Ballads and Barrack-Room Ballads/The Ballad of the King's Jest

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For other versions of this work, see The Ballad of the King's Jest.


When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.
Lean are the camels but fat the frails,
Light are the purses but heavy the bales,
As the snowbound trade of the North comes down
To the market-square of Peshawur town.

In a turquoise twilight, crisp and chill,
A kafila camped at the foot of the hill.
Then blue smoke-haze of the cooking rose,
And tentpeg answered to hammer-nose;
And the picketed ponies shag and wild,
Strained at their ropes as the feed was piled;
And the bubbling camels beside the load
Sprawled for a furlong adown the road;
And the Persian pussy-cats, brought for sale,
Spat at the dogs from the camel-bale;
And the tribesmen bellowed to hasten the food;
And the camp-fires twinkled by Fort Jumrood;
And there fled on the wings of the gathering dusk
A savour of camels and carpets and musk,
A murmur of voices, a reek of smoke,
To tell us the trade of the Khyber woke.

The lid of the flesh-pot chattered high,
The knives were whetted and—then came I
To Mahbub Ali, the muleteer,
Patching his bridles and counting his gear,
Crammed with the gossip of half a year.
But Mahbub Ali the kindly said,
‘Better is speech when the belly is fed.’
So we plunged the hand to the mid-wrist deep
In a cinnamon stew of the fat-tailed sheep,
And he who never hath tasted the food,
By Allah! he knoweth not bad from good.

We cleansed our beards of the mutton-grease,
We lay on the mats and were filled with peace,
And the talk slid north, and the talk slid south,
With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth.
Four things greater than all things are,—
Women and Horses and Power and War.
We spake of them all, but the last the most,
For I sought a word of a Russian post,
Of a shifty promise, an unsheathed sword
And a grey-coat guard on the Helmund ford.
Then Mahbub Ali lowered his eyes
In the fashion of one who is weaving lies.
Quoth he: ‘Of the Russians who can say?
‘When the night is gathering all is grey.
‘But we look that the gloom of the night shall die
‘In the morning flush of a blood-red sky.
‘Friend of my heart, is it meet or wise
‘To warn a King of his enemies?
‘We know what Heaven or Hell may bring,
‘But no man knoweth the mind of the King.
‘That unsought counsel is cursed of God
‘Attesteth the story of Wali Dad.

‘His sire was leaky of tongue and pen,
‘His dam was a clucking Khuttuck hen;
‘And the colt bred close to the vice of each,
‘For he carried the curse of an unstaunched speech.
‘Therewith madness—so that he sought
‘The favour of kings at the Kabul court;
‘And travelled, in hope of honour, far
‘To the line where the grey-coat squadrons are.
‘There have I journeyed too—but I
‘Saw naught, said naught, and—did not die!
‘He hearked to rumour, and snatched at a breath
‘Of “this one knoweth” and “that one saith,”—
‘Legends that ran from mouth to mouth
‘Of a grey-coat coming, and sack of the South.
‘These have I also heard—they pass
‘With each new spring and the winter grass.

‘Hot-foot southward, forgotten of God,
‘Back to the city ran Wali Dad,
‘Even to Kabul—in full durbar
‘The King held talk with his Chief in War.
‘Into the press of the crowd he broke,
‘And what he had heard of the coming spoke.

‘Then Gholam Hyder, the Red Chief, smiled,
‘As a mother might on a babbling child;
‘But those who would laugh restrained their breath,
‘When the face of the King showed dark as death.
‘Evil it is in full durbar
‘To cry to a ruler of gathering war!
‘Slowly he led to a peach-tree small,
‘That grew by a cleft of the city wall.
‘And he said to the boy: “They shall praise thy zeal
‘“So long as the red spurt follows the steel.
‘“And the Russ is upon us even now?
‘“Great is thy prudence—await them, thou.
‘“Watch from the tree. Thou art young and strong,
‘“Surely thy vigil is not for long.
‘“The Russ is upon us, thy clamour ran?
‘“Surely an hour shall bring their van.
‘“Wait and watch. When the host is near,
‘“Shout aloud that my men may hear.”

‘Friend of my heart, is it meet or wise
‘To warn a King of his enemies?
‘A guard was set that he might not flee—
‘A score of bayonets ringed the tree.
‘The peach-bloom fell in showers of snow,
‘When he shook at his death as he looked below.
‘By the power of God, who alone is great,
‘Till the seventh day he fought with his fate.
‘Then madness took him, and men declare
‘He mowed in the branches as ape and bear,
‘And last as a sloth, ere his body failed,
‘And he hung as a bat in the forks, and wailed,
‘And sleep the cord of his hands untied,
‘And he fell, and was caught on the points and died.

‘Heart of my heart, is it meet or wise
‘To warn a King of his enemies?
‘We know what Heaven or Hell may bring,
‘But no man knoweth the mind of the King.
‘Of the grey-coat coming who can say?
‘When the night is gathering all is grey.
‘Two things greater than all things are,
‘The first is Love, and the second War.
‘And since we know not how War may prove,
‘Heart of my heart, let us talk of Love!’