Letters of Marque, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 3

Does not in Any Sort Describe the Dead City of Amber, but gives Detailed Information about a Cotton-Press

AND what shall be said of Amber, Queen of the Pass — the city that Jey Singh bade his people slough as snakes cast their skins? The Globe-trotter will assure you that it must be ‘done’ before anything else, and the Globe-trotter is, for once, perfectly correct. Amber lies between six and seven miles from Jeypore among the tumbled fragments of the hills, and is reachable by so prosaic a conveyance as a ticca-gharri, and so uncomfortable a one as an elephant. He is provided by the Maharaja, and the people who make India their prey are apt to accept his services as a matter of course.

Rise very early in the morning, before the stars have gone out, and drive through the sleeping city till the pavement gives place to cactus and sand, and educational and enlightened institutions to mile upon mile of semi-decayed Hindu temples — brown and weather-beaten — running down to the shores of the great Man Sagar Lake, wherein are more ruined temples, palaces, and fragments of causeways. The water-birds have their home in the half-submerged arcades and the crocodile nuzzles the shafts of the pillars. It is a fitting prelude to the desolation of Amber. Beyond the Man Sagar the road of to-day climbs uphill, and by its side runs the huge stone causeway of yesterday — blocks sunk in concrete. Down this path the swords of Amber went out to kill. A triple wall rings the city, and, at the third gate, the road drops into the valley of Amber. In the half light of dawn a great city sunk between hills and built round three sides of a lake is dimly visible, and one waits to catch the hum that should arise from it as the day breaks. The air in the valley is bitterly chill. With the growing light, Amber stands revealed, and the traveller sees that it is a city that will never wake. A few meenas live in huts at the end of the valley, but the temples, the shrines, the palaces, and the tiers on tiers of houses are desolate. Trees grow in and split upon the walls, the windows are filled with brushwood, and the cactus chokes the street. The Englishman made his way up the side of the hill to the great palace that overlooks everything except the red fort of Jeighur, guardian of Amber. As the elephant swung up the steep roads paved with stone and built out on the sides of the hill, the Englishman looked into empty houses where the little grey squirrel sat and scratched its ears. The peacock walked on the house-tops, and the blue pigeon roosted within. He passed under iron-studded gates whose hinges were eaten out with rust, and by walls plumed and crowned with grass, and under more gateways, till, at last, he reached the palace and came suddenly into a great quadrangle where two blinded, arrogant stallions, covered with red and gold trappings, screamed and neighed at each other from opposite ends of the vast space. For a little time these were the only visible living beings, and they were in perfect accord with the spirit of the spot. Afterwards certain workmen appeared, for it seems that the Maharaja keeps the old palace of his forefathers in good repair, but they were modern and mercenary, and with great difficulty were detached from the skirts of the traveller. A somewhat extensive experience of palace-seeing had taught him that it is best to see palaces alone, for the Oriental as a guide is undiscriminating and sets too great a store on corrugated iron roofs and glazed drain-pipes.

So the Englishman went into this palace built of stone, bedded on stone, springing out of scarped rock, and reached by stone ways — nothing but stone. Presently, he stumbled across a little temple of Kali, a gem of marble tracery and inlay, very dark and, at that hour of the morning, very cold.

If, as Viollet-le-Duc tells us to believe, a building reflects the character of its inhabitants, it must be impossible for one reared in an Eastern palace to think straightly or speak freely or — but here the annals of Rajputana contradict the theory — to act openly. The crampt and darkened rooms, the narrow smooth-walled passages with recesses where a man might wait for his enemy unseen, the maze of ascending and descending stairs leading nowhither, the ever-present screens of marble tracery that may hide or reveal so much — all these things breathe of plot and counter-plot, league and intrigue. In a living palace where the sightseer knows and feels that there are human beings everywhere, and that he is followed by scores of unseen eyes, the impression is almost unendurable. In a dead palace — a cemetery of loves and hatreds done with hundreds of years ago, and of plottings that had for their end, though the greybeards who plotted knew it not, the coming of the British tourist with guide-book and sun-hat — oppression gives place to simply impertinent curiosity. The Englishman wandered into all parts of the palace, for there was no one to stop him — not even the ghosts of the dead Queens — through ivory-studded doors, into the women’s quarters, where a stream of water once flowed over a chiselled marble channel. A creeper had set its hands upon the lattice there, and there was the dust of old nests in one of the niches in the wall. Did the lady of light virtue who managed to become possessed of so great a portion of Jey Singh’s library ever set her dainty feet in the trim garden of the Hall of Pleasure beyond the screen-work? Was it in the forty-pillared Hall of Audience that the order went forth that the Chief of Birjooghar was to be slain, and from what wall did the King look out when the horsemen clattered up the steep stone path to the palace, bearing on their saddle-bows the heads of the bravest of Rajore? There were questions innumerable to be asked in each court and keep and cell; but the only answer was the cooing of the pigeons.

If a man desired beauty, there was enough and to spare in the palace; and of strength more than enough. With inlay and carved marble, with glass and colour, the Kings who took their pleasure in that now desolate pile, made all that their eyes rested upon royal and superb. But any description of the artistic side of the palace, if it were not impossible, would be wearisome. The wise man will visit it when time and occasion serve, and will then, in some small measure, understand what must have been the riotous, sumptuous, murderous life to which our Governors and Lieutenant-Governors, Commissioners and Deputy-Commissioners, Colonels and Captains and the Subalterns, have put an end.

From the top of the palace you may read if you please the Book of Ezekiel written in stone upon the hillside. Coming up, the Englishman had seen the city from below or on a level. He now looked into its very heart — the heart that had ceased to beat. There was no sound of men or cattle, or grind-stones in those pitiful streets — nothing but the cooing of the pigeons. At first it seemed that the palace was not ruined at all — that soon the women would come up on the housetops and the bells would ring in the temples. But as he attempted to follow with his eye the turns of the streets, the Englishman saw that they died out in wood tangle and blocks of fallen stone, and that some of the houses were rent with great cracks, and pierced from roof to road with holes that let in the morning sun. The drip-stones of the eaves were gap-toothed, and the tracery of the screens had fallen out so that zenana-rooms lay shamelessly open to the day. On the outskirts of the city, the strong-walled houses dwindled and sank down to mere stone-heaps and faint indications of plinth and wall, hard to trace against the background of stony soil. The shadow of the palace lay over two-thirds of the city and the trees deepened the shadow. ‘He who has bent him o’er the dead’ after the hour of which Byron sings, knows that the features of the man become blunted as it were — the face begins to fade. The same hideous look lies on the face of the Queen of the Pass, and when once this is realised, the eye wonders that it could have ever believed in the life of her. She is the city ‘whose graves are set in the side of the pit, and her company is round about her graves,’ sister of Pathros, Zoan, and No.

Moved by a thoroughly insular instinct, the Englishman took up a piece of plaster and heaved it from the palace wall into the dark streets. It bounded from a house-top to a window-ledge, and thence into a little square, and the sound of its fall was hollow and echoing, as the sound of a stone in a well. Then the silence closed up upon the sound, till in the far-away courtyard below the roped stallions began screaming afresh. There may be desolation in the great Indian Desert to the westward, and there is desolation on the open seas; but the desolation of Amber is beyond the loneliness either of land or sea. Men by the hundred thousand must have toiled at the walls that bound it, the temples and bastions that stud the walls, the fort that overlooks all, the canals that once lifted water to the palace, and the garden in the lake of the valley. Renan could describe it as it stands to-day, and Vereschaguin could paint it.

Arrived at this satisfactory conclusion, the Englishman went down through the palace and the scores of venomous and suggestive little rooms, to the elephant in the courtyard, and was taken back in due tune to the Nineteenth Century in the shape of His Highness the Maharaja’s Cotton-Press, returning a profit of twenty-seven per cent, and fitted with two engines, of fifty horse-power each, an hydraulic press, capable of exerting a pressure of three tons per square inch, and everything else to correspond. It stood under a neat corrugated iron roof close to the Jeypore Railway Station, and was in most perfect order, but somehow it did not taste well after Amber. There was aggressiveness about the engines and the smell of the raw cotton.

The modern side of Jeypore must not be mixed with the ancient.

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