‘Oh, shabash!’ murmured Kim, unable to contain himself, as the man slunk away.
’Well done, indeed? It is a shame and a scandal that a poor woman may not go to make prayer to her Gods except she be jostled and insulted by all the refuse of Hindustan — that she must eat gali [abuse] as men eat ghi. But I have yet a wag left to my tongue — a word or two well spoken that serves the occasion. And still am I without my tobacco! Who is the one-eyed and luckless son of shame that has not yet prepared my pipe?’
It was hastily thrust in by a hillman, and a trickle of thick smoke from each corner of the curtains showed that peace was restored.
If Kim had walked proudly the day before, disciple of a holy man, today he paced with tenfold pride in the train of a semi-royal procession, with a recognized place under the patronage of an old lady of charming manners and infinite resource. The escort, their heads tied up native-fashion, fell in on either side the cart, shuffling enormous clouds of dust.
The lama and Kim walked a little to one side; Kim chewing his stick of sugarcane, and making way for no one under the status of a priest. They could hear the old lady’s tongue clack as steadily as a rice-husker. She bade the escort tell her what was going on on the road; and so soon as they were clear of the parao she flung back the curtains and peered out, her veil a third across her face. Her men did not eye her directly when she addressed them, and thus the proprieties were more or less observed.
A dark, sallowish District Superintendent of Police, faultlessly uniformed, an Englishman, trotted by on a tired horse, and, seeing from her retinue what manner of person she was, chaffed her.
‘O mother,’ he cried, ’do they do this in the zenanas? Suppose an Englishman came by and saw that thou hast no nose?’
‘What?’ she shrilled back. ’Thine own mother has no nose? Why say so, then, on the open road?’
It was a fair counter. The Englishman threw up his hand with the gesture of a man hit at sword-play. She laughed and nodded.
‘Is this a face to tempt virtue aside?’ She withdrew all her veil and stared at him.
It was by no means lovely, but as the man gathered up his reins he called it a Moon of Paradise, a Disturber of Integrity, and a few other fantastic epithets which doubled her up with mirth.
‘That is a nut-cut [rogue],’ she said. ’All police-constables are nut-cuts; but the police-wallahs are the worst. Hai, my son, thou hast never learned all that since thou camest from Belait [Europe]. Who suckled thee?’
’A pahareen — a hillwoman of Dalhousie, my mother. Keep thy beauty under a shade — O Dispenser of Delights,’ and he was gone.
‘These be the sort’ — she took a fine judicial tone, and stuffed her mouth with pan — ’These be the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land. The others, all new from Europe, suckled by white women and learning our tongues from books, are worse than the pestilence. They do harm to Kings.’ Then she told a long, long tale to the world at large, of an ignorant young policeman who had disturbed some small Hill Rajah, a ninth cousin of her own, in the matter of a trivial land-case, winding up with a quotation from a work by no means devotional.