The Man Who Would Be King: 3rd Installment
This is a serialized presentation of The Man Who Would Be King, with period images, released in daily installments.
Find the first installment here.
Rudyard Kipling’s story of two chancers who targeted long ago Kafiristan in the mountains of Afghanistan to make themselves kings was seen as a morality tale to illustrate the perils of the British Raj.
Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan didn’t concern themselves with their mission much beyond taking power; as it turns out, the twenty Martini-Henry rifles (then the best firepower in the world) proved ample to show they meant business.
Whatever came next would take care of itself, or so they thought.
But in life, as in politics, timing is everything. The ruffians talk their way to the top, persuading the locals that they are not mere kings, but gods, as well. They build an army and dream of nation building.
All seems to be going so well.
But this is a morality tale, after all, and Kipling has a point to prove.
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One Saturday night it was my pleasant duty to put the paper to bed alone.
A King or courtier or a courtesan or a community was going to die or get a new Constitution, or do something that was important on the other side of the world, and the paper was to be held open till the latest possible minute in order to catch the telegram.
It was a pitchy black night, as stifling as a June night can be, and the loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels.
Photograph by Covert, 1917, via LSU Digital Library, Louisiana State Museum
Now and again a spot of almost boiling water would fall on the dust with the flop of a frog, but all our weary world knew that was only pretence. It was a shade cooler in the press-room than the office, so I sat there, while the type ticked and clicked, and the night-jars hooted at the windows, and the all but naked compositors wiped the sweat from their foreheads and called for water.
The thing that was keeping us back, whatever it was, would not come off, though the loo dropped and the last type was set, and the whole round earth stood still in the choking heat, with its finger on its lip, to wait the event.
I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, was aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing.
There was no special reason beyond the heat and worry to make tension, but, as the clock-hands crept up to three o’clock and the machines spun their fly-wheels two and three times to see that all was in order, before I said the word that would set them off, I could have shrieked aloud.
Then the roar and rattle of the wheels shivered the quiet into little bits. I rose to go away, but two men in white clothes stood in front of me.
The first one said:— “It’s him!” The second said—“So it is!” And they both laughed almost as loudly as the machinery roared, and mopped their foreheads.
“We see there was a light burning across the road and we were sleeping in that ditch there for coolness, and I said to my friend here, the office is open. Let’s come along and speak to him as turned us back from the Degumber State,” said the smaller of the two.
He was the man I had met in the Mhow train, and his fellow was the red-bearded man of Marwar Junction. There was no mistaking the eyebrows of the one or the beard of the other.
I was not pleased, because I wished to go to sleep, not to squabble with loafers. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Half an hour’s talk with you cool and comfortable, in the office,” said the red-bearded man. “We’d like some drink — the Contrack doesn’t begin yet, Peachey, so you needn’t look — but what we really want is advice. We don’t want money. We ask you as a favor, because you did us a bad turn about Degumber.”
I led from the press-room to the stifling office with the maps on the walls, and the red-haired man rubbed his hands.
“That’s something like,” said he. “This was the proper shop to come to. Now, Sir, let me introduce to you Brother Peachey Carnehan, that’s him, and Brother Daniel Dravot, that is me, and the less said about our professions the better, for we have been most things in our time.
Soldier, sailor, compositor, photographer, proof-reader, street-preacher, and correspondents of the Backwoodsman when we thought the paper wanted one. Carnehan is sober, and so am I. Look at us first and see that’s sure. It will save you cutting into my talk.
We’ll take one of your cigars apiece, and you shall see us light.” I watched the test. The men were absolutely sober, so I gave them each a tepid peg.
“Well and good,” said Carnehan of the eyebrows, wiping the froth from his mustache.
“Let me talk now, Dan. We have been all over India, mostly on foot. We have been boiler-fitters, engine-drivers, petty contractors, and all that, and we have decided that India isn’t big enough for such as us.”
They certainly were too big for the office. Dravot’s beard seemed to fill half the room and Carnehan’s shoulders the other half, as they sat on the big table.
Carnehan continued: — “The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that without all the Government saying — ‘Leave it alone and let us govern.’
Therefore, such as it is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own. We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings.”
“Kings in our own right,” muttered Dravot.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “You’ve been tramping in the sun, and it’s a very warm night, and hadn’t you better sleep over the notion? Come to-morrow.”
“Neither drunk nor sunstruck,” said Dravot. “We have slept over the notion half a year, and require to see Books and Atlases, and we have decided that there is only one place now in the world that two strong men can Sar-a-whack. They call it Kafiristan.
By my reckoning its the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan, not more than three hundred miles from Peshawar. They have two and thirty heathen idols there, and we’ll be the thirty-third. It’s a mountainous country, and the women of those parts are very beautiful.”
“But that is provided against in the Contrack,” said Carnehan. “Neither Women nor Liquor, Daniel.”
“And that’s all we know, except that no one has gone there, and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King.
We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find — ‘D’ you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dy-nasty.”
“You’ll be cut to pieces before you’re fifty miles across the Border,” I said. “You have to travel through Afghanistan to get to that country. It’s one mass of mountains and peaks and glaciers, and no Englishman has been through it. The people are utter brutes, and even if you reached them you couldn’t do anything.”
“That’s more like,” said Carnehan. “If you could think us a little more mad we would be more pleased.
We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps. We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books.” He turned to the book-cases.
“Are you at all in earnest?” I said.
“A little,” said Dravot, sweetly. “As big a map as you have got, even if it’s all blank where Kafiristan is, and any books you’ve got. We can read, though we aren’t very educated.”
I uncased the big thirty-two-miles-to-the-inch map of India, and two smaller Frontier maps, hauled down volume INF-KAN of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and the men consulted them.
“See here!” said Dravot, his thumb on the map. “Up to Jagdallak, Peachey and me know the road. We was there with Roberts’s Army. We’ll have to turn off to the right at Jagdallak through Laghmann territory.
Then we get among the hills — fourteen thousand feet — fifteen thousand — it will be cold work there, but it don’t look very far on the map.”
I handed him Wood on the Sources of the Oxus. Carnehan was deep in the Encyclopædia.
“They’re a mixed lot,” said Dravot, reflectively; “and it won’t help us to know the names of their tribes. The more tribes the more they’ll fight, and the better for us. From Jagdallak to Ashang. H’mm!”
“But all the information about the country is as sketchy and inaccurate as can be,” I protested. “No one knows anything about it really. Here’s the file of the United Services’ Institute. Read what Bellew says.”
“Blow Bellew!” said Carnehan. “Dan, they’re an all-fired lot of heathens, but this book here says they think they’re related to us English.”
I smoked while the men pored over Raverty, Wood, the maps and the Encyclopædia.
“There is no use your waiting,” said Dravot, politely. “It’s about four o’clock now. We’ll go before six o’clock if you want to sleep, and we won’t steal any of the papers. Don’t you sit up. We’re two harmless lunatics, and if you come, to-morrow evening, down to the Serai we’ll say good-by to you.”
“You are two fools,” I answered. “You’ll be turned back at the Frontier or cut up the minute you set foot in Afghanistan. Do you want any money or a recommendation down-country? I can help you to the chance of work next week.”
Parthasarathy Temple, Triplican, Chennai, 1890s
“Next week we shall be hard at work ourselves, thank you,” said Dravot. “It isn’t so easy being a King as it looks. When we’ve got our Kingdom in going order we’ll let you know, and you can come up and help us to govern it.”
“Would two lunatics make a Contrack like that!” said Carnehan, with subdued pride, showing me a greasy half-sheet of note-paper on which was written the following. I copied it, then and there, as a curiosity:—
This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of God — Amen and so forth.
(One) That me and you will settle this matter together: i.e., to be Kings of Kafiristan.
(Two) That you and me will not while this matter is being settled, look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.
(Three) That we conduct ourselves with Dignity and Discretion, and if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.
Signed by you and me this day.
Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.
Both Gentlemen at Large.
“There was no need for the last article,” said Carnehan, blushing modestly; “but it looks regular. Now you know the sort of men that loafers are — we are loafers, Dan, until we get out of India — and do you think that we could sign a Contrack like that unless we was in earnest? We have kept away from the two things that make life worth having.”
“You won’t enjoy your lives much longer if you are going to try this idiotic adventure. Don’t set the office on fire,” I said, “and go away before nine o’clock.”
I left them still poring over the maps and making notes on the back of the “Contrack.” “Be sure to come down to the Serai to-morrow,” were their parting words.