A Diversity of Creatures, by Rudyard Kipling

In The Presence

(1912)

‘So the matter,’ the Regimental Chaplain concluded, ‘was correct; in every way correct. I am well pleased with Rutton Singh and Attar Singh. They have gathered the fruit of their lives.’

He folded his arms and sat down on the verandah. The hot day had ended, and there was a pleasant smell of cooking along the regimental lines, where half-clad men went back and forth with leaf platters and water-goglets. The Subadar–Major, in extreme undress, sat on a chair, as befitted his rank; the Havildar–Major, his nephew, leaning respectfully against the wall. The Regiment was at home and at ease in its own quarters in its own district which takes its name from the great Muhammadan saint Mian Mir, revered by Jehangir and beloved by Guru Har Gobind, sixth of the great Sikh Gurus.

‘Quite correct,’ the Regimental Chaplain repeated.

No Sikh contradicts his Regimental Chaplain who expounds to him the Holy Book of the Grunth Sahib and who knows the lives and legends of all the Gurus.

The Subadar–Major bowed his grey head. The Havildar–Major coughed respectfully to attract attention and to ask leave to speak. Though he was the Subadar–Major’s nephew, and though his father held twice as much land as his uncle, he knew his place in the scheme of things. The Subadar–Major shifted one hand with an iron bracelet on the wrist.

‘Was there by any chance any woman at the back of it?’ the Havildar–Major murmured. ‘I was not here when the thing happened.’

‘Yes! Yes! Yes! We all know that thou wast in England eating and drinking with the Sahibs. We are all surprised that thou canst still speak Punjabi.’ The Subadar–Major’s carefully-tended beard bristled.

‘There was no woman,’ the Regimental Chaplain growled. ‘It was land. Hear, you! Rutton Singh and Attar Singh were the elder of four brothers. These four held land in-what was the village’s name? — oh, Pishapur, near Thori, in the Banalu Tehsil of Patiala State, where men can still recognise right behaviour when they see it. The two younger brothers tilled the land, while Rutton Singh and Attar Singh took service with the Regiment, according to the custom of the family.’

‘True, true,’ said the Havildar–Major. ‘There is the same arrangement in all good families.’

‘Then, listen again,’ the Regimental Chaplain went on. ‘Their kin on their mother’s side put great oppression and injustice upon the two younger brothers who stayed with the land in Patiala State. Their mother’s kin loosened beasts into the four brothers’ crops when the crops were green; they cut the corn by force when it was ripe; they broke down the water-courses; they defiled the wells; and they brought false charges in the law-courts against all four brothers. They did not spare even the cotton-seed, as the saying is.

‘Their mother’s kin trusted that the young men would thus be forced by weight of trouble, and further trouble and perpetual trouble, to quit their lands in Pishapur village in Banalu Tehsil in Patiala State. If the young men ran away, the land would come whole to their mother’s kin. I am not a regimental school-master, but is it understood, child?’

‘Understood,’ said the Havildar–Major grimly. ‘Pishapur is not the only place where the fence eats the field instead of protecting it. But perhaps there was a woman among their mother’s kin?’

‘God knows!’ said the Regimental Chaplain. ‘Woman, or man, or law-courts, the young men would not be driven off the land which was their own by inheritance. They made appeal to Rutton Singh and Attar Singh, their brethren who had taken service with us in the Regiment, and so knew the world, to help them in their long war against their mother’s kin in Pishapur. For that reason, because their own land and the honour of their house was dear to them, Rutton Singh and Attar Singh needs must very often ask for leave to go to Patiala and attend to the lawsuits and cattle-poundings there.

‘It was not, look you, as though they went back to their own village and sat, garlanded with jasmine, in honour, upon chairs before the elders under the trees. They went back always to perpetual trouble, either of lawsuits, or theft, or strayed cattle; and they sat on thorns.’

‘I knew it,’ said the Subadar–Major. ‘Life was bitter for them both. But they were well-conducted men. It was not hard to get them their leave from the Colonel Sahib.’

‘They spoke to me also,’ said the Chaplain. ‘“Let him who desires the four great gifts apply himself to the words of holy men.“ That is written. Often they showed me the papers of the false lawsuits brought against them. Often they wept on account of the persecution put upon them by their mother’s kin. Men thought it was drugs when their eyes showed red.’

‘They wept in my presence too,’ said the Subadar–Major. ‘Well-conducted men of nine years’ service apiece. Rutton Singh was drill-Naik, too.’

‘They did all things correctly as Sikhs should,’ said the Regimental Chaplain. ‘When the persecution had endured seven years, Attar Singh took leave to Pishapur once again (that was the fourth time in that year only) and he called his persecutors together before the village elders, and he cast his turban at their feet and besought them by his mother’s blood to cease from their persecutions. For he told them earnestly that he had marched to the boundaries of his patience, and that there could be but one end to the matter.

‘They gave him abuse. They mocked him and his tears, which was the same as though they had mocked the Regiment. Then Attar Singh returned to the Regiment, and laid this last trouble before Rutton Singh, the eldest brother. But Rutton Singh could not get leave all at once.’

‘Because he was drill-Naik and the recruits were to be drilled. I myself told him so,’ said the Subadar–Major. ‘He was a well-conducted man. He said he could wait.’

‘But when permission was granted, those two took four days’ leave,’ the Chaplain went on.

‘I do not think Attar Singh should have taken Baynes Sahib’s revolver. He was Baynes Sahib’s orderly, and all that Sahib’s things were open to him. It was, therefore, as I count it, shame to Attar Singh,’ said the Subadar–Major.

‘All the words had been said. There was need of arms, and how could soldiers use Government rifles upon mere cultivators in the fields?’ the Regimental Chaplain replied. ‘Moreover, the revolver was sent back, together with a money-order for the cartridges expended. “Borrow not; but if thou borrowest, pay back soon!“ That is written in the Hymns. Rutton Singh took a sword, and he and Attar Singh went to Pishapur and, after word given, the four brethren fell upon their persecutors in Pishapur village and slew seventeen, wounding ten. A revolver is better than a lawsuit. I say that these four brethren, the two with us, and the two mere cultivators, slew and wounded twenty-seven — all their mother’s kin, male and female.

‘Then the four mounted to their housetop, and Attar Singh, who was always one of the impetuous, said “My work is done,” and he made shinan (purification) in all men’s sight, and he lent Rutton Singh Baynes Sahib’s revolver, and Rutton Singh shot him in the head.

‘So Attar Singh abandoned his body, as an insect abandons a blade of grass. But Rutton Singh, having more work to do, went down from the housetop and sought an enemy whom he had forgotten — a Patiala man of this regiment who had sided with the persecutors. When he overtook the man, Rutton Singh hit him twice with bullets and once with the sword.’

‘But the man escaped and is now in the hospital here,’ said the Subadar–Major. ‘The doctor says he will live in spite of all.’

‘Not Rutton Singh’s fault. Rutton Singh left him for dead. Then Rutton Singh returned to the housetop, and the three brothers together, Attar Singh being dead, sent word by a lad to the police station for an army to be dispatched against them that they might die with honours. But none came. And yet Patiala State is not under English law and they should know virtue there when they see it!

‘So, on the third day, Rutton Singh also made shinan, and the youngest of the brethren shot him also in the head, and he abandoned his body.

‘Thus was all correct. There was neither heat, nor haste, nor abuse in the matter from end to end. There remained alive not one man or woman of their mother’s kin which had oppressed them. Of the other villagers of Pishapur, who had taken no part in the persecutions, not one was slain. Indeed, the villagers sent them food on the housetop for those three days while they waited for the police who would not dispatch that army.

‘Listen again! I know that Attar Singh and Rutton Singh omitted no ceremony of the purifications, and when all was done Baynes Sahib’s revolver was thrown down from the housetop, together with three rupees twelve annas; and order was given for its return by post.’

‘And what befell the two younger brethren who were not in the service?’ the Havildar–Major asked.

‘Doubtless they too are dead, but since they were not in the Regiment their honour concerns themselves only. So far as we were touched, see how correctly we came out of the matter! I think the King should be told; for where could you match such a tale except among us Sikhs? Sri wah guru ji ki Khalsa! Sri wah guru ji ki futteh!’ said the Regimental Chaplain.

‘Would three rupees twelve annas pay for the used cartridges?’ said the Havildar–Major.

‘Attar Singh knew the just price. All Baynes Sahib’s gear was in his charge. They expended one tin box of fifty cartouches, lacking two which were returned. As I said — as I say — the arrangement was made not with heat nor blasphemies as a Mussulman would have made it; not with cries nor caperings as an idolater would have made it; but conformably to the ritual and doctrine of the Sikhs. Hear you! “Though hundreds of amusements are offered to a child it cannot live without milk. If a man be divorced from his soul and his soul’s desire he certainly will not stop to play upon the road, but he will make haste with his pilgrimage.” That is written. I rejoice in my disciples.’

‘True! True! Correct! Correct!’ said the Subadar–Major. There was a long, easy silence. One heard a water-wheel creaking somewhere and the nearer sound of meal being ground in a quern.

‘But he —’ the Chaplain pointed a scornful chin at the Havildar–Major —‘he has been so long in England that —’

‘Let the lad alone,’ said his uncle. ‘He was but two months there, and he was chosen for good cause.’

Theoretically, all Sikhs are equal. Practically, there are differences, as none know better than well-born, land-owning folk, or long-descended chaplains from Amritsar.

‘Hast thou heard anything in England to match my tale?’ the Chaplain sneered.

‘I saw more than I could understand, so I have locked up my stories in my own mouth,’ the Havildar–Major replied meekly.

‘Stories? What stories? I know all the stories about England,’ said the Chaplain. ‘I know that terains run underneath their bazaars there, and as for their streets stinking with mota kahars, only this morning I was nearly killed by Duggan Sahib’s mota-kahar. That young man is a devil.’

‘I expect Grunthi-jee,’ said the Subadar–Major, ‘you and I grow too old to care for the Kahar-ki-nautch — the Bearer’s dance.’ He named one of the sauciest of the old-time nautches, and smiled at his own pun. Then he turned to his nephew. ‘When I was a lad and came back to my village on leave, I waited the convenient hour, and, the elders giving permission, I spoke of what I had seen elsewhere.’

‘Ay, my father,’ said the Havildar–Major, softly and affectionately. He sat himself down with respect, as behoved a mere lad of thirty with a bare half-dozen campaigns to his credit.

‘There were four men in this affair also,’ he began, ‘and it was an affair that touched the honour, not of one regiment, nor two, but of all the Army in Hind. Some part of it I saw; some I heard; but all the tale is true. My father’s brother knows, and my priest knows, that I was in England on business with my Colonel, when the King — the Great Queen’s son — completed his life.

‘First, there was a rumour that sickness was upon him. Next, we knew that he lay sick in the Palace. A very great multitude stood outside the Palace by night and by day, in the rain as well as the sun, waiting for news.

‘Then came out one with a written paper, and set it upon a gate-side — the word of the King’s death — and they read, and groaned. This I saw with my own eyes, because the office where my Colonel Sahib went daily to talk with Colonel Forsyth Sahib was at the east end of the very gardens where the Palace stood. They are larger gardens than Shalimar here’— he pointed with his chin up the lines —‘or Shahdera across the river.

‘Next day there was a darkness in the streets, because all the city’s multitude were clad in black garments, and they spoke as a man speaks in the presence of his dead — all those multitudes. In the eyes, in the air, and in the heart, there was blackness. I saw it. But that is not my tale.

‘After ceremonies had been accomplished, and word had gone out to the Kings of the Earth that they should come and mourn, the new King — the dead King’s son — gave commandment that his father’s body should be laid, coffined, in a certain Temple which is near the river. There are no idols in that Temple; neither any carvings, nor paintings, nor gildings. It is all grey stone, of one colour as though it were cut out of the live rock. It is larger than — yes, than the Durbar Sahib at Amritsar, even though the Akal Bunga and the Baba–Atal were added. How old it may be God knows. It is the Sahibs’ most sacred Temple.

‘In that place, by the new King’s commandment, they made, as it were, a shrine for a saint, with lighted candles at the head and the feet of the Dead, and duly appointed watchers for every hour of the day and the night, until the dead King should be taken to the place of his fathers, which is at Wanidza.

‘When all was in order, the new King said, “Give entrance to all people,” and the doors were opened, and O my uncle! O my teacher! all the world entered, walking through that Temple to take farewell of the Dead. There was neither distinction, nor price, nor ranking in the host, except an order that they should walk by fours.

‘As they gathered in the streets without — very, very far off — so they entered the Temple, walking by fours: the child, the old man; mother, virgin, harlot, trader, priest; of all colours and faiths and customs under the firmament of God, from dawn till late at night. I saw it. My Colonel gave me leave to go. I stood in the line, many hours, one koss, two koss, distant from the temple.’

‘Then why did the multitude not sit down under the trees?’ asked the priest.

‘Because we were still between houses. The city is many koss wide,’ the Havildar–Major resumed. ‘I submitted myself to that slow-moving river and thus — thus — a pace at a time — I made pilgrimage. There were in my rank a woman, a cripple, and a lascar from the ships.

‘When we entered the Temple, the coffin itself was as a shoal in the Ravi River, splitting the stream into two branches, one on either side of the Dead; and the watchers of the Dead, who were soldiers, stood about It, moving no more than the still flame of the candles. Their heads were bowed; their hands were clasped; their eyes were cast upon the ground — thus. They were not men, but images, and the multitude went past them in fours by day, and, except for a little while, by night also.

‘No, there was no order that the people should come to pay respect. It was a free-will pilgrimage. Eight kings had been commanded to come — who obeyed — but upon his own Sahibs the new King laid no commandment. Of themselves they came.

‘I made pilgrimage twice: once for my Salt’s sake, and once again for wonder and terror and worship. But my mouth cannot declare one thing of a hundred thousand things in this matter. There were lakhs of lakhs, crores of crores of people. I saw them.’

‘More than at our great pilgrimages?’ the Regimental Chaplain demanded.

‘Yes. Those are only cities and districts coming out to pray. This was the world walking in grief. And now, hear you! It is the King’s custom that four swords of Our Armies in Hind should stand always before the Presence in case of need.’

‘The King’s custom, our right,’ said the Subadar–Major curtly.

‘Also our right. These honoured ones are changed after certain months or years, that the honour may be fairly spread. Now it chanced that when the old King — the Queen’s son — completed his days, the four that stood in the Presence were Goorkhas. Neither Sikhs alas, nor Pathans, Rajputs, nor Jats. Goorkhas, my father.’

‘Idolaters,’ said the Chaplain.

‘But soldiers; for I remember in the Tirah —’ the Havildar–Major began.

But soldiers, for I remember fifteen campaigns. Go on,’ said the Subadar–Major.

‘And it was their honour and right to furnish one who should stand in the Presence by day and by night till It went out to burial. There were no more than four all told — four old men to furnish that guard.’

‘Old? Old? What talk is this of old men?’ said the Subadar–Major.

‘Nay. My fault! Your pardon!’ The Havildar–Major spread a deprecating hand. ‘They were strong, hot, valiant men, and the youngest was a lad of forty-five.’

‘That is better,’ the Subadar–Major laughed.

‘But for all their strength and heat they could not eat strange food from the Sahibs’ hands. There was no cooking place in the Temple; but a certain Colonel Forsyth Sahib, who had understanding, made arrangement whereby they should receive at least a little caste-clean parched grain; also cold rice maybe, and water which was pure. Yet, at best, this was no more than a hen’s mouthful, snatched as each came off his guard. They lived on grain and were thankful, as the saying is.

‘One hour’s guard in every four was each man’s burden, for, as I have shown, they were but four all told; and the honour of Our Armies in Hind was on their heads. The Sahibs could draw upon all the armies in England for the other watchers — thousands upon thousands of fresh men — if they needed; but these four were but four.

‘The Sahibs drew upon the Granadeers for the other watchers. Granadeers be very tall men under very tall bearskins, such as Fusilier regiments wear in cold weather. Thus, when a Granadeer bowed his head but a very little over his stock, the bearskin sloped and showed as though he grieved exceedingly. Now the Goorkhas wear flat, green caps —’

‘I see, I see,’ said the Subadar–Major impatiently.

‘They are bull-necked, too; and their stocks are hard, and when they bend deeply — deeply — to match the Granadeers — they come nigh to choking themselves. That was a handicap against them, when it came to the observance of ritual.

‘Yet even with their tall, grief-declaring bearskins, the Granadeers could not endure the full hour’s guard in the Presence. There was good cause, as I will show, why no man could endure that terrible hour. So for them the hour’s guard was cut to one-half. What did it matter to the Sahibs? They could draw on ten thousand Granadeers. Forsyth Sahib, who had comprehension, put this choice also before the four, and they said, “No, ours is the Honour of the Armies of Hind. Whatever the Sahibs do, we will suffer the full hour.”

‘Forsyth Sahib, seeing that they were — knowing that they could neither sleep long nor eat much, said, “Is it great suffering?” They said, “It is great honour. We will endure.”

‘Forsyth Sahib, who loves us, said then to the eldest, “Ho, father, tell me truly what manner of burden it is; for the full hour’s watch breaks up our men like water.”

‘The eldest answered, “Sahib, the burden is the feet of the multitude that pass us on either side. Our eyes being lowered and fixed, we see those feet only from the knee down — a river of feet, Sahib, that never — never — never stops. It is not the standing without any motion; it is not hunger; nor is it the dead part before the dawn when maybe a single one comes here to weep. It is the burden of the unendurable procession of feet from the knee down, that never — never — never stops!”

‘Forsyth Sahib said, “By God, I had not considered that! Now I know why our men come trembling and twitching off that guard. But at least, my father, ease the stock a little beneath the bent chin for that one hour.”

‘The eldest said, “We are in the Presence. Moreover He knew every button and braid and hook of every uniform in all His armies.”

‘Then Forsyth Sahib said no more, except to speak about their parched grain, but indeed they could not eat much after their hour, nor could they sleep much because of eye-twitchings and the renewed procession of the feet before the eyes. Yet they endured each his full hour — not half an hour — his one full hour in each four hours.’

‘Correct! correct!’ said the Subadar–Major and the Chaplain together. ‘We come well out of this affair.’

‘But seeing that they were old men,’ said the Subadar–Major reflectively, ‘very old men, worn out by lack of food and sleep, could not arrangements have been made, or influence have been secured, or a petition presented, whereby a well-born Sikh might have eased them of some portion of their great burden, even though his substantive rank —’

‘Then they would most certainly have slain me,’ said the Havildar–Major with a smile.

‘And they would have done correctly,’ said the Chaplain. ‘What befell the honourable ones later?’

‘This. The Kings of the earth and all the Armies sent flowers and such-like to the dead King’s palace at Wanidza, where the funeral offerings were accepted. There was no order given, but all the world made oblation. So the four took counsel — three at a time — and either they asked Forsyth Sahib to choose flowers, or themselves they went forth and bought flowers — I do not know; but, however it was arranged, the flowers were bought and made in the shape of a great drum-like circle weighing half a maund.

‘Forsyth Sahib had said, “Let the flowers be sent to Wanidza with the other flowers which all the world is sending.” But they said among themselves, “It is not fit that these flowers, which are the offerings of His Armies in Hind, should come to the Palace of the Presence by the hands of hirelings or messengers, or of any man not in His service.”

‘Hearing this, Forsyth Sahib, though he was much occupied with office-work, said, “Give me the flowers, and I will steal a time and myself take them to Wanidza.”

‘The eldest said, “Since when has Forsyth Sahib worn sword?”

‘Forsyth Sahib said, “But always. And I wear it in the Presence when I put on uniform. I am a Colonel in the Armies of Hind.” The eldest said, “Of what regiment?” And Forsyth Sahib looked on the carpet and pulled the hair of his lip. He saw the trap.’

‘Forsyth Sahib’s regiment was once the old Forty-sixth Pathans which was called —’ the Subadar–Major gave the almost forgotten title, adding that he had met them in such and such campaigns, when Forsyth Sahib was a young captain.

The Havildar–Major took up the tale, saying, ‘The eldest knew that also, my father. He laughed, and presently Forsyth Sahib laughed.

‘“It is true,” said Forsyth Sahib. “I have no regiment. For twenty years I have been a clerk tied to a thick pen. Therefore I am the more fit to be your orderly and messenger in this business.”

‘The eldest then said, “If it were a matter of my life or the honour of any of my household, it would be easy.” And Forsyth Sahib joined his hands together, half laughing, though he was ready to weep, and he said, “Enough! I ask pardon. Which one of you goes with the offering?”

‘The eldest said, feigning not to have heard, “Nor must they be delivered by a single sword — as though we were pressed for men in His service,” and they saluted and went out.’

‘Were these things seen, or were they told thee?’ said the Subadar–Major.

‘I both saw and heard in the office full of books and papers where my Colonel Sahib consulted Forsyth Sahib upon the business that had brought my Colonel Sahib to England.’

‘And what was that business?’ the Regimental Chaplain asked of a sudden, looking full at the Havildar–Major, who returned the look without a quiver.

‘That was not revealed to me,’ said the Havildar–Major.

‘I heard it might have been some matter touching the integrity of certain regiments,’ the Chaplain insisted.

‘The matter was not in any way open to my ears,’ said the Havildar–Major.

‘Humph!’ The Chaplain drew his hard road-worn feet under his robe. ‘Let us hear the tale that it is permitted thee to tell,’ he said, and the Havildar–Major went on:

‘So then the three, having returned to the Temple, called the fourth, who had only forty-five years, when he came off guard, and said, “We go to the Palace at Wanidza with the offerings. Remain thou in the Presence, and take all our guards, one after the other, till we return.”

‘Within that next hour they hired a large and strong mota-kahar for the journey from the Temple to Wanidza, which is twenty koss or more, and they promised expedition. But he who took their guards said, “It is not seemly that we should for any cause appear to be in haste. There are eighteen medals with eleven clasps and three Orders to consider. Go at leisure. I can endure.”

‘So the three with the offerings were absent three hours and a half, and having delivered the offering at Wanidza in the correct manner they returned and found the lad on guard, and they did not break his guard till his full hour was ended. So he endured four hours in the Presence, not stirring one hair, his eyes abased, and the river of feet, from the knee down, passing continually before his eyes. When he was relieved, it was seen that his eyeballs worked like weavers’ shuttles.

‘And so it was done — not in hot blood, not for a little while, nor yet with the smell of slaughter and the noise of shouting to sustain, but in silence, for a very long time, rooted to one place before the Presence among the most terrible feet of the multitude.’

‘Correct!’ the Chaplain chuckled.

‘But the Goorkhas had the honour,’ said the Subadar–Major sadly.

‘Theirs was the Honour of His Armies in Hind, and that was Our Honour,’ the nephew replied.

‘Yet I would one Sikh had been concerned in it — even one low-caste Sikh. And after?’

‘They endured the burden until the end — until It went out of the Temple to be laid among the older kings at Wanidza. When all was accomplished and It was withdrawn under the earth, Forsyth Sahib said to the four, “The King gives command that you be fed here on meat cooked by your own cooks. Eat and take ease, my fathers.”

‘So they loosed their belts and ate. They had not eaten food except by snatches for some long time; and when the meat had given them strength they slept for very many hours; and it was told me that the procession of the unendurable feet ceased to pass before their eyes any more.’

He threw out one hand palm upward to show that the tale was ended.

‘We came well and cleanly out of it,’ said the Subadar–Major.

‘Correct! Correct! Correct!’ said the Regimental Chaplain. ‘In an evil age it is good to hear such things, and there is certainly no doubt that this is a very evil age.’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38