Life's Handicap, by Rudyard Kipling

Namgay Doola

 There came to the beach a poor exile of Erin,
 The dew on his wet robe hung heavy and chill;
 Ere the steamer that brought him had passed out of hearin’,
 He was Alderman Mike inthrojuicin’ a bill!
 AMERICAN SONG.

Once upon a time there was a King who lived on the road to Thibet, very many miles in the Himalayas. His Kingdom was eleven thousand feet above the sea and exactly four miles square; but most of the miles stood on end owing to the nature of the country. His revenues were rather less than four hundred pounds yearly, and they were expended in the maintenance of one elephant and a standing army of five men. He was tributary to the Indian Government, who allowed him certain sums for keeping a section of the Himalaya–Thibet road in repair. He further increased his revenues by selling timber to the railway-companies; for he would cut the great deodar trees in his one forest, and they fell thundering into the Sutlej river and were swept down to the plains three hundred miles away and became railway-ties. Now and again this King, whose name does not matter, would mount a ringstraked horse and ride scores of miles to Simla-town to confer with the Lieutenant–Governor on matters of state, or to assure the Viceroy that his sword was at the service of the Queen–Empress. Then the Viceroy would cause a ruffle of drums to be sounded, and the ringstraked horse and the cavalry of the State —— two men in tatters — and the herald who bore the silver stick before the King would trot back to their own place, which lay between the tail of a heaven-climbing glacier and a dark birch-forest.

Now, from such a King, always remembering that he possessed one veritable elephant, and could count his descent for twelve hundred years, I expected, when it was my fate to wander through his dominions, no more than mere license to live.

The night had closed in rain, and rolling clouds blotted out the lights of the villages in the valley. Forty miles away, untouched by cloud or storm, the white shoulder of Donga Pa — the Mountain of the Council of the Gods — upheld the Evening Star. The monkeys sang sorrowfully to each other as they hunted for dry roosts in the fern-wreathed trees, and the last puff of the day-wind brought from the unseen villages the scent of damp wood-smoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine-cones. That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die. The clouds closed and the smell went away, and there remained nothing in all the world except chilling white mist and the boom of the Sutlej river racing through the valley below. A fat-tailed sheep, who did not want to die, bleated piteously at my tent door. He was scuffling with the Prime Minister and the Director–General of Public Education, and he was a royal gift to me and my camp servants. I expressed my thanks suitably, and asked if I might have audience of the King. The Prime Minister readjusted his turban, which had fallen off in the struggle, and assured me that the King would be very pleased to see me. Therefore I despatched two bottles as a foretaste, and when the sheep had entered upon another incarnation went to the King’s Palace through the wet. He had sent his army to escort me, but the army stayed to talk with my cook. Soldiers are very much alike all the world over.

The Palace was a four-roomed and whitewashed mud and timber house, the finest in all the hills for a day’s journey. The King was dressed in a purple velvet jacket, white muslin trousers, and a saffron-yellow turban of price. He gave me audience in a little carpeted room opening off the palace courtyard which was occupied by the Elephant of State. The great beast was sheeted and anchored from trunk to tail, and the curve of his back stood out grandly against the mist.

The Prime Minister and the Director–General of Public Education were present to introduce me, but all the court had been dismissed, lest the two bottles aforesaid should corrupt their morals. The King cast a wreath of heavy-scented flowers round my neck as I bowed, and inquired how my honoured presence had the felicity to be. I said that through seeing his auspicious countenance the mists of the night had turned into sunshine, and that by reason of his beneficent sheep his good deeds would be remembered by the Gods. He said that since I had set my magnificent foot in his Kingdom the crops would probably yield seventy per cent more than the average. I said that the fame of the King had reached to the four corners of the earth, and that the nations gnashed their teeth when they heard daily of the glories of his realm and the wisdom of his moon-like Prime Minister and lotus-like Director–General of Public Education.

Then we sat down on clean white cushions, and I was at the King’s right hand. Three minutes later he was telling me that the state of the maize crop was something disgraceful, and that the railway-companies would not pay him enough for his timber. The talk shifted to and fro with the bottles, and we discussed very many stately things, and the King became confidential on the subject of Government generally. Most of all he dwelt on the shortcomings of one of his subjects, who, from all I could gather, had been paralyzing the executive.

‘In the old days,’ said the King, ‘I could have ordered the Elephant yonder to trample him to death. Now I must e’en send him seventy miles across the hills to be tried, and his keep would be upon the State. The Elephant eats everything.’

‘What be the man’s crimes, Rajah Sahib?’ said I.

‘Firstly, he is an outlander and no man of mine own people. Secondly, since of my favour I gave him land upon his first coming, he refuses to pay revenue. Am I not the lord of the earth, above and below, entitled by right and custom to one-eighth of the crop? Yet this devil, establishing himself, refuses to pay a single tax; and he brings a poisonous spawn of babes.’

‘Cast him into jail,’ I said.

‘Sahib,’ the King answered, shifting a little on the cushions, ‘once and only once in these forty years sickness came upon me so that I was not able to go abroad. In that hour I made a vow to my God that I would never again cut man or woman from the light of the sun and the air of God; for I perceived the nature of the punishment. How can I break my vow? Were it only the lopping of a hand or a foot I should not delay. But even that is impossible now that the English have rule. One or another of my people’— he looked obliquely at the Director–General of Public Education —‘would at once write a letter to the Viceroy, and perhaps I should be deprived of my ruffle of drums.’

He unscrewed the mouthpiece of his silver water-pipe, fitted a plain amber mouthpiece, and passed his pipe to me. ‘Not content with refusing revenue,’ he continued,‘this outlander refuses also the begar’ (this was the corvee or forced labour on the roads) ‘and stirs my people up to the like treason. Yet he is, when he wills, an expert log-snatcher. There is none better or bolder among my people to clear a block of the river when the logs stick fast.’

‘But he worships strange Gods,’ said the Prime Minister deferentially.

‘For that I have no concern,’ said the King, who was as tolerant as Akbar in matters of belief. ‘To each man his own God and the fire or Mother Earth for us all at last. It is the rebellion that offends me.’

‘The King has an army,’ I suggested. ‘Has not the King burned the man’s house and left him naked to the night dews?’

‘Nay, a hut is a hut, and it holds the life of a man. But once, I sent my army against him when his excuses became wearisome: of their heads he brake three across the top with a stick. The other two men ran away. Also the guns would not shoot.’

I had seen the equipment of the infantry. One-third of it was an old muzzle-loading fowling-piece, with a ragged rust-hole where the nipples should have been, one-third a wire-bound matchlock with a worm-eaten stock, and one-third a four-bore flint duck-gun without a flint.

‘But it is to be remembered,’ said the King, reaching out for the bottle, ‘that he is a very expert log-snatcher and a man of a merry face. What shall I do to him, Sahib?’

This was interesting. The timid hill-folk would as soon have refused taxes to their king as revenues to their Gods.

‘If it be the King’s permission,’ I said, ‘I will not strike my tents till the third day and I will see this man. The mercy of the King is God-like, and rebellion is like unto the sin of witchcraft. Moreover, both the bottles and another be empty.’

‘You have my leave to go,’ said the King.

Next morning a crier went through the state proclaiming that there was a log-jam on the river and that it behoved all loyal subjects to remove it. The people poured down from their villages to the moist warm valley of poppy-fields; and the King and I went with them. Hundreds of dressed deodar-logs had caught on a snag of rock, and the river was bringing down more logs every minute to complete the blockade. The water snarled and wrenched and worried at the timber, and the population of the state began prodding the nearest logs with a pole in the hope of starting a general movement. Then there went up a shout of ‘Namgay Doola! Namgay Doola!’ and a large red-haired villager hurried up, stripping off his clothes as he ran.

‘That is he. That is the rebel,’ said the King. ‘Now will the dam be cleared.’

‘But why has he red hair?’ I asked, since red hair among hill-folks is as common as blue or green.

‘He is an outlander,’ said the King. ‘Well done! Oh well done!’

Namgay Doola had scrambled out on the jam and was clawing out the butt of a log with a rude sort of boat-hook. It slid forward slowly as an alligator moves, three or four others followed it, and the green water spouted through the gaps they had made. Then the villagers howled and shouted and scrambled across the logs, pulling and pushing the obstinate timber, and the red head of Namgay Doola was chief among them all. The logs swayed and chafed and groaned as fresh consignments from upstream battered the now weakening dam. All gave way at last in a smother of foam, racing logs, bobbing black heads and confusion indescribable. The river tossed everything before it. I saw the red head go down with the last remnants of the jam and disappear between the great grinding tree-trunks. It rose close to the bank and blowing like a grampus. Namgay Doola wrung the water out of his eyes and made obeisance to the King. I had time to observe him closely. The virulent redness of his shock head and beard was most startling; and in the thicket of hair wrinkled above high cheek bones shone two very merry blue eyes. He was indeed an outlander, but yet a Thibetan in language, habit, and attire. He spoke the Lepcha dialect with an indescribable softening of the gutturals. It was not so much a lisp as an accent.

‘Whence comest thou?’ I asked.

‘From Thibet.’ He pointed across the hills and grinned. That grin went straight to my heart. Mechanically I held out my hand and Namgay Doola shook it. No pure Thibetan would have understood the meaning of the gesture. He went away to look for his clothes, and as he climbed back to his village, I heard a joyous yell that seemed unaccountably familiar. It was the whooping of Namgay Doola.

‘You see now,’ said the King, ‘why I would not kill him. He is a bold man among my logs, but,’ and he shook his head like a schoolmaster, ‘I know that before long there will be complaints of him in the court. Let us return to the Palace and do justice.’ It was that King’s custom to judge his subjects every day between eleven and three o’clock. I saw him decide equitably in weighty matters of trespass, slander, and a little wife-stealing. Then his brow clouded and he summoned me.

‘Again it is Namgay Doola,’ he said despairingly. ‘Not content with refusing revenue on his own part, he has bound half his village by an oath to the like treason. Never before has such a thing befallen me! Nor are my taxes heavy.’

A rabbit-faced villager, with a blush-rose stuck behind his ear, advanced trembling. He had been in the conspiracy, but had told everything and hoped for the King’s favour.

‘O King,’ said I, ‘if it be the King’s will let this matter stand over till the morning. Only the Gods can do right swiftly, and it may be that yonder villager has lied.’

‘Nay, for I know the nature of Namgay Doola; but since a guest asks let the matter remain. Wilt thou speak harshly to this red-headed outlander? He may listen to thee.’

I made an attempt that very evening, but for the life of me I could not keep my countenance. Namgay Doola grinned persuasively, and began to tell me about a big brown bear in a poppy-field by the river. Would I care to shoot it? I spoke austerely on the sin of conspiracy, and the certainty of punishment. Namgay Doola’s face clouded for a moment. Shortly afterwards he withdrew from my tent, and I heard him singing to himself softly among the pines. The words were unintelligible to me, but the tune, like his liquid insinuating speech, seemed the ghost of something strangely familiar.

‘Dir hane mard-i-yemen dir
 To weeree ala gee.’

sang Namgay Doola again and again, and I racked my brain for that lost tune. It was not till after dinner that I discovered some one had cut a square foot of velvet from the centre of my best camera-cloth. This made me so angry that I wandered down the valley in the hope of meeting the big brown bear. I could hear him grunting like a discontented pig in the poppy-field, and I waited shoulder deep in the dew-dripping Indian corn to catch him after his meal. The moon was at full and drew out the rich scent of the tasselled crop. Then I heard the anguished bellow of a Himalayan cow, one of the little black crummies no bigger than Newfoundland dogs. Two shadows that looked like a bear and her cub hurried past me. I was in act to fire when I saw that they had each a brilliant red head. The lesser animal was trailing some rope behind it that left a dark track on the path. They passed within six feet of me, and the shadow of the moonlight lay velvet-black on their faces. Velvet-black was exactly the word, for by all the powers of moonlight they were masked in the velvet of my camera-cloth! I marvelled and went to bed.

Next morning the Kingdom was in uproar. Namgay Doola, men said, had gone forth in the night and with a sharp knife had cut off the tail of a cow belonging to the rabbit-faced villager who had betrayed him. It was sacrilege unspeakable against the Holy Cow. The State desired his blood, but he had retreated into his hut, barricaded the doors and windows with big stones, and defied the world.

The King and I and the populace approached the hut cautiously. There was no hope of capturing the man without loss of life, for from a hole in the wall projected the muzzle of an extremely well-cared-for gun — the only gun in the State that could shoot. Namgay Doola had narrowly missed a villager just before we came up. The Standing Army stood. It could do no more, for when it advanced pieces of sharp shale flew from the windows. To these were added from time to time showers of scalding water. We saw red heads bobbing up and down in the hut. The family of Namgay Doola were aiding their sire, and blood-curdling yells of defiance were the only answers to our prayers.

‘Never,’ said the King, puffing, ‘has such a thing befallen my State. Next year I will certainly buy a little cannon.’ He looked at me imploringly.

‘Is there any priest in the Kingdom to whom he will listen?’ said I, for a light was beginning to break upon me.

‘He worships his own God,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘We can starve him out.’

‘Let the white man approach,’ said Namgay Doola from within. ‘All others I will kill. Send me the white man.’

The door was thrown open and I entered the smoky interior of a Thibetan hut crammed with children. And every child had flaming red hair. A raw cow’s-tail lay on the floor, and by its side two pieces of black velvet — my black velvet — rudely hacked into the semblance of masks.

‘And what is this shame, Namgay Doola?’ said I.

He grinned more winningly than ever. ‘There is no shame,’ said he. ‘I did but cut off the tail of that man’s cow. He betrayed me. I was minded to shoot him, Sahib. But not to death. Indeed not to death. Only in the legs.’

‘And why at all, since it is the custom to pay revenue to the King? Why at all?’

‘By the God of my father I cannot tell,’ said Namgay Doola.

‘And who was thy father?’

‘The same that had this gun.’ He showed me his weapon — a Tower musket bearing date 1832 and the stamp of the Honourable East India Company.

‘And thy father’s name?’ said I.

‘Timlay Doola,’ said he. ‘At the first, I being then a little child, it is in my mind that he wore a red coat.’

‘Of that I have no doubt. But repeat the name of thy father thrice or four times.’

He obeyed, and I understood whence the puzzling accent in his speech came. ‘Thimla Dhula,’ said he excitedly. ‘To this hour I worship his God.’

‘May I see that God?’

‘In a little while — at twilight time.’

‘Rememberest thou aught of thy father’s speech?’

‘It is long ago. But there is one word which he said often. Thus “Shun.” Then I and my brethren stood upon our feet, our hands to our sides. Thus.’

‘Even so. And what was thy mother?’

‘A woman of the hills. We be Lepchas of Darjeeling, but me they call an outlander because my hair is as thou seest.’

The Thibetan woman, his wife, touched him on the arm gently. The long parley outside the fort had lasted far into the day. It was now close upon twilight — the hour of the Angelus. Very solemnly, the red-headed brats rose from the floor and formed a semicircle. Namgay Doola laid his gun against the wall, lighted a little oil lamp, and set it before a recess in the wall. Pulling aside a curtain of dirty cloth, he revealed a worn brass crucifix leaning against the helmet-badge of a long forgotten East India regiment. ‘Thus did my father,’ he said, crossing himself clumsily. The wife and children followed suit. Then all together they struck up the wailing chant that I heard on the hillside —

Dir bane mard-i-yemen dir To weeree ala gee.

I was puzzled no longer. Again and again they crooned, as if their hearts would break, their version of the chorus of the Wearing of the Green —

They’re hanging men and women too, For the wearing of the green.

A diabolical inspiration came to me. One of the brats, a boy about eight years old, was watching me as he sang. I pulled out a rupee, held the coin between finger and thumb and looked — only looked — at the gun against the wall. A grin of brilliant and perfect comprehension overspread the face of the child. Never for an instant stopping the song, he held out his hand for the money, and then slid the gun to my hand. I might have shot Namgay Doola as he chanted. But I was satisfied. The blood-instinct of the race held true. Namgay Doola drew the curtain across the recess. Angelus was over.

‘Thus my father sang. There was much more, but I have forgotten, and I do not know the purport of these words, but it may be that the God will understand. I am not of this people, and I will not pay revenue.’

‘And why?’

Again that soul-compelling grin. ‘What occupation would be to me between crop and crop? It is better than scaring bears. But these people do not understand.’ He picked the masks from the floor, and looked in my face as simply as a child.

‘By what road didst thou attain knowledge to make these devilries?’ I said, pointing.

‘I cannot tell. I am but a Lepcha of Darjeeling, and yet the stuff —’

‘Which thou hast stolen.’

‘Nay, surely. Did I steal? I desired it so. The stuff — the stuff — what else should I have done with the stuff?’ He twisted the velvet between his fingers.

‘But the sin of maiming the cow — consider that.’

‘That is true; but oh, Sahib, that man betrayed me and I had no thought — but the heifer’s tail waved in the moonlight and I had my knife. What else should I have done? The tail came off ere I was aware. Sahib, thou knowest more than I.’

‘That is true,’ said I. ‘Stay within the door. I go to speak to the King.’

The population of the State were ranged on the hillsides. I went forth and spoke to the King.

‘O King,’ said I. ‘Touching this man there be two courses open to thy wisdom. Thou canst either hang him from a tree, he and his brood, till there remains no hair that is red within the land.’

‘Nay’ said the King. ‘Why should I hurt the little children?’

They had poured out of the hut door and were making plump obeisance to everybody. Namgay Doola waited with his gun across his arm.

‘Or thou canst, discarding the impiety of the cow-maiming, raise him to honour in thy Army. He comes of a race that will not pay revenue. A red flame is in his blood which comes out at the top of his head in that glowing hair. Make him chief of the Army. Give him honour as may befall, and full allowance of work, but look to it, O King, that neither he nor his hold a foot of earth from thee henceforward. Feed him with words and favour, and also liquor from certain bottles that thou knowest of, and he will be a bulwark of defence. But deny him even a tuft of grass for his own. This is the nature that God has given him. Moreover he has brethren —’

The State groaned unanimously.

‘But if his brethren come, they will surely fight with each other till they die; or else the one will always give information concerning the other. Shall he be of thy Army, O King? Choose.’

The King bowed his head, and I said, ‘Come forth, Namgay Doola, and command the King’s Army. Thy name shall no more be Namgay in the mouths of men, but Patsay Doola, for as thou hast said, I know.’

Then Namgay Doola, new christened Patsay Doola, son of Timlay Doola, which is Tim Doolan gone very wrong indeed, clasped the King’s feet, cuffed the Standing Army, and hurried in an agony of contrition from temple to temple, making offerings for the sin of cattle-maiming.

And the King was so pleased with my perspicacity, that he offered to sell me a village for twenty pounds sterling. But I buy no villages in the Himalayas so long as one red head flares between the tail of the heaven-climbing glacier and the dark birch-forest.

I know that breed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/lifes/chapter25.html

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