Simla Notes [1]

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 16 June 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 pp. 2-3. Diary 6 April 1885. Only the first part is actually included in the Scrapbook.

The article, under the dateline of 12 May, begins in the CMG of 16 June and is continued under the same dateline in the CMG of 24 June.

No comment is necessary on the first part of these notes. As for the politics in the second part, it is useful to know that Gladstone’s Liberal government had been unexpectedly defeated in June, in part over a budget proposal to increase the duties on beer. Not long before, the government had withdrawn the troops marching to the relief of Khartoum in the Soudan, and at the same time was making on again-off again preparations for war with Russia over the Afghanistan question.

The prophecy is typical of the style of Kipling’s later political utterances, on South Africa, and on Germany before the first world war, for example. The argument runs thus: the thing to be done is perfectly clear, but it is certain that no timely or thorough action will be taken; England, having missed its best chance, will then muddle through in costly fashion, only to be betrayed in the end by liberal politicians.

The Article

(From our own Correspondent)
Simla, May 12

At this point of the weekly narrative, a green monkey, with a pinky blue face, swings himself into the verandah, and suggests plantains and bread. He is the advance guard of a family nearly twenty strong — hirsute fathers with short tempers and base voices; unlovely mothers with babies not bigger than three penny dutch dolls at their breasts; and irreverent hobbledehoys who are always getting in some one’s way and being bitten. The hill side is alive with their clamour, and presently they assemble in force on the lawn tennis court; despatching a deputation to warn me that the babies are tired and want fruit.
It is impossible to explain to the deputation that the sayings and doings of their descendants are of much greater importance than theirs. The leader of the gang has established himself on my dressing table, and investigates the brushes there. The flatsides would do splendidly to keep the babies in order. He tucks a brush under each arm, and strikes out for the open country, with a set of mother o’pearl shirt studs in his capacious pouch. Under these circumstances, I would ask all who know the ways of the monkey world, whether it is possible to continue writing? The deputation have fled down to the tennis court, leaving brushes and studs in the verandah. Virtue must be rewarded with bread crusts and over-ripe fruit. A tiny wizened dutch doll is one of the first to profit by my bounty; securing a large plantain skin, and essaying to nibble like its elders. The bonne bouche is unwieldy, and the dutch doll overbalances its little self. With a dolorous cry, mater-familias appropriates the dainty; catches the wailing monkeylet to her bosom, and feeds it by hand as she climbs along the top of the court fencing. The brush stealer, a ‘strong masterless rogue’ as the old statutes used to say, is deep in a packet of sugar. He scoops it up with human dexterity, and flings the paper away. A few crystals have dropped on the ground, and in the face of his sorrowing descendant, the brush stealer drops on his hands and knees, and licks them up like a dog. Darwin’s theory must be faulty somewhere; for, behold, the manlike brush stealer has reverted to the beast, and a greedy beast at that. Yet a few more crystals are stuck in the fur of one sinewy leg. Clasping the knee with both hands, he swings a straight limb up to the level of his mouth, and mumbles it rapturously. Then he sits down to scratch and cuff an intrusive hobbledehoy across the back. Darwin’s theory is correct after all. This is no monkey, but an irascible old gentleman with a short temper. He coughs consumptively and lies down for a nap, with his arm under his head. A few feet away, another dutch doll, the tiniest of the assembly, is swinging to and fro at the end of a supple pine branch, crooning some baby song to itself meanwhile. The brush-stealer rises stealthily from his lair, and with one gutteral oath, hurls the affrighted innocent down the khud (hill-side), apparently sheer on to the Annandale race course. Then vengeance overtakes him, for the baby’s mamma has witnessed the incident and grasps his ignoble old tail, and whirls him down the shaly slope with the rapidity of lightning. He returns, with
the baby and a coat full of pine needles, intent on vengeance. The peace of the happy family is broken. Everyone is fighting with everyone else. The babies fly to their mother’s arms, and in another moment the tennis court is empty.

The pensioners of the Lakka bazaar are unpleasantly human; and unlike the mummy at the Egyptian banquets, remind one, not of death, but of our early births long since, when the ‘heirs of all the ages in the foremost ranks of time’ pelted each other with pine cones, and generation by generation shortened their prehensile tails. If the doctrines of transmigation and evolution be true, the brush stealer, in a few millions of years, may grace the Legislative Council of London on the Hill [Simla]. He is very, very solemn, and has broad and vigorous ideas on the subject of ‘appropriation’.

But for the next century or two, the doings of men and not monkeys will interest us most; and I must return to the past week in Simla, with an apology for having devoted so much space to our country cousins. Reuter has informed us that Lord Salisbury has taken the helm of our blundering ship of State; and in a tepid sort or way we approve of the change. It is the just irony of fate, that our worthy ex-Premier should have been politically knocked on the head by a pint pot, and we are grateful to Providence for its mercy herein. It is also natural that on their accession to power, the Conservatives should straightway fall out among themselves. It is, best of all (I quote the military man’s news) extremely probable that our new Premier will lead us rejoicing to immediate war with the ‘Divine figure in the North’. Has he not called her a ‘bankrupt swindler’, and many other sweet names — all indicating his desire to come to conclusions at an early date? Is not the Right Hon’ble William Ewart Gladstone the only man who has mastered the art of eating his ‘exuberant verbosity’, and all the dirt which that oft repeated performance entails, by the shovel full; Lord Salisbury cannot and will not eat his words. Ergo, we shall fight. We shall blunder horribly at the outset; and throw away many army corps and much money in our laudable efforts to do things ‘on the cheap’.

Then the oriental mind, yet unused to our eccentric methods of doing battle, will turn against us, and we shall have our hands unpleasantly full for a time and times and half a time. Eventually, of course, we shall emerge from the conflict victors and triumphant, to float new loans for the depleted Russian treasury, and to give back gracefully her broken sword into her weakened right arm. Once committed to actual war, we shall fight as the ‘mad Englishman’ usually fights — with one hand tied behind his back, and the other ready to hoist up his enemy the moment he shows signs of having had ‘enough of it’. Once that war is concluded, a Radical Cabinet, borne in on a flood of fair promises, will Soudanize Central Asia, leave it to ‘stew in its own juice’ and what not; and the merry merry game will begin afresh, to the greater glory of England and the greater comfort of the divine figure. Yet, many say that the war is to be a decisive one, and the ‘smashing’ of Russian pretensions final and irremediable. It is possible, of course, to ‘smash’ a power with 2,700,000 fighting men off the reel; but the operation is a long and expensive one. When a few hundred thousand great coats have been ‘shooted at a bit’, as the German strategist said at St. Privat, and when half a dozen British iron-clads have amiably rammed each other into old-iron in the Baltic, the British tax payer will rise up in his wrath, and England will sit down with a few hundred columns of special correspondents’ gush over ‘glorious victories’: a few hundred miles of single line frontier railways, and an income tax which will impress her with the ‘immorality of war’ for the next decade. This is a noble and consoling forecast, and we can only pray that it may be utterly and absolutely false from beginning to end. [. . .]