Cigar smoke eddied in the air as we sat back, replete with supper, and sipped at our brandy. The fire burned brightly in the grate, filling the room with a cheerful flickering glow. Outside the curtained windows, pea-soup fog rolled through the London night.
“What shall we talk about?” I asked. “The world situation?”
Graeme-Phipps grimaced. “Not that old chestnut again. I’m tired of talk of the situation in China and the Turkish question. You’d think the papers had nothing else to print.”
“Well, it is the nineteenth century,” Robinson pointed out. “The papers do have to compete with each other for sales. So they print only what they think will sell – all of ‘em.”
“I’m still sick of it,” Graeme-Phipps said, puffing morosely at his cigar. “You’d think somewhere in Queen Victoria’s Empire there would be something else to talk about.”
A brief silence fell. A coal broke in the grate with a shower of sparks.
“Someone ought to tell a story,” Hobbledehoy-Hicks said. “Perfect weather for it, don’t you know.”
“We’ve all heard each other’s stories, a hundred times,” I replied.
“Well, there’s Richards,” Robinson said, nodding towards our guest, who had hardly opened his mouth all evening. “He’s just returned from our Indian possessions, didn’t you, Richards? You’d know a story or two.”
The man called Richards stirred. “I know a couple, I suppose,” he said. “But they’re really very boring. It’s not nearly as interesting a place as you would think from all the penny dreadfuls, you know. There aren’t really any fakirs who can sleep on spikes, I’ve never seen a Thuggee highwayman in all my years there, and the Indian rope trick doesn’t really exist.”
“Well, you must have seen something,” Hobbledehoy-Hicks urged. “Come on, old man, we’re all relying on you.”
“Well,” Richards said, “now that you mention it, there was something very curious that happened, just a little bit before I came back...I don’t know if it’s worth talking about though.”
“Come on,” Graeme-Phipps urged, as eager as a puppy. “Tell us, do.”
“It’s just that you probably won’t believe it.” Richards coughed discreetly. “I could scarcely believe it myself.”
“Is it a ghost story?” Robinson asked. “I hear India’s full of ghosts.”
“Of course it’s not a ghost story,” Richards said. “There are no such things as ghosts. You need to remember that. There are no such things as ghosts.”
We exchanged looks. “Well...” Hobbledehoy-Hicks said, “you might as well tell your story, and then we can talk about that.”
Late last year, (Richards said) I was posted by the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta as tax collector to Korangustan. It’s only a tiny place now, but had once been a considerable city, the capital of a kingdom. There were half buried temples and ruined forts in the surrounding hills, and in the winter you could sun yourself on the crumbled walls of the old town, which still poked here and there from the jungle.
I arrived on my horse, on a morning in early winter, when the fog lay so thick on the ground that it was hard to see where we were going and the sun was only a faint glow overhead. As I neared the town, I stopped to ask at a potter’s kiln by the roadside if I were on the right path to the dak bungalow where I was to put up.
Once the potter, a middle aged native, had got over his surprise at my fluent Hindustani, he pointed along a path that wound away through the forest. “Go along this, sahib, and you’ll pass the old clock tower. Turn left at it and you’ll reach the dak before noon.”
I saw that there seemed to be a narrow path that went in a much straighter line through the jungle, and turned my horse towards it. At this, though, the potter reacted with alarm.
“No, sahib,” he yelped. “Please do not go that way.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s not a good road. Nobody goes that way.”
This was obviously not true – the path, though not broad, was clearly in use – but I’d learnt long ago that it wasn’t wise to unnecessarily disturb the natives. They’re primitive, superstitious people, and can panic at anything. To start off on the wrong foot with one of them might get me a reputation as a harbinger of evil as long as I remained posted to the district.
“All right,” I said. “Have it your way.” I turned my horse towards the path he’d indicated. Once I looked back over my shoulder, and through the fog I saw that he was standing outside his kiln, still watching me.
By the time I found the dak bungalow, the sun had finally burned the fog away, and had taken the chill out of the air. The building was not in particularly good repair, with peeling walls and a veranda the roof of which was missing on one side, but it was large and sprawling, and I decided at a glance that it would do. In my many years in India I’d often had to live in places much worse than this.
The bungalow was charmingly sited. Behind it, on the other side of a little river, wooded hillocks reached up towards the sky. On either side, the scrub forest stretched, like embracing arms, enveloping the dak bungalow and the path by which I’d ridden.
At my call, an aged chowkidar appeared, and led my horse away after unlocking the bungalow. “My name is Chedupuram, sahib,” he said when he’d returned. “I will get you some water for you to wash.”
He was a magnificent specimen of the best sort of native, tall and strong-boned, with a high brow and a magnificent set of moustaches. If only his skin had not been the colour of old mahogany and his eyes black as pitch, you might have put him in a sergeant-major’s uniform in the Coldstream Guards and nobody, I wager, would have been any the wiser.
“Thank you,” I said. “And you’ve lived in this place all your life?”
“Yes, sahib.” He pointed to a small hut behind the dak bungalow. “That is my home.”
The dak gharry with my trunk seemed to be taking a very long time to arrive. When it finally did, I went to ask the driver why he’d taken his time.
“It is a long way past the old clock tower, sahib,” he said, as he unloaded my trunk.
“Why?” I pointed in the direction of the straight path through the forest I’d seen earlier. “There’s a much shorter way.”
He paused and glanced quickly at me out of the corner of his eye. “No, sahib. That is not a good way.”
These peoples’ superstitions were really quite ridiculous, I thought, but at least my things had finally arrived. Later, as the dusk lay thick outside and the huge moths flapped softly against the lamp, I decided to ask Chedupuram about it.
“Really, sahib,” he replied, not looking at me, “that is not a good way. You were told rightly not to go by that path.”
“Why?” I asked reasonably. “What’s wrong with it?”
He didn’t want to tell me at first, but gave in after I demanded an answer. You have to be firm with these natives. “It is the evil god’s path.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by evil god? I’ve been in Hindustan thirty years, and I’ve never heard of an evil god.”
“He lives in this land though, sahib,” he said.
“Who lives in this land?” I demanded. “Who is this evil god?”
So Chedupuram sat down and told me the tale of the god Mootaipoochi and his consort, Kuruda.
THE STORY OF MOOTAIPOOCHI AND KURUDA
Many years ago, when the sun was bright and new and the moon so close to the earth that a man could climb on his roof and reach out to touch it, a god was angry. Nobody knows why he was angry; it is not for us to judge the gods. But his temper was directed at the king of a kingdom far to the north, whose name was Kazhuththu. He told the king to leave his kingdom, or he would consume it in fire.
Now Kazhuththu was a great king, an honest and just king, whom all the people loved. So when the god told the monarch to abandon his kingdom, the people, all of them, down to the youngest child who played in the fields, together and in one voice decided to follow their king into exile. They picked up all their possessions, took along their horses and their cattle and their dogs and cats, and all of them went along with the king. It is said that even the rats and mice of the kingdom loved Kazhuththu so much that they followed along, slinking in the grass behind the people.
So the anger of the god was averted, and the kingdom was not consumed in fire; but it lay desolate and barren, and there was nobody to offer the god worship and sacrifice any longer.
So he sent a curse after the departing people, that they would never find a home again, and would be condemned forever to wander the land, until the end of time; and then he retreated, brooding, to his abode in the skies. So much for him.
Meanwhile the people followed the king through land after land, through thirsty deserts and trackless forests, under the frowning stares of huge mountains and along the shores of nameless seas. But nowhere did they find a place they could stay; for each time they thought they had found such a place, flood or famine or disease would visit them, or enemies would send armies to hunt them down; and so they would have to move on again.
At last the King Kazhuththu, who had shed tears a thousand times at the plight of his people, who had followed him from their own love of him and had suffered so much in consequence, called them all around him, and looking at them with eyes filled with sorrow and compassion, he said:
“It is time you let me go on alone, and return to your homes; for this road we are following has no end, and I can no longer bear your pain.”
But the people made outcry; his advisers looked at each other, and said, “O Great King, it would make no difference, for the god who cast you out also cursed us, and would not wish us back; and after so many years other people have doubtless moved into our lands, consider them their own, and will meet us with swords if we ever go back again.”
Then the King sighed and shed tears, and at last he said, “Then there is but one thing left to do. I must approach the other gods, pray and make sacrifice to them, and entreat them to lift the curse that hangs over us.”
So the King’s sages and priests got together, and built a sacred fire, over which they made many incantations, and watched the smoke rise up towards heaven with their prayers. But the god who had cursed the people had prevailed on the others to ignore all their prayers, and turn their faces away from them forever; and so answer there was none.
And so the sages and the priests finally banked their sacred fires and shook their heads helplessly. “We can do nothing more.”
But there was one god who had been watching and listening, who had said nothing; the god Mootaipoochi was his name. Mootaipoochi was a rebel among the gods, and had been turned out from among them long ago. This was because he had dared to love a small image that belonged to another and greater god, an image made of cold and fire, light and darkness, forged into the shape of an ape. He had dearly wanted that image for himself; had dared to take hold of it in his hands and touch and fondle it. For this, he had been expelled from among the other gods, and been condemned to wander the world of men.
That had been long, long ago, when Mootaipoochi had been young. Then he had been fair and kind, but as the years and decades had passed into centuries, his anger at his unfair expulsion had grown in him, and twisted and hardened him, until he thirsted only for revenge.
So, when he saw that the sages and priests had been so cruelly rebuffed, his heart filled with joy; and, taking the form of a great black buffalo as high as a mountain, which breathed fire from its nostrils, he appeared before them. The earth trembled under his hooves, the sky was darkened by the spread of his horns, and the people, terrified, fell to the earth.
And Mootaipoochi looked on them, and in a voice like thunder said: “O people of Kazhuththu the just and glorious king, I, too, have heard your prayers; and I have borne witness to how cruelly the gods have treated you. I, too, have been worked most wrong by them, and I am willing to use the powers I still have, the powers of a god, to lift this curse that hangs over you. But in return, I wish for something.”
When the king had recovered somewhat from his fear, he looked up to the monstrous buffalo, and replied, “O lord and master, we have run out of hope; if it were only for me I would gladly move on for the rest of forever, but I cannot see my people suffer like this. For that reason, and that reason alone, I will agree to anything that you may require of me. You have only to state it.”
Mootaipoochi lowered his immense head until his red eyes were looking into the king’s own. “There are two things I want. The first is something that lies in the abode of the gods. I want you to go there, O King, and retrieve it for me.”
“How can anyone do that?” the King Kazhuththu asked reasonably. “Men cannot reach the abode of the gods.”
“I will lift you there,” Mootaipoochi said, lowering his head. “Climb on to my horns, and I will lift you to the heavens.”
So the King Kazhuththu, seeing no alternative, climbed on the buffalo’s huge horns; and in a trice Mootaipoochi increased his size until he was so big that he spanned the gap between earth and the heavens, until the tip of one of his horns lay at the gods’ very doorstep.
“Now remember,” he said to the king, “that you must get only the image I want. Do not touch anything else. Because the other gods have already turned their backs on you, they will neither see nor hear you; but take only what I sent you to fetch, for if you touch anything else the gods will notice that it has been disturbed, and then you are lost.”
So the King crept from the buffalo’s horn and under the edge of the gods’ immense doorway. The guards, busy scanning heaven and earth for all manner of threat, did not see him as he passed them by. And as he passed through the great halls and chambers where the gods gathered and talked among themselves, none of them saw him either, even when they looked in his direction, for their minds had forgotten him altogether. Then he came to the room where the image stood, just as the god Mootaipoochi had described; and, clasping it to his bosom, he made his way back again, past the gods and their guards at the gate. And, just as nobody had seen him come, none of them saw him go.
Then Mootaipoochi took him again on his horns, and brought him down to earth; and the god’s twisted heart was filled with triumph as he saw the image the king had fetched for him. “This is good,” he declared. “Now I have the first part of what I wanted, and in return I will give you this land, where we are now, for your own. But if you wish to remain here, free of the curse that lies upon you, you must do something more.”
“What is that?” the King asked.
“I, too, need a home,” Mootaipoochi said. “I have been wandering for long, with no place to call my own, with nothing left to me but the fierce love of this image you have brought, and my anger at the gods who had harmed me so unjustly. I, too, wish to settle down, and have a people to rule over, those who will worship me and offer sacrifice. If you wish to stay here, free of the curse, you will need a god to watch over you, and I am the only one who will do that.”
Then the king and his advisors were thrown into consternation, for they had recognised that he was an evil god; but there was nothing for it, so they agreed reluctantly.
“Good,” Mootaipoochi said. “You shall build me a temple. It need not be a large temple, for my needs are modest; but it will have an idol of stone in the form of a buffalo, just as you see me now. And between the front hooves of the buffalo, you will place this image that you have purloined for me from the gods. As long as I am in that idol, watching over the image that is so dear to me, your kingdom will remain safe.”
So the people set to building the god a temple, small but well-built of good black stone; and in it they placed the idol they had made of the same material, of a great black buffalo. So well-carved was it, in fact, that you could almost imagine the thing was alive and might step off the platform on which it had been placed.
Then came the god Mootaipoochi, and saw the temple and the idol, and pronounced himself satisfied. “All I now need,” he said, “is someone to take care of me, to be by my side and be my eyes and ears. For myself, I wish to spend all my time contemplating the image, which, now that I have finally obtained it, is my only desire.”
“My greatest priests are at your disposal,” the king offered. “Choose among them whom you want.”
But the god Mootaipoochi regarded them all with disfavour. “None of them,” he said, “would be wholly for me; all of them, in the depths of their being, are pledged to the other gods, for all that they turned their backs on your people. No, I will need a consort; someone who will be wholly for me, who will never turn to anyone else. Only then will I be able to spend my time in peace, contemplating the image; and only then will your new kingdom know peace too, O King. Find, from among your people, a woman fit to be mine.”
Then the king and his advisors all grew pale, and the monarch wished mightily that he had never listened to the god’s offer in the first place. For he knew at once the only young woman in all the kingdom who would be fit to be a consort for a god, even an evil god like this; only one who was as beautiful of heart as of face, as intelligent as learned, as serene as the moonlight and yet as graceful as the play of sunlight on water. It was none other than his own daughter, Kuruda.
“I cannot...” he began, through ashen lips. But before he could continue, and who knows what might have happened if he had, the girl herself stepped forward and stood by the god’s side, a hand draped over his huge horn, and smiled on her father.
“With pleasure will I perform this duty,” she said. “Nothing is too great a burden to bear for the welfare of the people, and, besides, I am grateful indeed to the god for deciding to take pity on us and help save us from our endless years of wandering. I will be proud to be his consort and dwell by his side forever.”
And so it was that the people had a land to dwell in once again, a home to call their own; and the kingdom grew in time to the mighty land of Korangustan. The centuries have ebbed and flowed, but the god’s temple still stands here, and the image still sits between the hooves of the idol in which the god resides.
It is said that all will be well as long as the two are not disturbed; but woe to him who dare to do that, for then the god shall awaken, and never shall he know peace or happiness again.
“It’s a nice tale,” I said, when Chedupuram had finished. “Though I suppose many people do believe it, and that is why they tried to stop me from coming along the path as I’d intended. I suppose some old ruined temple lies along there, and it’s the source of these superstitions?”
“There are many temples of all kinds, sahib,” Chedupuram replied ambiguously. “But there is only one Mootaipoochi, and there is but Kuruda.”
Clearly, there was nothing further to be gained from the discussion, so I sent him away for the night and settled down with some brandy, a book and a smoke. Outside the dak bungalow the jackals howled and the fireflies flitted through the scrub in their thousands, a blizzard of tiny flying lights. It was the essence of the India I loved, not the festering towns and the lying, superstitious natives; it was the calm of the tropic night, and I was content.
For some weeks thereafter all went well. My duties weren’t heavy; most of the work was, in any case, handled quite adequately by my staff of natives, lorded over by a munshi with a huge red and gold turban and thick moustaches. I rarely had reason even to visit the town, dirty and crowded as it was; all I had to do was ride to my office in the morning, and, when the day’s work was done, come back again.
Most mornings, it was too cold and foggy to go riding far; but when the sun was dropping towards the west, the golden sun throwing elongated shadows across the fields, it was sheer pleasure to gallop as fast as I could go, leaning low over the horse’s neck, the air sharp as ice in my nostrils and burning in my chest.
As the weeks grew to months, if there was anything at all that I missed it was the company of other Englishmen, for I was the only one among this mass of natives. Still, as unwashed and superstitious as they were, they did have one great thing to commend them: unlike so many of their kind elsewhere, they did not importune me ceaselessly with petitions and demands, but left me alone.
On one occasion I mentioned this to the chowkidar. “That, sahib,” he relied evenly, “is because they know it would be no use to do so. If the god Mootaipoochi had wanted, he would have provided, and there would be no use for petitions. If he does not want it, then whether petitions are presented or not would make no difference; for then it would not happen anyway.”
Again this superstitious tale about Mootaipoochi! For a moment I was intensely irritated. Then I reminded myself that it was because of this tale that I had time to spare, and that I could go riding out without men holding on to my stirrup while begging to thrust some creased and dirty scrap of paper on my attention. It was better, I thought, that I leave it alone.
Sometimes, I would walk over to Chedupuram’s hut and talk to him sitting outside in the sun. He never invited me in, and of course I never entered uninvited; but it was all right. The man might be a superstitious old native, but he had plenty of interesting conversation on this and that, and he knew a lot of lore about the country. Most of it even he admitted quite frankly to be just common myths; but on one topic he would never be shifted, that of the god Mootaipoochi, and I soon learnt to leave that alone. As we talked, his much younger wife and two children would peek at me from the corner of the door, and disappear in a flash if they noticed I was looking back at them. I never really got to know what any of the three of them looked like.
Now, as you will know, the recent years have not been quiet ones in our Indian colonies. There have been murmurs against our enlightening mission, at our attempts at dispelling the darkness of ignorance and false religion that have hung so long like an eclipse over these poor devils’ lives. Increasingly, there have been agitationists moving around, fomenting rebellion, and the massacre of Englishmen. Fearing for my safety – for, as I have said, I was the only Englishman in the whole district, with not even an assistant by my side – the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta sent me a message, ordering me to hand over my duties to the munshi and return at once.
This did not fill me with great pleasure. I had just got used to the solitude, and my light duties left me so much time for relaxation that it was almost like being on a holiday. To give up all that, and doubtless be reassigned to some crowded little accounts bureau in the Viceroy’s office, was like being imprisoned. Also, I did not believe for a moment that the locals would ever lift a finger against me, for the same reason that they had never presented a petition: if their god willed it to happen, it would; otherwise it would never happen, no matter what they did. So why do anything?
But orders are orders, and I could not remain in defiance of them; and, so, with the greatest reluctance, I decided on the last day of February as the day I would leave Korangustan. It was a Monday, as it happened, and by Saturday I’d finished handing over what passed for my duties to the munshi. I’d tasked Chedupuram to see to the packing of my things, and satisfied myself on Saturday night that he had done so.
The next day, Sunday, I had nothing to do; and, as it seemed like being a fine morning, I decided to go out riding on my horse, roaming the countryside one last time. Accordingly, I left after breakfast, taking a route through the hills I had not before. My intention was to ride on till noon, eat the small lunch I’d taken along with me while letting my horse rest and graze, and then return to the dak bungalow by another way.
At first this all went just as I had planned. The ride through the hills, while tiring because of the scrub that grabbed at my boots and scratched my mount’s flanks, was exhilarating; and the wildlife, from the monkeys that chattered angrily at me from the branches of the trees, to the kites that circled high overhead, and the sudden crashing and plunging as a wild boar broke away at my approach – was wonderful. But as I rode on, a cold wind blew up, the skies clouded over, and little by little mist began to roll in. By the time I had finished my meagre lunch and turned my horse for home, the hills were blanketed by a thick and clinging fog.
As you may imagine, I was not totally lost. I had, of course, never been this way before, but I did know roughly in which direction I had to proceed in order to finally arrive back at the dak bungalow. However, the hills were, though not high, rugged, and in places the scrub was so thick that my horse could not force a way through; and quite naturally I had no compass and no way to see the sun through the opaque murk. It would almost have been funny in other circumstances, but I had no desire to be stuck in those hills when darkness fell, if the fog was still there. The last thing I needed was for the horse to break his leg in a crevice. And at dawn the dak gharry was to come to take my trunk away...
It was just about then that we stumbled on a path. It wasn’t much of a path – little more than a goat-track – but far better than wandering around in the fog. Best of all, it led down in the direction in which the dak bungalow must lie.
The fog was as thick as ever, but my mood was lifted out of all proportion at this discovery. I felt like singing with happiness in the saddle, and might indeed have done so, but for the thought that some native might hear me and decide that I was drunk or off my head. An Englishman has a reputation to maintain out there – the natives must always realise that we are their superiors, or else they begin to imagine that they can get away with anything, and that’s the end of the Empire for you.
So I kept my silence, though it was hard to do so when the goat track broadened and smoothened, and even more so when I realised that I was out of the hills altogether and on the plain once more.
It must have been late afternoon already by then; the light had changed, and a kind of golden glow suffused the fog to what I knew by now to be the west. The way was quite easy going now, and I had relaxed completely in the saddle, and begun thinking about the journey I would be making on the morrow. So when the dark mass grew out of the fog to one side of the path I must have looked at it, my mind elsewhere, for quite a full minute before it occurred to me to notice its existence. Then, because now I had plenty of time, I reined in the horse before it and took a proper look.
It was a small temple, made out of black stone. Once the walls must have been quite intricately carved, but the figures were now obliterated with time until it was nearly impossible to make out what they were. Besides, creepers had partly overgrown the walls and crawled up the short pyramidal spire, so that it looked almost as though it was growing out of the earth, emerging from it to smell the air and look at the sky. Only the entrance was clear, an oblong of darkness with a short flight of stairs down to the roadside.
I might have ridden on then – I almost certainly would have – but for a singular occurrence. In the strange manner of fogs, a wind began to blow, and ripped the mist into scraps and tatters that fled away and were gone. The great golden sun shone directly into the open doorway, as though beckoning me to enter.
I hesitated long enough to look around to make sure there was nobody watching. Then, slipping off the back of the horse, I went into the temple.
You must remember that Eastern people demand that one removes footwear before entering a place of worship. Unlike other Englishmen, I have never seen the point of not doing such a simple thing; I would even recommend it in churches when the weather is snowy or muddy. It is merely having the common decency to keep the ruddy place clean.
So, slipping off my boots, I entered. At once I was struck by how tiny the temple was. It was, in fact, just a single small room, which was almost filled by the huge object in the centre. I gasped aloud at my first sight of it. It was devastatingly, beautifully, well-wrought, magnificent beyond anything to be conveyed in mere words.
It was, of course, the statue of a gigantic buffalo. The beast’s shoulders seemed almost to touch the ceiling, while its lowered head, bearing a spread of horn so immense that they stretched form one wall to another, gave forth an aura of immense malignity. One felt that the beast was on the verge of breaking loose from the floor, that its enormous split hooves would then bring it crashing forwards to crush anyone foolish enough to approach. And yet the eyes, inserts of white marble in the jet-black stone, did not glare at anyone before it. They were, instead, fixed on something that stood between the front hooves, something small, that was set in a little square pit in the platform on which the buffalo stood.
It was an exquisitely crafted image, showing an ape or monkey. It was made of some dark material, which was not wood, nor yet stone, but seemed to be halfway between the two. It reminded me of the petrified forests one can find in parts of the world, where trees of bygone times have turned to stone, and perhaps it was made of material like that. The thing was of a brown so dark it was almost black, except for the face, which was a rich mahogany colour. There was a suggestion about the features of a man, though it was clearly meant to number among the lesser simians. The moment I saw it, I realised that I must have it for my own.
Of course, in other circumstances, I’d never have touched it. I’d have known that the people would immediately have known who it was who had taken it, for certainly none of them would have dared. But it was almost night, and I was leaving at dawn. There wouldn’t be time for anyone to discover the little image was missing, far less connect it to me in time to stop me. Even so, I hesitated a long few minutes, waiting for someone to come. Usually, there would have been a priest, but this little temple obviously didn’t have one. There was almost no space even to squeeze past the buffalo, let alone for rituals. But there were as obviously visitors, because a little heap of fruits and flowers had been placed below the creature’s stone muzzle by way of offering. The flowers were just beginning to wilt, though, and the skins of the fruits were dull. They had probably been placed that morning.
And yet, though there was obviously nobody there, I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. It was perhaps the whole atmosphere of that place, the strange little temple, unlike any I’d ever seen, with nothing in it but the gigantic statue of a buffalo watching the image of an ape. Perhaps it was the beast’s white eyes, which seemed as though they could in an instant turn bloodshot with rage and turn towards you with a terrible glare. And perhaps it was the shadow that drenched the corners, in which one might imagine a thousand eyes, watching. In fact, there actually seemed to be someone in the shadow, just out of sight, but that was clearly ridiculous. There was no space even for a cat to secrete itself there.
“Stop dithering,” I said to myself. Taking a deep breath, I seized the image, for a moment imagining that it would take the strength of a thousand men to wrench it from the pit in the rock. But it came easily enough. It was, after all, merely a small image a little bigger than my fist, and about as heavy as something made out of wood might be.
Stuffing it inside my coat, I turned to go, imagining again that there was something watching me, something that would reach out, grasp me by the collar, and pull me back. But I passed safely out into the waning sunlight, pulled on my boots, mounted my horse, and rode on home.
By the time I reached the dak bungalow, it was already dark, and the jackals were beginning to call. Chedupuram was looking a little anxious and welcomed me with evident relief.
“I’d thought you were lost, sahib,” he said, as he took the horse. “Everything is ready for the dak gharry tomorrow. Your things are all packed.”
“Thanks, old fellow,” I said. “I think I’ll turn in early. I’m tired out and I do have to make an early start.”
Once the chowkidar had left, I undressed, turned down the oil lamp, and went to bed. The little image I kept inside my coat, which I’d slung over the back of my chair in the other room. I intended to carry it inside the coat during my journey, so as not to risk losing it if something happened to the dak gharry carrying my trunk. I hadn’t been exaggerating to the old chowkidar; I really was very tired, and as soon as my head had touched the pillow, I fell into sleep so deep that it seemed to have no bottom. The last thought I had was of setting the little image on my study shelf in England when I came home on my next leave.
I don’t know how long I’d slept when I suddenly awoke, with the distinct sensation that there was something wrong. It was very dark, so dark that not even a stray spark of starlight seemed to enter through the curtained windows. I reached out for the lantern, but the glass globe was cold, and the little flame had long gone out.
Then I suddenly realised that there was someone in the room with me. I saw a shadow, standing by the side of the bed; a woman, it seemed, dressed in black, with her head and face covered by a hood.
“Who are you?” I asked. “How did you ever get in?”
Without answering, she stepped back from the bed, and walked away a few steps, so silently that I heard not the slightest noise of her feet on the floor. Then she stood, looking back over her shoulder, as though expecting me to follow.
I found my body, apparently of its own volition, begin to rise from the bed. Pushing away the blanket, I stood up, wondering for an instant if I were dreaming. But the chill of the floor under my feet was real, as was the shiver that ran up my spine. From under the hood that shrouded her features, the woman still looked back at me, expectantly.
“All right,” I muttered. “If that’s the way you want it. I’ll make you tell me how you came in here and who you are.” I took a couple of steps towards her, whereupon she walked on towards the other room. The door stood ajar as I’d left it when I’d gone to bed earlier.
At that moment I felt a sudden shaft of fear so strong it almost froze me to the spot. In a long life spent among the worst, most savage parts of the world, I have been in many hard situations. I’ve had an Ashanti warrior’s spear at my throat, and an Afghan jezail ball rip through my sleeve. I’ve lain, hardly breathing, in a tent as a tiger clawed experimentally at the canvas next to my face. But I have never been as terrified as I was at that moment – and I did not even know why. For, hooded in black or not, it was just a woman, and a young and slim one at that.
But fear gives you a kind of desperate courage. I strode forward, and she, with that same silent, gliding movement, passed from the room through the open door into the next, again looking over her shoulder at me to follow.
“No, you don’t,” I muttered, suddenly realising what this was about. “You aren’t getting that image. It’s mine.” Striding forward, I snatched up the coat from the chair and clutched it to my chest. “It’s in here, and...”
I never got any further. She took hold of my left hand, and all the strength seemed to go out of it. I found myself holding the coat up as she flicked it open and reached in to pluck out the image.
I growled something – I can’t say what – and with my free right hand I pulled her hood back, to get a look at her face. And then my breath seemed to stop in my throat, and I thought my heart would stop forever.
Under the hood there was nothing. All I could see was darkness, darkness so infinite that it seemed to stretch on forever, as total and infinite as the lightless, inimical gulfs between the stars. And, very dimly, hanging in that darkness, were two faint red dots, as of glowering, angry eyes.
I have no clear memory of what happened next. When I came to my senses, I was standing in the middle of the dark room, the coat hanging from my hands, alone. But I had a sense that a door had just closed, somewhere.
Suddenly feeling the strength return to my limbs, I rushed to my bedroom and pulled away the curtain from the window. Outside, the night was still, with only the glim of starlight to dispel the darkness. And in that faint light I saw something; I cannot be sure of it, for I glimpsed it only for a moment, and it was already at the edge of vision.
But it looked just as though a gigantic black buffalo had drifted away into the darkness, a buffalo with a woman riding on top of it.
I sat down on my bed, clutching the coat in my hands, and though I tried my hardest, I could not stop my teeth chattering. And I never got back to to sleep that night.
“There’s not much left to tell,” Richards said. “The dak gharry came at dawn the next day. Chedupuram helped load my trunk on it, and if there was anything odd in my behaviour, he made no mention of it. After the gharry had left, I got on my horse and followed, and never was I so glad to leave a place. I did not look back even once, and I have no wish ever to go there again.”
“And what of the image?” Hobbledehoy-Hicks asked. “Do you know anything of it?”
“I imagine I know where it is now,” Richards replied drily. “Although you can depend on it that I would never want to go back and get it. I don’t want to see it, even in my dreams.”
Everyone fell silent for a while. Then I stirred. “Well, it’s a very intriguing story, sure enough. I never thought of ghosts like that and –”
“Ghosts again?” Richards snapped. “I told you there were no ghosts. I told you again and again there were none!”
We exchanged glances. “But if they weren’t ghosts, and as you said, the woman in the room...”
“It must have been Chedupuram’s wife,” Richards said agitatedly. “It must have been his wife. She was young and slim, as I said. They must have known that the image was missing, she and Chedupuram, and realised I must have it with me. Then they must have made the plan, between themselves, to scare me into returning it. That’s what it must have been, I tell you. It can be nothing else.”
“But that face you described,” Graeme-Phipps said. “Under her hood, the emptiness, except for the dim red eyes – how would that be possible if it was only the wife?”
“I must have imagined that part,” Richards said, standing up quickly. “I must go. It’s late. I should never have started talking about this. I must go.” He strode to the hat and stick rack in the corner. “Besides, I know I didn’t imagine at least one part of it – something that proves it wasn’t a ghost.”
“What?” I asked.
Richards stood at the door for a moment, his hat on his head, as though debating his answer. “The prints,” he said at last. “I saw them on the path, as I rode after the dak gharry. They were the prints of cloven hooves – as though a titanic buffalo had walked up to the dak bungalow, and then walked away again.”
Turning away, he tipped his hat. “Good night, gentlemen,” he said, and the door closed behind him.
For a long moment there was silence.
It was Hobbledehooy-Hicks who finally spoke. “But why does he insist on it not being a ghost, why is he so set on saying it was real, just the old man’s wife...”
“Do you remember what he’d said earlier?” Robinson cleared his throat. “According to the legend, anyone who awakens the god shall never know peace or happiness again.”
Nobody spoke for a very long time.
“I was wondering why Richards came home on leave,” I said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015