The Last Relief

by Rudyard Kipling

NOTHING is easier than the administration of an empire so long as there is a supply of administrators. Nothing, on the other hand, is more difficult than short-handed administration. In India, where every man holding authority above a certain grade must be specially imported from England, this difficulty crops up at unexpected seasons. Then the great empire staggers along, like a North Sea fishing-smack, with a crew of two men and a boy, until a fresh supply of food for fever arrives from England, and the gaps are filled up. Some of the provinces are permanently short-handed, because their rulers know that if they give a man just a little more work than he can do, he contrives to do it. From the man’s point of view this is wasteful, but it helps the empire forward, and flesh and blood are very cheap. The young men — and young men are always exacting — expect too much at the outset. They come to India desiring careers and money and a little success, and sometimes a wife. There is no limit to their desires, but in a few years it is explained to them by the sky above, the earth beneath, and the men around, that they are of far less importance than their work, and that it really does not concern themselves whether they live or die so long as that work continues. After they have learned this lesson, they become men worth consideration.

Many seasons ago the gods attacked the administration of the government of India in the heart of the hot season. They caused pestilences and famines, and killed the men who were deputed to deal with each pestilence and every famine. They rolled the smallpox across a desert, and it killed four Englishmen, one after the other, leaving thirty thousand square miles masterless for many days. They even caused the cholera to attack the reserve depots — the sanitaria in the Himalayas — where men were waiting on leave till their turn should come to go down into the heat. They killed men with sunstroke who otherwise might have lived for three months longer, and — this was mean — they caused a strong man to tumble from his horse and break his neck just when he was most needed. It will not be long, that is to say, five or six years will pass, before those who survived forget that season of tribulation when they danced at Simla with wives who feared that they might be widows before the morning, and when the daily papers from the plains confined themselves entirely to one kind of domestic occurrence.

Only the Supreme government never blanched. It sat upon the hilltops of Simla among the pines, and called for returns and statements as usual. Sometimes it called to a dead man, but it always received the returns as soon as his successor could take his place.

Ricketts of Myndonie died, and was relieved by Carter. Carter was invalided home, but he worked to the last minute, and left no arrears. He was relieved by Morten-Holt, who was too young for the work. Holt died of sunstroke when the famine was in Myndonie. He was relieved by Damer, a man borrowed from another province, who did all he could, but broke down from overwork. Cromer, in London on a year’s leave, was dragged out by telegram from the cool darkness of a Brompton flat to the white heat of Myndonie, and he held fast. That is the record of Myndonie alone.

On the Moonee Canal three men went down; in the Kahan district, when cholera was at its worst, three more. In the Divisional Court of Halimpur two good men were accounted for; and so the record ran, exclusive of the wives and little children. It was a great game of general post, with death in all the corners, and it drove the Government to their wits’ end to tide over the trouble till autumn should bring the new drafts.

The gods had no mercy, but the Government and the men it employed had no fear. This annoyed the gods, who are immortal, for they perceived that the men whose portion was death were greater than they.

The gods are always troubled, even in their paradises, by this sense of inferiority. They know that it is so easy for themselves to be strong and cruel, and they are afraid of being laughed at. So they smote more furiously than ever, just as a swordsman slashes at a chain to prove the temper of his blade. The chain of men parted for an instant at the stroke, but it closed up again, and continued to drag the empire forward, and not one living link of it rang false or was weak. All desired life, and love, and the light, and liquor, and larks, but none the less they died without whimpering. Therefore the gods would have continued to slay them till this very day had not one man failed.

His name was Haydon, and being young, he looked for all that young men desire; most of all, he looked for love. He had been at work in the Girdhauri district for eleven months, till fever and pressure had shaken his nerve more than he knew. At last he had taken the holiday that was his right — the holiday for which he had saved up one month a year for three years past. Keyte, a junior, relieved him one hot afternoon. Haydon shut his ink-stained office box, packed himself some thick clothes — he had been living in cotton ducks for four months — gave his files of sweat-dotted papers, saw Keyte slide a piece of blotting-paper between the naked arm and the desk, and left that parched station of roaring dust storms for Simla and the cool of the snows. There he found rest, and the pink blotches of prickly heat faded from his body, and being idle, he went a-courting without knowing it. After a decent interval he found himself drifting very gently along the road that leads to the church, and a pretty girl helped him. He enjoyed his meals, was free from the intolerable strain of bodily discomfort, and as he looked from Simla upon the torment of the silver-wrapped plains below, laughed to think he had escaped honourably, and could talk prettily to a pretty girl, who, he felt sure, would in a little time answer an important question as it should be answered.

But out of natural perversity and an inferior physique, Keyte, at Girdhauri, one evening laid his head upon his table and never lifted it up again, and news was flashed up to Simla that the district of Girdhauri called for a new head. It never occurred to Haydon that he would be in any way concerned till Hamerton, a secretary of the Government, stopped him on the Mall, and said:

“I’m afraid — I’m very much afraid — that you will have to drop your leave and go back to Girdhauri. You see Keyte’s dead, and — and we have no one else to send except yourself. The roster’s a very short one this season, and you look much better than when you came up. Of course I’ll do all I can to spare you, but I’m afraid — I’m very much afraid — that you will have to go down.”

The Government, on the other hand, was not in the least afraid. It was quite certain that Haydon must go down. He was in moderately good health, had enjoyed nearly a month’s holiday, and the needs of the state were urgent. Let him, they said, return to his work at Girdhauri. He must forego his leave, but some time, in the years to come, the Government might repay him the lost months, if it were not too short-handed. In the meantime he would return to duty.

The assistants in the Hara-Kiri of Japan are all intimate friends of the man who must die. They like him immensely, and they bring him the news of his doom with polite sorrow. But he must die, for that is required of him.

Hamerton would have spared Haydon had it been possible, but, indeed, he was the healthiest man in the ranks, and he knew the district. “You will go down to-morrow,” said Hamerton. “The regular notification will appear in the Gazette later on. We can’t stand on forms this year.”

Haydon said nothing, because those who govern India obey the law. He looked — it was evening — at the line of the sun-flushed snows forty miles to the east, and the palpitating heat haze of the plains fifty miles to the west, and his heart sank. He wished to stay in Simla to continue his wooing, and he knew too well the torments that were in store for him in Girdhauri. His nerve was broken. The coolness, the dances, the dinners that were to come, the scent of the Simla pines and the wood smoke, the canter of horses’ feet on the crowded Mall, turned his heart to water. He could have wept passionately, like a little child, for his lost holiday and his lost love, and, like a little child balked of its play, he became filled with cheap spite than can only hurt the owner. The men at the Club were sorry for him, but he did not want to be condoled with. He was angry and afraid. Though he recognised the necessity of the injustice that had been done to him, he conceived that it could all be put right by yet another injustice, and then — and then somebody else would have to do his work, for he would be out of it forever.

He reflected on this while he was hurrying down the hillsides, after a last interview with the pretty girl, to whom he had said nothing that was not commonplace and inconclusive. This last failure made him the more angry with himself, and the spite and the rage increased. The air grew warmer and warmer as the cart rattled down the mountain road, till at last the hot, stale stillness of the plains closed over his head like heated oil, and he gasped for breath among the dry date-palms at Kalka. Then came the long level ride into Umballa; the stench of dust which breeds despair; the lime-washed walls of Umballa station, hot to the hand though it was eleven at night; the greasy, rancid meal served by the sweating servants; the badly trimmed lamps in the oven-like waiting- room; and the whining of innumerable mosquitoes. That night, he remembered, there would be a dance at Simla. He was a very weak man.

That night Hamerton sat at work till late in the old Simla Foreign Office, which was a rambling collection of match-boxes packed away in a dark by-path under the pines. One of the wandering storms that run before the regular breaking of the monsoon had wrapped Simla in white mist. The rain was roaring on the shingled, tin-patched roof, and the thunder rolled to and fro among the hills as a ship rolls in the seaways. Hamerton called for a lamp and a fire to drive out the smell of mould and forest undergrowth that crept in from the woods. The clerks and secretaries had left the office two hours ago, and there remained only one native orderly, who set the lamp and went away. Hamerton returned to his papers, and the voice of the rain rose and fell. In the pauses he could catch the crunching of ‘rickshaw wheels and the clatter of horses’ feet going to the dance at the Viceroy’s. These ceased at last, and the rain with them. The thunder drew off, muttering, toward the plains, and all the dripping pine-trees sighed with relief.

“Orderly,” said Hamerton. He fancied that he heard somebody moving about the rooms. There was no answer, except a deep-drawn breath at the door. It might come from a panther prowling about the verandas in search of a pet dog, but panthers generally snuffed in a deeper key. This was a thick, gasping breath, as of one who had been running swiftly, or lay in deadly pain. Hamerton listened again. There certainly was somebody moving about the Foreign Office. He could hear boards creaking in far-off rooms, and uncertain steps on the rickety staircase. Since the clock marked close upon midnight, no one had a right to be in the office. Hamerton had picked up the lamp, and was going to make a search, when the steps and the heavy breathing came to the door again, and stayed.

“Who’s there?” said Hamerton. “Come in.”

Again the heavy breathing, and a thick, short cough.

“Who relieves Haydon? ” said a voice outside. “Haydon! Haydon! Dying at Umballa. He can’t go till he is relieved. Who relieves Haydon?”

Hamerton dashed to the door and opened it, to find a stolid messenger from the telegraph office, breathing through his nose, after the manner of natives. The man held out a telegram. “I could not find the room at first,” he said. “Is there an answer?”

The telegram was from the Station-master at Umballa, and said: “Englishman killed ; up mail 42; slipped from platform. Dying. Haydon. Civilian. Inform Government.”

“There is no answer,” said Hamerton; and the man went away. But the fluttering whisper at the door continued:

“Haydon! Haydon! Who relieves Haydon? He must not go till he is relieved. Haydon! Haydon! Dying at Umballa. For pity’s sake, be quick!”

Hamerton thought for a minute of the pitifully short roster of men available, and answered, quietly, “Flint, of Degauri.” Then, and not till then, did the hair begin to rise on his head; and Hamerton, secretary to Government, neglecting the lamp and the papers, went out very quickly from the Foreign Office into the cool wet night. His ears were tingling with the sound of a dry death rattle, and he was afraid to continue his work.

Now only the gods know by whose design and intention Haydon had slipped from the dimly lighted Umballa platform under the wheels of the mail that was to take him back to his district; but since they lifted the pestilence on his death, we may assume that they had proved their authority over the minds of men, and found one man in India who was afraid of present pain.