Letters of Marque, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 14

Among the Houyhnhnms

JODHPUR differs from the other States of Rajputana in that its Royalty is peculiarly accessible to an inquiring public. There are wanderers, the desire of whose life it is ‘to see Nabobs,’ which is the Globe-trotter’s title for any one in unusually clean clothes, or an Oudh Taluqdar in gala dress. Men asked in Jodhpur whether the Englishman would like to see His Highness. The Englishman had a great desire to do so, if His Highness would be in no way inconvenienced. Then they scoffed: ‘Oh, he won’t durbar you, you needn’t flatter yourself. If he’s in the humour he’ll receive you like an English country-gentleman.’ How in the world could the owner of such a place as Jodhpur Palace be in any way like an English country-gentleman? The Englishman had not long to wait in doubt. His Highness intimated his readiness to see the Englishman between eight and nine in the morning at the Raika-Bagh. The Raika-Bagh is not a Palace, for the lower story and all the detached buildings round it are filled with horses. Nor can it in any way be called a stable, because the upper story contains sumptuous apartments full of all manner of valuables both of the East and the West. Nor is it in any sense a pleasure-garden, for it stands on soft white sand, close to a multitude of litter and sand training tracks, and is devoid of trees for the most part. Therefore the Raika-Bagh is simply the Raika-Bagh and nothing else. It is now the chosen residence of the Maharaja, who loves to live among his four hundred or more horses. All Jodhpur is horse-mad by the way, and it behoves any one who wishes to be any one to keep his own race-course. The Englishman went to the Raika-Bagh, which stands half a mile or so from the city, and passing through a long room filled with saddles by the dozen, bridles by the score, and bits by the hundred, was aware of a very small and lively little cherub on the roof of a garden-house. He was carefully muffled, for the morning was chill. ‘Good morning,’ he cried cheerfully in English, waving a mittened hand. ‘Are you going to see my faver and the horses?’ It was the Maharaja Kanwar, the Crown Prince, the apple of the Maharaja’s eye, and one of the quaintest little bodies that ever set an Englishman disrespectfully laughing. He studies English daily with one of the English officials of the State, and stands a very good chance of being thoroughly spoiled, for he is a general pet. As befits his dignity, he has his own carriage or carriages, his own twelve-hand stable, his own house and retinue.

A few steps further on, in a little enclosure in front of a small two-storied white bungalow, sat His Highness the Maharaja, deep in discussion with the State Engineer. He wore an English ulster, and within ten paces of him was the first of a long range of stalls. There was an informality of procedure about Jodhpur which, after the strained etiquette of other States, was very refreshing. The State Engineer, who has a growing line to attend to, cantered away, and His Highness, after a few introductory words, knowing what the Englishman would be after, said: ‘Come along, and look at the horses.’ Other formality there was absolutely none. Even the indispensable knot of hangers-on stood at a distance, and behind a paling, in this most rustic country residence. A well-bred fox-terrier took command of the proceedings, after the manner of dogs the world over, and the Maharaja led to the horse-boxes. But a man turned up, bending under the weight of much bacon. ‘Oh! here’s the pig I shot for Udaipur last night. You see that is the best piece. It’s pickled, and that’s what makes it yellow to look at.’ He patted the great side that was held up. ‘There will be a camel sowar to meet it half way to Udaipur; and I hope Udaipur will be pleased with it. It was a very big pig.’ ‘And where did you shoot it, Maharaja Sahib?’ ‘Here,’ said His Highness, smiting himself high up under the armpit. ‘Where else would you have it?’ Certainly this descendant of Raja Maun was more like an English country-gentleman than the Englishman in his ignorance had deemed possible. He led on from horse-box to horse-box, the terrier at his heels, pointing out each horse of rote; and Jodhpur has many. ‘There’s Raja, twice winner of the Civil Service Cup.’ The Englishman looked reverently and Raja rewarded his curiosity with a vicious snap, for he was being dressed over, and his temper was out of joint. Close to him stood Autocrat, the grey with the nutmeg marks on the off-shoulder, a picture of a horse, also disturbed in his mind. Next to him was a chestnut Arab, a hopeless cripple, for one of his knees had been smashed and the leg was doubled up under him. It was Turquoise, who, six or eight years ago, rewarded good feeding by getting away from his groom, falling down and ruining himself, but who, none the less, has lived an honoured pensioner on the Maharaja’s bounty ever since. No horses are shot in the Jodhpur stables, and when one dies — they have lost not more than twenty-five in six years — his funeral is an event. He is wrapped in a white sheet which is strewn with flowers, and, amid the weeping of the saises, is borne away to the burial ground.

After doing the honours for nearly half an hour the Maharaja departed, and as the Englishman has not seen more than forty horses, he felt justified in demanding more. And he got them. Eclipse and Young Revenge were out down-country, but Sherwood at the stud, Shere Ali, Conqueror, Tynedale, Sherwood II, a maiden of Abdul Rahman’s, and many others of note, were in, and were brought out. Among the veterans, a wrathful, rampant, red horse still, came Brian Boru, whose name has been written large in the chronicles of the Indian turf, jerking his sais across the road. His near-fore is altogether gone, but as a pensioner he condescends to go in harness, and is then said to be a ‘handful.’ He certainly looks it.

At the two hundred and fifty-seventh horse, and perhaps the twentieth block of stables, the Englishman’s brain began to reel, and he demanded rest and information on a certain point. He had gone into some fifty stalls, and looked into all the rest, and in the looking had searchingly sniffed. But, as truly as he was then standing far below Brian Boru’s bony withers, never the ghost of a stench had polluted the keen morning air. The City of the Houyhnhnms was specklessly clean — cleaner than any stable, racing or private, that he had been into. How was it done? The pure white sand accounted for a good deal, and the rest was explained by one of the Masters of Horse: ‘Each horse has one sais at least — old Ringwood has four — and we make ’em work. If we didn’t, we’d be mucked up to the horses’ bellies in no time. Everything is cleaned off at once; and whenever the sand’s tainted it’s renewed. There’s quite enough sand you see hereabouts. Of course we can’t keep their coats so good as in other stables, by reason of the rolling; but we can keep ’em pretty clean.’

To the eye of one who knew less than nothing about horse-flesh, this immaculate purity was very striking, and quite as impressive was the condition of the horses, which was English — quite English. Naturally, none of them were in any sort of training beyond daily exercise, but they were fit and in such thoroughly good fettle. Many of them were out on the various tracks, and many were coming in. Roughly, two hundred go out of a morning, and, it is to be feared, learn from the heavy going of the Jodhpur courses how to hang in their stride. This is a matter for those who know, but it struck the Englishman that a good deal of the unsatisfactory performances of the Jodhpur stables might be accounted for by their having lost their clean stride on the sand, and having to pick it up gradually on the less holding down-country courses — unfortunately when they were not doing training gallops, but the real thing.

It was pleasant to sit down and watch the rush of the horses through the great opening — gates are not affected — giving on to the countryside where they take the air. Here a boisterous, unschooled Arab shot out across the road and cried, ‘Ha! ha!’ in the scriptural manner, before trying to rid himself of the grinning black imp on his back. Behind him a Cabull — surely all Cabulis must have been born with Pelhams in their mouths — bored sulkily across the road, or threw himself across the path of a tall, mild-eyed Kurnal-bred youngster, whose cocked ears and swinging head showed that, though he was so sedate, he was thoroughly taking in his surroundings, and would very much like to know if there were anybody better than himself on the course that morning. Impetuous as a schoolboy and irresponsible as a monkey, one of the Prince’s polo-ponies, not above racing in his own set, would answer the question by rioting past the pupil of Parrott, the monogram on his bodycloth flapping free in the wind, and his head and hogged tail in the elements. The youngster would swing himself round, and polka-mazurka for a few paces, till his attention would be caught by some dainty Child of the Desert, fresh from the Bombay stables, sweating at every sound, backing and filling like a rudderless ship. Then, thanking his stars that he was wiser than some people, Number 177 would lob on to the track and settle down to his spin like the gentleman he was. Elsewhere, the eye fell upon a cloud of nameless ones, purchases from Abdul Rahman, whose worth will be proved next hot weather, when they are seriously taken in hand — skirmishing over the face of the land and enjoying themselves immensely. High above everything else, like a collier among barges, screaming shrilly, a black, flamboyant Marwari stallion, with a crest like the crest of a barb, barrel-bellied, goose-rumped, and river-maned, pranced through the press, while the slow-pacing Waler carriage-horses eyed him with deep disfavour, and the Maharaja Kanwar’s tiny mount capered under his pink Roman nose, kicking up as much dust as the Foxhall colt who had got on to a lovely patch of sand and was dancing a saraband in it. In and out of the tangle, going down to or coming back from the courses, ran, shuffled, rocketed, plunged, sulked, or stampeded countless horses of all kinds, shapes, and descriptions — so that the eye at last failed to see what they were, and only retained a general impression of a whirl of bays, greys, iron greys, and chestnuts with white stockings, some as good as could be desired, others average, but not one distinctly bad.

‘We have no downright bad ’uns in this stable. What’s the use?’ said the Master of Horse, calmly. ‘They are all good beasts and, one with another, must cost more than a thousand rupees each. This year’s new ones bought from Bombay and the pick of our own studs are a hundred strong about. May be more. Yes; they look all right enough; but you can never know what they are going to turn out Live-stock is very uncertain.’ ‘And how are the stables managed? How do you make room for the fresh stock?’ ‘Something this way. Here are all the new ones and Parrott’s lot, and the English colts that Maharaja Pertab Singh brought out with him from Home. Winterlake out o’ Queen’s Consort that chestnut is with the two white stockings you’re looking at now. Well, next hot weather we shall see what they’re made of and which is who. There’s so many that the trainer hardly knows ’em one from another till they begin to be a good deal forward. Those that haven’t got the pace, or that the Maharaja don’t fancy, they’re taken out and sold for what they’ll bring. The man who takes the horses out has a good job of it. He comes back and says: “I sold such and such for so much, and here’s the money.” That’s all. Well, our rejections are worth having. They have taken prizes at the Poona Horse Show. See for yourself. Is there one of those that you wouldn’t be glad to take for a hack, and look well after too? Only they’re no use to us, and so out they go by the score. We’ve got sixty riding-boys, perhaps more, and they’ve got their work cut out to keep them all going. What you’ve seen are only the stables. We’ve got one stud at Bollard, eighty miles out, and they come in sometimes in droves of three and four hundred from the stud. They raise Marwaris there too, but that’s entirely under native management. We’ve got nothing to do with that. The natives reckon a Marwari the best country-bred you can lay hands on; and some of them are beauties! Crests on ’em like the top of a wave. Well, there’s that stud and another stud and, reckoning one with another, I should say the Maharaja has nearer twelve hundred than a thousand horses of his own. For this place here, two wagonloads of grass come in every day from Marwar Junction. Lord knows how many saddles and bridles we’ve got. I never counted. I suppose we’ve about forty carriages, not counting the ones that get shabby and are stacked in places in the city, as I suppose you’ve seen. We take ’em out in the morning, a regular string altogether, brakes and all; but the prettiest turn-out we ever turned out was Lady Dufferin’s pony four-in-hand. Walers — thirteen-two the wheelers, I think, and thirteen-one the leaders. They took prizes in Poona. That was a pretty turn-out! The prettiest in India. Lady Dufferin, she drove it when the Viceroy was down here last year. There are bicycles and tricycles in the carriage department too. I don’t know how many, but when the Viceroy’s camp was held, there was about one apiece for the gentlemen, with remounts. They’re somewhere about the place now, if you want to see them. How do we manage to keep the horses so quiet? You’ll find some o’ the youngsters play the goat a good deal when they come out o’ stable, but, as you say, there’s no vice generally. It’s this way. We don’t allow any curry-combs. If we did, the saises would be wearing out their brushes on the combs. It’s all elbow-grease here. They’ve got to go over the horses with their hands. They must handle ’em, and a native he’s afraid of a horse. Now an English groom, when a horse is doing the fool, clips him over the head with a curry-comb, or punches him in the belly; and that hurts the horse’s feelings. A native, he just stands back till the trouble is over. He must handle the horse or he’d get into trouble for not dressing him, so it comes to all handling and no licking, and that’s why you won’t get hold of a really vicious brute in these stables. Old Ringwood he had four saises, and he wanted ’em every one, but the other horses have no more than one sais apiece. The Maharaja he keeps fourteen or fifteen horses for his own riding. Not that he cares to ride now, but he likes to have his horses; and no one else can touch ’em. Then there’s the horses that he mounts his visitors on, when they come for pig-sticking and such like, and then there’s a lot of horses that go to Maharaja Pertab Singh’s new cavalry regiment. So you see a horse can go through all three degrees sometimes before he gets sold, and be a good horse at the end of it. And I think that’s about all!’

A cloud of youngsters, sweating freely and ready for any mischief, shot past on their way to breakfast, and the conversation ended in a cloud of sand and the drumming of hurrying hooves.

In the Raika-Bagh are more racing cups than this memory holds the names of. Chiefest of all was the Delhi Assemblage Cup — the Imperial Vase, of solid gold, won by Crown Prince. The other pieces of plate were not so imposing. But of all the Crown jewels, the most valuable appeared at the end of the inspection. It was the small Maharaja Kanwar lolling in state in a huge barouche — his toes were at least two feet off the floor — that was taking him from his morning drive. ‘Have you seen my horses?’ said the Maharaja Kanwar. The four twelve-hand ponies had been duly looked over, and the future ruler of Jodhpur departed satisfied.

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