Indian Tales
Category: Novels
Level 6.92 20:11 h
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He was born in British India, which inspired much of his work. Indian Tales was published in 1890.

Indian Tales

Rudyard Kipling

Indian Tales

“The Finest Story in the World”

“Or ever the knightly years were gone
     With the old world to the grave,
I was a king in Babylon
     And you were a Christian slave,”
         — W.E. Henley.

His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother who was a widow, and he lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and suffered from aspirations. I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his given name, and he called the marker “Bullseyes.” Charlie explained, a little nervously, that he had only come to the place to look on, and since looking on at games of skill is not a cheap amusement for the young, I suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.

That was our first step toward better acquaintance. He would call on me sometimes in the evenings instead of running about London with his fellow-clerks; and before long, speaking of himself as a young man must, he told me of his aspirations, which were all literary. He desired to make himself an undying name chiefly through verse, though he was not above sending stories of love and death to the drop-a-penny-in-the-slot journals. It was my fate to sit still while Charlie read me poems of many hundred lines, and bulky fragments of plays that would surely shake the world. My reward was his unreserved confidence, and the self-revelations and troubles of a young man are almost as holy as those of a maiden. Charlie had never fallen in love, but was anxious to do so on the first opportunity; he believed in all things good and all things honorable, but, at the same time, was curiously careful to let me see that he knew his way about the world as befitted a bank clerk on twenty-five shillings a week. He rhymed “dove” with “love” and “moon” with “June,” and devoutly believed that they had never so been rhymed before. The long lame gaps in his plays he filled up with hasty words of apology and description and swept on, seeing all that he intended to do so clearly that he esteemed it already done, and turned to me for applause.

I fancy that his mother did not encourage his aspirations, and I know that his writing-table at home was the edge of his washstand. This he told me almost at the outset of our acquaintance; when he was ravaging my bookshelves, and a little before I was implored to speak the truth as to his chances of “writing something really great, you know.” Maybe I encouraged him too much, for, one night, he called on me, his eyes flaming with excitement, and said breathlessly:

“Do you mind — can you let me stay here and write all this evening? I won’t interrupt you, I won’t really. There’s no place for me to write in at my mother’s.”

“What’s the trouble?” I said, knowing well what that trouble was.

“I’ve a notion in my head that would make the most splendid story that was ever written. Do let me write it out here. It’s such a notion!”

There was no resisting the appeal. I set him a table; he hardly thanked me, but plunged into the work at once. For half an hour the pen scratched without stopping. Then Charlie sighed and tugged his hair. The scratching grew slower, there were more erasures, and at last ceased. The finest story in the world would not come forth.

“It looks such awful rot now,” he said, mournfully. “And yet it seemed so good when I was thinking about it. What’s wrong?”

I could not dishearten him by saying the truth. So I answered: “Perhaps you don’t feel in the mood for writing.”

“Yes I do — except when I look at this stuff. Ugh!”

“Read me what you’ve done,” I said.

He read, and it was wondrous bad, and he paused at all the specially turgid sentences, expecting a little approval; for he was proud of those sentences, as I knew he would be.

“It needs compression,” I suggested, cautiously.

“I hate cutting my things down. I don’t think you could alter a word here without spoiling the sense. It reads better aloud than when I was writing it.”

“Charlie, you’re suffering from an alarming disease afflicting a numerous class. Put the thing by, and tackle it again in a week.”

“I want to do it at once. What do you think of it?”

“How can I judge from a half-written tale? Tell me the story as it lies in your head.”

Charlie told, and in the telling there was everything that his ignorance had so carefully prevented from escaping into the written word. I looked at him, and wondering whether it were possible that he did not know the originality, the power of the notion that had come in his way? It was distinctly a Notion among notions. Men had been puffed up with pride by notions not a tithe as excellent and practicable. But Charlie babbled on serenely, interrupting the current of pure fancy with samples of horrible sentences that he purposed to use. I heard him out to the end. It would be folly to allow his idea to remain in his own inept hands, when I could do so much with it. Not all that could be done indeed; but, oh so much!

“What do you think?” he said, at last. “I fancy I shall call it ‘The Story of a Ship.’”

“I think the idea’s pretty good; but you won’t be able to handle it for ever so long. Now I” —

“Would it be of any use to you? Would you care to take it? I should be proud,” said Charlie, promptly.

There are few things sweeter in this world than the guileless, hot-headed, intemperate, open admiration of a junior. Even a woman in her blindest devotion does not fall into the gait of the man she adores, tilt her bonnet to the angle at which he wears his hat, or interlard her speech with his pet oaths. And Charlie did all these things. Still it was necessary to salve my conscience before I possessed myself of Charlie’s thoughts.

“Let’s make a bargain. I’ll give you a fiver for the notion,” I said.

Charlie became a bank-clerk at once.

“Oh, that’s impossible. Between two pals, you know, if I may call you so, and speaking as a man of the world, I couldn’t. Take the notion if it’s any use to you. I’ve heaps more.”

He had — none knew this better than I — but they were the notions of other men.

“Look at it as a matter of business — between men of the world,” I returned. “Five pounds will buy you any number of poetry-books. Business is business, and you may be sure I shouldn’t give that price unless” —

“Oh, if you put it that way,” said Charlie, visibly moved by the thought of the books. The bargain was clinched with an agreement that he should at unstated intervals come to me with all the notions that he possessed, should have a table of his own to write at, and unquestioned right to inflict upon me all his poems and fragments of poems. Then I said, “Now tell me how you came by this idea.”

“It came by itself,” Charlie’s eyes opened a little.

“Yes, but you told me a great deal about the hero that you must have read before somewhere.”

“I haven’t any time for reading, except when you let me sit here, and on Sundays I’m on my bicycle or down the river all day. There’s nothing wrong about the hero, is there?”

“Tell me again and I shall understand clearly. You say that your hero went pirating. How did he live?”

“He was on the lower deck of this ship-thing that I was telling you about.”

“What sort of ship?”

“It was the kind rowed with oars, and the sea spurts through the oar-holes and the men row sitting up to their knees in water. Then there’s a bench running down between the two lines of oars and an overseer with a whip walks up and down the bench to make the men work.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s in the tale. There’s a rope running overhead, looped to the upper deck, for the overseer to catch hold of when the ship rolls. When the overseer misses the rope once and falls among the rowers, remember the hero laughs at him and gets licked for it. He’s chained to his oar of course — the hero.”

“How is he chained?”

“With an iron band round his waist fixed to the bench he sits on, and a sort of handcuff on his left wrist chaining him to the oar. He’s on the lower deck where the worst men are sent, and the only light comes from the hatchways and through the oar-holes. Can’t you imagine the sunlight just squeezing through between the handle and the hole and wobbling about as the ship moves?”

“I can, but I can’t imagine your imagining it.”

“How could it be any other way? Now you listen to me. The long oars on the upper deck are managed by four men to each bench, the lower ones by three, and the lowest of all by two. Remember, it’s quite dark on the lowest deck and all the men there go mad. When a man dies at his oar on that deck he isn’t thrown overboard, but cut up in his chains and stuffed through the oar-hole in little pieces.”

“Why?” I demanded, amazed, not so much at the information as the tone of command in which it was flung out.

“To save trouble and to frighten the others. It needs two overseers to drag a man’s body up to the top deck; and if the men at the lower deck oars were left alone, of course they’d stop rowing and try to pull up the benches by all standing up together in their chains.”

“You’ve a most provident imagination. Where have you been reading about galleys and galley-slaves?”

“Nowhere that I remember. I row a little when I get the chance. But, perhaps, if you say so, I may have read something.”

He went away shortly afterward to deal with booksellers, and I wondered how a bank clerk aged twenty could put into my hands with a profligate abundance of detail, all given with absolute assurance, the story of extravagant and bloodthirsty adventure, riot, piracy, and death in unnamed seas. He had led his hero a desperate dance through revolt against the overseers, to command of a ship of his own, and ultimate establishment of a kingdom on an island “somewhere in the sea, you know”; and, delighted with my paltry five pounds, had gone out to buy the notions of other men, that these might teach him how to write. I had the consolation of knowing that this notion was mine by right of purchase, and I thought that I could make something of it.

When next he came to me he was drunk — royally drunk on many poets for the first time revealed to him. His pupils were dilated, his words tumbled over each other, and he wrapped himself in quotations. Most of all was he drunk with Longfellow.

“Isn’t it splendid? Isn’t it superb?” he cried, after hasty greetings. “Listen to this —

       “‘Wouldst thou,’ — so the helmsman answered,
  ‘Know the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
  Comprehend its mystery.’”
         By gum!
        “‘Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery,’”

he repeated twenty times, walking up and down the room and forgetting me. “But I can understand it too,” he said to himself. “I don’t know how to thank you for that fiver, And this; listen —

       “‘I remember the black wharves and the ships
  And the sea-tides tossing free,
And the Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
  And the magic of the sea.’”

I haven’t braved any dangers, but I feel as if I knew all about it.”

“You certainly seem to have a grip of the sea. Have you ever seen it?”

“When I was a little chap I went to Brighton once; we used to live in Coventry, though, before we came to London. I never saw it,

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