The Bold 'Prentice

by


Young Ottley’s father came to Calcutta in 1857 as fireman on the first locomotive ever run by the D.I.R., which was then the largest Indian railway. All his life he spoke broad Yorkshire, but young Ottley, being born in India, naturally talked the clipped sing-song that is used by the half-castes and English-speaking natives. When he was fifteen years old the D.I.R. took him into their service as an apprentice in the Locomotive Repair Department of the Ajaibpore workshops, and he became one of a gang of three or four white men and nine or ten natives.

There were scores of such gangs, each with its hoisting and overhead cranes, jack-screws, vices and lathes, as separate as separate shops, and their work was to mend locomotives and make the apprentices behave. But the apprentices threw nuts at one another, chalked caricatures of unpopular foremen on buffer-bars and, discarded boilers, and did as little work as they possibly could.

They were nearly all sons of old employees, living with their parents in the white bungalows of Steam Road or Church Road or Albert Road—on the broad avenues of pounded brick bordered by palms and crotons and bougainvilleas and bamboos which made up the railway town of Ajaibpore. They had never seen the sea or a steamer; half their speech was helped out with native slang; they were all volunteers in the D.I.R.’s Railway Corps—grey with red facings—and their talk was exclusively about the Company and its affairs.

They all hoped to become engine-drivers earning six or eight hundred a year, and therefore they despised all mere sit-down clerks in the Store, Audit and Traffic departments, and ducked them when they met at the Company’s swimming baths.

There were no strikes or tie-ups on the D.I.R. in those days, for the reason that the ten or twelve thousand natives and two or three thousand whites were doing their best to turn the Company’s employment into a caste in which their sons and relatives would be sure of positions and pensions. Everything in India crystallizes into a caste sooner or later—the big jute and cotton mills, the leather, harness and opium factories, the coal-mines and the dockyards, and, in years to come, when India begins to be heard from as one of the manufacturing countries of the world, the labour Unions of other lands will learn something about the beauty of caste which will greatly interest them.

Those were the days when the D.I.R. decided that it would be cheaper to employ native drivers as much as possible, and the “Sheds,” as they called the Repair Department, felt the change acutely; for a native driver could misuse his engine, they said, more curiously than any six monkeys. The Company had not then standardized its rolling-stock, and this was very good for apprentices anxious to learn about machines, because there were, perhaps, twenty types of locomotives in use on the road. They were Hawthornes; E types; O types; outside cylinders; Spaulding and Cushman double-enders and shortrun Continental-built tank engines, and many others. But the native drivers burned them all out impartially, and the apprentices took to writing remarks in Bengali on the cabs of the repaired ones where the next driver would be sure to see them.

Young Ottley worked at first as little as the other apprentices, but his father, who was then a pensioned driver, taught him a great deal about the insides of locomotives; and Olaf Swanson, the red-headed Swede who ran the Government Mail, the big Thursday express, from Serai Rajgara to Guldee Haut, was a great friend of the Ottley family, and dined with them every Friday night.

Olaf was an important person, for besides being the best of the mail-drivers, he was Past Master of the big railway Masonic Lodge, “St. Duncan’s in the East,” Secretary of the Drivers’ Provident Association, a Captain in the D.I.R. Volunteer Corps, and, which he thought much more of, an Author; for he had written a book in a language of his own which he insisted upon calling English, and had printed it at his own expense at the ticket-printing works.

Some of the copies were buff and green, and some were pinkish and blue, and some were yellow and brown; for Olaf did not believe in wasting money on high-class white paper. Wrapping-paper was good enough for him, and besides, he said the colours rested the eyes of the reader. It was called “The Art of Road-Locos Repair or The Young Driver’s Vademecome,” and was dedicated in verse to a man of the name of Swedenborg.

It covered every conceivable accident that could happen to an engine on the road; and gave a rough-and-ready remedy for each; but you had to understand Olaf’s written English, as well as all the technical talk about engines, to make head or tail of it, and you had also to know personally every engine on the D.I.R., for the “Vademecome” was full of what might be called “locomotive allusions,” which concerned the D.I.R. only. Otherwise, it would, as some great locomotive designer once said, have been a classic and a text-book.

Olaf was immensely proud of it, and. would pin young Ottley in a corner and make him learn whole pages—it was written all in questions and answers—by heart.

“Never mind what she means,” Olaf would shout. “You learn her word-perfect, and she will help you in the Sheds. I drive the Mail,— the mail of all India,—and what I write and say is true.”

“But I do not wish to learn the book,” said young Ottley, who thought he saw quite enough of locomotives in business hours.

“You shall learn! I haf great friendship for your father, and so I shall teach you whether you like it or not.”

Young Ottley submitted, for he was really fond of old Olaf, and at the end of six months’ teaching in Olaf’s peculiar way began to see that the “Vademecome” was a very valuable help in the repair sheds, when broken-down engines of a new type came in. Olaf gave him a copy bound in cartridge paper and hedged round the margins with square-headed manuscript notes, each line the result of years of experience and accidents.

“There is nothing in this book,” said Olaf, “that I have not tried in my time, and I say that the engine is like the body of a man. So long as there is steam—the life, you see,—so long, if you know how, you can make her move a little,—so!” He waggled his hand slowly. “Till a man is dead or the engine she is at the bottom of a river, you can do something with her. Remember that! I say it and I know.”

He repaid young Ottley’s time and attention by using his influence to get him made a Sergeant in his Company, and young Ottley, being a keen Volunteer and a good shot, stood well with the D.I.R. in the matter of casual leave. When repairs were light in the Sheds and the honour of the D.I.R. was to be upheld at some far-away station against the men of Agra or Bandikui, the narrow-gauge railway-towns of the west, young Ottley would contrive to get away, and help to uphold it on the glaring dusty rifle-ranges of those parts.

A ’prentice never dreamed of paying for his ticket on any line in India, least of all when he was in uniform, and young Ottley was practically as free of the Indian railway system as any member of the Supreme Legislative Council who wore a golden General Pass on his watch-chain and could ride where he chose.

Late in September of his nineteenth year he went north on one of his cup-hunting excursions, elegantly and accurately dressed, with one-eighth of one inch of white collar showing above his grey uniform stock and his Martini-Henry rifle polished to match his sergeant’s sword in the rack above him.

The rains were out, and in Bengal that means a good deal to the railways; for the rain falls for three months lavishly, till the whole country is one sea, and the snakes take refuge on the embankment, and the racing floods puff out the brick ballast from under the iron ties, and leave the rails hanging in graceful loops. Then the trains run as they can, and the permanent-way inspectors spend their nights flourishing about in hand-carts pushed by coolies over the dislocated metals, and everybody is covered with the fire-red rash of prickly heat, and loses his temper.

Young Ottley was used to these things from birth. All he regretted was that his friends along the line were so draggled and dripping and sulky that they could not appreciate his gorgeousness; for he considered himself very consoling to behold when he cocked his helmet over one eye and puffed the rank smoke of native-made cigars through his nostrils. Until night fell he lay out on his bunk, in his shirt sleeves, reading the works of G.W.M. Reynolds, which were sold on all the railway bookstalls, and dozing at intervals.

Then he found they were changing engines at Guldee Haut, and old Rustomjee, a Parsee, was the new driver, with Number Forty in hand. Young Ottley took this opportunity to go forward and tell Rustomjee exactly what they thought of him in the Sheds, where the ’prentices had been repairing some of his carelessness in the way of a dropped crown-sheet, the result of inattention and bad stoking.

Rustomjee said he had bad luck with engines, and young Ottley went back to his carriage and slept. He was waked by a bang, a bump, and a jar, and saw on the opposite bunk a subaltern who was travelling north with a detachment of some twenty English soldiers.

“What’s that?” said the subaltern.

“Rustomjee has blown her up, perhaps,” said young Ottley, and dropped out into the wet, the subaltern at his heels. They found Rustomjee sitting by the side of the line, nursing a scalded foot and crying aloud that he was a dead man, while the gunner-guard—who is a kind of extra-hand—looked respectfully at the roaring, hissing machine.

“What has happened?” said young Ottley, by the light of the gunner-guard’s lantern.

Phut gya [She has gone smash],” said Rustomjee, still hopping.

“Without doubt; but where?”

Khuda janta! [God knows]. I am a poor man. Number Forty is broke.”

Young Ottley jumped into the cab and turned off all the steam he could find, for there was a good deal escaping. Then he took the lantern and dived under the drive-wheels, where he lay face up, investigating among spurts of hot water.

“Doocid plucky,” said the subaltern. “I shouldn’t like to do that myself. What’s gone wrong?”

“Cylinder-head blown off, coupler-rod twisted, and several more things. She is very badly wrecked. Oah, yes, she is a tottal wreck,” said young Ottley between the spokes of the right-hand driver.

“Awkward,” said the subaltern, turning up his coat-collar in the wet. “What’s to be done, then?”

Young Ottley came out, a rich black all over his grey uniform with the red facings, and drummed on his teeth with his finger-nails, while the rain fell and the native passengers shouted questions and old Rustomjee told the gunner-guard to walk back six or seven miles and wire to some one for help.

“I cannot swim,” said the gunner-guard. “Go and lie down.” And that, as you might say, settled that. Besides, as far as one could see by the light of the gunner-guard’s lantern, all Bengal was flooded.

“Olaf Swanson will be at Serai Rajgara with the Mail. He will be particularly angry,” said young Ottley. Then he ducked under the engine again with a flare-lamp and sat crosslegged, considering things and wishing he had brought his “Vademecome” in his valise.

Number Forty was an old reconstructed Mutiny engine, with Frenchified cock-nosed cylinders and a profligate allowance of underpinning. She had been through the Sheds several times, and young Ottley, though he had never worked on her, had heard much about her, but nothing to her credit.

“You can lend me some men?” he said at last to the subaltern. “Then I think we shall disconnect her this side, and perhaps, notwithstanding, she will move. We will try—eh?”

“Of course we will. Hi! Sergeant!” said the subaltern. “Turn out the men here and do what this—this officer tells you.”

“Officer!” said one of the privates, under his breath. “’Didn’t think I’d enlisted to serve under a Sergeant o’ Volunteers. ’Ere’s a ’orrible street accident. ’Looks like mother’s tea-kettle broke. What d’yer expect us to do, Mister Civilian Sergeant?”

Young Ottley explained his plan of campaign while he was ravaging Rustomjee’s tool-chest, and then the men crawled and knelt and levered and pushed and hauled and turned spanners under the engine, as young Ottley told them. What he wanted was to disconnect the right cylinder altogether, and get off a badly twisted coupler-rod. Practically Number Forty’s right side was paralysed, and they pulled away enough ironmongery there to build a culvert with.

Young Ottley remembered that the instructions for a case like this were all in the “Vademecome,” but even he began to feel a little alarmed as he saw what came away from the engine and was stacked by the side of the line. After forty minutes of the hardest kind of work it seemed to him that everything movable was cleared out, and that he might venture to give her steam. She leaked and sweated and shook, but she moved—in a grinding sort of way—and the soldiers cheered.

Rustomjee flatly refused to help in anything so revolutionary as driving an engine on one cylinder, because, he said, Heaven had decreed that he should always be unlucky, even with sound machines. Moreover, as he pointed out, the pressure-gauge was jumping up and down like a bottle-imp. The stoker had long since gone away into the night; for he was a prudent man.

“Doocid queer thing altogether,” said the subaltern, “but look here, if you like, I’ll chuck on the coals and you can drive the old jigamaroo, if she’ll go.”

“Perhaps she will blow up,” said the gunner-guard.

“’Shouldn’t at all wonder by the sound of her. Where’s the shovel?” said the subaltern.

“Oah no. She’s all raight according to my book, I think,” said young Ottley. “Now we will go to Serai Rajgara—if she moves.”

She moved with long ssghee! ssghee’s! of exhaustion and lamentation. She moved quite seven miles an hour, and—for the floods were all over the line—the staggering voyage began.

The subaltern stoked four shovels to the minute, spreading them thin, and Number Forty made noises like a dying cow, and young Ottley discovered that it was one thing to run a healthy switching-locomotive up and down the yards for fun when the head of the yard wasn’t!ooking, and quite another to drive a very sick one over an unknown road in absolute darkness and tropic rain. But they felt their way along with their hearts in their mouths till they came to a distant signal, and whistled frugally, having no steam to spare.

“This might be Serai Rajgara,” said young Ottley, hopefully.

“’Looks more like the Suez Canal,” said the subaltern. “I say, when an engine kicks up that sort of a noise she’s a little impatient, isn’t she?”

“ That sort of noise” was a full-powered, furious yelling whistle half a mile up the line.

“That is the Down Mail,” said young Ottley. “We have delayed Olaf two hours and forty-five minutes. She must surely be in Serai Rajgara.”

“’Don’t wonder she wants to get out of it,” said the subaltern. “Golly, what a country!”

The line here dipped bodily under water, and young Ottley sent the gunner-guard on to find the switch to let Number Forty into the siding. Then he followed and drew up with a dolefu! wop! wop! wop! by the side of the great forty-five-ton, six-wheel, coupled, eighteen-inch inside-cylinder Number Twenty-five, all paint and lacquer, standing roaring at the head of the Down Mail. The rest was all water-flat, level and solid from one point of the horizon to the other.

Olaf’s red beard flared like a danger-signal, and as soon as they were in range some knobby pieces of Giridih coal whizzed past young Ottley’s head.

‘’Your friend very mad?” said the subaltern, ducking.

“Aah!” roared Olaf. “This is the fifth time you make delay. Three hours’ delay you make me—Swanson—the Mail! Now I will lose more time to break your head.” He swung on to the foot-board of Number Forty, with a shovel in one hand.

“Olaf!” cried young Ottley, and Olaf nearly tumbled backward. “Rustomjee is behind.”

“Of course. He always is. But you? How you come here?”

“Oah, we smashed up. I have disconnected her and arrived here on one cylinder, by your book. We are only a—a diagram of an engine, I think.”

“My book! My very good book! My ‘Vademecome’! Ottley, you are a fine driver. I forgive my delays. It was worth. Oh, my book, my book!” and Olaf leapt back to Number Twenty-five, shouting things about Swedenborg and steam.

“Thatt is all right,” said young Ottley, “but where is Serai Rajgara? We want assistance.”

“There is no Semi Rajgara. The water is two feet on the embankment, and the telegraph office is fell in. I will report at Purnool Road. Goodnight, good boy!”

The Mail train splashed out into the dark, and Ottley made great haste to let off his steam and draw his fire. Number Forty had done enough for that night.

“Odd chap, that friend of yours,” said the subaltern, when Number Forty stood empty and disarmed in the gathering waters. “What do we do now? Swim?”

“Oah, no! At ten-forty-five thiss morning that is coming, an engine will perhaps arrive from Purnool Road and take us north. Now we will lie down and go to sleep. You see there is no Serai Rajgara. You could get a cup of tea here once on a time.”

“Oh, my Aunt, what a country!” said the subaltern, as he followed Ottley to the carriage and lay down on the leather bunk.

For the next three weeks Olaf Swanson talked to everybody of nothing but his “Vademecome” and young Ottley. “What he said about his book does not matter, but the compliments of a maildriver are things to be repeated, as they were, to people in high authority, the masters of many engines. So young Ottley was sent for, and he came from the Sheds buttoning his jacket and wondering which of his sins had been found out this time.

It was a loop line near Ajaibpore, where he could by no possibility come to harm. It was light but steady traffic, and a first-class superintendent was in charge; but it was a driver’s billet, and permanent after six months. As a new engine was on order for the loop, the foreman of the Sheds told young Ottley he might look through the stalls and suit himself.

He waited, boiling with impatience, till Olaf came in, and the two went off together, old Olaf clucking, “Look! Look! Look!” like a hen, all down the Sheds, and they chose a nearly new Hawthorne, No. 239, which Olaf highly recommended. Then Olaf went away, to give young Ottley his chance to order her to the cleaning-pit, and jerk his thumb at the cleaner and say, as he turned magnificently on his heel, “Thursday, eight o’clock. Mallum? ’Understand?”

That was almost the proudest moment of his life. The very proudest was when he pulled out of Atami Junction through the brick-field on the way to his loop, and passed the Down Mail, with Olaf in the cab.

They say in the Sheds that you could have heard Number Two hundred and Thirty-nine’s whistle from Raneegunge clear to Calcutta.


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