The Beater's Tale - a fable
The Royal family has always a noble and instinctive rectitude of course, but the Old Maharajah, as we call His Majesty's grandfather, while equally devoted to his subjects, had a different sort of virtue. To reinvigorate it, he would from time to time simply disappear for a few weeks, usually with someone close to him. His assistants would close ranks seamlessly during these – sabbaticals one could call them – such absences being regular and predictable, and providing a welcome respite for ruler and ruled. Like our present Maharajah, he detested administration, they all do, and purged himself in this way, which our present Maharajah does not permit himself.
I should also mention that while virtue and devotion to duty predominate, there is within His Majesty a modest, comprehensible, very pleasant aspect, quite charismatic. Let the Maharajah walk into a room and immediately tedium is lifted. He has a graceful, energetic sort of jolliness, which, with his wit reflected only in his gleaming eyes, creates a new atmosphere. It is as if the air about him were suddenly cleared of smudge, full of oxygen. His energy when benign has a wonderful uplifting effect upon one's psychology, and no end of things seem possible. People gather to him and problems become smaller. And in the right mood, which is to say, one in which he will address necessities, he can solve any problem, often with an original flourish. When it comes to the obtainment of loans and deferral of payments he is at his finest. He does not even need to speak the language of the other party – it is a matter of the eyes as much as anything, his smile both beatific and most human, including all present for the moment in his larger vision. The problem may return, of course, greater than ever, but for the Maharajah this is what my son would describe as a "plus," a further challenge to his creativity, which is vast, much in need of challenges.
You expressed interest in what you refer to as His Majesty's personality. I am unclear on how this term may apply to a Maharajah. I think of His Majesty as projecting a powerful persona by virtue of his remarkable qualities, of which I have failed to mention the most striking, this being his decisiveness, which has been most aptly likened to that of the plummeting hawk. He loves a decision, and his swiftness of thought is such that few can keep pace, which caused his tutors early on to compare him with the young Alexander, although, and we are very thankful for this, he is not bloodthirsty. But neither does he suffer fools gladly, except at the cinema, where he favors Keaton and the Marx brothers. His tongue has been characterized as a darting adder, a blade beyond compare, a teaken cudgel – all true, though it must be said though that at times snake, blade and cudgel do their work on thin air, the person being addressed not having taken the position of obdurate idiocy ascribed to him. But often this person becomes fearful and confused, leading His Majesty to regard him yet more poorly. But no great damage is done, save if the person attempts to justify his opinion or action. The Godly half of His Majesty will not brook opposition, which is only to be expected. And if His Majesty's temper is sometimes quick, I should in fairness add that sometimes a very serious offense may be excused completely if it amuse him, a fact much appreciated by inept ministers. His notion of humour is quite far ranging. His Majesty may roll with frank laughter in a private moment, and another time he will pluck a subtle irony from a dangerous situation with the skill of a fly fisherman working the most gossamer line. All of him does not laugh at once, however, and while the human part smiles at some witticism, the God within may not be amused, nor forgetful. Worse yet, the God may smile while the man is displeased. The Old Maharajah was more forthright and ribald, and pretended not to recall what was said when people were drunk.
Not incidentally, I should like to say that your observation about the multiplicity of sundials on the Royal Grounds was most astute. His Majesty regards these as the only acceptable means of measuring time. Were you invited to the palace, you would be struck by the complete absence of clocks, nor does His Majesty make use of any of the dozens of Rolexes, Patek Phillippes, Tourneaus and so forth that have been given him at various times, or even his Grandfather's marvelous pocket watch with the dancing girl. During my period as His Majesty's Social Secretary I was not only the defender of his time, but his personal clock. It was a difficult assignment, and I deeply pondered his attitude toward timepieces, and about time itself. Clearly he does not wish to be constrained by time, and I now believe that he truly holds time in contempt. This is so much at odds with his sense of urgency that I found it inexplicable. But later I came to see this is the God in him. Gods being immortal, do not exist in time.
As to your question about my personal relationship to the Maharajah, it is much to the point that our families have long been intertwined. My forebears have been beaters for generations, descended of a courtier who previously held preferred posts but lost favor in some incident so obscured by fables and deceptions that I find myself remembering the tale differently. Beating for tigers is very important here. As a boy I should have liked to play the flute, but this was out of the question. I am and have for years been Director of the Royal Beaters, and First Beater is my title. There are several of us Royal Beaters, and we are pleased to direct the efforts of the villagers in the complex effort required to drive game to the Maharajah. There is not so much game as there used to be, and the location of one tiger acceptable to His Majesty can take days. In a pinch we poach, and some years ago there was a small border incident. But the Maharajah will have his tiger. If the time is right – I think I would put it that way. Only if the time is right. We beat, and the Maharajah waits with his guests in the howdah atop his elephant. But while he is an excellent shot, better than several expert Europeans who visit from time to time, I am not at all sure, despite his elaborate hunting expeditions, that he genuinely wishes to kill the tigers, or how he feels about tigers at all, and this affects me more deeply than a European could fully understand. He seems to feel that since they are his, and since no one else is allowed to shoot them, it is not such a great issue exactly when the tigers are actually shot. This too is Godlike, but difficult for me, who must somehow manage to get the tiger to him. I still think about this. I think about it as much as I think of anything. Why does he not wish to shoot the tigers? Believe me, it is not easy to see a tiger ignored, given the shortage of tigers and the propensity of tigers to roam, and also to learn, which makes them even more dangerous. Having experienced the beater-crew, and being hounded through the bush, and then glimpsing the Maharajah's elephant, even the stupidest tiger must learn something.
It is difficult to convey the intensity of these thoughts and feelings to one who has not participated in a hunt. It is quite an event, the hunt, not at all a routine occurrence. There is the pre-dawn breakfast, followed by endless preparations, and a great deal of very strong coffee laced with brandy, the traditional potions, and whatever else is in vogue. Unlike the usual Royal Appearance, a hunt is not heralded; only we beaters are out there, and the Royal Elephant. In the howdah will usually be a guest or a member of the Royal Family, who are also permitted guns, though none of them can shoot worth a damn. Even as the tiger approaches and the Maharajah meditates on the suitability of actually shooting this particular tiger, a gun may go off. This should happen only with His Majesty's permission, but it occurs. And then there is the matter of tiger and elephant, ancient natural enemies, instantly excited on meeting. It is a tired, threadbare old elephant these days, but still an elephant, full of rage and fear at the sight and scent of its enemy.
What is happening in the howdah, then? Why this hesitation? We are not permitted to know. We may not look directly upon his Highness unless so directed, much less consider aloud a situation in which he is involved. Loyalty requires that we not conjecture about such matters at all, even inwardly. But we beaters, well, we do wish to see a tiger shot. It is, you might say, in our blood. It is our passion, my son would say. Now you may ask: “why is this educated and rather elderly man so very concerned about the actual shooting of the tiger, so long as he has done his job?” Did I mention that tigers who have been driven are much more difficult to deal with in future? We are terribly aware of this – beaters may be mauled and die, we know it well, and it is a good reason to desire a kill. But it is not the main reason. We desire the kill because the hunt is an affair of state. This is no exaggeration. For reasons I do not fully grasp, the shooting of a tiger, particularly a fine specimen, has a tonic effect upon us all, which I will go into later. But first I would like to explain a few things about my work here. While I am first among Royal Beaters, other nobles are honorary beaters, Royal relations in need of titles, useless to a man. The peasants do the work. My single real assistant for a long time was the Maharajah's younger son, who was not very interested in tigers, much less in chasing them through the bush. He simply wished, like any son, to escape his father, though perhaps a little more so. He has been in Singapore for some years now. After him there was a well-born girl who detested court life and obtained special dispensation to assist me. She was very useful until reassigned by the Maharajah. He often does this when a routine develops, to stimulate us. I believe she now models lingerie in Hong Kong. Now I work alone, except for the villagers.
Over the years I have contrived various ways of dealing with these difficult creatures. I do a variety of things with my voice and can briefly convince a tiger that I am a fellow carnivore. I can imitate a female in heat, which is of course dangerous, but can be very handy, enabling the tiger to be drawn as well as chased. I use firecrackers too, but lately we have only little ones, more suitable for jackals and hyenas. From my study of the rodea clowns in American films I have developed techniques whereby fellow-beaters are able to divert a tiger from actually killing an injured beater. Frankly, I will do whatever is necessary. Last year when there was a very long time between tigers and morale fell among the people I suggested staking out a small domesticated animal, preferably a goat – tigers love goat. I thought if we did this from time to time it might become known among the tigers that such delicacies were to be found here. But the Maharajah, having shot tigers without assistance will not have it. He senses that I am rather proud of my art and knows I was Visiting Head Beater for his cousin to the north during my period of exile. In any case, His Majesty believes he understands how to beat for tigers, as he feels he understands most things, and I can assure you he understands it most imperfectly. Nevertheless he never hesitates to direct it, as he does everything. Sometimes I forget myself and tell the Maharajah how it is properly done, and these are bad moments. He does not mind what he says then, or whether it makes sense. It is the God in him, of course. Usually I position myself carefully with him, somewhat in the manner of a matador, swordless of course, but in this matter of the goat I was more the picador. The Maharajah turned his horns on me in a fury, tossing aside all suggestions of change. No goat! We would beat as we had always beaten, etc. I made bold to point out that in all my time we had tried nothing more tempting than stray dogs which had created a nuisance, and that the beating brooms were so threadbare that the tiger could see there was virtually nothing there, forcing me to get much closer to our last tiger than I wanted to be. Luckily he just looked at me and wandered off. But one does not want to be naked among tigers.
I never got to state the case – His Majesty was fuming from the word goat, and there have been no goats staked out, and no new equipment. To clarify his position he sent a scribe around several days later with a white paper on the wasteful use of livestock in sport. Naturally everyone knew what had happened, there is no privacy in the palace. It was money, of course, the undiscussable source of so much difficulty. Goats are not very expensive, but they are not free. The Godlike part of the Maharajah disdains money, but the man in him cannot avoid being concerned about it. But while accurate, that is unfair and misleading; I must balance it by pointing out that in a crisis His Majesty is always highly courageous, which comes from his pride, and this pride is central to my tale, for it is His Majesty's nature to disdain any but the finest of anything, and this includes tigers. Extra-large tigers will usually bring out the very best in the Maharajah, and his shooting can be uncanny. If family or friends are with him when he raises his rifle, all dive to the bottom of the howdah, because anything may happen. The Maharajah allows himself only one shot, and after that it is in the paws of the tiger, one might say, for no one may shoot a tiger that His Majesty has selected. His single shot fired, the Maharajah will do no more than reverse the rifle and smash the tiger's snout with the butt if attacked, which luckily has happened only once. He also shoots from very close to the prey, and some years ago he downed an enormous tiger in mid-air as it leaped toward the howdah, striking the poor underfed little elephant with a terrible thump, though quite dead on arrival. It was a brilliant day, simply brilliant, but then the Maharajah went on to other things. I exhausted myself in the ensuing year only to have each tiger disdained with an enigmatic shake of the Royal Head.
Obviously there are many beasts a man can shoot, and to a man of His Majesty's inquiring nature the question Why only tigers? was inevitable. While tigers are the appropriate game for reasons of state and general propriety, His Majesty is easily distracted. The jungle is full of creatures about which he suddenly becomes curious, and it is not unknown for monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, wild dogs and so forth to hear a great crashing followed by the Royal Elephant, howdah swaying. To hunt monkeys and fail is mortifying – they are notorious for offal-slinging, and to bag a wild dog from a position of such eminence is to my mind most unseemly. But I am an opinionated old man, and my courtier’s heart is with the aristocracy, which is definitely the tiger. And worse was yet to come on this matter of "alternate game." As luck would have it, it came on a morning when I was particularly eager to be on the hunt. I am vulnerable at such times. A perfect tiger-season dawn, the land still damp with mist, flowers unfolding to release their perfumes, the blood stirring in an equable excitement throughout the body. Tiger season is not simply a matter of solstices and equinoxes, but of the senses. At times I begin to think like a tiger, and my sense of propitious days has always been excellent. On this day the Maharajah was smiling at his desk in his study, which was neat as a showroom, a definite danger sign. As the chaos rises within, so does he seek to balance it by perfecting the order of his environment, directing housekeepers, bookkeepers and other servants to distraction in a quiet, dangerous voice. His smile did not immediately vanish when I arrived; it seemed rather to erode over several seconds.
“Why do you find only tigers?” he asked in a bored, superior tone: Why can you find no Abtu or Anet or Amphisbaena? Do you know how many stuffed tigers we possess?
I said nothing. This is the best course with Royalty when they are incomprehensible. Despite the danger one must think clearly. At length I said I would investigate, but that I thought these beasts were perhaps not indigenous.
“Perhaps you are blind,” suggested the Maharajah in his most insulting tone.
“Perhaps like George III, you are suffering from some kind of undiagnosed brain fever,” I said.
No, I did not say that, it would be the end of me. In his moments the Maharajah is not only unreasonable but calculating and brutal. Rage was already flickering in his eye and his face seemed to enlarge. I became concerned about his blood pressure.
“I will look into the Abtu, Anet and Amphisbaena,” I said. “Perhaps I can find a bestiary that includes them.
We stared at each other. For some reason I recalled my time in the war of independence, the terrible things I saw and did as a mere youth. His Majesty was not yet old enough to participate, but grew up in the atmosphere of fruitless victory, for we had gained nothing, only exhausted ourselves in repelling enemies. Deprived of this experience, I theorize, he seeks confrontation, except with the greater Maharajahs, in whose company he recovers his senses. But afterward the God in him is enraged by his obsequious behavior, and all avoid him like a giant firework that has failed to fire and may go off at anything. But not for nothing have I been a courtier these sixty years. While I no longer have any interest in the Maharajah's personal papers, I am most interested in notions that may enter His Majesty's mind at susceptible moments. These are unpredictable, except for the period before sleep. He is not man to take ideas from people, so this period of time, which he spends in reading, provides disproportionate leverage upon his thought. All I want to know is what he is reading, but as it happens, I am close to the Royal Chambermaid, and know that this can be anything from Forbes magazine to De Quincy. I obtain copies of course, with the result that while the Royal Accountant, Astrologer, Physical Therapist, Tailor, etc. are often out of touch with His whimsies, I am generally well positioned. I learned the about this from my uncle, who nearly lost his head when the Royal Chambermaid was replaced and he could not bribe the new one. Perhaps you do not need to know all that.
In any event, I learned that he was reading Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beasts, I believe it is called. He had not enjoyed the recent Meeting of the Maharajahs, and it was not surprising to me that chimera would be used as a weapon to impugn my capacities. I responded to his suggestions by preparing a long dull report which put an end to the matter of mythical beasts. Then the Maharajah asked me for what purpose the report was prepared.
Did he truly not remember our talk? It was a delicate juncture, which I dealt with by saying that I must have been confused in an earlier conversation. But here is the real question – Did he at the time he brought up those imaginary creatures know that he was he was playing a joke on me, or trying to? Did those creatures for that moment have full credence for him, or were they only a pretext to badger me? These are no idle questions. My uncle, the Royal Cartridge Loader, was cashiered years ago when a single load apparently failed, and since then His Majesty has since fussed obsessively over the loading process, taking the apparatus into his study, moving the all financial books and other records into another chamber. We all knew it was my alcoholic cousin, the Royal Armorer, who was responsible for the misfire. Afterward the Armorer's Clerk, an ambitious and insensitive man, drew this to the Maharajah's attention, and I doubt he ever spoke sense to a Royal again in his life. The verbal discharge continued for close to a minute, like the rolling broadside of a man o' war, audible throughout the palace. The man stood swaying for several seconds, fell backward, recovered, then prostrated himself, absolutely and forever convinced he must have been wrong, though he had in fact inspected the piece and seen the broken pin.
Such is charisma. It is magical and hypnotic, profoundly impacting the mind, altering logic, reason and the evidence of one's eyes, not to mention history, economics, philosophy, aesthetics, perception of things in general and one's very sense of self, to say the whole of it, making men into fools, most especially the charismatic himself. This notion that His personally loaded cartridges are superior to all others is only one of many such convictions. I conjecture that certain of his thoughts enter a sort of Moebious strip, going round and round, evolving not at all, but available to His Majesty's observation as they go round. I fear that notions which enter this condition will never change. Such thoughts are more like pet creatures or imaginary playmates, or like a mouse being toyed with by a cat – they have left the real world and entered what I think of as the play of a God. I have learned to accept this so long as I am free to roam the bush.
In the interest of clarity I think I must be a bit more forthcoming about my family. It is one of our conventions that we have been Royal Beaters back to the time of the writing of the Kama Sutra, but in fact we do not go back nearly that far, and many of us have been all-purpose courtiers, so to speak. Some of us have held fans, others did accounts, disciplined slaves, serviced unattractive well-connected women the Maharajahs did not want to be bothered with, arranged entertainments, paid informers and so forth. We share what my son would call “an attitude” of course. The cajoling of Maharajahs over generations affords a certain perspective. That is probably the main reason for courtiers, their familiarity with Royals and situations that arise in connection with them, which tend to replicate themselves. It enables difficult situations to be predicted, avoided, resolved, finessed or got through somehow without embarrassment to the ruler, which can become a catastrophe of the state. I have concluded that what my family is best at is reading the tea leaves – sensing who and what will be in favor. We also have a lively sense of impending danger. With this Maharajah, alas, there is no saying what will be in favor, and danger is everywhere. My son sensed this early on, and like many of his generation, he has never returned from school in England; I receive his letters by a circuitous route. The Maharajah had great plans for him, and his wrath when bilked can be terrible. And he does have the power of life and death, though only in this threadbare little fiefdom.
Recalling such matters obliges me to speculate whether, in some ways, things were not better in the realm before the Celestial Begetting. This is not entirely nostalgia: the Royal Treasury was never ignored, there was less whimsy, and it was always clear which guns were to be in the howdah, and that they would be used. I am fully aware that to speak this way may appear sacrilegious, and wish to clearly state that I am speaking now of the human aspect of the Maharajah. His Godlike impulses are beyond comment by such as myself, or anyone else save perhaps the cousin who rules the much larger principality bordering us to the north. And while the extent and arbitrariness of the Royal Powers can be unnerving I am also bound to say that the exercise of these Powers may be highly beneficial, which I will illustrate by telling you a story about my remarkable Grandfather, a tiger and a Maharajah.
I indicated that our family have been beaters for generations, which is quite true, but in point of fact we were not Royal beaters until my Grandfather's time, circa the Sepoy Rebellion or a bit later. Given the perception of time in our little world, the people think of that period as time immemorial, which we encourage. Grandfather elevated our family to the nobility by saving the Old Maharajah's life when a gun misfired and an enormous tiger leaped from a hummock to the Royal Elephant's rump, seated its claws, and continued upward, part way into the howdah itself, the elephant meanwhile leaping, trumpeting and whirling about, everyone running for their lives. My Grandfather, I should explain, was a quite amazing man, huge, powerful, handsome and resourceful. He lived to a great age, and was even then much in demand for midnight assignations of the seraglio, though I will deny it if necessary, along with other things I have said. In any event, Grandfather contrived to grasp several of the howdah tassels, and as the elephant bolted, got hold of the tiger's tail. By luck, the beast was precariously perched and could not use its rear claws. As the Old Maharajah was defending himself and his son with only a small blade, Grandfather managed to climb up while holding some tassels of the howday, and stab the preoccupied tiger in the back of the neck with his huge brush-chopping knife, now in the Royal Museum, severing the tiger's spinal cord. Now this was a truly wonderful thing, especially if you know anything about tigers, as indeed was the Old Maharajah's furious defense of his child. But by ancient law it was absolutely forbidden on pain of death for commoners to touch any part of the howdah, and to enter the howdah under any circumstances involved a torture I will not describe.
Well, the tiger fell to the ground quite dead and Grandfather managed to stanch the bleeding of the Old Maharajah's terrible wounds, thereby violating yet another law with an even worse punishment attached to the touching of a Royal Person. As Grandfather was being carried off after these desecrations, the equerry took the liberty of asking the Old Maharajah what to do with Grandfather. He asked specifically if he might only be killed, rather than tortured for this undeniable lese majeste. The Maharajah, now lying on a stretcher attended by his surgeon and under the strong influence of an opiate, explained that Grandfather was no commoner at all, that a mistake had obviously been made. Thereupon the First Royal Beater was executed instead for failing to anticipate the problem, and our family took his family's place. But the little Maharajah-to-be never fully recovered, and this is most critical to my story. The Princeling was never the same, often in hospital, then traveling too much as a young man, without any real interest in his duties. He would return for the occasional hunt and occasionally bag a tiger, but it was a joyless proceeding. He cared only for Paris, Venice, Florence, and a few friends, most of them met at his British schools, and it was said he used cosmetics lightened his skin and had things done to his hair. He failed in his most sacred and primary duty, as you will see, and it is forbidden to refer to him.
I have alluded to my exile: three years for remarks offensive to His Majesty, two of them spent at the London School of Economics, one as itinerant beater-for-hire outside the realm. Before my exile, after a childhood spent largely in the bush and then my early manhood in the War of Independence, I was appointed by the newly crowned fifteen-year-old Maharajah to the highly prestigious position of Royal Secretary. Men have lied, bribed, killed, dishonored their wives for this honor, but knowing the Maharajah from a babe I was dismayed. Variable as he is, there is no schedule of any sort, and any attempt to impose one would be madness. People are jostled hour by hour at his whim, as I was jostled from my course in life. And having spent all those years learning of tigers, and then experiencing that terrible war, I found the court distasteful. Ignoble, if I may, whereas the tiger's nobility is never in doubt. What but a noble beast would attack an elephant surmounted by armed men? The tiger is not stupid, it knows what a gun is. To love tigers is to doubt people. As Royal Secretary I lived knee deep in supplicants of one sort or another, which was meant to be enjoyable and profitable. But I would not be bribed by people who might never get to see the Maharajah in this life, and supplicants eventually blame someone for their frustration. I managed to steer clear of the more rebellious cliques, but it was a hellish period. At twenty I was pronounced a failure by the boy Maharaja, as was everyone else in the entourage from time to time, and sent away.
On return from my exile I petitioned for my old job, was granted my wish by a Maharajah near tears, he is quite sentimental at times, and I remain a beater to this day. If I have not made this clear, Royal Beater is not an especially elevated position. Our family began as such for the good reason that Grandfather understood and enjoyed the job. But I received my re-appointment with great relief, being aware of people close to the Maharajah during my absence who had crashed like Icarus when things came unstuck. For the Maharajah, granting my request was a way of not having to face me. For me it was the best kind of freedom, the kind which allows one to be useful. And I had always been a bit of an irritant; His Majesty does not relish contact with people who remember him as a child. But he did more for me than he knew. To be a beater is to have an independent and rather exciting life, satisfying to my temperament, and not without creative moments, even a bit of poetry. And there are still quite a few tigers, since no one may shoot them other than His Majesty and his guests. I have learned the best part of what I know of life as a beater, and I have been at great pains not to be drawn closer to the court by more prestigious assignments. This does not please the Maharajah. He senses that I prefer the tigers and the smell of the jungle and the bugs and snakes and so forth. The truth is, I love to sweat for hours on end, and then to drink clear water and rest, and then have a large brandy-soda before the evening meal. The tiger is sacred to us, and this is my religious experience, beyond the Maharajah's omnipresent influence. Clearly it was not the Tiger-God who begat him, he is simply too indifferent to tigers for this to be the case. Some speculate a regional Loki. My point is that I like everything about beating, even the idea of dying out there from a tiger, or heart failure or whatever. I believe my son will be left with a good memory of me, and a sense that our family somehow managed not to be consumed by either a most demanding Maharajah or the inevitable Ghandis. In beating I learned that I am a simple man by nature, a natural follower of the ways of our people. I believe that for my part I must learn the location of the beasts, school my assistants well, and somehow arrange for the tiger to be driven to my Maharajah. Here it becomes a bit sticky, because I also believe that he must oblige me, himself, his people, and the sacred tradition, by shooting the beasts, preferably with a single shot to brain or spine.
This is what I mean when I refer to the hunt as a matter of state, this ancient and inexplicable connection between Maharajah, beaters, tiger and the general morale of our people, our pride in our being, without which we are nothing. So much as I value this remarkable personage with his unusual talents and ancestry, I sense him as being required, even as we all are, to fulfill certain obligations, tiger-killing being among the foremost. It was an overheard reference to this Royal obligations which earned me my exile.
I remarked earlier how I often think of these things, but those thoughts are calm now. In early days the sight of the Maharajah musing over his gun collection would make me faint with rage and frustration. I knew that he would deliberate endlessly -- would it be the old reliable Winchester or one of the Purdeys? Or perhaps the Latterwasser his mother had specially made in Belgium that takes such an enormous load it must have been intended for rhino. On certain days, unable to choose a weapon, he will call off the hunt and not shoot at all. A beater who knew no other way would have been driven suicidal, but my more general experience of life has taught me detachment. In the bush I have time to think things through. Though it took a good deal of that time, I have grasped that reason and wisdom, especially wisdom, are not attainments His Majesty desires. Wisdom for him is something dull, for old people with bad breath and poor memories, rather than elegant, poetic and noble persons such as himself; and he does not grasp why the man in him should some day become old. Gods do not age, of course, so this must be very confusing and painful to bear. But who cares really? One cares that one has had one's life torn apart, that the land is fallow, that there is no safety except at the Royal whim, that one's son feels unsafe in his native land. Then again, one is glad that his cruelty is a passing thing, for it is entirely in keeping for rulers of a worse temperament to be methodical in it.
Enough of that. Every beater has stories, and I will tell you of one hunt I will never forget. It was the first of the season, perhaps fifteen years ago. A fine day, not too hot, all of us feeling frisky, especially the twelve-year-olds who hang about the fringes. I did not expect to find much in the way of game, but I was very much in a mood to get my troops working together on this wonderful spring morning. Hardly a cloud to be seen, just a few little cotton-puffs. From the mountains you see over there, where reside the Maharajah's Godly parent and his associates, came a lovely dry Himalayan breeze. Our equipment at that time was quite good, everyone with throat and crotch covers, khaki shorts, spears and noisemakers. I had just introduced firecrackers. Then a shout went up, the shout that comes only of with the presence of a very mettlesome tiger. I lit a long-fused firework and rushed toward the shouts, waiting to throw it as the fuse burned down, arriving breathless and tossing it by guess. There was a pause, and almost as it went off the beast bounded by not ten feet away, wearing an angry expression and taking no notice of me. It was fine young tiger in its first maturity, big, quick, handsome, proud, the kind of tiger which when bagged can profoundly affect the condition of the state. I saw a red stain on one paw; this is to be expected, of course. Beaters are injured – it is a part of this complex ritual which is properly culminated and justified by a Maharajah when he shoots a tiger. Bag good tigers and the people will believe and the land will thrive; I believed in this and still do.
Well, this tiger flew by, moving in just the direction we desired, and I chased until I was exhausted, the proper incantations and imprecations springing to my lips, the tiger flowing over the ground without effort like a great surging pool of black and gold. Magnificent! I was thinking, joy bursting in my heart – a fine sacrifice, and so early in the season, what luck! In the back of my mind was the fact that someone had been injured, but not too badly, I guessed, since there was only blood on the left forepaw and none at the mouth. I chased as I have rarely chased, leaving everyone behind despite my age, already past forty at the time.
And what happened? I will tell you what happened. With heart hammering and spots before my eyes I saw this great beast run directly toward the Maharajah, knowing in my heart that the curse of winter was to be lifted on that day, that His Majesty would bag this fine first tiger of the season, that the spirits of the people would rise, the moneylenders would again lend, the springs would run clear, the rains would be gentle, the people harder working and less prolific than usual, the fields voluptuous with grains and fruits. I saw it all. I had seen this before, this surge in morale – it is the great joy of being a beater to be a first cause, however humble, in setting this beautiful thing in motion.
What happened then? First, the Maharajah was not visible in the howdah. With all the noise and the enormous imported firecrackers we were using it was inconceivable that he did not grasp what was happening – the man was trained to this from childhood. But if he did, he did not care. Next I saw his face appear, an absolute study in detachment. It was his "evaluating face" which is in fact his delaying face. He held no rifle. The tiger, I swear this is true, slowed down and looked up. By now the elephant, young and lively, was beside itself at the proximity of its ancient natural enemy. So there was the elephant, trembling and trumpeting and dancing about, the mahout on its neck doing his best to control it, the tiger staring up as it trotted slowly by, the howdah teetering, and the Maharajah, his eyes locked with the tiger's, each feeling who-knows-what toward the other. It was but a moment, yet a very long moment in which I experienced much. I wish I could convey to you the depth and complexity of my disappointment. To have everything go perfectly, from the sound of the cock in the morning to our brandy-coffee, the direction of the wind and the timing of our beat-patterns – and of course the unexpected magnificence of the game, and the luck that sent it toward His Majesty. And no kill. It was like waking from the dream of a beautiful woman to find yourself in a ditch in the rain with a whore. And the Maharajah's indescribably degagé expression. That was the worst. And as I stood exhausted at the edge of the clearing watching this, my son came up assisted by two friends, and I saw that it was he who had suffered the tiger's paw. One side of his face was fine, but he had lost an eye, plus much forehead-flesh from that one stroke. Otherwise he was unhurt. He was completely conscious, fully sentient, calm and brave, and I was extremely proud. I permitted myself to think him everything the Maharajah was not. As I examined the boy, the doctor appeared and I turned away, tears pouring from my eyes as I made for the trees. He had been very handsome, much like Grandfather in his bearing, though much better with numbers.
In the old days, infection from carrion under the claws would have infected and probably killed him, but we had penicillin by then, and he got the finest plastic surgery. The Maharajah is basically generous and always wishes to be of help in an emergency. It may sound strange, but I believe my life would be different had that tiger been shot, and I not glimpsed that expression on His Majesty’s face. My son, who alternates an eye-patch with his artificial eye, and has been known to substitute a bright blue one for parties, says that this event was a good thing. He says that he had been turning into a pretty-boy. But I can tell you his mother thought differently. From that point she avoided both me and the Maharajah in every way possible. This would mean little to many men of the court, but the two of us had been very close. Time passed, my son's mother passed away, my next wife left me, the third smokes opium, and I am still out in the bush. It is rather glorious, actually. To have been born a courtier in the circumscribed world of those who bow before thinking, and instead to engage with beasts who bow to nothing and can kill one with a single stroke – what a liberation.
I must say that I am glad for this interview. As I speak, things fall into perspective, and I see that what occurs between the Maharajah and myself is largely an outcome of what occurred between our families, which eases my feelings. Just one thing remains to be clarified here, which I know from the flicker of doubt in your eyes when I make reference to the Maharajah's Divine Origin on the paternal side, which bears similarity to the notion of Virgin Birth in Christianity. But your skepticism is quite understandable in a Westerner, and even among us there was some lack of faith at first – the virus of secularity is unique in its capacity to divide, and once introduced is never gone. To verify the Godly descent I must complete the story of the Old Maharajah and Grandfather, who became ever closer as concern about the young Prince grew. No grandson appeared, or even a daughter, and this was a terrible thing. Succession is the ultimate issue with hereditary rulers, and for that old killer of tigers the idea of some cousin taking over our land was too infuriating to be considered. Grandfather's status in the court is clear from the sequence of his appointments, which began with the title of Royal Beater, and went on to a battlefield commission as Lancer-General and various titles won in the war, culminating in his Grand Marshalship, and eventually such highly sensitive positions as Royal Food Taster, Guardian of the Royal Women, and Her Majesty's Personal Protector, when the old Maharajah was off on one of his sabbaticals. After learning to sign his name, which he did in a genuinely elegant hand that in no way revealed it to be his single written word, Grandfather had authority, in his role as State Surrogate and Regent, to sign major documents in his Majesty's absence. I was, at age nine, and for many years, his reader, which position was noted and envied by the present Maharajah. In any case, Grandfather was a Royal intimate, and spent considerable time with the Prince of whom so much was hoped, and on whom everyone eventually gave up. The Old Maharajah, quite aged by now, over seventy-five, waited, increasingly bad-humoured, but still close to Grandfather, who was himself perhaps seventy. They conferred privately about everything significant, but most of all about the succession. Then, when everyone had given up hope, came this wonderful babe, our present Maharajah, and this is how it came about.
I was old enough at the time to see, overhear and remember much of what happened, so I will tell you how this remarkable occurrence came about. The unsatisfactory Prince had been married for quite some years without offspring and was taken ill while in London for a class reunion. At this time he was in his late twenties, and everyone was waiting most eagerly to see the next generation, fearing that there would not be any, which would open things up for the cousins to the North. It was certainly no fault of the Princess. Not only was she beautiful, she had been selected from a notoriously prolific family, and her passionate nature had been the basis of a rather scandalous reputation. In the circumstances, the Old Maharajah and Grandfather had agreed that this type of woman would be required. When the Princess learned that the Prince had taken a turn for the worse, she fasted for three days, and announced that she would go to those mountains you see over there to the East on a prayer expedition. The departure for this vigil was an occasion of state, a matter of ultimate gravity, and her barren state was the reason. In this atmosphere of failure, the march out of town was somber as well as splendid, the kind of thing a child can never forget. The caravan proceeded out of the main square and onto the north road, unpaved at that time, during the dry season, with much dust and no wind, Grandfather at the head of his scarlet Royal Lancers on his black Arabian, the elephants behind, the scouts well ahead and out on the flanks – it is still quite dangerous country between us and that range. Between is a jungle infested with adventurers, escaped criminals and other riffraff. That is where the krifaa is mined. However childishly, I did grasp that Grandfather was involved with a piece of our history. He had, for one thing, nominated the Princess.
They left at high noon in terrible heat, and I clearly recall how slowly and deliberately the dust rose, and how it remained a long time in the air, a golden cloud many yards high following the procession, until they seemed to disappear in it followed by the faraway rattle of the drums. Afterward the silence was deathly. It was generally felt that the Princess would never again be accorded genuine respect, and would probably choose some way of respectably ending her misery, the journey itself being dangerous enough to qualify as a tempting of fate. But no brigands came near that convoy, and when it arrived there were a full five days of fasting and prayer, not just by the Princess but the bridesmaids as well. They were, so to speak, implicated by their participation in the failed ceremony of her marriage. The Lancers would have joined the fasting as well, except for their need to remain strong and alert. Later it was reported that after the first day the Princess began solitary nightly vigils, and on the sixth morning was found near the shrine in a swoon, very much worn by all that travel and fasting and prayer. She had gone off alone yet again to worship. When she awakened, though, it is said she was a different person, full of decision despite her weakened condition, and the first thing she did was to order a feast to be prepared. Then a vast number of gifts and valuables were burnt as offerings on a large fire. Such was her conviction, which of course no one understood at the time.
Given that the useless Royal Scion had been at Baden recovering for half a year when the conception occurred, and that the Princess had been to those mountains on an expedition devoted to a prayer-cycle in supplication for an heir, it was obvious in retrospect that the many tigers killed by the Old Maharajah had not died in vain: there was to be an heir. At first it was not understood what had happened; it had simply been hoped that the Prince would return and fulfill his obligation. But a perceptive priest who spoke with the Princess in the month following her return found reference to a similar miraculous event in our earliest history, and his equally well advised superior proclaimed the event for the salvation that it was, stamping it firmly in the minds of the people with two days of silent fasting followed by a feast day paid for by the much-gratified Old Maharajah, who left afterward on a sabbatical. The national piety and joy were most intense, I can assure you, and the princess, now Queen-Mother-to-be was fully restored to her position of respect. We too have our cynics, of course, and I recall that a chambermaid was beheaded, but then all was well. When the Old Maharajah returned, Grandfather was awarded another title, I forget which.
And the child was Godlike, without question a Maharajah born. I remember seeing this as a boy. At three, his intelligence was apparent, his eye commanded, and he forgot no slight. Physically he was quick, strong and healthy. I could not wait to teach him to read, that he might play at being Grandfather's reader. He learned very quickly, and his imperious nature was much restrained with Grandfather. He might well have developed differently had not Grandfather lost his memory and suddenly passed away after a festivity on His Majesty's tenth birthday. The Old Maharajah, absolutely ancient by now, was broken-hearted, and died the following year. Most unhappily, as a result of the confusion caused by these two deaths, I was pressed to serve as de facto tutor-Regent, though without the title, which went to a Royal uncle on the mother's side. The young heir was precocious and independent, and whoever's task it was to restrain him was in difficulty. When the Prince failed to return from Europe to claim the throne and had a number of priceless antiquities shipped to Paris, the present Maharajah, by decree of the Queen Mother, came to power at thirteen. Nor could one say he was unprepared, any more than was Alexander. When the useless Prince met with an accident on the Swiss slopes, the krifaa was restored to the Royal Collection.
I must confess I had not realized how much I wished to voice these thoughts, and it would be quite impossible to express my appreciation for your patience in listening. But I fear I may have misled you, and that you might well believe, given your western notions, that I lack respect for the Maharajah and perhaps even abhor Him. This would be a grave and very dangerous misunderstanding: I am in fact a most loyal and devoted subject who has time and again undone cliques that wished to bring in various cousins and foreigners. When my exile was over, I returned to the Royal service without hesitation, indeed with deep gratitude, though I was on the best possible terms with the Maharajah to the North, who very much wished me to remain as an advisor, and was extremely cognizant of the krifaa monopoly. Since my return I have been a force for stability quite the equal of that Duke in Parma of whom Stendhal wrote. I gossip, it is true, there are no courtiers who do not. But this is my land, and the Maharajah is its intended ruler. We live in a cloak of security which is equally difficult to understand, and I believe we will continue to do so as long as no one is allowed to play upon His Majesty's mind with disturbing rumors. My son tells me that His heir, who this year finishes school in England, is likable, quick to assess situations, slow to make enemies, and a gifted athlete who led his school to victory in cricket, good enough to could play with the all-India squad if he so chose. He also has his father's marvelous public bearing, and my son, who is close to him, says that this extends into the situations of day-to-day living. Nor is he overly clever, and in that I see the possibility of a wonderful leader, which may come about fairly soon, given His Majesty's blood pressure and other factors I am not free to go into.
Again, I very am grateful for this chance to unburden myself; but at the same time, I'm afraid that it is out of the question for you to leave here with what you have heard, you journalists being what you are these days. So here we are. I have my job and you have yours, wretched as it is, and you do not deserve to die for whatever you put in my drink, which I must admit I found quite enjoyable. So this is what I will do: your tongue will be removed, quite safely, by a good surgeon who is familiar with the procedure. It is a common practice here and you will have excellent anesthesia. The media will learn that you were lost in the bush while searching for a lost mine. I will develop a heroic story for you, and financial accommodation will be arranged for your widow. You will become part of my beater crew, digging for krifaa during the off-season. It will be necessary for the people you stay with to think that you are an infidel agent serving sentence, but they will do you no harm unless you try to escape or do something foolish, in which case they most certainly will, because your misdeed might cause their own deaths.
Please don't bother to thank me. We are men of the world.