‘Now, how wilt thou know thy River?’ said Kim, squatting in the shade of some tall sugar-cane.
’When I find it, an enlightenment will surely be given. This, I feel, is not the place. O littlest among the waters, if only thou couldst tell me where runs my River! But be thou blessed to make the fields bear!’
‘Look! Look!’ Kim sprang to his side and dragged him back. A yellow-and-brown streak glided from the purple rustling stems to the bank, stretched its neck to the water, drank, and lay still — a big cobra with fixed, lidless eyes.
‘I have no stick — I have no stick,’ said Kim. ’1 will get me one and break his back.’
’Why? He is upon the Wheel as we are — a life ascending or descending — very far from deliverance. Great evil must the soul have done that is cast into this shape.’
‘I hate all snakes,’ said Kim. No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.
‘Let him live out his life.’ The coiled thing hissed and half opened its hood. ‘May thy release come soon, brother!’ the lama continued placidly. ’Hast thou knowledge, by chance, of my River?’
‘Never have I seen such a man as thou art,’ Kim whispered, overwhelmed. ‘Do the very snakes understand thy talk?’
‘Who knows?’ He passed within a foot of the cobra’s poised head. It flattened itself among the dusty coils.
‘Come, thou!’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Not I,’ said Kim’. ‘I go round.’
‘Come. He does no hurt.’
Kim hesitated for a moment. The lama backed his order by some droned Chinese quotation which Kim took for a charm. He obeyed and bounded across the rivulet, and the snake, indeed, made no sign.
‘Never have I seen such a man.’ Kim wiped the sweat from his forehead. ‘And now, whither go we?’
’That is for thee to say. I am old, and a stranger — far from my own place. But that the rail-carriage fills my head with noises of devil-drums I would go in it to Benares now ... Yet by so going we may miss the River. Let us find another river.’
Where the hard-worked soil gives three and even four crops a year through patches of sugar-cane, tobacco, long white radishes, and nol-kol, all that day they strolled on, turning aside to every glimpse of water; rousing village dogs and sleeping villages at noonday; the lama replying to the volleyed questions with an unswerving simplicity. They sought a River: a River of miraculous healing. Had any one knowledge of such a stream?
Sometimes men laughed, but more often heard the story out to the end and offered them a place in the shade, a drink of milk, and a meal. The women were always kind, and the little children as children are the world over, alternately shy and venturesome.
Evening found them at rest under the village tree of a mud-walled, mud-roofed hamlet, talking to the headman as the cattle came in from the grazing-grounds and the women prepared the day’s last meal. They had passed beyond the belt of market-gardens round hungry Umballa, and were among the mile-wide green of the staple crops.