Very early in the morning the white tents came down and disappeared as the Mavericks took a side-road to Umballa. It did not skirt the resting-place, and Kim, trudging beside a baggage-cart under fire of comments from soldiers’ wives, was not so confident as overnight. He discovered that he was closely watched — Father Victor on the one side, and Mr Bennett on the other.
In the forenoon the column checked. A camel-orderly handed the Colonel a letter. He read it, and spoke to a Major. Half a mile in the rear, Kim heard a hoarse and joyful clamour rolling down on him through the thick dust. Then someone beat him on the back, crying: ‘Tell us how ye knew, ye little limb of Satan? Father dear, see if ye can make him tell.’
A pony ranged alongside, and he was hauled on to the priest’s saddlebow.
‘Now, my son, your prophecy of last night has come true. Our orders are to entrain at Umballa for the Front tomorrow.’
‘What is thatt?’ said Kim, for ‘front’ and ‘entrain’ were newish words to him.
‘We are going to “thee War,” as you called it.’
‘Of course you are going to thee War. I said last night.’
‘Ye did; but, Powers o’ Darkness, how did ye know?’
Kim’s eyes sparkled. He shut his lips, nodded his head, and looked unspeakable things. The Chaplain moved on through the dust, and privates, sergeants, and subalterns called one another’s attention to the boy. The Colonel, at the head of the column, stared at him curiously. ‘It was probably some bazar rumour.’ he said; ‘but even then —’ He referred to the paper in his hand. ‘Hang it all, the thing was only decided within the last forty-eight hours.’
‘Are there many more like you in India?’ said Father Victor, ‘or are you by way o’ being a lusus naturae?’
‘Now I have told you,’ said the boy, ‘will you let me go back to my old man? If he has not stayed with that woman from Kulu, I am afraid he will die.’
‘By what I saw of him he’s as well able to take care of himself as you. No. Ye’ve brought us luck, an’ we’re goin’ to make a man of you. I’ll take ye back to your baggage-cart and ye’ll come to me this evening.’
For the rest of the day Kim found himself an object of distinguished consideration among a few hundred white men. The story of his appearance in camp, the discovery of his parentage, and his prophecy, had lost nothing in the telling. A big, shapeless white woman on a pile of bedding asked him mysteriously whether he thought her husband would come back from the war. Kim reflected gravely, and said that he would, and the woman gave him food. In many respects, this big procession that played music at intervals — this crowd that talked and laughed so easily — resembled a festival in Lahore city. So far, there was no sign of hard work, and he resolved to lend the spectacle his patronage. At evening there came out to meet them bands of music, and played the Mavericks into camp near Umballa railway station. That was an interesting night. Men of other regiments came to visit the Mavericks. The Mavericks went visiting on their own account. Their pickets hurried forth to bring them back, met pickets of strange regiments on the same duty; and, after a while, the bugles blew madly for more pickets with officers to control the tumult. The Mavericks had a reputation for liveliness to live up to. But they fell in on the platform next morning in perfect shape and condition; and Kim, left behind with the sick, women, and boys, found himself shouting farewells excitedly as the trains drew away. Life as a Sahib was amusing so far; but he touched it with a cautious hand. Then they marched him back in charge of a drummer-boy to empty, lime-washed barracks, whose floors were covered with rubbish and string and paper, and whose ceilings gave back his lonely footfall. Native-fashion, he curled himself up on a stripped cot and went to sleep. An angry man stumped down the veranda, woke him up, and said he was a schoolmaster. This was enough for Kim, and he retired into his shell. He could just puzzle out the various English Police notices in Lahore city, because they affected his comfort; and among the many guests of the woman who looked after him had been a queer German who painted scenery for the Parsee travelling theatre. He told Kim that he had been ‘on the barricades in ‘Forty-eight,’ and therefore — at least that was how it struck Kim — he would teach the boy to write in return for food. Kim had been kicked as far as single letters, but did not think well of them.
‘I do not know anything. Go away!’ said Kim, scenting evil. Hereupon the man caught him by the ear, dragged him to a room in a far-off wing where a dozen drummer-boys were sitting on forms, and told him to be still if he could do nothing else. This he managed very successfully. The man explained something or other with white lines on a black board for at least half an hour, and Kim continued his interrupted nap. He much disapproved of the present aspect of affairs, for this was the very school and discipline he had spent two-thirds of his young life in avoiding. Suddenly a beautiful idea occurred to him, and he wondered that he had not thought of it before.
The man dismissed them, and first to spring through the veranda into the open sunshine was Kim.
‘ ‘Ere, you! ‘Alt! Stop!’ said a high voice at his heels. ‘I’ve got to look after you. My orders are not to let you out of my sight. Where are you goin’?’
It was the drummer-boy who had been hanging round him all the forenoon — a fat and freckled person of about fourteen, and Kim loathed him from the soles of his boots to his cap-ribbons.
‘To the bazar — to get sweets — for you,’ said Kim, after thought.
‘Well, the bazar’s out o’ bounds. If we go there we’ll get a dressing-down. You come back.’
‘How near can we go?’ Kim did not know what bounds meant, but he wished to be polite — for the present.
‘ ‘Ow near? ‘Ow far, you mean! We can go as far as that tree down the road.’
‘Then I will go there.’
‘All right. I ain’t goin’. It’s too ‘ot. I can watch you from ’ere. It’s no good your runnin’ away. If you did, they’d spot you by your clothes. That’s regimental stuff you’re wearin’. There ain’t a picket in Umballa wouldn’t ‘ead you back quicker than you started out.’
This did not impress Kim as much as the knowledge that his raiment would tire him out if he tried to run. He slouched to the tree at the corner of a bare road leading towards the bazar, and eyed the natives passing. Most of them were barrack-servants of the lowest caste. Kim hailed a sweeper, who promptly retorted with a piece of unnecessary insolence, in the natural belief that the European boy could not follow it. The low, quick answer undeceived him. Kim put his fettered soul into it, thankful for the late chance to abuse somebody in the tongue he knew best. ‘And now, go to the nearest letter-writer in the bazar and tell him to come here. I would write a letter.’
‘But — but what manner of white man’s son art thou to need a bazar letter-writer? Is there not a schoolmaster in the barracks?’
‘Ay; and Hell is full of the same sort. Do my order, you — you Od! Thy mother was married under a basket! Servant of Lal Beg’ (Kim knew the God of the sweepers), ‘run on my business or we will talk again.’
The sweeper shuffled off in haste. ‘There is a white boy by the barracks waiting under a tree who is not a white boy,’ he stammered to the first bazar letter-writer he came across. ‘He needs thee.’
‘Will he pay?’ said the spruce scribe, gathering up his desk and pens and sealing-wax all in order.
‘I do not know. He is not like other boys. Go and see. It is well worth.’
Kim danced with impatience when the slim young Kayeth hove in sight. As soon as his voice could carry he cursed him volubly.
‘First I will take my pay,’ the letter-writer said. ‘Bad words have made the price higher. But who art thou, dressed in that fashion, to speak in this fashion?’
‘Aha! That is in the letter which thou shalt write. Never was such a tale. But I am in no haste. Another writer will serve me. Umballa city is as full of them as is Lahore.’
‘Four annas,’ said the writer, sitting down and spreading his cloth in the shade of a deserted barrack-wing.
Mechanically Kim squatted beside him — squatted as only the natives can — in spite of the abominable clinging trousers.
The writer regarded him sideways.
‘That is the price to ask of Sahibs,’ said Kim. ‘Now fix me a true one.’
‘An anna and a half. How do I know, having written the letter, that thou wilt not run away?’
I must not go beyond this tree, and there is also the stamp to be considered.’
‘I get no commission on the price of the stamp. Once more, what manner of white boy art thou?’
‘That shall be said in the letter, which is to Mahbub Ali, the horse-dealer in the Kashmir Serai, at Lahore. He is my friend.’
‘Wonder on wonder!’ murmured the letter-writer, dipping a reed in the inkstand. ‘To be written in Hindi?’
‘Assuredly. To Mahbub Ali then. Begin! I have come down with the old man as far as Umballa in the train. At Umballa I carried the news of the bay mare’s pedigree.’ After what he had seen in the garden, he was not going to write of white stallions.
‘Slower a little. What has a bay mare to do ... Is it Mahbub Ali, the great dealer?’
‘Who else? I have been in his service. Take more ink. Again. As the order was, so I did it. We then went on foot towards Benares, but on the third day we found a certain regiment. Is that down?’
‘Ay, pulton,’ murmured the writer, all ears.
‘I went into their camp and was caught, and by means of the charm about my neck, which thou knowest, it was established that I was the son of some man in the regiment: according to the prophecy of the Red Bull, which thou knowest was common talk of our bazar.’ Kim waited for this shaft to sink into the letter-writer’s heart, cleared his throat, and continued: ‘A priest clothed me and gave me a new name ... One priest, however, was a fool. The clothes are very heavy, but I am a Sahib and my heart is heavy too. They send me to a school and beat me. I do not like the air and water here. Come then and help me, Mahbub Ali, or send me some money, for I have not sufficient to pay the writer who writes this.’
‘ “Who writes this.” It is my own fault that I was tricked. Thou art as clever as Husain Bux that forged the Treasury stamps at Nucklao. But what a tale! What a tale! Is it true by any chance?’
‘It does not profit to tell lies to Mahbub Ali. It is better to help his friends by lending them a stamp. When the money comes I will repay.’
The writer grunted doubtfully, but took a stamp out of his desk, sealed the letter, handed it over to Kim, and departed. Mahbub Ali’s was a name of power in Umballa.
‘That is the way to win a good account with the Gods,’ Kim shouted after him.
‘Pay me twice over when the money comes,’ the man cried over his shoulder.
‘What was you bukkin’ to that nigger about?’ said the drummer-boy when Kim returned to the veranda. ‘I was watch-in’ you.’
‘I was only talkin’ to him.’
‘You talk the same as a nigger, don’t you?’
‘No-ah! No-ah! I onlee speak a little. What shall we do now?’
‘The bugles’ll go for dinner in arf a minute. My Gawd! I wish I’d gone up to the Front with the Regiment. It’s awful doin’ nothin’ but school down ’ere. Don’t you ‘ate it?’
I’d run away if I knew where to go to, but, as the men say, in this bloomin’ Injia you’re only a prisoner at large. You can’t desert without bein’ took back at once. I’m fair sick of it.’
‘You have been in Be — England?’
‘W’y, I only come out last troopin’ season with my mother. I should think I ‘ave been in England. What a ignorant little beggar you are! You was brought up in the gutter, wasn’t you?’
‘Oah yess. Tell me something about England. My father he came from there.’
Though he would not say so, Kim of course disbelieved every word the drummer-boy spoke about the Liverpool suburb which was his England. It passed the heavy time till dinner — a most unappetizing meal served to the boys and a few invalids in a corner of a barrack-room. But that he had written to Mahbub Ali, Kim would have been almost depressed. The indifference of native crowds he was used to; but this strong loneliness among white men preyed on him. He was grateful when, in the course of the afternoon, a big soldier took him over to Father Victor, who lived in another wing across another dusty parade-ground. The priest was reading an English letter written in purple ink. He looked at Kim more curiously than ever.
‘An’ how do you like it, my son, as far as you’ve gone? Not much, eh? It must be hard — very hard on a wild animal. Listen now. I’ve an amazin’ epistle from your friend.’
‘Where is he? Is he well? Oah! If he knows to write me letters, it is all right.’
‘You’re fond of him then?’
‘Of course I am fond of him. He was fond of me.’
‘It seems so by the look of this. He can’t write English, can he?’
‘Oah no. Not that I know, but of course he found a letter-writer who can write English verree well, and so he wrote. I do hope you understand.’
‘That accounts for it. D’you know anything about his money affairs?’ Kim’s face showed that he did not.
‘How can I tell?’
‘That’s what I’m askin’. Now listen if you can make head or tail o’ this. We’ll skip the first part ... It’s written from Jagadhir Road ... “Sitting on wayside in grave meditation, trusting to be favoured with your Honour’s applause of present step, which recommend your Honour to execute for Almighty God’s sake. Education is greatest blessing if of best sorts. Otherwise no earthly use.” Faith, the old man’s hit the bull’s-eye that time! “If your Honour condescending giving my boy best educations Xavier” (I suppose that’s St Xavier’s in Partibus) “in terms of our conversation dated in your tent 15th instant” (a business-like touch there!) “then Almighty God blessing your Honour’s succeedings to third an’ fourth generation and” — now listen! —“confide in your Honour’s humble servant for adequate remuneration per hoondi per annum three hundred rupees a year to one expensive education St Xavier, Lucknow, and allow small time to forward same per hoondi sent to any part of India as your Honour shall address yourself. This servant of your Honour has presently no place to lay crown of his head, but going to Benares by train on account of persecution of old woman talking so much and unanxious residing Saharunpore in any domestic capacity.” Now what in the world does that mean?’
‘She has asked him to be her puro — her clergyman — at Saharunpore, I think. He would not do that on account of his River. She did talk.’
‘It’s clear to you, is it? It beats me altogether. “So going to Benares, where will find address and forward rupees for boy who is apple of eye, and for Almighty God’s sake execute this education, and your petitioner as in duty bound shall ever awfully pray. Written by Sobrao Satai, Failed Entrance Allahabad University, for Venerable Teshoo Lama the priest of Such-zen looking for a River, address care of Tirthankars’ Temple, Benares. P. M. —Please note boy is apple of eye, and rupees shall be sent per hoondi three hundred per annum. For God Almighty’s sake.” Now, is that ravin’ lunacy or a business proposition? I ask you, because I’m fairly at my wits’ end.’
‘He says he will give me three hundred rupees a year? So he will give me them.’
‘Oh, that’s the way you look at it, is it?’
‘Of course. If he says so!’
The priest whistled; then he addressed Kim as an equal. ‘I don’t believe it; but we’ll see. You were goin’ off today to the Military Orphanage at Sanawar, where the Regiment would keep you till you were old enough to enlist. Ye’d be brought up to the Church of England. Bennett arranged for that. On the other hand, if ye go to St Xavier’s ye’ll get a better education an — an can have the religion. D’ye see my dilemma? Kim saw nothing save a vision of the lama going south in a train with none to beg for him.
‘Like most people, I’m going to temporize. If your friend sends the money from Benares — Powers of Darkness below, where’s a street-beggar to raise three hundred rupees? — ye’ll go down to Lucknow and I’ll pay your fare, because I can’t touch the subscription-money if I intend, as I do, to make ye a Catholic. If he doesn’t, ye’ll go to the Military Orphanage at the Regiment’s expense. I’ll allow him three days’ grace, though I don’t believe it at all. Even then, if he fails in his payments later on ... but it’s beyond me. We can only walk one step at a time in this world, praise God! An’ they sent Bennett to the Front an’ left me behind. Bennett can’t expect everything.’
‘Oah yess,’ said Kim vaguely.
The priest leaned forward. ‘I’d give a month’s pay to find what’s goin’ on inside that little round head of yours.’
‘There is nothing,’ said Kim, and scratched it. He was wondering whether Mahbub Ali would send him as much as a whole rupee. Then he could pay the letter-writer and write letters to the lama at Benares. Perhaps Mahbub Ali would visit him next time he came south with horses. Surely he must know that Kim’s delivery of the letter to the officer at Umballa had caused the great war which the men and boys had discussed so loudly over the barrack dinner-tables. But if Mahbub Ali did not know this, it would be very unsafe to tell him so. Mahbub Ali was hard upon boys who knew, or thought they knew, too much.
‘Well, till I get further news’ — Father Victor’s voice interrupted the reverie. ‘Ye can run along now and play with the other boys. They’ll teach ye something — but I don’t think ye’ll like it.’
The day dragged to its weary end. When he wished to sleep he was instructed how to fold up his clothes and set out his boots; the other boys deriding. Bugles waked him in the dawn; the schoolmaster caught him after breakfast, thrust a page of meaningless characters under his nose, gave them senseless names and whacked him without reason. Kim meditated poisoning him with opium borrowed from a barrack-sweeper, but reflected that, as they all ate at one table in public (this was peculiarly revolting to Kim, who preferred to turn his back on the world at meals), the stroke might be dangerous. Then he attempted running off to the village where the priest had tried to drug the lama — the village where the old soldier lived. But far-seeing sentries at every exit headed back the little scarlet figure. Trousers and jacket crippled body and mind alike so he abandoned the project and fell back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance. Three days of torment passed in the big, echoing white rooms. He walked out of afternoons under escort of the drummer-boy, and all he heard from his companions were the few useless words which seemed to make two-thirds of the white man’s abuse. Kim knew and despised them all long ago. The boy resented his silence and lack of interest by beating him, as was only natural. He did not care for any of the bazars which were in bounds. He styled all natives ‘niggers’; yet servants and sweepers called him abominable names to his face, and, misled by their deferential attitude, he never understood. This somewhat consoled Kim for the beatings.
On the morning of the fourth day a judgement overtook that drummer. They had gone out together towards Umballa racecourse. He returned alone, weeping, with news that young O’Hara, to whom he had been doing nothing in particular, had hailed a scarlet-bearded nigger on horseback; that the nigger had then and there laid into him with a peculiarly adhesive quirt, picked up young O’Hara, and borne him off at full gallop. These tidings came to Father Victor, and he drew down his long upper lip. He was already sufficiently startled by a letter from the Temple of the Tirthankars at Benares, enclosing a native banker’s note of hand for three hundred rupees, and an amazing prayer to ‘Almighty God’. The lama would have been more annoyed than the priest had he known how the bazar letter-writer had translated his phrase ‘to acquire merit.’
‘Powers of Darkness below!’ Father Victor fumbled with the note. ‘An’ now he’s off with another of his peep-o’-day friends. I don’t know whether it will be a greater relief to me to get him back or to have him lost. He’s beyond my comprehension. How the Divil — yes, he’s the man I mean —can a street-beggar raise money to educate white boys?’
Three miles off, on Umballa racecourse, Mahbub Ali, reining a grey Kabuli stallion with Kim in front of him, was saying:
‘But, Little Friend of all the World, there is my honour and reputation to be considered. All the officer-Sahibs in all the regiments, and all Umballa, know Mahbub Ali. Men saw me pick thee up and chastise that boy. We are seen now from far across this plain. How can I take thee away, or account for thy disappearing if I set thee down and let thee run off into the crops? They would put me in jail. Be patient. Once a Sahib, always a Sahib. When thou art a man — who knows? — thou wilt be grateful to Mahbub Ali.’
‘Take me beyond their sentries where I can change this red. Give me money and I will go to Benares and be with my lama again. I do not want to be a Sahib, and remember I did deliver that message.’
The stallion bounded wildly. Mahbub Ali had incautiously driven home the sharp-edged stirrup. (He was not the new sort of fluent horse-dealer who wears English boots and spurs.) Kim drew his own conclusions from that betrayal.
‘That was a small matter. It lay on the straight road to Benares. I and the Sahib have by this time forgotten it. I send so many letters and messages to men who ask questions about horses, I cannot well remember one from the other. Was it some matter of a bay mare that Peters Sahib wished the pedigree of?’
Kim saw the trap at once. If he had said ‘bay mare’ Mahbub would have known by his very readiness to fall in with the amendment that the boy suspected something. Kim replied therefore:
‘Bay mare. No. I do not forget my messages thus. It was a white stallion.’
‘Ay, so it was. A white Arab stallion. But thou didst write “bay mare” to me.’
‘Who cares to tell truth to a letter-writer?’ Kim answered, feeling Mahbub’s palm on his heart.
‘Hi! Mahbub, you old villain, pull up!’ cried a voice, and an Englishman raced alongside on a little polo-pony. ‘I’ve been chasing you half over the country. That Kabuli of yours can go. For sale, I suppose?’
‘I have some young stuff coming on made by Heaven for the delicate and difficult polo-game. He has no equal. He — ’
‘Plays polo and waits at table. Yes. We know all that. What the deuce have you got there?’
‘A. boy,’ said Mahbub gravely. ‘He was being beaten by another boy. His father was once a white soldier in the big war. The boy was a child in Lahore city. He played with my horses when he was a babe. Now I think they will make him a soldier. He has been newly caught by his father’s Regiment that went up to the war last week. But I do not think he wants to be a soldier. I take him for a ride. Tell me where thy barracks are and I will set thee there.’
‘Let me go. I can find the barracks alone.’
‘And if thou runnest away who will say it is not my fault?’
‘He’ll run back to his dinner. Where has he to run to?’ the Englishman asked.
‘He was born in the land. He has friends. He goes where he chooses. He is a chabuk sawai [a sharp chap]. It needs only to change his clothing, and in a twinkling he would be a low-caste Hindu boy.’
‘The deuce he would!’ The Englishman looked critically at the boy as Mahbub headed towards the barracks. Kim ground his teeth. Mahbub was mocking him, as faithless Afghans will; for he went on:
‘They will send him to a school and put heavy boots on his feet and swaddle him in these clothes. Then he will forget all he knows. Now, which of the barracks is thine?’
Kim pointed — he could not speak — to Father Victor’s wing, all staring white near by.
‘Perhaps he will make a good soldier,’ said Mahbub reflectively.
‘He will make a good orderly at least. I sent him to deliver a message once from Lahore. A message concerning the pedigree of a white stallion.’
Here was deadly insult on deadlier injury — and the Sahib to whom he had so craftily given that war-waking letter heard it all. Kim beheld Mahbub Ali frying in flame for his treachery, but for himself he saw one long grey vista of barracks, schools, and barracks again. He gazed imploringly at the clear-cut face in which there was no glimmer of recognition; but even at this extremity it never occurred to him to throw himself on the white man’s mercy or to denounce the Afghan. And Mahbub stared deliberately at the Englishman, who stared as deliberately at Kim, quivering and tongue-tied.
‘My horse is well trained,’ said the dealer. ‘Others would have kicked, Sahib.’
‘Ah,’ said the Englishman at last, rubbing his pony’s damp withers with his whip-butt. ‘Who makes the boy a soldier?’
‘He says the Regiment that found him, and especially the Padre-sahib of that regiment.
‘There is the Padre!’ Kim choked as bare-headed Father Victor sailed down upon them from the veranda.
‘Powers O’ Darkness below, O’Hara! How many more mixed friends do you keep in Asia?’ he cried, as Kim slid down and stood helplessly before him.
‘Good morning, Padre,’ the Englishman said cheerily. ‘I know you by reputation well enough. Meant to have come over and called before this. I’m Creighton.’
‘Of the Ethnological Survey?’ said Father Victor. The Englishman nodded. ‘Faith, I’m glad to meet ye then; an’ I owe you some thanks for bringing back the boy.’
‘No thanks to me, Padre. Besides, the boy wasn’t going away. You don’t know old Mahbub Ali.’ The horse-dealer sat impassive in the sunlight. ‘You will when you have been in the station a month. He sells us all our crocks. That boy is rather a curiosity. Can you tell me anything about him?’
‘Can I tell you?’ puffed Father Victor. ‘You’ll be the one man that could help me in my quandaries. Tell you! Powers o’ Darkness, I’m bursting to tell someone who knows something o’ the native!’
A groom came round the corner. Colonel Creighton raised his voice, speaking in Urdu. ‘Very good, Mahbub Ali, but what is the use of telling me all those stories about the pony? Not one pice more than three hundred and fifty rupees will I give.’
‘The Sahib is a little hot and angry after riding,’ the horse-dealer returned, with the leer of a privileged jester. ‘Presently, he will see my horse’s points more clearly. I will wait till he has finished his talk with the Padre. I will wait under that tree.’
‘Confound you!’ The Colonel laughed. ‘That comes of looking at one of Mahbub’s horses. He’s a regular old leech, Padre. Wait, then, if thou hast so much time to spare, Mahbub. Now I’m at your service, Padre. Where is the boy? Oh, he’s gone off to collogue with Mahbub. Queer sort of boy. Might I ask you to send my mare round under cover?’
He dropped into a chair which commanded a clear view of Kim and Mahbub Ali in conference beneath the tree. The Padre went indoors for cheroots.
Creighton heard Kim say bitterly: ‘Trust a Brahmin before a snake, and a snake before an harlot, and an harlot before a Pathan, Mahbub Ali.’
‘That is all one.’ The great red beard wagged solemnly. ‘Children should not see a carpet on the loom till the pattern is made plain. Believe me, Friend of all the World, I do thee great service. They will not make a soldier of thee.’
‘You crafty old sinner!’ thought Creighton. ‘But you’re not far wrong. That boy mustn’t be wasted if he is as advertised.’
‘Excuse me half a minute,’ cried the Padre from within, ‘but I’m gettin’ the documents in the case.’
‘If through me the favour of this bold and wise Colonel Sahib comes to thee, and thou art raised to honour, what thanks wilt thou give Mahbub Ali when thou art a man?’
‘Nay, nay! I begged thee to let me take the Road again, where I should have been safe; and thou hast sold me back to the English. What will they give thee for blood-money?’
‘A cheerful young demon!’ The Colonel bit his cigar, and turned politely to Father Victor.
‘What are the letters that the fat priest is waving before the Colonel? Stand behind the stallion as though looking at my bridle!’ said Mahbub Ali.
‘A letter from my lama which he wrote from Jagadhir Road, saying that he will pay three hundred rupees by the year for my schooling.’
‘Oho! Is old Red Hat of that sort? At which school?’
‘God knows. I think in Nucklao.’
‘Yes. There is a big school there for the sons of Sahibs — and half-Sahibs. I have seen it when I sell horses there. So the lama also loved the Friend of all the World?’
‘Ay; and he did not tell lies, or return me to captivity.’
‘Small wonder the Padre does not know how to unravel the thread. How fast he talks to the Colonel Sahib!’ Mahbub Ali chuckled. ‘By Allah!’ the keen eyes swept the veranda for an Instant — ‘thy lama has sent what to me looks like a note of hand. I have had some few dealings in hoondis. The Colonel Sahib is looking at it.’
‘What good is all this to me?’ said Kim wearily. ‘Thou wilt go away, and they will return me to those empty rooms where there is no good place to sleep and where the boys beat me.’
‘I do not think that. Have patience, child. All Pathans are not faithless — except in horseflesh.’
Five — ten — fifteen minutes passed, Father Victor talking energetically or asking questions which the Colonel answered.
‘Now I’ve told you everything that I know about the boy from beginnin to end; and it’s a blessed relief to me. Did ye ever hear the like?’
‘At any rate, the old man has sent the money. Gobind Sahai’s notes of hand are good from here to China,’ said the Colonel. ‘The more one knows about natives the less can one say what they will or won’t do.’
‘That’s consolin’ — from the head of the Ethnological Survey. It’s this mixture of Red Bulls and Rivers of Healing (poor heathen, God help him!) an’ notes of hand and Masonic certificates. Are you a Mason, by any chance?’
‘By Jove, I am, now I come to think of it. That’s an additional reason,’ said the Colonel absently.
‘I’m glad ye see a reason in it. But as I said, it’s the mixture o’ things that’s beyond me. An’ his prophesyin’ to our Colonel, sitting on my bed with his little shimmy torn open showing his white skin; an’ the prophecy comin’ true! They’ll cure all that nonsense at St Xavier’s, eh?’
‘Sprinkle him with holy water,’ the Colonel laughed.
‘On my word, I fancy I ought to sometimes. But I’m hoping he’ll be brought up as a good Catholic. All that troubles me is what’ll happen if the old beggar-man —’
‘Lama, lama, my dear sir; and some of them are gentlemen in their own country.’
‘The lama, then, fails to pay next year. He’s a fine business head to plan on the spur of the moment, but he’s bound to die some day. An’ takin’ a heathen’s money to give a child a Christian education -’
‘But he said explicitly what he wanted. As soon as he knew the boy was white he seems to have made his arrangements accordingly. I’d give a month’s pay to hear how he explained it all at the Tirthankars’ Temple at Benares. Look here, Padre, I don’t pretend to know much about natives, but if he says he’ll pay, he’ll pay — dead or alive. I mean, his heirs will assume the debt. My advice to you is, send the boy down to Lucknow. If your Anglican Chaplain thinks you’ve stolen a march on him —’
‘Bad luck to Bennett! He was sent to the Front instead o’ me. Doughty certified me medically unfit. I’ll excommunicate Doughty if he comes back alive! Surely Bennett ought to be content with —’
‘Glory, leaving you the religion. Quite so! As a matter of fact I don’t think Bennett will mind. Put the blame on me. I — er — strongly recommend sending the boy to St Xavier’s. He can go down on pass as a soldier’s orphan, so the railway fare will be saved. You can buy him an outfit from the Regimental subscription. The Lodge will be saved the expense of his education, and that will put the Lodge in a good temper. It’s perfectly easy. I’ve got to go down to Lucknow next week. I’ll look after the boy on the way — give him in charge of my servants, and so on.’
‘You’re a good man.’
‘Not in the least. Don’t make that mistake. The lama has sent us money for a definite end. We can’t very well return it. We shall have to do as he says. Well, that’s settled, isn’t it? Shall we say that, Tuesday next, you’ll hand him over to me at the night train south? That’s only three days. He can’t do much harm in three days.’
‘It’s a weight off my mind, but — this thing here?’ — he waved the note of hand — ‘I don’t know Gobind Sahai: or his bank, which may be a hole in a wall.’
‘You’ve never been a subaltern in debt. I’ll cash it if you like, and send you the vouchers in proper order.’
‘But with all your own work too! It’s askin’ —’
‘It’s not the least trouble indeed. You see, as an ethnologist, the thing’s very interesting to me. I’d like to make a note of it for some Government work that I’m doing. The transformation of a regimental badge like your Red Bull into a sort of fetish that the boy follows is very interesting.’
‘But I can’t thank you enough.’
‘There’s one thing you can do. All we Ethnological men are as jealous as jackdaws of one another’s discoveries. They’re of no interest to anyone but ourselves, of course, but you know what book-collectors are like. Well, don’t say a word, directly or indirectly, about the Asiatic side of the boy’s character — his adventures and his prophecy, and so on. I’ll worm them out of the boy later on and — you see?’
‘I do. Ye’ll make a wonderful account of it. Never a word will I say to anyone till I see it in print.’
‘Thank you. That goes straight to an ethnologist’s heart. Well, I must be getting back to my breakfast. Good Heavens! Old Mahbub here still?’ He raised his voice, and the horse-dealer came out from under the shadow of the tree, ‘Well, what is it?’
‘As regards that young horse,’ said Mahbub, ‘I say that when a colt is born to be a polo-pony, closely following the ball without teaching — when such a colt knows the game by divination — then I say it is a great wrong to break that colt to a heavy cart, Sahib!’
‘So say I also, Mahbub. The colt will be entered for polo only. (These fellows think of nothing in the world but horses, Padre.) I’ll see you tomorrow, Mahbub, if you’ve anything likely for sale.’
The dealer saluted, horseman-fashion, with a sweep of the off hand. ‘Be patient a little, Friend of all the World,’ he whispered to the agonized Kim. ‘Thy fortune is made. In a little while thou goest to Nucklao, and — here is something to pay the letter-writer. I shall see thee again, I think, many times,’ and he cantered off down the road.
‘Listen to me,’ said the Colonel from the veranda, speaking in the vernacular. ‘In three days thou wilt go with me to Lucknow, seeing and hearing new things all the while. Therefore sit still for three days and do not run away. Thou wilt go to school at Lucknow.’
‘Shall I meet my Holy One there?’ Kim whimpered.
‘At least Lucknow is nearer to Benares than Umballa. It may be thou wilt go under my protection. Mahbub Ali knows this, and he will be angry if thou returnest to the Road now. Remember — much has been told me which I do not forget.’
‘I will wait,’ said Kim, ‘but the boys will beat me.’
Then the bugles blew for dinner.