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

II

Beware the man who’s crossed in love,
    For pent-up steam must find its vent;
Step back when he is on the move,
    And lend him all the Continent.

The Buck and the Saw.

To sail from New York on the 31st she must leave Topaz by the 27th at latest. It was now the 15th. Tarvin made the most of the intervening time. He called on her at her home every evening, and argued it out with her.

Kate listened with the gentlest willingness to be convinced, but with a dread firmness round the corners of her mouth, and with a sad wish to be good to him, if she could, battling in her eyes with a sadder helplessness.

‘I’m called!’ she cried. ‘I’m called. I can’t get away from it. I can’t help listening. I can’t help going.’

And, as she told him, grieving, how the cry of her sisters out of that dim misery, that was yet so distinct, tugged at her heart — how the useless horror and torture of their lives called on her by night and by day, Tarvin could not refuse to respect the solemnly felt need that drew her from him. He could not help begging her in every accent he knew not to hearken to it, but the painful pull of the cry she heard was not a strange or incredible thing to his own generous heart. He only urged hotly that there were other cries, and that there were other people to attend to this one. He, too, had a need, the need for her; and she another, if she would stop a moment to listen to it. They needed each other; that was the supreme need. The women in India could wait; they would go over and look them up later, when the Three C.‘s had come to Topaz, and he had made his pile. Meanwhile there was happiness; meanwhile there was love! He was ingenious, he was deeply in love, he knew what he wanted, and he found the most persuasive language for making it seem to be what she wanted in disguise. Kate had to strengthen her resolution often in the intervals between his visits. She could not say much in reply. She had no such gift of communicating herself as Tarvin. Hers was the still, deep, voiceless nature that can only feel and act.

She had the kind of pluck and the capacity for silent endurance which goes with such natures, or she must often have faltered and turned back from the resolve which had come upon her in the schoolgarden that spring day, in the two years that followed it. Her parents were the first obstacle. They refused outright to allow her to study medicine. She had wished to be both physician and nurse, believing that in India she would find use for both callings; but since she could follow only one, she was content to enrol herself as a student at a New York training-school for nurses, and this her parents suffered in the bewilderment of finding that they had forgotten how to oppose her gently resolute will through the lifelong habit of yielding to it.

Her ideas had made her mother wish, when she explained them to her, that she had let her grow up wild, as she had once seemed certain to do. She was even sorry that the child’s father had at last found something to do away from the awful railroad. The railroad now ran two ways from Topaz; Kate had returned from school to find the track stretching a hundred miles to the westward, and her family still there. This time the boom had overtaken them before they could get away. Her father had bought city lots in the acre form and was too rich to move. He had given up his calling and had gone into politics.

Sheriff’s love for his daughter was qualified by his general flatness; but it was the clinging affection not uncommon with shallow minds, and he had the habit of indulgence toward her which is the portion of an only child. He was accustomed to say that ‘what she did was about right,’ he guessed, and he was usually content to let it go at that. He was anxious now that his riches should do her some good, and Kate had not the heart to tell him the ways she had found to make them do her good. To her mother she confided all her plan; to her father she only said that she wished to learn to be a trained nurse. Her mother grieved in secret with the grim, philosophic, almost cheerful hopelessness of women whose lives have taught them always to expect the worst. It was a sore trial to Kate to disappoint her mother; and it cut her to the heart to know that she could not do what both her father and mother expected of her. Indefinite as the expectation was — it was simply that she should come home and live, and be a young lady, like the rest of the world — she felt its justice and reason, and she did not weep the less for them, because for herself she believed, modestly, that it was ordered otherwise.

This was her first trouble. The dissonance between those holy moments in the garden and the hard prose which was to give them reality and effect, grew deeper as she went on. It was daunting, and sometimes it was heart-sickening; but she went forward — not always strong, not every moment brave, and only a very little wise, but always forward.

The life at the training-school was a cruel disillusion. She had not expected the path she had set before her to bloom with ease; but at the end of her first month she could have laughed bitterly at the difference between her consecrating dreams and the fact. The dreams looked to her vocation; the fact took no account of it. She had hoped to befriend misery, to bring help and healing to pain from the first days of her apprenticeship. What she was actually set to do was to scald babies’ milk-cans.

Her further duties in these early days were no more nearly related to the functions of a nurse, and looking about her among the other girls to see how they kept their ideals alight in the midst of work so little connected with their future calling, she perceived that they got on for the most part by not having any. As she advanced, and was trusted first with babies themselves, and later with the actual work of nursing, she was made to feel how her own purpose isolated her. The others were here for business. With one or two exceptions they had apparently taken up nursing as they might have taken up dressmaking. They were here to learn how to make twenty dollars a week, and the sense of this dispirited her even more than the work she was given to do as a preparation for her high calling. The talk of the Arkansas girl, who sat on a table and swung her legs while she discussed her flirtations with the young doctors at the clinics, seemed in itself sometimes a final discouragement. Through all ran the bad food, the scanty sleep, the insufficient hours for recreation, the cruelly long hours assigned for work, the nervous strain of supporting the life from the merely physical point of view.

In addition to the work which she shared with the others, she was taking regular lessons in Hindustani; and she was constantly grateful for the earlier days which had given her robust health and a sound body. Without them she must often have broken down; and soon it began to be a duty not to break down, because it had become possible to help suffering a little. It was this which reconciled her finally to the low and sordid conditions under which the whole affair of her preparation went on.

The repulsive aspects of the nursing itself she did not mind. On the contrary, she found herself liking them as she got into the swing of her work; and when, at the end of her first year, she was placed in charge of a ward at the women’s hospital, under another nurse, she began to feel herself drawing in sight of her purpose, and kindled with an interest which made even the surgical operations seem good to her because they helped, and because they allowed her to help a little.

From this time she went on working strongly and efficiently toward her end. Above all, she wanted to be competent — to be wise and thorough. When the time came when those helpless, walled-up women should have no knowledge and no comfort to lean on but hers, she meant that they should lean on the strength of solid intelligence. Her trials were many, but it was her consolation in the midst of them all that her women loved her, and lived upon her comings and goings. Her devotion to her purpose carried her forward. She was presently in full charge, and in that long, bare ward where she strengthened so many sufferers for the last parting, where she lived with death and dealt with it, where she went about softly, soothing unspeakable pain, learning the note of human anguish, hearing no sound but the murmur of suffering or relief, she sounded one night the depths of her own nature, and received from — an inward monitor the confirmation of her mission. She consecrated herself to it afresh with a joy beyond her first joy of discovery.

And now, every night at half-past eight, Tarvin’s hat hung on the hat-rack in the hall-way of her home. He removed it gloomily at a little after eleven, spending the interval in talking over her mission with her persuasively, commandingly, imploringly, indignantly. His indignation was for her plan, but it would sometimes irrepressibly transfer itself to Kate. She was capable not only of defending her plan, but of defending herself and keeping her temper; and as this last was an art beyond Nick, these sessions often came to an end suddenly, and early in the evening. But the next night he would come and sit before her in penitence, and with his elbows on his knees, and his head supported moodily in his hands, would entreat her submissively to have some sense. This never lasted long, and evenings of this kind usually ended in his trying to pound sense into her by hammering his chair-arm with a convinced fist.

No tenderness could leave Tarvin without the need to try to make others believe as he did; but it was a good-humoured need, and Kate did not dislike it. She liked so many things about him, that often as they sat thus, facing each other, she let her fancy wander where it had wandered in her school-girl vacations — in a possible future spent by his side. She brought her fancy back again sharply. She had other things to think of now; but there must always be something between her and Tarvin different from her relation to any other man. They had lived in the same house on the prairie at the end of the section, and had risen to take up the same desolate life together morning after morning. The sun brought the morning greyly up over the sad grey plain, and at night left them alone together in the midst of the terrible spaces of silence. They broke the ice together in the muddy river near the section-house, and Tarvin carried her pail back for her. A score of other men lived under the same roof, but it was Tarvin who was kind. The others ran to do what she asked them to do. Tarvin found things to do, and did them while she slept. There was plenty to do. Her mother had a family of twenty-five, twenty of whom were boarders — the men working in one capacity or another directly under Sheriff. The hands engaged in the actual work of building the railroad lived in huge barracks near by, or in temporary cabins or tents. The Sheriffs had a house; that is, they lived in a structure with projecting eaves, windows that could be raised or lowered, and a verandah. But this was the sum of their conveniences, and the mother and daughter did their work alone with the assistance of two Swedes, whose muscles were firm but whose cookery was vague.

Tarvin helped her, and she learned to lean on him; she let him help her, and Tarvin loved her for it. The bond of work shared, of a mutual dependence, of isolation, drew them to each other; and when Kate left the section-house for school there was a tacit understanding between them. The essence of such an understanding, of course, lies in the woman’s recognition of it. When she came back from school for the first holiday, Kate’s manner did not deny her obligation, but did not confirm the understanding, and Tarvin, restless and insistent as he was about other things, did not like to force his claim upon her. It wasn’t a claim he could take into court.

This kind of forbearance was well enough while he expected to have her always within reach, while he imagined for her the ordinary future of an unmarried girl. But when she said she was going to India she changed the case. He was not thinking of courtesy or forbearance, or of the propriety of waiting to be formally accepted as he talked to her on the bridge, and afterward in the evenings. He ached with his need for her, and with the desire to keep her.

But it looked as if she were going — going in spite of everything he could say, in spite of his love. He had made her believe in that, if it was any comfort; and it was real enough to her to hurt her, which was a comfort!

Meanwhile she was costing him much, in one way and another, and she liked him well enough to have a conscience about it. But when she would tell him that he must not waste so much time and thought on her, he would ask her not to bother her little head about him: he saw more in her than he did in real estate or politics just then he knew what he was about.

‘I know,’ returned Kate. ‘But you forget what a delicate position you put me in. I don’t want to be responsible for your defeat. Your party will say I planned it.’

Tarvin made a positive and unguarded remark about his party, to which Kate replied that if he didn’t care she must; she couldn’t have it said, after the election, that he had neglected his canvass for her, and that her father had won his seat in consequence.

‘Of course,’ she added frankly, ‘I want father to go to the State legislature, and I don’t want you to go, because if you win the election, he can’t; but I don’t want to help prevent you from getting in.’

‘Don’t worry about your father getting that seat, young lady!’ cried Tarvin. ‘If that’s all you’ve got to lie awake about, you can sleep from now until the Three C.‘s comes to Topaz. I’m going to Denver myself this fall, and you’d better make your plans to come along. Come! How would it suit you to be the speaker’s wife, and live on Capitol Hill?’

Kate liked him well enough to go half credulously with him in his customary assumption that the difference between his having anything he wanted and his not having it, was the difference between his wanting it and his not wanting it.

‘Nick!’ she exclaimed, deriding but doubtful, ‘you won’t be speaker!’

‘I’d undertake to be governor, if I thought the idea would fetch you. Give me a word of hope, and you’ll see what I’d do!’

‘No, no!’ she said, shaking her head.‘My governors are all Rajahs, and they live a long way from here.’

‘But say, India’s half the size of the United States. Which State are you going to?’

‘Which ——?’

‘Ward, township, county, section? What’s your post-office address?’

‘Rhatore, in the province of Gokral Seetarun, Rajputana, India.’

‘All that!’ he repeated despairingly. There was a horrible definiteness about it; it almost made him believe she was going. He saw her drifting hopelessly out of his life into a land on the nether rim of the world, named out of the Arabian Nights and probably populated out of them. ‘Nonsense, Kate! You’re not going to try to live in any such heathen fairyland. What’s it got to do with Topaz, Kate? What’s it got to do with home? You can’t do it, I tell you. Let them nurse themselves. Leave it to them! Or leave it to me! I’ll go over myself, turn some of their pagan jewels into money, and organise a nursing corps on a plan that you shall dictate. Then we’ll be married, and I’ll take you out to look at my work. I’ll make a go of it. Don’t say they’re poor. That necklace alone would fetch money enough to organise an army of nurses! If your missionary told the truth in his sermon at church the other night, it would pay the national debt. Diamonds the size of hens’ eggs, yokes of pearls, coils of sapphires the girth of a man’s wrist, and emeralds until you can’t rest — and they hang all that around the neck of an idol, or keep it stored in a temple, and call on decent white girls to come out and help nurse them! It’s what I call cheek.’

‘As if money could help them! It’s not that. There’s no charity or kindness or pity in money, Nick; the only real help is to give yourself.’

‘All right. Then give me too! I’ll go along,’ he said, returning to the safer humorous view.

She laughed, but stopped herself suddenly. ‘You mustn’t come to India, Nick. You won’t do that? You won’t follow me! You shan’t.’

‘Well, if I get a place as rajah, I don’t say I wouldn’t. There might be a dollar in it.’

‘Nick! They wouldn’t let an American be a rajah.’

It is strange that men to whom life is a joke find comfort in women to whom it is a prayer.

‘They might let him run a rajah, though,’ said Tarvin, undisturbed; ‘and it might be the softer snap. Rajahing itself is classed extra hazardous, I think.’

‘How?’

‘By the accident insurance companies — double premium. None of my companies would touch the risk. They might take a vizier, though,’ he added meditatively. ‘They come from that Arabian Nights section, don’t they?’

‘Well, you are not to come,’ she said definitively. ‘You must keep away. Remember that.’

Tarvin got up suddenly. ‘Oh, good-night! Good-night!’ he cried.

He shook himself together impatiently, and waved her from him with a parting gesture of rejection and cancellation. She followed him into the passage, where he was gloomily taking his hat from its wonted peg; but he would not even let her help him on with his coat.

No man can successfully conduct a love-affair and a political canvass at the same time. It was perhaps the perception of this fact that had led Sheriff to bend an approving eye on the attentions which his opponent in the coming election had lately been paying his daughter. Tarvin had always been interested in Kate, but not so consecutively and intensely. Sheriff was stumping the district and was seldom at home, but in his irregular appearances at Topaz he smiled stolidly on his rival’s occupation. In looking forward to an easy victory over him in the joint debate at Cañon City, however, he had perhaps relied too much on the younger man’s absorption. Tarvin’s consciousness that he had not been playing his party fair had lately chafed against his pride of success. The result was irritation, and Kate’s prophecies and insinuations were pepper on an open wound.

The Cañon City meeting was set down for the night following the conversation just recorded, and Tarvin set foot on the shaky dry goods box platform at the roller skating rink that night, with a raging young intention to make it understood that he was still here — if he was in love.

Sheriff had the opening, and Tarvin sat in the background dangling a long, restless leg from one knee. The patchily illumined huddle of auditors below him looked up at a nervous, bony, loosehung man, with a kind, clever, aggressive eye, and a masterful chin. His nose was prominent, and he had the furrowed forehead and the hair thinned about the temples which come to young men in the West. The alert, acute glance which went roving about the hall, measuring the audience to which he was to speak, had the look of sufficiency to the next need, whatever it might be, which, perhaps, more than anything else, commends men to other men beyond the Mississippi. He was dressed in the short sack-coat, which is good enough for most Western public functions; but he had left at Topaz the flannel of everyday wear, and was clad in the white linen of civilisation.

He was wondering, as he listened to Sheriff, how a father could have the heart to get off false views on silver and the tariff to this crowd, while his daughter was hatching that ghastly business at home. The true views were so much mixed up in his own mind with Kate, that when he himself rose at last to answer Sheriff, he found it hard not to ask how the deuce a man expected an intelligent mass meeting to accept the political economy he was trying to apply to the government of a State, when he couldn’t so much as run his own family? Why in the world didn’t he stop his daughter from making such a hash of her life? — that was what he wanted to know. What were fathers for? He reserved these apt remarks, and launched instead upon a flood of figures, facts, and arguments.

Tarvin had precisely the gift by which the stump orator coils himself into the heart of the stump auditor: he upbraided, he arraigned; he pleaded, insisted, denounced; he raised his lean, long arms, and called the gods and the statistics and the Republican party to witness, and, when he could make a point that way, he did not scorn to tell a story. ‘Why,’ he would cry defiantly, in that colloquial shout which the political orator uses for his anecdotes, ‘that is like a man I used to know back in Wisconsin, who ——’ It wasn’t very much like the man in Wisconsin; and Tarvin had never been in Wisconsin, and didn’t know the man; but it was a good story, and when the crowd howled with delight Sheriff gathered himself together a little and tried to smile, and that was what Tarvin wanted.

There were dissentient voices, and the jointness of the debate was sometimes not confined to the platform; but the deep, relishing groans which would often follow applause or laughter, acted as a spur to Tarvin, who had joined the janitor of the rink that afternoon in mixing the dusky brew on the table before him, and who really did not need a spur. Under the inspiration of the mixture in, the pitcher, the passionate resolve in his heart, and the groans and hisses, he melted gradually into an ecstasy of conviction which surprised even himself, and he began to feel at last that he had his audience under his hand. Then he gripped them, raised them aloft like a conjuror, patted and stroked them, dropped them to dreadful depths, snatched them back, to show that he could, caught them to his heart, and told them a story. And with that audience hugged to his breast he marched victoriously up and down upon the prostrate body of the Democratic party, chanting its requiem. It was a great time. Everybody’ rose at the end and said so loudly; they stood on benches and shouted it with a bellow that shook the building. They tossed their caps in the air, and danced on one another, and wanted to carry Tarvin around the hall on their shoulders.

But Tarvin, with a choking at the throat, turned his back on it all, and, fighting his way blindly through the crowd which had gathered on the platform, reached the dressing-room behind the stage. He shut and bolted the door behind him, and flung himself into a chair, mopping his forehead.

‘And the man who can do that,’ he muttered, ‘can’t make one tiny little bit of a girl marry him.’

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