The Naulahka: A Story of West and East, by Rudyard Kipling

XIV

Because I sought it far from men,
In deserts and alone,
I found it burning overhead,
The jewel of a throne.

Because I sought — I sought it so
And spent my days to find
It blazed one moment ere it left
The blacker night behind.

— The Crystals of Iswara.

A city of tents had grown up in three days without the walls of Rhatore — a city greened with far-brought lawns of turf, and stuck about with hastily transplanted orange-trees, wooden lamp-posts painted in gaudy colours, and a cast-iron fountain of hideous design. Many guests were expected at Rhatore to grace the marriage of the Maharaj Kunwar — barons, princes, thakurs, lords of waste fortresses and of hopeless crags of the north and the south, fiefs from the fat, poppy blazoned plains of Mewar, and brother rajahs of the King. They came accompanied by their escorts, horse and foot.

In a land where genealogies, to be respectable, must run back without a break for eight hundred years, it is a delicate matter not to offend; and all were desperately jealous of the place and precedence of their neighbours in the camp. Lest the task should be too easy, the household bards of the princes came with them, and squabbled with the court officials of Gokral Seetarun. Behind the tents stretched long lines of horse-pickets, where the fat pink-and-blue-spotted stallions neighed and squealed at one another, under their heavy velvet trappings, all day long; and the ragged militia of twenty tiny native states smoked and gambled among their saddles, or quarrelled at the daily distribution of food furnished by the generosity of the Maharajah. From hundreds of miles about, vagrant and mendicant priests of every denomination had flocked into the city, and their salmon-coloured raiment, black blankets, or ash-smeared nudity gave Tarvin many minutes of untrammelled entertainment as he watched them roaming fearlessly from tent to tent, their red eyes rolling in their heads, alternately threatening or fawning for gifts. The rest-house, as Tarvin discovered, was crammed with fresh contingents of commercial travellers. His Highness was not likely to pay at such a season, but fresh orders would be plentiful. The city itself was brilliant with coats of pink-and-white lime-wash, and the main streets were obstructed with the bamboo scaffoldings of fireworks. Every house-front was swept and newly luted with clean mud, and the doorways were hung with marigolds and strings of jasmine-buds. Through the crowds tramped the sweating sweetmeat-dealers, vendors of hawks, dealers in cheap jewellery and glass bracelets and little English mirrors, while camels, loaded with wedding gifts of far-off kings, ploughed through the crowd, or the mace-bearers of the State cleared a path with their silver staves for the passage of the Maharajah’s carriages. Forty barouches were in use, and, as long as horse-flesh held out, or harness could be patched with string, it did not beseem the dignity of the State to provide less than four horses to each. As these horses were untrained, and as the little native boys, out of sheer lightness of heart, touched off squibs and crackers at high noon, the streets were animated.

The hill on which the palace stood seemed to smoke like a volcano, for the little dignitaries came without cessation, each expecting the salute of cannon due to his rank. Between the roars of the ordnance, strains of uncouth music would break from the red walls, and presently some officer of the court would ride out of one of the gates, followed by all his retinue, each man gorgeous as a cock-pheasant in spring, his moustache fresh oiled and curled fiercely over his ears; or one of the royal elephants, swathed in red velvet and bullion from shoulder to ankle, would roll out under the weight of his silver howdah, and trumpet till the streets were cleared for his passage. Seventy elephants were fed daily by the King — no mean charge, since each beast consumed as much green fodder daily as he could carry on his back, as well as thirty or forty pounds of flour. Now and again one of the monsters, maddened by the noise and confusion, and by the presence of strange rivals, would be overtaken with paroxysms of blind fury. Then he would be hastily stripped of his trappings, bound with ropes and iron chains, hustled out of the city between two of his fellows, and tied down half a mile away by the banks of the Amet, to scream and rage till the horses in the neighbouring camps broke their pickets and stampeded wildly among the tents. Pertab Singh, commandant of his Highness’s body-guard, was in his glory. Every hour of the day gave him excuse for charging with his troop on mysterious but important errands between the palace and the tents of the princes. The formal interchange of visits alone occupied two days. Each prince with his escort would solemnly drive to the palace, and half an hour later the silver state barouche and the Maharajah himself, jewelled from head to heel, would return the visit, while the guns gave word of the event to the city of houses and to the city of tents.

When night fell on the camp there was no silence till near the dawn, for strolling players, singers of songs, and tellers of stories, dancing girls, brawny Oudh wrestlers, and camp followers beyond counting, wandered from tent to tent making merry. When these had departed, the temples in the city sent forth the hoarse cries of conchs, and Kate, listening, seemed to hear in every blast the wail of the little Maharaj Kunwar, who was being prepared for his marriage by interminable prayers and purifications. She saw as little of the boy as Tarvin did of the King. In those days every request for an audience was met with, ‘He is with his priests.’ Tarvin cursed all the priests of Rhatore, and condemned to every variety of perdition the hang-dog fakirs that prowled about his path.

‘I wish to goodness they’d come to a point with this fool business,’ he. said to himself. ‘I haven’t got a century to spend in Rhatore.’

After nearly a week of uninterrupted clamour, blazing sunshine, and moving crowds clad in garments, the colours of which made Tarvin’s eyes ache, there arrived, by the same road that had borne Kate to the city, two carriages containing five Englishmen and three Englishwomen, who, later, walked about the city with lack-lustre eyes, bored by the official duty which compelled them to witness in the hot weather a crime which it was not only beyond them to hinder, but to which they were obliged to lend their official patronage.

The agent to the Governor–General — that is to say, the official representative of the Viceroy in Rajputana — had some time before represented to the Maharajah that he might range himself in the way of progress and enlightenment by ordering that his son should not be given in marriage for another ten years. The Maharajah, pleading the immemorial custom of his land and the influence of the priests, gilded his refusal by a generous donation to a women’s hospital in Calcutta which was not in want of funds.

For his own part, Tarvin could not comprehend how any government could lend its countenance to this wicked farce, calling itself a marriage, which was presently to be played out with the assistance of two children. He was presently introduced to the agent of the Governor–General, who was anxious to learn more about the damming of the Amet. To be asked about the damming of the Amet, when he was making no more progress than at present with the Naulahka, seemed to Tarvin, however, the last touch of insult, and he was not communicative, asking the agent, instead, a number of urgent questions about the approaching infamy at the palace. The agent declaring the marriage to be a political necessity, the destination suggested by Tarvin for political necessities of this sort caused the official to stiffen, and to look this wild American up and down with startled curiosity. They parted on poor terms.

With the rest of the party Tarvin was more at ease. The agent’s wife, a tall brunette, belonging to one of those families which from the earliest days of the East India Company have administered the fortunes of India, solemnly inspected Kate’s work at the hospital; and being only a woman, and not an official, was attracted, and showed that she was attracted, by the sad-eyed little woman who did not talk about her work. Therefore Tarvin devoted himself to the amusement and entertainment of the agent’s wife, and she pronounced him an extraordinary person. ‘But, then, all Americans are extraordinary, you know, though they’re so clever.’

Not forgetting in the midst of this tumultuous pageant that he was a citizen of Topaz, Tarvin told her about that blessed city of the plain, away off there under the Sauguache Range, where half his heart lay. He called it ‘the magic city,’ implying that the dwellers of the Western continent had agreed to call it so by general consent. She was not bored; she enjoyed it. Talk of land and improvement companies, boards of trade, town lots, and the Three C.‘s was fresh to her, and it became easy to lead up to what Tarvin actually had in mind. What about the Naulahka? Had she ever seen it? He asked these questions boldly.

No; she knew nothing of the Naulahka. Her thoughts were bounded by the thought of going home in the spring. Home for her meant a little house near Sydenham, close to the Crystal Palace, where her three-year-old boy was waiting for her and the interests of the other English men and women seemed equally remote from Rajputana — not to mention the Naulahka. It was only inferentially that Tarvin could gather that they had spent the greater part of their working lives within the limits of the country. They talked as gipsies might talk by the roadside a little before the horses are put into the caravan. The ways were hot, they implied, and very dusty; and they hoped one day, to be able to rest. The wedding was only one more weary incident on the line of march, and they devoutly wished it over. One of them even envied Tarvin for coming to the State with his fresh eye and his lively belief in the possibility of getting something out of the land besides a harvest of regrets. The last day of the marriage ceremonies began and ended with more cannon, more fireworks, more clattering of hoofs, more trumpeting of elephants, and with the clamour of bands trying to play ‘God Save the Queen.’ The Maharaj Kunwar was to appear in the evening (in an Indian state wedding the bride is neither mentioned nor seen) at a banquet, where the agent of the Governor–General would propose his health and that of his father. The Maharaj was to make a speech in his best English. A court scribe had already composed a long oration to be used by his father. Tarvin was beginning seriously to doubt whether he should ever see the child alive again; and, before the banquet, rode out into the seething city to reconnoitre. It was twilight, and the torches were flaring between the houses. Wild outlanders from the desert, who had never seen a white man before, caught his horse by the bridle, examined him curiously, and with a grunt let him pass. The many-coloured turbans showed under the flickering light like the jewels of a broken necklace, and all the white housetops were crowded with the veiled figures of women. In half an hour the Maharaj Kunwar would make his way from the royal temple to the banqueting-tent at the head of a procession of caparisoned elephants.

Tarvin forced his way inch by inch through the dense crowd that waited at the foot of the temple steps. He merely wished to satisfy himself that the child was well; he wanted to see him come from the temple. As he looked about him he saw that he was the only white man in the crowd, and pitied his jaded acquaintances, who could find no pleasure in the wild scene under his eyes.

The temple doors were closed, and the torchlight flashed back from the ivory and silver with which they were inlaid. Somewhere out of sight stood the elephants, for Tarvin could hear their deep breathing and an occasional squeal above the hum of the crowd. Half a troop of cavalry, very worn and dusty with the day’s labours, were trying to clear an open space before the temple, but they might as well have tried to divide a rainbow. From the roofs of the houses the women were throwing flowers, sweetmeats, and coloured rice into the crowd, while small bards, not yet attached to the house of any prince, chanted aloud in praise of the Maharajah, the Maharaj Kunwar, the Viceroy, the agent of the Governor–General, Colonel Nolan, and any one else who might possibly reward praise with pence. One of these men, recognising Tarvin, struck up a chant in his honour. He had come, said the song, from a far country to dam an ungovernable river, and fill the country-side with gold; his step was like the step of a dromedary in the spring; his eye terrible as that of an elephant; and the graces of his person such that the hearts of all the women of Rhatore turned to water when he rode upon the public way. Lastly, he would reward the singer of this poor song with untold generosity, and his name and fame should endure in the land so long as the flag of Gokral Seetarun had five colours, or as long as the Naulahka adorned the throat of kings.

Then, with an ear-splitting shriek of conchs, the temple doors opened inward, and the voices of the crowd were hushed into a whisper of awe. Tarvin’s hands tightened on the reins of his horse, and he leaned forward to stare. The opened doors of the temples framed a square of utter darkness, and to the screeching of the conchs was added a throbbing of innumerable drums. A breath of incense, strong enough to make him cough, drifted across the crowd, which was absolutely silent now.

The next moment the Maharaj Kunwar, alone and unattended, came out of the darkness, and stood in the torchlight with his hands on the hilt of his sword. The face beneath the turban, draped with loops of diamonds under an emerald aigrette, was absolutely colourless. There were purple circles about his eyes, and his mouth was half open; but the pity Tarvin felt for the child’s weariness was silenced by a sudden thrill and leap of his heart, for on the gold cloth of the Maharaj Kunwar’s breast lay the Naulahka.

There was no need, this time, to ask any questions. It was not he who saw it; its great deep eyes seemed to fall on him. It blazed with the dull red of the ruby, the angry green of the emerald, the cold blue of the sapphire, and the white-hot glory of the diamond. But dulling all these glories was the superb radiance of one gem that lay above the great carved emerald on the central clasp. It was the black diamond — black as the pitch of the infernal lake, and lighted from below with the fires of hell.

The thing lay on the boy’s shoulders, a yoke of flame. It outshone the silent Indian stars above, turned the tossing torches to smears of dull yellow, and sucked the glitter from the cloth of gold on which it lay.

There was no time to think, to estimate, to appraise, scarcely a moment even to realise, for the conchs suddenly wailed again, the Maharaj stepped back into the darkness, and the doors of the temple were shut.

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