The Blue-Throated God

The Blue-throated God  (1894) 
by Flora Annie Steel

Accompanying illustrations by R. Caton Woodville may be omitted.


THE BLUE-THROATED GOD

By FLORA ANNIE STEEL

WE sat after lunch in the stern watching the bridge grow from the semblance of a caterpillar hung across the horizon between clusters of temples and topes, to that of some monstrous skeleton whose vaulting ribs rose high overhead into the pale sky.

Bannerman and I had come out from England together, and come up-country together; I to take up work at the bridge, he on a sporting tour, with letters of introduction to the chief engineer. We had been doing the sights of the native city, and now, in company with several officials of sorts, were on our way home to the reaches above. And as we surged through the yellow-brown flood we talked vaguely and airily of old gods and new, of Siva's religion of stern reality, and Krishna's pleasure-loving cult.

“You should read Prem Sâgar, sir,” said Mr. Chuckerbutty, the native assistant-engineer, aside to Bannerman, who had given his vote for the latter; “it is of much merit, containing the loves of Krishna and other cognate matter.”

“It's a mere question of temperament,” went on Bannerman, unheeding the interruption. “Some people are born to one thing, some to another. I was born to enjoy myself—Hullo! what's that?”

That was a low note like a bird's, a flash in the sunlight beyond the huge pier along which we were edging our way up the current, and then a cloop like a cork.

“Sambo,” said some one.

“His name is Rudra, sir,” replied Mr. Chuckerbutty.

“Nilkunta, Huzoor,” suggested the captain of the launch. I looked from one to the other interrogatively.

“The bridge-diver,” said the first speaker, “sees after the foundations and that sort of thing. Knows the bottom of the river as well as most of us know the top. A queer sort of animal—there he is to your right.”

Out of the yellow-brown flood a grave yellow-brown face crowned by a curious brass pot not unlike a tiara, then two yellow-brown arms, reminding me unpleasantly of snakes, curved up in the overhead stroke as the swimmer slipped down to where a rope hung from one of the huge ribs. He swarmed up it like a monkey, to sit still as a carven image on the outermost buttress of the pier. His legs crossed under him, his hands resting on his knees, his eyes fixed on the swirling water below, so that the full eyelids drooping over them gave them an empty, sightless look.

“By George!” said Bannerman carelessly, “he reminds me of the big idol over at the temple. What's its name, Chuckerbutty? You're posted in such things; I'm not.”

The assistant-engineer, mindful of the B.A. degree superadded to his ancestral beliefs, became evasive.

“Well, it doesn't matter. I mean the brute like a land crab with a superfluity of arms. The brute we were talking of just now who crowds life and all its joys into one eternal and infernal birth and death—the most uninteresting events of life to my mind.”

Bannerman was right. That figure on the buttress could not fail to remind one of Siva, or Maha-deo—the Creator and the Destroyer—barring the arms. And as I looked, the two which the figure possessed rose slowly from its knees and hovered up in the oddest fashion above its head; then sank again as slowly, leaving one with the impression of any number of circumambient arms.

“Does it when he dives,” said a boy who was watching also; “must have thought he saw something in the stream He brings up all sorts of things.”

The notion was absorbing until Chuckerbutty's idiomatic English, in reply to a query of Bannerman's, roused me.

“Sambo is nickname; but indubitably verbal corruption of the Sanskrit Sâmbhu, lord or master. Rudra, real name, has equivalent synonymous meaning. The most ancient god mentioned in Rig Veda. Symbolised in eight attributes, sun, moon, water, earth, air, fire, ether, and soul of man. In other words, the visible and invisible universe—as Siva the Creator, the Preserver, the Destroyer.”

Chuckerbutty puffed at his cigar in quite a European fashion.

“What rot!” murmured Bannerman under his breath.

“And as for Nilkunta,” put in the boy, “that is simple. It means blue-throated, and Sambo's is tattooed all round.”

“Yet is that also name of Siva,” interposed Chuckerbutty with importance. “As per Mahabharata

'To soften human ills dread Siva drank
The poisonous flood which stained his azure neck.'

“Nil-kunt is also sometimes applied to the bird kingfisher by Europeans; but this is erroneous. It belongs properly—”

I heard no more, my thoughts being with that odd figure again. Certainly a most extraordinary resemblance.

[Illustration: “AS WE SURGED THROUGH THE YELLOW-BROWN FLOOD WE TALKED VAGUELY AND AIRILY OF OLD GODS AND NEW.”]

“Well, if you really are going to fish for mahseer at Hurdwar, Mr. Bannerman you should take advantage of that man's knowledge,” said the chief pompously. “He goes on leave next week—his home is somewhere in the hills—and he knows everything that is to be known about fishing.”

Bannerman laughed. “Back myself against him any day, even on the Ganges. I expect I've as much general good luck—in every way—as any one in this world.”

He gave you that impression. Eminently handsome, if a trifle dark for a country where people fight shy of any admixture of blood. Extraordinarily graceful and supple, doing everything with extraordinary grace and skill. Beyond that, rich. For the rest, cosmopolitan in mind and manners. As for morals, that does not enter into the equation of a pleasant chance acquaintance, and the only blemish I could lay finger on was an excess of jewellery. But that was a hobby of his. He was for ever waylaying the passers-by and wanting to make a deal for their ornaments, regardless of injured feelings. It was a mere question of money, like everything else, he asserted, and he generally succeeded in getting what he fancied. Apparently he fancied Sambo, or Rudra, or Nilkunta—whichever you choose to call him—for, a day or two afterwards, the man came to me clothed in the loose garments and aggressive turban usually worn by Mohammedans. He looked less startling, but the type of face was utterly new to me.

“I am a hunter, Huzoor," he said gravely; indeed I think his face was the gravest I ever saw. “I kill to live; I live to kill. That is all. I come from the mountains, and I know the river. Wherefore not, since it is my birthplace? None know it as I; others may claim it, but it is mine, and the fish also. It is all one to Nil-kunt the diver, Huzoor. Esh-spoon bait, feather fly, or poach-net. I kill to live; I live to kill. That is the old way, the best way; and if the Huzoor comes with Buniah-man sahib, he will catch big fish.”

“And the sahib also, I hope?”

“The sahib thinks he knows, but he is a stranger to the river and the old ways. He must learn them.”

A week after this, Bannerman and I were encamped on the south side of the gorge through which the sacred river debouches on the plains, with Sambo, who was on leave, as our boatman. And curiously out of place he looked in the English-built wherry which my host had insisted on bringing up by rail. He had never, he said, been able to stand the discomforts of a Noah's Ark, and, even though he was in the birthplace of the most ascetic cult the world had ever known, did not intend to begin self-denial. If indeed the worshippers of Siva had right on their side in claiming Hurdwar as Hara-dwâra—the gate of Siva; but for his part he inclined to the Vaishnâva view. Hari-dwâra, gate of Vishnu, was just as likely a derivation. Only the change of a letter; and yet that made all the difference between believing in pleasure or penance. He talked away in his reckless fashion about this as we fished fruitlessly the first evening; fruitlessly, for I was crippled with a slight sprain of the wrist, and Bannerman caught nothing. And Sambo sat gravely sculling, with a perfectly immovable face, until Bannerman, who was changing his fly for the fiftieth time at least, leant forward suddenly and laid his hand on the other's wrist.

“That's a fine cat's-eye,” he said. “How much will you take for it?”

“I do not sell,” replied Sambo, still without a quiver of expression. The water dropped from the upheld oar like molten gold. I could hear it fall in the silence, as those two sat looking at each other. But my eyes were on those hands clasped upon each other. Extraordinarily alike in contour; not far apart in colour.

“Ten rupees! twenty! forty! What! you won't? Here! let me see it closer. I don't believe it is worth more—even to me, unless I'm mistaken. Hand it over, man!”

Bannerman turned the ring over curiously, and a sudden interest came to his face.

“It isn't worth five, but I've taken a fancy to it. Fifty! a hundred! a thousand!”

“I do not sell,” repeated Sambo indifferently.

“Not sell! then you're a fool! Here, catch!”

He spun the ring like a coin high into the air. Perhaps he had meant it to fall into the boat, but it did not, and as I leant over in dismay I could see it sinking in shimmering circles through the sunlit water.

Sambo did not even seem surprised, but crossing the oars leisurely proceeded to strip.

“It does not matter,” he said briefly. “Mai Gunga[1] is kind to me, and I know my way.”

A minute or so afterwards he came up from the depths with the ring fast held in his teeth.

“The fish are lying between the shallow and the deep,” he remarked, as if nothing had happened. “If the Huzoor will believe me he will catch them.”

Apparently the faith was wanting, for we did not see a fin till I commenced fishing; and even then the luck was all with me. Bannerman began to grow restive, suggesting that in a boat “one man's sport was another man's spoil”; so we moved across the range of the Siwaliks to higher ground. We pitched our tents between the river and a backwater, where the boat, which despite my advice Bannerman insisted on bringing round by road, lay moored beneath a big cotton tree. A desirable resting-place certainly; cool and shadowy, and haunted by many a kingfisher busy among the shoals of silvery fishlets in the still water. Across the river, just above its great race to the gorge below, stood a group of Hindu temples backed by sun-steeped slopes ablaze with flowering, scented shrubs. Further up, however, the hills sank almost to the level, leaving clear a wedge of sky, before rising again in swift gradations of blue, cleft by a purple chasm marking the further course of the river towards the snows of Kedarnath.

“You live yonder, do you not?” I asked of Sambo, pointing to the peaks, as I stood settling my tackle

For the first time a slow smile showed on the man's fine delicate face. “No, Huzoor. I live everywhere. Wherever there are things to kill, and that is in most places. But not here, sahib,” he continued hastily, turning to Bannerman, who was about to launch his minnow into a likely spot. “This pool is sacred to the god yonder.”

And sure enough, close to the water's-edge, beneath the shade of a banyan tree, stood a crowned image of Maha-deo, with his eight arms, his necklace of snakes, and chaplets of skulls.

“Dash it all,” muttered Bannerman impatiently, “as if the world were not full enough of limitations as it is! I'll have it out with that old land crab some day.”

[Illustration: “COULD THAT BE SAMBO KNEE-DEEP IN WATER?”]

His irritation grew as the days passed bringing continued ill-luck. But what wonder, he said, when the fish were fed and pampered by the priests morning and evening, that they would not take his lure? For his part he did not believe there was a fin in any other pool in the river—at least when he fished it.

“The Huzoor can see, if he chooses,” said Sambo gravely.

“I suppose I can—as well as you, anyhow,” retorted Bannerman.

“Then let him look.” As he spoke Sambo swung himself into the branch of a cotton tree which, swaying with his weight, scattered its huge scarlet flowers on the water. Perhaps it was this, engendering a hope of food; perhaps it was the curious low whistle he made, but instantly the calm surface of the pool wavered, shifted, and broke into ripples. Sambo stretched himself full length on the branch and craned forward with his long blue neck.

“Plenty of them, Huzoor! Beauties! That one with the scar is full twenty sirs weight. See! I will catch it.”

He slid from the branch like an otter, to reappear a second afterwards with the fish bent round his neck like a yoke.

“It is bad luck,” he continued, “and the Huzoor must do puja[2] to the great god. That is the only way.”

Bannerman's face was a study, and to soothe him I remarked that I had been lucky enough without anyone's help.

“How does the Huzoor know?” asked Sambo boldly. “If he had been up by dawn he might have thought otherwise, since the blood of the cock I sacrificed in his name still reddens the feet of Ishwara.”

“The devil you did,” I exclaimed laughing; “then sacrifice two for Bannerman sahib to-morrow.”

The latter, however, turned on him fiercely. “If you dare,” he began; then pulled himself together, muttered something about its being “d——d rot,” and went-off declaring he would fish no more till dusk drove the glare from the water.

I found him hours after lolling on his bed, and reading a translation of the Prem Sâgar. It was as amusing and true to life as a modern French novel, he was pleased to remark, and Krishna with his milkmaids the wisest of gods. In fact after dinner, as we sat smoking outside, he recurred to the subject, denouncing the folly of all ascetic cults from Baal downwards.

“You are awfully well up in it all,” I said, surprised at his knowledge.

“Seems to come to me to-night, somehow,” he replied gaily; “things do, you know—previous state of existence and all that rot. Besides, it's needed when a fellow calmly suggests my making a blood offering! To a brute of a land crab too—a miserable fetish evolved from the fears of a semi-ape—a creature incapable of rising above the limitations of his own discomfort, counting this lovely life as mere birth and death, and ignoring the joys between—the only realities in the world.”

He went on in this fashion, till, declaring that he meant to be up by dawn, both to catch a fish and prevent the blood sacrifice, he turned in. I could hear him humming the refrain of a French song as I sat on in the scented flood of moonlight. Not a night surely to waste in sleep! The very flowers kept the memory of their colours, and every now and again I could hear the silvery splash of a fish rising on the level reaches beyond. But from below came a vibration in the air like the first breathing of an organ note. That was the river racing to the gorge.

Scarcely knowing what I did, I strolled over to the backwater which circled round the oasis of the valley. A fringe of trees marked its course, and behind them the hill sloped up in a tangle of jasmine and pomegranate. On the river side shingle and grass tufted with oleanders. In the distance, faint yet clear, a snatch or two of Bannerman's fin de siècle song. And then suddenly, round a bend, the low note of a kingfisher. Could it be a king-fisher at that hour of the night?

By all the gods, old and new, what was this? Sambo? Could that be Sambo knee deep in the water? Sambo with a golden tiara on his head and girt about the waist with a regal robe? Purple and red—at least you guessed the colour, just as you guessed that the shadowy pillar of that long neck was blue. Were those his arms curved above him, or were they snakes, swaying, swaying in the moonlight with hooded heads and open jaws? And was that cry Sambo's or the king-fisher's? Then, and not till then, I saw the bird perched on a branch above the strange figure; and even as I looked it swooped straight into those swaying snake-like arms, bearing something in its mouth.

I suppose in my surprise I made some exclamation, for the figure turned quickly. Then, for the first time, I felt sure it was only the diver in his diving dress. The next instant he was beside me on the bank, holding out a small land crab for my inspection.

“It is the best bait, Huzoor. Better than phantom or esh-spoon."

I felt utterly bewildered and not a little aggrieved at his everyday appearance.

“But, but,” I began, “how the mischief did you make the bird?——

His hand went up to his throat as if in explanation. “'Tis the trick of their cry, Huzoor; besides birds are afraid of the holy snake; and even the Huzoor doubted his own eyes. It is good bait. If Buniah-man sahib will consent to use it, he will have luck.”

“Of course he will use it,” I replied angrily; and then a sudden doubt seized me. “I don't know, though. I don't seem to understand. I can't see——"

[Illustration: A WOMAN'S FIGURE, WHICH, AS WE ROWED UP THE RIVER WAS OUTLINED EQUALLY AGAINST EARTH AND SKY.”]

“The Huzoor has two eyes,” he interrupted, with another of his slow smiles. “Does he want a third, like mine?”

A third! Then I noticed a central spot on his forehead set in an oval of white. In good sooth not unlike a third eye placed upright between the others. I had seen similar ones painted on the images of Siva.

“'Tis but a caste sign, Huzoor," he explained, “I wear it sometimes.” He stooped as he spoke, gathered some dust in his fingers and rubbed out the mark. “Lo! it grows late. Midnight is past. If the Huzoor rises with the sun 'tis time he slept.”

True enough; but as I strolled homewards to the tent my eyes fell by chance on the shade beneath the great banyan tree where the idol stood. The plinth was empty! It lay reflected in the water vacant, bare! Scarcely knowing what I did, or why I did it, I ran back to where I had left Sambo, calling him by all his names in turn. But there was no answer, and when in hopeless bewilderment I retraced my steps it was only to find myself mistaken. The eight-armed image stood in its accustomed place, reflected in the still water.

I was glad when the dawn came; one of those lemon-coloured dawns when the sky grows light at once.

“Had the jolliest dreams,” said Bannerman, coming out of his tent. “Dreamt I was Krishna among the milkmaids. Wish I could find one in this fish-forsaken place, I'd—— Hullo, what the mischief is that on my line?”

It was Sambo's crab neatly impaled on a Stuart tackle. I began an explanation only to stop short at the, to me, absolutely incomprehensible intensity of both the faces before me. Dimly I seemed to recognise the situation and then it escaped me again.

“Tomfoolery! One might as well fish with that ridiculous fetish at once,” came Bannerman's jeering voice. “What was it Chuckerbutty drivelled about? eight attributes—tall order for any god. Well! here they go. No, Sambo, you may keep one—the soul of a man, if there be such a thing.”

He had torn off seven of the crab's legs, leaving three; two of them the nipping claws, which, with gaping jaws, swayed about seeking reprisals.

“There! take your offering, Siva! snakes, and souls, and all!” He flung the maimed creature full in the idol's face as we sculled past it. I shall never forget Sambo's look.

“You shouldn't do that sort of thing,” I remonstrated in a low voice. “If the priests saw it;—then this man——

“Bah! Nilkunta won't mind, and rupees will settle anything.” I tried to make him understand they would not in these fastnesses of the Hindu faith, but almost immediately afterwards his attention wandered to a woman's figure which, as we rowed up the river, was outlined equally against earth and sky, while figure, earth, and sky shared equally the perfect reflection in the water.

“By George, a milkmaid!” he cried. Not unlike one in dress, but her face, marked with the crescent of Siva on the forehead, was of a different type. A beautiful woman too, and Bannerman simply couldn't take his eyes off her.

“Who is she? Who can she be? Sambo! Rudra! Nilkunta! whichever you are—do you know who she can be?” he queried in hot excitement.

“She is somebody's house, Huzoor." The voice was cold as an icicle.

“Somebody's house! What a way to mention a woman beautiful—beautiful as—but it's the old Puritanical game. A house—a hearth mother—the British matron in Eastern disguise—Mrs. Grundy in a sâri. I say, Nil-kunt, whose house do you think she is? I should like to buy the freehold.”

“She is your slave's house,” replied the man without a wink.

“The dickens she is,” blurted out my companion, somewhat abashed for the time. Perhaps that was Sambo's intention. At any rate I have no means of knowing if he spoke the truth or not. Indeed, looking back on it all, I scarcely seem to know what really happened, and what must have been sheer fancy. Only this remains clear. A growing antagonism between these two, a growing disinclination on Bannerman's part to do anything but lounge away his days.

“Can't help it, my dear fellow,” he would say, “it's the air, or something. If I had a shepherd's pipe I'd play it. And as for flowers! Do you know some one puts a bunch of them on my pillow every night. I believe it's the milkmaid!”

There were flowers, too, garlanded round his door, while just over the way those ominous splashes of red on Ishwara's feet seemed to grow deeper and deeper.

At last I put the case baldly and crudely before him. Something was going on which I didn't understand, which might get him into mischief at any moment, and I appealed to his good sense to put the Siwaliks between him and a temptation which seemed to have fascinated him. He laughed, admitted the fact, and yielded; the more readily because our time was almost up.

For the first two days he was rewarded by success in the lower reaches; possibly—since fish shy at novelty—because we used a native Noah's Ark, our own boat remaining in the backwater till we could send coolies to fetch it. On the third he left the river early on plea of a headache. As he had been in wild spirits all day, quoting the Prem Sâgar and singing French songs, I half thought he was going in for fever, the day being exceptionally hot. But on my return at dusk the servants asked if I would wait dinner for the sahib or not. Beset by immediate misgivings I rushed into his tent, where I found a slip of paper impaled like a bait on some tackle lying on the table.

“Off to the divine milkmaid! Don't wait. Vogue la galère!”

“How far?” I asked Sambo breathlessly.

[Illustration: “THE TIGER CROUCHING BY OUR PATH, THE SNAKES SLIPPING FROM IT, THE DEER STANDING TO WATCH US, AND STRANGEST OF ALL, THOSE SHAPES HIDING IN THE DIM SHADOWS—UNDREAMT-OF MONSTERS, NEITHER FISH, FLESH, NOR FOWL.”]

“Twenty kos by the road—the sahib borrowed the police inspector's mare—not half that over the hills. But the moon is late, and the snakes love the dark.”

If it had been the darkness of Egypt I had no choice but to follow, and half an hour afterwards I was stumbling along after Sambo. Even by daylight the hills, heat cracked, rain seared, strewn with sharp rocks, were bad walking; on a dark, hot night, with the snakes' eyes gleaming from the stones, horrible—most horrible. The straight fingers of the stiff candelabra bushes pointing up and up, the gnarled stunted trees growing into strange shapes, reminding one involuntarily of those antediluvian animals whose bones lie buried all along the Siwaliks. A cold sweat of suspense upon the forehead despite the scorching blast tearing down the ravines laden with the scent of earth, as from a new-made grave.

“There has been rain in the hills beyond,” said Sambo's voice out of the dark. I lost sight of him constantly, and at the best of times he was little more than another weird shape among the shadows. “Holy Maha-deo! Have a care, Huzoor! Let the snake pass in peace!”

As he spoke something curved over my instep. Such things take the nerve out of a European; but I stumbled on, peering into the darkness, trying to think of Bannerman's danger, and not of that next step and what it might bring. But it came at last; just as we dipped into a cooler, moister glen, where I could hear the flying foxes hovering from tree to tree. A slither of the foot, and then a spiral coil up my leg gripping the muscles tight. My shriek echoed from the heat-hardened resounding rocks until the whole hillside seemed peopled by my fear; and even when Sambo, stooping down, uncoiled the snake and threw it into the darkness, I could scarcely realise that I was none the worse for having put my heel on a viper's head. My nerve seemed gone, I could not move except at a snail's pace.

“Time speeds,” came Sambo's voice again. “The moon rises but the clouds gather. If the Huzoor would only not mind——

“I'd mind nothing if I could see—see as you seem to do,” I muttered, ashamed yet aggrieved.

“That is it; the Huzoor cannot see, and the holy snakes do not know him as they know me. If the sahib will let me put the caste mark on his forehead as it is on mine he need not fear. It can do no harm, Huzoor."

True; besides the very idea by suggesting confidence might restore it.

“Lest the dust should fall into the Huzoor's eyes,” said the voice softly, and I felt long thin fingers on my eyelids; then something on my forehead, cold and hard, cold and hard like a ring. The effect of such pressure when the eyes are closed is always confusing, and I felt as if I was dozing off when the same soft voice roused me.

“The Huzoor can see now.”

I opened my eyes with a start as if from sleep. Had the moon risen or whence came that pale light by which I saw—what did I not see? Everything, surely, that had been created since the world began; the tiny watersprites in the half-stagnant pools, the flying motes in the dim air. Or did I dream it? Did I only feel and know that they were there, part of those endless, endless eons of life and death in which I was a unit.

“Sambo,” I gasped feebly, but there was no answer. Where was I? By degrees memory returned. This must be the Gayâtri glen, for there, at the further end, stood the great image of the dread Maha-deo where the pilgrims worshipped; and surely the odd light came from that gleaming cat's-eye on its forehead? Surely, too, the snakes curled and swayed, the outstretched hands opened and shut. My own went up to my forehead in my bewilderment, when, suddenly, the light seemed to fade, till I could just see Nilkunta's blue throat as he stood beside me.

“The Huzoor has scratched his forehead; the blood trickles from it. See, I have brought a tulsi leaf. There! that is better.” I felt the coolness between my eyes, and something of my bewilderment seemed to pass away.

“It is the Gayâtri, Huzoor, and yonder is Maha-deo. He is but half-way, so we must press on. The sahib can see now; there is no fear.”

None. Yet did I see them, or was I only conscious of that teeming life in the jungles? Of the tiger crouching by our path, the snakes slipping from it, the deer standing to watch us, and strangest of all, those shapes hiding in the dim shadows—undreamt-of monsters, neither fish, flesh, nor fowl? Was it a dream? or—the idea brought a faint hysterical laugh—was it the Zoological Gardens and the British Museum foiled into one?

“We must cross the river, Huzoor," said the dim form flitting before me; “Buniah-man sahib will have taken the boat.”

I suppose it was the usual rope bridge swung across the narrowing chasm of the river, but it seemed to me that night as if I walked on air. Below me, not ten feet from the lowest curve of the loop, the Ganges, wrinkled and seamed, slipping giddily eastwards. Overhead, a stream of clouds speeding eastwards also.

“She rises fast,” muttered Sambo. “Mai Gunga is in a hurry to-night.”

The whole world was in a hurry. I seemed to hear flying feet keeping time with our own. Not an instant's pause even for breath until we reached the last declivity above the little oasis of the valley. The moon had risen, but the clouds hurrying across her face gave greater uncertainty to the scene; but I could see a woman's figure standing with widespread arms by the edge of the rising river. I could see a man sending a boat across the shallows with mighty strokes. And above the growing rush of the water I could hear two murmuring voices, which seemed to fill the world with soft antagonism. “Ooma! Ooma!” from the hills; “Râdha! Râdha!” from the valley. They were calling to the woman, and, as in a dream, I seemed to remember and understand; Râdha, the queen of pleasure; Ooma, the mother of the universe. Krishna's mistress, and Siva's wife.

I looked round for Sambo. He was gone; so I ran on alone feeling there was no time to be lost. My foot slipped and I fell heavily. But I was up again in a second unhurt, save, perhaps, for that scratch on my forehead, whence I could feel the blood flowing as I dashed into the shadow of the banyan tree. Merciful heaven! what was this? A glare as of noonday, and two radiant forms with a cowering woman between them! between the chaplets of skulls and the chaplets of flowers. And behind them an empty plinth! Before I had time to realise what I saw came shouts and cries, a mêlée and a scuffle. Armed men out of the shadows, and then Sambo's voice insistent, “Run, sahib, run! 'Tis your only chance. The boat—the boat!” Then some one hit me over the head from behind, and when I came to myself I was lying in the bottom of the boat. Bannerman was standing beside me shaking his fist impotently at the twinkling lights on the bank, and Sambo sat aft steering as best he could; for the oars had gone and we were racing with the flood towards the rapids. They had bound up my head with something, but I still felt stunned, and the rush of the rising river surged in my ears through the thin planks as I lay. So perhaps it was only my fancy that those two sat talking, talking, arguing, arguing, about the old, old problems.

Till suddenly I sat up to the clear sound of Sambo's voice.

“It is not to be done, Huzoor. We are in the hands of fate. If death comes, it will come, but it will end in birth.”

The answer was that half-jeering laugh I knew so well. “I'll chance it, Nil-kunt; I don't believe you.”

Bannerman had stripped to the skin, and stood forward looking at the narrowing rush of the river. I could see the great logs of wood, swept from the hill-forests above, dancing along beside us on the curved surface of the stream—so curved by the very force of the current that as our boat, steered by Sambo's skill, kept the centre, the dim banks slid past below us. Across them, just ahead, a curved thread not four feet, now the flood had risen, above the water. The rope bridge! Then I understood.

“Don't!” I cried feebly. “No man—can—withstand the force—of the stream.”

[Illustration: “ACROSS THEM, JUST AHEAD, A CURVED THREAD NOT FOUR FEET, NOW THE FLOOD HAD RISEN, ABOVE THE WATER. THE ROPE BRIDGE!”]

He crooked his knees beneath the thwarts and held up his arms.

“Don't——” I cried again.

The boat slackened for an instant; for an instant only. Then it shot on, leaving Bannerman clinging to the rope—shot on round the bend, leaving him hanging there between birth and death. But Sambo never took his watchful eyes off those merry, dancing logs, which meant destruction.

The horror of it all was too much. I fainted. When consciousness returned, Sambo, grave and composed, was bending over me. We were drifting fast into the backwater before my own bungalow, and behind us, looking spectral in the first glint of dawn, lay the great bridge, the flare of the watch-fires on its piers telling of the severity of the flood.

“The Huzoor is at home,” said the man quietly; “if Buniah-man sahib had taken my advice he would have been at home also.”

We had been a whole day and night on the river; but he seemed no more fatigued than I, who had escaped all the suspense. For the rest, no trace remained of the adventure save an oval scratch on my forehead surrounding the faint vestiges of something like an eye.

“It is the mark of Siva,” said my servant piously—he had come down by rail with the news of my death—“doubtless he took the Huzoor under his protection; for which I will offer a blood oblation without delay.”

Bannerman's body was never found; but some months after, when I was inspecting foundations, I heard the kingfisher's cry, and the familiar cloop of a dive at the further side of the pier. Then Sambo, Rudra, Nilkunta—whatever you please to call him—showed his yellow-brown face above the yellow-brown flood bearing a ring in his mouth. A Palais Royal affair—two diamond hearts transfixed by a ruby arrow.

I had seen Bannerman wear it a hundred times, but I had never seen the inscription engraved inside.

“Thy lips, oh! beloved Life, are nectar.”

It was a quotation from the Krishna or Prem Sâgar!


  1. The Ganges.
  2. Worship.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.