with an awning, make a first-class carriage.
This is the Darjiling-Himalaya Railway — two-foot gauge, climbing four feet to the hundred for fifty miles up the foothills of the greatest mountains in the world. It is extraordinary as the only line in India that has been built with Indian capital. But you will find that the least of its wonders. A flat-faced hill-man bangs with a hammer twice three times on a spare bit of railway metal hung up by way of a gong, the whistle screams, and you pant away on surely the most entrancing railway journey in the world. Nothing very much to make your heart jump in the first seven miles. You bowl along the surface of a slightly ascending cart-road, and your view is mostly bamboo and tea. Graceful enough, and cool to the eye — the bamboos, hedges or clumps of slender stem with plumes of pale leaf swinging and nodding above them; the tea, trim ranks and files of short, well-furnished bushes with lustrous, dark-green leaves, not unlike evergreens or myrtle in a nursery at home, but you soon feel that you have known bamboo and tea all your life. Then suddenly you begin to climb, and all at once you are in a new world — a world of plants.
A new world is easy to say, but this is new indeed and a very world — such a primeval vegetable world as you have read of in books and eked out with dreams. It has everything you know in your World, only everything expressed in vegetation. It is a world in its variety alone. Trees of every kind rise up round you at every angle — unfamiliar, most of them, and exaggerations of forms you know, as if they were seen through a microscope. You might come on such broad fleshy leaves by way of Jack's giant beanstalk. Other growths take the form of bushes as high as our trees; but beside them are skinny, stunted starvelings, such as the most niggardly country might show. Then there are grasses — tufted, ruddy bamboo grass, and huge yellow straws with giant bents leaning insolently over to flick your face as you go by. Smaller still grow the ferns, lurking shyly in the crevices of the banks. And over everything, most luxuriant of everything, crawl hundred-armed creepers, knitting and knotting the whole jungle into one mellay of struggling life.
The varieties — the trees and shrubs and grasses and ferns and creepers — you would see in any tropical garden; but you could not see them at home. You could not see them in their unpruned native intercourse one with the other. The rise and fall of the ground, the whims of light and air, coax them into shapes that answer to the most fantastic imagination. Now you are going through the solemn aisles of a great cathedral — grey trunks for columns, with arches and vaulted roofs of green, with dark, retreating chapels and altar-trappings of mingled flowers. Now it is a king's banqueting-hall, tapestried with white-flowering creeper and crimson and purple bougainvillea; overhead the scarlet-mahogany blossoms of a sparse-leaved tulip-tree might be butterflies frescoed on a ceiling.
Fancy can compel the wilderness into moments of order, but wild it remains. The growths are not generally buildings, but animate beings in a real world. You see no perfectly shaped tree, as in a park or garden; one is warped, another stunted, another bare below — each formed, like men, by the pressure of a thousand fellows. Here is a corpse spreading white, stark arms abroad. Here are half-a-dozen young creatures rolling over each other like puppies at play. And there is a creeper flinging tumultuous, enraptured arms round a stately tree; presently it is gripping it in thick bands like Laocöon's serpent, then choking it mercilessly to death, then dead itself, its bleached, bare streamers dangling limply in the wind. It is life, indeed, this forest — plants fighting, victorious and vanquished; loving and getting children; springing and waxing and decaying and dying — our own world of men translated into plants.
While I am spinning similitudes, the Darjiling-Himalaya Railway is panting always upwards, boring through the thick world of trees like a mole. Now it sways round a curve so short that you can almost look back into the next carriage, and you understand why the wheels are so low. Now it stops dead, and almost before it stops starts backwards up a zigzag, then forwards up another, and on again. In a moment it is skating on the brink of a slide of shale that trembles to come down and overwhelm it; next it is rumbling across a bridge above the point it passed ten minutes ago, and below that which it will reach ten minutes hence. Twisting, backing, circling, dodging, but always rising, it unthreads the skein whose end is in the clouds and the snows.
Presently the little engine draws quite clear of the jungle. You skirt opener slopes, and the blue plain below is no longer a fleeting vista, but a broad prospect. You see how the forest spills itself on to the fields and spreads into a dark puddle over their lightness. You see a great river overlaying the dimness with a ribbon of steel. The ferns grow thicker about you; gigantic fronds bow at you from gullies overhead, and you see the tree-fern — a great crown of drooping green on a trunk of a man's height — standing superbly alone, knowing its supreme gracefulness. Next, as you rise and rise, the air gets sharp; through a gauzy veil of mist appear again huge forests, but dark and gloomy with brown moss dripping dankly from every branch. Rising, rising, and you have now come to Ghoom, the highest point. Amid the cold fog appears the witch of Ghoom — a hundred years old, with a pointed chin and mop of grizzled hair all witch-fashion, but beaming genially and requesting backsheesh.
Then round a corner — and here is Darjiling. A scattered settlement on a lofty ridge, facing a great cup enclosed by other ridges — mountains elsewhere, here hills. Long spurs run down into the hollow, half black with forest, half pale and veined with many paths. At the bottom is a little chequer of fresh green millet; the rim at the top seems to line the sky.
And the Himalayas and the eternal snows? The devil a Himalaya in sight. Thick vapours dip down and over the very rim of the cup; beyond Darjiling is a tumult of peaked creamy cloud. You need not be told it, — clouds that hide mountains always ape their shapes, — the majestic Himalayas are behind that screen, and you will not see them to-day, nor perhaps to-morrow, nor yet for a fortnight of tomorrows.
You must console yourself with Darjiling and the hillmen. And Darjiling is pleasant to the eye as you look down on it, a huddle of grey corrugated-iron roofs, one stepping over the other, hugging the hillside with one or two red ones to break the monotone. There is no continuous line of them: each stands by itself in a ring of deep green first. The place is cool and grateful after an Indian town — clean and roomy, a place of homes and not of pens.
In the middle of it is the bazaar, and my day, by luck, Was market-day. Here, again, you could never fancy yourself in India. A few Hindus there are, but beside the dumpy hillmen their thin limbs, tiny features, and melting eyes seem hardly human. More like the men you know is the Tibetan, with a long profile and long, sharp nose, though his hat has the turned-up brim of the Chinee, though he wears a long bottle-green dressing-gown open to the girdle, and his pigtail knocks at the back of his knees. But the prevailing type, though as Mongolian, is far more genial than the Tibetan. Squat little men, for the most part, fill the bazaar, with broad faces that give room for the features, with button noses, and slits for eyes. They wear boots and putties, or gaiters made of many-coloured carpet-bagging; and their women are like them — with shawls over their heads, and broad sashes swathing them from bosom to below the waist, with babies slung behind their backs, not astride on the hip as are the spawn of India. Their eyes are black as sloes — puckered, too, but seeming puckered with laughter; and their clear yellow skins are actually rosy on the cheeks, like a ripe apricot. Square-faced, long-pigtailed, plump, cheery, open of gaze, and easy of carriage, rolling cigarettes, and offering them to soothe babies — they might not be beautiful in Europe; here they are ravishing.
But you come to Darjiling to see the snows. So on a night of agonising cold — feet and hands a block of ice the moment you cease to move them — must follow a rise before it is light. Maybe the clouds will be kinder this morning. No; the same stingy, clammy mist, — only there, breaking through it, high up in the sky — yes, there are a few faint streaks of white. Just a few marks of snow scored on the softer white of the cloud, chill with the utterly disconsolate cold of ice through a window of fog. Still, there are certainly Himalayas there.
Up and up I toiled; the sun was plainly rising behind the ridge of Darjiling. In the cup below the sunlight was drawing down the hillsides and peeling off the twilight. Then, at a sudden turn of the winding ascent, I saw the summit of Kinchinjunga. Just the summit, poised in the blue, shining and rejoicing in the sunrise. And as I climbed and climbed, other peaks rose into sight below and beside him, all dazzling white, mounting and mounting the higher I mounted, every instant more huge and towering and stately, boring into the sky.
Up — till I came to the summit, and the sun appeared — a golden ball swimming in a sea of silver. He was sending the clouds away curling before him; they drifted across the mountains, but he pursued and smote and dissolved them. And ever the mountains rose and rose, huger and huger; as they swelled up they heaved the clouds away in rolls off their shoulders. Now their waists were free, and all but their feet. Only a chasm of fog still hid their lower slopes. Fifty miles away, they looked as if I could toss a stone across to them; only you could never hope to hit their heads, they towered so gigantically. Now the clouds, clearing to right and left, laid bare a battlemented range of snow-white wall barring the whole horizon. Behind these appeared other peaks: it was not a range, but a country of mountains, not now a wall, but a four-square castle carved by giants out of eternal ice. It was the end of the world — a sheer rampart, which forbade the fancy of anything beyond.
And in the centre, by peak and col and precipice, the prodigy reared itself up to Kinchinjunga. Bare rock below, then blinding snow seamed with ridges and chimneys, and then, above, the mighty summit — a tremendous three-cornered slab of grey granite between two resplendent faces of snow. Other mountains tiptoe at the sky snatch at it with a peak like a needle. Kinchinjunga heaves himself up into it, broadly, massively, and makes his summit a diadem. He towers without effort, knowing his majesty. Sublime and inviolable, he lifts his grey nakedness and his mail of burnished snow, and turns his forehead serenely to sun and storm. Only their touch, of all things created, has perturbed his solitude since the birth of time.