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Chapter 16

THE INDIAN CIVILIAN


One morning then, a week later, Shelton found himself at the walls of Princetown Prison.

He had seen this lugubrious stone cage before. But the magic of his morning walk across the moor, the sight of the pagan tors, the songs of the last cuckoo, had unprepared him for that dreary building. He left the street, and, entering the fosse, began a circuit, scanning the walls with morbid fascination.

This, then, was the system by which men enforced the will of the majority, and it was suddenly borne in on him that all the ideas and maxims which his Christian countrymen believed themselves to be fulfilling daily were stultified in every cellule of the social honeycomb. Such teachings as "He that is without sin amongst you" had been pronounced unpractical by peers and judges, bishops, statesmen, merchants, husbands--in fact, by every truly Christian person in the country.

"Yes," thought Shelton, as if he had found out something new, "the more Christian the nation, the less it has to do with the Christian spirit."

Society was a charitable organisation, giving nothing for nothing, little for sixpence; and it was only fear that forced it to give at all!

He took a seat on a wall, and began to watch a warder who was slowly paring a last year's apple. The expression of his face, the way he stood with his solid legs apart, his head poked forward and his lower jaw thrust out, all made him a perfect pillar of Society. He was undisturbed by Shelton's scrutiny, watching the rind coil down below the apple; until in a springing spiral it fell on the path and collapsed like a toy snake. He took a bite; his teeth were jagged; and his mouth immense. It was obvious that he considered himself a most superior man. Shelton frowned, got down slowly, from the wall, and proceeded on his way.

A little further down the hill he stopped again to watch a group of convicts in a field. They seemed to be dancing in a slow and sad cotillon, while behind the hedge on every side were warders armed with guns. Just such a sight, substituting spears could have been seen in Roman times.

While he thus stood looking, a man, walking, rapidly, stopped beside him, and asked how many miles it was to Exeter. His round visage; and long, brown eyes, sliding about beneath their brows, his cropped hair and short neck, seemed familiar.

"Your name is Crocker, is n't it?"

"Why! it's the Bird!" exclaimed the traveller; putting out his hand. "Have n't seen you since we both went down."

Shelton returned his handgrip. Crocker had lived above his head at college, and often kept him, sleepless half the night by playing on the hautboy.

"Where have you sprung from?"

"India. Got my long leave. I say, are you going this way? Let's go together."

They went, and very fast; faster and faster every minute.

"Where are you going at this pace?" asked Shelton.

"London."

"Oh! only as far as London?"

"I 've set myself to do it in a week."

"Are you in training?"

"No."

"You 'll kill yourself."

Crocker answered with a chuckle.

Shelton noted with alarm the expression of his eye; there was a sort of stubborn aspiration in it. "Still an idealist!" he thought; "poor fellow!" "Well," he inquired, "what sort of a time have you had in India?"

"Oh," said the Indian civilian absently, "I've, had the plague."

"Good God!"

Crocker smiled, and added:

"Caught it on famine duty."

"I see," said Shelton; "plague and famine! I suppose you fellows really think you 're doing good out there?"

His companion looked at him surprised, then answered modestly:

"We get very good screws."

"That 's the great thing," responded Shelton.

After a moment's silence, Crocker, looking straight before him, asked:

"Don't you think we are doing good?"

"I 'm not an authority; but, as a matter of fact, I don't."

Crocker seemed disconcerted.

"Why?" he bluntly asked.

Shelton was not anxious to explain his views, and he did not reply.

His friend repeated:

"Why don't you think we're doing good in India?"

"Well," said Shelton gruffly, "how can progress be imposed on nations from outside?"

The Indian civilian, glancing at Shelton in an affectionate and doubtful way, replied:

"You have n't changed a bit, old chap."

"No, no," said Shelton; "you 're not going to get out of it that way. Give me a single example of a nation, or an individual, for that matter, who 's ever done any good without having worked up to it from within."

Crocker, grunting, muttered, "Evils."

"That 's it," said Shelton; "we take peoples entirely different from our own, and stop their natural development by substituting a civilisation grown for our own use. Suppose, looking at a tropical fern in a hothouse, you were to say: 'This heat 's unhealthy for me; therefore it must be bad for the fern, I 'll take it up and plant it outside in the fresh air.'"

"Do you know that means giving up India?" said the Indian civilian shrewdly.

"I don't say that; but to talk about doing good to India is--h'm!"

Crocker knitted his brows, trying to see the point of view his friend was showing him.

"Come, now! Should we go on administering India if it were dead loss? No. Well, to talk about administering the country for the purpose of pocketing money is cynical, and there 's generally some truth in cynicism; but to talk about the administration of a country by which we profit, as if it were a great and good thing, is cant. I hit you in the wind for the benefit of myself--all right: law of nature; but to say it does you good at the same time is beyond me."

"No, no," returned Crocker, grave and anxious; "you can't persuade me that we 're not doing good."

"Wait a bit. It's all a question of horizons; you look at it from too close. Put the horizon further back. You hit India in the wind, and say it's virtuous. Well, now let's see what happens. Either the wind never comes back, and India gasps to an untimely death, or the wind does come back, and in the pant of reaction your blow--that's to say your labour--is lost, morally lost labour that you might have spent where it would n't have been lost."

"Are n't you an Imperialist?" asked Crocker, genuinely concerned.

"I may be, but I keep my mouth shut about the benefits we 're conferring upon other people."

"Then you can't believe in abstract right, or justice?"

"What on earth have our ideas of justice or right got to do with India?"

"If I thought as you do," sighed the unhappy Crocker, "I should be all adrift."

"Quite so. We always think our standards best for the whole world. It's a capital belief for us. Read the speeches of our public men. Does n't it strike you as amazing how sure they are of being in the right? It's so charming to benefit yourself and others at the same time, though, when you come to think of it, one man's meat is usually another's poison. Look at nature. But in England we never look at nature--there's no necessity. Our national point of view has filled our pockets, that's all that matters."

"I say, old chap, that's awfully bitter," said Crocker, with a sort of wondering sadness.

"It 's enough to make any one bitter the way we Pharisees wax fat, and at the same time give ourselves the moral airs of a balloon. I must stick a pin in sometimes, just to hear the gas escape." Shelton was surprised at his own heat, and for some strange reason thought of Antonia--surely, she was not a Pharisee.

His companion strode along, and Shelton felt sorry for the signs of trouble on his face.

"To fill your pockets," said Crocker, "is n't the main thing. One has just got to do things without thinking of why we do them."

"Do you ever see the other side to any question?" asked Shelton. "I suppose not. You always begin to act before you stop thinking, don't you?"

Crocker grinned.

"He's a Pharisee, too," thought Shelton, "without a Pharisee's pride. Queer thing that!"

After walking some distance, as if thinking deeply, Crocker chuckled out:

"You 're not consistent; you ought to be in favour of giving up India."

Shelton smiled uneasily.

"Why should n't we fill our pockets? I only object to the humbug that we talk."

The Indian civilian put his hand shyly through his arm.

"If I thought like you," he said, "I could n't stay another day in India."

And to this Shelton made no reply.

The wind had now begun to drop, and something of the morning's magic was stealing again upon the moor. They were nearing the outskirt fields of cultivation. It was past five when, dropping from the level of the tors, they came into the sunny vale of Monkland.

"They say," said Crocker, reading from his guide-book--"they say this place occupies a position of unique isolation."

The two travellers, in tranquil solitude, took their seats under an old lime-tree on the village green. The smoke of their pipes, the sleepy air, the warmth from the baked ground, the constant hum, made Shelton drowsy.

"Do you remember," his companion asked, "those 'jaws' you used to have with Busgate and old Halidome in my rooms on Sunday evenings? How is old Halidome?"

"Married," replied Shelton.

Crocker sighed. "And are you?" he asked.

"Not yet," said Shelton grimly; "I 'm--engaged."

Crocker took hold of his arm above the elbow, and, squeezing it, he grunted. Shelton had not received congratulations that pleased him more; there was the spice of envy in them.

"I should like to get married while I 'm home," said the civilian after a long pause. His legs were stretched apart, throwing shadows on the green, his hands deep thrust into his pockets, his head a little to one side. An absent-minded smile played round his mouth.

The sun had sunk behind a tor, but the warmth kept rising from the ground, and the sweet-briar on a cottage bathed them with its spicy perfume. From the converging lanes figures passed now and then, lounged by, staring at the strangers, gossiping amongst themselves, and vanished into the cottages that headed the incline. A clock struck seven, and round the shady lime-tree a chafer or some heavy insect commenced its booming rushes. All was marvellously sane and slumbrous. The soft air, the drawling voices, the shapes and murmurs, the rising smell of wood-smoke from fresh-kindled fires--were full of the spirit of security and of home. The outside world was far indeed. Typical of some island nation was this nest of refuge--where men grew quietly tall, fattened, and without fuss dropped off their perches; where contentment flourished, as sunflowers flourished in the sun.

Crocker's cap slipped off; he was nodding, and Shelton looked at him. From a manor house in some such village he had issued; to one of a thousand such homes he would find his way at last, untouched by the struggles with famines or with plagues, uninfected in his fibre, his prejudices, and his principles, unchanged by contact with strange peoples, new conditions, odd feelings, or queer points of view!

The chafer buzzed against his shoulder, gathered flight again, and boomed away. Crocker roused himself, and, turning his amiable face, jogged Shelton's arm.

"What are you thinking about, Bird?" he asked.


John Galsworthy

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