THE STRANGE RIDE OF MORROWBIE JUKES 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 moneylenders 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 Mubarakpur—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 23d 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-headedness 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 shotgun, 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 horse and hog-spear. 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 shouting 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 bad 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 rude 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 driftwood 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 the 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 neatly 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 traveler’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. — “It is nothing to do,” said he. “To-morrow 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 that 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 unclean way or other; the men and women had dragged the fragments on to the platform and were preparing their morning 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!” — 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 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 down-stream 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 forward 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 have 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 mornings.
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 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. IN THE HOUSE OF SUDDHOO A stone’s throw out on either hand From that well-ordered road we tread, And all the world is wild and strange; Churel and ghoul and Djinn and sprite Shall bear us company to-night, For we have reached the Oldest Land Wherein the Powers of Darkness range. —From the Dusk to the Dawn. The house of Suddhoo, near the Taksali Gate, is two-storied, with four carved windows of old brown wood, and a flat roof.
You may recognize it by five red hand-prints arranged like the Five of Diamonds on the whitewash between the upper windows.
Bhagwan Dass the grocer and a man who says he gets his living by seal-cutting live in the lower story with a troop of wives, servants, friends, and retainers.
The two upper rooms used to be occupied by Janoo and Azizun and a little black-and-tan terrier that was stolen from an Englishman’s house and given to Janoo by a soldier.
To-day, only Janoo lives in the upper rooms.
Suddhoo sleeps on the roof generally, except when he sleeps in the street.
He used to go to Peshawar in the cold, weather to visit his son who sells curiosities near the Edwardes’ Gate, and then he slept under a real mud roof.
Suddhoo is a great friend of mine, because his cousin had a son who secured, thanks to my recommendation, the post of head-messenger to a big firm in the Station.
Suddhoo says that God will make me a Lieutenant-Governor one of these days.
I dare say his prophecy will come true.
He is very, very old, with white hair and no teeth worth showing, and he has outlived his wits—outlived nearly everything except his fondness for his son at Peshawar.
Janoo and Azizun are Kashmiris, Ladies of the City, and theirs was an ancient and more or less honorable profession; but Azizun has since married a medical student from the Northwest and has settled down to a most respectable life somewhere near Bareilly.
Bhagwan Dass is an extortionate and an adulterator.
He is very rich.
The man who is supposed to get his living by seal-cutting pretends to be very poor.
This lets you know as much as is necessary of the four principal tenants in the house of Suddhoo.
Then there is Me of course; but I am only the chorus that comes in at the end to explain things.
So I do not count. Suddhoo was not clever.
The man who pretended to cut seals was the cleverest of them all—Bhagwan Dass only knew how to lie—except Janoo.
She was also beautiful, but that was her own affair. Suddhoo’s son at Peshawar was attacked by pleurisy, and old Suddhoo was troubled.
The seal-cutter man heard of Suddhoo’s anxiety and made capital out of it.
He was abreast of the times.
He got a friend in Peshawar to telegraph daily accounts of the son’s health.
And here the story begins. Suddhoo’s cousin’s son told me, one evening, that Suddhoo wanted to see me; that he was too old and feeble to come personally, and that I should be conferring an everlasting honor on the House of Suddhoo if I went to him.
I went; but I think, seeing how well off Suddhoo was then, that he might have sent something better than an ekka, which jolted fearfully, to haul out a future Lieutenant-Governor to the City on a muggy April evening.
The ekka did not run quickly.
It was full dark when we pulled up opposite the door of Ranjit Singh’s Tomb near the main gate of the Fort.
Here was Suddhoo, and he said that, by reason of my condescension, it was absolutely certain that I should become a Lieutenant-Governor while my hair was yet black.
Then we talked about the weather and the state of my health, and the wheat crops, for fifteen minutes in the Huzuri Bagh, under the stars. Suddhoo came to the point at last.
He said that Janoo had told him that there was an order of the Sirkar against magic, because it was feared that magic might one day kill the Empress of India.
I didn’t know anything about the state of the law; but I fancied that something interesting was going to happen.
I said that so far from magic being discouraged by the Government it was highly commended.
The greatest officials of the State practiced it themselves. (If the Financial Statement isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.) Then, to encourage him further, I said that, if there was any jadoo afoot, I had not the least objection to giving it my countenance and sanction, and to seeing that it was clean jadoo—white magic, as distinguished from the unclean jadoo which kills folk.
It took a long time before Suddhoo admitted that this was just what he had asked me to come for.
Then he told me, in jerks and quavers, that the man who said he cut seals was a sorcerer of the cleanest kind; that every day he gave Suddhoo news of the sick son in Peshawar more quickly than the lightning could fly, and that this news was always corroborated by the letters.
Further, that he had told Suddhoo how a great danger was threatening his son, which could be removed by clean jadoo; and, of course, heavy payment.
I began to see exactly how the land lay, and told Suddhoo that I also understood a little jadoo in the Western line, and would go to his house to see that everything was done decently and in order.
We set off together; and on the way Suddhoo told me that he had paid the seal-cutter between one hundred and two hundred rupees already; and the jadoo of that night would cost two hundred more.
Which was cheap, he said, considering the greatness of his son’s danger; but I do not think he meant it. The lights were all cloaked in the front of the house when we arrived.
I could hear awful noises from behind the seal-cutter’s shop-front, as if some one were groaning his soul out.
Suddhoo shook all over, and while we groped our way upstairs told me that the jadoo had begun, Janoo and Azizun met us at the stair-head, and told us that the jadoo-work was coming off in their rooms, because there was more space there.
Janoo is a lady of a freethinking turn of mind.
She whispered that the jadoo was an invention to get money out of Suddhoo, and that the seal-cutter would go to a hot place when he died.
Suddhoo was nearly crying with fear and old age.
He kept walking up and down the room in the half-light, repeating his son’s name over and over again, and asking Azizun if the seal-cutter ought not to make a reduction in the case of his own landlord.
Janoo pulled me over to the shadow in the recess of the carved bow-windows.
The boards were up, and the rooms were only lit by one tiny oil-lamp.
There was no chance of my being seen if I stayed still. Presently, the groans below ceased, and we heard steps on the staircase.
That was the seal-cutter.
He stopped outside the door as the terrier barked and Azizun fumbled at the chain, and he told Suddhoo to blow out the lamp.
This left the place in jet darkness, except for the red glow from the two huqas that belonged to Janoo and Azizun.
The seal-cutter came in, and I heard Suddhoo throw himself down on the floor and groan.
Azizun caught her breath, and Janoo backed on to one of the beds with a shudder.
There was a clink of something metallic, and then shot up a pale blue-green flame near the ground.
The light was just enough to show Azizun, pressed against one corner of the room with the terrier between her knees; Janoo, with her hands clasped, leaning forward as she sat on the bed; Suddhoo, face down, quivering, and the seal-cutter.
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