The Man Who Would Be King: 4th 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 take, after all, and Kipling has a point to prove.
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The Kumharsen Serai is the great four-square sink of humanity where the strings of camels and horses from the North load and unload. All the nationalities of Central Asia may be found there, and most of the folk of India proper.
Balkh and Bokhara there meet Bengal and Bombay, and try to draw eye-teeth. You can buy ponies, turquoises, Persian pussy-cats, saddle-bags, fat-tailed sheep and musk in the Kumharsen Serai, and get many strange things for nothing. In the afternoon I went down there to see whether my friends intended to keep their word or were lying about drunk.
Bengal village by Samuel Bourne, 1863, via the British Library
A priest attired in fragments of ribbons and rags stalked up to me, gravely twisting a child’s paper whirligig. Behind him was his servant, bending under the load of a crate of mud toys. The two were loading up two camels, and the inhabitants of the Serai watched them with shrieks of laughter.
“The priest is mad,” said a horse-dealer to me. “He is going up to Kabul to sell toys to the Amir. He will either be raised to honor or have his head cut off. He came in here this morning and has been behaving madly ever since.”
“The witless are under the protection of God,” stammered a flat-cheeked Usbeg in broken Hindi. “They foretell future events.”
“Would they could have foretold that my caravan would have been cut up by the Shinwaris almost within shadow of the Pass!” grunted the Eusufzai agent of a Rajputana trading-house whose goods had been feloniously diverted into the hands of other robbers just across the Border, and whose misfortunes were the laughing-stock of the bazar.
“Ohé, priest, whence come you and whither do you go?”
“From Roum have I come,” shouted the priest, waving his whirligig; “from Roum, blown by the breath of a hundred devils across the sea!
O thieves, robbers, liars, the blessing of Pir Khan on pigs, dogs, and perjurers! Who will take the Protected of God to the North to sell charms that are never still to the Amir?
The camels shall not gall, the sons shall not fall sick, and the wives shall remain faithful while they are away, of the men who give me place in their caravan.
Who will assist me to slipper the King of the Roos with a golden slipper with a silver heel? The protection of Pir Kahn be upon his labors!”
He spread out the skirts of his gaberdine and pirouetted between the lines of tethered horses.
“There starts a caravan from Peshawar to Kabul in twenty days, Huzrut,” said the Eusufzai trader. “My camels go therewith. Do thou also go and bring us good luck.”
“I will go even now!” shouted the priest. “I will depart upon my winged camels, and be at Peshawar in a day! Ho! Hazar Mir Khan,” he yelled to his servant “drive out the camels, but let me first mount my own.”
He leaped on the back of his beast as it knelt, and turning round to me, cried:—
“Come thou also, Sahib, a little along the road, and I will sell thee a charm — an amulet that shall make thee King of Kafiristan.”
Then the light broke upon me, and I followed the two camels out of the Serai till we reached open road and the priest halted.
“What d’ you think o’ that?” said he in English. “Carnehan can’t talk their patter, so I’ve made him my servant. He makes a handsome servant. ’Tisn’t for nothing that I’ve been knocking about the country for fourteen years. Didn’t I do that talk neat?
Illustration by Émile Rouergue, 1855
The Camel Train
We’ll hitch on to a caravan at Peshawar till we get to Jagdallak, and then we’ll see if we can get donkeys for our camels, and strike into Kafiristan. Whirligigs for the Amir, O Lor! Put your hand under the camel-bags and tell me what you feel.”
I felt the butt of a Martini, and another and another.
“Twenty of ’em,” said Dravot, placidly.
“Twenty of ’em, and ammunition to correspond, under the whirligigs and the mud dolls.”
“Heaven help you if you are caught with those things!” I said. “A Martini is worth her weight in silver among the Pathans.”
“Fifteen hundred rupees of capital — every rupee we could beg, borrow, or steal — are invested on these two camels,” said Dravot. “We won’t get caught. We’re going through the Khaiber with a regular caravan. Who’d touch a poor mad priest?”
“Have you got everything you want?” I asked, overcome with astonishment.
“Not yet, but we shall soon. Give us a momento of your kindness, Brother. You did me a service yesterday, and that time in Marwar. Half my Kingdom shall you have, as the saying is.” I slipped a small charm compass from my watch-chain and handed it up to the priest.
“Good-by,” said Dravot, giving me his hand cautiously. “It’s the last time we’ll shake hands with an Englishman these many days. Shake hands with him, Carnehan,” he cried, as the second camel passed me.
Carnehan leaned down and shook hands. Then the camels passed away along the dusty road, and I was left alone to wonder.
My eye could detect no failure in the disguises. The scene in the Serai attested that they were complete to the native mind.
There was just the chance, therefore, that Carnehan and Dravot would be able to wander through Afghanistan without detection. But, beyond, they would find death, certain and awful death.