FICTION

Bengal Interlude

India today —the curse of caste —a native boy's desire to escape it —the poignant and terrifying adventure that followed

ALLAN SWINTON October 1 1936
FICTION

Bengal Interlude

India today —the curse of caste —a native boy's desire to escape it —the poignant and terrifying adventure that followed

ALLAN SWINTON October 1 1936

Bengal Interlude

India today —the curse of caste —a native boy's desire to escape it —the poignant and terrifying adventure that followed

ALLAN SWINTON

IT WAS Moti’s fate that at ten years old he should have visited the village to skin Mungra Mistri's calf, what time Doctor Mary Smith, of the Hindu Women’s Mission was encamped there on her tour of effort to improve the country midwives’ hideous technique. Emerging from a black crone’s hut, she heard a clatter and a childish scream as her pony, bitten by a mud-wasp, broke the leg of a brown, skinny urchin whose head appeared to be too heavy for his meagre neck. Because of his unclean caste, no villager would touch the boy, and in abject remorse she set the bone and bore him with her to the mission, where she personally cared for him.

Habuli was an outpost station where she worked alone with purely native staff, and to an ageing spinster whose unprepossessing looks concealed a rich maternal instinct her new charge unfolded such a joy that, his leg being healed, she kept him there for three years as her special protégé and slave.

But when ill-fortune sent her to the hills for a protracted illness, Moti’s standing at a hospital devoted to maternity grew nebulous. Mary had been borne away in a malarial coma, leaving no dispositions for her youthful ward; and to relieve her came a dour, unsentimental Highland woman. To the new official, Moti was a mere pampered native brat, and, liking her no more than she liked him, he treated her with scandalous discourtesy. She bore with him until she happened to discover that he had a home and parents, whereupon in great relief she packed him in a bullock cart and shipped him thither.

To Moti, this was a catastrophe. In the child of centuries of ill-fed, debased and therefore apathetic people, good food, creature comfort, sympathy and schooling had produced impressive change. The starveling boy had grown plump, muscular and energetic, with bright black eyes, a white-toothed grin and a most enquiring mind. He had a smattering of English, vast self-esteem, and a fanatical belief in Mary Smith and all her works. His folk were of chumar caste, dressers of hides and therefore unclean even to such humble Hindus as the ryots of Gorinda village. By precedent for centuries accepted by their doleful kind, they lived on a knoll a hundred yards or so apart from folk more cleanly. They owned a thatched mud hut, a nick for skins, some scrawny chickens and an aged buffalo and cart. In contrast with Habuli Mission, Moti found the squalor, isolation, stink and unrelieved monotony intolerable, and he was pondering certain steps to free himself when chance again put out a hand to shape his destiny.

GORINDA village occupied a patch of silt in the bed of a big old river that some medieval king had dammed, and now for once the odium of Moti’s birth became a blessing, when one day the dam collapsed and twenty feet of water roared along the old stream bed.

It happened just at sunrise, with the East an arch of angry red against which stood in silhouette the heads of tamarisks. The thunder of the waters roused the chumar$, who rushed out and in the lurid glow that came before the sun beheld a grim phenomenon.

With the tremendous spate, the whole frail settlement had been swept away. Where had been a village of some fifty houses, rice fields neatly dyked and mud-walled corrals, now were nothing but the tops of sal trees, dragging out and whipping backward as the current eddied round them. The chumars’ knoll was now an islet, cut off from the nearest land—a sere brown slope that was the ancient river bank—by twenty yards of shallow water.

A sleek, brown, black-haired youngster, wearing nothing but a loincloth, Moti stood, pop-eyed and scared, beside his parents and his sister, Foolmoti, while overhead flew

startled egrets and a mob of cawing crows. His father, Goolia, gaunt and wrinkled in his dirty breechcloth, struck his forehead. “The gods have burst the dam. Duce nahi, duce. nahi—vie have no luck, no luck!”

Moti stared in lively apprehension at the water’s edge. Soon he thrust out an urgent finger. “See, it is coming up. It; has covered that big stone.”

“Ram ram! Ram ram! Pray the gods make it cease,” his father moaned.

Moti remarked more practicálly, pointing landward: "Yonder we should be safe, whether it rose or no.”

Goolia answered but without conviction: “It will rise no more. The gods will spare the house of folk so humble.”

This seemed to Moti slender hope on which to risk a watery death. “If we wait it may grow too deep,” he urged. “Let us take what we can carry and go quickly.”

“Our buffalo is gone. If we lose our house and tools, what

shall we do? Ram ram, ram ram......may God have mercy

on us.” Goolia sank on to his meagre hams and gazed despairingly across the flood. Saro, his wife, a frail-limbed, gentle woman, with her infant clasped astride one outthrust hip, stood patiently, her face a study of bewildered apprehension.

"Mother,” Moti urged her, staring at the water’s edge, “let us go before it is too late. If we stay here we shall all be drowned.”

He ran into the hut, to emerge tugging at a partly emptied sack of grain. He said to his sister: “Here,

Foolmoti, the curry and the salt and ghee are on the top. Mother can take Toto. 1 will bring the dah, the blanket and the bed.”

He’turned to Saro. “Hurry, mother; soon the stream will be too deep.”

She was a meek, timid looking woman with a silver nose-ring and inch-wide brass ear-plugs, dressed in a soiled red sari with a yellow pattern. Her brown face was an oval whose clean line remained unbroken by her sleek black hair, her nose was straight, her mouth sweet and her eyes large and limpid. An artist might have said that she was beautiful.

She looked at the son who had returned a stranger to her and so different in physique, mien and outlook from the spindly boys she knew, at her despondent spouse, and at the water swirling where had been the village. Then she passed the naked Toto to Foolmoti. “Take him, thou. I have other work.” She went into the hut and with a twist of her thin arms put up a full maund sack of eighty pounds of grain on to her head. Foolmoti set down her infant brother, put up the smaller sack, and then stretched down an arm which Toto clutched. She swung him up, to clamp himself across her hip, and then stood waiting.

Moti said, “Father, we are going,” and with, on his head their string-laced bedstead, in his belt the dah, and in his hand their big brass lotah, he led into the yellow flood.

When the others followed, Goolia stood up wearily, wound his red turban round his head and waded after them.

Halfway across, the water rose to Moti’s armpits; then it shoaled and they attained the scrubby slope.

\/[OT1 SET down the bed, took off his loincloth unself-‘■*1. consciously and wrung it out. The sun had cleared the eastward ridge, bringing at once the burning Bengal day. There was no morning freshness. Day came in a single stride—a white, fierce sun and glaring turquoise sky, hot dusty air that parched the throat, and a crow’s harsh caw alone to vex a grave-like silence.

Goolia squatted, knees in armpits, staring at the hut marooned upon its dwindling islet. Beyond, across the flotsam-dotted water, lay low. scrubby land that distantly

rose to far-off purple ridges.

The family had reached a sandy slope with tufts of dry grass and occasional clumps of thorny babul, dwarf-teak and white flowering acacia. From the cracked ground the heated air rose quivering, and at the water’s edge the evil Indian crows foraged for carrion.

There was nothing they could do. Saro made a fire and cooked a meal of rice, ghee and salt. Then they sat watching as the man-made lake upstream was emptied and the river, which had been diverted to a southward valley, after three centuries resumed its natural bed. Slowly it rose—to the tree root by the hut, to the hut-walls and up these, until at sunset the posts leaned and the eaves touched the water, which, with this purchase, slowly wrenched the structure round. Its roots gave and it sank, to rise again and float at once downstream.

Goolia’s gnarled hand fell into the dust. “Duce nahi! Duce nahi!” He shook his lined brown head.

Saro and Foolmoti, squatting in the scorching sun, set up the quavering wail which serves their gentle kind for tears. The infant Toto, lately learned to walk, garbed only in a string round his loins that bore in front a small brass bell, staggered about his private business. High overhead they heard a kite’s thin scream.

After a scared look at his father and his mother’s grief, Moti scooped up a gob of curry in his fingers and said stoutly: “Well, it is gone.

But we are safe, with food to eat.”

No one heeded him. They were too much dismayed. But for his part, truth to tell, contrasted with the boredom of the past two weeks, the day’s excitement had afforded compensations. While the sun went down, he squatted underneath a bush and pondered matters. He was at the one time frightened, awed, and thrilled delectably. He knew their position. North of the river was a barren land ; no traffic reached the village

therefrom, and Gorinda people went no farther into it than they must for fuel. Gorinda was an outpost of the settlements that lay days to the southward, which had come to being on an isolated patch of silt in the old naked channel. Now it was gone, the land on both sides of the stream was empty.

These facts went to fortify the scheme that had been growing in his mind before the flood for his deliverance from the life he loathed. It had been solely for himself that he had first conceived so splendid an adventure, and to include the family was an afterthought induced by their extremity. All through the sultry, insect-pestered night he lay beneath his turban cloth upon the ground and jxindered it, and at their meal next morning he unburdened himself.

Pointing westward, he declared : “My father, Miss Esmit memsahib told me that that way is a land where all boys go to school, where none are born unclean and so must live apart. Our house and everything is gone. We cannot cross the stream and go to Habuli. Let us then start and travel till we reach that land.”

Goolia answered gloomily: “Thy tales are lies. There is no such land—except maybe for sahibs. Our birth is ordained by the gods and we have no redress. And how could there be leather if there were no outcast« folk to tan the skins?”

Moti exclaimed indignantly: “Miss Esmit memsahib

does not tell lies. She made my leg straight and pulled out my tooth, and she says that that land is there.”

He turned to Saro. “Mother, everything is gone that we had here. We cannot cross the river. We must find a place where we can live, so why not go to this new country?”

Saro’s face wTas drawn and scared. She looked at the yellow river, at the parched empty land, and at their store of food, replying doubtfully: “The river might go down and we could find our tools and go to Habuli In thy foreign parts, what should we do?”

Moti was both confident and scornful. “How can the river go down when the dam is burst, unless some person build it up? And who will build it? In that land there will be many memsahibs like my Miss Esmit memsahib. They will help us. Here, we can only starve.”

Saro agreed unhappily: “If the river go not down, that is the end for us, and no place could be worse than this place will be.”

As still she hesitated, Moti wound his turban cloth about his cropped black head. He put into the small rice-bag the salt and curry, picked up the dah—a broad knife like a Mexican machete—and slung the blanket crosswise on his shoulder. “Sister,” he said to Foolmoti, “take thou the small bag and our brother as thou didst before.”

* Foolmoti was fourteen now, and had she been better nourished would have been attractive. Already well past marriageable age, lacking a dowry, she was doomed to be sold as a concubine to some small merchant.

Silently the girl set on her head the twenty pounds of grain and hoisted Toto to his place astride her hip. Saro offered no more opposition but heaved up her sack and stood in readiness. Her husband said: “It is a madness. What can we do against the gods? We shall ix-rish in the desert in a foreign land.”

Moti put up the bed and resolutely started. How far off his goal might be he did not know. But Mary Smith had told him that to the west it lay, and so in perfect faith he headed for the point where all his life he’d seen the sun go down. Straight as pines beneath their burdens, Foolmoti and Saro followed, whereon Goolia, after watching gloomily some moments, lurched to his feet and shambled after them.

THIRTEEN HOURS, till dark, they marched, camped where night found them and at sunrise marched again. Whereas the others faced the journey with a dumb, unthinking fatalism, Moti maintained the liveliest interest. Cursing frequently his hampering burden, he led on with dog-like zest and curiosity. At every rise he hurried to reach the crest and eagerly surveyed the new terrain, when, seeing nothing but the scrubby landscape, lie at once marched on, to breast the next slope with undaunted optimism.

On the third day, toward noon, when they had gone some ninety miles, they struck a cart track. It could not be called a road since it was merely wheelmarks, winding through a park-like country. But they followed it with kindling interest down a wooded slope into mixed kuggaree and thorn trees, the grey-green snaky branches of sterculia, the naked tree, and here and there those spreading trees grown thick with scarlet blossom called Flame of the Forest. High overhead wheeled parrakeets in screeching ¡locks, and on the tall grass, grey-and-pink larger parrots

hung and chuckled, upside down. The hostility the land had held gave place to somewhat kindlier feeling.

When the sun was at its zenith they reached level ground, and the tracks debouched into an open space between the tree-clad slopes and where a waste of kugguree began. One side was walled by stacks of charcoal bags; there was a square mud kiln, a bullock cart, and in the centre, shaded by a big tree whose gnarled trunk stood by the door, a thatched mud hut. Moti pitched down the bed and ran, shouting: “Ohee! Ohee, brothers!”

No one answered and he peered within. There were the usual bedsteads, lotahs, axes, in the bamboo rafters sacks of grain secure from rats, but no people.

The women trudged up and dumped down their loads. “There is no one here,” Moti told them.

Goolia declared: “They are charcoal burners and are in the forest cutting billets. They will come in at nightfall.” Saro said; “We will rest here. We have now reached a foreign land and they perhaps can set us on the proper road.”

They did not dare, rest near the hut or use the grindingslab, for fear of a beating from the owners for defiling these effects with their uncleanliness. So they disposed themselves on the far side of the clearing, and Saro set a pot of rice to soak. While the others slept, Moti explored the neighborhood, finding nothing but the cart road, winding westward, and a footpath to a spring some fifty yards away beneath a cassia tree. To him the place contained a curious sense of desolation, which feeling was enhanced by what his bright eyes noticed as he prowled about.

As the sun sank, Saro built lier evening fire. Round her the family squatted, waiting for their meal. The land was hushed and windless, only the harsh chirr of the crickets malting any sound. The raeds, the scrub, that walled the place, stood motionless, and an acrid scent of dust and drying leaves and pollen filled the air.

By the time the rice was cooked the sun was down, and still the owners of t he hut had not appeared. Moti voiced the question that was on his mind: “Wftere are these

people? Why don’t they come back?”

“They are in the forest, cutting billets.”

“They would have taken tools, but their saws and axes are ail in the hut. It must be weeks since anybody used this place. See how the grass is sprouting in the doorway, and'in the fireplace is a nest of snakes. I do not think I like it here.”

Saro offered: “Maybe they were south the river when the dam burst and cannot get back.”

Moti considered this.

Suddenly they all stiffened as among the dense, tall grass behind them grew a heavy crackling sound. They waited in tense apprehension till the last stems parted to reveal a buffalo, a huge and almost hairless slate-grey beast with great flat horns that swept back in a semicircle till their points lay on its withers. A copper ring was in its nose. It stood staring at them with its kind’s inimical expression, and the family relaxed. Such beasts were commonplace in their existence; they had owned one like it that had been swept down river with the village herd.

Moti said : “That proves these people are not on a journey. Folk who own a mhow and gharry do not go so far on foot.”

Goolia did not concur. “Maybe they had two carts, two mhow. How do we know? They went across the river and the flood has cut them off.

When the water goes they will come back.” His mind could not concede tire river’s permanent return to its primordial bed.

Moti countered: “It is three days only since

the river rose. Does grass grow in so short a time, or snakes nest in a fireplace?”

Saro ended the discussion in a woman’s way.

“The chowl is ready. Let us eat.” She looked about her. “Where is Foolmoti?”

“She took the lotah to the spring,” Moti replied.

He cupped his hands and hailed: “Foolmoti!

Ohee, Foolmoti !” and the grass and scrub sent back an echo but no other answer.

AWHILE they waited in the ruddy half-light.

Then Moti rose and trotted to the trail mouth and was lost to sight among the white-plumed tussocks. From the pool, they heard him shout again.

Presently he reappeared. “She has come back?”

They shook their heads, and he held up the lotah.

“I found it upset by the pool.” The three exchanged quick, puzzled looks.

They called Foolmoti’s name repeatedly, and then, alarmed, they hunted the environs till the light gave out. At dark, there was no more that they could do. They crouched, scared and bewildered, round their little firethree small brown people with the flickering light upon their bare limbs, their poor cotton rags, their incredulous faces, and the baby Toto curled up like a pup beside his mother. Saro’s face had an indignant look. “What has happened to my daughter? Where is she?”

“Did Î not say no good would come of this mad journey?”

Goolia answered. “This is a foreign place and filled with bhools and witches. Why else would there be no people? The bhools have taken her to Eblis. We will keep a great fire and tomorrow we will go away, before worse harm befall the rest of us.”

This drew from the gentle Saro swift unprecedented protest: “I will not leave this place without my child.”

Moti piped up: “There are no such things as bhools and witches, Miss Esmit memsahib told me. Foolmoti has lost lier way; we shall find her tomorrow,” he decided stubbornly.

But for three days they maintained a ceaseless search, without result.

On the last day, dose to sunset, after hours of hunting single-handed through the knggaree, Moti returned to the clearing. Smoke from a fire rose in a straight blue ribbon, by which knelt the red-swathed figure of his mother. As, worn out, dust-coated to the knees, his naked shoulders white with grass seeds, he came up, she faced him with hope still reviving. All they could think of had long since been said upon the subject. With their unspoken query, their mixed hojx1 and apprehension, her black gentle eyes were like those of a beaten spaniel. Moti shook his head, and her face fell. “Where is thy father?” she enquired.

He looked at her. “He was with you?”

“No. When I went out, he was not here. I thought he must have gone with you.”

“I left him here. He must have gone alone. He will come soon, the light will not last long.”

But a moonless dark came down and Goolia had not returned.

AFTER DAYS spent ranging through the bush in fear *of some vague, lurking peril, and nights passed in scared conjecture, Saro’s fortitude collapsed. With Toto sitting solemnly beside her, she was working at an evening meal. Close by, Moti squatted. He was frightened and bewildered, and in his secret code inspired by Mary Smith he sought in vain for inspiration.

Suddenly Saro dropped the lotah, pulled off her ornaments and dragged down her hair. Smearing dust upon her head, she commenced rocking on her heels and raised the awful wailing of a Hindu widow. Impotent and wretched, Moti watched in silence.

The blaze of sunset died, the red light in the clearing waned, and from the thickets shadows crept. Crickets began their hard dry song, and overhead a big black bat flapped upon leathern wings. The wail of Saro’s grief was the epitome of desolation.

Without a sound, a dark long form shot from the nearest cover, struck her down and stood on her, its tail lashing, while lier son stared spellbound at the striped face of a mangy tiger. He felt its hot breath as from broken teeth its lips writhed in a whispering snarl, and as his arm went up defensively its paw lashed round, to hit his thigh and knock him sprawling. Then it seized Saro by the shoulder and, with its tawny head held high, departed at a trot.

Sick with horror, one leg numb and useless. Moti watched it disappear into the shadows. Then he shouted frantically to Toto. managed to get with him to the hut and dose the flimsy door, where he lay shivering on the ground and panted.

He had heard of tigers and of man-eaters, though with no more feeling of reality than would a European boy. But now he knew what had become of Foolmoti, his father and the charcoal men.

Through the wattle door he saw the firelight flicker; the crickets chirred, and now and then his own teeth rattled. Toto whimpered, crawling to him for comfort. Making a place for him against his body, he essayed to move his thigh and winced with pain. Had an ordinary tiger struck him, his leg would have been in ribbons. But this beast was senile, its claws worn flat with digging for rats, eggs and reptiles; now it could no longer kill wild game. Though the blow had been tremendous, the flesh was whole and the bones unbroken.

The fire died and the darkness settled, but he had no heart to move. He lay, his hurt leg throbbing, Toto’s warm nude body curled confidingly against his abdomen, dryeyed and un relaxed while night dragged through, his thoughts in an imperious and dread reiteration: The family was finished; he and Toto had to get away. They had to get away before the gaunt beast with the broken teeth and mangy hide again grew hungry.

He must have dozed at last for he was conscious suddenly of spears of light upon his body that were rays of sunshine streaming through the brushwood door. The hut was in twilight. Above him in the tree a crow cawed harshly. Toto still slept against his chest.

At once he realized that days must pass ere he could travel. To do that he must carry Toto, and his leg from knee to buttock was so sore that he could barely move it. On hands and his sound knee, he reached the door and shoved it open. The place lay hushed and still, the last mauve mists ascending in the hot rays of new-risen sun. After the way of Bengal days, the morning seemed already old. A mynah with its yellow beak was pecking at their last night’s meal, neglected in the lotah. From the dust three feet away a big green lizard watched him beadily. Across the clearing, in the fringe of the knggaree, its huge smooth body like grey stone, its great head with backsweeping horns and sullen smoke-blue eyes held low, he saw the charcoal-burners’ buffalo.

AS COOLIE BOY and buffalo eyed one another, Moti ^ suddenly had vision and a thrill of hope. Like all village boys, he had handled buffaloes since he could stand. With this beast in the cart, he could be thirty miles away by sunset. But he had to catch it first and, as do cats and turkeys, mhow retain the instinct quickly to revert to wildness. Tame with their owners when at large, to strangers they are shy and even dangerous; but once tethered by the nose-ring they can be controlled by anyone who knows their language.

With a boy’s swift-springing optimism, Moti visualized deliverance. Crawling painfully about the hut, lie contrived to fill a tray with grain. The buffalo still stood where he had seen it. Speaking soothingly and shoving on the ground the tray before him, he made his way across and pushed the food close to its muzzle.

The bull put down its head and snuffled, came on a step and took a mouthful. As it settled avidly to feed, Moti unwound his turban and prepared the end for slipping through the nose-ring. When he judged the time was ri{>e he moved a hand toward this stealthily. Nearer it crept, nearer; but before it reached grabbing distance, the beast’s head went up, to stare at Moti with a smoldering eye. When lie retired it presently resumed, but stopped as soon as his hand stole too dose; and such a game went on until the grain was done. Then the grey bull swung around and plodded off among the high brown reeds.

Moti subsided on the ground dejectedly and heard the crackle of its progress die. He knew that he would catch the beast eventually. Morning and evening it drank at the spring. But he had to have it now; tomorrow morning at the latest. Farther ahead than that he dared not think. Each hour that passed brought closer an inevitable dread visitation, the conviction of which stiffened him with fear.

Until—he hoped—the mhow came back that night, there was nothing to be done but rest his leg and wait. Except that he and Toto had to live. Beside the dead fire stood the lotah with most of their last night’s meal. He crawled across, secured this and got to the hut, where he and Toto made a breakfast of the clammy, half-cooked rice. Thereafter he lay on the bare string bed, the door tied shut and Toto pottering about the place. The hut, devoid of windows, was in twilight, but the heat grew ovenlike; outside the crows cawed and at intervals a mynah chattered. Moti tried to think of pleasant things, of his cool bedroom at Habuli Mission, of the vision that he cherished of what waited at the journey’s end, and of Mary Smith whose word he had that it was there. But it was hard to still the grisly fears that hovered in the background of his consciousness.

The fact by and by developed that they must have water—and the spring was fifty yards away through ideal cover for a tiger. But water was one thing they had to have.

At noontime, when the sun burned down and all life hid, he summoned up his courage to essay the trip. He first

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tethered Toto to a corner post. In the hut he found a flail which, with the wing removed, would serve him for a crutch. With this to save his injured leg he tied the door behind him and, carrying the largest lotah, hobbled painfully toward the trail. At the mouth he paused, heart pounding; then he set his teeth and hobbled on. To his distraught imagination, every whiteplumed clump concealed a crouching form, each bend might open up some terrifying sight. But he kept on and reached the spring without mishap. The little pool lay dark and still beneath depending branches, a brown snake coiled upon a root beside it.

Limping as he must, to carry the full lotah was beyond his powers, so he relumed on all fours, shoving the vessel yard by yard along the ground ahead of him.

He found the hut as he had left it, set some rice to soak, and then lay down to pass the hours till he might get another chance to catch the mhow when it came down to drink at sunset.

it is not given to the very young to suffer mental stress for long. The slow, void hours, the heat and the exhaustion had their way with Moti, and at length lie fell asleep.

T_TE WAKENED to a loud, flat, sound and sprang up. to behold the lower corner of the flimsy door pulled outward by some unseen force, which soon declared itsel f. as in the angle thus exposed appeared a whiskered, snuffling muzzle. As Mod’s flesh crept, tfie door slipped from the dawless pad and came to with the slam that had awakened him. Then the tiger took another hold and threw it back again. Ibis time the paw and not the nose, came

in; it hooked itself about the bamboo frame, slid up twelve inches and began to pull.

Moti glared frantically about the hut and saw the ladder leading up to where the grain was stored. He seized his brother, set him on the bed and swarmed up halfway, from whence he reached down and by using all his strength managed to swing the baby up on to the sacks. He pitched the dah up after him, and contrived to clamber up himself in time to stop him squirming off.

The rafters were of bullocka bamboo, thick as his leg and running both ways in a ten-foot grid. The grain bags, lying side by side, composed a sort of balcony, on which Moti lay, clutching his dah and staring panic-stricken down into the hut.

The latch was creaking. Now it broke. The door was open. In the doorway stood the tiger, curiously peering in. It was an old, purblind female, from whom the redand-black striped glory of its species had long since decayed. It was a mere gaunt body clad in sagging bide, the fur of ribs and quarters worn away in scabrous patches. As its nostrils tried the air, its rheumy gaze went round the hut uncertainly. Then it entered and walked round the place, tail waving, while it uttered a lugubrious yowling sound.

Moti lay spellbound, gazing down on its long narrow back, with sunken flanks and knobby spine and deeply corrugated ribs.

It halted, sniffing the air, its senile senses functioning without authority. It dropped to its haunches, licked its chops, curled its tail round its feet and sat there like some huge lachrymose alley cat. Then Toto gurgled, and the beast looked up and saw above her Moti’s scared brown face.

For some moments it sat gazing with an aspect of intent surprise, turning its shabby head enquiringly from side to side. It. whined once or twice, and licked its lips. By and by it half-rose on its haunches, but dropped down again uncertainly.

After some more moments of deliberate regard it suddenly leaped up and hooked its paws among the rafters. They were round and smooth, its pads were innocent of claws, and it at once fell back. But it had found its distance and now rose upon its hind legs with its paws outstretched. Nine feet from nose to tail, its head almost touched the rafters, and it reached through them for Moti with a red paw bigger than a tea-plate.

With his teeth set in terror, Moti slashed this with the dah, and with an explosive sound, half snarl, half roar, of pain and indignation, the old tiger dropped. The dah went on and gashed a sack, from which grain in a whispering stream poured down upon the tiger. It limped clear and stood holding up a bloody paw and glaring upward.

Then at a sound outside it whipped about and peered out of the doorway. Seeking another feed of grain, outside the door the buffalo was standing. These two knew each other, and the young strong bull habitually ignored the senile tiger, which, though sometimes famished, had evinced no wish to tackle him.

Alone of beasts save elephant and rhinoceros, the bull buffalo, tame or wild, can match a tiger. He weighs 2,000 pounds, his neck is shielded by enormous horns, he is full of fight and, like the wild pig, goes in fear of nothing.

But the tiger now was hurt and furious, and the buffalo opposed its exit from the trap-like hut. It forgot its impotence and with a roar sprang, landing on tire beast’s broad head and biting vainly with its worn teeth to obtain a hold. The bull swung round and charged the gnarled trunk of the pipal tree, trapping the cat beneath his bulk and pounding at it till its ribs snapped and the blood from punctured lungs was crimson on its gaping jaws. When he withdrew, the tiger fell to earth, and he at once dropped to his knees upon it, goring furiously from side to side.

Its frantic struggles fast grew weaker, until when at last the buffalo wearied it could do no more than writhe. The bull heaved up and stood head down and blowing, while its victim, paralyzed behind, essayed with groping forelegs to drag its hurt length away.

AT SOUND of the tremendous strife • outside, the boy, not daring to descend, had tom in the thin thatch of the eaves a hole through which to peer.

Clutching Toto’s wrist against his falling, he crouched breathless in the angle of the roof and watched the closing of the jungle drama. The bull stood with his stumpy forelegs wide and glowered as the tiger dragged itself along until its strength failed and its forelegs could no longer pull its inert body. Its head sank and it lay like death, save for an intermittent heaving of its hollow flanks. Presently this too ceased and it was still.

After watching it intently for a while the bull relaxed. He drew up his forelegs and his threatening head, and after giving this a ix>nderous shake, stared slowly round the clearing with his smoke-blue eyas. He grumbled in his throat and swung around, to catch the sweet smell of the new-spilled grain inside the hut. Raising his nose with exploratory snufflings, he moved to the door and gazed within.

There all was still as Moti crouched upon the rafters, intent on the tiger’s stretched prone form. The bull craned in toward the pile of grain from the gashed sack above, and then intruded half his length and started feeding.

Incredulous at events' swift march, Moti stared at the tiger’s carcass till a crow wheeled in and pitched upon it. The bird pecked at an eye and provoked no movement, and then, and not till then, he let himself believe that it was dead.

Tiren Moti heard Toto crying angrily and felt his struggles as he tried to break free of the desperate dutch in which lie held him. He turned from his lookout to the dimness of the hut, and was aware beneath him of the mighty forepart of the feeding bull.

The place was peaceful now. After the ugly uproar of the fight, climaxing days of endless fear, the knowledge that that fear was ended, the new quiet and the restful munching of the beast below, induced in him an exquisite sensation of deliverance.

And then he realized his opportunity and sprang to seize it. Lowering Toto to arm’s length, he dropped him on the string mesh of the bed. The bull looked up a moment, but at once resumed his feeding.

As unobtrusively as possible, Moti let himself slide down the ladder to the ground beside the bull’s cleft forefoot.

The beast stopped feeding, craned around his broad wet muzzle, crimson with the tiger’s blood, and sombrely regarded him. Tense and still, Moti sat, till soon the head swung back to feed again.

His turban lay near by. He reached for it and twisted up an end to suit his purpose. Then from behind he slowly edged his hand toward the copper nose-ring through which, once he could attach himself, he knew so great a beast could be controlled.

Nearer, nearer crept the small brown hand, concealed beneath the beast’s grey neck, until it shot out and closed on the ring. The bull flung up its head and dragged him up on to his knees, but in spite of the great pain to his hurt leg he hung on desperately. Then at the familiar pull upon his tender nose the buffalo yielded, put down his head and stood submissively. Moti slipped his cloth through and knotted it, let go the ring and, with the other end coiled round his hand, lay on the ground and shook all over with relief and exultation.

His droughts raced now with queries, plans, hopes, apprehensions, with over all a deep delectable anticipation.

The charcoal-men, he was convinced, were dead, and as to taking their effects he felt no scruples. Thus he had a buffalo and cart, a store of food and all utensils wherewith, and long though the road might prove to be, he could essay his coming journey.

DOWN FROM the temperate hills, through the sere hinterlands where such as the Gorinda people dwelt, to the green teeming Ganges delta, winds the Road. It is the country’s great and single artery, all other roads converge to join it, and along it flows all traffic between two great districts.

Down it therefore from her convalescence back to Habuli drove Mary Smith, a friendly doctor having offered thus to spare her a dull, sweltering trip by train.

Marj' Smith was a lonely soul. She had due her nine months leave, but knew of no one whom she felt would welcome the proposal of a lengthy visit. She had a brother with a mercenary wife, to whose two children she had willed her modest nest-egg; but she often had been deeply hurt by their unveiled indifference to their homely maiden aunt.

So, not relishing the thought of nine months idleness alone, she was returning to her lifelong strife with ignorance, sloth and superstition at Habuli Women’s Hospital.

It was a blazing morning, the Road a broad white river winding through a lush green checkerboard of paddy fields. There was much traffic; parties of many sorts of men on foot, bullock carts and packtrains, tiny ponies carrying fat white-clad babus, once in a while an elephant or a white man’s motor car that threw behind it a great plume of dust.

Mary Smith was taking in its neverending drama, thinking wistfully of things that might have been. They had passed an open gharry when she was electrified to hear a boy’s falsetto crying eagerly: “Memsahib! Memsahib! Mees Bsmit Memsahib!”

Incredulous, she made her escort wait to let the gharry come alongside. Propped in the angle of some grain bags, with a naked infant curled between his legs which straddled either side the quarters of the buffalo he drove, looked up at her a plump brown urchin with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

“Why, Moti!” she exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing here?”

She jumped down from the buggy and stood listening while excitedly he told his tale, and as its burden clarified, her thoughts began to race. There was a better tiring, it seemed, to do with what cash she could spare than leave it to a churlish nephew and a brainless niece. Moti had brains and spirit, purpose and imagination, and there were schools in India for such as he that could advance him just as far as his own powers permitted. She then and there made up her mind.

Moti ended: “. . . And we travelled many days until we reached this road. Is this the road, memsahib? Will this road take us to that land of which you told me?” Mary Smith blinked once or twice. “Yes, Moti,” she replied. “This is the road. We will travel it together, you and I and Toto, shall we?”