Letters of Marque, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 18

Of the Uncivilised Night and the Departure to Things Civilised. Showing how a Friend may keep an Appointment too well

‘LET us go hence my songs, she will not hear. Let us go hence together without fear.’ But Ram Baksh the irrepressible sang it in altogether a baser key. He came by night to the pavilion on the lake, while the sepoys were cooking their fish, and reiterated his whine about the devildom of the country into which the Englishman had dragged him. Padre Martum Sahib would never have thus treated the owner of sixteen horses, all fast and big ones, and eight superior ‘shutin-tongas.’

‘Let us get away;’ said Ram Baksh. ‘You are not here for shikar, and the water is very bad.’ It was indeed, except when taken from the lake, and then it only tasted fishy. ‘We will go, Ram Baksh,’ said the Englishman. ‘We will go in the very early morning, and in the meantime here is fish to stay your stomach with.’

When a transparent piece of canvas, which fails by three feet to reach ceiling or floor, is the only bar between the East and the West, he would be a churl indeed who stood upon invidious race distinctions. The Englishman went out and fraternised with the Military — the four-rupee soldiers of Boondi who guarded him. They were armed, one with an old Tower musket crazy as to nipple and hammer, one with a native-made smooth-bore, and one with a composite contrivance — English sporting muzzle-loader stock with a compartment for a jointed cleaning-rod, and hammered octagonal native barrel, wire-fastened, a tuft of cotton on the fore-sight. All three guns were loaded, and the owners were very proud of them. They were simple folk, these men-at-arms, with an inordinate appetite for broiled fish. They were not always soldiers, they explained. They cultivated their crops until called for any duty that might turn up. They were paid now and again, at intervals, but they were paid in coin and not in kind.

The munshis and the vakils and the runners had departed after seeing that the Englishman was safe for the night, so the freedom of the little gathering on the bund was unrestrained. The chowkidar came out of his cave into the firelight. He took a fish and incontinently choked, for he was a feeble old man. Set right again, he launched into a very long and quite unintelligible story, while the sepoys said reverently: ‘He is an old man and remembers many things.’ As he babbled, the night shut in upon the lake and the valley of Boondi. The last cows were driven into the water for their evening drink, the waterfowl and the monkeys went to bed, and the stars came out and made a new firmament in the untroubled bosom of the lake. The light of the fire showed the ruled lines of the bund springing out of the soft darkness of the wooded hill on the left and disappearing into the solid darkness of a bare hill on the right. Below the bund a man cried aloud to keep wandering pigs from the gardens whose tree-tops rose to a level with the bund-edge. Beyond the trees all was swaddled in gloom. When the gentle buzz of the unseen city died out, it seemed as though the bund were the very Swordwide Bridge that runs, as every one knows, between this world and the next. The water lapped and muttered, and now and again a fish jumped, with the shatter of broken glass, blurring the peace of the reflected heavens.

And duller should I be than some fat weed
That rolls itself at ease on Lethe’s wharf.

The poet who wrote those lines knew nothing whatever of Lethe’s wharf. The Englishman had found it, and it seemed to him, at that hour and in that place, that it would be good and desirable never to return to the Commissioners and the Deputy-Commissioners any more, but to lie at ease on the warm sunlit bund by day, and, at night, near a shadow-breeding fire, to listen for the strangled voices and whispers of the darkness in the hills. Thus after as long a life as the chowkidar’s, dying easily and pleasantly, and being buried in a red tomb on the borders of the lake. Surely no one would come to reclaim him, across those weary, weary miles of rock-strewn road . . . . ‘And this,’ said the chowkidar, raising his voice to enforce attention, ‘is true talk. Everybody knows it, and now the Sahib knows it. I am an old man.’ He fell asleep at once, with his head on the clay pipe that was doing duty for a whole huqa among the company. He had been talking for nearly a quarter of an hour.

See how great a man is the true novelist! Six or seven thousand miles away, Walter Besant of the Golden Pen had created Mr. Maliphant — the ancient of figure-heads in the All Sorts and Conditions of Men, and here, in Boondi, the Englishman had found Mr. Maliphant in the withered flesh. So he drank Walter Besant’s health in the water of the Burra Talao. One of the sepoys turned himself round, with a clatter of accoutrements, shifted his blanket under his elbow, and told a tale. It had something to do with his khet, and a gunna which certainly was not sugarcane. It was elusive. At times it seemed that it was a woman, then changed to a right of way, and lastly appeared to be a tax; but the more he attempted to get at its meaning through the curious patois in which its doings or its merits were enveloped, the more dazed the Englishman became. None the less the story was a fine one, embellished with much dramatic gesture which told powerfully against the firelight. Then the second sepoy, who had been enjoying the pipe all the time, told a tale, the purport of which was that the dead in the tombs round the lake were wont to get up of nights and go hunting. This was a fine and ghostly story; and its dismal effect was much heightened by some clamour of the night far up the lake beyond the floor of stars.

The third sepoy said nothing. He had eaten too much fish and was fast asleep by the side of the chowkidar.

They were all Mahometans, and consequently all easy to deal with. A Hindu is an excellent person, but . . . but . . . there is no knowing what is in his heart, and he is hedged about with so many strange observances.

This Hindu or Musalman bent, which each Englishman’s mind must take before he has been three years in the country, is, of course, influenced by Province or Presidency. In Rajputana generally, the Political swears by the Hindu, and holds that the Mahometan is untrustworthy. But a man who will eat with you and take your tobacco, sinking the fiction that it has been doctored with infidel wines, cannot be very bad after all.

That night when the tales were all told and the guard, bless them, were snoring peaceably in the starlight, a man came stealthily into the enclosure of canvas and woke the Englishman, muttering ‘Sahib, Sahib,’ in his ear. It was no robber but some poor devil with a petition — a grimy, welted paper. He was absolutely unintelligible, and stammered almost to dumbness. He stood by the bed, alternately bowing to the earth and standing erect, his arms spread aloft, and his whole body working as he tried to force out some rebellious word in a key that should not wake the men without. What could the Englishman do? He was no Government servant, and had no concern with petitions. The man clicked and choked and gasped in his desperate desire to make the Sahib understand. But it was no use; and in the end he departed as he had come — bowed, abject, and unintelligible.

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Let every word written against Ganesh be rescinded. It was by his ordering that the Englishman saw such a dawn on the Burra Talao as he had never before set eyes on. Every fair morning is a reprint, blurred perhaps, of the First Day; but this splendour was a thing to be put aside from all other days and remembered. The stars had no fire in them and the fish had stopped dumping, when the black water of the lake paled and grew grey. While he watched it seemed to the Englishman that voices on the hills were intoning the first verses of Genesis. The grey light moved on the face of the waters till, with no interval, a blood-red glare shot up from the horizon and, inky black against the intense red, a giant crane floated out towards the sun. In the still, shadowed city the great Palace Drum boomed and throbbed to show that the gates were open, while the dawn swept up the valley and made all things clear. The blind man who said, ‘The blast of a trumpet is red,’ spoke only the truth. The breaking of the red dawn is like the blast of a trumpet.

‘What,’ said the chowkidar, picking the ashes of the overnight fire out of his beard, ‘what, I say, are five eggs or twelve eggs to such a Raj as ours? What also are fowls — what are . . . ’ ‘There was no talk of fowls. Where is the fowlman from whom you got the eggs?’ ‘He is here. No, he is there. I do not know. I am an old man, and I and the Raj supply everything without price. The fowl-man will be paid by the State — liberally paid. Let the Sahib be happy. Wah! Wah!

Experience of forced labour in Himalayan villages had made the Englishman very tender in raising supplies that were given gratis; but the fowl-man could not be found, and the value of his wares was, later, paid to Ganesh — Ganesh of Situr, for that is the name of the village full of priests, through which the Englishman had passed in ignorance two days before. A double handful of sweet-smelling flowers made the receipt.

Boondi was wide-awake before half-past seven in the morning. Her hunters, on foot and on horse, were filing towards the Deoli Gate. They would hunt tiger and deer they said, even with matchlocks and muzzle-loaders as uncouth as those the Sahib saw. They were a merry company and chaffed the Quarter-Guard at the gate unmercifully when a bullock-cart, laden with the cases of the ‘Batoum Naphtha and Oil Company’ blocked the road. One of them had been a soldier of the Queen, and, excited by the appearance of a Sahib, did so rebuke and badger the Quarter-Guard for their slovenliness that they threatened to come out of the barracks and destroy him.

So, after one last look at the Palace high up the hillside, the Englishman was borne away along the Deoli Road. The peculiarity of Boondi is the peculiarity of the covered pitfall. One does not see it till one falls into it. A quarter of a mile from the gate, town and Palace were invisible. But the Englishman was grieved at heart. He had fallen in love with Boondi the beautiful, and believed that he would never again see anything half so fair. The utter untouchedness of the town was one-half the charm and its association the other. Read Tod, who is far too good to be chipped or sampled; read Tod luxuriously on the bund of the Burra Talao, and the spirit of the place will enter into you and you will be happy.

To enjoy life thoroughly, haste and bustle must be abandoned. Ram Baksh has said that Englishmen are always bothering to go forward, and for this reason, though beyond doubt they pay well and readily, are not wise men. He gave utterance to this philosophy after he had mistaken his road and pulled up in what must have been a disused quarry hard by a cane-field. There were patches and pockets of cultivation along the rocky road, where men grew cotton, chillies, tobacco, and sugar-cane. ‘I will get you sugar-cane,’ said Ram Baksh. ‘Then we will go forward, and perhaps some of these jungly-fools will tell us where the road is.’ A ‘jungly-fool,’ a tender of goats, did in time appear, but there was no hurry; the sugarcane was sweet and purple and the sun warm.

The Englishman lay out at high noon on the crest of a rolling upland crowned with rock, and heard, as a loafer had told him he would hear, the ‘set of the day,’ which is as easily discernible as the change of tone between the rising and the falling tide. At a certain hour the impetus of the morning dies out, and all things, living and inanimate, turn their thoughts to the prophecy of the coming night. The little wandering breezes drop for a time, and, when they blow afresh, bring the message. The ‘set of the day,’ as the loafer said, has changed; the machinery is beginning to run down; the unseen tides of the air are falling. This moment of change can only be felt in the open and in touch with the earth, and once discovered, seems to place the finder in deep accord and fellowship with all things on earth. Perhaps this is why the genuine loafer, though ‘frequently drunk,’ is ‘always polite to the stranger,’ and shows such a genial tolerance towards the weaknesses of mankind, black, white, or brown.

In the evening when the jackals were scuttling across the roads and the cranes had gone to roost, came Deoli the desolate, and an unpleasant meeting. Six days away from his kind had bred in a Cockney heart a great desire to see a fellow-subject. An elaborate loaf through the cantonment — fifteen minutes’ walk from end to end — showed only one distant dog-cart and a small English child with an ayah. There was grass in the soldierly straight roads, and some of the crosscuts had never been used at all since the days when the cantonment had been first laid out. In the western corner lay the cemetery — the only carefully tended and newly whitewashed thing in this God-forgotten place. Some years ago a man had said good-bye to the Englishman; adding cheerily: ‘We shall meet again. The world’s a very little place y’ know.’

His prophecy was a true one, for the two met indeed, but the prophet was lying in Deoli Cemetery near the well, which is decorated so ecclesiastically with funeral urns.

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