THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Published by Brentano?s at
31 Union Square New York
THE MAN WHO WOULD
?Brother to a Prince and fellow to a beggar if he
be found worthy.?
The Law as quoted lays down a fair conduct
of life and one not easy to follow. I
have been fellow to a beggar again and
again under circumstances which prevented
either of us finding out whether the other
was worthy. I have still to be brother to a
Prince though I once came near to kinship
with what might have been a veritable King
and was promised the reversion of a Kingdom
?army law-courts revenue and policy
all complete. But to-day I greatly fear
that my King is dead and if I want a crown
I must go and hunt it for myself.
The beginning of everything was in a railway
train upon the road to Mhow from
Ajmir. There had been a deficit in the
Budget which necessitated travelling not
Second-class which is only half as dear as
First-class but by Intermediate which is
very awful indeed. There are no cushions
in the Intermediate class and the population
are either Intermediate which is Eurasian
or native which for a long night journey is
nasty; or Loafer which is amusing though
intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize
refreshment-rooms. They carry their food
in bundles and pots and buy sweets from the
native sweetmeat-sellers and drink the roadside
water. That is why in the hot weather
Intermediates are taken out of the carriages
dead and in all weathers are most properly
looked down upon.
My particular Intermediate happened to
be empty till I reached Nasirabad when a
huge gentleman in shirt-sleeves entered
and following the custom of Intermediates
passed the time of day. He was a wanderer
and a vagabond like myself but with an
educated taste for whiskey. He told tales
of things he had seen and done of out-of-the-way
corners of the Empire into which he
had penetrated and of adventures in which
he risked his life for a few days? food.
?If India was filled with men like you and
me not knowing more than the crows where
they?d get their next day?s rations it isn?t
seventy millions of revenue the land would
be paying?it?s seven hundred million? said
he; and as I looked at his mouth and chin I
was disposed to agree with him. We talked
politics?the politics of Loaferdom that sees
things from the underside where the lath
and plaster is not smoothed off?and we
talked postal arrangements because my
friend wanted to send a telegram back from
the next station to Ajmir which is the
turning-off place from the Bombay to the
Mhow line as you travel westward. My
friend had no money beyond eight annas
which he wanted for dinner and I had no
money at all owing to the hitch in the
Budget before mentioned. Further I was
going into a wilderness where though I
should resume touch with the Treasury
there were no telegraph offices. I was
therefore unable to help him in any way.
?We might threaten a Station-master
and make him send a wire on tick? said
my friend ?but that?d mean inquiries for
you and for me and I?ve got my hands full
these days. Did you say you are travelling
back along this line within any days??
?Within ten? I said.
?Can?t you make it eight?? said he.
?Mine is rather urgent business.?
?I can send your telegram within ten
days if that will serve you? I said.
?I couldn?t trust the wire to fetch him
now I think of it. It?s this way. He leaves
Delhi on the 23d for Bombay. That means
he?ll be running through Ajmir about the
night of the 23d.?
?But I?m going into the Indian Desert?
?Well and good? said he. ?You?ll be
changing at Marwar Junction to get into
Jodhpore territory?you must do that?and
he?ll be coming through Marwar Junction
in the early morning of the 24th by the
Bombay Mail. Can you be at Marwar
Junction on that time? ?Twon?t be inconveniencing
you because I know that there?s
precious few pickings to be got out of these
Central India States?even though you pretend
to be correspondent of the Backwoodsman.?
?Have you ever tried that trick?? I
?Again and again but the Residents find
you out and then you get escorted to the
Border before you?ve time to get your knife
into them. But about my friend here. I
must give him a word o? mouth to tell him
what?s come to me or else he won?t know
where to go. I would take it more than
kind of you if you was to come out of Central
India in time to catch him at Marwar
Junction and say to him:??He has gone
South for the week.? He?ll know what that
means. He?s a big man with a red beard
and a great swell he is. You?ll find him
sleeping like a gentleman with all his luggage
round him in a second-class compartment.
But don?t you be afraid. Slip down
the window and say:??He has gone South
for the week? and he?ll tumble. It?s only
cutting your time of stay in those parts by
two days. I ask you as a stranger?going to
the West? he said with emphasis.
?Where have you come from?? said I.
?From the East? said he ?and I am
hoping that you will give him the message
on the Square?for the sake of my Mother
as well as your own.?
Englishmen are not usually softened by
appeals to the memory of their mothers but
for certain reasons which will be fully apparent
I saw fit to agree.
?It?s more than a little matter? said he
?and that?s why I ask you to do it?and
now I know that I can depend on you doing
it. A second-class carriage at Marwar Junction
and a red-haired man asleep in it.
You?ll be sure to remember. I get out at
the next station and I must hold on there
till he comes or sends me what I want.?
?I?ll give the message if I catch him? I
said ?and for the sake of your Mother as
well as mine I?ll give you a word of advice.
Don?t try to run the Central India States
just now as the correspondent of the Backwoodsman.
There?s a real one knocking
about here and it might lead to trouble.?
?Thank you? said he simply ?and when
will the swine be gone? I can?t starve because
he?s ruining my work. I wanted to
get hold of the Degumber Rajah down here
about his father?s widow and give him a
?What did he do to his father?s widow
?Filled her up with red pepper and slippered
her to death as she hung from a beam.
I found that out myself and I?m the only
man that would dare going into the State to
get hush-money for it. They?ll try to poison
me same as they did in Chortumna
when I went on the loot there. But you?ll
give the man at Marwar Junction my message??
He got out at a little roadside station and
I reflected. I had heard more than once of
men personating correspondents of newspapers
and bleeding small Native States with
threats of exposure but I had never met any
of the caste before. They lead a hard life
and generally die with great suddenness.
The Native States have a wholesome horror
of English newspapers which may throw
light on their peculiar methods of government
and do their best to choke correspondents
with champagne or drive them out of
their mind with four-in-hand barouches.
They do not understand that nobody cares a
straw for the internal administration of Native
States so long as oppression and crime
are kept within decent limits and the ruler
is not drugged drunk or diseased from one
end of the year to the other. Native States
were created by Providence in order to supply
picturesque scenery tigers and tall-writing.
They are the dark places of the earth
full of unimaginable cruelty touching the
Railway and the Telegraph on one side and
on the other the days of Harun-al-Raschid.
When I left the train I did business with
divers Kings and in eight days passed
through many changes of life. Sometimes I
wore dress-clothes and consorted with Princes
and Politicals drinking from crystal and
eating from silver. Sometimes I lay out
upon the ground and devoured what I could
get from a plate made of a flapjack and
drank the running water and slept under
the same rug as my servant. It was all in a
Then I headed for the Great Indian Desert
upon the proper date as I had promised and
the night Mail set me down at Marwar Junction
where a funny little happy-go-lucky
native managed railway runs to Jodhpore.
The Bombay Mail from Delhi makes a short
halt at Marwar. She arrived as I got in
and I had just time to hurry to her platform
and go down the carriages. There was only
one second-class on the train. I slipped the
window and looked down upon a flaming
red beard half covered by a railway rug.
That was my man fast asleep and I dug him
gently in the ribs. He woke with a grunt
and I saw his face in the light of the lamps.
It was a great and shining face.
?Tickets again?? said he.
?No? said I. ?I am to tell you that he
is gone South for the week. He is gone
South for the week!?
The train had begun to move out. The
red man rubbed his eyes. ?He has gone
South for the week? he repeated. ?Now
that?s just like his impudence. Did he say
that I was to give you anything???Cause I
?He didn?t? I said and dropped away
and watched the red lights die out in the
dark. It was horribly cold because the wind
was blowing off the sands. I climbed into
my own train?not an Intermediate Carriage
this time?and went to sleep.
If the man with the beard had given me a
rupee I should have kept it as a memento of
a rather curious affair. But the consciousness
of having done my duty was my only
Later on I reflected that two gentlemen
like my friends could not do any good if
they foregathered and personated correspondents
of newspapers and might if they
?stuck up? one of the little rat-trap states of
Central India or Southern Rajputana get
themselves into serious difficulties. I therefore
took some trouble to describe them as
accurately as I could remember to people
who would be interested in deporting them;
and succeeded so I was later informed in
having them headed back from the Degumber
Then I became respectable and returned
to an Office where there were no Kings and
no incidents except the daily manufacture of
a newspaper. A newspaper office seems to
attract every conceivable sort of person to
the prejudice of discipline. Zenana-mission
ladies arrive and beg that the Editor will instantly
abandon all his duties to describe a
Christian prize-giving in a back-slum of a
perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who
have been overpassed for commands sit
down and sketch the outline of a series of
ten twelve or twenty-four leading articles
on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries
wish to know why they have not been permitted
to escape from their regular vehicles
of abuse and swear at a brother-missionary
under special patronage of the editorial We;
stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain
that they cannot pay for their advertisements
but on their return from New
Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest;
inventors of patent punkah-pulling machines
carriage couplings and unbreakable
swords and axle-trees call with specifications
in their pockets and hours at their disposal;
tea-companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses
with the office pens; secretaries of
ball-committees clamor to have the glories
of their last dance more fully expounded;
strange ladies rustle in and say:??I want a
hundred lady?s cards printed at once please?
which is manifestly part of an Editor?s duty;
and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped
the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business
to ask for employment as a proof-reader.
And all the time the telephone-bell is ringing
madly and Kings are being killed on the
Continent and Empires are saying ?You?re
another? and Mister Gladstone is calling
down brimstone upon the British Dominions
and the little black copy-boys are whining
?kaa-pi chayha-yeh? (copy wanted) like
tired bees and most of the paper is as blank
as Modred?s shield.
But that is the amusing part of the year.
There are other six months wherein none
ever come to call and the thermometer
walks inch by inch up to the top of the glass
and the office is darkened to just above reading
light and the press machines are red-hot
of touch and nobody writes anything but
accounts of amusements in the Hill-stations
or obituary notices. Then the telephone becomes
a tinkling terror because it tells you
of the sudden deaths of men and women
that you knew intimately and the prickly-heat
covers you as with a garment and you
sit down and write:??A slight increase of
sickness is reported from the Khuda Janta
Khan District. The outbreak is purely sporadic
in its nature and thanks to the energetic
efforts of the District authorities is now
almost at an end. It is however with deep
regret we record the death etc.?
Then the sickness really breaks out and
the less recording and reporting the better
for the peace of the subscribers. But the
Empires and the Kings continue to divert
themselves as selfishly as before and the
foreman thinks that a daily paper really
ought to come out once in twenty-four hours
and all the people at the Hill-stations in the
middle of their amusements say:??Good
gracious! Why can?t the paper be sparkling?
I?m sure there?s plenty going on up here.?
That is the dark half of the moon and as
the advertisements say ?must be experienced
to be appreciated.?
It was in that season and a remarkably
evil season that the paper began running
the last issue of the week on Saturday night
which is to say Sunday morning after the
custom of a London paper. This was a
great convenience for immediately after the
paper was put to bed the dawn would lower
the thermometer from 96? to almost 84? for
almost half an hour and in that chill?you
have no idea how cold is 84? on the grass
until you begin to pray for it?a very tired
man could set off to sleep ere the heat
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. 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
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.