ON THE HOOGHLY – story

CHAPTER X

Christmas on the brigs—Mr. Pei Ho Jones—The adjutant and the soap—Escaped leeches—’ What happened at the inn’—A visit to the tea-planters—Life in the Terai—Tea-planting and tasting—A plague of fleas—The overloaded elephant—An earthquake.

I KECOLLECT all sorts of things which happened during my year as mate, and recall especially our jollification at Christmas. We used to keep up Christmas in good st)’le. The brigs were dressed with all the flags in the signal locker, and we did ourselves well in every way. In the evening the captain told me to brew punch, giving me carte blanche as to liquor. I mixed all sorts of spirits and wines and added a bottle of beer, a lemon or two, a lot of sugar, and a kettle of boiling water. It was voted a very excellent brew, only one man complaining that it was rather weak.

Under its mellowing influence Mr. Pei Ho Jones related the tale of the ‘ Painful Happenings at the Inn.’ Mr. Jones had been a sailing master in the Navy before becoming a Hooghly pilot and had seen service on the Pei Ho river, hence the sobriquet. He was a quiet, elderly little man with a rosy complexion and a white beard. An old bachelor, he lived when ashore in a room at the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta. He had had many strange experiences which he related in simple language and with the minimum allowance of adjectives. He would tell his story of the adjutant and the bar of yellow soap, for at that time the adjutant (a large bird like a magnified stork, now practically unknown) was very much in evidence in Calcutta, where he assisted the municipality and the jackals in their arduous task of scavenging.

I

120 180

ON THE HOOGHLY

Mr. Jones told how on one occasion, when about to drive in a gharry from the Great Eastern Hotel to the Port Office, he was pestered by a hawker who pressed him to purchase a bar of yellow soap, and went so far as to thrust the bar of soap into the gharry, saying, ” Six annas, Sahib.” Mr. Jones was usually a person of equable temper, but on this

MR. JONES GOING TO THE BATH

occasion, being a bit off colour and rather irascible, he flung the soap into the road and told the gharry wallah to drive on. As he drove away he saw the adjutant, which was standing gloomily on the stone lion that adorns the arched entrance to Government House, suddenly pull itself together, swoop down into the road, bolt the bar of soap, and return to its perch on the lion, followed by yells of execration from the infuriated hawker. Mr. Jones pro- MR. JONES

181 ceeded to the Port Office, and having studied the latest reports of the river, and discussed the news of the day with his friends in the pilots’ room, drove home again to the Great Eastern.

THE BUBBLING ADJUTANT

As he approached the hotel he found the road blocked by a dense crowd of people staring up at the lion over the entrance to Government House, where the adjutant with uplifted beak was blowing a continuous sticam of the most beautiful iridescent bubbles. . . .

Mr. Jones had other tales to tell. There was the one of the crocodile and the elephants at Moulmein, and the story 188

ON THE HOOGHLY

about the leeches. He had been appointed to take down a French barque, which he had joined in Garden Reach at about ten o’clock at night, and was told that the captain and his wife had retired to rest in their cabin. As the weather was very hot Mr. Jones directed his boy to make up his bed on the saloon table underneath the skylight, which was open. In the middle of the night he was aroused by voices, and heard exclamations of horror and distress proceeding from the captain’s cabin, the door of which suddenly opened and a man and a woman without any clothing emerged hurriedly, waving their arms about and talking volubly about some misfortune which had occurred to them. By the glimmering light of the oil lamp Mr. Jones observed that they were both covered with black knobs about the size of walnuts.

It appeared that they were taking a large jar of leeches to a doctor friend at Mauritius. By some mischance the jar had been upset, and the hungry little creatures had pounced joyfully upon the captain and his wife, who were sleeping with nothing on because of the intense heat. They were going to pull the bloated little animals off, but Mr. Jones implored them not to do that, pointing out that a pinch of salt would cause the blood-suckers to relinquish their hold voluntarily, and having discovered the salt cellar he helped them to apply it. He said that they both seemed very subdued all the next day, as though the leeches had rather taken it out of them.

But on this occasion Mr. Jones told us the story of’ What happened to him at the Inn.’ He had only just returned from long leave to England and we asked him if he had anything of interest to report. He had. It appeared that shortly before returning lie had spent a few days at an inn on the south eoasl, which had been recommended to him as being an ideal spot lor anyone in search of a little rest and quiet. He arrived there in the aflcvnoon and took a stroll round the neighbourhood, which he described as picturesque and restful. WHAT HAPPENED

AT THE INN

188

At dinner he had a little table to himself. There were other little tables occupied by the guests of the inn. Amongst them he noticed a quiet-looking, elderly couple. The lady, a thin little woman with a somewhat careworn expression, the gentleman was of stouter build, and his rubicund face and generally congested appearance proclaimed the ‘ good-doer.’ Mr. Jones was not feeling sociably inclined and sat in the lounge by himself after dinner studying the papers while he consumed two or perhaps three whiskies and sodas—he was not quite sure of the exact number, but he was studying a new brand and always liked to do things thoroughly—before retiring to rest. As he approached his bedroom he noticed that outside the door of the room next to his were two pairs of shoes, one male and one female. He concluded with his usual astuteness that his next-door neighbours were probably a married pair, but in any case a pair, and proceeded to make his toilet for the night. This he explained to us was a nightgown. Pyjamas were all very well on the Hooghly, but for real comfort and freedom give him the old-fashioned nightgown. He turned in, and under the influence of the new brand was soon sleeping soundly.

Now Mr. Jones had been quite right in concluding that the people next door were a pair. They were, in fact, the very couple which he had noticed in the dining-room, and the husband was unable to sleep, owing to an acute attack of indigestion following the liberal helping of roast pork which he had stowed away. This attack, instead of passing off, became more violent, and it was soon obvious to the sad-face d lad> that if she was to get any sleep at all something would have to be done about it. She was a woman of resource and hud faced similar situations. She knew what to do and she descended with a sheet of brown paper to the kilchen to search for the muslard pot. The servants had all retired for the night, there was no one to help her. But she knew where to look for such things as mustard, and having discovered the pot, very soon concocted a good 184

ON THE HOOGHLY

strong mustard plaister with which she ascended to the corridor. It was in darkness, her candle having gone out, but she knew her way about and was soon inside the bedroom.

She was surprised and relieved to hear her husband snoring loudly. But having taken all the trouble to make a mustard plaister she was not going to waste it. She groped her way to the bed guided by the musical notes of the sleeper, carefully turned down the bedclothes, very carefully lifted the nightgown without awakening the patient, applied the plaister where it would do most good, crawled into bed, and was soon in the land of dreams.

Mr. Jones said that somewhere about one a.m. he was awakened by a burning sensation in the region of the abdomen. Half-awake he tried to recall what he could possibly have eaten which would have affected him so unpleasantly. Becoming wideawake he sat up in bed, and became aware that he was not alone. By the bedside on a little table was his candle and a box of matches. He struck a match and lit his candle. The intruder at the same moment came to life and, looking at him with round-eyed horror, backed away off the bed and towards the door. Mr. Jones tore the burning torture off his stomach, Avaved it in the air and thundered, ” Is this your work, madam ? ” She was gone, and Mr. Jones heard the key turned in the lock of the next room. For the information of any of us who might encounter similar trouble, he said that salad oil and crushed arrowroot was a soothing dressing.

The tale was sympathetically received, the punch was ladled out of the large soup tureen, and we drank to Mr. Jones’ health. Other stories were told until the brew was finished, and one of the younger members danced a pas seul to a banjo accompaniment with the soup tureen on his head. From the dimculty we had in arousing the pilot of the turn some two hours later, when an inward-bound steamer came to us, I was led to believe that in my haphazard mixture PROMOTED TO MATE PILOT

185

of alcohols I had accidentally stumbled upon a strong narcotic.

The year as mate came to an end and in due course I passed my exam, and became a Mate Pilot. There were rather too many of us to share the small vessels of less than 800 tons which we were entitled to pilot. This meant long

^£^

THE MUSTARD PLAISTER

spells at the Sandheads with very little to occupy our time beyond watch-keeping at night and reading the papers and magazines which arrived every week from England.

I have a dilapidated pocket-book which belongs to that period. Most pilots kept pocket-books in which they noted down the rate at which the tide rose and fell on different days of tide and at different seasons of the year. It was very important to know this, for if, for instance, when proceeding down on a falling tide the semaphore near the bar which had to be crossed showed a rise, which if added 180

ON THE HOOGHLY

to the amount of water known to be on the bar at low water gave, say, two feet more than the vessel’s draught, by referring to the pocket-book, and seeing that on a similar day of tides the water had fallen at the rate of so many minutes to the foot, it wo\ild be possible to estimate whether it would be safe or not to proceed.

So when I became a pilot I started to keep a note-book, and I still have the remains of it. Unfortunately the early pages have disappeared and the first entry concerns a small British India Steamer, the Busheer, which I took up the river in September, 1885. But I know that I had been piloting vessels of all sorts for many months prior to that, and had paid a visit to the tea-planters in the Terai.

As I have already said, work for the junior pilots was very slack in 1884. Spells of two or three weeks at the Sandheads, waiting with half a dozen other mate pilots for the little ships of our tonnage which were none too numerous, were the order of the day, and I had one long spell of over a month. I decided that it would pay me better to take a month’s privilege leave on full pay, and in the early part of 1885 accepted an invitation from a tea-planter to spend a week or two with him in the Terai at the foot of the Himalayas.

I had met several planters in Calcutta, where they came for a little rest and recreation after the labours of the teamaking season, and had found them a nice, cheery lot of men. So when E. C. Gilliam, of Burra Chenga, suggested that I should come up and spend a fortnight with him, I jumped at the offer and put in an application for leave, which was granted. The arrangement was that I should meet Gilliam, or ‘ Blobs ‘ as he was known to his friends, at Kurseong, whence he would conduct me to Burra Chenga. I travelled light, my kit consisting of a suitcase and a banjo, caught the train at Scaldah, and arrived in due course at Siliguri, where I changed into one of the little carriages of the Darjiling and Himalaya Railway. Having seen nothing but flat country for some seven years, I was AMONGST THE PLANTERS

187

very much impressed by the mountain scenery as we steamed up to Kurseong.

On arriving there I was handed a note from Gilliam, who regretted that he had been unable to get away from the garden and asked mc to make my way down to him on the following morning. I should find an elephant waiting to take me over the Balasun river and a pony waiting to take me to his garden. I put up at the hotel for the night and started early the next morning to march down the hill, accompanied by a coolie carrying my baggage.

We found the elephant waiting at the crossing, and a nice-looking little black pony waiting on the farther bank. I asked the sayce if the pony knew his way home, and on being assured that he did, climbed up and gave him his head. After trotting along for a mile or so the intelligent animal turned off through a plantation of tea bushes and halted outside a bungalow where I dismounted. A man took the pony and told me that the sahib was in the teahouse but would be in directly, so I sat down in the verandah where a khitmagar promptly brought me a whisky and soda.

After a few minutes a big, red-faced man in riding-kit came in and joined me. We chatted about the weather and my walk down from Kurseong. I thought he was a visitor, and said that if he wanted to see Gilliam I believed he was in the tea-house. He replied, ” I don’t think so, for I have just come from there.”

It then dawned on me that possibly I was in the wrong bungalow and asked him if I was at Burra Chcnga. He said, ” No, this is Chota Chcnga and my name is Helps.” Apologising for the intrusion I blamed the pony who ought to have known his way to his own stable. But it appeared that the pony had originally belonged to Mr. Helps and had been sold by hiin to Gilliam. Mr. Helps proposed that I should stay with him for a day or two before moving on to Burra Chenga. I thanked him but thought that I had better be getting along to Gilliam, who would be expecting me. The pony was brought round again and this time 188

ON THE HOOGHLY

managed to deliver me at the right address, where Gilliam was amused to learn of my mistake. His bungalow was situated on a small hill, overlooking the tea which stretched away on either bide. Like all the other bungalows which I saw in the Terai it was surrounded by a wide verandah and was very comfortable.

The life on the garden interested me greatly. In the early morning we rode round the estate and saw the people at work. In one place they would be hoeing and cleaning the bushes of weeds, in another an army of them, mostly women, would be plucking the leaf which they placed as they gathered it into large baskets carried on their backs and held in position by bands across their foreheads. They were all hill-people, short and broad, with thick legs. They were mostly clad in blue, with a red handkerchief tied round the waist or neck, and were a merry, good-tempered crew, who responded cheerily when Gilliam, who spoke their language, addressed them jokingly. The rest of the morning would be spent in the tea-house watching the various processes to which the leaf was subjected in preparing it for the market. I learnt that it had to be first withered, then rolled, left to ferment, dried in a sort of oven, then sifted and classified, and finally packed in lead-lined boxes and despatched to the market in Calcutta.

Tasting the tea was a serious business. A row of little china pots with lids was arranged on a long table. The different classes of teas were infused in these pots for five minutes. The liquor was then poured into small basins and left to stand for a while, the tea leaves shaken out of the pots into the lids which were then placed wrong side up on top of the pots, and all was ready for the sahib to come and form his opinion as to the sort of tea they were making.

To form this opinion, he took a mouthful of the concoction, held it for a moment, spat it out, had a good look at the bowl to see whether the liquor was creaming properly, and noted the colour of the tea leaves standing in the lid. If it was not to his liking there was probably some- A PRACTICAL JOKE

189

thing to be rectified in one or other of the various processes through which the tea had passed.

When the pluckers came in with their leaf each basket was weighed and the coolies received payment for what they had plucked in excess of the regulation weight which they were expected to pluck. This was paid on the spot in dhuliapice, which were simply small chunks of copper without stamp or device of any kind. In the afternoon the planters visited each other, compared notes as to the sort of tea they were making, and discussed the various blights which affected the bushes. These I gathered were ‘ red spider ‘ and mosquito blight, both very much dreaded.

Tea-making was in full swing and Gilliam was very busy. He had just sent down his first ‘ break ‘ or batch of chests for that season and was anxiously awaiting a telegram from the agents, who had promised to let him know what prices his tea had fetched at the auction. A couple of days after my arrival I had been making a sketch of the pluckers at work, and on returning to the bungalow for tiffin found Gilliam looking blankly at a telegram which had just arrived and which he handed to me with a suppressed groan. It read : ‘ Average nine annas, not equal to samples.’ ” What do they mean,” he cried, ” by not equal to samples ? ” Tiffin was a dismal meal; I could think of nothing to say to lessen the blow.

Shortly after tiffin, as we were sitting gloomily in the verandah, a neighbouring planter rode up and asked if Gilliam had received any news of the sale. On being shown the unpleasant telegram he was full of sympathy. ” I can’t understand it, Blobs ; for you told me that you were making quite good tea and expecting to get really good prices.” Shortly after, two other planters rolled up, who were followed by others until nearly every man in the district was present, and the servant was kept busy opening bottles of Pilsener, which was the favourite form of refreshment at the time. They all expressed the greatest amazement at the bad news, and were full of sympathy for poor 140

ON THE HOOGHLY

Gilliam, and hoped that he would not lose his job as the result of the poor stuff he had sent up to the market. After this had gone on for some time and a vast amount of beer had been consumed they suddenly with one accord burst into a prolonged roar of laughter. The whole thing was a merry practical joke, and the telegram had been sent by a confederate in Calcutta. The real telegram from the agents arrived shortly after and we learnt that the average price realised was, if I recollect aright, thirteen annas, which was quite good.

This little episode was very typical of the life and the men in the Terai as I found them. They were a cheery, happy-go-lucky crew. The place was very unhealthy and life very uncertain. They worked hard and lived hard, consumed a good deal of Pilsener together, and were happy enough when not bowled over by malaria. The place which had the worst reputation for this ailment was a garden called Nuxalbari and while’ T was staying with Gilliam the manager of Nuxalbari died of malaria. I attended his funeral at Kurseong, to which place we rode on ponies. His name was Orr and he was a brother of the policeman at Chittagong with whom I sometimes stayed when special pilot of the Chittagong steamers.

Coming back from the funeral, which was attended by all the planters of the district, I found myself riding alongside of Hilliard, a well-known character w ith a great reputation as a practical joker. We were chatting quietly together when suddenly without any warning he seized my pony’s bridle and pulled me over the khud on to a narrow track running steeply down the hillside to the westward. It was done so quickly that I was unable to protest, and it was all I could do to keep from going over the pony’s head. He dragged us along as fast as he could, yelling with laughter all the time, and at last said that I was going to stay the night at his bungalow, where we eventually arrived. He sent word down to Gilliam that I would come along in the morning, and we spent a cheery evening together. He was A PLAGUE OF FLEAS

141

quite a character and I was told many stories of his eccentricities.

After a fortnight with Gilliam I spent a few days with Sharpe at Mechi, and then with Feltwell and afterwards with Sandys at Panighatta. It was a most enjoyable time. The more I saw of the planters the more I liked them. Each man was a little king in his own territory, and seemed to rule his subjects very wisely, and well. It was, of course, to their interest to keep their coolies well and contented, to take a paternal interest in their comfort and welfare, and to smooth out any little difficulties or disagreements that might occur amongst them. They had their little trials to put up with, and I may mention as an instance the occasion when I rode with Gilliam to call on one of them who was being worried by a plague of fleas. We found him living under canvas in his compound, the bungalow having been invaded by millions of fleas. I stood at the door of the sitting-room and listened to the tap, tap, tap of the insects as they sprang about merrily on some newspapers which had been spread on the floor. The planter called one of his servants and told him to stand in the room for a minute. When the man emerged his legs up to the knees were black with fleas. The planter appeared to take the unpleasant visitation very philosophically and said that the fleas would all be gone in a day or two.

I was sorry to leave the Terai when my month’s leave came to an end. The day before returning I was one of a party at Mechi, Jimmy Sharpe’s place. We spent a merry afternoon playing poker to an accompaniment of Pilsener. Amongst us was C. F. Daniels of Tirrihana, an ex-naval officer. Although a comparatively small man, he was possessed of unusual strength and must have had a very tough constitution. After the poker party we all rode to Gilliam’s place, and as we passed the dry bed of a watercourse filled with large stones and boulders Daniels gave a whoop and proceeded to ride down it at breakneck speed, regardless of consequences to himself or his pony. We 142

ON THE HOOGHLY

jogged along to Burra Chenga, and as we were riding up to the bungalow Daniels galloped into our midst, cannoned off one of the paity and crashed into a tree which brought him and his mount to the ground. He seemed rather shaken, so Gilliam put him to bed. The party then broke up and I went on with Sandys to Panighatta where I was to spend the night. After dinner, while sitting with Sandys in the

DEPARTURE BY ELEPHANT

verandah, Daniels rode up apparently none the worse for his spill arid asked for the elephant to cross the river ; but we learnt next day that he had two broken ribs.

There was a big gatheung at the farewell breakfast at Sandys’ bungalow and a good many of the planters turned up to see me olf. The elephant was brought out and most of the paity chmbed on to its back, which was so overcrowded that one passenger fell oil m mid-stream. I made sure that he was gone lor good, and was leheved to find as we climbed up the farther bank that he was clinging to the elephant’s gnths and all was well.

Conditions in the Terai have changed very much since AN EARTHQUAKE

148

then. I am told that manj’ of the gardens have gone out of cultivation and reverted to jungle. Before leaving I met the man who replaced poor young Orr at Xuxalbari and remarked what a strong, healthy-looking person he was : but in the following cold weather, when looking on at the sports meeting at Ballygunge, I sat next to a stranger of emaciated appearance who I discovered in the course of conversation hailed from the Terai and gave me news of my friends there. I enquired how the new man at Nuxalbari was getting along. He looked surprised and said that he himself was that person. So changed was he by repeated attacks of malaria that I had not recognised him.

It was in the Terai that I experienced my first earthquake. I was staying with Feltwell at the time and we were enjoying our early cup of tea in the verandah of his bungalow when I heard a rumbling noise and found everything shaking. I said, ” That sounds like a traction-engine. I did not know you had one up here.” But Feltwell shouted, ” It’s an earthquake ! ” and ran outside where I followed him. It only lasted a few seconds and did no damage.

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