Out of Society

by Rudyard Kipling

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 14 August 1886

Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 65

Simla, 7,000 feet up in the lower Himalayas, the ‘hills’ of Kipling’s Plain Tales, was the summer capital both of the government of India and of the government of the Punjab in Kipling’s day. It had begun as a tiny local summer station for officers and their families in the early 1820s. The governor-general had spent a summer there in 1827, and thereafter it became the accepted residence of the government during the hot weather. In 1864 its de facto position as summer capital was made official. The cemetery Kipling describes long antedated the period of the town’s imperial glamour. [T.P.]

A few score yards beyond the Khaibar Pass, just where the Chota Simla road turns downhill leaving the ‘Barnes Court’ offshoot on the left, is a trysting-place affected by ayahs (nannies) and children and vagrant jhampanis (rickshaw men). Also young people on ponies make appointments to meet there; and, if you sit long enough on the spic-and-span white railings, you may see all Simla pass by a-pleasuring. Next to the Bandstand there are few places more frequented than this little halting-place above the Chota Simla dip. Every one in Simla knows about it; but every one in Simla does not know that a few yards down the hill — a short tumble backwards, in fact, from the white railings — you come suddenly upon a relic of old Simla neglected and forgotten, as are most old things in India. There is an ancient wall — boarded atop and pierced in the middle for a door — which wall looks like the boundary of a long-neglected orchard. The door has rotted from its hinges, and the valves (panels) lie green and slimy on the grass within. There is no marked path to the place where the door has been; for long spotted snake-plants spring up merrily in the direct way, and there are ferns and club-mosses on the threshold. Pass over and you step at once, if you can keep foot-hold on the slippery soil, into Simla’s first cemetery — the God’s Acre (old name for a churchyard where people are buried) taken up for the accommodation of the few residents who climbed hillward from the plains in the year of grace 1828.

It is hard to give any adequate idea of the utter desolation of the little plot the good people of those days fancied would be sufficient for their yearly needs. The frosts of fifty years have splintered and cracked the mortar of the tombs and bitten their outlines into rough and jagged shapes; ferns and grasses have taken root and flourish luxuriantly in the chinks and crevices; and one tomb, more weather-beaten than its fellows, has relapsed to a mere heap of road-metal (gravel). Many of the inscription slabs have fallen or have been picked out of the sides of the tombs, and green slime and fungus have covered deeply the rest. Perhaps the whole graveyard is fifty yards by thirty — but this is a liberal estimate. No attempt could ever have been made to level it; the ground being steeply sloping hill-side, terraced and stony. By reason of its confined space and the constant drippings of the pines overhead it is exceedingly damp, the water lying an inch or two deep at the lower end and leaving a green tide mark on the wall. No one seems to set foot in the place, for the grass grows thick and dank. There are delicate toadstools and ferns full in the way of passage, and, as I have already said, there is no marked path to the door. You can hear as you wander about among the graves the labouring breath of the rickshaw men bringing their rickshaws up the hill from Chota Simla, the least word of the babies and ayahs by the railings and the jests of the riders trotting past on the Mall above. Even in the midday sunshine the first cemetery is a dreary little place; but to thoroughly appreciate its loneliness and uncanniness you should go there on a dripping July afternoon in the middle of the rains and —always premising that you can stand firm on the slippery hillside — inspect the tombs.

It is written in the Simla Guide Book that the earliest grave is that of Margaret, daughter of a Dr Thompson, who died in 1829. The inscription slab must have fallen away or the tomb itself have disappeared, for Miss Thompson’s grave cannot be found. One of the earliest legible inscriptions is on a small fluted column in the left centre of the graveyard recording the death of
‘Thomas Edward Rees, son of the late M. Rees, Assistant Secretary, Office of the Revenue Department, who departed this life on the 14th of May 1830, aged 22 years, 10 months, and 12 days’.
This tomb is in fairly good preservation, the white mortar having toned in process of years to a deep brown. There were indifferent stone-cutters in those days — natives who mis-spelt words and whose work must have been touched up by hands unskilled in the craft. On one slab, hidden away under a deep coating of green slime, came to light four verses of a hymn cut as prose, in which ‘guardian’ is spelt ‘gaurdian’ and the y’s of all the ‘thy’s’ in the devout lines have evidently been put in by an amateur, for they are scratchy and unsteady.

The very tombs are of a dead and gone shape (they look like huge cellarets), and it is seldom that the inscriptions vary. The dead ‘depart this life’ at ‘Simlah’ on such and such a date aged so many years, months, and days, and the crumbling grass-grown square of chunam-covered (plastered) stones is ‘sacred to their memory’. This very terseness seems to point to the difficulty our people in this far away corner of the land found, fifty years ago, in getting due and stately interment for their dead. As a nation we delight in lengthy legends on our tombs, and are willing to take any trouble to have them well and fairly graven. Evidently the stone-cutters of Simla had their dustoor (custom) from which they would not depart, taking as their unvarying model the inscription on the first English tomb their clumsy hands wrought. However, it does not matter much now. In a few more years the remaining slabs will tumble from their setting, and the cracked and riven tombs will settle down into mounds of fern and fungus. The graveyard is as damp as a well, and all green things thrive aggressively.

Far down in one corner, where the yearly dropping of the pine needles and the summer rains have turned the ground into brown slush, is a squat little monument to the memory of Captain Matthew Ford, who died at Peshawur, aged 53, in the year 1841. He was an old captain, and must have seen service in his time, but nothing is given beyond his name, and the very brevity of the information sets one marvelling what manner of man Captain Ford of Peshawur was that his friends six hundred miles away should build him a memorial. Children’s graves are many and large. Alexander Duncan, infant son of Captain Parker, of the 10th Cavalry, died in 1834, aged eighteen months — poor little innocent — and rests under what must have been a sumptuous tomb — quite as big as the one a few yards off, sacred to the memory of Captain Henry Zouch Turton, 15th Regiment of Native Infantry, who died on the 29th of September 1835, aged 36, his little daughter, one year and eight months old, dying two months before her father. Charles Corbett, infant son of Henry Garstin, Captain in the 10th Light Cavalry, died in 1829, aged eight months and two days, so that, strictly speaking, he takes precedence of Thomas Edward Rees, and comes immediately after the Margaret Thompson to whom the Guide Book refers. His tomb is in the last state of ruin, and to decipher the inscription it is necessary to scrape away much slime and fungus from the slab.

In many cases, where the slabs have almost vanished under the coating of years, a little trouble brings out the long-forgotten names with startling distinctness — as incantations call up a spirit. The rims of the laboriously cut letters are as clear as on the day they were graven, for moss and lichen is a safeguard against change. It is only the strong-rooted ferns and the grasses that split the stones and deface the mortar permanently.

Major T. Elliott, of the 4th Light Dragoons, departed this life on the 5th of July 1837, when Her Majesty Queen Victoria had been a fortnight Queen of England. Major Elliott is set down Assistant Adjutant-General of the King’s troops in India, for the news of William’s death could not have reached Simla for months after the event. His tomb is in moderate good state, though the inscription had died out and cost some trouble to bring to light. The far end of the tiny cemetery — that stretch of tombs which lies directly under the tree-drip and holds the rainflow down hill — is the dampest and most utterly desolate of all. Most of the tombs are all but wiped out by time, and, where long ago some thoughful soul built a wooden shed over a specially dark grave, there remain only a few damp, rotten, spongy boards falling away from rust-eaten nails into the slime below. A pukka (proper) shed with masonry walls and a wooden roof has been erected over the finest tomb in the ground, but the rafters have rotted and the rain comes in through a big hole in the roof, while fragments of window sashes are stored in the shed itself. Captain Codrington, of the 49th Native Infantry, raised the memorial to his wife and three children in 1842: and the inscription and tablet came from Calcutta. Saving the ruined roof of the shelter house, everything here is in perfect preservation. The story told on the tablet is a thing to shudder at. Charles Hay Acland, son of Captain Codrington, died on the 6th April 1841, aged four years; Lucy Elizabeth, aged three, died two days later; the mother, Susan Elizabeth, died six weeks later, and Katherine Mary, aged two, died eleven months later, on the 27th of May 1842. The Calcutta carvers did their work well, for the inscription is as clear as on the day it was let into its place, and below the inscription are two verses — pitiless Calvinist verses — that come as a fit climax to the history of wretchedness on the grave: —
‘Lord, why is this,’ she trembling cried,
‘Wilt thou pursue a worm to death?’
‘Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied;
‘I answer prayers for grace and faith.
These sad bereavements I employ
From selfish pride to set thee free.
To break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.’
He must have been a hard man this Captain Codrington — reared in a hard faith and seeing in the wreck of his house the hand of a jealous God. It is not well that this tomb of all others should have been fenced about and protected so that the uncompromising lines might live for forty years a record of trouble and anguish more terrible than falls to the lot of one man in ten thousand. The grasses and ferns should have laid hands on the monument, and the lichens should have coated the verses a score of years ago as they have coated and swathed and gently hidden the tomb of George Crespigny, infant son of Colonel G. P. Wyrner, who died on the 9th of May 1837, aged thirteen months.

In the middle of this moralizing, and a successful attempt to throw an unsightly basket beyond the limits of the forgotten graveyard, comes the sound of horses’ feet from the Mall above, and a girl’s voice, clear and incisive, saying to her cavalier: — ‘Yes! it ought to be a delighful dance. By the way, what are you going as?’

A pause. The cavalier evidently wishes to keep the secret of his fancy dress. Then eagerly: — ‘Oh! do tell me. I’ll be as silent as the grave about it. Won’t you?’

Why of all possible comparisons that young lady should have chosen so ghastly a one I cannot tell. To make an effective ending to an ineffective description? It is possible.