Story of the Guides - F. Younghusband

The Adventures of Shah Sowar and Abdul Mujid


Many strange adventures have befallen individual men of the Guides, and many a hairbreadth escape have they had. It was only a few years ago that the following adventures occurred.

An order reached regimental headquarters to detail a cavalry soldier who could speak Persian, and one stout of heart and limb, to accompany a British officer on a mission of considerable danger and uncertainty. He was to call at a certain house, on a certain day, in Karachi, and to ask for the name of Smith. Shah Sowar was the trooper selected, and when he arrived at the place of tryst he was ushered into the presence of Smith. Smith, however, was not Smith at all, but somebody quite different; not that it mattered much, for Smith was only his Karachi name.

Next day, on board ship, he became the Sheikh Abdul Qadir, on his way to Mecca or where not; and from that moment commenced the troubles of the redoubtable Shah Sowar. To anyone who has the least knowledge of Asia the extraordinary difficulty which any European must experience in disguising himself as a man of an Eastern race will be apparent. By dint of living for years as Asiatics, exceptional linguists like Vambery and Burton have undoubtedly been able to pass unchallenged, but anyone possessing qualities short of theirs must inevitably be discovered a dozen times a day. The way we eat and drink, the way we walk and sit, the way we wear our clothes and boots, the way we wash,—every little thing is absolutely different from the methods and manners of the East.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Guides by F. Younghusband


These things Shah Sowar pointed out with much politeness, and great persistency, to Sheikh Abdul Qadir, late Smith. "Be it spoken with the greatest respect, but there would be less liability to the unmannerly curiosity of strangers if the Cherisher of the Poor wore his own clothes. Beautifully as your Highness speaks Persian and Hindustani [his Highness really spoke both indifferently] it would be difficult for one of such commanding presence to pass himself for any but an Englishman. English officers are a race of princes; how then can they disguise themselves as inferior folk?"

"Don't fret," replied Smith, alias Sheikh Abdul Qadir; "I am going to remain a prince all right; for I propose passing myself off as a near relation of the Amir, a refugee from Kabul."

"As your Honour wishes," was the resigned reply; but Shah Sowar saw big rollers ahead.

Arrived on the coasts of Persia (it matters not where), Sheikh Abdul Qadir, Shah Sowar, and a cook-boy landed as refugees from Kabul, on their way to place their swords and services at the disposal of the Shah of Persia.

In these days an officer with a Government permit might probably travel, with a moderate escort, in perfect safety throughout Persia; but at that time a Government permit, and a small escort, would merely have served to draw the unwelcome attention of the hordes of robbers who infested the country. For good and sufficient reasons our friend Smith was required to pass through a certain tract of very unsettled country on his journey, ways and means being left to his own ingenuity.

As Shah Sowar had foretold, the first serious pitfall was the question of language. When persons of some rank are travelling it is customary for the headman, or chief, to come and pay his respects to them, when they are encamped near his village or domain. It was after one such visit that the chief, as he came out, called Shah Sowar to him and said: "Who did you say that your master is?"

"Commander of the Faithful, his name is Sheikh Abdul Qadir, a relative of the Amir of Kabul and a refugee," glibly replied Shah Sowar, but inwardly considerably perturbed.

"Well, with all respect," replied the chief, "I never heard anyone talk such bad Persian; he talks just like an Englishman"; and with that he departed.

Shah Sowar at once grasped what a narrow escape they had had, for an Englishman found in that region in disguise was a dead man. So soon therefore as it was dark he persuaded his master to saddle and move on a few miles, lest further reflection might shed a light on the dim suspicions of the chief. One bargain Shah Sowar made during that night march, and that was that Sheikh Abdul Qadir was henceforth to remain speechless, and leave the rest to his own ingenuity and knowledge of his countrymen.

A few days afterwards an occasion offered for testing the new arrangement. Arrived at a somewhat important town, a servant of the local chief came to make enquiries about the new arrivals, in order that the etiquette of visiting might be observed, this etiquette ruling that the inferior should pay the first visit. Here Shah Sowar at once took a high hand, insisting that his master, from his princely connections, held the higher rank and must be visited first. "But," he added in a confidential whisper, "my master is an extraordinary man; some days he is as lively as a bulbul and laughs and talks with everyone; on others he sits silent and morose and will not utter a word. Be it spoken in confidence, but I think he must be mad. At any rate, prepare your master. If to-day happen to be one of his bad days, then that is kismet and your master must excuse." Having thus prepared one side, he placed a bed across the end of the tent and asked Sheikh Abdul Qadir, late Smith, to sit cross-legged on it, to glare fixedly and furiously into vacancy, and to grunt at intervals, but on no account to utter a syllable.

In due course the chief and his retinue arrived, and were met with great politeness and many salaams by Shah Sowar; but that worthy managed to whisper in the chief's ear the sad intelligence that this was one of his master's bad days, and that the Evil Spirit was upon him. "Nevertheless be pleased to enter," he added aloud; "His Highness will be glad to see you."

The exceedingly restricted area of the tent prevented a large assembly, but the chief, his brother, and Shah Sowar managed to squeeze in and squat down. After exchanging salutations the chief gravely stroked his beard, and gave vent to a few polite expressions of welcome. To these Sheikh Abdul Qadir vouchsafed no reply beyond a grunt. The chief glanced at Shah Sowar, and that excellent comedian, assuming the ashamed look of one disgraced by his master's rudeness, at once made a long-winded and complimentary reply in the most fluent and high-flown Persian. Then, before the effect should be lost, he ordered in tea, and commenced an animated conversation with the two strangers, all parties absolutely ignoring, out of politeness, Sheikh Abdul Qadir and his Evil Spirit. Thus anxiously skating over the thin ice, Shah Sowar at last, with a feeling of infinite relief, bowed out the visitors, charmed with his excellent manners and quite unsuspecting that they had sat for half-an-hour within two feet of a British officer. When the time for the return visit came, Shah Sowar went alone to make the readily accepted excuse that his master was not in a fit state that day to fulfil social obligations.

Thus the ready wit and resource of Shah Sowar piloted the party through many dangerous waters, till one day they chanced across a nomad tribe under a venerable white-bearded chief, who could count a thousand spears at his beck and call. The usual visits of ceremony had been paid and tided over somehow, and the travellers were resting during the heat of the afternoon, when a confidential servant of the White Beard came to Shah Sowar and said that his master had sent for him. A peremptory call like this boded no good, but by way of getting a further puff to show which way the wind blew, Shah Sowar assumed a haughty air. "Peace be unto you," he said; "there is no hurry. I will come when I am sufficiently rested, and have received permission from my own master." "Be advised by me, who wish you no harm, to come at once, as the matter is of importance," replied the messenger. "Oh, very well," grumbled Shah Sowar, feeling that trouble was in the air; "I will come."

When he arrived at the camp of the White Beard he was immediately ushered into his tent, and there found the old warrior seated cross-legged on a rich carpet, and gravely stroking his beard. "Look here, Shah Sowar," said he with soldierly directness, "it is no good lying to me. That is a sahib you have with you. I have been to Bushire, and I know an Englishman when I see him."

Shah Sowar was prepared for this, but, by way of gaining time, he answered: "Your Excellency's cleverness is extraordinary; to lie to your Highness would be the work only of a fool. Perchance my master may be a sahib, but there are many nations of sahibs, and why should this one be English?" "Peace, prattler!" sternly replied the old autocrat; "there is only one nation of real sahibs, and they are English."

Shah Sowar, driven into a corner, stroked his beard for some time under the rebuke, and then said: "I perceive there is no good trying to deceive so great a diviner as you. I will speak the truth. My master is an English officer travelling on business. What then?"

"What then?" slowly replied the White Beard. "Why, I have sworn on the Koran, and before all my tribe, to kill every Englishman I come across. I fear no nation on earth but the English, and lest they swallow me up, I have sworn to swallow them, one by one, whenever I meet them."

"If your Honour has thus sworn there is nothing else to be said," answered Shah Sowar. "But I have one petition to make, and that is to give us till the morning before we die."

"Your petition is granted; but why say 'we'? I shall not kill you, for you are a Mahomedan, and a Persian, and shall join my horsemen," said the White Beard.

"When the Sahib dies, I die also," was the brave reply. And with that Shah Sowar hurried back to tell the bad news to his master. Arrived at their little camp, his worst forebodings were confirmed, for a strong detachment of the White Beard's men guarded it on every side.

All that afternoon the prisoners racked their brains to find a way of escape, and hope seemed to die with the setting sun. Then Shah Sowar arose and said, "I will have one more try to see what can be done"; and gaining permission, he went over again to the chief's camp, and asked for another audience. The old man was at his prayers, and Shah Sowar devoutly and humbly joined in. When they had finished he asked for a private audience, as he had something of importance to say.

"Well, what is it?" said the White Beard when they were alone.

"It is this," gravely replied the Guides' trooper, "and be pleased to listen attentively. When you bade me speak the truth this afternoon, I spoke fearlessly and at once. I acknowledged that my Sahib is an English officer. Hear now also the truth, and on the Koran I am prepared to swear it. This English officer whom you propose to kill is the bearer of an important letter to the Shah of Persia, and I swear to you by Allah and all his prophets that, should harm befall him, for every hair of his head the Shah will kill one of your horsemen. Make calculation, oh venerable one; has not the Sahib more than a thousand hairs on his head? I have spoken. Now do your worst, but blame not me afterwards."

"This is very unfortunate," said the much perturbed chieftain. "Have I not sworn before all my people? How then can I now spare this Englishman? My kismet is indeed bad; I can see no road of escape."

"That I can show you," said Shah Sowar, "and for that am I come again."

"Say on, I am listening."

"You have sworn before your people that you will kill the Englishman at dawn; but there is no reason why the Englishman should not escape during the night. To save your face I will heavily bribe one of the sentries, and we will escape on foot leaving everything behind. Thus you will get all our horses, and mules, and tents, and all that we have. And in the morning you can say 'It was the will of God,' and march away in the opposite direction."

"You have spoken well," said the chief after deep thought. "I will do as you wish; it is the will of God." Then he added aloud, and with anger so that all might hear: "I have spoken; at dawn the accursed Englishman shall die, and I will shoot him with mine own hand. Praise be to Allah, and Mahomed the prophet of Allah."

So Shah Sowar went back to his Sahib and explained the plan of escape. And as soon as all was still the three slipped noiselessly out of the camp, past the bribed sentry, and, setting their faces to the south, toiled on, hiding at intervals, till they had placed well-nigh forty miles between themselves and the camp of the White Bearded Chief.

Then his heart broke through the stiff reserve of the Englishman, and he embraced his gallant comrade, and said: "You and I are no longer master and servant, sahib and trooper; you have saved my life and henceforth we are brothers. What can I do for you to show my gratitude?"

"Nothing, Sahib, except to tell my Colonel that I have done good service and upheld the name of the Guides." And the only other thing that Shah Sowar would accept was a watch to replace that which he had lost in the flight; and on it is inscribed, To my faithful friend Shah Sowar in memory of—(and here follows the date of their flight).

Amongst the explorers who have gone forth from the Guides, taking their lives in their hands and barely escaping, was one Abdul Mujid. This fine specimen of the trained adventurer was working through a hitherto unmapped and little known country, when one evening he came to a small village, and made his way as usual to the travellers' serai. There also, as is not unusual, he found assembled, besides wayfarers like himself, the headman of the village and two or three other residents, smoking and chatting. They made room for Abdul Mujid, and with the outwardly polite insistence of the Oriental asked his business, whence he came, and whither he was going.

While our good friend the Guide was spinning such romances as seemed good unto him, to account for his presence in this secluded valley, a small boy came and squatted down at his feet, to lose not a word of the story. And sitting there, like a boy, or a magpie, he picked up one of the shoes which Abdul Mujid had slipped off as he took his seat and began to examine it curiously. This perfectly childish act by chance caught the wandering glance of the headman, and as he looked at the shoes, and then up at the fine strapping fellow who owned them, a sudden thought occurred to him. "Those are very like soldiers' shoes," he said in a hard, suspicious voice; "I have seen them wearing the like in Peshawur."

Abdul Mujid was considerably taken aback, for it had never occurred to him that in these wild parts he might chance across anyone who had travelled far enough to know the difference between a soldier's and any other shoe. However, his ready wit came to his service, and with scarce a pause he replied quietly: "Yes, I bought them in one of the border villages from a sepoy on leave," and then turned the conversation on to less dangerous ground. But he saw he was suspected, and any moment might find him seized and searched. It was too late to move on to another village; indeed to attempt to do so would only serve to confirm suspicion, and the moment he had passed the sacred portals of hospitality he would have been instantly followed and cut down.

Shoes in themselves are not enough to hang a man, but a prismatic compass assuredly is. In a Pathan country murder, rapine, and cattle-lifting are comparatively venial offences, little more indeed than instances of lightheartedness; but to draw a map of the country is worse than the seven deadly sins rolled into one, and short will be the shrift of him who is caught in the act. It therefore seemed to Abdul Mujid only a wise precaution to get rid of his prismatic compass as speedily as possible.

With this end in view he walked over to the well, as if to get a drink of water, and, as skilfully as he could, dropped the compass down the well. But fate was against him that day; sharp ears heard the hollow splash, and sharp voices immediately demanded what he had thrown down the well.

"Only a stone off the coping," replied Abdul Mujid.

"You lie!" yelled the headman. "You are a spy of the accursed British Government, and out of your own mouth will I condemn you. Here, Yusuf, get a stout rope and let the boy down the well; there isn't more than half a yard of water in it, and we will soon see whether the stranger lies or not."

Here was a nice predicament! But Abdul Mujid faced the peril like a man, and held to the faint hope that no one would recognise the instrument even if they found it. It was a false hope. In a few minutes up came the boy, gleefully flourishing the damning evidence, and there was not one who doubted what it was. Probably in the circumstances, whatever the article it would have had the same effect, for the case was already prejudiced.

"Now then, thou son of a burnt father, what sayest thou?" screamed the headman. "Thou art a spy as I said, and shalt surely die. Hein! what sayest thou?"

"You speak truth, father," replied the sepoy. "I am making a map for the British Government; but this is only a little portion of it, and if you object I will leave out this part altogether, and then there can be no cause of offence."

"Go to," sneered the headman, "I shall take a much more effective way of closing the matter by killing you at once. Here, Yusuf, bring my gun, and you, young men, see that this misbegotten Kafir does not escape."

So Yusuf went off for the gun, and Abdul Mujid turned his face towards Mecca, and said the evening prayer. Then hope came to him from above and he said to the headman: "Be not hasty; I am a follower of the Prophet as also are ye. Give me till the morning that I may make my peace with Allah."

"It is well said," interposed a bystander; "he is alone and has no chance of escape. Let us therefore not kill him like a dog or an infidel; but let him make his peace with Allah, and then in the morning he shall die."

And so it was settled, and Abdul Mujid was bound hand and foot, and laid upon a charpoy (the common bed of the country); and beside him, with a drawn sword at his side, lay down the man who was to guard him, the two on the same bed.

All night long Abdul Mujid lay racking his brains for a means of escape, and found none; and then just before dawn came Allah to his help. Nudging his bedfellow hard, the sepoy said: "Awake, sluggard, I wish to go and pray."

"Well, go and pray," grumbled the guard.

"Go and pray!" replied Abdul Mujid; "how can I go and pray with my arms and feet tied? Can I make the salutations and genuflections ordered in the Koran while thus strapped up?"

"No, I suppose you can't," answered the guard. "But you also don't suppose I am going to leave my warm quilt on this bitterly cold morning to guard you while you pray?"

"That is not the least necessary," said Abdul Mujid; "if you will free one hand I will spread my own carpet by the bed, and you can thus guard me without getting up, for my legs are tied, and therefore I cannot escape. Assuredly Allah hath spread the cloak of stupidity and sloth over this fellow," he said to himself, as his janitor rolled over, and lazily muttering "Oh very well, anything for a little peace," to the sepoy's intense delight fumblingly untied one of his hands.

What followed was like a streak of lightning from heaven. In one flash Abdul Mujid had seized the naked sword, and the slothful sentry, before he could draw another breath, lay dead to all below; in another flash he had severed his bonds, and was making the best of his way across the fields. Nor did he halt, night or day, till weary and exhausted he fell down and slept by the first milestone that proclaimed that he was again in British territory.

Nearly a year afterwards a motley band of ruffians might have been seen walking up the main road at Mardan towards the Court-House. It was a deputation from a far-away country come to discuss matters with the political officer. At their head on a sorry steed rode the chief person: at the roadside by the post-office, idly watching the party file past, was a man of the Guides; and when the eyes of those two, the Guide and the man on the pony, met, they both remembered the village well, and one recollected how nearly it was his last night on earth.

"May you never grow weary," said the Guide in the polite formula of the road.

"May your riches ever increase," came the stock reply.

"And how about that man on the charpoy?" bawled Abdul Mujid.

"Oh, he's all right, having by the mercy of God a thick skull," came the reply.

"Shahbash! come and feast with me when your business is finished. I will make preparations at the cook-shop at the head of the bazaar."

And so ended in peace and jollification an adventure which at one time looked much more like cold-blooded murder and a string of vendettas.