Little Tobrah

‘Prisoner’s head did not reach to the top of the dock,’ as the English newspapers say. This case, however, was not reported because nobody cared by so much as a hempen rope for the life or death of Little Tobrah. The assessors in the red court-house sat upon him all through the long hot afternoon, and whenever they asked him a question he salaamed and whined. Their verdict was that the evidence was inconclusive, and the Judge concurred. It was true that the dead body of Little Tobrah’s sister had been found at the bottom of the well, and Little Tobrah was the only human being within a half mile radius at the time; but the child might have fallen in by accident. Therefore Little Tobrah was acquitted, and told to go where he pleased. This permission was not so generous as it sounds, for he had nowhere to go to, nothing in particular to eat, and nothing whatever to wear.

He trotted into the court-compound, and sat upon the well-kerb, wondering whether an unsuccessful dive into the black water below would end in a forced voyage across the other Black Water. A groom put down an emptied nose-bag on the bricks, and Little Tobrah, being hungry, set himself to scrape out what wet grain the horse had overlooked.

‘O Thief—and but newly set free from the terror of the Law! Come along!’ said the groom, and Little Tobrah was led by the ear to a large and fat Englishman, who heard the tale of the theft.

‘Hah!’ said the Englishman three times (only he said a stronger word). ‘Put him into the net and take him home.’ So Little Tobrah was thrown into the net of the cart, and, nothing doubting that he should be stuck like a pig, was driven to the Englishman’s house. ‘Hah!’ said the Englishman as before. ‘Wet grain, by Jove! Feed the little beggar, some of you, and we’ll make a riding-boy of him! See? Wet grain, good Lord!’

‘Give an account of yourself,’ said the Head of the Grooms to Little Tobrah after the meal had been eaten, and the servants lay at ease in their quarters behind the house. ‘You are not of the groom caste, unless it be for the stomach’s sake. How came you into the court, and why? Answer, little devil’s spawn!’

‘There was not enough to eat,’ said Little Tobrah calmly. ‘This is a good place.’

‘Talk straight talk,’ said the Head Groom, ‘or I will make you clean out the stable of that large red stallion who bites like a camel.’

‘We be Telis, oil-pressers,’ said Little Tobrah, scratching his toes in the dust. ‘We were Telis—my father, my mother, my brother, the elder by four years, myself, and the sister.’

‘She who was found dead in the well?’ said one who had heard something of the trail.

‘Even so,’ said Little Tobrah gravely. ‘She who was found dead in the well. It befell upon a time, which is not in my memory, that the sickness came to the village where our oil-press stood, and first my sister was smitten as to her eyes, and went without sight, for it was mata—the small-pox. Thereafter, my father and my mother died of that same sickness, so we were alone—my brother who had twelve years, I who had eight, and the sister who could not see. Yet were there the bullock and the oil-press remaining, and we made shift to press the oil as before. But Surjun Dass, the grain-seller, cheated us in his dealings; and it was always a stubborn bullock to drive. We put marigold flowers for the Gods upon the neck of the bullock, and upon the great grinding-beam that rose through the roof; but we gained nothing thereby, and Surjun Dass was a hard man.’

Bapri-bap,’ muttered the grooms’ wives, ‘to cheat a child so! But we know what the bunnia-folk are, sisters.’

‘The press was an old press, and we were not strong men—my brother and I; nor could we fix the neck of the beam firmly in the shackle.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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