That was more that thirty years ago, and the tribesmen across the Afghan border who helped to annihilate the regiment are now old men. Sometimes a graybeard speaks of his share in the massacre. ‘They came,’ he will say, ‘across the border, very proud, calling upon us to rise and kill the English, and go down to the sack of Delhi. But we who had just been conquered by the same English knew that they were over bold, and that the Government could account easily for those down-country dogs. This Hindustani regiment, therefore, we treated with fair words, and kept standing in one place till the redcoats came after them very hot and angry. Then this regiment ran forward a little more into our hills to avoid the wrath of the English, and we lay upon their flanks watching from the sides of the hills till we were well assured that their path was lost behind them. Then we came down, for we desired their clothes, and their bridles, and their rifles, and their boots—more especially their boots. That was a great killing—done slowly.’ Here the old man will rub his nose, and shake his long snaky locks, and lick his bearded lips, and grin till the yellow tooth-stumps show. ‘Yes, we killed them because we needed their gear, and we knew that their lives had been forfeited to God on account of their sin—the sin of treachery to the salt which they had eaten. They rode up and down the valleys, stumbling and rocking in their saddles, and howling for mercy. We drove them slowly like cattle till they were all assembled in one place, the flat wide valley of Sheor Kôt. Many had died from want of water, but there still were many left, and they could not make any stand. We went among them, pulling them down with our hands two at a time, and our boys killed them who were new to the sword. My share of the plunder was such and such—so many guns, and so many saddles. The guns were good in those days. Now we steal the Government rifles, and despise smooth barrels. Yes, beyond doubt we wiped that regiment from off the face of the earth, and even the memory of the deed is now dying. But men say——’
At At this point the tale would stop abruptly, and it was impossible to find out what men said across the border. The Afghans were always a secretive race, and vastly preferred doing something wicked to saying anything at all. They would be quiet and well-behaved for months, till one night, without word or warning, they would rush a police-post, cut the throats of a constable or two, dash through a village, carry away three or four women, and withdraw, in the red glare of burning thatch, driving the cattle and goats before them to their own desolate hills. The Indian Government would become almost tearful on these occasions. First it would say, ‘Please be good and we’ll forgive you.’ The tribe concerned in the latest depredation would collectively put its thumb to its nose and answer rudely. Then the Government would say: ‘Hadn’t you better pay up a little money for those few corpses you left behind you the other night?’ Here the tribe would temporise, and lie and bully, and some of the younger men, merely to show contempt of authority, would raid another police-post and fire into some frontier mud fort, and, if lucky, kill a real English officer. Then the Government would say: ‘Observe; if you really persist in this line of conduct you will be hurt.’ If the tribe knew exactly what was going on in India, it would apologise or be rude, according as it learned whether the Government was busy with other things, or able to devote its full attention to their performances. Some of the tribes knew to one corpse how far to go. Others became excited, lost their heads, and told the Government to come on. With sorrow and tears, and one eye on the British taxpayer at home, who insisted on regarding these exercises as brutal wars of annexation, the Government would prepare an expensive little field-brigade and some guns, and send all up into the hills to chase the wicked tribe out of the valleys, where the corn grew, into the hill-tops where there was nothing to eat. The tribe would turn out in full strength and enjoy the campaign, for they knew that their women would never be touched, that their wounded would be nursed, not mutilated, and that as soon as each man’s bag of corn was spent they could surrender and palaver with the English General as though they had been a real enemy. Afterwards, years afterwards, they would pay the blood-money, driblet by driblet, to the Government and tell their children how they had slain the redcoats by thousands. The only drawback to this kind of picnic-war was the weakness of the redcoats for solemnly blowing up with powder their fortified towers and keeps. This the tribes always considered mean.
Chief among the leaders of the smaller tribes—the little clans who knew to a penny the expense of moving white troops against them—was a priest-bandit-chief whom we will call the Gulla Kutta Mullah. His enthusiasm for border murder as an art was almost dignified. He would cut down a mail-runner from pure wantonness, or bombard a mud fort with rifle fire when he knew that our men needed to sleep. In his leisure moments he would go on circuit among his neighbours, and try to incite other tribes to devilry. Also, he kept a kind of hotel for fellow-outlaws in his own village, which lay in a valley called Bersund. Any respectable murderer on that section of the frontier was sure to lie up at Bersund, for it was reckoned an exceedingly safe place. The sole entry to it ran through a narrow gorge which could be converted into a death-trap in five minutes. It was surrounded by high hills, reckoned inaccessible to all save born mountaineers, and here the Gulla Kutta Mullah lived in great state, the head of a colony of mud and stone huts, and in each mud but hung some portion of a red uniform and the plunder of dead men. The Government particularly wished for his capture, and once invited him formally to come out and be hanged on account of a few of the murders in which he had taken a direct part. He replied:—
‘I am only twenty miles, as the crow flies, from your border. Come and fetch me.’
‘Some day we will come,’ said the Government, ‘and hanged you will be.’
The Gulla Kutta Mullah let the matter from his mind. He knew that the patience of the Government was as long as a summer day; but he did not realise that its arm was as long as a winter night. Months afterwards, when there was peace on the border, and all India was quiet, the Indian Government turned in its sleep and remembered the Gulla Kutta Mullah at Bersund with his thirteen outlaws. The movement against him of one single regiment—which the telegrams would have translated as war—would have been highly impolitic. This was a time for silence and speed, and, above all, absence of bloodshed.
You must know that all along the north-west frontier of India there is spread a force of some thirty thousand foot and horse, whose duty it is quietly and unostentatiously to shepherd the tribes in front of them. They move up and down, and down and up, from one desolate little post to another; they are ready to take the field at ten minutes’ notice; they are always half in and half out of a difficulty somewhere along the monotonous line; their lives are as hard as their own muscles, and the papers never say anything about them. It was from this force that the Government picked its men.
One night at a station where the mounted Night Patrol fire as they challenge, and the wheat rolls in great blue-green waves under our cold northern moon, the officers were playing billiards in the mud-walled club-house, when orders came to them that they were to go on parade at once for a night-drill. They grumbled, and went to turn out their men—a hundred English troops, let us say, two hundred Goorkhas, and about a hundred cavalry of the finest native cavalry in the world.
When they were on the parade-ground, it was explained to them in whispers that they must set off at once across the hills to Bersund. The English troops were to post themselves round the hills at the side of the valley; the Goorkhas would command the gorge and the death-trap, and the cavalry would fetch a long march round and get to the back of the circle of hills, whence, if there were any difficulty, they could charge down on the Mullah’s men. But orders were very strict that there should be no fighting and no noise. They were to return in the morning with every round of ammunition intact, and the Mullah and the thirteen outlaws bound in their midst. If they were successful, no one would know or care anything about their work; but failure meant probably a small border war, in which the Gulla Kutta Mullah would pose as a popular leader against a big bullying power, instead of a common border murderer.
Then there was silence, broken only by the clicking of the compass needles and snapping of watch-cases, as the heads of columns compared bearings and made appointments for the rendezvous. Five minutes later the parade-ground was empty; the green coats of the Goorkhas and the overcoats of the English troops had faded into the darkness, and the cavalry were cantering away in the face of a blinding drizzle.
What the Goorkhas and the English did will be seen later on. The heavy work lay with the horses, for they had to go far and pick their way clear of habitations. Many of the troopers were natives of that part of the world, ready and anxious to fight against their kin, and some of the officers had made private and unofficial excursions into those hills before. They crossed the border, found a dried river bed, cantered up that, walked through a stony gorge, risked crossing a low hill under cover of the darkness, skirted another hill, leaving their hoof-marks deep in some ploughed ground, felt their way along another watercourse, ran over the neck of a spur, praying that no one would hear their horses grunting, and so worked on in the rain and the darkness, till they had left Bersund and its crater of hills a little behind them, and to the left, and it was time to swing round. The ascent commanding the back of Bersund was steep, and they halted to draw breath in a broad level valley below the height. That is to say, the men reined up, but the horses, blown as they were, refused to halt. There was unchristian language, the worse for being delivered in a whisper, and you heard the saddles squeaking in the darkness as the horses plunged.
The subaltern at the rear of one troop turned in his saddle and said very softly:—
‘Carter, what the blessed heavens are you doing at the rear? Bring your men up, man.’
There was no answer, till a trooper replied:—
‘Carter Sahib is forward—not there. There is nothing behind us.’
‘There is,’ said the subaltern. ‘The squadron’s walking on its own tail.’
Then the Major in command moved down to the rear swearing softly and asking for the blood of Lieutenant Halley—the subaltern who had just spoken.
‘Look after your rearguard,’ said the Major. ‘Some of your infernal thieves have got lost. They’re at the head of the squadron, and you’re a several kinds of idiot.’
‘Shall I tell off my men, sir?’ said the subaltern sulkily, for he was feeling wet and cold.
‘Tell ’em off!’ said the Major. ‘Whip ’em off, by Gad! You’re squandering them all over the place. There’s a troop behind you now!’
‘So I was thinking,’ said the subaltern calmly. ‘I have all my men here, sir. Better speak to Carter.’
‘Carter Sahib sends salaam and wants to know why the regiment is stopping,’ said a trooper to Lieutenant Halley.
‘Where under heaven is Carter?’ said the Major.
‘Forward with his troop,’ was the answer.
‘Are we walking in a ring, then, or are we the centre of a blessed brigade?’ said the Major.
By this time there was silence all along the column. The horses were still; but, through the drive of the fine rain, men could hear the feet of many horses moving over stony ground.
‘We’re being stalked,’ said Lieutenant Halley.
‘They’ve no horses here. Besides they’d have fired before this,’ said the Major. ‘It’s—it’s villagers’ ponies.’
‘Then our horses would have neighed and spoilt the attack long ago. They must have been near us for half an hour,’ said the subaltern.
‘Queer that we can’t smell the horses,’ said the Major, damping his finger and rubbing it on his nose as he sniffed up wind.
‘Well, it’s a bad start,’ said the subaltern, shaking the wet from his overcoat. ‘What shall we do, sir?’
‘Get on,’ said the Major. ‘We shall catch it to-night.’
The column moved forward very gingerly for a few paces. Then there was an oath, a shower of blue sparks as shod hooves crashed on small stones, and a man rolled over with a jangle of accoutrements that would have waked the dead.
‘Now we’ve gone and done it,’ said Lieutenant Halley. ‘All the hillside awake, and all the hillside to climb in the face of musketry-fire. This comes of trying to do night-hawk work.’
The trembling trooper picked himself up, and tried to explain that his horse had fallen over one of the little cairns that are built of loose stones on the spot where a man has been murdered. There was no need for reasons. The Major’s big Australian charger blundered next, and the column came to a halt in what seemed to be a very graveyard of little cairns all about two feet high. The manoeuvres of the squadron are not reported. Men said that it felt like mounted quadrilles without training and without the music; but at last the horses, breaking rank and choosing their own way, walked clear of the cairns, till every man of the squadron re-formed and drew rein a few yards up the slope of the hill. Then, according to Lieutenant Halley, there was another scene very like the one which has been described. The Major and Carter insisted that all the men had not joined rank, and that there were more of them in the rear clicking and blundering among the dead men’s cairns. Lieutenant Halley told off his own troopers again and resigned himself to wait. Later on be told me:—
‘I didn’t much know, and I didn’t much care what was going on. The row of that trooper falling ought to have scared half the country, and I would take my oath that we were being stalked by a full regiment in the rear, and they were making row enough to rouse all Afghanistan. I sat tight, but nothing happened.’
The mysterious part of the night’s work was the silence on the hillside. Everybody knew that the Gulla Kutta Mullah had his outpost huts on the reverse side of the hill, and everybody expected by the time that the Major had sworn himself into a state of quiet that the watchmen there would open fire. When nothing occurred, they said that the gusts of the rain had deadened the sound of the horses, and thanked Providence. At last the Major satisfied himself (a) that he had left no one behind among the cairns, and (b) that he was not being taken in the rear by a large and powerful body of cavalry. The men’s tempers were thoroughly spoiled, the horses were lathered and unquiet, and one and all prayed for the daylight.
They set themselves to climb up the hill, each man leading his mount carefully. Before they had covered the lower slopes or the breastplates had begun to tighten, a thunderstorm came up behind, rolling across the low hills and drowning any noise less than that of cannon. The first flash of the lightning showed the bare ribs of the ascent, the hillcrest standing steely blue against the black sky, the little falling lines of the rain, and, a few yards to their left flank, an Afghan watch-tower, two-storied, built of stone, and entered by a ladder from the upper story. The ladder was up, and a man with a rifle was leaning from the window. The darkness and the thunder rolled down in an instant, and, when the lull followed, a voice from the watch-tower cried, ‘Who goes there?’
The cavalry were very quiet, but each man gripped his carbine and stood beside his horse. Again the voice called, ‘Who goes there?’ and in a louder key, ‘O, brothers, give the alarm!’ Now, every man in the cavalry would have died in his long boots sooner than have asked for quarter; but it is a fact that the answer to the second call was a long wail of ‘Marf karo! Marf karo!’ which means, ‘Have mercy! Have mercy!’ It came from the climbing regiment.
The cavalry stood dumbfoundered, till the big troopers had time to whisper one to another ‘Mir Khan, was that thy voice? Abdullah, didst thou call?’ Lieutenant Halley stood beside his charger and waited. So long as no firing was going on he was content. Another flash of lightning showed the horses with heaving flanks and nodding heads, the men, white eye-balled, glaring beside them, and the stone watch-tower to the left. This time there was no head at the window, and the rude iron-clamped shutter that could turn a rifle bullet was closed.
‘Go on, men,’ said the Major. ‘Get up to the top at any rate.’ The squadron toiled forward, the horses wagging their tails and the men pulling at the bridles, the stones rolling down the hillside and the sparks flying. Lieutenant Halley declares that he never heard a squadron make so much noise in his life. They scrambled up, he said, as though each horse had eight legs and a spare horse to follow him. Even then there was no sound from the watch-tower, and the men stopped exhausted on the ridge that overlooked the pit of darkness in which the village of Bersund lay. Girths were loosed, curb-chains shifted, and saddles adjusted, and the men dropped down among the stones. Whatever might happen now, they had the upper ground of any attack.
The thunder ceased, and with it the rain, and the soft thick darkness of a winter night before the dawn covered them all. Except for the sound of falling water among the ravines below, everything was still. They heard the shutter of the watch-tower below them thrown back with a clang, and the voice of the watcher calling: ‘Oh, Hafiz Ullah!’
The echoes took up the call, ‘La-la-la!’ And an answer came from the watch-tower hidden round the curve of the hill, ‘What is it, Shahbaz Khan?’
Shahbaz Khan replied in the high-pitched voice of the mountaineer: ‘Hast thou seen?’
The answer came back: ‘Yes. God deliver us from all evil spirits!’
There was a pause, and then: ‘Hafiz Ullah, I am alone! Come to me!’
‘Shahbaz Khan, I am alone also; but I dare not leave my post!’
‘That is a lie; thou art afraid.’
A longer pause followed, and then: ‘I am afraid. Be silent! They are below us still. Pray to God and sleep.’
The troopers listened and wondered, for they could not understand what save earth and stone could lie below the watch-towers.
Shahbaz Khan began to call again: ‘They are below us. I can see them. For the pity of God come over to me, Hafiz Ullah ! My father slew ten of them. Come over!’
Hafiz Ullah answered in a very loud voice, ‘Mine was guiltless. Hear, ye Men of the Night, neither my father nor my blood had any part in that sin. Bear thou thy own punishment, Shahbaz Khan.’
‘Oh, some one ought to stop those two chaps crowing away like cocks there,’ said Lieutenant Halley, shivering under his rock.
He had hardly turned round to expose a new side of him to the rain before a bearded, long-locked, evil-smelling Afghan rushed up the hill, and tumbled into his arms. Halley sat upon him, and thrust as much of a sword-hilt as could be spared down the man’s gullet. ‘If you cry out, I kill you,’ he said cheerfully.
The man was beyond any expression of terror. He lay and quaked, grunting. When Halley took the sword-hilt from between his teeth, he was still inarticulate, but clung to Halley’s arm, feeling it from elbow to wrist.
‘The Rissala! The dead Rissala!’ he gasped. ‘It is down there!’
‘No; the Rissala, the very much alive Rissala. It is up here,’ said Halley, unshipping his wateringbridle, and fastening the man’s hands. ‘Why were you in the towers so foolish as to let us pass?’
‘The valley is full of the dead,’ said the Afghan. ‘It is better to fall into the hands of the English than the hands of the dead. They march to and fro below there. I saw them in the lightning.’
He recovered his composure after a little, and whispering, because Halley’s pistol was at his stomach, said: ‘What is this? There is no war between us now, and the Mullah will kill me for not seeing you pass!’
‘Rest easy,’ said Halley; ‘we are coming to kill the Mullah, if God please. His teeth have grown too long. No harm will come to thee unless the daylight shows thee as a face which is desired by the gallows for crime done. But what of the dead regiment?’
‘I only kill within my own border,’ said the man, immensely relieved. ‘The Dead Regiment is below. The men must have passed through it on their journey—four hundred dead on horses, stumbling among their own graves, among the little heaps—dead men all, whom we slew.’
‘Whew!’ said Halley. ‘That accounts for my cursing Carter and the Major cursing me. Four hundred sabres, eh? No wonder we thought there were a few extra men in the troop. Kurruk Shah,’ he whispered to a grizzled native officer that lay within a few feet of him, ‘hast thou heard anything of a dead Rissala in these hills?’
‘Assuredly,’ said Kurruk Shah with a grim chuckle. ‘Otherwise, why did I, who have served the Queen for seven-and-twenty years, and killed many hill-dogs, shout aloud for quarter when the lightning revealed us to the watch-towers? When I was a young man I saw the killing in the valley of Sheor-Kot there at our feet, and I know the tale that grew up therefrom. But how can the ghosts of unbelievers, prevail against us who are of the Faith? Strap that dog’s hands a little tighter, Sahib. An Afghan is like an eel.’
‘But a dead Rissala,’ said Halley, jerking his captive’s wrist. ‘That is foolish talk, Kurruk Shah. The dead are dead. Hold still, sag.’ The Afghan wriggled.
‘The dead are dead, and for that reason they walk at night. What need to talk? We be men; we have our eyes and ears. Thou canst both see and hear them, down the hillside,’ said Kurruk Shah composedly.
Halley stared and listened long and intently. The valley was full of stifled noises, as every valley must be at night; but whether he saw or heard more than was natural Halley alone knows, and he does not choose to speak on the subject.
At last, and just before the dawn, a green rocket shot up from the far side of the valley of Bersund, at the head of the gorge, to show that the Goorkhas were in position. A red light from the infantry at left and right answered it, and the cavalry burnt a white flare. Afghans in winter are late sleepers, and it was not till full day that the Gulla Kutta Mullah’s men began to straggle from their huts, rubbing their eyes. They saw men in green, and red, and brown uniforms, leaning on their arms, neatly arranged all round the crater of the village of Bersund, in a cordon that not even a wolf could have broken. They rubbed their eyes the more when a pink-faced young man, who was not even in the Army, but represented the Political Department, tripped down the hillside with two orderlies, rapped at the door of the Gulla Kutta Mullah’s house, and told him quietly to step out and be tied up for safe transport. That same young man passed on through the huts, tapping here one cateran and there another lightly with his cane; and as each was pointed out, so he was tied up, staring hopelessly at the crowned heights around where the English soldiers looked down with incurious eyes. Only the Mullah tried to carry it off with curses and high words, till a soldier who was tying his hands said:—
‘None o’ your lip!’ Why didn’t you come out when you was ordered, instead o’ keepin’ us awake all night? You’re no better than my own barrack-sweeper, you white-’eaded old polyanthus! Kim up!’
Half an hour later the troops had gone away with the Mullah and his thirteen friends. The dazed villagers were looking ruefully at a pile of broken muskets and snapped swords, and wondering how in the world they had come so to miscalculate the forbearance of the Indian Government.
It was a very neat little affair, neatly carried out, and the men concerned were unofficially thanked for their services.
Yet it seems to me that much credit is also due to another regiment whose name did not appear in the brigade orders, and whose very existence is in danger of being forgotten.