The Smith Administration

by Rudyard Kipling


The Story of a King

IF THERE be any idle ones who remember the campaign against Peroo, the cow-man’s son, or retain any recollection of the great intrigue set afoot by all the servants against the scullion,—if, I say, there be any who bear in mind these notable episodes in my administration, I would pray their attention to what follows.

The Gazette of India shows that I have been absent for two months from the station in which is my house.

The day before I departed, I called the Empire together, from the bearer to the sais’ friends’ hanger-on, and it numbered, with wives and babes, thirty-seven souls—all well-fed, prosperous, and contented under my rule, which includes free phenyle and quinine. I made a speech—a long speech—to the listening peoples. I announced that the inestimable boon of local self-government was to be theirs for the next eight weeks. They said that it was ‘good talk.’ I laid upon the Departments concerned the charge of my garden, my harness, my house, my horse, my guns, my furniture, all the screens in front of the doors, both cows, and the little calf that was to come. I charged them by their hope of presents in the future to act cleanly and carefully by my chattels; to abstain from fighting, and to keep the serai sweet. That this might be done under the eye of authority, I appointed a Viceroy—the very strong man Bahadur Khan, khitmatgar to wit—and, that he might have a material hold over his subjects, gave him an ounce-phial of cinchona febrifuge, to distribute against the fevers of September. Lastly—and of this I have never sufficiently repented—I gave all of them their two months’ wages in advance. They were desperately poor some of them,—how poor only I and the moneylender knew,—but I repent still of my act. A rich democracy inevitably rots.

Eliminating that one financial error, could any man have done better than I? I know he could not, for I took a plebiscite of the Empire on the matter, and it said with one voice that my scheme was singularly right. On that assurance I left it and went to lighter pleasures.

On the fourth day came the gumnameh. In my heart of hearts I had expected one, but not so soon—oh, not so soon! It was on a postcard, and preferred serious accusations of neglect and immorality against Bahadur Khan, my Viceroy. I understood then the value of the anonymous letter. However much you despise it, it breeds distrust—especially when it arrives with every other mail. To my shame be it said I caused a watch to be set on Bahadur Khan, employing a tender Babu. But it was too late. An urgent private telegram informed me: ‘Bahadur Khan secreted sweeper’s daughter. House leaks.’ The head of my administration, the man with all the cinchona febrifuge, had proved untrustworthy, and—the house leaked. The agonies of managing an Empire from the Hills can only be appreciated by those who have made the experiment. Before I had been three weeks parted from my country, I was compelled, by force of circumstance, to rule it on paper, through a hireling executive—the Babu—totally incapable of understanding the wants of my people, and, in the nature of things, purely temporary. He had, at some portion of his career, been in a subordinate branch of the Secretariat. His training there had paralysed him. Instead of taking steps when Bahadur Khan eloped with the sweeper’s daughter, whom I could well have spared, and the cinchona febrifuge, which I knew would be wanted, he wrote me voluminous reports on both thefts. The leakage of the house he dismissed in one paragraph, merely stating that ‘much furniture had been swamped.’ I wrote to my landlord, a Hindu of the old school. He replied that he could do nothing so long as my servants piled cut fuel on the top of the house, straining the woodwork of the verandahs. Also, he said that the bhisti (water-carrier) refused to recognise his authority, or to sprinkle water on the road-metal which was then being laid down for the carriage drive. On this announcement came a letter from the Babu, intimating that bad fever had broken out in the serai, and that the servants falsely accused him of having bought the cinchona febrifuge of Bahadur Khan, ex-Viceroy, now political fugitive, for the purpose of vending retail. The fever and not the false charge interested me. I suggested—this by wire—that the Babu should buy quinine. In three days he wrote to know whether he should purchase common or Europe quinine, and whether I would repay him. I sent the quinine down by parcel post, and sighed for Bahadur Khan with all his faults. Had he only stayed to look after my people, I would have forgiven the affair of the sweeper’s daughter. He was immoral, but an administrator, and would have done his best with the fever.

In course of time my leave came to an end, and I descended on my Empire, expecting the worst. Nor was I disappointed. In the first place, the horses had not been shod for two months; in the second, the garden had not been touched for the same space of time; in the third; the serai was unspeakably filthy; in the fourth, the house was inches deep in dust, and there were muddy stains on most of the furniture; in the fifth, the house had never been opened; in the sixth, seventeen of my people had gone away and two had died of fever; in the seventh, the little calf was dead. Eighthly and lastly, the remnant of my retainers were fighting furiously among themselves, clique against clique, creed against creed, and woman against woman; this last was the most overwhelming of all. It was a dreary home-coming. The Empire formed up two deep round the carriage and began to explain its grievances. It wept and recriminated and abused till it was dismissed. Next morning I discovered that its finances were in a most disorganised condition. It had borrowed money for a wedding, and to recoup itself had invented little bills of imaginary expenses contracted during my absence.

For three hours I executed judgment, and strove as best I could to repair a waste, neglected, and desolate realm. By 4 P.M. the ship of state had been cleared of the greater part of the raffle, and its crew—to continue the metaphor—had beaten to quarters, united and obedient once more.

Though I knew the fault lay with Bahadur Khan—wicked, abandoned, but decisive and capable-of-ruling-men Bahadur Khan—I could not rid myself of the thought that I was wrong in leaving my people so long to their own devices.

But this was absurd. A man can’t spend all his time looking after his servants, can he?