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Ch. 9: Little Tobrah


'Prisoner's head did not reach to the top of the dock,' as the English
newspapers say. This case, however, was not reported because nobody
cared by so much as a hempen rope for the life or death of Little
Tobrah. The assessors in the red court-house sat upon him all through
the long hot afternoon, and whenever they asked him a question he
salaamed and whined. Their verdict was that the evidence was
inconclusive, and the Judge concurred. It was true that the dead body of
Little Tobrah's sister had been found at the bottom of the well, and
Little Tobrah was the only human being within a half mile radius at the
time; but the child might have fallen in by accident. Therefore Little
Tobrah was acquitted, and told to go where he pleased. This permission
was not so generous as it sounds, for he had nowhere to go to, nothing
in particular to eat, and nothing whatever to wear.

He trotted into the court-compound, and sat upon the well-kerb,
wondering whether an unsuccessful dive into the black water below would
end in a forced voyage across the other Black Water. A groom put down an
emptied nose-bag on the bricks, and Little Tobrah, being hungry, set
himself to scrape out what wet grain the horse had overlooked.

'O Thief--and but newly set free from the terror of the Law! Come
along!' said the groom, and Little Tobrah was led by the ear to a large
and fat Englishman, who heard the tale of the theft.

'Hah!' said the Englishman three times (only he said a stronger word).
'Put him into the net and take him home.' So Little Tobrah was thrown
into the net of the cart, and, nothing doubting that he should be stuck
like a pig, was driven to the Englishman's house. 'Hah!' said the
Englishman as before. 'Wet grain, by Jove! Feed the little beggar, some
of you, and we'll make a riding-boy of him! See? Wet grain, good Lord!'

'Give an account of yourself,' said the Head of the Grooms, to Little
Tobrah after the meal had been eaten, and the servants lay at ease in
their quarters behind the house. 'You are not of the groom caste, unless
it be for the stomach's sake. How came you into the court, and why?
Answer, little devil's spawn!'

'There was not enough to eat,' said Little Tobrah calmly. 'This is a
good place.'

'Talk straight talk,' said the Head Groom, 'or I will make you clean out
the stable of that large red stallion who bites like a camel.'

'We be Telis, oil-pressers,' said Little Tobrah, scratching his toes in
the dust. 'We were Telis--my father, my mother, my brother, the elder by
four years, myself, and the sister.'

'She who was found dead in the well?' said one who had heard something
of the trial.

'Even so,' said Little Tobrah gravely. 'She who was found dead in the
well. It befel upon a time, which is not in my memory, that the sickness
came to the village where our oil-press stood, and first my sister was
smitten as to her eyes, and went without sight, for it was mata--the
smallpox. Thereafter, my father and my mother died of that same
sickness, so we were alone--my brother who had twelve years, I who had
eight, and the sister who could not see. Yet were there the bullock and
the oil-press remaining, and we made shift to press the oil as before.
But Surjun Dass, the grain-seller, cheated us in his dealings; and it
was always a stubborn bullock to drive. We put marigold flowers for the
Gods upon the neck of the bullock, and upon the great grinding-beam that
rose through the roof; but we gained nothing thereby, and Surjun Dass
was a hard man.'

'Bapri-bap,' muttered the grooms' wives, 'to cheat a child so! But WE
know what the bunnia-folk are, sisters.'

'The press was an old press, and we were not strong men--my brother and
I; nor could we fix the neck of the beam firmly in the shackle.'

'Nay, indeed,' said the gorgeously-clad wife of the Head Groom, joining
the circle. 'That is a strong man's work. When I was a maid in my
father's house----'

'Peace, woman,' said the Head Groom. 'Go on, boy.'

'It is nothing,' said Little Tobrah. 'The big beam tore down the roof
upon a day which is not in my memory, and with the roof fell much of the
hinder wall, and both together upon our bullock, whose back was broken.
Thus we had neither home, nor press, nor bullock--my brother, myself,
and the sister who was blind. We went crying away from that place, hand-
in-hand, across the fields; and our money was seven annas and six pie.
There was a famine in the land. I do not know the name of the land. So,
on a night when we were sleeping, my brother took the five annas that
remained to us and ran away. I do not know whither he went. The curse of
my father be upon him. But I and the sister begged food in the villages,
and there was none to give. Only all men said--"Go to the Englishmen and
they will give." I did not know what the Englishmen were; but they said
that they were white, living in tents. I went forward; but I cannot say
whither I went, and there was no more food for myself or the sister. And
upon a hot night, she weeping and calling for food, we came to a well,
and I bade her sit upon the kerb, and thrust her in, for, in truth, she
could not see; and it is better to die than to starve.'

'Ai! Ahi!' wailed the grooms' wives in chorus; 'he thrust her in, for it
is better to die than to starve!'

'I would have thrown myself in also, but that she was not dead and
called to me from the bottom of the well, and I was afraid and ran. And
one came out of the crops saying that I had killed her and defiled the
well, and they took me before an Englishman, white and terrible, living
in a tent, and me he sent here. But there were no witnesses, and it is
better to die than to starve. She, furthermore, could not see with her
eyes, and was but a little child.'

'Was but a little child,' echoed the Head Groom's wife. 'But who art
thou, weak as a fowl and small as a day-old colt, what art THOU?'

'I who was empty am now full,' said Little Tobrah, stretching himself
upon the dust. 'And I would sleep.'

The groom's wife spread a cloth over him while Little Tobrah slept the
sleep of the just.

Rudyard Kipling