A Conference Of The Powers
by Rudyard Kipling
Life liveth but in life, and doth not roam
To other lands if all be well at home:
“Solid as ocean foam,” quoth ocean foam.
The room was blue with the smoke of three pipes and a cigar. The leave-season had opened in India, and the first-fruits on this side of the water were “Tick” Boileau, of the 45th Bengal Cavalry, who called on me, after three years’ absence, to discuss old things which had happened. Fate, who always does her work handsomely, sent up the same staircase within the same hour The Infant, fresh from Upper Burma, and he and Boileau looking out of my window saw walking in the street one Nevin, late in a Goorkha regiment which had been through the Black Mountain Expedition. They yelled to him to come up, and the whole Street was aware that they desired him to come up, and he came up, and there followed Pandemonium in my room because we had foregathered from the ends of the earth, and three of us were on a holiday, and none of us were twenty-five, and all the delights of all London lay waiting our pleasure.
Boileau took the only other chair, The Infant, by right of his bulk, the sofa; and Nevin, being a little man, sat cross-legged on the top of the revolving bookcase, and we all said, “Who’d ha’ thought it!” and “What are you doing here?” till speculation was exhausted and the talk went over to inevitable “shop.” Boileau was full of a great scheme for winning a military attaché-ship at St. Petersburg; Nevin had hopes of the Staff College, and The Infant had been moving heaven and earth and the Horse Guards for a commission in the Egyptian army.
“What’s the use o’ that?” said Nevin, twirling round on the bookcase.
“Oh, heaps! ‘Course if you get stuck with a Fellaheen regiment, you’re sold; but if you are appointed to a Soudanese lot, you’re in clover. They are first-class fighting-men – and just think of the eligible central position of Egypt in the next row!”
This was putting the match to a magazine. We all began to explain the Central Asian question off-hand, flinging army corps from the Helmund to Kashmir with more than Russian recklessness. Each of the boys made for himself a war to his own liking, and when we had settled all the details of Armageddon, killed all our senior officers, handled a division apiece, and nearly torn the atlas in two in attempts to explain our theories, Boileau needs must lift up his voice above the clamour, and cry, “Anyhow it’ll be the hell of a row!” in tones that carried conviction far down the staircase.
Entered, unperceived in the smoke, William the Silent. “Gen’elman to see you, sir,” said he, and disappeared, leaving in his stead none other than Mr. Eustace Cleever. William would have introduced the Dragon of Wantley with equal disregard of present company.
“I – I beg your pardon. I didn’t know that there was anybody – with you. -”
But it was not seemly to allow Mr. Cleever to depart; he was a great man. The boys remained where they were, for any movement would have choked up the little room. Only when they saw his gray hairs they stood on their feet, and when The Infant caught the name, he said:
“Are you – did you write that book called ‘As it was in the Beginning’?”
Mr. Cleever admitted that he had written the book.
“Then – then I don’t know how to thank you, sir,” said The Infant, flushing pink. “I was brought up in the country you wrote about – all my people live there; and I read the book in camp on the Hlinedatalone, and I knew every stick and stone, and the dialect too; and, by Jove! it was just like being at home and hearing the country people talk. Nevin, you know ‘As it was in the Beginning’? So does Ti – Boileau.”
Mr. Cleever has tasted as much praise, public and private, as one man may safely swallow; but it seemed to me that the outspoken admiration in The Infant’s eyes and the little stir in the little company came home to him very nearly indeed.
“Won’t you take the sofa?” said The Infant. “I’ll sit on Boileau’s chair, and -” here he looked at me to spur me to my duties as a host; but I was watching the novelist’s face. Cleever had not the least intention of going away, but settled himself on the sofa.
Following the first great law of the Army, which says “all property is common except money, and you’ve only got to ask the next man for that,” The Infant offered tobacco and drink. It was the least he could do; but not the most lavish praise in the world held half as much appreciation and reverence as The Infant’s simple “Say when, sir,” above the long glass.
Cleever said “when,” and more thereto, for he was a golden talker, and he sat in the midst of hero-worship devoid of all taint of self-interest. The boys asked him of the birth of his book, and whether it was hard to write, and how his notions came to him; and he answered with the same absolute simplicity as he was questioned. His big eyes twinkled, he dug his long thin hands into his gray beard and tugged it as he grew animated. He dropped little by little from the peculiar pinching of the broader vowels – the indefinable “euh,” that runs through the speech of the pundit caste – and the elaborate choice of words, to freely- mouthed “ows” and “ois,” and, for him at least, unfettered colloquialisms. He could not altogether understand the boys, who hung upon his words so reverently. The line of the chin-strap, that still showed white and untanned on cheekbone and jaw, the steadfast young eyes puckered at the corners of the lids with much staring through red- hot sunshine, the slow, untroubled breathing, and the curious, crisp, curt speech seemed to puzzle him equally. He could create men and women, and send them to the uttermost ends of the earth, to help, delight, and comfort; he knew every mood of the fields, and could interpret them to the cities, and he knew the hearts of many in city and country, but he had hardly, in forty years, come into contact with the thing which is called a Subaltern of the Line. He told the boys this in his own way.
“Well, how should you?” said The Infant. “You – you’re quite different, y’ see, sir.”
The Infant expressed his ideas in his tone rather than his words, but Cleever understood the compliment.
“We’re only Subs,” said Nevin, “and we aren’t exactly the sort of men you’d meet much in your life, I s’pose.”
“That’s true,” said Cleever. “I live chiefly among men who write, and paint, and sculp, and so forth. We have our own talk and our own interests, and the outer world doesn’t trouble us much.”
“That must be awfully jolly,” said Boileau, at a venture. “We have our own shop, too, but ’tisn’t half as interesting as yours, of course. You know all the men who’ve ever done anything; and we only knock about from place to place, and we do nothing.”
“The Army’s a very lazy profession if you choose to make it so,” said Nevin. “When there’s nothing going on, there is nothing going on, and you lie up.”
“Or try to get a billet somewhere, to be ready for the next show,” said The Infant with a chuckle.
“To me,” said Cleever softly, “the whole idea of warfare seems so foreign and unnatural, so essentially vulgar, if I may say so, that I can hardly appreciate your sensations. Of course, though, any change from idling in garrison towns must be a godsend to you.”
Like many home-staying Englishmen, Cleever believed that the newspaper phrase he quoted covered the whole duty of the Army whose toils enabled him to enjoy his many-sided life in peace. The remark was not a happy one, for Boileau had just come off the Frontier, The Infant had been on the warpath for nearly eighteen months, and the little red man Nevin two months before had been sleeping under the stars at the peril of his life. But none of them tried to explain, till I ventured to point out that they had all seen service and were not used to idling. Cleever took in the idea slowly.
“Seen service?” said he. Then, as a child might ask, “Tell me. Tell me everything about everything.”
“How do you mean?” said The Infant, delighted at being directly appealed to by the great man.
“Good Heavens! How am I to make you understand, if you can’t see. In the first place, what is your age?”
“Twenty-three next July,” said The Infant promptly.
Cleever questioned the others with his eyes.
“I’m twenty-four,” said Nevin.
“And I’m twenty-two,” said Boileau.
“And you’ve all seen service?”
“We’ve all knocked about a little bit, sir, but The Infant’s the war-worn veteran. He’s had two years’ work in Upper Burma,” said Nevin.
“When you say work, what do you mean, you extraordinary creatures?”
“Explain it, Infant,” said Nevin.
“Oh, keeping things in order generally, and running about after little dakus – that’s dacoits -and so on. There’s nothing to explain.”
“Make that young Leviathan speak,” said Cleever impatiently, above his glass.
“How can he speak?” said I. “He’s done the work. The two don’t go together. But, Infant, you’re ordered to bukb.”
“What about? I’ll try.”
“Bukb about a daur. You’ve been on heaps of ’em,” said Nevin.
“What in the world does that mean? Has the Army a language of its own?”
The Infant turned very red. He was afraid he was being laughed at, and he detested talking before outsiders; but it was the author of “As it was in the Beginning” who waited.
“It’s all so new to me,” pleaded Cleever; “and – and you said you liked my book.” – This was a direct appeal that The Infant could understand, and he began rather flurriedly, with much slang bred of nervousness –
“Pull me up, sir, if I say anything you don’t follow. About six months before I took my leave out of Burma, I was on the Hlinedatalone, up near the Shan States, with sixty Tommies – private soldiers, that is – and another subaltern, a year senior to me. The Burmese business was a subaltern’s war, and our forces were split up into little detachments, all running about the country and trying to keep the dacoits quiet. The dacoits were having a first-class time, y’ know -filling women up with kerosene and setting ’em alight, and burning villages, and crucifying people.”
The wonder in Eustace Cleever’s eyes deepened. He could not quite realise that the cross still existed in any form.
“Have you ever seen a crucifixion?” said he.
“Of course not. ‘Shouldn’t have allowed it if I had; but I’ve seen the corpses. The dacoits had a trick of sending a crucified corpse down the river on a raft, just to show they were keeping their tail up and enjoying themselves. Well, that was the kind of people I had to deal with.”
“Alone?” said Cleever. Solitude of the soul he could understand – none better – but he had never in the body moved ten miles from his fellows.
“I had my men, but the rest of it was pretty much alone. The nearest post that could give me orders was fifteen miles away, and we used to heliograph to them, and they used to give us orders same way – too many orders.”
“Who was your C. 0.?” said Boileau.
“Bounderby – Major. Pukka Bounderby; more Bounder than pukka. He went out up Bhamo way. Shot, or cut down, last year,” said The Infant.
“What are these interludes in a strange tongue?” said Cleever to me.
“Professional information – like the Mississippi pilots’ talk,” said I. “He did not approve of his major, who died a violent death. Go on, Infant.”
“Far too many orders. You couldn’t take the Tommies out for a two days’ daur -that’s expedition – without being blown up for not asking leave. And the whole country was humming with dacoits. I used to send out spies, and act on their information. As soon as a man came in and told me of a gang in hiding, I’d take thirty men with some grub, and go out and look for them, while the other subaltern lay doggo in camp.”
“Lay! Pardon me, but how did he lie?” said Cleever.
“Lay doggo – lay quiet, with the other thirty men. When I came back, he’d take out his half of the men, and have a good time of his own.”
“Who was he?” said Boileau.
“Carter-Deecey, of the Aurungabadis. Good chap, but too zubberdusty, and went bokhar four days out of seven. He’s gone out too. Don’t interrupt a man.”
Cleever looked helplessly at me.
“The other subaltern,” I translated swiftly, “came from a native regiment, and was overbearing in his demeanour. He suffered much from the fever of the country, and is now dead. Go on, Infant.”
“After a bit, we got into trouble for using the men on frivolous occasions, and so I used to put my signaller under arrest to prevent him reading the helio-orders. Then I’d go out and leave a message to be sent an hour after I got clear of the camp, something like this: ‘Received important information; start in an hour, unless countermanded.’ If I was ordered back, it didn’t much matter. I swore the C. 0.’s watch was wrong, or something, when I came back. The Tommies enjoyed the fun, and – Oh, yes, there was one Tommy who was the bard of the detachment. He used to make up verses on everything that happened.”
“What sort of verses?” said Cleever.
“Lovely verses; and the Tommies used to sing ’em. There was one song with a chorus, and it said something like this.” The Infant dropped into the true barrack-room twang:
“Theebaw, the Burma king, did a very foolish thing,
When ‘e mustered ‘ostile forces in ar-rai,
‘E little thought that we, from far across the sea,
Would send our armies up to Mandalai!”
“0 gorgeous !” said Cleever. “And how magnificently direct! The notion of a regimental bard is new to me, but of course it must be so.”
“He was awfly popular with the men,” said The Infant. “He had them all down in rhyme as soon as ever they had done anything. He was a great bard. He was always ready with an elegy when we picked up a Boh – that’s a leader of dacoits.”
“How did you pick him up?” said Cleever.
“Oh! shot him if he wouldn’t surrender.”
“You! Have you shot a man?”
There was a subdued chuckle from all three boys, and it dawned on the questioner that one experience in life which was denied to himself, and he weighed the souls of men in a balance, had been shared by three very young gentlemen of engaging appearance. He turned round on Nevin, who had climbed to the top of the bookcase and was sitting cross-legged as before.
“And have you, too?”
“Think so,” said Nevin, sweetly. “In the Black Mountain. He was rolling cliffs on to my half-company, and spoiling our formation. I took a rifle from a man, and brought him down at the second shot.”
“Good Heavens! And how did you feel afterwards?”
“Thirsty. I wanted a smoke, too.”
Cleever looked at Boileau – the youngest. Surely his hands were guiltless of blood.
Boileau shook his head and laughed. “Go on, Infant,” said he.
“And you too?” said Cleever.
“Fancy so. It was a case of cut, cut or be cut, with me; so I cut – one. I couldn’t do any more, sir.”
Cleever looked as though he would like to ask many questions, but The Infant swept on in the full tide of his tale.
“Well, we were called insubordinate young whelps at last, and strictly forbidden to take the Tommies out any more without orders. I wasn’t sorry, because Tommy is such an exacting sort of creature. He wants to live as though he were in barracks all the time. I was grubbing on fowls and boiled corn, but the Tommies wanted their pound of fresh meat, and their half ounce of this, and their two ounces of t’other thing, and they used to come to me and badger me for plug tobacco when we were four days in jungle. I said: ‘I can get you Burma tobacco, but I don’t keep a canteen up my sleeve.’ They couldn’t see it. They wanted all the luxuries of the season, confound ’em!”
“You were alone when you were dealing with these men?” said Cleever, watching The Infant’s face under the palm of his hand. He was receiving new ideas, and they seemed to trouble him.
“Of course, unless you count the mosquitoes. They were nearly as big as the men. After I had to lie doggo I began to look for something to do, and I was great pals with a man called Hicksey in the Police, the best man that ever stepped on earth; a first-class man.”
Cleever nodded applause. He knew how to appreciate enthusiasm.
“Hicksey and I were as thick as thieves. He had some Burma mounted police – rummy chaps, armed with sword and Snider carbine. They rode punchy Burma ponies, with string stirrups, red cloth saddles, and red bell-rope headstalls. Hicksey used to lend me six or eight of them when I asked him – nippy little devils, keen as mustard. But they told their wives too much, and all my plans got known, till I learned to give false marching orders overnight, and take the men to quite a different village in the morning. Then we used to catch the simple daku before breakfast, and made him very sick. It’s a ghastly country on the Hlinedatalone; all bamboo jungle, with paths about four feet wide winding through it. The daku knew all the paths, and potted at us as we came round a corner; but the mounted police knew the paths as well as the daku, and we used to go stalking ’em in and out. Once we flushed ’em, the men on the ponies had the advantage of the men on foot. We held all the country absolutely quiet for ten miles round, in about a month. Then we took Boh Na-ghee, Hicksey and I and the civil officer. That was a lark!”
“I think I am beginning to understand a little,” said Cleever. “It was a pleasure to you to administer and fight?”
“Rather! There’s nothing nicer than a satisfactory little expedition, when you find your plans fit together, and your information’s teek – correct, you know, and the whole sub-chiz – I mean, when everything works out like formulae on a blackboard. Hicksey had all the information about the Boh. He had been burning villages and murdering people right and left, and cutting up Government convoys, and all that. He was lying doggo in a village about fifteen miles off, waiting to get a fresh gang together. So we arranged to take thirty mounted police, and turn him out before he could plunder into our newly-settled villages. At the last minute, the civil officer in our part of the world thought he’d assist at the performance.”
“Who was he?” said Nevin.
“His name was Dennis,” said The Infant slowly. “And we’ll let it stay so. He’s a better man now than he was then.”
“But how old was the civil power?” said Cleever. “The situation is developing itself.”
“He was about six-and-twenty, and he was awf’ly clever. He knew a lot of things, but I don’t think he was quite steady enough for dacoit-hunting. We started overnight for Boh Na-ghee’s village, and we got there just before morning, without raising an alarm. Dennis had turned out armed to his teeth – two revolvers, a carbine, and all sorts of things. I was talking to Hicksey about posting the men, and Dennis edged his pony in between us, and said, ‘What shall I do? What shall I do? Tell me what to do, you fellows.’ We didn’t take much notice; but his pony tried to bite me in the leg, and I said, ‘Pull out a bit, old man, till we’ve settled the attack.’ He kept edging in, and fiddling with his reins and his revolvers, and saying, ‘Dear me! Dear me! Oh, dear me! What do you think I’d better do?’ The man was in a deadly funk, and his teeth were chattering.”
“I sympathise with the civil power,” said Cleever. “Continue, young Clive.”
“The fun of it was, that he was supposed to be our superior officer. Hicksey took a good look at him, and told him to attach himself to my party. Beastly mean of Hicksey, that. The chap kept on edging in and bothering, instead of asking for some men and taking up his own position, till I got angry, and the carbines began popping on the other side of the village. Then I said, ‘For God’s sake be quiet, and sit down where you are! If you see anybody come out of the village, shoot at him.’ I knew he couldn’t hit a hayrick at a yard. Then I took my men over the garden wall – over the palisades, y’ know – somehow or other, and the fun began. Hicksey had found the Boh in bed under a mosquito-curtain, and he had taken a flying jump on to him.”
“A flying jump!” said Cleever. “Is that also war?”
“Yes,” said The Infant, now thoroughly warmed. “Don’t you know how you take a flying jump on to a fellow’s head at school, when he snores in the dormitory? The Boh was sleeping in a bedful of swords and pistols, and Hicksey came down like Zazel through the netting, and the net got mixed up with the pistols and the Boh and Hicksey, and they all rolled on the floor together. I laughed till I couldn’t stand, and Hicksey was cursing me for not helping him; so I left him to fight it out and went into the village. Our men were slashing about and firing, and so were the dacoits, and in the thick of the mess some ass set fire to a house, and we all had to clear out. I froze on to the nearest daku and ran to the palisade, shoving him in front of me. He wriggled loose and bounded over the other side. I came after him; but when I had one leg one side and one leg the other of the palisade, I saw that the daku had fallen flat on Dennis’s head. That man had never moved from where I left him. They rolled on the ground together, and Dennis’s carbine went off and nearly shot me. The daku picked himself up and ran, and Dennis buzzed his carbine after him, and it caught him on the back of his head and knocked him silly. You never saw anything so funny in your life. I doubled up on the top of the palisade and hung there, yelling with laughter. But Dennis began to weep like anything. ‘Oh, I’ve killed a man,’ he said. ‘I’ve killed a man, and I shall never know another peaceful hour in my life. Is he dead? Oh, is he dead? Good Lord, I’ve killed a man!’ I came down and said, ‘Don’t be a fool;’ but he kept on shouting, ‘Is he dead?’ till I could have kicked him. The daku was only knocked out of time with the carbine. He came to after a bit, and I said, ‘Are you hurt much?’ He groaned and said, ‘No.’ His chest was all cut with scrambling over the palisade. ‘The white man’s gun didn’t do that,’ he said; ‘I did that, and I knocked the white man over.’ Just like a Burman, wasn’t it? But Dennis wouldn’t be happy at any price. He said: ‘Tie up his wounds. He’ll bleed to death. Oh, he’ll bleed to death!’ ‘Tie ’em up yourself,’ I said, ‘if you’re so anxious.’ ‘I can’t touch him,’ said Dennis, ‘but here’s my shirt.’ He took off his shirt, and fixed the braces again over his bare shoulders. I ripped the shirt up, and bandaged the dacoit quite professionally. He was grinning at Dennis all the time; and Dennis’s haversack was lying on the ground, bursting full of sandwiches. Greedy hog! I took some, and offered some to Dennis. ‘How can I eat?’ he said. ‘How can you ask me to eat? His very blood is on your hands now, and you’re eating my sandwiches!’ ‘All right,’ I said; ‘I’ll give ’em to the daku.’ So I did, and the little chap was quite pleased, and wolfed ’em down like one o’clock.”
Cleever brought his hand down on the table with a thump that made the empty glasses dance. “That’s Art!” he said. “Flat, flagrant mechanism! Don’t tell me that happened on the spot!”
The pupils of The Infant’s eyes contracted to two pin-points. “I beg your pardon,” he said slowly and stiffly, “but I am telling this thing as it happened.”
Cleever looked at him a moment. “My fault entirely,” said he; “I should have known. Please go on.”
“Hicksey came out of what was left of the village with his prisoners and captives, all neatly tied up. Boh Na-ghee was first, and one of the villagers, as soon as he found the old ruffian helpless, began kicking him quietly. The Boh stood it as long as he could, and then groaned, and we saw what was going on. Hicksey tied the villager up and gave him a half a dozen, good, with a bamboo, to remind him to leave a prisoner alone. You should have seen the old Boh grin. Oh! but Hicksey was in a furious rage with everybody. He’d got a wipe over the elbow that had tickled up his funny-bone, and he was rabid with me for not having helped him with the Boh and the mosquito-net. I had to explain that I couldn’t do anything. If you’d seen ’em both tangled up together on the floor in one kicking cocoon, you’d have laughed for a week. Hicksey swore that the only decent man of his acquaintance was the Boh, and all the way to camp Hicksey was talking to the Boh, and the Boh was complaining about the soreness of his bones. When we got back, and had had a bath, the Boh wanted to know when he was going to be hanged. Hicksey said he couldn’t oblige him on the spot, but had to send him to Rangoon. The Boh went down on his knees, and reeled off a catalogue of his crimes – he ought to have been hanged seventeen times over, by his own confession – and implored Hicksey to settle the business out of hand. ‘If I’m sent to Rangoon,’ said he, ‘they’ll keep me in jail all my life, and that is a death every time the sun gets up or the wind blows.’ But we had to send him to Rangoon, and, of course, he was let off down there, and given penal servitude for life. When I came to Rangoon I went over the jail – I had helped to fill it, y’ know – and the old Boh was there, and he spotted me at once. He begged for some opium first, and I tried to get him some, but that was against the rules. Then he asked me to have his Sentence changed to death, because he was afraid of being sent to the Andamans. I couldn’t do that either, but I tried to cheer him, and told him how things were going up-country, and the last thing he said was – ‘Give my compliments to the fat white man who jumped on me. If I’d been awake I’d have killed him.’ I wrote that to Hicksey next mail, and – and that’s all. I’m ‘fraid I’ve been gassing awf’ly, sir.”
Cleever said nothing for a long time. The Infant looked uncomfortable. He feared that, misled by enthusiasm, he had filled up the novelist’s time with unprofitable recital of trivial anecdotes.
Then said Cleever, “I can’t understand. Why should you have seen and done all these things before you have cut your wisdom-teeth?”
“Don’t know,” said The Infant apologetically. “I haven’t seen much – only Burmese jungle.”
“And dead men, and war, and power, and responsibility,” said Cleever, under his breath. “You won’t have any sensations left at thirty, if you go on as you have done. But I want to hear more tales – more tales!” He seemed to forget that even subalterns might have engagements of their own.
“We’re thinking of dining out somewhere – the lot of us – and going on to the Empire afterwards,” said Nevin, with hesitation. He did not like to ask Cleever to come too. The invitation might be regarded as perilously near to “cheek.” And Cleever, anxious not to wag a gray beard unbidden among boys at large, said nothing on his side.
Boileau solved the little difficulty by blurting out: “Won’t you come too, sir?”
Cleever almost shouted “Yes,” and while he was being helped into his coat continued to murmur “Good Heavens!” at intervals in a way that the boys could not understand.
“I don’t think I’ve been to the Empire in my life,” said he; “but – what is my life after all? Let us go.”
They went out with Eustace Cleever, and I sulked at home because they had come to see me, but had gone over to the better man; which was humiliating. They packed him into a cab with utmost reverence, for was he not the author of “As it was in the Beginning,” and a person in whose company it was an honour to go abroad? From all I gathered later, he had taken less interest in the performance before him than in their conversations, and they protested with emphasis that he was “as good a man as they make; knew what a man was driving at almost before he said it; and yet he’s so damned simple about things any man knows.” That was one of many comments.
At midnight they returned, announcing that they were “highly respectable gondoliers,” and that oysters and stout were what they chiefly needed. The eminent novelist was still with them, and I think he was calling them by their shorter names. I am certain that he said he had been moving in worlds not realised, and that they had shown him the Empire in a new light.
Still sore at recent neglect, I answered shortly, “Thank Heaven we have within the land ten thousand as good as they,” and when he departed, asked him what he thought of things generally.
He replied with another quotation, to the effect that though singing was a remarkably fine performance, I was to be quite sure that few lips would be moved to song if they could find a sufficiency of kissing.
Whereby I understood that Eustace Cleever, decorator and colourman in words, was blaspheming his own Art, and would be sorry for this in the morning.