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

XXI

The Law whereby my lady moves
    Was never Law to me,
But ’tis enough that she approves
    Whatever Law it be.

For in that Law, and by that Law,
    My constant course I’ll steer;
Not that I heed or deem it dread,
    But that she holds it dear.

Tho’ Asia sent for my content
    Her richest argosies,
Those would I spurn, and bid return,
    If that should give her ease.

With equal heart I’d watch depart
    Each spiced sail from sight,
Sans bitterness, desiring less
    Great gear than her delight.

Yet such am I, yea such am I—
    Sore bond and freest free —
The Law that sways my lady’s ways
    Is mystery to me!

To sit still, and to keep sitting still, is the first lesson that the young jockey must learn. Tarvin was learning it in bitterness of spirit. For the sake of his town, for the sake of his love, and, above all, for the sake of his love’s life, he must go. The town was waiting, his horse was saddled at the door, but his love would not come. He must sit still.

The burning desert wind blew through the open verandah as remorselessly as Sitabhai’s hate. Looking out, he saw nothing but the city asleep in the sunshine and the wheeling kites above it. Yet when evening fell, and a man might be able by bold riding to escape to the railway, certain shrouded figures would creep from the walls and take up their position within easy gunshot of the rest-house. One squatted at each point of the compass, and between them, all night long, came and went a man on horseback. Tarvin could hear the steady beat of the hoofs as he went his rounds, and the sound did not give him fresh hope. But for Kate — but for Kate, he repeated to himself, he would have been long since beyond reach of horse or bullet. The hours were very slow, and as he sat and watched the shadows grow and shorten it seemed to him, as it had seemed so often before, that this and no other was the moment that Topaz would choose to throw her chances from her.

He had lost already, he counted, eight-and-forty precious hours, and, so far as he could see, the remainder of the year might be spent in an equally unprofitable fashion.

Meantime Kate lay exposed to every imaginable danger. Sitabhai was sure to assume that he had wrested the necklace from her for the sake of the ‘frail white girl’; she had said as much on the dam. It was for Kate’s sake, in a measure; but Tarvin reflected bitterly that an Oriental had no sense of proportion, and, like the snake, strikes first at that which is nearest. And Kate? How in the world was he to explain the case to her? He had told her of danger about her path as well as his own, and she had decided to face that danger. For her courage and devotion he loved her; but her obstinacy made him grit his teeth. There was but one grimly comical element in the terrible jumble. What would the King say to Sitabhai when he discovered that she had lost the Luck of the State? In what manner would she veil that loss; and, above all, into what sort of royal rage would she fall? Tarvin shook his head meditatively. ‘It’s quite bad enough for me,’ he said, ‘just about as bad as it can possibly be made; but I have a wandering suspicion that it may be unwholesome for Juggut. Yes! I can spare time to be very sorry for Juggut. My fat friend, you should have held straight that first time, outside the city walls!’

He rose and looked out into the sunlight, wondering which of the scattered vagrants by the roadside might be an emissary from the palace. A man lay apparently asleep by the side of his camel near the road that ran to the city. Tarvin stepped out casually from the verandah, and saw, as soon as he was fairly in the open, that the sleeper rolled round to the other side of his beast. He strolled forward a few paces. The sunlight glinted above the back of the camel on something that shone like silver. Tarvin marched straight toward the glitter, his pistol in his hand. The man, when he came up to him, was buried in innocent slumber. Under the fold of his garment peered the muzzle of a new and very clean rifle.

‘Looks as if Sitabhai was calling out the militia, and supplying them with outfits from her private armoury. Juggut’s gun was new, too,’ said Tarvin, standing over the sleeper. ‘But this man knows more about guns than Juggut. Hi!’ He stooped down and stirred the man up with the muzzle of his revolver. ‘I’m afraid I must trouble you for that gun. And tell the lady to drop it, will you? It won’t pay.’

The man understood the unspoken eloquence of the pistol, and nothing more. He gave up his gun sullenly enough, and moved away, lashing his camel spitefully.

‘Now, I wonder how many more of her army I shall have to disarm,’ said Tarvin, retracing his steps, the captured gun over his shoulder. ‘I wonder — no, I won’t believe that she would dare to do anything to Kate! She knows enough of me to be sure that I’d blow her and her old palace into tomorrow. If she’s half the woman she pretends to be, she’ll reckon with me before she goes much further.’

In vain he attempted to force himself into this belief. Sitabhai had shown him what sort of thing her mercy might be, and Kate might have tasted it ere this. To go to her now — to be maimed or crippled at the least if he went to her now — was impossible. Yet, he decided that he would go. He returned hastily to Fibby, whom he had left not three minutes before flicking flies off in the sunshine at the back of the rest-house. But Fibby lay on his side groaning piteously, hamstrung and dying.

Tarvin could hear his groom industriously polishing a bit round the corner, and when the man came up in response to his call he flung himself down by the side of the horse, howling with grief.

‘An enemy hath done this, an enemy hath done this!’ he clamoured. ‘My beautiful brown horse that never did harm except when he kicked through fulness of meat! Where shall I find a new service if I let my charge die thus?’

‘I wish I knew! I wish I knew!’ said Tarvin, puzzled, and almost despairing. ‘There’d be a bullet through one black head, if I were just a little surer. Get up, you! Fibby, old man, I forgive you all your sins. You were a good old boy, and — here’s luck.’

The blue smoke enveloped Fibby’s head for an instant, the head fell like a hammer, and the good horse was out of his pain. The groom, rising, rent the air with grief, till Tarvin kicked him out of the pickets and bade him begone. Then it was noticeable that his cries ceased suddenly, and, as he retreated into his mud-house to tie up his effects, he smiled and dug up some silver from a hole under his bedstead.

Tarvin, dismounted, looked east, west, north, south for help, as Sitabhai had looked on the dam. A wandering gang of gipsies with their lean bullocks and yelping dogs turned an angle of the city wall, and rested like a flock of unclean birds by the city gate. The sight in itself was not unusual, but city regulations forbade camping within a quarter of a mile of the walls.

‘Some of the lady’s poor relatives, I suppose. They have blocked the way through the gate pretty well. Now, if I were to make a bolt of it to the missionary’s they’d have me, wouldn’t they?’ muttered Tarvin to himself. ‘On the whole, I’ve seen prettier professions than trading with Eastern queens. They don’t seem to understand the rules of the game.’

At that moment a cloud of dust whirled through the gipsy camp, as the escort of the Maharaj Kunwar, clearing the way for the barouche, scattered the dark band to the left and right. Tarvin wondered what this might portend. The escort halted with the customary rattle of accoutrements at the rest-house door, the barouche behind them. A single trooper, two hundred yards or more in the rear, lifted his voice in a deferential shout as he pursued the carriage. He was answered by a chuckle from the escort, and two shrill screams of delight from the occupants of the barouche.

A child whom Tarvin had never before seen stood upright in the back of the carriage, and hurled a torrent of abuse in the vernacular at the outpaced trooper. Again the escort laughed.

‘Tarvin Sahib! Tarvin Sahib!’ piped the Maharaj Kunwar. ‘Come and look at us.’

For a moment Tarvin fancied this a fresh device of the enemy; but reassured by the sight of his old and trusted ally, the Maharaj, he stepped forward.

‘Prince,’ he said, as he took his hand, ‘you ought not to be out.’

‘Oh, it is all right,’ said the young man hastily, though his little pale face belied it. ‘I gave the order and we came. Miss Kate gives me orders; but she took me over to the palace, and there I give orders. This is Umr Singh — my brother, the little Prince; but I shall be King.’

The second child raised his eyes slowly and looked full at Tarvin. The eyes and the low broad forehead were those of Sitabhai, and the mouth closed firmly over the little pearl-like teeth, as his mother’s mouth had closed in the conflict on the Dungar Talao.

‘He is from the other side of the palace,’ continued the Maharaj, still in English. ‘From the other side, where I must not go. But when I was in the palace I went to him — ha, ha, Tarvin Sahib — and he was killing a goat. Look! His hands are all red now.’

Umr Singh opened a tiny palm at a word from the Maharaj in the vernacular, and flung it outward at Tarvin. It was dark with dried blood, and a bearded whisper ran among the escort. The commandant turned in his saddle, and, nodding at Tarvin, muttered, ‘Sitabhai.’ Tarvin caught the word, and it was sufficient for him. Providence had sent him help out of a clear sky. He framed a plan instantly.

‘But how did you come here, you young imps?’ he demanded.

‘Oh, there are only women in the palace yonder, and I am a Rajput and a man. He cannot speak any English at all,’ he added, pointing to his companion; but when we have played together I have told him about you, Tarvin Sahib, and about the day you picked me out of my saddle, and he wished to come too, to see all the things you show me, so I gave the order very quietly, and we came out of the little door together. And so we are here! Salaam, baba,’ he said patronisingly to the child at his side, and the child, slowly and gravely, raised his hand to his forehead, still gazing with fixed, incurious eyes on the stranger. Then he whispered something that made the Maharaj Kunwar laugh. ‘He says,’ said the Maharaj Kunwar, ‘that you are not so big as he thought. His mother told him that you were stronger than any man, but some of these troopers are bigger than you.’

‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ asked Tarvin.

‘Show him your gun, and how you shoot rupees, and what you do that makes horses quiet when they kick, and all those things.’

‘All right,’ said Tarvin. ‘But I can’t show them here, Come over to Mr. Estes with me.’

‘I do not like to go there. My monkey is dead. And I do not think Kate would like to see us. She is always crying now. She took me up to the palace yesterday, and this morning I went to her again; but she would not see me.’

Tarvin could have hugged the child for the blessed assurance that Kate at least still lived. ‘Isn’t she at the hospital, then?’ he asked thickly.

‘Oh, the hospital has all gone phut. There are no women now. They all ran away.’

‘No!’ cried Tarvin. ‘Say that again, little man. What for?’

‘Devils,’ said the Maharaj Kunwar briefly. ‘What do I know? It was some women’s talk. Show him how you ride, Tarvin Sahib.’

Again Umr Singh whispered to his companion, and put one leg over the side of the barouche. ‘He says he will ride in front of you, as I told him I did,’ interpreted the Prince. ‘Gurdit Singh, dismount!’

A trooper flung himself out of the saddle on the word, and stood to attention at the horse’s head. Tarvin, smiling to himself at the perfection of his opportunity, said nothing, but leapt into the saddle, picked Umr Singh out of his barouche, and placed him carefully before him.

‘Sitabhai would be rather restless if she could see me,’ he murmured to himself, as he tucked his arm round the lithe little figure. ‘I don’t think there will be any Juggutting while I carry this young man in front of me.’

As the escort opened to allow Tarvin to take his place at their head, a wandering priest, who had been watching the episode from a little distance, turned and shouted with all the strength of his lungs across the plain, in the direction of the city. The cry was taken up by unseen voices, passed on to the city walls, and died away on the sands beyond.

Umr Singh smiled, as the horse began to trot, and urged Tarvin to go faster. This the Maharaj forbade. He wished to see the sight comfortably from his seat in the barouche. As he passed the gipsy camp, men and women threw themselves down on the sands, crying, ‘Jai! Jungle da Badshah jai!’ and the faces of the troopers darkened.

‘That means,’ cried the Maharaj Kunwar, ‘Victory to the King of the Desert. I have no money to give them. Have you, Tarvin Sahib.’

In his joy at being now safely on his way to Kate, Tarvin could have flung everything he possessed to the crowd — almost the Naulahka itself. He emptied a handful of copper and small silver among them, and the cry rose again, but bitter laughter was, mingled with it, and the gipsy folk called to each other, mocking.. The Maharaj Kunwar’s face turned scarlet. He leaned forward listening for an instant, and then shouted, ‘By Indur, it is for him! Scatter their tents!’ At a wave of his hand the escort, wheeling, plunged through the camp in line, driving the light ash of the fires up in clouds, slashing the donkeys with the flat of their swords until they stampeded, and carrying away the frail brown tents on the butts of their reversed lances.

Tarvin looked on contentedly at the dispersal of the group, which he knew would have stopped him if he had been alone.

Umr Singh bit his lip. Then, turning to the Maharaj Kunwar, he smiled, and put forward from his belt the hilt of his sword in sign of fealty.

‘It is just, my brother,’ he said in the vernacular. ‘But I’— here he raised his voice a little —‘would not drive the gipsy folk too far. They always return.’

‘Ay,’ cried a voice from the huddled crowd, watching the wreck of the camp, significantly, ‘gipsies always return, my King.’

‘So does a dog,’ said the Maharaj, between his teeth. ‘Both are kicked. Drive on.’

And a pillar of dust came to Estes’s house, Tarvin riding in safety in the midst of it.

Telling the boys to play until he came out, he swept into the house, taking the steps two at a time, and discovered Kate in a dark corner of the, parlour with a bit of sewing in her hand. As she looked up he saw that she was crying.

‘Nick!’ she exclaimed voicelessly. ‘Nick!’ He had stopped, hesitating on the threshold; she dropped her work, and rose breathless. ‘You have come back! It is you! You are alive!’

Tarvin smiled, and held out his arms. ‘Come and see!’ She took a step forward.

‘Oh, I was afraid ——’

‘Come!’

She went doubtfully toward him. He caught her fast, and held her in his arms.

For a long minute she let her head lie on his breast. Then she looked up. ‘This isn’t what I meant,’ she protested.

‘Oh, don’t try to improve on it!’ Tarvin said hastily.

‘She tried to poison me. I was sure when I heard nothing that she must have killed you. I fancied horrible things.’

‘Poor child! And your hospital has gone wrong! You have been having a hard time. But we will change all that. We must leave as soon as you can get ready. I’ve nipped her claws for a moment; I’m holding a hostage. But we can’t keep that up for ever. We must get away.’

‘We!’ she repeated feebly.

‘Well, do you want to go alone?’

She smiled as she released herself. ‘I want you to.’

‘And you?’

‘I’m not worth thinking of. I have failed. Everything I meant to do has fallen about me in a heap. I feel burnt out, Nick — burnt out!’

‘All right! We’ll put in new works and launch you on a fresh system. That’s what I want. There shall be nothing to remind you that you ever saw Rhatore, dear.’

‘It was a mistake,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Everything. My coming. My thinking I could do it. It’s not a girl’s work. It’s my work, perhaps; but it’s not for me. I have given it up, Nick. Take me home.’

Tarvin gave an unbecoming shout of joy, and folded her in his arms again. He told her that they must be married at once, and start that night, if she could manage it; and Kate, dreading what might befall him, assented doubtfully. She spoke of preparations; but Tarvin said that they would prepare after they had done it. They could buy things at Bombay — stacks of things. He was sweeping her forward with the onrush of his extempore plans, when she said suddenly, ‘But what of the dam, Nick? You can’t leave that.’

‘Shucks!’ exclaimed Tarvin heartily. ‘You don’t suppose there’s any gold in the old river, do you?’

She recoiled quickly from his arms, staring at him in accusation and reproach.

‘Do you mean that you have always known that there was no gold there?‘she asked.

Tarvin pulled himself together quickly; but not so quickly that she did not catch the confession in his eye.

‘I see you have,’ she said coldly.

Tarvin measured the crisis which had suddenly descended on him out of the clouds; he achieved an instantaneous change of front, and met her smiling.

‘Certainly,’ he said; ‘I have been working it as a blind.’

‘A blind?’ she repeated. ‘To cover what?’

‘You.’

‘What do you mean?’ she inquired, with a look in her eyes which made him uncomfortable.

‘The Indian Government allows no one to remain in the State without a definite purpose. I couldn’t tell Colonel Nolan that I had come courting you, could I?’

‘I don’t know. But you could have avoided taking the Maharajah’s money to carry out this — this plan. An honest man would have avoided that.’

‘Oh, look here!’ exclaimed Tarvin.

‘How could you cheat the King into thinking that there was a reason for your work, how could you let him give you the labour of a thousand men, how could you take his money? O Nick!’

He gazed at her for a vacant and hopeless minute. ‘Why, Kate,’ he exclaimed, ‘do you know you are talking of the most stupendous joke the Indian empire has witnessed since the birth of time?’

This was pretty good, but it was not good enough. He plunged for a stronger hold as she answered, with a perilous little note of breakdown in her voice, ‘You make it worse.’

‘Well, your sense of humour never was your strongest point, you know, Kate.’ He took the seat next her, leaned over and took her hand, as he went on. ‘Doesn’t it strike you as rather amusing, though, after all, to rip up half a state to be near a very small little girl — a very sweet, very extra lovely little girl, but still a rather tiny little girl in proportion to the size of the Amet valley? Come — doesn’t it?’

‘Is that all you have to say?’ asked she. Tarvin turned pale. He knew the tone off finality he heard in her voice; it went with a certain look of scorn when she spoke of any form of moral baseness that moved her. He recognised his condemnation in it and shuddered. In the moment that passed, while he still kept silence, he recognised this for the crisis of his life. Then he took strong hold of himself, and said quietly, easily, unscrupulously —

‘Why, you don’t suppose that I’m not going to ask the Maharajah for his bills do you?’

She gasped a little. Her acquaintance with Tarvin did not help her to follow his dizzying changes of front. His bird’s skill to make his level flight, his reeling dips and circling returns upon himself, all seem part of a single impulse, must ever remain confusing to her. But she rightly believed in his central intention to do the square thing, if he could find out what it was; and her belief in his general strength helped her not to see at this moment that he was deriving his sense of the square thing from herself. She could not know, and probably could not have imagined, how little his own sense of the square thing had to do with any system of morality, and how entirely he must always define morality as what pleased Kate. Other women liked confections; she preferred morality, and he meant she should have it, if he had to turn pirate to get it for her.

‘You didn’t think I wasn’t paying for the show?’ he pursued bravely; but in his heart he was saying, ‘She loathes it. She hates it. Why didn’t I think; why didn’t I think?’ He added aloud, ‘I had my fun, and now I’ve got you. You’re both cheap at the price, and I’m going, to step up and pay it like a little man. You must know that!’

His smile met no answering smile. He mopped his forehead and stared anxiously at her. All the easiness in the world couldn’t make him sure what she would say next. She said nothing, and he had to go on desperately, with a cold fear gathering about his heart. ‘Why, it’s just like me, isn’t it, Kate, to work a scheme on the old Maharajah? It’s like a man who owns a mine that’s turning out $2000 a month, to rig a game out in this desert country to do a confiding Indian Prince out of a few thousand rupees?’ He advanced this recently inspired conception of his conduct with an air of immemorial familiarity, born of desperation.

‘What mine?’ she asked, with dry lips.

‘The “Lingering Lode,” of course. You’ve heard me speak of it?’

‘Yes, but I didn’t know ——’

‘That it was doing that? Well, it is — right along. Want to see the assay?’

‘No,’ she answered. ‘No. But that makes you —— Why, but, Nick, that makes you ——’

‘A rich man? Moderately, while the lead holds out. Too rich for petty larceny, I guess.’

He was joking for his life. The heart-sickening seriousness of his unseriousness was making a hole in his head; the tension was too much for him. In the mad fear of that moment his perceptions doubled their fineness. Something went through him as he said ‘larceny.’ Then his heart stopped. A sure, awful, luminous perception leaped upon him, and he knew himself for lost.

If she hated this, what would she say to the other? Innocent, successful, triumphant, even gay it seemed to him; but what to her? He turned sick.

Kate or the Naulahka. He must choose. The Naulahka or Kate?

‘Don’t make light of it,’ she was saying. ‘You would be just as honest if you couldn’t afford it, Nick. Ah,’ she went on, laying her hand on his lightly, in mute petition for having even seemed to doubt him, ‘I know you, Nick! You like to make the better seem the worse reason; you like to pretend to be wicked. But who is so honest? O Nick! I knew you had to be true. If you weren’t, everything else would be wrong.’

He took her in his arms. ‘Would it, little girl?’ he asked, looking down at her. ‘We must keep the other things right, then, at any expense.’

He heaved a deep sigh as he stooped and kissed her.

‘Have you such a thing as a box?’ he asked, after a long pause.

‘Any sort of box?’ asked Kate bewilderedly.

‘No — well, it ought to be the finest box in the world, but I suppose one of those big grape boxes will do. It isn’t every day that one sends presents to a queen.’

Kate handed him a large chip box in which long green grapes from Kabul had been packed. Discoloured cotton wool lay at the bottom.

‘That was sold at the door the other day,’ she said. ‘Is it big enough?’

Tarvin turned away without answering, emptied something that clicked like a shower of pebbles upon the wool, and sighed deeply: Topaz was in that box. The voice of the Maharaj Kunwar lifted itself from the next room.

‘Tarvin Sahib — Kate, we have eaten all the fruit, and now we want to do something else.’

‘One moment, little man,’ said Tarvin. With his back still toward Kate, he drew his hand caressingly, for the last time, over the blazing heap at the bottom of the box, fondling the stones one by one. The great green emerald pierced him, he thought, with a reproachful gaze. A mist crept into his eyes the diamond was too bright. He shut the lid down upon the box hastily, and put it into Kate’s hands with a decisive gesture; he made her hold it while he tied it in silence. Then, in a voice not his, he asked her to take the box to Sitabhai with his compliments. ‘No,’ he continued, seeing the alarm in her eyes. ‘She won’t — she daren’t hurt you now. Her child’s coming along with us; and I’ll go with you, of course, as far as I can. Glory be, it’s the last journey that you’ll ever undertake in this infernal land. The last but one, that’s to say. We live at high pressure in Rhatore — too high pressure for me. Be quick, if you love me.’

Kate hastened, to put on her helmet, while Tarvin amused the two princes by allowing them to, inspect his revolver, and promising at some more fitting season to shoot as many coins as they should demand. The lounging escort at the door was suddenly scattered by. a trooper from without, who flung his horse desperately through their ranks, shouting, ‘A letter for Tarvin Sahib!’

Tarvin stepped into the verandah, took a crumpled half-sheet of paper from the outstretched hand, and read these words, traced painfully and laboriously in an unformed round hand:—

‘DEAR MR. TARVIN— Give me the boy and keep the other thing. Your affectionate FRIEND.’

Tarvin chuckled and thrust the note into his waistcoat pocket. ‘There is no answer,’ he said — and to himself: ‘You’re a thoughtful girl, Sitabhai, but I’m afraid you’re just a little too thoughtful. That boy’s wanted for the next halfhour. Are you ready, Kate?’

The princes lamented loudly when they were told that Tarvin was riding over to the palace at once, and that, if they hoped for further entertainment, they must both go with him. ‘We will go into the great Durbar Hall,’ said the Maharaj Kunwar consolingly to his companion at last, ‘and make all the music-boxes play together.’

‘I want to see that man shoot,’ said Umr Singh. ‘I want to see him shoot something dead. I do not wish to go to the palace.’

‘You’ll ride on my horse,’ said Tarvin, when the answer had been interpreted, ‘and I’ll make him gallop all the way. Say, Prince, how fast do you think your carriage can go?’

‘As fast as Miss Kate dares.’

Kate stepped in, and the cavalcade galloped to the palace, Tarvin riding always a little in front with Umr Singh clapping his hands on the saddle-bow.

‘We must pull up at Sitabhai’s wing, dear,’ Tarvin cried. ‘You won’t be afraid to walk in under the arch with me?’

‘I trust you, Nick,’ she answered simply, getting out of the carriage.

‘Then go in to the women’s wing. Give the box into Sitabhai’s hands, and tell her that I sent it back. You’ll find she knows my name.’

The horse trampled under the archway, Kate at its side, and Tarvin holding Umr Singh very much in evidence. The courtyard was empty, but as they came out into the sunshine by the central fountain the rustle and whisper behind the shutters rose, as the tiger-grass rustles when the wind blows through it.

‘One minute, dear,’ said Tarvin, halting, ‘if you can bear this sun on your head.’

A door opened and a eunuch came out, beckoning silently to Kate. She followed him and disappeared, the door closing behind her. Tarvin’s heart rose into his mouth, and unconsciously he clasped Umr Singh so closely to his breast that the child cried out.

The whisper rose, and it seemed to Tarvin as if some one were sobbing behind the shutters. Then followed a peal of low, soft laughter, and the muscles at the corner of Tarvin’s mouth relaxed. Umr Singh began to struggle in his arms.

‘Not yet, young man. You must wait until — ah! thank God.’

Kate reappeared, her little figure framed against the darkness of the doorway. Behind her came the eunuch, crawling fearfully to Tarvin’s side. Tarvin smiled affably, and dropped the amazed young prince into his arms. Umr Singh was borne away kicking, and ere the left the courtyard Tarvin heard the dry roar of an angry child, followed by an unmistakable yelp of pain. Tarvin smiled.

‘They spank young princes in Rajputana. That’s one step on the path to progress. What did she say, Kate?’

‘She said I was to be sure and tell you that she knew you were not afraid. “Tell Tarvin Sahib that I knew he was not afraid.”’

‘Where’s Umr Singh?’ asked the Maharaj Kunwar from the barouche.

‘He’s gone to his mother. I’m afraid I can’t amuse you just now, little man. I’ve forty thousand things to do, and no time to do them in. Tell me where your father is.’

‘I do not know. There has been trouble and crying in the palace. The women are always crying, and that makes my father angry. I shall stay at Mr. Estes’, and play with Kate.’

‘Yes. Let him stay,’ said Kate quickly. ‘Nick, do you think I ought to leave him?’

‘That’s another of the things I must fix,’ said Tarvin. ‘But first I must find the Maharajah, if I have to dig up Rhatore for him. What’s that, little one?’

A trooper whispered to the young Prince.

‘This man says that he is there,’ said the Maharaj Kunwar. ‘He has been there since two days. I also have wished to see him.’

‘Very good. Drive home, Kate. I’ll wait here.’

He re-entered the archway, and reined up. Again the whisper behind the shutter rose; and a man from a doorway demanded his business.

‘I must see the Maharajah,’ said Tarvin.

‘Wait,’ said the man. And Tarvin waited for a full five minutes, using his time for concentrated thought.

Then the Maharajah emerged, and amiability sat on every hair of his newly-oiled moustache.

For some mysterious reason Sitabhai had withdrawn the light of her countenance from him for two days, and had sat raging in her own apartments. Now the mood had passed, and the gipsy would see him again. Therefore the Maharajah’s heart was glad within him; and wisely, as befitted the husband of many wives, he did not inquire too closely into the reasons that had led to the change.

‘Ah, Tarvin Sahib,’ said he, ‘I have not seen you for long. What is the news from the dam? Is there anything to see?’

‘Maharajah Sahib, that’s what I’ve come to talk about. There is nothing to see, and I think that there is no gold to be got at.’

‘That is bad,’ said the King lightly.

‘But there is a good deal to be seen, if you care to come along. I. don’t want to waste your money any more, now I’m sure of the fact; but, I don’t see the use of saving all the powder on the dam. There must be five hundred pounds of it.’

‘I do not understand,’ said the Maharajah, whose mind was occupied with other things.

‘Do you want to see the biggest explosion that you’ve ever seen in your life? Do you want to hear the earth shake, and see the rocks fly?’

The Maharajah’s face brightened.

‘Will it be seen from the palace?’ he said; ‘from the top of the palace?’

‘Oh yes. But the best place to watch it will be from the side of the river. I shall put the river back at five o’clock. It’s three o’clock now. Will you be there, Maharajah Sahib?’

‘I will be there. It will be a big tamasha. Five hundred pounds of powder! The earth will be rent in two.’

‘I should remark. And after that, Maharajah Sahib, I am going to be married; and then I am going away. Will you come to the wedding?’

The Maharajah shaded his eyes from the sunglare, and peered up at Tarvin under his turban.

‘By God, Tarvin Sahib,’ said he, ‘you are a quick man. So you will marry the doctor-lady, and then you will go away? I will come to the wedding. I and Pertab Singh.’

The next two hours in the life of Nicholas Tarvin will never be adequately chronicled. There was a fierce need upon him to move mountains and shift the poles of the earth; there was a strong horse beneath him, and in his heart the knowledge that he had lost the Naulahka and gained Kate. When he appeared, a meteor amid the coolies on the dam, they understood, and a word was spoken that great things were toward. The gang foreman turned to his shouts, and learned that the order of the day was destruction — the one thing that the Oriental fully comprehends.

They dismantled the powder-shed with outcries and fierce yells, hauled the bullock-carts from the crown of the dam, and dropped the derrick after them, and tore down the mat and grass coolie-lines. Then, Tarvin urging them always, they buried the powder-casks in the crown of the halfbuilt dam, piled the wrapped charges upon them, and shovelled fresh sand atop of all.

It was a hasty onslaught, but the powder was at least all in one place; and it should be none of Tarvin’s fault if the noise and smoke at least did not delight the Maharajah.

A little before five he came with his escort, and Tarvin, touching fire to a many-times-lengthened fuse, bade all men run back. The fire ate slowly the crown of the dam. Then with a dull roar the dam opened out its heart in a sheet of white flame, and the masses of flying earth darkened the smoke above.

The ruin closed on itself for an instant ere the waters of the Amet plunged forward into the gap, made a boiling rapid, and then spread themselves lazily along their accustomed levels.

The rain of things descending pitted the earth of the banks and threw the water in sheets and spurts. Then only the smoke and the blackened flanks of the dam, crumbling each minute as the river sucked them down, remained to tell of the work that had been.

‘And now, Maharajah Sahib, what do I owe you?’ said Tarvin, after he had satisfied himself that none of the more reckless coolies had been killed.

‘That was very fine,’ said the Maharajah. ‘I never saw that before. It is a pity that it cannot come again.’

‘What do I owe you?’ repeated Tarvin.

‘For that? Oh, they were my people. They ate a little grain, and many were from my jails. The powder was from the arsenal. What is the use to talk of paying? Am I a bunnia that I can tell what there is to pay? It was a fine tamasha. By God, there is no dam left at all.’

‘You might let me put it right.’

‘Tarvin Sahib, if you waited one year, or perhaps two years, you would get a bill and besides, if anything was paid, the men who pay the convicts would take it all, and I should not be richer. They were my people, and the grain was cheap, and they have seen the tamasha. Enough. It is not good to talk of payment. Let us return to the city. By God, Tarvin Sahib, you are a quick man. Now there will be no one to play pachisi with me or to make me laugh. And the Maharaj Kunwar will be sorry also. But it is good that a man should marry. Yes, it is good. Why do you go, Tarvin Sahib? Is it an order of the Government?’

‘Yes; the American Government. I am wanted there to help govern my State.’

‘No telegram has come for you,’ said the King simply. ‘But you are so quick.’

Tarvin laughed lightly, wheeled his horse, and was gone, leaving the King interested but unmoved. He had finally learned to accept Tarvin and his ways as a natural phenomenon beyond control. As he drew rein instinctively opposite the missionary’s door and looked for an instant at the city, the sense of the otherness of things daily seen that heralds swift coming change smote the mind of the American, and he shivered. ‘It was a bad dream — a very bad dream,’ he muttered, ‘and the worst of it is not one of the boys in Topaz would ever believe half of it.’ Then the eyes that swept the arid landscape twinkled with many reminiscences. ‘Tarvin, my boy, you’ve played with a kingdom, and for results it lays over monkeying with the buzz-saw. You were left when you sized this State up for a played-out hole in the ground; badly left. If you have been romping around six months after something you hadn’t the sabe to hold when you’d got it you’ve learned that much . . . . Topaz! Poor old Topaz!’ Again his eyes ran round the tawny horizon, and he laughed aloud. The little town under the shadow of Big Chief, ten thousand miles away and all ignorant of the mighty machinery that had moved on its behalf, would have resented that laugh; for Tarvin, fresh from events that had shaken Rhatore to its heart, was almost patronising the child of his ambition.

He brought his hand down on his thigh with a smack, and turned his horse toward the telegraph-office. ‘How in the name of all that’s good and holy,’ said he, ‘am I to clear up this business with the Mutrie? Even a copy of the Naulahka in glass would make her mouth water.’ The horse cantered on steadily, and Tarvin dismissed the matter with a generous sweep of his free hand. ‘If I can stand it she can. But I’ll prepare her by electricity.’

The dove-coloured telegraph-operator and Postmaster–General of the State remembers even today how the Englishman who was not an Englishman, and, therefore, doubly incomprehensible, climbed for the last time up the narrow stairs, sat down in the broken chair, and demanded absolute silence; how, at the end of fifteen minutes’ portentous meditation and fingering of a thin moustache, he sighed heavily as is the custom of Englishmen when they have eaten that which disagrees with them, waved the operator aside, called up the next office, and clicked off a message with a haughty and high-stepping action of the hands. How he lingered long and lovingly over the last click, applied his ear to the instrument as though it could answer, and turning with a large sweet smile said — ‘Finis, Babu. Make a note of that,’ and swept forth chanting the war-cry of his State.

It is not wealth nor rank nor state,
But get-up-and-git that makes men great.

* * * * *

The bullock-cart creaked down the road to Rawut junction in the first flush of a purple evening, and the low ranges of the Aravallis showed as many coloured cloud banks against the turquoise sky-line. Behind it the red rock of Rhatore burned angrily on the yellow floors of the desert, speckled with the shadows of the browsing camels. Overhead the crane and the wild duck were flocking back to their beds in the reeds, and grey monkeys, family by family, sat on the roadside, their arms round one another’s necks. The evening star came up from behind a jagged peak of rock and brushwood, so that its reflection might swim undisturbed at the bottom of an almost dried reservoir, buttressed with time-yellowed marble and flanked with silver plume-grass. Between the star and the earth wheeled huge fox-headed bats and night-jars hawking for the feather-winged moths. The buffaloes had left their water-holes, and the cattle were lying down for the night. Then villagers in far-away huts began to sing, and the hillsides were studded with home lights. The bullocks grunted as the driver twisted their tails, and the high grass by the roadside brushed with the wash of a wave of the open beach against the slow-turning tyres.

The first breath of a cold-weather night made Kate wrap her rugs about her more closely. Tarvin was sitting at the back of the cart, swinging his legs and staring at Rhatore before the bends of the roads should hide it, The realisation of defeat, remorse, and the torture of an over well-trained conscience were yet to come to Kate. In that hour, luxuriously disposed upon many cushions, she realised nothing more than a woman’s complete contentment with the fact that there was a man in the world to do things for her, though she had not yet learned to lose her interest in how they were done.

The reiterated and passionate farewells of the women in the palace, and the cyclonic sweep of a wedding at which Nick had refused to efface himself as a bridegroom should, but had flung all their world forward on the torrent of his own vitality, had worn her out. The yearning of homesickness — she had seen it in Mrs. Estes’ wet eyes at the missionary’s house an hour before — lay strong upon her, and she would fain have remembered her plunge into the world’s evil as a dream of the night, but —

‘Nick,’ she said, softly.

‘What is it, little woman?’

‘Oh, nothing: I was thinking. Nick, what did you do about the Maharaj Kunwar?’

‘He’s fixed, or I’m mistaken. Don’t worry your head about that. After I’d explained a thing or two to old man Nolan he seemed to think well of inviting that young man to board with him until he starts for the Mayo College. Tumble?’

‘His poor mother! If only I could have ——’

‘But you couldn’t, little woman. Hi! Look quick, Kate! There she goes! The last of Rhatore.’

A string of coloured lights, high up on the hanging gardens of the palace; was being blotted out behind the velvet blackness of a hill shoulder. Tarvin leaped to his feet, caught the side of the cart, and bowed profoundly after the Oriental manner.

The lights disappeared one by one, even as the glories of a necklace had slidden into a Kabuli grape-box, till there remained only the flare from a window on a topmost bastion — a point of light as red and as remote as the blaze of the Black Diamond. That passed too, and the soft darkness rose out of the earth fold upon fold wrapping the man and the woman.

‘After all,’ said Tarvin, addressing the newlighted firmament, ‘that was distinctly a side issue.’

This web edition published by:

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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/naulahka/chapter21.html

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