WRITING of Kadir Baksh so wrought up my feelings that I could not rest till I had at least made an attempt to get a budli of some sort. The black man is essential to my comfort. I fancied I might in this city of barbarism catch a brokendown native strayed from his home and friends, who would be my friend and humble pardner—the sort of man, y’ know, who would sleep on a rug somewhere near my chambers (I have forty things to tell you about chambers, but they come later), and generally look after my things. In the intervals of labour I would talk to him in his own tongue, and we would go abroad together and explore London. Do you know the Albert Docks? The British-India steamers go thence to the sunshine. They sometimes leave a lascar or two on the wharf, and, in fact, the general tone of the population thereabouts is brown and umber. I was in no case to be particular. Anything dusky would do for me, so long as it could talk Hindustani and sew buttons. I went to the docks and walked about generally among the railway lines and packing-cases, till I found a man selling tooth-combs, which is not a paying trade. He was ragged even to furriness, and very unwashed. But he came from the East. “What are you?” I said, and the look of the missionary that steals over me in moments of agitation deluded that tooth-comb man into answering, “Sar, I am native ki-listi-an,” but he put five more syllables into the last word.
There is no Christianity in the docks worth a tooth-comb. “I don’t want your beliefs. I want your jat,” said I.
“I am Tamil,” said he, “and my name is Ramasawmy.”
It was an awful thing to lower oneself to the level of a Colonel of the Madras Army, and come down to being tended by a Ramasawmy; but beggars cannot be choosers. I pointed out to him that the tooth-comb trade was a thing lightly to be dropped and taken up. He might injure his health by a washing, but he could not much hurt his prospects by coming along with me and trying his hand at bearer’s work. “Could he work?” Oh, yes, he didn’t mind work. He had been a servant in his time. Several servants, in fact.
“Could he wash himself?”
“Ye-es,” he might do that if I gave him a coat—a thick coat—afterwards, and especially took care of the tooth-combs, for they were his little all.
“Had he any character of any kind?”’
He thought for a minute and then said cheerfully: “Not a little dam.” Thereat I loved him, because a man who can speak the truth in minor matters may be trusted with important things, such as shirts.
We went home together till we struck a public bath, mercifully divided into three classes. I got him to go into the third without much difficulty. When he came out he was in the way of cleanliness, and before he had time to expostulate I ran him into the second. Into the first he would not go till I had bought him a cheap ulster. He came out almost clean. That cost me three shillings altogether. The ulster was half a sovereign, and some other clothes were thirty shillings. Even these things could not hide from me that he looked an unusually villainous creature.
At the chambers the trouble began. The people in charge had race prejudices very strongly, and I had to point out that he was a civilised native Christian anxious to improve his English—it was fluent but unchastened—before they would give him some sort of a crib to lie down in. The housemaids called him the Camel. I introduced him as “the Tamil,” but they knew nothing of the ethnological subdivisions of India. They called him “that there beastly camel,” and I saw by the light in his eye he understood only too well.
Coming up the staircase he confided to me his views about the housemaids. He had lived at the docks too long. I said they weren’t. He said they were.
Then I showed him his duties, and he stood long in thought before the wardrobe. He evidently knew more than a little of the work, but whenever he came to a more than unusually dilapidated garment, he said: “No good for you, I take”; and he took. Then he put all the buttons on in the smoking of a pipe, and asked if there was anything else. I weakly said “No.” He said: “Good-bye,” and faded out of the house. The housekeeper of the chambers said he would never return.
But he did. At three in the morning home he came, and, naturally, possessing no latchkey, rang the bell. A policeman interfered, taking him for a burglar, and I was roused by the racket. I explained he was my servant, and the policeman said: “He do swear wonderful. ’Tain’t any language. I know most of it, but some I’ve heard at Poplar.” Then I dragged the Camel upstairs. He was quite sober, and said he had been waiting at the docks. He must wait at the docks every time a British-India steamer came in. A lascar on the Rewah had stabbed him in the side three voyages ago, and he was waiting for his man. “Maybe he have died,” he said; “but if he have not died I catch him and cut his liver out.” Then he curled himself up on the mat, and slept as noiselessly as a child.
Next morning he inspected the humble breakfast bloater, which did not meet with his approval, for he instantly cut it in two pieces, fried it with butter, dusted it with pepper, and miraculously made of it a dish fit for a king. When the shock-headed boy came to take away the breakfast things, he counted every piece of crockery into his quaking hand and said: “If you break one dam thing I cut your dam liver out and fly him with butter.” Consequently, the housemaids said they were not going to clean the rooms as long as the Camel abode within. The Camel put his head out of the door and said they need not. He cleaned the rooms with his own hand and without noise, filled my pipe, made the bed, filled a pipe for himself, and sat down on the hearth-rug while I worked. When thought carried him away to the lascar of the Rewah, he would brandish the poker or take out his knife and whet it on the brickwork of the grate. It was a soothing sound to work to. At one o’clock he said that the Chyebassa would be in, and he must go. He demanded no money, saw that my tiffin was served, and fled. He returned at six o’clock singing a hymn. A lascar on the Chyebassa had told him that the Rewah was due in four days, and that his friend was not dead, but ripe for the knife. That night he got very drunk while I was out, and frightened the housemaids. All the chambers were in an uproar, but he crawled out of the skylight on the roof, and sat there till I came home.
In the dawn he was very penitent. He had misarranged his drink: the original intention being to sleep it off on my hearth-rug, but a housemaid had invited a friend up to the chambers to look at him, and the whispered comments and giggles made him angry. All next day he was restless but attentive. He urged me to fly to foreign shores, and take him with me. When other inducements failed, he reiterated that he was a “native ki-lis-ti-an,” and whetted his knife more furiously than ever. “You do not like this place, I do not like this place. Let us travel dam quick. Let us go on the sea. I cook blotters.” I told him this was impossible, but that if he stayed in my service we might later go abroad and enjoy ourselves.
But he would not rest and sleep on the rug and tend my shirts. On the morning of the Rewah’s arrival he went away, and from his absence I fancied he had fallen into the hands of the law. But at midnight he came back, weak and husky.
“Have got him,” said he simply, and dragged his ulster down from the wall, wrapping it very tightly round him. “Now I go ’way.”
He went into the bedroom, and began counting over the tale of the week’s wash, the boots, and so forth. “All right,” he called into the other room. Then came in to say good-bye, walking slowly.
“What’s your name, marshter?” said he. I told him. He bowed and descended the staircase painfully. I had not paid him a penny, and since he did not ask for it, counted on his returning at least for wages.
It was not till next morning that I found big dark drops on most of my clean shirts, and the housemaid complained of a trail of blood all down the staircase.
“The Camel” had received payment in full from other hands than mine.