The Charmed Life by Achmed Abdullah
From a letter dated September the eleventh, nineteen hundred and
seventeen, by Captain Achmed Abdullah to the Editor of the All-Story
...and as to that, you are, of course, perfectly right. Magazine
readers want to be entertained--that's what they plunk down their
little dimes for--and take them all around, they prefer a story which
is full of action, of things daring, with some love and a fair dose
of adventure thrown in, and yet, as you put it, they do not want
their credulity strained to the breaking point. They like to say to
themselves--well, not exactly "This did happen" but rather, "This
might have happened": and as an afterthought, chiefly if they're
young (by which I mean the sunny side of seventy-three) they often
add the two tiny words "To me."
An adventurous and slightly fantastic love story--yet
substantially a true story--that's the dope: and the only thing which
remains is to catch your hare, to quote Mrs. Glass's famous Cookery
Book. I heard such a story not so very long ago, when on my way home
to Afghanistan. I stopped for a few weeks at Calcutta.
The name of the man who told me the story--his own
story--was--(name deleted by the editor). You may known some of his
people in Boston. And when you come to the end of the tale, remember
one thing, the hero--though I hate the appellation--is happy; and
that, perhaps, is the final aim and object of man's life--to achieve
happiness without making others unhappy.
I hope your readers will like the tale. At least it is a true
tale; as true as all India; as true as the fact that before there was
a Europe, India worshiped the Trimurti, the triple deity composed of
Brahma the Creator, Vishnu, the Sustainer, Shiva the Destroyer,
and--to believe certain Hindus--will continue to worship this triple
image long after Europe has ceased to exist; as true, finally as the
facts that never there lived, nor will live, American or European who
can get below the skin of India without doing what the Boston man did
in his little house in Calcutta, not far from the Chitpore Road.
Best Regards, Achmed Abdullah.
(Note by the editors--Captain Abdullah's manuscript contained the
real names of the people and localities whom this story concerns. We
changed them--for obvious reasons.)
On the day when death will knock at thy door, what wilt thou offer
Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life--I will
never let him go with empty hands.
CHAPTER I - The Meeting
Kiss happiness with lips That seek beyond the lips.---from the
Love Song of Yar Ali
I met him in that careless, haphazard and thoroughly human way in
which one meets people in Calcutta, in all parts of India for that
matter. He and I laughed simultaneously at the same street scene. I
don't remember if it was the sight of a portly, grey-bearded native
dressed incongruously in a brown-and-grey striped camel's-hair
dressing-gown, an extravagantly embroidered skull-cap, gorgeous
open-work silk socks showing the bulging calves, and cloth-topped
patent leather shoes of an ultra-Viennese cut, or if it was perhaps
the sight of Donald McIntyre, the Eurasian tobacco merchant in the
Sealdah, abusing his Babu partner in a splendid linguistic mixture of
his father's broad, twangy Glasgow Scots and of his mother's soft,
At all events something struck me as funny. I laughed. So did the
other man. And there you are.
Nice-looking chap he was--of good length of limbs and width of
shoulders, clean-shaven, strong-jawed, and with close-cropped curly
brown hair, and eyes the keenest, jolliest shade of blue imaginable.
And--he was an American. You could tell by his clothes, chiefly by
his neat shoes. They were of a vintage of perhaps two or three years
before, but still they bore the national mark; they smacked, somehow,
of ice water and clanking overhead trains and hustle and hat-check
boys--and his nationality, too, was a point in his favor, since I had
spent the preceding three years in New York and America had become
home to me, in a way.
So we talked. I forgot who spoke first. It really doesn't
matter--in India. Nor did we exchange cards nor names, that not being
the custom of negligent India, but we conversed with that easy,
we-might-as-well-be-friends familiarity with which strangers talk to
each other aboard a transatlantic liner or in a Pullman car--west of
Chicago. Presently we decided that we were obstructing the
thoroughfare--at least a tiny, white bullock was trying his best to
push us out of the way with his soft, ridiculous muzzle--we decided,
furthermore, that we had several things to talk over. Quite important
things they seemed at the time, and tremendously varied: the home
policy of the ancient Peruvians, the truth of the Elohistic theory in
the study of the Pentateuch, and the difference between Lahore and
Lucknow chutney. In other words, we felt that strange human
phenomenon: a sudden warm wave of friendship, of interest, of
sympathy for each other.
So we adjourned to a native café which was a mass of violet
and gold--slightly fly-specked--of smells honey-sweet and
gall-bitter, of carved and painted things supremely beautiful and
supremely hideous--since the East goes to the extreme in both
We sipped our coffee and smiled at each other and talked. We
discovered that we had likings in common--better still, prejudices
and mad theories in common, and presently, since with the bunching,
splintering noon heat the shops and the bazaar were clearing of
buyers and sellers and since the café was filling with all
sorts of strong scented low-castes, kunjris and sansis and what-not,
chewing betel and expectorating vastly after the manner of their
kind, he proposed that we should continue our conversation in his
I accepted, and leaving the tavern I turned automatically to the
left fully expecting him to lead toward Park Street or perhaps, since
he was so obviously an American, toward one of the big cosmopolitan
hotels on the other side of the Howrah Bridge. But instead he led me
to the right, straight toward Chitpore Road, straight into the heart
of the ancestral tenements of the Ghoses and Raos and Kumars--the
respectable native quarter, in other words.
That was my first surprise. My second came when we reached his
home--a two storied house of typical extravagant bulbous Hindu
architecture, surrounded by a flaunting garden, orange and vermilion
with peach and pomegranate and peepul trees and with a thousand
nodding flowers. For, as soon as he had ushered me into the great
reception hall which stretched across the whole ground floor from
front to back veranda, he excused himself. He did not wait to see me
comfortably seated nor to offer me drink and tobacco, after the
pleasant Anglo-Indian, and, for that matter, American habit. But he
dropped hat and stick on the first handy chair, left the room with a
hurried "be back in a jiffy, old man," and, a moment later I heard
somewhere in the upper story of the house his deep mellow voice,
quickly followed by a tinkling, silvery burst of laughter--the
unmistakable, low-pitched laughter of the native woman which starts
on a minor key and is accompanied by strange melodious appoggiatures
an infinitesimal sixteenth below the harmonic tones to which the
Western ear is attuned.
So I felt surprised, also disappointed and a little disgusted. The
usual sordid shop-worm romance--I said to myself--the usual, useless
pinchbeck tale of passion of some fool of a young, rich American and
a scheming native woman, doubtless aided and abetted by a swarm of
scheming, greasy, needy relations--the old story; the sort of thing
that used to be notorious in Japan and in the Philippines.
Impatient, rather soured with my new-found friend, I looked about
the room--and my surprise grew, but in another direction.
For the room was not furnished in the quick, tawdry,
thrown-together manner of a man who lives and loves and nests with
the impulses of a bird of passage. That I could have understood. It
would have been in keeping with the tinkly laugher which had drifted
down the stairs. Too, I could have understood if the appointments had
been straight European or American, a sort of cheap, sentimental link
with the home self--respect which he had
discarded--temporarily---when he started light housekeeping with his
The room, complete from the ceiling to the floor and from window
to door, was furnished in the native style; not in the nasty, showy,
ornate native style of the bazaars which cater to tourists--and it is
in Indian's favor that the "Oriental wares" sold there are mostly
made in Birmingham, Berlin and Newark, N. J.--but in that solid,
heavy, rather somber native style of the well-to-do high-caste Hindu
to whom every piece--each chair and table and screen--is somehow
fraught with eternal, racial tradition. It was a real home, in other
words and a native home; and there was nothing--if I except a rack of
bier pipes and a humidor filled with a certain much-advertised brand
of Kentucky burley tobacco--which spoke of America.
A low divan ran around the four sides of the room. There were
three carved saj-wood chairs, a Kashmir walnut table of which the
surface was deeply undercut with realistic chenar leaves, and a large
water-pipe made of splendid Lucknow enamel. A huge, reddish-brown
camel's-hair rug covered the floor, and on tabourets distributed here
and there were niello boxes filled with the roseleaf-and-honey
confections beloved by Hindu women, pitchers and basins of that
exquisite damascening called bidri, and a soft-colored silken
scarf--coiled and crumpled, as if a woman had dropped it
The walls were covered with blue glazed tiles; and one the one
facing the outer door an inscription in inlaid work caught my
attention. They were just a few words, in Sanskrit, and, somehow,
they affected me strangely. They were the famous words from the
"Recall, O mind, thy deeds--recall, recall!"
The answer was clear. I said to myself, with a little bitter pang
for remember that I liked the man--that here was one who had gone
fantee, who had gone native; a man who had dropped overboard all the
traditions, the customs, and decencies, the virtues, the blessed,
saving prejudices of his race and faith to mire himself hopelessly in
the slough of a foreign race and faith. For it is true that a man who
goes fantee never acquires the good, but only the bad of the alien
breed with which he mingles and blends---true, moreover, that such a
man can never rise again, that the doors of the house of his birth
shall be forever closed to him. He has blackened the crucible of his
life and he will never find a single golden bead at the bottom of it;
only hatred and despair and disgust, a longing for the irreparably
lost, a bitter taste in the mouth of his soul.
I started towards the door. Out into the free, open sunlight, I
said to myself. For I knew what would happen. The man would come
down-stairs, carrying a square bottle and glasses. Presently he would
become drunk--maudlin--he would pour his mean, dirty confidences into
my ear and weep on my neck and---
I reconsidered, quite suddenly. Why, this young American had not
the earmarks of a man who had gone fantee. There was not that look in
his eyes--that horrible, unbearable look, a composite of misery and
lust, bred of bad thoughts, bad dreams, and worse hashish---
The man--I had seen him in the merciless rays of the Indian
sun--was keen-eyed, clean morally and physically. His laughter was
fresh. His complexion was healthy--and yes, continued my thoughts, he
seemed happy, supremely, sublimely, enviably happy!
"Sorry I kept you waiting," came his voice from the farther door
as he came into the room, dressed in the flowing, comfortable house
robe of a wealthy native gentleman.
He must have read my gyrating, unspoken thought. Perhaps I stared
a little too inquisitively at his face, for the tell-tale sign of the
sordid tragedy which I suspect. For he smiled, a fine, thin smile,
and he pointed to the Sanskrit inscription, reading the words out
loud and with a certain gently exalted inflection as if his tongue,
in forming the sonorous words, was tasting a special sort of psychic
"Recall, O Mind, thy deeds--recall, re--"
"Well," I blurted out, brutally, tactlessly, before I realized
what I was doing, "What is the answer--to this and that and this?"
pointing, in turn, at the Indian furniture, the inscription, his
dressing robe, and, though the stone-framed window, at the native
houses which crowded the garden on all sides.
He smiled. He was not the least bit angry, but frankly amused,
like a typical, decently-bred American who can even relish a joker at
his own expense. "You're an inquisitive beggar," he commenced, "but
I'll tell you rather than have some gossiping cackling hen of a
deputy assistant commissioner's mother-in-law tell you the wrong tale
and make me lose your friendship. You see," he continued, with an air
as if he was telling me a tremendous secret, "I am Stephen
"Well," I asked, "what of that? The name meant nothing to me."
"What? Have they already forgotten my name? Gosh, that's bully! In
another year they will have forgotten the tale itself! You see," he
continued, dropping into one of the divans and waving me down beside
him, "I'm the guy whom the kid subalterns over at the British
barracks call 'the man with the charmed life.'"
I gave a cry--of surprise, amazement, incredulity. For I had heard
tales--vague, fantastic, incredible. "You--" I stammered,
"Yes," he laughed, "I am that same man. Care to hear the
"You bet!" I replied fervently, and that very moment, came once
more the sound of laughter from up-stairs--soft, tinkling,
CHAPTER II - The Call
I broke the night's primeval bars
I dared the old abysmal curse
And flashed through ranks of frightened stars
Suddenly on the universe!
STEPHEN DENTON interrupted his tale now and then with shrewd and
picturesque sidelights on native life, customs, and characters which
proved now deep he had got below the skin of India. But I shall omit
them here--doubtless at a future date, he himself will embody them in
the great book on India which he is writing--and, in the following, I
shall only give the pith of his incredible tale. I only regret that
there is no way of reproducing his voice with the printed word---his
happy, frank voice, unmistakably American in its intonations, yet
once in a while with a quaint inflection which showed that he had
begun to think at times in Hindustani.
You see, he commenced, it was all originally Roos-Keppel's
doing--fault, if you prefer to call it that. Roos-Keppel--"Tubby"
Roos-Keppel---you must have met him over at the jockey club, or in
the evening, in the Eden Gardens, driving about in his old-fashioned
C-spring barouche---big, paunchy, brick-faced Britisher, who won the
Calcutta Sweepstakes--in 1900. Why everybody in India knows the tale,
how a sudden, mad prosperity went to his head; how he gave up his job
in the Bengal Civil Service, and painted Calcutta crimson for three
years; how he lost his hold on everything, including himself;
everything that is, except his hospitality, his fantastic ideas, his
infectious, daredevil madness.
I met him the day after I got here. How did I get here? Why?
Well, two years to-morrow, to answer your last question first, and
as to why and how, there's a native proverb which says that fate and
self--exertion are half and half in power.
I came here on a sight-seeing trip after I'd got through Yale. I
had money of my own, my parents were dead, there was nobody to say
no---and I had an idea it would do me good to get a nodding
acquaintance with the world and its denizens before I settled down in
the Back Bay section--yes--you guessed it--originally I'm just that
sort of a Bostonian.
Everything back home--with the dear old, white-haired lawyer, who
was my guardian, and his little plump spinster sister who kept house
for him, and the black walnut furniture and the antimacassars and the
bound volumes, of Emerson and Longfellow and Thoreau--it seemed all
so confounded safe and sure. Even timid. Respectably, irreproachably
timid, if you get the idea.
Stephen Denton smiled reminiscently.
Preordained, too, it seemed. Preordained from the mild cocktail
before dinner to the hoary place on the bench I was expected to grace
some day. I had every reason to be happy, don't you think? And I was
And then I smelled a whiff of wanderlust. And so it happened that
that red faced Britisher of a Roos-Keppel kicked me, figuratively
speaking, in the stomach--and I'm grateful to him--always shall be
I met him at the jockey club. He took to me and invited me to
dinner at the Hotel Semiramis, where he had a gorgeous suite of
rooms. It was some little dinner--just the two of us--and you know
the sort of host he is. We tried every barreled, fermented, and
bottle refreshment from Syrian raki to yellow-ribbon Grand Marnier;
and it was at the end of the party--I was busy with a large cup of
coffee and a small glass of brandy, and he with a small cup of coffee
and a large glass of brandy--that he cut loose and told me tales
about India--tales in which he had been either principal or
witness--and, in half an hour, he had taught me more about the hidden
nooks and corners of this land than there is in all the travel books,
Murray's government and missionary reports put together. What's more
his tales were true.
So I asked him, like a tactless young cub: "Heavens, man, with
your knowledge of India---why did you throw your chance away? Why
didn't you stick to it? You would have made a great, big, bouncing,
twenty-four carat success!"
"And I would have wound up with a G. C. S. I., a bloody
knighthood, a pension of ten thousand rupees a year, and a two-inch
space in the obituary column of the Calcutta Times--English papers
please copy--when I've kicked the bally bucket!" He guffawed, and he
hiccuped a little. For he had been hitting the brandy bottle, and all
the other assorted bottles, like a corn-stalk sailor on a shore spree
after two dry months on a lime-juicer without making port. "Success?"
he continued, "why, my lad, I am a success. A number
one--waterproof--and, damn my eyes, whisky-proof for that
"You are--what?" I asked, amazed for the man was serious,
perfectly serious, mind you; and he kept right on with his philippic
monologue, extravagant in diction and gesture, but the core of
it--why it was serene, grotesquely serene! "I am a success, I repeat:
don't you believe me?" He lowered a purple-veined eyelid in a fat,
"Take a good look at these rooms of mine---best rooms in the
Semiramis, in Calcutta, in India, hang it all--in the whole plurry
empire!" He pointed at the gorgeous furniture and the silk hangings,
"Viceroys by the score have occupied them--and the Prince of
Wales--and four assorted Russian grand dukes--and three bloated
Yankee plutocrats. And our little supper--look at the bottles and
dishes--how much do you think it'll cost? I tell you--five hundred
rupees---without the tip! And," he laughed, "I haven't even got
enough of the ready to tip the black-lacquered Eurasian majordomo who
uncorked our sherry and, doubtless, swiped the first glass."
I made an instinctive gesture toward my pocket-book, but he
stopped me with another laugh. "Don't make a silly ass of yourself,"
he said. "I don't want to borrow any money. All I want to prove to
you is that I live and I do as I please--forgetful of the yesterday,
careless of the morrow--serene in my belief in my own particular
fate. To-night I am broke--hopelessly, desperately broke, you'd call
it. For I haven't got a rupee in the world. My bank-account is
concave, I owe wages to my servants, I owe for my stable service and
horse feed. Everything I have--even my old C-spring barouche, even my
old, patched, green bedroom slippers are mortgaged. But what of it?
I'll sleep to-night as quiet and untouched as a little babe,
something is sure to happen tomorrow---always does happen. I always
"But--how?" I was beginning to get worried for him--I liked
"How? Because I am a success--a success with reverse English. The
world? Why, I put it all over this fool of a world. For I believe in
myself. That's why I win out. Everybody who believes in himself wins
out--in what he wants to win out. You, Denton," he went on after a
short pause, "are a nice lad, clean and well-bred and no end proper.
But you are too damned smug--no offense meant--you are like a
respectable spinster owl with respectable astigmatism. Cut away from
it. See life. Make life. Take life by the tail and swing it about
your head and force it to disgorge. Take a chance--say to yourself
that nothing can happen to you!"
"Pretty little theory," I interrupted.
"Theory--the devil!" he cried. "It's the truth! Don't take me as
an example if you don't want to. Take people who have done real
things. Take you own adored George Washington--take the Duke of
Wellington, take Moltke, Ghengiz Khan, U. S. Grant, Attila,
Tamerlane, Joffre, or Theodore Roosevelt! They lived through to the
end until they had achieved what they wanted to achieve. They made
their own fate. The bullet was not run, the sword was not forged
which could kill these---for they had willed to live, willed to
succeed! They--" a little superstitious hush came into his voice,
"they bore the charmed life--"
He poured himself another stiff drink, gulped it down, and pointed
through the open window, out at the streets of Calcutta, which lay at
our feet, bathed in moonlight.
I looked, and the sight of it, the scent of it, the strange,
inexpressible feel of it crept through me--yes, that's it--it crept
through me. You know this town--this Calcutta--this melting pot of
all India--and remember, that brick-faced reprobate of a Roos-Keppel
had been telling me tales of it--grim, fantastic, true tales--and
here they were at my feet, the witnesses and actors, the heroes and
villains in his tales--hurrying along the street in a never-ending
procession--a vast panorama of Asia's uncounted races. There were men
from Bengal, black, ungainly, slightly Hebraic shuffling along on
their eternal, sissified patent leather pumps. There were men some
bearded Rajputs--weaponless, that being the law of Calcutta, but
carrying about them somehow the scent of naked steel--and next to
them their blood enemies--fur-capped, wide shouldered, sneering
Afghans, with screaming voices, brushing through the crowds like the
bullies they are--doubtless dreaming of loot and rapine and murder.
There were furtive Madrases--"monkey men" we call them here--and a
few red-faced duffle-clad hillmen from the North--thin, stunted
desertmen from Bikaneer, with their lean jaws bandaged after the
manner of the land, and Sikhs and Chinamen and Eurasians and
And, directly below our window, there was a Brahman priest, a
slow, fanatic fire in his eyes---the light from out room caught in
them--a caste mark of diagonal stripes of white and black on his
forehead, chanting in Sanskrit the praises of the hero and demi-god
". . . and thus did the great hero persuade the king of Dhara to
give to him in marriage his daughter. Ho! Let all men listen to the
Jataka for he was the son of Indra...."
Roos-Keppel's thick, alcoholic voice sounded at my elbow. "India,"
he hiccuped, "and the horror, the beauty, the wonder, the cruelty,
the mad color and scent which is India!" He clutched my arm. "My
game's played down to the last rubber, Denton, and my score is nearly
settled---but you--why. you've got a stack of chips--you are strong
and young--your eyes are clear---and--Gad, I wish I had your chance!
I'd take this town by the throat--I'd jump into its damned mazes,
regardless of consequences. Heavens, man, can't you feel it beckon
and wink and smile--and leer? Listen--" momentarily he was silent,
and, from the street came a confused mass of sounds--voices in many
languages, rising, then decreasing, the shouts of the street-vendors,
the tinkle-tinkle of a woman's glass bracelet--the sounds leaped up
like gay fragments of some mocking tunes, again like the tragic
chorus of some world--old, world--sad rune. "India!" he continued,
"can you resist the call of it?"
It was a psychological moment. Yes--it was that often misquoted,
decidedly overworked psychological moment--the brandy and champagne
fumes were working in my brain---and something tugged at my soul--if
I had wings to fly from the window, to launch myself across the
purple haze of the town, to alight on the flat roofs and look into
the houses, the lives, the gaieties, the mysteries, the sorrows of
this colorful, turbaned throng. And then everything I was--racially,
traditionally, you understand--the Back Bay of Boston; the old
lawyer, my preordained place on the bench, the antimacassars, Phi
Beta Kappa, and all the rest of it, made a last rally in my
"But," I said and I guess my voice was thin, apologetic--just as
if Roos-Keppel was the driving master of my destinies, "this is said
to be a dangerous place--away from the beaten paths---so what is the
"The use? The use?" he cut in, with a bellow of laughter, and
then, suddenly, his voice was low and quiet "Why, just because it's
dangerous, that; why you should try your chance--and your life." He
pointed again through the window, east, where, on the horizon, a
deep-gray smudge lay across the bent of glimmer and glitter. "See
that patch of darkness?" he asked, with something of a challenge in
his accents which were getting more and more unsteady, "that's the
Colootallah Section--cha--charming little bunch of real estate--worst
in the world, not even excepting Aden, Naples and all the wickedness
and crimes of Port Said. Only two men are safe there, and they aren't
quite safe," he laughed, and to my quickly interjected question, he
replied, "Why, a fakir--holy man, you know--and a member of the
filthy castes who thrive there--you know even criminal have their own
castes in India, and they all seem to congregate there--thugs and
thieves and murderers and what-not.
"Wait"--he stopped my questions with a gesture--"perhaps, mind
you, I say 'perhaps,' an exceptional detective of the Metropolitan
Police in Lal Bazaar may be safe there for three minutes, but--" He
was silent and leered at me.
"But what?" I asked impatiently.
"I'd tackle it just the same if I were you, young and strong. No
white man has done it before. By Jupiter, I'd tackle it if I had a
char---char charmed life--" and quite suddenly he fell into snoring,
I stepped out on the balcony. India was at my feet, cruel,
beckoning, mysterious, scented, minatory, fascinating, inexplicable.
Right then it got below my skin.
I gave a low laugh. No, I don't know why I laughed.
Stephen Denton was silent for a moment. He was thinking deeply.
Then he shook his head.
Honestly, 1 don't know why I laughed. I don't know why I did any
of the things I did that night, until I came to the wall at the other
end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully. No, no. I had imbibed quite a
little--couldn't help it--with Roos--Keppel, but I was not drunk. Not
a bit of it.
Well, imagine me there on the balcony of the Semiramis, laughing
at India, if you wish; perhaps at the Back Bay, perhaps at myself. I
left the balcony, patted the drunken man on the shoulder, and stepped
out of the hotel and into the smoky, purple night. The storm which
had threatened earlier by the evening was melting into a quiet night
of glowing violet, with a pale, sneering, negligent sort of a moon. A
low, cool wind was blowing up from the River Hooghli.
I gave a mocking farewell bow in the direction of Park Street, the
white man's Calcutta, Government House, green tea and respectability,
and turned east, sharp east, toward the patch of darkness, toward the
Colootallah. I walked very steadily, as if I had a definite aim and
object, turned on the corner of Park Street, and there a policeman,
an English policeman, stopped me.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said with that careful. Anglo-Saxon
politeness, "you're goin' the wrong way, I fancy, sir. The hotel is
over yonder, sir," pointing in the opposite direction; and I laughed.
I pressed a rupee into his ready hand. "Hotel, nothing." I said. "I
am going toward the Street of Charmed Life!"
"Right-o." commented the policeman. "Some of these 'ere native
streets do 'ave funny names, don't they? But--beggin' your pardon,
sir--better 'ave a care. Those streets ain't safe for a white man,
least--ways at night."
"Quite safe--for me!" I assured him, and I walked on, on and on,
not caring where I went---away from the thoroughfares, through grimy
little gardens in the back of opium dens where the brick paths were
hollow and slimy with the tread of many naked, unsteady feet; then
through a greasy, packed wilderness of three-storied houses,
perfectly respectable Babu houses, from which a faint, acrid smell
seemed to emanate; on, twisting and turning, through the Burra Bazaar
and the Jora Bagan--you know the sections, don't you, and their New
York counterpart, the Bowery and Hell's Kitchen--and then up into the
crooked mazes of the Machua Bazaar--evil, filthy, packed.
On and on, farther and farther away, and at every corner, in every
doorway, there were new faces, new types, new voices, new odors,
until I came to the Colootallah.
How did I know I was there? Oh, I asked a native, decent sort he
was, though he was a bit unsteady with opium, and, just like the
English policeman, he advised me to go back to Park Street.
Perhaps he was right. For a moment I was quite sure that he was
right, but I walked on, through streets that grew steadily more
narrow. You know how narrow they can be, with a glimpse of smoky sky
above the roofs revealing scarcely three yards of breadth, and all
sorts of squirmy, squishy things underneath your feet, and shawls,
and bit of underwear, and turban clothes hanging from the windows and
balconies and flopping unexpectedly into your face, and beggars, and
roughs, and lepers slinking and pushing against you, jabbering,
quarreling, begging; and the roadway ankle-deep in thick slime, and a
fetid stink hanging over it all like a cloud; and the darkness, the
bitter darkness---black blotched, compact, except for a haggard
moon-ray shooting down occasionally from above and glancing off into
the cañon of the street from bulbous roof and crazy, tortured
By ginger, I was sick for a moment. I said to myself that there
was a steamer sailing the next day--home and America via
Liverpool--and I was about to turn when---
Wait a second.
Get first where I was, though you'll never find the place. You'll
hear the reason why later on. You see, I had meanwhile turned up a
narrow street; it was quite lonely there; not a soul, not a footstep,
hardly a sound. They called the place then--mind you, I said
then--Ibrahim Khan's Gully. It was typical of its sort. Whitewashed
walls without windows or doors, mysterious, useless-looking to right
and to left; and straight in front of me, at the end of the gully,
was another wall. It sat there at the end of that cul-de-sac like a
seal of destiny, portentous threatening. The moon was pretty well
behaved and bright just then, and so I looked at that wall. It
It was perhaps ten feet high, and it seemed to be the support of
some roof-top for it was crowned with rather an elaborate balustrade
of carved, fretted stone. At a certain distance behind it rose
another higher wall, then another, still higher, and so on; as if the
whole block was terraced from the center toward the gully. To the
left and right the wall stretched, gradually rising into the dark
without a break, it seemed, and surmounted here and there by the
fantastic outline of some spire or balcony or crazy, twisted roof,
the whole thing a confounded muddle of Hindu architecture, with
apparently neither end nor beginning--mad, brusk, useless--like a
harebrained giant's picture-puzzle.
There I stood and stared. I said to myself, "Back, you fool?
Straight home with you to Boston, to the bound volumes of Emerson, to
the mild cocktail--and I wonder who'll win the mile at the
Intercollegiate--" And then--and I remember it as if it was to-day,
it was just in the middle of that thought about the mile race--I
heard a voice directly above me.
It was a woman's voice, singing in that quaint, minor wail of
Eastern music. Perhaps you know the words. I have learned them by
You are to me the gleam of sun
That breaks the gloom of wintry rain;
You are to me the flower of time---
O Peacock, cry again!
"Bravo, bravo!" I shouted. For you see I was only a fool of an
outsider, looking into this night--wrapped, night-sounding India as I
would look at a fantastic play, and then suddenly the song broke off,
came another voice, harsh, hissing, spitting, the sound of a hand
slapping bare flesh, and then a piercing shriek. A high-pitched,
woman's shriek that shivered the night air, that somehow shivered my
I must help that woman, but--"Home you fool, you silly, meddling
idiot." said my saner ego "This is no quarrel of yours." "Take a
chance," replied another cell in my brain. "Take a chance with
chance! See what all this talk about a charmed life is!"
No, no, I decided the next moment it was mad. Impossible. A native
house, a native woman--they were sacred. Not even the police would
dare enter without a search warrant; and this was the Colootallah,
the worst section of Calcutta; and I knew next to nothing about
India, about the languages, the customs, the prejudices of the land,
except what Roos-Keppel had told me.
"Hai-hai-hai!" came once more the piercing, woman's wail: and
right then I consigned Back Bay and safety first to the devil. I made
for that wall with a laugh, perhaps a prayer.
A charmed life! By the many hecks, I'd find out presently I said
to myself, as I jumped on a narrow ledge a few feet from the ground,
from which I could clutch the top of the stone balustrade.
I swung myself into the unknown, balanced for the fraction of a
second on the balustrade, then let myself drop. I struck something
soft and bulky that squirmed swiftly away. Came a grunt and a
curse--at least, it sounded suspiciously like a curse--then somebody
struck a light which blinded me momentarily.
And at that very moment the bell from the Presbyterian Church in
Old Court House Street struck the midnight hour.
CHAPTER III - A Fool's Heart
Oft have I heard that no accident or chance ever mars the march of
events here below, and that all moves in accordance with a plan. To
take shelter under a common bough or a drink of the same river is
alike ordained from ages prior to our birth.
--From the letter of a Japanese Daimio to his wife before
RAPIDLY my eyes got used to the light. It came from a flickering,
insincere oil-lamp held in the hands of an elderly Hindu, evidently
the possessor of the soft and bulky body which I had struck when I
had let myself drop.
He looked at me, and I looked at him, silently. I am quite sure we
didn't like each other. We didn't have to say a single word to
convince each other of the fact. He was an old man, but old without
the slightest trace of dignity, he wore no turban, and that gave his
shiny, shaven head a horribly naked look. On his forehead was a
crimson caste mark--nasty-looking thing it was. His eyes were
hopelessly bleared, his teeth were blackened with betel juice, his
rough, gray beard was quite a stranger to comb or oil. He was a fat,
ridiculous old man, with a ridiculous, squeaky little cough.
I burst out laughing, and I laughed louder when I saw the
expression which crept into his red-rimmed eyes. Not that the
expression was really funny. Rather this opposite. For it was one of
beastly hatred, of savage joy, of sinister triumph. But, don't you
see, I wasn't the Stephen Denton of half a year, why, of half an hour
before. Right then I had forgotten all about America and Boston and
regulation respectability. There seemed to be no home tradition to
analyze and criticize and I belonged right there--to that flat
rooftop, to the purple, choking night down below in Ibrahim Khan's
Gully, to India, to Calcutta. One blow of my fist, I said to myself,
and that fat, ridiculous old savage would take an involuntary,
headlong tumble from the balustrade to the blue, sticky mire of the
gully. So I laughed.
But hold on. Don't get the story wrong. I didn't stand there, on
that roof-top in the Colootallah, exactly thinking out all these
impressions, detail for detail. They passed over me in a solid wave
and in the fraction of a second, and, even as they swept through me,
the lamp in the hands of the old man trembled a little and shot its
haggard, dirty-white rays a little to the left, toward a short,
squat, carved stone pillar quite close to the balustrade.
And there, breathing hard, clutching the pillar with two tiny,
narrow hands, I saw a native woman--a young girl rather--doubtless
she whom I had heard sing, then scream in pain. Red, cruel
finger-marks were still visible on her delicate, pale-golden
Stephen Denton lit a cigar and blew out a series of rings,
attempting to hang them on the chandelier, one by one.
You know (he said this with a certain, ringing, challenging
seriousness) I fell in love right then and there. Sounds silly, of
course. But it's the truth. I looked at that Hindu girl, and I loved
her. Such a--a--why, such a strange, inexpressible sensation came
over me. It seemed suddenly that we were alone--she and I--on the
roof-top in Calcutta--alone in all the world---
But never mind that I guess you know what love is.
She was hardly more than sixteen years old, and she dressed in the
conventional dress of a Hindu dancer, in a sari--you know, the scarf
which the Hindu woman drapes about her with a deft art not dreamed of
by Fifth Avenue--of pale rose colored silk, shot with orange and
violet and bordered with tiny seed-pearls. An edge of the sari hung
over one round shoulder and the robe itself came just below the knee.
Her face was small and round and exquisitely chiseled. Her hair was
parted in the middle. It was of a glossy bluish--black, mingled with
flowers and jewels and the braids came down to her ankles. A perfume,
sweet, pungent, mysterious, so faint as to be little more than a
suggestion, hovered about her.
Well--I stared at her. Then I remembered my manners and lifted my
hand to raise my hat. It wasn't there. I must have dropped it when I
negotiated the wall and the girl, seeing my action, understanding it,
forgot her pain and laughed. Such a jolly silvery, exquisite little
Ever think of the psychology of laughter? To me it has always
seemed the final proof of sympathy, of humanity, even. And so that
laugh, from the crimson lips of this Hindu girl, finally did the
trick. I forgot all about the fat old party with the caste mark and
the bleary eyes, I walked up to the girl and offend her my hand,
"Glad to meet you," I said in English. It was a foolish thing to
say, absolutely ridiculous, but just then I couldn't think of
anything else. You see, at midnight, on the roof-top of some unknown
native house in the heart of the Colootallah, together with people of
an unknown race and faith, of alien tradition, alien emotions,
even---what would you have said?
I struck to my native-born form of salutation, and held out my
hand. She gave me hers--it felt just like some warm, downy little
baby bird--and replied in English, with a certain faint nuance of
mockery, "Glad to meet you, sir," and I grinned and was about to open
up a polite conversation.
You see, momentarily I had really forgotten all about that
bleary-eyed old scoundrel. But he recalled himself to me almost
immediately--with an exceedingly rude and, considering his age,
muscular push which shoved me to one side and the girl to the
There he stood between us, like an exageratingly hideous Hindu
idol of revenge and hatred and lust and half a dozen other assorted
beastly qualities, the lamp trembling in his clawlike hand. He
pointed at me, addressing the girl in a mad, jerky, helter-skelter
flood of Hindustani--I didn't understand it--which caused the girl to
pale and to shake her head vigorously. It was evidence that he was
accusing her of something or other, and that she was denying the
accusation indignantly. And then he commenced abusing her in English,
doubtless for my benefit.
I was stuffing his mouth at once with my fist, but the girl
signaled to me, frantically, imploringly, "No, no"--I saw her lips
shaping the words and so, temporarily I kept me peace while the old
Hindu proceeded to prove that he could translate Hindu abuse into
very fair English.
"Ho!" he shouted at her. "Ho! thou daughter of unthinkable
begatting! Thou spawn of much filth. Thou especially illegitimate and
shameless hyena! Thou this and that and once more this! By Shiva and
Shiva--I shall wench thy wicked hide with the touchstone of pain and
affliction! I shall--"
"Look here" I interrupted "you are getting entirely too fresh.
Stow your line of talk, or--" and I made a significant gesture with
my fist---would have hit him, too, if the girl had not signaled to me
again--this time, and I don't know what she wanted by it, pointing at
her forehead and then back at the building which terraced toward the
center of the block.
The Hindu man was too angry to notice the by-play. "O Calamity!"
he went on. "O crimson shame! May Doorgha, the great goddess, cut out
thy heart and feed it to a mangy pig! What shameless doing are
these--O thou bazaar woman--to send word to thy lover--to have him
come here, to this house, and at night? Didst thou think that I would
be asleep? Thy lover--" he spat out, "and he a man of the accused
foreign race, an infidel, an eater of unclean food, a cannibal of the
holy cow, a swinish derider of the many gods! He--thy lover! Ah! by
the Mother of the Elephant's Trunk--thy portion shall be the pain
which passeth understanding!" Suddenly he turned and addressed
himself to me, "and as for thee--for thee--" He was so choked with
fury that the words were gurgled and died in his throat. He
positively did not know whom to insult or bully first, the girl or
me. Like Balaam's Ass, he stood there, undecided, and finally he made
up his mind to attend first to the girl.
"Thou--" came an unmentionable epithet, unmentionable even among
Hindus, and you know how extravagant their abuse is inclined to be,
then he turned on her. His right hand still held the trembling lamp.
He struck out with his left. She tried to evade him--slipped--I was
too late to come to her rescue--only a glancing blow, but she fell,
bumping her head smartly against the stone pillar.
She gave a pitiful little moan--and was unconscious.
Then I got mad.
I rushed up to him, lunged, and missed. You see, the old beggar
danced away from me with a certain sharp, twisting agility which I
wouldn't have believed possibly in that aged, obese body of his.
Also, I had to be careful--on that confounded roof-top. No use
tumbling over the balustrade and breaking my neck. That wouldn't have
helped the girl any. The only chance I had was to get him against the
wall on the side opposite the gully--a torn-down wall occasionally
connecting the rooftop with the next layer on that maze of
Finally I managed to drive him toward the wall. I had him
cornered. He stood there--the lamp still flickering in his right, its
ray sharply silhouetting him against the spectral white stucco. I was
quite fascinated for a moment, looking at him. The idea flushed into
my brain that I was looking into the visage of something monstrous,
impossible. The beastly bald skull, the caste mark, the fat,
wide-humped shoulders, suggested that which was scarcely human and,
struck by a sudden burst of horror, I stared into that dark,
Then he opened his mouth--he said something, in a low voice of
what was going to happen to me. It had something to do with one of
his beastly, many-armed gods--I didn't understand the allusion at the
time. At all events, he pointed at the caste mark on his forehead
You see, I am a slow, careful sort of fighter. I hate to waste a
blow. Furthermore, up to then we had all been comparatively quiet. I
didn't care to make too much noise. And I had him cornered. So,
instead of rushing up like a noisy avalanche, I poised myself on my
toes, squared my shoulders, drew back my right arm--and then I nearly
lost the whole game. For, quite suddenly, he brought his left hand to
his mouth. He was about to shout--for help, I suppose. And then I hit
him, right between the eyes, By ginger, it was a wallop.
You see, I was quite mad; and even in that fleeting moment, when I
had really no time to register sensations, I could feel his skin
break beneath my knuckles, the soft, pulped flesh--the blood
squirting up--and, darn it, I liked the feeling!
Stephen Denton gave a strange smile.
Rather bestial, don't you think? But then I told you I was a
different man--there, on that roof-top, with purple India whispering
about me--than I had been half an hour before.
Well, the old Hindu fell, unconscious, by the side of the girl.
The lamp dropped from his hand. I tried to catch it, could not, and
over the balustrade it went in a fantastic curve of yellow sparks,
and down into the blue slime of Ibrahim Khan's Gully where it gave a
little protesting sshissh and guttered out.
So there I was, on that confounded roof-top, in utter silence,
utter darkness--the moon had hidden behind a cloud-bank--and within a
few feet of me was the unconscious form of the girl---the Hindu
girl--with whom I had fallen in love---and I knew neither her name,
nor her faith--nor anything at all about her. An adventure, don't you
think? An adventure--to me. Fantastic, twisted, incredible! And, a
few hours before, I had imagined that the greatest adventure that
could ever happen to me would be to catch a fifty pound salmon, and
to get away with the tale of it!
But, just then, I didn't even consider the whole mad sequence of
events in the light of adventure. It seemed all perfectly sane,
perfectly possible--preordained, in a way--and I thought and acted
with the utmost self-assurance and deliberation.
Was I afraid, you ask? I was not. Honestly! Sounds silly,
bragging, doesn't it? But it's the truth. Of course I realized that
my position was ugly. You see, there was that blotchy, purple
darkness all about me, and a terrific, breathless silence--and what
was I to do? Back across the wall? Into Ibrahim Khan's Gully--and a
run for the Hotel Semiramis? Sure, I could have jumped down. I had
learned the trick in gym work, back at college--to land on my toes,
slightly bending my back and my legs.
But I didn't take that chance. I could not. For there was the
girl, and I loved her. She was dear to me--very dear--dearer than my
life, my salvation--dearer--what's the old saying?--yes, dearer than
the dwelling of kings! Carefully, slowly I crept across to her side,
for I didn't want to step on the old Hindu. I didn't want to recall
him from his trance before I was ready for him, before I had decided
exactly what to do.
I stooped down and touched the girl's soft little face. The touch
went through me like an electric thrill. What was I to do? She was
breathing, but quite unconscious. I had no way, no time to revive
Should I take her with me across the balustrade? Impossible. I
couldn't drag her into the gully like a bag of flour, nor was it
feasible for me to go down first--wouldn't be able to reach and lift
her from below.
I was sure of only one thing. I wouldn't leave without
her--without her I wouldn't leave that roof-top, the Colootallah, nor
Calcutta, nor India.
I loved her. I wanted her. I would die for her. The source of that
rash courage will ever be to me an inexplicable mystery. For, don't
you see, I had always lived a perfectly sheltered life back in
Boston, with the antimacassars and the walnut furniture and the
volumes of Emerson and Thoreau. But I had resolved to take that girl
with me. No more, nor less!
So I squatted there, by the side of the girl, considering. It is
strange how trivial things impinge on the consciousness in such
moments with a shock of something important, immense. There was just
a slight noise--a soft tckk-tckktckk--but, somehow, I knew what it
was. It was the noise of a scorpion scuttling across the roof---to
the left of me--towards the old Hindu.
I knew just exactly what would happen---tried my best, with a
sharp hiss, to prevent it--but it did happen. The little scorpion,
if, indeed, it was one--perhaps it was only a mouse--scurried across
the old Hindu's face--startled him into consciousness.
He sat up. He gave a shout for help--just one shout. I was one top
of him the very next second--but I could not clutch that shout out of
the air--it echoed and reverberated among the terraced walls, sharp,
metallic. It tore through the gloom like the point of a knife.
I had him down on his back again in the twinkling of an eye, had
him gagged securely with my handkerchief and the heavy leather gloves
I carried in my pocket. Working feverishly, I tore the silk scarf
from the girl's shoulder, tore off my coat, my necktie--and had him
tied before he knew what was happening to him.
Then I sat up and listened. With a little gray thrill of horror I
realized that the cry for help had been heard, that the crisis was
upon me. Far in the bowels of that crazy mass of terrace buildings I
heard confused voices--footsteps.
Tap-tap-tap--naked feet stepping gingerly on cold stone slabs.
A dozen questions leaped to my brain. What could I do? How? The
old man--myself--the girl---
Yes! The girl whom I loved. At that moment I longed for two
things, two things of Western civilization: a revolver and a box of
matches. But I had neither the one nor the other about me. All I had
was a knife, a pretty good knife, too, very much like an old-fashion
Bowie. I had bought it the day I left America, in a spirit of jest,
rather than with the expectation of using it.
The footsteps came nearer and nearer from the direction of the
wall which connected the rooftop with the next building. I looked
about me, for a place to hide the girl, to hide myself.
And the old man! Over the wall with him, I decided brutally, and I
dragged at his feet--he was heavy, very heavy--and then I desisted.
For the footsteps came nearer, ever nearer; also excited voices in an
For a moment the voices were drowned in a round, metallic burst of
sound. Banng! came the bell from the Presbyterian Church in Old Court
House Street, tolling the quarter after midnight. Then, when the
tolling had trembled away, came once again the sounds--nearer,
nearer--voices, footsteps, and also a faint crackling of steel, the
swish of a scabbard scraping across stone flags.
And the darkness was about me like a heavy, woolen garment.
Stephen Denton smiled, quizzically, incongruously.
Don't you see? He continued when he saw the expression of surprise
on my face, the thing was really quite funny. The adventure itself
seemed to me--oh, sort of inevitable, like a Greek drama: and as to
the darkness--why, old man, that moon there behind the cloud-bank
reminded me of some dear old chaperone at a ball at Magnolia. Prime
her with a ball of knitting wool, a glass of near-soft punch, and pop
her into a nice warm conservatory, and she'll remain there until the
band plays "Good Night, Ladies" and not bother the young idea. Get
it? So is was with that moon. Kept away, left everything blotchy,
dark side of by itself. Me and the girl, and the old man and the
whole damned rooftop.
Yes, I thought of all that at the time. But I acted, even as I
thought, as if I had two sets of nerve-controls, working separately
from each other. I moved about in the darkness, feverishly, searching
for some hiding-place big enough to hold one or all of us--the
footsteps and the voices were coming nearer all the time--and finally
I discovered that the balustrade, built out towards the roof-top,
formed a sort of box for a length of about six feet. Did I put the
girl inside? You bet your life I did not! I told you I wasn't going
to leave her ever again. I stuck the old man inside, handled him as I
would a bundle of useless, dirty rags; and the next moment, with the
strength and haste of desperation, I picked up the unconscious girl,
and, holding her in my arms, I squeezed myself behind the carved
stone pillar against which she had been leaning when I had burst upon
the scene. The place was just large enough to hold us--me and
her--pressed tight against me.
Of course, the whole thing took less time than it takes me to tell
So, there I was, holding that little Hindu girl in my
arms--and--why, man, I loved her--unless the repetition of that
detail bores you--my arms touched the soft curves of her young
It was quite dark, as I told you. But there, resting on my left
arm, was her little face, like an opening flower. Only a slip of a
girl, her youthful incompleteness just a lovely sketch for something
larger, finer, more splendid--just a mass of happy, seductive hints,
with the high-lights yet missing.
That's it! You guessed it first time! I kissed her--either my last
kiss on this earth I said to myself; or if there was any truth in
that charmed life hope, my first kiss--given, taken rather, in real
And, as I pressed her closer against me in the ecstasy of the
moment--you see, I had forgotten all about the approaching footsteps,
I am such a careless fellow--I felt as if something was giving way
behind me. Quickly I squirmed, a few inches to the right--there
wasn't so very much room, and at the same moment a door opened up in
the wall in back of the pillar, leading up from somewhere in that
crazy maze of a building.
The swing of the door missed me by a fraction of an inch--I sucked
in my breath--and two men came out on the roof-top carrying naked
No! I didn't see the blades, but both, one after the other,
scraped against me, cutting through trousers and underwear like
They wounded me slightly, but I made neither motion nor outcry.
For there, in my arms was the girl who was dearest to me in all the
world; and so, just for luck, I bent down and kissed her again.
CHAPTER IV - Depths
Vainly the heart on Providence calls, such aid to seek were hardly
wise For man must own the pitiless law the sways the globe and
sevenfold skies--From the Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi
WHAT saved me then was the Oriental negligence, the Oriental
carelessness as to details, which--and that's my own discovery---the
only thing that is keeping India and the rest of Asia in the rear of
An American watchman, hearing a cry for help, might possibly have
forgotten his gun. But never his lamp! With these two Hindus it was
just the opposite; armed to the teeth they were, judging from the
swish and crackle of steel which syncopated their movements about the
roof-top, but they carried neither lamp, nor candle, nor even a
match. They moved about there in the dark, searching, groping,
tapping and were, of course, very much astonished when they didn't
find anybody. I was sure that the old ruffian in the cupboard beneath
the balustrade nearly caused his eyes to pop out of his head with
effort to shout out to them, to tell them where he was. But my gloves
were a good gag--with a fine, healthy, tannic acid taste to them, I
Yes, they were astonished and amazed. At least, I gathered as much
from the guttural exclamations. They called on a variety of Hindi
deities to be witness to their predicament, but the native gods
weren't helping much that night. Just then, a little black-and-yellow
box of Swedish matches--prosaic, matter-of-fact Occidental
matches--would have beaten Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Parvati
herself into a cocked hat.
But those two steel-rattling fools did not know it. They just
groped about, and searched, and cursed a little, and finally they
seemed to decide that, though they themselves had come to the
roof-top via the only aperture that led out from the building itself,
there was only one other way--from Ibrahim Khan's Gully, across the
balustrade--the way I had taken. So one of them swung over the wall,
I heard him land on his feet, with a little soft plop, like some
great cat, and with a metallic, grating noise as the tip of his
scabbard bumped against the ground; and a moment later I heard him
down below, walking up and down, up and down, as if he was patrolling
By this time I was getting decidedly uncomfortable. The front of
me was all right, with that little soft, warm bundle of humanity held
tight in my arms. But the back of me! Pressed against the confounded
stone wall, with about an inch of sharp bronze door-hinge boring into
a choice spot of my anatomy! It was that which I minded. Funny, don't
you think? There I was, balancing precariously on the edge of the
unknown, and it wasn't my ultimate fate which I feared. I didn't even
think of it. The only thing that mattered was that one little pang of
pain in the small of my back.
A smile flickered on Stephen Denton's lips. It was not exactly a
smile of amusement, nor altogether a smile of triumph. Anyway, here's
how he continued:
I was pretty good at college, sort of solid and reliable; I played
tackle straight through my lessons--didn't slip and slide and run
about the side-lines.
Don't you get me? Well, put it this was, then:
I went in for the sound and heavy and recognized in learning, and
didn't care much for apologies. Regular chief in the tribe of the
Philistines I was! Psychology? That was a word always on the lips of
some of my classmates, as an excuse, an explanation for almost
anything. I didn't care for it at all.
I always thought that a psychologist is like a man who is looking
for his spectacles and finally finds them on his own nose, after
looking on everybody's else's nose--the sort of a man who loses his
spectacles--what? By putting them in the wrong place? Why, no! By
putting them in the right place! That's how he loses them! Well, I
didn't. I wasn't a psychologist, nor any other sort of intellectual,
self-analytical jackass. Perhaps I was too stupid--and it turned out
to be lucky for me that night, on the flat roof-top in the heart of
Colootallah, with every wickedness and crime and cruelty and
superstition in India floating and breathing and bunching somewhere
about me in the purple, choking darkness, with my love in my arms!
For--as I should and would have done had I been a junior
Münsterberg--I did not stop to dissect and label the psychology
of fear and apprehension, as exemplified in myself.
Perhaps I didn't have the time. All I meant to do--I had made up
my mind to do--was to get rid of the pain in my back, and to get the
little girl somewhere where there wouldn't be a witless hairbreadth
of destiny between her life and mine.
Of course, my first inclination was to assault the Hindu who had
remained behind--I could hear him breathe, near me, in the gloom--in
fact, to kill him. Yes, to kill him! Remember, I told you I was
beginning to feel myself part of the Colootallah scenery, including
the--ah!---primeval emotions of that charming neighborhood. But, if I
was a caveman in emotions, I was also a caveman in instinctive,
safety-first cunning. I said to myself that I could not kill without
making a noise--and there was my Hindu's sidekick prowling about in
the Gully. What then? I could not stay all night behind the pillar,
even supposing the pain in my back should cease. For, in another few
hours, it would be morning, and before that old lady Moon might get
it into her head almost any time to pop out from behind her banks of
clouds and treat us to a silver bath.
No hope in front of me, thus! But in back of me there was a door,
the only solid nail on which to hang my plan. If it had been door
enough to let the two Hindu out on the roof-top, It was bound to be
door enough to let me away from the roof-top.
I acted on that idea as soon as I thought of it. The door was
still ajar. Quite noiselessly, the girl in my arms, I squirmed around
the edge of it, and I felt steps under my feet.
Right then I drew a good, long breath the first in about three
eternities, it seemed to me---and I eased the strain on my muscles by
letting the warm little burden in my arms slip down until the tips of
her toes touched the ground.
What--did I lock the door behind me? You bet your life I
There was a latch, and I could have barred those snooping beggars
out, but what possible good would that have done? Sooner or later
they were bound to give up their search and to report to whomever had
sent them; and their suspicions would only have increased if they had
found that somebody had locked them out. No, I left the door open,
and, once more pressing the little Hindu girl tight against my chest,
I groped my way down the stairs, slowly, carefully, perhaps a couple
of dozen steps, worn, slippery and hollow by the trend of naked feet,
down, straight down.
There was not even the faintest ray of light. But I held to my
course, the burden in my arms getting heavier every second, carefully
setting foot before foot, and finally landing dead against the wall.
I gave my forehead a terrific bump and jarred my whole body. It was
providential that the girl didn't regain consciousness, for just then
I should have had a devil of a time explaining to her.
Presently, by groping tentatively here and there, I discovered
that I had debouched on a narrow landing which stretched right and
left. What now? I had to turn somewhere, and I chose the left, for
not particular reason. But I have often since wondered what would
have happened, how the whole thing would have ended, had I gone the
other way, although a few minutes later I decided that my eventual
choice of directions had been singularly unfortunate.
Still, in the end, it didn't turn out that way.
You see (Stephen Denton made a vast, circular gesture) here I am,
and--Never mind, old man. Let me resume my muttons.
He laughed at the word.
Muttons with a vengeance! If not muttons, then at least goats;
same family of ruminant animals, aren't they? For, as I walked down,
the landing a perfectly brutal, goatish smell seemed to drift from
the unknown goal toward which I was making. I wondered if on top of
all the other sanitary iniquities the Hindu was the habit of keeping
pens in the middle of their living-houses. But I wasn't going to let
a smell, any smell, swerve me from my course. Goats or no goats, I
walked on, on for several minutes along the outside which twisted and
turned, rose and dipped like some crazy stone snake, and all the time
I felt the pat-pat-pat of the little girl's heart-beats, softly
beating, against my own heart, as if trying to blend, to mix with
Once I stopped. For, from a great distance it seemed, the bell of
the Presbterian church on Old Court House Street was tolling the
half-hour; and I, don't you see--I was going away from the bell, from
the church and all it implied--civilization, Christianity,
safety--away from Boston and mild cocktails and Phi Beta Kappa! "Come
back!" tolled the bronze-tongued bell, and the sounds of it seemed to
pour through the glassy, grooved floor as though from cellars and
tunnels where they lay stored beneath the house, beneath the
Colootallah, beneath all India. They sang and trembled about me:
"Come back, Come back!" But I---
Well, I told the fool bell to go chase itself. I kept on--yes, in
the general direction of that brutal odor.
Presently, though the smell increased in intensity, in a certain
unspeakable corroding acidity, it seemed to become less goatish; but,
too, it seemed to hold some vague horror.
Doesn't seem reasonable, does it, to be afraid of a smell? But I
was, in a way; and heretofore I hadn't been afraid at all! Of course,
I controlled my nascent fear immediately. Had to, you see, with all
the world's treasures to my arms. But I was in a peculiar state of
mind. I put my feet down carefully, but mechanically, and my mind
seemed suddenly detached from my bodily sensations, as if it was
trying to grope ahead of my body into the dark, to warn, to reassure.
Somehow I felt that I had stepped into a hollow; not a hollow of the
earth, but one of time.
Still I kept on, and all at once it seemed to me that the smell
was directly in front of me, coming from below my feet. I groped in
the dark. I had come to the end of the corridor; but there was a door
set slant-ways into the wall. There was a handle. I gripped it The
door opened easily. I stepped inside, and the door shut behind me
with a little dull, soft thud of finality.
A moment later I thought I had been too rash. Holding the girl in
my left arm, I tried to open the door with my right; but it was
impossible. I could not even budge it.
Stephen Denton smoked for a while in silence, a silence suddenly
broken by the strumming of a native guitar which drifted down the
stairs. He smiled.
Can you imagine, he continued, to step from utter silence and
darkness into a room with a bright light? Why, no! What is there to
apprehend, to startle you, even in a bright light? You know it comes
from somewhere, through some mechanical or natural agency, don't
What startled me into stark, breathless immobility was a faint
noise--a faint, rasping noise, the like of which I had never heard
Not that, with my back against a cold, moist wall, the girl in my
left arm with her feet touching the ground. I had time to run in my
memory over all the noises I had ever heard. But I knew that was
it--I knew that the noise which I heard had a sinister, grim
connection with the fetid scent which had drifted down the corridor
in front of me, and, too, that it held in itself a terrible menace.
It wasn't a hissing, nor a barking, nor a scraping. It seemed more
like a tremendous vibration that filled the space about me, that
seemed to close in on me; and while I was not afraid--how could I
have been with her in my arms? I felt, sort of dimly, a rushing
wonder as to the aspect, the source, the nature, yes as though it may
seem silly to you--the all-fired use and necessity of that unknown
noise! I want you to feel that noise as I felt it--yes, felt it more
than heard it--perhaps a combination of the two sensations. I seemed
to both feel and hear somebody, something listening in the dark!
Presently the impression grew into positive knowledge, and then--I
guess there's some scientific connecting-link between seeing and
hearing and smelling--at that very same moment the fetid smell rose
against me like a solid wall, and I saw two small, oblong, green
lights--and they appeared to be flat.
You know, I wouldn't have minded so much if those two green lights
had seemed rounded, globular. What startled me was the fact that they
were quite flat. Mad, don't you think? But true, old man!
And the door was shut behind me; and I and the girl who was all
the world and all the world's salvation to me were imprisoned with
that strange, humming vibration, the terrible, fetid odor, the flat
oblong, green lights!
What was I to do? Get my arms free for action, for savage battle,
for whatever might happen--that was the first!
I turned a little to the left to let the girl slip gently to the
And then my heart stood still, quite still. The blood in my veins
felt exactly like freezing water!
For as I turned I saw two more that, green lights. But they were
less distinct than the others. Sort of vague, wiped-over--that's how
they looked; and they were in the wall, like jewels in a
deep-setting. I raised my right hand to crush them, to pluck them
out; and then I laughed.
I am sure I laughed--at myself.
You see, the moment my hand was in one line with them they
disappeared; and then I knew the second pair of green lights was only
a reflection of the first pair, the slimy, dank wall acting as a
mirror; and so I propped the girl against the wall, drew my knife,
and turned back to face once more the unknown danger.
The vibrations were increasing in intensity; the green lights
swerved and swayed here and there like gigantic fireflies; and I was
a little afraid, perhaps because my love was not in my arms any more;
and so I commenced whistling to regain my self-confidence. I whistled
quite well, very softly. I used to practice it years ago in prep
school to annoy my teachers.
Imagine me standing there like a fool in that inky-black room in
the heart of the Colootallah, shielding a Hindu girl, a girl whose
name I didn't know and whom I had finally decided to take with me to
the very end of life--facing I didn't know what unknown horror and
iniquity, and whistling--whistling one of those slow, dreamy,
peaches-and-cream Hawaiian melodies, the "Waikiki Moonlight," if I
remember rightly, with a little drooping sob to every third note.
I am glad that it was dark and that there was no mirror down there
in which to behold myself. I am sure I must have cut a laughable
figure--I can imagine it with my hair, since I was a little scared,
standing out like ruffled feathers, my eyes wide open and staring
into those flat, green, ghastly things in front of me, my jaw a
trifle dropped, and my lips pointed, whistling that sentimental
poppycock about the dear old silvery moonlight on dear old Waikiki
But presently the impression grew on me--to become a stony
certainty almost immediately---that those swaying green things in
front of me were becoming more quiet, more stationary, the longer and
softer I whistled. Too, the vibration, while it did not cease, became
indifferent, less terrible and minatory; seemed to lose some of its
menacing, crouching, intensity.
A few more staves about moonlight and Liliuokalani and Waikiki,
and the vibrations had blended completely into a soft,
contented--well a mixture between a purr and a hiss.
What did I do? Why I kept right on whistling. You just bet I did!
I must have gone through my entire lengthy repertory of sentimental
mush--German tunes, American, Hawaiian, Irish and Greaser! And, which
is the incredible part of it, the true, inevitable part, that one
little accomplishment saved my life that night.
I was beginning at about No. 33 on my musical program--by this
time the green things, had become quite stationary and something like
a milky veiled film had settled over them when there was a soft
rushing noise, but not at all a terrifying noise, the green lights
were blotted out altogether, and something hove up out of the dark:
it brushed up against me, it poured over my feet and ankles with the
soft, pliable weight of a huge steel cable--something mighty and very
cold! I stood there like a statue if a statue can tremble a
little--and the coiled, steely, thing drew itself up, up the length
of my legs, around my waist with a great turn over my shoulders;
then, without any apparent effort, still farther up, over my head a
foot or so encircling my neck--the next moment one end of it touched
my cheek with a soft, gentle, caressing gesture.
A cobra! yes--a cobra!
That huge reptile had heard me whistle perhaps it was some sob
catch in my way of whistling which did the trick, which reminded the
snake of the plaintive notes which the snake--charmer produces from
his flat reed pipe.
Anyway, there it was, encircling my body, gently touching my
cheeks. Fancy though---wasn't it?--to consider the there, in that
rabbits' warren of a building with every one's hand against me, a
cobra--most hated and feared of animals--was the only living thing
which seemed to have a sort of affection for me!
What did I do? Oh, I patted its head, and I have a vague, shameful
recollection that I addressed the great, slimy brute as "good old
pussy"--but, whatever it was, it pleased her: and if ever a snake
purred, that snake purred!
Presently it must have thought that there had been enough
caressing for the time being, for, with one final, deep vibrating
hiss-purr, it slid down my body and with a slightly wiggle of
farewell which nearly knocked me off my feet, it scooted off.
I didn't waste much time in putting two and two together. For a
cobra in India in a building---meant priests and a temple.
You see, I had done quite a little sight-seeing in Calcutta; I had
also studied my guide-book, and had talked to several seasoned old
Anglo-Indians, Roos-Keppel included; and I remembered what I had seen
and read and heard--about the sacred king-cobra which the Hindus keep
in stone caves at the feet of some of their idols, how the Brahmans
go down and feed them, and how tame the reptiles become.
Don't you see? I was just in such a snake den, and I said to
myself that the way of getting out of it was the way by which the
priest brought down the food--they can't throw it down, you know,
since cobras drink a good deal of milk--a way which must lead, not
back to the landing whence I had come, but straight into the temple.
So I groped and tapped about the walls and the low ceiling, and
finally I found a curved metal handle. A jerk and a twist--and half
the ceiling slid to one side, into a well-oiled groove, sending down
a flood of haggard, indifferent light. I picked up the little Hindu
girl, who was still unconscious, lifted her gently through the hole
in the ceiling, and followed after.
The room in which I found myself was lit by the dull-red, scanty
glow which came from an open-work silver brazier swinging on chains
from the vaulted ceiling--a dull-red glow sadly mingling with a few
pale moon-rays breaking through a tiny window high up on the left
For a few seconds I was bewildered---couldn't quite locate myself.
Directly in front of the opening--I saw that plain enough--was a
huge, bestial Hindu idol--an image of Shiva in his incarnation as
Natarajah, "Lord of the Dance" I remembered that from the other
temples I had seen.
You can imagine what the idol looked like---its right leg in the
air in a fantastic curve, the left pressed upon the figure of a
dwarf; in the whirling hair a cobra, a skull, a mermaid figure of the
river Ganges, and the crescent moon; in the right ear a man's
earring, in the left a woman's; and with four arms--one holding a
drum, and another fire, while the third was raised, and the fourth
pointed to the lifted foot--and the whole act on a huge lotus
From an incense-burner in the farther corner a mass of scented
smoke, swirled up, darkening the air with a solid, bloated
shadow--and everything seemed shapeless, veiled, wreathed in floating
Presently my eyes got used to the dim half--light. I discovered
that the temple was fair-sized, and that it contained no furniture
nor ornament---no article of any sort except the statue of Shiva and
the incense-burner. The window was too high up to reach, and there
was only one door--a low door, directly across from the idol, a door
"Say," Stephen Denton interrupted his tale, "are you getting tired
of my adventures? Would you rather play a game of cards--dummy
bridge? Say the word."
I told him that I abhorred cards. I told him that just then I was
only interested in one thing. "How the deuce did you get away from
there?" I wound up. "What was behind that door? How did you--"
"Survive?" he completed my halting question with a low laugh.
"Why, old man--you forget that I bore a charmed life that night--a
charmed life---just like Napoleon, like Tamerlane, like--" "What was
behind that door?" I interrupted him a little heatedly.
"Wait till we get to it." Stephen Denton laughed. "Something else
happened in the temple--before I opened that door and found out!"
CHAPTER V - Nerves
E gaio il minuetto, ma tavolta piange
The minuet's lift is merry, but sometimes a song breaks
THERE was one thing more in the temple--a fine, soft, silk
rug--and I rolled it into a tight pillow and slipped it under the
head of the little Hindu girl. I had stretched her out on the
You know--Stephen Denton continued, with a curious, hazy note of
embarrassment in his pleasant voice--I am afraid that, at that
moment, with the girl at my feet and the grinning idol above me--with
the scented; whirling wreaths of incense-smoke floating about me--I
had a certain revulsion of feeling.
I was not afraid. Nor was I exactly riled at that mad throw of the
dice of fate which had chucked me there--into the dim, mysterious
heart of the Colootallah, five centuries removed from the Hotel
Semiramis, the Presbyterian Church, the English bobbies, and all the
rest of trousered, hatted civilization. I didn't mind that. Of course
not! For, don't you see, I loved that warm, little, girlish thing of
gold and black and crimson at my feet. My love was one of those
mighty, heaving, cosmic revolutions which will attempt and accomplish
the impossible--it was one of those stony, merciless facts which no
arguing and no self-searching can kick out of existence.
But I guess there is such a thing as loving in spite of one's
self--of love being a thing, a condition, a fact apart from the rest
of one's life.
Don't you get me? Why, old man, remember what I told you of how
the girl was dressed--in the costume of a tuwaif, a Hindu dancer--and
here, grinning and jeering above my head, was the idol of Shiva in
his incarnation at Natarajah, "Lord of the Dance"--and the connection
seemed obvious! And, after all, my people did come over in the
Mayflower--and there was that reproachful church-bell from Old Court
House Street--just then it was tolling the quarter to one.
Nothing shocking in the art and motion of dancing. But you have
seen Hindu dances---religious Hindu dances--haven't you? You know the
significance of the image of Natarajah, how in the night of Brahma
nature is said to be inert and cannot breathe nor move nor dance till
Shiva wills it; how Shiva rises from his stillness of meditation,
crushes the dwarf of night and inertia, and, dancing on his prostrate
body, sends through all matter the pulsing waves of awakening sound,
preceding from the drum; how, in the richness of time, still dancing,
he destroys all names and all forms by fire: and how then all
emotions and a new rest come upon the earth.
A mad Hindu notion of bringing together the orderly swing of the
spheres, the perpetual movement of atoms, the sensation of the human
body, and evolution itself--all represented in the dancing figure of
Shiva Natarajah--and in the whirling bodies of the nautch, the Hindu
dancing--girls who are consecrated to the service of the gods!
You know the nature and meaning and gestures of those dances,
don't you? And there was the girl at my feet in her dancing costume,
and the grinning idol above us--there was the memory of some of
things which Roos-Keppel had told me about the crimes and vices and
the unclean castes which center in the Colootallah; and how--as in
the rest of the world--it is always woman who is used as the
mainspring of intrigue and venal traffic--and I clenched my fists
until the knuckles stretched white.
I looked at the girl--the light was dim, trembling, uncertain, but
I could see the pale gold of her little face, the dusky, voluminous
clouds of hair, the thick net of the eyelashes.
I touched her face, her shoulders--only for a fleeting
second--for, don't you see, to me she was holy, and somehow she was
to me part of that temple--of the sacredness of that
temple--yes---sacredness--and I mean it. A mad, bombastic, fantastic,
cruel faith--that Hindu faith! I know it! But faith, religion, just
the same somehow trying to make the world better. I guess there isn't
a single religion which really tries to do harm.
Yes, sacred and inviolable she was to me---and I thought how she
and the love of her had come to me, in the purple Indian
night--precious, swift, unexpected, like a break of glimmering
sunlight after a leaden gray day--and there leapt into my heart with
the terrific and incalculable aim of lightning, the blinding longing
for complete possession--and deliberately disentangled myself from
the jumble of bitter emotions which had come to me through the
thought she was a nautch, consecrated to Shiva Natarajah.
The whole revolution of feeling had only lasted a few seconds. I
said to myself that love---real love--has no time to consider and
weigh the patterned dictates of abstract morality. Mine own life to
make or to mar--and I considered that I would rather mar my life
through love than make it through clammy indifference!
Temple girl or no temple girl, it was up to me to get her out of
that building, out of the Colootallah, out of whatever shame and
misery and disgrace life had meant to her before I had seen her for
the first time, back there on the rooftop at the end of Ibrahim
This time I had no choice of directions, for there was only one
door out of the temple. Should I pick her up and step into the
unknown? No--I decided the next moment--instead of carrying her, and
thus burdening and slowing my progress, it would be better for me to
scout ahead, to hunt about until I had discovered an avenue of
escape. When I had found that, I would come back to her and carry her
But there was the chance that the two Hindu watchmen on the
roof-top might give up their fruitless search and come into this
room. Too, there was the possibility of some Brahman priest entering
the temple to attend to some of his sacerdotal duties. I would have
to hide the girl. But where? Remember, the room was empty of
furniture and ornaments. I went the round of the walls, hunting for a
closet, but found none. There was only the incense burner, and the
huge idol of Shiva Nataajiht, the latter standing fairly close to the
I walked around it more or less aimlessly, and then I made a
discovery quite an interesting discovery--discovery, too, with which,
had I had time to use it for that purpose just then, I could have
blown the thaumaturic reputation of that particular Hindu temple sky
I found that the lotus pedestal of the statue had an opening in
the back; a sort of curved sliding door, three feet high and about
seven broad, which was partly open. I stooped to investigate, and
then I drew back in a hurry.
For sounds came from within. I suppose my nerves tingled a little,
but you mustn't forget that--though at the time the thought never
entered my head; I was too busy--all the events of that mad night had
been so unusual that I had really lost the common standards of
judging and of fearing. So I let my nerves tingle all they wanted to,
and I stooped down once more to discover the source and nature of
The very next moment I knew, and I guess I was foolish enough to
laugh. You see, the sounds which came from the inside of the pedestal
were really quite peaceful and prosaic; they might have happened in
quiet old Boston, for that matter.
Somebody in there was snoring--in a fat, contented, elderly
So I pushed the sliding-door to one side just as far as it would
go. I looked, and sure enough, there, comfortably curled up on a
litter of rugs and pillows and shawls. I saw the dim form of a portly
Brahman priest sleeping with his mouth wide open, his curly white
beard moving rhythmically up and down with the intake of his breath.
Not a bad-looking old gentleman--quite peaceful and dignified. But
that didn't help him any just then; for here was the ideal
hiding-place for my Daughter of Heaven.
I drew my knife, poised it neatly over his heart, and jerked him
awake. "Keep quiet--perfectly quiet!" I whispered to him, very much
like a black-mustached villain in an old-fashioned melodrama. At the
same moment he stirred, opened his eyes, heard my warning, he saw the
Bowie--saw the point of it, if you will forgive my wretched pun--and,
obeying my instructions, he rose and came out of the pedestal, a very
incarnation of outraged, elderly pomposity Gosh, but that Brahman
So far so good--here was a cozy little nest for my love--but what
was I to do with Old Pomposity?
"What shall I do with you?" I finally asked him direct, and he
replied with a stream of low--pitched and extremely foul abuse. That
did not help any--neither him nor me nor the girl--and so, after
considering a few seconds, I narrowed my question down to a choice of
two things. I asked him, quite civilly and good-naturedly--I bore him
no personal grudge, you see--what he preferred: to be killed
outright, or to go down to the snake. Pretty tough on his nibs; but
what could I do? I needed the hollow pedestal, and I couldn't afford
to leave a live witness behind.
But he couldn't see it my way, naturally. He threatened and
cajoled and argued. He cursed me, my ancestors, my posterity, and my
cow in the name of a dozen assorted Hindu deities--in the name of
Vishnu and Shiva, Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya, Chandra, Yama,
Kamadeva, Ganesha, and what not! He had a surprising knowledge of
Puranic theology; but finally he decided in favor of the snake! I
could understand his choice; since he doubtless was the priest in
charge of the temple, and thus sure to be on more or less friendly
terms with the wiggly old reptile at the feet of Natarajah.
"All right--just as you wish," I replied; and just for luck--also
to make him a little more easy to handle--I fetched him a good hard
blow on the side of the head which stretched him unconscious, gagged
and tied him securely with some of the shawls from his couch, shoved
him down into the cobra's den, and pushed the stone slab shut.
Then I investigated the interior of the lotus pedestal. It was big
enough to afford sitting and sleeping space to an average-sized human
being, and--here is the discovery of which I told you, the discovery
which would have raised no end of a row in orthodox Hindu theological
circles--I saw that the statue was hollow, and that it could be
reached by the occupant of the pedestal.
What for? Why? How? Why, old man, the day of miracles may have
passed in the West---with biology and motor-cars and aeroplanes, and
all that--hut not so in the eternal East! For there, handy to the
occupant of the pedestal, was an assortment of ropes and levers and
handles and pulleys which were connected with the different parts of
Shiva Natarajah's sacred anatomy. Push a lever here, pull a rope
there--I tried it, you see---and the idol would lift a leg or wave
one of his four arms or wag his beastly old head. There was even one
bit of machinery--it was rather rusty and hard to move, as though it
hadn't been used for a long time--which allowed the whole statue,
pedestal included, to move forward across the room--a very ingenious
bit of machinery, a combination system of wheels and gliding
planes--and the very thing for a smashing, twenty-four-carat
But the only miracle which mattered to me just then was the fact
that, through a twist and jerk of Fate, I had come to Ibra him Khan's
Gully-and to the little Hindu girl. I picked her up and put her
inside the pedestal, leaving the sliding-door slightly aslant to give
her breathing space.
By ginger--Stephen Denton gave an embarrassed little smile--she
looked pretty in there on that soft mass of pillows and shawls, and
the dim light about her like a veil. You know those lines by
Rabindranath Tagore, don't you?
When ruddy lips blossom into smiles, black eyes
pass stolen glances,
Then it is the season, my poet, to make a bonfire
of your verses.
And weave only heart with heart and hand with
I bent down and kissed the little soft mouth--unconscious she was,
and her thoughts dream-veiled, but there was something like an
answering quiver on her lips as I touched them with mine--I crossed
the width of the temple, opened the door, and stepped out on a
corridor, bright-lit with swinging yellow lamps. It was really more
than a corridor--more like a long hall, very high, with a vaulted
ceiling--and, compared to the slime of Ibrahim Khan's Gully, compared
to the oppressive gray reek and misery of the Colootallah compared
even to the dignified bareness the temple, it seemed incongruous
startling in its utter magnificence--as if it had been flung there,
In the heart of that drab, twisted maze of buildings, to echo to the
footsteps of--of what and whom?
You see, old man, right then I wondered. I was a little
disturbed--with the dim terror of something awfully remote from and
awfully inimical to my personality, my race, my life as it had been
heretofore. For Roos-Keppel had told me--oh, a whole lot. He had told
me how, in the days when he was still In the Bengal Civil Service, he
had tracked one of the Indian seditionist secret societies--"Hail,
Motherland!" it called itself straight down into the caste labyrinth
of assassins and thieves and thugs and criminals of all sorts; how,
in fact, the Babu gentry of the Hail, Motherland! had made a hard and
fast alliance with the criminal castes, had fraternized with them in
life, and in worship, and in death, both fighting the same enemy: the
established government, the British raj. And this--all this--why,
don't you see? The temple of Shiva, god of high castes, here, in the
heart of the low-caste Colootallah--the rattle and crackle of naked
steel on the roof-top; and remember that the law against carrying and
possessing weapons is as strictly enforced in Calcutta as the
Sullivan Law in New York; and, then, as a final proof, it seemed to
me, the dazzling, extravagant splendor of this corridor, this long,
Up to a height of seven feet the walls were covered with stucco,
white on white, ivory and snowy enamel skillfully blended with
shiny-white lac, and overlaid with a silver-threaded spider's web of
arabesques, at exquisite as the finest Mechlin lace, and, of Sanskrit
quotations in the deva-nagari script.
I reconstructed all this later on, in my memory, after--Stephen
Denton pointed about the room--India had become part of my life, my
whole life. The upper part of the walls above the white stucco, was a
procession, a panorama of conventionalized Hindu fresco paintings--an
epitome, a résumé of all Hindustan's myths and faiths
and legends and superstition's, from the Chhadanta Jataka, the
birth-story of the Six--tusked Elephant, most beautiful of all
Buddhistic legends, to the ancient tale of Kaliya Damana, which tells
how Krishna overcame the hydra Kaliya; from color-blazing designs
picturing Rama, Sita, and Lakshman meditating in their forest exile,
to a representation of Bhagirstha imploring Shiva to permit the
Ganges to fall to the earth from his matted locks.
The tale of a nation's life, a nation's civilization and
faith--yes, and crimes and virtues and sufferings, here in front of
me, and the thought came over me--a true thought, discovered
afterward--that never white man had seen the like before, and I felt
like an intruder, I had a faint feeling of misgiving. But what could
I do? It was Hobson's choice! I had to walk on!
So I moved along rapidly, down that everlasting corridor with all
India's gods jeering at me from the wall paintings, and looking left
and right for a door, a window, or some other avenue of escape, at
least of progress--when, very suddenly, I was startled into complete
immobility--into a stark immobility of utter horror.
Directly in front of me, the corridor came to an end--or rather it
broadened out, swept out into a circular hall--quite an impressive
affair, the walls covered with slabs of the delicate, extravagant
Indian stone carving that looks like sculptured embroidery, with
splendid furniture of carved, black shishan wood, a profusion of
enameled silver ornaments, and the floor covered with huge, squares
of that white embroidery which the people hereabouts call chikam.
Of course, I didn't see all that at first--took it in more
gradually, for I told you that I was---oh--crushed under a sudden
weight of gray, breath-clogging horror, and, in such moments of
overwhelming emotion, the eyes search too eagerly, too furiously, to
see properly at all; too, the light was flickering--shooting in
curly, wavering streams from a swinging lamp and sending out shadows
which ran about the walls and the ceiling like running water.
Stephen Denton leaned forward in his chair.
Tell me, have you ever felt the fascination of utter horror? Have
you ever had a dream in which everything around you--the inanimate
objects even--assume I shifting, wavering forms and loom about I
you--bending and twisting and stretching toward you like cruel,
Have you ever feared Fear itself?
The thing which stirred me so profoundly? Yes, yes--I am coming to
that--and I guess you'll be disappointed.
For it was only a face.
Only a face--and yet--why, if I should try to tell you what I
felt, what I really felt, I would involve myself in a maze of
contradictions. There are some nervous reactions for which there are
no words in our language: and, anyway. I survived it--that as well as
what came after. I am sitting here now, across from you, talking to
Never mind. You're getting impatient. Let me get back to my
CHAPTER VI - Out--And In
Our horses aren't from Tartary, the land of
They come from river meadows, out beyond
the Southern Main
No lynx we bring for foxes,
No cheetahs for the deer;
With brown and while bedappled
Our English hounds are here.
The jackal he may kennel in the fields of
The pack is in and after him to drive him out
ONLY a face, he continued, that of an old man, wrinkled, brown,
immobile on a scrawny neck which was like the slimy stalk of some
poisonous jungle flower, the body, arms, and legs wrapped in layers
of thin muslin, sitting upright on a great chair of gray, carved
I wish I could picture that face to you as I saw it--it would take
the hand of a Rodin to clout and shape the meaning of it. The taint
of death, the flavor of dread tortures which surrounded it, the face
of a sensual, perverted, plague-spotted Roman emperor blended with
the unhuman, meditating, crushing calm of a Chinese sage.
Why, man, I can see it even now--at times---heavy-jowled,
thin-lipped, terribly broad across the temples--and with an
expression in his whitish-gray-eyes like the sins of a slaughtered
Compared to that face--to the solitary fact of that face's
existence, if you get me--all the little fears and trembling
apprehensions which had come over me since I had swung across the
wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully seemed ridiculous--as
unimportant as the twittering of sparrows in a street gutter--and my
adventures seemed dull and commonplace.
I had an idea that I spoke--some foolish, meaningless words of
greeting. I am not sure if I did or not. For, during some moments, I
sought in vain to steady my mind and my senses to the point of
understanding, of intelligence, of observation. All I could see and
feel was the existence of these features in front of the grotesque,
monstrous, unhuman--and I wanted to shriek--I wanted to beat them
into raw, bleeding pulp!
Perhaps the whole sensation, the whole flash of emotions, lasted
only a moment. Perhaps it was contained in the fraction of the second
it took me to pass from the corridor, properly speaking, into the
hall. At all events, suddenly I was myself again. I remembered the
girl--and the wondrous magic, the sweet, wild strength of the love I
Whatever the meaning of these sinister, immobile
features--whatever the dread prophecy in these staring, unblinking,
cruel eyes--I'd have to go through with my task--the task of fighting
my way out of this house--and to carry the girl with me, unharmed. So
I walked--up to that muslin-swathed body--to that horror of a
Stephen Denton ashed his cigar. He was silent for perhaps a couple
of minutes, and I did not press him to hurry up with his tale. It was
so evident that he was trying to collect his thoughts--so evident
too, that the remembrance of that moment was not a very pleasant one
to him. But presently he looked up, with a return of his old full,
jolly, magnetic smile; and he continued.
Yes--I jerked my wits into a fair semblance of nerve control and
took a step forward--one step, two, three--slowly and
deliberately--until I was within a foot of that face--and then--why,
man, I laughed! It wasn't a very cheerful laugh---rather a harsh,
ghastly, scraping sort of machination--but it saved, if not my life,
then at least my sanity. For, quite suddenly. When I was within a
foot of it, I realized that that face--that thing of dread and
horror--was harmless. I realized, that it was not alive at all!
A statue? No, old man, guess again--you see, it was the face of a
mummy--that's why the body was wrapped in layers of muslin--and the
eyes were of glass, cunningly painted. I said to myself that it was
doubtful the mummified remains of some especially holy Brahman
priest--and I felt quite a rush of affection for his deceased
holiness--for at least he couldn't hurt me; he couldn't hurt the
little girl who was all the world to me. I have an idea that I was
about to pat the old mummy familiarly on the brown, wrinkled brow
Wait? It's so confoundedly hard to put it into words--you've got
to feel it, as I felt it, that night. You see, I heard a
whisper--yes--I knew that wrinkled horror was dead, a mummy--and
yet---why, I looked about the room--there was nobody there--and the
mad thought came to me that the mummy had whispered!
Don't you get me? I knew it was impossible--and--there it was; a
whisper shadowy, fleeting, secretive! Of course it was
ridiculous--and yet I was sure, in spite of my positive knowledge and
in spite of the dictates of my sanity, that the whisper had come from
the mummy. I don't know why I should have thought so--ask a professor
of psychology for the correct explanation--but the fact remains that
I jumped back about three feet with a quickly suppressed cry of
The whole impression lasted less time than it takes me to tell it.
The very next second I had collected myself--had to, you see, since I
didn't want to lose my sanity--and with breath sucked in, head in one
side my whole body tense and bunched, I tried to follow up the low
sibilant tone waves--to locate the direction whence the whispering
What? Did they plant a phonograph inside of that mummy? (Stephen
Denton laughed at my question.) No! No! Can you imagine such a
Western abomination as a phonograph near a Hindu temple--in the
mummified body of a Hindu saint?
Of course not! The explanation was a hanged sight easier. The tone
waves--the whispers---came, not from the mummy's mouth--but from the
So I stretched myself full-length on the floor, at the feet of his
holiness, pressed my ears against the cold stone flags, and listened
And I heard--two words, at first! They sort of remained with me,
and made me feel uncomfortable and creepy all over again. For those
whispered words were: "The Sahib!"
They stood out, those two words, in sharp, crass relief. "The
Sahib!" Nothing more--and, subconsciously, I guessed--no! I knew,
that it was I--Stephen Denton, Esquire, out of Boston---who was meant
by that melodious and honorable appellation. For sahibs, at one
o'clock in the morning, are a pretty rare article in the midst of the
The whispering continued, and I heard quite well. There was really
no mystery to it--for, don't you see, most of those old buildings in
the Colootallah were built many years ago, and since Calcutta was a
swamp in these days and since wood and stone were rare, they built
their houses with hollow tiles imported from Persia via Delhi--and
these tiles act very much like telephones--sending tone waves in
straight lines and at a considerable distance.
I was grateful for that--and for one more Indian
peculiarity--namely the number and diversity of the many Indian
languages and dialects which forces Hindus from different parts of
the country to speak in English. There were two men
whispering--doubtless either thugs or seditionist, at all events men
who hated the very name at England and yet they had to speak in
English to each other, to make them intelligible. Funny, wasn't
I could hear just as plainly as through a telephone--with a
perfect connection. The man who spoke first felt evidently peevish
about the Sahib--about me. You should have heard the things he called
me; not me alone, but also my father, my grandfather, most of my
cousins and uncles and my whole family-tree straight down to Adam and
Eve, and beyond, even. It seemed that he was appealing to the other
man for help.
"Where is she? Where is she?" came the sibilant whisper; and then,
with a splendid flow of Oriental imagery, "he--the Sahib--the
this-andthat"---more epithets--"has stolen her--the apple of my eyes,
the well of my love, the stone of my contentment! Ah!"--and
distinctly, through the hollow tiles, I could hear something like a
forced, hypocritical sob--"she is a. pearl among pearls---with lips
like the crimson asoka flower, with teeth as virgin-white as the
perfumed madhavi, with a voice like the mating-song of the kokila
bird, with a waist as the waist of a she-lion, and with the walk of a
king-goose! By Shiva and Shiva--and again by Shiva!"--here he got
busy once more about my ancestry and character--"may that
white-skinned, cow-eating, and unthinkably begotten foreigner boil
slowly and very, very painfully in the everlasting fire which is
vomited from the Jwalamukhi! May Garura pick out his eyes--first the
left--and then the right! May Bhawani herself suck his filthy heart
A pause--then the other man's voice: "But whom has the Sahib
stolen, brother?" followed by the first man's answer, "the Lady
"Padmavati?" repeated the second man, in accents of utter, amazed,
horrified incredulity, "Padmavati?"
Then silence--thick, heavy, palpable!
Say, continued Stephen Denton, can you imagine what a crash of
silence can be like? Sounds paradoxical, don't you think? But that's
exactly what followed the mentioning of the little girl's name.
Silence--for one minute--two--three---rhythmically my heartbeats
seemed to syncopate each dragging second while I lay there, my ear
pressed against the stone flags, at the feet of that beastly old
I thought finally that the two speakers had perhaps gone away from
wherever they were talking. I was about to rise, to continue in my
search for an opening, a door or a window which would help my love
and me to escape--when once more, insistent, sibilant, whispering,
the tone waves glided through the hollow tiles.
It seemed to be the second man who was speaking.
"We must get him--the foreigner--the Christian--the cannibal of
the Holy Cow! Quick--by the heavenly light of Chandra!" and he said
it in such a deep, flat, strange voice that I felt something like the
letting loose of fate--crashing, terrific--I felt an acrid flavor and
taint of death and torture--a crimson undercurrent of gigantic,
Came the first man's answering whisper: "Yes, for he is dangerous,
as dangerous as Prithwi Pala, the servant of Indra the god, of whom
the legends speak; and as for Padmavati--" again he was silent--came
another flow of words, in Hindustani this time and thus
unintelligible to me. But they seemed to be words of command, and
they were followed by other voices, other words; then a sharp,
ominous hissing and rattling of steel and the faint sound of
They're off, I said to myself, off and away and after me! I rose
and looked to right and left. I guess I felt as a fox must feel when
it hears the view-halloo of the chase and the baying of the hounds,
with nothing in front but a bare hillside and far in the distance, a
spinney which it can never reach.
For where was I to go? Where was I to hide myself?
Only one thing was certain. I could not let myself be caught in
this hall nor in the abutting corridor, both bright with light. Back
into the temple then--perhaps into the cobra den--a wild thought
flashed through my head that I might have time to change clothes with
the priest--a thought quickly given up, for what would I do with the
priest himself?--other thoughts followed--but clear above them all
rose the stony idea that, whatever happened, I must not lead the
chase to the idol, the lotus pedestal where I had hidden the girl who
was dearer to me than the dwelling of kings.
So I ran, with my thoughts gyrating madly, like swirling fog in
the brain of a blind world, faster and faster! There was a noise in
my temples like running water, like the wind in the wings of birds;
it filled my head with huge, tenoring sound waves, and, as I came
within sight of the temple door, the bell from the Presbyterian
church boomed out--ba-nnnng--a quarter after one---like a gray seal
of doom and despair!
Another rushing steps-already my hand was on the door-knob of the
temple--already I was trying to subordinate my physical to my mental
action, which seemed both muddled and frantic---for, you see, I know
that presently I would have to be capable of one supreme effort of
wit to save the girl and myself; battle and struggle it would be, and
I did not refute the grim challenge of it; I did not blind myself to
the balance of odds which would be against me.
Fight, and win or lose! Frenzied heroism? Not a bit of it, old
man: Simply the law of equal action and reaction--if I remember
anything of my scientific course at college--applied to the dim,
cruel heart of the Colootallah.
I had half turned the door-knob--and then---Stephen Denton leaned
forward in his chair and, for the first time since he had commenced
the recital of his mad adventures, he gesticulated--his right hand
shot out tensely, dramatically.
And then from the walls, as if they had been parts of the walls,
two men jumped at me, one from each side.
No, I saw no door, through, of course, there must have been
one--two, rather. I only heard the metallic jarring and grating of
rusty hinges, and, that same second, they were there, as if a
sinister, supernatural power had visualized them from nothing and
popped them out at me!
There they were--two men--with a crackle of naked steel--but wait!
Get this right!
You see--and it sounds incredible, I know it!--but even in that
fraction of a moment's flash my eyes registered what those two men
looked like. Strange, isn't It? But I saw--I actually saw every
detail of their persons, their costumes, their facial
characteristics: their dark skin, their hooked noses, their broad,
thin lips, their flashing purple--black, narrow-lidded eyes, their
beards, curled and twisted and parted in the dandified Rajput manner,
their voluminous, white turbans, with clusters of emeralds, falling
over their low, broad foreheads, and, high in the right hand of
either, a curved scimitar!
Why, man, I even saw the curling, glittering lights on the points
of their blades as they seemed to meet above my head like a
double-barreled, curved guillotine!
All that, every last bit of it, I saw in that fleeting fraction of
a moment, and, speak about quickness of perception, about rushing
rapidity of wit, why---
Stephen Denton was silent. His right hand was still in the air, as
if it were trying to pluck the tense, incredible facts of his
narrative from the atmosphere.
Quite suddenly, from up-stairs, came once more the twanging of a
native guitar; that a soft, silvery woman's voice, singing in
". . . chare din ke gaile murga Mor ko ke aile . . .
Stephen Denton laughed. "You know the old song, don't you?" he
said. "The cock goes from home for four days only, and returns a
peacock!" Same with me that night--in the Colootallah--I left the
Hotel Semiramis a plain, prosaic Back Bay Bostonian, and I
returned--oh, you'll see---you bet I returned, in spite of those
flashing scimitars! Am I not here--in front of your eyes---in the
And he continued with another laugh. Yes, the jarring of the
doors, the fact of my being able to register what those two
bewhiskered ruffians looked like, the ominous crackle of steel as the
blades flickered about my head, my own quick-wittedness--all that
passed and happened and surged on in a moment. I was too excited,
probably to feel ordinary fear. Something flashed through me akin to
fear, but, oh, different; there's no word for it in our language; but
with it flashed, also, a certain breathless, sullen audacity that's
it exactly; a sullen audacity--and I---
Suddenly Stephen Denton burst into a roar of laughter.
Do you know what I did, old man? Can you guess it? No, no! I
didn't draw my Bowie-knife and give battle! Of course not! First of
all, there wasn't the time--for remember, the whole thing, from the
jarring of the unseen door to the end of the little intermezzo,
didn't take more than two seconds; and, furthermore, what chance is
there for a quiet Bostonian with a Bowie--a Bowie he isn't used to
handle, on top of it--against two big, hairy roughs with six yards of
curved, razor-sharp steel between them? I'd have had as much chance
against them with my Bowie as a regiment of volunteers armed with
Civil War pop-guns against a battery armed with French forty-five
What did I do? But I am coming to that, Don't get impatient---
You see--I ducked!
Yes, sir, I ducked! I threw myself flat on the floor before those
two ruffians had a chance to realize what was happening--before they
had time to put the brake on their brawny right arms.
Down came the two scimitars, and--yes, this time you guessed
it--they hit each other, instead of hitting little me! They split
each other's turbaned skulls--zzzsh! through the voluminous layers of
muslin--with rather a sickening, sharp--crunching noise--and there
were two dead Hindus!
Say, man, speak about Tamerlane and George Washington and
Napoleon--speak, about the Charmed Life--what?
I told you--haven't I?--that from the moment of my swinging across
the wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully--from the moment, rather,
when I felt that my life was one with that of the little Hindu
girl--my whole self seemed to have separated itself suddenly and
completely from all that it had been in the past; it seemed to have
lifted itself with a savage, tearing jerk from the pale, flat dumps
of my past life and education and tradition--Boston, in other
words--to the flashing, crazy limbos of this new, purple, mysterious
India! I realized it, even at that moment, with the two dead men at
my feet, one with his features, oh, set in an astonished sort of
smile, as if wondering at the dark blood which was running lazily
from the split skull to the floor; the other dead man's face like a
grinning Tibetan devil mask, with the lips drawn back a little over
the gleaming, white teeth in an eerie grin, like the fangs of a wolf
who sees the victim, jumps, then finds himself in a trap, smells
death in the trap in the moment of killing!
Yes, all that I realized; not emotionally, for I seemed able
perfectly to decompose the whole situation into a few and negligible
elements, as I would decompose a force in a question of abstract
dynamics, and I was neither shocked nor even disgusted; and, mind
you, this was the first time in my life I had seen death!
But, you see, I seemed to belong to India, to the terrible,
corroding simplicity of India, and I felt like chanting a chant of
victory. I felt a brutal, sublimely unselfconscious joy at the sight
of those two sprawling, stark-contoured figures.
Rather beastly, don't you think? But true!
The next moment--for in that respect, too, the crouching,
grim-clever instincts of all India had got into my blood--I looked
about me, silently, carefully.
I said to myself that there might be more Hindus out after my
scalp--for remember, first, I had heard two voices whispering, then a
few sharp words of command. The Hindustani, and finally several more
voices. I had run toward the temple, away from the lights, and I had
evidently miscalculated. For if those two dead beggars had located me
in the vicinity of the temple it was three to one to assume that the
others would reason the same way.
Away from the temple, then! Back in the direction of the circular
hall, in spite of the bright lights, as fast as my legs would carry
me! So I ran, and as I ran there came to me the madding, paralyzing
sensation that quite near me, inside the walls other footsteps were
keeping parallel with my own, and I was afraid.
But only for a moment. The very next second the terror in my heart
gave way to a feeling of indignation. I was cross, and I forgot all
about that great, purple India which had picked me up and was shaping
me into a molecule of its own strange, throbbing soul. You see, all
my life I had been surrounded by the comfortable, machine--made,
wire-drawn safeguards of Western life---police, laws, corporation
counsels, prosecuting attorneys, municipal writs, regulation
standards, regulation opinions. Fetishes I used to call them in my
world-storming undergrad days; but I had relied on them. With all the
rest of the Western world--socialists, anarchists, and I. W. W.'s
included--I had always been in the position of a man who can demand
and receive protection from the duly constituted authorities; and
here I was suddenly up against life in the raw--in the bloodstained,
quivering raw! I was up against a condition of society to which no
law applied, no regulation, no standard known to me.
By ginger, I was mad with utter, impotent fury. Right then I would
have liked to have an interview with some of those visionary
jackasses who prate against constituted law; and then (Stephen Denton
laughed) quite suddenly I quit kicking. Quite suddenly I became
convinced once more that I had a charmed life, after all!
For by that time I had arrived again in the great circular hall
where his holiness, the mummified Brahman Swami, was sitting in
sinister state; and there, not too high up, I saw a window!
I made for it immediately, as a frightened cat makes for an open
cellar; a running jump with every ounce of strength I possessed, I
balanced myself precariously on the sill! I didn't look down. Might
have spoiled my nerve. I just closed my eyes and jumped, and I landed
on a nice, thick, soft heap of ashes and cinders.
The moon had come from behind the bank of clouds and was drenching
everything with tiny flecks of gold. I looked about me. I found
myself in a long, narrow courtyard, with the window through which I
had come to the left of me, a high wall with a door to the right,
another wall, about fifteen feet high, in front, and in back a
fantastic, twisted building which towered up in a wilderness of
spires and turrets.
I had my choice of three ways, since I had no intention of
returning to the hall whence I had jumped, naturally. Too, I
discarded the building immediately; it looked, oh, too populous.
Remained the two walls. First I examined the one with the door. There
was a crack in it and I looked through; it seemed to open out into
the street---some street.
Did I try the door? Did I make for the street? You bet I did not!
But, man, there was the girl, back there somewhere in that maze of
buildings; the girl who was all the world to me. No! I took the one
remaining choice--the fifteen-foot wall in back of me.
At first I failed to discover anything by which I could mount; but
at last, walking down the length of it, I came upon a shed with a
heavy padlock on its wooden door, with its roof inclined at an angle
against the wall. It was my only chance, and there was but one way to
do it. I stepped back a few paces and took a running leap for the
edge of the roof, jumping for the padlock. I tried three times. The
third time I got my foot upon the padlock, and caught the edge of the
wall with my hands. Exerting all my strength, I drew myself up, and
where do you think I found myself?
I was back on the roof-top at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully!
Quite alone, for when I groped beneath the balustrade where I had
popped the old Hindu, bound and gagged, over an hour and a half
before, I found the space empty.
CHAPTER VII - The Miracle
Evil is impossible because it is always rising up into
So likewise is Evil the revelation of Good.---Cardinal Newman
I LOOKED about me. It was a peaceful, summer night, with the low
hum of a sleeping world, and a froth of yellow stars flung over the
crest of the heavens. Over to my right, where the lights of Howrah
Station were flickering through the river-mist like dirty
candle-dips, lay the great cosmopolitan hotels--the Semiramis, the
Great Eastern, the Tai Mahal; there crouched the faint outlines of
the Presbyterian church, of the Bengal Club, of Government
House--peace and civilization and all the rest of the white man's
world. I imagined I could hear them snore across the distance--the
commissioners and deputy commissioners, the colonels and adjutants,
the big Anglo-Indian merchants, and the American travelers--snoring,
peacefully snoring! And I--I was here in the Colootallah, and, yes, I
went straight back to my girl.
Did I think much? But what should I have thought about, old man?
The only responsibility I had was the girl--since I loved her. My own
life? My own fate? Oh, I guess everybody is the weaver of his own
life; and if he wants to entangle the woof and warp of it, it's up to
him, and to him alone, isn't it? And that isn't Indian philosophy,
either. It's plain Yankee, out of Boston; if it wasn't there wouldn't
have been any Mayflower in the first place. Would there?
So back to the girl I went the same old way; through the door in
back of the pillar, down the staircase and the narrow landing,
straight up to the cobra's den. Again I opened the door without much
effort; but again, though I tried to keep it open, it slammed shut,
and I found it impossible to open it from the inside. There was a bit
of hidden machinery there which I could not find, nor had I time to
Carefully groping my way, I found the curved handle in the low
ceiling. I jerked it, and the ceiling slid to one side, sending down
a flood of light from the temple. The Brahman priest was still where
I had dumped him, and--would you believe me?--he was peacefully
asleep, sawing wood through his nostrils. Speak about Oriental
philosophy and submission to fate! Why, that portly, thrice-born
Brahman had an overdose of it. Compared to his plethora of calm, my
own quiet Yankee soul seemed to be shrill, noisy, exaggerated.
The cobra? Yes, she, too, was asleep, curled up in the corner like
a huge, coiled thing of watered silk.
I swung myself up into the temple, shutting the door behind me,
and rushed over to the statue of Shiva Natarajah. The little
girl--"the Lady Padmavati" as the Hindus had called her--was still
lost to the world; the blow against her temple must have been a
terrific one, but her breath came evenly. Some of the rugs on which
she lay had slipped to one side, and I was just about to bend down to
fix her up more comfortably, when---
But wait! Let me get this right.
Stephen Denton gave a fleeting, apologetic smile.
You see, it's rather difficult to describe a moment which blends
the physical with the psychical.
Well, I had already bent down. Yes, I remember now! My hand was on
her soft, narrow shoulder, and, oh, my love seemed to surge upwards
with a rush of sweet splendor. That little space in the pedestal
seemed charged to the brim with some overpowering loveliness of wild
and simple things, like the beauty of stars, and wind, and flowers,
with something which all my life, subconsciously, my heart seemed to
have craved in vain, beside which my life of yesterday seemed a gray,
wretched dream. You know how these thoughts rush through
one--suddenly, overwhelmingly--and at the same time music seemed to
chime in my ears, rhythmic, glorious music, the music of my heart, of
my soul, I thought, and I wasn't ashamed of the winged, poetical
And then, all at once, I realized that the music was not the music
of my heart. I realized that it had a much more matter-of-fact
origin; that in steadily swelling tone waves it came drifting in from
the outside. I straightened up. I listened intently. Then I knew: the
music came beating and sobbing down the long, magnificent corridor on
toward the temple.
Presently I could make out the different instruments--the clash of
the cymbals, the rubbing of tom-toms, the hollow thumping of a drum,
the plaintive twanging of native sitars; voices, too, chiming in with
a deep, melodious swing, and footsteps, echoing down the length of
the corridor--nearer, ever nearer!
Sort of breathless, that night, wasn't it? Never knew what was
going to happen next. In again, out again, just like immortal
Irishman, and in again it was into the pedestal of Shiva, by the side
of the girl, or rather crouching over her. Believe me, it was a very
My heart was plumping heavily, like the heart of a babe in the
dark. I didn't know what was going to happen. But I had a shrewd
suspicion that Fate was about to fulminate a whole lot of rusty
thunder in my direction.
Twang-zumm-bang, droned the music; and then I guessed what was
coming--some sort of worshiping procession. You see, I had been in a
Hindu temple or two and was more or less familiar with their noisy
theological exercises. Nor was I mistaken. For a moment later the
door was flung open and I saw--How did I see? Oh, in the part of the
pedestal which was straight across from the door were two peep-holes,
very much like those in a stage drop, and I had quite a good
Came a procession of Hindus, singing, playing on instruments; some
carrying swinging lamps, others wreaths of flowers and bowls filled
with milk and fruit and sweetmeats. The first half--dozen or so were
nice enough looking chaps---bearded, dignified, clean--doubtless
gentlemen in their own country. But the rest of them! Of all the
wholesale, bunched, culminating, shameless wickedness! Why, man, in
Sing Sing they would have electrocuted them on sight! And I thought
of what Roos-Keppel had told me about the close, sinister,
underground connection between the Hindu secret political societies
and the criminal castes--thieves, assassins, and thugs; high-castes
and low-castes--praying to the same, blood--gorged god.
It was the dawning ceremony of the Shiva worship, the ceremony
which celebrates the victory of day over night.
At the end of the procession stalked a tall, magnificent specimen
of Oriental humanity, swinging a flat incense-burner on silver
chains. Around and around he swung it, and there rose long, slow
streams of perfumed, many-colored smoke--wavering and glimmering like
molten gold, blazing with all the deep, transparent yellows of amber
and topaz, flaming through a stark, crimson incandescence into a
great, metallic blue, then trembling into jasper and opal
flames---like a gigantic rainbow forged in the heat of a wondrous
furnace. Up swirled the streams of smoke, tearing themselves into
floating tatters of half-transparent veil, pouring through the temple
and clinging to the corners, the ceiling, with ever new shapes and
colors, as endless and as strange and as mad as my life had
been--since I had swung over the wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's
Gully, a little over an hour ago.
Straight up to the idol moved the procession, and Heavens, man, I
felt qualmy. You see--there I was--I, a doubting Thomas of a Yankee,
inside of their favorite deity, and together with Lady Padmavati! A
bit indiscreet, wasn't it? But they didn't know it, thank God! They
came right up, bowing with outstretched hands, and depositing flowers
and fruit and sweetmeats in front of the pedestal--rather an agony,
that last one, since I was getting hungry--and chanting their
low--pitched litanies. You know India. You can imagine what those
chants were like.
First a wail of minor cadences, more fleeting than the shadow of
an echo, strangely reminiscent of some ventriloquist's stunt; then a
gathering, bloating volume of voices, gradually shaping the words
until the full melody, the full meaning beat up like an ocean of
eternity, and the whole punctuated by the hollow staccato of the
. . . nor this the weapons pierce; nor this does fire burn; nor
ihis does water wet; nor the wind dry up! This is called
unpierceable, unburnable, unwetable, and undriable, O harasser of thy
foes eternal; all-pervading, constant thou; changeless, yet ever
changing; unmanifest, unrecognizable thou, and unvarying.
Didn't mean anything to me in those days---all this long-winded
chanting about Veda-born action and the exhaustless spirit and the
certainty of cause and effect. I was getting frankly bored, and I was
glad when the congregation varied the monotony of their chant by a
few, choice, bloodcurdling prayers--loud and throaty and decidedly
By this time they were getting excited, frenzied. You know how an
overdose of religion grips these Hindus, how it affects them, much
like strong wine; goes to their heads, to their feet, too. Yes, they
danced, and, believe me, there isn't a single musical comedy star on
Broadway who wouldn't have given her little-all to learn some of the
steps I saw that night. Tango? Maxixe? Foxtrot? Why, they weren't in
it with that Hindu religious dance!
Interesting, doubtless, but I was getting tired of it; tired, too,
of my crouching position, with every bone and nerve and muscle
strained to the utmost so as not to crush the little girl and--Well,
remember those levers and handles I told you about? There was one
handy to my right arm, and just for luck I gave it a good, hard
Immediately there was silence. I wondered which one of Shiva's
limbs I had caused to move, and the next moment I knew; for there
came a ringing, triumphant shout from one of the worshipers:
"Shiva! Shiva Natarajah! See, brothers, he moves his right arm, as
"In blessing--in blessing!" the crowd took up the refrain, and
they thanked Shiva for the sign he had given them, sealing and
emphasizing their thanks with another long-winded hymn:
. . . from food come creatures; food comes from rain, rain comes
from sacrifice, sacrifice is born of action, and action of thy great
miracle, O harasser of thy foes.
A good enough light was trembling through the peep-holes and a
couple of age-worn cracks into the interior of the pedestal, and I
looked carefully to discover with which parts of Shiva's sacred
anatomy the different levers and handles were connected. You see, I
wanted to scare the congregation out of the temple through a real,
simon-pure, overwhelming miracle. Presently I located most of the
connections and, pushing a lever here and pulling a handle there, I
caused the idol to lift his legs and wag his ugly old head in turns,
and then to jerk his four arms in one generous, embracing altogether
gesture. It was a success. There was no doubt of it. For the Hindus
yelled and shrieked and moaned. But they didn't run away. I guess the
Brahman had worked that same miracle before, and so they weren't
scared of it any more--familiarity breeds contempt, you know, even in
orthodox Hindu theological circles.
"Try, try, try again!" I told myself, and a moment later I thought
of the intricate apparatus, the combination of wheels and gliding
planes, which made the whole statue, including the pedestal, move
forward across the floor. There was one master-handle within easy
reach, but I was afraid of using it. For, remember, I told you that
that particular machinery hadn't been used for a long time, that it
was rusty and hard to move.
The fool thing needed a generous dose of Three--in-One oil; and I
said to myself that some of those Hindus might smell a rat if they
heard the squeaking and grating of the rusty old wheels.
Finally I thought of a way. You see, at college I held the
absolute hors-de-concours record in yelling. I was the pride, in that
respect at least, of my fraternity. I used to be proud of the
accomplishment myself at the time being, but I would never have
guessed that it would ever be of any practical value in life.
But here was a chance to try and find out. And so, at the moment
of jerking down the master-handle, I let out a wild yell. I guess it
must have sounded rather startling--sort of ghastly---coming, as it
did, from that hollow statue; and the more I jerked at the handle,
the louder I yelled. Presently the idol moved, I could feel it
trembling beneath me. I continued yelling, and the effect was
spontaneous. It was immense. It brought down the house!
The whole congregation gave one long, lone, soul-appalling outcry,
and then they ran, pushing, kicking, pulling, biting each other in
their mad haste to get to the door. Doubtless they imagined that they
had offended Shiva, that their last hour had struck. At the door the
whole lot of them bunched into one tremendous fighting knot--they
fell over each other--and for a moment I was silent, to catch breath,
and just then, at that very same moment, the bronze-tongued bell from
the Presbyterian Church in Old Court House Street struck the
half-hour--half after one--and, believe me, it was dramatic, that
Just imagine the smoke, the many-colored light, the lesser miracle
of Shiva's moving feet and arms, then the great miracle, my mad
yelling, and suddenly that deep-toned bell!
Why, man, that fighting, struggling knot on the threshold
dissolved itself into its human components inside of half a second,
and a moment later the temple was empty. They didn't stop to shut the
door nor to pick flowers on the way. I saw them rushing down the
corridor--high-castes and low-castes, thrice-borns and thugs--running
as fast as they could, with their legs and arms jerking and shooting
out fantastically to right and to left, so that they looked like so
many gigantic Indian scorpions scurrying for cover and yelling their
lungs out as they ran. Gosh, it was comical! And the funniest part of
all was the sight of the very last of the lot. He had had his
swathing robe torn off him in the frantic struggle, and there he ran,
as naked as on the day he was born, except for the huge turban on his
head, his white robe on the threshold, like a splotch of light!
You know, he interrupted his tale, I felt really proud of myself.
Here was I--plain Yankee out of Boston, still redolent of pies and
Thoreau and the Back Bay--and I had worked a thumping,
all-to-the-good miracle which these Hindus would doubtless tell to
their children's children. In the course of time it would go down
into legend and tradition, as the thing which the Hindu theologians
call Jataka, and I felt a sort of kinship, of comradeship, with that
many-armed, grinning old idol of Shiva Natarajah. Snobbish of me,
wasn't it, to be so proud of my own particular little miracle. But
then--oh--it was a miracle, and snobbishness is after all only a
simplified form of the desire to be mystic, to drown one's own puny
personality in a greater self--as I had drowned myself in that of
Shiva, had given him my voice in fact--my good old college yells.
I thought of that even as, with the last shrieking straggler
scooting out of sight down the corridor, I came out of the pedestal,
closed the temple door, and then--well, I was torn between two
emotions. You see, I didn't want the Hindus to come back, and I could
arrange for that, at least, temporarily, by setting the machinery
into motion again and backing the heavy statue up against the door.
On the other hand, I would bar my own exit by the same process.
Finally, I decided to risk it. First I picked up the robe which
the last of the fleeing Hindus had dropped and put it on my own back;
then I got back into the pedestal and pushed the master--handle until
Shiva was plumb up against the door, straddling on both sides of it
like a great metallic spider and making it impossible to open it.
That road was barred to the Hindus, and to me! There remained thus
only one way of escape: back over the roof-top. Back somehow, though
I didn't know how, for there was the long drop into the blue slime of
Ibrahim Khan's Gully, and how could I do it with the unconscious girl
in my arms?
I said to myself that I would have to try it, and I was about to
pick up the little girl when another thought assailed me. For,
remember, that both times I had passed through the cobra den---the
only communication between the temple and the stairs leading to the
roof-top--I had found it impossible to open the connecting door from
the inside. It was easy enough to get into the cobra den from the
stairs, but to get out--why, there seemed to be some intricate,
hidden bit of machinery which I did not know.
I would have to ask. Whom? Why, his nibs, of course; the old
Brahman priest down in the cobra den. Whom else could I have
So I pushed open the stone slab, shook my priest awake, took the
gag from his mouth, and talked to him like a Dutch uncle.
But it wasn't a go. Not a bit of it. That thrice--born mountain of
portliness only laughed at me. Yes, by the many hecks, he laughed at
me, and then, when I asked him to elucidate, he spoke, very gently,
with a sort of regretful sob in his voice--the old hypocrite: "Ah,
sahib," he sighed, "it is, alas! impossible to open the door from the
inside--as impossible as wings upon a cat, as flowers of air, as
rabbits' horns, as ropes made of tortoise hair! Only from the outside
can the door be opened!"
I threatened him with voice and with hand and, you know, I have a
large, man-size, persuasive sort of hand. But it didn't do a bit of
good. "Impossible, sahib!" he repeated, "impossible by the five
sacred Pandavas!" and there was that in his voice which convinced me
that Old Pomposity, perhaps for the first time in his life, was
speaking the truth.
"Look here," I said after a pause, "there's another way out of the
temple, isn't there?" "Assuredly," he replied. "You can pass through
the temple, sahib, out of the door, along the corridor--"
"Cut it out! Can it, you old humbug!" I interrupted him. "I know
that way--I took it half an hour ago, and I had a devil of a time
getting back here. Now, look here. I have an idea that there's yet a
third way out of here, and that you know it. Come through at once,
or--well, I'll give you a good sound spanking!" And I made a
But that didn't faze him in the least. He stared at me out of his
round, onyx eyes, folded his hands over his stomach and said
resignedly, "Beat me then, sahib, for--ah--a beating from a master
and a step into the mud are not things one should consider." Cute
little metaphor, wasn't it? And perhaps not exactly as flattering as
it sounded first shot out of the box. "Sahib," he went right on with
his eternal Oriental proverbs, "if the man be ugly, what can the
mirror do? Can you plaster over the rays of the sun? No? Then why
beat me? It would not help you out of the temple, would it?"
I lost my temper then. "Look here," I said, "if you don't get me
out of here--me and the girl---I'll kill you: and by ginger I mean
But he continued staring at me without as much as a blink.
"Sahib," he said calmly, "you are a white man, a Christian, afraid
of death, of--ah--final destiny. But I, sahib," he purred, "I am a
Brahman, a thrice-born indifferent to life and to death--for death is
only a passing breath, only a forgotten wind sweeping over the grassy
hills of eternity; indifferent to Satva, and Rajas, and Tamas--to
pleasure, and pain, and darkness. You believe that man's life is a
bundle of qualities which die with death; and I--I know that man's
life is a thing without bondage or limit, perpetually active! I,
sahib," he shot out with sudden ringing sincerity, "I am not afraid
Right then an idea came to me--a mingling of what I had read and
of what Roos-Keppel had told me about caste and loss of caste.
Roughly, I forced the Brahman to swing himself out of the den and
into the temple. I followed.
"Look!" I said, pointing at the idol of Shiva Natarajah,
straddling the door; and the Brahman turned as pale as a sheet. "You
are not afraid of death," I went on, "and that's the truth. But you
are afraid of losing caste; you are afraid of losing your priestly
influence, aren't you?" He did not reply, just stood there, staring
dumbly, despairingly at the statue, and I continued: "You see, I
discovered how you work your little miracles, and I worked them
myself--every last one of them. I even made your fool idol talk; and
the people saw and heard and ran away. Now, either you get me out of
this mess, out of this confounded rabbit-warren, or I give myself up
to your countrymen, and I tell 'em how you've fooled them in the
past. I'll tell 'em how the miracles are accomplished, and then you,
I guess, would--"
"Yes, yes," he mumbled, "I would lose caste! For many lives to
come would I be born in the form of insects, of--"
"Well," I interrupted harshly, "what's the answer? Come through!
Are you going to lead me out of this building or not?"
"Sahib," he said, "you win. But I can not lead you out of the
"Stop your hedging," I cried. "How the deuce do I win if you can't
lead me out of the temple?"
"Forgive your servant, sahib," stammered the priest, "and have
patience until I have explained. For I have given a vow never too
leave this building, never even to come within sight of the outer
walls of it, a sacred vow to Ganesha, the Elephant-Tusked Lord of
Incepts! And should I break this vow I would lose caste as assuredly
as if you--ah--would give to the people the tale of the
"Well, what then?" I demanded impatiently.
"Just this, sahib. I can lead you from here to another room and
thence, by yourself easily, assuredly, will you be able to find
escape in a short time. Listen! Listen to me, sahib," he continued
hurriedly, excitedly, "listen to my solemn oath," and he gave the one
solemn vow which--I remembered what Roos-Keppel had told me--no
Brahman will ever break: "I swear by Shiva the Great Yogi, by
Parvati, and the Sacred Bull Nandi--by Ganesha and Karttikeya! I
swear by all the Devas who dwell in Svarga! I swear by the heavenly
Apsaras, the Gandharvas, and Kinnaras! I swear by Vishnu's Garuda, by
Parvati's Tiger, by Ganesha's Rat, and by Indra's Elephant! I swear
that I shall lead the sahib into a room whence he shall find a quick
and certain way out of danger, a way to eternal peace and release
from worry; nor shall he be molested by man or beast! Ay! peace and
rest and safety shall be his! I swear it to thee, O Brahm, Supreme
Spirit, O Son of Pritha!"
Then he turned to me, speaking with his ordinary voice: "You
believe me, sahib?"
"Sure!" I did believe him. He spoke the truth, and there was no
doubt of it. "All right," I said, walking over to the pedestal and
picking up the little girl. Her head dropped on my shoulder like a
precious waxen flower. "Lead on MacDuff!"
"Good, sahib, good!" breathed the priest, turning directly to the
wall to the left of the door, and then he continued. speaking over
his shoulder, "you are not afraid of trees?"
"You bet I am not," I laughed. "Trees are what I want--trees, and
sunlight, and the open--"
"Good, good, good!" the priest replied. "Trees shall be your
fate--trees and peace and safety forever!" And for a few minutes he
groped over the wall panels, seemed to find what he was looking for,
gave a violent little jerk, and part of the wall flung open with a
great rush of cool air.
"Come, sahib," he said, and I followed him, the girl in my arms,
through the opening and down a winding staircase into pitchy
darkness. But I wasn't afraid--not the least bit. I knew that the
Brahman would not break his solemn vow.
CHAPTER VIII - Brahman Truth
The vox angelica replied: "The shadows flee
Our house-beams were of cedar. Come in
with boughs of May!"
The diapason deepened it: "Before the
We tell you He is risen again!
Our God hath burst His prison again!
Christ is risen, is risen again: and Love is
Lord of all!"
DOWN the cool, dark staircase we went--and--Say--Denton turned on
me a smile of sheer joy--do you believe there's such a thing as
compressing all that is fine and sweet and precious and wild and
simple in life into a few golden, pulsing seconds? What? Do I believe
Why, man, I knew it, as I walked down the stairs with the little
Hindu girl in my arms, her soft, warm body pressed against mine, her
heart beating through her flimsy draperies, and with the thought that
soon she and I would find peace and safety. Just then I didn't even
think of the portly old thrice-born who was walking ahead of me,
giving warning every once in a while about a broken or slippery step.
I felt an utter sense of complete, lasting remoteness from the gray,
grinding worries and unhappinesses of all the world--as if the girl
and I had, somewhat audaciously, but entirely successfully, come
without passport, without asking leave, into a separate little
kingdom of wonder and magic and love. "We have arrived, sahib," the
Brahman's voice jarred into my happy reverie, and at the same time
the pitchy darkness was cut off as sharp and clean as with a knife,
and a bright, silvery light rose in front of me suddenly, as when a
series of motion-pictures snaps short a street scene and shifts
without warning into the scenery of lake and forest.
In a moment my eyes got used to the blinding dazzle. It was the
dazzle of moon-rays coming through a window and mirroring themselves
on the shiny white lac walls of a small room into which the stairs
abutted. I stepped up to the window and looked out; it gave on a
garden which stood out spectrally in the silken moonlight. I could
see the dim stir of the leaves and particles of fine dust blown about
by some vagabond wind of the night; and the mystery, the mad, amazing
stillness of India surged out of the dark and spoke to me.
But the mystery, the throbbing stillness held, too, a message of
peace to me and the girl, for there was the garden, the trees, the
open, freedom--the fulfillment of my Charmed Life. I completed my
groping thoughts with a smile as I turned to the priest with a
heart-felt "Thank you," and was about to throw open the window. But
he restrained me. "No, no, sahib," he said hurriedly, "no! There is
no way out of the garden; it is surrounded by a huge wall and well
patrolled. Wait, sahib! I shall keep my solemn oath. I shall give you
your heart's desire--safety and peace---no harm from man or
beast--and," he smiled, "trees, better, richer, more glorious than
those trees yonder," pointing at the waving palm fronds in the
He turned and walked to the opposite side of the room. "As, here
we are," he breathed softly, and very suddenly, with such utter
quickness that: I did not even see his hand as it worked it, he had
set some dull-grating machinery into motion, and four feet of stone
wall slid to one side with a little thud. "Step inside, sahib," he
went on, "and remember the oath of the Brahman--safety and peace.
Step inside, sahib, you who love trees!"
You know, Stephen Denton continued after a short pause, for a
fleeting moment a certain shapeless, clammy fear seemed to settle
down upon me, focusing about my heart. Looking at the Brahman's
smiling face, I had very much the sensation a bird may feel when it
runs straight into the jaws of the snake that has fascinated it. I
seemed to be falling in with a devilish plan of the Brahman's own
making--to--oh, my thoughts seemed to be flying about somewhere
outside of my brain, beyond control scattering wildly. But I jerked
them back into my nerve-control with a stark, savage effort. I told
myself that the Brahman would not break his oath. I stepped through
the opening, the girl in my arms, while the priest stood to one side,
bowing, smiling, like a deferential butler receiving an honored
"I have kept my oath, sahib," he repeated. "Let the Divine Mother
of the Elephant's Trunk be witness to the fact that I have kept my
oath! You will find trees--you who do not fear trees, you who like
trees--sit beneath them for a while and meditate on Life, on Death,
on the Seven Great Virtues, and the Seven Black Sins! Think of it
all, and remember, too," suddenly he gave a shrill, high-pitched
laugh, "that sense is not a courtesan, that it should come to men
unasked! Ho, wise sahib among sahibs!" And, with another ringing
laugh, he had stepped quickly back--he was about to shoot the door
home--when once more fear and suspicion raced through me.
"Wait a moment!" I said, "wait--" I took a step toward him, but
the girl was in my arms---very quickly I shifted the soft, warm
burden to my left arm, releasing my right--I made a grab at the
Brahman. But I had not been quick enough. I only caught the end of
his flowing robe--it tore in my hand. He was out and away, and the
door shut with a jarring bang of finality. The only thing he left
behind him was the yard or two of white robe which got caught in the
slamming door, hanging down like a limp, disgusted flag. Again fear
rushed through me--"fear as dry and keen as a new-ground sword," as
the Hindus say--and my heart was a great, confused turmoil of
dread and despair--and of love for the girl in my arms. I pressed
her to me more closely than ever.
Was this a trap, a--But no, no! whispered my saner self. The
Brahman had sworn the one oath the breaking of which would make him
lose caste; and immediately I became reassured. There was a way out
of this room, and it wouldn't, couldn't be hard to find; for the
priest had promised safety and peace and escape from worry for me and
the girl. He had promised that neither man nor beast would harm
I needed just a few minutes' rest, for even the sweetest burden
becomes heavy in one's arms, and then I would find my way out. So,
very gently, I let Padmavati slide to the floor--beneath the
Trees? Yes! For the Brahman had spoken the truth, There were two
trees in the center of the room, striving straight up to the tall
ceiling. Indian gold-mohur trees they seemed, in full-bursting,
dark-green leafage, and crowned with masses of flame-colored,
fantastically twisted flowers. The branches touched the walls on all
four sides, they seemed to fill the whole upper half of the room,
and, like willow-branches, they drooped down, coming within about
seven feet of the floor. I smiled at the typical Hindu conceit which
had caused trees to be planted in a room, and I touched the trunk of
one of them--and then I drew my hand back with an exclamation of
You see, I had touched something cold, ice--cold!
Startling, wasn't it? And my surprise grew into amazement when I
looked closer. For the trees were not living trees at all!
They were made of metal, every last detail of them, every leaf and
flower--metal, cunningly wrought and embossed and enameled! I
remember the Brahman's question; he had asked me first, if I feared
trees; then, if I liked them?
What had he meant by it? Well, it made no difference to me either
way, I concluded my thought. Doubtless, these two metal trees had
some occult religious significance. Perhaps this room was only
another temple, the trees represented some incarnation of one or
other of the many Hindu deities, after all, the Brahmans had
assimilated into their faith a good deal of the nature worship of the
black Indian aborigines. I knew that much from what I had read.
So, I sat there, beside the girl and rested myself. I didn't
follow the Brahman's advice---Stephen Denton laughed--I didn't
meditate on the Seven Great Virtues and the Seven Black Sins, I
thought of simpler, sweeter, bigger things--of love--just that!
I rose, a few minutes later, thoroughly refreshed in mind and
body. And, I began once more looking for a door through which to
escape. But there was neither window nor door. That didn't worry me,
for I said to myself that I would presently chance upon some
cellar-flap or some cunningly hidden spring which would release part
of the wall, since, judging from past experiences, this seemed to be
the usual mode of exit in this mad maze of buildings. I would get out
somehow. There was the Brahman's solemn oath--peace and safety, and
relief from worry!
First of all, I looked for a cellar-flap, and it didn't take me
long to give up that particular search. For the floor, jet black as
the Gates of Erberus, proved to be fashioned of a single, unjointed
sheet of some sort of heavy metal, so highly polished that the
tiniest hinge or button would have stood out like a crack in a
The walls, then!
They seemed covered with a wonderful, intricate, color-shouting
embroidery, the very thing to conceal a tapestry door.
Beautiful stuff it was, and I raised my hand to touch it--you know
the desire people have to handle precious textures--and then--why,
man, the walls, too, were of metal, like the trees, like the floor!
What I had taken for embroidery was in reality exquisitely inlaid
enamel. It was perfectly wonderful work. I had never seen the like of
it, and even at the time I thought that the whole thing--the walls,
the trees, the floor, and what came after--could not be of Hindu
workmanship; that it must have been made by the wizard hands of some
Chinese craftsman. A Hindu wouldn't have had the patience, nor the
neatness, for such delicate work. And you know the Persian saying:
"God gave cunning to these three:--the brain of the Frank, the tongue
of the Arab, the hand of the Chinaman!"
Well, metal or no metal, Hindu or Chinese, it was up to me to find
some sort of an opening, and I began to make the round of the walls.
Foot by foot, as high as I could reach, I commenced to examine them,
groping, feeling, tapping carefully, minutely--and then, suddenly, I
stopped. I jumped back a clear two feet, with an exclamation of
surprise. Something had touched me on the shoulder!
I looked. There was nobody--just the girl and I--yes--and the
trees! The next moment I knew what had startled me so. I told you
about the branches of the trees, how they drooped, like willows;
well, one of the branches had drooped a little lower, it had touched
me. That was all!
Again I returned to my work. But I felt dizzy. I was on the verge
of fainting. I jerked myself up with a will. I said to myself that I
would have to hurry, for day breaks early and people rise early in
the tropics; and I would have to make my getaway before the night
faded from purple into rose and dull orange--and there was my love
for the little girl, my love which was like a fine spring rain,
I did try to continue my search; but I couldn't!
I called myself a weakling and a fool; for terror--red, rank
terror beyond death--seized me.
The trees--the branch of the one tree which had drooped a little
and touched my shoulder! But how could it droop, since it was not a
living branch--since it was made of lifeless metal?
I looked at the trees, at the ceiling. I looked--and I was
appalled! Perhaps my eyes were deceiving me--an optical
illusion--just my imagination, I told myself, growing, bloating,
expanding like a balloon of evil anticipations, my mad imagination
whispering to my saner Self, my real thinking Self; until, steadily
growing in volume and effect, jumping from cord to cord in that
intricate spider-web which is the nervous system, it had persuaded
the thinking, recording cells in my brain, that--Stephen Denton
half-rose in his chair--that the ceiling was slowly coming
down--slowly, slowly--and with it the trees--the metal trees--with
the sharp crushing metal branches!
Yes! They seemed to descend--very, very slowly, but as steadily
and pitilessly as God's logic--steadily, steadily.
But no! Impossible!
I said to myself that it could not be so; that what I seemed to
see must be the result of autosuggestion, of some wretched sort of
self-hypnotism, focusing on my mentality, trying to strangle and
paralyze my physical activity at the very moment when I had to use
both body and brain to find the door in the wall, to escape!
I would have to convince myself that it was only an illusion, and
there was one way of doing it. I told you about the intricate pattern
with which the metal walls were enameled. I picked out one, a little
black-and-red crane standing erect on a lotus-leaf, a beautiful bit
of enamel, high up on the wall, quite near the ceiling, and I watched
it. I watched it carefully, without taking my eyes away for a single
moment--I watched--watched--and I saw! I apologized to myself for
having called myself a fool and a coward, and for having accused
myself of autosuggestion and an overdose of crazy imagination. I
decided that my real Self was still on deck, after all, working,
observing, sober, and more or less subliminal. For, within a short
time--perhaps three minutes--the edge of the ceiling had touched the
head of the little black-and-red crane. Another three minutes, the
crane had disappeared, and the ceiling was halfway across the
I saw--and immediately I understood! I understood everything--the
walls and floor and ceiling of solid metal, the trees, the Brahman's
question if I feared tree, and the Brahman's oath!
The Brahman had given a solemn oath, nor would he break it. He had
lured me into this room, me and the girl, and he had set some
machinery into motion which would kill us, slowly,
mercilessly--crushing us, doubtless as sacrifices, human sacrifices,
to his bestial, blood-stained gods. Yes, he had kept his oath, for to
him death spelled peace and safety and final release from earthly
worries; nor were we being harmed by man or beast, but by metal, by
crushing weight, by---
And he had asked me to sit awhile beneath the trees--to rest
myself, to meditate!
What should I do, could I do? The bell from the Presbyterian
church, tolling the quarter to two, gave answer. Yes, I knelt down,
and I prayed--a foolish prayer of my childhood days, back in Boston.
It was the only one I could remember:
Dear God, I am a growing child;
Each day of living brings
A hundred puzzling thoughts to me
About a hundred things.
Sometimes it's very hard for me To tell what I should do, And so I
say this little prayer, And leave it all to you.
Childish, wasn't it? But it didn't seem so to me at the time--and,
yes, it seemed to--oh!---steady my nerves; it seemed to me like the
cool, safe breath of God. It gave me resignation, it left no room for
fear. Come what may--there was nothing in my heart except love--love
for the little Lady Padmavati--and all the tortures in the world, the
slowest, cruelest death, would not blot out from my consciousness the
fact that I loved her--her only!
There was nothing I could do. I could save neither her life, nor
my own. A pistol clapped to my head, a curved saber waved above
me--those I could have battled and struggled against. They were real,
tangible. But this--why, I was helpless, and I knew it.
Again I watched the ceiling, the trees. They were still coming
down, steadily, slowly, the branches drooped lower and lower; one of
them, a specially stout branch, was already within a foot of the top
of the low door; another touched my head, the sharp metal cut my
There was just one thing I could do for Padmavati. I could protect
her with my own body. She, too, would be crushed to death, but at
least the sharp metal branches would not tear her flimsy robe to
ribbons, dishonoring her in the hour of death, nor would they cut her
soft, golden skin.
I crouched above her, and I prayed, again I prayed! Twice I looked
up to see if the ceiling, the trees, were still coming down, fully
convinced, before I looked, that they were coming down. They were now
descending a little faster--the branch near the door was nearly
touching the top.
I bent down lower to kiss the girl, a kiss of love and farewell--I
felt her soft, warm, intoxicating breath--and---
I did not kiss her after all! For, suddenly, I heard a noise,
loud, sharp, jarring. I looked up, startled--again I was afraid. Was
this the end? Were the metal trees about to crush us? Or, perhaps,
had the door opened to admit the Brahman?
And then--quite suddenly---
Stephen Denton was silent for a moment. He turned to me with a
quizzical smile. He pointed at the fine, white ashes of his cigar,
curling around the dull-red glow. He blew the ashes away.
"Half a rupee's worth of tobacco," he said, "burned into a smelly
stump of no value at all in twenty minutes--that's a cigar, isn't it?
And yet---imagine a puff of wind, an open barrel of gunpowder, a
conflagration, a wooden building across the street, a town gone up in
flames and smoke! Small cause and thumping result, don't you
"Yes, yes," I interrupted impatiently, "but what's that got to do
with those metal trees above you--with the horrible death you were
facing---you and the girl you loved?"
What has that got to do with the trees--you ask--with my death?
Why, everything, old man!
Remember the loud, sharp-jarring noise I told you about a second
ago? Remember the Brahman and the Brahman's white robe, how I
clutched at it, how it tore and got caught in the slamming of the
door at the height of the knob?
Well, I have an idea that bit of flimsy muslin is responsible for
the fact that I am sitting here today, across from you, old man. I am
not sure how it happened, though later on, when calm reflection came,
I said to myself that the Chinese craftsman with the patient,
delicate hands, who was doubtless the builder of that
torture-chamber, had been a trifle too patient, a trifle too
delicate. It was pretty clear to me that the Brahman had set the
machinery in motion--most likely it timed itself--so and so many
minutes, until the room had contracted to such a degree that the
trees crushed whatever living thing was in their vicinity.
You see, the ceiling and the trees had stopped in their slow,
pitiless, juggernaut descent, for the simplest reason in the
The flimsy bit of torn muslin had prevented the door from closing
completely, by the fraction of an inch, no more! But it was enough to
cause the top of the door to protrude the least little bit from the
upper part of the door-jamb--and there you are! The stout metal
branch of the tree, instead of sliding serenely past door-jamb and
along the door, had pumped smartly against the protruding top of the
Providence, eh? Chance--perhaps that blind Madonna of children and
lovers? Or the Charmed Life?
Whatever the psychical reason, the physical was clear. The whole
thing had happened and passed in a moment. The jarring noise--the
realization that the muslin had saved our lives---then silence.
Again I looked at the ceiling, at the trees. They could not work
past the minute obstacle. And I thanked God--and then I bent once
more over the girl, to continue my interrupted kiss, and at the same
moment she gave a little sob and opened her eyes.
I guess she must have recognized me immediately. She must have
remembered the scene on the roof-top. For she wasn't a bit
frightened. She just looked at me and smiled, and then, in a few
rapid words, I told her what had happened--from the moment the old
ruffian on the roof-top had struck her the glancing blow to the
moment when I had come to this room, her unconscious form in my
I did not tell her about the trees, about this devil's devising of
a room. For I loved her, don't you see, I did not want to worry her,
and, momentarily at least, we were safe. Also--and I know you'll
think me mad--when I saw her open her eyes--when I saw that soft,
sweet expression in her face as she looked at me and recognized me,
the idea, the thought--no!--the all-fired, eternal conviction came to
me that God was in His Heavens after all--that I bore the Charmed
Life---that, somehow, we would get out of this room, this house, this
maze of buildings--out of the Colootallah!
So I told her everything up to the moment when I had crossed the
threshold when I had stretched her beneath the trees, and I wound up
with a few simple words.
Stephen Denton blushed a little.
What were those words? Can't you guess them? They were the same
words which are spoken in every known and unknown language, a million
times each day, in every country, in every city and village.
I said: "I love you! Will you be my wife?"
And she replied in English, in soft, beautiful English: "Would you
marry a dancing-girl, a nautch, sahib?"
"You bet your life!" I replied, with ringing conviction in my
voice. "I'd marry you if you were--"
"The Lady Padmavati?" she interrupted me, mockingly, and then I
remembered how I had heard that same name whispered through the
hollow tiles at the feet of the mummy. I remembered the sensation,
the utter amazement, which the mentioning of that name had
Still, "the Lady Padmavati" meant nothing to me, and so I asked
her straight out who she was, and she told me.
I guess you know, Stephen Denton continued; you must have read
about it in the newspapers, how one of the Hindu revolutionary secret
societies had been trying to bully the Raja of Nagapore into joining
their ranks, or, at least, contributing a handsome bunch of money:
how the Raja--very pro-British he--had refused, and how his only
child, a daughter, had been kidnapped. Well, to make a long story
short, Padmavati was the daughter of the Raja of Nagapore. Those
ruffians had stolen her and were training her for the temple worship
of Shiva Natarajah.
"And," she wound up her tale, "I have made a vow that whoever
rescues me him I shall--"
The rest of her sentence was drowned in a loud, metallic noise. At
the same moment was a rush of cool air. I looked up. The door had
been flung wide open, and there round-eyed, utterly amazed, stood--my
old friend, the Brahman!
I doubt if it took me more than a hundredth part of a second to
collect my thoughts, to realize my position. "Quick," I whispered to
the girl. She rose, catching my arm. We jumped across the threshold!
He stood there, mute, and I laughed.
"Miscalculated a little, didn't you, you fat Brahman ruffian?" I
asked in a low voice. "Told me to sit beneath the trees and meditate
on Life and Death--and meanwhile you'd turn a crank and supply the
latter, eh? All right--" Suddenly I grabbed him and pushed him into
the steel room---he was quite limp--didn't even fight---"now it's
your turn to meditate, and mine to move the crank, and I guarantee
you there isn't going to be any torn slip of muslin this time--inside
of twenty minutes you'll be as flat as a flounder!" And I scooted out
of the room and shut the door. Of course, I had no intention of
really crushing him to death--crafty, treacherous old beggar though
he was--and though he had come back, doubtless, to have a good look
at our flattened-out remains--the gory-minded Brahman gray-beard!
But, after all, though India had crept into my blood, I was still an
American, a Westerner. I could have killed him with knife or bullet,
killed him outright, you see, without too much compunction. But to
slowly squeeze him to death--oh, I couldn't do it.
And, too, don't you see, old man, the whole thing was a bluff,
anyway. How did I know where to go--how to find the crank or whatever
it was which set the machinery into motion? I simply figured on the
chance that the Brahman would be too badly scared to see through my
bluff. And, to make it appear more real, I took out my Bowie--knife
and scraped the door on the outside, to make him think the machinery
was jarring and snapping into motion.
Faintly, from within, I could hear his agonized moaning and
I felt Padmavati's soft little hand on my arm. "But, dearest"--she
whispered, and I understood, though she didn't finish her
"It's all right, darling," I returned. "I am not going to hurt Old
Pomposity more than I have to. Don't you worry about him!" and I
continued scraping at the steel door until the moaning and sobbing
had ceased. Then, very gently, I opened the door. I looked in.
The Brahman had fallen in a dead faint. His light-brown face had
I shook him awake. He came out of his trance with a start. He
clutched my legs, he kissed the hem of my robe, my hands, and
whatever parts of my anatomy he could reach. "Sahib, Heaven--Born,
Protector of the Pitiful!" he groaned. "In the name of the many true
gods--do not--do not--"
"All right!" I said, "I won't, you obese fraud--but--"
"Oh, Shining Pearl of Equity and Mercy!" he interrupted me with
another outpouring of Oriental imagery. "Oh, Great King! Accept the
vow of my gratitude! Hari bol! Krishna bol! Vishnu bol! Let the
mighty gods be witnesses to my gratitude! May earth and life be to
you as a wide and many-flowered road! May the clay of the holy river
Vaiturani be rubbed on your body after your death--"
"That's exactly it!" I cut in. "After my death! And I don't intend
to die--and, if you are as grateful as I am inclined to believe from
your protestations, show me a way out of here--quick!"
He rose. Three times he bowed. Then he spoke, solemnly, "I will,
Heaven-Born! Follow me!" and he turned to go.
"Can I believe you this time?" I asked.
"Courage is tried in war, sahib," replied the Brahman; "integrity
in the payment of debt and interest; friendship in distress; the
faithfulness of a wife in the day of poverty; and a Brahman's loyalty
in the hour of death. Sahib, follow me!"
And I did--arm in arm with the girl--for, somehow, I felt that the
old priest was speaking the truth.
So he led us through halls and rooms, up and down stairs worn
hollow and slippery with the tread of naked feet, along corridors, on
and on, with here and there a stop, a whispered word from the Brahman
to keep perfectly quiet, a silken rustling of garments in some nearby
room where people were still awake, with once in a while a hushed,
distant voice, and twice the steely impact of a scabbard-tip bumping
the stone flags as some unseen, prowling watchman of the night passed
somewhere on his rounds; on and on we passed, and we never met a
single human being. I hardly noticed the direction. For I was talking
She gave a low, throaty laugh. Just then we were passing through a
long, dark hall.
"Remember, sahib," she asked, "what I was saying just before the
priest opened the door? I did not finish the sentence. Let me finish
it now. I said that I have made a vow that whoever rescues me, him I
"You shall--marry!" I interrupted her, catching her in my arms and
seeking her lips with mine.
I believe, Stephen Denton continued after a short pause, that
science holds it impossible to measure eternity. It is the same thing
with the great, deep joy--the huge, pulsing, bewildering elation
which comes to man once--once in his life--when he loves, and when he
feels that his love is returned. It is--oh, well, perhaps you know it
yourself, perhaps you can fill in the details from your personal
experience--the hot, exquisite knocking of the blood, the whispering
rhythm of the dear, soft body you hold pressed against your own, the
gigantic sounds of harmony which fill your soul--your sudden new,
golden life as it seems to disentangle itself from the bunched, dark
whole of humanity into a great, radiant simplicity.
Love--the first minutes of true love--and you can't measure them!
At least I couldn't--that night. I pressed Padmavati close against
me; mechanically, I set foot before foot, following the priest; and
then, a second later, we ascended a staircase which seemed vaguely
familiar to me.
The Brahman pushed open a door, we crossed a threshold--and there
Once more on the roof-top, with the moon slowly fading in the
distant sky before the faint rose-blush of dawn!
The Brahman walked straight up to the carved stone balustrade and
pointed down at Ibrahim Khan's Gully.
"I have kept my word, sahib," he said, "There is the street--a
jump--the turning of a street corner or two--and you will find Park
Street! You will find your own world, your own people!" He bowed,
then he turned to the girl. "And you, Padmavati--great was the
injustice done to you. You were carried away from the palace of your
father! You were forced here, into this building, to learn how to
dance before Shiva Natarajah! Yes, great was the injustice of it; and
yet, can you wipe out blood with darkening blood? Will a wrong right
"A wrong?" she asked. "What wrong?"
"The sahib, Padmavati!" he replied. "You are following the sahib,
a foreigner, a Christian, and you are--" he halted.
"Yes," she said after a short pause, "I am the Princess Padmavati.
I am the daughter of the Maharajah of Nagapore. I am a Rathor of
Kanauj, claiming kinship with the flame, and my mother is a Tomara of
Delhi, claiming kinship with the sun! I am a descendant of the gods!"
She drew up her, little figure in a passion of pride. "My people have
lived here--they have ruled this great land of Hindustan for over
three thousand years! Never have we mixed our blood with the blood of
foreigners! And yet--"
"And yet--what?" anxiously asked the priest, and she continued
with a low, silvery laugh: "And yet there is love, wise priest!" And
she turned to me. "Jump, beloved," she whispered, "jump--and I shall
I jumped without waiting for another word---down into Ibrahim
Khan's Gully, landing safely on my feet. The next second her little
lithe figure was balanced on the edge of the balustrade. I stretched
my arms wide--she jumped--I caught her--just as the bell from the
Presbyterian church in Old Court House Street
Yes, mused Stephen Denton, a descendant of the gods, she, the
daughter of a race who ruled this land before history dawned on the
rest of the world--and I, from Boston, with memories of the
antimacassars, mild cocktails, Phi Beta Kappa, and---