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THE front-door of India, Bombay, is magnificent; the back-door, the Khyber, is therefore naturally shabby. Out of the rose-hedges of Peshawar a dust-yellow road carries you through a dust-grey plain, heading for dust-drab mountains. India seems worn out — giving up the weary effort to be soil, reverting limply to rock, sand, mud.
An hour your tonga tongles — there is no ready-made word for its combination of rumble, jolt, jump, spin, and fly — straight for the hills, which seem ever to recede. You mark a point between two ridges as the mouth of the Pass; you drive through it, and you are still in the plain; that gap beyond must be the mouth. Then, almost insensibly, you do enter the jaws. Walls of brown rock enclose you on either side; a round hill of brown rock, crowned with a mud fort, blocks you in front; a turn in the road, and a sweeping ridge of brown rock cuts you off behind. Above the walls, beyond the hill, behind the ridge, spring up with every turn other walls, other hills, other ridges, more sheer, more towering, more mazy than the first. You rise and rise, now along the gully of a defile, now sweeping round a rim, now zigzagging up a face; at one moment peeping over a shoulder at the plain behind, the next dashing confidently towards two sky-swallowing, khaki-coloured, black-spangled humps that seem to fill the whole world. Frowning over your head, slipping away from under your foot, letting in vast perspectives of more khaki rock and black bush, shutting up the world into two cliffs and an abyss — the Khyber is a mere perplexity of riotous mountain.
You would say these savage hills could support nothing but solitude — yet here are the mountaineers. A couple of lithe aquiline young men in khaki and sandals rise out of a heap of stones as you pass, and shoulder Snider muskets. On the hill above, under the mud-walled block-house, loll half-a-dozen more. These are of the Khyber Rifles — Afridis who, now that the war is over, have returned without malice and without abashment to their old service of guarding the Pass. They start out of nothing at every wind of the road; on all the lower summits you can just make out khaki pickets against the khaki country.
For to-day the Pass is very full. Above you, in a short cut between two serpentines of the driving road, you see the ordered columns of a British regiment descending; and at the next turn you almost fling a file of its transport mules over the precipice. Spin down the next decline, shave the boulder at the angle, and — Ai! toot! wheeze, wheeze, toot! ai, pig! — we are plump in the middle of two meeting caravans entangled in a commissariat-train. The camels from Kabul barracked for the night at Landi Kotal, those from Peshawar at Jamrud; to-day, which is the open day, they cross in the Khyber. The Pass is now — or was then — open two days a-week, which means that it is picketed by Khyber Rifles while the caravans go through. Twice a-week they go up towards Kabul; twice a-week they come down into India, needing the whole day to make the Pass. This is the sum of the intercourse between India and Afghanistan.
Now comes an hour of steady jostle and shove and bang, of abortive attempts to toot the broken-winded bugle and more successful vilifications of all camels, bullocks, camelmen, bullock-drivers, and all progenitors and collaterals of the same. The down-coming and the up-going camels of course are jammed in a second, and of course the drivers do not care. One laden beast balances himself on the eyebrow of the drop and lifts his eyes to heaven in plaintive appeal against the woes of life; the next huddles under the wall and tries to shove it back with a truss of straw, so as to make more room; the next plants himself directly in the middle of the road and squeals in helpless horror as the tonga barges at him. Struggling down to where the road touches the Khyber Water under the mud battlements of Ali Musjid, we enter the stratum of bullock-carts, just as they have finally decided that the best thing to do is to lie down across the path and let the camels clamber over them. No created thing can wake emotion in a commissariat bullock. Twist his tail, hit him over the head, heave a tonga-wheel — half as heavy as a field-gun's--into his flank: he looks benevolent and remains placidly in the way. When at last the idea of action has penetrated his hide, he methodically hooks his yoke into the nearest wheel with a look of profound meekness, and plunges into meditation again. So the tonga stops and everybody abuses everybody else till they are tired; then they rest a little, and abuse a little more with fresh breath; finally, they unite to unhook the yoke and push the cart on to the bullocks. They, finding the cart moving by itself, are eventually penetrated by an idea again. "It seems, brother, they wish us to move again." "Very well, brother; let us always do what they wish us to do." And so they move thoughtfully on.
The Kabul-bound camels are beneath us now, promenading with dignity along the bed of the stream. It was worth the delay to look at them; for the camel of Central Asia is the flower of his otherwise discreditable family. His cousins of Egypt and India are necessary evils: he is a joy to the eye, and he knows it. They are all neck and leg, all corners and misplaced joints, half-snake, half-folding bedstead: his daintily tilted nose is thrust out of a shower of rich brown silken fur. It cascades from the ears all down his throat to the chest, like a lady's boa, only far longer and finer, and especially far better worn. His shoulders and thighs are clothed in brown astrachan. Altogether he is an animal with contours, not a folding monstrosity; and he knows it. Other camels are tied head to tail on the march: he tramps along serenely under his heavy load, picking his own way, convinced of the superiority which others only feign, not to be thrown out of his business by anything less devilish than a wheeled double centaur with the voice of a bugle.
From Ali Musjid the road seesaws, with a balance of ascent and the pass gradually widens. You begin to see villages — or the dry bones of them. Jagged stumps of towers and rents where walls were print the record of the punishment of the Afridis. When they took our fort at Landi Kotal they stripped off every stick of wood and carried it away; when we destroyed their towers we did likewise: on these stark hills wood, next to a rifle, is the most desirable possession life can offer. As you swing up and down the grades of dust you see now and again the black blot of a cave-mouth in the hills: these are now the villages of the Khyber Afridis.
At last you turn your final corner. In front of you, across folds and rifts in the ground, is a white encampment; to your right you are quite close on a long quadrangular fort, towers at the angles, loop-holes along the tall walls, the Union-Jack over all. Behind it is another encampment. You have reached the quarters of the Khyber Brigade at Landi Kotal. You are on the very rim of British India. Behind the elbow of the road is Landi Khana, whither the Afghan escort brings the Kabul caravan: the click of a telegram, the call of a bugle, and British troops could be in Afghanistan again.
But we must not talk of themes like these. Meanwhile here are three battalions and a mountain battery and sappers, under the best-trusted brigadier in India, every man as fit as the hills can make him, and football-ankles the only solace of the hospital. It is not exactly active service, but it is the next best thing to it. The surrounding population is obedient in large things and sportive in small. The Shinwari villagers — those are their walls and square, tapering, forty-foot towers sloping up the branching valley northward — are thoroughly friendly: when you observe the easy access to their homes and their young corn just greening the dust-coloured earth, you wonder the less at their virtue. The very Afridis southward submit to the General as their arbiter. They have a custom, when they plough, of meeting in jirgah, and there each man lays down a stone before him; while the ploughing lasts the stones are down, and all blood-feuds sleep. The other day, the war with the Sirkar being over, and a feeling abroad that the rifles had been silent too long, they came to the General Sahib for permission to lift the stones and open the each-other-shooting season. "The first village that begins will be destroyed," said he, and they went away sorrowful, but obedient.
Only in small things they are a law unto themselves: you could hardly expect them to deny themselves the exercise of rifle-stealing with a whole brigade of Lee-Metfords and Martinis before their very eyes. So on dark nights the promising young Afridi creeps down towards the sentry, who, if he is sleepy, will be found next morning with a knife in his back instead of a rifle. As a rule, he is not sleepy. Then there are shots, and perhaps shots in return; but, what with the dark and the hillman's cunning, and the danger of shooting at large in camp at night, it is seldom that a rifle-thief is bagged. There was a story of a British sentry who was both knifed and beaten over the head with the butt of his own rifle; but he clung to the sling like a Briton, and the Afridi went empty away.
All things considered, you had better be wary when going home after dinner in the Khyber camp. Within the perimeter let your "friend" follow closely on the Ghurkha's "Hahlt, huggas ther?" — outside it they shoot first and challenge afterwards. Better take the air by day — say, on a route-march with the Ghurkhas. Khaki jackets and short baggy breeches that leave a bare knee above the putties, black belts, and hunting-horns on their buttons like our Rifles', bayonet on one hip, and broad-bladed kukri on the other, a tiny round cap worn over the ear, and leaving the sun to get through the close-cropped bullet-head if he can — the jolly, flat-faced little mountaineers will repay you for more than a morning's march with them. They leap from stone to stone like he-goats till you are right up, up below the clouds, and the Khyber country and Afghanistan are unrolled below you.
You see, and at length you understand the campaign against the Afridis. Gad, what a country! Not a level yard for miles, and miles, and miles! Not a fair field of fire within the whole horizon. Nothing but a welter of naked khaki-coloured mountain. Shale scree giving on to precipice, ridge entangling ridge, height topping height. You toil up a knee-loosening face to the summit, and there is another summit dominating you; up that, and there is another, and yet another, and another. No end, no direction, no security — nothing but exposure and sheer toil. From the white steeps of the Hindu Khush in the sky to the back-dotted wild-olive bushes beside you — not a green thing, not an open place, nothing but hard, sterile, unorientable fanged impossibility.
Only down there, on the other side, the Kabul river threads the mountains in its mail of sunshine. There is level ground and green corn-fields in the valley; there is Dakka, the first Afghan town; and there, in that spreading pool of green, the hazy shimmer must be Jellalabad. How many marches? Is that blur their cavalry lines? It is easy to be wise about the forward policy from your arm-chair; but go up with a regiment and look out from your own barren peaks on to the green plains over the border. You will understand what a frontier feels like, and why frontiers have a habit of not standing still.