May no ill dreams disturb my rest,
Nor Powers of Darkness me molest.
— Evening Hymn
One of the few advantages that India has over England is a great Knowability. After five years’ service a man is directly or indirectly acquainted with the two or three hundred Civilians in his Province, all the Messes of ten or twelve Regiments and Batteries, and some fifteen hundred other people of the non-official caste. In ten years his knowledge should be doubled, and at the end of twenty he knows, or knows something about, every Englishman in the Empire, and may travel anywhere and everywhere without paying hotel-bills.
Globe-trotters who expect entertainment as a right, have, even within my memory, blunted this open-heartedness, but none the less to-day, if you belong to the Inner Circle and are neither a Bear nor a Black Sheep, all houses are open to you, and our small world is very, very kind and helpful.
Rickett of Kamartha stayed with Polder of Kumaon some fifteen years ago. He meant to stay two nights, but was knocked down by rheumatic fever, and for six weeks disorganized Polder’s establishment, stopped Polder’s work, and nearly died in Polder’s bedroom. Polder behaves as though he had been placed under eternal obligation by Rickett, and yearly sends the little Ricketts a box of presents and toys. It is the same everywhere. The men who do not take the trouble to conceal from you their opinion that you are an incompetent ass, and the women who blacken your character and misunderstand your wife’s amusements, will work themselves to the bone in your behalf if you fall sick or into serious trouble.
Heatherlegh, the Doctor, kept, in addition to his regular practice, a hospital on his private account—an arrangement of loose boxes for Incurables, his friend called it—but it was really a sort of fitting-up shed for craft that had been damaged by stress of weather. The weather in India is often sultry, and since the tale of bricks is always a fixed quantity, and the only liberty allowed is permission to work overtime and get no thanks, men occasionally break down and become as mixed as the metaphors in this sentence.
Heatherlegh is the dearest doctor that ever was, and his invariable prescription to all his patients is, “lie low, go slow, and keep cool.” He says that more men are killed by overwork than the importance of this world justifies. He maintains that overwork slew Pansay, who died under his hands about three years ago. He has, of course, the right to speak authoritatively, and he laughs at my theory that there was a crack in Pansay’s head and a little bit of the Dark World came through and pressed him to death. “Pansay went off the handle,” says Heatherlegh, “after the stimulus of long leave at Home. He may or he may not have behaved like a blackguard to Mrs. Keith-Wessington. My notion is that the work of the Katabundi Settlement ran him off his legs, and that he took to brooding and making much of an ordinary P. & O. flirtation. He certainly was engaged to Miss Mannering, and she certainly broke off the engagement. Then he took a feverish chill and all that nonsense about ghosts developed. Overwork started his illness, kept it alight, and killed him poor devil. Write him off to the System—one man to take the work of two and a half men.”
I do not believe this. I used to sit up with Pansay sometimes when Heatherlegh was called out to patients, and I happened to be within claim. The man would make me most unhappy by describing in a low, even voice, the procession that was always passing at the bottom of his bed. He had a sick man’s command of language. When he recovered I suggested that he should write out the whole affair from beginning to end, knowing that ink might assist him to ease his mind. When little boys have learned a new bad word they are never happy till they have chalked it up on a door. And this also is Literature.
He was in a high fever while he was writing, and the blood-and-thunder Magazine diction he adopted did not calm him. Two months afterward he was reported fit for duty, but, in spite of the fact that he was urgently needed to help an undermanned Commission stagger through a deficit, he preferred to die; vowing at the last that he was hag-ridden. I got his manuscript before he died, and this is his version of the affair, dated 1885, exactly as he wrote it:—
My doctor tells me that I need rest and change of air. It is not improbable that I shall get both ere long—rest that neither the red-coated messenger nor the midday gun can break, and change of air far beyond that which any homeward-bound steamer can give me. In the meantime I am resolved to stay where I am; and, in flat defiance of my doctor’s orders, to take all the world into my confidence. You shall learn for yourselves the precise nature of my malady; and shall, too, judge for yourselves whether any man born of woman on this weary earth was ever so tormented as I.
Speaking now as a condemned criminal might speak ere the drop-bolts are drawn, my story, wild and hideously improbable as it may appear, demands at least attention. That it will ever receive credence I utterly disbelieve. Two months ago I should have scouted as mad or drunk the man who had dared tell me the like. Two months ago I was the happiest man in India. Today, from Peshawur to the sea, there is no one more wretched. My doctor and I are the only two who know this. His explanation is, that my brain, digestion, and eyesight are all slightly affected; giving rise to my frequent and persistent “delusions.” Delusions, indeed! I call him a fool; but he attends me still with the same unwearied smile, the same bland professional manner, the same neatly trimmed red whiskers, till I begin to suspect that I am an ungrateful, evil-tempered invalid. But you shall judge for yourselves.
Three years ago it was my fortune—my great misfortune—to sail from Gravesend to Bombay, on return from long leave, with one Agnes Keith-Wessington, wife of an officer on the Bombay side. It does not in the least concern you to know what manner of woman she was. Be content with the knowledge that, ere the voyage had ended, both she and I were desperately and unreasoningly in love with one another. Heaven knows that I can make the admission now without one particle of vanity. In matters of this sort there is always one who gives and another who accepts. From the first day of our ill-omened attachment, I was conscious that Agnes’s passion was a stronger, a more dominant, and—if I may use the expression—a purer sentiment than mine. Whether she recognized the fact then, I do not know. Afterward it was bitterly plain to both of us.
Arrived at Bombay in the spring of the year, we went our respective ways, to meet no more for the next three or four months, when my leave and her love took us both to Simla. There we spent the season together; and there my fire of straw burned itself out to a pitiful end with the closing year. I attempt no excuse. I make no apology. Mrs. Wessington had given up much for my sake, and was prepared to give up all. From my own lips, in August, 1882, she learned that I was sick of her presence, tired of her company, and weary of the sound of her voice. Ninety-nine women out of a hundred would have wearied of me as I wearied of them; seventy-five of that number would have promptly avenged themselves by active and obtrusive flirtation with other men. Mrs. Wessington was the hundredth. On her neither my openly expressed aversion nor the cutting brutalities with which I garnished our interviews had the least effect.
“Jack, darling!” was her one eternal cuckoo cry: “I’m sure it’s all a mistake—a hideous mistake; and we’ll be good friends again some day. Please forgive me, Jack, dear.”
I was the offender, and I knew it. That knowledge transformed my pity into passive endurance, and, eventually, into blind hate—the same instinct, I suppose, which prompts a man to savagely stamp on the spider he has but half killed. And with this hate in my bosom the season of 1882 came to an end.
Next year we met again at Simla—she with her monotonous face and timid attempts at reconciliation, and I with loathing of her in every fibre of my frame. Several times I could not avoid meeting her alone; and on each occasion her words were identically the same. Still the unreasoning wail that it was all a “mistake”; and still the hope of eventually “making friends.” I might have seen had I cared to look, that that hope only was keeping her alive. She grew more wan and thin month by month. You will agree with me, at least, that such conduct would have driven any one to despair. It was uncalled for; childish; unwomanly. I maintain that she was much to blame. And again, sometimes, in the black, fever-stricken night-watches, I have begun to think that I might have been a little kinder to her. But that really is a “delusion.” I could not have continued pretending to love her when I didn’t; could I? It would have been unfair to us both.
Last year we met again—on the same terms as before. The same weary appeal, and the same curt answers from my lips. At least I would make her see how wholly wrong and hopeless were her attempts at resuming the old relationship. As the season wore on, we fell apart—that is to say, she found it difficult to meet me, for I had other and more absorbing interests to attend to. When I think it over quietly in my sick-room, the season of 1884 seems a confused nightmare wherein light and shade were fantastically intermingled—my courtship of little Kitty Mannering; my hopes, doubts, and fears; our long rides together; my trembling avowal of attachment; her reply; and now and again a vision of a white face flitting by in the ’rickshaw with the black and white liveries I once watched for so earnestly; the wave of Mrs. Wessington’s gloved hand; and, when she met me alone, which was but seldom, the irksome monotony of her appeal. I loved Kitty Mannering; honestly, heartily loved her, and with my love for her grew my hatred for Agnes. In August Kitty and I were engaged. The next day I met those accursed “magpie” jhampanies at the back of Jakko, and, moved by some passing sentiment of pity, stopped to tell Mrs. Wessington everything. She knew it already.
“So I hear you’re engaged, Jack dear.” Then, without a moment’s pause: “I’m sure it’s all a mistake—a hideous mistake. We shall be as good friends some day, Jack, as we ever were.”
My answer might have made even a man wince. It cut the dying woman before me like the blow of a whip. “Please forgive me, Jack; I didn’t mean to make you angry; but it’s true, it’s true!”
And Mrs. Wessington broke down completely. I turned away and left her to finish her journey in peace, feeling, but only for a moment or two, that I had been an unutterably mean hound. I looked back, and saw that she had turned her ’rickshaw with the idea, I suppose, of overtaking me.
The scene and its surroundings were photographed on my memory. The rain-swept sky (we were at the end of the wet weather), the sodden, dingy pines, the muddy road, and the black powder-riven cliffs formed a gloomy background against which the black and white liveries of the jhampanies, the yellow-panelled ’rickshaw and Mrs. Wessington’s down-bowed golden head stood out clearly. She was holding her handkerchief in her left hand and was leaning back exhausted against the ’rickshaw cushions. I turned my horse up a bypath near the Sanjowlie Reservoir and literally ran away. Once I fancied I heard a faint call of “Jack!” This may have been imagination. I never stopped to verify it. Ten minutes later I came across Kitty on horseback; and, in the delight of a long ride with her, forgot all about the interview.
A week later Mrs. Wessington died, and the inexpressible burden of her existence was removed from my life. I went Plainsward perfectly happy. Before three months were over I had forgotten all about her, except that at times the discovery of some of her old letters reminded me unpleasantly of our bygone relationship. By January I had disinterred what was left of our correspondence from among my scattered belongings and had burned it. At the beginning of April of this year, 1885, I was at Simla—semi-deserted Simla—once more, and was deep in lover’s talks and walks with Kitty. It was decided that we should be married at the end of June. You will understand, therefore, that, loving Kitty as I did, I am not saying too much when I pronounce myself to have been, at that time, the happiest man in India.
Fourteen delightful days passed almost before I noticed their flight. Then, aroused to the sense of what was proper among mortals circumstanced as we were, I pointed out to Kitty that an engagement ring was the outward and visible sign of her dignity as an engaged girl; and that she must forthwith come to Hamilton’s to be measured for one. Up to that moment, I give you my word, we had completely forgotten so trivial a matter. To Hamilton’s we accordingly went on the 15th of April, 1885. Remember that—whatever my doctor may say to the contrary—I was then in perfect health, enjoying a well-balanced mind and an absolutely tranquil spirit. Kitty and I entered Hamilton’s shop together, and there, regardless of the order of affairs, I measured Kitty for the ring in the presence of the amused assistant. The ring was a sapphire with two diamonds. We then rode out down the slope that leads to the Combermere Bridge and Peliti’s shop.
While my Waler was cautiously feeling his way over the loose shale, and Kitty was laughing and chattering at my side—while all Simla, that is to say as much of it as had then come from the Plains, was grouped round the Reading-room and Peliti’s veranda—I was aware that some one, apparently at a vast distance, was calling me by my Christian name. It struck me that I had heard the voice before, but when and where I could not at once determine. In the short space it took to cover the road between the path from Hamilton’s shop and the first plank of the Combermere Bridge I had thought over half a dozen people who might have committed such a solecism, and had eventually decided that it must have been singing in my ears. Immediately opposite Peliti’s shop my eye was arrested by the sight of four jhampanies in “magpie” livery, pulling a yellow-panelled, cheap, bazar ’rickshaw. In a moment my mind flew back to the previous season and Mrs. Wessington with a sense of irritation and disgust. Was it not enough that the woman was dead and done with, without her black and white servitors reappearing to spoil the day’s happiness? Whoever employed them now I thought I would call upon, and ask as a personal favor to change her jhampanies’ livery. I would hire the men myself, and, if necessary, buy their coats from off their backs. It is impossible to say here what a flood of undesirable memories their presence evoked.
“Kitty,” I cried, “there are poor Mrs. Wessington’s jhampanies turned up again! I wonder who has them now?”
Kitty had known Mrs. Wessington slightly last season, and had always been interested in the sickly woman.
“What? Where?” she asked. “I can’t see them anywhere.”
Even as she spoke her horse, swerving from a laden mule, threw himself directly in front of the advancing ’rickshaw. I had scarcely time to utter a word of warning when, to my unutterable horror, horse and rider passed through men and carriage as if they had been thin air.
“What’s the matter?” cried Kitty; “what made you call out so foolishly, Jack? If I am engaged I don’t want all creation to know about it. There was lots of space between the mule and the veranda; and, if you think I can’t ride—There!”
Whereupon wilful Kitty set off, her dainty little head in the air, at a hand-gallop in the direction of the Bandstand; fully expecting, as she herself afterward told me, that I should follow her. What was the matter? Nothing indeed. Either that I was mad or drunk, or that Simla was haunted with devils. I reined in my impatient cob, and turned round. The ’rickshaw had turned too, and now stood immediately facing me, near the left railing of the Combermere Bridge.
“Jack! Jack, darling!” (There was no mistake about the words this time: they rang through my brain as if they had been shouted in my ear.) “It’s some hideous mistake, I’m sure. Please forgive me, Jack, and let’s be friends again.”
The ’rickshaw-hood had fallen back, and inside, as I hope and pray daily for the death I dread by night, sat Mrs. Keith-Wessington, handkerchief in hand, and golden head bowed on her breast.
How long I stared motionless I do not know. Finally, I was aroused by my syce taking the Waler’s bridle and asking whether I was ill. From the horrible to the commonplace is but a step. I tumbled off my horse and dashed, half fainting, into Peliti’s for a glass of cherry-brandy. There two or three couples were gathered round the coffee-tables discussing the gossip of the day. Their trivialities were more comforting to me just then than the consolations of religion could have been. I plunged into the midst of the conversation at once; chatted, laughed, and jested with a face (when I caught a glimpse of it in a mirror) as white and drawn as that of a corpse. Three or four men noticed my condition; and, evidently setting it down to the results of over-many pegs, charitably endeavoured to draw me apart from the rest of the loungers. But I refused to be led away. I wanted the company of my kind—as a child rushes into the midst of the dinner-party after a fright in the dark. I must have talked for about ten minutes or so, though it seemed an eternity to me, when I heard Kitty’s clear voice outside inquiring for me. In another minute she had entered the shop, prepared to roundly upbraid me for failing so signally in my duties. Something in my face stopped her.
“Why, Jack,” she cried, “what have you been doing? What has happened? Are you ill?” Thus driven into a direct lie, I said that the sun had been a little too much for me. It was close upon five o’clock of a cloudy April afternoon, and the sun had been hidden all day. I saw my mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth: attempted to recover it; blundered hopelessly and followed Kitty in a regal rage, out of doors, amid the smiles of my acquaintances. I made some excuse (I have forgotten what) on the score of my feeling faint; and cantered away to my hotel, leaving Kitty to finish the ride by herself.
In my room I sat down and tried calmly to reason out the matter. Here was I, Theobald Jack Pansay, a well-educated Bengal Civilian in the year of grace, 1885, presumably sane, certainly healthy, driven in terror from my sweetheart’s side by the apparition of a woman who had been dead and buried eight months ago. These were facts that I could not blink. Nothing was further from my thought than any memory of Mrs. Wessington when Kitty and I left Hamilton’s shop. Nothing was more utterly commonplace than the stretch of wall opposite Peliti’s. It was broad daylight. The road was full of people; and yet here, look you, in defiance of every law of probability, in direct outrage of Nature’s ordinance, there had appeared to me a face from the grave.
Kitty’s Arab had gone through the ’rickshaw: so that my first hope that some woman marvelously like Mrs. Wessington had hired the carriage and the coolies with their old livery was lost. Again and again I went round this treadmill of thought; and again and again gave up baffled and in despair. The voice was as inexplicable as the apparition. I had originally some wild notion of confiding it all to Kitty; of begging her to marry me at once; and in her arms defying the ghostly occupant of the ’rickshaw. “After all,” I argued, “the presence of the ’rickshaw is in itself enough to prove the existence of a spectral illusion. One may see ghosts of men and women, but surely never of coolies and carriages. The whole thing is absurd. Fancy the ghost of a hillman!”
Next morning I sent a penitent note to Kitty, imploring her to overlook my strange conduct of the previous afternoon. My Divinity was still very wroth, and a personal apology was necessary. I explained, with a fluency born of night-long pondering over a falsehood, that I had been attacked with sudden palpitation of the heart—the result of indigestion. This eminently practical solution had its effect; and Kitty and I rode out that afternoon with the shadow of my first lie dividing us.
Nothing would please her save a canter round Jakko. With my nerves still unstrung from the previous night I feebly protested against the notion, suggesting Observatory Hill, Jutogh, the Boileaugunge road—anything rather than the Jakko round. Kitty was angry and a little hurt: so I yielded from fear of provoking further misunderstanding, and we set out together toward Chota Simla. We walked a greater part of the way, and, according to our custom, cantered from a mile or so below the Convent to the stretch of level road by the Sanjowlie Reservoir. The wretched horses appeared to fly, and my heart beat quicker and quicker as we neared the crest of the ascent. My mind had been full of Mrs. Wessington all the afternoon; and every inch of the Jakko road bore witness to our oldtime walks and talks. The boulders were full of it; the pines sang it aloud overhead; the rain-fed torrents giggled and chuckled unseen over the shameful story; and the wind in my ears chanted the iniquity aloud.
As a fitting climax, in the middle of the level men call the Ladies’ Mile the Horror was awaiting me. No other ’rickshaw was in sight—only the four black and white jhampanies, the yellow-panelled carriage, and the golden head of the woman within—all apparently just as I had left them eight months and one fortnight ago! For an instant I fancied that Kitty must see what I saw—we were so marvelously sympathetic in all things. Her next words undeceived me—“Not a soul in sight! Come along, Jack, and I’ll race you to the Reservoir buildings!” Her wiry little Arab was off like a bird, my Waler following close behind, and in this order we dashed under the cliffs. Half a minute brought us within fifty yards of the ’rickshaw. I pulled my Waler and fell back a little. The ’rickshaw was directly in the middle of the road; and once more the Arab passed through it, my horse following. “Jack! Jack dear! Please forgive me,” rang with a wail in my ears, and, after an interval:—“It’s a mistake, a hideous mistake!”
I spurred my horse like a man possessed. When I turned my head at the Reservoir works, the black and white liveries were still waiting—patiently waiting—under the grey hillside, and the wind brought me a mocking echo of the words I had just heard. Kitty bantered me a good deal on my silence throughout the remainder of the ride. I had been talking up till then wildly and at random. To save my life I could not speak afterward naturally, and from Sanjowlie to the Church wisely held my tongue.
I was to dine with the Mannerings that night, and had barely time to canter home to dress. On the road to Elysium Hill I overheard two men talking together in the dusk.—“It’s a curious thing,” said one, “how completely all trace of it disappeared. You know my wife was insanely fond of the woman [‘never could see anything in her myself), and wanted me to pick up her old ’rickshaw and coolies if they were to be got for love or money. Morbid sort of fancy I call it; but I’ve got to do what the Memsahib tells me. Would you believe that the man she hired it from tells me that all four of the men—they were brothers—died of cholera on the way to Hardwar, poor devils, and the ’rickshaw has been broken up by the man himself. ’Told me he never used a dead Memsahib’s ’rickshaw. ’Spoiled his luck. Queer notion, wasn’t it? Fancy poor little Mrs. Wessington spoiling any one’s luck except her own!” I laughed aloud at this point; and my laugh jarred on me as I uttered it. So there were ghosts of ’rickshaws after all, and ghostly employments in the other world! How much did Mrs. Wessington give her men? What were their hours? Where did they go?
And for visible answer to my last question I saw the infernal Thing blocking my path in the twilight. The dead travel fast, and by short cuts unknown to ordinary coolies. I laughed aloud a second time and checked my laughter suddenly, for I was afraid I was going mad. Mad to a certain extent I must have been, for I recollect that I reined in my horse at the head of the ’rickshaw, and politely wished Mrs. Wessington “Good-evening.” Her answer was one I knew only too well. I listened to the end; and replied that I had heard it all before, but should be delighted if she had anything further to say. Some malignant devil stronger than I must have entered into me that evening, for I have a dim recollection of talking the commonplaces of the day for five minutes to the Thing in front of me.
“Mad as a hatter, poor devil—or drunk. Max, try and get him to come home.”
Surely that was not Mrs. Wessington’s voice! The two men had overheard me speaking to the empty air, and had returned to look after me. They were very kind and considerate, and from their words evidently gathered that I was extremely drunk. I thanked them confusedly and cantered away to my hotel, there changed, and arrived at the Mannerings’ ten minutes late. I pleaded the darkness of the night as an excuse; was rebuked by Kitty for my unlover-like tardiness; and sat down.
The conversation had already become general; and under cover of it, I was addressing some tender small talk to my sweetheart when I was aware that at the further end of the table a short red-whiskered man was describing, with much broidery, his encounter with a mad unknown that evening.
A few sentences convinced me that he was repeating the incident of half an hour ago. In the middle of the story he looked round for applause, as professional story-tellers do, caught my eye, and straightway collapsed. There was a moment’s awkward silence, and the red-whiskered man muttered something to the effect that he had “forgotten the rest,” thereby sacrificing a reputation as a good story-teller which he had built up for six seasons past. I blessed him from the bottom of my heart, and—went on with my fish.
In the fulness of time that dinner came to an end; and with genuine regret I tore myself away from Kitty—as certain as I was of my own existence that It would be waiting for me outside the door. The red-whiskered man, who had been introduced to me as Doctor Heatherlegh, of Simla, volunteered to bear me company as far as our roads lay together. I accepted his offer with gratitude.
My instinct had not deceived me. It lay in readiness in the Mall, and, in what seemed devilish mockery of our ways, with a lighted head-lamp. The red-whiskered man went to the point at once, in a manner that showed he had been thinking over it all dinner time.
“I say, Pansay, what the deuce was the matter with you this evening on the Elysium road?” The suddenness of the question wrenched an answer from me before I was aware.
“That!” said I, pointing to It.
“That may be either D. T. or Eyes for aught I know. Now you don’t liquor. I saw as much at dinner, so it can’t be D. T. There’s nothing whatever where you’re pointing, though you’re sweating and trembling with fright like a scared pony. Therefore, I conclude that it’s Eyes. And I ought to understand all about them. Come along home with me. I’m on the Blessington lower road.”
To my intense delight the ’rickshaw instead of waiting for us kept about twenty yards ahead—and this, too whether we walked, trotted, or cantered. In the course of that long night ride I had told my companion almost as much as I have told you here.
“Well, you’ve spoiled one of the best tales I’ve ever laid tongue to,” said he, “but I’ll forgive you for the sake of what you’ve gone through. Now come home and do what I tell you; and when I’ve cured you, young man, let this be a lesson to you to steer clear of women and indigestible food till the day of your death.”
The ’rickshaw kept steady in front; and my red-whiskered friend seemed to derive great pleasure from my account of its exact whereabouts.
“Eyes, Pansay—all Eyes, Brain, and Stomach. And the greatest of these three is Stomach. You’ve too much conceited Brain, too little Stomach, and thoroughly unhealthy Eyes. Get your Stomach straight and the rest follows. And all that’s French for a liver pill. I’ll take sole medical charge of you from this hour! for you’re too interesting a phenomenon to be passed over.”
By this time we were deep in the shadow of the Blessington lower road and the ’rickshaw came to a dead stop under a pine-clad, over-hanging shale cliff. Instinctively I halted too, giving my reason. Heatherlegh rapped out an oath.
“Now, if you think I’m going to spend a cold night on the hillside for the sake of a stomach-cum-Brain-cum-Eye illusion. . . . Lord, ha’ mercy! What’s that?”
There was a muffled report, a blinding smother of dust just in front of us, a crack, the noise of rent boughs, and about ten yards of the cliff-side—pines, undergrowth, and all—slid down into the road below, completely blocking it up. The uprooted trees swayed and tottered for a moment like drunken giants in the gloom, and then fell prone among their fellows with a thunderous crash. Our two horses stood motionless and sweating with fear. As soon as the rattle of falling earth and stone had subsided, my companion muttered:—“Man, if we’d gone forward we should have been ten feet deep in our graves by now. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth.’. . . Come home, Pansay, and thank God. I want a peg badly.”
We retraced our way over the Church Ridge, and I arrived at Dr. Heatherlegh’s house shortly after midnight.
His attempts toward my cure commenced almost immediately, and for a week I never left his sight. Many a time in the course of that week did I bless the good-fortune which had thrown me in contact with Simla’s best and kindest doctor. Day by day my spirits grew lighter and more equable. Day by day, too, I became more and more inclined to fall in with Heatherlegh’s “spectral illusion” theory, implicating eyes, brain, and stomach. I wrote to Kitty, telling her that a slight sprain caused by a fall from my horse kept me indoors for a few days; and that I should be recovered before she had time to regret my absence.
Heatherlegh’s treatment was simple to a degree. It consisted of liver pills, cold-water baths, and strong exercise, taken in the dusk or at early dawn—for, as he sagely observed: “A man with a sprained ankle doesn’t walk a dozen miles a day, and your young woman might be wondering if she saw you.”
At the end of the week, after much examination of pupil and pulse, and strict injunctions as to diet and pedestrianism, Heatherlegh dismissed me as brusquely as he had taken charge of me. Here is his parting benediction: “Man, I can certify to your mental cure, and that’s as much as to say I’ve cured most of your bodily ailments. Now, get your traps out of this as soon as you can; and be off to make love to Miss Kitty.”
I was endeavoring to express my thanks for his kindness. He cut me short.
“Don’t think I did this because I like you. I gather that you’ve behaved like a blackguard all through. But, all the same, you’re a phenomenon, and as queer a phenomenon as you are a blackguard. No!”—checking me a second time—“not a rupee, please. Go out and see if you can find the eyes-brain-and-stomach business again. I’ll give you a lakh for each time you see it.”
Half an hour later I was in the Mannerings’ drawing-room with Kitty—drunk with the intoxication of present happiness and the fore-knowledge that I should never more be troubled with Its hideous presence. Strong in the sense of my new-found security, I proposed a ride at once; and, by preference, a canter round Jakko.
Never had I felt so well, so overladen with vitality and mere animal spirits, as I did on the afternoon of the 30th of April. Kitty was delighted at the change in my appearance, and complimented me on it in her delightfully frank and outspoken manner. We left the Mannerings’ house together, laughing and talking, and cantered along the Chota Simla road as of old.
I was in haste to reach the Sanjowlie Reservoir and there make my assurance doubly sure. The horses did their best, but seemed all too slow to my impatient mind. Kitty was astonished at my boisterousness. “Why, Jack!” she cried at last, “you are behaving like a child. What are you doing?”
We were just below the Convent, and from sheer wantonness I was making my Waler plunge and curvet across the road as I tickled it with the loop of my riding-whip.
“Doing?” I answered; “nothing, dear. That’s just it. If you’d been doing nothing for a week except lie up, you’d be as riotous as I.”
“Singing and murmuring in your feastful mirth,
Joying to feel yourself alive;
Lord over Nature, Lord of the visible Earth,
Lord of the senses five.”
My quotation was hardly out of my lips before we had rounded the corner above the Convent; and a few yards further on could see across to Sanjowlie. In the centre of the level road stood the black and white liveries, the yellow-panelled ’rickshaw, and Mrs. Keith-Wessington. I pulled up, looked, rubbed my eyes, and, I believe must have said something. The next thing I knew was that I was lying face downward on the road with Kitty kneeling above me in tears.
“Has it gone, child!” I gasped. Kitty only wept more bitterly.
“Has what gone, Jack dear? what does it all mean? There must be a mistake somewhere, Jack. A hideous mistake.” Her last words brought me to my feet—mad—raving for the time being.
“Yes, there is a mistake somewhere,” I repeated, “a hideous mistake. Come and look at It.”
I have an indistinct idea that I dragged Kitty by the wrist along the road up to where It stood, and implored her for pity’s sake to speak to It; to tell It that we were betrothed; that neither Death nor Hell could break the tie between us; and Kitty only knows how much more to the same effect. Now and again I appealed passionately to the Terror in the ’rickshaw to bear witness to all I had said, and to release me from a torture that was killing me. As I talked I suppose I must have told Kitty of my old relations with Mrs. Wessington, for I saw her listen intently with white face and blazing eyes.
“Thank you, Mr. Pansay,” she said, “that’s quite enough. Syce ghora láo.”
The syces, impassive as Orientals always are, had come up with the recaptured horses; and as Kitty sprang into her saddle I caught hold of the bridle, entreating her to hear me out and forgive. My answer was the cut of her riding-whip across my face from mouth to eye, and a word or two of farewell that even now I cannot write down. So I judged, and judged rightly, that Kitty knew all; and I staggered back to the side of the ’rickshaw. My face was cut and bleeding, and the blow of the riding-whip had raised a livid blue wheal on it. I had no self-respect. Just then, Heatherlegh, who must have been following Kitty and me at a distance, cantered up.
“Doctor,” I said, pointing to my face, “here’s Miss Mannering’s signature to my order of dismissal and . . . I’ll thank you for that lakh as soon as convenient.”
Heatherlegh’s face, even in my abject misery, moved me to laughter.
“I’ll stake my professional reputation”—he began.
“Don’t be a fool,” I whispered. “I’ve lost my life’s happiness and you’d better take me home.”
As I spoke the ’rickshaw was gone. Then I lost all knowledge of what was passing. The crest of Jakko seemed to heave and roll like the crest of a cloud and fall in upon me.
Seven days later (on the 7th of May, that is to say) I was aware that I was lying in Heatherlegh’s room as weak as a little child. Heatherlegh was watching me intently from behind the papers on his writing-table. His first words were not encouraging; but I was too far spent to be much moved by them.
“Here’s Miss Kitty has sent back your letters. You corresponded a good deal, you young people. Here’s a packet that looks like a ring, and a cheerful sort of a note from Mannering Papa, which I’ve taken the liberty of reading and burning. The old gentleman’s not pleased with you.”
“And Kitty?” I asked, dully.
“Rather more drawn than her father from what she says. By the same token you must have been letting out any number of queer reminiscences just before I met you. ’Says that a man who would have behaved to a woman as you did to Mrs. Wessington ought to kill himself out of sheer pity for his kind. She’s a hot-headed little virago, your mash. ’Will have it too that you were suffering from D. T. when that row on the Jakko road turned up. ’Says she’ll die before she ever speaks to you again.”
I groaned and turned over to the other side.
“Now you’ve got your choice, my friend. This engagement has to be broken off; and the Mannerings don’t want to be too hard on you. Was it broken through D. T. or epileptic fits? Sorry I can’t offer you a better exchange unless you’d prefer hereditary insanity. Say the word and I’ll tell ’em it’s fits. All Simla knows about that scene on the Ladies’ Mile. Come! I’ll give you five minutes to think over it.”
During those five minutes I believe that I explored thoroughly the lowest circles of the Inferno which it is permitted man to tread on earth. And at the same time I myself was watching myself faltering through the dark labyrinths of doubt, misery, and utter despair. I wondered, as Heatherlegh in his chair might have wondered, which dreadful alternative I should adopt. Presently I heard myself answering in a voice that I hardly recognized—
“They’re confoundedly particular about morality in these parts. Give ’em fits, Heatherlegh, and my love. Now let me sleep a bit longer.”
Then my two selves joined, and it was only I (half crazed, devil-driven I) that tossed in my bed, tracing step by step the history of the past month.
“But I am in Simla,” I kept repeating to myself. “I, Jack Pansay, am in Simla and there are no ghosts here. It’s unreasonable of that woman to pretend there are. Why couldn’t Agnes have left me alone? I never did her any harm. It might just as well have been me as Agnes. Only I’d never have come back on purpose to kill her. Why can’t I be left alone—left alone and happy?”
It was high noon when I first awoke: and the sun was low in the sky before I slept—slept as the tortured criminal sleeps on his rack, too worn to feel further pain.
Next day I could not leave my bed. Heatherlegh told me in the morning that he had received an answer from Mr. Mannering, and that, thanks to his (Heatherlegh’s) friendly offices, the story of my affliction had traveled through the length and breadth of Simla, where I was on all sides much pitied.
“And that’s rather more than you deserve,” he concluded, pleasantly, “though the Lord knows you’ve been going through a pretty severe mill. Never mind; we’ll cure you yet, you perverse phenomenon.”
I declined firmly to be cured. “You’ve been much too good to me already, old man,” said I; “but I don’t think I need trouble you further.”
In my heart I knew that nothing Heatherlegh could do would lighten the burden that had been laid upon me.
With that knowledge came also a sense of hopeless, impotent rebellion against the unreasonableness of it all. There were scores of men no better than I whose punishments had at least been reserved for another world; and I felt that it was bitterly, cruelly unfair that I alone should have been singled out for so hideous a fate. This mood would in time give place to another where it seemed that the ’rickshaw and I were the only realities in a world of shadows; that Kitty was a ghost; that Mannering, Heatherlegh, and all the other men and women I knew were all ghosts; and the great, grey hills themselves but vain shadows devised to torture me. From mood to mood I tossed backward and forward for seven weary days; my body growing daily stronger and stronger, until the bedroom looking-glass told me that I had returned to everyday life, and was as other men once more. Curiously enough my face showed no signs of the struggle I had gone through. It was pale indeed, but as expression-less and commonplace as ever. I had expected some permanent alteration—visible evidence of the disease that was eating me away. I found nothing.
On the 15th of May, I left Heatherlegh’s house at eleven o’clock in the morning; and the instinct of the bachelor drove me to the Club. There I found that every man knew my story as told by Heatherlegh, and was, in clumsy fashion, abnormally kind and attentive. Nevertheless I recognized that for the rest of my natural life I should be among but not of my fellows; and I envied very bitterly indeed the laughing coolies on the Mall below. I lunched at the Club, and at four o’clock wandered aimlessly down the Mall in the vague hope of meeting Kitty. Close to the Band-stand the black and white liveries joined me; and I heard Mrs. Wessington’s old appeal at my side. I had been expecting this ever since I came out; and was only surprised at her delay. The phantom ’rickshaw and I went side by side along the Chota Simla road in silence. Close to the bazar, Kitty and a man on horseback overtook and passed us. For any sign she gave I might have been a dog in the road. She did not even pay me the compliment of quickening her pace; though the rainy afternoon had served for an excuse.
So Kitty and her companion, and I and my ghostly Light-o’-Love, crept round Jakko in couples. The road was streaming with water; the pines dripped like roof-pipes on the rocks below, and the air was full of fine, driving rain. Two or three times I found myself saying to myself almost aloud: “I’m Jack Pansay on leave at Simla—at Simla! Everyday, ordinary Simla. I mustn’t forget that—I mustn’t forget that.” Then I would try to recollect some of the gossip I had heard at the Club: the prices of So-and-So’s horses—anything, in fact, that related to the workaday Anglo-Indian world I knew so well. I even repeated the multiplication-table rapidly to myself, to make quite sure that I was not taking leave of my senses. It gave me much comfort; and must have prevented my hearing Mrs. Wessington for a time.
Once more I wearily climbed the Convent slope and entered the level road. Here Kitty and the man started off at a canter, and I was left alone with Mrs. Wessington. “Agnes,” said I, “will you put back your hood and tell me what it all means?” The hood dropped noiselessly, and I was face to face with my dead and buried mistress. She was wearing the dress in which I had last seen her alive; carried the same tiny handkerchief in her right hand; and the same cardcase in her left. (A woman eight months dead with a cardcase!) I had to pin myself down to the multiplication-table, and to set both hands on the stone parapet of the road, to assure myself that that at least was real.
“Agnes,” I repeated, “for pity’s sake tell me what it all means.” Mrs. Wessington leaned forward, with that odd, quick turn of the head I used to know so well, and spoke.
If my story had not already so madly overleaped the bounds of all human belief I should apologize to you now. As I know that no one—no, not even Kitty, for whom it is written as some sort of justification of my conduct—will believe me, I will go on. Mrs. Wessington spoke and I walked with her from the Sanjowlie road to the turning below the Commander-in-Chief’s house as I might walk by the side of any living woman’s ’rickshaw, deep in conversation. The second and most tormenting of my moods of sickness had suddenly laid hold upon me, and like the Prince in Tennyson’s poem, “I seemed to move amid a world of ghosts.” There had been a garden-party at the Commander-in-Chief’s, and we two joined the crowd of homeward-bound folk. As I saw them then it seemed that they were the shadows—impalpable, fantastic shadows—that divided for Mrs. Wessington’s ’rickshaw to pass through. What we said during the course of that weird interview I cannot—indeed, I dare not—tell. Heatherlegh’s comment would have been a short laugh and a remark that I had been “mashing a brain-eye-and-stomach chimera.” It was a ghastly and yet in some indefinable way a marvelously dear experience. Could it be possible, I wondered, that I was in this life to woo a second time the woman I had killed by my own neglect and cruelty?
I met Kitty on the homeward road—a shadow among shadows.
If I were to describe all the incidents of the next fortnight in their order, my story would never come to an end; and your patience would be exhausted. Morning after morning and evening after evening the ghostly ’rickshaw and I used to wander through Simla together. Wherever I went there the four black and white liveries followed me and bore me company to and from my hotel. At the Theatre I found them amid the crowd or yelling jhampanies; outside the Club veranda, after a long evening of whist; at the Birthday Ball, waiting patiently for my reappearance; and in broad daylight when I went calling. Save that it cast no shadow, the ’rickshaw was in every respect as real to look upon as one of wood and iron. More than once, indeed, I have had to check myself from warning some hard-riding friend against cantering over it. More than once I have walked down the Mall deep in conversation with Mrs. Wessington to the unspeakable amazement of the passers-by.
Before I had been out and about a week I learned that the “fit” theory had been discarded in favor of insanity. However, I made no change in my mode of life. I called, rode, and dined out as freely as ever. I had a passion for the society of my kind which I had never felt before; I hungered to be among the realities of life; and at the same time I felt vaguely unhappy when I had been separated too long from my ghostly companion. It would be almost impossible to describe my varying moods from the 15th of May up to to-day.
The presence of the ’rickshaw filled me by turns with horror, blind fear, a dim sort of pleasure, and utter despair. I dared not leave Simla; and I knew that my stay there was killing me. I knew, moreover, that it was my destiny to die slowly and a little every day. My only anxiety was to get the penance over as quietly as might be. Alternately I hungered for a sight of Kitty and watched her outrageous flirtations with my successor—to speak more accurately, my successors—with amused interest. She was as much out of my life as I was out of hers. By day I wandered with Mrs. Wessington almost content. By night I implored Heaven to let me return to the world as I used to know it. Above all these varying moods lay the sensation of dull, numbing wonder that the Seen and the Unseen should mingle so strangely on this earth to hound one poor soul to its grave.
August 27.—Heatherlegh has been indefatigable in his attendance on me; and only yesterday told me that I ought to send in an application for sick leave. An application to escape the company of a phantom! A request that the Government would graciously permit me to get rid of five ghosts and an airy ’rickshaw by going to England. Heatherlegh’s proposition moved me to almost hysterical laughter. I told him that I should await the end quietly at Simla; and I am sure that the end is not far off. Believe me that I dread its advent more than any word can say; and I torture myself nightly with a thousand speculations as to the manner of my death.
Shall I die in my bed decently and as an English gentleman should die; or, in one last walk on the Mall, will my soul be wrenched from me to take its place forever and ever by the side of that ghastly phantasm? Shall I return to my old lost allegiance in the next world, or shall I meet Agnes loathing her and bound to her side through all eternity? Shall we two hover over the scene of our lives till the end of Time? As the day of my death draws nearer, the intense horror that all living flesh feels toward escaped spirits from beyond the grave grows more and more powerful. It is an awful thing to go down quick among the dead with scarcely one-half of your life completed. It is a thousand times more awful to wait as I do in your midst, for I know not what unimaginable terror. Pity me, at least on the score of my “delusion,” for I know you will never believe what I have written here. Yet as surely as ever a man was done to death by the Powers of Darkness I am that man.
In justice, too, pity her. For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. And the last portion of my punishment is ever now upon me.
“Brother to a Prince and fellow to a beggar if he be found worthy.”
The Law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow. I have been fellow to a beggar again and again under circumstances which prevented either of us finding out whether the other was worthy. I have still to be brother to a Prince, though I once came near to kinship with what might have been a veritable King, and was promised the reversion of a Kingdom—army, law-courts, revenue, and policy all complete. But, to-day, I greatly fear that my King is dead, and if I want a crown I must go hunt it for myself.
The beginning of everything was in a railway-train upon the road to Mhow from Ajmir. There had been a Deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-Class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty, or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not buy from refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. This is why in hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.
My particular Intermediate happened to be empty till I reached Nasirabad, when the big black-browed gentleman in shirt-sleeves entered, and, following the custom of Intermediates, passed the time of day. He was a wanderer and a vagabond like myself, but with an educated taste for whisky. He told tales of things he had seen and done, of out-of-the-way corners of the Empire into which he had penetrated, and of adventures in which he risked his life for a few days’ food.
“If India was filled with men like you and me, not knowing more than the crows where they’d get their next day’s rations, it isn’t seventy millions of revenue the land would be paying—it’s seven hundred millions,” said he; and as I looked at his mouth and chin I was disposed to agree with him.
We talked politics—the politics of Loaferdom that sees things from the under side where the lath and plaster is not smoothed off—and we talked postal arrangements because my friend wanted to send a telegram back from the next station to Ajmir, the turning-off place from the Bombay to the Mhow line as you travel westward. My friend had no money beyond eight annas which he wanted for dinner, and I had no money at all, owing to the hitch in the Budget before mentioned. Further, I was going into a wilderness where, though I should resume touch with the Treasury, there were no telegraph offices. I was, therefore, unable to help him in any way.
“We might threaten a Station-master, and make him send a wire on tick,” said my friend, “but that’d mean inquiries for you and for me, and I‘ve got my hands full these days. Did you say you were travelling back along this line within any days?”
“Within ten,” I said.
“Can’t you make it eight?” said he. “Mine is rather urgent business.”
“I can send your telegrams within ten days if that will serve you,” I said.
“I couldn’t trust the wire to fetch him, now I think of it. It’s this way. He leaves Delhi on the 23rd for Bombay. That means he’ll be running through Ajmir about the night of the 23rd.”
“But I’m going into the Indian Desert,” I explained.
“Well and good,” said he. “You’ll be changing at Marwar Junction to get into Jodhpore territory—you must do that—and he’ll be coming through Marwar Junction in the early morning of the 24th by the Bombay Mail. Can you be at Marwar Junction on that time? ’T won’t be inconveniencing you, because I know that there’s precious few pickings to be got out of these Central India States—even though you pretend to be correspondent of the ‘Backwoodsman.””
“Have you ever tried that trick?” I asked.
“Again and again, but the Residents find you out, and then you get escorted to the Border before you’ve time to get your knife into them. But about my friend here. I must give him a word o’ mouth to tell him what’s come to me, or else he won’t know where to go. I would take it more than kind of you if you was to come out of Central India in time to catch him at Marwar Junction, and say to him, “He has gone South for the week.” He’ll know what that means. He’s a big man with a red beard, and a great swell he is. You’ll find him sleeping like a gentleman with all his luggage round him in a Second-class apartment. But don’t you be afraid. Slip down the window and say, “He has gone South for the week,” and he’ll tumble. It’s only cutting your time of stay in those parts by two days. I ask you as a stranger—going to the West,” he said, with emphasis.
“Where have you come from?” said I.
“From the East,” said he, “and I am hoping that you will give him the message on the Square—for the sake of my Mother as well as your own.”
Englishmen are not usually softened by appeals to the memory of their mothers; but for certain reasons, which will be fully apparent, I saw fit to agree.
“It’s more than a little matter,” said he, “and that’s why I asked you to do it—and now I know that I can depend on you doing it. A Second-class carriage at Marwar Junction, and a red-haired man asleep in it. You’ll be sure to remember. I get out at the next station, and I must hold on there till he comes or sends me what I want.”
“I’ll give the message if I catch him,” I said, “and for the sake of your Mother as well as mine I’ll give you a word of advice. Don’t try to run the Central India States just now as the correspondent of the ‘Backwoodsman.” There’s a real one knocking about here, and it might lead to trouble.”
“Thank you,” said he, simply; “and when will the swine be gone? I can’t starve because he’s ruining my work. I wanted to get hold of the Degumber Rajah down here about his father’s widow, and give him a jump.”
“What did he do to his father’s widow, then?”
“Filled her up with red pepper and slippered her to death as she hung from a beam. I found that out myself, and I’m the only man that would dare going into the State to get hush-money for it. They’ll try to poison me, same as they did in Chortumna when I went on the loot there. But you’ll give the man at Marwar Junction my message?”
He got out at a little roadside station, and I reflected. I had heard, more than once, of men personating correspondents of newspapers and bleeding small Native States with threats of exposure, but I had never met any of the caste before. They lead a hard life, and generally die with great suddenness. The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. They are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harun-al-Raschid. When I left the train I did business with divers Kings, and in eight days passed through many changes of life. Sometimes I wore dress-clothes and consorted with Princes and Politicals, drinking from crystal and eating from silver. Sometimes I lay out upon the ground and devoured what I could get, from a plate made of leaves, and drank the running water, and slept under the same rug as my servant. It was all in the day’s work.
Then I headed for the Great Indian Desert upon the proper date, as I had promised, and the night Mail set me down at Marwar Junction, where a funny little, happy-go-lucky, native-managed railway runs to Jodhpore. The Bombay Mail from Delhi makes a short halt at Marwar. She arrived just as I got in, and I had just time to hurry to her platform and go down the carriages. There was only one Second-class on the train. I slipped the window and looked down upon a flaming-red beard, half covered by a railway-rug. That was my man, fast asleep, and I dug him gently in the ribs. He woke with a grunt, and I saw his face in the light of the lamps. It was a great and shining face.
“Tickets again?” said he.
“No,” said I. “I am to tell you that he is gone South for the week. He has gone South for the week!”
The train had begun to move out. The red man rubbed his eyes. “He has gone South for the week,” he repeated. “Now that’s just like his impidence. Did he say that I was to give you anything? ’Cause I won’t.”
“He didn’t,” I said, and dropped away, and watched the red lights die out in the dark. It was horribly cold because the wind was blowing off the sands. I climbed into my own train—not an Intermediate carriage this time—and went to sleep.
If the man with the beard had given me a rupee I should have kept it as a memento of a rather curious affair. But the consciousness of having done my duty was my only reward.
Later on I reflected that two gentlemen like my friends could not do any good if they foregathered and personated correspondents of newspapers, and might, if they blackmailed one of the little rat-trap States of Central India or Southern Rajputana, get themselves into serious difficulties. I therefore took some trouble to describe them as accurately as I could remember to people who would be interested in deporting them; and succeeded, so I was later informed, in having them headed back from the Degumber borders.
Then I became respectable, and returned to an office where there were no Kings and no incidents outside the daily manufacture of a newspaper. A newspaper office seems to attract every conceivable sort of person, to the prejudice of discipline. Zenana-mission ladies arrive, and beg that the Editor will instantly abandon all his duties to describe a Christian prize-giving in a back slum of a perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who have been overpassed for command sit down and sketch the outline of a series of ten, twelve, or twenty-four leading articles on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries wish to know why they have not been permitted to escape from their regular vehicles of abuse, and swear at a brother missionary under special patronage of the editorial We; stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain that they cannot pay for their advertisements, but on their return from New Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest; inventors of patent punka-pulling machines, carriage couplings, and unbreakable swords and axletrees call with specifications in their pockets and hours at their disposal; tea companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses with the office pens; secretaries of ball committees clamour to have the glories of their last dance more fully described; strange ladies rustle in and say, “I want a hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please,” which is manifestly part of an Editor’s duty; and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business to ask for employment as a proof-reader. And, all the time, the telephone-bell is ringing madly, and Kings are being killed on the Continent, and Empires are saying, “You’re another,” and Mister Gladstone is calling down brimstone upon the British Dominions, and the little black copyboys are whining, “kaa-pi chay-ha-yeh” (“Copy wanted”), like tired bees, and most of the paper is as blank as Modred’s shield.
But that is the amusing part of the year. There are six other months when none ever come to call, and the thermometer walks inch by inch up to the top of the glass, and the office is darkened to just above reading-light, and the press-machines are red-hot to touch, and nobody writes anything but accounts of amusements in the Hill-stations or obituary notices. Then the telephone becomes a tinkling terror, because it tells you of the sudden deaths of men and women that you knew intimately, and the prickly heat covers you with a garment, and you sit down and write: “A slight increase of sickness is reported from the Khuda Janta Khan District. The outbreak is purely sporadic in its nature, and, thanks to the energetic efforts of the District authorities, is now almost at an end. It is, however, with deep regret we record the death,” etc.
Then the sickness really breaks out, and the less recording and reporting the better for the peace of the subscribers. But the Empires and the Kings continue to divert themselves as selfishly as before, and the Foreman thinks that a daily paper really ought to come out once in twenty-four hours, and all the people at the Hill-stations in the middle of their amusements say, “Good gracious! why can’t the paper be sparkling? I’m sure there’s plenty going on up here.”
That is the dark half of the moon, and, as the advertisements say, “must be experienced to be appreciated.”
It was in that season, and a remarkably evil season, that the paper began running the last issue of the week on Saturday night, which is to say Sunday morning, after the custom of a London paper. This was a great convenience, for immediately after the paper was put to bed the dawn would lower the thermometer from 96° to almost 84° for half an hour, and in that chill—you have no idea how cold is 84° on the grass until you begin to pray for it—a very tired man could get off to sleep ere the heat roused him.
One Saturday night it was my pleasant duty to put the paper to bed alone. A King or courtier or a courtesan or a Community was going to die or get a new Constitution, or do something that was important on the other side of the world, and the paper was to be held open till the latest possible minute in order to catch the telegram.
It was a pitchy-black night, as stifling as a June night can be, and the loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees and pretending that the rain was on its heels. Now and again a spot of almost boiling water would fall on the dust with the flop of a frog, but all our weary world knew that was only pretence. It was a shade cooler in the press-room than the office, so I sat there, while the type ticked and clicked, and the night-jars hooted at the windows, and the all but naked compositors wiped the sweat from their foreheads and called for water. The thing that was keeping us back, whatever it was, would not come off, though the loo dropped and the last type was set, and the whole round earth stood still in the choking heat, with its finger on its lip, to wait the event. I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, might be aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing. There was no special reason beyond the heat and worry to make tension, but, as the clock-hands crept up to three o-clock and the machines spun their fly-wheels two and three times to see that all was in order, before I said the word that would set them off, I could have shrieked aloud.
Then the roar and rattle of the wheels shivered the quiet into little bits. I rose to go away, but two men in white clothes stood in front of me. The first one said, “It’s him!” The second said, “So it is!” And they both laughed almost as loudly as the machinery roared, and mopped their foreheads. “We seed there was a light burning across the road, and we were sleeping in that ditch there for coolness, and I said to my friend here, “The office is open. Let’s come along and speak to him as turned us back from Degumber State,’” said the smaller of the two. He was the man I had met in the Mhow train, and his fellow was the red-bearded man of Marwar Junction. There was no mistaking the eyebrows of the one or the beard of the other.
I was not pleased, because I wished to go to sleep, not to squabble with loafers. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Half an hour’s talk with you, cool and comfortable, in the office,” said the red-bearded man. “We’d like some drink—the Contrack doesn’t begin yet, Peachey, so you needn’t look—but what we really want is advice. We don’t want money. We ask you as a favour, because we found out you did us a bad turn about Degumber State.”
I led from the press-room to the stifling office with the maps on the walls, and the red-haired man rubbed his hands. “That’s something like,” said he. “This was the proper shop to come to. Now, Sir, let me introduce you to Brother Peachey Carnehan, that’s him, and Brother Daniel Dravot, that is me, and the less said about our professions the better, for we have been most things in our time—soldier, sailor, compositor, photographer, proof-reader, street-preacher, and correspondents of the ‘Backwoodsman’ when we thought the paper wanted one. Carnehan is sober, and so am I. Look at us first, and see that’s sure. It will save you cutting into my talk. We’ll take one of your cigars apiece, and you shall see us light up.”
I watched the test. The men were absolutely sober, so I gave them each a tepid whisky-and-soda.
“Well and good,” said Carnehan of the eyebrows, wiping the froth from his moustache. “Let me talk now, Dan. We have been all over India, mostly on foot. We have been boiler-fitters, engine-drivers, petty contractors, and all that, and we have decided that India isn’t big enough for such as us.”
They certainly were too big for the office. Dravot’s beard seemed to fill half the room and Carnehan’s shoulders the other half, as they sat on the big table. Carnehan continued: “The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that, without all the Government saying, “Leave it alone, and let us govern.” Therefore, such as it is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own. We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore we are going away to be Kings.”
“Kings in our own right,” muttered Dravot.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “You’ve been tramping in the sun, and it’s a very warm night, and hadn’t you better sleep over the notion? Come to-morrow.”
“Neither drunk nor sunstruck,” said Dravot. “We have slept over the notion half a year, and require to see Books and Atlases, and we have decided that there is only one place now in the world that two strong men can Sar-a-whack. They call it Kafiristan. By my reckoning it’s the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan, not more than three hundred miles from Peshawar. They have two and thirty heathen idols there, and we’ll be the thirty-third and fourth. It’s a mountaineous country, the women of those parts are very beautiful.”
“But that is provided against in the Contrack,” said Carnehan. “Neither Women nor Liqu-or, Daniel.”
“And that’s all we know, except that no one has gone there, and they fight, and in any place where they fight a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find, “D’ you want to vanquish your foes?” and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dy-nasty.”
“You’ll be cut to pieces before you’re fifty miles across the Border,” I said. “You have to travel through Afghanistan to get to that country. It’s one mass of mountains and peaks and glaciers, and no Englishman has been through it. The people are utter brutes, and even if you reached them you couldn’t do anything.”
“That’s more like,” said Carnehan. “If you could think us a little more mad we would be more pleased. We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps. We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books.” He turned to the bookcases.
“Are you at all in earnest?” I said.
“A little,” said Dravot, sweetly. “As big a map as you have got, even if it’s all blank where Kafiristan is, and any books you’ve got. We can read, though we aren’t very educated.”
I uncased the big thirty-two-miles-to-the-inch map of India and two smaller Frontier maps, hauled down volume INF-KAN of the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” and the men consulted them.
“See here!” said Dravot, his thumb on the map. “Up to Jagdallak, Peachey and me know the road. We was there with Robert’s Army. We’ll have to turn off to the right at Jagdallak through Laghmann territory. Then we get among the hills—fourteen thousand feet—fifteen thousand—it will be cold work there, but it don’t look very far on the map.”
I handed him Wood on the “Sources of the Oxus.” Carnehan was deep in the “Encyclopædia.”
“They’re a mixed lot,” said Dravot, reflectively; “and it won’t help us to know the names of their tribes. The more tribes the more they’ll fight, and the better for us. From Jagdallak to Ashang. H’mm!”
“But all the information about the country is as sketchy and inaccurate as can be,” I protested. “No one knows anything about it really. Here’s the file of the ‘United Services’ Institute.” Read what Bellew says.”
“Blow Bellew!” said Carnehan. “Dan, they’re a stinkin’ lot of heathens, but this book here says they think they’re related to us English.”
I smoked while the men poured over Raverty, Wood, the maps, and the “Encyclopædia.”
“There is no use your waiting,” said Dravot, politely. “It’s about four o’clock now. We’ll go before six o’clock if you want to sleep, and we won’t steal any of the papers. Don’t you sit up. We’re two harmless lunatics, and if you come to-morrow evening down to the Serai we’ll say good-bye to you.”
“You are two fools,” I answered. “You’ll be turned back at the Frontier or cut up the minute you set foot in Afghanistan. Do you want any money or a recommendation down-country? I can help you to the chance of work next week.”
“Next week we shall be hard at work ourselves, thank you,” said Dravot. “It isn’t so easy being a King as it looks. When we’ve got our Kingdom in going order we’ll let you know, and you can come up and help us govern it.”
“Would two lunatics make a Contrack like that?” said Carnehan, with subdued pride, showing me a greasy half-sheet of notepaper on which was written the following. I copied it, then and there, as a curiosity.
This Contract between me and you persuing witnesseth in the name of God—Amen and so forth.
- That me and you will settle this matter together; i.e., to be Kings of Kafiristan.
- That you and me will not, while this matter is being settled, look at any Liquor, nor any Woman, black, white, or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful.
- That we conduct ourselves with Dignity and Discretion, and if one of us gets into trouble the other will stay by him.
Signed by you and me this day.
Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan.
Both Gentlemen at Large.
“There was no need for the last article,” said Carnehan, blushing modestly; “but it looks regular. Now you know the sort of men that loafers are—we are loafers, Dan, until we get out of India—and do you think that we would sign a Contrack like that unless we was in earnest? We have kept away from the two things that make life worth having.”
“You won’t enjoy your lives much longer if you are going to try this idiotic adventure. Don’t set the office on fire,” I said, “and go away before nine o’clock.”
I left them still poring over the maps and making notes on the back of the “Contrack.” “Be sure to come down to the Serai to-morrow,” were their parting words.
The Kumharsen Serai is the great foursquare sink of humanity where the strings of camels and horses from the North load and unload. All the nationalities of Central Asia may be found there, and most of the folk of India proper. Balkh and Bokhara there meet Bengal and Bombay, and try to draw eye-teeth. You can buy ponies, turquoises, Persian pussy-cats, saddle-bags, fat-tailed sheep, and musk in the Kumharsen Serai, and get many strange things for nothing. In the afternoon I went down to see whether my friends intended to keep their word or were lying there drunk.
A priest attired in fragments of ribbons and rags stalked up to me, gravely twisting a child’s paper whirligig. Behind him was his servant bending under the load of a crate of mud toys. The two were loading up two camels, and the inhabitants of the Serai watched them with shrieks of laughter.
“The priest is mad,” said a horse-dealer to me. “He is going up to Kabul to sell toys to the Amir. He will either be raised to honour or have his head cut off. He came in here this morning and has been behaving madly ever since.”
“The witless are under the protection of God,” stammered a flat-cheeked Usbeg in broken Hindi. “They foretell future events.”
“Would they could have foretold that my caravan would have been cut up by the Shinwaris almost within shadow of the Pass!” grunted the Eusufzai agent of a Rajputana trading-house whose goods had been diverted into the hands of other robbers just across the Border, and whose misfortunes were the laughing-stock of the bazaar. “Ohé, priest, whence come you and whither do you go?”
“From Roum have I come,” shouted the priest, waving his whirligig; “from Roum, blown by the breath of a hundred devils across the sea! O thieves, robbers, liars, the blessing of Pir Khan on pigs, dogs, and perjurers! Who will take the Protected of God to the North to sell charms that are never still to the Amir? The camels shall not gall, the sons shall not fall sick, and the wives shall remain faithful while they are away, of the men who give me place in their caravan. Who will assist me to slipper the King of the Roos with a golden slipper with a silver heel? The protection of Pir Khan be upon his labours!” He spread out the skirts of his gabardine and pirouetted between the lines of tethered horses.
“There starts a caravan from Peshawar to Kabul in twenty days, Huzrut,” said the Eusufzai trader. “My camels go therewith. Do thou also go and bring us good luck.”
“I will go even now!” shouted the priest. “I will depart upon my winged camels, and be at Peshawar in a day! Ho! Hazar Mir Khan,” he yelled to his servant, “drive out the camels, but let me first mount my own.”
He leaped on the back of his beast as it knelt, and, turning round to me, cried, “Come thou also, Sahib, a little along the road, and I will sell thee a charm—an amulet that shall make thee King of Kafiristan.”
Then the light broke upon me, and I followed the two camels out of the Serai till we reached open road and the priest halted.
“What d’ you think o’ that?” said he in English. “Carnehan can’t talk their patter, so I’ve made him my servant. He makes a handsome servant. ’Tisn’t for nothing that I’ve been knocking about the country for fourteen years. Didn’t I do that talk neat? We’ll hitch on to a caravan at Peshawar till we get to Jagdallak, and then we’ll see if we can get donkeys for our camels, and strike into Kafiristan. Whirligigs for the Amir, O Lor’! Put your hand under the camelbags and tell me what you feel.”
I felt the butt of a Martini, and another and another.
“Twenty of ’em,” said Dravot, placidly. “Twenty of ’em and ammunition to correspond, under the whirligigs and the mud dolls.”
“Heaven help you if you are caught with those things!” I said. “A Martini is worth her weight in silver among the Pathans.”
“Fifteen hundred rupees of capital—every rupee we could beg, borrow, or steal—are invested on these two camels,” said Dravot. “We won’t get caught. We’re going through the Khaiber with a regular caravan. Who’d touch a poor mad priest?”
“Have you got everything you want?” I asked, overcome with astonishment.
“Not yet, but we shall soon. Give us a memento of your kindness, Brother. You did me a service yesterday, and that time in Marwar. Half my Kingdom shall you have, as the saying is.” I slipped a small charm compass from my watch-chain and handed it up to the priest.
“Good-bye,” said Dravot, giving me hand cautiously. “It’s the last time we’ll shake hands with an Englishman these many days. Shake hands with him, Carnehan,” he cried, as the second camel passed me.
Carnehan leaned down and shook hands. Then the camels passed away along the dusty road, and I was left alone to wonder. My eye could detect no failure in the disguises. The scene in the Serai proved that they were complete to the native mind. There was just the chance, therefore, that Carnehan and Dravot would be able to wander through Afghanistan without detection. But, beyond, they would find death—certain and awful death.
Ten days later a native correspondent, giving me the news of the day from Peshawar, wound up his letter with: “There has been much laughter here on account of a certain mad priest who is going in his estimation to sell petty gauds and insignificant trinkets which he ascribes as great charms to H. H. the Amir of Bokhara. He passed through Peshawar and associated himself to the Second Summer caravan that goes to Kabul. The merchants are pleased because through superstition they imagine that such mad fellows bring good fortune.”
The two, then, were beyond the Border. I would have prayed for them, but that night a real King died in Europe, and demanded an obituary notice.
The wheel of the world swings through the same phases again and again. Summer passed and winter thereafter, and came and passed again. The daily paper continued and I with it, and upon the third summer there fell a hot night, a night issue, and a strained waiting for something to be telegraphed from the other side of the world, exactly as had happened before. A few great men had died in the past two years, the machines worked with more clatter, and some of the trees in the office garden were a few feet taller. But that was all the difference.
I passed over to the press-room, and went through just such a scene as I have already described. The nervous tension was stronger than it had been two years before, and I felt the heat more acutely. At three o’clock I cried, “Print off,” and turned to go, when there crept to my chair what was left of a man. He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear. I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled—this rag-wrapped, whining cripple who addressed me by name, crying that he was come back. “Can you give me a drink?” he whimpered. “For the Lord’s sake, give me a drink!”
I went back to the office, the man following with groans of pain, and I turned up the lamp.
“Don’t you know me?” he gasped, dropping into a chair, and he turned his drawn face, surmounted by a shock of gray hair, to the light.
I looked at him intently. Once before had I seen eyebrows that met over the nose in an inch-broad black band, but for the life of me I could not tell where.
“I don’t know you,” I said, handing him the whisky. “What can I do for you?”
He took a gulp of the spirit raw, and shivered in spite of the suffocating heat.
“I’ve come back,” he repeated; “and I was the King of Kafiristan—me and Dravot—crowned Kings we was! In this office we settled it—you setting there and giving us the books. I am Peachey—Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan—and you’ve been setting here ever since—O Lord!”
I was more than a little astonished, and expressed my feelings accordingly.
“It’s true,” said Carnehan, with a dry cackle, nursing his feet, which were wrapped in rags—“true as gospel. Kings we were, with crowns upon our heads—me and Dravot—poor Dan—oh, poor, poor Dan, that would never take advice, not though I begged of him!”
“Take the whisky,” I said, “and take your own time. Tell me all you can recollect of everything from beginning to end. You got across the Border on your camels, Dravot dressed as a mad priest and you his servant. Do you remember that?”
“I ain’t mad—yet, but I shall be that way soon. Of course I remember. Keep looking at me, or maybe my words will go all to pieces. Keep looking at me in my eyes and don’t say anything.”
I leaned forward and looked into his face as steadily as I could. He dropped one hand upon the table and I grasped it by the wrist. It was twisted like a bird’s claw, and upon the back was a ragged, red, diamond-shaped scar.
“No, don’t look there. Look at me,” said Carnehan. “That comes afterward, but for the Lord’s sake don’t distrack me. We left with that caravan, me and Dravot playing all sorts of antics to amuse the people we were with. Dravot used to make us laugh in the evenings when all the people was cooking their dinners—cooking their dinners, and . . . what did they do then? They lit little fires with sparks that went into Dravot’s beard, and we all laughed—fit to die. Little red fires they was, going into Dravot’s big red beard—so funny.” His eyes left mine and he smiled foolishly.
“You went as far as Jagdallak with that caravan,” I said, at a venture, “after you had lit those fires. To Jagdallak, where you turned off to try to get into Kafiristan.”
“No, we didn’t, neither. What are you talking about? We turned off before Jagdallak, because we heard the roads was good. But they wasn’t good enough for our two camels—mine and Dravot’s. When we left the caravan, Dravot took off all his clothes and mine too, and said we would be heathen, because the Kafirs didn’t allow Mohammedans to talk to them. So we dressed betwixt and between, and such a sight as Daniel Dravot I never saw yet nor expect to see again. He burned half his beard, and slung a sheepskin over his shoulder, and shaved his head into patterns. He shaved mine too, and made me wear outrageous things to look like a heathen. That was in a most mountaineous country, and our camels couldn’t go along any more because of the mountains. They were tall and black, and coming home I saw them fight like wild goats—there are lots of goats in Kafiristan. And these mountains, they never keep still, no more than the goats. Always fighting they are, and don’t let you sleep at night.”
“Take some more whisky,” I said, very slowly. “What did you and Daniel Dravot do when the camels could go no farther because of the rough roads that led into Kafiristan?”
“What did which do? There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Dravot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold. Slap from the bridge fell old Peachey, turning and twisting in the air like a penny whirligig that you can sell to the Amir. No; they was two for three ha’pence, those whirligigs, or I am much mistaken and woeful sore. . . . And then these camels were no use, and Peachey said to Dravot, “For the Lord’s sake let’s get out of this before our heads are chopped off,” and with that they killed the camels all among the mountains, not having anything in particular to eat, but first they took off the boxes with the guns and the ammunition, till two men came along driving four mules. Dravot up and dances in front of them, singing, “Sell me four mules.” Says the first man, “If you are rich enough to buy, you are rich enough to rob;’ but before ever he could put his hand to his knife, Dravot breaks his neck over his knee, and the other party runs away. So Carnehan loaded the mules with the rifles that was taken off the camels, and together we starts forward into those bitter-cold mountaineous parts, and never a road broader than the back of your hand.”
He paused for a moment, while I asked him if he could remember the nature of the country through which he had journeyed.
“I am telling you as straight as I can, but my head isn’t as good as it might be. They drove nails through it to make me hear better how Dravot died. The country was mountaineous and the mules were most contrary, and the inhabitants was dispersed and solitary. They went up and up, and down and down, and that other party, Carnehan, was imploring of Dravot not to sing and whistle so loud, for fear of bringing down the tremenjus avalanches. But Dravot says that if a King couldn’t sing it wasn’t worth being King, and whacked the mules over the rump, and never took no heed for ten cold days. We came to a big level valley all among the mountains, and the mules were near dead, so we killed them, not having anything in special for them or us to eat. We sat upon the boxes, and played odd and even with the cartridges that was jolted out.
“Then ten men with bows and arrows ran down that valley, chasing twenty men with bows and arrows, and the row was tremenjus. They was fair men—fairer than you or me—with yellow hair and remarkable well built. Says Dravot, unpacking the guns, “This is the beginning of the business. We’ll fight for the ten men,” and with that he fires two rifles at the twenty men, and drops one of them at two hundred yards from the rock where he was sitting. The other men began to run, but Carnehan and Dravot sits on the boxes picking them off at all ranges, up and down the valley. Then we goes up to the ten men that had run across the snow too, and they fires a footy little arrow at us. Dravot he shoots above their heads, and they all falls down flat. Then he walks over them and kicks them, and then he lifts them up and shakes hands all round to make them friendly like. He calls them and gives them the boxes to carry, and waves his hand for all the world as though he was King already. They takes the boxes and him across the valley and up the hill into a pine wood on the top, where there was half a dozen big stone idols. Dravot he goes to the biggest—a fellow they call Imbra—and lays a rifle and a cartridge at his feet, rubbing his nose respectfully with his own nose, patting him on the head, and nods his head, and says, “That’s all right. I’m in the know too, and these old jimjams are my friends.” Then he opens his mouth and points down it, and when the first man brings him food, he says, “No;’ and when the second man brings him food, he says ‘no;’ but when one of the old priests and the boss of the village brings him food, he says, “Yes;’ very haughty, and eats it slow. That was how we came to our first village without any trouble, just as though we had tumbled from the skies. But we tumbled from one of those damned rope-bridges, you see, and—you couldn’t expect a man to laugh much after that?”
“Take some more whisky and go on,” I said. “That was the first village you came into. How did you get to be King?”
“I wasn’t King,” said Carnehan. “Dravot he was the King, and a handsome man he looked with the gold crown on his head and all. Him and the other party stayed in that village, and every morning Dravot sat by the side of old Imbra, and the people came and worshipped. That was Dravot’s order. Then a lot of men came into the valley, and Carnehan Dravot picks them off with the rifles before they knew where they was, and runs down into the valley and up again the other side, and finds another village, same as the first one, and the people all falls down flat on their faces, and Dravot says, “Now what is the trouble between you two villages?” and the people points to a woman, as fair as you or me, that was carried off, and Dravot takes her back to the first village and counts up the dead—eight there was. For each dead man Dravot pours a little milk on the ground and waves his arms like a whirligig, and ‘That’s all right,” says he. Then he and Carnehan takes the big boss of each village by the arm, and walks them down the valley, and shows them how to scratch a line with a spear right down the valley, and gives each a sod of turf from both sides of the line. Then all the people comes down and shouts like the devil and all, and Dravot says, “Go and dig the land, and be fruitful and multiply,” which they did, though they didn’t understand. Then we asks the names of things in their lingo—bread and water and fire and idols and such; and Dravot leads the priest of each village up to the idol, and says he must sit there and judge the people, and if anything goes wrong he is to be shot.
“Next week they was all turning up the land in the valley as quiet as bees and much prettier, and the priests heard all the complaints and told Dravot in dumb-show what it was about. ‘That’s just the beginning,” says Dravot. ‘They think we’re Gods.” He and Carnehan picks out twenty good men and shows them how to click off a rifle and form fours and advance in line; and they was very pleased to do so, and clever to see the hang of it. Then he takes out his pipe and his baccy-pouch, and leaves one at one village and one at the other, and off we two goes to see what was to be done in the next valley. That was all rock, and there was a little village there, and Carnehan says, “Send ’em to the old valley to plant,” and takes ’em there and gives ’em some land that wasn’t took before. They were a poor lot, and we blooded ’em with a kid before letting ’em into the new Kingdom. That was to impress the people, and then they settled down quiet, and Carnehan went back to Dravot, who had got into another valley, all snow and ice and most mountaineous. There was no people there, and the Army got afraid; so Dravot shoots one of them, and goes on till he finds some people in a village, and the Army explains that unless the people wants to be killed they had better not shoot their little matchlocks, for they had matchlocks. We makes friends with the priest, and I stays there alone with two of the Army, teaching the men how to drill; and a thundering big Chief comes across the snow with kettledrums and horns twanging, because he heard there was a new God kicking about. Carnehan sights for the brown of the men half a mile across the snow and wings one of them. Then he sends a message to the Chief that, unless he wished to be killed, he must come and shake hands with me and leave his arms behind. The Chief comes alone first, and Carnehan shakes hands with him and whirls his arms about, same as Dravot used, and very much surprised that Chief was, and strokes my eyebrows. Then Carnehan goes alone to the Chief, and asks him in dumb-show if he had an enemy he hated. ‘I have,” says the chief. So Carnehan weeds out the pick of his men, and sets the two of the Army to show them drill, and at the end of two weeks the men can manoeuvre about as well as Volunteers. So he marches with the Chief to a great big plain on the top of a mountain, and the Chief’s men rushes into a village and takes it; we three Martinis firing into the brown of the enemy. So we took that village too, and I gives the Chief a rag from my coat, and says, “Occupy till I come;’ which was scriptural. By way of a reminder, when me and the Army was eighteen hundred yards away, I drops a bullet near him standing on the snow, and all the people falls flat on their faces. Then I sends a letter to Dravot wherever he be by land or by sea.”
At the risk of throwing the creature out of train I interrupted: “How could you write a letter up yonder?”
“The letter?—oh!—the letter! Keep looking at me between the eyes, please. It was a string-talk letter, that we’d learned the way of it from a blind beggar in the Punjab.”
I remember that there had once come to the office a blind man with a knotted twig, and a piece of string which he wound round the twig according to some cipher of his own. He could, after the lapse of days or hours, repeat the sentence which he had reeled up. He had reduced the alphabet to eleven primitive sounds, and tried to teach me his method, but I could not understand.
“I sent that letter to Dravot,” said Carnehan, “and told him to come back because this Kingdom was growing too big for me to handle; and then I struck for the first valley, to see how the priests were working. They called the village we took along with the Chief, Bashkai, and the first village we took, Er-Heb. The priests at Er-Heb was doing all right, but they had a lot of pending cases about land to show me, and some men from another village had been firing arrows at night. I went out and looked for that village, and fired four rounds at it from a thousand yards. That used all the cartridges I cared to spend, and I waited for Dravot, who had been away two or three months, and I kept my people quiet.
“One morning I heard the devil’s own noise of drums and horns, and Dan Dravot marches down the hill with his Army and a tail of hundreds of men, and, which was the most amazing, a great gold crown on his head. ‘My Gord, Carnehan,” says Daniel, “this is a tremenjus business, and we’ve got the whole country as far as it’s worth having. I am the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis, and you’re my younger brother and a God too! It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever seen. I’ve been marching and fighting for six weeks with the Army, and every footy little village for fifty miles has come in rejoiceful; and more than that, I’ve got the key of the whole show, as you’ll see, and I’ve got a crown for you! I told ’em to make two of ’em at a place called Shu, where the gold lies in the rock like suet in mutton. Gold I’ve seen, and turquoise I’ve kicked out of the cliffs, and there’s garnets in the sands of the river, and here’s a chunk of amber that a man brought me. Call up all the priests and, here, take your crown.”
“One of the men opens a black hair bag, and I slips the crown on. It was too small and too heavy, but I wore it for the glory. Hammered gold it was—five pounds weight, like a hoop of a barrel.
“‘Peachey,’ says Dravot, ‘we don’t want to fight no more. The Craft’s the trick, so help me!’ and he brings forward that same Chief that I left at Bashkai—Billy Fish we called him afterward, because he was so like Billy Fish that drove the big tank-engine at Mach on the Bolan in the old days. ‘Shake hands with him,” says Dravot; and I shook hands and nearly dropped, for Billy Fish gave me the Grip. I said nothing, but tried him with the Fellow-craft Grip. He answers all right, and I tried the Master’s Grip, but that was a slip. ‘A Fellow-craft he is!’ I says to Dan. ‘Does he know the word?” ‘He does,” says Dan, “and all the priests know. It’s a miracle! The Chiefs and the priests can work a Fellow-craft Lodge in a way that’s very like ours, and they’ve cut the marks on the rocks, but they don’t know the Third Degree, and they’ve come to find out. It’s Gord’s Truth. I’ve known these long years that the Afghans knew up to the Fellow-craft Degree, but this is a miracle. A God and a Grand Master of the Craft am I, and a Lodge in the Third Degree I will open, and we’ll raise the head priests and the Chiefs of the villages.”
“‘It’s against all the law,” I says, “holding a Lodge without warrant from any one; and you know we never held office in any Lodge.”
“‘It’s a master stroke o’ policy,” says Dravot. ‘It means running the country as easy as a four-wheeled bogie on a down grade. We can’t stop to inquire now, or they’ll turn against us. I’ve forty Chiefs at my heel, and passed and raised according to their merit they shall be. Billet these men on the villages, and see that we run up a Lodge of some kind. The temple of Imbra will do for a Lodge-room. The women must make aprons as you show them. I’ll hold a levee of Chiefs to-night and Lodge to-morrow.”
“I was fair run off my legs, but I wasn’t such a fool as not to see what a pull this Craft business gave us. I showed the priests’ families how to make aprons of the degrees, but for Dravot’s apron the blue border and marks was made of turquoise lumps on white hide, not cloth. We took a great square stone in the temple for the Master’s chair, and little stones for the officer’s chairs, and painted the black pavement with white squares, and did what we could to make things regular.
“At the levee which was held that night on the hillside with big bonfires, Dravot gives out that him and me were Gods and sons of Alexander, and Passed Grand Masters in the Craft, and was come to make Kafiristan a country where every man should eat in peace and drink in quiet, and specially obey us. Then the Chiefs come round to shake hands, and they were so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends. We gave them names according as they was like men we had known in India—Billy Fish, Holly Dilworth, Pikky Kergan, that was Bazaar-master when I was at Mhow, and so on, and so on.
“The most amazing miracles was at Lodge next night. One of the old priests was watching us continuous, and I felt uneasy, for I knew we’d have to fudge the Ritual, and I didn’t know what the men knew. The old priest was a stranger come in from beyond the village of Bashkai. The minute Dravot puts on the Master’s apron that the girls had made for him, the priest fetches a whoop and a howl, and tries to overturn the stone that Dravot was sitting on. ‘It’s all up now,” I says. ‘That comes of meddling with the Craft without warrant!’ Dravot never winked an eye, not when ten priests took and tilted over the Grand Master’s chair—which was to say, the stone of Imbra. The priest begins rubbing the bottom end of it to clear away the black dirt, and presently he shows all the other priests the Master’s Mark, same as was on Dravot’s apron, cut into the stone. Not even the priests of the temple of Imbra knew it was there. The old chap falls flat on his face at Dravot’s feet and kisses ’em. ‘Luck again,” says Dravot, across the Lodge, to me; ‘they say it’s the missing Mark that no one could understand the why of. We’re more than safe now.” Then he bangs the butt of his gun for a gavel and says, “By virtue of the authority vested in me by my own right hand and the help of Peachey, I declare myself Grand Master of all Freemasonry in Kafiristan in this the Mother Lodge o’ the country, and King of Kafiristan equally with Peachey!’ At that he puts on his crown and I puts on mine—I was doing Senior Warden—and we opens the Lodge in most ample form. It was an amazing miracle! The priests moved in Lodge through the first two degrees almost without telling, as if the memory was coming back to them. After that Peachey and Dravot raised such as was worthy—high priests and Chiefs of far-off villages. Billy Fish was the first, and I can tell you we scared the soul out of him. It was not in any way according to Ritual, but it served our turn. We didn’t raise more than ten of the biggest men, because we didn’t want to make the Degree common. And they was clamouring to be raised.
“‘In another six months,” says Dravot, “we’ll hold another Communication and see how you are working.” Then he asks them about their villages, and learns that they was fighting one against the other, and were sick and tired of it. And when they wasn’t doing that they was fighting with the Mohammedans. ‘You can fight those when they come into our country,” says Dravot. ‘Tell off every tenth man of your tribes for a Frontier guard, and send two hundred at a time to this valley to be drilled. Nobody is going to be shot or speared any more so long as he does well, and I know that you won’t cheat me, because you’re white people—sons of Alexander—and not like common black Mohammedans. You are my people, and, by God,” says he, running off into English at the end, “I’ll make a damned fine Nation of you, or I’ll die in the making!’
“I can’t tell all we did for the next six months, because Dravot did a lot I couldn’t see the hang of, and he learned their lingo in a way I never could. My work was to help the people plough, and now and again go out with some of the Army and see what the other villages were doing, and make ’em throw rope bridges across the ravines which cut up the country horrid. Dravot was very kind to me, but when he walked up and down in the pine wood pulling that bloody red beard of his with both fists I knew he was thinking plans I could not advise about, and I just waited for orders.
“But Dravot never showed me disrespect before the people. They were afraid of me and the Army, but they loved Dan. He was the best of friends with the priests and the Chiefs; but any one could come across the hills with a complaint, and Dravot would hear him out fair, and call four priests together and say what was to be done. He used to call in Billy Fish from Bashkai, and Pikky Kergan from Shu, and an old Chief we called Kafuzelum—it was like enough to his real name—and hold councils with ’em when there was any fighting to be done in small villages. That was his Council of War, and the four priests of Bashkai, Shu, Khawak, and Madora was his Privy Council. Between the lot of ’em they sent me, with forty men and twenty rifles, and sixty men carrying turquoises, into the Ghorband country to buy those hand-made Martini rifles, that come out of the Amir’s workshops at Kabul, from one of the Amir’s Herati regiments that would have sold the very teeth out of their mouths for turquoises.
“I stayed in Ghorband a month, and gave the Governor there the pick of my baskets for hush-money, and bribed the Colonel of the regiment some more, and, between the two and the tribes-people, we got more than a hundred hand-made Martinis, a hundred good Kohat Jezails that’ll throw to six hundred yards, and forty man-loads of very bad ammunition for the rifles. I came back with what I had, and distributed ’em among the men that the Chiefs sent in to me to drill. Dravot was too busy to attend to those things, but the old Army that we first made helped me, and we turned out five hundred men that could drill, and two hundred that knew how to hold arms pretty straight. Even those cork-screwed, hand-made guns was a miracle to them. Dravot talked big about powder-shops and factories, walking up and down in the pine wood when the winter was coming on.
“‘I won’t make a Nation,” says he. ‘I’ll make an Empire! These men aren’t niggers; they’re English! Look at their eyes—look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English. I’ll take a census in the spring if the priests don’t get frightened. There must be a fair two million of ’em in these hills. The villages are full o’ little children. Two million people—two hundred and fifty thousand fighting men—and all English! They only want the rifles and a little drilling. Two hundred and fifty thousand men, ready to cut in on Russia’s right flank when she tries for India! Peachey, man,” he says, chewing his beard in great hunks, “we shall be Emperors—Emperors of the Earth! Rajah Brooke will be a suckling to us. I’ll treat with the Viceroy on equal terms. I’ll ask him to send me twelve picked English—twelve that I know of—to help us govern a bit. There’s Mackray, Serjeant Pensioner at Segowli—many’s the good dinner he’s given me, and his wife a pair of trousers. There’s Donkin, the Warder of Tounghoo Jail; there’s hundreds that I could lay my hand on if I was in India. The Viceroy shall do it for me; I’ll send a man through in the spring for those men, and I’ll write for a dispensation from the Grand Lodge for what I’ve done as Grand Master. That—and all the Sniders that’ll be thrown out when the native troops in India take up the Martini. They’ll be worn smooth, but they’ll do for fighting in these hills. Twelve English, a hundred thousand Sniders run through the Amir’s country in driblets—I’d be content with twenty thousand in one year—and we’d be an Empire. When everything was shipshape I’d hand over the crown—this crown I’m wearing now—to Queen Victoria on my knees, and she’d say, “Rise up, Sir Daniel Dravot.” Oh, it’s big! It’s big, I tell you! But there’s so much to be done in every place—Bashkai, Khawak, Shu, and everywhere else.”
“‘What is it?” I says. ‘There are no more men coming in to be drilled this autumn. Look at those fat black clouds. They’re bringing the snow.”
“‘It isn’t that,” says Daniel, putting his hand very hard on my shoulder; ‘and I don’t wish to say anything that’s against you, for no other living man would have followed me and made me what I am as you have done. You’re a first-class Commander-in-Chief, and the people know you; but—it’s a big country, and somehow you can’t help me, Peachey, in the way I want to be helped.”
“‘Go to your blasted priests, then!’ I said, and I was sorry when I made that remark, but it did hurt me sore to find Daniel talking so superior, when I’d drilled all the men and done all he told me.
“‘Don’t let’s quarrel, Peachey,” says Daniel, without cursing. ‘You’re a King too, and the half of this Kingdom is yours; but can’t you see, Peachey, we want cleverer men than us now—three or four of ’em, that we can scatter about for our Deputies. It’s a hugeous great State, and I can’t always tell the right thing to do, and I haven’t time for all I want to do, and here’s the winter coming on and all.” He put half his beard into his mouth, all red like the gold of his crown.
“‘I’m sorry, Daniel,” says I. ‘I’ve done all I could. I’ve drilled the men and shown the people how to stack their oats better; and I’ve brought in those tinware rifles from Ghorband—but I know what you’re driving at. I take it Kings always feel oppressed that way.”
“‘There’s another thing too,” says Dravot, walking up and down. ‘The winter’s coming, and these people won’t be giving much trouble, and if they do we can’t move about. I want a wife.”
“‘For Gord’s sake leave the women alone!’ I says. ‘We’ve both got all the work we can, though I am a fool. Remember the Contrack, and keep clear o’ women.””
“‘The Contrack only lasted till such time as we was Kings; and Kings we have been these months past,” says Dravot, weighing his crown in his hand. ‘You go get a wife too, Peachey—a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter. They’re prettier than English girls, and we can take the pick of ’em. Boil ’em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come out like chicken and ham.”
“‘Don’t tempt me!’ I says. ‘I will not have any dealings with a woman, not till we are a dam’ side more settled than we are now. I’ve been doing the work o’ two men, and you’ve been doing the work of three. Let’s lie off a bit, and see if we can get some better tobacco from Afghan country and run in some good liquor; and no women.””
“‘Who’s talking o’ women?” says Dravot. ‘I said wife—a Queen to breed a King’s son for the King. A Queen out of the strongest tribe, that’ll make them your blood-brothers, and that’ll lie by your side and tell you all the people thinks about you and their own affairs. That’s what I want.”
“‘Do you remember that Bengali woman I kept at Mogul Serai when I was a plate-layer?” says I. ‘A fat lot o’ good she was to me. She taught me the lingo and one or two other things; but what happened? She ran away with the Station-master’s servant and half my month’s pay. Then she turned up at Dadur Junction in tow of a half-caste, and had the impidence to say I was her husband—all among the drivers in the running-shed too!’
“‘We’ve done with that,” says Dravot; ‘these women are whiter than you or me, and a Queen I will have for the winter months.”
“‘For the last time o’ asking, Dan, do not,” I says. ‘It’ll only bring us harm. The Bible says that Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women, “specially when they’ve got a new raw Kingdom to work over.”
“‘For the last time of answering, I will,” said Dravot, and he went away through the pine-trees looking like a big red devil, the sun being on his crown and beard and all.
“But getting a wife was not as easy as Dan thought. He put it before the Council, and there was no answer till Billy Fish said that he’d better ask the girls. Dravot damned them all round. ‘What’s wrong with me?” he shouts, standing by the idol Imbra. ‘Am I a dog, or am I not enough of a man for your wenches? Haven’t I put the shadow of my hand over this country? Who stopped the last Afghan raid?” It was me really, but Dravot was too angry to remember. ‘Who bought your guns? Who repaired the bridges? Who’s the Grand Master of the sign cut in the stone?” says he, and he thumped his hand on the block that he used to sit on in Lodge, and at Council, which opened like Lodge always. Billy Fish said nothing, and no more did the others. ‘Keep your hair on, Dan,” said I, “and ask the girls. That’s how it’s done at Home, and these people are quite English.”
“‘The marriage of the King is a matter of State,” says Dan, in a white-hot rage, for he could feel, I hope, that he was going against his better mind. He walked out of the Council-room, and the others sat still, looking at the ground.
“‘Billy Fish,” says I to the Chief of Bashkai, “what’s the difficulty here? A straight answer to a true friend.”
“‘You know,” says Billy Fish. ‘How should a man tell you who knows everything? How can daughters of men marry Gods or Devils? It’s not proper.”
“I remembered something like that in the Bible; but, if after seeing us as long as they had, they still believed we were Gods, it wasn’t for me to undeceive them.
“‘A God can do anything,” says I. ‘If the King is fond of a girl he’ll not let her die.” ‘She’ll have to,” said Billy Fish. ‘There are all sorts of Gods and Devils in these mountains, and now and again a girl marries one of them and isn’t seen any more. Besides, you two know the Mark cut in the stone. Only the Gods know that. We thought you were men till you showed the sign of the Master.”
“I wished then that we had explained about the loss of the genuine secrets of a Master Mason at the first go-off; but I said nothing. All that night there was a blowing of horns in a little dark temple half-way down the hill, and I heard the girl crying fit to die. One of the priests told us that she was being prepared to marry the King.
“‘I’ll have no nonsense of that kind,” says Dan. ‘I don’t want to interfere with your customs, but I’ll take my own wife.” ‘The girl’s a little bit afraid,” says the priest. ‘She thinks she’s going to die, and they are a-heartening of her up down in the temple.”
“‘Hearten her very tender, then,” says Dravot, “or I’ll hearten you with the butt of a gun so you’ll never want to be heartened again.” He licked his lips, did Dan, and stayed up walking about more than half the night, thinking of the wife that he was going to get in the morning. I wasn’t any means comfortable, for I knew that dealings with a woman in foreign parts, though you was a crowned King twenty times over, could not but be risky. I got up very early in the morning while Dravot was asleep, and I saw the priests talking together in whispers, and the Chiefs talking together too, and they looked at me out of the corners of their eyes.
“‘What is up, Fish?” I say to the Bashkai man, who was wrapped up in his furs and looking splendid to behold.
“‘I can’t rightly say,” says he; ‘but if you can make the King drop all this nonsense about marriage, you’ll be doing him and me and yourself a great service.”
“‘That I do believe,” says I. ‘But sure, you know, Billy, as well as me, having fought against and for us, that the King and me are nothing more than two of the finest men that God Almighty ever made. Nothing more, I do assure you.”
“‘That may be,” says Billy Fish, “and yet I should be sorry if it was.” He sinks his head upon his great fur cloak for a minute and thinks. ‘King,” says he, “be you man or God or Devil, I’ll stick by you to-day. I have twenty of my men with me, and they will follow me. We’ll go to Bashkai until the storm blows over.”
“A little snow had fallen in the night, and everything was white except the greasy fat clouds that blew down and down from the north. Dravot came out with his crown on his head, swinging his arms and stamping his feet, and looking more pleased than Punch.
“‘For the last time, drop it, Dan,” says I, in a whisper; ‘Billy Fish here says that there will be a row.”
“‘A row among my people!’ says Dravot. ‘Not much. Peachey, you’re a fool not to get a wife too. Where’s the girl?” says he, with a voice as loud as the braying of a jackass. ‘Call up all the Chiefs and priests, and let the Emperor see if his wife suits him.”
“There was no need to call any one. They were all there leaning on their guns and spears round the clearing in the centre of the pine wood. A lot of priests went down to the little temple to bring up the girl, and the horns blew fit to wake the dead. Billy Fish saunters round and gets as close to Daniel as he could, and behind him stood his twenty men with matchlocks—not a man of them under six feet. I was next to Dravot, and behind me was twenty men of the regular Army. Up comes the girl, and a strapping wench she was, covered with silver and turquoises, but white as death, and looking back every minute at the priests.
“‘She’ll do,” said Dan, looking her over. ‘What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me.” He puts his arm round her. She shuts her eyes, gives a bit of a squeak, and down goes her face in the side of Dan’s flaming-red beard.
“‘The slut’s bitten me!’ says he, clapping his hand to his neck, and, sure enough, his hand was red with blood. Billy Fish and two of his matchlock men catches hold of Dan by the shoulders and drags him into the Bashkai lot, while the priests howls in their lingo, “Neither God nor Devil, but a man!’ I was all taken aback, for a priest cut at me in front, and the Army behind began firing into the Bashkai men.
“‘God A’mighty!’ says Dan, “what is the meaning o’ this?”
“‘Come back! Come away!’ says Billy Fish. ‘Ruin and Mutiny is the matter. We’ll break for Bashkai if we can.”
“I tried to give some sort of orders to my men—the men o’ the regular Army—but it was no use, so I fired into the brown of ’em with an English Martini and drilled three beggars in a line. The valley was full of shouting, howling creatures, and every soul was shrieking, “Not a God nor a Devil, but only a man!’ The Bashkai troops stuck to Billy Fish all they were worth, but their matchlocks wasn’t half as good as the Kabul breech-loaders, and four of them dropped. Dan was bellowing like a bull, for he was very wrathy; and Billy Fish had a hard job to prevent him running out at the crowd.
“‘We can’t stand,” says Billy Fish. ‘Make a run for it down the valley! The whole place is against us.” The matchlock-men ran, and we went down the valley in spite of Dravot. He was swearing horrible and crying out that he was a King. The priests rolled great stones on us, and the regular Army fired hard, and there wasn’t more than six men, not counting Dan, Billy Fish, and Me, that came down to the bottom of the valley alive.
“Then they stopped firing, and the horns in the temple blew again. ‘Come away—for Gord’s sake come away!’ says Billy Fish. ‘They’ll send runners out to all the villages before ever we get to Bashkai. I can protect you there, but I can’t do anything now.”
“My own notion is that Dan began to go mad in his head from that hour. He stared up and down like a stuck pig. Then he was all for walking back alone and killing the priests with his bare hands; which he could have done. ‘An Emperor am I,” says Daniel, “and next year I shall be a Knight of the Queen.”
“‘All right, Dan,” says I; ‘but come along now while there’s time.”
“‘It’s your fault,” says he, “for not looking after your Army better. There was mutiny in the midst, and you didn’t know—you damned engine-driving, plate-laying, missionary’s-pass-hunting hound!’ He sat upon a rock and called me every foul name he could lay tongue to. I was too heart-sick to care, though it was all his foolishness that brought the smash.
“‘I’m sorry, Dan,” says I, “but there’s no accounting for natives. This business is our Fifty-seven. Maybe we’ll make something out of it yet, when we’ve got to Bashkai.”
“‘Let’s get to Bashkai, then,” says Dan, “and, by God, when I come back here again I’ll sweep the valley so there isn’t a bug in a blanket left!’
“We walked all that day, and all that night Dan was stumping up and down on the snow, chewing his beard and muttering to himself.
“‘There’s no hope o’ getting clear,” said Billy Fish. ‘The priests have sent runners to the villages to say that you are only men. Why didn’t you stick on as Gods till things was more settled? I’m a dead man,” says Billy Fish, and he throws himself down on the snow and begins to pray to his Gods.
“Next morning we was in a cruel bad country—all up and down, no level ground at all, and no food, either. The six Bashkai men looked at Billy Fish hungry-way as if they wanted to ask something, but they never said a word. At noon we came to the top of a flat mountain all covered with snow, and when we climbed up into it, behold, there was an Army in position waiting in the middle!
“‘The runners have been very quick,” says Billy Fish, with a little bit of a laugh. ‘They are waiting for us.”
“Three or four men began to fire from the enemy’s side, and a chance shot took Daniel in the calf of the leg. That brought him to his senses. He looks across the snow at the Army, and sees the rifles that we had brought into the country.
“‘We’re done for,” says he. ‘They are Englishmen, these people—and it’s my blasted nonsense that has brought you to this. Get back, Billy Fish, and take your men away; you’ve done what you could, and now cut for it. Carnehan,” says he, “shake hands with me and go along with Billy. Maybe they won’t kill you. I’ll go and meet ’em alone. It’s me that did it! Me, the King!’
“‘Go!’ says I. ‘Go to Hell, Dan! I’m with you here. Billy Fish, you clear out, and we two will meet those folk.”
“‘I’m a Chief,” says Billy Fish, quite quiet. ‘I stay with you. My men can go.”
“The Bashkai fellows didn’t wait for a second word, but ran off, and Dan and Me and Billy Fish walked across to where the drums were drumming and the horns were horning. It was cold—awful cold. I’ve got that cold in the back of my head now. There’s a lump of it there.”
The punka-coolies had gone to sleep. Two kerosene lamps were blazing in the office, and the perspiration poured down my face and splashed on the blotter as I leaned forward. Carnehan was shivering, and I feared that his mind might go. I wiped my face, took a fresh grip of the piteously mangled hands, and said, “What happened after that?”
The momentary shift of my eyes had broken the clear current.
“What was you pleased to say?” whined Carnehan. “They took them without any sound. Not a little whisper all along the snow, not though the King knocked down the first man that set hand on him—not though old Peachey fired his last cartridge into the brown of ’em. Not a single solitary sound did those swines make. They just closed up tight, and I tell you their furs stunk. There was a man called Billy Fish, a good friend of us all, and they cut his throat, Sir, then and there, like a pig; and the King kicks up the bloody snow and says, “We’ve had a dashed fine run for our money. What’s coming next?” But Peachey, Peachey Taliaferro, I tell you, Sir, in confidence as betwixt two friends, he lost his head, Sir. No, he didn’t, neither. The King lost his head, so he did, all along o’ one of those cunning rope bridges. Kindly let me have the paper-cutter, Sir. It tilted this way. They marched him a mile across that snow to a rope bridge over a ravine with a river at the bottom. You may have seen such. They prodded him behind like an ox. ‘Damn your eyes!’ says the King. ‘D’ you suppose I can’t die like a gentleman?” He turns to Peachey—Peachey that was crying like a child. ‘I’ve brought you to this, Peachey,” says he. ‘Brought you out of your happy life to be killed in Kafiristan, where you was late Commander-in-Chief of the Emperor’s forces. Say you forgive me, Peachey.” ‘I do,” says Peachey. ‘Fully and freely do I forgive you, Dan.” ‘Shake hands, Peachey,” says he. ‘I’m going now.” Out he goes, looking neither right nor left, and when he was plumb in the middle of those dizzy dancing ropes, “Cut you beggars,” he shouts; and they cut, and old Dan fell, turning round and round and round, twenty thousand miles, for he took half an hour to fall till he struck the water, and I could see his body caught on a rock with the gold crown close beside.
“But do you know what they did to Peachey between two pine-trees? They crucified him, Sir, as Peachey’s hand will show. They used wooden pegs for his hands and feet; but he didn’t die. He hung there and screamed, and they took him down next day, and said it was a miracle that he wasn’t dead. They took him down—poor old Peachey that hadn’t done them any harm—that hadn’t done them any——”
He rocked to and fro and wept bitterly, wiping his eyes with the back of his scarred hands and moaning like a child for some ten minutes.
“They was cruel enough to feed him up in the temple, because they said he was more of a God than old Daniel that was a man. Then they turned him out on the snow, and told him to go home, and Peachey came home in about a year, begging along the roads quite safe; for Daniel Dravot he walked before and said, “Come along, Peachey. It’s a big thing we’re doing.” The mountains they danced at night, and the mountains they tried to fall on Peachey’s head, but Dan he held up his hand, and Peachey came along bent double. He never let go of Dan’s hand, and he never let go of Dan’s head. They gave it to him as a present in the temple, to remind him not to come again; and though the crown was pure gold and Peachey was starving, never would Peachey sell the same. You know Dravot, Sir! You knew Right Worshipful Brother Dravot! Look at him now!”
He fumbled in the mass of rags round his bent waist; brought out a black horsehair bag embroidered with silver thread; and shook therefrom on to my table—the dried, withered head of Daniel Dravot! The morning sun, that had long been paling the lamps, struck the red beard and blind sunken eyes; struck, too, a heavy circlet of gold studded with raw turquoises, that Carnehan placed tenderly on the battered temples.
“You be’old now,” said Carnehan, “the Emperor in his ’abit as he lived—the King of Kafiristan with his crown upon his head. Poor old Daniel that was a monarch once!”
I shuddered, for, in spite of defacements manifold, I recognised the head of the man of Marwar Junction. Carnehan rose to go. I attempted to stop him. He was not fit to walk abroad. “Let me take away the whisky, and give me a little money,” he gasped. “I was a King once. I’ll go to the Deputy Commissioner and ask to set in the Poorhouse till I get my health. No, thank you, I can’t wait till you get a carriage for me. I’ve urgent private affairs—in the south—at Marwar.”
He shambled out of the office and departed in the direction of the Deputy Commissioner’s house. That day at noon I had occasion to go down the blinding-hot Mall, and I saw a crooked man crawling along the white dust of the roadside, his hat in his hand, quavering dolorously after the fashion of street-singers at Home. There was not a soul in sight, and he was out of all possible earshot of the houses. And he sang through his nose, turning his head from right to left:
“The Son of Man goes forth to war, A golden crown to gain; His blood-red banner streams afar— Who follows in His train?”
I waited to hear no more, but put the poor wretch into my carriage and drove him off to the nearest missionary for eventual transfer to the Asylum. He repeated the hymn twice while he was with me, whom he did not in the least recognise, and I left him singing it to the missionary.
Two days later I inquired after his welfare of the Superintendent of the Asylum.
“He was admitted suffering from sunstroke. He died early yesterday morning,” said the Superintendent. “Is it true that he was half an hour bareheaded in the sun at midday?”
“Yes,” said I; “but do you happen to know if he had anything upon him by any chance when he died?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said the Superintendent.
And there the matter rests.
Look out on a large scale map the place where the Chenab river falls into the Indus fifteen miles or so above the hamlet of Chachuran. Five miles west of Chachuran lies Bubbling Well Road, and the house of the gosain or priest of Arti-goth. It was the priest who showed me the road, but it is no thanks to him that I am able to tell this story.
Five miles west of Chachuran is a patch of the plumed jungle-grass, that turns over in silver when the wind blows, from ten to twenty feet high and from three to four miles square. In the heart of the patch hides the gosain of Bubbling Well Road. The villagers stone him when he peers into the daylight, although he is a priest, and he runs back again as a strayed wolf turns into tall crops. He is a one-eyed man and carries, burnt between his brows, the impress of two copper coins. Some say that he was tortured by a native prince in the old days; for he is so old that he must have been capable of mischief in the days of Runjit Singh. His most pressing need at present is a halter, and the care of the British Government.
These things happened when the jungle-grass was tall; and the villagers of Chachuran told me that a sounder of pig had gone into the Arti-goth patch. To enter jungle-grass is always an unwise proceeding, but I went, partly because I knew nothing of pig-hunting, and partly because the villagers said that the big boar of the sounder owned foot long tushes. Therefore I wished to shoot him, in order to produce the tushes in after years, and say that I had ridden him down in fair chase. I took a gun and went into the hot, close patch, believing that it would be an easy thing to unearth one pig in ten square miles of jungle. Mr. Wardle, the terrier, went with me because he believed that I was incapable of existing for an hour without his advice and countenance. He managed to slip in and out between the grass clumps, but I had to force my way, and in twenty minutes was as completely lost as though I had been in the heart of Central Africa. I did not notice this at first till I had grown wearied of stumbling and pushing through the grass, and Mr. Wardle was beginning to sit down very often and hang out his tongue very far. There was nothing but grass everywhere, and it was impossible to see two yards in any direction. The grass-stems held the heat exactly as boiler-tubes do.
In half-an-hour, when I was devoutly wishing that I had left the big boar alone, I came to a narrow path which seemed to be a compromise between a native foot-path and a pig-run. It was barely six inches wide, but I could sidle along it in comfort. The grass was extremely thick here, and where the path was ill defined it was necessary to crush into the tussocks either with both hands before the face, or to back into it, leaving both hands free to manage the rifle. None the less it was a path, and valuable because it might lead to a place.
At the end of nearly fifty yards of fair way, just when I was preparing to back into an unusually stiff tussock, I missed Mr. Wardle, who for his girth is an unusually frivolous dog and never keeps to heel. I called him three times and said aloud, “Where has the little beast gone to?” Then I stepped backwards several paces, for almost under my feet a deep voice repeated, “Where has the little beast gone?” To appreciate an unseen voice thoroughly you should hear it when you are lost in stifling jungle-grass. I called Mr. Wardle again and the underground echo assisted me. At that I ceased calling and listened very attentively, because I thought I heard a man laughing in a peculiarly offensive manner. The heat made me sweat, but the laughter made me shake. There is no earthly need for laughter in high grass. It is indecent, as well as impolite. The chuckling stopped, and I took courage and continued to call till I thought that I had located the echo somewhere behind and below the tussock into which I was preparing to back just before I lost Mr. Wardle. I drove my rifle up to the triggers, between the grass-stems in a downward and forward direction. Then I waggled it to and fro, but it did not seem to touch ground on the far side of the tussock as it should have done. Every time that I grunted with the exertion of driving a heavy rifle through thick grass, the grunt was faithfully repeated from below, and when I stopped to wipe my face the sound of low laughter was distinct beyond doubting.
I went into the tussock, face first, an inch at a time, my mouth open and my eyes fine, full, and prominent. When I had overcome the resistance of the grass I found that I was looking straight across a black gap in the ground—that I was actually lying on my chest leaning over the mouth of a well so deep I could scarcely see the water in it.
There were things in the water—black things—and the water was as black as pitch with blue scum atop. The laughing sound came from the noise of a little spring, spouting half-way down one side of the well. Sometimes as the black things circled round, the trickle from the spring fell upon their tightly-stretched skins, and then the laughter changed into a sputter of mirth. One thing turned over on its back, as I watched, and drifted round and round the circle of the mossy brickwork with a hand and half an arm held clear of the water in a stiff and horrible flourish, as though it were a very wearied guide paid to exhibit the beauties of the place.
I did not spend more than half-an-hour in creeping round that well and finding the path on the other side. The remainder of the journey I accomplished by feeling every foot of ground in front of me, and crawling like a snail through every tussock. I carried Mr. Wardle in my arms and he licked my nose. He was not frightened in the least, nor was I, but we wished to reach open ground in order to enjoy the view. My knees were loose, and the apple in my throat refused to slide up and down. The path on the far side of the well was a very good one, though boxed in on all sides by grass, and it led me in time to a priest’s hut in the centre of a little clearing. When that priest saw my very white face coming through the grass he howled with terror and embraced my boots; but when I reached the bedstead set outside his door I sat down quickly and Mr. Wardle mounted guard over me. I was not in a condition to take care of myself.
When I awoke I told the priest to lead me into the open, out of the Arti-goth patch, and to walk slowly in front of me. Mr. Wardle hates natives, and the priest was more afraid of Mr. Wardle than of me, though we were both angry. He walked very slowly down a narrow little path from his hut. That path crossed three paths, such as the one I had come by in the first instance, and every one of the three headed towards the Bubbling Well. Once when we stopped to draw breath, I heard the Well laughing to itself alone in the thick grass, and only my need for his services prevented my firing both barrels into the priest’s back.
When we came to the open the priest crashed back into cover, and I went to the village of Arti-goth for a drink. It was pleasant to be able to see the horizon all round, as well as the ground underfoot.
The villagers told me that the patch of grass was full of devils and ghosts, all in the service of the priest, and that men and women and children had entered it and had never returned. They said the priest used their livers for purposes of witchcraft. When I asked why they had not told me of this at the outset, they said that they were afraid they would lose their reward for bringing news of the pig.
Before I left I did my best to set the patch alight, but the grass was too green. Some fine summer day, however, if the wind is favourable, a file of old newspapers and a box of matches will make clear the mystery of Bubbling Well Road.
“O’ ever the knightly years were gone
With the old world to the grave,
I was a king in Babylon
And you were a Christian slave.”
— W. E. Henley
His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother who was a widow, and he lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and suffered from aspirations. I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his given name, and he called the marker “Bulls-eyes.” Charley explained, a little nervously, that he had only come to the place to look on, and since looking on at games of skill is not a cheap amusement for the young, I suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.
That was our first step toward better acquaintance. He would call on me sometimes in the evenings instead of running about London with his fellow-clerks; and before long, speaking of himself as a young man must, he told me of his aspirations, which were all literary. He desired to make himself an undying name chiefly through verse, though he was not above sending stories of love and death to the drop-a-penny-in-the-slot journals. It was my fate to sit still while Charlie read me poems of many hundred lines, and bulky fragments of plays that would surely shake the world. My reward was his unreserved confidence, and the self-revelations and troubles of a young man are almost as holy as those of a maiden. Charlie had never fallen in love, but was anxious to do so on the first opportunity; he believed in all things good and all things honorable, but, at the same time, was curiously careful to let me see that he knew his way about the world as befitted a bank clerk on twenty-five shillings a week. He rhymed “dove” with “love” and “moon” with “June,” and devoutly believed that they had never so been rhymed before. The long lame gaps in his plays he filled up with hasty words of apology and description and swept on, seeing all that he intended to do so clearly that he esteemed it already done, and turned to me for applause.
I fancy that his mother did not encourage his aspirations, and I know that his writing-table at home was the edge of his washstand. This he told me almost at the outset of our acquaintance; when he was ravaging my bookshelves, and a little before I was implored to speak the truth as to his chances of “writing something really great, you know.” Maybe I encouraged him too much, for, one night, he called on me, his eyes flaming with excitement, and said breathlessly:
“Do you mind—can you let me stay here and write all this evening? I won’t interrupt you, I won’t really. There’s no place for me to write in at my mother’s.”
“What’s the trouble?” I said, knowing well what that trouble was.
“I’ve a notion in my head that would make the most splendid story that was ever written. Do let me write it out here. It’s such a notion!”
There was no resisting the appeal. I set him a table; he hardly thanked me, but plunged into the work at once. For half an hour the pen scratched without stopping. Then Charlie sighed and tugged his hair. The scratching grew slower, there were more erasures, and at last ceased. The finest story in the world would not come forth.
“It looks such awful rot now,” he said, mournfully. “And yet it seemed so good when I was thinking about it. What’s wrong?”
I could not dishearten him by saying the truth. So I answered: “Perhaps you don’t feel in the mood for writing.”
“Yes I do—except when I look at this stuff. Ugh!”
“Read me what you’ve done,” I said. He read, and it was wondrous bad and he paused at all the specially turgid sentences, expecting a little approval; for he was proud of those sentences, as I knew he would be.
“It needs compression,” I suggested, cautiously.
“I hate cutting my things down. I don’t think you could alter a word here without spoiling the sense. It reads better aloud than when I was writing it.”
“Charlie, you’re suffering from an alarming disease afflicting a numerous class. Put the thing by, and tackle it again in a week.”
“I want to do it at once. What do you think of it?”
“How can I judge from a half-written tale? Tell me the story as it lies in your head.”
Charlie told, and in the telling there was everything that his ignorance had so carefully prevented from escaping into the written word. I looked at him, and wondering whether it were possible, that he did not know the originality, the power of the notion that had come in his way? It was distinctly a Notion among notions. Men had been puffed up with pride by notions not a tithe as excellent and practicable. But Charlie babbled on serenely, interrupting the current of pure fancy with samples of horrible sentences that he purposed to use. I heard him out to the end. It would be folly to allow his idea to remain in his own inept hands, when I could do so much with it. Not all that could be done indeed; but, oh so much!
“What do you think?” he said, at last. “I fancy I shall call it ‘The Story of a Ship.’”
“I think the idea’s pretty good; but you won’t be able to handle it for ever so long. Now I——”
“Would it be of any use to you? Would you care to take it? I should be proud,” said Charlie, promptly.
There are few things sweeter in this world than the guileless, hot-headed, intemperate, open admiration of a junior. Even a woman in her blindest devotion does not fall into the gait of the man she adores, tilt her bonnet to the angle at which he wears his hat, or interlard her speech with his pet oaths. And Charlie did all these things. Still it was necessary to salve my conscience before I possessed myself of Charlie’s thoughts.
“Let’s make a bargain. I’ll give you a fiver for the notion,” I said. Charlie became a bank-clerk at once.
“Oh, that’s impossible. Between two pals, you know, if I may call you so, and speaking as a man of the world, I couldn’t. Take the notion if it’s any use to you. I’ve heaps more.”
He had—none knew this better than I—but they were the notions of other men.
“Look at it as a matter of business-between men of the world,” I returned. “Five pounds will buy you any number of poetry-books. Business is business, and you may be sure I shouldn’t give that price unless——”
“Oh, if you put it that way,” said Charlie, visibly moved by the thought of the books. The bargain was clinched with an agreement that he should at unstated intervals come to me with all the notions that he possessed, should have a table of his own to write at, and unquestioned right to inflict upon me all his poems and fragments of poems. Then I said, “Now tell me how you came by this idea.”
“It came by itself.” Charlie’s eyes opened a little.
“Yes, but you told me a great deal about the hero that you must have read before somewhere.”
“I haven’t any time for reading, except when you let me sit here, and on Sundays I’m on my bicycle or down the river all day. There’s nothing wrong about the hero, is there?”
“Tell me again and I shall understand clearly. You say that your hero went pirating. How did he live?”
“He was on the lower deck of this ship-thing that I was telling you about.”
“What sort of ship?”
“It was the kind rowed with oars, and the sea spurts through the oar-holes and the men row sitting up to their knees in water. Then there’s a bench running down between the two lines of oars and an overseer with a whip walks up and down the bench to make the men work.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s in the tale. There’s a rope running overhead, looped to the upper deck, for the overseer to catch hold of when the ship rolls. When the overseer misses the rope once and falls among the rowers, remember the hero laughs at him and gets licked for it. He’s chained to his oar of course—the hero.”
“How is he chained?”
“With an iron band round his waist fixed to the bench he sits on, and a sort of handcuff on his left wrist chaining him to the oar. He’s on the lower deck where the worst men are sent, and the only light comes from the hatchways and through the oar-holes. Can’t you imagine the sunlight just squeezing through between the handle and the hole and wobbling about as the ship moves?”
“I can, but I can’t imagine your imagining it.”
“How could it be any other way? Now you listen to me. The long oars on the upper deck are managed by four men to each bench, the lower ones by three, and the lowest of all by two. Remember it’s quite dark on the lowest deck and all the men there go mad. When a man dies at his oar on that deck he isn’t thrown overboard, but cut up in his chains and stuffed through the oar-hole in little pieces.”
“Why?” I demanded, amazed, not so much at the information as the tone of command in which it was flung out.
“To save trouble and to frighten the others. It needs two overseers to drag a man’s body up to the top deck; and if the men at the lower deck oars were left alone, of course they’d stop rowing and try to pull up the benches by all standing up together in their chains.”
“You’ve a most provident imagination. Where have you been reading about galleys and galley-slaves?”
“Nowhere that I remember. I row a little when I get the chance. But, perhaps, if you say so, I may have read something.”
He went away shortly afterward to deal with booksellers, and I wondered how a bank clerk aged twenty could put into my hands with a profligate abundance of detail, all given with absolute assurance, the story of extravagant and bloodthirsty adventure, riot, piracy, and death in unnamed seas. He had led his hero a desperate dance through revolt against the overseers, to command of a ship of his own, and ultimate establishment of a kingdom on an island “somewhere in the sea, you know”; and, delighted with my paltry five pounds, had gone out to buy the notions of other men, that these might teach him how to write. I had the consolation of knowing that this notion was mine by right of purchase, and I thought that I could make something of it.
When next he came to me he was drunk—royally drunk on many poets for the first time revealed to him. His pupils were dilated, his words tumbled over each other, and he wrapped himself in quotations. Most of all was he drunk with Longfellow.
“Isn’t it splendid? Isn’t it superb?” he cried, after hasty greetings. “Listen to this—
“‘Wouldst thou,” so the helmsman answered,
‘Know the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery.””
“‘Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery.””
he repeated twenty times, walking up and down the room and forgetting me. “But I can understand it too,” he said to himself. “I don’t know how to thank you for that fiver. And this; listen—
“‘I remember the black wharves and the ships And the sea-tides tossing free, And the Spanish sailors with bearded lips, And the beauty and mystery of the ships, And the magic of the sea.”
“I haven’t braved any dangers, but I feel as if I knew all about it.”
“You certainly seem to have a grip of the sea. Have you ever seen it?”
“When I was a little chap I went to Brighton once; we used to live in Coventry, though, before we came to London. I never saw it,
“‘When descends on the Atlantic The gigantic Storm-wind of the Equinox.””
He shook me by the shoulder to make me understand the passion that was shaking himself.
“When that storm comes,” he continued, “I think that all the oars in the ship that I was talking about get broken, and the rowers have their chests smashed in by the bucking oar-heads. By the way, have you done anything with that notion of mine yet?”
“No. I was waiting to hear more of it from you. Tell me how in the world you’re so certain about the fittings of the ship. You know nothing of ships.”
“I don’t know. It’s as real as anything to me until I try to write it down. I was thinking about it only last night in bed, after you had loaned me ‘Treasure Island’; and I made up a a whole lot of new things to go into the story.”
“What sort of things?”
“About the food the men ate; rotten figs and black beans and wine in a skin bag, passed from bench to bench.”
“Was the ship built so long ago as that?”
“As what? I don’t know whether it was long ago or not. It’s only a notion, but sometimes it seems just as real as if it was true. Do I bother you with talking about it?”
“Not in the least. Did you make up anything else?”
“Yes, but it’s nonsense.” Charlie flushed a little.
“Never mind; let’s hear about it.”
“Well, I was thinking over the story, and after awhile I got out of bed and wrote down on a piece of paper the sort of stuff the men might be supposed to scratch on their oars with the edges of their handcuffs. It seemed to make the thing more lifelike. It is so real to me, y’know.”
“Have you the paper on you?”
“Ye—es, but what’s the use of showing it? It’s only a lot of scratches. All the same, we might have ’em reproduced in the book on the front page.”
“I’ll attend to those details. Show me what your men wrote.”
He pulled out of his pocket a sheet of note-paper, with a single line of scratches upon it, and I put this carefully away.
“What is it supposed to mean in English?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps it means ‘I’m beastly tired.” It’s great nonsense,” he repeated, “but all those men in the ship seem as real people to me. Do do something to the notion soon; I should like to see it written and printed.”
“But all you’ve told me would make a long book.”
“Make it then. You’ve only to sit down and write it out.”
“Give me a little time. Have you any more notions?”
“Not just now. I’m reading all the books I’ve bought. They’re splendid.”
When he had left I looked at the sheet of note-paper with the inscription upon it. Then I took my head tenderly between both hands, to make certain that it was not coming off or turning round. Then. . . but there seemed to be no interval between quitting my rooms and finding myself arguing with a policeman outside a door marked Private in a corridor of the British Museum. All I demanded, as politely as possible, was “the Greek antiquity man.” The policeman knew nothing except the rules of the Museum, and it became necessary to forage through all the houses and offices inside the gates. An elderly gentleman called away from his lunch put an end to my search by holding the note-paper between finger and thumb and sniffing at it scornfully.
“What does this mean? H’mm,” said he. “So far as I can ascertain it is an attempt to write extremely corrupt Greek on the part”—here he glared at me with intention—“of an extremely illiterate-ah-person.” He read slowly from the paper, “Pollock, Erckman, Tauchnitz, Henniker”—four names familiar to me.
“Can you tell me what the corruption is supposed to mean—the gist of the thing?” I asked.
“I have been—many times—overcome with weariness in this particular employment. That is the meaning.” He returned me the paper, and I fled without a word of thanks, explanation, or apology.
I might have been excused for forgetting much. To me of all men had been given the chance to write the most marvelous tale in the world, nothing less than the story of a Greek galley-slave, as told by himself. Small wonder that his dreaming had seemed real to Charlie. The Fates that are so careful to shut the doors of each successive life behind us had, in this case, been neglectful, and Charlie was looking, though that he did not know, where never man had been permitted to look with full knowledge since Time began. Above all he was absolutely ignorant of the knowledge sold to me for five pounds; and he would retain that ignorance, for bank-clerks do not understand metempsychosis, and a sound commercial education does not include Greek. He would supply me—here I capered among the dumb gods of Egypt and laughed in their battered faces—with material to make my tale sure—so sure that the world would hail it as an impudent and vamped fiction. And I—I alone would know that it was absolutely and literally true. I—I alone held this jewel to my hand for the cutting and polishing. Therefore I danced again among the gods till a policeman saw me and took steps in my direction.
It remained now only to encourage Charlie to talk, and here there was no difficulty. But I had forgotten those accursed books of poetry. He came to me time after time, as useless as a surcharged phonograph—drunk on Byron, Shelley, or Keats. Knowing now what the boy had been in his past lives, and desperately anxious not to lose one word of his babble, I could not hide from him my respect and interest. He misconstrued both into respect for the present soul of Charlie Mears, to whom life was as new as it was to Adam, and interest in his readings; and stretched my patience to breaking point by reciting poetry—not his own now, but that of others. I wished every English poet blotted out of the memory of mankind. I blasphemed the mightiest names of song because they had drawn Charlie from the path of direct narrative, and would, later, spur him to imitate them; but I choked down my impatience until the first flood of enthusiasm should have spent itself and the boy returned to his dreams.
“What’s the use of my telling you what I think, when these chaps wrote things for the angels to read?” he growled, one evening. “Why don’t you write something like theirs?”
“I don’t think you’re treating me quite fairly,” I said, speaking under strong restraint.
“I’ve given you the story,” he said, shortly replunging into “Lara.”
“But I want the details.”
“The things I make up about that damned ship that you call a galley? They’re quite easy. You can just make ’em up yourself. Turn up the gas a little, I want to go on reading.”
I could have broken the gas globe over his head for his amazing stupidity. I could indeed make up things for myself did I only know what Charlie did not know that he knew. But since the doors were shut behind me I could only wait his youthful pleasure and strive to keep him in good temper. One minute’s want of guard might spoil a priceless revelation: now and again he would toss his books aside—he kept them in my rooms, for his mother would have been shocked at the waste of good money had she seen them—and launched into his sea dreams. Again I cursed all the poets of England. The plastic mind of the bank-clerk had been overlaid, colored and distorted by that which he had read, and the result as delivered was a confused tangle of other voices most like the muttered song through a City telephone in the busiest part of the day.
He talked of the galley—his own galley had he but known it—with illustrations borrowed from the “Bride of Abydos.” He pointed the experiences of his hero with quotations from “The Corsair,” and threw in deep and desperate moral reflections from “Cain” and “Manfred,” expecting me to use them all. Only when the talk turned on Longfellow were the jarring cross-currents dumb, and I knew that Charlie was speaking the truth as he remembered it.
“What do you think of this?” I said one evening, as soon as I understood the medium in which his memory worked best, and, before he could expostulate read him the whole of “The Saga of King Olaf.”
He listened open-mouthed, flushed his hands drumming on the back of the sofa where he lay, till I came to the Songs of Emar Tamberskelver and the verse:—
“Einar then, the arrow taking
From the loosened string,
Answered: ‘That was Norway breaking
’Neath thy hand, O King.””
He gasped with pure delight of sound.
“That’s better than Byron, a little,” I ventured.
“Better? Why it’s true! How could he have known?”
I went back and repeated:
“‘What was that?” said Olaf, standing
On the quarter-deck,
‘Something heard I like the stranding
Of a shattered wreck.””
“How could he have known how the ships crash and the oars rip out and go z-zzp all along the line? Why only the other night. . . . But go back please and read ‘The Skerry of Shrieks’ again.”
“No, I’m tired. Let’s talk. What happened the other night?”
“I had an awful nightmare about that galley of ours. I dreamed I was drowned in a fight. You see we ran alongside another ship in harbor. The water was dead still except where our oars whipped it up. You know where I always sit in the galley?” He spoke haltingly at first, under a fine English fear of being laughed at.
“No. That’s news to me,” I answered, meekly, my heart beginning to beat.
“On the fourth oar from the bow on the right side on the upper deck. There were four of us at the oar, all chained. I remember watching the water and trying to get my handcuffs off before the row began. Then we closed up on the other ship, and all their fighting men jumped over our bulwarks, and my bench broke and I was pinned down with the three other fellows on top of me, and the big oar jammed across our backs.”
“Well?” Charlie’s eyes were alive and alight. He was looking at the wall behind my chair.
“I don’t know how we fought. The men were trampling all over my back, and I lay low. Then our rowers on the left side—tied to their oars, you know—began to yell and back water. I could hear the water sizzle, and we spun round like a cockchafer and I knew, lying where I was, that there was a galley coming up bow-on, to ram us on the left side. I could just lift up my head and see her sail over the bulwarks. We wanted to meet her bow to bow, but it was too late. We could only turn a little bit because the galley on our right had hooked herself on to us and stopped our moving. Then, by gum! there was a crash! Our left oars began to break as the other galley, the moving one y’know, stuck her nose into them. Then the lower-deck oars shot up through the deck-planking, but first, and one of them jumped clean up into the air and came down again close to my head.”
“How was that managed?”
“The moving galley’s bow was plunking them back through their own oarholes, and I could hear the devil of a shindy in the decks below. Then her nose caught us nearly in the middle, and we tilted sideways, and the fellows in the right-hand galley unhitched their hooks and ropes, and threw things on to our upper deck—arrows, and hot pitch or something that stung, and we went up and up and up on the left side, and the right side dipped, and I twisted my head round and saw the water stand still as it topped the right bulwarks, and then it curled over and crashed down on the whole lot of us on the right side, and I felt it hit my back, and I woke.”
“One minute, Charlie. When the sea topped the bulwarks, what did it look like?” I had my reasons for asking. A man of my acquaintance had once gone down with a leaking ship in a still sea, and had seen the water-level pause for an instant ere it fell on the deck.
“It looked just like a banjo-string drawn tight, and it seemed to stay there for years,” said Charlie.
Exactly! The other man had said:
“It looked like a silver wire laid down along the bulwarks, and I thought it was never going to break.” He had paid everything except the bare life for this little valueless piece of knowledge, and I had traveled ten thousand weary miles to meet him and take his knowledge at second hand. But Charlie, the bank-clerk, on twenty-five shillings a week, he who had never been out of sight of a London omnibus, knew it all. It was no consolation to me that once in his lives he had been forced to die for his gains. I also must have died scores of times, but behind me, because I could have used my knowledge, the doors were shut.
“And then?” I said, trying to put away the devil of envy.
“The funny thing was, though, in all the mess I didn’t feel a bit astonished or frightened. It seemed as if I’d been in a good many fights, because I told my next man so when the row began. But that cad of an overseer on my deck wouldn’t unloose our chains and give us a chance. He always said that we’d all be set free after a battle, but we never were; We never were.” Charlie shook his head mournfully.
“What a scoundrel!”
“I should say he was. He never gave us enough to eat, and sometimes we were so thirsty that we used to drink salt-water. I can taste that salt-water still.”
“Now tell me something about the harbour where the fight was fought.”
“I didn’t dream about that. I know it was a harbour, though; because we were tied up to a ring on a white wall and all the face of the stone under water was covered with wood to prevent our ram getting chipped when the tide made us rock.”
“That’s curious. Our hero commanded the galley? Didn’t he?”
“Didn’t he just! He stood by the bows and shouted like a good ’un. He was the man who killed the overseer.”
“But you were all drowned together, Charlie, weren’t you?”
“I can’t make that fit quite,” he said with a puzzled look. “The galley must have gone down with all hands and yet I fancy that the hero went on living afterward. Perhaps he climbed into the attacking ship. I wouldn’t see that, of course. I was dead, you know.”
He shivered slightly and protested that he could remember no more.
I did not press him further, but to satisfy myself that he lay in ignorance of the workings of his own mind, deliberately introduced him to Mortimer Collins’s “Transmigration,” and gave him a sketch of the plot before he opened the pages.
“What rot it all is!” he said, frankly, at the end of an hour. “I don’t understand his nonsense about the Red Planet Mars and the King, and the rest of it. Chuck me the Longfellow again.”
I handed him the book and wrote out as much as I could remember of his description of the sea-fight, appealing to him from time to time for confirmation of fact or detail. He would answer without raising his eyes from the book, as assuredly as though all his knowledge lay before him on the printed page. I spoke under the normal key of my voice that the current might not be broken, and I know that he was not aware of what he was saying, for his thoughts were out on the sea with Longfellow.
“Charlie,” I asked, “when the rowers on the galleys mutinied how did they kill their overseers?”
“Tore up the benches and brained ’em. That happened when a heavy sea was running. An overseer on the lower deck slipped from the centre plank and fell among the rowers. They choked him to death against the side of the ship with their chained hands quite quietly, and it was too dark for the other overseer to see what had happened. When he asked, he was pulled down too and choked, and the lower deck fought their way up deck by deck, with the pieces of the broken benches banging behind ’em. How they howled!”
“And what happened after that?”
“I don’t know. The hero went away—red hair and red beard and all. That was after he had captured our galley, I think.”
The sound of my voice irritated him, and he motioned slightly with his left hand as a man does when interruption jars.
“You never told me he was redheaded before, or that he captured your galley,” I said, after a discreet interval.
Charlie did not raise his eyes.
“He was as red as a red bear,” said he, abstractedly. “He came from the north; they said so in the galley when he looked for rowers—not slaves, but free men. Afterward—years and years afterward—news came from another ship, or else he came back——” His lips moved in silence. He was rapturously retasting some poem before him.
“Where had he been, then?” I was almost whispering that the sentence might come gentle to whichever section of Charlie’s brain was working on my behalf.
“To the Beaches—the Long and Wonderful Beaches!” was the reply, after a minute of silence.
“To Furdurstrandi?” I asked, tingling from head to foot.
“Yes, to Furdurstrandi,” he pronounced the word in a new fashion “And I too saw——” The voice failed.
“Do you know what you have said?” I shouted, incautiously.
He lifted his eyes, fully roused now. “No!” he snapped. “I wish you’d let a chap go on reading. Hark to this:—
“‘But Othere, the old sea captain,
He neither paused nor stirred
Till the king listened, and then
Once more took up his pen
And wrote down every word.
“‘And to the King of the Saxons
In witness of the truth,
Raising his noble head,
He stretched his brown hand and said,
“Behold this walrus tooth.”’
By Jove, what chaps those must have been, to go sailing all over the shop never knowing where they’d fetch the land! Hah!”
“Charlie,” I pleaded, “if you’ll only be sensible for a minute or two I’ll make our hero in our tale every inch as good as Othere.”
“Umph! Longfellow wrote that poem. I don’t care about writing things any more. I want to read.” He was thoroughly out of tune now, and raging over my own ill-luck, I left him.
Conceive yourself at the door of the world’s treasure-house guarded by a child—an idle irresponsible child playing knuckle-bones—on whose favour depends the gift of the key, and you will imagine one-half my torment. Till that evening Charlie had spoken nothing that might not lie within the experiences of a Greek galley-slave. But now, or there was no virtue in books, he had talked of some desperate adventure of the Vikings, of Thorfin Karlsefne’s sailing to Wineland, which is America, in the ninth or tenth century. The battle in the harbor he had seen; and his own death he had described. But this was a much more startling plunge into the past. Was it possible that he had skipped half a dozen lives and was then dimly remembering some episode of a thousand years later? It was a maddening jumble, and the worst of it was that Charlie Mears in his normal condition was the last person in the world to clear it up. I could only wait and watch, but I went to bed that night full of the wildest imaginings. There was nothing that was not possible if Charlie’s detestable memory only held good.
I might rewrite the Saga of Thorfin Karlsefne as it had never been written before, might tell the story of the first discovery of America, myself the discoverer. But I was entirely at Charlie’s mercy, and so long as there was a three-and-six-penny Bohn volume within his reach Charlie would not tell. I dared not curse him openly; I hardly dared jog his memory, for I was dealing with the experiences of a thousand years ago, told through the mouth of a boy of to-day; and a boy of to-day is affected by every change of tone and gust of opinion, so that he lies even when he desires to speak the truth.
I saw no more of him for nearly a week. When next I met him it was in Gracechurch Street with a billbook chained to his waist. Business took him over London Bridge and I accompanied him. He was very full of the importance of that book and magnified it. As we passed over the Thames we paused to look at a steamer unloading great slabs of white and brown marble. A barge drifted under the steamer’s stern and a lonely cow in that barge bellowed. Charlie’s face changed from the face of the bank-clerk to that of an unknown and—though he would not have believed this—a much shrewder man. He flung out his arm across the parapet of the bridge, and laughing very loudly, said:—
“When they heard our bulls bellow the Skrœlings ran away!”
I waited only for an instant, but the barge and the cow had disappeared under the bows of the steamer before I answered.
“Charlie, what do you suppose are Skrœlings?”
“Never heard of ’em before. They sound like a new kind of seagull. What a chap you are for asking questions!” he replied. “I have to go to the cashier of the Omnibus Company yonder. Will you wait for me and we can lunch somewhere together? I’ve a notion for a poem.”
“No, thanks. I’m off. You’re sure you know nothing about Skrœlings?”
“Not unless he’s been entered for the Liverpool Handicap.” He nodded and disappeared in the crowd.
Now it is written in the Saga of Eric the Red or that of Thorfin Karlsefne, that nine hundred years ago when Karlsefne’s galleys came to Leif’s booths, which Leif had erected in the unknown land called Markland, which may or may not have been Rhode Island, the Skrœlings—and the Lord He knows who these may or may not have been—came to trade with the Vikings, and ran away because they were frightened at the bellowing of the cattle which Thorfin had brought with him in the ships. But what in the world could a Greek slave know of that affair? I wandered up and down among the streets trying to unravel the mystery, and the more I considered it, the more baffling it grew. One thing only seemed certain and that certainty took away my breath for the moment. If I came to full knowledge of anything at all, it would not be one life of the soul in Charlie Mears’s body, but half a dozen—half a dozen several and separate existences spent on blue water in the morning of the world!
Then I walked round the situation.
Obviously if I used my knowledge I should stand alone and unapproachable until all men were as wise as myself. That would be something, but manlike I was ungrateful. It seemed bitterly unfair that Charlie’s memory should fail me when I needed it most. Great Powers above—I looked up at them through the fog smoke—did the Lords of Life and Death know what this meant to me? Nothing less than eternal fame of the best kind; that comes from One, and is shared by one alone. I would be content—remembering Clive, I stood astounded at my own moderation—with the mere right to tell one story, to work out one little contribution to the light literature of the day. If Charlie were permitted full recollection for one hour—for sixty short minutes—of existences that had extended over a thousand years—I would forego all profit and honour from all that I should make of his speech. I would take no share in the commotion that would follow throughout the particular corner of the earth that calls itself “the world.” The thing should be put forth anonymously. Nay, I would make other men believe that they had written it. They would hire bull-hided self-advertising Englishmen to bellow it abroad. Preachers would found a fresh conduct of life upon it, swearing that it was new and that they had lifted the fear of death from all mankind. Every Orientalist in Europe would patronize it discursively with Sanskrit and Pali texts. Terrible women would invent unclean variants of the men’s belief for the elevation of their sisters. Churches and religions would war over it. Between the hailing and re-starting of an omnibus I foresaw the scuffles that would arise among half a dozen denominations all professing “the doctrine of the True Metempsychosis as applied to the world and the New Era”; and saw, too, the respectable English newspapers shying, like frightened kine, over the beautiful simplicity of the tale. The mind leaped forward a hundred—two hundred—a thousand years. I saw with sorrow that men would mutilate and garble the story; that rival creeds would turn it upside down till, at last, the western world which clings to the dread of death more closely than the hope of life, would set it aside as an interesting superstition and stampede after some faith so long forgotten that it seemed altogether new. Upon this I changed the terms of the bargain that I would make with the Lords of Life and Death. Only let me know, let me write, the story with sure knowledge that I wrote the truth, and I would burn the manuscript as a solemn sacrifice. Five minutes after the last line was written I would destroy it all. But I must be allowed to write it with absolute certainty.
There was no answer. The flaming colours of an Aquarium poster caught my eye and I wondered whether it would be wise or prudent to lure Charlie into the hands of the professional mesmerist, and whether, if he were under his power, he would speak of his past lives. If he did, and if people believed him . . . but Charlie would be frightened and flustered, or made conceited by the interviews. In either case he would begin to lie, through fear or vanity. He was safest in my own hands.
“They are very funny fools, your English,” said a voice at my elbow, and turning round I recognized a casual acquaintance, a young Bengali law student, called Grish Chunder, whose father had sent him to England to become civilized. The old man was a retired native official, and on an income of five pounds a month contrived to allow his son two hundred pounds a year, and the run of his teeth in a city where he could pretend to be the cadet of a royal house, and tell stories of the brutal Indian bureaucrats who ground the faces of the poor.
Grish Chunder was a young, fat, full-bodied Bengali dressed with scrupulous care in frock coat, tall hat, light trousers and tan gloves. But I had known him in the days when the brutal Indian Government paid for his university education, and he contributed cheap sedition to Sachi Durpan, and intrigued with the wives of his schoolmates.
“That is very funny and very foolish,” he said, nodding at the poster. “I am going down to the Northbrook Club. Will you come too?”
I walked with him for some time. “You are not well,” he said. “What is there in your mind? You do not talk.”
“Grish Chunder, you’ve been too well educated to believe in a God, haven’t you?”
“Oah, yes, here! But when I go home I must conciliate popular superstition, and make ceremonies of purification, and my women will anoint idols.”
“And bang up tulsi and feast the purohit, and take you back into caste again and make a good khuttrj of you again, you advanced social Free-thinker. And you’ll eat desi food, and like it all, from the smell in the courtyard to the mustard oil over you.”
“I shall very much like it,” said Grish Chunder, unguardedly. “Once a Hindu—always a Hindu. But I like to know what the English think they know.”
“I’ll tell you something that one Englishman knows. It’s an old tale to you.”
I began to tell the story of Charlie in English, but Grish Chunder put a question in the vernacular, and the history went forward naturally in the tongue best suited for its telling. After all it could never have been told in English. Grish Chunder heard me, nodding from time to time, and then came up to my rooms where I finished the tale.
“Beshak,” he said, philosophically. “Lekin darwaza band hai. (Without doubt, but the door is shut.) I have heard of this remembering of previous existences among my people. It is of course an old tale with us, but, to happen to an Englishman—a cow-fed Malechk—an outcast. By Jove, that is most peculiar!”
“Outcast yourself, Grish Chunder! You eat cow-beef every day. Let’s think the thing over. The boy remembers his incarnations.”
“Does he know that?” said Grish Chunder, quietly, swinging his legs as he sat on my table. He was speaking in English now.
“He does not know anything. Would I speak to you if he did? Go on!”
“There is no going on at all. If you tell that to your friends they will say you are mad and put it in the papers. Suppose, now, you prosecute for libel.”
“Let’s leave that out of the question entirely. Is there any chance of his being made to speak?”
“There is a chance. Oah, yes! But if he spoke it would mean that all this world would end now—instanto—fall down on your head. These things are not allowed, you know. As I said, the door is shut.”
“Not a ghost of a chance?”
“How can there be? You are a Christi-án, and it is forbidden to eat, in your books, of the Tree of Life, or else you would never die. How shall you all fear death if you all know what your friend does not know that he knows? I am afraid to be kicked, but I am not afraid to die, because I know what I know. You are not afraid to be kicked, but you are afraid to die. If you were not, by God! you English would be all over the shop in an hour, upsetting the balances of power, and making commotions. It would not be good. But no fear. He will remember a little and a little less, and he will call it dreams. Then he will forget altogether. When I passed my First Arts Examination in Calcutta that was all in the cram-book on Wordsworth. ‘Trailing clouds of glory,” you know.”
“This seems to be an exception to the rule.”
“There are no exceptions to rules. Some are not so hard-looking as others, but they are all the same when you touch. If this friend of yours said so-and-so and so-and-so, indicating that he remembered all his lost lives, or one piece of a lost life, he would not be in the bank another hour. He would be what you called sack because he was mad, and they would send him to an asylum for lunatics. You can see that, my friend.”
“Of course I can, but I wasn’t thinking of him. His name need never appear in the story.”
“Ah! I see. That story will never be written. You can try.”
“I am going to.”
“For your own credit and for the sake of money, of course?”
“No. For the sake of writing the story. On my honour that will be all.”
“Even then there is no chance. You cannot play with the Gods. It is a very pretty story now. As they say, Let it go on that—I mean at that. Be quick; he will not last long.”
“How do you mean?”
“What I say. He has never, so far, thought about a woman.”
“Hasn’t he, though!” I remembered some of Charlie’s confidences.
“I mean no woman has thought about him. When that comes; bus—hogya—all up! I know. There are millions of women here. Housemaids, for instance.”
I winced at the thought of my story being ruined by a housemaid. And yet nothing was more probable.
Grish Chunder grinned.
“Yes—also pretty girls—cousins of his house, and perhaps not of his house. One kiss that he gives back again and remembers will cure all this nonsense, or else——”
“Or else what? Remember he does not know that he knows.”
“I know that. Or else, if nothing happens he will become immersed in the trade and the financial speculations like the rest. It must be so. You can see that it must be so. But the woman will come first, I think.”
There was a rap at the door, and Charlie charged in impetuously. He had been released from office, and by the look in his eyes I could see that he had come over for a long talk; most probably with poems in his pockets. Charlie’s poems were very wearying, but sometimes they led him to talk about the galley.
Grish Chunder looked at him keenly for a minute.
“I beg your pardon,” Charlie said, uneasily; “I didn’t know you had any one with you.”
“I am going,” said Grish Chunder.
He drew me into the lobby as he departed.
“That is your man,” he said, quickly. “I tell you he will never speak all you wish. That is rot-bosh. But he would be most good to make to see things. Suppose now we pretend that it was only play”—I had never seen Grish Chunder so excited—“and pour the ink-pool into his hand. Eh, what do you think? I tell you that he could see anything that a man could see. Let me get the ink and the camphor. He is a seer and he will tell us very many things.”
“He may be all you say, but I’m not going to trust him to your Gods and devils.”
“It will not hurt him. He will only feel a little stupid and dull when he wakes up. You have seen boys look into the ink-pool before.”
“That is the reason why I am not going to see it any more. You’d better go, Grish Chunder.”
He went, declaring far down the staircase that it was throwing away my only chance of looking into the future.
This left me unmoved, for I was concerned for the past, and no peering of hypnotized boys into mirrors and ink-pools would help me do that. But I recognized Grish Chunder’s point of view and sympathized with it.
“What a big black brute that was!” said Charlie, when I returned to him. “Well, look here, I’ve just done a poem; did it instead of playing dominoes after lunch. May I read it?”
“Let me read it to myself.”
“Then you miss the proper expression. Besides, you always make my things sound as if the rhymes were all wrong.”
“Read it aloud, then. You’re like the rest of ’em.”
Charlie mouthed me his poem, and it was not much worse than the average of his verses. He had been reading his book faithfully, but he was not pleased when I told him that I preferred my Longfellow undiluted with Charlie.
Then we began to go through the MS. line by line; Charlie parrying every objection and correction with:
“Yes, that may be better, but you don’t catch what I’m driving at.”
Charlie was, in one way at least, very like one kind of poet.
There was a pencil scrawl at the back of the paper and “What’s that?” I said.
“Oh that’s not poetry ’t all. It’s some rot I wrote last night before I went to bed and it was too much bother to hunt for rhymes; so I made it a sort of a blank verse instead.”
Here is Charlie’s “blank verse”:—
“We pulled for you when the wind was against us and the sails were low.
Will you never let us go?
We ate bread and onions when you took towns or ran aboard quickly when you were beaten back by the foe.
The captains walked up and down the deck in fair weather singing songs, but we were below.
We fainted with our chins on the oars and you did not see that we were idle for we still swung to and fro.
Will you never let us go?
The salt made the oar handles like sharkskin; our knees were cut to the bone with salt cracks; our hair was stuck to our foreheads; and our lips were cut to our gums and you whipped us because we could not row.
Will you never let us go?
But in a little time we shall run out of the portholes as the water runs along the oarblade, and though you tell the others to row after us you will never catch us till you catch the oar-thresh and tie up the winds in the belly of the sail. Aho!
Will you never let us go?”
“H’m. What’s oar-thresh, Charlie?”
“The water washed up by the oars. That’s the sort of song they might sing in the galley, y’know. Aren’t you ever going to finish that story and give me some of the profits?”
“It depends on yourself. If you had only told me more about your hero in the first instance it might have been finished by now. You’re so hazy in your notions.”
“I only want to give you the general notion of it—the knocking about from place to place and the fighting and all that. Can’t you fill in the rest yourself? Make the hero save a girl on a pirate-galley and marry her or do something.”
“You’re a really helpful collaborator. I suppose the hero went through some few adventures before he married.”
“Well then, make him a very artful card—a low sort of man—a sort of political man who went about making treaties and breaking them—a black-haired chap who hid behind the mast when the fighting began.”
“But you said the other day that he was red-haired.”
“I couldn’t have. Make him black-haired of course. You’ve no imagination.”
Seeing that I had just discovered the entire principles upon which the half-memory falsely called imagination is based, I felt entitled to laugh, but forbore, for the sake of the tale.
“You’re right. You’re the man with imagination. A black-haired chap in a decked ship,” I said.
“No, an open ship—like a big boat.”
This was maddening.
“Your ship has been built and designed, closed and decked in; you said so yourself,” I protested.
“No, no, not that ship. That was open, or half decked because——. By Jove you’re right. You made me think of the hero as a red-haired chap. Of course if he were red, the ship would be an open one with painted sails.”
Surely, I thought he would remember now that he had served in two galleys at least—in a three-decked Greek one under the black-haired “political man,” and again in a Viking’s open sea-serpent under the man “red as a red bear” who went to Markland. The devil prompted me to speak.
“Why, “of course,” Charlie?” said I.
“I don’t know. Are you making fun of me?”
The current was broken for the time being. I took up a notebook and pretended to make many entries in it.
“It’s a pleasure to work with an imaginative chap like yourself,” I said after a pause. “The way that you’ve brought out the character of the hero is simply wonderful.”
“Do you think so?” he answered, with a pleased flush. “I often tell myself that there’s more in me than my mo—than people think.”
“There’s an enormous amount in you.”
“Then, won’t you let me send an essay on The Ways of Bank Clerks to Tit-Bits, and get the guinea prize?”
“That wasn’t exactly what I meant, old fellow: perhaps it would be better to wait a little and go ahead with the galley-story.”
“Ah, but I sha’n’t get the credit of that. ‘Tit-Bits’ would publish my name and address if I win. What are you grinning at? They would.”
“I know it. Suppose you go for a walk. I want to look through my notes about our story.”
Now this reprehensible youth who left me, a little hurt and put back, might for aught he or I knew have been one of the crew of the Argo—had been certainly slave or comrade to Thorfin Karlsefne. Therefore he was deeply interested in guinea competitions. Remembering what Grish Chunder had said I laughed aloud. The Lords of Life and Death would never allow Charlie Mears to speak with full knowledge of his pasts, and I must even piece out what he had told me with my own poor inventions while Charlie wrote of the ways of bank-clerks.
I got together and placed on one file all my notes; and the net result was not cheering. I read them a second time. There was nothing that might not have been compiled at second-hand from other people’s books—except, perhaps, the story of the fight in the harbour. The adventures of a Viking had been written many times before; the history of a Greek galley-slave was no new thing, and though I wrote both, who could challenge or confirm the accuracy of my details? I might as well tell a tale of two thousand years hence. The Lords of Life and Death were as cunning as Grish Chunder had hinted. They would allow nothing to escape that might trouble or make easy the minds of men. Though I was convinced of this, yet I could not leave the tale alone. Exaltation followed reaction, not once, but twenty times in the next few weeks. My moods varied with the March sunlight and flying clouds. By night or in the beauty of a spring morning I perceived that I could write that tale and shift continents thereby. In the wet, windy afternoons, I saw that the tale might indeed be written, but would be nothing more than a faked, false-varnished, sham-rusted piece of Wardour Street work at the end. Then I blessed Charlie in many ways—though it was no fault of his. He seemed to be busy with prize competitions, and I saw less and less of him as the weeks went by and the earth cracked and grew ripe to spring, and the buds swelled in their sheaths. He did not care to read or talk of what he had read, and there was a new ring of self-assertion in his voice. I hardly cared to remind him of the galley when we met; but Charlie alluded to it on every occasion, always as a story from which money was to be made.
“I think I deserve twenty-five per cent., don’t I, at least,” he said, with beautiful frankness. “I supplied all the ideas, didn’t I?”
This greediness for silver was a new side in his nature. I assumed that it had been developed in the City, where Charlie was picking up the curious nasal drawl of the underbred City man.
“When the thing’s done we’ll talk about it. I can’t make anything of it at present. Red-haired or black-haired hero are equally difficult.”
He was sitting by the fire staring at the red coals. “I can’t understand what you find so difficult. It’s all as clean as mud to me,” he replied. A jet of gas puffed out between the bars, took light and whistled softly. “Suppose we take the red-haired hero’s adventures first, from the time that he came south to my galley and captured it and sailed to the Beaches.”
I knew better now than to interrupt Charlie. I was out of reach of pen and paper, and dared not move to get them lest I should break the current. The gas-jet puffed and whinnied, Charlie’s voice dropped almost to a whisper, and he told a tale of the sailing of an open galley to Furdurstrandi, of sunsets on the open sea, seen under the curve of the one sail evening after evening when the galley’s beak was notched into the centre of the sinking disc, and “we sailed by that for we had no other guide,” quoth Charlie. He spoke of a landing on an island and explorations in its woods, where the crew killed three men whom they found asleep under the pines. Their ghosts, Charlie said, followed the galley, swimming and choking in the water, and the crew cast lots and threw one of their number overboard as a sacrifice to the strange gods whom they had offended. Then they ate sea-weed when their provisions failed, and their legs swelled, and their leader, the red-haired man, killed two rowers who mutinied, and after a year spent among the woods they set sail for their own country, and a wind that never failed carried them back so safely that they all slept at night. This and much more Charlie told. Sometimes the voice fell so low that I could not catch the words, though every nerve was on the strain. He spoke of their leader, the red-haired man, as a pagan speaks of his God; for it was he who cheered them and slew them impartially as he thought best for their needs; and it was he who steered them for three days among floating ice, each floe crowded with strange beasts that “tried to sail with us,” said Charlie, “and we beat them back with the handles of the oars.”
The gas-jet went out, a burned coal gave way, and the fire settled down with a tiny crash to the bottom of the grate. Charlie ceased speaking, and I said no word.
“By Jove!” he said, at last, shaking his head. “I’ve been staring at the fire till I’m dizzy. What was I going to say?”
“Something about the galley.”
“I remember now. It’s 25 per cent. of the profits, isn’t it?”
“It’s anything you like when I’ve done the tale.”
“I wanted to be sure of that. I must go now. I’ve, I’ve an appointment.” And he left me.
Had my eyes not been held I might have know that that broken muttering over the fire was the swan-song of Charlie Mears. But I thought it the prelude to fuller revelation. At last and at last I should cheat the Lords of Life and Death!
When next Charlie came to me I received him with rapture. He was nervous and embarrassed, but his eyes were very full of light, and his lips a little parted.
“I’ve done a poem,” he said; and then quickly: “it’s the best I’ve ever done. Read it.” He thrust it into my hand and retreated to the window.
I groaned inwardly. It would be the work of half an hour to criticise—that is to say praise—the poem sufficiently to please Charlie. Then I had good reason to groan, for Charlie, discarding his favorite centipede metres, had launched into shorter and choppier verse, and verse with a motive at the back of it. This is what I read:
“The day is most fair, the cheery wind
Halloos behind the hill,
Where he bends the wood as seemeth good,
And the sapling to his will!
Riot O wind; there is that in my blood
That would not have thee still!
“She gave me herself, O Earth, O Sky;
Grey sea, she is mine alone!
Let the sullen boulders hear my cry,
And rejoice tho’ they be but stone!
“Mine! I have won her, O good brown earth,
Make merry! ’Tis hard on Spring;
Make merry; my love is doubly worth
All worship your fields can bring!
Let the bind that tills you feel my mirth
At the early harrowing.”
“Yes, it’s the early harrowing, past a doubt,” I said, with a dread at my heart. Charlie smiled, but did not answer.
“Red cloud of the sunset, tell it abroad;
I am victor. Greet me, O Sun,
Dominant master and absolute lord
Over the soul of one!”
“Well?” said Charlie, looking over my shoulder.
I thought it far from well, and very evil indeed, when he silently laid a photograph on the paper—the photograph of a girl with a curly head, and a foolish slack mouth.
“Isn’t it—isn’t it wonderful?” he whispered, pink to the tips of his ears, wrapped in the rosy mystery of first love. “I didn’t know; I didn’t think—it came like a thunderclap.”
“Yes. It comes like a thunderclap. Are you very happy, Charlie?”
“My God—she—she loves me!” He sat down repeating the last words to himself. I looked at the hairless face, the narrow shoulders already bowed by desk-work, and wondered when, where, and how he had loved in his past lives.
“What will your mother say?” I asked, cheerfully.
“I don’t care a damn what she says.”
At twenty the things for which one does not care a damn should, properly, be many, but one must not include mothers in the list. I told him this gently; and he described Her, even as Adam must have described to the newly named beasts the glory and tenderness and beauty of Eve. Incidentally I learned that She was a tobacconist’s assistant with a weakness for pretty dress, and had told him four or five times already that She had never been kissed by a man before.
Charlie spoke on, and on, and on; while I, separated from him by thousands of years, was considering the beginnings of things. Now I understood why the Lords of Life and Death shut the doors so carefully behind us. It is that we may not remember our first wooings. Were it not so, our world would be without inhabitants in a hundred years.
“Now, about that galley-story,” I said, still more cheerfully, in a pause in the rush of the speech.
Charlie looked up as though he had been hit. “The galley—what galley? Good heavens, don’t joke, man! This is serious! You don’t know how serious it is!”
Grish Chunder was right. Charlie had tasted the love of woman that kills remembrance, and the finest story in the world would never be written.
The orang-outang in the big iron cage lashed to the sheep-pen began the discussion. The night was stiflingly hot, and as Hans Breitmann and I passed him, dragging our bedding to the fore-peak of the steamer, he roused himself and chattered obscenely. He had been caught somewhere in the Malayan Archipelago, and was going to England to be exhibited at a shilling a head. For four days he had struggled, yelled, and wrenched at the heavy iron bars of his prison without ceasing, and had nearly slain a Lascar incautious enough to come within reach of the great hairy paw.
“It would he well for you, mine friend, if you was a liddle seasick,” said Hans Breitmann, pausing by the cage. “You haf too much Ego in your Cosmos.”
The orang-outang’s arm slid out negligently from between the bars. No one would have believed that it would make a sudden snake-like rush at the German’s breast. The thin silk of the sleeping-suit tore out: Hans stepped back unconcernedly, to pluck a banana from a bunch hanging close to one of the boats.
“Too much Ego,” said be, peeling the fruit and offering it to the caged devil, who was rending the silk to tatters.
Then we laid out our bedding in the bows, among the sleeping Lascars, to catch any breeze that the pace of the ship might give us. The sea was like smoky oil, except where it turned to fire under our forefoot and whirled back into the dark in smears of dull flame. There was a thunderstorm some miles away: we could see the glimmer of the lightning. The ship’s cow, distressed by the heat and the smell of the ape-beast in the cage, lowed unhappily from time to time in exactly the same key as the lookout man at the bows answered the hourly call from the bridge. The trampling tune of the engines was very distinct, and the jarring of the ash-lift, as it was tipped into the sea, hurt the procession of hushed noise. Hans lay down by my side and lighted a good-night cigar. This was naturally the beginning of conversation. He owned a voice as soothing as the wash of the sea, and stores of experiences as vast as the sea itself; for his business in life was to wander up and down the world, collecting orchids and wild beasts and ethnological specimens for German and American dealers. I watched the glowing end of his cigar wax and wane in the gloom, as the sentences rose and fell, till I was nearly asleep. The orang-outang, troubled by some dream of the forests of his freedom, began to yell like a soul in purgatory, and to wrench madly at the bars of the cage.
“If he was out now dere would not be much of us left hereabouts,” said Hans, lazily. “He screams good. See, now, how I shall tame him when he stops himself.”
There was a pause in the outcry, and from Hans’ mouth came an imitation of a snake’s hiss, so perfect that I almost sprung to my feet. The sustained murderous sound ran along the deck, and the wrenching at the bars ceased. The orang-outang was quaking in an ecstasy of pure terror.
“Dot stop him,” said Hans. “I learned dot trick in Mogoung Tanjong when I was collecting liddle monkeys for some peoples in Berlin. Efery one in der world is afraid of der monkeys except der snake. So I blay snake against monkey, and he keep quite still. Dere was too much Ego in his Cosmos. Dot is der soul-custom of monkeys. Are you asleep, or will you listen, and I will tell a dale dot you shall not pelief?”
“There’s no tale in the wide world that I can’t believe,” I said.
“If you have learned pelief you haf learned somedings. Now I shall try your pelief. Good! When I was collecting dose liddle monkeys-it was in ’79 or ’80, und I was in der islands of der Archipelago—over dere in der dark”—he pointed southward to New Guinea generally—“Mein Gott! I would sooner collect life red devils than liddle monkeys. When dey do not bite off your thumbs dey are always dying from nostalgia—homesick—for dey haf der imperfect soul, which is midway arrested in defelopment—und too much Ego. I was dere for nearly a year, und dere I found a man dot was called Bertran. He was a Frenchman, und he was a goot man—naturalist to the bone. Dey said he was an escaped convict, but he was a naturalist, und dot was enough for me. He would call all her life beasts from der forests, und dey would come. I said he was St. Francis of Assisi in a new dransmigration produced, und he laughed und said he haf never preach to der fishes. He sold dem for tripang-bêche-de-mer.
“Und dot man, who was king of beasts-tamer men, he had in der house shush such anoder as dot devil-animal in der cage—a great orang-outang dot thought he was a man. He haf found him when he was a child—der orang-outang—und he was child and brother and opera comique all round to Bertran. He had his room in dot house—not a cage, but a room—mit a bed and sheets, and he would go to bed and get up in der morning and smoke his cigar und eat his dinner mit Bertran, und walk mit him hand-in-hand, which was most horrible. Herr Gott! I haf seen dot beast throw himself back in his chair and laugh when Bertran haf made fun of me. He was not a beast; he was a man, and he talked to Bertran, und Bertran comprehended, for I have seen dem. Und he was always politeful to me except when I talk too long to Bertran und say nodings at all to him. Den he would pull me away—dis great, dark devil, mit his enormous paws—hush as if I was a child. He was not a beast, he was a man. Dis I saw pefore I know him three months, und Bertran he haf saw the same; and Bimi, der orang-outang, haf understood us both, mit his cigar between his big-dog teeth und der blue gum.
“I was dere a year, dere und at dere oder islands—somedimes for monkeys and somedimes for butterflies und orchits. One time Bertran says to me dot he will be married, because he haf found a girl dot was goot, and he inquire if this marrying idea was right. I would not say, pecause it was not me dot was going to be married. Den he go off courting der girl—she was a half-caste French girl—very pretty. Haf you got a new light for my cigar? Oof! Very pretty. Only I say ‘Haf you thought of Bimi? If he pulls me away when I talk to you, what will he do to your wife? He will pull her in pieces. If I was you, Bertran, I would gif my wife for wedding present der stuff figure of Bimi.” By dot time I had learned somedings about der monkey peoples. ‘Shoot him?” says Bertran. ‘He is your beast,” I said; ‘if he was mine he would be shot now.”
“Den I felt at der back of my neck der fingers of Bimi. Mein Gott! I tell you dot he talked through dose fingers. It was der deaf-and-dumb alphabet all gomplete. He slide his hairy arm round my neck, and he tilt up my chin and look into my face, shust to see if I understood his talk so well as he understood mine.
“’See now dere!’ says Bertran, “und you would shoot him while he is cuddling you? Dot is der Teuton ingrate!’
“But I knew dot I had made Bimi a life’s enemy, pecause his fingers haf talk murder through the back of my neck. Next dime I see Bimi dere was a pistol in my belt, und he touch it once, and I open de breech to show him it was loaded. He haf seen der liddle monkeys killed in der woods, and he understood.
“So Bertran he was married, and he forgot clean about Bimi dot was skippin’ alone on the beach mit der half of a human soul in his belly. I was see him skip, und he took a big bough und thrash der sand till he haf made a great hole like a grave. So I says to Bertran ‘For any sakes, kill Bimi. He is mad mit der jealousy.”
“Bertran haf said: ‘He is not mad at all. He haf obey and lofe my wife, und if she speak he will get her slippers,” und he looked at his wife across der room. She was a very pretty girl.
“Den I said to him: ‘Dost dou pretend to know monkeys und dis beast dot is lashing himself mad upon der sands, pecause you do not talk to him? Shoot him when he comes to der house, for he haf der light in his eyes dot means killing—und killing.” Bimi come to der house, but dere was no light in his eyes. It was all put away, cunning—so cunning—und he fetch der girl her slippers, and Bertran turn to me und say: ‘Dost thou know him in nine months more dan I haf known him in twelve years? Shall a child stab his fader? I have fed him, und he was my child. Do not speak this nonsense to my wife or to me any more.”
“Dot next day Bertran came to my house to help me make some wood cases for der specimens, und he tell me dot he haf left his wife a liddle while mit Bimi in der garden. Den I finish my cases quick, und I say: ‘Let us go to your house und get a trink.” He laugh und say: ‘Come along, dry mans.”
“His wife was not in der garden, und Bimi did not come when Bertran called. Und his wife did not come when he called, und he knocked at her bedroom door und dot was shut tight-locked. Den he looked at me, und his face was white. I broke down der door mit my shoulder, und der thatch of der roof was torn into a great hole, und der sun came in upon der floor. Haf you ever seen paper in der waste-basket, or cards at whist on der table scattered? Dere was no wife dot could be seen. I tell you dere was noddings in dot room dot might be a woman. Dere was stuff on der floor, und dot was all. I looked at dese things und I was very sick; but Bertran looked a little longer at what was upon the floor und der walls, und der hole in der thatch. Den he pegan to laugh, soft and low, und I know und thank God dot he was mad. He nefer cried, he nefer prayed. He stood still in der doorway und laugh to himself. Den he said: ‘She haf locked herself in dis room, and he haf torn up der thatch. Fi donc! Dot is so. We will mend der thatch und wait for Bimi. He will surely come.”
“I tell you we waited ten days in dot house, after der room was made into a room again, and once or twice we saw Bimi comin’ a liddle way from der woods. He was afraid pecause he haf done wrong. Bertran called him when he was come to look on the tenth day, und Bimi come skipping along der beach und making noises, mit a long piece of black hair in his hands. Den Bertran laugh and say, ‘Fi donc!’ shust as if it was a glass broken upon der table; und Bimi come nearer, und Bertran was honey-sweet in his voice and laughed to himself. For three days he made love to Bimi, pecause Bimi would not let himself be touched. Den Bimi come to dinner at der same table mit us, und der hair on his hands was all black und thick mit—mit what had dried on his hands. Bertran gave him sangaree till Bimi was drunk and stupid, und den——”
Hans paused to puff at his cigar.
“And then?” said I.
“Und den Bertran kill him with his hands, und I go for a walk upon der beach. It was Bertran’s own piziness. When I come back der ape he was dead, und Bertran he was dying abofe him; but still he laughed a liddle und low, and he was quite content. Now you know der formula uf der strength of der orang-outang—it is more as seven to one in relation to man. But Bertran, he haf killed Bimi mit sooch dings as Gott gif him. Dot was der miracle.”
The infernal clamour in the cage recommenced. “Aha! Dot friend of ours haf still too much Ego in his Cosmos, Be quiet, thou!”
Hans hissed long and venomously. We could hear the great beast quaking in his cage.
“But why in the world didn’t you help Bertran instead of letting him be killed?” I asked.
“My friend,” said Hans, composedly stretching himself to slumber, “it was not nice even to mineself dot I should lif after I had seen dot room wit der hole in der thatch. Und Bertran, he was her husband. Good-night, und — sleep well.”
Hans Breitmann paddled across the deck in his pink pyjamas, a cup of tea in one hand and a cheroot in the other, when the steamer was sweltering down the coast on her way to Singapur. He drank beer all day and all night, and played a game called ‘Scairt’ with three compatriots.
“I haf washed,” said he in a voice of thunder, “but dere is no use washing on these hell-seas. Look at me—I am still all wet and schweatin’. It is der tea dot makes me so. Boy, bring me Bilsener on ice.”
“You will die if you drink beer before breakfast,” said one man. “Beer is the worst thing in the world for——”
“Ya, I know—der liver. I haf no liver, und I shall not die. At least I will not die obon dese benny sdeamers dot haf no beer fit to trink. If I should haf died, I will haf don so a hoondert dimes before now—in Shermany, in New York, in Japon, in Assam, und all over der inside barts of South Amerique. Also in Shamaica should I hat died or in Siam, but I am here; und der are my orchits dot I have drafelled all the vorld round to find.”
He pointed towards the wheel, where, in two rough wooden boxes, lay a mass of shrivelled vegetation, supposed by all the ship to represent Assam orchids of fabulous value.
Now, orchids do not grow in the main streets of towns, and Hans Breitmann had gone far to get his. There was nothing that he had not collected that year, from king-crabs to white kangaroos.
“Lisden now,” said he, after he had been speaking for not much more than ten minutes without a pause; “Lisden und I will dell you a sdory to show how bad und worse it is to go gollectin’ und belief vot anoder fool haf said. Dis was in Uraguay which was in Amerique—North or Sout’ you would not know—und I was hoontin’ orchits und aferydings else dot I could back in my kanasters—dot is drafelling sbecimen-gaces. Dere vas den mit me anoder man—Reingelder, dot vas his name—und he vas hoontin’ also but only coral-snakes—joost Uraguay coral-snakes—aferykind you could imagine. I dell you a coral-snake is a peauty—all red und white like coral dot has been gestrung in bands upon der neck of a girl. Dere is one snake howefer dot we who gollect know ash der Sherman Flag, pecause id is red und plack und white, joost like a sausage mit druffles. Reingelder he was naturalist—goot man—goot trinker—better as me! “By Gott,” said Reingelder, “I will get a Sherman Flag snake or I will die.” Und we toorned all Uraguay upside-behint all pecause of dot Sherman Flag.
“Von day when we was in none knows where—shwingin’ in our hummocks among der woods, oop comes a natif woman mit a Sherman Flag in a bickle-bottle—my bickle-bottle—und we both fell from our hummocks flat ubon our pot—what you call stomach—mit shoy at dis thing. Now I was gollectin’ orchits also, und I knowed dot der idee of life to Reingelder vas dis Sherman Flag. Derefore I bicked myselfs oop und I said, “Reingelder, dot is your find.”—’Heart’s true friend, dou art a goot man,” said Reingelder, und mit dot he obens der bickle-bottle, und der natif woman she shqueals: ‘Herr Gott! It will bite.” I said—pecause in Uraguay a man must be careful of der insects—’Reingelder, shpifligate her in der alcohol und den she will be all right.”—’Nein,” said Reingelder, “I will der shnake alife examine. Dere is no fear. Der coral-shnakes are mitout shting-apparatus brofided.” Boot I looked at her het, und she vas der het of a boison-shnake—der true viper cranium, narrow und contract. ‘It is not goot,” said I; ‘she may bite und den—we are tree hoondert mile from aferywheres. Broduce der alcohol und bickle him alife.” Reingelder he had him in his hand—grawlin’ und grawlin’ as slow as a woorm und dwice as guiet. ‘Nonsense,” says Reingelder. ‘Yates haf said dot not von of der coral-shnakes haf der sack of boison.” Yates vas der crate authorite ubon der reptilia of Sout’ Amerique. He haf written a book. You do not know, of course, but he vas a crate authorité.
“I gum my eye upon der Sherman Flag, grawlin’ und grawlin’ in Reingelder’s fist, und der het vas not der het of innocence. ‘Mein Gott,” I said. ‘It is you dot will get der sack—der sack from dis life here pelow!’
“‘Den you may haf der shnake,” says Reingelder, pattin’ it ubon her het. ‘See now, I will show you vat Yates haf written!’
“Und mit dot he went indo his dent, unt brung out his big book of Yates; der Sherman Flag grawlin’ in his fist. ‘Yates haf said,” said Reingelder, und he throwed oben der book in der fork of his fist und read der passage, proofin’ conglusivement dot nefer coral-shnake bite vas boison. Den he shut der book mit a bang, und dot shqueeze der Sherman Flag, und she nip once und dwice.
“‘Der liddle fool he haf bit me,” says Reingelder.
“Dese things was before we know apout der permanganat-potash injection. I was discomfordable.”
“‘Die oop der arm, Reingelder,” said I, “und trink whisky ontil you can no more trink.””
“‘Trink ten tousand tevils! I will go to dinner,” said Reingelder, und he put her afay und it vas very red mit emotion.
“We lifed upon soup, horse-flesh, und beans for dinner, but before we vas eaten der soup, Reingelder he haf hold of his arm und cry, “It is genumben to der clavicle. I am a dead man; und Yates he haf lied in brint!’
“I dell you it vas most sad, for der symbtoms dot came vas all dose of strychnine. He vas doubled into big knots, und den undoubled, und den redoubled mooch worse dan pefore, und he frothed. I vas mit him, saying, “Reingelder, dost dou know me?” but he himself, der inward gonsciousness part, was peyond knowledge, und so I know he vas not in bain. Den he wrop himself oop in von dremendous knot und den he died—all alone mit me in Uraguay. I was sorry, for I lofed Reingelder, und I puried him, und den I took der coral-shnake—dot Sherman Flag—so bad und dreacherous und I bickled him alife.
“So I got him: und so I lost Reingelder.”
We were wallowing through the China Seas in a dense fog, the horn blowing every two minutes for the benefit of the fishery craft that crowded the waterways. From the bridge the fo’c’sle was invisible; from the hand-wheel at the stern by the captain’s cabin. The fog held possession of everything—the pearly white fog. Once or twice when it tried to lift, we saw a glimpse of the oily sea, the flitting vision of a junk’s sail spread in the vain hope of catching the breeze, or the buoys of a line of nets. Somewhere close to us lay the land, but it might have been the Kurile Islands for aught we knew.
Very early in the morning there passed us, not a cable’s length away, but as unseen as the spirits of the dead, a steamer of the same line as ours. She howled melodiously in answer to our bellowing, and passed on.
“Suppose she had hit us,” said a man from Saigon. “Then we should have gone down,” answered the chief officer sweetly. “Beastly thing to go down in a fog,” said a young gentleman who was travelling for pleasure. “Chokes a man both ways, y’ know.” We were comfortably gathered in the smoking-room, the weather being too cold to venture on the deck. Conversation naturally turned upon accidents of fog, the horn tooting significantly in the pauses between the tales. I heard of the wreck of the Eric, the cutting down of the Strathnairn within half a mile of harbour, and the carrying away of the bow plates of the Sigismund outside Sandy Hook.
“It is astonishing,” said the man from Saigon, “how many true stories are put down as sea yarns. It makes a man almost shrink from telling an anecdote.”
“Oh, please don’t shrink on our account,” said the smoking-room with one voice.
“It’s not my own story,” said the man from Saigon. “A fellow on a Messageries boat told it me. He had been third officer of a sort on a Geordie tramp—one of those lumbering, dish-bottomed coal-barges where the machinery is tied up with a string and the plates are rivetted with putty. The way he told his tale was this. The tramp had been creeping along some sea or other with a chart ten years old and the haziest sort of chronometers when she got into a fog—just such a fog as we have now.”
Here the smoking-room turned round as one man, and looked through the windows.
“In the man’s own words, “just when the fog was thickest, the engines broke down. They had been doing this for some weeks, and we were too weary to care. I went forward of the bridge, and leaned over the side, wondering where I should ever get something that I could call a ship, and whether the old hulk would fall to pieces as she lay. The fog was as thick as any London one, but as white as steam. While they were tinkering at the engines below, I heard a voice in the fog about twenty yards from the ship’s side, calling out, “Can you climb on board if we throw you a rope?” That startled me, because I fancied we were going to be run down the next minute by a ship engaged in rescuing a man overboard. I shouted for the engine-room whistle; and it whistled about five minutes, but never the sound of a ship could we hear. The ship’s boy came forward with some biscuit for me. As he put it into my hand, I heard the voice in the fog, crying out about throwing us a rope. This time it was the boy that yelled, “Ship on us!” and off went the whistle again, while the men in the engine-room—it generally took the ship’s crew to repair the Hespa’s engines—tumbled upon deck to know what we were doing. I told them about the hail, and we listened in the smother of the fog for the sound of a screw. We listened for ten minutes, then we blew the whistle for another ten. Then the crew began to call the ship’s boy a fool, meaning that the third mate was no better. When they were going down below, I heard the hail the third time, so did the ship’s boy. “There you are,” I said, “it is not twenty yards from us.” The engineer sings out, “I heard it too! Are you all asleep?” Then the crew began to swear at the engineer; and what with discussion, argument, and a little swearing,—for there is not much discipline on board a tramp,—we raised such a row that our skipper came aft to enquire. I, the engineer, and the ship’s boy stuck to our tale. “Voices or no voices,” said the captain, “you’d better patch the old engines up, and see if you’ve got enough steam to whistle with. I’ve a notion that we’ve got into rather too crowded ways.”
The engineer stayed on deck while the men went down below. The skipper hadn’t got back to the chart-room before I saw thirty feet of bowsprit hanging over the break of the fo’c’sle. Thirty feet of bowsprit, sir, doesn’t belong to anything that sails the seas except a sailing-ship or a man-of-war. I speculated quite a long time, with my hands on the bulwarks, as to whether our friend was soft wood or steel plated. It would not have made much difference to us, anyway; but I felt there was more honour in being rammed, you know.
Then I knew all about it. It was a ram. We opened out. I am not exaggerating—we opened out, sir, like a cardboard box. The other ship cut us two-thirds through, a little behind the break of the fo’c’sle. Our decks split up lengthways. The mizzen-mast bounded out of its place, and we heeled over. Then the other ship blew a fog-horn. I remember thinking, as I took water from the port bulwark, that this was rather ostentatious after she had done all the mischief. After that, I was a mile and a half under sea, trying to go to sleep as hard as I could. Some one caught hold of my hair, and waked me up. I was hanging to what was left of one of our boats under the lee of a large English ironclad. There were two men with me; the three of us began to yell. A man on the ship sings out, “Can you climb on board if we throw you a rope?” They weren’t going to let down a fine new man-of-war’s boat to pick up half-drowned rats.
We accepted the invitation. We climbed—I, the engineer, and the ship’s boy. About half an hour later the fog cleared entirely; except for the half of the boat away in the offing, there was neither stick nor string on the sea to show that the Hespa had been cut down.
“And what do you think of that now?” said the man from Saigon.
Your Gods and my Gods?—do you or I know which are the stronger?
— Native Proverb
East of Suez, some hold, the direct control of Providence ceases; Man being there handed over to the power of the Gods and Devils of Asia, and the Church of England Providence only exercising an occasional and modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.
This theory accounts for some of the more unnecessary horrors of life in India: it may be stretched to explain my story.
My friend Strickland of the Police, who knows as much of natives of India as is good for any man, can bear witness to the facts of the case. Dumoise, our doctor, also saw what Strickland and I saw. The inference which he drew from the evidence was entirely incorrect. He is dead now; he died in a rather curious manner, which has been elsewhere described.
When Fleete came to India he owned a little money and some land in the Himalayas, near a place called Dharmsala. Both properties had been left him by an uncle, and he came out to finance them. He was a big, heavy, genial, and inoffensive man. His knowledge of natives was, of course, limited, and he complained of the difficulties of the language.
He rode in from his place in the hills to spend New Year in the station, and he stayed with Strickland. On New Year’s Eve there was a big dinner at the club, and the night was excusably wet. When men foregather from the uttermost ends of the Empire they have a right to be riotous. The Frontier had sent down a contingent o’ Catch-’em-Alive-O’s who had not seen twenty white faces for a year, and were used to ride fifteen miles to dinner at the next Fort at the risk of a Khyberee bullet where their drinks should lie. They profited by their new security, for they tried to play pool with a curled-up hedgehog found in the garden, and one of them carried the marker round the room in his teeth. Half a dozen planters had come in from the south and were talking ‘horse’ to the Biggest Liar in Asia, who was trying to cap all their stories at once. Everybody was there, and there was a general closing up of ranks and taking stock of our losses in dead or disabled that had fallen during the past year. It was a very wet night, and I remember that we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with our feet in the Polo Championship Cup, and our heads among the stars, and swore that we were all dear friends. Then some of us went away and annexed Burma, and some tried to open up the Soudan and were opened up by Fuzzies in that cruel scrub outside Suakim, and some found stars and medals, and some were married, which was bad, and some did other things which were worse, and the others of us stayed in our chains and strove to make money on insufficient experiences.
Fleete began the night with sherry and bitters, drank champagne steadily up to dessert, then raw, rasping Capri with all the strength of whisky, took Benedictine with his coffee, four or five whiskies and sodas to improve his pool strokes, beer and bones at half-past two, winding up with old brandy. Consequently, when he came out, at half-past three in the morning, into fourteen degrees of frost, he was very angry with his horse for coughing, and tried to leapfrog into the saddle. The horse broke away and went to his stables; so Strickland and I formed a Guard of Dishonour to take Fleete home.
Our road lay through the bazaar, close to a little temple of Hanuman, the Monkey-god, who is a leading divinity worthy of respect. All gods have good points, just as have all priests. Personally, I attach much importance to Hanuman, and am kind to his people—the great gray apes of the hills. One never knows when one may want a friend.
There was a light in the temple, and as we passed we could hear voices of men chanting hymns. In a native temple the priests rise at all hours of the night to do honour to their god. Before we could stop him, Fleete dashed up the steps, patted two priests on the back, and was gravely grinding the ashes of his cigar-butt in to the forehead of the red stone image of Hanuman. Strickland tried to drag him out, but he sat down and said solemnly:
“Shee that? ’Mark of the B—beasht! I made it. Ishn’t it fine?”
In half a minute the temple was alive and noisy, and Strickland, who knew what came of polluting gods, said that things might occur. He, by virtue of his official position, long residence in the country, and weakness for going among the natives, was known to the priests and he felt unhappy. Fleete sat on the ground and refused to move. He said that ‘good old Hanuman’ made a very soft pillow.
Then, without any warning, a Silver Man came out of a recess behind the image of the god. He was perfectly naked in that bitter, bitter cold, and his body shone like frosted silver, for he was what the Bible calls ‘a leper as white as snow.” Also he had no face, because he was a leper of some years’ standing, and his disease was heavy upon him. We two stooped to haul Fleete up, and the temple was filling and filling with folk who seemed to spring from the earth, when the Silver Man ran in under our arms, making a noise exactly like the mewing of an otter, caught Fleete round the body and dropped his head on Fleete’s breast before we could wrench him away. Then he retired to a corner and sat mewing while the crowd blocked all the doors.
The priests were very angry until the Silver Man touched Fleete. That nuzzling seemed to sober them.
At the end of a few minutes’ silence one of the priests came to Strickland and said, in perfect English, “Take your friend away. He has done with Hanuman but Hanuman has not done with him.” The crowd gave room and we carried Fleete into the road.
Strickland was very angry. He said that we might all three have been knifed, and that Fleete should thank his stars that he had escaped without injury.
Fleete thanked no one. He said that he wanted to go to bed. He was gorgeously drunk.
We moved on, Strickland silent and wrathful, until Fleete was taken with violent shivering fits and sweating. He said that the smells of the bazaar were overpowering, and he wondered why slaughter-houses were permitted so near English residences. “Can’t you smell the blood?” said Fleete.
We put him to bed at last, just as the dawn was breaking, and Strickland invited me to have another whisky and soda. While we were drinking he talked of the trouble in the temple, and admitted that it baffled him completely. Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons. He has not yet succeeded in doing this, but in fifteen or twenty years he will have made some small progress.
“They should have mauled us,” he said, “instead of mewing at us. I wonder what they meant. I don’t like it one little bit.”
I said that the Managing Committee of the temple would in all probability bring a criminal action against us for insulting their religion. There was a section of the Indian Penal Code which exactly met Fleete’s offence. Strickland said he only hoped and prayed that they would do this. Before I left I looked into Fleete’s room, and saw him lying on his right side, scratching his left breast. Then I went to bed cold, depressed, and unhappy, at seven o’clock in the morning.
At one o’clock I rode over to Strickland’s house to inquire after Fleete’s head. I imagined that it would be a sore one. Fleete was breakfasting and seemed unwell. His temper was gone, for he was abusing the cook for not supplying him with an underdone chop. A man who can eat raw meat after a wet night is a curiosity. I told Fleete this and he laughed.
“You breed queer mosquitoes in these parts,” he said. “I’ve been bitten to pieces, but only in one place.”
“Let’s have a look at the bite,” said Strickland. “It may have gone down since this morning.”
While the chops were being cooked, Fleete opened his shirt and showed us, just over his left breast, a mark, the perfect double of the black rosettes—the five or six irregular blotches arranged in a circle—on a leopard’s hide. Strickland looked and said, “It was only pink this morning. It’s grown black now.”
Fleete ran to a glass.
“By Jove!” he said, “this is nasty. What is it?”
We could not answer. Here the chops came in, all red and juicy, and Fleete bolted three in a most offensive manner. He ate on his right grinders only, and threw his head over his right shoulder as he snapped the meat. When he had finished, it struck him that he had been behaving strangely, for he said apologetically, “I don’t think I ever felt so hungry in my life. I’ve bolted like an ostrich.”
After breakfast Strickland said to me, “Don’t go. Stay here, and stay for the night.”
Seeing that my house was not three miles from Strickland’s, this request was absurd. But Strickland insisted, and was going to say something, when Fleete interrupted by declaring in a shame-faced way that he felt hungry again. Strickland sent a man to my house to fetch over my bedding and a horse, and we three went down to Strickland’s stables to pass the hours until it was time to go out for a ride. The man who has a weakness for horses never wearies of inspecting them; and when two men are killing time in this way they gather knowledge and lies the one from the other.
There were five horses in the stables, and I shall never forget the scene as we tried to look them over. They seemed to have gone mad. They reared and screamed and nearly tore up their pickets; they sweated and shivered and lathered and were distraught with fear. Strickland’s horses used to know him as well as his dogs; which made the matter more curious. We left the stable for fear of the brutes throwing themselves in their panic. Then Strickland turned back and called me. The horses were still frightened, but they let us ‘gentle’ and make much of them, and put their heads in our bosoms.
“They aren’t afraid of us,” said Strickland. “D’ you know, I’d give three months’ pay if Outrage here could talk.”
But Outrage was dumb, and could only cuddle up to his master and blow out his nostrils, as is the custom of horses when they wish to explain things but can’t. Fleete came up when we were in the stalls, and as soon as the horses saw him, their fright broke out afresh. It was all that we could do to escape from the place unkicked. Strickland said, “They don’t seem to love you, Fleete.”
“Nonsense,” said Fleete; “my mare will follow me like a dog.” He went to her; she was in a loose-box; but as he slipped the bars she plunged, knocked him down, and broke away into the garden. I laughed, but Strickland was not amused. He took his moustache in both fists and pulled at it till it nearly came out. Fleete, instead of going off to chase his property, yawned, saying that he felt sleepy. He went to the house to lie down, which was a foolish way of spending New Year’s Day.
Strickland sat with me in the stables and asked if I had noticed anything peculiar in Fleete’s manner. I said that he ate his food like a beast; but that this might have been the result of living alone in the hills out of the reach of society as refined and elevating as ours for instance. Strickland was not amused. I do not think that he listened to me, for his next sentence referred to the mark on Fleete’s breast, and I said that it might have been caused by blister-flies, or that it was possibly a birth-mark newly born and now visible for the first time. We both agreed that it was unpleasant to look at, and Strickland found occasion to say that I was a fool.
“I can’t tell you what I think now,” said he, “because you would call me a madman; but you must stay with me for the next few days, if you can. I want you to watch Fleete, but don’t tell me what you think till I have made up my mind.”
“But I am dining out to-night,” I said.
“So am I,” said Strickland, “and so is Fleete. At least if he doesn’t change his mind.”
We walked about the garden smoking, but saying nothing—because we were friends, and talking spoils good tobacco—till our pipes were out. Then we went to wake up Fleete. He was wide awake and fidgeting about his room.
“I say, I want some more chops,” he said. “Can I get them?”
We laughed and said, “Go and change. The ponies will be round in a minute.”
“All right,” said Fleete. “I’ll go when I get the chops—underdone ones, mind.”
He seemed to be quite in earnest. It was four o’clock, and we had had breakfast at one; still, for a long time, he demanded those underdone chops. Then he changed into riding clothes and went out into the verandah. His pony—the mare had not been caught—would not let him come near. All three horses were unmanageable—mad with fear—and finally Fleete said that he would stay at home and get something to eat. Strickland and I rode out wondering. As we passed the temple of Hanuman the Silver Man came out and mewed at us.
“He is not one of the regular priests of the temple,” said Strickland. “I think I should peculiarly like to lay my hands on him.”
There was no spring in our gallop on the racecourse that evening. The horses were stale, and moved as though they had been ridden out.
“The fright after breakfast has been too much for them,” said Strickland.
That was the only remark he made through the remainder of the ride. Once or twice, I think, he swore to himself; but that did not count.
We came back in the dark at seven o’clock, and saw that there were no lights in the bungalow. “Careless ruffians my servants are!” said Strickland.
My horse reared at something on the carriage drive, and Fleete stood up under its nose.
“What are you doing, grovelling about the garden?” said Strickland.
But both horses bolted and nearly threw us. We dismounted by the stables and returned to Fleete, who was on his hands and knees under the orange-bushes.
“What the devil’s wrong with you?” said Strickland.
“Nothing, nothing in the world,” said Fleete, speaking very quickly and thickly. “I’ve been gardening—botanising, you know. The smell of the earth is delightful. I think I’m going for a walk—a long walk—all night.”
Then I saw that there was something excessively out of order somewhere, and I said to Strickland, “I am not dining out.”
“Bless you!” said Strickland. “Here, Fleete, get up. You’ll catch fever there. Come in to dinner and let’s have the lamps lit. We’ll all dine at home.”
Fleete stood up unwillingly, and said, “No lamps—no lamps. It’s much nicer here. Let’s dine outside and have some more chops—lots of ’em and underdone—bloody ones with gristle.”
Now a December evening in Northern India is bitterly cold, and Fleete’s suggestion was that of a maniac.
“Come in,” said Strickland sternly. “Come in at once.”
Fleete came, and when the lamps were brought, we saw that he was literally plastered with dirt from head to foot. He must have been rolling in the garden. He shrank from the light and went to his room. His eyes were horrible to look at. There was a green light behind them, not in them, if you understand, and the man’s lower lip hung down.
Strickland said, “There is going to be trouble—big trouble—to-night. Don’t you change your riding-things.”
We waited and waited for Fleete’s reappearance, and ordered dinner in the meantime. We could hear him moving about his own room, but there was no light there. Presently from the room came the long-drawn howl of a wolf.
People write and talk lightly of blood running cold and hair standing up, and things of that kind. Both sensations are too horrible to be trifled with.
My heart stopped as though a knife had been driven through it, and Strickland turned as white as the tablecloth.
The howl was repeated, and was answered by another howl far across the fields.
That set the gilded roof on the horror. Strickland dashed into Fleete’s room. I followed, and we saw Fleete getting out of the window. He made beast-noises in the back of his throat. He could not answer us when we shouted at him. He spat.
I don’t quite remember what followed, but I think that Strickland must have stunned him with the long boot-jack, or else I should never have been able to sit on his chest. Fleete could not speak, he could only snarl, and his snarls were those of a wolf, not of a man. The human spirit must have been giving way all day and have died out with the twilight. We were dealing with a beast that had once been Fleete.
The affair was beyond any human and rational experience. I tried to say ‘Hydrophobia,” but the word wouldn’t come, because I knew that I was lying.
We bound this beast with leather thongs of the punkah-rope, and tied its thumbs and big toes together, and gagged it with a shoe-horn, which makes a very efficient gag if you know how to arrange it. Then we carried it into the dining-room, and sent a man to Dumoise, the doctor, telling him to come over at once. After we had despatched the messenger and were drawing breath, Strickland said, “It’s no good. This isn’t any doctor’s work.” I, also, knew that he spoke the truth.
The beast’s head was free, and it threw it about from side to side. Any one entering the room would have believed that we were curing a wolf’s pelt. That was the most loathsome accessory of all.
Strickland sat with his chin in the heel of his fist, watching the beast as it wriggled on the ground, but saying nothing. The shirt had been torn open in the scuffle and showed the black rosette mark on the left breast. It stood out like a blister.
In the silence of the watching we heard something without—mewing like a she-otter. We both rose to our feet, and, I answer for myself, not Strickland, felt sick—actually and physically sick. We told each other, as did the men in “Pinafore,” that it was the cat.
Dumoise arrived, and I never saw a little man so unprofessionally shocked. He said that it was a heart-rending case of hydrophobia, and that nothing could be done. At least any palliative measures would only prolong the agony. The beast was foaming at the mouth. Fleete, as we told Dumoise, had been bitten by dogs once or twice. Any man who keeps half a dozen terriers must expect a nip now and again. Dumoise could offer no help. He could only certify that Fleete was dying of hydrophobia. The beast was then howling, for it had managed to spit out the shoe-horn. Dumoise said that he would be ready to certify to the cause of death, and that the end was certain. He was a good little man, and he offered to remain with us; but Strickland refused the kindness. He did not wish to poison Dumoise’s New Year. He would only ask him not to give the real cause of Fleete’s death to the public.
So Dumoise left, deeply agitated; and as soon as the noise of the cart-wheels had died away, Strickland told me, in a whisper, his suspicions. They were so wildly improbable that he dared not say them out aloud; and I, who entertained all Strickland’s beliefs, was so ashamed of owning to them that I pretended to disbelieve.
“Even if the Silver Man had bewitched Fleete for polluting the image of Hanuman, the punishment could not have fallen so quickly.”
As I was whispering this the cry outside the house rose again, and the beast fell into a fresh paroxysm of struggling till we were afraid that the thongs that held it would give way.
“Watch!” said Strickland. “If this happens six times I shall take the law into my own hands. I order you to help me.”
He went into his room and came out in a few minutes with the barrels of an old shot-gun, a piece of fishing-line, some thick cord, and his heavy wooden bedstead. I reported that the convulsions had followed the cry by two seconds in each case, and the beast seemed perceptibly weaker.
Strickland muttered, “But he can’t take away the life! He can’t take away the life!”
I said, though I knew that I was arguing against myself, “It may be a cat. It must be a cat. If the Silver Man is responsible, why does he dare to come here?”
Strickland arranged the wood on the hearth, put the gun-barrels into the glow of the fire, spread the twine on the table, and broke a walking stick in two. There was one yard of fishing line, gut lapped with wire, such as is used for mahseer-fishing, and he tied the two ends together in a loop.
Then he said, “How can we catch him? He must be taken alive and unhurt.”
I said that we must trust in Providence, and go out softly with polo-sticks into the shrubbery at the front of the house. The man or animal that made the cry was evidently moving round the house as regularly as a night-watchman. We could wait in the bushes till he came by and knock him over.
Strickland accepted this suggestion, and we slipped out from a bath-room window into the front verandah and then across the carriage drive into the bushes.
In the moonlight we could see the leper coming round the corner of the house. He was perfectly naked, and from time to time he mewed and stopped to dance with his shadow. It was an unattractive sight, and thinking of poor Fleete, brought to such degradation by so foul a creature, I put away all my doubts and resolved to help Strickland from the heated gun-barrels to the loop of twine—from the loins to the head and back again—with all tortures that might be needful.
The leper halted in the front porch for a moment and we jumped out on him with the sticks. He was wonderfully strong, and we were afraid that he might escape or be fatally injured before we caught him. We had an idea that lepers were frail creatures, but this proved to be incorrect. Strickland knocked his legs from under him and I put my foot on his neck. He mewed hideously, and even through my riding-boots I could feel that his flesh was not the flesh of a clean man.
He struck at us with his hand and feet-stumps. We looped the lash of a dog-whip round him, under the arm-pits, and dragged him backwards into the hall and so into the dining-room where the beast lay. There we tied him with trunk-straps. He made no attempt to escape, but mewed.
When we confronted him with the beast the scene was beyond description. The beast doubled backwards into a bow as though he had been poisoned with strychnine, and moaned in the most pitiable fashion. Several other things happened also, but they cannot be put down here.
“I think I was right,” said Strickland. “Now we will ask him to cure this case.”
But the leper only mewed. Strickland wrapped a towel round his hand and took the gun-barrels out of the fire. I put the half of the broken walking stick through the loop of fishing-line and buckled the leper comfortably to Strickland’s bedstead. I understood then how men and women and little children can endure to see a witch burnt alive; for the beast was moaning on the floor, and though the Silver Man had no face, you could see horrible feelings passing through the slab that took its place, exactly as waves of heat play across red-hot iron—gun-barrels for instance.
Strickland shaded his eyes with his hands for a moment and we got to work. This part is not to be printed.
The dawn was beginning to break when the leper spoke. His mewings had not been satisfactory up to that point. The beast had fainted from exhaustion and the house was very still. We unstrapped the leper and told him to take away the evil spirit. He crawled to the beast and laid his hand upon the left breast. That was all. Then he fell face down and whined, drawing in his breath as he did so.
We watched the face of the beast, and saw the soul of Fleete coming back into the eyes. Then a sweat broke out on the forehead and the eyes—they were human eyes—closed. We waited for an hour, but Fleete still slept. We carried him to his room and bade the leper go, giving him the bedstead, and the sheet on the bedstead to cover his nakedness, the gloves and the towels with which we had touched him, and the whip that had been hooked round his body. He put the sheet about him and went out into the early morning without speaking or mewing.
Strickland wiped his face and sat down. A night-gong, far away in the city, made seven o’clock.
“Exactly four-and-twenty hours!” said Strickland. “And I’ve done enough to ensure my dismissal from the service, besides permanent quarters in a lunatic asylum. Do you believe that we are awake?”
The red-hot gun-barrel had fallen on the floor and was singeing the carpet. The smell was entirely real.
That morning at eleven we two together went to wake up Fleete. We looked and saw that the black leopard-rosette on his chest had disappeared. He was very drowsy and tired, but as soon as he saw us, he said, “Oh! Confound you fellows. Happy New Year to you. Never mix your liquors. I’m nearly dead.”
“Thanks for your kindness, but you’re over time,” said Strickland. “To-day is the morning of the second. You’ve slept the clock round with a vengeance.”
The door opened, and little Dumoise put his head in. He had come on foot, and fancied that we were laying out Fleete.
“I’ve brought a nurse,” said Dumoise. “I suppose that she can come in for . . . what is necessary.”
“By all means,” said Fleete cheerily, sitting up in bed. “Bring on your nurses.”
Dumoise was dumb. Strickland led him out and explained that there must have been a mistake in the diagnosis. Dumoise remained dumb and left the house hastily. He considered that his professional reputation had been injured, and was inclined to make a personal matter of the recovery. Strickland went out too. When he came back, he said that he had been to call on the Temple of Hanuman to offer redress for the pollution of the god, and had been solemnly assured that no white man had ever touched the idol, and that he was an incarnation of all the virtues labouring under a delusion. “What do you think?” said Strickland.
I said, “There are more things . . .”
But Strickland hates that quotation. He says that I have worn it threadbare.
One other curious thing happened which frightened me as much as anything in all the night’s work. When Fleete was dressed he came into the dining-room and sniffed. He had a quaint trick of moving his nose when he sniffed. “Horrid doggy smell, here,” said he. “You should really keep those terriers of yours in better order. Try sulphur, Strick.”
But Strickland did not answer. He caught hold of the back of a chair, and, without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics. It is terrible to see a strong man overtaken with hysteria. Then it struck me that we had fought for Fleete’s soul with the Silver Man in that room, and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as Strickland, while Fleete thought that we had both gone mad. We never told him what we had done.
Some years later, when Strickland had married and was a church-going member of society for his wife’s sake, we reviewed the incident dispassionately, and Strickland suggested that I should put it before the public.
I cannot myself see that this step is likely to clear up the mystery; because, in the first place, no one will believe a rather unpleasant story, and, in the second, it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned.
And if ye doubt the tale I tell,
Steer through the South Pacific swell;
Go where the branching coral hives
Unending strife of endless lives,
Where, leagued about the ’wildered boat,
The rainbow jellies fill and float;
And, lilting where the laver lingers,
The starfish trips on all her fingers;
Where, ’neath his myriad spines ashock,
The sea-egg ripples down the rock;
An orange wonder dimly guessed,
From darkness where the cuttles rest,
Moored o’er the darker deeps that hide
The blind white Sea-snake and his bride
Who, drowsing, nose the long-lost ships
Let down through darkness to their lips.
— The Palms
Once a priest, always a priest; once a Mason, always a Mason; but once a journalist, always and for ever a journalist.
There were three of us, all newspaper men, the only passengers on a little tramp steamer that ran where her owners told her to go. She had once been in the Bilbao iron ore business, had been lent to the Spanish Government for service at Manilla; and was ending her days in the Cape Town coolie-trade, with occasional trips to Madagascar and even as far as England. We found her going to Southampton in ballast, and shipped in her because the fares were nominal. There was Keller, of an American paper, on his way back to the States from palace executions in Madagascar; there was a burly half-Dutchman, called Zuyland, who owned and edited a paper up country near Johannesburg; and there was myself, who had solemnly put away all journalism, vowing to forget that I had ever known the difference between an imprint and a stereo advertisement.
Ten minutes after Keller spoke to me, as the Rathmines cleared Cape Town, I had forgotten the aloofness I desired to feign, and was in heated discussion on the immorality of expanding telegrams beyond a certain fixed point. Then Zuyland came out of his cabin, and we were all at home instantly, because we were men of the same profession needing no introduction. We annexed the boat formally, broke open the passengers’ bath-room door—on the Manilla lines the dons do not wash—cleaned out the orange-peel and cigar-ends at the bottom of the bath, hired a Lascar to shave us throughout the voyage, and then asked each other’s names.
Three ordinary men would have quarrelled through sheer boredom before they reached Southampton. We, by virtue of our craft, were anything but ordinary men. A large percentage of the tales of the world, the thirty-nine that cannot be told to ladies and the one that can, are common property coming of a common stock. We told them all, as a matter of form, with all their local and specific variants which are surprising. Then came, in the intervals of steady card-play, more personal histories of adventure and things seen and suffered: panics among white folk, when the blind terror ran from man to man on the Brooklyn Bridge, and the people crushed each other to death they knew not why; fires, and faces that opened and shut their mouths horribly at red-hot window frames; wrecks in frost and snow, reported from the sleet-sheathed rescue-tug at the risk of frostbite; long rides after diamond thieves; skirmishes on the veldt and in municipal committees with the Boers; glimpses of lazy tangled Cape politics and the mule-rule in the Transvaal; card-tales, horse-tales, woman-tales, by the score and the half hundred; till the first mate, who had seen more than us all put together, but lacked words to clothe his tales with, sat open-mouthed far into the dawn.
When the tales were done we picked up cards till a curious hand or a chance remark made one or other of us say, “That reminds me of a man who—or a business which——” and the anecdotes would continue while the Rathmines kicked her way northward through the warm water.
In the morning of one specially warm night we three were sitting immediately in front of the wheel-house, where an old Swedish boatswain whom we called “Frithiof the Dane” was at the wheel, pretending that he could not hear our stories. Once or twice Frithiof spun the spokes curiously, and Keller lifted his head from a long chair to ask, “What is it? Can’t you get any steerage-way on her?”
“There is a feel in the water,” said Frithiof, “that I cannot understand. I think that we run downhills or somethings. She steers bad this morning.”
Nobody seems to know the laws that govern the pulse of the big waters. Sometimes even a landsman can tell that the solid ocean is atilt, and that the ship is working herself up a long unseen slope; and sometimes the captain says, when neither full steam nor fair wind justifies the length of a day’s run, that the ship is sagging downhill; but how these ups and downs come about has not yet been settled authoritatively.
“No, it is a following sea,” said Frithiof; “and with a following sea you shall not get good steerage-way.”
The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond, except for a regular oily swell. As I looked over the side to see where it might be following us from, the sun rose in a perfectly clear sky and struck the water with its light so sharply that it seemed as though the sea should clang like a burnished gong. The wake of the screw and the little white streak cut by the log-line hanging over the stern were the only marks on the water as far as eye could reach.
Keller rolled out of his chair and went aft to get a pine-apple from the ripening stock that was hung inside the after awning.
“Frithiof, the log-line has got tired of swimming. It’s coming home,” he drawled.
“What?” said Frithiof, his voice jumping several octaves.
“Coming home,” Keller repeated, leaning over the stern. I ran to his side and saw the log-line, which till then had been drawn tense over the stern railing, slacken, loop, and come up off the port quarter. Frithiof called up the speaking-tube to the bridge, and the bridge answered, “Yes, nine knots.” Then Frithiof spoke again, and the answer was, “What do you want of the skipper?” and Frithiof bellowed, “Call him up.”
By this time Zuyland, Keller, and myself had caught something of Frithiof’s excitement, for any emotion on shipboard is most contagious. The captain ran out of his cabin, spoke to Frithiof, looked at the log-line, jumped on the bridge, and in a minute we felt the steamer swing round as Frithiof turned her.
“Going back to Cape Town?” said Keller.
Frithiof did not answer, but tore away at the wheel. Then he beckoned us three to help, and we held the wheel down till the Rathmines answered it, and we found ourselves looking into the white of our own wake, with the still oily sea tearing past our bows, though we were not going more than half steam ahead.
The captain stretched out his arm from the bridge and shouted. A minute later I would have given a great deal to have shouted too, for one-half of the sea seemed to shoulder itself above the other half, and came on in the shape of a hill. There was neither crest, comb, nor curl-over to it; nothing but black water with little waves chasing each other about the flanks. I saw it stream past and on a level with the Rathmines’ bow-plates before the steamer hove up her bulk to rise, and I argued that this would be the last of all earthly voyages for me. Then we lifted for ever and ever and ever, till I heard Keller saying in my ear, “The bowels of the deep, good Lord!” and the Rathmines stood poised, her screw racing and drumming on the slope of a hollow that stretched downwards for a good half-mile.
We went down that hollow, nose under for the most part, and the air smelt wet and muddy, like that of an emptied aquarium. There was a second hill to climb; I saw that much: but the water came aboard and carried me aft till it jammed me against the wheel-house door, and before I could catch breath or clear my eyes again we were rolling to and fro in torn water, with the scuppers pouring like eaves in a thunderstorm.
“There were three waves,” said Keller; ‘and the stoke-hold’s flooded.”
The firemen were on deck waiting, apparently, to be drowned. The engineer came and dragged them below, and the crew, gasping, began to work the clumsy Board of Trade pump. That showed nothing serious, and when I understood that the Rathmines was really on the water, and not beneath it, I asked what had happened.
“The captain says it was a blow-up under the sea—a volcano,” said Keller.
“It hasn’t warmed anything,” I said. I was feeling bitterly cold, and cold was almost unknown in those waters. I went below to change my clothes, and when I came up everything was wiped out in clinging white fog.
“Are there going to be any more surprises?” said Keller to the captain.
“I don’t know. Be thankful you’re alive, gentlemen. That’s a tidal wave thrown up by a volcano. Probably the bottom of the sea has been lifted a few feet somewhere or other. I can’t quite understand this cold spell. Our sea-thermometer says the surface water is 44°, and it should be 68° at least.”
“It’s abominable,” said Keller, shivering. “But hadn’t you better attend to the fog-horn? It seems to me that I heard something.”
“Heard! Good heavens!” said the captain from the bridge, “I should think you did.” He pulled the string of our fog-horn, which was a weak one. It sputtered and choked, because the stokehold was full of water and the fires were half-drowned, and at last gave out a moan. It was answered from the fog by one of the most appalling steam-sirens I have ever heard. Keller turned as white as I did, for the fog, the cold fog, was upon us, and any man may be forgiven for fearing a death he cannot see.
“Give her steam there!” said the captain to the engine-room. “Steam for the whistle, if we have to go dead slow.”
We bellowed again, and the damp dripped off the awnings on to the deck as we listened for the reply. It seemed to be astern this time, but much nearer than before.
“The Pembroke Castle, by gum!” said Keller; and then, viciously, “Well, thank God, we shall sink her too.”
“It’s a side-wheel steamer,” I whispered. “Can’t you hear the paddles?”
This time we whistled and roared till the steam gave out, and the answer nearly deafened us. There was a sound of frantic threshing in the water, apparently about fifty yards away, and something shot past in the whiteness that looked as though it were gray and red.
“The Pembroke Castle bottom up,” said Keller, who, being a journalist, always sought for explanations. “That’s the colours of a Castle liner. We’re in for a big thing.”
“The sea is bewitched,” said Frithiof from the wheel-house. “There are two steamers!”
Another siren sounded on our bow, and the little steamer rolled in the wash of something that had passed unseen.
“We’re evidently in the middle of a fleet,” said Keller quietly. “If one doesn’t run us down, the other will. Phew! What in creation is that?”
I sniffed, for there was a poisonous rank smell in the cold air—a smell that I had smelt before.
“If I was on land I should say that it was an alligator. It smells like musk,” I answered.
“Not ten thousand alligators could make that smell,” said Zuyland; “I have smelt them.”
“Bewitched! Bewitched!” said Frithiof. “The sea she is turned upside down, and we are walking along the bottom.”
Again the Rathmines rolled in the wash of some unseen ship, and a silver-gray wave broke over the bow, leaving on the deck a sheet of sediment-the gray broth that has its place in the fathomless deeps of the sea. A sprinkling of the wave fell on my face, and it was so cold that it stung as boiling water stings. The dead and most untouched deep water of the sea had been heaved to the top by the submarine volcano—the chill still water that kills all life and smells of desolation and emptiness. We did not need either the blinding fog or that indescribable smell of musk to make us unhappy—we were shivering with cold and wretchedness where we stood.
“The hot air on the cold water makes this fog,” said the captain; “it ought to clear in a little time.”
“Whistle, oh! whistle, and let’s get out of it,” said Keller.
The captain whistled again, and far and far astern the invisible twin steam-sirens answered us. Their blasting shriek grew louder, till at last it seemed to tear out of the fog just above our quarter, and I cowered while the Rathmines plunged bows under on a double swell that crossed.
“No more,” said Frithiof, “it is not good any more. Let us get away, in the name of God.”
“Now if a torpedo-boat with a City of Paris siren went mad and broke her moorings and hired a friend to help her, it’s just conceivable that we might be carried as we are now. Otherwise this thing is——”
The last words died on Keller’s lips, his eyes began to start from his head, and his jaw fell. Some six or seven feet above the port bulwarks, framed in fog, and as utterly unsupported as the full moon, hung a Face. It was not human, and it certainly was not animal, for it did not belong to this earth as known to man. The mouth was open, revealing a ridiculously tiny tongue—as absurd as the tongue of an elephant; there were tense wrinkles of white skin at the angles of the drawn lips, white feelers like those of a barbel sprung from the lower jaw, and there was no sign of teeth within the mouth. But the horror of the face lay in the eyes, for those were sightless—white, in sockets as white as scraped bone, and blind. Yet for all this the face, wrinkled as the mask of a lion is drawn in Assyrian sculpture, was alive with rage and terror. One long white feeler touched our bulwarks. Then the face disappeared with the swiftness of a blindworm popping into its burrow, and the next thing that I remember is my own voice in my own ears, saying gravely to the mainmast, “But the air-bladder ought to have been forced out of its mouth, you know.”
Keller came up to me, ashy white. He put his hand into his pocket, took a cigar, bit it, dropped it, thrust his shaking thumb into his mouth and mumbled, “The giant gooseberry and the raining frogs! Gimme a light-gimme a light! Say, gimme a light.” A little bead of blood dropped from his thumb joint.
I respected the motive, though the manifestation was absurd. “Stop, you’ll bite your thumb off,” I said, and Keller laughed brokenly as he picked up his cigar. Only Zuyland, leaning over the port bulwarks, seemed self-possessed. He declared later that he was very sick.
“We’ve seen it,” he said, turning round. “That is it.”
“What?” said Keller, chewing the unlighted cigar.
As he spoke the fog was blown into shreds, and we saw the sea, gray with mud, rolling on every side of us and empty of all life. Then in one spot it bubbled and became like the pot of ointment that the Bible speaks of. From that wide-ringed trouble a Thing came up—a gray and red Thing with a neck—a Thing that bellowed and writhed in pain. Frithiof drew in his breath and held it till the red letters of the ship’s name, woven across his jersey, straggled and opened out as though they had been type badly set. Then he said with a little cluck in his throat, “Ah me! It is blind. Hur illa! That thing is blind,” and a murmur of pity went through us all, for we could see that the thing on the water was blind and in pain. Something had gashed and cut the great sides cruelly and the blood was spurting out. The gray ooze of the undermost sea lay in the monstrous wrinkles of the back, and poured away in sluices. The blind white head flung back and battered the wounds, and the body in its torment rose clear of the red and gray waves till we saw a pair of quivering shoulders streaked with weed and rough with shells, but as white in the clear spaces as the hairless, maneless, blind, toothless head. Afterwards, came a dot on the horizon and the sound of a shrill scream, and it was as though a shuttle shot all across the sea in one breath, and a second head and neck tore through the levels, driving a whispering wall of water to right and left. The two Things met—the one untouched and the other in its death-throe—male and female, we said, the female coming to the male. She circled round him bellowing, and laid her neck across the curve of his great turtle-back, and he disappeared under water for an instant, but flung up again, grunting in agony while the blood ran. Once the entire head and neck shot clear of the water and stiffened, and I heard Keller saying, as though he was watching a street accident, “Give him air. For God’s sake, give him air.” Then the death-struggle began, with crampings and twistings and jerkings of the white bulk to and fro, till our little steamer rolled again, and each gray wave coated her plates with the gray slime. The sun was clear, there was no wind, and we watched, the whole crew, stokers and all, in wonder and pity, but chiefly pity. The Thing was so helpless, and, save for his mate, so alone. No human eye should have beheld him; it was monstrous and indecent to exhibit him there in trade waters between atlas degrees of latitude. He had been spewed up, mangled and dying, from his rest on the sea-floor, where he might have lived till the Judgment Day, and we saw the tides of his life go from him as an angry tide goes out across rocks in the teeth of a landward gale. His mate lay rocking on the water a little distance off, bellowing continually, and the smell of musk came down upon the ship making us cough.
At last the battle for life ended in a batter of coloured seas. We saw the writhing neck fall like a flail, the carcase turn sideways, showing the glint of a white belly and the inset of a gigantic hind leg or flipper. Then all sank, and sea boiled over it, while the mate swam round and round, darting her head in every direction. Though we might have feared that she would attack the steamer, no power on earth could have drawn any one of us from our places that hour. We watched, holding our breaths. The mate paused in her search; we could hear the wash beating along her sides; reared her neck as high as she could reach, blind and lonely in all that loneliness of the sea, and sent one desperate bellow booming across the swells as an oyster-shell skips across a pond. Then she made off to the westward, the sun shining on the white head and the wake behind it, till nothing was left to see but a little pin point of silver on the horizon. We stood on our course again; and the Rathmines, coated with the sea-sediment from bow to stern, looked like a ship made gray with terror.
“We must pool our notes,” was the first coherent remark from Keller. “We’re three trained journalists—we hold absolutely the biggest scoop on record. Start fair.”
I objected to this. Nothing is gained by collaboration in journalism when all deal with the same facts, so we went to work each according to his own lights. Keller triple-headed his account, talked about our “gallant captain,” and wound up with an allusion to American enterprise in that it was a citizen of Dayton, Ohio, that had seen the sea-serpent. This sort of thing would have discredited the Creation, much more a mere sea tale, but as a specimen of the picture-writing of a half civilised people it was very interesting. Zuyland took a heavy column and a half, giving approximate lengths and breadths, and the whole list of the crew whom he had sworn on oath to testify to his facts. There was nothing fantastic or flamboyant in Zuyland. I wrote three-quarters of a leaded bourgeois column, roughly speaking, and refrained from putting any journalese into it for reasons that had begun to appear to me.
Keller was insolent with joy. He was going to cable from Southampton to the New York World, mail his account to America on the same day, paralyse London with his three columns of loosely knitted headlines, and generally efface the earth. “You’ll see how I work a big scoop when I get it,” he said.
“Is this your first visit to England?” I asked.
“Yes,” said he. “You don’t seem to appreciate the beauty of our scoop. It’s pyramidal—the death of the sea-serpent! Good heavens alive, man, it’s the biggest thing ever vouchsafed to a paper!”
“Curious to think that it will never appear in any paper, isn’t it?” I said.
Zuyland was near me, and he nodded quickly.
“What do you mean?” said Keller. “If you’re enough of a Britisher to throw this thing away, I shan’t. I thought you were a newspaperman.”
“I am. That’s why I know. Don’t be an ass, Keller. Remember, I’m seven hundred years your senior, and what your grandchildren may learn five hundred years hence, I learned from my grandfathers about five hundred years ago. You won’t do it, because you can’t.”
This conversation was held in open sea, where everything seems possible, some hundred miles from Southampton. We passed the Needles Light at dawn, and the lifting day showed the stucco villas on the green and the awful orderliness of England—line upon line, wall upon wall, solid stone dock and monolithic pier. We waited an hour in the Customs shed, and there was ample time for the effect to soak in.
“Now, Keller, you face the music. The Havel goes out to-day. Mail by her, and I’ll take you to the telegraph-office,” I said.
I heard Keller gasp as the influence of the land closed about him, cowing him as they say Newmarket Heath cows a young horse unused to open courses.
“I want to retouch my stuff. Suppose we wait till we get to London?” he said.
Zuyland, by the way, had torn up his account and thrown it overboard that morning early. His reasons were my reasons.
In the train Keller began to revise his copy, and every time that he looked at the trim little fields, the red villas, and the embankments of the line, the blue pencil plunged remorselessly through the slips. He appeared to have dredged the dictionary for adjectives. I could think of none that he had not used. Yet he was a perfectly sound poker-player and never showed more cards than were sufficient to take the pool.
“Aren’t you going to leave him a single bellow?” I asked sympathetically. “Remember, everything goes in the States, from a trouser-button to a double-eagle.”
“That’s just the curse of it,” said Keller below his breath. “We’ve played ’em for suckers so often that when it comes to the golden truth—I’d like to try this on a London paper. You have first call there, though.”
“Not in the least. I’m not touching the thing in our papers. I shall be happy to leave ’em all to you; but surely you’ll cable it home?”
“No. Not if I can make the scoop here and see the Britishers sit up.”
“You won’t do it with three columns of slushy headline, believe me. They don’t sit up as quickly as some people.”
“I’m beginning to think that too. Does nothing make any difference in this country?” he said, looking out of the window. “How old is that farmhouse?”
“New. It can’t be more than two hundred years at the most.”
“Um. Fields, too?”
“That hedge there must have been clipped for about eighty years.”
“Pretty much. Well, I suppose you’d like to try the ‘Times’, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” said Keller, looking at Winchester Cathedral. “’Might as well try to electrify a haystack. And to think that the World would take three columns and ask for more—with illustrations too! It’s sickening.”
“But the ‘Times’ might,” I began.
Keller flung his paper across the carriage, and it opened in its austere majesty of solid type—opened with the crackle of an encyclopædia.
“Might! You might work your way through the bow-plates of a cruiser. Look at that first page!”
“It strikes you that way, does it?” I said. “Then I’d recommend you to try a light and frivolous journal.”
“With a thing like this of mine—of ours? It’s sacred history!”
I showed him a paper which I conceived would be after his own heart, in that it was modelled on American lines.
“That’s homey,” he said, “but it’s not the real thing. Now, I should like one of these fat old ‘Times’ columns. Probably there’d be a bishop in the office, though.”
When we reached London Keller disappeared in the direction of the Strand. What his experiences may have been I cannot tell, but it seems that he invaded the office of an evening paper at 11.45 a.m. (I told him English editors were most idle at that hour), and mentioned my name as that of a witness to the truth of his story.
“I was nearly fired out,” he said furiously at lunch. “As soon as I mentioned you, the old man said that I was to tell you that they didn’t want any more of your practical jokes, and that you knew the hours to call if you had anything to sell, and that they’d see you condemned before they helped to puff one of your infernal yarns in advance. Say, what record do you hold for truth in this country, anyway?”
“A beauty. You ran up against it, that’s all. Why don’t you leave the English papers alone and cable to New York? Everything goes over there.”
“Can’t you see that’s just why?” he repeated.
“I saw it a long time ago. You don’t intend to cable, then?”
“Yes, I do,” he answered, in the over-emphatic voice of one who does not know his own mind.
That afternoon I walked him abroad and about, over the streets that run between the pavements like channels of grooved and tongued lava, over the bridges that are made of enduring stone, through subways floored and sided with yard-thick concrete, between houses that are never rebuilt, and by river-steps hewn, to the eye, from the living rock. A black fog chased us into Westminster Abbey, and, standing there in the darkness, I could hear the wings of the dead centuries circling round the head of Litchfield A. Keller, journalist, of Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A., whose mission it was to make the Britishers sit up.
He stumbled gasping into the thick gloom, and the roar of the traffic came to his bewildered ears.
“Let’s go to the telegraph-office and cable,” I said. “Can’t you hear the New York World crying for news of the great sea-serpent, blind, white, and smelling of musk, stricken to death by a submarine volcano, and assisted by his loving wife to die in mid-ocean, as visualised by an American citizen, the breezy, newsy, brainy news paper man of Dayton, Ohio? ’Rah for the Buckeye State. Step lively! Both gates! Szz! Boom! Aah!” Keller was a Princeton man, and he seemed to need encouragement.
“You’ve got me on your own ground,” said he, tugging at his overcoat pocket. He pulled out his copy, with the cable forms—for he had written out his telegram—and put them all into my hand, groaning, “I pass. If I hadn’t come to your cursed country—if I’d sent it off at Southampton—if I ever get you west of the Alleghannies, if——”
“Never mind, Keller. It isn’t your fault. It’s the fault of your country. If you had been seven hundred years older you’d have done what I am going to do.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Tell it as a lie.”
“Fiction?” This with the full-blooded disgust of a journalist for the illegitimate branch of the profession.
“You can call it that if you like. I shall call it a lie.”
And a lie it has become; for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.
Alive or dead—there is no other way.
— Native Proverb.
There is, as the conjurers say, no deception about this tale. Jukes by accident stumbled upon a village that is well known to exist, though he is the only Englishman who has been there. A somewhat similar institution used to flourish on the outskirts of Calcutta, and there is a story that if you go into the heart of Bikanir, which is in the heart of the Great Indian Desert, you shall come across not a village but a town where the Dead who did not die but may not live have established their headquarters. And, since it is perfectly true that in the same Desert is a wonderful city where all the rich money lenders retreat after they have made their fortunes (fortunes so vast that the owners cannot trust even the strong hand of the Government to protect them, but take refuge in the waterless sands), and drive sumptuous C-spring barouches, and buy beautiful girls and decorate their palaces with gold and ivory and Minton tiles and mother-o’-pearl, I do not see why Jukes’s tale should not be true. He is a Civil Engineer, with a head for plans and distances and things of that kind, and he certainly would not take the trouble to invent imaginary traps. He could earn more by doing his legitimate work. He never varies the tale in the telling, and grows very hot and indignant when he thinks of the disrespectful treatment he received. He wrote this quite straightforwardly at first, but he has since touched it up in places and introduced Moral Reflections: thus:—
In the beginning it all arose from a slight attack of fever. My work necessitated my being in camp for some months between Pakpattan and Muharakpur—a desolate sandy stretch of country as every one who has had the misfortune to go there may know. My coolies were neither more nor less exasperating than other gangs, and my work demanded sufficient attention to keep me from moping, had I been inclined to so unmanly a weakness.
On the 23rd December, 1884, I felt a little feverish. There was a full moon at the time, and, in consequence, every dog near my tent was baying it. The brutes assembled in twos and threes and drove me frantic. A few days previously I had shot one loud-mouthed singer and suspended his carcass in terrorem about fifty yards from my tent-door. But his friends fell upon, fought for, and ultimately devoured the body; and, as it seemed to me, sang their hymns of thanksgiving afterward with renewed energy.
The light-heartedness which accompanies fever acts differently on different men. My irritation gave way, after a short time, to a fixed determination to slaughter one huge black and white beast who had been foremost in song and first in flight throughout the evening. Thanks to a shaking hand and a giddy head I had already missed him twice with both barrels of my shot-gun, when it struck me that my best plan would be to ride him down in the open and finish him off with a hog-spear. This, of course, was merely the semi-delirious notion of a fever patient; but I remember that it struck me at the time as being eminently practical and feasible.
I therefore ordered my groom to saddle Pornic and bring him round quietly to the rear of my tent. When the pony was ready, I stood at his head prepared to mount and dash out as soon as the dog should again lift up his voice. Pornic, by the way, had not been out of his pickets for a couple of days; the night air was crisp and chilly; and I was armed with a specially long and sharp pair of persuaders with which I had been rousing a sluggish cob that afternoon. You will easily believe, then, that when he was let go he went quickly. In one moment, for the brute bolted as straight as a die, the tent was left far behind, and we were flying over the smooth sandy soil at racing speed.
In another we had passed the wretched dog, and I had almost forgotten why it was that I had taken the horse and hogspear.
The delirium of fever and the excitement of rapid motion through the air must have taken away the remnant of my senses. I have a faint recollection of standing upright in my stirrups, and of brandishing my hog-spear at the great white Moon that looked down so calmly on my mad gallop; and of shout-log challenges to the camel-thorn bushes as they whizzed past. Once or twice I believe, I swayed forward on Pornic’s neck, and literally hung on by my spurs—as the marks next morning showed.
The wretched beast went forward like a thing possessed, over what seemed to be a limitless expanse of moonlit sand. Next, I remember, the ground rose suddenly in front of us, and as we topped the ascent I saw the waters of the Sutlej shining like a silver bar below. Then Pornic blundered heavily on his nose, and we rolled together down some unseen slope.
I must have lost consciousness, for when I recovered I was lying on my stomach in a heap of soft white sand, and the dawn was beginning to break dimly over the edge of the slope down which I had fallen. As the light grew stronger I saw that I was at the bottom of a horseshoe-shaped crater of sand, opening on one side directly on to the shoals of the Sutlej. My fever had altogether left me, and, with the exception of a slight dizziness in the head, I felt no had effects from the fall over night.
Pornic, who was standing a few yards away, was naturally a good deal exhausted, but had not hurt himself in the least. His saddle, a favorite polo one was much knocked about, and had been twisted under his belly. It took me some time to put him to rights, and in the meantime I had ample opportunities of observing the spot into which I had so foolishly dropped.
At the risk of being considered tedious, I must describe it at length, inasmuch as an accurate mental picture of its peculiarities will be of material assistance in enabling the reader to understand what follows.
Imagine then, as I have said before, a horseshoe-shaped crater of sand with steeply graded sand walls about thirty-five feet high. (The slope, I fancy, must have been about 65°.) This crater enclosed a level piece of ground about fifty yards long by thirty at its broadest part, with a crude well in the centre. Round the bottom of the crater, about three feet from the level of the ground proper, ran a series of eighty-three semi-circular ovoid, square, and multilateral holes, all about three feet at the mouth. Each hole on inspection showed that it was carefully shored internally with drift-wood and bamboos, and over the mouth a wooden drip-board projected, like the peak of a jockey’s cap, for two feet. No sign of life was visible in these tunnels, but a most sickening stench pervaded the entire amphitheatre—a stench fouler than any which my wanderings in Indian villages have introduced me to.
Having remounted Pornic, who was as anxious as I to get back to camp, I rode round the base of the horseshoe to find some place whence an exit would be practicable. The inhabitants, whoever they might be, had not thought fit to put in an appearance, so I was left to my own devices. My first attempt to “rush” Pornic up the steep sand-banks showed me that I had fallen into a trap exactly on the same model as that which the ant-lion sets for its prey. At each step the shifting sand poured down from above in tons, and rattled on the drip-boards of the holes like small shot. A couple of ineffectual charges sent us both rolling down to the bottom, half choked with the torrents of sand; and I was constrained to turn my attention to the river-bank.
Here everything seemed easy enough. The sand hills ran down to the river edge, it is true, but there were plenty of shoals and shallows across which I could gallop Pornic, and find my way back to terra firma by turning sharply to the right or left. As I led Pornic over the sands I was startled by the faint pop of a rifle across the river; and at the same moment a bullet dropped with a sharp “whit” close to Pornic’s head.
There was no mistaking the nature of the missile—a regulation Martini-Henry “picket.” About five hundred yards away a country-boat was anchored in midstream; and a jet of smoke drifting away from its bows in the still morning air showed me whence the delicate attention had come. Was ever a respectable gentleman in such an impasse? The treacherous sand slope allowed no escape from a spot which I had visited most involuntarily, and a promenade on the river frontage was the signal for a bombardment from some insane native in a boat. I’m afraid that I lost my temper very much indeed.
Another bullet reminded me that I had better save my breath to cool my porridge; and I retreated hastily up the sands and back to the horseshoe, where I saw that the noise of the rifle had drawn sixty-five human beings from the badger-holes which I had up till that point supposed to be untenanted. I found myself in the midst of a crowd of spectators—about forty men, twenty women, and one child who could not have been more than five years old. They were all scantily clothed in that salmon-colored cloth which one associates with Hindu mendicants, and, at first sight, gave me the impression of a band of loathsome fakirs. The filth and repulsiveness of the assembly were beyond all description, and I shuddered to think what their life in the badger-holes must be.
Even in these days, when local self-government has destroyed the greater part of a native’s respect for a Sahib, I have been accustomed to a certain amount of civility from my inferiors, and on approaching the crowd naturally expected that there would be some recognition of my presence. As a matter of fact there was; but it was by no means what I had looked for.
The ragged crew actually laughed at me—such laughter I hope I may never hear again. They cackled, yelled, whistled, and howled as I walked into their midst; some of them literally throwing themselves down on the ground in convulsions of unholy mirth. In a moment I had let go Pornic’s head, and, irritated beyond expression at the morning’s adventure, commenced cuffing those nearest to me with all the force I could. The wretches dropped under my blows like nine-pins, and the laughter gave place to wails for mercy; while those yet untouched clasped me round the knees, imploring me in all sorts of uncouth tongues to spare them.
In the tumult, and just when I was feeling very much ashamed of myself for having thus easily given way to my temper, a thin, high voice murmured in English from behind my shoulder: “Sahib! Sahib! Do you not know me? Sahib, it is Gunga Dass, the telegraph-master.”
I spun round quickly and faced the speaker.
Gunga Dass, (I have, of course, no hesitation in mentioning the man’s real name) I had known four years before as a Deccanee Brahmin loaned by the Punjab Government to one of the Khalsia States. He was in charge of a branch telegraph-office there, and when I had last met him was a jovial, full-stomached, portly Government servant with a marvelous capacity for making bad puns in English—a peculiarity which made me remember him long after I had forgotten his services to me in his official capacity. It is seldom that a Hindu makes English puns.
Now, however, the man was changed beyond all recognition. Caste-mark, stomach, slate-colored continuations, and unctuous speech were all gone. I looked at a withered skeleton, turbanless and almost naked, with long matted hair and deep-set codfish-eyes. But for a crescent-shaped scar on the left cheek—the result of an accident for which I was responsible—I should never have known him. But it was indubitably Gunga Dass, and—for this I was thankful—an English-speaking native who might at least tell me the meaning of all that I had gone through that day.
The crowd retreated to some distance as I turned toward the miserable figure, and ordered him to show me some method of escaping from the crater. He held a freshly plucked crow in his hand, and in reply to my question climbed slowly on a platform of sand which ran in front of the holes, and commenced lighting a fire there in silence. Dried bents, sand-poppies, and driftwood burn quickly; and I derived much consolation from the fact that he lit them with an ordinary sulphur-match. When they were in a bright glow, and the crow was nearly spitted in front thereof, Gunga Dass began without a word of preamble:
“There are only two kinds of men, Sar. The alive and the dead. When you are dead you are dead, but when you are alive you live.” (Here the crow demanded his attention for an instant as it twirled before the fire in danger of being burned to a cinder.) “If you die at home and do not die when you come to the ghât to be burned you come here.”
The nature of the reeking village was made plain now, and all that I had known or read of the grotesque and the horrible paled before the fact just communicated by the ex-Brahmin. Sixteen years ago, when I first landed in Bombay, I had been told by a wandering Armenian of the existence, somewhere in India, of a place to which such Hindus as had the misfortune to recover from trance or catalepsy were conveyed and kept, and I recollect laughing heartily at what I was then pleased to consider a traveller’s tale.
Sitting at the bottom of the sand-trap, the memory of Watson’s Hotel, with its swinging punkahs, white-robed attendants, and the sallow-faced Armenian, rose up in my mind as vividly as a photograph, and I burst into a loud fit of laughter. The contrast was too absurd!
Gunga Dass, as he bent over the unclean bird, watched me curiously. Hindus seldom laugh, and his surroundings were not such as to move Gunga Dass to any undue excess of hilarity. He removed the crow solemnly from the wooden spit and as solemnly devoured it. Then he continued his story, which I give in his own words:
“In epidemics of the cholera you are carried to be burned almost before you are dead. When you come to the riverside the cold air, perhaps, makes you alive, and then, if you are only little alive, mud is put on your nose and mouth and you die conclusively. If you are rather more alive, more mud is put; but if you are too lively they let you go and take you away. I was too lively, and made protestation with anger against the indignities that they endeavored to press upon me. In those days I was Brahmin and proud man. Now I am dead man and eat”—here he eyed the well-gnawed breast bone with the first sign of emotion that I had seen in him since we met—“crows, and other things. They took me from my sheets when they saw that I was too lively and gave me medicines for one week, and I survived successfully. Then they sent me by rail from my place to Okara Station, with a man to take care of me; and at Okara Station we met two other men, and they conducted we three on camels, in the night, from Okara Station to this place, and they propelled me from the top to the bottom, and the other two succeeded, and I have been here ever since two and a half years. Once I was Brahmin and proud man, and now I eat crows.”
“There is no way of getting out?”
“None of what kind at all. When I first came I made experiments frequently and all the others also, but we have always succumbed to the sand which is precipitated upon our heads.”
“But surely,” I broke in at this point, “the river-front is open, and it is worth while dodging the bullets; while at night”—I had already matured a rough plan of escape which a natural instinct of selfishness forbade me sharing with Gunga Dass. He, however, divined my unspoken thought almost as soon as it was formed; and, to my intense astonishment, gave vent to a long low chuckle of derision—the laughter, be it understood, of a superior or at least of an equal.
“You will not”—he had dropped the Sir completely after his opening sentence—“make any escape that way. But you can try. I have tried. Once only.”
The sensation of nameless terror and abject fear which I had in vain attempted to strive against overmastered me completely. My long fast—it was now close upon ten o’clock, and I had eaten nothing since tiffin on the previous day—combined with the violent and unnatural agitation of the ride had exhausted me, and I verily believe that, for a few minutes, I acted as one mad. I hurled myself against the pitiless sand-slope I ran round the base of the crater, blaspheming and praying by turns. I crawled out among the sedges of the river-front, only to be driven back each time in an agony of nervous dread by the rifle-bullets which cut up the sand round me—for I dared not face the death of a mad dog among that hideous crowd—and finally fell, spent and raving, at the curb of the well. No one had taken the slightest notion of an exhibition which makes me blush hotly even when I think of it now.
Two or three men trod on my panting body as they drew water, but they were evidently used to this sort of thing, and had no time to waste upon me. The situation was humiliating. Gunga Dass, indeed, when he had banked the embers of his fire with sand, was at some pains to throw half a cupful of fetid water over my head, an attention for which I could have fallen on my knees and thanked him, but he was laughing all the while in the same mirthless, wheezy key that greeted me on my first attempt to force the shoals. And so, in a semi-comatose condition, I lay till noon. Then, being only a man after all, I felt hungry, and intimated as much to Gunga Dass, whom I had begun to regard as my natural protector. Following the impulse of the outer world when dealing with natives, I put my hand into my pocket and drew out four annas. The absurdity of the gift struck me at once, and I was about to replace the money.
Gunga Dass, however, was of a different opinion. “Give me the money,” said he; “all you have, or I will get help, and we will kill you!” All this as if it were the most natural thing in the world!
A Briton’s first impulse, I believe, is to guard the contents of his pockets; but a moment’s reflection convinced me of the futility of differing with the one man who had it in his power to make me comfortable; and with whose help it was possible that I might eventually escape from the crater. I gave him all the money in my possession, Rs. 9-8-5—nine rupees eight annas and five pie—for I always keep small change as bakshish when I am in camp. Gunga Dass clutched the coins, and hid them at once in his ragged loin cloth, his expression changing to something diabolical as he looked round to assure himself that no one had observed us.
“Now I will give you something to eat,” said he.
What pleasure the possession of my money could have afforded him I am unable to say; but inasmuch as it did give him evident delight I was not sorry that I had parted with it so readily, for I had no doubt that he would have had me killed if I had refused. One does not protest against the vagaries of a den of wild beasts; and my companions were lower than any beasts. While I devoured what Gunga Dass had provided, a coarse chapatti and a cupful of the foul well-water, the people showed not the faintest sign of curiosity—that curiosity which is so rampant, as a rule, in an Indian village.
I could even fancy that they despised me. At all events they treated me with the most chilling indifference, and Gunga Dass was nearly as bad. I plied him with questions about the terrible village, and received extremely unsatisfactory answers. So far as I could gather, it had been in existence from time immemorial—whence I concluded that it was at least a century old—and during that time no one had ever been known to escape from it. [I had to control myself here with both hands, lest the blind terror should lay hold of me a second time and drive me raving round the crater.] Gunga Dass took a malicious pleasure in emphasizing this point and in watching me wince. Nothing that I could do would induce him to tell me who the mysterious “They” were.
“It is so ordered,” he would reply, “and I do not yet know any one who has disobeyed the orders.”
“Only wait till my servants find that I am missing,” I retorted, “and I promise you that this place shall be cleared off the face of the earth, and I’ll give you a lesson in civility, too, my friend.”
“Your servants would be torn in pieces before they came near this place; and, besides, you are dead, my dear friend. It is not your fault, of course, but none the less you are dead and buried.”
At irregular intervals supplies of food, I was told, were dropped down from the land side into the amphitheatre, and the inhabitants fought for them like wild beasts. When a man felt his death coming on he retreated to his lair and died there. The body was sometimes dragged out of the hole and thrown on to the sand, or allowed to rot where it lay.
The phrase “thrown on to the sand” caught my attention, and I asked Gunga Dass whether this sort of thing was not likely to breed a pestilence.
“That,” said he with another of his wheezy chuckles, “you may see for yourself subsequently. You will have much time to make observations.”
Whereat, to his great delight, I winced once more and hastily continued the conversation: “And how do you live here from day to day? What do you do?” The question elicited exactly the same answer as before—coupled with the information that “this place is like your European heaven; there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage.”
Gunga Dass had been educated at a Mission School, and, as he himself admitted, had he only changed his religion “like a wise man,” might have avoided the living grave which was now his portion. But as long as I was with him I fancy he was happy.
Here was a Sahib, a representative of the dominant race, helpless as a child and completely at the mercy of his native neighbors. In a deliberate lazy way he set himself to torture me as a schoolboy would devote a rapturous half-hour to watching the agonies of an impaled beetle, or as a ferret in a blind burrow might glue himself comfortably to the neck of a rabbit. The burden of his conversation was that there was no escape “of no kind whatever,” and that I should stay here till I died and was “thrown on to the sand.” If it were possible to forejudge the conversation of the Damned on the advent of a new soul in their abode, I should say that they would speak as Gunga Dass did to me throughout that long afternoon. I was powerless to protest or answer; all my energies being devoted to a struggle against the inexplicable terror that threatened to overwhelm me again and again. I can compare the feeling to nothing except the struggles of a man against the overpowering nausea of the Channel passage—only my agony was of the spirit and infinitely more terrible.
As the day wore on, the inhabitants began to appear in full strength to catch the rays of the afternoon sun, which were now sloping in at the mouth of the crater. They assembled in little knots, and talked among themselves without even throwing a glance in my direction. About four o’clock, as far as I could judge, Gunga Dass rose and dived into his lair for a moment, emerging with a live crow in his hands. The wretched bird was in a most draggled and deplorable condition, but seemed to be in no way afraid of its master. Advancing cautiously to the river front, Gunga Dass stepped from tussock to tussock until he had reached a smooth patch of sand directly in the line of the boat’s fire. The occupants of the boat took no notice. Here he stopped, and, with a couple of dexterous turns of the wrist, pegged the bird on its back with outstretched wings. As was only natural, the crow began to shriek at once and beat the air with its claws. In a few seconds the clamour had attracted the attention of a bevy of wild crows on a shoal a few hundred yards away, where they were discussing something that looked like a corpse. Half a dozen crows flew over at once to see what was going on, and also, as it proved, to attack the pinioned bird. Gunga Dass, who had lain down on a tussock, motioned to me to be quiet, though I fancy this was a needless precaution. In a moment, and before I could see how it happened, a wild crow, who had grappled with the shrieking and helpless bird, was entangled in the latter’s claws, swiftly disengaged by Gunga Dass, and pegged down beside its companion in adversity. Curiosity, it seemed, overpowered the rest of the flock, and almost before Gunga Dass and I had time to withdraw to the tussock, two more captives were struggling in the upturned claws of the decoys. So the chase—if I can give it so dignified a name—continued until Gunga Dass had captured seven crows. Five of them he throttled at once, reserving two for further operations another day. I was a good deal impressed by this, to me, novel method of securing food, and complimented Gunga Dass on his skill.
“It is nothing to do,” said he. “Tomorrow you must do it for me. You are stronger than I am.”
This calm assumption of superiority upset me not a little, and I answered peremptorily: “Indeed, you old ruffian! What do you think I have given you money for?”
“Very well,” was the unmoved reply. “Perhaps not to-morrow, nor the day after, nor subsequently; but in the end, and for many years, you will catch crows and eat crows, and you will thank your European God that you have crows to catch and eat.”
I could have cheerfully strangled him for this; but judged it best under the circumstances to smother my resentment. An hour later I was eating one of the crows; and, as Gunga Dass had said, thanking my God that I had a crow to eat. Never as long as I live shall I forget that evening meal. The whole population were squatting on the hard sand platform opposite their dens, huddled over tiny fires of refuse and dried rushes. Death, having once laid his hand upon these men and forborne to strike, seemed to stand aloof from them now; for most of our company were old men, bent and worn and twisted with years, and women aged to all appearance as the Fates themselves. They sat together in knots and talked—God only knows what they found to discuss—in low equable tones, curiously in contrast to the strident babble with which natives are accustomed to make day hideous. Now and then an access of that sudden fury which had possessed me in the morning would lay hold on a man or woman; and with yells and imprecations the sufferer would attack the steep slope until, baffled and bleeding, he fell back on the platform incapable of moving a limb. The others would never even raise their eyes when this happened, as men too well aware of the futility of their fellows’ attempts and wearied with their useless repetition. I saw four such outbursts in the course of the evening.
Gunga Dass took an eminently business-like view of my situation, and while we were dining—I can afford to laugh at the recollection now, but it was painful enough at the time—propounded the terms on which he would consent to “do” for me. My nine rupees eight annas, he argued, at the rate of three annas a day, would provide me with food for fifty-one days, or about seven weeks; that is to say, he would be willing to cater for me for that length of time. At the end of it I was to look after myself. For a further consideration—videlicet my boots—he would be willing to allow me to occupy the den next to his own, and would supply me with as much dried grass for bedding as he could spare.
“Very well, Gunga Dass,” I replied; “to the first terms I cheerfully agree, but, as there is nothing on earth to prevent my killing you as you sit here and taking everything that you have” (I thought of the two invaluable crows at the time), “I flatly refuse to give you my boots and shall take whichever den I please.”
The stroke was a bold one, and I was glad when I saw that it had succeeded. Gunga Dass changed his tone immediately, and disavowed all intention of asking for my boots. At the time it did not strike me as at all strange that I, a Civil Engineer, a man of thirteen years’ standing in the Service, and, I trust, an average Englishman, should thus calmly threaten murder and violence against the man who had, for a consideration it is true, taken me under his wing. I had left the world, it seemed, for centuries. I was as certain then as I am now of my own existence, that in the accursed settlement there was no law save that of the strongest; that the living dead men had thrown behind them every canon of the world which had cast them out; and that I had to depend for my own life on my strength and vigilance alone. The crew of the ill-fated Mignonette are the only men who would understand my frame of mind. “At present,” I argued to myself, “I am strong and a match for six of these wretches. It is imperatively necessary that I should, for my own sake, keep both health and strength until the hour of my release comes—if it ever does.”
Fortified with these resolutions, I ate and drank as much as I could, and made Gunga Dass understand that I intended to be his master, and that the least sign of insubordination on his part would be visited with the only punishment I had it in my power to inflict—sudden and violent death. Shortly after this I went to bed. That is to say, Gunga Dass gave me a double armful of dried bents which I thrust down the mouth of the lair to the right of his, and followed myself, feet foremost; the hole running about nine feet into the sand with a slight downward inclination, and being neatly shored with timbers. From my den, which faced the river-front, I was able to watch the waters of the Sutlej flowing past under the light of a young moon and compose myself to sleep as best I might.
The horrors of that night I shall never forget. My den was nearly as narrow as a coffin, and the sides had been worn smooth and greasy by the contact of innumerable naked bodies, added to which it smelled abominably. Sleep was altogether out of question to one in my excited frame of mind. As the night wore on, it seemed that the entire amphitheatre was filled with legions of unclean devils that, trooping up from the shoals below, mocked the unfortunates in their lairs.
Personally I am not of an imaginative temperament—very few Engineers are—but on that occasion I was as completely prostrated with nervous terror as any woman. After half an hour or so, however, I was able once more to calmly review my chances of escape. Any exit by the steep sand walls was, of course, impracticable. I had been thoroughly convinced of this some time before. It was possible, just possible, that I might, in the uncertain moonlight, safely run the gauntlet of the rifle shots. The place was so full of terror for me that I was prepared to undergo any risk in leaving it. Imagine my delight, then, when after creeping stealthily to the river-front I found that the infernal boat was not there. My freedom lay before me in the next few steps!
By walking out to the first shallow pool that lay at the foot of the projecting left horn of the horseshoe, I could wade across, turn the flank of the crater, and make my way inland. Without a moment’s hesitation I marched briskly past the tussocks where Gunga Dass had snared the crows, and out in the direction of the smooth white sand beyond. My first step from the tufts of dried grass showed me how utterly futile was any hope of escape; for, as I put my foot down, I felt an indescribable drawing, sucking motion of the sand below. Another moment and my leg was swallowed up nearly to the knee. In the moonlight the whole surface of the sand seemed to be shaken with devilish delight at my disappointment. I struggled clear, sweating with terror and exertion, back to the tussocks behind me and fell on my face.
My only means of escape from the semicircle was protected with a quicksand!
How long I lay I have not the faintest idea; but I was roused at last by the malevolent chuckle of Gunga Dass at my ear “I would advise you, Protector of the Poor” (the ruffian was speaking English) “to return to your house. It is unhealthy to lie down here. Moreover, when the boat returns, you will most certainly be rifled at.” He stood over me in the dim light of the dawn, chuckling and laughing to himself. Suppressing my first impulse to catch the man by the neck and throw him on to the quicksand, I rose sullenly and followed him to the platform below the burrows.
Suddenly, and futilely as I thought while I spoke, I asked: “Gunga Dass, what is the good of the boat if I can’t get out anyhow?” I recollect that even in my deepest trouble I had been speculating vaguely on the waste of ammunition in guarding an already well protected foreshore.
Gunga Dass laughed again and made answer: “They have the boat only in daytime. It is for the reason that there is a way. I hope we shall have the pleasure of your company for much longer time. It is a pleasant spot when you have been here some years and eaten roast crow long enough.”
I staggered, numbed and helpless, toward the fetid burrow allotted to me, and fell asleep. An hour or so later I was awakened by a piercing scream—the shrill, high-pitched scream of a horse in pain. Those who have once heard that will never forget the sound. I found some little difficulty in scrambling out of the burrow. When I was in the open, I saw Pornic, my poor old Pornic, lying dead on the sandy soil. How they had killed him I cannot guess. Gunga Dass explained that horse was better than crow, and “greatest good of greatest number is political maxim. We are now Republic, Mister Jukes, and you are entitled to a fair share of the beast. If you like, we will pass a vote of thanks. Shall I propose?”
Yes, we were a Republic indeed! A Republic of wild beasts penned at the bottom of a pit, to eat and fight and sleep till we died. I attempted no protest of any kind, but sat down and stared at the hideous sight in front of me. In less time almost than it takes me to write this, Pornic’s body was divided, in some unclear way or other; the men and women had dragged the fragments on to the platform and were preparing their normal meal. Gunga Dass cooked mine. The almost irresistible impulse to fly at the sand walls until I was wearied laid hold of me afresh, and I had to struggle against it with all my might. Gunga Dass was offensively jocular till I told him that if he addressed another remark of any kind whatever to me I should strangle him where he sat. This silenced him till silence became insupportable, and I bade him say something.
“You will live here till you die like the other Feringhi,” he said, coolly, watching me over the fragment of gristle that he was gnawing.
“What other Sahib, you swine? Speak at once, and don’t stop to tell me a lie.”
“He is over there,” answered Gunga Dass, pointing to a burrow-mouth about four doors to the left of my own. “You can see for yourself. He died in the burrow as you will die, and I will die, and as all these men and women and the one child will also die.”
“For pity’s sake tell me all you know about him. Who was he? When did he come, and when did he die?”
This appeal was a weak step on my part. Gunga Dass only leered and replied: “I will not—unless you give me something first.”
Then I recollected where I was, and struck the man between the eyes, partially stunning him. He stepped down from the platform at once, and, cringing and fawning and weeping and attempting to embrace my feet, led me round to the burrow which he had indicated.
“I know nothing whatever about the gentleman. Your God be my witness that I do not. He was as anxious to escape as you were, and he was shot from the boat, though we all did all things to prevent him from attempting. He was shot here.” Gunga Dass laid his hand on his lean stomach and bowed to the earth.
“Well, and what then? Go on!”
“And then—and then, Your Honour, we carried him in to his house and gave him water, and put wet cloths on the wound, and he laid down in his house and gave up the ghost.”
“In how long? In how long?”
“About half an hour, after he received his wound. I call Vishnu to witness,” yelled the wretched man, “that I did everything for him. Everything which was possible, that I did!”
He threw himself down on the ground and clasped my ankles. But I had my doubts about Gunga Dass’s benevolence, and kicked him off as he lay protesting.
“I believe you robbed him of everything he had. But I can find out in a minute or two. How long was the Sahib here?”
“Nearly a year and a half. I think he must have gone mad. But hear me swear Protector of the Poor! Won’t Your Honour hear me swear that I never touched an article that belonged to him? What is Your Worship going to do?”
I had taken Gunga Dass by the waist and had hauled him on to the platform opposite the deserted burrow. As I did so I thought of my wretched fellow-prisoner’s unspeakable misery among all these horrors for eighteen months, and the final agony of dying like a rat in a hole, with a bullet-wound in the stomach. Gunga Dass fancied I was going to kill him and howled pitifully. The rest of the population, in the plethora that follows a full flesh meal, watched us without stirring.
“Go inside, Gunga Dass,” said I, “and fetch it out.”
I was feeling sick and faint with horror now. Gunga Dass nearly rolled off the platform and howled aloud.
“But I am Brahmin, Sahib—a high-caste Brahmin. By your soul, by your father’s soul, do not make me do this thing!”
“Brahmin or no Brahmin, by my soul and my father’s soul, in you go!” I said, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I crammed his head into the mouth of the burrow, kicked the rest of him in, and, sitting down, covered my face with my hands.
At the end of a few minutes I heard a rustle and a creak; then Gunga Dass in a sobbing, choking whisper speaking to himself; then a soft thud—and I uncovered my eyes.
The dry sand had turned the corpse entrusted to its keeping into a yellow-brown mummy. I told Gunga Dass to stand off while I examined it. The body—clad in an olive-green hunting-suit much stained and worn, with leather pads on the shoulders—was that of a man between thirty and forty, above middle height, with light, sandy hair, long mustache, and a rough unkempt beard. The left canine of the upper jaw was missing, and a portion of the lobe of the right ear was gone. On the second finger of the left hand was a ring—a shield-shaped bloodstone set in gold, with a monogram that might have been either “B.K.” or “B.L.” On the third finger of the right hand was a silver ring in the shape of a coiled cobra, much worn and tarnished. Gunga Dass deposited a handful of trifles he had picked out of the burrow at my feet, and, covering the face of the body with my handkerchief, I turned to examine these. I give the full list in the hope that it may lead to the identification of the unfortunate man:
Bowl of a briarwood pipe, serrated at the edge; much worn and blackened; bound with string at the screw.
Two patent-lever keys; wards of both broken.
Tortoise-shell-handled penknife, silver or nickel, name-plate, marked with monogram “B.K.”
Envelope, postmark undecipherable, bearing a Victorian stamp, addressed to “Miss Mon——” (rest illegible)—“ham’—’nt.”
Imitation crocodile-skin notebook with pencil. First forty-five pages blank; four and a half illegible; fifteen others filled with private memoranda relating chiefly to three persons—a Mrs. L. Singleton, abbreviated several times to “Lot Single,” “Mrs. S. May,” and “Garmison,” referred to in places as “Jerry” or “Jack.”
Handle of small-sized hunting-knife. Blade snapped short. Buck’s horn, diamond cut, with swivel and ring on the butt; fragment of cotton cord attached.
It must not be supposed that I inventoried all these things on the spot as fully as I have here written them down. The notebook first attracted my attention, and I put it in my pocket with a view of studying it later on.
The rest of the articles I conveyed to my burrow for safety’s sake, and there being a methodical man, I inventoried them. I then returned to the corpse and ordered Gunga Dass to help me to carry it out to the river-front. While we were engaged in this, the exploded shell of an old brown cartridge dropped out of one of the pockets and rolled at my feet. Gunga Dass had not seen it; and I fell to thinking that a man does not carry exploded cartridge-cases, especially “browns,” which will not bear loading twice, about with him when shooting. In other words, that cartridge-case had been fired inside the crater. Consequently there must be a gun somewhere. I was on the verge of asking Gunga Dass, but checked myself, knowing that he would lie. We laid the body down on the edge of the quicksand by the tussocks. It was my intention to push it out and let it be swallowed up-the only possible mode of burial that I could think of. I ordered Gunga Dass to go away.
Then I gingerly put the corpse out on the quicksand. In doing so, it was lying face downward, I tore the frail and rotten khaki shooting-coat open, disclosing a hideous cavity in the back. I have already told you that the dry sand had, as it were, mummified the body. A moment’s glance showed that the gaping hole had been caused by a gun-shot wound; the gun must have been fired with the muzzle almost touching the back. The shooting-coat, being intact, had been drawn over the body after death, which must have been instantaneous. The secret of the poor wretch’s death was plain to me in a flash. Some one of the crater, presumably Gunga Dass, must have shot him with his own gun—the gun that fitted the brown cartridges. He had never attempted to escape in the face of the rifle-fire from the boat.
I pushed the corpse out hastily, and saw it sink from sight literally in a few seconds. I shuddered as I watched. In a dazed, half-conscious way I turned to peruse the notebook. A stained and discolored slip of paper had been inserted between the binding and the back, and dropped out as I opened the pages. This is what it contained: “Four out from crow-clump: three left; nine out; two right; three back; two left; fourteen out; two left; seven out; one left; nine back; two right; six back; four right; seven back.” The paper had been burned and charred at the edges. What it meant I could not understand. I sat down on the dried bents turning it over and over between my fingers, until I was aware of Gunga Dass standing immediately behind me with glowing eyes and outstretched hands.
“Have you got it?” he panted. “Will you not let me look at it also? I swear that I will return it.”
“Got what? Return what?” asked.
“That which you have in your hands. It will help us both.” He stretched out his long, bird-like talons, trembling with eagerness.
“I could never find it,” he continued. “He had secreted it about his person. Therefore I shot him, but nevertheless I was unable to obtain it.”
Gunga Dass had quite forgotten his little fiction about the rifle-bullet. I received the information perfectly calmly. Morality is blunted by consorting with the Dead who are alive.
“What on earth are you raving about? What is it you want me to give you?”
“The piece of paper in the notebook. It will help us both. Oh, you fool! You fool! Can you not see what it will do for us? We shall escape!”
His voice rose almost to a scream, and he danced with excitement before me. I own I was moved at the chance of my getting away.
“Don’t skip! Explain yourself. Do you mean to say that this slip of paper will help us? What does it mean?”
“Read it aloud! Read it aloud! I beg and I pray you to read it aloud.”
I did so. Gunga Dass listened delightedly, and drew an irregular line in the sand with his fingers.
“See now! It was the length of his gun-barrels without the stock. I have those barrels. Four gun-barrels out from the place where I caught crows. Straight out; do you follow me? Then three left. Ah! how well I remember when that man worked it out night after night. Then nine out, and so on. Out is always straight before you across the quicksand. He told me so before I killed him.”
“But if you knew all this why didn’t you get out before?”
“I did not know it. He told me that he was working it out a year and a half ago, and how he was working it out night after night when the boat had gone away, and he could get out near the quicksand safely. Then he said that we would get away together. But I was afraid that he would leave me behind one night when he had worked it all out, and so I shot him. Besides, it is not advisable that the men who once get in here should escape. Only I, and I am a Brahmin.”
The prospect of escape had brought Gunga Dass’s caste back to him. He stood up, walked about and gesticulated violently. Eventually I managed to make him talk soberly, and he told me how this Englishman had spent six months night after night in exploring, inch by inch, the passage across the quicksand; how he had declared it to be simplicity itself up to within about twenty yards of the river bank after turning the flank of the left horn of the horseshoe. This much he had evidently not completed when Gunga Dass shot him with his own gun.
In my frenzy of delight at the possibilities of escape I recollect shaking hands effusively with Gunga Dass, after we had decided that we were to make an attempt to get away that very night. It was weary work waiting throughout the afternoon.
About ten o’clock, as far as I could judge, when the Moon had just risen above the lip of the crater, Gunga Dass made a move for his burrow to bring out the gun-barrels whereby to measure our path. All the other wretched inhabitants had retired to their lairs long ago. The guardian boat drifted downstream some hours before, and we were utterly alone by the crow-clump. Gunga Dass, while carrying the gun-barrels, let slip the piece of paper which was to be our guide. I stooped down hastily to recover it, and, as I did so, I was aware that the diabolical Brahmin was aiming a violent blow at the back of my head with the gun-barrels. It was too late to turn round. I must have received the blow somewhere on the nape of my neck. A hundred thousand fiery stars danced before my eyes, and I fell forwards senseless at the edge of the quicksand.
When I recovered consciousness, the Moon was going down, and I was sensible of intolerable pain in the back of my head. Gunga Dass had disappeared and my mouth was full of blood. I lay down again and prayed that I might die without more ado. Then the unreasoning fury which I had before mentioned, laid hold upon me, and I staggered inland toward the walls of the crater. It seemed that some one was calling to me in a whisper—“Sahib! Sahib! Sahib!” exactly as my bearer used to call me in the morning I fancied that I was delirious until a handful of sand fell at my feet. Then I looked up and saw a head peering down into the amphitheatre—the head of Dunnoo, my dog-boy, who attended to my collies. As soon as he had attracted my attention, he held up his hand and showed a rope. I motioned, staggering to and fro for the while, that he should throw it down. It was a couple of leather punkah-ropes knotted together, with a loop at one end. I slipped the loop over my head and under my arms; heard Dunnoo urge something forward; was conscious that I was being dragged, face downward, up the steep sand slope, and the next instant found myself choked and half fainting on the sand hills overlooking the crater. Dunnoo, with his face ashy grey in the moonlight, implored me not to stay but to get back to my tent at once.
It seems that he had tracked Pornic’s footprints fourteen miles across the sands to the crater; had returned and told my servants, who flatly refused to meddle with any one, white or black, once fallen into the hideous Village of the Dead; whereupon Dunnoo had taken one of my ponies and a couple of punkah-ropes, returned to the crater, and hauled me out as I have described.
To cut a long story short, Dunnoo is now my personal servant on a gold mohur a month—a sum which I still think far too little for the services he has rendered. Nothing on earth will induce me to go near that devilish spot again, or to reveal its whereabouts more clearly than I have done. Of Gunga Dass I have never found a trace, nor do I wish to do. My sole motive in giving this to be published is the hope that some one may possibly identify, from the details and the inventory which I have given above, the corpse of the man in the olive-green hunting-suit.
Mr. Hawkins Mumrath, of Her Majesty’s Bengal Civil Service, lay down to die of enteric fever; and, being a thorough-minded man, so nearly accomplished his purpose that all his friends, two doctors, and the Government he served gave him up for lost. Indeed, upon a false rumour the night before he rallied, several journals published very pleasant obituary notices, which, three weeks later, Mr. Mumrath sat up in bed and studied with interest. It is strange to read about yourself in the past tense, and soothing to discover that for all your faults, your world “could have better spared a better man.” When a Bengal Civilian is tepid and harmless, newspapers always conclude their notices with this reflection. It entirely failed to amuse Mr. Mumrath.
The loving-kindness of the Government provides for the use of its servants in the East luxuries undreamed of by other civilisations. A State-paid doctor closed Mumrath’s eyes—till Mumrath insisted upon opening them again; a subventionised undertaker bought Government timber for a Government coffin; and the great Cemetery of St. Golgotha-in-Partibus prepared, according to regulation, a brick-lined grave, headed and edged, with masonry rests for the coffin. The cost of that grave was 175 rupees 14 annas, including the lease of the land in perpetuity. Very minute are the instructions of the Government for the disposal, wharfage, and demurrage of its dead; but the actual arrangements are not published in any appendix to pay and pension rules, for the same reason that led a Prussian officer not to leave his dead and wounded too long in the sight of a battery under fire.
Mr. Mumrath recovered and went about his work, to the disgust of his juniors who had hoped promotion from his decease. The undertaker sold the coffin, at a profit, to a fat Armenian merchant in Calcutta, and the State-paid doctor profited in practice by Mumrath’s resurrection from the dead. The Cemetery of St. Golgotha-in-Partibus sat down by the head of the new-made grave with the beautiful brick lining, and waited for the corpse then signing despatches in an office three miles away. The yearly accounts were made up; and there remained over, unpaid for, one grave, cost 175 rupees 14 annas. The vouchers for all the other graves carried the name of a deceased servant of the Government. Only one space was blank in the column.
Then Ahutosh Lal Deb, Sub-Deputy Assistant in the Accounts Department, being full of zeal for the State, and but newly appointed to his important post, wrote officially to the Cemetery, desiring to know the inwardness of that grave, and “having the honour to be,” etc. The Cemetery wrote officially that there was no inwardness at all, but a complete emptiness; said grave having been ordered for Mr. Hawkins Mumrath, and “had the honour to remain.” Ahutosh Lal Deb had the honour to point out that, the grave being unused, the Government could by no means pay for it. The Cemetery wished to know if the account could be carried over to the next year, “pending anticipated taking-up of grave.”
Ahutosh Lal Deb said that he was not going to have the accounts confused. Discrepancy was “the soul of bandinage and defalcations.” The Cemetery would be good enough to adjust on the financial basis of that year.
The Cemetery wished they might be buried if they saw their way to doing it, and there really had been more than two thousand burned bricks put into the lining of the grave. Meantime, they complained, the Government Brickfield Audit was waiting until all material should have been paid for.
Ahutosh Lal Deb wrote: “Refer to Mr. Mumrath.” The Cemetery referred semi-officially. It struck them as being rather a delicate matter, but orders are orders. Hawkins Mumrath wrote back, saying that he had the honour to be quite well, and not in the least in need of a grave, brick-lined or otherwise. He recommended the head of the Cemetery to get into that grave and stay there. The Cemetery forwarded the letter to Ahutosh Lal Deb, for reference and order.
Ahutosh Lal Deb forwarded it to the Provincial Government, who filed it behind a mass of other files and forgot all about it.
A fat she-cobra crawled into the neglected grave, and laid her eggs among the bricks. The Rains fell, and a little sprinkling of grass jewelled the brick floor.
The Cemetery wrote to Ahutosh Lal Deb, advising him that Mr. Mumrath had not paid for the grave, and requesting that the sum might be stopped from his monthly pay. Ahutosh Lal Deb sent the letter to Hawkins Mumrath as a reminder.
Hawkins Mumrath swore; but when he had sworn, he began to feel frightened. The enteric fever had destroyed his nerve. He wrote to the Accounts Department, protesting against the injustice of paying for a grave beforehand. Deductions for pension or widow’s annuity were quite right, but this sort of deduction was an imposition, besides being sarcastic.
Ahutosh Lal Deb wrote that Mr. Mumrath’s style was not one usually employed in official correspondence, and requested him to modulate it and pay for the grave. Hawkins Mumrath tossed the letter into the fire, and wrote to the Provincial Government.
The Provincial Government had the honour to point out that the matter rested entirely between Mr. Hawkins Mumrath and the Accounts Department. They saw no reason to interfere till the money was actually deducted from the pay. In that eventuality, if Mr. Hawkins Mumrath appealed through the proper channels, he might, if the matter were properly reported upon, get a refund, less the cost of his last letter, which was under-stamped. The Cemetery wrote to Ahutosh Lal Deb, enclosing triplicate of grave-bill and demanding some sort of settlement.
Ahutosh Lal Deb deducted 175 rupees 14 annas from Mumrath’s monthly pay. Mumrath appealed through the proper channels. The Provincial Government wrote that the expenses of all Government graves solely concerned the Supreme Government, to whom his letter had been forwarded.
Mumrath wrote to the Supreme Governinent. The Supreme Government had the honour to explain that the management of St. Golgotha-in-Partibus was under direct control of the Provincial Government, to whom they had had the honour of forwarding his communication. Mumrath telegraphed to the Cemetery to this effect.
The Cemetery telegraphed: ‘Fiscal and finance, Supreme; management of internal affairs, Provincial Government. Refer Revenue and Agricultural Department for grave details.” Mumrath referred to the Revenue and Agricultural Department. That Department had the honour to make clear that it was only concerned in the plantation of trees round the Cemetery. The Forest Department controlled the reboisement of the edges of the paths.
Mumrath forwarded all the letters to Ahutosh Lal Deb, with a request for an immediate refund under “Rule 431 A, Supplementary Addenda, Bengal.” He invented rule and reference pro re nata, having some knowledge of the workings of the Babu mind.
The crest of the Revenue and Agricultural Department frightened Ahutosh Lal Deb more than the reference. He bewilderedly granted the refund, and recouped the Government from the Cemetery Establishment allowance.
The Cemetery Establishment Executive Head wanted to know what Ahutosh Lal Deb meant.
The Accountant-General wanted to know what Ahutosh Lal Deb meant.
The Provincial Governinent wanted to know what Ahutosh Lal Deb meant.
The Revenue and Agricultural, the Forest Department, and the Government Harness Depot, which supplies the leather slings for the biers, all wanted to know what the deuce Ahutosh Lal Deb meant.
Ahutosh Lal Deb referred them severally to Mr. Hawkins Mumrath, who had driven out to chuckle over his victory all alone at the head of the bricklined grave with the masonry foot-rests. The she-cobra was sunning herself by the edge of the grave with her little ones about her, for the eggs had hatched out beautifully. Hawkins Mumrath stepped absently on the old lady’s tail, and she bit him in the ankle.
Hawkins Mumrath drove home very quickly, and died in five hours and three-quarters. Then Ahutosh Lal Deb passed the entry to “regular account,” and there was peace in India.
From the wheel and the drift of Things
Deliver us, good Lord;
And we will meet the wrath of kings
The faggot, and the sword.
Lay not Thy toil before our eyes,
Nor vex us with Thy wars,
Lest we should feel the straining skies
O’ertrod by trampling stars.
A veil ’twixt us and Thee, dread Lord,
A veil ’twixt us and Thee:
Lest we should hear too clear, too clear,
And unto madness see!
— Miriam Cohen
The Brothers of the Trinity order that none unconnected with their service shall be found in or on one of their Lights during the hours of darkness; but their servants can be made to think otherwise. If you are fair-spoken and take an interest in their duties, they will allow you to sit with them through the long night and help to scare the ships into mid-channel.
Of the English south-coast Lights, that of St. Cecilia-under-the-Cliff is the most powerful, for it guards a very foggy coast. When the sea-mist veils all, St. Cecilia turns a hooded head to the sea and sings a song of two words once every minute. From the land that song resembles the bellowing of a brazen bull; but off-shore they understand, and the steamers grunt gratefully in answer.
Fenwick, who was on duty one night, lent me a pair of black glass spectacles, without which no man can look at the Light unblinded, and busied himself in last touches to the lenses before twilight fell. The width of the English Channel beneath us lay as smooth and as many-coloured as the inside of an oyster shell. A little Sunderland cargoboat had made her signal to Lloyd’s Agency, half a mile up the coast, and was lumbering down to the sunset, her wake lying white behind her. One star came out over the cliffs, the waters turned to lead colour, and St. Cecilia’s Light shot out across the sea in eight long pencils that wheeled slowly from right to left, melted into one beam of solid light laid down directly in front of the tower, dissolved again into eight, and passed away. The light-frame of the thousand lenses circled on its rollers, and the compressed-air engine that drove it hummed like a bluebottle under a glass. The hand of the indicator on the wall pulsed from mark to mark. Eight pulse-beats timed one half-revolution of the Light; neither more nor less.
Fenwick checked the first few revolutions carefully; he opened the engine’s feed-pipe a trifle, looked at the racing governor, and again at the indicator, and said: “She’ll do for the next few hours. We’ve just sent our regular engine to London, and this spare one’s not by any manner so accurate.”
“And what would happen if the compressed air gave out?” I asked.
“We’d have to turn the flash by hand, keeping an eye on the indicator. There’s a regular crank for that. But it hasn’t happened yet. We’ll need all our compressed air to-night.”
“Why?” said I. I had been watching him for not more than a minute.
“Look,” he answered, and I saw that the dead sea-mist had risen out of the lifeless sea and wrapped us while my back had been turned. The pencils of the Light marched staggeringly across tilted floors of white cloud. From the balcony round the light-room the white walls of the lighthouse ran down into swirling, smoking space. The noise of the tide coming in very lazily over the rocks was choked down to a thick drawl.
“That’s the way our sea-fogs come,” said Fenwick, with an air of ownership. “Hark, now, to that little fool calling out ’fore he’s hurt.”
Something in the mist was bleating like an indignant calf; it might have been half a mile or half a hundred miles away.
“Does he suppose we’ve gone to bed?” continued Fenwick. “You’ll hear us talk to him in a minute. He knows puffickly where he is, and he’s carrying on to be told like if he was insured.”
“Who is ‘he’?”
“That Sunderland boat, o’ course. Ah!”
I could hear a steam-engine hiss down below in the mist where the dynamos that fed the Light were clacking together. Then there came a roar that split the fog and shook the lighthouse.
“Git-toot!” blared the fog-horn of St. Cecilia. The bleating ceased.
“Little fool!” Fenwick repeated. Then, listening: “Blest if that aren’t another of them! Well, well, they always say that a fog do draw the ships of the sea together. They’ll be calling all night, and so’ll the siren. We’re expecting some tea-ships up-Channel . . . . If you put my coat on that chair, you’ll feel more so fash, sir.”
It is no pleasant thing to thrust your company upon a man for the night. I looked at Fenwick, and Fenwick looked at me; each gauging the other’s capacities for boring and being bored. Fenwick was an old, clean-shaven, gray-haired man who had followed the sea for thirty years, and knew nothing of the land except the lighthouse in which he served. He fenced cautiously to find out the little that I knew and talked down to my level, till it came out that I had met a captain in the merchant service who had once commanded a ship in which Fenwick’s son had served; and further, that I had seen some places that Fenwick had touched at. He began with a dissertation on pilotage in the Hugli. I had been privileged to know a Hugli pilot intimately. Fenwick had only seen the imposing and masterful breed from a ship’s chains, and his intercourse had been cut down to “Quarter less five,” and remarks of a strictly business-like nature. Hereupon he ceased to talk down to me, and became so amazingly technical that I was forced to beg him to explain every other sentence. This set him fully at his ease; and then we spoke as men together, each too interested to think of anything except the subject in hand. And that subject was wrecks, and voyages, and old-time trading, and ships cast away in desolate seas, steamers we both had known, their merits and demerits, lading, Lloyd’s, and, above all, Lights. The talk always came back to Lights: Lights of the Channel; Lights on forgotten islands, and men forgotten on them; Light-ships—two months’ duty and one month’s leave—tossing on kinked cables in ever troubled tideways; and Lights that men had seen where never lighthouse was marked on the charts.
Omitting all those stories, and omitting also the wonderful ways by which he arrived at them, I tell here, from Fenwick’s mouth, one that was not the least amazing. It was delivered in pieces between the roller-skate rattle of the revolving lenses, the bellowing of the fog-horn below, the answering calls from the sea, and the sharp tap of reckless night-birds that flung themselves at the glasses. It concerned a man called Dowse, once an intimate friend of Fenwick, now a waterman at Portsmouth, believing that the guilt of blood is on his head, and finding no rest either at Portsmouth or Gosport Hard.
. . . “And if anybody was to come to you and say, ‘I know the Javva currents,’ don’t you listen to him; for those currents is never yet known to mortal man. Sometimes they’re here, sometimes they’re there, but they never runs less than five knots an hour through and among those islands of the Eastern Archipelagus. There’s reverse currents in the Gulf of Boni—and that’s up north in Celebes—that no man can explain; and through all those Javva passages from the Bali Narrows, Dutch Gut, and Ombay, which I take it is the safest, they chop and they change, and they banks the tides fast on one shore and then on another, till your ship’s tore in two. I’ve come through the Bali Narrows, stern first, in the heart o’ the south-east monsoon, with a sou’-sou’-west wind blowing atop of the northerly flood, and our skipper said he wouldn’t do it again, not for all Jamrach’s. You’ve heard o’ Jamrach’s, sir?”
“Yes; and was Dowse stationed in the Bali Narrows?” I said.
“No; he was not at Bali, but much more east o’ them passages, and that’s Flores Strait, at the east end o’ Flores. It’s all on the way south to Australia when you’re running through that Eastern Archipelagus. Sometimes you go through Bali Narrows if you’re full-powered, and sometimes through Flores Strait, so as to stand south at once, and fetch round Timor, keeping well clear o’ the Sahul Bank. Elseways, if you aren’t full-powered, why it stands to reason you go round by the Ombay Passage, keeping careful to the north side. You understand that, sir?”
I was not full-powered, and judged it safer to keep to the north side—of Silence.
“And on Flores Strait, in the fairway between Adonare Island and the mainland, they put Dowse in charge of a screw-pile Light called the Wurlee Light. It’s less than a mile across the head of Flores Strait. Then it opens out to ten or twelve mile for Solor Strait, and then it narrows again to a three-mile gut, with a topplin’ flamin’ volcano by it. That’s old Loby Toby by Loby Toby Strait, and if you keep his Light and the Wurlee Light in a line you won’t take much harm, not on the darkest night. That’s what Dowse told me, and I can well believe him, knowing these seas myself; but you must ever be mindful of the currents. And there they put Dowse, since he was the only man that that Dutch Government which owns Flores could find that would go to Wurlee and tend a fixed Light. Mostly they uses Dutch and Italians; Englishmen being said to drink when alone. I never could rightly find out what made Dowse accept of that position, but accept he did, and used to sit for to watch the tigers come out of the forests to hunt for crabs and such like round about the lighthouse at low tide. The water was always warm in those parts, as I know well, and uncommon sticky, and it ran with the tides as thick and smooth as hogwash in a trough. There was another man along with Dowse in the Light, but he wasn’t rightly a man. He was a Kling. No, nor yet a Kling he wasn’t, but his skin was in little flakes and cracks all over, from living so much in the salt water as was his usual custom. His hands was all webbyfoot, too. He was called, I remember Dowse saying now, an Orange-Lord, on account of his habits. You’ve heard of an Orange-Lord, sir?”
“Orang-Laut?” I suggested.
“That’s the name,” said Fenwick, smacking his knee. “An Orang-Laut, of course, and his name was Challong; what they call a sea-gypsy. Dowse told me that that man, long hair and all, would go swimming up and down the straits just for something to do; running down on one tide and back again with the other, swimming side-stroke, and the tides going tremenjus strong. Elseways he’d be skipping about the beach along with the tigers at low tide, for he was most part a beast; or he’d sit in a little boat praying to old Loby Toby of an evening when the volcano was spitting red at the south end of the strait. Dowse told me that he wasn’t a companionable man, like you and me might have been to Dowse.
“Now I can never rightly come at what it was that began to ail Dowse after he had been there a year or something less. He was saving of all his pay and tending to his Light, and now and again he’d have a fight with Challong and tip him off the Light into the sea. Then, he told me, his head began to feel streaky from looking at the tide so long. He said there was long streaks of white running inside it; like wall-paper that hadn’t been properly pasted up, he said. The streaks, they would run with the tides, north and south, twice a day, accordin’ to them currents, and he’d lie down on the planking—it was a screw-pile Light—with his eye to a crack and watch the water streaking through the piles just so quiet as hogwash. He said the only comfort he got was at slack water. Then the streaks in his head went round and round like a sampan in a tide-rip; but that was heaven, he said, to the other kind of streaks—the straight ones that looked like arrows on a windchart, but much more regular, and that was the trouble of it. No more he couldn’t ever keep his eyes off the tides that ran up and down so strong, but as soon as ever he looked at the high hills standing all along Flores Strait for rest and comfort his eyes would be pulled down like to the nesty streaky water; and when they once got there he couldn’t pull them away again till the tide changed. He told me all this himself, speaking just as though he was talking of somebody else.”
“Where did you meet him?” I asked.
“In Portsmouth harbour, a-cleaning the brasses of a Ryde boat, but I’d known him off and on through following the sea for many years. Yes, he spoke about himself very curious, and all as if he was in the next room laying there dead. Those streaks, they preyed upon his intellecks, he said; and he made up his mind, every time that the Dutch gunboat that attends to the Lights in those parts come along, that he’d ask to be took off. But as soon as she did come something went click in his throat, and he was so took up with watching her masts, because they ran longways, in the contrary direction to his streaks, that he could never say a word until she was gone away and her masts was under sea again. Then, he said, he’d cry by the hour; and Challong swum round and round the Light, laughin’ at him and splashin’ water with his webby-foot hands. At last he took it into his pore sick head that the ships, and particularly the steamers that came by—there wasn’t many of them—made the streaks, instead of the tides as was natural. He used to sit, he told me, cursing every boat that come along, sometimes a junk, sometimes a Dutch brig, and now and again a steamer rounding Flores Head and poking about in the mouth of the strait. Or there’d come a boat from Australia running north past old Loby Toby hunting for a fair current, but never throwing out any papers that Challong might pick up for Dowse to read. Generally speaking, the steamers kept more westerly, but now and again they came looking for Timor and the west coast of Australia. Dowse used to shout to them to go round by the Ombay Passage, and not to come streaking past him, making the water all streaky, but it wasn’t likely they’d hear. He says to himself after a month, ‘I’ll give them one more chance,’ he says. ‘If the next boat don’t attend to my just representations,’—he says he remembers using those very words to Challong, ‘I’ll stop the fairway.’
“The next boat was a Two-streak cargo-boat very anxious to make her northing. She waddled through under old Loby Toby at the south end of the strait, and she passed within a quarter of a mile of the Wurlee Light at the north end, in seventeen fathom o’ water, the tide against her. Dowse took the trouble to come out with Challong in a little prow that they had—all bamboos and leakage—and he lay in the fairway waving a palm branch, and, so he told me, wondering why and what for he was making this fool of himself. Up come the Two-streak boat, and Dowse shouts ‘Don’t you come this way again, making my head all streaky! Go round by Ombay, and leave me alone.’ Some one looks over the port bulwarks and shies a banana at Dowse, and that’s all. Dowse sits down in the bottom of the boat and cries fit to break his heart. Then he says, ‘Challong, what am I a-crying for?’ and they fetches up by the Wurlee Light on the half-flood.
“‘Challong,’ he says, ‘there’s too much traffic here, and that’s why the water’s so streaky as it is. It’s the junks and the brigs and the steamers that do it,’ he says; and all the time he was speaking he was thinking, ‘Lord, Lord, what a crazy fool I am!’ Challong said nothing, because he couldn’t speak a word of English except say ‘dam,’ and he said that where you or me would say ‘yes.’ Dowse lay down on the planking of the Light with his eye to the crack, and he saw the muddy water streaking below, and he never said a word till slack water, because the streaks kept him tongue-tied at such times. At slack water he says, ‘Challong, we must buoy this fairway for wrecks,’ and he holds up his hands several times, showing that dozens of wrecks had come about in the fairway; and Challong says, ‘Dam.’
“That very afternoon he and Challong rows to Wurlee, the village in the woods that the Light was named after, and buys canes—stacks and stacks of canes, and coir rope thick and fine, all sorts—and they sets to work making square floats by lashing of the canes together. Dowse said he took longer over those floats than might have been needed, because he rejoiced in the corners, they being square, and the streaks in his head all running long ways. He lashed the canes together, criss-cross and thwartways—any way but longways—and they made up twelve-foot-square floats, like rafts. Then he stepped a twelve-foot bamboo or a bundle of canes in the centre, and to the head of that he lashed a big six-foot W letter, all made of canes, and painted the float dark green and the W white, as a wreck-buoy should be painted. Between them two they makes a round dozen of these new kind of wreck-buoys, and it was a two months’ job. There was no big traffic, owing to it being on the turn of the monsoon, but what there was Dowse cursed at, and the streaks in his head, they ran with the tides, as usual.
“Day after day, so soon as a buoy was ready, Challong would take it out, with a big rock that half sunk the prow and a bamboo grapnel, and drop it dead in the fairway. He did this day or night, and Dowse could see him of a clear night, when the sea brimmed, climbing about the buoys with the sea-fire dripping of him. They was all put into place, twelve of them, in seventeen-fathom water; not in a straight line, on account of a well-known shoal there, but slantways, and two, one behind the other, mostly in the centre of the fairway. You must keep the centre of those Javva currents, for currents at the side is different, and in narrow water, before you can turn a spoke, you get your nose took round and rubbed upon the rocks and the woods. Dowse knew that just as well as any skipper. Likeways he knew that no skipper daren’t run through uncharted wrecks in a six-knot current. He told me he used to lie outside the Light watching his buoys ducking and dipping so friendly with the tide; and the motion was comforting to him on account of its being different from the run of the streaks in his head.
“Three weeks after he’d done his business up comes a steamer through Loby Toby Straits, thinking she’d run into Flores Sea before night. He saw her slow down; then she backed. Then one man and another come up on the bridge, and he could see there was a regular powwow, and the flood was driving her right on to Dowse’s wreckbuoys. After that she spun round and went back south, and Dowse nearly killed himself with laughing. But a few weeks after that a couple of junks came shouldering through from the north, arm in arm, like junks go. It takes a good deal to make a Chinaman understand danger. They junks set well in the current, and went down the fairway, right among the buoys, ten knots an hour, blowing horns and banging tin pots all the time. That made Dowse very angry; he having taken so much trouble to stop the fairway. No boats run Flores Straits by night, but it seemed to Dowse that if junks’d do that in the day, the Lord knew but what a steamer might trip over his buoys at night; and he sent Challong to run a coir rope between three of the buoys in the middle of the fairway, and he fixed naked lights of coir steeped in oil to that rope. The tides was the only things that moved in those seas, for the airs was dead still till they began to blow, and then they would blow your hair off. Challong tended those lights every night after the junks had been so impident—four lights in about a quarter of a mile hung up in iron skillets on the rope; and when they was alight—and coir burns well, very like a lamp wick—the fairway seemed more madder than anything else in the world. First there was the Wurlee Light, then these four queer lights, that couldn’t be riding-lights, almost flush with the water, and behind them, twenty mile off, but the biggest light of all, there was the red top of old Loby Toby volcano. Dowse told me that he used to go out in the prow and look at his handiwork, and it made him scared, being like no lights that ever was fixed.
“By and by some more steamers came along, snorting and snifting at the buoys, but never going through, and Dowse says to himself: ‘Thank goodness I’ve taught them not to come streaking through my water. Ombay Passage is good enough for them and the like of them.’ But he didn’t remember how quick that sort of news spreads among the shipping. Every steamer that fetched up by those buoys told another steamer and all the port officers concerned in those seas that there was something wrong with Flores Straits that hadn’t been charted yet. It was block-buoyed for wrecks in the fairway, they said, and no sort of passage to use. Well, the Dutch, of course they didn’t know anything about it. They thought our Admiralty Survey had been there, and they thought it very queer but neighbourly. You understand us English are always looking up marks and lighting sea-ways all the world over, never asking with your leave or by your leave, seeing that the sea concerns us more than any one else. So the news went to and back from Flores to Bali, and Bali to Probolingo, where the railway is that runs to Batavia. All through the Javva seas everybody got the word to keep clear o’ Flores Straits, and Dowse, he was left alone except for such steamers and small craft as didn’t know. They’d come up and look at the straits like a bull over a gate, but those nodding wreck-buoys scared them away. By and by the Admiralty Survey ship—the Britomarte I think she was—lay in Macassar Roads off Fort Rotterdam, alongside of the Amboina, a dirty little Dutch gunboat that used to clean there; and the Dutch captain says to our captain, ‘What’s wrong with Flores Straits?’ he says.
“‘Blowed if I know,’ says our captain, who’d just come up from the Angelica Shoal.
“‘Then why did you go and buoy it?’ says the Dutchman.
“‘Blowed if I have,’ says our captain. ‘That’s your lookout.’
“‘Buoyed it is,’ says the Dutch captain, ‘according to what they tell me; and a whole fleet of wreck-buoys, too.’
“‘Gummy!’ says our captain. ‘It’s a dorg’s life at sea, any way. I must have a look at this. You come along after me as soon as you can;’ and down he skimmed that very night, round the heel of Celebes, three days’ steam to Flores Head, and he met a Two-streak liner, very angry, backing out of the head of the strait; and the merchant captain gave our Survey ship something of his mind for leaving wrecks uncharted in those narrow waters and wasting his company’s coal.
“‘It’s no fault o’ mine,’ says our captain.
“‘I don’t care whose fault it is,’ says the merchant captain, who had come aboard to speak to him just at dusk. ‘The fairway’s choked with wreck enough to knock a hole through a dock-gate. I saw their big ugly masts sticking up just under my forefoot. Lord ha’ mercy on us!’ he says, spinning round. ‘The place is like Regent Street of a hot summer night.’
“And so it was. They two looked at Flores Straits, and they saw lights one after the other stringing across the fairway. Dowse, he had seen the steamers hanging there before dark, and he said to Challong: ‘We’ll give ’em something to remember. Get all the skillets and iron pots you can and hang them up alongside o’ the regular four lights. We must teach ’em to go round by the Ombay Passage, or they’ll be streaking up our water again!’ Challong took a header off the lighthouse, got aboard the little leaking prow, with his coir soaked in oil and all the skillets he could muster, and he began to show his lights, four regulation ones and half-a-dozen new lights hung on that rope which was a little above the water. Then he went to all the spare buoys with all his spare coir, and hung a skillet-flare on every pole that he could get at—about seven poles. So you see, taking one with another, there was the Wurlee Light, four lights on the rope between the three centre fairway wreck-buoys that was hung out as a usual custom, six or eight extry ones that Challong had hung up on the same rope, and seven dancing flares that belonged to seven wreck-buoys—eighteen or twenty lights in all crowded into a mile of seventeen-fathom water, where no tide’d ever let a wreck rest for three weeks, let alone ten or twelve wrecks, as the flares showed.
“The Admiralty captain, he saw the lights come out one after another, same as the merchant skipper did who was standing at his side, and he said:—
“‘There’s been an international catastrophe here or elseways,’ and then he whistled. ‘I’m going to stand on and off all night till the Dutchman comes,’ he says.
“‘I’m off,’ says the merchant skipper. ‘My owners don’t wish for me to watch illuminations. That strait’s choked with wreck, and I shouldn’t wonder if a typhoon hadn’t driven half the junks o’ China there.’ With that he went away; but the Survey ship, she stayed all night at the head o’ Flores Strait, and the men admired of the lights till the lights was burning out, and then they admired more than ever.
“A little bit before morning the Dutch gunboat come flustering up, and the two ships stood together watching the lights burn out and out, till there was nothing left ’cept Flores Straits, all green and wet, and a dozen wreck-buoys, and Wurlee Light.
“Dowse had slept very quiet that night, and got rid of his streaks by means of thinking of the angry steamers outside. Challong was busy, and didn’t come back to his bunk till late. In the gray early morning Dowse looked out to sea, being, as he said, in torment, and saw all the navies of the world riding outside Flores Strait fairway in a half-moon, seven miles from wing to wing, most wonderful to behold. Those were the words he used to me time and again in telling the tale.
“Then, he says, he heard a gun fired with a most tremenjus explosion, and all them great navies crumbled to little pieces of clouds, and there was only two ships remaining, and a man-o’-war’s boat rowing to the Light, with the oars going sideways instead o’ longways as the morning tides, ebb or flow, would continually run.
“‘What the devil’s wrong with this strait?’ says a man in the boat as soon as they was in hailing distance. ‘Has the whole English Navy sunk here, or what?’
“‘There’s nothing wrong,’ says Dowse, sitting on the platform outside the Light, and keeping one eye very watchful on the streakiness of the tide, which he always hated, ’specially in the mornings. ‘You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Go round by the Ombay Passage, and don’t cut up my water. You’re making it streaky.’ All the time he was saying that he kept on thinking to himself, ‘Now that’s foolishness—now that’s nothing but foolishness;’ and all the time he was holding tight to the edge of the platform in case the streakiness of the tide should carry him away.
“Somebody answers from the boat, very soft and quiet, ‘We’re going round by Ombay in a minute, if you’ll just come and speak to our captain and give him his bearings.’
“Dowse, he felt very highly flattered, and he slipped into the boat, not paying any attention to Challong. But Challong swum along to the ship after the boat. When Dowse was in the boat, he found, so he says, he couldn’t speak to the sailors ’cept to call them ‘white mice with chains about their neck,’ and Lord knows he hadn’t seen or thought o’ white mice since he was a little bit of a boy with them in his hankerchief. So he kept himself quiet, and so they come to the Survey ship; and the man in the boat hails the quarterdeck with something that Dowse could not rightly understand, but there was one word he spelt out again and again—m-a-d, mad—and he heard some one behind him saying of it backwards. So he had two words—m-a-d, mad, d-a-m, dam; and he put they two words together as he come on the quarter-deck, and he says to the captain very slowly, ‘I be damned if I am mad,’ but all the time his eye was held like by the coils of rope on the belaying pins, and he followed those ropes up and up with his eye till he was quite lost and comfortable among the rigging, which ran crisscross, and slopeways, and up and down, and any way but straight along under his feet north and south. The deck-seams, they ran that way, and Dowse daresn’t look at them. They was the same as the streaks of the water under the planking of the lighthouse.
“Then he heard the captain talking to him very kind, and for the life of him he couldn’t tell why; and what he wanted to tell the captain was that Flores Strait was too streaky, like bacon, and the steamers only made it worse; but all he could do was to keep his eye very careful on the rigging and sing:—
“I saw a ship a-sailing,
A-sailing on the sea;
And oh, it was all lading
With pretty things for me!”
Then he remembered that was foolishness, and he started off to say about the Ombay Passage, but all he said was: “The captain was a duck—meaning no offence to you, sir—but there was something on his back that I’ve forgotten.
“And when the ship began to move
The captain says, “Quack-quack!’”
“He notices the captain turns very red and angry, and he says to himself; ‘My foolish tongue’s run away with me again. I’ll go forward;’ and he went forward, and catched the reflection of himself in the binnacle brasses; and he saw that he was standing there and talking mother-naked in front of all them sailors, and he ran into the fo’c’s’le howling most grievous. He must ha’ gone naked for weeks on the Light, and Challong o’ course never noticed it. Challong was swimmin’ round and round the ship, sayin’ ‘dam’ for to please the men and to be took aboard, because he didn’t know any better.
“Dowse didn’t tell what happened after this, but seemingly our Survey ship lowered two boats and went over to Dowse’s buoys. They took one sounding, and then finding it was all correct they cut the buoys that Dowse and Challong had made, and let the tide carry ’em out through the Loby Toby end of the strait; and the Dutch gunboat, she sent two men ashore to take care o’ the Wurlee Light, and the Britomarte, she went away with Dowse, leaving Challong to try to follow them, a-calling ‘dam—dam’ all among the wake of the screw, and half, heaving himself out of water and joining his webby-foot hands together. He dropped astern in five minutes, and I suppose he went back to the Wurlee Light. You can’t drown an Orange-Lord, not even in Flores Strait on flood-tide.
“Dowse come across me when he came to England with the Survey ship, after being more than six months in her, and cured of his streaks by working hard and not looking over the side more than he could help. He told me what I’ve told you, sir, and he was very much ashamed of himself; but the trouble on his mind was to know whether he hadn’t sent something or other to the bottom with his buoyings and his lightings and such like. He put it to me many times, and each time more and more sure he was that something had happened in the straits because of him. I think that distructed him, because I found him up at Fratton one day, in a red jersey, a-praying before the Salvation Army, which had produced him in their papers as a Reformed Pirate. They knew from his mouth that he had committed evil on the deep waters—that was what he told them—and piracy, which no one does now except Chineses, was all they knew of. I says to him: ‘Dowse, don’t be a fool. Take off that jersey and come along with me.’ He says: ‘Fenwick, I’m a-saving of my soul; for I do believe that I have killed more men in Flores Strait than Trafalgar.’ I says: ‘A man that thought he’d seen all the navies of the earth standing round in a ring to watch his foolish false wreck-buoys’ (those was my very words I used) ‘ain’t fit to have a soul, and if he did he couldn’t kill a louse with it. John Dowse, you was mad then, but you are a damn sight madder now. Take off that there jersey!’
“He took it off and come along with me, but he never got rid o’ that suspicion that he’d sunk some ships a-cause of his foolishnesses at Flores Straits; and now he’s a wherryman from Portsmouth to Gosport, where the tides run crossways and you can’t row straight for ten strokes together . . . . So late as all this! Look!”
Fenwick left his chair, passed to the Light, touched something that clicked, and the glare ceased with a suddenness that was pain. Day had come, and the Channel needed St. Cecilia no longer. The sea-fog rolled back from the cliffs in trailed wreaths and dragged patches, as the sun rose and made the dead sea alive and splendid. The stillness of the morning held us both silent as we stepped on the balcony. A lark went up from the cliffs behind St. Cecilia, and we smelt a smell of cows in the lighthouse pastures below.
So you see we were both at liberty to thank the Lord for another day of clean and wholesome life.
The doors were wide, the story saith,
Out of the night came the patient wraith,
He might not speak, and he could not stir
A hair of the Baron’s minniver—
Speechless and strengthless, a shadow thin,
He roved the castle to seek his kin.
And oh, ’twas a piteous thing to see
The dumb ghost follow his enemy!
— The Baron
Imray had achieved the impossible. Without warning, for no conceivable motive, in his youth and at the threshold of his career he had chosen to disappear from the world-which is to say, the little Indian station where he lived. Upon a day he was alive, well, happy, and in great evidence at his club, among the billiard-tables. Upon a morning he was not, and no manner of search could make sure where he might be. He had stepped out of his place; he had not appeared at his office at the proper time, and his dog-cart was not upon the public roads. For these reasons and because he was hampering in a microscopical degree the administration of the Indian Empire, the Indian Empire paused for one microscopical moment to make inquiry into the fate of Imray. Ponds were dragged, wells were plumbed, telegrams were dispatched down the lines of railways and to the nearest seaport town—1,200 miles away—but Imray was not at the end of the drag-ropes nor the telegrams. He was gone, and his place knew him no more. Then the work of the great Indian Empire swept forward, because it could not be delayed, and Imray, from being a man, became a mystery—such a thing as men talk over at their tables in the club for a month and then forget utterly. His guns, horses, and carts were sold to the highest bidder. His superior officer wrote an absurd letter to his mother, saying that Imray had unaccountably disappeared and his bungalow stood empty on the road.
After three or four months of the scorching hot weather had gone by, my friend Strickland, of the police force, saw fit to rent the bungalow from the native landlord. This was before he was engaged to Miss Youghal—an affair which has been described in another place—and while he was pursuing his investigations into native life. His own life was sufficiently peculiar, and men complained of his manners and customs. There was always food in his house, but there were no regular times for meals. He eat, standing up and walking about, whatever he might find on the sideboard, and this is not good for human beings. His domestic equipment was limited to six rifles, three shotguns, five saddles, and a collection of stiff-jointed masheer rods, bigger and stronger than the largest salmon rods. These things occupied one half of his bungalow, and the other half was given up to Strickland and his dog Tietjens—an enormous Rampur slut, who sung when she was ordered, and devoured daily the rations of two men. She spoke to Strickland in a language of her own; and whenever, walking abroad, she saw things calculated to destroy the peace of Her Majesty the Queen Empress, she returned to her master and gave him information. Strickland would take steps at once, and the end of his labours was trouble and fine and imprisonment for other people. The natives believed that Tietjens was a familiar spirit, and treated her with the great reverence that is born of hate and fear. One room in the bungalow was set apart for her special use. She owned a bedstead, a blanket, and a drinking-trough, and if any one came into Strickland’s room at night, her custom was to knock down the invader and give tongue till someone came with a light. Strickland owes his life to her. When he was on the frontier in search of the local murderer who came in the grey dawn to send Strickland much further than the Andaman Islands, Tietjens caught him as he was crawling into Strickland’s tent with a dagger between his teeth, and after his record of iniquity was established in the eyes of the law, he was hanged. From that date Tietjens wore a collar of rough silver and employed a monogram on her night blanket, and the blanket was double-woven Kashmir cloth, for she was a delicate dog.
Under no circumstances would she be separated from Strickland, and when he was ill with fever she made great trouble for the doctors because she did not know how to help her master and would not allow another creature to attempt aid. Macarnaght, of the Indian Medical Service, beat her over the head with a gun, before she could understand that she must give room for those who could give quinine.
A short time after Strickland had taken Imray’s bungalow, my business took me through that station, and naturally, the club quarters being full, I quartered myself upon Strickland. It was a desirable bungalow, eight-roomed, and heavily thatched against any chance of leakage from rain. Under the pitch of the roof ran a ceiling cloth, which looked just as nice as a whitewashed ceiling. The landlord had repainted it when Strickland took the bungalow, and unless you knew how Indian bungalows were built you would never have suspected that above the cloth lay the dark, three-cornered cavern of the roof, where the beams and the under side of the thatch harboured all manner of rats, bats, ants, and other things.
Tietjens met me in the veranda with a bay like the boom of the bells of St. Paul’s, and put her paws on my shoulders and said she was glad to see me. Strickland had contrived to put together that sort of meal which he called lunch, and immediately after it was finished went out about his business. I was left alone with Tietjens and my own affairs. The heat of the summer had broken up and given place to the warm damp of the rains. There was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like bayonet rods on the earth, and flung up a blue mist where it splashed back again. The bamboos and the custard apples, the poinsettias and the mango-trees in the garden stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs began to sing among the aloe hedges. A little before the light failed, and when the rain was at its worst, I sat in the back veranda and heard the water roar from the eaves, and scratched myself because I was covered with the thing they called prickly heat. Tietjens came out with me and put her head in my lap, and was very sorrowful, so I gave her biscuits when tea was ready, and I took tea in the back veranda on account of the little coolness I found there. The rooms of the house were dark behind me. I could smell Strickland’s saddlery and the oil on his guns, and I did not the least desire to sit among these things. My own servant came to me in the twilight, the muslin of his clothes clinging tightly to his drenched body, and told me that a gentleman had called and wished to see some one. Very much against my will, and because of the darkness of the rooms, I went into the naked drawing-room, telling my man to bring the lights. There might or might not have been a caller in the room—it seems to me that I saw a figure by one of the windows, but when the lights came there was nothing save the spikes of the rain without and the smell of the drinking earth in my nostrils. I explained to my man that he was no wiser than he ought to be, and went back to the veranda to talk to Tietjens. She had gone out into the wet and I could hardly coax her back to me—even with biscuits with sugar on top. Strickland rode back, dripping wet, just before dinner, and the first thing he said was:
“Has any one called?”
I explained, with apologies, that my servant had called me into the drawing-room on a false alarm; or that some loafer had tried to call on Strickland, and, thinking better of it, fled after giving his name. Strickland ordered dinner without comment, and since it was a real dinner, with white tablecloth attached, we sat down.
At nine o’clock Strickland wanted to go to bed, and I was tired too. Tietjens, who had been lying underneath the table, rose up and went into the least exposed veranda as soon as her master moved to his own room, which was next to the stately chamber set apart for Tietjens. If a mere wife had wished to sleep out-of-doors in that pelting rain, it would not have mattered, but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better animal. I looked at Strickland, expecting to see him flog her with a whip. He smiled queerly, as a man would smile after telling some hideous domestic tragedy. “She has done this ever since I moved in here.”
The dog was Strickland’s dog, so I said nothing, but I felt all that Strickland felt in being made light of. Tietjens encamped outside my bedroom window, and storm after storm came up, thundered on the thatch, and died away. The lightning spattered the sky as a thrown egg spattered a barn door, but the light was pale blue, not yellow; and looking through my slit bamboo blinds, I could see the great dog standing, not sleeping, in the veranda, the hackles alift on her back, and her feet planted as tensely as the drawn wire rope of a suspension bridge. In the very short pauses of the thunder I tried to sleep, but it seemed that some one wanted me very urgently. He, whoever he was, was trying to call me by name, but his voice was no more than a husky whisper. Then the thunder ceased and Tietjens went into the garden and howled at the low moon. Somebody tried to open my door, and walked about and through the house, and stood breathing heavily in the verandas, and just when I was falling asleep I fancied that I heard a wild hammering and clamoring above my head or on the door.
I ran into Strickland’s room and asked him whether he was ill and had been calling for me. He was lying on the bed half-dressed, with a pipe in his mouth. “I thought you’d come,” he said. “Have I been walking around the house at all?”
I explained that he had been in the dining-room and the smoking-room and two or three other places; and he laughed and told me to go back to bed. I went back to bed and slept till the morning, but in all my dreams I was sure I was doing some one an injustice in not attending to his wants. What those wants were I could not tell, but a fluttering, whispering, bolt-fumbling, luring, loitering Someone was reproaching me for my slackness, and through all the dreams I heard the howling of Tietjens in the garden and the thrashing of the rain.
I lived in that house for two days, and Strickland went to his office daily, leaving me alone for eight or ten hours a day, with Tietjens for my only companion. As long as the full light lasted I was comfortable, and so was Tietjens; but in the twilight she and I moved into the back veranda and cuddled each other for company. We were alone in the house, but for all that it was fully occupied by a tenant with whom I had no desire to interfere. I never saw him, but I could see the curtains between the rooms quivering where he had just passed through; I could hear the chairs creaking as the bamboos sprung under a weight that had just quitted them; and I could feel when I went to get a book from the dining-room that somebody was waiting in the shadows of the front veranda till I should have gone away. Tietjens made the twilight more interesting by glaring into the darkened rooms, with every hair erect, and following the motions of something that I could not see. She never entered the rooms, but her eyes moved, and that was quite sufficient. Only when my servant came to trim the lamps and make all light and habitable, she would come in with me and spend her time sitting on her haunches watching an invisible extra man as he moved about behind my shoulder. Dogs are cheerful companions.
I explained to Strickland, gently as might be, that I would go over to the club and find for myself quarters there. I admired his hospitality, was pleased with his guns and rods, but I did not much care for his house and its atmosphere. He heard me out to the end, and then smiled very wearily, but without contempt, for he is a man who understands things. “Stay on,” he said, “and see what this thing means. All you have talked about I have known since I took the bungalow. Stay on and wait. Tietjens has left me. Are you going too?”
I had seen him through one little affair connected with an idol that had brought me to the doors of a lunatic asylum, and I had no desire to help him through further experiences. He was a man to whom unpleasantnesses arrived as do dinners to ordinary people.
Therefore I explained more clearly than ever that I liked him immensely, and would he happy to see him in the daytime, but that I didn’t care to sleep under his roof. This was after dinner, when Tietjens had gone out to lie in the veranda.
“’Pon my soul, I don’t wonder,” said Strickland, with his eyes on the ceiling-cloth. “Look at that!”
The tails of two snakes were hanging between the cloth and the cornice of the wall. They threw long shadows in the lamp-light. “If you are afraid of snakes, of course”—said Strickland. “I hate and fear snakes, because if you look into the eyes of any snake you will see that it knows all and more of man’s fall, and that it feels all the contempt that the devil felt when Adam was evicted from Eden. Besides which its bite is generally fatal, and it bursts up trouser legs.”
“You ought to get your thatch over-hauled,” I said. “Give me a masheer rod, and we’ll poke ’em down.”
“They’ll hide among the roof beams,” said Strickland. “I can’t stand snakes overhead. I’m going up. If I shake ’em down, stand by with a cleaning-rod and break their backs.”
I was not anxious to assist Strickland in his work, hut I took the loading-rod and waited in the dining-room, while Strickland brought a gardener’s ladder from the veranda and set it against the side of the room. The snake tails drew themselves up and disappeared. We could hear the dry rushing scuttle of long bodies running over the baggy cloth. Strickland took a lamp with him, while I tried to make clear the danger of hunting roof snakes between a ceiling cloth and a thatch, apart from the deterioration of property caused by ripping out ceiling-cloths.
“Nonsense“ said Strickland. “They’re sure to hide near the walls by the cloth. The bricks are too cold for ’em, and the heat of the room is just what they like.” He put his hands to the corner of the cloth and ripped the rotten stuff from the cornice. It gave great sound of tearing, and Strickland put his head through the opening into the dark of the angle of the roof beams. I set my teeth and lifted the loading-rod, for I had not the least knowledge of what might descend.
“H’m,” said Strickland; and his voice rolled and rumbled in the roof. “There’s room for another set of rooms up here, and, by Jove! some one is occupying ’em!”
“Snakes?” I said down below.
“No. It’s a buffalo. Hand me up the two first joints of a masheer rod, and I’ll prod it. It’s lying on the main beam.”
I handed up the rod.
“What a nest for owls and serpents! No wonder the snakes live here,” said Strickland, climbing further into the roof. I could see his elbow thrusting with the rod. “Come out of that, whoever you are! Look out! Heads below there! It’s tottering.”
I saw the ceiling-cloth nearly in the centre of the room bag with a shape that was pressing it downward and downward toward the lighted lamps on the table. I snatched a lamp out of danger and stood back. Then the cloth ripped out from the walls, tore, split, swayed, and shot down upon the table something that I dared not look at till Strickland had slid down the ladder and was standing by my side.
He did not say much, being a man of few words, but he picked up the loose end of the table-cloth and threw it over the thing on the table.
“It strikes me,” said he, pulling down the lamp, “our friend Imray has come back. Oh! you would, would you?”
There was a movement under the cloth, and a little snake wriggled out, to be back-broken by the butt of the masheer rod. I was sufficiently sick to make no remarks worth recording.
Strickland meditated and helped himself to drinks liberally. The thing under the cloth made no more signs of life.
“Is it Imray?” I said.
Strickland turned back the cloth for a moment and looked. “It is Imray,’ he said, “and his throat is cut from ear to ear.”
Then we spoke both together and to ourselves:
“That’s why he whispered about the house.”
Tietjens, in the garden, began to bay furiously. A little later her great nose heaved upon the dining-room door.
She sniffed and was still. The broken and tattered ceiling-cloth hung down almost to the level of the table, and there was hardly room to move away from the discovery.
Then Tietjens came in and sat down, her teeth bared and her forepaws planted. She looked at Strickland.
“It’s bad business, old lady,” said he. “Men don’t go up into the roofs of their bungalows to die, and they don’t fasten up the ceiling-cloth behind ’em. Let’s think it out.”
“Let’s think it out somewhere else,” I said.
“Excellent idea! Turn the lamps out. We’ll get into my room.”
I did not turn the lamps out. I went into Strickland’s room first and allowed him to make the darkness. Then he followed me, and we lighted tobacco and thought. Strickland did the thinking. I smoked furiously because I was afraid.
“Imray is back,” said Strickland. “The question is, who killed Imray? Don’t talk—I have a notion of my own. When I took this bungalow I took most of Imray’s servants. Imray was guileless and inoffensive, wasn’t he?”
I agreed, though the heap under the cloth looked neither one thing nor the other.
“If I call the servants they will stand fast in a crowd and lie like Aryans. What do you suggest?”
“Call ’em in one by one,” I said.
“They’ll run away and give the news to all their fellows,” said Strickland.
“We must segregate ’em. Do you suppose your servant knows anything about it?”
“He may, for aught I know, but I don’t think it’s likely. He has only been here two or three days.”
“What’s your notion?” I asked.
“I can’t quite tell. How the dickens did the man get the wrong side of the ceiling-cloth?”
There was a heavy coughing outside Strickland’s bedroom door. This showed that Bahadur Khan, his body-servant, had waked from sleep and wished to put Strickland to bed.
“Come in,” said Strickland. “It is a very warm night, isn’t it?”
Bahadur Khan, a great, green-turbaned, six-foot Mohammedan, said that it was a very warm night, but that there was more rain pending, which, by his honour’s favour, would bring relief to the country.
“It will be so, if God pleases,” said Strickland, tugging off his boots. “It is in my mind, Bahadur Khan, that I have worked thee remorselessly for many days—ever since that time when thou first came into my service. What time was that?”
“Has the heaven-born forgotten? It was when Imray Sahib went secretly to Europe without warning given, and I—even I—came into the honored service of the protector of the poor.”
“And Imray Sahib went to Europe?”
“It is so said among the servants.”
“And thou wilt take service with him when he returns?”
“Assuredly, sahib. He was a good master and cherished his dependents.”
“That is true. I am very tired, but I can go buck-shooting to-morrow. Give me the little rifle that I use for black buck; it is in the case yonder.”
The man stooped over the case, handed barrels, stock, and fore-end to Strickland, who fitted them together. Yawning dolefully, then he reached down to the gun-case, took a solid drawn cartridge, and slipped it into the breech of the .360 express.
“And Imray Sahib has gone to Europe secretly? That is very strange, Bahadur Khan, is it not?”
“What do I know of the ways of the white man, heaven-born?”
“Very little, truly. But thou shalt know more. It has reached me that Imray Sahib has returned from his so long journeyings, and that even now he lies in the next room, waiting his servant.”
The lamp-light slid along the barrels of the rifle as they leveled themselves against Bahadur Khan’s broad breast.
“Go then and look!” said Strickland. “Take a lamp. Thy master is tired, and he waits. Go!”
The man picked up a lamp and went into the dining-room, Strickland following, and almost pushing him with the muzzle of the rifle. He looked for a moment at the black depths behind the ceiling-cloth, at the carcass of the mangled snake under foot, and last, a grey glaze setting on his face, at the thing under the table-cloth.
“Hast thou seen?” said Strickland, after a pause.
“I have seen. I am clay in the white man’s hands. What does the presence do?”
“Hang thee within a month! What else?”
“For killing him? Nay, sahib, consider. Walking among us, his servants, he cast his eyes upon my child, who was four years old. Him he bewitched, and in ten days he died of the fever. My child!”
“What said Imray Sahib?”
“He said he was a handsome child, and patted him on the head; wherefore my child died. Wherefore I killed Imray Sahib in the twilight, when he came back from office and was sleeping. The heaven-born knows all things. I am the servant of the heaven- born.”
Strickland looked at me above the rifle, and said, in the vernacular: “Thou art witness to this saying. He has killed.”
Bahadur Khan stood ashen grey in the light of the one lamp. The need for justification came upon him very swiftly.
“I am trapped,” he said, “but the offence was that man’s. He cast an evil eye upon my child, and I killed and hid him. Only such as are served by devils,” he glared at Tietjens, crouched stolidly before him, “only such could know what I did.”
“It was clever. But thou shouldst have lashed him to the beam with a rope. Now, thou thyself wilt hang by a rope. Orderly!”
A drowsy policeman answered Strickland’s call. He was followed by another, and Tietjens sat still.
“Take him to the station,” said Strickland. “There is a case toward.”
“Do I hang, then?” said Bahadur Khan, making no attempt to escape and keeping his eyes on the ground.
“If the sun shines, or the water runs, thou wilt hang,” said Strickland. Bahadur Khan stepped back one pace, quivered, and stood still. The two policemen waited further orders.
“Go!” said Strickland.
“Nay; but I go very swiftly,” said Bahadur Khan. “Look! I am even now a dead man.”
He lifted his foot, and to the little toe there clung the head of the half-killed snake, firm fixed in the agony of death.
“I come of land-holding stock,” said Bahadur Khan, rocking where he stood. “It were a disgrace for me to go to the public scaffold, therefore I take this way. Be it remembered that the sahib’s shirts are correctly enumerated, and that there is an extra piece of soap in his washbasin. My child was bewitched, and I slew the wizard. Why should you seek to slay me? My honour is saved, and—and—I die.”
At the end of an hour he died as they die who are bitten by the little kariat, and the policeman bore him and the thing under the table-cloth to their appointed places. All were needed to make clear the disappearance of Imray.
“This,” said Strickland, very calmly, as he climbed into bed, “is called the nineteenth century. Did you hear what that man said?”
“I heard,” I answered. “Imray made a mistake.”
“Simply and solely through not knowing the nature and coincidence of a little seasonal fever. Bahadur Khan has been with him for four years.”
I shuddered. My own servant had been with me for exactly that length of time. When I went over to my own room I found him waiting, impassive as the copper head on a penny, to pull off my boots.
“What has befallen Bahadur Khan?” said I.
“He was bitten by a snake and died; the rest the sahib knows,” was the answer.
“And how much of the matter hast thou known?”
“As much as might be gathered from one coming in the twilight to seek satisfaction. Gently, sahib. Let me pull off those boots.”
I had just settled to the sleep of exhaustion when I heard Strickland shouting from his side of the house:
“Tietjens has come back to her room!”
And so she had. The great deerhound was couched on her own bedstead, on her own blanket, and in the next room the idle, empty ceiling-cloth wagged light-heartedly as it flailed on the table.
As I came through the Desert thus it was—
As I came through the Desert.
— The City of Dreadful Night.
This story deals entirely with ghosts. There are, in India, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of women who have died in childbed. These wander along the pathways at dusk, or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however, are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.
Nearly every other Station owns a ghost. There are said to be two at Simla, not counting the woman who blows the bellows at Syree dâk-bungalow on the Old Road; Mussoorie has a house haunted of a very lively Thing; a White Lady is supposed to do night-watchman round a house in Lahore; Dalhousie says that one of her houses “repeats” on autumn evenings all the incidents of a horrible horse-and-precipice accident; Murree has a merry ghost, and, now that she has been swept by cholera, will have room for a sorrowful one; there are Officers’ Quarters in Mian Mir whose doors open without reason, and whose furniture is guaranteed to creak, not with the heat of June but with the weight of Invisibles who come to lounge in the chairs; Peshawur possesses houses that none will willingly rent; and there is something—not fever—wrong with a big bungalow in Allahabad. The older Provinces simply bristle with haunted houses, and march phantom armies along their main thoroughfares.
Some of the dâk-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road have handy little cemeteries in their compound—witnesses to the “changes and chances of this mortal life” in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest. These bungalows are objectionable places to put up in. They are generally very old, always dirty, while the khansamah is as ancient as the bungalow. He either chatters senilely, or falls into the long trances of age. In both moods he is useless. If you get angry with him, he refers to some Sahib dead and buried these thirty years, and says that when he was in that Sahib’s service not a khansamah in the Province could touch him. Then he jabbers and mows and trembles and fidgets among the dishes, and you repent of your irritation.
Not long ago it was my business to live in dâk-bungalows. I never inhabited the same house for three nights running, and grew to be learned in the breed. I lived in Government-built ones with red brick walls and rail ceilings, an inventory of the furniture posted in every room, and an excited snake at the threshold to give welcome. I lived in “converted” ones—old houses officiating as dâk-bungalows—where nothing was in its proper place and there wasn’t even a fowl for dinner. I lived in second-hand palaces where the wind blew through open-work marble tracery just as uncomfortably as through a broken pane. I lived in dâk-bungalows where the last entry in the visitors’ book was fifteen months old, and where they slashed off the curry-kid’s head with a sword. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober traveling missionaries and deserters flying from British Regiments, to drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed; and my still greater good fortune just to escape a maternity case. Seeing that a fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here acted itself in dâk-bungalows, I wondered that I had met no ghosts. A ghost that would voluntarily hang about a dâk-bungalow would be mad of course; but so many men have died mad in dâk-bungalows that there must be a fair percentage of lunatic ghosts.
In due time I found my ghost, or ghosts rather, for there were two of them.
We will call the bungalow Katmal dâk-bungalow. But that was the smallest part of the horror. A man with a sensitive hide has no right to sleep in dâk-bungalows. He should marry. Katmal dâk-bungalow was old and rotten and unrepaired. The floor was of worn brick, the walls were filthy, and the windows were nearly black with grime. It stood on a bypath largely used by native Sub-Deputy Assistants of all kinds, from Finance to Forests; but real Sahibs were rare. The khansamah, who was nearly bent double with old age, said so.
When I arrived, there was a fitful, undecided rain on the face of the land, accompanied by a restless wind, and every gust made a noise like the rattling of dry bones in the stiff toddy palms outside. The khansamah completely lost his head on my arrival. He had served a Sahib once. Did I know that Sahib? He gave me the name of a well-known man who has been buried for more than a quarter of a century, and showed me an ancient daguerreotype of that man in his prehistoric youth. I had seen a steel engraving of him at the head of a double volume of Memoirs a month before, and I felt ancient beyond telling.
The day shut in and the khansamah went to get me food. He did not go through the pretense of calling it “khana”—man’s victuals. He said “ratub,” and that means, among other things, “grub”—dog’s rations. There was no insult in his choice of the term. He had forgotten the other word, I suppose.
While he was cutting up the dead bodies of animals, I settled myself down, after exploring the dâk-bungalow. There were three rooms, beside my own, which was a corner kennel, each giving into the other through dingy white doors fastened with long iron bars. The bungalow was a very solid one, but the partition walls of the rooms were almost jerry-built in their flimsiness. Every step or bang of a trunk echoed from my room down the other three, and every footfall came back tremulously from the far walls. For this reason I shut the door. There were no lamps—only candles in long glass shades. An oil wick was set in the bathroom.
For bleak, unadulterated misery that dâk-bungalow was the worst of the many that I had ever set foot in. There was no fireplace, and the windows would not open; so a brazier of charcoal would have been useless. The rain and the wind splashed and gurgled and moaned round the house, and the toddy palms rattled and roared. Half a dozen jackals went through the compound singing, and a hyena stood afar off and mocked them. A hyena would convince a Sadducee of the Resurrection of the Dead—the worst sort of Dead. Then came the ratub—a curious meal, half native and half English in composition—with the old khansamah babbling behind my chair about dead and gone English people, and the wind-blown candles playing shadow-bo-peep with the bed and the mosquito-curtains. It was just the sort of dinner and evening to make a man think of every single one of his past sins, and of all the others that he intended to commit if he lived.
Sleep, for several hundred reasons, was not easy. The lamp in the bathroom threw the most absurd shadows into the room, and the wind was beginning to talk nonsense.
Just when the reasons were drowsy with blood-sucking I heard the regular—“Let-us-take-and-heave-him-over” grunt of doolie-bearers in the compound. First one doolie came in, then a second, and then a third. I heard the doolies dumped on the ground, and the shutter in front of my door shook. “That’s some one trying to come in,” I said. But no one spoke, and I persuaded myself that it was the gusty wind. The shutter of the room next to mine was attacked, flung back, and the inner door opened. “That’s some Sub-Deputy Assistant,” I said, “and he has brought his friends with him. Now they’ll talk and spit and smoke for an hour.”
But there were no voices and no footsteps. No one was putting his luggage into the next room. The door shut, and I thanked Providence that I was to be left in peace. But I was curious to know where the doolies had gone. I got out of bed and looked into the darkness. There was never a sign of a doolie. Just as I was getting into bed again, I heard, in the next room, the sound that no man in his senses can possibly mistake—the whir of a billiard ball down the length of the slates when the striker is stringing for break. No other sound is like it. A minute afterwards there was another whir, and I got into bed. I was not frightened—indeed I was not. I was very curious to know what had become of the doolies. I jumped into bed for that reason.
Next minute I heard the double click of a cannon and my hair sat up. It is a mistake to say that hair stands up. The skin of the head tightens and you can feel a faint, prickly, bristling all over the scalp. That is the hair sitting up.
There was a whir and a click, and both sounds could only have been made by one thing—a billiard ball. I argued the matter out at great length with myself; and the more I argued the less probable it seemed that one bed, one table, and two chairs—all the furniture of the room next to mine—could so exactly duplicate the sounds of a game of billiards. After another cannon, a three-cushion one to judge by the whir, I argued no more. I had found my ghost and would have given worlds to have escaped from that dâk-bungalow. I listened, and with each listen the game grew clearer. There was whir on whir and click on click. Sometimes there was a double click and a whir and another click. Beyond any sort of doubt, people were playing billiards in the next room. And the next room was not big enough to hold a billiard table!
Between the pauses of the wind I heard the game go forward—stroke after stroke. I tried to believe that I could not hear voices; but that attempt was a failure.
Do you know what fear is? Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death, but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see—fear that dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat—fear that makes you sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at work? This is a fine Fear—a great cowardice, and must be felt to be appreciated. The very improbability of billiards in a dâk-bungalow proved the reality of the thing. No man—drunk or sober—could imagine a game at billiards, or invent the spitting crack of a “screw-cannon.”
A severe course of dâk-bungalows has this disadvantage—it breeds infinite credulity. If a man said to a confirmed dâk-bungalow-haunter:—“There is a corpse in the next room, and there’s a mad girl in the next but one, and the woman and man on that camel have just eloped from a place sixty miles away,” the hearer would not disbelieve because he would know that nothing is too wild, grotesque, or horrible to happen in a dâk-bungalow.
This credulity, unfortunately, extends to ghosts. A rational person fresh from his own house would have turned on his side and slept. I did not. So surely as I was given up as a bad carcass by the scores of things in the bed because the bulk of my blood was in my heart, so surely did I hear every stroke of a long game at billiards played in the echoing room behind the iron-barred door. My dominant fear was that the players might want a marker. It was an absurd fear; because creatures who could play in the dark would be above such superfluities. I only know that that was my terror; and it was real.
After a long, long while the game stopped, and the door banged. I slept because I was dead tired. Otherwise I should have preferred to have kept awake. Not for everything in Asia would I have dropped the door-bar and peered into the dark of the next room.
When the morning came, I considered that I had done well and wisely, and inquired for the means of departure.
“By the way, khansamah,” I said, “what were those three doolies doing in my compound in the night?”
“There were no doolies,” said the khansamah.
I went into the next room and the daylight streamed through the open door. I was immensely brave. I would, at that hour, have played Black Pool with the owner of the big Black Pool down below.
“Has this place always been a dâk-bungalow?” I asked.
“No,” said the khansamah. “Ten or twenty years ago, I have forgotten how long, it was a billiard room.”
“A billiard room for the Sahibs who built the Railway. I was khansamah then in the big house where all the Railway-Sahibs lived, and I used to come across with brandy-shrab. These three rooms were all one, and they held a big table on which the Sahibs played every evening. But the Sahibs are all dead now, and the Railway runs, you say, nearly to Kabul.”
“Do you remember anything about the Sahibs?”
“It is long ago, but I remember that one Sahib, a fat man and always angry, was playing here one night, and he said to me:—‘Mangal Khan, brandy-pani do,’ and I filled the glass, and he bent over the table to strike, and his head fell lower and lower till it hit the table, and his spectacles came off, and when we—the Sahibs and I myself—ran to lift him he was dead. I helped to carry him out. Aha, he was a strong Sahib! But he is dead and I, old Mangal Khan, am still living, by your favour.”
That was more than enough! I had my ghost—a first-hand, authenticated article. I would write to the Society for Psychical Research—I would paralyze the Empire with the news! But I would, first of all, put eighty miles of assessed crop land between myself and that dâk-bungalow before nightfall. The Society might send their regular agent to investigate later on.
I went into my own room and prepared to pack after noting down the facts of the case. As I smoked I heard the game begin again—with a miss in balk this time, for the whirr was a short one.
The door was open and I could see into the room. Click—click! That was a cannon. I entered the room without fear, for there was sunlight within and a fresh breeze without. The unseen game was going on at a tremendous rate. And well it might, when a restless little rat was running to and fro inside the dingy ceiling-cloth, and a piece of loose window-sash was making fifty breaks off the window-bolt as it shook in the breeze!
Impossible to mistake the sound of billiard balls! Impossible to mistake the whirr of a ball over the slate! But I was to be excused. Even when I shut my enlightened eyes the sound was marvelously like that of a fast game.
Entered angrily the faithful partner of my sorrows, Kadir Baksh.
“This bungalow is very bad and low-caste! No wonder the Presence was disturbed and is speckled. Three sets of doolie-bearers came to the bungalow late last night when I was sleeping outside, and said that it was their custom to rest in the rooms set apart for the English people! What honour has the khansamah? They tried to enter, but I told them to go. No wonder, if these Oorias have been here, that the Presence is sorely spotted. It is shame, and the work of a dirty man!”
Kadir Baksh did not say that he had taken from each gang two annas for rent in advance, and then, beyond my earshot, had beaten them with the big green umbrella whose use I could never before divine. But Kadir Baksh has no notions of morality.
There was an interview with the khansamah, but as he promptly lost his head, wrath gave place to pity, and pity led to a long conversation, in the course of which he put the fat Engineer-Sahib’s tragic death in three separate stations—two of them fifty miles away. The third shift was to Calcutta, and there the Sahib died while driving a dog-cart.
If I had encouraged him the khansamah would have wandered all through Bengal with his corpse.
I did not go away as soon as I intended. I stayed for the night, while the wind and the rat and the sash and the window-bolt played a ding-dong “hundred and fifty up.” Then the wind ran out and the billiards stopped, and I felt that I had ruined my one genuine, hall-marked ghost story.
Had I only stopped at the proper time, I could have made anything out of it.
That was the bitterest thought of all!
“Consequences of our acts eternal? Bosh!” said Blawkins, at the Club. “That’s what the Padres say. See, now!” The smoking-room was empty, except for Blawkins and myself. “I’ll tell you an idiotic little superstition I picked up the other day,” said he. “The natives say that Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day for his food; and if you total up the month’s cattle-bill of an average tiger, not a man-eater, you’ll find that it’s exactly forty-five rupees per mensem.”
“I know that,” said I. “And it happens to be true.”
“Very good,” said Blawkins. “Do you mean to say that anything is going to come of an idle sentence like that? I say it. You hear it. Well?” Blawkins swung out of the Club, leaving me vanquished.
But the statement rang in my head. There was something catching about the words, “Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day for his food.” It was a quaint superstition, and one not generally known. Would the local paper care for it? It fitted a corner, empty for the moment; and one or two readers said, “What a curious idea!”
That the tiny paragraph should have wandered to Southern India was not very strange, though there was no reason why it should not have trickled to the Bombay side, instead of dropping straight as a plummet to Madras. That it should have jumped Adam’s Bridge, and been copied in a Ceylon journal, was strange; but Blawkins had been transferred to the other end of the Empire, just two days before the Ceylon papers told their cinchona planters that “Allah allows the tiger one rupee eight annas a day,” etc.
Three weeks passed, and from the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal came in the Burma mail. Boh Ottima was dead, and the Field Force was hard worked; Mandalay was suffering from cholera, but at the bottom of the last page the rest of the world might read that “Allah allows the tiger,” etc. Blawkins was on duty in the Bolan, very sick with fever. It was not worth while to follow him with a letter.
Week by week Europe grew to be a hornet-hive, throbbing and humming angrily, as the messages pulsed through the wires. Then Singapur reported that “Allah allows the tiger,” etc. Here, assuredly, was the limit of my paragraph’s wandering. It might struggle into the Malayan Archipelago, but beyond that scattered heap of islands it could not pass.
Germany called for more men; France answered the call with fresh battalions on her side; and the strangely scented, straw-hued journals of Shanghai and Yokohama made public to the Far East the news that “Allah allows the tiger,” etc. Blawkins, now at Poona, was desperately in love with a Miss Blandyre. What were paragraphs to a passionate lover? I never sent him a line, though he bombarded me with a very auctioneer’s catalogue of Miss Blandyre’s charms. What would my paragraph do? It had reached the open Pacific now, and must surely drown in five thousand miles of black water. After all, it had lived long.
Yet, I had presentiments, and waited anxiously for what might come. The flying keel stayed at the Golden Gate, where the sea-lions romp and gurgle and bask: Europe shook with the tread of armed men, but—where was my paragraph? In America—for San Francisco wished to know, if “Allah allowed the tiger,” etc., how much a Los Angeles hotel-keeper would be justified in charging a millionaire with delirium tremens? Would Eastern America accept it? The paragraph touched Salt Lake City; and thenceforward, straight as a homeward-bound bee, headed New York-wards. They took it; they cut, chipped, chopped, laughed; were ribald, pious, profane, cynical, and frankly foolish over it; but, as though it were under a special and mysterious protection of Providence, it returned, always, to its original shape. It ran southward into New Orleans, northward to Toronto; and week after week the weather-beaten exchanges recorded its eastward progress. Boston appreciated it as something perfectly original; and at last, as a lone light dies on an extreme headland, Philadelphia sent back the news that the Emperor William was dead, and “Allah allows the tiger,” etc. But Blawkins had, long ago, wedded Miss Blandyre. What was the use of writing to him? The main point of existence was, whether the paragraph could come over the Atlantic to the West Coast of England, where the country papers were lichened with the growth of local politics.
There was a long pause, and I feared that my paragraph was dead. But I did it an injustice. Over the foaming surf of the Local Government Bill, through the rapids of compensation to publicans, in the teeth of the current of Mr. Gladstone’s appeals to the free and enlightened electors of Wales, came my paragraph—for Birmingham found room for the announcement that “Allah allows the tiger,” etc. Blawkins sent an announcement also. It cost him two rupees, was a purely local matter, and ended up with the words “of a son.” But the paragraph was Imperial—nay, Universal. I felt safe, for there was one journal in London whom nothing unusual, or alas, unclean, ever escaped. I waited with confidence the arrival of the "Yellow Wrapper." When the mails came in, the Bombay papers had already quoted and commended to the notice of the Bombay Zoölogical Society the curious statement hailing from England in the "Yellow Wrapper" that “Allah allows the tiger,” etc.! The circuit was complete; and as the shears snipped out the announcement, before putting it afresh into the very cradle in which it had been born fifteen months and six days before, I felt that I had shaken hands with the whole round world. My paragraph had come home indeed!
Tenderly as a mother shows the face of her sleeping child, I led Blawkins through the paper-cuttings, and step by step pointed out the path of the paragraph. His lower jaw dropped. “By Jove!” said he, “I was wrong—it should have been a rupee—one rupee only—not one eight.’
“Then, Blawkins,” said I, “you have swindled the whole wide world of the sum of eight annas,” nominally one shilling.
“If you go once round the world in an easterly direction, you gain one day,” said the men of science to John Hay. In after years John Hay went east, west, north, and south, transacted business, made love, and begat a family, as have done many men, and the scientific information above recorded lay neglected in the deeps of his mind with a thousand other matters of equal importance.
When a rich relative died, he found himself wealthy beyond any reasonable expectation that he had entertained in his previous career, which had been a chequered and evil one. Indeed, long before the legacy came to him, there existed in the brain of John Hay a little cloud-a momentary obscuration of thought that came and went almost before he could realize that there was any solution of continuity. So do the bats flit round the eaves of a house to show that the darkness is falling. He entered upon great possessions, in money, land, and houses; but behind his delight stood a ghost that cried out that his enjoyment of these things should not be of long duration. It was the ghost of the rich relative, who had been permitted to return to earth to torture his nephew into the grave. Wherefore, under the spur of this constant reminder, John Hay, always preserving the air of heavy business-like stolidity that hid the shadow on his mind, turned investments, houses, and lands into sovereigns—rich, round, red, English sovereigns, each one worth twenty shillings. Lands may become valueless, and houses fly heavenward on the wings of red flame, but till the Day of Judgment a sovereign will always be a sovereign—that is to say, a king of pleasures.
Possessed of his sovereigns, John Hay would fain have spent them one by one on such coarse amusements as his soul loved; but he was haunted by the instant fear of Death; for the ghost of his relative stood in the hall of his house close to the hat-rack, shouting up the stairway that life was short, that there was no hope of increase of days, and that the undertakers were already roughing out his nephew’s coffin. John Hay was generally alone in the house, and even when he had company, his friends could not hear the clamorous uncle. The shadow inside his brain grew larger and blacker. His fear of death was driving John Hay mad.
Then, from the deeps of his mind, where he had stowed away all his discarded information, rose to light the scientific fact of the Easterly journey. On the next occasion that his uncle shouted up the stairway urging him to make haste and live, a shriller voice cried, “Who goes round the world once easterly, gains one day.”
His growing diffidence and distrust of mankind made John Hay unwilling to give this precious message of hope to his friends. They might take it up and analyse it. He was sure it was true, but it would pain him acutely were rough hands to examine it too closely. To him alone of all the toiling generations of mankind had the secret of immortality been vouchsafed. It would be impious—against all the designs of the Creator—to set mankind hurrying eastward. Besides, this would crowd the steamers inconveniently, and John Hay wished of all things to be alone. If he could get round the world in two months—some one of whom he had read, he could not remember the name, had covered the passage in eighty days—he would gain a clear day; and by steadily continuing to do it for thirty years, would gain one hundred and eighty days, or nearly the half of a year. It would not be much, but in course of time, as civilisation advanced, and the Euphrates Valley Railway was opened, he could improve the pace.
Armed with many sovereigns, John Hay, in the thirty-fifth year of his age, set forth on his travels, two voices bearing him company from Dover as he sailed to Calais. Fortune favoured him. The Euphrates Valley Railway was newly opened, and he was the first man who took ticket direct from Calais to Calcutta—thirteen days in the train. Thirteen days in the train are not good for the nerves; but he covered the world and returned to Calais from America in twelve days over the two months, and started afresh with four and twenty hours of precious time to his credit. Three years passed, and John Hay religiously went round this earth seeking for more time wherein to enjoy the remainder of his sovereigns. He became known on many lines as the man who wanted to go on; when people asked him what he was and what he did, he answered—
“I’m the person who intends to live, and I am trying to do it now.”
His days were divided between watching the white wake spinning behind the stern of the swiftest steamers, or the brown earth flashing past the windows of the fastest trains; and he noted in a pocket-book every minute that he had railed or screwed out of remorseless eternity.
“This is better than praying for long life,” quoth John Hay as he turned his face eastward for his twentieth trip. The years had done more for him than he dared to hope.
By the extension of the Brahmaputra Valley line to meet the newly-developed China Midland, the Calais railway ticket held good via Karachi and Calcutta to Hongkong. The round trip could be managed in a fraction over forty-seven days, and, filled with fatal exultation, John Hay told the secret of his longevity to his only friend, the house-keeper of his rooms in London. He spoke and passed; but the woman was one of resource, and immediately took counsel with the lawyers who had first informed John Hay of his golden legacy. Very many sovereigns still remained, and another Hay longed to spend them on things more sensible than railway tickets and steamer accommodation.
The chase was long, for when a man is journeying literally for the dear life, he does not tarry upon the road. Round the world Hay swept anew, and overtook the wearied Doctor, who had been sent out to look for him, in Madras. It was there that he found the reward of his toil and the assurance of a blessed immortality. In half an hour the Doctor, watching always the parched lips, the shaking hands, and the eye that turned eternally to the east, won John Hay to rest in a little house close to the Madras surf. All that Hay need do was to hang by ropes from the roof of the room and let the round earth swing free beneath him. This was better than steamer or train, for he gained a day in a day, and was thus the equal of the undying sun. The other Hay would pay his expenses throughout eternity.
It is true that we cannot yet take tickets from Calais to Hongkong, though that will come about in fifteen years; but men say that if you wander along the southern coast of India you shall find in a neatly whitewashed little bungalow, sitting in a chair swung from the roof, over a sheet of thin steel which he knows so well destroys the attraction of the earth, an old and worn man who for ever faces the rising sun, a stop-watch in his hand, racing against eternity. He cannot drink, he does not smoke, and his living expenses amount to perhaps twenty-five rupees a month, but he is John Hay, the Immortal. Without, he hears the thunder of the wheeling world with which he is careful to explain he has no connection whatever; but if you say that it is only the noise of the surf, he will cry bitterly, for the shadow on his brain is passing away as the brain ceases to work, and he doubts sometimes whether the doctor spoke the truth.
“Why does not the sun always remain over my head?” asks John Hay.
The sky is lead and our faces are red,
And the gates of Hell are opened and riven,
And the winds of Hell are loosened and driven,
And the dust flies up in the face of Heaven,
And the clouds come down in a fiery sheet,
Heavy to raise and hard to be borne.
And the soul of man is turned from his meat,
Turned from the trifles for which he has striven
Sick in his body, and heavy hearted,
And his soul flies up like the dust in the sheet
Breaks from his flesh and is gone and departed,
As the blasts they blow on the cholera-horn.
Four men, each entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” sat at a table playing whist. The thermometer marked—for them—one hundred and one degrees of heat. The room was darkened till it was only just possible to distinguish the pips of the cards and the very white faces of the players. A tattered, rotten punkah of whitewashed calico was puddling the hot air and whining dolefully at each stroke. Outside lay gloom of a November day in London. There was neither sky, sun, nor horizon,—nothing but a brown purple haze of heat. It was as though the earth were dying of apoplexy.
From time to time clouds of tawny dust rose from the ground without wind or warning, flung themselves tablecloth-wise among the tops of the parched trees, and came down again. Then a whirling dust-devil would scutter across the plain for a couple of miles, break, and fall outward, though there was nothing to check its flight save a long low line of piled railway-sleepers white with the dust, a cluster of huts made of mud, condemned rails, and canvas, and the one squat four-roomed bungalow that belonged to the assistant engineer in charge of a section of the Gaudhari State line then under construction.
The four, stripped to the thinnest of sleeping-suits, played whist crossly, with wranglings as to leads and returns. It was not the best kind of whist, but they had taken some trouble to arrive at it. Mottram of the Indian Survey had ridden thirty and railed one hundred miles from his lonely post in the desert since the night before; Lowndes of the Civil Service, on special duty in the political department, had come as far to escape for an instant the miserable intrigues of an impoverished native State whose king alternately fawned and blustered for more money from the pitiful revenues contributed by hard-wrung peasants and despairing camel-breeders; Spurstow, the doctor of the line, had left a cholera-stricken camp of coolies to look after itself for forty-eight hours while he associated with white men once more. Hummil, the assistant engineer, was the host. He stood fast and received his friends thus every Sunday if they could come in. When one of them failed to appear, he would send a telegram to his last address, in order that he might know whether the defaulter were dead or alive. There are very many places in the East where it is not good or kind to let your acquaintances drop out of sight even for one short week.
The players were not conscious of any special regard for each other. They squabbled whenever they met; but they ardently desired to meet, as men without water desire to drink. They were lonely folk who understood the dread meaning of loneliness. They were all under thirty years of age,—which is too soon for any man to possess that knowledge.
“Pilsener?” said Spurstow, after the second rubber, mopping his forehead.
“Beer’s out, I’m sorry to say, and there’s hardly enough soda-water for to-night,” said Hummil.
“What filthy bad management!” Spurstow snarled.
“Can’t help it. I’ve written and wired; but the trains don’t come through regularly yet. Last week the ice ran out,—as Lowndes knows.”
“Glad I didn’t come. I could ha’ sent you some if I had known, though. Phew! it’s too hot to go on playing bumblepuppy.” This with a savage scowl at Lowndes, who only laughed. He was a hardened offender.
Mottram rose from the table and looked out of a chink in the shutters.
“What a sweet day!” said he.
The company yawned all together and betook themselves to an aimless investigation of all Hummil’s possessions,—guns, tattered novels, saddlery, spurs, and the like. They had fingered them a score of times before, but there was really nothing else to do.
“Got anything fresh?” said Lowndes.
“Last week’s ‘Gazette of India’, and a cutting from a home paper. My father sent it out. It’s rather amusing.”
“One of those vestrymen that call ’emselves M.P.’s again, is it?” said Spurstow, who read his newspapers when he could get them.
“Yes. Listen to this. It’s to your address, Lowndes. The man was making a speech to his constituents, and he piled it on. Here’s a sample: ‘And I assert unhesitatingly that the Civil Service in India is the preserve—the pet preserve—of the aristocracy of England. What does the democracy—what do the masses—get from that country, which we have step by step fraudulently annexed? I answer, nothing whatever. It is farmed with a single eye to their own interests by the scions of the aristocracy. They take good care to maintain their lavish scale of incomes, to avoid or stifle any inquiries into the nature and conduct of their administration, while they themselves force the unhappy peasant to pay with the sweat of his brow for all the luxuries in which they are lapped.’” Hummil waved the cutting above his head. “’Ear! ’ear!” said his audience.
Then Lowndes, meditatively: “I’d give—I’d give three months’ pay to have that gentleman spend one month with me and see how the free and independent native prince works things. Old Timbersides”—this was his flippant title for an honoured and decorated feudatory prince—“has been wearing my life out this week past for money. By Jove, his latest performance was to send me one of his women as a bribe!”
“Good for you! Did you accept it?” said Mottram.
“No. I rather wish I had, now. She was a pretty little person, and she yarned away to me about the horrible destitution among the king’s women-folk. The darlings haven’t had any new clothes for nearly a month, and the old man wants to buy a new drag from Calcutta,—solid silver railings and silver lamps, and trifles of that kind. I’ve tried to make him understand that he has played the deuce with the revenues for the last twenty years and must go slow. He can’t see it.”
“But he has the ancestral treasure-vaults to draw on. There must be three millions at least in jewels and coin under his palace,” said Hummil.
“Catch a native king disturbing the family treasure! The priests forbid it except as the last resort. Old Timbersides has added something like a quarter of a million to the deposit in his reign.”
“Where the mischief does it all come from?” said Mottram.
“The country. The state of the people is enough to make you sick. I’ve known the tax-men wait by a milch-camel till the foal was born and then hurry off the mother for arrears. And what can I do? I can’t get the court clerks to give me any accounts; I can’t raise anything more than a fat smile from the commander-in-chief when I find out the troops are three months in arrears; and old Timbersides begins to weep when I speak to him. He has taken to the King’s Peg heavily,—liqueur brandy for whisky, and Heidsieck for soda-water.”
“That’s what the Rao of Jubela took to. Even a native can’t last long at that,” said Spurstow. “He’ll go out.”
“And a good thing, too. Then I suppose we’ll have a council of regency, and a tutor for the young prince, and hand him back his kingdom with ten years’ accumulations.”
“Whereupon that young prince, having been taught all the vices of the English, will play ducks and drakes with the money and undo ten years’ work in eighteen months. I’ve seen that business before,” said Spurstow. “I should tackle the king with a light hand, if I were you, Lowndes. They’ll hate you quite enough under any circumstances.”
“That’s all very well. The man who looks on can talk about the light hand; but you can’t clean a pig-stye with a pen dipped in rose-water. I know my risks; but nothing has happened yet. My servant’s an old Pathan, and he cooks for me. They are hardly likely to bribe him, and I don’t accept food from my true friends, as they call themselves. Oh, but it’s weary work! I’d sooner be with you, Spurstow. There’s shooting near your camp.”
“Would you? I don’t think it. About fifteen deaths a day don’t incite a man to shoot anything but himself. And the worst of it is that the poor devils look at you as though you ought to save them. Lord knows, I’ve tried everything. My last attempt was empirical, but it pulled an old man through. He was brought to me apparently past hope, and I gave him gin and Worcester sauce with cayenne. It cured him; but I don’t recommend it.”
“How do the cases run generally?” said Hummil.
“Very simply indeed. Chlorodyne, opium pill, chlorodyne, collapse, nitre, bricks to the feet, and then—the burning-ghat. The last seems to be the only thing that stops the trouble. It’s black cholera, you know. Poor devils! But, I will say, little Bunsee Lal, my apothecary, works like a demon. I’ve recommended him for promotion if he comes through it all alive.”
“And what are your chances, old man?” said Mottram.
“Don’t know; don’t care much; but I’ve sent the letter in. What are you doing with yourself generally?”
“Sitting under a table in the tent and spitting on the sextant to keep it cool,” said the man of the survey. “Washing my eyes to avoid ophthalmia, which I shall certainly get, and trying to make a sub-surveyor understand that an error of five degrees in an angle isn’t quite so small as it looks. I’m altogether alone, y’know, and shall be till the end of the hot weather.”
“Hummil’s the lucky man,” said Lowndes, flinging himself into a long chair. “He has an actual roof—torn as to the ceiling-cloth, but still a roof—over his head. He sees one train daily. He can get beer and soda-water and ice ’em when God is good. He has books, pictures,”—-they were torn from the “Graphic”,—“and the society of the excellent sub-contractor Jevins, besides the pleasure of receiving us weekly.”
Hummil smiled grimly. “Yes, I’m the lucky man, I suppose. Jevins is luckier.”
“Yes. Went out. Last Monday.”
“By his own hand?” said Spurstow quickly, hinting the suspicion that was in everybody’s mind. There was no cholera near Hummil’s section. Even fever gives a man at least a week’s grace, and sudden death generally implied self-slaughter.
“I judge no man this weather,” said Hummil. “He had a touch of the sun, I fancy; for last week, after you fellows had left, he came into the verandah and told me that he was going home to see his wife, in Market Street, Liverpool, that evening.
“I got the apothecary in to look at him, and we tried to make him lie down. After an hour or two he rubbed his eyes and said he believed he had had a fit,—hoped he hadn’t said anything rude. Jevins had a great idea of bettering himself socially. He was very like Chucks in his language.”
“Then he went to his own bungalow and began cleaning a rifle. He told the servant that he was going to shoot buck in the morning. Naturally he fumbled with the trigger, and shot himself through the head—accidentally. The apothecary sent in a report to my chief, and Jevins is buried somewhere out there. I’d have wired to you, Spurstow, if you could have done anything.”
“You’re a queer chap,” said Mottram. “If you’d killed the man yourself you couldn’t have been more quiet about the business.”
“Good Lord! what does it matter?” said Hummil calmly. “I’ve got to do a lot of his overseeing work in addition to my own. I’m the only person that suffers. Jevins is out of it,—by pure accident, of course, but out of it. The apothecary was going to write a long screed on suicide. Trust a babu to drivel when he gets the chance.”
“Why didn’t you let it go in as suicide?” said Lowndes.
“No direct proof. A man hasn’t many privileges in this country, but he might at least be allowed to mishandle his own rifle. Besides, some day I may need a man to smother up an accident to myself. Live and let live. Die and let die.”
“You take a pill,” said Spurstow, who had been watching Hummil’s white face narrowly. “Take a pill, and don’t be an ass. That sort of talk is skittles. Anyhow, suicide is shirking your work. If I were Job ten times over, I should be so interested in what was going to happen next that I’d stay on and watch.”
“Ah! I’ve lost that curiosity,” said Hummil.
“Liver out of order?” said Lowndes feelingly.
“No. Can’t sleep. That’s worse.”
“By Jove, it is!” said Mottram. “I’m that way every now and then, and the fit has to wear itself out. What do you take for it?”
“Nothing. What’s the use? I haven’t had ten minutes’ sleep since Friday morning.”
“Poor chap! Spurstow, you ought to attend to this,” said Mottram. “Now you mention it, your eyes are rather gummy and swollen.”
Spurstow, still watching Hummil, laughed lightly. “I’ll patch him up, later on. Is it too hot, do you think, to go for a ride?”
“Where to?” said Lowndes wearily. “We shall have to go away at eight, and there’ll be riding enough for us then. I hate a horse, when I have to use him as a necessity. Oh, heavens! what is there to do?”
“Begin whist again, at chick points [“a chick” is supposed to be eight shillings] and a gold mohur on the rub,” said Spurstow promptly.
“Poker. A month’s pay all round for the pool,—no limit,—and fifty-rupee raises. Somebody would be broken before we got up,” said Lowndes.
“Can’t say that it would give me any pleasure to break any man in this company,” said Mottram. “There isn’t enough excitement in it, and it’s foolish.” He crossed over to the worn and battered little camp-piano,—wreckage of a married household that had once held the bungalow,—and opened the case.
“It’s used up long ago,” said Hummil. “The servants have picked it to pieces.”
The piano was indeed hopelessly out of order, but Mottram managed to bring the rebellious notes into a sort of agreement, and there rose from the ragged keyboard something that might once have been the ghost of a popular music-hall song. The men in the long chairs turned with evident interest as Mottram banged the more lustily.
“That’s good!” said Lowndes. “By Jove! the last time I heard that song was in ’79, or thereabouts, just before I came out.”
“Ah!” said Spurstow with pride, “I was home in ’80.” And he mentioned a song of the streets popular at that date.
Mottram executed it roughly. Lowndes criticised and volunteered emendations. Mottram dashed into another ditty, not of the music-hall character, and made as if to rise.
“Sit down,” said Hummil. “I didn’t know that you had any music in your composition. Go on playing until you can’t think of anything more. I’ll have that piano tuned up before you come again. Play something festive.”
Very simple indeed were the tunes to which Mottram’s art and the limitations of the piano could give effect, but the men listened with pleasure, and in the pauses talked all together of what they had seen or heard when they were last at home. A dense dust-storm sprung up outside, and swept roaring over the house, enveloping it in the choking darkness of midnight, but Mottram continued unheeding, and the crazy tinkle reached the ears of the listeners above the flapping of the tattered ceiling-cloth.
In the silence after the storm he glided from the more directly personal songs of Scotland, half humming them as he played, into the Evening Hymn.
“Sunday,” said he, nodding his head.
“Go on. Don’t apologise for it,” said Spurstow.
Hummil laughed long and riotously. “Play it, by all means. You’re full of surprises to-day. I didn’t know you had such a gift of finished sarcasm. How does that thing go?”
Mottram took up the tune.
“Too slow by half. You miss the note of gratitude,” said Hummil. “It ought to go to the ‘Grasshopper’s Polka’,—this way.” And he chanted, prestissimo,—
“Glory to thee, my God, this night.
For all the blessings of the light.
That shows we really feel our blessings. How does it go on?—
“If in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with sacred thoughts supply;
May no ill dreams disturb my rest,—
“Or powers of darkness me molest!”
“Bah! what an old hypocrite you are!”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Lowndes. “You are at full liberty to make fun of anything else you like, but leave that hymn alone. It’s associated in my mind with the most sacred recollections——”
“Summer evenings in the country,—stained-glass window,—light going out, and you and she jamming your heads together over one hymn-book,” said Mottram.
“Yes, and a fat old cockchafer hitting you in the eye when you walked home. Smell of hay, and a moon as big as a bandbox sitting on the top of a haycock; bats,—roses,—milk and midges,” said Lowndes.
“Also mothers. I can just recollect my mother singing me to sleep with that when I was a little chap,” said Spurstow.
The darkness had fallen on the room. They could hear Hummil squirming in his chair.
“Consequently,” said he testily, “you sing it when you are seven fathom deep in Hell! It’s an insult to the intelligence of the Deity to pretend we’re anything but tortured rebels.”
“Take two pills,” said Spurstow; “that’s tortured liver.”
“The usually placid Hummil is in a vile bad temper. I’m sorry for his coolies to-morrow,” said Lowndes, as the servants brought in the lights and prepared the table for dinner.
As they were settling into their places about the miserable goat-chops, and the smoked tapioca pudding, Spurstow took occasion to whisper to Mottram, “Well done, David!”
“Look after Saul, then,” was the reply.
“What are you two whispering about?” said Hummil suspiciously.
“Only saying that you are a damned poor host. This fowl can’t be cut,” returned Spurstow with a sweet smile. “Call this a dinner?”
“I can’t help it. You don’t expect a banquet, do you?”
Throughout that meal Hummil contrived laboriously to insult directly and pointedly all his guests in succession, and at each insult Spurstow kicked the aggrieved persons under the table; but he dared not exchange a glance of intelligence with either of them. Hummil’s face was white and pinched, while his eyes were unnaturally large. No man dreamed for a moment of resenting his savage personalities, but as soon as the meal was over they made haste to get away. “Don’t go. You’re just getting amusing, you fellows. I hope I haven’t said anything that annoyed you. You’re such touchy devils.” Then, changing the note into one of almost abject entreaty, Hummil added, “I say, you surely aren’t going?”
“In the language of the blessed Jorrocks, where I dines I sleeps,” said Spurstow. “I want to have a look at your coolies to-morrow, if you don’t mind. You can give me a place to lie down in, I suppose?”
The others pleaded the urgency of their several duties next day, and, saddling up, departed together, Hummil begging them to come next Sunday. As they jogged off, Lowndes unbosomed himself to Mottram—
“. . . And I never felt so like kicking a man at his own table in my life. He said I cheated at whist, and reminded me I was in debt! ’Told you you were as good as a liar to your face! You aren’t half indignant enough over it.”
“Not I,” said Mottram. “Poor devil! Did you ever know old Hummy behave like that before or within a hundred miles of it?”
“That’s no excuse. Spurstow was hacking my shin all the time, so I kept a hand on myself. Else I should have——”
“No, you wouldn’t. You’d have done as Hummy did about Jevins; judge no man this weather. By Jove! the buckle of my bridle is hot in my hand! Trot out a bit, and ’ware rat-holes.”
Ten minutes’ trotting jerked out of Lowndes one very sage remark when he pulled up, sweating from every pore—
“’Good thing Spurstow’s with him to-night.”
“Ye-es. Good man, Spurstow. Our roads turn here. See you again next Sunday, if the sun doesn’t bowl me over.”
“S’pose so, unless old Timbersides’ finance minister manages to dress some of my food. Good-night, and—God bless you!”
“What’s wrong now?”
“Oh, nothing.” Lowndes gathered up his whip, and, as he flicked Mottram’s mare on the flank, added, “You’re not a bad little chap,—that’s all.” And the mare bolted half a mile across the sand, on the word.
In the assistant engineer’s bungalow Spurstow and Hummil smoked the pipe of silence together, each narrowly watching the other. The capacity of a bachelor’s establishment is as elastic as its arrangements are simple. A servant cleared away the dining-room table, brought in a couple of rude native bedsteads made of tape strung on a light wood frame, flung a square of cool Calcutta matting over each, set them side by side, pinned two towels to the punkah so that their fringes should just sweep clear of the sleepers’ nose and mouth, and announced that the couches were ready.
The men flung themselves down, ordering the punkah-coolies by all the powers of Hell to pull. Every door and window was shut, for the outside air was that of an oven. The atmosphere within was only 104 degrees, as the thermometer bore witness, and heavy with the foul smell of badly-trimmed kerosene lamps; and this stench, combined with that of native tobacco, baked brick, and dried earth, sends the heart of many a strong man down to his boots, for it is the smell of the Great Indian Empire when she turns herself for six months into a house of torment. Spurstow packed his pillows craftily so that he reclined rather than lay, his head at a safe elevation above his feet. It is not good to sleep on a low pillow in the hot weather if you happen to be of thick-necked build, for you may pass with lively snores and gugglings from natural sleep into the deep slumber of heat-apoplexy.
“Pack your pillows,” said the doctor sharply, as he saw Hummil preparing to lie down at full length.
The night-light was trimmed; the shadow of the punkah wavered across the room, and the “flick” of the punkah-towel and the soft whine of the rope through the wall-hole followed it. Then the punkah flagged, almost ceased. The sweat poured from Spurstow’s brow. Should he go out and harangue the coolie? It started forward again with a savage jerk, and a pin came out of the towels. When this was replaced, a tomtom in the coolie-lines began to beat with the steady throb of a swollen artery inside some brain-fevered skull. Spurstow turned on his side and swore gently. There was no movement on Hummil’s part. The man had composed himself as rigidly as a corpse, his hands clinched at his sides. The respiration was too hurried for any suspicion of sleep. Spurstow looked at the set face. The jaws were clinched, and there was a pucker round the quivering eyelids.
“He’s holding himself as tightly as ever he can,” thought Spurstow. “What in the world is the matter with him?—Hummil!”
“Yes,” in a thick constrained voice.
“Can’t you get to sleep?”
“Head hot? ’Throat feeling bulgy? or how?”
“Neither, thanks. I don’t sleep much, you know.”
“Feel pretty bad?”
“Pretty bad, thanks. There is a tomtom outside, isn’t there? I thought it was my head at first. . . . Oh, Spurstow, for pity’s sake give me something that will put me asleep,—sound asleep,—if it’s only for six hours!” He sprang up, trembling from head to foot. “I haven’t been able to sleep naturally for days, and I can’t stand it!—I can’t stand it!”
“Poor old chap!”
“That’s no use. Give me something to make me sleep. I tell you I’m nearly mad. I don’t know what I say half my time. For three weeks I’ve had to think and spell out every word that has come through my lips before I dared say it. Isn’t that enough to drive a man mad? I can’t see things correctly now, and I’ve lost my sense of touch. My skin aches—my skin aches! Make me sleep. Oh, Spurstow, for the love of God make me sleep sound. It isn’t enough merely to let me dream. Let me sleep!”
“All right, old man, all right. Go slow; you aren’t half as bad as you think.”
The flood-gates of reserve once broken, Hummil was clinging to him like a frightened child. “You’re pinching my arm to pieces.”
“I’ll break your neck if you don’t do something for me. No, I didn’t mean that. Don’t be angry, old fellow.” He wiped the sweat off himself as he fought to regain composure. “I’m a bit restless and off my oats, and perhaps you could recommend some sort of sleeping mixture,—bromide of potassium.”
“Bromide of skittles! Why didn’t you tell me this before? Let go of my arm, and I’ll see if there’s anything in my cigarette-case to suit your complaint.” Spurstow hunted among his day-clothes, turned up the lamp, opened a little silver cigarette-case, and advanced on the expectant Hummil with the daintiest of fairy squirts.
“The last appeal of civilisation,” said he, “and a thing I hate to use. Hold out your arm. Well, your sleeplessness hasn’t ruined your muscle; and what a thick hide it is! Might as well inject a buffalo subcutaneously. Now in a few minutes the morphia will begin working. Lie down and wait.”
A smile of unalloyed and idiotic delight began to creep over Hummil’s face. “I think,” he whispered,—“I think I’m going off now. Gad! it’s positively heavenly! Spurstow, you must give me that case to keep; you—” The voice ceased as the head fell back.
“Not for a good deal,” said Spurstow to the unconscious form. “And now, my friend, sleeplessness of your kind being very apt to relax the moral fibre in little matters of life and death, I’ll just take the liberty of spiking your guns.”
He paddled into Hummil’s saddle-room in his bare feet and uncased a twelve-bore rifle, an express, and a revolver. Of the first he unscrewed the nipples and hid them in the bottom of a saddlery-case; of the second he abstracted the lever, kicking it behind a big wardrobe. The third he merely opened, and knocked the doll-head bolt of the grip up with the heel of a riding-boot.
“That’s settled,” he said, as he shook the sweat off his hands. “These little precautions will at least give you time to turn. You have too much sympathy with gun-room accidents.”
And as he rose from his knees, the thick muffled voice of Hummil cried in the doorway, “You fool!”
Such tones they use who speak in the lucid intervals of delirium to their friends a little before they die.
Spurstow started, dropping the pistol. Hummil stood in the doorway, rocking with helpless laughter.
“That was awf’ly good of you, I’m sure,” he said, very slowly, feeling for his words. “I don’t intend to go out by my own hand at present. I say, Spurstow, that stuff won’t work. What shall I do? What shall I do?” And panic terror stood in his eyes.
“Lie down and give it a chance. Lie down at once.”
“I daren’t. It will only take me half-way again, and I shan’t be able to get away this time. Do you know it was all I could do to come out just now? Generally I am as quick as lightning; but you had clogged my feet. I was nearly caught.”
“Oh yes, I understand. Go and lie down.”
“No, it isn’t delirium; but it was an awfully mean trick to play on me. Do you know I might have died?”
As a sponge rubs a slate clean, so some power unknown to Spurstow had wiped out of Hummil’s face all that stamped it for the face of a man, and he stood at the doorway in the expression of his lost innocence. He had slept back into terrified childhood.
“Is he going to die on the spot?” thought Spurstow. Then, aloud, “All right, my son. Come back to bed, and tell me all about it. You couldn’t sleep; but what was all the rest of the nonsense?”
“A place,—a place down there,” said Hummil, with simple sincerity. The drug was acting on him by waves, and he was flung from the fear of a strong man to the fright of a child as his nerves gathered sense or were dulled.
“Good God! I’ve been afraid of it for months past, Spurstow. It has made every night hell to me; and yet I’m not conscious of having done anything wrong.”
“Be still, and I’ll give you another dose. We’ll stop your nightmares, you unutterable idiot!”
“Yes, but you must give me so much that I can’t get away. You must make me quite sleepy,—not just a little sleepy. It’s so hard to run then.”
“I know it; I know it. I’ve felt it myself. The symptoms are exactly as you describe.”
“Oh, don’t laugh at me, confound you! Before this awful sleeplessness came to me I’ve tried to rest on my elbow and put a spur in the bed to sting me when I fell back. Look!”
“By Jove! the man has been rowelled like a horse! Ridden by the nightmare with a vengeance! And we all thought him sensible enough. Heaven send us understanding! You like to talk, don’t you?”
“Yes, sometimes. Not when I’m frightened. Then I want to run. Don’t you?”
“Always. Before I give you your second dose try to tell me exactly what your trouble is.”
Hummil spoke in broken whispers for nearly ten minutes, whilst Spurstow looked into the pupils of his eyes and passed his hand before them once or twice.
At the end of the narrative the silver cigarette-case was produced, and the last words that Hummil said as he fell back for the second time were, “Put me quite to sleep; for if I’m caught I die,—I die!”
“Yes, yes; we all do that sooner or later,—thank Heaven who has set a term to our miseries,” said Spurstow, settling the cushions under the head. “It occurs to me that unless I drink something I shall go out before my time. I’ve stopped sweating, and—I wear a seventeen-inch collar.” He brewed himself scalding hot tea, which is an excellent remedy against heat-apoplexy if you take three or four cups of it in time. Then he watched the sleeper.
“A blind face that cries and can’t wipe its eyes, a blind face that chases him down corridors! H’m! Decidedly, Hummil ought to go on leave as soon as possible; and, sane or otherwise, he undoubtedly did rowel himself most cruelly. Well, Heaven send us understanding!”
At mid-day Hummil rose, with an evil taste in his mouth, but an unclouded eye and a joyful heart.
“I was pretty bad last night, wasn’t I?” said he.
“I have seen healthier men. You must have had a touch of the sun. Look here: if I write you a swingeing medical certificate, will you apply for leave on the spot?”
“Why not? You want it.”
“Yes, but I can hold on till the weather’s a little cooler.”
“Why should you, if you can get relieved on the spot?”
“Burkett is the only man who could be sent; and he’s a born fool.”
“Oh, never mind about the line. You aren’t so important as all that. Wire for leave, if necessary.”
Hummil looked very uncomfortable.
“I can hold on till the Rains,” he said evasively.
“You can’t. Wire to headquarters for Burkett.”
“I won’t. If you want to know why, particularly, Burkett is married, and his wife’s just had a kid, and she’s up at Simla, in the cool, and Burkett has a very nice billet that takes him into Simla from Saturday to Monday. That little woman isn’t at all well. If Burkett was transferred she’d try to follow him. If she left the baby behind she’d fret herself to death. If she came,—and Burkett’s one of those selfish little beasts who are always talking about a wife’s place being with her husband,—she’d die. It’s murder to bring a woman here just now. Burkett hasn’t the physique of a rat. If he came here he’d go out; and I know she hasn’t any money, and I’m pretty sure she’d go out too. I’m salted in a sort of way, and I’m not married. Wait till the Rains, and then Burkett can get thin down here. It’ll do him heaps of good.”
“Do you mean to say that you intend to face—what you have faced, till the Rains break?”
“Oh, it won’t be so bad, now you’ve shown me a way out of it. I can always wire to you. Besides, now I’ve once got into the way of sleeping, it’ll be all right. Anyhow, I shan’t put in for leave. That’s the long and the short of it.”
“My great Scott! I thought all that sort of thing was dead and done with.”
“Bosh! You’d do the same yourself. I feel a new man, thanks to that cigarette-case. You’re going over to camp now, aren’t you?”
“Yes; but I’ll try to look you up every other day, if I can.”
“I’m not bad enough for that. I don’t want you to bother. Give the coolies gin and ketchup.”
“Then you feel all right?”
“Fit to fight for my life, but not to stand out in the sun talking to you. Go along, old man, and bless you!’
Hummil turned on his heel to face the echoing desolation of his bungalow, and the first thing he saw standing in the verandah was the figure of himself. He had met a similar apparition once before, when he was suffering from overwork and the strain of the hot weather.
“This is bad,—already,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “If the thing slides away from me all in one piece, like a ghost, I shall know it is only my eyes and stomach that are out of order. If it walks—my head is going.”
He approached the figure, which naturally kept at an unvarying distance from him, as is the use of all spectres that are born of overwork. It slid through the house and dissolved into swimming specks within the eyeball as soon as it reached the burning light of the garden. Hummil went about his business till even. When he came in to dinner he found himself sitting at the table. The vision rose and walked out hastily. Except that it cast no shadow it was in all respects real.
No living man knows what that week held for Hummil. An increase of the epidemic kept Spurstow in camp among the coolies, and all he could do was to telegraph to Mottram, bidding him go to the bungalow and sleep there. But Mottram was forty miles away from the nearest telegraph, and knew nothing of anything save the needs of the survey till he met, early on Sunday morning, Lowndes and Spurstow heading towards Hummil’s for the weekly gathering.
“Hope the poor chap’s in a better temper,” said the former, swinging himself off his horse at the door. “I suppose he isn’t up yet.”
“I’ll just have a look at him,” said the doctor. “If he’s asleep there’s no need to wake him.”
And an instant later, by the tone of Spurstow’s voice calling upon them to enter, the men knew what had happened. There was no need to wake him.
The punkah was still being pulled over the bed, but Hummil had departed this life at least three hours.
The body lay on its back, hands clinched by the side, as Spurstow had seen it lying seven nights previously. In the staring eyes was written terror beyond the expression of any pen.
Mottram, who had entered behind Lowndes, bent over the dead and touched the forehead lightly with his lips. “Oh, you lucky, lucky devil!” he whispered.
But Lowndes had seen the eyes, and withdrew shuddering to the other side of the room.
“Poor chap! poor old chap! And the last time I met him I was angry. Spurstow, we should have watched him. Has he—?”
Deftly Spurstow continued his investigations, ending by a search round the room.
“No, he hasn’t,” he snapped. “There’s no trace of anything. Call the servants.”
They came, eight or ten of them, whispering and peering over each other’s shoulders.
“When did your Sahib go to bed?” said Spurstow.
“At eleven or ten, we think,” said Hummil’s personal servant.
“He was well then? But how should you know?”
“He was not ill, as far as our comprehension extended. But he had slept very little for three nights. This I know, because I saw him walking much, and specially in the heart of the night.”
As Spurstow was arranging the sheet, a big straight-necked hunting-spur tumbled on the ground. The doctor groaned. The personal servant peeped at the body.
“What do you think, Chuma?” said Spurstow, catching the look on the dark face.
“Heaven-born, in my poor opinion, this that was my master has descended into the Dark Places, and there has been caught because he was not able to escape with sufficient speed. We have the spur for evidence that he fought with Fear. Thus have I seen men of my race do with thorns when a spell was laid upon them to overtake them in their sleeping hours and they dared not sleep.”
“Chuma, you’re a mud-head. Go out and prepare seals to be set on the Sahib’s property.”
“God has made the Heaven-born. God has made me. Who are we, to inquire into the dispensations of God? I will bid the other servants hold aloof while you are reckoning the tale of the Sahib’s property. They are all thieves, and would steal.”
“As far as I can make out, he died from—oh, anything; stoppage of the heart’s action, heat-apoplexy, or some other visitation,” said Spurstow to his companions. “We must make an inventory of his effects, and so on.”
“He was scared to death,” insisted Lowndes. “Look at those eyes! For pity’s sake don’t let him be buried with them open!”
“Whatever it was, he’s clear of all the trouble now,” said Mottram softly.
Spurstow was peering into the open eyes.
“Come here,” said he. “Can you see anything there?”
“I can’t face it!” whimpered Lowndes. “Cover up the face! Is there any fear on earth that can turn a man into that likeness? It’s ghastly. Oh, Spurstow, cover it up!”
“No fear—on earth,” said Spurstow. Mottram leaned over his shoulder and looked intently.
“I see nothing except some gray blurs in the pupil. There can be nothing there, you know.”
“Even so. Well, let’s think. It’ll take half a day to knock up any sort of coffin; and he must have died at midnight. Lowndes, old man, go out and tell the coolies to break ground next to Jevins’s grave. Mottram, go round the house with Chuma and see that the seals are put on things. Send a couple of men to me here, and I’ll arrange.”
The strong-armed servants when they returned to their own kind told a strange story of the doctor Sahib vainly trying to call their master back to life by magic arts,—to wit, the holding of a little green box that clicked to each of the dead man’s eyes, and of a bewildered muttering on the part of the doctor Sahib, who took the little green box away with him.
The resonant hammering of a coffin-lid is no pleasant thing to hear, but those who have experience maintain that much more terrible is the soft swish of the bed-linen, the reeving and unreeving of the bed-tapes, when he who has fallen by the roadside is apparelled for burial, sinking gradually as the tapes are tied over, till the swaddled shape touches the floor and there is no protest against the indignity of hasty disposal.
At the last moment Lowndes was seized with scruples of conscience. “Ought you to read the service,—from beginning to end?” said he to Spurstow.
“I intend to. You’re my senior as a civilian. You can take it if you like.”
“I didn’t mean that for a moment. I only thought if we could get a chaplain from somewhere,—I’m willing to ride anywhere,—and give poor Hummil a better chance. That’s all.”
“Bosh!” said Spurstow, as he framed his lips to the tremendous words that stand at the head of the burial service.
After breakfast they smoked a pipe in silence to the memory of the dead. Then Spurstow said absently—
“’Tisn’t in medical science.”
“Things in a dead man’s eye.”
“For goodness’ sake leave that horror alone!” said Lowndes. “I’ve seen a native die of pure fright when a tiger chivied him. I know what killed Hummil.”
“The deuce you do! I’m going to try to see.” And the doctor retreated into the bath-room with a Kodak camera. After a few minutes there was the sound of something being hammered to pieces, and he emerged, very white indeed.
“Have you got a picture?” said Mottram. “What does the thing look like?”
“It was impossible, of course. You needn’t look, Mottram. I’ve torn up the films. There was nothing there. It was impossible.”
“That,” said Lowndes, very distinctly, watching the shaking hand striving to relight the pipe, “is a damned lie.”
Mottram laughed uneasily. “Spurstow’s right,” he said. “We’re all in such a state now that we’d believe anything. For pity’s sake let’s try to be rational.”
There was no further speech for a long time. The hot wind whistled without, and the dry trees sobbed. Presently the daily train, winking brass, burnished steel, and spouting steam, pulled up panting in the intense glare. “We’d better go on on that,” said Spurstow. “Go back to work. I’ve written my certificate. We can’t do any more good here, and work’ll keep our wits together. Come on.”
No one moved. It is not pleasant to face railway journeys at mid-day in June. Spurstow gathered up his hat and whip, and, turning in the doorway, said—
“There may be Heaven,—there must be Hell.
Meantime, there is our life here. We-ell?”
Neither Mottram nor Lowndes had any answer to the question.
Though thou love her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dim the day,
Stealing grace from all alive,
When half Gods go
The Gods arrive.
Thousands of years ago, when men were greater than they are to-day, the Children of the Zodiac lived in the world. There were six Children of the Zodiac—the Ram, the Bull, Leo, the Twins, and the Girl; and they were afraid of the Six Houses which belonged to the Scorpion, the Balance, the Crab, the Fishes, the Archer, and the Waterman. Even when they first stepped down upon the earth and knew that they were immortal Gods, they carried this fear with them; and the fear grew as they became better acquainted with mankind and heard stories of the Six Houses. Men treated the Children as Gods and came to them with prayers and long stories of wrong, while the Children of the Zodiac listened and could not understand.
A mother would fling herself before the feet of the Twins, or the Bull, crying: “My husband was at work in the fields and the Archer shot him and he died; and my son will also be killed by the Archer. Help me!” The Bull would lower his huge head and answer: “What is that to me?” Or the Twins would smile and continue their play, for they could not understand why the water ran out of people’s eyes. At other times a man and a woman would come to Leo or the Girl crying: “We two are newly married and we are very happy. Take these flowers.” As they threw the flowers they would make mysterious sounds to show that they were happy, and Leo and the Girl wondered even more than the Twins why people shouted “Ha! ha! ha!” for no cause.
This continued for thousands of years by human reckoning, till on a day, Leo met the Girl walking across the hills and saw that she had changed entirely since he had last seen her. The Girl, looking at Leo, saw that he too had changed altogether. Then they decided that it would be well never to separate again, in case even more startling changes should occur when the one was not at hand to help the other. Leo kissed the Girl and all Earth felt that kiss, and the Girl sat down on a hill and the water ran out of her eyes; and this had never happened before in the memory of the Children of the Zodiac.
As they sat together a man and a woman came by, and the man said to the woman:
“What is the use of wasting flowers on those dull Gods? They will never understand, darling.”
The Girl jumped up and put her arms round the woman, crying, “I understand. Give me the flowers and I will give you a kiss.”
Leo said beneath his breath to the man “What was the new name that I heard you give to your woman just now?”
The man answered, “Darling, of course.”
“Why ‘of course’?” said Leo; “and if of course, what does it mean?”
“It means ‘very dear,’ and you have only to look at your wife to see why.”
“I see,” said Leo; “you are quite right”; and when the man and the woman had gone on he called the Girl “darling wife”; and the Girl wept again from sheer happiness.
“I think,” she said at last, wiping her eyes, “I think that we two have neglected men and women too much. What did you do with the sacrifices they made to you, Leo?”
“I let them burn,” said Leo; “I could not eat them. What did you do with the flowers?”
“I let them wither. I could not wear them, I had so many of my own,” said the Girl, “and now I am sorry.”
“There is nothing to grieve for,” said Leo; “we belong to each other.”
As they were talking the years of men’s life slipped by unnoticed, and presently the man and the woman came back, both white-headed, the man carrying the woman.
“We have come to the end of things,” said the man quietly. “This that was my wife—’
“As I am Leo’s wife,” said the Girl quickly, her eyes staring.
“—was my wife, has been killed by one of your Houses.” The man set down his burden, and laughed.
“Which House?” said Leo angrily, for he hated all the Houses equally.
“You are Gods, you should know,” said the man. “We have lived together and loved one another, and I have left a good farm for my son. What have I to complain of except that I still live?”
As he was bending over his wife’s body there came a whistling through the air, and he started and tried to run away, crying, “It is the arrow of the Archer. Let me live a little longer—only a little longer!” The arrow struck him and he died. Leo looked at the Girl and she looked at him, and both were puzzled.
“He wished to die,” said Leo. “He said that he wished to die, and when Death came he tried to run away. He is a coward.”
“No, he is not,” said the Girl; “I think I feel what he felt. Leo, we must learn more about this for their sakes.”
“For their sakes,” said Leo, very loudly.
“Because we are never going to die,” said the Girl and Leo together, still more loudly.
“Now sit you still here, darling wife,” said Leo, “while I go to the Houses whom we hate, and learn how to make these men and women live as we do.”
“And love as we do,” said the Girl.
“I do not think they need to be taught that,” said Leo, and he strode away very angry, with his lion-skin swinging from his shoulder, till he came to the House where the Scorpion lives in the darkness, brandishing his tail over his back.
“Why do you trouble the children of men?” said Leo, with his heart between his teeth.
“Are you so sure that I trouble the children of men alone?” said the Scorpion. “Speak to your brother the Bull, and see what he says.”
“I come on behalf of the children of men,” said Leo. “I have learned to love as they do, and I wish them to live as I—as we do.”
“Your wish was granted long ago. Speak to the Bull. He is under my special care,” said the Scorpion.
Leo dropped back to the earth again, and saw the great star Aldebaran, that is set in the forehead of the Bull, blazing very near to the earth. When he came up to it he saw that his brother the Bull, yoked to a countryman’s plough, was toiling through a wet rice-field with his head bent down, and the sweat streaming from his flanks. The countryman was urging him forward with a goad.
“Gore that insolent to death,” cried Leo, “and for the sake of our honour come out of the mire.”
“I cannot,” said the Bull, “the Scorpion has told me that some day, of which I cannot be sure, he will sting me where my neck is set on my shoulders, and that I shall die bellowing.”
“What has that to do with this disgraceful work?” said Leo, standing on the dyke that bounded the wet field.
“Everything. This man could not plough without my help. He thinks that I am a stray beast.”
“But he is a mud-crusted cottar with matted hair,” insisted Leo. “We are not meant for his use.”
“You may not be; I am. I cannot tell when the Scorpion may choose to sting me to death—perhaps before I have turned this furrow.” The Bull flung his bulk into the yoke, and the plough tore through the wet ground behind him, and the countryman goaded him till his flanks were red.
“Do you like this?” Leo called down the dripping furrows.
“No,” said the Bull over his shoulder as he lifted his hind legs from the clinging mud and cleared his nostrils.
Leo left him scornfully and passed to another country, where he found his brother the Ram in the centre of a crowd of country people who were hanging wreaths round his neck and feeding him on freshly-plucked green corn.
“This is terrible,” said Leo. “Break up that crowd and come away, my brother. Their hands are spoiling your fleece.”
“I cannot,” said the Ram. “The Archer told me that on some day of which I had no knowledge, he would send a dart through me, and that I should die in very great pain.”
“What has that to do with this disgraceful show?” said Leo, but he did not speak as confidlently as before.
“Everything in the world,” said the Ram. “These people never saw a perfect sheep before. They think that I am a stray, and they will carry me from place to place as a model to all their flocks.”
“But they are greasy shepherds; we are not intended to amuse them,” said Leo.
“You may not be, I am,” said the Ram. “I cannot tell when the Archer may choose to send his arrow at me—perhaps before the people a mile down the road have seen me.” The Ram lowered his head that a yokel newly arrived might throw a wreath of wild garlic-leaves over it, and waited patiently while the farmers tugged his fleece.
“Do you like this?” cried Leo over the shoulders of the crowd.
“No,” said the Ram, as the dust of the trampling feet made him sneeze, and he snuffed at the fodder piled before him.
Leo turned back intending to retrace his steps to the Houses, but as he was passing down a street he saw two small children, very dusty, rolling outside a cottage door, and playing with a cat. They were the Twins.
“What are you doing here?” said Leo, indignant.
“Playing,” said the Twins calmly.
“Cannot you play on the banks of the Milky Way?” said Leo.
“We did,” said they, “till the Fishes swam down and told us that some day they would come for us and not hurt us at all and carry us away. So now we are playing at being babies down here. The people like it.”
“Do you like it?” said Leo.
“No,” said the Twins, “but there are no cats in the Milky Way,” and they pulled the cat’s tail thoughtfully. A woman came out of the doorway and stood behind them, and Leo saw in her face a look that he had sometimes seen in the Girl’s.
“She thinks that we are foundlings,” said the Twins, and they trotted indoors to the evening meal.
Then Leo hurried as swiftly as possible to all the Houses one after another; for he could not understand the new trouble that had come to his brethren. He spoke to the Archer, and the Archer assured him that so far as that House was concerned Leo had nothing to fear. The Waterman, the Fishes, and the Scorpion gave the same answer. They knew nothing of Leo, and cared less. They were the Houses, and they were busied in killing men.
At last he came to that very dark House where Cancer the Crab lies so still that you might think he was asleep if you did not see the ceaseless play and winnowing motion of the feathery branches round his mouth. That movement never ceases. It is like the eating of a smothered fire into rotten timber in that it is noiseless and without haste.
Leo stood in front of the Crab, and the half darkness allowed him a glimpse of that vast blue-black back and the motionless eyes. Now and again he thought that he heard some one sobbing, but the noise was very faint.
“Why do you trouble the children of men?” said Leo. There was no answer, and against his will Leo cried, “Why do you trouble us? What have we done that you should trouble us?”
This time Cancer replied, “What do I know or care? You were born into my House, and at the appointed time I shall come for you.”
“When is the appointed time?” said Leo, stepping back from the restless movement of the mouth.
“When the full moon fails to call the full tide,” said the Crab, “I shall come for the one. When the other has taken the earth by the shoulders, I shall take that other by the throat.”
Leo lifted his hand to the apple of his throat, moistened his lips, and recovering himself, said:
“Must I be afraid for two, then?”
“For two,” said the Crab, “and as many more as may come after.”
“My brother, the Bull, had a better fate,” said Leo, sullenly; “he is alone.”
A hand covered his mouth before he could finish the sentence, and he found the Girl in his arms. Womanlike, she had not stayed where Leo had left her, but had hastened off at once to know the worst, and passing all the other Houses, had come straight to Cancer.
“That is foolish,” said the Girl, whispering. “I have been waiting in the dark for long and long before you came. Then I was afraid. But now——” She put her head down on his shoulder and sighed a sigh of contentment.
“I am afraid now,” said Leo.
“That is on my account,” said the Girl. “I know it is, because I am afraid for your sake. Let us go, husband.”
They went out of the darkness together and came back to, the Earth, Leo very silent, and the Girl striving to cheer him. “My brother’s fate is the better one,” Leo would repeat from time to time, and at last he said: “Let us each go our own way and live alone till we die. We were born into the House of Cancer, and he will come for us.”
“I know; I know. But where shall I go? And where will you sleep in the evening? But let us try. I will stay here. Do you go on?”
Leo took six, steps forward very slowly, and three long steps backward very quickly, and the third step set him again at the Girl’s side. This time it was she who was begging him to go away and leave her, and he was forced to comfort her all through the night. That night decided them both never to leave each other for an instant, and when they had come to this decision they looked back at the darkness of the House of Cancer high above their heads, and with their arms round each other’s necks laughed, “Ha! ha! ha!” exactly as the children of men laughed. And that was the first time in their lives that they had ever laughed.
Next morning they returned to their proper home, and saw the flowers and the sacrifices that had been laid before their doors by the villagers of the hills. Leo stamped down the fire with his heel, and the Girl flung the flower-wreaths out of sight, shuddering as she did so. When the villagers returned, as of custom, to see what had become of their offerings, they found neither roses nor burned flesh on the altars, but only a man and a woman, with frightened white faces, sitting hand in hand on the altar-steps.
“Are you not Virgo?” said a woman to the Girl. “I sent you flowers yesterday.”
“Little sister,” said the Girl, flushing to her forehead, “do not send any more flowers, for I am only a woman like yourself.” The man and the woman went away doubtfully.
“Now, what shall we do?” said Leo.
“We must try to be cheerful, I think,” said the Girl. “We know the very worst that can happen to us, but we do not know the best that love can bring us. We have a great deal to be glad of.”
“The certainty of death,” said Leo.
“All the children of men have that certainty also; yet they laughed long before we ever knew how to laugh. We must learn to laugh, Leo. We have laughed once already.”
People who consider themselves Gods, as the Children of the Zodiac did, find it hard to laugh, because the Immortals know nothing worth laughter or tears. Leo rose up with a very heavy heart, and he and the Girl together went to and fro among men; their new fear of death behind them. First they laughed at a naked baby attempting to thrust its fat toes into its foolish pink mouth; next they laughed at a kitten chasing her own tail; and then they laughed at a boy trying to steal a kiss from a girl, and getting his ears boxed. Lastly, they laughed because the wind blew in their faces as they ran down a hill-side together, and broke panting and breathless into a knot of villagers at the bottom. The villagers laughed too at their flying clothes and wind-reddened faces; and in the evening gave them food and invited them to a dance on the grass, where everybody laughed through the mere joy of being able to dance.
That night Leo jumped up from the Girl’s side crying: “Every one of those people we met just now will die——”
“So shall we,” said the Girl sleepily. “Lie down again, dear.” Leo could not see that her face was wet with tears.
But Leo was up and far across the fields, driven forward by the fear of death for himself and for the Girl, who was dearer to him than himself. Presently he came across the Bull drowsing in the moonlight after a hard day’s work, and looking through half-shut eyes at the beautiful straight furrows that he had made.
“Ho!” said the Bull, “so you have been told these things too. Which of the Houses holds your death?”
Leo pointed upwards to the dark House of the Crab and groaned: “And he will come for the Girl too,” he said.
“Well,” said the Bull, “what will you do?”
Leo sat down on the dyke and said that he did not know.
“You cannot pull a plough,” said the Bull, with a little touch of contempt. “I can, and that prevents me from thinking of the Scorpion.”
Leo was angry and said nothing till the dawn broke, and the cultivator came to yoke the Bull to his work.
“Sing,” said the Bull, as the stiff muddy ox-bow creaked and strained. “My shoulder is galled. Sing one of the songs that we sang when we thought we were all Gods together.”
Leo stepped back into the cane-brake and lifted up his voice in a song of the Children of the Zodiac—the war-whoop of the young Gods who are afraid of nothing. At first he dragged the song along unwillingly, and then the song dragged him, and his voice rolled across the fields, and the Bull stepped to the tune, and the cultivator banged his flanks out of sheer light-heartedness, and the furrows rolled away behind the plough more and more swiftly. Then the Girl came across the fields looking for Leo and found him singing in the cane. She joined her voice to his, and the cultivator’s wife brought her spinning into the open and listened with all her children round her. When it was time for the nooning, Leo and the Girl had sung themselves both thirsty and hungry, but the cultivator and his wife gave them rye-bread and milk, and many thanks, and the Bull found occasion to say: “You have helped me to do a full half-field more than I should have done. But the hardest part of the day is to come, brother.”
Leo wished to lie down and brood over the words of the Crab. The Girl went away to talk to the cultivator’s wife and baby, and the afternoon ploughing began.
“Help us now,” said the Bull. “The tides of the day are running down. My legs are very stiff. Sing if you never sang before.”
“To a mud-spattered villager?” said Leo.
“He is under the same doom as ourselves. Are you a coward?” said the Bull. Leo flushed and began again with a sore throat and a bad temper. Little by little he dropped away from the songs of the Children and made up a song as he went along; and this was a thing he could never have done had he not met the Crab face to face. He remembered facts concerning cultivators, and bullocks, and rice-fields, that he had not particularly noticed before the interview, and he strung them all together, growing more interested as he sang, and he told the cultivator much more about himself and his work than the cultivator knew. The Bull grunted approval as he toiled down the furrows for the last time that day, and the song ended, leaving the cultivator with a very good opinion of himself in his aching bones. The Girl came out of the hut where she had been keeping the children quiet, and talking woman-talk to the wife, and they all ate the evening meal together.
“Now yours must be a very pleasant life,” said the cultivator, “sitting as you do on a dyke all day and singing just what comes into your head. Have you been at it long, you two—gipsies?”
“Ah!” lowed the Bull from his byre. “That’s all the thanks you will ever get from men, brother.”
“No. We have only just begun it,” said the Girl; “but we are going to keep to it as long as we live. Are we not, Leo?”
“Yes,” said he, and they went away hand-in-hand.
“You can sing beautifully, Leo,” said she, as a wife will to her husband.
“What were you doing?” said he.
“I was talking to the, mother and the babies,” she said. “You would not understand the little things that make us women laugh.”
“And—and I am to go on with this—this gipsy-work?” said Leo.
“Yes, dear, and I will help you.”
There is no written record of the life of Leo and of the Girl, so we cannot tell how Leo took to his new employment which he detested. We are only sure that the Girl loved him when and wherever he sang; even when, after the song was done, she went round with the equivalent of a tambourine, and collected the pence for the daily bread. There were times too when it was Leo’s very hard task to console the Girl for the indignity of horrible praise that people gave him and her—for the silly wagging peacock feathers that they stuck in his cap, and the buttons and pieces of cloth that they sewed on his coat. Woman-like, she could advise and help to the end, but the meanness of the means revolted.
“What does it matter,” Leo would say, “so long as the songs make them a little happier?” And they would go down the road and begin again on the old old refrain: that whatever came or did not come the children of men must not be afraid. It was heavy teaching at first, but in process of years Leo discovered that he could make men laugh and hold them listening to him even when the rain fell. Yet there were people who would sit down and cry softly, though the crowd was yelling with delight, and there were people who maintained that Leo made them do this; and the Girl would talk to them in the pauses of the performance and do her best to comfort them. People would die too, while Leo was talking, and singing, and laughing, for the Archer, and the Scorpion, and the Crab, and the other Houses were as busy as ever. Sometimes the crowd broke, and were frightened, and Leo strove to keep them steady by telling them that this was cowardly; and sometimes they mocked at the Houses that were killing them, and Leo explained that this was even more cowardly than running away.
In their wanderings they came across the Bull, or the Ram, or the Twins, but all were too busy to do more than nod to each other across the crowd, and go on with their work. As the years rolled on even that recognition ceased, for the Children of the Zodiac had forgotten that they had ever been Gods working for the sake of men. The Star Aldebaran was crusted with caked dirt on the Bull’s forehead, the Ram’s fleece was dusty and torn, and the Twins were only babies fighting over the cat on the doorstep. It was then that Leo said: “Let us stop singing and making jokes.” And it was then that the Girl said “No—’but she did not know why she said “No” so energetically. Leo maintained that it was perversity, till she herself, at the end of a dusty day, made the same suggestion to him, and he said “most certainly not,” and they quarrelled miserably between the hedgerows, forgetting the meaning of the stars above them. Other singers and other talkers sprang up in the course of the years, and Leo, forgetting that there could never be too many of these, hated them for dividing the applause of the children of men, which he thought should be all his own. The Girl would grow angry too, and then the songs would be broken, and the jests fall flat for weeks to come, and the children of men would shout: “Go home, you two gipsies. Go home and learn something worth singing!”
After one of these sorrowful shameful days, the Girl, walking by Leo’s side through the fields, saw the full moon coming up over the trees, and she clutched Leo’s arm, crying: “The time has come now. Oh, Leo, forgive me!”
“What is it?” said Leo. He was thinking of the other singers.
“My husband!” she answered, and she laid his hand upon her breast, and the breast that he knew so well was hard as stone. Leo groaned, remembering what the Crab had said.
“Surely we were Gods once,” he cried.
“Surely we are Gods still,” said the Girl. “Do you not remember when you and I went to the house of the Crab and—were not very much afraid? And since then . . . we have forgotten what we were singing for—we sang for the pence, and, oh, we fought for them!—We, who are the Children of the Zodiac.”
“It was my fault,” said Leo.
“How can there be any fault of yours that is not mine too?” said the Girl. “My time has come, but you will live longer, and . . .” The look in her eyes said all she could not say.
“Yes, I will remember that we are Gods,” said Leo.
It is very hard, even for a child of the Zodiac, who has forgotten his Godhead, to see his wife dying slowly and to know that he cannot help her. The Girl told Leo in those last months of all that she had said and done among the wives and the babies at the back of the roadside performances, and Leo was astonished that he knew so little of her who had been so much to him. When she was dying she told him never to fight for pence or quarrel with the other singers; and, above all, to go on with his singing immediately after she was dead.
Then she died, and after he had buried her he went down the road to a village that he knew, and the people hoped that he would begin quarrelling with a new singer that had sprung up while he had been away. But Leo called him “my brother.” The new singer was newly married—and Leo knew it—and when he had finished singing, Leo straightened himself and sang the “Song of the Girl,” which he had made coming down the road. Every man who was married or hoped to be married, whatever his rank or colour, understood that song—even the bride leaning on the new husband’s arm understood it too—and presently when the song ended, and Leo’s heart was bursting in him, the men sobbed. “That was a sad tale,” they said at last, “now make us laugh.” Because Leo had known all the sorrow that a man could know, including the full knowledge of his own fall who had once been a God—he, changing his song quickly, made the people laugh till they could laugh no more. They went away feeling ready for any trouble in reason, and they gave Leo more peacock feathers and pence than he could count. Knowing that pence led to quarrels and that peacock feathers were hateful to the Girl, he put them aside and went away to look for his brothers, to remind them that they too were Gods.
He found the Bull goring the undergrowth in a ditch, for the Scorpion had stung him, and he was dying, not slowly, as the Girl had died, but quickly.
“I know all,” the Bull groaned, as Leo came up. “I had forgotten too, but I remember now. Go and look at the fields I ploughed. The furrows are straight. I forgot that I was a God, but I drew the plough perfectly straight, for all that. And you, brother?”
“I am not at the end of the ploughing,” said Leo. “Does Death hurt?”
“No, but dying does,” said the Bull, and he died. The cultivator who then owned him was much annoyed, for there was a field still unploughed.
It was after this that Leo made the Song of the Bull who had been a God and forgotten the fact, and he sang it in such a manner that half the young men in the world conceived that they too might be Gods without knowing it. A half of that half grew impossibly conceited, and died early. A half of the remainder strove to be Gods and failed, but the other half accomplished four times more work than they would have done under any other delusion.
Later, years later, always wandering up and down and making the children of men laugh, he found the Twins sitting on the bank of a stream waiting for the Fishes to come and carry them away. They were not in the least afraid, and they told Leo that the woman of the House had a real baby of her own, and that when that baby grew old enough to be mischievous he would find a well-educated cat waiting to have its tail pulled. Then the Fishes came for them, but all that the people saw was two children drowned in a brook; and though their foster-mother was very sorry, she hugged her own real baby to her breast and was grateful that it was only the foundlings.
Then Leo made the Song of the Twins, who had forgotten that they were Gods and had played in the dust to amuse a foster-mother. That song was sung far and wide among the women. It caused them to laugh and cry and hug their babies closer to their hearts all in one breath; and some of the women who remembered the Girl said “Surely that is the voice of Virgo. Only she could know so much about ourselves.”
After those three songs were made, Leo sang them over and over again till he was in danger of looking upon them as so many mere words, and the people who listened grew tired, and there came back to Leo the old temptation to stop singing once and for all. But he remembered the Girl’s dying words and persisted.
One of his listeners interrupted him as he was singing. “Leo,” said he, “I have heard you telling us not to be afraid for the past forty years. Can you not sing something new now?”
“No,” said Leo, “it is the only song that I am allowed to sing. You must not be afraid of the Houses, even when they kill you.” The man turned to go, wearily, but there came a whistling through the air, and the arrow of the Archer was seen skimming low above the earth, pointing to the man’s heart. He drew himself up, and stood still waiting till the arrow struck home.
“I die,” he said quietly. “It is well for me, Leo, that you sang for forty years.”
“Are you afraid?” said Leo, bending over him.
“I am a man, not a God,” said the man. “I should have run away but for your songs. My work is done, and I die without making a show of my fear.”
“I am very well paid,” said Leo to himself. “Now that I see what my songs are doing, I will sing better ones.”
He went down the road, collected his little knot of listeners, and began the Song of the Girl. In the middle of his singing he felt the cold touch of the Crab’s claw on the apple of his throat. He lifted his hand, choked, and stopped for an instant.
“Sing on, Leo,” said the crowd. “The old song runs as well as ever it did.”
Leo went on steadily till the end with the cold fear at his heart. When his song was ended, he felt the grip on his throat tighten. He was old, he had lost the Girl, he knew that he was losing more than half his power to sing, he could scarcely walk to the diminishing crowds that waited for him, and could not see their faces when they stood about him. None the less, he cried angrily to the Crab:
“Why have you come for me now?”
“You were born under my care. How can I help coming for you?” said the Crab wearily. Every human being whom the Crab killed had asked that same question.
“But I was just beginning to know what my songs were doing,” said Leo.
“Perhaps that is why,” said the Crab, and the grip tightened.
“You said you would not come till I had taken the world by the shoulders,” gasped Leo, falling back.
“I always keep my word. You have done that three times with three songs. What more do you desire?”
“Let me live to see the world know it,” pleaded Leo. “Let me be sure that my songs——’
“Make men brave?” said the Crab. “Even then there would be one man who was afraid. The Girl was braver than you are. Come.”
Leo was standing close to the restless, insatiable mouth.
“I forgot,” said he simply. “The Girl was braver. But I am a God too, and I am not afraid.”
“What is that to me?” said the Crab.
Then Leo’s speech was taken from him and he lay still and dumb, watching Death till he died.
Leo was the last of the Children of the Zodiac. After his death there sprang up a breed of little mean men, whimpering and flinching and howling because the Houses killed them and theirs, who wished to live for ever without any pain. They did not increase their lives, but they increased their own torments miserably, and there were no Children of the Zodiac to guide them; and the greater part of Leo’s songs were lost.
Only he had carved on the Girl’s tombstone the last verse of the Song of the Girl, which stands at the head of this story.
One of the children of men, coming thousands of years later, rubbed away the lichen, read the lines, and applied them to a trouble other than the one Leo meant. Being a man, men believed that he had made the verses himself; but they belong to Leo, the Child of the Zodiac, and teach, as he taught, that whatever comes or does not come we men must not be afraid.