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Ch. 13: Naboth

This was how it happened; and the truth is also an allegory of Empire.

I met him at the corner of my garden, an empty basket on his head, and
an unclean cloth round his loins. That was all the property to which
Naboth had the shadow of a claim when I first saw him. He opened our
acquaintance by begging. He was very thin and showed nearly as many ribs
as his basket; and he told me a long story about fever and a lawsuit,
and an iron cauldron that had been seized by the court in execution of a
decree. I put my hand into my pocket to help Naboth, as kings of the
East have helped alien adventurers to the loss of their kingdoms. A
rupee had hidden in my waistcoat lining. I never knew it was there, and
gave the trove to Naboth as a direct gift from Heaven. He replied that I
was the only legitimate Protector of the Poor he had ever known.

Next morning he reappeared, a little fatter in the round, and curled
himself into knots in the front verandah. He said I was his father and
his mother, and the direct descendant of all the gods in his Pantheon,
besides controlling the destinies of the universe. He himself was but a
sweetmeat-seller, and much less important than the dirt under my feet. I
had heard this sort of thing before, so I asked him what he wanted. My
rupee, quoth Naboth, had raised him to the ever-lasting heavens, and he
wished to prefer a request. He wished to establish a sweetmeat-pitch
near the house of his benefactor, to gaze on my revered countenance as I
went to and fro illumining the world. I was graciously pleased to give
permission, and he went away with his head between his knees.

Now at the far end of my garden, the ground slopes toward the public
road, and the slope is crowned with a thick shrubbery. There is a short
carriage-road from the house to the Mall, which passes close to the
shrubbery. Next afternoon I saw that Naboth had seated himself at the
bottom of the slope, down in the dust of the public road, and in the
full glare of the sun, with a starved basket of greasy sweets in front
of him. He had gone into trade once more on the strength of my
munificent donation, and the ground was as Paradise by my honoured
favour. Remember, there was only Naboth, his basket, the sunshine, and
the gray dust when the sap of my Empire first began.

Next day he had moved himself up the slope nearer to my shrubbery, and
waved a palm-leaf fan to keep the flies off the sweets. So I judged that
he must have done a fair trade.

Four days later I noticed that he had backed himself and his basket
under the shadow of the shrubbery, and had tied an Isabella-coloured rag
between two branches in order to make more shade. There were plenty of
sweets in his basket. I thought that trade must certainly be looking up.

Seven weeks later the Government took up a plot of ground for a Chief
Court close to the end of my compound, and employed nearly four hundred
coolies on the foundations. Naboth bought a blue and white striped
blanket, a brass lamp-stand, and a small boy, to cope with the rush of
trade, which was tremendous.

Five days later he bought a huge, fat, red-backed account-book, and a
glass inkstand. Thus I saw that the coolies had been getting into his
debt, and that commerce was increasing on legitimate lines of credit.
Also I saw that the one basket had grown into three, and that Naboth had
backed and hacked into the shrubbery, and made himself a nice little
clearing for the proper display of the basket, the blanket, the books,
and the boy.

One week and five days later he had built a mud fire-place in the
clearing, and the fat account-book was overflowing. He said that God
created few Englishmen of my kind, and that I was the incarnation of all
human virtues. He offered me some of his sweets as tribute, and by
accepting these I acknowledged him as my feudatory under the skirt of my
protection.

Three weeks later I noticed that the boy was in the habit of cooking
Naboth's mid-day meal for him, and Naboth was beginning to grow a
stomach. He had hacked away more of my shrubbery and owned another and a
fatter account-book.

Eleven weeks later Naboth had eaten his way nearly through that
shrubbery, and there was a reed hut with a bedstead outside it, standing
in the little glade that he had eroded. Two dogs and a baby slept on the
bedstead. So I fancied Naboth had taken a wife. He said that he had, by
my favour, done this thing, and that I was several times finer than
Krishna. Six weeks and two days later a mud wall had grown up at the
back of the hut. There were fowls in front and it smelt a little. The
Municipal Secretary said that a cess-pool was forming in the public road
from the drainage of my compound, and that I must take steps to clear it
away. I spoke to Naboth. He said I was Lord Paramount of his earthly
concerns, and the garden was all my own property, and sent me some more
sweets in a second-hand duster.

Two months later a coolie bricklayer was killed in a scuffle that took
place opposite Naboth's Vineyard. The Inspector of Police said it was a
serious case; went into my servants' quarters; insulted my butler's
wife, and wanted to arrest my butler. The curious thing about the murder
was that most of the coolies were drunk at the time. Naboth pointed out
that my name was a strong shield between him and his enemies, and he
expected that another baby would be born to him shortly.

Four months later the hut was ALL mud walls, very solidly built, and
Naboth had used most of my shrubbery for his five goats. A silver watch
and an aluminium chain shone upon his very round stomach. My servants
were alarmingly drunk several times, and used to waste the day with
Naboth when they got the chance. I spoke to Naboth. He said, by my
favour and the glory of my countenance, he would make all his women-folk
ladies, and that if any one hinted that he was running an illicit still
under the shadow of the tamarisks, why, I, his Suzerain, was to
prosecute.

A week later he hired a man to make several dozen square yards of
trellis-work to put around the back of his hut, that his women-folk
might be screened from the public gaze. The man went away in the
evening, and left his day's work to pave the short cut from the public
road to my house. I was driving home in the dusk, and turned the corner
by Naboth's Vineyard quickly. The next thing I knew was that the horses
of the phaeton were stamping and plunging in the strongest sort of
bamboo net-work. Both beasts came down. One rose with nothing more than
chipped knees. The other was so badly kicked that I was forced to shoot
him.

Naboth is gone now, and his hut is ploughed into its native mud with
sweetmeats instead of salt for a sign that the place is accursed. I have
built a summer-house to overlook the end of the garden, and it is as a
fort on my frontier whence I guard my Empire.

I know exactly how Ahab felt. He has been shamefully misrepresented in
the Scriptures.


Rudyard Kipling