First publication: Civil and Military Gazette,19 May 1888
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/4, pp. 64-65
Heat and fever were among the things unchanged in Kipling’s experience of Lahore.
The Brain-fever Bird had a secret to tell since the earliest morning. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ said he confidentially. ‘I’ll tell you what.’ But he never never told. Now he has gone to bed, taking the secret with him, and the little owls have come out to play bo-peep among the bougainvilleas and chuckle over the folly of the Brain-fever Bird.
Does an owl feel the heat? How can an owl hang head downwards for five minutes and talk politics to a neighbour at the same time. If an owl were to lose its balance. . . .
But the business of the night is to sleep. Once upon a time, there were one thousand sheep who came to a nullah, and the bell-wether jumped, and the second sheep jumped, and the third sheep jumped, and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth. . . . Whose cartwheels are those? Some man coming back from a dinner somewhere. Is it a two-wheeled cart or a four-wheeled? If the first, it may be Bathershin’s — if the second, Nixey’s. But did Nixey send his cart to be repaired, or was it Nixey’s mare or Bathershin’s that cut her hock upon the splash-board? It was a beast with two white stockings — no one, and a blaze on the nose. Or two. But which was it? A stocking and a blaze, or two white stockings and without a blaze?
If she had two why did not Nixey or Bathershin get rid of her, for the saw says: —
One you may buy it,
Two you may try it,
Three you may doubt it,
Four go without it.
But it may be, ‘one you may try it, two you may buy it’. That can’t be correct! It must be as first stated. The punkah is flapping to the cadence in the hot darkness. ‘One-you-may’ — a brisk kick — ‘buy it’. ‘Two you may’ — No that was too slow. The next pull is correct ‘Three you may doubt it.’ He has altered the swing afresh. How can one go to sleep? ‘The seventh sheep jumped it and the eighth sheep jumped it and the ninth and the tenth.’ Angels and ministers of grace defend us, what is in the next room! Only Nixey’s little terrier hunting for some cool spot to sleep in, and sniffing for rats.
He was very friendly in the day-time, but suppose he has gone mad since we last met and presently fixes his teeth in my throat, or, pattering up in the dark, nips me on the leg. Nothing will happen for weeks and weeks, months and years, and I shall have forgotten all about it. Then one fine day — a very fine day in England, most likely — there will be a funny little spasm in my throat (hydrophobia from the dog-bite, which is lethal) that will grow and grow and grow, and I shall see a looking glass, just like the one that the moon is beginning to shine on now, and I shall howl like a jackal and hide myself in a corner of the room until I feel thirsty and want a drink. By the way there was a spasm in my throat just now. Spoof never bit me that I can remember, but he may have scratched me and that is just as bad.
I would throw a boot at him — he is still sniffing in the next room — but for fear that when I put my hand out of the bed, I should touch a karait that had been waiting there since the dawn of time.
That would be even worse than feeling Spoof’s business-like little teeth in my leg, for when a man is bitten by a karait he dies in twenty minutes in excessive pain. There was a cow once bitten, by a karait, on the tongue, and she lowed without ceasing for an hour and then was dumb; and when the morning broke she was a swelled and shapeless mass upon the ground. The gaoli (cow-herd) said he thought that she was crying for her calf. If a man lowed for half an hour without ceasing, no one could hear him in this place, and he would be able to swell in peace, just as the cow did.
Curious idea — a man’s lowing. If any one heard him what would they suppose he was bellowing for? A khitmatgar? (servant) It would be amusing for a punkah-coolie to hear a Sahib bellowing and to know that the Sahib could do nothing, and so to fan that Sahib from this world into the next — if there is one; the punkah-stroke answering the last beat of the pulse just like the relentless tick, tick, tick, of the watch under the pillow.
By the way, what time is it? Two twenty-seven and the blessed sleep as far off as ever, the head throbbing like the drums behind the servants’ quarters and the brain full of sick fancies. The outside world is worse than indoors. A choking dust-storm has wiped out the moon, and the air is full of flying rubbish. All the world is going down-wind together — beyond the girdling belt of trees, beyond the white road — straight into the copper-hued bosom of the sultry night. Everything would escape from the heat if it could — even the tortured writhing clouds of dust that must be used to it.
If a man returned to his couch and lay very still and religiously thought of nothing at all, he might surprise sleep unawares. But to think of nothing necessitates thinking very hard indeed, and this increases an already sufficiently lively headache. Not to think of nothing means that the uncontrolled brain will tie itself up in a helpless knot of doubt, perplexity, argument, re-argument, wonder and pain. The stroll into the open has brushed away the unwholesome cobwebs of groundless panic, but when will the rest come?
Nine hundred thousand sheep — all Australia full — tried to jump through a hedge. And the first jumped, and the second jumped. . . . and the thirty hundred and forty first jumped. Never were such disappointing muttons! They jumped so merrily that I took an interest in them instead of dozing off. Happy thought! One hundred and fifty Bathershins once tried to crawl through a hedge on their hands and knees. And the first Bathershin — stuck ‘like a fou-weltered yow’ (a mad ewe). I am so absorbed in his performances that I neglect all his followers. Fancy Bathershin with his head in a black-thorn bush and his feet kicking wildly over a ditch! And that is no use. The real thing is to think of nothing — of nothing — of nothing.
5.45 A.M. — As bitter a piece of work as ever was! And here with a cessation of the dust-storm and a few drops of tepid rain, breaks the pitiless day. The Brain-fever Bird is up and across the lawn, stammering the secret that he is forbidden to divulge. Sleepless, and you who have watched through the night, all the world over, good morning!
Spoof trots round the corner, his tail in the elements and his nose on the quiver for a rat. He looks as though few ill dreams had disturbed his rest. Spoofkins, come here and have your ears pulled for frightening a fool of a Sahib nearly into a fit last night!