Collar-Wallah and the Poison Stick

by Rudyard Kipling

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MOST PEOPLE only know monkeys and their manners and customs from the other side of a cage: which is much the same thing as if you put a horse into an attic with sloping roofs, and then tried to imagine how he would look in a meadow.

Once upon a time I lived in a monkey country, at Simla among the Himalayas, in a house built out upon the side of a mountain that was full of monkeys. There were two kinds of them: the big silver-grey monkeys about three feet high, with white beards – people called them langurs, – and the little greeny-brown organ-grinder monkeys. We never saw much of the big fellows. They kept to the tops of the tall pines, and jumped from one tree to another without seeming to care how they landed or where. But the little ones frolicked from early morning to twilight in our front garden and the back garden and on the tin roof and round all the verandas. They came with their wives and their children – tiny brown puff balls with their hair parted exactly in the middle, so young that they tried to pick up things with their mouths instead of with their hands, and tumbled over on their heads; and they used to pick the flowers in the drive, and leave their babies for punishment on the top of a fence, and slide up and down the pine-trees, and make the most awful faces they could, just to show that they did not care for people. We watched them fight and play and nurse their children and swing at the end of the long elastic branches, and chase each other down the almost perpendicular hillside, till we came to know them and give them names. They were fed once or twice a day – some of them grew so tame that they would come into the veranda and eat from our knees; but they always kept one anxious eye on the open air behind them.

Monkeys are sacred beasts in most parts of India, in Simla especially; but our friends knew that monkeys are sometimes caught by men and trained to ride on goats and to beat tambourines – things no self-respecting monkey would dream of doing. Once a troop of trained monkeys came and performed in the garden, and the wild monkeys sat about on the trees and said the worst things that they could think of, and the trained monkeys in their blue and red petticoats looked at them sorrowfully. When the performance was ended, all our friends ran away, and I suppose they talked it over that night, for they were very cautious, not to say rude, next morning, and the babies were put at the topmost tops of the pine-trees when the fathers and mothers came down to be fed.

The tamest of our monkeys (we called them ours because they would fight any of the tribe or family that came into the garden) was a little fellow who had once been civilised. He still wore a leather collar round his neck, which is a most unusual place for a monkey collar to be. Generally it is put round the waist. We called him ‘Collar-Wallah’ [the collar-man], and he would eat biscuit from my sister’s hand, opening her fingers one by one. The monkeys were our great delight, and we made them show off before callers, and drew pictures of them, and chased them out of our rooms, and saw as much of their ways as they chose to show. We never understood when they went to bed, but we heard them mewing like cats up in the trees; and late at night, coming home from a dinner, the flash of our lanterns would disturb a nest of them in the darkness. Then there would be yells and screeches and cries of, ‘What did you push me out of bed for?’ ‘I didn’t!’ ‘You did!’ ‘You’re another!’ ‘Take that!’ and a monkey would come crashing through the branches, and sit at the bottom of the tree and shout, ‘Smarty!’ till he was tired.

One day I found Collar-Wallah bounding out of my window with my hair-brushes. He left them in the crotch of a tree, and the next time I had a fair chance I threw a pine-cone at him, and knocked him off the end of the fence where he was hunting for fleas. Collar-Wallah put his head through the pickets, showed all his teeth, and called me every ugly name in the monkey language and went up the hillside. Next morning I saw him hanging head-downwards from the gutter above my window, feeling into the rooms with his arms for something to carry away. That time I did not throw a pine-cone, but put some mustard into a piece of bread and let him eat it. When it began to burn, he danced with rage, and that night, just before he went to bed, he pushed my looking-glass over with his feet, breaking it into splinters. Kadir Baksh, my servant, said gravely as he picked up the pieces: ‘That monkey is angry with you, Sahib.’

I laughed and said I did not care, because I was going away in a day or two for a march, and Kadir Baksh grinned. Marching is more like setting out in search of adventures, as the knights used to do, than anything else; and whenever I got a chance I used to go on a march. The way to do it is this way. You take your horse and groom and servant, and two or three men to carry provisions, and go out for a week or a fortnight, just for the sake of walking and riding and seeing. There is no country in all the world as beautiful as the Himalayas, and my march was going to lead me through the loveliest of the mountains. So I took my horse (her real name was Dorothea Darbishoff, because she had come into India from Russia, but she was called Dolly Bobs for short, because she shied). And I took her groom, a one-eyed man named Dunnee, and Kadir Baksh took his umbrella and the little bundle of things he wanted, and commanded a detachment of two coolies with baskets full of tinned things to eat slung over their shoulders on bamboo poles, and little Vixen, my fox-terrier (who always hoped to catch a monkey some day and never did), took command of us all, and we started off along the road that leads to Tibet. There is no other road worth mentioning in that part of the world, and the only way of missing it is by stepping off its edge and rolling a few thousand feet into the valley. In front of us there was nothing but the line of the Himalaya snows, that always looks just the same, however near you may get to it. Sometimes we could see the road curling round a hillside eight or ten miles ahead, or dipping into a valley two or three thousand feet below. Sometimes we went through forests, where every tree was hung with ferns from top to bottom, and where the violets and the lilies of the valley grew as thick as grass.

Sometimes we had to climb over the naked shoulder of a shaven hill where the sun blistered the backs of our necks, and sometimes we wound along under a cliff of solid black rock, all wrapt in mist and cloud, with a thunderstorm roaring in the valley beneath us. At midday we stopped to eat by the roadside, and at night we rested in the bare houses, with nothing in them except a chair and a bedstead, which are put up for the accommodation of travellers. But it was a most beautiful march. Everybody thought so except Dolly Bobs, and she did not like meeting in a narrow road caravans of sheep, each sheep carrying a little leather-tipped sack of borax, coming down from Tibet. The big wolfdogs that guard the caravans frightened her. Three or four times in a day, too, we would be sure to come across a whole tribe of monkeys changing their camping-grounds, and the chattering and barking and scuffling upset her nerves. We used Dolly Bobs for a pack-horse at last and tramped on our feet twenty miles a day, till we reached a beautiful valley called Kotgarh, where they grow opium and corn. The next day’s march I knew would take us down three thousand feet and up two thousand, so I halted above the valley and looked about for a place to sleep in for the night. We found a Mohammedan farmer, who said he would be pleased to lodge Dolly Bobs and give me what he could to eat. So we went up to his hut and put Dolly Bobs under cover, and soon sat down to some boiled kid, and what they call Mussulmani bread. Then there was some honey and some more bread. My host would not eat any of my tinned things, for he was afraid that they might have pork in them, and Mohammedans are forbidden to eat pork. After supper I wrapped myself up in a blanket, Kadir Baksh curled up for a smoke, and Dunnee came in and sat in a corner and smoked his own pipe alone – for he was a low-caste Hindu – and my host lit his water-pipe, which was made of an old blacking-bottle, and we began to talk. Then his wife came in, and put what was left of our supper into a dish, and carried it out. I could hear Vixen, who was sleeping with Dolly Bobs (you must never take a dog into a Mohammedan house – it is not good manners) begin to growl and talk monkey, and I wondered why Mohammedans, who generally make a point of ill-treating every animal that the Hindu holds sacred, should feed monkeys. The woman came back with the empty dish, saying: ‘I hope they will swell and die!’ and I heard the monkeys scuffling and chattering over the food. The farmer looked at me and said: ‘I should not do this if I were not forced; but when the monkey-folk are stronger than you are, what can a poor man do?’

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Then he told me this tale, and I give it as he told it.

‘Sahib, I am a very poor man – a very poor man. It is my fate to come to this country far away from my Mohammedan friends.’

Kadir Baksh moved restlessly, and I saw that he wanted to say something, so I gave him leave to speak.

‘Perhaps,’ said Kadir Baksh, ‘he has forgotten something. It is in my mind, Sahib, that before this man was a Mohammedan he was a Hindu. He is a Mohammedan of the first generation, and not one of the old stock. Blessed are those that take hold of the Faith at any time, but the face of this man is the face of a Hindu.’

‘That is true,’ said the man; ‘I was an arain, a gardener, but my father turned Mohammedan, and I, his son, with him. Then I went away from my Hindu people, and came here, because my wife has friends in these hills and the soil is good. They are all Hindus in this valley, but not one of them has ever molested me on account of my being a Mohammedan. Neither man nor woman, I say – neither man nor woman has offered any harm to me or mine. But, Sahib, the monkey-folk are very wise. I am sure that they knew I had turned my back on the old Gods of the Hindus. I am sure of it.’ The monkeys outside chattered as they swept up the last of the supper, and the farmer shook his head solemnly.

‘Now listen, Sahib. This spring I planted rice for myself and my little ones – good rice to eat if Fate allowed me to live so long. My back ached as I planted it tuft by tuft in the little field yonder, and I borrowed a neighbour’s bullock to plough the wet furrows. Upon a day, while I was planting, there came one of the monkey-folk out of the forest there at the top of the hill, and he sat upon the boundary-stone of my field and made mocking faces at me. So I took a clot of mud and threw it at him, crying, “Begone, sinful one!” and he went back to that forest. But on the next day there came two of the monkey-people, and they sat upon my boundary-stone, and I threw two clots of mud at them, and they went to my house together, dancing upon their hind legs, and they stole all the red peppers that hang upon the door.’

‘Yes,’ said the woman, ‘they stole all the red peppers. They were burned in their mouths, but they stole them.’

‘Upon the next day I took a gullel, a pellet-bow, and hid it in the long grass by the side of the rice, that the Hindus my neighbours might not see what I did, and when those monkey-folk came again I hit one in the back with a pellet of dried mud. Immediately then they went to my house, and while my wife stood without to prevent any more stealing of red peppers, they burrowed into the thatch just above where the Sahib is sitting now, and they came through and overturned the milk in the pot, putting out the fire. That night I was very angry, and I said to myself, “They think because there are many Hindus in this valley I shall not dare to kill them. O foolish monkey-folk!” But I was the fool, Sahib. With my grey beard, I was the fool! In the morning I took rice a year old and firm in the grain, and boiled it with milk and sugar, a mess for four people, and set it in the corner of the field and said: “First they shall eat the good meat, and then they shall eat the bad, and I will destroy them at one blow.” So I hid behind a bush, and I saw not one monkey but a score of them come down from the woods and consider the matter, and he that had at first sat upon the boundary-stone and made faces at me was, as before, the leader of them all.’

‘But how couldst thou tell one monkey from another at a distance?’ I asked.

The farmer grunted contemptuously. ‘Are there then two monkeys in these hills,’ he said, ‘that wear a leather collar about their neck? About the neck, Sahib, and not about the waist, where a monkey’s strap should be?’ Kadir Baksh kicked with both legs under the blanket, and blew out a heavy puff of tobacco.

Dunnee from his corner winked his one eye fifty times.

‘My goodness!’ I said, but I did not say it quite aloud, and the farmer was so interested in his story that he went on without noticing us.

‘Now I am sure, Sahib, that it was the Evil One that had put that collar about his neck for a reward of great wickedness. They considered the rice for some time, tasting it little by little, and then he with the collar cried a cry, and they ate it all up, chattering and dancing about the fields. But they had not gratitude in their hearts for their good meal; and rice is not cheap in the hills this year.’

‘They knew. They knew,’ said his wife. ‘They knew that we meant evil toward them. We should have given it as a peace-offering. Hanuman, the Monkey-god, was angry with us. We should have made a sacrifice.’

‘They showed no gratitude at all,’ said the farmer, raising his voice. ‘That very evening they overset and broke my pipe, which I had left in the fields, and they stole my wife’s silver anklets from under the bed. Then I said: “The play is played. We will have done with this child’s game.” So I cooked a mess of rice, larger and sweeter than the first, and into it I put of white arsenic enough to kill a hundred bullocks. In the morning I laid that good monkey-food once more in the high grass, and by my father’s beard, Sahib, there came out of the forest monkeys and monkeys and monkeys, and yet more monkeys, leaping and frisking, and walking upon their hinder legs, and he, the leader of them all, was the monkey with the collar! They gathered about the dish, and dipped their hands in and ate a little, and spat it out and dipped afresh; neither eating the food nor leaving it alone. I, hidden behind the bush, laughed to myself and said: “Softly, softly, O foolish monkey-folk! There may not be enough for all, but those who eat shall never need to ask for a meal again.” Then the monkey with the collar sat upon the edge of the dish and put his head on one side thus, and scratched himself thus, and all the others sat about him. They stayed still for so long a time as it takes a buffalo to plough one furrow in the rice-field. I was planting rice in the little field below – beautiful green rice-plants. Ahi! I shall not husk any of that rice.
‘Then he with the collar made an oration. In truth, Sahib, he spoke to his companions as it might have been a priest in a mosque; and those monkey-folk went back to the forest, leaving the rice smoking in the dish. In a very short time they returned, and to me, watching from behind the bush, it was as though all the undergrowth in the forest was moving, for each monkey bore in his hands a twig, and the collar monkey walked before them all, and his tail was high in the air. In truth, he was their Padishah, Sahib – their General.’

Now I had been thinking very hard about Collar-Wallah – the Collar-Wallah who ate biscuits in our back garden at Simla, and I was trying to remember how early in the summer he had made his first appearance with us. In the language that the farmer was talking, the word he used for twig might have meant a stone. So I said: ‘What did they bring in their hands: Stones that you throw, or twigs that you cut ?’
‘Twigs – little branches with green leaves upon them,’ said the wife. ‘They know all that we do not know of the uses of the green herbs in the forest.’ The husband went on:

‘Sahib, I am a very poor man, but I never tell lies. They assembled about that dish of milk and rice, and they stirred it with the twigs till the hot rice spurted over their feet, and they yelled with pain.. But they stirred it, and they stirred it, and they stirred and they stirred thus.’ And the .farmer’s foot went round in circles about a foot from the floor.

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‘Now, when that stirring was accomplished, Sahib, and he with the collar had tasted the mess again, they threw away the twigs and fell upon that rice and milk, and ate it all up and fought for the last grains, and they were very merry, and caught fleas one from the other. When I saw that they did not die – that, by virtue of that stirring with the twigs, all the white arsenic, which should have killed a hundred bullocks, became good boiled rice and milk again, the hair of my head stood up, and I said: “I have not fought against the monkey-folk, but against wizards and warlocks.” ‘

‘Nay,’ said the wife, almost under her breath. ‘It was against Hanuman that we fought – against Hanuman, the Monkey-god, and the old Hindu Gods that we had neglected.’

‘I ran home very swiftly, and told my wife these things, and she said I must not stir abroad any more for fear of bewitchment by these apes. So I lay on my bed and drew the blanket about me, and prayed as a Mohammedan should pray until the twilight. But woe is me! Even while I prayed, those monkey-folk worked my ruin. I went out of the house at the rising of the moon to milk my cow, and I heard a noise of small feet running over wet ground, and when the moon rose, I saw that in the whole of my little field there was not one blade of rice remaining. Tuft by tuft, Sahib, those monkey-folk had plucked it out; with their teeth and their hands they had bitten and torn every tuft, and thrown all about the hillside as a child throws a broken necklace! Of my labour and my pains, and the work of my neighbours’ buffaloes through the spring, not one cowrie’s worth remained, and I took off my turban and threw it upon the ground and wept and roared.’

‘Didst thou by Chance pray to any of thy Hindu Gods?’ said Kadir Baksh quickly. Dunnee said nothing, but his one eye twinkled, and I fancy he chuckled deep in his throat.

I – I do not remember upon Whom I called. I was insensible with grief, and when I lifted up my eyes I saw him, the evil one with the collar, sitting alone upon the boundary-stone, regarding me with wicked yellow eyes, and I threw my turban at him, and it became unrolled, and he caught at one end of it, and dragged it away up the hillside. So I came back to my house bare-headed, without honour and ashamed, the sport of the monkey-folk.’

There was a pause, and he pulled at his pipe furiously.

‘Now, therefore,’ he went on, ‘we feed the monkeys twice a day, as thou, O Sahib, hast seen, for we hope to patch up a peace between us. Indeed, they do not steal much now; there is very little left to steal; and he with the collar went away after the ruin of my rice-field. Now my little daughter’s wedding this year will lack a bridal procession and a band of musicians, and I do not know whence my next year’s seed-rice will come. All this I owe to the monkey-folk, and especially to him with the collar.’

Long after I had rolled the blanket round me, and was trying to go to sleep, I heard Kadir Baksh’s deep voice quoting texts from the Koran, and telling the farmer never to forget that he was a true Mohammedan.

A fortnight later I came back to Simla again, and the first person to meet me in the drive was Collar-Wallah. He dashed under Dolly Bobs’s feet and made her shy, and then sat on a low branch nibbling his tail, which is the last insult that a monkey can offer.

‘Collar-Wallah,’ I said, reining up, ‘it’s no use your pretending not to understand. I heard something about you at Kotgarh, and I warn you solemnly that if you try to do anything to me again, I shan’t throw pine-cones at you. I shall shoot you dead. I’m not a farmer.’
Collar-Wallah might have been the most innocent monkey in the world (though I do not for a moment believe it), and perhaps he did not understand a word that I said. All that I know is that he never came near the house again as long as I was there.