Letters of Marque


by Rudyard Kipling


‘A TWENTY-FIVE percent reduction all roun’ an’ no certain leave when you wants it. Of course the best men goes somewhere else. That’s only natural, and ’ere’s this sanguinary down-mall a-stickin’ in the eye of the Khundwa down! I tell you, Sir, Injia’s a bad place—a very bad place. ’Tisn’t what it was when I came out one-and-thirty year ago, an’ the drivers was getting their seven and eight ’undred rupees a month an’ was treated as men.’

The Englishman was on his way to Nasirabad, and a gentleman in the Railway was explaining to him the real reason of the decadence of the Empire. It was because the Rajputana-Malwa Railway had cut all its employes twenty-five per cent. It is ungenerous to judge a caste by a few samples; but the Englishman had on the Road and elsewhere seen a good deal of gentlemen on the Railway, and they spend their pay in a manner that would do credit to an income of a thousand a month. Now they say that the twenty-five per cent reduction deprives them of all the pleasures of life. So much the better if it makes them moderately economical in their expenditure. Revolving these things in his mind, together with one or two stories of extravagances not quite fit for publication, the Englishman came to Nasirabad, before sunrise, and there to an evil-looking tonga. Quoth Ram Baksh, proprietor, driver, sais, and everything else, calmly: ‘At this time of the year and having regard to the heat of the sun, who wants a top to a tonga? I have no top. I have a top, but it would take till twelve o’clock to put it on. And behold, Sahib, Padre Martum Sahib went in this tonga to Deoli. All the officer Sahibs of Deoli and Nasirabad go in this tonga for shikar. This is a “ shutin-tonga”!’ ‘When Church and Army are brought against one, argument is in vain.’ But to take a soft, office-bred unfortunate into the wilderness, upon a skeleton, a diagram of a conveyance, is brutality. Ram Baksh did not see it, and headed his two thirteen-hand rats straight towards the morning sun, along a beautiful military road. ‘We shall get to Deoli in six hours,’ said Ram Baksh the boastful, and, even as he spoke, the spring of the tonga bar snapt ‘mit a harp-like melodious twang.’ ‘What does it matter?’ said Ram Baksh. ‘Has the Sahib never seen a tonga-iron break before! Padre Martum Sahib and all the Officer Sahibs in Deoli—’ ‘Ram Baksh,’ said the Englishman sternly, ‘I am not a Padre Sahib nor an Officer Sahib, and if you say anything more about Padre Martum Sahib or the officer in Deoli I shall grow very angry, Ram Baksh.’

‘Humph,’ said Ram Baksh, ‘I knew you were not a Padre Sahib.’ The little mishap was patched up with string, and the tonga went on merrily. It is Stevenson who says that the ‘invitation to the road,’ nature’s great morning song, has not yet been properly understood or put to music. The first note of it is the sound of the dawn-wind through long grass. It is good, good beyond expression, to see the sun rise upon a strange land and to know that you have only to go forward and possess that land—that it will dower you before the day is ended with a hundred new impressions and, perhaps, one idea. It is good to snuff the wind when it comes in over large uplands or down from the tops of the blue Aravalis—dry and keen as a new-ground sword. Best of all is to light the First Pipe—is there any tobacco so good as that we burn in honour of the breaking day?—and, while the ponies wake the long white road with their hooves and the birds go abroad in companies together, to thank your stars that you are neither the Subaltern who has Orderly Room, the ’Stunt who has office, or the Judge who has the Court to attend; but are only a loafer in a flannel shirt bound, if God pleases, to ‘little Boondi,’ somewhere beyond the faint hills beyond the plain.

But there was alloy in this delight. Men had told the Englishman darkly that Boondi State had no love for Englishmen, that there was nowhere to stop, and that no one would do anything for money. Love was out of the question. Further, it was an acknowledged fact that there were no Englishmen of any kind in Boondi. But the Englishman trusted that Ganesh would be good to him, and that he would, somehow or other, fall upon his feet as he had fallen before. The road from Nasirabad to Deoli, being military in its nature, is nearly as straight as a ruler and about as smooth. Here and there little rocky hills, the last offshoots of the Aravalis into the west, break the ground; but the bulk of it is fair and without pimples. The Deoli Force are apparently so utterly Irregular that they can do without a telegraph, have their mails carried by runners, and dispense with bridges over all the fifty-six miles that separate them from Nasirabad. However, a man who goes shikarring for any length of time in one of Ram Baksh’s tongas would soon learn to dispense with anything and everything. ‘All the Sahibs use my tonga; I’ve got eight of them and twenty pairs of horses,’ said Ram Baksh. ‘They go as far as Gangra, where the tigers are, for they are “shutin-tongas.”’ Now the Englishman knew Gangra slightly, having seen it on the way to Udaipur; and it was as perverse and rocky a place as any man would desire to see. He politely expressed doubt. ‘I tell you my tongas go anywhere,’ said Ram Baksh testily. A hay-wagon—they cut and stack their hay in these parts—blocked the road. Ram Baksh ran the tonga to one side, into a rut, fetched up on a tree-stump, rebounded on to a rock, and struck the road again. ‘Observe,’ said Ram Baksh; ‘but that is nothing. You wait till we get on the Boondi Road, and I’ll make you shake, shake like a bottle.’ ‘Is it very bad?’ ‘I’ve never been to Boondi myself, but I hear it is all rocks—great rocks as big as this tonga.’ But though he boasted himself and his horses nearly all the way, he could not reach Deoli in anything like the time he had set forth. ‘If I am not at Boondi by four,’ he had said, at six in the morning, ‘let me go without my fee.’ But by mid-day he was still far from Deoli, and Boondi lay twenty-eight miles beyond that station. ‘What can I do?’ said he. ‘I’ve laid out lots of horses—any amount. But the fact is I’ve never been to Boondi. I shan’t go there in the night.’ Ram Baksh’s ‘lots of horses’ were three pair between Nasirabad and Deoli—three pair of undersized ponies who did wonders. At one place, after he had quitted a cotton wagon, a drove of gipsies, and a man on horseback, with his carbine across his saddle-bow, the Englishman came to a stretch of road so utterly desolate that he said: ‘Now I am clear of everybody who ever knew me. This is the beginning of the waste into which the scapegoat was sent.’

From a bush by the roadside sprang up a fat man who cried aloud in English: ‘How does Your Honour do? I met Your Honour in Simla this year. Are you quite well? Ya-as, I am here. Your Honour remembers me? I am travelling. Ya-as. Ha! Ha!’ and he went on, leaving His Honour bemazed. It was a Babu—a Simla Babu, of that there could be no doubt; but who he was or what he was doing, thirty miles from anywhere, His Honour could not make out. The nature moves about more than most folk, except railway people, imagine. The big banking firms of Upper India naturally keep in close touch with their great change-houses in Ajmir, despatching and receiving messengers regularly. So it comes to pass that the necessitous circumstances of Lieutenant McRannamack, of the Tyneside Tailtwisters, quartered on the Frontier, are thoroughly known and discussed, a thousand miles south of the cantonment where the light-hearted Lieutenant goes to his money-lender.

This is by the way. Let us return to the banks of the Banas river, where ‘poor Carey,’ as Tod calls him, came when he was sickening for his last illness. The Banas is one of those streams which run I over golden sands with feet of silver,’ but, from the scarp of its banks, Deoli in the rains must be isolated. Ram Baksh, questioned hereon, vowed that all the Officer Sahibs never dreamed of halting, but went over in boats or on elephants. According to Ram Baksh the men of Deoli must be wonderful creatures. They do nothing but use his tongas. A break in some low hills gives on to the dead flat plain in which Deoli stands. ‘You must stop here for the night,’ said Ram Baksh. ‘I will not take my horses forward in the dark; God knows where the dak-bungalow is. I’ve forgotten, but any one of the Officer Sahibs in Deoli will tell you.’

Those in search of a new emotion would do well to run about an apparently empty cantonment, in a disgraceful shooting-tonga, hunting for a place to sleep in. Chaprassis come out of back verandahs, and are rude, and regimental Babus hop off godowns, and are flippant, while in the distance a Sahib looks out of his room, and eyes the dusty forlorn-hope with silent contempt. It should be mentioned that the dust on the Deoli Road not only powders but masks the face and raiment of the passenger.

Next morning Ram Baksh was awake with the dawn, and clamorous to go on to Boondi. ‘I’ve sent a pair of horses, big horses, out there and the sais is a fool. Perhaps they will be lost; I want to find them.’ He dragged his unhappy passenger on the road once more and demanded of all who passed the dak-bungalow which was the way to Boondi. ‘Observe,’ said he, ‘there can be only one road, and if I hit it we are all right, and I’ll show you what the tonga can do.’ ‘Amen,’ said the Englishman, devoutly, as the tonga jumped into and out of a larger hole. ‘Without doubt this is the Boondi Road,’ said Ram Baksh; ‘it is so bad.’

It has been before said that the Boondi State has no great love for Sahibs. The state of the road proves it. ‘This,’ said Ram Baksh, tapping the wheel to see whether the last plunge had smashed a spoke, ‘is a very good road. You wait till you see what is ahead.’ And the funeral staggered on—over irrigation cuts, through buffalo wallows, and dried pools stamped with the hundred feet of kine (this, by the way, is the most cruel road of all), up rough banks where the rock ledges peered out of the dust, down steep-cut dips ornamented with large stones, and along two-feet-deep ruts of the rains, where the tonga went slantwise even to the verge of upsetting. It was a royal road—a native road—a Raj road of the roughest, and, through all its jolts and bangs and bumps and dips and heaves, the eye of Ram Baksh rolled in its bloodshot socket, seeking for the ‘big horses’ he had so rashly sent into the wilderness. The ponies that had done the last twenty miles into Deoli were nearly used up, and tried their best to lie down in the dry beds of nullahs.

A man came by on horseback, his servant walking before with platter and meal-bag. ‘Have you seen any horses hereabouts?’ cried Ram Baksh. ‘Horses? What the Devil have I to do with your horses? Do you think I’ve stolen them?’ Now this was decidedly a strange answer, and showed the rudeness of the land. An old woman under a tree cried out in a strange tongue and ran away. It was a dream-like experience, this hunting for horses in a wilderness with neither house nor but nor shed in sight. ‘If we keep to the road long enough we must find them. Look at the road! This Raj ought to be smitten with bullets.’ Ram Baksh had been pitched forward nearly on the off-pony’s rump, and was in a very bad temper indeed. The funeral found a house—a house walled with thorns—and near by were two big horses, thirteen-two if an inch, and harnessed quite regardless of expense.

Everything was repacked and rebound with triple ropes, and the Sahib was provided with an extra cushion; but he had reached a sort of dreamsome Nirvana, having several times bitten his tongue through, cut his boot against the wheel-edge, and twisted his legs into a true-lovers’-knot. There was no further sense of suffering in him. He was even beginning to enjoy himself faintly and by gasps. The road struck boldly into hills with all their teeth on edge, that is to say, their strata breaking across the road in little ripples. The effect of this was amazing. The tonga skipped merrily as a young fawn, from ridge to ridge. It shivered, it palpitated, it shook, it slid, it hopped, it waltzed, it ricochetted, it bounded like a kangaroo, it blundered like a sledge, it swayed like a topheavy coach on a down-grade, it ‘kicked’ like a badly coupled railway carriage, it squelched like a country-cart, it squeaked in its torment, and lastly, it essayed to plough up the ground with its nose. After three hours of this performance, it struck a tiny little ford, set between steeply sloping banks of white dust, where the water was clear brown and full of fish. And here a blissful halt was called under the shadow of the high bank of a tobacco field.

Would you taste one of the real pleasures of Life? Go through severe acrobatic exercises in and about a tonga for four hours; then, having eaten and drunk till you can no more, sprawl in the cool of a nullah-bed with your head among the green tobacco, and your mind adrift with the one little cloud in a royally blue sky. Earth has nothing more to offer her children than this deep delight of animal well-being. There were butterflies in the tobacco—six different kinds, and a little rat came out and drank at the ford. To him succeeded the flight into Egypt. The white banks of the ford framed the picture perfectly—the Mother in blue, on a great white donkey, holding the Child in her arms, and Joseph walking beside, his hand upon the donkey’s withers. By all the laws of the East, Joseph should have been riding and the Mother walking. This was an exception decreed for the Englishman’s special benefit. It was very warm and very pleasant, and, somehow, the passers by the ford grew indistinct, and the nullah became a big English garden, with a cuckoo singing far down in the orchard, among the apple-blossoms. The cuckoo started the dream. He was the only real thing in it, for on waking the garden slipped back into the water, but the cuckoo remained and called and called for all the world as though he had been a veritable English cuckoo. ‘Cuckoo—cuckoo—cuck’; then a pause and renewal of the cry from another quarter of the horizon. After that the ford became distasteful, so the procession was driven forward and in time plunged into what must have been a big city once, but the only inhabitants were oil-men. There were abundance of tombs here, and one carried a life-like carving in high relief of a man on horseback spearing a foot-soldier. Hard by this place the road or rut turned by great gardens, very cool and pleasant, full of tombs and blackfaced monkeys who quarrelled among the tombs, and shut in from the sun by gigantic banians and mango trees. Under the trees and behind the walls, priests sat singing; and the Englishman would have inquired into what strange place he had fallen, but the men did not understand him.

Ganesh is a mean little God of circumscribed powers. He was dreaming, with a red and flushed face, under a banian tree; and the Englishman gave him four annas to arrange matters comfortably at Boondi. His priest took the four annas, but Ganesh did nothing whatever, as shall be shown later. His only excuse is that his trunk was a good deal worn, and he would have been better for some more silver leaf, but that was no fault of the Englishman.

Beyond the dead city was a jhil, full of snipe and duck, winding in and out of the hills; and beyond the jhil, hidden altogether among the hills, was Boondi. The nearer to the city the viler grew the road and the more overwhelming the curiosity of the inhabitants. But what befell at Boondi must be reserved for another chapter.