Behind them an angry farmer brandished a bamboo pole. He was a market-gardener, Arain by caste, growing vegetables and flowers for Umballa city, and well Kim knew the breed.
‘Such an one,’ said the lama, disregarding the dogs, ‘is impolite to strangers, intemperate of speech and uncharitable. Be warned by his demeanour, my disciple.’
‘Ho, shameless beggars!’ shouted the farmer. ‘Begone! Get hence!’
‘We go,’ the lama returned, with quiet dignity. ‘We go from these unblessed fields.’
‘Ah,’ said Kim, sucking in his breath. ‘If the next crops fail, thou canst only blame thine own tongue.’
The man shuffled uneasily in his slippers. ‘The land is full of beggars,’ he began, half apologetically.
‘And by what sign didst thou know that we would beg from thee, O Mali?’ said Kim tartly, using the name that a market-gardener least likes. ‘All we sought was to look at that river beyond the field there.’
‘River, forsooth!’ the man snorted. ‘What city do ye hail from not to know a canal-cut? It runs as straight as an arrow, and I pay for the water as though it were molten silver. There is a branch of a river beyond. But if ye need water I can give that — and milk.’
‘Nay, we will go to the river,’ said the lama, striding out.
‘Milk and a meal.’ the man stammered, as he looked at the strange tall figure. ‘I — I would not draw evil upon myself — or my crops. But beggars are so many in these hard days.’
‘Take notice.’ The lama turned to Kim. ‘He was led to speak harshly by the Red Mist of anger. That clearing from his eyes, he becomes courteous and of an affable heart. May his fields be blessed! Beware not to judge men too hastily, O farmer.’
‘I have met holy ones who would have cursed thee from hearthstone to byre,’ said Kim to the abashed man. ‘Is he not wise and holy? I am his disciple.’
He cocked his nose in the air loftily and stepped across the narrow field-borders with great dignity.
‘There is no pride,’ said the lama, after a pause, ‘there is no pride among such as follow the Middle Way.’
‘But thou hast said he was low-caste and discourteous.’
‘Low-caste I did not say, for how can that be which is not? Afterwards he amended his discourtesy, and I forgot the offence. Moreover, he is as we are, bound upon the Wheel of Things; but he does not tread the way of deliverance.’ He halted at a little runlet among the fields, and considered the hoof-pitted bank.
‘Now, how wilt thou know thy River?’ said Kim, squatting in the shade of some tall sugar-cane.
‘When I find it, an enlightenment will surely be given. This, I feel, is not the place. O littlest among the waters, if only thou couldst tell me where runs my River! But be thou blessed to make the fields bear!’
‘Look! Look!’ Kim sprang to his side and dragged him back. A yellow-and-brown streak glided from the purple rustling stems to the bank, stretched its neck to the water, drank, and lay still — a big cobra with fixed, lidless eyes.
‘I have no stick — I have no stick,’ said Kim. ‘1 will get me one and break his back.’
‘Why? He is upon the Wheel as we are — a life ascending or descending — very far from deliverance. Great evil must the soul have done that is cast into this shape.’
‘I hate all snakes,’ said Kim. No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.
‘Let him live out his life.’ The coiled thing hissed and half opened its hood. ‘May thy release come soon, brother!’ the lama continued placidly. ‘Hast thou knowledge, by chance, of my River?’
‘Never have I seen such a man as thou art,’ Kim whispered, overwhelmed. ‘Do the very snakes understand thy talk?’
‘Who knows?’ He passed within a foot of the cobra’s poised head. It flattened itself among the dusty coils.
‘Come, thou!’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Not I,’ said Kim’. ‘I go round.’
‘Come. He does no hurt.’
Kim hesitated for a moment. The lama backed his order by some droned Chinese quotation which Kim took for a charm. He obeyed and bounded across the rivulet, and the snake, indeed, made no sign.
‘Never have I seen such a man.’ Kim wiped the sweat from his forehead. ‘And now, whither go we?’
‘That is for thee to say. I am old, and a stranger — far from my own place. But that the rail-carriage fills my head with noises of devil-drums I would go in it to Benares now ... Yet by so going we may miss the River. Let us find another river.’
Where the hard-worked soil gives three and even four crops a year through patches of sugar-cane, tobacco, long white radishes, and nol-kol, all that day they strolled on, turning aside to every glimpse of water; rousing village dogs and sleeping villages at noonday; the lama replying to the volleyed questions with an unswerving simplicity. They sought a River: a River of miraculous healing. Had any one knowledge of such a stream?
Sometimes men laughed, but more often heard the story out to the end and offered them a place in the shade, a drink of milk, and a meal. The women were always kind, and the little children as children are the world over, alternately shy and venturesome.
Evening found them at rest under the village tree of a mud-walled, mud-roofed hamlet, talking to the headman as the cattle came in from the grazing-grounds and the women prepared the day’s last meal. They had passed beyond the belt of market-gardens round hungry Umballa, and were among the mile-wide green of the staple crops.
He was a white-bearded and affable elder, used to entertaining strangers. He dragged out a string bedstead for the lama, set warm cooked food before him, prepared him a pipe, and, the evening ceremonies being finished in the village temple, sent for the village priest.
Kim told the older children tales of the size and beauty of Lahore, of railway travel, and such-like city things, while the men talked, slowly as their cattle chew the cud.
‘I cannot fathom it,’ said the headman at last to the priest. ‘How readest thou this talk?’ The lama, his tale told, was silently telling his beads.
‘He is a Seeker.’ the priest answered. ‘The land is full of such. Remember him who came only last, month — the fakir with the tortoise?’
‘Ay, but that man had right and reason, for Krishna Himself appeared in a vision promising him Paradise without the burning-pyre if he journeyed to Prayag. This man seeks no God who is within my knowledge.’
‘Peace, he is old: he comes from far off, and he is mad,’ the smooth-shaven priest replied. ‘Hear me.’ He turned to the lama. ‘Three koss [six miles] to the westward runs the great road to Calcutta.’
‘But I would go to Benares — to Benares.’
‘And to Benares also. It crosses all streams on this side of Hind. Now my word to thee, Holy One, is rest here till tomorrow. Then take the road’ (it was the Grand Trunk Road he meant) ‘and test each stream that it overpasses; for, as I understand, the virtue of thy River lies neither in one pool nor place, but throughout its length. Then, if thy Gods will, be assured that thou wilt come upon thy freedom.’
‘That is well said.’ The lama was much impressed by the plan. ‘We will begin tomorrow, and a blessing on thee for showing old feet such a near road.’ A deep, sing-song Chinese half-chant closed the sentence. Even the priest was impressed, and the headman feared an evil spell: but none could look at the lama’s simple, eager face and doubt him long.
‘Seest thou my chela?’ he said, diving into his snuff-gourd with an important sniff. It was his duty to repay courtesy with courtesy.
‘I see — and hear.’ The headman rolled his eye where Kim was chatting to a girl in blue as she laid crackling thorns on a fire.
‘He also has a Search of his own. No river, but a Bull. Yea, a Red Bull on a green field will some day raise him to honour. He is, I think, not altogether of this world. He was sent of a sudden to aid me in this search, and his name is Friend of all the World.’
The priest smiled. ‘Ho, there, Friend of all the World,’ he cried across the sharp-smelling smoke, ‘what art thou?’
‘This Holy One’s disciple,’ said Kim.
‘He says thou are a but [a spirit].’
‘Can buts eat?’ said Kim, with a twinkle. ‘For I am hungry.’
‘It is no jest,’ cried the lama. ‘A certain astrologer of that city whose name I have forgotten —’
‘That is no more than the city of Umballa where we slept last night,’ Kim whispered to the priest.
‘Ay, Umballa was it? He cast a horoscope and declared that my chela should find his desire within two days. But what said he of the meaning of the stars, Friend of all the World?’
Kim cleared his throat and looked around at the village greybeards.
‘The meaning of my Star is War,’ he replied pompously.
Somebody laughed at the little tattered figure strutting on the brickwork plinth under the great tree. Where a native would have lain down, Kim’s white blood set him upon his feet.
‘Ay, War,’ he answered.
‘That is a sure prophecy,’ rumbled a deep voice. ‘For there is always war along the Border — as I know.’
It was an old, withered man, who had served the Government in the days of the Mutiny as a native officer in a newly raised cavalry regiment. The Government had given him a good holding in the village, and though the demands of his sons, now grey-bearded officers on their own account, had impoverished him, he was still a person of consequence. English officials — Deputy Commissioners even — turned aside from the main road to visit him, and on those occasions he dressed himself in the uniform of ancient days, and stood up like a ramrod.
‘But this shall be a great war — a war of eight thousand.’ Kim’s voice shrilled across the quick-gathering crowd, astonishing himself.
‘Redcoats or our own regiments?’ the old man snapped, as though he were asking an equal. His tone made men respect Kim.
‘Redcoats,’ said Kim at a venture. ‘Redcoats and guns.’
‘But — but the astrologer said no word of this,’ cried the lama, snuffing prodigiously in his excitement.
‘But I know. The word has come to me, who am this Holy One’s disciple. There will rise a war — a war of eight thousand redcoats. From Pindi and Peshawur they will be drawn. This is sure.’
‘The boy has heard bazar-talk,’ said the priest.
‘But he was always by my side,’ said the lama. ‘How should he know? I did not know.’
‘He will make a clever juggler when the old man is dead,’ muttered the priest to the headman. ‘What new trick is this?’
‘A sign. Give me a sign,’ thundered the old soldier suddenly. ‘If there were war my sons would have told me.’
‘When all is ready, thy sons, doubt not, will be told. But it is a long road from thy sons to the man in whose hands these things lie.’ Kim warmed to the game, for it reminded him of experiences in the letter-carrying line, when, for the sake of a few pice, he pretended to know more than he knew. But now he was playing for larger things — the sheer excitement and the sense of power. He drew a new breath and went on.
‘Old man, give me a sign. Do underlings order the goings of eight thousand redcoats — with guns?’
‘No.’ Still the old man answered as though Kim were an equal.
‘Dost thou know who He is, then, that gives the order?’
‘I have seen Him.’
‘To know again?’
‘I have known Him since he was a lieutenant in the topkhana (the Artillery).’
‘A tall man. A tall man with black hair, walking thus?’ Kim took a few paces in a stiff, wooden style.
‘Ay. But that anyone may have seen.’ The crowd were breathless — still through all this talk.
‘That is true,’ said Kim. ‘But I will say more. Look now. First the great man walks thus. Then He thinks thus.’ (Kim drew a forefinger over his forehead and downwards till it came to rest by the angle of the jaw.) ‘Anon He twitches his fingers thus. Anon He thrusts his hat under his left armpit.’ Kim illustrated the motion and stood like a stork.
The old man groaned, inarticulate with amazement; and the crowd shivered.
‘So — so — so. But what does He when He is about to give an order?’
‘He rubs the skin at the back of his neck — thus. Then falls one finger on the table and He makes a small sniffing noise through his nose. Then He speaks, saying: “Loose such and such a regiment. Call out such guns.”’
The old man rose stiffly and saluted.
‘“For”’ — Kim translated into the vernacular the clinching sentences he had heard in the dressing-room at Umballa — ‘“For,” says He, “we should have done this long ago. It is not war — it is a chastisement. Snff!”’
‘Enough. I believe. I have seen Him thus in the smoke of battles. Seen and heard. It is He!’
‘I saw no smoke’ — Kim’s voice shifted to the rapt sing-song of the wayside fortune-teller. ‘I saw this in darkness. First came a man to make things clear. Then came horsemen. Then came He standing in a ring of light. The rest followed as I have said. Old man, have I spoken truth?’
‘It is He. Past all doubt it is He.’
The crowd drew a long, quavering breath, staring alternately at the old man, still at attention, and ragged Kim against the purple twilight.
‘Said I not — said I not he was from the other world?’ cried the lama proudly. ‘He is the Friend of all the World. He is the Friend of the Stars!’
‘At least it does not concern us,’ a man cried. ‘O thou young soothsayer, if the gift abides with thee at all seasons, I have a red-spotted cow. She may be sister to thy Bull for aught I know —’
‘Or I care,’ said Kim. ‘My Stars do not concern themselves with thy cattle.’
‘Nay, but she is very sick,’ a woman struck in. ‘My man is a buffalo, or he would have chosen his words better. Tell me if she recover?’
Had Kim been at all an ordinary boy, he would have carried on the play; but one does not know Lahore city, and least of all the fakirs by the Taksali Gate, for thirteen years without also knowing human nature.
The priest looked at him sideways, something bitterly — a dry and blighting smile.
‘Is there no priest, then, in the village? I thought I had seen a great one even now,’ cried Kim.
‘Ay — but —’ the woman began.
‘But thou and thy husband hoped to get the cow cured for a handful of thanks.’ The shot told: they were notoriously the closest-fisted couple in the village. ‘It is not well to cheat the temples. Give a young calf to thine own priest, and, unless thy Gods are angry past recall, she will give milk within a month.’
‘A master-beggar art thou,’ purred the priest approvingly. ‘Not the cunning of forty years could have done better. Surely thou hast made the old man rich?’
‘A little flour, a little butter and a mouthful of cardamoms,’ Kim retorted, flushed with the praise, but still cautious — ‘Does one grow rich on that? And, as thou canst see, he is mad. But it serves me while I learn the road at least.”
He knew what the fakirs of the Taksali Gate were like when they talked among themselves, and copied the very inflection of their lewd disciples.
‘Is his Search, then, truth or a cloak to other ends? It may be treasure.’
‘He is mad — many times mad. There is nothing else.’
Here the old soldier bobbled up and asked if Kim would accept his hospitality for the night. The priest recommended him to do so, but insisted that the honour of entertaining the lama belonged to the temple — at which the lama smiled guilelessly. Kim glanced from one face to the other, and drew his own conclusions.
‘Where is the money?’ he whispered, beckoning the old man off into the darkness.
‘In my bosom. Where else?’
‘Give it me. Quietly and swiftly give it me.’
‘But why? Here is no ticket to buy.’
‘Am I thy chela, or am I not? Do I not safeguard thy old feet about the ways? Give me the money and at dawn I will return it.’ He slipped his hand above the lama’s girdle and brought away the purse.
‘Be it so — be it so.’ The old man nodded his head. ‘This is a great and terrible world. I never knew there were so many men alive in it.’
Next morning the priest was in a very bad temper, but the lama was quite happy; and Kim had enjoyed a most interesting evening with the old man, who brought out his cavalry sabre and, balancing it on his dry knees, told tales of the Mutiny and young captains thirty years in their graves, till Kim dropped off to sleep.
‘Certainly the air of this country is good,’ said the lama. ‘I sleep lightly, as do all old men; but last night I slept unwaking till broad day. Even now I am heavy.’
‘Drink a draught of hot milk,’ said Kim, who had carried not a few such remedies to opium-smokers of his acquaintance. ‘It is time to take the Road again.’
‘The long Road that overpasses all the rivers of Hind,’ said the lama gaily. ‘Let us go. But how thinkest thou, chela, to recompense these people, and especially the priest, for their great kindness? Truly they are but parast, but in other lives, maybe, they will receive enlightenment. A rupee to the temple? The thing within is no more than stone and red paint, but the heart of man we must acknowledge when and where it is good.’
‘Holy One, hast thou ever taken the Road alone?’ Kim looked up sharply, like the Indian crows so busy about the fields.
‘Surely, child: from Kulu to Pathankot — from Kulu, where my first chela died. When men were kind to us we made offerings, and all men were well-disposed throughout all the Hills.’
‘It is otherwise in Hind,’ said Kim drily. ‘Their Gods are many-armed and malignant. Let them alone.’
‘I would set thee on thy road for a little, Friend of all the World, thou and thy yellow man.’ The old soldier ambled up the village street, all shadowy in the dawn, on a punt, scissor-hocked pony. ‘Last night broke up the fountains of remembrance in my so-dried heart, and it was as a blessing to me. Truly there is war abroad in the air. I smell it. See! I have brought my sword.’
He sat long-legged on the little beast, with the big sword at his side — hand dropped on the pommel — staring fiercely over the flat lands towards the North. ‘Tell me again how He showed in thy vision. Come up and sit behind me. The beast will carry two.’
‘I am this Holy One’s disciple,’ said Kim, as they cleared the village-gate. The villagers seemed almost sorry to be rid of them, but the priest’s farewell was cold and distant. He had wasted some opium on a man who carried no money.
‘That is well spoken. I am not much used to holy men, but respect is always good. There is no respect in these days — not even when a Commissioner Sahib comes to see me. But why should one whose Star leads him to war follow a holy man?’
‘But he is a holy man,’ said Kim earnestly. ‘In truth, and in talk and in act, holy. He is not like the others. I have never seen such an one. We be not fortune-tellers, or jugglers, or beggars.’
‘Thou art not. That I can see. But I do not know that other. He marches well, though.’
The first freshness of the day carried the lama forward with long, easy, camel-like strides. He was deep in meditation, mechanically clicking his rosary.
They followed the rutted and worn country road that wound across the flat between the great dark-green mango-groves, the line of the snowcapped Himalayas faint to the eastward. All India was at work in the fields, to the creaking of well-wheels, the shouting of ploughmen behind their cattle, and the clamour of the crows. Even the pony felt the good influence and almost broke into a trot as Kim laid a hand on the stirrup-leather.
‘It repents me that I did not give a rupee to the shrine,’ said the lama on the last bead of his eighty-one.
The old soldier growled in his beard, so that the lama for the first time was aware of him.
‘Seekest thou the River also?’ said he, turning.
‘The day is new,’ was the reply. ‘What need of a river save to water at before sundown? I come to show thee a short lane to the Big Road.’
‘That is a courtesy to be remembered, O man of good will. But why the sword?’
The old soldier looked as abashed as a child interrupted in his game of make-believe.
‘The sword,’ he said, fumbling it. ‘Oh, that was a fancy of mine an old man’s fancy. Truly the police orders are that no man must bear weapons throughout Hind, but’ — he cheered up and slapped the hilt — ‘all the constabeels hereabout know me.’
‘It is not a good fancy,’ said the lama. ‘What profit to kill men?’
‘Very little — as I know; but if evil men were not now and then slain it would not be a good world for weaponless dreamers. I do not speak without knowledge who have seen the land from Delhi south awash with blood.’
‘What madness was that, then?’
‘The Gods, who sent it for a plague, alone know. A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs’ wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.’
‘Some such rumour, I believe, reached me once long ago. They called it the Black Year, as I remember.’
‘What manner of life hast thou led, not to know The Year? A rumour indeed! All earth knew, and trembled!’
‘Our earth never shook but once — upon the day that the Excellent One received Enlightenment.’
‘Umph! I saw Delhi shake at least— and Delhi is the navel of the world.’
‘So they turned against women and children? That was a bad deed, for which the punishment cannot be avoided.’
‘Many strove to do so, but with very small profit. I was then in a regiment of cavalry. It broke. Of six hundred and eighty sabres stood fast to their salt — how many, think you? Three. Of whom I was one.’
‘The greater merit.’
‘Merit! We did not consider it merit in those days. My people, my friends, my brothers fell from me. They said: “The time of the English is accomplished. Let each strike out a little holding for himself.” But I had talked with the men of Sobraon, of Chilianwallah, of Moodkee and Ferozeshah. I said: “Abide a little and the wind turns. There is no blessing in this work.” In those days I rode seventy miles with an English Memsahib and her babe on my saddle-bow. (Wow! That was a horse fit for a man!) I placed them in safety, and back came I to my officer — the one that was not killed of our five. “Give me work,” said I, “for I am an outcast among my own kind, and my cousin’s blood is wet on my sabre.” “Be content,” said he. “There is great work forward. When this madness is over there is a recompense.”’
‘Ay, there is a recompense when the madness is over, surely?’ the lama muttered half to himself.
‘They did not hang medals in those days on all who by accident had heard a gun fired. No! In nineteen pitched battles was I; in six-and-forty skirmishes of horse; and in small affairs without number. Nine wounds I bear; a medal and four clasps and the medal of an Order, for my captains, who are now generals, remembered me when the Kaisar-i-Hind had accomplished fifty years of her reign, and all the land rejoiced. They said: “Give him the Order of Berittish India.” I carry it upon my neck now. I have also my jaghir [holding] from the hands of the State — a free gift to me and mine. The men of the old days —they are now Commissioners — come riding to me through the crops — high upon horses so that all the village sees — and we talk out the old skirmishes, one dead man’s name leading to another.’
‘And after?’ said the lama.
‘Oh, afterwards they go away, but not before my village has seen.’
‘And at the last what wilt thou do?’
‘At the last I shall die.’
‘Let the Gods order it. I have never pestered Them with prayers. I do not think They will pester me. Look you, I have noticed in my long life that those who eternally break in upon Those Above with complaints and reports and bellowings and weepings are presently sent for in haste, as our Colonel used to send for slack-jawed down-country men who talked too much. No, I have never wearied the Gods. They will remember this, and give me a quiet place where I can drive my lance in the shade, and wait to welcome my sons: I have no less than three Rissaldar — majors all — in the regiments.’
‘And they likewise, bound upon the Wheel, go forth from life to life — from despair to despair,’ said the lama below his breath, ‘hot, uneasy, snatching.’
‘Ay,’ the old soldier chuckled. ‘Three Rissaldar —majors in three regiments. Gamblers a little, but so am I. They must be well mounted; and one cannot take the horses as in the old days one took women. Well, well, my holding can pay for all. How thinkest thou? It is a well-watered strip, but my men cheat me. I do not know how to ask save at the lance’s point. Ugh! I grow angry and I curse them, and they feign penitence, but behind my back I know they call me a toothless old ape.’
‘Hast thou never desired any other thing?’
‘Yes — yes — a thousand times! A straight back and a close-clinging knee once more; a quick wrist and a keen eye; and the marrow that makes a man. Oh, the old days — the good days of my strength!’
‘That strength is weakness.’
‘It has turned so; but fifty years since I could have proved it otherwise,’ the old soldier retorted, driving his stirrup-edge into the pony’s lean flank.
‘But I know a River of great healing.’
‘I have drank Gunga-water to the edge of dropsy. All she gave me was a flux, and no sort of strength.’
‘It is not Gunga. The River that I know washes from all taint of sin. Ascending the far bank one is assured of Freedom. I do not know thy life, but thy face is the face of the honourable and courteous. Thou hast clung to thy Way, rendering fidelity when it was hard to give, in that Black Year of which I now remember other tales. Enter now upon the Middle Way which is the path to Freedom. Hear the Most Excellent Law, and do not follow dreams.’
‘Speak, then, old man,’ the soldier smiled, half saluting. ‘We be all babblers at our age.’
The lama squatted under the shade of a mango, whose shadow played checkerwise over his face; the soldier sat stiffly on the pony; and Kim, making sure that there were no snakes, lay down in the crotch of the twisted roots.
There was a drowsy buzz of small life in hot sunshine, a cooing of doves, and a sleepy drone of well-wheels across the fields. Slowly and impressively the lama began. At the end of ten minutes the old soldier slid from his pony, to hear better as he said, and sat with the reins round his wrist. The lama’s voice faltered, the periods lengthened. Kim was busy watching a grey squirrel. When the little scolding bunch of fur, close pressed to the branch, disappeared, preacher and audience were fast asleep, the old officer’s strong-cut head pillowed on his arm, the lama’s thrown back against the tree-bole, where it showed like yellow ivory. A naked child toddled up, stared, and, moved by some quick impulse of reverence, made a solemn little obeisance before the lama — only the child was so short and fat that it toppled over sideways, and Kim laughed at the sprawling, chubby legs. The child, scared and indignant, yelled aloud.
‘Hai! Hai!’ said the soldier, leaping to his feet. ‘What is it? What orders? ... It is ... a child! I dreamed it was an alarm. Little one — little one — do not cry. Have I slept? That was discourteous indeed!’
‘I fear! I am afraid!’ roared the child.
‘What is it to fear? Two old men and a boy? How wilt thou ever make a soldier, Princeling?’
The lama had waked too, but, taking no direct notice of the child, clicked his rosary.
‘What is that?’ said the child, stopping a yell midway. ‘I have never seen such things. Give them me.’
‘Aha.’ said the lama, smiling, and trailing a loop of it on the grass:
This is a handful of cardamoms, This is a lump of ghi: This is millet and chillies and rice, A supper for thee and me!
The child shrieked with joy, and snatched at the dark, glancing beads.
‘Oho!’ said the old soldier. ‘Whence hadst thou that song, despiser of this world?’
‘I learned it in Pathankot — sitting on a doorstep,’ said the lama shyly. ‘It is good to be kind to babes.’
‘As I remember, before the sleep came on us, thou hadst told me that marriage and bearing were darkeners of the true light, stumbling-blocks upon the Way. Do children drop from Heaven in thy country? Is it the Way to sing them songs?’
‘No man is all perfect,’ said the lama gravely, recoiling the rosary. ‘Run now to thy mother, little one.’
‘Hear him!’ said the soldier to Kim. ‘He is ashamed for that he has made a child happy. There was a very good householder lost in thee, my brother. Hai, child!’ He threw it a pice. ‘Sweetmeats are always sweet.’ And as the little figure capered away into the sunshine: ‘They grow up and become men. Holy One, I grieve that I slept in the midst of thy preaching. Forgive me.’
‘We be two old men,’ said the lama. ‘The fault is mine. I listened to thy talk of the world and its madness, and one fault led to the next.’
‘Hear him! What harm do thy Gods suffer from play with a babe? And that song was very well sung. Let us go on and I will sing thee the song of Nikal Seyn before Delhi — the old song.’
And they fared out from the gloom of the mango tope, the old man’s high, shrill voice ringing across the field, as wail by long-drawn wail he unfolded the story of Nikal Seyn [Nicholson] — the song that men sing in the Punjab to this day. Kim was delighted, and the lama listened with deep interest.
‘Ahi! Nikal Seyn is dead — he died before Delhi! Lances of the North, take vengeance for Nikal Seyn.’ He quavered it out to the end, marking the trills with the flat of his sword on the pony’s rump.
‘And now we come to the Big Road,’ said he, after receiving the compliments of Kim; for the lama was markedly silent. ‘It is long since I have ridden this way, but thy boy’s talk stirred me. See, Holy One — the Great Road which is the backbone of all Hind. For the most part it is shaded, as here, with four lines of trees; the middle road — all hard — takes the quick traffic. In the days before rail-carriages the Sahibs travelled up and down here in hundreds. Now there are only country-carts and such like. Left and right is the rougher road for the heavy carts — grain and cotton and timber, fodder, lime and hides. A man goes in safety here for at every few koss is a police-station. The police are thieves and extortioners (I myself would patrol it with cavalry — young recruits under a strong captain), but at least they do not suffer any rivals. All castes and kinds of men move here.
‘Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters — all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.’
And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles — such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world. They looked at the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it, the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk; and the two-roomed police-station opposite.
‘Who bears arms against the law?’ a constable called out laughingly, as he caught sight of the soldier’s sword. ‘Are not the police enough to destroy evil-doers?’
‘It was because of the police I bought it,’ was the answer. ‘Does all go well in Hind?’
‘Rissaldar Sahib, all goes well.’
‘I am like an old tortoise, look you, who puts his head out from the bank and draws it in again. Ay, this is the Road of Hindustan. All men come by this way...’
‘Son of a swine, is the soft part of the road meant for thee to scratch thy back upon? Father of all the daughters of shame and husband of ten thousand virtueless ones, thy mother was devoted to a devil, being led thereto by her mother. Thy aunts have never had a nose for seven generations! Thy sister — What Owl’s folly told thee to draw thy carts across the road? A broken wheel? Then take a broken head and put the two together at leisure!’
The voice and a venomous whip-cracking came out of a pillar of dust fifty yards away, where a cart had broken down. A thin, high Kathiawar mare, with eyes and nostrils aflame, rocketed out of the jam, snorting and wincing as her rider bent her across the road in chase of a shouting man. He was tall and grey-bearded, sitting the almost mad beast as a piece of her, and scientifically lashing his victim between plunges.
The old man’s face lit with pride. ‘My child!’ said he briefly, and strove to rein the pony’s neck to a fitting arch.
‘Am I to be beaten before the police?’ cried the carter. ‘Justice! I will have Justice —’
‘Am I to be blocked by a shouting ape who upsets ten thousand sacks under a young horse’s nose? That is the way to ruin a mare.’
‘He speaks truth. He speaks truth. But she follows her man close,’ said the old man. The carter ran under the wheels of his cart and thence threatened all sorts of vengeance.
‘They are strong men, thy sons,’ said the policeman serenely, picking his teeth.
The horseman delivered one last vicious cut with his whip and came on at a canter.
‘My father!’ He reigned back ten yards and dismounted.
The old man was off his pony in an instant, and they embraced as do father and son in the East.