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

VI

In the State of Kot–Kumharsen, where the wild dacoits abound,
    And the Thakurs live in castles on the hills,
Where the bunnia and bunjara in alternate streaks are found,
    And the Rajah cannot liquidate his bills;
Where the agent Sahib Bahadur shoots the blackbuck for his larder,
    From the tonga which he uses as machân,
’Twas a white man from the west, came expressly to
    investigate the natural wealth of Hindustan.

— Song from Libretto of Naulahka.

Under certain conditions four days can dwarf eternity. Tarvin had found these circumstances in the bullock-cart from which he crawled ninety-six hours after the bullocks had got up from the dust at Rawut Junction. They stretched behind him — those hours — in a maddening, creaking, dusty, deliberate procession. In an hour the bullock-cart went two and a half miles. Fortunes had been made and lost in Topaz — happy Topaz! — while the cart ploughed its way across a red-hot river-bed, shut in between two walls of belted sand. New cities might have risen in the West and fallen to ruins older than Thebes while, after any of their meals by the wayside, the driver droned over a water-pipe something less wieldy than a Gatling-gun. In these waits and in others — it seemed to him that, the journey was chiefly made up of waits — Tarvin saw himself distanced in the race of life by every male citizen of the United States, and groaned with the consciousness that he could never overtake them, or make up this lost time.

Great grey cranes with scarlet heads stalked through the high grass of the swamps in the pockets of the hills. The snipe and the quail hardly troubled themselves to move from beneath the noses of the bullocks, and once in the dawn, lying upon a glistening rock, he saw two young panthers playing together like kittens.

A few miles from Rawut Junction his driver had taken from underneath the cart a sword which he hung around his neck, and sometimes used on the bullocks as a goad. Tarvin saw that every man went armed in this country, as in his own. But three feet of clumsy steel struck him as a poor substitute for the delicate and nimble revolver.

Once he stood up in the cart and hallooed, for he thought he saw the white top of a prairie schooner. But it was only a gigantic cotton-wain, drawn by sixteen bullocks, dipping and plunging across the ridges. Through all, the scorching Indian sun blazed down on him, making him wonder how he had ever dared praise the perpetual sunshine of Colorado. At dawn the rocks glittered like diamonds, and at noonday the sands of the rivers troubled his eyes with a million flashing sparks. At eventide a cold, dry wind would spring up, and the hills lying along the horizon took a hundred colours under the light of the sunset. Then Tarvin realised the meaning of ‘the gorgeous East,’ for the hills were turned to heaps of ruby and amethyst, while between them the mists in the valleys were opal. He lay in the bullock-cart on his back and stared at the sky, dreaming of the Naulahka, and wondering whether it would match the scenery.

‘The clouds know what I’m up to. It’s a good omen,’ he said to himself.

He cherished the definite and simple plan of buying the Naulahka and paying for it in good money to be raised at Topaz by bonding the town — not, of course, ostensibly for any such purpose. Topaz was good for it, he believed, and if the Maharajah wanted too steep a price when they came to talk business he would form a syndicate.

As the cart swayed from side to side, bumping his head, he wondered where Kate was. She might, under favourable conditions, be in Bombay by this time. That much he knew from careful consideration of her route; but a girl alone could not pass from hemisphere to hemisphere as swiftly as an unfettered man, spurred by love of herself and of Topaz. Perhaps she was resting for a little time with the Zenana Mission at Bombay. He refused absolutely to admit to himself that she had fallen ill by the way. She was resting, receiving her orders, absorbing a few of the wonders of the strange lands he had contemptuously thrust behind him in his eastward flight; but in a few days at most she ought to be at Rhatore, whither the bullock-cart was taking him.

He smiled and smacked his lips with pure enjoyment as he thought of their meeting, and amused himself with fancies about her fancies touching his present whereabouts.

He had left Topaz for San Francisco by the night train over the Pass a little more than twenty-four hours after his conference with Mrs. Mutrie, saying good-bye to no one, and telling nobody where he was going. Kate perhaps wondered at the fervour of his ‘Good evening’ when he left her at her father’s house on their return from their ride to the Hot Springs. But she said nothing, and Tarvin contrived by an effort to take himself off without giving himself away. He had made a quiet sale of a block of town lots the next day at a sacrifice, to furnish himself with money for the voyage; but this was too much in the way of his ordinary business to excite comment, and he was finally able to gaze down at the winking lights of Topaz in the valley from the rear platform of his train, as it climbed up over the Continental Divide, with the certainty that the town he was going to India to bless and boom was not ‘on to’ his beneficent scheme. To make sure that the right story went back to the town, he told the conductor of the train, in strict confidence, while he smoked his usual cigar with him, about a little placer-mining scheme in Alaska which he was going there to nurse for a while.

The conductor embarrassed him for a moment by asking what he was going to do about his election meanwhile; but Tarvin was ready for him here too. He said that he had that fixed. He had to let him into another scheme to show him how it was fixed, but as he bound him to secrecy again, this didn’t matter.

He wondered now, however, whether that scheme had worked, and whether Mrs. Mutrie would keep her promise to cable the result of the election to him at Rhatore. It was amusing to have to trust a woman to let him know whether he was a member of the Colorado legislature or not; but she was the only living person who knew his address, and as the idea had seemed to please her, in common with their whole ‘charming conspiracy’ (this was what she called it), Tarvin had been content.

When he had become convinced that his eyes would never again be blessed with the sight of a white man, or his ears with the sound of intelligible speech, the cart rolled through a gorge between two hills, and stopped before the counterpart of the station at Rawut Junction. It was a double cube of red sandstone, but — for this Tarvin could have taken it in his arms — it was full of white men. They were undressed excessively; they were lying in the verandah in long chairs, and beside each chair was a well-worn bullock trunk.

Tarvin got himself out of the cart, unfolding his long stiffened legs with difficulty, and unkinking his muscles one by one. He was a mask of dust — dust beyond sand-storms or cyclones. It had obliterated the creases of his clothing and turned his black American four-button cutaway to a pearly white. It had done away with the distinction between the hem of his trousers and the top of his shoes. It dropped off him and rolled up from him as he moved. His fervent ‘Thank God!’ was extinguished in a dusty cough. He stepped into the verandah, rubbing his smarting eyes.

‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Got anything to drink?’

No one rose, but somebody shouted for the servant. A man dressed in thin Tussur silk, yellow and ill-fitting as the shuck on a dried cob, and absolutely colourless as to his face, nodded to him and asked languidly —

‘Who are you for?’

‘No? Have they got them here too?’ said Tarvin to himself, recognising in that brief question the universal shibboleth of the commercial traveller.

He went down the long line and twisted each hand in pure joy and thankfulness before he began to draw comparisons between the East and the West, and to ask himself if these idle, silent lotos-eaters could belong to the profession with which he had swapped stories, commodities, and political opinions this many a year in smoking-cars and hotel offices. Certainly they were debased and spiritless parodies of the alert, aggressive, joyous, brazen animals whom he knew as the drummers of the West. But perhaps — a twinge in his back reminded him — they had all reached this sink of desolation viâ country bullock-cart.

He thrust his nose into twelve inches of whisky and soda, and it remained there till there was no more; then he dropped into a vacant chair and surveyed the group again.

‘Did some one ask who I was for? I’m for myself, I suppose, as much as any one — travelling for pleasure.’

He had not time to enjoy the absurdity of this, for all five men burst into a shout of laughter, like the laughter of men who have long been estranged from mirth.

‘Pleasure!’ cried one. ‘O Lord! Pleasure! You’ve come to the wrong place.’

‘It’s just as well you’ve come for pleasure. You’d be dead before you did business,’ said another.

‘You might as well try to get blood out of a stone. I’ve been here over a fortnight.’

‘Scot! What for?’ asked Tarvin.

‘We’ve all been here over a week,’ growled a fourth.

‘But what’s your lay? What’s your racket?’

‘Guess you’re an American, ain’t you?’

‘Yes; Topaz, Colorado.’ The statement had no effect upon them. He might as well have spoken in Greek. ‘But what’s the trouble?’

‘Why, the King married two wives yesterday. You can hear the gongs going in the city now. He’s trying to equip a new regiment of cavalry for the service of the Indian Government, and he’s quarrelled with his Political Resident. I’ve been living at Colonel Nolan’s door for three days. He says he can’t do anything without authority from the supreme Government. I’ve tried to catch the King when he goes out pig-shooting. I write every day to the Prime Minister, when I’m not riding around the city on a camel; and here’s a bunch of letters from the firm asking why I don’t collect.’

At the end of ten minutes Tarvin began to understand that these washed-out representatives of half a dozen firms in Calcutta and Bombay were hopelessly besieging this place on their regular spring campaign to collect a little on account from a king who ordered by the ton and paid by the scruple. He had purchased guns, dressing-cases, mirrors, mantelpiece ornaments, crochet work, the iridescent Chrismas-tree glass balls, saddlery, mail-phaetons, four-inhands, scent-bottles, surgical instruments, chandeliers, and chinaware by the dozen, gross, or score as his royal fancy prompted. When he lost interest in his purchases he lost interest in paying for them; and as few things amused his jaded fancy more than twenty minutes, it sometimes came to pass that the mere purchase was sufficient, and the costly packing-cases from Calcutta were never opened. The ordered peace of the Indian Empire forbade him to take up arms against his fellow-sovereigns, the only lasting delight that he or his ancestors had known for thousands of years; but there remained a certain modified interest of war in battling with bill-collectors. On one side stood the Political Resident of the State, planted there to teach him good government, and, above all, economy; on the other side — that is to say, at the palace gates — might generally be found a commercial traveller, divided between his contempt for an evasive debtor and his English reverence for a king. Between these two his Majesty went forth to take his pleasure in pig-sticking, in racing, in the drilling of his army, in the ordering of more unnecessaries, and in the fitful government of his womankind, who knew considerably more of each commercial traveller’s claims than even the Prime Minister. Behind these was the Government of India, explicitly refusing to guarantee payment of the King’s debts, and from time to time sending him, on a blue velvet cushion, the jewelled insignia of an imperial order to sweeten the remonstrances of the Political Resident.

‘Well, I hope you make the King pay for it,’ said Tarvin.

‘How’s that?’

‘Why, in my country, when a customer sillies about like that, promising to meet a man one day at, the hotel and not showing up, and then promising to meet him the next day at the store and not paying, a drummer says to himself, “Oh, all right! If you want to pay my board, and my wine, liquor, and cigar bill, while I wait, don’t mind me. I’ll mosey along somehow.” And after the second day he charges up his poker losings to him.’

‘Ah, that’s interesting. But how does he get those items into his account?’

‘They go into the next bill of goods he sells him, of course. He makes the prices right for that.’

‘Oh, we can make prices right enough. The difficulty is to get your money.’

‘But I don’t see how you fellows have the time to monkey around here at this rate,’ urged Tarvin, mystified. ‘Where I come from a man makes his trip on schedule time, and when he’s a day behind he’ll wire to his customer in the town ahead to come down to the station and meet him, and he’ll sell him a bill of goods while the train waits. He could sell him the earth while one of your bullock-carts went a mile. And as to getting your money, why don’t you get out an attachment on the old sinner? In your places I’d attach the whole country on him. I’d attach the palace, I’d attach his crown. I’d get a judgment against him, and I’d execute it too — personally, if necessary. I’d lock the old fellow up and rule Rajputana for him, if I had to; but I’d have his money.’

A compassionate smile ran around the group. ‘That’s because you don’t know,’ said several at once. Then they began to explain voluminously. There was no languor about them now; they all spoke together.

The men in the verandah, though they seemed idle, were no fools, Tarvin perceived after a time. Lying still as beggars at the gate of greatness was their method of doing business. It wasted time, but in the end some sort of payment was sure to be made, especially, explained the man in the yellow coat, if you could interest the Prime Minister in your needs, and through him wake the interests of the King’s women.

A flicker of memory made Tarvin smile faintly, as he thought of Mrs. Mutrie.

The man in the yellow coat went on, and Tarvin learned that the head queen was a murderess, convicted of poisoning her former husband. She had lain crouching in an iron cage awaiting execution when the King first saw her, and the King had demanded whether she would poison him if he married her, so the tale ran. Assuredly, she replied, if he treated her as her late husband had treated her. Thereupon the King had married her, partly to please his fancy, mainly through sheer delight in her brutal answer.

This gipsy without lineage held in less than a year King and State under her feet — feet which women of the household sang spitefully were roughened with travel of shameful roads. She had borne the King one son, in whom all her pride and ambition centred, and, after his birth, she had applied herself with renewed energy to the maintenance of mastery in the State. The supreme Government, a thousand miles away, knew that she was a force to be reckoned with, and had no love for her. The white-haired, soft-spoken Political Resident, Colonel Nolan, who lived in the pink house, a bow-shot from the city gates, was often thwarted by her. Her latest victory was peculiarly humiliating to him, for she had discovered that a rock-hewn canal, designed to supply the city with water in summer, would pass through an orange garden under her window, and had used her influence with the Maharajah against it. The Maharajah had thereupon caused it to be taken around by another way at an expense of a quarter of his year’s revenue, and in the teeth of the almost tearful remonstrance of the Resident.

Sitabhai, the gipsy, behind her silken curtains, had both heard and seen this interview between the Maharajah and his Political, and had laughed.

Tarvin devoured all this eagerly. It fed his purpose; it was grist to his mill, even if it tumbled his whole plan of attack topsy-turvy. It opened up a new world for which he had no measures and standards, and in which he must be frankly and constantly dependent on the inspiration of the next moment. He couldn’t know too much of this world before taking his first step toward the Naulahka, and he was willing to hear all these lazy fellows would tell him. He began to feel as if he should have to go back and learn his A B C’s over again. What pleased this strange being they called King? what appealed to him? what tickled him? above all, what did he fear?

He was thinking much and rapidly.

But he said, ‘No wonder your King is bankrupt if he has such a court to look after.’

‘He’s one of the richest princes in India,’ returned the man in the yellow coat. ‘He doesn’t know himself what he has.’

‘Why doesn’t he pay his debts, then, instead of keeping you mooning about here?’

‘Because he’s a native. He’d spend a hundred thousand pounds on a marriage feast, and delay payment of a bill for two hundred rupees four years.

‘You ought to cure him of that,’ insisted Tarvin. ‘Send a sheriff after the crown jewels.’

‘You don’t know Indian princes. They would pay a bill before they would let the crown jewels go. They are sacred. They are part of the government.’

‘Ah, I’d give something to see the Luck of the State!’ exclaimed a voice from one of the chairs, which Tarvin afterward learned belonged to the agent of a Calcutta firm of jewellers.

‘What’s that?’ he asked, as casually as he knew how, sipping his whisky and soda.

‘The Naulahka. Don’t you know?’

Tarvin was saved the need of an .answer by the man in yellow. ‘Pshaw! All that talk about the Naulahka is invented by the priests.’

‘I don’t think so,’ returned the jeweller’s agent judicially. ‘The King told me when I was last here that he had once shown it to a viceroy. But he is the only foreigner who has ever seen it. The King assured me he didn’t know where it was himself.’

‘Pooh! Do you believe in carved emeralds two inches square?’ asked the other, turning to Tarvin.

‘That’s only the centre-piece,’ said the jeweller; ‘and I wouldn’t mind wagering that it’s a tallowdrop emerald. It isn’t that that staggers me. My wonder is how these chaps, who don’t care anything for water in a stone, could have taken the trouble to get together half a dozen perfect gems, much less fifty. They say that the necklace was begun when William the Conqueror came over.’

‘That gives them a year or two,’ said Tarvin. ‘I would undertake to get a little jewellery together myself if you gave me eight centuries.’

His face was turned a little away from them as he lay back in his chair. His heart was going quickly. He had been through mining-trades, land-speculations, and cattle-deals in his time. He had known moments when the turn of a hair, the wrinkle of an eyelid, meant ruin to him. But they were not moments into which eight centuries were gathered.

They looked at him with a remote pity in their eyes.

‘Five absolutely perfect specimens of the nine precious stones,’ began the jeweller; ‘the ruby, emerald, sapphire, diamond, opal, cat’s-eye, turquoise, amethyst, and ——’

‘Topaz?’ asked Tarvin, with the air of a proprietor.

‘No; black diamond — black as night.’

‘But how do you know all these things — how do you get on to them?’ asked Tarvin curiously.

‘Like everything else in a native state — common talk, but difficult to prove. Nobody can as much as guess where that necklace is.’

‘Probably under the foundations of some temple in the city,’ said the yellow-coated man.

Tarvin, in spite of the careful guard he was keeping over himself, could not help kindling at this. He saw himself digging the city up.

‘Where is this city?’ inquired he.

They pointed across the sun-glare, and showed him a rock girt by a triple line of wall. It was exactly like one of the many ruined cities that Tarvin had passed in the bullock-cart. A rock of a dull and angry red surmounted that rock. Up to the foot of the rock ran the yellow sands of the actual desert — the desert that supports neither tree nor shrub, only the wild ass, and somewhere in its heart, men say, the wild camel.

Tarvin stared through the palpitating haze of heat, and saw that there was neither life nor motion about the city. It was a little after noonday, and his Majesty’s subjects were asleep. This solid block of loneliness, then, was the visible end of his journey — the Jericho he had come from Topaz to attack.

And he reflected, ‘Now, if a man should come from New York in a bullock-cart to whistle around the Sauguache Range, I wonder what sort of fool I’d call him!’

He rose and stretched his dusty limbs. ‘What time does it get cool enough to take in the town?’ he asked.

‘Do what to the town? Better be careful. You might find yourself in difficulties with the Resident,’ warned his friendly adviser.

Tarvin could not understand why a stroll through the deadest town he had ever seen should be forbidden. But he held his peace, inasmuch as he was in a strange country, where nothing, save a certain desire for command on the part of the women, was as he had known it. He would take in the town thoroughly. Otherwise he began to fear that its monumental sloth — there was still no sign of life upon the walled rock — would swallow him up, or turn him into a languid Calcutta drummer.

Something must be done at once before his wits were numbed. He inquired the way to the telegraph-office, half doubting, even though he saw the wires, the existence of a telegraph in Rhatore.

‘By the way,’ one of the men called after him, ‘it’s worth remembering that any telegram you send here is handed all round the court and shown to the King.’

Tarvin thanked him, and thought this was worth remembering, as he trudged on through the sand toward a desecrated Mohammedan mosque near the road to the city which was doing duty as a telegraph-office.

A trooper of the State was lying fast asleep on the threshold, his horse picketed to a long bamboo lance driven into the ground. Other sign of life there was none, save a few doves cooing sleepily in the darkness under the arch.

Tarvin gazed about him dispiritedly for the blue and white sign of the Western Union, or its analogue in this queer land. He saw that the telegraph wires disappeared through a hole in the dome of the mosque. There were two or three low wooden doors under the archway. He opened one at random, and stepped upon a warm, hairy body, which sprang up with a grunt. Tarvin had hardly time to draw back before a young buffalo calf rushed out. Undisturbed, he opened another door, disclosing a flight of steps eighteen inches wide. Up these he travelled with difficulty, hoping to catch the sound of the ticker. But the building was as silent as the tomb it had once been. He opened another door, and stumbled into a room, the domed ceiling of which was inlaid with fretted tracery in barbaric colours, picked out with myriads of tiny fragments of mirror. The flood of colour and the glare of the snow-white floor made him blink after the pitchy darkness of the staircase. Still, the place was a undoubtedly a telegraph-office, for an antiquated instrument was clamped upon a cheap dressing table. The sunlight streamed through the gash in the dome which had been made to admit the telegraph wires, and which had not been repaired.

Tarvin stood in the sunlight and stared about him. He took off the soft, wide-brimmed Western hat, which he was finding too warm for this climate, and mopped his forehead. As he stood in the sunlight, straight, clean-limbed, and strong, one who lurked in this mysterious spot with designs upon him would have decided that he did not look a wholesome person to attack. He pulled at the long thin moustache which drooped at the corners of his mouth in a curve shaped by the habit of tugging at it in thought, and muttered picturesque remarks in a tongue to which these walls had never echoed. What chance was there of communicating with the United States of America from this abyss of oblivion? Even the ‘damn’ that came back to him from the depths of the dome sounded foreign and inexpressive.

A sheeted figure lay on the floor. ‘It takes a dead man to run this place!’ exclaimed Tarvin, discovering the body. ‘Hallo, you! Get up there!’

The figure rose to its feet with grunts, cast away its covering, and disclosed a very sleepy native in a complete suit of dove-coloured satin.

‘Ho!’ cried he.

‘Yes,’ returned Tarvin imperturbably.

‘You want to see me?’

‘No; I want to send a telegram, if there’s any electric fluid in this old tomb.’

‘Sir,’ said the native affably, ‘you have come to right shop. I am telegraph operator and postmaster-general of this State.’

He seated himself in the decayed chair, opened a drawer of the table, and began to search for something.

‘What you looking for, young man? Lost your connection with Calcutta?’

‘Most gentlemen bring their own forms,’ he said, with a distant note of reproach in his bland manner. ‘But here is form. Have you got pencil?’

‘Oh, see here, don’t let me strain this office. Hadn’t you better go and lie down again? I’ll tap the message off myself. What’s your signal for Calcutta?’

‘You, sir, not understanding this instrument.’

‘Don’t I? You ought to see me milk the wires at election time.’

‘This instrument require most judeecious handling, sir. You write message. I send. That is proper division of labour. Ha! ha!’

Tarvin wrote his message, which ran thus:—

‘Getting there. Remember Three C.‘s —

TARVIN.’

It was addressed to Mrs. Mutrie at the address she had given him in Denver.

‘Rush it!’ he said, as he handed it back over the table to the smiling image.

‘All right; no fear. I am here for that,’ returned the native, understanding in general terms from the cabalistic word that his customer was in haste.

‘Will the thing ever get there?’ drawled Tarvin, as he leaned over the table and met the gaze of the satin-clothed being with an air of good comradeship, which invited him to let him into the fraud, if there was one.

‘Oh yes; tomorrow. Denver is in the United States America,’ said the native, looking up at Tarvin with childish glee in the sense of knowledge.

‘Shake!’ exclaimed Tarvin, offering him a hairy fist. ‘You’ve been well brought up.’

He stayed half an hour fraternising with the man on the foundation of this common ground of knowledge, and saw him work the message off on his instrument, his heart going out on that first click all the way home. In the midst of the conversation the native suddenly dived into the cluttered drawer of the dressing-table, and drew forth a telegram covered with dust, which he offered to Tarvin’s scrutiny.

‘You knowing any new Englishman coming to Rhatore name Turpin?’ he asked.

Tarvin stared at the address a moment, and then tore open the envelope to find, as he expected, that it was for him. It was from Mrs. Mutrie, congratulating him on his election to the Colorado legislature by a majority of 1518 over Sheriff.

Tarvin uttered an abandoned howl of joy, executed a war-dance on the white floor of the mosque, snatched the astounded operator from behind his table, and whirled him away into a mad waltz. Then, making a low salaam to the now wholly bewildered native, he rushed from the building, waving his cable in the air, and went capering up the road.

When he was back at the rest-house again, he retired to a bath to grapple seriously with the dust of the desert, while the commercial travellers without discussed his comings and goings. He plunged about luxuriously in a gigantic bowl of earthenware; while a brown-skinned water-carrier sluiced the contents of a goat-skin over his head.

A voice in the verandah, a little louder than the others, said, ‘He’s probably come prospecting for gold, or boring for oil, and won’t tell.’

Tarvin winked a wet left eye.

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