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ON THE BORDER
INDIA ends with the mountains as suddenly as it began from the sea. Out of the stretching plain, in which you could lay down Great Britain and Ireland and France and then lose them, you draw into a narrowing valley. Blue hills shepherd it on either side, not high, but rising abruptly out of the level; over their heads, deep back, lean mounting sheets of perpetual snow.
On the tongue of the valley stands Peshawar. It has stood sentry there ever since cities were, looking forward through the teeth of the hungry mountains, looking back to the gullet of the fat plains. The mountains are lean and swift and bloody; the plains are gorged and lazy and timid; the bases of the hills are the line between, and it is only one stride over it. That curling zigzag of smoke up the hillside is the Khyber, which has belched horde after horde to fatten on the corn and oil of India. On the verandah, where the grave merchant spreads for your approval the carpets of Penjdeh and the silks and velvets of Bokhara; in the trim garden of the club-house, Where children are playing with shuttlecocks — you are just an hour from the rocks where without armed guard no camel-load is safe from looters, and where stranger or native alike is shot in the back for his rifle.
Peshawar city is almost as old as the hills, but, in the true spirit of the border, it makes no enticing show of riches. It has been sacked and sacked and sacked again, and looks as if it expected to be sacked anew to-morrow. The junction of a skein of trade-routes, it looks as poor and bare and crowded as the most miserable village. It is one huge caravanserai, a mart wherein half Asia bargains for riches that must be enjoyed in safety elsewhere.
So that native Peshawar is like no other town in India. There is nothing Indian in its aspect, nothing Afghan nor Persian nor Tartar: it is merely Eastern. The bazaars and houses are packed as tight as they can stand. Its shops are bare, even for oriental shops — square, naked cupboards, three feet above the street, where the trader unrolls his stuffs, kneads his dough, grinds his grain, puffs his blowpipe into the charcoal, or hammers his sheet-metal into bowls and pitchers. The houses are naked mud on naked wooden frames, neither painted nor carved just places of shelter, and no more. The mosques are no more than places of prayer for a safe journey: you turn in the street at sunset and see a row of a dozen men swaying and kneeling in a three-walled recess no bigger than a tramcar. Peshawar's only public buildings are the fort, heaving up its huge mud walls on one side, and the old palace with its watch-tower on the other. From it you look over the city — compact, cramped, flat-roofed, split by narrow and winding alleys — a frightened herd of houses huddling shoulder to shoulder in the open plain.
The house-tops are fenced round with walls and mat-screens; the poles that bear the screens give the idea of a city that has never stood undisturbed long enough to take down its scaffolding. As the sun sinks over the Khyber all Peshawar comes out on to the roof to breathe the cool. You imagine that the screens are intended against wife-stealers and sharpshooters impartially, and that Peshawar knows it is safer to take the air on its own house-top than among the knives in the street below. Plain street and house, bazaar and people, — that is all there is of Peshawar. Bleak, populous, as old as time and as young as yesterday, Peshawar remains to-day as Nineveh and Tyre, as Rome and London were — the archetype of cities, the lowest common denominator of habitation.
It is only a caravanserai, yet it is choked with life and business. Going under the needle-eyed city gate you are instantly in a throng as dense as Cheapside's. It is a daily fair: all the peoples of the unhastening East meet within its walls till you can hardly move in the street. They are hammering and embroidering and chaffering to-day as they did yesterday and the day after the founding of Babel. Here and there, before an open upper room, you see the sign of a pleader — a babu alibi-merchant, imported to swell the list of Peshawar's unpunished murders; but, for the rest, the city goes back straight into the book of Genesis. Here is red Esau — only he has dyed his beard that flaming crimson-orange to hide the grey hairs in it — driving in his goats. There is hawk-eyed, hawk-nosed Lot sitting in the gate. Then you lift up your eyes, and behold the camels are coming. To the slim dromedary of Egypt these are as the retriever to the greyhound----heavy, thick-set, furred with soft brown hair, as if they wore tippets and petticoats. The veiled woman striding behind them in dust-stained trousers might be Rachel, the heavy bales of merchandise hiding her father's gods.
From Kabul with apples and raisins and pistachio-nuts, from Bokhara and Teheran with rich-coloured fabrics, come the laden camels, and they wind back up the Khyber heavy with cloth and raw sugar and tools. Then the Peshawar bazaars are not merely exchanges, but manufactories as well. One street is a row of clattering coppersmiths: they ornament bronze vessels with bands and scrolls of white by sheer hammering of the metal. Next are the silversmiths, each with his tiny charcoal furnace on the shop-floor under his nose. They are common to all India, but perhaps a shade more necessary to Peshawar: they turn rupees into the nose-rings and bangles which are the native savings-bank. As you pass out of the gate you are among the waxcloth-workers, and these are more special to the place. Waxcloth is not a kind of linoleum, but any material — silk, cotton, satin — embroidered in wax. You have seen it often enough in England — white or golden peacocks and palms on blue or crimson; but it astonishes you to see it being made. A boy squats on the floor with a lump of sticky white, like putty, on the ball of his thumb; with a steel-pointed stylus he kneads it up, takes a point-full, as you fill a pen, and begins to draw on the fabric. You would think no skill could ever make the treacly stuff manageable, yet the shaggy stripling — let us hope his hand is cleaner than it looks — draws a peacock's feather in it with nothing more to copy than a spider has in making his web. When it is done and dry, it remains for ever, and you can wash your work of art without bringing off a line.
This for the city; now drive out of the gate over the dusty two miles to the cantonment. The evening sun will slant into your eyes — the European quarter stands forward towards the mountains, screening the city — and the air after sunset will be like cold water on your skin. At the end of February Peshawar has still two months of cool before it. Later it becomes a crackling inferno, but till May it breathes as divine a climate as man could wish to live in. Along the Mall the yellow grass, the palms, and the crimson-purple bells are India; the trees just knobby with new buds, the hedges beginning to redden and cream into roses, the soft breathing of violets are pure spring.
The morning air has the nip of spring, the runnels of water from the Swat River canal fill the valley with whispers of its coming. India crumbles and soaks from dry season to wet; this cool leaf-fringed cantonment, with its straight avenues of sheer spring, is new blood in the veins of northern men.
Now, as the patrol was riding one of these same avenues of spring on a windy night in February, there flew a sudden volley out of the dark, and in the morning they found one sowar dead and the other with a bullet through his thigh, and both carbines gone. They were away in the hills, where a true-shooting weapon is even as a tall hat in London. In the blue hills, an hour from the violets, he who owns a Martini or Lee-Metford bears the hall-mark of respectability. He is fairly started in life, a credit to his family, a factor to be reckoned with in society. Presently he will build himself a tower, and then perhaps steal another rifle and sell it. With the proceeds he will buy a wife or two — they are a great deal cheaper than breech-loading rifles — and found a family. It may even be his to bring the feud of generations to an honourable end, by killing the last adult member of the opposing family. So he will die full of years and honour, bequeathing to his first-born a stainless name and a title-deed sighted up to 2000 yards.
A judge on circuit finds in his camp a hook-nosed, white-bearded grandfather, hung like a trophy with knives and swords, with a Webley revolver — the gift of a European well-wisher — and a couple of flintlock pistols in his belt, with a six-foot mother-of-pearl-inlaid, sickle-butted jezail over his shoulder, and behind him two young men similarly armed.
"You kept my petition waiting, O Presence," he explains; "this night I shall sleep in your camp."
"I'm hanged if you will," says the Presence.
"Do you think I am going back to my tower by dark?" laughs the old man. "Myself and my son and my nephew are the last of our family, and our enemies have a dozen left still." So he sleeps in the inviolable camp of the sahib, and goes back to his tower next morning, and pulls up the twenty-foot ladder after him. He has not been out between sundown and sunrise for years — not since he shot his tenth man of the other side — and he never means to. Only one day it occurs to the sahib that he has not seen his old friend for some time, and on inquiry he learns that they got him in the end.
An Afridi subadar-major — senior native officer of a famous regiment — one day went on furlough. His time ran out and he did not return. A week went by, and then another; still no subadar-major. The officers wondered: it was impossible that a man of his service, of his proved loyalty, should have deserted; where could he be? Another week; and there appeared in barracks a dirty-haired youth with a letter. "I am grieved to overstay my time," wrote the subadar-major, "but what can I do? I am the last of my clan, and two of my enemies sit outside my tower night and day." It seemed a poor look-out for the gallant officer, and the next on the list for promotion was congratulated by his clansmen in advance. But a week after, unannounced, there walked into barracks the subadar-major himself, chest expanded, whiskers curling with satisfaction. "A wonderful thing, Colonel Sahib," he explained. "I awoke one morning and looked out of my loophole, and there — I could hardly believe my eyes — there were both my enemies in one line! So I took my rifle and shot them both with one bullet, and returned hither with all speed."
You will hardly believe it, but that is the normal state of social intercourse among the Pathans. And not only among them across the border, but in the plain also: wherever the Pathan is, there rifle-stealing is the staple industry, murder a social duty, and violent death the common lot of man. On Thursdays, riding past the jail to the meet of the Peshawar Vale Hounds, you will remark on it if you do not see a man being hanged. But in such cases as shooting the man who stole your wife, or shooting the man who shot your brother who stole his wife, or shooting the man who shot your father who shot his brother who stole your mother — why, in domestic matters like this it is not expedient that the law should be over-curious. It is not well to hang men for doing their social duty: a wise Government will temper routine with sympathy.
Occasionally, indeed, this attitude is slightly misapprehended. A worthy Pathan was much troubled by the scandalous misbehaviour of a vicious mother. He confided his sorrows to a magistrate, who promised to help him in any way he could. "Well then, sahib, the best plan I can think of is this. One night some brigands from over the border will come down and abduct my mother. I shall complain to you, and you will send Staunton Sahib with police. But they will not find my mother, and we shall hear no more of her for ever."
"Ah, this thou should'st have done,
And not have spoken on't,"
murmured the magistrate. But in the end he got the bad old lady locked up for one of her misdeeds, and the son was as happy as if he had scuppered her himself in the character of a trans-border raider.
It is the truth that here, on the thin line between elaborate civilisation and primeval barbarism, where you may begin your morning by trying a duet with a lady on a grand piano and finish it with a tulwar through your belly — here there is more sympathy between white man and native than anywhere else in India. British soldiers pull tugs-of-war against Kohati school-boys, whose fathers may easily have shot their room-mates. British gentlemen sit down to table with Mussulmans — each considering the other irretrievably ripe for damnation, but each knowing the other to be a man. The Briton was made to do with the barbarian, being — the more you think of it the clearer you see it — half a barbarian himself. For if the carbine-thieves crouching in the wind-gusts by the roadside are one side of the matter, the squad here at riding-school, the squad there at bayonet-drill, the Sikh recruits practising the double — these are the other. For the first time in India's history the mountaineers look down over the border at India rich, but India armed and unsleeping. With us it is as with them: the hand keeps the head.