The Camp of the Snake/Chapter 1

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CHAPTER I

THE BEGINNING OF THE TRAIL

ONE dusty morning I found a piece of paper on my desk in the offices of Pan American Motors, on Woodward Avenue, Detroit. It was a yellow paper about as big as my hand and what it said was this:

 

When convenient, Mr. Hacket would like to see Mr. Smith in his office.

 

Hacket was about third assistant sales manager of Pan Am., and I was general utility man, with a reputation for getting into trouble. It turned out that Hacket had something worse than trouble on his mind, and that was an idea.

"Ever been in India, Smith?" he asked.

I told him I didn't think so, and he looked as if I was trying to tell him something that was not so. Said my card—application card, filed with the personnel department on entering Pan Am. Motors—had stated distinctly that I had lived there for three years.

"That must be A. L. Smith," I explained, after thinking it over. "He's been laid up for two months with double pneumonia. My name is Alexander McDonald Smith."

This only bothered Hacket for a minute. After all, the idea was not his, and he saw no reason to worry about it. So he explained things in the rapid fire manner of a young fellow who thinks it's business-like to be swift.

The Pan Am. directors had asked our chiefs why we were not selling more cars to the Orient. We had a few sales and a lot of inquiries from Japan, but India was a blank. Someone had dug up figures to prove that there were so many thousand cars in India and practically none of American make. The climate there in a good part of the country was an all-year affair, like southern California; the oil supply was plenteous and convenient, and so forth. Our competitors, for some reason, were not trying to sell cars there.

You remember how the business part of the U. S. of A., shortly after the war, figured out to launch a government merchant marine in all the seven seas, whichever they may be, and to corner the trade of South America, and drill for oil in Alaska and so forth. Well, Pan American Motors was making more money then than it knew what to do with, and starting plants in Canada and England. With trade in general booming and buzzing, nobody thought of the bumps. Nobody ever does.

So Motors was going to send a representative to India, and Hacket picked me, as hereinbefore related, to find out—transportation and ten dollars a day paid—if there was a market for our cars, and if not, why not. He added that I could catch the Soo limited out of Chicago the next day and connect with the Canadian Pacific transcontinental at a place called Moose Jaw.

"Which India," I asked, "do you mean?"

No, I was not trying to be funny. There is a good deal of Scotch in me under the skin—old, sure-enough stuff, inherited— and I wanted to be certain where I was going before starting. The map of the world has a Dutch East Indies and a West Indies, besides an Indo-China, and men like Hacket have been known to overlook bigger things than that. Sure enough, he pawed over his papers and finally went off to ask about it. When he came back he said it was British India. So I listened to another bunch of instructions and went oft to clear out my desk, and wait for letters of introduction and tickets. Nobody asked if I wanted to go.

As a matter of fact I did, badly. Any other place would have done as well. It was a dusty morning and the office windows were opened wide for the first time that summer. The jangle of the street cars down Woodward was as bad as the clatter of the typewriters, and I had not set foot off pavement for eight months.

Lord, how a fellow gets to hate the streets, when a straw bonnet and a park and open windows are the only things he can see of a change in the season!

If I had known what sort of a camp I was bound for, a couple of months hence, I'd have yelped out loud. I didn't imagine such a thing and you couldn't if you tried. Think of a few tents bunched over a snow-fed river, three thousand feet below. Trees bigger than the California sequoias, and mountains crowding all around that would make the Rockies look like slag heaps. Fishing for what you want, and big game shooting—well, for stags, bear and such-like.

Man, I've sampled a good many kinds of camps, from the week-end auto parking kind to the government A. E. F. brand, and I want to say right now that this camp was in a class by itself.

Sometimes, when the alarm clock does its stunt and I wake up from dreaming about that place, I'm in a fever to pick up again and start off to it. And then come the chills, when I think of all that happened and of the hours when I cursed A. L. Smith for not going instead of me.

 

AS I said, Pan American Motors started out to sell the world, and before been in Calcutta a week I thanked my stars I was not a salesman. We had as much chance of selling cars in India as I would have of underscoring an opera.

Outside a shipping cost with a duty tacked on that came to about half the selling price of a car, there were only two reasons why Pan American Motors would never flourish in India. Natives—coolies they call 'em—and bullock carts were sit- ting around waiting for a chance to haul loads at about a quarter the cents-per-mile a truck would roll up.

"You might investigate Kashmir, Mr. Smith," someone suggested. "A splendid country, you know, just being opened up. It is in the Hills, and I imagine the climate would be a welcome change from this."

Two weeks later I found out that the advice about Kashmir was a merry jest. An Englishman may not see one of our jokes, but he can slip one over and look as serious as an umpire behind the plate in a world's series. I'll tell you about this Kashmir thing when we come to it.

Anything looked better to me than Calcutta, where the climate was borrowed from hell. I wrote a preliminary report, mailed it, and jumped a train for Delhi, pronounced Dilly, to see what their capital looked like. But it was hotter than Calcutta, and that was worse than New Orleans in September.

There were some tourists in Delhi, but no sightseeing busses, and not even a tin lizzie at the station. After one ride around the city and down their main street, which has a name like a sneeze and a grunt and means Silver Street, I went back to my room at the hotel and stayed there. Probably it was the heat—I'd been out in the streets of Calcutta regularly from nine to five—but I began to have a queer feeling about this India. Maybe it was caused by the mob of natives, not blacks, but brown men. There must have been a million or so crowded into a place no bigger than Yonkers. And the place had nearly a million smells, all different.

Even in my room the electric fan was not an electric fan. It was a kind of super fly-swatter, worked by a rope, and somewheres I suppose a brown man in a cotton shirt was pulling the rope. Through the screens of the upstairs veranda that was outside my window I could see the domes of a couple of real palaces and a bunch of ruins.

It made me feel as if I'd arrived in a city that was a couple of thousand years behind the times. All the leading citizens seemed to be dead. At least the ruins they left were the only sights of the place.

 

WHEN I started to sit down and write another letter to the bunch in the office my brain ceased to act all at once. A man was calling something below the veranda, and when he kept on shouting, I went out to see what was doing.

About a dozen natives were squatting down just below me, and a boy began bowing and pointing to an old man who held a strip of white cloth over his knees.

"Sahib," said the boy, "here is a wonder. Will the sahib please to watch?"

The old man held out his bare arms and draped the cloth over his wrists. When he lifted it I saw a green shoot in the ground under the place where his hands had been. Then he put back the cloth, and everyone looked at me. The second time he pulled back his arms there was a big twig with green leaves where the shoot had been.

"That's old stuff," I told the boy.

"Yes, sahib," he came back at me, seriously, "it is older than we remember. Please to watch."

The sleight-of-hand man stood up, and jerked off the cloth, and pointed to a two foot shrub with some kind of fruit on it. A minute ago that shrub had been a twig. The boy pulled off the fruit and tossed it up. It was a mango K right enough. But I had seen the mango trick before.

The way it works is this: the hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye artist has a small bush with a stem sharpened to a point wrapped up in his apron or sleeve, and when the innocent bystander is busy looking at the twig, he slips it under the cloth. Then he sticks the point in the ground, shakes out the branches a bit and his stuff is done.

"Throw up the bush," I grinned at the boy.

"As the sahib wishes." To my surprise he gave the thing a yank and then began to pull. The shrub came up, all right, but it brought with it an honest clump of roots and a wad of earth. The old conjurer looked up at me and his eyes glinted. I tossed them a handful of coppers; it was worth that much, and they began to fight among themselves for the money. All but the boy.

"If the sahib will walk in the Sher Bagh garden this night he will see a greater wonder," he promised.

When I tried to get the letter started again my brain was just as much a blank as before. I kept seeing the Hindu boy and the old conjurer and the mango bush. Especially the bush.

Of course the old man could have had the shrub tucked away in his jumper somewhere, and he could have slipped it under the cloth if he was very clever. And possibly he might have brought along a bush with roots hanging on it, and dug a hole with his hands in the soft, black earth.

He must have done that, because there was no other way to explain the trick. But somehow the explanation did not satisfy me. The roots had come out of the ground as if they had been planted there.

That evening a slicked-up army officer in the dining-room told me where the Sher Bagh was.