My brother kneels (so saith Kabir)
To stone and brass in heathen wise,
But in my brother’s voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his Fates assign —
His prayer is all the world’s — and mine.
At moonrise the cautious coolies got under way. The lama, refreshed by his sleep and the spirit, needed no more than Kim’s shoulder to bear him along — a silent, swift-striding man. They held the shale-sprinkled grass for an hour, swept round the shoulder of an immortal cliff, and climbed into a new country entirely blocked off from all sight of Chini valley. A huge pasture-ground ran up fan-shaped to the living snow. At its base was perhaps half an acre of flat land, on which stood a few soil and timber huts. Behind them — for, hill-fashion, they were perched on the edge of all things — the ground fell sheer two thousand feet to Shamlegh-midden, where never yet man has set foot.
The men made no motion to divide the plunder till they had seen the lama bedded down in the best room of the place, with Kim shampooing his feet, Mohammedan-fashion.
‘We will send food, ‘ said the Ao-chung man, ‘and the red-topped kilta. By dawn there will be none to give evidence, one way or the other. If anything is not needed in the kilta — see here!’
He pointed through the window — opening into space that was filled with moonlight reflected from the snow — and threw out an empty whisky-bottle.
‘No need to listen for the fall. This is the world’s end,’ he said, and went out. The lama looked forth, a hand on either sill, with eyes that shone like yellow opals. From the enormous pit before him white peaks lifted themselves yearning to the moonlight. The rest was as the darkness of interstellar space.
‘These,’ he said slowly, ‘are indeed my Hills. Thus should a man abide, perched above the world, separated from delights, considering vast matters.’
‘Yes; if he has a chela to prepare tea for him, and to fold a blanket for his head, and to chase out calving cows.’
A smoky lamp burned in a niche, but the full moonlight beat it down; and by the mixed light, stooping above the food-bag and cups, Kim moved like a tall ghost.
‘Ai! But now I have let the blood cool, my head still beats and drums, and there is a cord round the back of my neck.’
‘No wonder. It was a strong blow. May he who dealt it —’
‘But for my own passions there would have been no evil.’
‘What evil? Thou hast saved the Sahibs from the death they deserved a hundred times.’
‘The lesson is not well learnt, chela.’ The lama came to rest on a folded blanket, as Kim went forward with his evening routine. ‘The blow was but a shadow upon a shadow. Evil in itself — my legs weary apace these latter days! — it met evil in me: anger, rage, and a lust to return evil. These wrought in my blood, woke tumult in my stomach, and dazzled my ears.’ Here he drank scalding black-tea ceremonially, taking the hot cup from Kim’s hand. ‘Had I been passionless, the evil blow would have done only bodily evil — a scar, or a bruise — which is illusion. But my mind was not abstracted, for rushed in straightway a lust to let the Spiti men kill. In fighting that lust, my soul was torn and wrenched beyond a thousand blows. Not till I had repeated the Blessings’ (he meant the Buddhist Beatitudes) ‘did I achieve calm. But the evil planted in me by that moment’s carelessness works out to its end. Just is the Wheel, swerving not a hair! Learn the lesson, chela.’
‘It is too high for me,’ Kim muttered. ‘I am still all shaken. I am glad I hurt the man.’
‘I felt that, sleeping upon thy knees, in the wood below. It disquieted me in my dreams — the evil in thy soul working through to mine. Yet on the other hand’ — he loosed his rosary — ‘I have acquired merit by saving two lives — the lives of those that wronged me. Now I must see into the Cause of Things. The boat of my soul staggers.’
‘Sleep, and be strong. That is wisest.’
‘I meditate. There is a need greater than thou knowest.’
Till the dawn, hour after hour, as the moonlight paled on the high peaks, and that which had been belted blackness on the sides of the far hills showed as tender green forest, the lama stared fixedly at the wall. From time to time he groaned. Outside the barred door, where discomfited kine came to ask for their old stable, Shamlegh and the coolies gave itself up to plunder and riotous living. The Ao-chung man was their leader, and once they had opened the Sahibs’ tinned foods and found that they were very good they dared not turn back. Shamlegh kitchen-midden took the dunnage.
When Kim, after a night of bad dreams, stole forth to brush his teeth in the morning chill, a fair-coloured woman with turquoise-studded headgear drew him aside.
‘The others have gone. They left thee this kilta as the promise was. I do not love Sahibs, but thou wilt make us a charm in return for it. We do not wish little Shamlegh to get a bad name on account of the — accident. I am the Woman of Shamlegh.’ She looked him over with bold, bright eyes, unlike the usual furtive glance of hillwomen.
‘Assuredly. But it must be done in secret.’
She raised the heavy kilta like a toy and slung it into her own hut.
‘Out and bar the door! Let none come near till it is finished,’ said Kim.
‘But afterwards — we may talk?’
Kim tilted the kilta on the floor — a cascade of Survey-instruments, books, diaries, letters, maps, and queerly scented native correspondence. At the very bottom was an embroidered bag covering a sealed, gilded, and illuminated document such as one King sends to another. Kim caught his breath with delight, and reviewed the situation from a Sahib’s point of view.
‘The books I do not want. Besides, they are logarithms — Survey, I suppose.’ He laid them aside. ‘The letters I do not understand, but Colonel Creighton will. They must all be kept. The maps — they draw better maps than me — of course. All the native letters — oho! — and particularly the murasla.’ He sniffed the embroidered bag. ‘That must be from Hilas or Bunar, and Hurree Babu spoke truth. By Jove! It is a fine haul. I wish Hurree could know . . . The rest must go out of the window.’ He fingered a superb prismatic compass and the shiny top of a theodolite. But after all, a Sahib cannot very well steal, and the things might be inconvenient evidence later. He sorted out every scrap of manuscript, every map, and the native letters. They made one softish slab. The three locked ferril-backed books, with five worn pocket-books, he put aside.
‘The letters and the murasla I must carry inside my coat and under my belt, and the hand-written books I must put into the food-bag. It will be very heavy. No. I do not think there is anything more. If there is, the coolies have thrown it down the khud, so thatt is all right. Now you go too.’ He repacked the kilta with all he meant to lose, and hove it up on to the windowsill. A thousand feet below lay a long, lazy, round-shouldered bank of mist, as yet untouched by the morning sun. A thousand feet below that was a hundred-year-old pine-forest. He could see the green tops looking like a bed of moss when a wind-eddy thinned the cloud.
‘No! I don’t think any one will go after you!’
The wheeling basket vomited its contents as it dropped. The theodolite hit a jutting cliff-ledge and exploded like a shell; the books, inkstands, paint-boxes, compasses, and rulers showed for a few seconds like a swarm of bees. Then they vanished; and, though Kim, hanging half out of the window, strained his young ears, never a sound came up from the gulf.
‘Five hundred — a thousand rupees could not buy them,’ he thought sorrowfully. ‘It was verree wasteful, but I have all their other stuff — everything they did — I hope. Now how the deuce am I to tell Hurree Babu, and whatt the deuce am I to do? And my old man is sick. I must tie up the letters in oilskin. That is something to do first — else they will get all sweated . . . And I am all alone!’ He bound them into a neat packet, swedging down the stiff, sticky oilskin at the comers, for his roving life had made him as methodical as an old hunter in matters of the road. Then with double care he packed away the books at the bottom of the food-bag.
The woman rapped at the door.
‘But thou hast made no charm,’ she said, looking about.
‘There is no need.’ Kim had completely overlooked the necessity for a little patter-talk. The woman laughed at his confusion irreverently.
‘None — for thee. Thou canst cast a spell by the mere winking of an eye. But think of us poor people when thou art gone. They were all too drunk last night to hear a woman. Thou art not drunk?’
‘I am a priest.’ Kim had recovered himself, and, the woman being aught but unlovely, thought best to stand on his office.
‘I warned them that the Sahibs will be angry and will make an inquisition and a report to the Rajah. There is also the Babu with them. Clerks have long tongues.’
‘Is that all thy trouble?’ The plan rose fully formed in Kim’s mind, and he smiled ravishingly.
‘Not all,’ quoth the woman, putting out a hard brown hand all covered with turquoises set in silver.
‘I can finish that in a breath,’ he went on quickly. ‘The Babu is the very hakim (thou hast heard of him?) who was wandering among the hills by Ziglaur. I know him.’
‘He will tell for the sake of a reward. Sahibs cannot distinguish one hillman from another, but Babus have eyes for men — and women.’
‘Carry a word to him from me.’
‘There is nothing I would not do for thee.’
He accepted the compliment calmly, as men must in lands where women make the love, tore a leaf from a note-book, and with a patent indelible pencil wrote in gross Shikast — the script that bad little boys use when they write dirt on walls: ‘I have everything that they have written: their pictures of the country, and many letters. Especially the murasla. Tell me what to do. I am at Shamlegh-under-the-Snow. The old man is sick.’
“Take this to him. It will altogether shut his mouth. He cannot have gone far.’
‘Indeed no. They are still in the forest across the spur. Our children went to watch them when the light came, and have cried the news as they moved.’
Kim looked his astonishment; but from the edge of the sheep-pasture floated a shrill, kite-like trill. A child tending cattle had picked it up from a brother or sister on the far side of the slope that commanded Chini valley.
‘My husbands are also out there gathering wood.’ She drew a handful of walnuts from her bosom, split one neatly, and began to eat. Kim affected blank ignorance.
‘Dost thou not know the meaning of the walnut — priest?’ she said coyly, and handed him the half-shells.
‘Well thought of.’ He slipped the piece of paper between them quickly. ‘Hast thou a little wax to close them on this letter?’
The woman sighed aloud, and Kim relented.
‘There is no payment till service has been rendered. Carry this to the Babu, and say it was sent by the Son of the Charm.’
‘Ai! Truly! Truly! By a magician — who is like a Sahib.’
‘Nay, a Son of the Charm: and ask if there be any answer.’
‘But if he offer a rudeness? I— I am afraid.’
Kim laughed. ‘He is, I have no doubt, very tired and very hungry. The Hills make cold bedfellows. Hai, my’ — it was on the tip of his tongue to say Mother, but he turned it to Sister — ‘thou art a wise and witty woman. By this time all the villages know what has befallen the Sahibs — eh?’
‘True. News was at Ziglaur by midnight, and by tomorrow should be at Kotgarh. The villages are both afraid and angry.’
‘No need. Tell the villages to feed the Sahibs and pass them on, in peace. We must get them quietly away from our valleys. To steal is one thing — to kill another. The Babu will understand, and there will be no after-complaints. Be swift. I must tend my master when he wakes.’
‘So be it. After service — thou hast said? — comes the reward. I am the Woman of Shamlegh, and I hold from the Rajah. I am no common bearer of babes. Shamlegh is thine: hoof and horn and hide, milk and butter. Take or leave.’
She turned resolutely uphill, her silver necklaces clicking on her broad breast, to meet the morning sun fifteen hundred feet above them. This time Kim thought in the vernacular as he waxed down the oilskin edges of the packets.
‘How can a man follow the Way or the Great Game when he is so — always pestered by women? There was that girl at Akrola of the Ford; and there was the scullion’s wife behind the dovecot — not counting the others — and now comes this one! When I was a child it was well enough, but now I am a man and they will not regard me as a man. Walnuts, indeed! Ho! ho! It is almonds in the Plains!’
He went out to levy on the village — not with a begging-bowl, which might do for down-country, but in the manner of a prince. Shamlegh’s summer population is only three families — four women and eight or nine men. They were all full of tinned meats and mixed drinks, from ammoniated quinine to white vodka, for they had taken their full share in the overnight loot. The neat Continental tents had been cut up and shared long ago, and there were patent aluminium saucepans abroad.
But they considered the lama’s presence a perfect safeguard against all consequences, and impenitently brought Kim of their best — even to a drink of chang — the barley-beer that comes from Ladakh-way. Then they thawed out in the sun, and sat with their legs hanging over infinite abysses, chattering, laughing, and smoking. They judged India and its Government solely from their experience of wandering Sahibs who had employed them or their friends as shikarris. Kim heard tales of shots missed upon ibex, serow, or markhor, by Sahibs twenty years in their graves — every detail lighted from behind like twigs on tree-tops seen against lightning. They told him of their little diseases, and, more important, the diseases of their tiny, sure-footed cattle; of trips as far as Kotgarh, where the strange missionaries live, and beyond even to marvellous Simla, where the streets are paved with silver, and anyone, look you, can get service with the Sahibs, who ride about in two-wheeled carts and spend money with a spade. Presently, grave and aloof, walking very heavily, the lama joined himself to the chatter under the eaves, and they gave him great room. The thin air refreshed him, and he sat on the edge of precipices with the best of them, and, when talk languished, flung pebbles into the void. Thirty miles away, as the eagle flies, lay the next range, seamed and channelled and pitted with little patches of brush — forests, each a day’s dark march. Behind the village, Shamlegh hill itself cut off all view to southward. It was like sitting in a swallow’s nest under the eaves of the roof of the world.
From time to time the lama stretched out his hand, and with a little low-voiced prompting would point out the road to Spiti and north across the Parungla.
‘Beyond, where the hills lie thickest, lies De-ch’en’ (he meant Han-le’), ‘the great Monastery. s’Tag-stan-ras-ch’en built it, and of him there runs this tale.’ Whereupon he told it: a fantastic piled narrative of bewitchment and miracles that set Shamlegh a-gasping. Turning west a little, he steered for the green hills of Kulu, and sought Kailung under the glaciers. ‘For thither came I in the old, old days. From Leh I came, over the Baralachi.’
‘Yes, yes; we know it,’ said the far-faring people of Shamlegh.
‘And I slept two nights with the priests of Kailung. These are the Hills of my delight! Shadows blessed above all other shadows! There my eyes opened on this world; there my eyes were opened to this world; there I found Enlightenment; and there I girt my loins for my Search. Out of the Hills I came — the high Hills and the strong winds. Oh, just is the Wheel!’ He blessed them in detail — the great glaciers, the naked rocks, the piled moraines and tumbled shale; dry upland, hidden salt-lake, age-old timber and fruitful water-shot valley one after the other, as a dying man blesses his folk; and Kim marvelled at his passion.
‘Yes — yes. There is no place like our Hills,’ said the people of Shamlegh. And they fell to wondering how a man could live in the hot terrible Plains where the cattle run as big as elephants, unfit to plough on a hillside; where village touches village, they had heard, for a hundred miles; where folk went about stealing in gangs, and what the robbers spared the Police carried utterly away.
So the still forenoon wore through, and at the end of it Kim’s messenger dropped from the steep pasture as unbreathed as when she had set out.
‘I sent a word to the hakim,’ Kim explained, while she made reverence.
‘He joined himself to the idolaters? Nay, I remember he did a healing upon one of them. He has acquired merit, though the healed employed his strength for evil. Just is the Wheel! What of the hakim?’
‘I feared that thou hadst been bruised and — and I knew he was wise.’ Kim took the waxed walnut-shell and read in English on the back of his note: Your favour received. Cannot get away from present company at present, but shall take them into Simla. After which, hope to rejoin you. Inexpedient to follow angry gentlemen. Return by same road you came, and will overtake. Highly gratified about correspondence due to my forethought. ‘He says, Holy One, that he will escape from the idolaters, and will return to us. Shall we wait awhile at Shamlegh, then?’
The lama looked long and lovingly upon the hills and shook his head.
‘That may not be, chela. From my bones outward I do desire it, but it is forbidden. I have seen the Cause of Things.’
‘Why? When the Hills give thee back thy strength day by day? Remember we were weak and fainting down below there in the Doon.’
‘I became strong to do evil and to forget. A brawler and a swashbuckler upon the hillsides was I.’ Kim bit back a smile. ‘Just and perfect is the Wheel, swerving not a hair. When I was a man — a long time ago — I did pilgrimage to Guru Ch’wan among the poplars’ (he pointed Bhotanwards), ‘where they keep the Sacred Horse.’
‘Quiet, be quiet!’ said Shamlegh, all arow. ‘He speaks of Jam-lin-nin-k’or, the Horse That Can Go Round The World In a Day.’
‘I speak to my chela only,’ said the lama, in gentle reproof, and they scattered like frost on south eaves of a morning. ‘I did not seek truth in those days, but the talk of doctrine. All illusion! I drank the beer and ate the bread of Guru Ch’wan. Next day one said: “We go out to fight Sangor Gutok down the valley to discover” (mark again how Lust is tied to Anger!) “which Abbot shall bear rule in the valley and take the profit of the prayers they print at Sangor Gutok.” I went, and we fought a day.’
‘But how, Holy One?’
‘With our long pencases as I could have shown . . . I say, we fought under the poplars, both Abbots and all the monks, and one laid open my forehead to the bone. See!’ He tilted back his cap and showed a puckered silvery scar. ‘Just and perfect is the Wheel! Yesterday the scar itched, and after fifty years I recalled how it was dealt and the face of him who dealt it; dwelling a little in illusion. Followed that which thou didst see — strife and stupidity. Just is the Wheel! The idolater’s blow fell upon the scar. Then I was shaken in my soul: my soul was darkened, and the boat of my soul rocked upon the waters of illusion. Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Cause of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil. I strove all the long night.’
‘But, Holy One, thou art innocent of all evil. May I be thy sacrifice!’
Kim was genuinely distressed at the old man’s sorrow, and Mahbub Ali’s phrase slipped out unawares.
‘In the dawn,’ the lama went on more gravely, ready rosary clicking between the slow sentences, ‘came enlightenment. It is here . . . I am an old man . . . hill-bred, hill-fed, never to sit down among my Hills. Three years I travelled through Hind, but — can earth be stronger than Mother Earth? My stupid body yearned to the Hills and the snows of the Hills, from below there. I said, and it is true, my Search is sure. So, at the Kulu woman’s house I turned hillward, over-persuaded by myself. There is no blame to the hakim. He — following Desire — foretold that the Hills would make me strong. They strengthened me to do evil, to forget my Search. I delighted in life and the lust of life. I desired strong slopes to climb. I cast about to find them. I measured the strength of my body, which is evil, against the high Hills, I made a mock of thee when thy breath came short under Jamnotri. I jested when thou wouldst not face the snow of the pass.’
‘But what harm? I was afraid. It was just. I am not a hillman; and I loved thee for thy new strength.’
‘More than once I remember’ — he rested his cheek dolefully on his hand — ‘I sought thy praise and the hakim’s for the mere strength of my legs. Thus evil followed evil till the cup was full. Just is the Wheel! All Hind for three years did me all honour. From the Fountain of Wisdom in the Wonder House to’ — he smiled — ‘a little child playing by a big gun — the world prepared my road. And why?’
‘Because we loved thee. It is only the fever of the blow. I myself am still sick and shaken.’
‘No! It was because I was upon the Way — tuned as are si-nen [cymbals] to the purpose of the Law. I departed from that ordinance. The tune was broken: followed the punishment. In my own Hills, on the edge of my own country, in the very place of my evil desire, comes the buffet — here!’ (He touched his brow.) ‘As a novice is beaten when he misplaces the cups, so am I beaten, who was Abbot of Such-zen. No word, look you, but a blow, chela.’
‘But the Sahibs did not know thee, Holy One?’
‘We were well matched. Ignorance and Lust met Ignorance and Lust upon the road, and they begat Anger. The blow was a sign to me, who am no better than a strayed yak, that my place is not here. Who can read the Cause of an act is halfway to Freedom! “Back to the path,” says the Blow. “The Hills are not for thee. Thou canst not choose Freedom and go in bondage to the delight of life.”’
‘Would we had never met that cursed Russian!’
‘Our Lord Himself cannot make the Wheel swing backward. And for my merit that I had acquired I gain yet another sign.’ He put his hand in his bosom, and drew forth the Wheel of Life. ‘Look! I considered this after I had meditated. There remains untorn by the idolater no more than the breadth of my fingernail.’
‘So much, then, is the span of my life in this body. I have served the Wheel all my days. Now the Wheel serves me. But for the merit I have acquired in guiding thee upon the Way, there would have been added to me yet another life ere I had found my River. Is it plain, chela?’
Kim stared at the brutally disfigured chart. From left to right diagonally the rent ran — from the Eleventh House where Desire gives birth to the Child (as it is drawn by Tibetans) — across the human and animal worlds, to the Fifth House — the empty House of the Senses. The logic was unanswerable.
‘Before our Lord won Enlightenment’ — the lama folded all away with reverence — ‘He was tempted. I too have been tempted, but it is finished. The Arrow fell in the Plains — not in the Hills. Therefore, what make we here?’
‘Shall we at least wait for the hakim?’
‘I know how long I shall live in this body. What can a hakim do?’
‘But thou art all sick and shaken. Thou canst not walk.’
‘How can I be sick if I see Freedom?’ He rose unsteadily to his feet.
‘Then I must get food from the village. Oh, the weary Road!’ Kim felt that he too needed rest.
‘That is lawful. Let us eat and go. The Arrow fell in the Plains . . . but I yielded to Desire. Make ready, chela.’
Kim turned to the woman with the turquoise headgear who had been idly pitching pebbles over the cliff. She smiled very kindly.
‘I found him like a strayed buffalo in a cornfield — the Babu; snorting and sneezing with cold. He was so hungry that he forgot his dignity and gave me sweet words. The Sahibs have nothing.’ She flung out an empty palm. ‘One is very sick about the stomach. Thy work?’
Kim nodded, with a bright eye.
‘I spoke to the Bengali first — and to the people of a near-by village after. The Sahibs will be given food as they need it — nor will the people ask money. The plunder is already distributed. The Babu makes lying speeches to the Sahibs. Why does he not leave them?’
‘Out of the greatness of his heart.’
“Was never a Bengali yet had one bigger than a dried walnut. But it is no matter . . . Now as to walnuts. After service comes reward. I have said the village is thine.’
‘It is my loss,’ Kim began. ‘Even now I had planned desirable things in my heart which’ — there is no need to go through the compliments proper to these occasions. He sighed deeply . . . ‘But my master, led by a vision —’
‘Huh! What can old eyes see except a full begging-bowl?’
‘— turns from this village to the Plains again.’
‘Bid him stay.’
Kim shook his head. ‘I know my Holy One, and his rage if he be crossed,’ he replied impressively. ‘His curses shake the Hills.’
‘Pity they did not save him from a broken head! I heard that thou wast the tiger-hearted one who smote the Sahib. Let him dream a little longer. Stay!’
‘Hillwoman,’ said Kim, with austerity that could not harden the outlines of his young oval face, ‘these matters are too high for thee.’
‘The Gods be good to us! Since when have men and women been other than men and women?’
‘A priest is a priest. He says he will go upon this hour. I am his chela, and I go with him. We need food for the Road. He is an honoured guest in all the villages, but’ — he broke into a pure boy’s grin — ‘the food here is good. Give me some.’
‘What if I do not give it thee? I am the woman of this village.’
‘Then I curse thee — a little — not greatly, but enough to remember.’ He could not help smiling.
‘Thou hast cursed me already by the down-dropped eyelash and the uplifted chin. Curses? What should I care for mere words?’ She clenched her hands upon her bosom . . . ‘But I would not have thee to go in anger, thinking hardly of me — a gatherer of cow-dung and grass at Shamlegh, but still a woman of substance.’
‘I think nothing,’ said Kim, ‘but that I am grieved to go, for I am very weary; and that we need food. Here is the bag.’
The woman snatched it angrily. ‘I was foolish,’ said she. ‘Who is thy woman in the Plains? Fair or black? I was fair once. Laughest thou? Once, long ago, if thou canst believe, a Sahib looked on me with favour. Once, long ago, I wore European clothes at the Mission-house yonder.’ She pointed towards Kotgarh. ‘Once, long ago. I was Ker-lis-ti-an and spoke English — as the Sahibs speak it. Yes. My Sahib said he would return and wed me — yes, wed me. He went away — I had nursed him when he was sick — but he never returned. Then I saw that the Gods of the Kerlistians lied, and I went back to my own people . . . I have never set eyes on a Sahib since. (Do not laugh at me. The fit is past, little priestling.) Thy face and thy walk and thy fashion of speech put me in mind of my Sahib, though thou art only a wandering mendicant to whom I give a dole. Curse me? Thou canst neither curse nor bless!’ She set her hands on her hips and laughed bitterly. ‘Thy Gods are lies; thy works are lies; thy words are lies. There are no Gods under all the Heavens. I know it . . . But for awhile I thought it was my Sahib come back, and he was my God. Yes, once I made music on a pianno in the Mission-house at Kotgarh. Now I give alms to priests who are heatthen.’ She wound up with the English word, and tied the mouth of the brimming bag.
‘I wait for thee, chela,’ said the lama, leaning against the door-post.
The woman swept the tall figure with her eyes. ‘He walk! He cannot cover half a mile. Whither would old bones go?’
At this Kim, already perplexed by the lama’s collapse and foreseeing the weight of the bag, fairly lost his temper.
‘What is it to thee, woman of ill-omen, where he goes?’
‘Nothing — but something to thee, priest with a Sahib’s face. Wilt thou carry him on thy shoulders?’
‘I go to the Plains. None must hinder my return. I have wrestled with my soul till I am strengthless. The stupid body is spent, and we are far from the Plains.’
‘Behold!’ she said simply, and drew aside to let Kim see his own utter helplessness. ‘Curse me. Maybe it will give him strength. Make a charm! Call on thy great God. Thou art a priest.’ She turned away.
The lama had squatted limply, still holding by the door-post. One cannot strike down an old man that he recovers again like a boy in the night. Weakness bowed him to the earth, but his eyes that hung on Kim were alive and imploring.
‘It is all well,’ said Kim. ‘It is the thin air that weakens thee. In a little while we go! It is the mountain-sickness. I too am a little sick at stomach,’ — and he knelt and comforted with such poor words as came first to his lips. Then the woman returned, more erect than ever.
‘Thy Gods useless, heh? Try mine. I am the Woman of Shamlegh.’ She hailed hoarsely, and there came out of a cow-pen her two husbands and three others with a dooli, the rude native litter of the Hills, that they use for carrying the sick and for visits of state. ‘These cattle’ — she did not condescend to look at them — ‘are thine for so long as thou shalt need.’
‘But we will not go Simla-way. We will not go near the Sahibs,’ cried the first husband.
‘They will not run away as the others did, nor will they steal baggage. Two I know for weaklings. Stand to the rear-pole, Sonoo and Taree.’ They obeyed swiftly. ‘Lower now, and lift in that holy man. I will see to the village and your virtuous wives till ye return.’
‘When will that be?’
‘Ask the priests. Do not pester me. Lay the food-bag at the foot, it balances better so.’
‘Oh, Holy One, thy Hills are kinder than our Plains!’ cried Kim, relieved, as the lama tottered to the litter. ‘It is a very king’s bed — a place of honour and ease. And we owe it to —’
‘A woman of ill-omen. I need thy blessings as much as I do thy curses. It is my order and none of thine. Lift and away! Here! Hast thou money for the road?’
She beckoned Kim to her hut, and stooped above a battered English cash-box under her cot.
‘I do not need anything,’ said Kim, angered where he should have been grateful. ‘I am already rudely loaded with favours.’
She looked up with a curious smile and laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘At least, thank me. I am foul-faced and a hillwoman, but, as thy talk goes, I have acquired merit. Shall I show thee how the Sahibs render thanks?’ and her hard eyes softened.
‘I am but a wandering priest,’ said Kim, his eyes lighting in answer. ‘Thou needest neither my blessings nor my curses.’
‘Nay. But for one little moment — thou canst overtake the dooli in ten strides — if thou wast a Sahib, shall I show thee what thou wouldst do?’
‘How if I guess, though?’ said Kim, and putting his arm round her waist, he kissed her on the cheek, adding in English: ‘Thank you verree much, my dear.’
Kissing is practically unknown among Asiatics, which may have been the reason that she leaned back with wide-open eyes and a face of panic.
‘Next time,’ Kim went on, ‘you must not be so sure of your heatthen priests. Now I say good-bye.’ He held out his hand English-fashion. She took it mechanically. ‘Good-bye, my dear.’
‘Good-bye, and — and’ — she was remembering her English words one by one —‘you will come back again? Good-bye, and — thee God bless you.’
Half an hour later, as the creaking litter jolted up the hill path that leads south-easterly from Shamlegh, Kim saw a tiny figure at the hut door waving a white rag.
‘She has acquired merit beyond all others,’ said the lama. ‘For to set a man upon the way to Freedom is half as great as though she had herself found it.’
‘Umm,’ said Kim thoughtfully, considering the past. ‘It may be that I have acquired merit also . . . At least she did not treat me like a child.’ He hitched the front of his robe, where lay the slab of documents and maps, re-stowed the precious food-bag at the lama’s feet, laid his hand on the litter’s edge, and buckled down to the slow pace of the grunting husbands.
‘These also acquire merit,’ said the lama after three miles.
‘More than that, they shall be paid in silver,’ quoth Kim. The Woman of Shamlegh had given it to him; and it was only fair, he argued, that her men should earn it back again.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10