The House of
Suddhoo by Rudyard Kipling
A stone's throw out on either hand
From that well-ordered road we tread,
And all the world is wild and strange;
Churel and ghoul and Djinn and sprite
Shall bear us company to-night,
For we have reached the Oldest Land
Wherein the Powers of Darkness range.
From the Dusk to the Dawn.
The house of Suddhoo, near the Taksali Gate, is two-storied, with
four carved windows of old brown wood, and a flat roof. You may
recognize it by five red hand-prints arranged like the Five of
Diamonds on the whitewash between the upper windows. Bhagwan Dass,
the bunnia, and a man who says he gets his living by seal-cutting,
live in the lower story with a troop of wives, servants, friends, and
retainers. The two upper rooms used to be occupied by Janoo and
Azizun and a little black-and-tan terrier that was stolen from an
Englishman's house and given to Janoo by a soldier. To-day, only
Janoo lives in the upper rooms. Suddhoo sleeps on the roof
generally, except when he sleeps in the street. He used to go to
Peshawar in the cold weather to visit his son, who sells curiosities
near the Edwardes' Gate, and then he slept under a real mud roof.
Suddhoo is a great friend of mine, because his cousin had a son who
secured, thanks to my recommendation, the post of head-messenger to a
big firm in the Station. Suddhoo says that God will make me a
Lieutenant-Governor one of these days. I daresay his prophecy will
come true. He is very, very old, with white hair and no teeth worth
showing, and he has outlived his wits--outlived nearly everything
except his fondness for his son at Peshawar. Janoo and Azizun are
Kashmiris, Ladies of the City, and theirs was an ancient and more or
less honorable profession; but Azizun has since married a medical
student from the North-West and has settled down to a most
respectable life somewhere near Bareilly. Bhagwan Dass is an
extortionate and an adulterator. He is very rich. The man who is
supposed to get his living by seal-cutting pretends to be very poor.
This lets you know as much as is necessary of the four principal
tenants in the house of Suddhoo. Then there is Me, of course; but I
am only the chorus that comes in at the end to explain things. So I
do not count.
Suddhoo was not clever. The man who pretended to cut seals was the
cleverest of them all--Bhagwan Dass only knew how to lie--except
Janoo. She was also beautiful, but that was her own affair.
Suddhoo's son at Peshawar was attacked by pleurisy, and old Suddhoo
was troubled. The seal-cutter man heard of Suddhoo's anxiety and
made capital out of it. He was abreast of the times. He got a
friend in Peshawar to telegraph daily accounts of the son's health.
And here the story begins.
Suddhoo's cousin's son told me, one evening, that Suddhoo wanted to
see me; that he was too old and feeble to come personally, and that I
should be conferring an everlasting honor on the House of Suddhoo if I
went to him. I went; but I think, seeing how well-off Suddhoo was
then, that he might have sent something better than an ekka, which
jolted fearfully, to haul out a future Lieutenant-Governor to the City
on a muggy April evening. The ekka did not run quickly. It was full
dark when we pulled up opposite the door of Ranjit Singh's Tomb near
the main gate of the Fort. Here was Suddhoo and he said that, by
reason of my condescension, it was absolutely certain that I should
become a Lieutenant-Governor while my hair was yet black. Then we
talked about the weather and the state of my health, and the wheat
crops, for fifteen minutes, in the Huzuri Bagh, under the stars.
Suddhoo came to the point at last. He said that Janoo had told him
that there was an order of the Sirkar against magic, because it was
feared that magic might one day kill the Empress of India. I didn't
know anything about the state of the law; but I fancied that
something interesting was going to happen. I said that so far from
magic being discouraged by the Government it was highly commended.
The greatest officials of the State practiced it themselves. (If the
Financial Statement isn't magic, I don't know what is.) Then, to
encourage him further, I said that, if there was any jadoo afoot, I
had not the least objection to giving it my countenance and sanction,
and to seeing that it was clean jadoo--white magic, as distinguished
from the unclean jadoo which kills folk. It took a long time before
Suddhoo admitted that this was just what he had asked me to come for.
Then he told me, in jerks and quavers, that the man who said he cut
seals was a sorcerer of the cleanest kind; that every day he gave
Suddhoo news of the sick son in Peshawar more quickly than the
lightning could fly, and that this news was always corroborated by the
letters. Further, that he had told Suddhoo how a great danger was
threatening his son, which could be removed by clean jadoo; and, of
course, heavy payment. I began to see how the land lay, and told
Suddhoo that I also understood a little jadoo in the Western line, and
would go to his house to see that everything was done decently and in
order. We set off together; and on the way Suddhoo told me he had
paid the seal-cutter between one hundred and two hundred rupees
already; and the jadoo of that night would cost two hundred more.
Which was cheap, he said, considering the greatness of his son's
danger; but I do not think he meant it.
The lights were all cloaked in the front of the house when we
arrived. I could hear awful noises from behind the seal-cutter's
shop-front, as if some one were groaning his soul out. Suddhoo shook
all over, and while we groped our way upstairs told me that the jadoo
had begun. Janoo and Azizun met us at the stair-head, and told us
that the jadoo-work was coming off in their rooms, because there was
more space there. Janoo is a lady of a freethinking turn of mind.
She whispered that the jadoo was an invention to get money out of
Suddhoo, and that the seal-cutter would go to a hot place when he
died. Suddhoo was nearly crying with fear and old age. He kept
walking up and down the room in the half light, repeating his son's
name over and over again, and asking Azizun if the seal-cutter ought
not to make a reduction in the case of his own landlord. Janoo pulled
me over to the shadow in the recess of the carved bow- windows. The
boards were up, and the rooms were only lit by one tiny lamp. There
was no chance of my being seen if I stayed still.
Presently, the groans below ceased, and we heard steps on the
staircase. That was the seal-cutter. He stopped outside the door as
the terrier barked and Azizun fumbled at the chain, and he told
Suddhoo to blow out the lamp. This left the place in jet darkness,
except for the red glow from the two huqas that belonged to Janoo and
Azizun. The seal-cutter came in, and I heard Suddhoo throw himself
down on the floor and groan. Azizun caught her breath, and Janoo
backed to one of the beds with a shudder. There was a clink of
something metallic, and then shot up a pale blue-green flame near the
ground. The light was just enough to show Azizun, pressed against one
corner of the room with the terrier between her knees; Janoo, with her
hands clasped, leaning forward as she sat on the bed; Suddhoo, face
down, quivering, and the seal-cutter.
I hope I may never see another man like that seal-cutter. He was
stripped to the waist, with a wreath of white jasmine as thick as my
wrist round his forehead, a salmon-colored loin-cloth round his
middle, and a steel bangle on each ankle. This was not awe-
inspiring. It was the face of the man that turned me cold. It was
blue-gray in the first place. In the second, the eyes were rolled
back till you could only see the whites of them; and, in the third,
the face was the face of a demon--a ghoul--anything you please except
of the sleek, oily old ruffian who sat in the day-time over his
turning-lathe downstairs. He was lying on his stomach, with his arms
turned and crossed behind him, as if he had been thrown down pinioned.
His head and neck were the only parts of him off the floor. They
were nearly at right angles to the body, like the head of a cobra at
spring. It was ghastly. In the centre of the room, on the bare earth
floor, stood a big, deep, brass basin, with a pale blue-green light
floating in the centre like a night-light. Round that basin the man
on the floor wriggled himself three times. How he did it I do not
know. I could see the muscles ripple along his spine and fall smooth
again; but I could not see any other motion. The head seemed the only
thing alive about him, except that slow curl and uncurl of the
laboring back-muscles. Janoo from the bed was breathing seventy to
the minute; Azizun held her hands before her eyes; and old Suddhoo,
fingering at the dirt that had got into his white beard, was crying to
himself. The horror of it was that the creeping, crawly thing made no
sound--only crawled! And, remember, this lasted for ten minutes,
while the terrier whined, and Azizun shuddered, and Janoo gasped, and
I felt the hair lift at the back of my head, and my heart thump
like a thermantidote paddle. Luckily, the seal-cutter betrayed
himself by his most impressive trick and made me calm again. After he
had finished that unspeakable triple crawl, he stretched his head away
from the floor as high as he could, and sent out a jet of fire from
his nostrils. Now, I knew how fire-spouting is done--I can do it
myself--so I felt at ease. The business was a fraud. If he had only
kept to that crawl without trying to raise the effect, goodness knows
what I might not have thought. Both the girls shrieked at the jet of
fire and the head dropped, chin down, on the floor with a thud; the
whole body lying then like a corpse with its arms trussed. There was a
pause of five full minutes after this, and the blue- green flame died
down. Janoo stooped to settle one of her anklets, while Azizun turned
her face to the wall and took the terrier in her arms. Suddhoo put
out an arm mechanically to Janoo's huqa, and she slid it across the
floor with her foot. Directly above the body and on the wall, were a
couple of flaming portraits, in stamped paper frames, of the Queen and
the Prince of Wales. They looked down on the performance, and, to my
thinking, seemed to heighten the grotesqueness of it all.
Just when the silence was getting unendurable, the body turned over
and rolled away from the basin to the side of the room, where it lay
stomach up. There was a faint "plop" from the basin--exactly like
the noise a fish makes when it takes a fly--and the green light in
the centre revived.
I looked at the basin, and saw, bobbing in the water, the dried,
shrivelled, black head of a native baby--open eyes, open mouth and
shaved scalp. It was worse, being so very sudden, than the crawling
exhibition. We had no time to say anything before it began to speak.
Read Poe's account of the voice that came from the mesmerized dying
man, and you will realize less than one-half of the horror of that
There was an interval of a second or two between each word, and a
sort of "ring, ring, ring," in the note of the voice, like the timbre
of a bell. It pealed slowly, as if talking to itself, for several
minutes before I got rid of my cold sweat. Then the blessed solution
struck me. I looked at the body lying near the doorway, and saw, just
where the hollow of the throat joins on the shoulders, a muscle that
had nothing to do with any man's regular breathing, twitching away
steadily. The whole thing was a careful reproduction of the Egyptian
teraphin that one read about sometimes and the voice was as clever and
as appalling a piece of ventriloquism as one could wish to hear. All
this time the head was "lip-lip-lapping" against the side of the
basin, and speaking. It told Suddhoo, on his face again whining, of
his son's illness and of the state of the illness up to the evening of
that very night. I always shall respect the seal-cutter for keeping
so faithfully to the time of the Peshawar telegrams. It went on to
say that skilled doctors were night and day watching over the man's
life; and that he would eventually recover if the fee to the potent
sorcerer, whose servant was the head in the basin, were doubled.
Here the mistake from the artistic point of view came in. To ask
for twice your stipulated fee in a voice that Lazarus might have used
when he rose from the dead, is absurd. Janoo, who is really a woman
of masculine intellect, saw this as quickly as I did. I heard her say
"Asli nahin! Fareib!" scornfully under her breath; and just as she
said so, the light in the basin died out, the head stopped talking,
and we heard the room door creak on its hinges. Then Janoo struck a
match, lit the lamp, and we saw that head, basin, and seal- cutter
were gone. Suddhoo was wringing his hands and explaining to any one
who cared to listen, that, if his chances of eternal salvation
depended on it, he could not raise another two hundred rupees. Azizun
was nearly in hysterics in the corner; while Janoo sat down composedly
on one of the beds to discuss the probabilities of the whole thing
being a bunao, or "make-up."
I explained as much as I knew of the seal-cutter's way of jadoo;
but her argument was much more simple:--"The magic that is always
demanding gifts is no true magic," said she. "My mother told me that
the only potent love-spells are those which are told you for love.
This seal-cutter man is a liar and a devil. I dare not tell, do
anything, or get anything done, because I am in debt to Bhagwan Dass
the bunnia for two gold rings and a heavy anklet. I must get my food
from his shop. The seal-cutter is the friend of Bhagwan Dass, and he
would poison my food. A fool's jadoo has been going on for ten days,
and has cost Suddhoo many rupees each night. The seal-cutter used
black hens and lemons and mantras before. He never showed us anything
like this till to-night. Azizun is a fool, and will be a pur
dahnashin soon. Suddhoo has lost his strength and his wits. See now!
I had hoped to get from Suddhoo many rupees while he lived, and many
more after his death; and behold, he is spending everything on that
offspring of a devil and a she-ass, the seal- cutter!"
Here I said:--"But what induced Suddhoo to drag me into the
business? Of course I can speak to the seal-cutter, and he shall
refund. The whole thing is child's talk--shame--and senseless."
"Suddhoo IS an old child," said Janoo. "He has lived on the roofs
these seventy years and is as senseless as a milch-goat. He brought
you here to assure himself that he was not breaking any law of the
Sirkar, whose salt he ate many years ago. He worships the dust off
the feet of the seal-cutter, and that cow-devourer has forbidden him
to go and see his son. What does Suddhoo know of your laws or the
lightning-post? I have to watch his money going day by day to that
lying beast below."
Janoo stamped her foot on the floor and nearly cried with vexation;
while Suddhoo was whimpering under a blanket in the corner, and
Azizun was trying to guide the pipe-stem to his foolish old mouth.
. . . . . . . . .
Now the case stands thus. Unthinkingly, I have laid myself open to
the charge of aiding and abetting the seal-cutter in obtaining money
under false pretences, which is forbidden by Section 420 of the
Indian Penal Code. I am helpless in the matter for these reasons, I
cannot inform the Police. What witnesses would support my
statements? Janoo refuses flatly, Azizun is a veiled woman somewhere
near Bareilly--lost in this big India of ours. I cannot again take
the law into my own hands, and speak to the seal-cutter; for certain
am I that, not only would Suddhoo disbelieve me, but this step would
end in the poisoning of Janoo, who is bound hand and foot by her debt
to the bunnia. Suddhoo is an old dotard; and whenever we meet mumbles
my idiotic joke that the Sirkar rather patronizes the Black Art than
otherwise. His son is well now; but Suddhoo is completely under the
influence of the seal-cutter, by whose advice he regulates the affairs
of his life. Janoo watches daily the money that she hoped to wheedle
out of Suddhoo taken by the seal-cutter, and becomes daily more
furious and sullen.
She will never tell, because she dare not; but, unless something
happens to prevent her, I am afraid that the seal-cutter will die of
cholera--the white arsenic kind--about the middle of May. And thus I
shall have to be privy to a murder in the House of Suddhoo.