The Ballad of the King’s Jest.

When springtime flushes the desert grass,1
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.2
Lean are the camels but fat the frails,3
Light are the purses but heavy the bales,4
As the snowbound trade of the North comes down5
To the market-square of Peshawur town.6
In a turquoise twilight, crisp and chill,7
A kafila camped at the foot of the hill.8
Then blue smoke-haze of the cooking rose,9
And tent-peg answered to hammer-nose ;10
And the picketed ponies, shag and wild,11
Strained at their ropes as the feed was piled ;12
And the bubbling camels beside the load13
Sprawled for a furlong adown the road ;14
And the Persian pussy-cats, brought for sale,15
Spat at the dogs from the camel-bale ;16
And the tribesmen bellowed to hasten the food ;17
And the camp-fires twinkled by Fort Jumrood ;18
And there fled on the wings of the gathering dusk19
A savour of camels and carpets and musk,20
A murmur of voices, a reek of smoke,21
To tell us the trade of the Khyber woke.22
The lid of the flesh-pot chattered high,23
The knives were whetted and—then came I24
To Mahbub Ali, the muleteer,25
Patching his bridles and counting his gear,26
Crammed with the gossip of half a year.27
But Mahbub Ali, the kindly, said,28
Better is speech when the belly is fed.”29
So we plunged the hand to the mid-wrist deep30
In a cinnamon stew of the fat-tailed sheep,31
And he who never hath tasted the food,32
By Allah ! he knoweth not bad from good.33
We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease,34
We lay on the mats and were filled with peace,35
And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south,36
With the sliding puffs from the hookah mouth.37
Four things greater than all things are,—38
Women and horses and power and war.39
We spake of them all, but the last the most,40
For I sought a word of a Russian post,41
Of a shifty promise, an unsheathed sword,42
And a grey-coat guard on the Helmund ford.43
Then Mahbub Ali lowered his eyes44
In the fashion of one who is weaving lies.45
Quoth he : “ Of the Russians who can say ?46
When the night is gathering all is grey.47
But we look that the gloom of the night shall die48
In the morning flush of a blood-red sky.49
Friend of my heart, is it meet or wise50
To warn a king of his enemies ?51
We know what Heaven or Hell may bring,52
But no man knoweth the mind of the king.53
That unsought counsel is cursed of God54
Attesteth the story of Wali Dad.55
His sire was leaky of tongue and pen,56
His dam was a clucking Khuttuck hen ;57
And the colt bred close to the vice of each,58
For he carried the curse of an unstaunched speech.59
Therewith madness—so that he sought60
The favour of kings at the Cabul court ;61
And travelled, in hope of honour, far62
To the line where the grey-coat squadrons are.63
There have I journeyed too—but I64
Saw naught, said naught, and—did not die !65
He hearked to a rumour, and snatched at a breath66
Of ‘ this one knoweth ’ and ‘ that one saith ’—67
Legends that ran from mouth to mouth68
Of a grey-coat coming, and sack of the South.69
These have I also heard—they pass70
With each new spring and the winter grass.71
Hot-foot southward, forgotten of God,72
Back to the city ran Wali Dad,73
Even to Cabul—in full durbar74
The King held talk with his Chief in War.75
Into the press of the crowd he broke,76
And what he had heard of the coming spoke.77
Then Gholam Hyder, the Red Chief, smiled,78
As a mother might on a babbling child ;79
But those who would laugh restrained their breath,80
When the face of the King showed dark as death.81
Evil it is in full durbar82
To cry to a ruler of gathering war !83
Slowly he led to a peach-tree small,84
That grew by a cleft of the city-wall.85
And he said to the boy : ‘ They shall praise thy zeal86
So long as the red spurt follows the steel.87
And the Russ is upon us even now ?88
Great is thy prudence —wait them, thou.89
Watch from the tree. Thou art young and strong,90
Surely thy vigil is not for long.91
The Russ is upon us, thy clamour ran ?92
Surely an hour shall bring their van.93
Wait and watch. When the host is near,94
Shout aloud that my men may hear.’95
Friend of my heart, is it meet or wise96
To warn a king of his enemies ?97
A guard was set that he might not flee98
A score of bayonets ringed the tree.99
The peach-bloom fell in showers of snow,100
When he shook at his death as he looked below.101
By the power of God, who alone is great,102
Till the twentieth day he fought with his fate.103
Then madness took him, and men declare104
He mowed in the branches as ape and bear,105
And last as a sloth, ere his body failed,106
And he hung like a bat in the forks, and wailed,107
And sleep the cord of his hands untied,108
And he fell, and was caught on the points, and died.109
Heart of my heart, is it meet or wise110
To warn a king of his enemies ?111
We know what Heaven or Hell may bring,112
But no man knoweth the mind of the king.113
Of the grey-coat coming who can say ?114
When the night is gathering all is grey.115
Two things greater than all things are,116
The first is love, and the second war.117
And since we know not how war may prove,118
Heart of my heart, let us talk of love !”119