‘When will that be?’
’Ask the priests. Do not pester me. Lay the food-bag at the foot, it balances better so.’
‘Oh, Holy One, thy Hills are kinder than our Plains!’ cried Kim, relieved, as the lama tottered to the litter. ’It is a very king’s bed — a place of honour and ease. And we owe it to -’
’A woman of ill-omen. I need thy blessings as much as I do thy curses. It is my order and none of thine. Lift and away! Here! Hast thou money for the road?’
She beckoned Kim to her hut, and stooped above a battered English cash-box under her cot.
‘I do not need anything,’ said Kim, angered where he should have been grateful. ‘I am already rudely loaded with favours.’
She looked up with a curious smile and laid a hand on his shoulder. ’At least, thank me. I am foul-faced and a hillwoman, but, as thy talk goes, I have acquired merit. Shall I show thee how the Sahibs render thanks?’ and her hard eyes softened.
‘I am but a wandering priest,’ said Kim, his eyes lighting in answer. ‘Thou needest neither my blessings nor my curses.’
’Nay. But for one little moment — thou canst overtake the dooli in ten strides — if thou wast a Sahib, shall I show thee what thou wouldst do?’
‘How if I guess, though?’ said Kim, and putting his arm round her waist, he kissed her on the cheek, adding in English: ’Thank you verree much, my dear.’
Kissing is practically unknown among Asiatics, which may have been the reason that she leaned back with wide-open eyes and a face of panic.
‘Next time,’ Kim went on, ’you must not be so sure of your heatthen priests. Now I say good-bye.’ He held out his hand English-fashion. She took it mechanically. ‘Good-bye, my dear.’
‘Good-bye, and — and’ — she was remembering her English words one by one -’you will come back again? Good-bye, and — thee God bless you.’
Half an hour later, as the creaking litter jolted up the hill path that leads south-easterly from Shamlegh, Kim saw a tiny figure at the hut door waving a white rag.
‘She has acquired merit beyond all others,’ said the lama. ’For to set a man upon the way to Freedom is half as great as though she had herself found it.’
‘Umm,’ said Kim thoughtfully, considering the past. ’It may be that I have acquired merit also ... At least she did not treat me like a child.’ He hitched the front of his robe, where lay the slab of documents and maps, re-stowed the precious food-bag at the lama’s feet, laid his hand on the litter’s edge, and buckled down to the slow pace of the grunting husbands.
‘These also acquire merit,’ said the lama after three miles.
‘More than that, they shall be paid in silver,’ quoth Kim. The Woman of Shamlegh had given it to him; and it was only fair, he argued, that her men should earn it back again.