The Burden of Nineveh

by Rudyard Kipling

(a short tale)

Small parsons crimp their eyes to gaze,
And misses titter in their stays
Just fresh from Layard’s “Nineveh”.
(The Burden of Nineveh 1856)

It was the Patient East, but not quite as Arnold has painted her. She was thinking, it is true, but there was no dignity in her attire. In the first place, they had given her a beautiful British check-pattern shawl to hide the shoulders that had driven mad Alexander and one or two other gentlemen with armies and aspirations. In the second, they had put a mortar-board atilt on her dark hair, but through some little error it was hind-side before, and the deep part was scratching her nose. There was a bundle of Educational Primers at her feet, and the Tiger, which she used to hold in a golden leash, was sitting on his hind legs snapping at flies. Altogether, the Patient East did not look her best.

“It’s curious,” she thought; and she pinched the beautiful British check-pattern shawl. “It’s very curious!” She squinted at the peak of the mortar-board. “I suppose they mean well.”

And the British M.P. came that way, with his head full of plans for the regeneration of all the Earth, and cuttings from the newspapers in his pockets.

“And how are we to-day?” said the M.P., walking round the Patient East to see that the shawl hung straight, “Very pretty and civilized. We are advancing, madam! We are advancing to a goal which—” then he stopped, for he was not quite sure what the goal was.

“A-b ab; b-a ba; b-a-b bab,” repeated the Patient East wearily, for she knew that the M.P. would be pleased to find that she had been reading her Primers.

“Beautiful,” said the M.P. stepping back to watch the effect of the mortar-board. “In another year or two, my dear madam, we shall be in words of three syllables; and, ere long, I see no reason why we should not arrive at stand-pipes in all the main thoroughfares, coffeeshops, omnibuses, local-option, and—and all the refinements of civilization, including a complete dress of Liberty’s fabrics. You shall walk my dear lady-ah-h’m-you shall walk down Westbourne Grove exactly—er—hmm—like One of Us; and I’ll be delighted to make your acquaintance. My wife takes a great interest—ah—hmm—in the heathen.”

“How kind of her!” said the Patient East without a smile; and her thoughts wandered away to some other wives that she had known.

“Is it not?” said the M.P. blandly. “But then she is a Vicar’s daughter of Enlarged Sympathies. Still, I think, she would not quite approve of your walking about—pardon my saying so—bare-foot. We must have boots—sound, stout walking-boots.”

“What is the matter with my feet?” said the Patient East putting out a shapely gold-ankletted foot that had been set on the neck of some few not altogether undistinguished persons.

“Well”, said the M.P. “‘I observe that you adhere to that poetical, but still barbarous, custom of dyeing the soles, Lac dye, is it not?”

The Patient East smiled inscrutably. “No—not quite,” she said. “Yes-in a sense; for it is the dye of lakhs and lakhs.”

The M.P. made a note of the phrase, and continued: “I would suggest that you remove it, though it is undeniably picturesque. My wife wouldn’t like it.”

“I’m sorry for that,” said the Patient East gravely. “Is there anything else!”

“Yes,” said the M.P. “We cannot be too careful, my dear madam, just at present. My wife and I have heard, with considerable regret, that you—ah—allow more intoxicating liquids to be drunk among your dependents than is prudent.”

“Ah,” said the Patient East with a queer look in her eye. “I have drunk strange drinks in my time-very strange liquors,” and she quoted, half to herself:-

“We drank the midday sun to sleep, and lit
Lamps that outburned Canopus O, my life
In Egypt! O the dalliance and the wit
The flattery and the strife!”

“Glad to see that you read Tennyson,” said the M.P., “though I cannot approve of all his sentiments. It shows an interest in our glorious literature—inheritance of ages y’know, and all the rest of it. But you will remember about the drink, won’t you? And—ah—there’s another very delicate question.” The M.P. blushed.

“Don’t mind me,” said the Patient East. “These eyes have seen a good deal since they were first opened”.

The M.P. began rummaging in a bag, and pulled out a double-handful of books on grey paper with bold black titles. “Why do you let these things lie about the book-stalls? They—they corrupt the morals of youth, y’know—Not fit to be read. ‘Fraid it’s our fault—doing you serious injury; but you might help us to stop it. Where there’s no demand there’s no supply. Law of trade that.” He mopped his forehead nervously.

The Patient East turned over a few pages of some of the books—they were bad Yank translations of Zola’s novels.

“Aren’t they dreadful?” said the M.P. “My wife says so.” But a smile was dimpling over the face of the Patient East, and it spread till it ended in a burst of mirthless laughter—deep as a man’s and terrible as a Djinn’s. She threw the pied volumes from her, leant back in her throne, and laughed anew. “Shocking depravity!” murmured the M.P.

“And you bring your penny-farthing suggestiveness to me!” said the Patient East. “What have I to do with it? Before your ancestors knew what woad was, my Zolas…”

“Oh! this is positively awful! What shall I tell them at home!” said the M.P. picking up his despised and dispersed library.

“No, it is not shocking,” said the Patient East. “It is you who are so young-ah so young! When you go home, tell them that you have seen me wearing their shawls and mortar-board gracefully. They will believe you. Tell them, too…” She broke off suddenly, for the day was dawning; and there beat up to the stale, hot sky the noise of her servants going to work. They filed past to the tramp of booted feet, the ring of spurs, the rattle of horse-hooves and tum-tums, the thunder of railway trains, the chipping of grave-stones, the bubbling of camels, the cries of the children who were suffering from prickly-heat, and the wails of the mothers who watched their babies dying in lonely out-stations—one by one, swaggered, gallopped, crept or crawled, her captains, councillors, administrators, engineers, planters, and merchants; and each as he passed her throne, said briefly-for he had no time to waste:”Ave Imperatrix! Te morituri salutant!” But in the M.P.’s ears it sounded like “Humph! Another beastly hot day to pull through!”

The Patient East pointed to the crowd. “Tell them that,” she said simply “and don’t bother.”

“But they have nothing to do with the important political considerations… ” began the M.P.

“Little man,” said the Patient East quietly, “if you don’t go back to your vicar’s daughters, and your muffin-struggles, and your important political considerations, I shall kiss you.”

“Oh!” gasped the M.P., “and what would happen then!”

“You would never for the rest of your life be able to see anything as a respectable, middle-class, antimacassar Briton should!” The M.P. took up his carpet-bag and fled over the seas to his wife.

The Patient East dropped her head on her hand and laughed. “After all, what does it matter?” she said. “They will pass away—all my lovers have. I wonder whether I shall be glad or sorry.”