The Smith Administration, by Rudyard Kipling

The Killing of Hatim Tai

NOW Hatim Tai was condemned to death by the Government, because he had stepped upon his mahout, broken his near-hindleg-chain, and punched poor old pursy Durga Pershad in the ribs till that venerable beast squealed for mercy. Hatim Tai was dangerous to the community, and the mahout’s widow said that her husband’s soul would never rest till Hatim’s little, pig-like eye was glazed in the frost of death. Did Hatim care? Not he. He trumpeted as he swung at his pickets, and he stole as much of Durga Pershad’s food as he could. Then he went to sleep and looked that ‘all the tomorrows should be as to-day,’ and that he should never carry loads again. But the minions of the Law did not sleep. They came by night and scanned the huge bulk of Hatim Tai, and took counsel together how he might best be slain.

‘If we borrowed a seven-pounder,’ began the Subaltern, ‘or, better still, if we turned him loose and had the Horse Battery out! A general inspection would be nothing to it! I wonder whether my Major would see it?’

‘Skittles,’ said all the Doctors together. ‘He’s our property.’ They severally murmured, ‘arsenic,’ ‘strychnine,’ and ‘opium,’ and went their way, while Hatim Tai dreamed of elephant loves, wooed and won long ago in the Doon. The day broke, and savage mahouts led him away to the place of execution; for he was quiet, being ‘fey,’ as are both men and beasts when they approach the brink of the grave unknowing. ‘Ha, Salah! Ha, Budmash! To-day you die!’ shouted the mahouts, ‘and Mangli’s ghost will rode you with an ankus heated in the flames of Put, O murderer and tunbellied thief.’ ‘A long journey,’ thought Hatim Tai. ‘Wonder what they’ll do at the end of it.’ He broke off the branch of a tree and tickled himself on his jowl and ears. And so he walked into the place of execution, where men waited with many chains and grievous ropes, and bound him as he had never been bound before.

‘Foolish people!’ said Hatim Tai. ‘Almost as foolish as Mangli when he called me — the pride of all the Doon, the brightest jewel in Sanderson Sahib’s crown — a “base-born.” I shall break these ropes in a minute or two, and then, between my fore and hind legs, some one is like to be hurt.’

‘How much d’you think he’ll want?’ said the first Doctor. ‘About two ounces,’ answered the second. ‘Say three to be on the safe side,’ said the first; and they did up the three. ounces of arsenic in a ball of sugar. ‘Before a fight it is best to eat,’ said Hatim Tai, and he put away the gur with a salaam; for he prided himself upon his manners. The men fell, back, and Hatim Tai was conscious of grateful warmth in his stomach. ‘Bless their innocence!’ thought he. ‘They’ve given me a mussala. I don’t think I want it; but, I’ll show that I’m not ungrateful.’

And he did! The chains and the ropes held firm. ‘It’s beginning to work,’ said a Doctor. ‘Nonsense,’ said the Subaltern. ‘I know old Hatim’s ways. He’s lost his temper. If the ropes break we’re done for.’

Hatim kicked and wriggled and squealed and did his best, so far as his anatomy allowed, to buck jump; but the ropes stretched not one inch.

‘I am making a fool of myself,’ he trumpeted. ‘I must be calm. At seventy years of age one should behave with dignity. None the less, these ropes are excessively galling.’ He ceased his struggles, and rocked to and fro sulkily. ‘He is going to fall!’ whispered a Doctor. ‘Not a bit of it. Now it’s my turn. We’ll try the strychnine,’ said the second.

Prick a large and healthy tiger with a corking-pin, and you will, in some small measure, realise the difficulty of injecting strychnine subcutaneously into an elephant nine feet eleven inches and one-half at the shoulder. Hatim Tai forgot his dignity and stood on his head, while all the world wondered. ‘I told you that would fetch him!’ shouted the apostle of strychnine, waving an enormous bottle. ‘That’s the death-rattle! Stand back all!’

But it was only Hatim Tai expressing his regret that he had slain Mangli, and so fallen into the hands of the most incompetent mahouts that he had ever made string-stirrups. ‘I was never jabbed with an ankus all over my body before; and I won’t stand it!’ blared Hatim Tai. He stood upon his head afresh and kicked. ‘Final convulsion,’ said the Doctor, just as Hatim Tai grew weary and settled into peace again. After all, it was not worth behaving like a baby. He would be calm. He was calm for two hours, and the Doctors looked at their watches and yawned.

‘Now it’s my turn,’ said the third Doctor. ‘Afim lao.’ They brought it — a knob of Patna opium of the purest, in weight half a seer. Hatim swallowed it whole. Ghazipur excise opium, two cakes of a seer each, followed, helped down with much gur. ‘This is good,’ said Hatim Tai. ‘They are sorry for their rudeness. Give me some more.’

The hours wore on, and the sun began to sink, but not so Hatim Tai. The three Doctors cast professional rivalry to the winds and united in ravaging their dispensaries in Hatim Tai’s behalf. Cyanide of potassium amused him. Bisulphide of mercury, chloral (very little of that), sulphate of copper, oxide of zinc, red lead, bismuth, carbonate of baryta, corrosive sublimate, quicklime, stramonium, veratrium, colchicum, muriatic acid, and lunar caustic, all went down, one after another, in the balls of sugar; and Hatim Tai never blenched.

It was not until the Hospital Assistant clamoured: ‘All these things Government Store and Medical Comforts,’ that the Doctors desisted and wiped their heated brows. ‘’Might as well physic a Cairo sarcophagus,’ grumbled the first Doctor, and Hatim Tai gurgled gently; meaning that he would like another gur-ball.

‘Bless my soul!’ said the Subaltern, who had gone away, done a day’s work, and returned with his pet eight-bore. ‘D’you mean to say that you haven’t killed Hatim Tai yet — three of you? Most unprofessional, I call it. You could have polished off a battery in that time.’ ‘Battery!’ shrieked the baffled medicos in chorus. ‘He’s got enough poison in his system to settle the whole blessed British Army!’

‘Let me try,’ said the Subaltern, unstrapping the gun-case in his dog-cart. He threw a handkerchief upon the ground, and passed quickly in front of the elephant. Hatim Tai lowered his head slightly to look, and even as he did so the spherical shell smote him on the ‘Saucer of Life’— the little spot no bigger than a man’s hand which is six inches above a line drawn from eye to eye. ‘This is the end,’ said Hatim Tai. ‘I die as Niwaz Jung died!’ He strove to keep his feet, staggered, recovered, and reeled afresh. Then, with one wild trumpet that rang far through the twilight, Hatim Tai fell dead among his pickets.

‘Might ha’ saved half your dispensaries if you’d called me in to treat him at first,’ said the Subaltern, wiping out the eight-bore.

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