The Charmed Life/Chapter IV
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 Western progress.
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 guess.
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 the Gully.
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 did—not!
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 it.
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 you? What startled me into stark, breathless immobility was a faint noise—a faint, rasping noise, the like of which I had never heard before.
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 floor.
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 beach. Gosh!
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 snakecharmer 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 wall.
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 pedestal.
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 vapors.
Presently my eyes got used to the dim halflight. 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 leading—where?
“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!”