The Man Who Would Be King: 5th 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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Ten days later a native friend of mine, giving me the news of the day from Peshawar, wound up his letter with:— “There has been much laughter here on account of a certain mad priest who is going in his estimation to sell petty gauds and insignificant trinkets which he ascribes as great charms to H. H. the Amir of Bokhara.
He passed through Peshawar and associated himself to the Second Summer caravan that goes to Kabul. The merchants are pleased because through superstition they imagine that such mad fellows bring good-fortune.”
Image by Edward S. Curtis, 1914
The two then, were beyond the Border. I would have prayed for them, but, that night, a real King died in Europe, and demanded an obituary notice.
The wheel of the world swings through the same phases again and again. Summer passed and winter thereafter, and came and passed again.
The daily paper continued and I with it, and upon the third summer there fell a hot night, a night-issue, and a strained waiting for something to be telegraphed from the other side of the world, exactly as had happened before.
A few great men had died in the past two years, the machines worked with more clatter, and some of the trees in the Office garden were a few feet taller. But that was all the difference.
I passed over to the press-room, and went through just such a scene as I have already described. The nervous tension was stronger than it had been two years before, and I felt the heat more acutely.
At three o’clock I cried, “Print off,” and turned to go, when there crept to my chair what was left of a man. He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear.
I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled — this rag-wrapped, whining cripple who addressed me by name, crying that he was come back. “Can you give me a drink?” he whimpered. “For the Lord’s sake, give me a drink!”
I went back to the office, the man following with groans of pain, and I turned up the lamp.
“Don’t you know me?” he gasped, dropping into a chair, and he turned his drawn face, surmounted by a shock of gray hair, to the light.
I looked at him intently. Once before had I seen eyebrows that met over the nose in an inch-broad black band, but for the life of me I could not tell where.
“I don’t know you,” I said, handing him the whiskey. “What can I do for you?”
He took a gulp of the spirit raw, and shivered in spite of the suffocating heat.
Carving by Henry Hugh Armstead, image courtesy Art In Parliament
“I’ve come back,” he repeated; “and I was the King of Kafiristan — me and Dravot — crowned Kings we was!In this office we settled it — you setting there and giving us the books. I am Peachey — Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan, and you’ve been setting here ever since — O Lord!”
I was more than a little astonished, and expressed my feelings accordingly.
“It’s true,” said Carnehan, with a dry cackle, nursing his feet which were wrapped in rags.
“True as gospel. Kings we were, with crowns upon our heads — me and Dravot — poor Dan — oh, poor, poor Dan, that would never take advice, not though I begged of him!”
“Take the whiskey,” I said, “and take your own time. Tell me all you can recollect of everything from beginning to end. You got across the border on your camels, Dravot dressed as a mad priest and you his servant. Do you remember that?”
“I ain’t mad — yet, but I will be that way soon. Of course I remember. Keep looking at me, or maybe my words will go all to pieces. Keep looking at me in my eyes and don’t say anything.”
I leaned forward and looked into his face as steadily as I could. He dropped one hand upon the table and I grasped it by the wrist. It was twisted like a bird’s claw, and upon the back was a ragged, red, diamond-shaped scar.
“No, don’t look there. Look at me,” said Carnehan.
“That comes afterwards, but for the Lord’s sake don’t distrack me. We left with that caravan, me and Dravot, playing all sorts of antics to amuse the people we were with.
Dravot used to make us laugh in the evenings when all the people was cooking their dinners — cooking their dinners, and … what did they do then? They lit little fires with sparks that went into Dravot’s beard, and we all laughed — fit to die. Little red fires they was, going into Dravot’s big red beard — so funny.”
His eyes left mine and he smiled foolishly.
Photo by Joseph Lawton Saché, 1865
“You went as far as Jagdallak with that caravan,” I said at a venture, “after you had lit those fires. To Jagdallak, where you turned off to try to get into Kafiristan.”
“No, we didn’t neither. What are you talking about? We turned off before Jagdallak, because we heard the roads was good. But they wasn’t good enough for our two camels — mine and Dravot’s.
When we left the caravan, Dravot took off all his clothes and mine too, and said we would be heathen, because the Kafirs didn’t allow Mohammedans to talk to them.
So we dressed betwixt and between, and such a sight as Daniel Dravot I never saw yet nor expect to see again. He burned half his beard, and slung a sheep-skin over his shoulder, and shaved his head into patterns.
He shaved mine, too, and made me wear outrageous things to look like a heathen.
That was in a most mountaineous country, and our camels couldn’t go along any more because of the mountains. They were tall and black, and coming home I saw them fight like wild goats — there are lots of goats in Kafiristan.
And these mountains, they never keep still, no more than the goats. Always fighting they are, and don’t let you sleep at night.”
“Take some more whiskey,” I said, very slowly.