Letters of Marque


by Rudyard Kipling


ABOVE the Durbar Gardens lie low hills, in which the Maharana keeps, very strictly guarded, his pig and his deer, and anything else that may find shelter in the low scrub or under the scattered boulders. These preserves are scientifically parcelled out with high red-stone walls; and here and there are dotted tiny shooting-stands—masonry sentry-boxes, in which five or six men may sit at ease and shoot. It had been arranged to entertain the Englishmen who were gathered at the Residency to witness the investiture of the King with the G.C.S.I.—that there should be a little pig-drive in front of the Kala Odey or black shooting-box. The Rajput is a man and a brother, in respect that he will ride, shoot, eat pig, and drink strong waters like an Englishman. Of the pig-hunting he makes almost a religious duty, and of the wine-drinking no less. Read how desperately they used to ride in Udaipur at the beginning of the century when Tod, always in his cocked hat to be sure, counted up the tale of accidents at the end of the day’s sport.

There is something unfair in shooting pig; but each man who went out consoled himself with the thought that it was utterly impossible to ride the brutes up the almost perpendicular hillsides, or down rocky ravines, and that he individually would only go ‘just for the fun of the thing.’ Those who stayed behind made rude remarks on the subject of ‘pork butchers,’ and the dangers that attended shooting from a balcony. There are ways and ways of slaying pig—from the orthodox method which begins with ‘The Boar—the Boar—the mighty Boar!’ overnight, and ends with a shaky bridle-hand next morn, to the sober and solitary pot-shot at dawn, from a railway embankment running through river-marsh; but the perfect way is this. Get a large four-horse break, and drive till you meet an unlimited quantity of pad-elephants waiting at the foot of rich hill-preserves. Mount slowly and with dignity, and go in swinging procession, by the marble-faced border of one of the most lovely lakes on earth. Strike off on a semi-road, semi-hill-torrent path through unthrifty, thorny jungle, and so climb up and up and up, till you see, spread like a map below, the lake and the Palace and the City, hemmed in by the sea of hills that lies between Udaipur and Mount Abu a hundred miles away. Then take your seat in a comfortable chair, in a fine two-storied Grand Stand, with an awning spread atop to keep off the sun, while the Rawat of Amet and the Prime Minister’s heir—no less—invite you to take your choice of the many rifles spread on a ledge at the front of the building. This, gentlemen who screw your pet ponies at early dawn after the sounder that vanishes into cover soon as sighted, or painfully follow the tiger through the burning heats of Mewar in May, this is shooting after the fashion of Ouida—in musk and ambergris and patchouli.

It is demoralising. One of the best and hardest riders of the Lahore Tent Club in the old days, as the boars of Bouli Lena Singh knew well, said openly: ‘This is a first-class scheme,’ and fell to testing his triggers as though he had been a pot-hunter from his birth. Derision and threats of exposure moved him not. ‘Give me an arm-chair!’ said he. ‘This is the proper way to deal with pig!’ And he put up his feet on the ledge and stretched himself.

There were many weapons to choose from, from the double-barrelled ·500 Express, whose bullet is a tearing, rending shell, to the Rawat of Amet’s regulation military Martini-Henry. A profane public at the Residency had suggested clubs and saws as amply sufficient for the work in hand. Here they were moved by envy, which passion was ten-fold increased when—but this comes later on. The beat was along a deep gorge in the hills, flanked on either crest by stone walls, manned with beaters. Immediately opposite the shooting-box the wall on the upper or higher hill made a sharp turn down-hill, contracting the space through which the pig would have to pass to a gut which was variously said to be from one hundred and fifty to four hundred yards across. Most of the shooting was up or down hill.

A philanthropic desire not to murder more Bhils than were absolutely necessary to maintain a healthy current of human life in the Hilly Tracts, coupled with a well-founded dread of the hinder, or horse, end of a double-barrelled ·500 Express which would be sure to go off both barrels together, led the Englishman to take a gunless seat in the background. Then a silence fell upon the party, and very far away up the gorge the heated afternoon air was cut by the shrill tremolo squeal of the Bhil beaters. Now a man may be in no sort or fashion a shikari—may hold Buddhistic objections to the slaughter of living things—but there is something in the extraordinary noise of an agitated Bhil which makes even the most peaceful mortals get up and yearn, like Tartarin of Tarascon for ‘lions,’ always at a safe distance be it understood. As the beat drew nearer, under the squealing-the ‘ul-al-lu-lu-lu’—was heard a long-drawn bittern-like boom of ‘So-oor!’ ‘So-oor!’ (Pig! Pig!) and the crashing of boulders. The guns rose in their places, forgetting that each and all had merely come ‘to see the fun,’ and began to fumble among the little mounds of cartridges under the chairs. Presently, tripping delicately over the rocks, a pig stepped out of a cactus-bush, and the fusillade began. The dust flew and the branches chipped, but the pig went on—a blue-grey shadow almost undistinguishable against the rocks, and took no harm. ‘Sighting shots,’ said the guns, sulkily. The beat came nearer, and then the listener discovered what the bubbling scream was like; for he forgot straightway about the beat and went back to the dusk of an Easter Monday in the Gardens of the Crystal Palace before the bombardment of Kars, ‘set piece ten thousand feet square’ had been illuminated, and about five hundred ’Arries were tickling a thousand ’Arriets. Their giggling and nothing else was the noise of the Bhil. So curiously does Sydenham and Western Rajputana meet. Then came another pig, who was smitten to the death and rolled down among the bushes, drawing his last breath in a human and horrible manner.

But full on the crest of the hill, blown along—there is no other word to describe it—like a ball of thistle-down, passed a brown shadow, and men cried: ‘Bagheera,’ or ‘Panther!’ according to their nationalities, and blazed. The shadow leaped the wall that had turned the pig downhill, and vanished among the cactus. ‘Never mind,’ said the Prime Minister’s son, consolingly, ‘we’ll beat the other side of the hill afterwards and get him yet.’ ‘Oh, he’s a mile off by this time,’ said the guns; but the Rawat of Amet, a magnificent young man, smiled a sweet smile and said nothing. More pig passed and were slain, and many more broke back through the beaters, who presently came through the cover in scores. They were in russet green and red uniform, each man bearing a long spear, and the hillside was turned on the instant to a camp of Robin Hood’s foresters. Then they brought up the dead from behind bushes and under rocks—among others a twenty-seven-inch brute who bore on his flank (all pigs shot in a beat are ex officio boars) a hideous half-healed scar, big as a man’s hand, of a bullet wound. Express bullets are ghastly things in their effects, for, as the shikari is never tired of demonstrating, they knock the insides of animals into pulp.

The second beat, of the reverse side of the hill, had barely begun when the panther returned—uneasily, as if something were keeping her back—much lower down the hill. Then the face of the Rawat of Amet changed, as he brought his gun up to his shoulder. Looking at him as he fired, one forgot all about the Mayo College at which he had been educated, and remembered only some trivial and out-of-date affairs, in which his forefathers had been concerned, when a bridegroom, with his bride at his side, charged down the slope of the Chitor road and died among Akbar’s men. There are stories connected with the house of Amet, which are told in Mewar to-day. The young man’s face, for as short a time as it takes to pull trigger and see where the bullet falls, was a white light upon all these tales.

Then the mask shut down, as he clicked out the cartridge, and, very sweetly, gave it as his opinion that some other gun, not his own, had bagged the panther who lay shot through the spine, feebly trying to drag herself downhill into cover. It is an awful thing to see a big beast die, when the soul is wrenched out of the struggling body in ten seconds. Wild horses shall not make the Englishman disclose the exact number of shots that were fired. It is enough to say that four Englishmen, now scattered to the four winds of heaven, are each morally certain that he and he alone shot that panther. In time, when distance and the mirage of the sands of Uodhpur shall have softened the harsh outlines of truth, the Englishman who did not fire a shot will come to believe that he was the real slayer, and will carefully elaborate that lie.

A few minutes after the murder, a two-year-old cub came trotting along the hillside, and was bowled over by a very pretty shot behind the left ear and through the palate. Then the beaters’ lances showed through the bushes, and the guns began to realise that they had allowed to escape, or had driven back by their fire, a multitude of pig.

This ended the beat, and the procession returned to the Residency to heap dead panthers upon those who had called them ‘pork butchers,’ and to stir up the lake of envy with the torpedo of brilliant description. The Englishman’s attempt to compare the fusillade which greeted the panther to the continuous drumming of a ten-barrelled Nordenfeldt was, however, coldly received. Thus harshly is truth treated all the world over.

And then, after a little time, came the end, and a return to the road in search of new countries. But shortly before the departure, the Padre-Sahib, who knows every one in Udaipur, read a sermon in a sentence. The Maharana’s investiture, which has already been described in the Indian papers, had taken place, and the carriages, duly escorted by the Erinpura Horse, were returning to the Residency. In a niche of waste land, under the shadow of the main gate, a place strewn with rubbish and shards of pottery, a dilapidated old man was trying to control his horse and a hookah on the saddle-bow. The blundering garron had been made restive by the rush past, and the hookah all but fell from the hampered hands. ‘See that man,’ said the Padre, tersely. ‘That’s —— Singh. He intrigued for the throne not so very long ago.’ It was a pitiful little picture, and needed no further comment.

For the benefit of the loafer it should be noted that Udaipur will never be pleasant or accessible until the present Mail Contractors have been hanged. They are extortionate and untruthful, and their one set of harness and one tonga are as rotten as pears. However, the weariness of the flesh must be great indeed, to make the wanderer blind to the beauties of a journey by clear starlight and in biting cold to Chitor. About six miles from Udaipur, the granite hills close in upon the road, and the air grows warmer until, with a rush and a rattle, the tonga swings through the great Dobarra, the gate in the double circle of hills round Udaipur on to the pastures of Mewar. More than once the Girwa has been a deathtrap to those who rashly entered it; and an army has been cut up on the borders of the Pichola Lake. Even now the genius of the place is strong upon the hills, and as he felt the cold air from the open ground without the barrier, the Englishman found himself repeating the words of one of the Hat-marked tribe whose destiny kept him within the Dobarra. ‘You must have a hobby of some kind in these parts or you’ll die.’ Very lovely is Udaipur, and thrice pleasant are a few days spent within her gates, but . . . read what Tod said who stayed two years behind the Dobarra, and accepted the deserts of Marwar as a delightful change.

It is good to be free, a wanderer upon the highways, knowing not what to-morrow will bring forth—whether the walled-in niceties of an English household, rich in all that makes life fair and desirable, or a sleepless night in the society of a goods-cum-booking-office-cum-parcels-clerk, on fifteen rupees a month, who tells in stilted English the story of his official life, while the telegraph gibbers like a maniac once in an hour and then is dumb, and the pariah-dogs fight and howl over the cotton-bales on the platform.

Verily, there is no life like life on the Road—when the skies are cool and all men are kind.