Letters of Marque, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 17

Shows that there may be Poetry in a Bank, and attempts to show the Wonders of the Palace of Boondi

THIS is a devil’s place you have come to, Sahib. No grass for the horses, and the people don’t understand anything, and their dirty pice are no good in Nasirabad. Look here.’ Ram Baksh wrathfully exhibited a handful of lumps of copper. The nuisance of taking a native out of his own beat is that he forthwith regards you not only as the author of his being, but of all his misfortunes as well. He is as hampering as a frightened child and as irritating as a man. ‘Padre Martum Sahib never came here,’ said Ram Baksh, with an air of one who had been led against his will into bad company.

A story about a rat that found a piece of turmeric and set up a bunnia’s shop had sent the one-eyed munshi away, but a company of lesser munshis, runners, and the like were in attendance, and they said that money might be changed at the Treasury, which was in the Palace. It was quite impossible to change it anywhere else — there was no order. From the Sukh Mahal to the Palace the road ran through the heart of the city, and by reason of the continual shouting of the munshis, not more than ten thousand of the fifty thousand people of Boondi knew for what purpose the Sahib was journeying through their midst. Cataract was the most prevalent affliction, cataract in its worst forms, and it was, therefore, necessary that men should come very close to look at the stranger. They were in no sense rude, but they stared devoutly. ‘He has not come for shikar, and he will not take petitions. He has come to see the place, and God knows what he is.’ The description was quite correct, as far as it went; but, somehow or another, when shouted out at four crossways in the midst of a very pleasant little gathering it did not seem to add to dignity or command respect.

It has been written ‘the coup d’œil of the castellated Palace of Boondi, from whichever side you approach it, is perhaps the most striking in India. Whoever has seen the Palace of Boondi can easily picture to himself the hanging gardens of Semiramis.’ This is true — and more too. To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. Owing to the dip of the valley in which the city stands, it can only be well seen from one place, the main road of the city; and from that point looks like an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and block the gorge. Like all the other Palaces of Rajputana, it is the work of many hands, and the present Raja has thrown out a bastion of no small size on one of the lower levels, which has been four or five years in the building. No one knows where the hill begins and where the Palace ends. Men say that there are subterranean chambers leading into the heart of the hills, and passages communicating with the extreme limits of Taragarh, the giant fortress that crowns the hill and flanks the whole of the valley on the Palace side. They say that there is as much room under as above ground, and that none have traversed the whole extent of the Palace. Looking at it from below, the Englishman could readily believe that nothing was impossible for those who had built it. The dominant impression was of height — height that heaved itself out of the hillside and weighed upon the eyelids of the beholder. The steep slope of the land had helped the builders in securing this effect. From the main road of the city a steep stone-paved ascent led to the first gate — name not communicated by the zealous following. Two gaudily painted fishes faced each other over the arch, and there was little except glaring colour ornamentation visible. This gate gave into what they called the chowk of the Palace, and one had need to look twice ere realising that this open space, crammed with human life, was a spur of the hill on which the Palace stood, paved and built over. There had been little attempt at levelling the ground. The foot-worn stones followed the contours of the ground, and ran up to the walls of the Palace smooth as glass. Immediately facing the Gate of the Fish was the Quarter-Guard barracks, a dark and dirty room, and here, in a chamber hollowed out in a wall, were stored the big drums of State, the nakarras. The appearance of the Englishman seemed to be the signal for smiting the biggest of all, and the dull thunder rolled up the Palace chowk, and came back from the unpierced Palace walls in hollow groaning. It was an eerie welcome — this single, sullen boom. In this enclosure, four hundred years ago, if the legend be true, a son of the great Rao Bando, who dreamed a dream as Pharaoh did and saved Boondi from famine, left a little band of Haras to wait his bidding while he went up into the Palace and slew his two uncles who had usurped the throne and abandoned the faith of their fathers. When he had pierced one and hacked the other, as they sat alone and unattended, he called out to his followers, who made a slaughter-house of the enclosure and cut up the usurpers’ adherents. At the best of times men slip on these smooth stones; and when the place was swimming in blood, foothold must have been treacherous indeed.

An inquiry for the place of the murder of the uncles — it is marked by a staircase slab, or Tod, the accurate, is at fault — was met by the answer that the Treasury was close at hand. They speak a pagan tongue in Boondi, swallow half their words, and adulterate the remainder with local patois. What can be extracted from a people who call four miles variously do kosh, do kush, dhi khas, doo-a koth, and diakast — all one word? The country-folk are quite unintelligible, which simplifies matters. It is the catching of a shadow of a meaning here and there, the hunting for directions cloaked in dialect, that is annoying. Foregoing his archæological researches, the Englishman sought the Treasury. He took careful notes; he even made a very bad drawing, but the Treasury of Boondi defied pinning down before the public. There was a gash in the brown flank of the Palace — and this gash was filled with people. A broken bees’ comb with the whole hive busily at work on repairs will give a very fair idea of this extraordinary place — the Heart of Boondi. The sunlight was very vivid without and the shadows were heavy within, so that little could be seen except this clinging mass of humanity wriggling like maggots in a carcass. A stone staircase ran up to a rough verandah built out of the wall, and in the wall was a cave-like room, the guardian of whose depths was one of the refined financial classes, a man with very small hands and soft, low voice. He was girt with a sword, and held authority over the Durbar funds. He referred the Englishman courteously to another branch of the department, to find which necessitated a blundering progress up another narrow staircase crowded with loungers of all kinds. Here everything shone from constant contact of bare feet and hurrying bare shoulders. The staircase was the thing that, seen from without, had produced the bees’ comb impression. At the top was a long verandah shaded from the sun and here the Boondi Treasury worked, under the guidance of a grey-haired old man, whose sword lay by the side of his comfortably wadded cushion. He controlled twenty or thirty writers, each wrapped round a huge, country paper accountbook, and each far too busy to raise his eyes.

The babble on the staircase might have been the noise of the sea so far as these men were concerned. It ebbed and flowed in regular beats, and spread out far into the courtyard below. Now and again the click-click-click of a scabbard tip being dragged against the wall cut the dead sound of tramping naked feet, and a soldier would stumble up the narrow way into the sunlight. He was received, and sent back or forward by a knot of keen-eyed loungers, who seemed to act as a buffer between the peace of the Secretariat and the pandemonium of the Administrative. Saises and grasscutters, mahouts of elephants, brokers, mahajuns, villagers from the district, and here and there a shock-headed aborigine, swelled the mob on and at the foot of the stairs. As they came up, they met the buffer-men who spoke in low voices and appeared to filter them according to their merits. Some were sent to the far end of the verandah, where everything melted away in a fresh crowd of dark faces. Others were sent back, and joined the detachment shuffling for their shoes in the chowk. One servant of the Palace withdrew himself to the open, underneath the verandah, and there sat yapping from time to time like a hungry dog: ‘The grass! The grass! The grass!’ But the men with the account-books never stirred. And they bowed their heads gravely and made entry or erasure, turning back the rustling leaves. Not often does a reach of the River of Life so present itself that it can without alteration be transferred to canvas. But the Treasury of Boondi, the view up the long verandah, stood complete and ready for any artist who cared to make it his own. And by that lighter and less malicious irony of Fate, who is always giving nuts to those who have no teeth, the picture was clinched and brought together by a winking, brass hookah-bowl of quaint design, pitched carelessly upon a roll of dull red cloth in the foreground. The faces of the accountants were of pale gold, for they were an untanned breed, and the face of the old man, their controller, was frosted silver.

It was a strange Treasury, but no other could have suited the Palace. The Englishman watched, open-mouthed, blaming himself because he could not catch the meaning of the orders given to the flying chaprassies, nor make anything of the hum in the verandah and the tumult on the stairs. The old man took the commonplace currency note and announced his willingness to give change in silver. ‘We have no small notes here,’ he said. ‘They are not wanted. In a little while, when you next bring the Honour of your Presence this way, you shall find the silver.’

The Englishman was taken down the steps and fell into the arms of a bristly giant who had left his horse in the courtyard, and the giant spoke at length waving his arms in the air, but the Englishman could not understand him and dropped into the hubbub at the Palace foot. Except the main lines of the building there is nothing straight or angular about it. The rush of people seems to have rounded and softened every corner, as a river grinds down boulders. From the lowest tier, two zigzags, all of rounded stones sunk in mortar, took the Englishman to a gate where two carved elephants were thrusting at each other over the arch; and, because neither he nor any one round him could give the gate a name, he called it the ‘Gate of the Elephants.’ Here the noise from the Treasury was softened, and entry through the gate brought him into a well-known world, the drowsy peace of a King’s Palace. There was a courtyard surrounded by stables, in which were kept chosen horses, and two or three grooms were sleeping in the sun. There was no other life except the whir and coo of the pigeons. In time — though there really is no such a thing as time off the line of railway — an official appeared begirt with the skewer-like keys that open the native bayonet-locks, each from six inches to a foot long. Where was the Raj Mahal in which, sixty-six years ago, Tod formally installed Ram Singh, ‘who is now in his eleventh year, fair and with a lively, intelligent cast of face’? The warden made no answer, but led to a room, overlooking the courtyard, in which two armed men stood before an empty throne of white marble. They motioned silently that none must pass immediately before the seat of the King, but go round, keeping to the far side of the double row of pillars. Near the walls were stone slabs pierced to take the butts of long, venomous, black bamboo lances; rude coffers were disposed about the room, and ruder sketches of Ganesh adorned the walls. ‘The men,’ said the warden, ‘watch here day and night because this place is the Rutton Daulat.’ That, you will concede, is lucid enough. He who does not understand it, may go to for a thick-headed barbarian.

From the Rutton Daulat the warden unlocked doors that led into a hall of audience — the Chutter Mahal — built by Raja Chutter Lal, who was killed more than two hundred years ago in the latter days of Shah Jehan for whom he fought. Two rooms, each supported on double rows of pillars, flank the open space, in the centre of which is a marble reservoir. Here the Englishman looked anxiously for some of the atrocities of the West, and was pleased to find that, with the exception of a vase of artificial flowers and a clock, there was nothing that jarred with the exquisite pillars, and the raw blaze of colour in the roofs of the rooms. In the middle of these impertinent observations, something sighed — sighed like a distressed ghost. Unaccountable voices are at all times unpleasant, especially when the hearer is some hundred feet or so above ground in an unknown Palace in an unknown land. A gust of wind had found its way through one of the latticed balconies, and had breathed upon a thin plate of metal, some astrological instrument, slung gongwise on a tripod. The tone was as soft as that of an Æolian harp, and, because of the surroundings, infinitely more plaintive.

There was an inlaid ivory door, set in lintel and posts crusted with looking-glass — all apparently old work. This opened into a darkened room where there were gilt and silver charpoys, and portraits, in the native fashion, of the illustrious dead of Boondi. Beyond the darkness was a balcony clinging to the sheer side of the Palace, and it was then that the Englishman realised to what a height he had climbed without knowing it. He looked down upon the bustle of the Treasury and the stream of life flowing into and out of the Gate of the Fishes where the big drums lie. Lifting his eyes, he saw how Boondi City had built itself, spreading from west to east as the confined valley became too narrow and the years more peaceable. The Boondi hills are the barrier that separates the stony, uneven ground near Deoli from the flats of Kotah, twenty miles away. From the Palace balcony the road to the eye is clear to the banks of the Chumbul River, which was the Debatable Ford in times gone by and was leaped, as all rivers with any pretensions to a pedigree have been, by more than one magic horse. Northward and easterly the hills run out to Indurgarh, and southward and westerly to territory marked ‘disputed’ on the map in the present year of grace. From this balcony the Raja can see to the limit of his territory eastward, his empire all under his hand. He is, or the Politicals err, that same Ram Singh who was installed by Tod in 1821, and for whose success in killing his first deer, Tod was, by the Queen-Mother of Boondi, bidden to rejoice. Today the people of Boondi say: “This Durbar is very old; so old that few men remember its beginning, for that was in our fathers’ time.” It is related also of Boondi that, on the occasion of the Queen’s Jubilee, they said proudly that their ruler had reigned for sixty years, and he was a man. They saw nothing astonishing in the fact of a woman having reigned for fifty. History does not say whether they jubilated; for there are no Englishmen in Boondi to write accounts of demonstrations and foundation-stone-laying to the daily newspaper, and Boondi is very, very small. In the early morning you may see a man pantingly chased out of the city by another man with a naked sword. This is the mail and the mail-guard; and the effect is as though runner and swordsman lay under a doom — the one to fly with the fear of death always before him, as men fly in dreams, and the other to perpetually fail of his revenge.

The warden unlocked more doors and led the Englishman still higher, but into a garden — a heavily timbered garden with a tank for goldfish in the midst. For once the impassive following smiled when they saw that the Englishman was impressed.

‘This,’ said they, ‘is the Rang Bilas.’ ‘But who made it?’ ‘Who knows? It was made long ago.’ The Englishman looked over the garden wall, a foot-high parapet, and shuddered. There was only the flat side of the Palace, and a drop on to the stones of the zigzag scores of feet below. Above him was the riven hillside and the decaying wall of Taragarh, and behind him this fair garden, hung like Mahomet’s coffin, but full of the noise of birds and the talking of the wind in the branches. The warden entered into a lengthy explanation of the nature of the delusion, showing how — but he was stopped before he was finished. His listener did not want to know how the trick was done. Here was the garden, and there were three or four stories climbed to reach it. At one end of the garden was a small room, under treatment by native artists who were painting the panels with historical pictures, in distemper. Theirs was florid polychromatic art, but skirting the floor ran a series of frescoes in red, black, and white, of combats with elephants, bold and temperate as good German work. They were worn and defaced in places; but the hand of some bygone limner, who did not know how to waste a line, showed under the bruises and scratches, and put the newer work to shame.

Here the tour of the Palace ended; and it must be remembered that the Englishman had not gone the depth of three rooms into one flank. Acres of building lay to the right of him, and above the lines of the terraces he could see the tops of green trees. ‘Who knew how many gardens, such as the Rang Bilas, were to be found m the Palace?’ No one answered directly, but all said that there were many. The warden gathered up his keys, and, locking each door behind him as he passed, led the way down to earth. But before he had crossed the garden the Englishman heard, deep down in the bowels of the Palace, a woman’s voice singing, and the voice rang as do voices in caves. All Palaces in India excepting dead ones, such as that of Amber, are full of eyes. In some, as has been said, the idea of being watched is stronger than in others. In Boondi Palace it was overpowering — being far worse than in the green-shuttered corridors of Jodhpur. There were trapdoors on the tops of terraces, and windows veiled in foliage, and bulls’ eyes set low in unexpected walls, and many other peep-holes and places of vantage. In the end, the Englishman looked devoutly at the floor, but when the voice of the woman came up from under his feet, he felt that there was nothing left for him but to go. Yet; excepting only this voice, there was deep silence everywhere, and nothing could be seen.

The warden returned to the Chutter Mahal to pick up a lost key. The brass table of the planets was sighing softly to itself as it swung to and fro in the wind. That was the last view of the interior of the Palace — the empty court; and the swinging, sighing astrolabe.

About two hours afterwards, when he had reached the other side of the valley and seen the full extent of the buildings, the Englishman began to realise first that he had not been taken through one-tenth of the Palace; and secondly, that he would do well to measure its extent by acres, in preference to meaner measures. But what made him blush hotly, all alone among the tombs on the hillside, was the idea that he with his ridiculous demands for eggs, firewood, and sweet drinking water should have clattered and chattered through any part of it at all.

He began to understand why Boondi does not encourage Englishmen.

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