The Debt

by Rudyard Kipling

[a short tale]

THE Doctor of the Gaol and his wife had gone to tennis in the Gardens, leaving their six-year-old son, William, in nominal care of his ayah, but actually to One Three Two and old Mahmud Ali, his mother’s dharzi, or sewing-man, who had made frocks for her mother since the day when skirts were skirts.One Three Two was a ‘lifer,’ who had unluckily shot a kinsman a little the wrong side of the British frontier. The killing was a matter he could no more have shirked than a decent Englishman his Club dues. The error in geography came from a head-wound picked up at Festubert, which had affected his co-ordinations. But the judge who tried the case made no allowance, and One Three Two only escaped the gallows on an appeal engineered and financed by the Colonel and officers of his old regiment, which he had left after twenty years of spotless service with a pension and—as was pointed out at the trial—urgent private affairs to settle.

His prison duties—he had been a noncommissioned officer—were to oversee the convicts working in the Doctor’s garden, where, bit by bit, he took it upon his battered and dishonoured head to be William’s bodyguard or, as he called it, ‘sacrifice.’ Few people are more faithful to such trusts than the man of one fair killing, and William made him chief of all his court, with honorary title of Busi-bandah, which means much the same as ‘Goosey-gander.’

So, when William came out with his scooter into the afternoon smell of newly watered paths, which attracts little snakes, One Three Two, with a long-handled hoe, kept within striking distance of him at every turn, till the child wearied of the play.

‘Put away, Busi-bandah,’ he commanded, and climbed up the veranda steps to old Mahmud, cross-legged on the carpet, surrounded by beautiful coloured stuffs. It was a dinner dress, and Mahmud held a seam of it between his toes.

‘Drink tobacco,’ said William spaciously. ‘They will not return till dark.’

‘But this stuff will tell,’ said Mahmud above the frock, ‘for the smell of hukah tobacco clings.’

‘Take of my father’s cigarettes.’ William pointed indoors with his chin.

One Three Two went into the drawing-room and came back with a couple of cigarettes from the store beside the wireless cabinet.

‘What word of the Padishah’s sickness?’ he asked.

William swelled importantly. It was one of his prerogatives to announce what the Man in the Box said about the sick Padishah.

‘He slept little last night, because of the fever. He does not desire to eat. None the less his strength holds. Five doctors have taken oath to this. There will be no more talk out of the Bokkus till after I am asleep.’

‘What does thy father say?’ Mahmud asked.

‘My father says that it is in the balance—thus!’ William picked up Mahmud’s embroidery-scissors and tried to make them ride on his forefinger.

‘Have a care! They may cut. Give me.’ Mahmud took them back again.

‘But my mother says that, now all people everywhere are praying for the Padishah’s health, their prayers will turn the balance, and he will be well.’

‘If Allah please,’ said Mahmud, who in private life was Imam or leader of the little mud mosque of the village by the Gaol gates, where he preached on Fridays.

‘I also pray every night,’ William confided cheerily. ‘After “Make me a good boy,” I stand to ’tenshin, and I say: “God save the King.” Is that good namaz (prayer)?’

‘There is neither hem nor border nor fringe to the Mercy of Allah,’ Mahmud quoted.

‘Well spoken, tailor-man.’ One Three Two laughed. He was a hard-bitten Afridi from the Khaiber hills, who, except among infidels, rode his faith with a light hand.

‘Good talk,’ William echoed. ‘For when I had the fever last year, and my father said it was tach-an-go—that is, in the balance—my mother prayed for me, and I became well. Oh, here is my blue buttony-bokkus! ‘ He reached out for Mahmud’s lovely, old, lacquered Kashmiri pencase, where oddments were kept, and busied himself with the beads and sequins. One Three Two rolled a deep-set eye towards Mahmud.

‘That news of the Padishah is bad,’ said he. ‘Hast thou inquired of the Names, Imam, since his sickness came?’

The Koran discourages magic, but it is lawful to consult the Names of Allah according to a system called the Abjad, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet carries one of the Nine-and-ninety Names of God beginning with that letter. Each Name has its arbitrary Number, Quality, Element, Zodiacal sign, Planet, and so forth. These tables are often written out and used as amulets. Even William, who thought he knew everything, did not know that Mahmud had sewn an Abjad into the collar of his cold-weather dressing-gown.

‘All the world has questioned,’ Mahmud began.

‘Doubtless. But I do not know much of the world from here. How came it with thee?’

‘I took the age of the Padishah, which is sixty-and-three. Now the Number Sixty carries for its attribute the Hearer. This may be good or bad, for Allah hears all things. Its star is Saturn, the outermost of the Seven. That is good and commanding. But its sign is the Archer, which is also the sign of the month (November) in which his sickness first struck the Padishah. Twice, then, must the Archer afflict the Padishah.’

One Three Two nodded. That seemed reasonable enough.

‘As for the Number Three, its attribute is the Assembler, which again may be good or bad. For who knows to what judgment Allah calls men together? Its sign is the Crab, which, being female, is in friendship with the Archer. It may be, then, that if the Archer spare the Padishah both now and later—for he will surely smite twice—the Padishah will be clear of his malady in the month of the Crab (late June or early July).’

‘And what is the Planet of the Number Three?’ said the other.

‘Mars assuredly. He is King. The Abjad does not lie. Hast thou used it?’

‘There was a priest of ours cast it for me, when I would learn how my affairs would go. The dog said, truly enough, that I should punish my cousin, but he said nothing of my punishment here.’

‘Did he reckon by thy name-letters or by thy age?’

‘By my name, I think. I am no great scholar.’

“Be merciful!’ said Mahmud. ‘No wonder thou art afflicted, O Zuhan Khan. Thy letter is Zad, which carries for its Name the Punisher. Its attribute is Terrible, and its quality Hate.’

‘All true,’ One Three Two returned. ‘Am I not here till I die? I submit myself to the fixed decree. And, certainly, were I free’—he chuckled impiously—‘my kin on the hills would kill me. But I live. Why? Because a man may draw back-pay, as it were, for his good deeds. I dug my Captain, who is now Colonel, out of some ground that fell upon him in Frangistan (France). It was part of our work. He said nothing—nor I. But seven years after—when I was condemned for that affair of my burnt cousin—he spent money like water on lawyers and lying witnesses for my sake. Otherwise——’ One Three Two jerked his beard towards a little black shed on a roof outside the high garden wall. No one had ever told William what it was for.

‘It may be thy good deed in saving that Captain’s life was permitted to count in thy balance,’ Mahmud volunteered.

‘And I am no more than a convict. . . . What is the order, Baba? I am here.’

William had suddenly shut the pencase. ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘Bring again my eskootah, Busi-bandah. I will be a horseman. I will play polo.’

Now little snakes, who have a habit of coming out on damp garden-paths, cast no warning shadow when a low sun is blinded by thick mango-trees.

‘It is brought,’ said One Three Two; but in place of getting it he said to Mahmud: ‘While he rides, I will tell thee a tale of the Padishah which my Colonel told me.’

‘No! Let be my eskootah. I will listen to that tale. Make me my place!’ said William.

It was not five steps to the man’s side, but by the time William had taken them, an inviting lap awaited him, into which he dropped, his left cheek on the right shoulder in its prison blanket, his right hand twined in the beard, and the rest of him relaxed along the curve of the right arm.

‘Begin, Busi-bandah,’ he commanded from off his throne.

‘By thy permission,’ One Three Two began. ‘Early in the year when thou wast born, which was the year I came to be with thee, Baba, my Colonel told me this tale to comfort my heart. It was when I—when I——’

‘Was to be hanged for thy bad cousin,’ said William, screwing up his eyes as he pointed with his left third finger to the hut on the roof. ‘I know.’

‘“Keep a thing from women and children, and sieves will hold water,”’ Mahmud chuckled in his big, silver-black beard.

‘Yes, Baba, that was the time,’ said One Three Two, recovering himself. ‘My Colonel told me that after the war in Frangistan was ended, the Padishah commanded that every man who had died in his service—and there were multitudes upon multitudes—should be buried according to his faith.’

William nodded. When he went out, he always met funeral processions on their way to the Moslem cemetery near the race-course; and, being a child below the age of personality, there were few details of wedding or burial that he had not known since he could ask questions.

‘This was done as commanded, and to each man was his tomb, with his name, rank, and service cut in white stone, all one pattern, whether he had been General or Sweeper—Sahib—Mussulman—Yahudi—Hubashi—or heathen. My Colonel told me that the burial-places resembled walled towns, divided by paths, and planted with trees and flowers, where all the world might come and walk.’

‘On Fridays,’ murmured William. Friday is the day when Muhammedan families visit their dead. He had often begged afternoons off for the servants to go there.

‘And every day. And when all was done, and the People of the Graves were laid at ease and in honour, it pleased the Padishah to cross the little water between Belait and Frangistan, and look upon them. He give order for his going in this way. He said: “Let there be neither music nor elephants nor princes about my way, nor at my stirrup. For it is a pilgrimage. I go to salute the People of the Graves.” Then he went over. And where he saw his dead laid in their multitudes, there he drew rein; there he saluted; there he laid flowers upon great stones after the custom of his people: And for that matter,’ One Three Two addressed Mahmud, ‘so do our women on Fridays. Yes, and the old women and the little staring children of Frangistan pressed him close, as he halted among the bricks and the ashes and the broken wood of the towns which had been killed in the War.’

‘Killed in the War,’ William answered vaguely.

‘But the People of the Graves waited behind their white walls, among the grass and flowers—orderly in their lines—as it were an inspection with all gear set out on the cots.’

One Three Two gathered the child closer as he grew heavier.

‘My Colonel told me this. And my Colonel said—and Allah be my witness I know!—it was killing cold weather. Frangistan is colder than all my own hills in winter—cold that cuts off a man’s toes. Yes! That is why I lack two toes, Baba. And bitter it was when the Padishah came in spring. The sun shone, but the winds cut. And, at the last, and the last, was a narrow cemetery, walled with high walls, entered by one door in a corner. Yes—like this Gaol-Khana. It was filled with our own people for the most part—Mussulmans who had served. It lay outside a city, among fields where the winds blew. Now, in the order of the Padishah’s pilgrimage, it was commanded that wheresoever he chose to draw rein, there should wait on him some General-sahib, who had fought near that place in the long War. Not princes, priests, nor elephants, but a General of his service. And so to this narrow, high-walled burial-place of the one gate came a General-sahib, sworded and spurred, with many medals, to wait the Padishah’s coming. And while he waited he clothed himself—for he had been sick—in his big coat, his Baritish warrum.’

‘I know,’ said William, rousing himself. ‘Mahmud made me a little one out of the old one of my father, when he came back. But Mahmud would not sew me any crowns or stars on the shoulder.’

Mahmud drew a quick breath (he had been putting away his hand sewing-machine) and went softly into the house. The sun was setting, and there was a change in the air.

‘Yes, all the world knows Baritish warrum. So the General waited, sheltering himself from the wind that blew through that gate till the feet of the Padishah were heard walking across the waste ground without.’

One Three Two reached up his left hand, took the cold-weather dressing-gown that Mahmud fetched from the nursery, and laid it lightly over William.

His voice went on in a soothing purr. ‘And when the feet of the Padishah were heard without the gate, that General stripped off his heavy coat and stood forth in his medalled uniform, as the order is. Then the Padishah entered. The General saluted, but the Padishah did not heed. He signed with his open hand thus, from right to left—my Colonel showed me—and he cried out “By Allah, O man, I conjure thee put on that coat on one breath! This is no season to catch sickness.” And he named the very sickness that was to fall upon himself five years after. So the General cast himself into that big coat again with speed, and in one breath the Padishah became in all respects again the Padishah. His equerries rehearsed the General’s name and honours, and the General saluted and put forward his sword-hilt to be touched, and he did the Padishah duty and attendance in that place through the appointed hour. And on the out-going the Padishah said to him: “ Take heed that never again, O man, do I find thee at such seasons without thy thick coat upon thee. For the good are scarce.” And he went down to the sea, and they cast off in the silence of ten thousand bare-headed. (He had forbidden music because it was a haj [pilgrimage].) And thus it was accomplished; and this, my Colonel told me, was his last act in his haj to the People of the Graves. . . . Wait thy prayer awhile, Mahmud. The child sleeps. When the Padishah was gone the General said to my Colonel, who was on leave in Frangistan, “By Allah, to the Padishah do I owe my life, for an hour coatless in that chill would have slain me!”’

‘The Padishah forenamed the sickness that fell upon himself?’ Mahmud asked.

William breathed evenly.

‘That very sickness—five full years before it fell.’

‘It may be a sign,’ Mahmud conceded, ‘even though it is a little one.’

‘A man’s life is not a little thing. See what a tamasha (circus) that fat Hindu pig of a judge made over the one I spilled.’

‘A little thing beside the great things which the Padishah does daily, in his power.’

‘What do we know of them? He is Padishah. The more part of his rule is worked by his headmen—as, but for my Colonel, my hanging would have been. Nay! Nay! We say, in the Regiment: “How does a man bear himself off parade?” And we say in our Hills, of those cursed crooked Kabul-made rifles: A gun does not throw true unless it has been bored true.” But thou art no soldier.’

‘True! And yet in my trade we say: “As the silk, so the least shred of it. As the heart, so the hand.”’

‘And it is truth! This deed that the Padishah did among the People of the Graves declared the quality and nature of the Padishah himself. It was a fair blood-debt between a man and a man. The life of that General is owing to the Padishah. I hold it will be paid to him, and that the Padishah will live.’

‘If God please,’ said Mahmud, and laid out his mat. The sun had set, and it was time for the fourth prayer of the day. Mahmud, as Imam of a mosque, was strict in ritual, but One Three Two only prayed at dawn and full dark. So he sat till he heard the Doctor’s car challenged at the Gaol gate before he carried William in to the nursery.

‘What did the Man in the Bokkus tell about the King?’ William asked his mother when she kissed him good-night in his cot. He was all but asleep.

‘Only the same as this morning. Shall I hear your prayers, little man?’

‘No need! ‘ muttered William. Then he sat bolt upright, intensely awake, and speaking in chosen English: ‘Because Busi-bandah says the King will get well, anyhow. He says it is his back-pay for making the cold General put on his Baritish warrum.’

He flopped back, burrowed in his pillow, grunted, and dived far beneath the floods of sleep.