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Chapter XXVII. A Strange Party

The road to Ham turned off the main highway south of Aire. It was a narrow clay road in unspeakable condition. The car wallowed along. Once we took a wrong turning and were obliged to go back and start again.

It was still raining. Indian horsemen beat their way stolidly along the road. We passed through hamlets where cavalry horses in ruined stables were scantily protected, where the familiar omnibuses of London were parked in what appeared to be hundreds. The cocoa and other advertisements had been taken off and they had been hastily painted a yellowish grey. Here and there we met one on the road, filled and overflowing with troops, and looking curiously like the "rubber-neck wagons" of New York.

Aside from the transports and a few small Indian ammunition carts, with open bodies made of slats, and drawn by two mules, with an impassive turbaned driver calling strange words to his team, there was no sign of war. No bombarding disturbed the heavy atmosphere; no aeroplanes were overhead. There was no barbed wire, no trenches. Only muddy sugarbeet fields on each side of the narrow road, a few winter trees, and the beat of the rain on the windows.

At last, with an extra lurch, the car drew up in the village of Ham. At a gate in a brick wall a Scotch soldier in kilts, carrying a rifle, came forward. Our errand was explained and he went off to find Makand Singh, a major in the Lahore Lancers and in charge of the post.

It was a curious picture that I surveyed through the opened door of the car. We were in the centre of the village, and at the intersection of a crossroads was a tall cross with a life-size Christ. Underneath the cross, in varying attitudes of dampness and curiosity, were a dozen Indians, Mohammedans by faith. Some of them held horses which, in spite of the rain, they had been exercising. One or two wore long capes to the knees, with pointed hoods which fitted up over their great turbans. Bearded men with straight, sensitive noses and oval faces, even the absurdity of the cape and pointed hood failed to lessen their dignity. They were tall, erect, soldierly looking, and they gazed at me with the bland gravity of the East.

Makand Singh came hastily forward, a splendid figure of a man, six foot two or thereabout, and appearing even taller by reason of his turban. He spoke excellent English.

"It is very muddy for a lady to alight," he said, and instructed one of the men to bring bags of sacking, which were laid in the road.

"You are seeing us under very unfavourable conditions," he said as he helped me to alight. "But there is a fire if you are cold."

I was cold. So Makand Singh led the way to his living quarters. To go to them it was necessary to pass through a long shed, which was now a stable for perhaps a dozen horses. At a word of command the Indian grooms threw themselves against the horses' heads and pushed them back. By stepping over the ground pegs to which they were tethered I got through the shed somehow and into a small yard.

Makand Singh turned to the right, and, throwing open the low door of a peasant's house, stood aside to allow me to enter. "It is not very comfortable," he explained, "but it is the best we have."

He was so tall that he was obliged to stoop as he entered the doorway. Within was an ordinary peasant's kitchen, but cleaner than the average. In spite of the weather the floor boards were freshly scrubbed. The hearth was swept, and by the stove lay a sleek tortoise-shell cat. There was a wooden dresser, a chimney shelf with rows of plates standing on it, and in a doorway just beyond an elderly peasant woman watching us curiously.

"Perhaps," said Makand Singh, "you will have coffee?"

I was glad to accept, and the young officer, who had followed, accepted also. We sat down while the kettle was placed on the stove and the fire replenished. I glanced at the Indian major's tall figure. Even sitting, he was majestic. When he took the cape off he was discovered clothed in the khaki uniform of his rank in the British Army. Except for the olive colour of his skin, his turban, and the fact that his beard--the soft beard of one who has never shaved--was drawn up into a black net so that it formed a perfect crescent around the angle of his jaw, he might have been a gallant and interested English officer.

For the situation assuredly interested him. His eyes were alert and keen. When he smiled he showed rows of beautiful teeth, small and white. And although his face in repose was grave, he smiled often. He superintended the making of the coffee by the peasant woman and instructed her to prepare the table.

She obeyed pleasantly. Indeed, it was odd to see that between this elderly Frenchwoman and her strange guests--people of whose existence on the earth I dare say she had never heard until this war--there was the utmost good will. Perhaps the Indians are neater than other troops. Certainly personal cleanliness is a part of their religion. Anyhow, whatever the reason, I saw no evidence of sulkiness toward the Indians, although I have seen surly glances directed toward many of the billeted troops of other nationalities.

Conversation was rather difficult. We had no common ground to meet on, and the ordinary currency of polite society seemed inadequate, out of place.

"The weather must be terrible after India," I ventured.

"We do not mind the cold. We come from the north of India, where it is often cold. But the mud is bad. We cannot use our horses."

"You are a cavalry regiment?" I asked, out of my abysmal ignorance.

"We are Lancers. Yes. And horses are not useful in this sort of fighting."

From a room beyond there was a movement, followed by the entrance of a young Frenchman in a British uniform. Makand Singh presented him and he joined the circle that waited for coffee.

The newcomer presented an enigma--a Frenchman in a British uniform quartered with the Indian troops! It developed that he was a pupil from the Sorbonne, in Paris, and was an interpreter. Everywhere afterward I found these interpreters with the British Army--Frenchmen who for various reasons are disqualified from entering the French Army in active service and who are anxious to do what they can. They wear the British uniform, with the exception that instead of the stiff crown of the British cap theirs is soft, They are attached to every battalion, for Tommy Atkins is in a strange land these days, a land that knows no more English than he knows French,

True, he carries little books of French and English which tell him how to say "Porter, get my luggage and take it to a cab," or "Please bring me a laundry list," or "Give my kind regards to your parents," Imagine him trying to find the French for "Look out, they're coming!" to call to a French neighbour, in the inevitable mix-up of the line during a melee, and finding only "These trousers do not fit well," or "I would like an ice and then a small piece of cheese."

It was a curious group that sat in a semicircle around that peasant woman's stove, waiting for the kettle to boil--the tall Indian major with his aristocratic face and long, quiet hands, the young English officer in his Headquarters Staff uniform, the French interpreter, and I. Just inside the door the major's Indian servant, tall, impassive and turbaned, stood with folded arms, looking over our heads. And at the table the placid faced peasant woman cut slices of yellow bread, made with eggs and milk, and poured our coffee.

It was very good coffee, served black. The woman brought a small decanter and placed it near me.

"It is rum," said the major, "and very good in coffee."

I declined the rum. The interpreter took a little. The major shook his head.

"Although they say that a Sikh never refuses rum!" he said, smiling.

Coffee over, we walked about the village. Hardly a village--a cluster of houses along unpaved lanes which were almost impassable. There were tumbling stables full of horses, groups of Indians standing under dripping eaves for shelter, sentries, here and there a peasant. The houses were replicas of the one where Makand Singh had his quarters.

Although it was still raining, a dozen Indian Lancers were exercising their horses. They dismounted and stood back to let us pass. Behind them, as they stood, was the great Cross.

That was the final picture I had of the village of Ham and the Second Lahore Lancers--the turbaned Indians with their dripping horses, the grave bow of Makand Singh as he closed the door of the car, and behind him a Scotch corporal in kilt and cap, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear.

We went on. I looked back, Makand Singh was making his careful way through the mud; the horses were being led to a stable. The Cross stood alone.

Mary Roberts Rinehart