‘This.’ said the old soldier suddenly, ’is the Friend of the Stars. He brought me the news yesterday. Having seen the very man Himself, in a vision, giving orders for the war.’
‘Hm!’ said his son, all deep in his broad chest. ’He came by a bazar-rumour and made profit of it.’
His father laughed. ’At least he did not ride to me begging for a new charger, and the Gods know how many rupees. Are thy brothers’ regiments also under orders?’
‘I do not know. I took leave and came swiftly to thee in case -’
’In case they ran before thee to beg. O gamblers and spendthrifts all! But thou hast never yet ridden in a charge. A good horse is needed there, truly. A good follower and a good pony also for the marching. Let us see — let us see.’ He thrummed on the pommel.
’This is no place to cast accounts in, my father. Let us go to thy house.’
’At least pay the boy, then: I have no pice with me, and he brought auspicious news. Ho! Friend of all the World, a war is toward as thou hast said.’
‘Nay, as I know, the war,’ returned Kim composedly.
‘Eh?’ said the lama, fingering his beads, all eager for the road.
’My master does not trouble the Stars for hire. We brought the news bear witness, we brought the news, and now we go.’ Kim half-crooked his hand at his side.
The son tossed a silver coin through the sunlight, grumbling something about beggars and jugglers. It was a four-anna piece, and would feed them well for days. The lama, seeing the flash of the metal, droned a blessing.
‘Go thy way, Friend of all the World,’ piped the old soldier, wheeling his scrawny mount. ’For once in all my days I have met a true prophet — who was not in the Army.’
Father and son swung round together: the old man sitting as erect as the younger.
A Punjabi constable in yellow linen trousers slouched across the road. He had seen the money pass.
‘Halt!’ he cried in impressive English. ’Know ye not that there is a takkus of two annas a head, which is four annas, on those who enter the Road from this side-road? It is the order of the Sirkar, and the money is spent for the planting of trees and the beautification of the ways.’
‘And the bellies of the police,’ said Kim, slipping out of arm’s reach. ’Consider for a while, man with a mud head. Think you we came from the nearest pond like the frog, thy father-in-law? Hast thou ever heard the name of thy brother?’
‘And who was he? Leave the boy alone,’ cried a senior constable, immensely delighted, as he squatted down to smoke his pipe in the veranda.
’He took a label from a bottle of belaitee-pani [soda-water], and, affixing it to a bridge, collected taxes for a month from those who passed, saying that it was the Sirkar’s order. Then came an Englishman and broke his head. Ah, brother, I am a town-crow, not a village-crow!’