The Man Who Would Be King: 12th 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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He stared up and down like a stuck pig. Then he was all for walking back alone and killing the priests with his bare hands; which he could have done. ‘An Emperor am I,’ says Daniel, ‘and next year I shall be a Knight of the Queen.
“‘All right, Dan,’ says I; ‘but come along now while there’s time.’
“‘It’s your fault,’ says he, ‘for not looking after your Army better. There was mutiny in the midst, and you didn’t know — you damned engine-driving, plate-laying, missionary’s-pass-hunting hound!’
He sat upon a rock and called me every foul name he could lay tongue to. I was too heart-sick to care, though it was all his foolishness that brought the smash.
“‘I’m sorry, Dan,’ says I, ‘but there’s no accounting for natives. This business is our Fifty-Seven. Maybe we’ll make something out of it yet, when we’ve got to Bashkai.’
“‘Let’s get to Bashkai, then,’ says Dan, ‘and, by God, when I come back here again I’ll sweep the valley so there isn’t a bug in a blanket left!’
“‘We walked all that day, and all that night Dan was stumping up and down on the snow, chewing his beard and muttering to himself.
“‘There’s no hope o’ getting clear,’ said Billy Fish. ‘The priests will have sent runners to the villages to say that you are only men. Why didn’t you stick on as gods till things was more settled? I’m a dead man,’ says Billy Fish, and he throws himself down on the snow and begins to pray to his gods.
“Next morning we was in a cruel bad country — all up and down, no level ground at all, and no food either. The six Bashkai men looked at Billy Fish hungry-wise as if they wanted to ask something, but they said never a word.
At noon we came to the top of a flat mountain all covered with snow, and when we climbed up into it, behold, there was an army in position waiting in the middle!
“‘The runners have been very quick,’ says Billy Fish, with a little bit of a laugh. ‘They are waiting for us.’
“Three or four men began to fire from the enemy’s side, and a chance shot took Daniel in the calf of the leg. That brought him to his senses. He looks across the snow at the Army, and sees the rifles that we had brought into the country.
Oil on canvas by Vereker Monteith Hamilton, c 1890
“‘We’re done for,’ says he. ‘They are Englishmen, these people, — and it’s my blasted nonsense that has brought you to this. Get back, Billy Fish, and take your men away; you’ve done what you could, and now cut for it. Carnehan,’ says he, ‘shake hands with me and go along with Billy. Maybe they won’t kill you. I’ll go and meet ’em alone. It’s me that did it. Me, the King!’
“‘Go!’ says I. ‘Go to Hell, Dan. I’m with you here. Billy Fish, you clear out, and we two will meet those folk.’
“‘I’m a Chief,’ says Billy Fish, quite quiet. ‘I stay with you. My men can go.’
“The Bashkai fellows didn’t wait for a second word but ran off, and Dan and Me and Billy Fish walked across to where the drums were drumming and the horns were horning. It was cold-awful cold. I’ve got that cold in the back of my head now. There’s a lump of it there.”
The punkah-coolies had gone to sleep. Two kerosene lamps were blazing in the office, and the perspiration poured down my face and splashed on the blotter as I leaned forward. Carnehan was shivering, and I feared that his mind might go. I wiped my face, took a fresh grip of the piteously mangled hands, and said:— “What happened after that?”
The momentary shift of my eyes had broken the clear current.
“What was you pleased to say?” whined Carnehan. “They took them without any sound.
Not a little whisper all along the snow, not though the King knocked down the first man that set hand on him — not though old Peachey fired his last cartridge into the brown of ’em. Not a single solitary sound did those swines make.
They just closed up, tight, and I tell you their furs stunk. There was a man called Billy Fish, a good friend of us all, and they cut his throat, Sir, then and there, like a pig; and the King kicks up the bloody snow and says:— ‘We’ve had a dashed fine run for our money. What’s coming next?’
But Peachey, Peachey Taliaferro, I tell you, Sir, in confidence as betwixt two friends, he lost his head, Sir. No, he didn’t neither. The King lost his head, so he did, all along o’ one of those cunning rope-bridges.
Kindly let me have the paper-cutter, Sir. It tilted this way. They marched him a mile across that snow to a rope-bridge over a ravine with a river at the bottom. You may have seen such. They prodded him behind like an ox.
‘Damn your eyes!’ says the King. ‘D’you suppose I can’t die like a gentleman?’ He turns to Peachey — Peachey that was crying like a child.
‘I’ve brought you to this, Peachey,’ says he. ‘Brought you out of your happy life to be killed in Kafiristan, where you was late Commander-in-Chief of the Emperor’s forces. Say you forgive me, Peachey.’
‘I do,’ says Peachey. ‘Fully and freely do I forgive you, Dan.’ ‘Shake hands, Peachey,’ says he. ‘I’m going now.’
Out he goes, looking neither right nor left, and when he was plumb in the middle of those dizzy dancing ropes, ‘Cut, you beggars,’ he shouts; and they cut, and old Dan fell, turning round and round and round, twenty thousand miles, for he took half an hour to fall till he struck the water, and I could see his body caught on a rock with the gold crown close beside.
“But do you know what they did to Peachey between two pine-trees? They crucified him, sir, as Peachey’s hands will show.
They used wooden pegs for his hands and his feet; and he didn’t die. He hung there and screamed, and they took him down next day, and said it was a miracle that he wasn’t dead. They took him down — poor old Peachey that hadn’t done them any harm — that hadn’t done them any…”
He rocked to and fro and wept bitterly, wiping his eyes with the back of his scarred hands and moaning like a child for some ten minutes.