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THE flagging ponies gave one last hoist to the tonga, in the afterglow six miles of upward-straining road lay behind us along the huge mountain like a packthread. We turned an elbow of cliff, and behold it was night. Off the empty hillside — bare precipice above, bare abyss below — we were suddenly in a dense wood of black trees, among shadows and echoes; and all about, above in the sky, plumb below in some bottomless pit deep, deep beneath our feet, camp-fires played on white canvas. Where were we? Which was back or front, above or below, head or heels? The world seemed to be tilted up on end.
"Is the house of the Sahib near?" says I, in my pure Urdu. "Near, O Presence." "Where?" For answer the half-soldier, half-footman pointed above his head. Exactly in line with the ventilation of my helmet I saw a light hanging between two stars. It was about ten yards as the crow flies; as the man climbs it looked ten miles. Surely the world was tilted up on end. This was the Malakand.
Four years ago nobody except political officers had ever heard of the Malakand, or knew whether it was a mountain, a river, or the title of a local chief. For four years past it has been the most frequented name on all the Frontier. It is a pass lying a little to the east of north of Peshawar, almost due north of Nowshera, and forty-eight miles from it. The Malakand opens — if "opens" is the word for such a tangle — into almost the only part of the North-West Frontier which we had been able to let alone. The tribes beyond it — in Swat and Bajaur and Dir, and all the other uncouth places with uncouth names — were content to stew in the blood of their own feuds, and prudently we let them stew.
Before 1895 our frontier-post was Mardan — "Mardan, where the Guides are." Here, ever since its foundation, that famous regiment has been quartered in the intervals of campaigns which have consistently added to the lustre of its record. The only corps in India, except the Ghurkha battalions, which has permanent quarters, the Guides have made Mardan less of a station than a regimental home. Here are its family heirlooms — the mess-walls covered with heads of buffalo and ibex, antelope and mountain-sheep, with banners taken from the enemy, and queer Greco-Buddhist statuary excavated out of the neighbouring hills. Here is the regimental cemetery — full now, and overflowing into a new one — and an arch and little garden tardily erected by Government to the memory of the handful of the Guides who died at their post round Cavagnari in Kabul. There is homeliness in the little swimming-bath in the officers' garden, as there is romance in the fort with sentries of many types — here a Sikh, there an Afridi, a Ghurkha, a Rajput, a Dogra — for "God's Own" is welded of the pick of all the fighting races of India.
In enormous long white trousers sepoys and sowars walk placidly about their home and the home of their fathers: for the fighting native puts down his young son for the Guides as you might at home for the Travellers'. You come across a native officer of forty-two years' service — straight away to before the Mutiny — a smiling little old gentleman, whose dyed beard only just matches the mahogany of his skin. He regrets, politely, that the Guides were not able to be present at Omdurman, and remarks, as an incentive to my future efforts, that he himself saw a war-correspondent killed at Landakai. Every officer or man you meet has the air of a gentleman taking his ease in his own house. Mardan is the concrete epitome of the spirit that makes a regiment — the only satisfactory translation I ever met of the words esprit de corps.
Through Mardan in 1895 advanced the force which brought the Malakand into frontier politics. Chitral was to be relieved, and the relieving force, taking the directest road, had to force the Pass, and we have held it ever since. But Chitral was relieved from the other side, from Gilgit, and the reward of our interference with the Malakand was the furious assault upon it and the fort of Chakdara beyond, which inaugurated the great frontier war of 1897 and 1898. Now it makes one more of our garrisons beyond the old frontier of India — garrisons where no man knows whether he will wake up to-morrow to find peace or war. Whether such posts make in the end for the one or the other, who is to decide? Without their deterrent, say some, you would have the tribes on you to-morrow. Without their menace, urge others, you would never have had the tribes on you at all. Unfortunately both may be true, and the result, insecurity, is one and the same.
In the morning it was possible to look over the position — but easier to look than to comprehend. You will find it put clearly both in word and plan in Mr. Winston Churchill's "Story of the Malakand Field Force"; but no putting short of actual sight can do justice to the supernatural complication of the Malakand. "It would take the whole British army to hold it," said a good judge; "and then I don't quite see what the plan would be." Try to arrange a box of tin soldiers on a rockery, and you will get some idea of it. There is, indeed, a tennis-court, but that has been made artificially; otherwise there is not level ground for a billiard-table. From the top of the place where I eventually landed to the bottom, where I saw the coolies' camp-fires, you could easily pitch a stone; yet to walk from one extremity of the position to the other would take you hours. The road comes up the Pass, but where it ought to debouch on to a plateau it winds through a sieve of deep holes. What ought to be the diverging sides of the Pass are terraces of hills, each one commanded by the one behind it. What ought to be the sloping, opening valley beyond the Pass is choked by a handful of rocky hills promiscuously flung all about it. As a military position, you can say this of it, that if you have enough men to hold higher hills than the assailant, keeping touch, you ought to be able to hold it; and if the assailant has enough men to hold higher hills than you have, keeping touch, he ought to be able to take it — which amounts to saying nothing at all.
This luminous theory may explain why the authorities build forts on this hill, and then pull them down and put them up again on that; why they first put the troops here, then there, then take them away altogether, then bring them back and reinforce them. But we may leave that to them, and turn to the only proper occupation on a frontier — going on. Over sky-lines, round corners, you must still be going on to see what there is on the other side. Round the corner of the right-hand wall of the Malakand you can just see a peeping tent or two; as you scramble down, these enlarge into the camp of the Movable Column — a brigade stationed down in the Swat Valley, beyond the Pass, ready to move at any moment against any enemy that may appear. Further on — you are moving up a broad valley with rigidly enclosing walls — the driving road stops at a bridge. Under it is the turbulent slither of the Swat; beyond is the fort of Chakdara.
This is the sentry on the main road to Chitral. The bridge is India all over: piers of stout stone — it must need it all when the Swat comes down in spate — carry stout cables; but the long bridge that is hung from them is tacked on with wire, buckling in the middle, swinging in the wind. The fort is of a type already familiar — heavy gate, a horn-work to protect horses, towers and loopholes, signal-station at the top, blockhouses on the immediately covering hills. In the barracks that form one side sweat and frizzle half a battalion of Punjab infantry. The bullet-dints of the last siege can still be seen on the walls: the next may begin to-morrow.
For our last bit of frontier push a few miles further up the Swat. It is a queer valley historically — a valley with a past. Many think that it was by it that Alexander the Great, the first and best of frontier generals, descended to the conquest of the Punjab; certainly the ancient Buddhists occupied it in great importance. You find their sculptuary — half-Indian types, half-Greek — under almost every mound from here to Mardan, and west and east into Bajaur and Buner; their hemispherical shrines crown appropriate hillocks, both here and in the Khyber; either they or Alexander made the road — too stiffly graded for these degenerate days — which still runs alongside ours. The conclusion from all of which is that the Swat Valley is capable of far more importance than it has lately claimed. The Buddhists were great traders, and this may have been one of their main highways into Central Asia, as it was Alexander's into India. What has been may be again.
Of the riches of the valley there can be no question. A gridiron of canals, drawn from the Swat, has turned it into one teeming rice-field. In this hard land it is luxury to drop your eyes from the bleak mountains to the vivid green. After the summer there are loads on loads of rice to export, and cloth and tea to bring back. If we only had the administration of the valley, — but as we canter over the stony bed of a tributary we are suddenly in the midst of them. Here are the Swatis, who two years ago found Paradise by thousands in the attempt to slaughter our countrymen, come out to bid us good day, and escort us against any possible harm. Then they were enemies; now they are local levies — irregular, very irregular, forces of her Majesty, who supplies them with their sabres and Sniders. Next year, or next week, or to-morrow — well, never mind to-morrow.
The shaggy group — perhaps fifty of them, a dozen parish councillors on short-barrelled country-breds, and the rest ambling along on foot — belongs to the tribe of the Yussufzais, or sons of Joseph. Everybody on the frontier firmly believes that they are the lost ten tribes of the House of Israel. Their vices suggest it, and certainly they look it. Powerful beaks, thick outward-drawn lips, floating raven-wing hair and beards, eyeballs a trifle close together — only not the eyes of your Jew — eyes hard as flint-stone. I was told that there is a place named after the Yussufzais on the borders of Persia and Beluchistan, although nobody in that country to-day knows that such a tribe exists. That is suggested as one of the halting-places of the Israelites on their travels eastward. It would be a queer irony if one-half of the kingdom of Solomon had turned to the Jews we know and the other half to these wild beasts of hillmen. Never mind who they are: they are uncommonly amiable to-day, and would die for the Sahibs as a matter of course. So we troop along to the spur of Landakai, whence the Upper Swat Valley pushes its emerald tongue yet farther into the mountains. The Swatis discourse of the fight there little over a year ago, when our people and theirs respectively killed each other; they discuss the points of the engagement with calmness and absolute impartiality. The game is over now, and they bear no malice. Tomorrow, when the reliefs go up to Chitral, when the Mad Fakir comes down again — then they will have another try at cutting our throats; but always without malice, and in the best spirit of the game.