Hugo Fall's diary
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My name is Hugo Fall. I'm one of many Englishmen who were able to get rich through the East India company, to take part in the suppression of the sepoy rebellion and earn the favor of the Queen. But my story is different from others. I'd like to see this manuscript in hands of my descendants warning them of the danger that lurks in this house. After all, they have me to blame for its appearance.
Now I'm 71. I was seriously ill and going to leave this world for a better place soon. No one will mourn me at my deathbed. But before I die, I have to tell the truth to those who will own this mansion after me. Whether it's my family or someone else, whatever. They will need to know about the horrific, fatal events that happened to me when I was a British army officer and was in the service under the hot sun of India.
I had already described my trip to India during the sepoy rebellion in my diary. But I was genuine and never wrote the truth of what had happened during my journey. So, we arrived in Calcutta, and then left for Meerut.
Enfield rifle... did it really cause the rebellion? Or was it the final nail in the coffin of patience of not only the sepoys, but all the natives of India? The East India company did not hesitate to forcibly expand its influence on the local population to force European ideas to the savages”... A lot of it was done without the knowledge and permission of the Queen. However, it was the Enfield rifle and the new bullets that set the sepoys to the riot.
There was a long way for us - from Calcutta to Meerut traveling on elephants. Large and strong animals, they were a slow but reliable transport. I've always liked these trips, but my friend, officer Robert Grantham, for some reason didn't love these strong and wise animals and was always nervous, when he had to travel on the elephant’s back.
There is one important fact that should be mentioned. My father died when I was 16 years old. His death was sudden, unexplained and painful. Mother was not able to endure this grief. She also had gone six months after his death... Before he died, father called me over, put something in my hand and asked to take care of this thing as if it was the most precious thing in my life.
The item was strange. Steel flat triangle looked like an unusual throwing dagger. However, its sides were not sharpened, but covered with unusual notches as the stem of the key. The top side of it was decorated with flat opal framed with silver monograms.
My father didn’t say what it was. But I realized that this thing was very precious to him. I asked one craftsman to make a small ring on the monograms, put a lace through it and began to wear father’s gift as an amulet. I didn’t leave it anywhere for a single day, so, when I travelled to India my amulet was with me.
So, we headed to the town of Meerut. Grantham and I had to "share" one elephant. Our road, or rather trail, was very bumpy, full of pits, stones and other obstacles. Our elephant’s controlled pace was interrupted by a little accident. There was a bee on the road that started flying right before elephant’s eyes. Giant animal was scared; it stopped sharply and started swinging trying to get rid of the pesky insect. The platform we were sitting at began to shake and I suddenly started falling down.
I saw the elephant in horror moving his legs, thick as pillars. One more second — and I will fall under these pillars, and will be crushed, destroyed, because of a small insect... I closed my eyes, not ready to accept such a stupid fate...
And suddenly my fall was stopped, and I felt a sharp pain burning my neck. I opened my eyes and saw myself hanging on the elephant’s side. My father's amulet fell off from under my uniform, and Grantham managed to catch the lace and stop me from falling. Robert held the amulet looking at it in deep amazement. I had to call him with voice hoarse from the pressure of the lace. My friend looked away from the amulet and helped me to climb back on the elephant. Obviously he was as shocked as me.
The riot in Meerut began suddenly. The sepoys attacked the British on all sides - civilian and officers. The revolt began on the local market, and before we could react, several houses were set on fire. We arrived in time to restrain violent rebels from further destruction. However, our forces were insufficient to suppress the rebellion completely. Meerut was like an oil soaked torch. One spark and the riots will flare up again.
We tried to keep the defense in the town fortress, where officers' wives, their children and other civilians have taken shelter. It was not easy, because there were much more sepoys than the British in Meerut, and several British officers were killed during the first wave of riots. Even our backup failed to tip the scales. We tried not only to recapture the city, but also to save as many people as possible.
During one of the raids I went to the house where a family of the British officer supposed to hide. But when I cross the threshold, the torch was thrown in the room through the rickety window and then another and more. The house caught fire immediately, and the exit was closed. I tried to get out, but there were flames everywhere. Smoke made me choke and I would have fainted, but the Hindu appeared. I don’t know if he was hiding in the house or got there after the fire started. He covered me with a blanket and pulled out of the hut.
My savior's name was Murugan. He was badly burned; I only avoided that fate because of the blanket he had covered me with. Thin, short young man, he told me: “Sahib, I want to serve you. I am against the rebellion against the sepoys". He saved my life, so I hired him.
Murugan was a great servant. He fearlessly stood beside me during the battle, carried the ammunition and other things. It was evident that he came from a poor family, and I became a salvation for him.
Here, in the rebellious city, on the streets washed with blood, under the merciless rays of hot Indian sun, I met her. That day I was walking down the deserted street of Meerut, Murugan was following me. Suddenly we heard a woman screaming and crying in the half-ruined hut. We immediately rushed there...
The sight was unpleasant. Three sepoys were standing around a beautiful young girl lying on the floor. Her face was suffused with tears, clothes were stained and torn, cut lip was bleeding... One of the sepoys held a knife to her throat, the other was holding her hands. Their intentions were clear. I called Murugan, and we immediately engaged them in battle.
I was already an experienced officer and a tough fighter in my 35 years. Therefore, all three sepoys died by my hand. Murugan was a rookie in the fight, so I had to protect both him and the girl. When it was over, we helped the poor girl up. I asked her name, and she, without raising his eyes, whispered: "Lakshmi..." Then, she ran away pretty quickly. There was something very attractive in her appearance, in her eyes, in a gentle voice. I stood and watched her bright clothes fading in the distance, until Murugan called me out.
We were still in Meerut fighting the sepoys. I was not lucky: one of the rebels shot at me and hit right in the chest. I would have died in terrible agony, if not for the amulet. The bullet hit right in the middle of the opal, splitting it. But apart from that the amulet remained unharmed. Murugan was looking at it in surprise while applying a compress to the huge bruise on my chest. I was amused by his surprise. But secretly I trembled with admiration: the amulet has saved my life twice.
We stayed in Meerut for quite a long time. But then it was suggested that British soldiers and officers with their families would leave the town, and find shelter with the local Nawab in Rampur. Food and water supply were exhausted, and we knew that our powers were not enough to defeat the sepoys. So we packed up and left town.
Regiment of natives followed us to Rampur. It was good because nobody knew if the rebel troops would attack us on our retreat. We had to stop to find food and to draw water from rivers and streams. During one of these stops I decided to cool off in the cold river. Murugan stayed in the camp. Climbing into the river, I enjoyed the coolness and energy surge. Then, starting to get out of the water, I saw Robert.
He was standing on a hill by the river, staring at me. I thought it was strange. I got dressed, returned to the camp, and when I met Grantham there, asked him why he was following me. He said that he was walking along the shore, and then he noticed me in the water. "It seemed to me that a sepoy was watching you from the bushes on the bank. I stopped and began to peer there, but there were no movement. Either the rascal fled, seeing me, either it was the wind". Grantham's explanation was reasonable, but why did his voice tremble so much during our conversation?
Finally we arrived in Rampur. After a grueling battle in Meerut, a long and arduous journey, the palace of the Nawab was like an oasis in the desert. One day I went to the balcony of the Palace and saw a young girl in the street. She was carrying a basket of fruit. Her slender figure, bright clothes, light movement reminded me of the saved Lakshmi. I was surprised that I still remembered her. What was so unusual in that Indian girl that she would not leave my head? This question tormented me for a long time.
Nawabs' palaces are famous for their size. They are full of hidden corners, places hidden from prying eyes! One day Robert took me to one of these corners, saying that he needs to tell me something important. I was angered by such behavior: is unworthy of an officer to hide in the corners like a rat. Not paying attention to this fact, Grantham said that I should not trust Murugan, he could be dangerous for me. When I asked to explain exactly what he meant, Robert just repeated his words and left me.
Sir Longstock asked to accompany sir Greensmith in England. I did not go into details, because the officer in the British army should not interfere in politics. But I felt very relieved to know that I will step my foot on the British soil again! At parting Longstock handed me a box that I decided not to open until I return home.
We left Rampur and without incident made it to Calcutta. It turned out that our ship won't leave earlier than in a few days. A welcome departure had to be postponed for a while. I had only one desire: to leave this hot, dangerous land.
The next day after our return to Calcutta Grantham was gone! He left in the morning after breakfast, but did not return in the evening. The next morning our ship was to sail, but how could I leave Calcutta without knowing about the fate of Grantham? I couldn't stop thinking about where he was. Maybe he was kidnapped and executed by sepoys? I sent a group of soldiers to look for him.
The soldiers searched all night and the next day, but all in vain. Late at night on the second day after his disappearance, Robert has returned. He looked awful: dirty, torn uniform, the face and neck painted with bruises, disordered hair... He said that he was kidnapped by a group of sepoys, and had to be executed, but he managed to trick them and escape. I wanted to believe him, but... It all looked very strange, and his words were hesitant, as if invented right there and then...
We were unable to set sail the next day after Grantham's return: the weather suddenly turned bad. A few days later, when Robert recovered, and I was beginning to lose patience, he asked me to walk to the Kali temple, which was located on the outskirts of the city. There was nothing to do, and since Calcutta was safe from rebels, we could not worry about something ruining our walk. Robert asked me not to take Murugan with us, and I did so, though I didn't like it. But I knew that in any case, I would be able to protect myself.
As soon as I got under the arches of the Kalighat, I felt a sense of danger and impending doom. It was like the bright colors and patterns were hiding evil from eyes of the mortals, like the sweet smell of incense hid the stench of rotting bodies... the Soul of Kalighat was evil and heavy... I stopped, looking at the temple. Then I felt someone watching me. I turned and saw a statue of the Kali goddess.
Kali was looking at me from a two-feet-wide pedestal, naked woman with blue skin, obscenely long tongue protruding between the scornfully curved lips. In one of her four hands she was holding a sword, a hammer in the other, a sickle in the third and in the last one... there was a man's severed head. Of course, it was only a fake, but the entire appearance of the goddess was terrifying. She looked alive.
I stopped near the statue hypnotized by the look of her eyes. Don't know how long I stood there. It seemed that her breasts were about to begin to rise from the breath, her four hands were about to move... Grantham was there, saying something, but I didn't hear him. I looked into Kali's eyes and saw the darkness. Someone's cool touch pulled me out of this trance.
I looked up from the statue and turned to the intruder of my peace. Beside me there was a wrinkled old Hindu. Half of his face was covered with horrible burn marks, the other - dotted with deep wrinkles. The stranger looked pitiful and very poor. He leaned toward me, and the scarf on his belt rang strangely, as if it was sewn with coins.
The old man gave me a sly look of his one good eye and whispered something. "She chose you..." those were his words? Or did I imagine them? I couldn't move, everything happening seemed so unreal... Robert, hearing the hiss of the old man, grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him from me. Then he started to argue with him. I felt annoyed and headed for the exit.
Grantham caught me at the exit of the Temple. He said not to worry about this incident, crazy fanatics were often trying to scare the British. Despite the fact that I have not heard his conversation with the Hindu, it seemed to me that they knew each other. But Robert told me it was the first time he saw this man. Still, I couldn't stop wondering: what happened to Grantham? What's he playing at? I wished I took Murugan with me. Perhaps he could explain what the old madman wanted from me.
The weather turned better, and the next day we finally had to leave the Indian shore. My heart was breaking, but not because of parting with this wild and violent country. Murugan begged me to take him to England, but I refused. Our separation was hard for him; it meant that he had to return to the old poor and hungry life. But there was nothing I could do.
Returning to England, first I accompanied sir Greensmith where he has long been expected. The Queen was very grateful to me for faithful service in India. And I was extremely happy to finally be rid of the constant presence of Robert Grantham. He was still my friend, and I always respected him as a brilliant officer, but lately his behavior was inexplicable, mysterious and was only arousing my hostility and irritation.
The real surprise awaited me when I returned home. When I finally recovered from the long road, I suddenly remembered about the mysterious box that sir Longstock had given to me. Its content still remained a mystery to me. I got the box from my luggage and found inside a bill in in name from the East Indian company that made me a very wealthy man.
There were also papers in that box that denounced some persons, who were possibly standing behind the sepoy mutiny. I knew immediately who I needed to deliver these papers, and what action they would take. Looking through the contents of the box, i was happy. I knew then, these papers would change my life forever.
Then I was young and dreamed about starting a family. I wanted to create a family estate, a home for generations of Falls. I had even seed this house in my dreams. Shortly after returning I found out that someone was selling an old mansion in the middle of nowhere, standing far from the busy city life on the edge of the forest... it seemed to me that this house could make my family estate. When I bought it and first came under his dusty roof I had the feeling that I was back home...
It only took me one day to deliver all my belongings in the new house. Late in the afternoon when the last carriage with my luggage arrived, I was standing outside, near the porch looking up at the sky. It was getting dark, and I didn't see the driver. Once he stopped and dismounted, suddenly it seemed to me that someone else has jumped from the back of the carriage. I walked around the cart and looked behind it but saw no one. Then I thought it was just my imagination.
It was a row of long, busy days. I had to furnish my new home and at the same time attend balls and dinner parties of high society. On one of these noisy, crowded and unspeakably pompous events, I met the love of my life. Beautiful, fragile, delicate, Miss Sarah Harlow has won my heart in a blink of an eye.
I have long admired her at a ball before dared to ask for a dance. She looked up at me with her kind eyes, golden like the honey of May, and smiled, accepting the invitation. We were dancing and I was so confused that I couldn't say a word. She noticed it and said laughingly, "Ah, Mr. Fall, do not forget to breathe!" And I immediately felt easy, as if the shackles of formalities and conventions fell off me. That was the beginning of the beautiful friendship.
She was the only and beloved daughter of Charles Harlow, owner of a substantial share in the East India company and the tea production in India. I knew him before. After information was published about the crimes of other shareholders of the company, he found out that I had a hand in this, and thanked me personally when we met at the ball. He said that he had never supported the idea of impact on aboriginal people. "It was a bold move, Mr. Fall!" - said Harlow.
Sometimes I felt like someone was following me. Especially in the evenings when I was reading by the fireplace in the living room. I looked at the window, but there was no one there. Then I asked the watchman to walk around the yard and house, but the rounds never ended with the capture of the stranger. And one day I woke up and felt the faint smell of curry in my room. I was going to get dogs and hire detectives, but then Harlows appeared in my life and Sarah had got all my attention.
Mr. Harlow invited me to dine at his estate. I was grateful to him, because it was an opportunity to see Sarah again! How sweet and charming was she at that dinner. And her father said that I must organize my own production in India. After that dinner there was another one and another. Soon I became a frequent and most welcome guest in the Harlow's house.
One day Grantham decided to pay me a visit. The memoirs of his deeds in India have faded, and I was glad to meet an old friend. We had lunch, drank brandy, remembering the old days. Then suddenly he started talking about my father. I was surprised that Robert knew him. It turned out that my father was a friend of his father, who's already deceased too. Robert said that he knew that the amulet that I wear on the chest was an heirloom from my father. He called it a "key". "Why are you carrying it? Do you know what this key opens?" - asked Grantham.
These questions seemed odd to me. What did he know about my father's gift? Grantham had hinted that the key was too important and valuable thing, and that I needed to hide it and not to carry on my neck carelessly. I was outraged and start demanding answers, but he said he had no right to talk about it, apologized and left quickly.
The sepoy mutiny lasted more than two years. But, in the end, it was suppressed. The East Indian company has lost a substantial part of their authority in India. Now our Queen controlled the Indian lands as well. It seemed that once the rebellion was suppressed, all the troubles were gone. But for me, they had just begun.
I invited Mr. and Miss Harlow to my mansion for the weekend. Together we wanted to celebrate the end of conflict in India. When Sarah entered the hallway, she looked around in amazement then turned her eyes at me and exclaimed, "Mr. Fall! I feel like I have come home, not paying a visit!" Charles and I were taken aback by such a blatant and sudden statement. Sarah herself didn't expect it to be said out loud. She was very embarrassed, blushing... But these words have born hope in my heart, and i wished them to be prophetic.
I was afraid this day would come. And it happened. By order of the Queen I was sent back to India. I was entrusted with an important task: to evaluate the strategic advantages of the location chosen for the construction of the railway. At that time the railway transport in India started developing very fast. But the construction of the most railroads had been kept under tight military control. Despite the honor and importance of the task I didn't want to go back there.
A couple of days before leaving England I found out that Robert Grantham was also sent to India on the same ship with me. I didn't know if it was a coincidence or he planned this. But doubts of his sincerity and kindness to me have already firmly rooted in my soul, and I decided to limit our communication.
Come to be under the scorching sun again, surrounded by savages, each of whom is willing to sell you for a few rupees or stab you in the back... No, I didn't want to return to India... Suddenly the key that I kept in the desk drawer now has caught my eye. I took it and weirdly felt better. I put it on again and promised myself to never turn leave it anymore. And stay away from Grantham and his mad ideas.
While sailing I noticed that Grantham himself did not seem to want to talk to me. Only time we met on the deck, it would be a brutal indecency to avoid the conversation. During the small talk we found out that we had the same destination point: he accompanied the group of engineers who would work on the construction of the railway in the region. The conversation has dispelled my fears: it was obvious that Grantham is not going to talk about my father and his gift.
And here it is, hot Calcutta, the centre of British India. A city of contrasts, a city of opposites... where the most beautiful architectural ensembles go side by side with clusters of the most miserable and poorest shack... I felt the heaviness of this city, the stench that oozed from beneath the bright mask of Calcutta. Goddess Kali... was it her influence that has made the city look like that?
Grantham offered to stay with British a friend of his, the owner of a large manufacture of Indian fabrics, Mr. Bradley. I accepted the offer light-heartedly.
The strangeness began on the very first night. I woke up well after midnight, but not from the stifling southern heat, but the feeling that someone has sneaked into my bedroom. Opening my eyes, I noticed the fine silhouette, that was bent over a small table of ivory, standing near my bed.
A ray of moonlight sneaked into the room and fell on the face of the night visitor. It was Lakshmi! I shuddered and jumped. The girl screamed and rushed to the window. But I don't let her get away managing to catch her by saree. The noise has waken the servants and with them appeared the sleepy owner of the mansion accompanied with Grantham. Everyone was shocked to see Lakshmi. Robert and I said that we would interrogate her ourselves and find out what savage was doing in my bedroom.
Lakshmi's heavy braid, decorated with flowers slid over her shoulder, her thigh and down almost to the floor like a woody vine. The soft velvet of her dark skin seemed golden in the dim candle light. She was so wild, but at the same time, so alluring, like her whole inside was filled with a dancing flame. And even fear and confusion were not able to mas the challenge in her eyes.
Her whole posture expressed submission. Lakshmi looked at us fearfully, piteously. Of course, she recognized me. And realized that I recognized her. When we started to ask how she got here and for what purpose, the girl muttered, not allowing us to say a word: "Sahib! This is the merchant that saved me then with you, Murugan! He said I owed him for saving my life, and I will redeem my debt, if I do that." Grantham gave me a meaningful look. But I could not recover from amazement.
Murugan! The one who swore loyalty to me and cried during our separation! This kind, quiet young man. I was bitter and sad to hear that he was behind the breaking and entering. The poor girl said that she lived in poverty selling spices in the market but the proceeds were barely enough for living. Murugan has promised her a great reward if Lakshmi gets in the specified room at night and steals all the values. "How was I to know that he asks to rob you, my savior!" - the girl sobbed and fell to her knees, begging to spare her life.
"So you didn't know that he asked you to steal from me, Lakshmi?!" - I asked. The girl raised her eyes full of such sadness and pain that my own heart ached with pity, and whispered that Murugan had only showed her the house and the window where she must break. "He didn't say the name, sahib. But even if he did, I still don't know the name of my savior!"
I was surprised that poor Murugan had gained such power in the capital of British India. When I left him a few years ago, it was poor and needy! We decided to postpone the search of other answers to the morning. Despite the outrage of Grantham, I ordered the release Lakshmi, and even put a few rupees in her hand quietly. The touch of her soft skin has burned me. Something was wrong with this girl: she was like a magnet that attracted me.
Grantham and I had to go to Delhi: where the construction of the railway, that we took part it, should start. However, I asked him to stay just for one day: I wanted to find Murugan and talk to him. We asked Mr. Bradley who might know where to find Murugan? He called a weird, dirty Indian, who, according to our host, knew everything that happened in Calcutta. When I told him that we were looking for Murugan, he answered with a sly smile.
The Hindu said he would contact my former servant and inform him that I needed his assistance in exchange for a few rupees. Grantham frowned: he clearly disapproved of my idea, but I couldn't care less. I paid the brazen heathen, and just an hour later we received a dinner invitation from Murugan. It bore both of our names despite the fact that during our last visit to India both Murugan and Robert felt extremely suspicious and clearly did not trust each other.
We arrived to Murugan's lavish manor. I couldn't help but feel surprised at the sudden change in his status. He graciously welcomed us the dining hall, and he looked a different person: the bright silks, the golden rings, the precious jewels completely changed him. His eyes blazed with pride, bravery and confidence. What happened to the frail and complaisant poor boy that I once knew?
«Are you amazed, Sahib?» - Murugan smiled kindly and invited us to partake of the magnificent feast. «I know that you cannot wait to hear my story, but it can wait. I am sure you will grow tired of it long before it ends. Please be seated and help yourself to the pleasures of the table, for we are not in a hurry». After we finished our meal, the servants poured tea, and Murugan finally agreed to satisfy our curiosity.
Murugan was the son of a merchant who did business with British entrepreneurs. Some time during the rebellion the sepoys branded his father as a traitor, murdered him and put his house to the torch. Murugan was pretending to be a pauper when he met me. Had he not donned the mask of poverty, the rebels would surely hound and kill him. «I was such a coward! I thought I'd rather live a safe and quiet life as your servant rather than go back, recover my father's wealth and be slain by the sepoys». Murugan said those words with a sly grin. After the revolt was suppressed he managed to return home, clear their family name and start a new profitable business.
Murugan sold glassware. When I asked him about Lakshmi, he seemed genuinely surprised. «I haven't seen this woman since the day we rescued her, sahib», - was his reply. He said she might have been a thief and suggested her coming to our house was little more than coincidence. «But she could have been sent by some kind of an ill-wisher, too. Have you got any enemies in India, sahib?», - asked the Hindu.
I said I was not aware of any people like that. I thought that Murugan gently nodded towards Grantham when he asked me about my enemies; my companion seldom spoke and showed remarkably little interest during our pleasant visit. I have always been dismayed by their mutual enmity. On that day, my vague suspicions about Grantham started to grow.
At the end of our visit we thanked Murugan for his kindness and hospitality. He promised to lend us a hand with getting to Delhi. «My elephants are the fastest and the gentlest beasts in all of Calcutta» - he smiled, and Robert shuddered. Suddenly I remembered how strongly my companion disliked riding these animals.
We immediately headed to Delhi to avoid losing any more time. Suddenly Grantham turned into a completely different person. Throughout the journey he was truly charming, made jokes, told stories and hadn't complained about the elephants even once. I was pleasantly surprised by this change of character but couldn't shake off the feeling he was hiding something and would try to hurt me given half a chance. Such poppycock!
As our journey went on, I couldn't get the thoughts about Lakshmi out of my head. Her visage haunted me. Washing my face in cold water at sunrise I saw the gleam of her savage eyes in the river's rippling surface, tasting the scent of wild honey I dreamt of the velvet touch of her dusky skin. Watching the gentle bobbing of lotus flowers in the waters of a forest stream brought to mind the folds of her flowing sari holding the shy girl in its strong silky embrace... And yet there was something ominous in her image, something malevolent. She was like an exotic flower whose petals concealed deadly, poisonous pollen.
On the way to Delhi we stopped by a tiny village. We needed a rest, so we rode in and were quickly invited to stay at a the house of a resident British merchant. He was most hospitable, and we were glad to relax after our tiring journey. During lunch Mr. Hadley, our gracious host, spoke at length about the changes that took place after the failed rebellion. Leaning in his chair, he saw fit to warn us: «I heard thugs - the stranglers, if you like - began to attack travelers again. Be vigilant on your journey!»
Mr. Hadley told us about the latest attacks and claimed thugs recently murdered a good number of itinerants, but Grantham rudely interrupted him. He called his words nonsense and stated that thugs had been completely eliminated almost half a century ago. «Just a few robberies do not signal the return of the cultists» - such was his reply to our magnanimous benefactor.
«They say some thugs are not above taking coin in exchange for killing people right out in the city streets!» - said our host. «Those ruffians aren't afraid of justice and keep making sacrifices to their heathen goddess. None of them would turn away an offer of gold!». At that point Robert suggested we change the subject. His persistence certainly did not escape my attention.
We arrived in Delhi and got started on Her Majesty's task. Both me and Grantham fully devoted ourselves to business. We chose to rent separate apartments when settling in. By that time I no longer considered Robert to be my friend, but sometimes he visited me and sometimes we had dinner together. His company was becoming ever more burdensome: sometimes I felt he was watching me, waiting for something.
I was about to conclude my business in India and began to prepare the return trip to England. One day I took a stroll down to the market to take my mind off things. Sometimes one could find genuine antiques wrapped in pieces of bright cloth among pottery, figurines, gaudy jewelry and all kinds of knickknacks. Besides, charming miss Harlow asked me to bring her something from India. «I dream of travelling around the world one day. It would be fascinating to see the way people live in other countries!», she would exclaim.
Of course, I wanted to bring her something unusual, something beautiful, something stunning. But I had to visit a lot of tents and wandered the merchant rows until I grew tired of the loud cries of the huckstresses, the carnival of scents and the cornucopia of colors. I found nothing and was just about to go home when a husky woman's voice drew my attention.
«Is sahib looking for something? Does sahib look for a gift?» Lakshmi. I sensed her presence before I could see her. It was like an assault of some unseen energy, like a pull of a merciless lasso. Her dark and sparkling eyes looked at me with... Mockery? No, it was a challenge. A bold woman can always challenge a man if she wants to trap him in her treacherous web. Lakshmi was selling oils, spices and incense. She insisted I try all of her merchandise.
I thought Lakshmi was laughing at me. «Try this, sahib! And this!» The abundance of strong scents, or perhaps her presence, made my head spin. In the end I bought a box of spices from her and made my leave. The savage girl smiled at me as I made my goodbyes, and I knew I would come to the bazaar again.
The next day I visited the road construction site, then came back home and made myself a cup of tea. It was fragrant and strong, and I closed my eyes to enjoy its rich taste. Suddenly an image of Lakshmi appeared in my mind's eye. It was so vivid I actually thought she might be standing next to me. I grew scared. Has the Indian temptress been trying to bewitch me? I resolved to never visit the bazaar again and attempted to dismiss the savage girl from my mind.
Eventually my resolve wavered. I dreamed of Lakshmi and saw her as the goddess she had been named after. Lakshmi was bathing in sunlight and blooming flowers. I understood I would never be free of her! The next day I took my breakfast and headed straight to the market. Lakshmi greeted me happily: she obviously knew I would come back. Trying to explain my new visit, I pretended to examine her merchandise and tried to strike up a conversation.
I asked her if she had a family. Lakshmi told me she lived alone, but had to look after her elderly mother and a sickly sibling. «I was about to get married, but my suitor died in the rebellion. I no longer know if I ever become anybody's wife». She cast her eyes down so humbly that I had to stifle a laugh. It was the cutest insincerely I had ever seen.
I had dinner with Grantham that day. He mentioned he had concluded his business in India. «As far as I'm aware, so have you. Shouldn't we go back to our home country?» I immediately thought about Lakshmi and her promising smile, the mystery in her sparkling eyes. I couldn't leave without solving the enigma of that savage girl. Why did she stir such conflicting emotions? I told him I had no plans of returning to England yet.
Grantham's reaction struck me as odd. He lost his temper and completely forgot about manners. He told me he knew a lying spice peddler was trying to charm me. He insisted I immediately depart for Calcutta since nobody knew what the devious savage had in mind. I grew so angry I couldn't even come up with a proper retort. He scolded me, an officer of the British army, like a petulant schoolchild.
I told Robert he could go to Calcutta whenever he wished, but I would stay, and asked him to stop telling me what to do. We spent a second glaring at each other, and then he left. Later I learned he also decided to stay in Delhi. By then I had little doubt he had been following me.
The next morning I went to the market to meet Lakshmi, but saw a little wrinkled old woman where the beautiful savage girl had usually stood. She peered at me through the bright folds of her headscarf as if she knew I would come, or what I would come for. I wanted to ask her about Lakshmi, but changed my mind and decided to go back home.
As the old woman rose, the countless bracelets on her skinny wrists began to jingle. She addressed me in a dialect of Hindi I couldn't recognize. I was about to ignore her and leave when I heard music. It was a whimsical melody accompanied by clapping and girls' laughter, so I stopped and turned around to listen.
The sounds were coming from the inside of a tent standing next to a dilapidated house. I tried to go in, but the old woman got in my way, chattering and waving her hands as if trying to stop me. I shooed away the obnoxious hag and walked though a doorway I could see through the folds. It was covered with a piece of worn-out beaded cloth, swaying and in the wind and beckoning to me.
The sounds grew louder, and the air grew denser with delightful scents of cinnamon and sandalwood. I brushed the cloth aside and saw light and movement at the end of a dark corridor. I crossed it and entered a small windowless room lit by numerous candles.
There were several girls in the room. One of them was playing a bansuri, the other drummed a little kanjira against the palm of her dusky hand. Another girl reclined against a wall next to a large incense-burner, holding her luxurious hair above the tangy smoke to infuse it with otherworldly aromas. A few more girls sat on the floor, clapping and singing for the beautiful dancer in front of them. I recognized Lakshmi.
She whirled around, thrusting up her delicate hands. A gentle smile graced her face, some of her hair escaped from a tightly-woven braid and shimmered around her like a myriad of silken ribbons. It was a dance of youthfulness, a dance of womanhood. I feasted my eyes on her, enjoying the delicate movements of her tawny arms... She lifted her left arm, embraced her graceful waist with the other, raised the remaining two arms over her head... I recoiled in shock. Lakshmi's smile transformed into a morbid grin on a hideous blue face. She kept on dancing, but I no longer saw a beautiful savage girl, I saw Kali instead. I choked on a scream of terror.
They finally noticed me. The music stopped, the dancer froze. It was Lakshmi again. She gave a quiet laugh, as if she knew who had been dancing in front of me. The girls started to shout, rose and pushed me out of the room, screaming and pulling my hair like a flock of malicious birds.
I staggered home, but Lakshmi caught up with me. She stood on her toes and whispered: «In Jumna's Palm at midnight». Her cinnamon breath scalded my skin. The savage girl disappeared in her tent as I blinked in complete bewilderment. Have I just been invited to a date? I didn't know what to make of mysterious Lakshmi who enticed and repulsed me at the same time, but I knew I wouldn't miss this fortuitous meeting.
I made my way back, unable to think of anything other than Lakshmi. It was almost dinnertime, and Grantham was waiting for me in my room. By that time I had made inquiries but failed to learn anything interesting or suspicious about him. While we were eating, a servant brought me a letter from Murugan. My old friend was about to arrive to Delhi and wanted to see me. When Robert learned the news, he gritted his teeth and said nothing. I understood that he was not happy with this development.
I could barely wait for nightfall. By midnight I was down at the river. The spot locals called Jumna's Palm was hidden beneath a green canopy of whispering leaves on a narrow river bank where nature created a perfect place for the star-crossed lovers to meet. I climbed down an earthy bank and approached the dewy foliage.
Something rustled under my feet. When I picked up the item I had stepped on and brought it to a ray of moonlight, I recognized Lakshmi's sari. «Sahib!» She had been waiting for me! I pulled the curtain of leaves aside, and my eyes fell on the owner of the discarded garment. The mysteries grew silent, the shackles broke and the time itself stopped for me.
That night I saw her tattoo for the first time. A strange symbol that looked like a chalice or a flower decorated her slender hip. I touched it gently, but when I did, I once again saw a blue-skinned devil in front of me. Lakshmi shuddered, and when I asked her what that symbol means, the girl told me it was the symbol of the goddess Lakshmi. Her mother had put it on her skin so that the deity would always watch over her.
«Answer me too, sahib! What is this amulet you carry with you?» - the girl asked coyly, curling her graceful fingers around the key on my chest. I pulled it free and told her to not touch it ever again.
I decided to surprise the savage girl with a question she would not expect: «Tell me, why did you tell me that lie about Murugan? It wasn't he who commanded you to steal from me». The girl grew pale and began to cry. She claimed she was desperate because I did not believe her. «Of course Murugan did not tell me anything personally! He sent one of his servants! Could someone else blame Murugan to tarnish his good name in your eyes, sahib?» I fell silent. I knew a person who would be all too happy to demonize my friend and my former servant. «Damn it, Grantham. Could it have been you all along?»
Murugan arrived to Delhi a few days later and invited me to supper. My former servant was traditionally cheerful and hospitable, inquired about my business and looked surprised when I told him I was staying in India despite having completed Her Majesty's task. I made some jokes about tantalizing Indian cuisine and delightful weather. «In any case, I have no plans of returning to England any time soon», - said I.
The Hindu smiled. His coy wink told me he knew more than I had been telling him. Murugan said he was happy about my decision to stay because he enjoyed the pleasure of my company. «I will be infinitely happy if you choose to stay even longer, sahib!». I understood that he was still fond of me despite three years of separation. It warmed my heart. I was genuinely pleased to know there was at least one person I could trust.
Lakshmi was the star of my desire and the stuff of my nightmares. In my mind, she could not be separated from furious Kali. I met her a few more times, and her presence intoxicated me and sapped my will, made me follow the laughing and mysterious savage girl and do her bidding. I slept by day and visited Jumna's Palm by night. The enchantment lasted several days until I dreamt of Sarah.
The dream felt like a dash of cold water tossed over a sleeping person. I cast the compulsion away by remembering who was waiting for me back home. How could I forget dear Sarah? I immediately wrote her a letter and went for a short walk after breakfast to consider the preparations for the upcoming voyage. Suddenly I found myself walking towards the market. I was so angry I decided to turn around, but then saw a small tent nearby. It belonged to Lakshmi.
The girl raised her eyes at me. There was nothing human in her gaze, only absolute, boundless cruelty. The pupils vanished, and the darkness spilled forth from those cold eyes, freezing everything it touched. Kali was staring at me from Lakshmi's face, daring to come closer, to touch her. One of her four hands reached towards me. I turned around and almost ran back home. When I arrived, I collapsed on my bed and hadn't risen for two days: fever descended on me.
While the fever held me in its sickly embrace, I suffered from nightmares and stuffy southern heat that made the experience even worse. Finally I managed to rise from the bed. I realized that I needed to go back to England as soon as I could. Kali, or maybe India itself was trying to seduce me with Lakshmi's charms, bind me, enthrall me and keep beneath the sweltering Indian sun forever. I commanded the servants to pack my things, but remembered that I had promised Sarah to bring her a present. There was no choice but to dress and go to the market.
I visited a couple of tents and bought bolts of cloth, figurines and all kinds of fancy trinkets. As I was about to leave, I shuddered at the thought of having to bid farewell to Lakshmi. It wasn't the girl's fault that the wicked goddess had been using her to trick me into submission. «She may be truly in love with me!» - thought I, heading to Lakshmi's tent.
There was nobody in the tent, and that was unusual. I wondered if something had happened before I heard voices. I drew the curtain aside and saw Lakshmi and Grantham in the all too familiar corridor. They had been discussing something but fell silent when I interrupted them. I felt a pang of jealousy, but it was drowned by anger towards Grantham who dared to invade even the most private aspect of my life!
I quietly left. I did not turn around when Grantham called out to me even though I heard his footsteps behind my back. I felt a massive black web of lies and intrigue enveloping me. To Hell with India! It looked like a conspiracy... But why pick me? I knew nothing and did not want to know anything. I needed to get back home to England. I decided to head to Calcutta immediately and book my passage on the first ship heading to Britain.
Having returned home, I commanded the servants to hurry with preparations and to wrap up the souvenirs I had just bought. A short time later Grantham requested the pleasure of my company. I had to make a conscious effort to not have him kicked out my house. He filled me with contempt and revulsion. He had a frightened, pathetic, ingratiating and lying look... He tried to say something, but I refused to listen and demanded he leaves my presence. He had no choice but to comply.
By the time servants were done with the preparations, it was too late to leave. I decided to go to bed and depart for Calcutta in the morning. A noise woke me in the dead of night. Lakshmi had made her way into my room again. She tried to calm me down with her tenderness and did her best to avoid answering my questions, but I was firm.
Lakshmi said Grantham visited her tent more than once and made inappropriate advances... «I was so afraid of him, sahib! But I did not want to tell you about his threats because it would upset you!» I did not believe the wicked temptress but could not resist her devilish charms.
In the morning I left for Calcutta, leaving behind the mad girl and Grantham with his secrets. I was in for a big disappointment, however. The beastly weather caused another delay! India did not want to release me from its twisted and dangerous embrace. Mister Bradley once again suggested I stay at his house.
I did not expect to see her that night. How did she get to Calcutta so quickly? Lakshmi didn't even try to hide. Weeping, she rushed into my arms and began to wail, saying she cannot live without me... I was moved by her passion and embraced the girl, hoping to comfort her... Luckily, a bright moonbeam fell on the sparkling blade aimed at my chest. I wrestled the knife from her, grabbed the savage girl and twisted her arm. She growled like a wild cat, trying to break free of my grasp.
I felt relief that quickly changed into disgust and hatred towards the liar. I admit that for a moment I had to fight the temptation to plunge the knife into her dusky chest. She took advantage of my hesitation and pushed me away with inhuman strength. It was amazing how much rage and fury such a petite frame could contain.
At the same time she grabbed my talisman, pulled with all her might and broke the chain. Lakshmi darted towards the window. My father's key! I finally realized what she had been after. What everyone had been after! I clutched her hair before she could leap to freedom. We fell on the floor, fighting. In the end I got the key back and wounded her with the knife... Lakshmi screamed, punched me in the face and fled... When I got up and looked outside, I saw nothing but an empty street heavy with stifling heat.
The next day I felt sad and miserable. The wondrous things that happened to me under the Indian sun turned into something vile and disgusting. Wherever I looked, I saw falseness and deceit. I have been used by people that wanted to get their hands on my father's key. What door did it open? What secret did it keep?
For several hours I laid on my bed without moving, idly staring at a bright panel picture on the wall in front of me. A servant came. He said he had been told to deliver an invitation from Murugan who wanted to meet me this evening. My former servant was the only person who never tried to hide anything from me and had always been both kind and sincere. I gladly accepted the invitation.
I arrived to Murugan's manor on time. After we exchanged pleasantries I wondered why decided to move to Calcutta so quickly. «I learned that Sahib left Delhi and hurried after him to say goodbye», smiled Murugan. «You may never return to India, after all». He became serious after we supped. «I admit that I want to warn you, sahib, not just to bid you a fond farewell. Ill-wishers have spread their nets wide. Your friend betrayed you, sahib. He paid the stranglers for your death. Beware the thugs!»
I remembered Grantham's unusual behavior and the bizarre incident at the temple. That strange old man... I told Murugan about my visit to the temple of Kali.
«I began to suspect foul play when he disappeared for two days. Much later I learned that he contacted thugs and paid them for killing you. The traitor led you to the temple to show the stranglers what you look like so they would know who the victim is... Your death would allow him to get his hands on the key you are so carelessly carrying with you at all times», said Murugan.
I was stunned! My old friend, a fellow officer! How could he do something like that?! Crestfallen, I asked Murugan what he knew about the key and why did so many people want to take it from me?!
Murugan said he does not know what it is but he heard about its great value. Allegedly, its owner can become rich beyond measure, which is why the key is sought after by so many people. «Sahib, that girl we rescued from the sepoys is just as dangerous. I was hesitant to offer advice because you would think ill of me if I did, but I assume she has shown you her true nature by now». I told my former servant about the strange tattoo gracing the liar's supple body. «Oh, but I do know this sign», said Murugan.
«The sepoy mutiny was suppressed, but only for a time. There are insurgent groups scattered all over India, and Lakshmi's tattoo is a sign of one of them. There will be a new rebellion, and she most likely needs this key to bring it to the insurgents», said the Hindu.
Now I knew why my father told me to keep the key with me at all times and never show it to anyone. I regretted carelessly wearing it on my chest and allowing so many covetous men learn about this secret. I asked Murugan who could know the truth about this valuable item. The Hindu shook his head and said he did not know, but would find out to help me.
Murugan looked at me with concern and sighed: «Go back home. The more people learn about your key, the more cutthroats will start going after your head. Never be alone: if thugs promised your life to Kali, no matter how much time passes, they will track you down and put a rumal around your neck». I thanked him for everything. I was sad to bid him farewell, but I knew he was right. I had to return to England soon.
Having returned home, I discovered Grantham waiting for me in my room. «I heard you went to Murugan. What lies did the despicable Hindu snake tell you about me?» I silently came up to him and looked into his deceitful eyes. I told him I was cutting off contact with him once and for all and turned around to leave the room when I heard him speak behind my back. «Are you really that willing to die?»
Wrath overcame me. Grantham had the audacity to make threats to my face! Was he hoping to get the key through blackmail? «Get lost, you pathetic murderer! Do you want me to pay your thug friends for your death just like you paid for mine? Yes, I know everything! Begone from my life!», I shouted.
The traitor seemed taken aback. Apparently he was unaware I had discovered his dishonorable intentions. Grantham left my apartment without saying a word. Did he give up knowing I finally called his bluff of was he preparing a new plan? Did he hire Lakshmi to do what the thugs had not? What were they talking about in her tent? Were they discussing the details of my demise?
The captain of the ship that would take me home sent good news: we would depart the next morning. I decided to take a walk and see Calcutta for one last time. Eventually I started daydreaming and wandered into the dirty slums of the great city. I was looking around trying to find my way back when I saw Lakshmi.
Her crimson and orange sari burned my mind's eye like a bonfire in the gray and dirty streets. I got only a glimpse of her face, but recognized the posture and the proud bearing of the savage girl. She noticed me too and hurried away. Wrath overcame me, and for a moment I wondered if was me brimming with anger or somebody else. I wanted to destroy her, to crush her beneath my feet, to obliterate! And so I followed.
We walked for a while. She did not want me to catch up with her and tried to evade me, but I pressed on. It wasn't until half an hour later that I realized the streets around us were completely deserted. Lopsided hovels with rotting roofs moved closer as if trying to close in on me. I was about to turn back when she stopped. I approached her and called, «Lakshmi!» She turned around.
It wasn't Lakshmi! I was taken aback, and this was when the girl pulled a ribbon from her belt and tossed it around my neck. She was strangling me! Her motions were practiced and confident, and I realized she had not been doing it for the first time. Vainly I struggled to break away. My vision was blurring, the world around me faded, and Kali came to me again. He blood-stained mouth was twisted in a grin so savage I panicked and almost wend mad with absolute terror.
It was an inhuman effort that allowed me to break free of the deadly ribbon, and I ran like never before. I could not see where I was going but did not stop until I was standing on the main street of Calcutta. Shocked beyond reason, I got my breath back, but couldn't stop shaking until dinner when mister Bradley offered me a bottle of whiskey. He looked afraid and kept asking if I was all right, but I couldn't answer him and just nodded my head.
Finally I stood on the deck of the departing ship! I was beside myself with joy! I was finally leaving the woes and terrors of India behind! Much later, when I entered my cabin, I felt something smooth in my pocket. Mortified, I took the item away and examined it. It was a yellow ribbon with a rupee tied to one of its ends. I wanted to toss the dreadful thing away, but absent-mindedly slipped it back into my pocket instead and did not take out until I was back in England.
I was relieved to return to my home country where no demented cultists, crazed savage girls or cowardly traitors would try to kill me. Soon after my arrival I decided to visit mister Harlow and perhaps to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage if I muster enough courage. Mister Harlow was genuinely happy to see me! He told me the latest London news and boasted the success of his manufactory. «But what about your trip to India? Tell me everything!» - suddenly asked Charles.
Of course, I could not tell him the truth about my adventures. I told him the general details of my journey, saying it was a disease that delayed my return from Delhi. «I heard officer Grantham kept you company?» , asked Harlow. It took a lot of effort to conceal my feelings and state that we parted ways after leaving the ship. Without details my tale turned out to be quite short, and I moved on to the most important part of my visit. I told Charles I would like to marry his daughter.
During one of the raids I went to the house where a family of the British officer supposed to hide. But when I cross the threshold, the torch was thrown in the room through the rickety window and then another and more. The house caught fire immediately, and the exit was closed. I tried to get out, but there were flames everywhere. Smoke made me choke and I would have fainted, but the Hindu appeared. I don’t know if he was hiding in the house or got there after the fire started. He covered me with a blanket and pulled out of the hut.
When we found ourselves alone Sarah blushed. I took great pleasure in looking at her lovely face tinted by the faintest shade of rose-pink. All of my doubt had fled. I took her hand and asked her to become my wife, and she whispered «yes». When Charles returned, one look at our happy faces was enough for him to understand her answer. My improvised and spontaneous proposal turned out for the best. We had wedding preparations to look forward to.
But the brightest and the happiest period of my life was tainted by an unexpected ailment. Nightmares tormented me. Once I woke up because I felt someone pushed me down into the bed. I opened my eyes and saw Lakshmi! She was sitting on me and looked triumphant, her long hair flowed down her shoulders and disappeared in the folds of her sari. She reached for my chest, trying to take my father's key that I never parted with... I cast her aside, but when she raised her head I saw the furious eyes of Kali whose four hands clenched into fists...
I decided I was suffering from the nightmares I had witnessed in India. I tried to think more about Sarah and the upcoming wedding... Mister Harlow also involved me in his business, helping to get experience... But the blue-skinned goddess kept visiting me in my dreams, sometimes looking like her terrible self and sometimes looking like Lakshmi... Always reaching for the key on my chest. Or was it my neck she was reaching for?
I started drinking whiskey to rid myself of the nightmares. Sometimes I felt I was drinking to excess, but the spirits brought me untroubled sleep until morning.
I heard Grantham had returned from India. I instructed the servants not to let him in and said I would never entertain him in my house. He started writing to me, but I burned his letters without opening them. I did not want anything to connect me to India or remind me of what had happened there. I even took the key from my neck and hid it in my study, hoping that Lakshmi would stop coming. But the nightmares did not relent.
The first time it happened when I was going downstairs to have breakfast. Invisible hands grabbed my neck and started to strangle me. My legs gave way, I started falling and would probably break my neck had it not been for my butler George. He managed to steady me, and when he saw my bulging eyes and heard the pitiful wheezing coming out from my chest, grabbed me and carried me outside. In the open air the invisible grip weakened and I could breathe again.
At first I thought I was sick, but the doctors that examined me claimed I was in perfect health. The chocking spells continued. Every time the invisible assassin left me without air for longer and longer. The Harlows meekly suggested we delay the wedding until I feel better, and that became the straw that broke the camel's back. I could not wait, I needed to know what was happening to me.
I felt the attacks were somehow connected to my visits to India. I encountered many horrors and mysteries there, none of which could be explained. I tried to remember every day under the Indian sun, studied my notes and examined the items I brought with me. I found the ill-fated ribbon in the pocket of my uniform. Could it be the reason? Have I been cursed by the woman that had attempted to kill me? Strangulation began to happen to me in my sleep. I did not know where to look for answers, who to beg for help...
The day of my wedding inexorably approached. I left my house for a time, but that didn't change anything: the invisible strangler pursued me. This was when I resorted to drastic, desperate and absurd measures: I contacted occultists and mediums. I found a woman named Catarina Smiths. She communed with spirits, made horoscopes and engaged in other activities that meant nothing to me. Suffering from insomnia, weight loss and exhaustion, I invited her to my mansion.
Miss Smiths froze the moment they stopped over the threshold of my mansion. She closed her eyes and cocked her head as if straining to hear some distant sound, then walked to me and placed her cool palm on my forehead. «I can feel the bond between you and some entity, a rather one-sided bond. But I need information to understand what this entity is and how you can be rid of it». We moved to the living room and spent several hours talking. I told her about my visits to India. She listened closely, only occasionally interrupting me to ask some important question. Then I showed her the yellow ribbon.
She reached out to take the ribbon, but suddenly snapped her hand away. Miss Smiths grew pale, shuddered and asked me to put this item away from her. Then she took a sip of water and fell silent for a whole minute. I was beside myself with impatience. Finally Catarina looked at me and said that the ribbon was conducting the entity that attacked me and attempted to take my life. I suggested we destroy the ribbon, either burn it or throw it away.
Miss Smiths rejected the idea, saying it wasn't the ribbon that was helping the entity to strangle me. Destroying it might lead to even more dire consequences. «In any case, I do not know what this entity is. You brought it from the other end of the Earth! That is where you need to look for answers». She also advised me to carry a small bag of salt on my person at all times. «Salt is the simplest way to ward off evil, but it will not save you. You need to consult Indian sages who hold the answer».
Salt helped. The attacks became less frequent, and if I managed to undo the knot on the bag and pour the salt on myself, the strangling stopped immediately. I had no intention of returning to India. I had a better idea: I wrote a letter to Murugan beseeching him to come to England and save me.
I once went out for a stroll in a small garden near the mansion. I heard rustling behind my back as if somebody tried to sneak up on me. I turn around and saw Lakshmi's face. At the same time my invisible adversary clutched its vicelike hands on my throat. The world went dark, and I lost consciousness.
This episode lasted but for a few seconds. A gardener heard my wheezing and rushed to my rescue. He took me inside the house, and when I came to, I demanded we search the garden and the mansion. We didn't find anyone, and the gardener swore there was nobody in the bushes during this attack. Lakshmi was yet another hallucination, it seems.
I felt compelled to delay the wedding, after all. Although the evil entity never attacked anyone except me, I did not want to subject my dear Sarah to the prospect of danger. At the same time I could not bear the thought of being pronounced insane. I contacted the Harlows and informed them that I had summoned a famous physician from London who would treat my malady and asked them to postpone the nuptials for a fortnight.
At long last my Indian friend arrived to England. I had several rooms prepared for him a long time ago. We supped and gladly exchanged the latest news. I told him about the upcoming wedding and invited him to the nuptials. Having done that I asked if he devised a way for me to defeat the curse before leaving his homeland. Murugan said, «How can I leave you in such distress, sahib? Have you seen how much luggage I brought with me? What do you think is inside these chests?»
Murugan said he had talked to many wise men. He believed Lakshmi had cursed me, and it was her curse that made Kali keep trying to take my life. There was a way to defeat Kali. We had to devise a trap for her incarnation, a gaol. He asked me to choose a room that could be used for building this trap. «We'll have to create a piece of India in your mansion», he said with laughter as he invited me to take a look a the chests he had brought.
I was stunned when I inspected Murugan's chests. He brought musical instruments, weapons, figurines and perfumes, rugs, lamps, cloth and much more! «We shall place a fountain depicting our deities in the middle of the room. I have a sketch right here». I picked a room, and we set to work.
I got so carried away I almost forgot about my wedding! Murugan even had to reprimand me gently. I hosted a banquet and introduced my Indian friend to my fiancée and her family. Sarah was beyond herself with delight!
Murugan brought something else. Tiny round pieces of colored glass that let me see the goddess. The enemy was no longer invisible! But the pieces of glass crumbled after letting me see the goddess as if unable to withstand her terrifying visage. Murugan called these pieces of glass optickons. «You'll have to get more from India, sahib. You won't find such glass here in England!»
Since Kali was no longer a threat, there was no point in delaying my wedding any further. We doubled the efforts to rid me of the suffocating presence of the goddess. When the room was complete, Murugan said the goddess would be drawn to that place and leave me alone. And indeed, soon afterwards the attacks almost stopped.
Not long before the wedding I woke up with a profound feeling of grief and sadness. Not even bothering to order breakfast, I went down to the room where I kept my parents' possessions. Having opened a dusty chest, I started rummaging through parcels. One of them contained my mother's portrait, and the other held my father's diary. I opened it and browsed through it idly, barely skimming the pages...
I suddenly remembered them both. I remembered my mother's laughter as she listened to my father's jokes, remembered the dimples on her rosy cheeks; I remembered my father puffing his pipe, telling us one story after another as he filled the air with the fragrant smell tobacco... My heart filled with sadness. I could no longer hold back the tears...
It was then when I saw the picture in my father's diary. The caption said: «Found the key to the Sunohati's dungeon. Several pieces of the map still left to find». The answer to the mystery of my father's gift has been right in front of me all along! I started reading the entries.
My father was a member of some secret society and pursued treasures from ancient legends. Just like his peers, he sought out tales from all over the world mentioning hidden riches and did his best to find them. One day he heard the legend of the Golden elephant. According to it, India once had a cult called the Sunohati that worshipped a celestial being. Its members believed that a divine elephant would come down from heavens to bestow untold wealth and happiness upon them.
But when the day came, no golden elephant descended to bring girts to its followers. Madness overcame them, and the cult leader proclaimed that other people were to blame for this failure: it was the wickedness, avarice and debauchery that drove the elephantine deity away from mankind. The Sunohati members soon learned that one rajah had a jeweled elephant statue in his palace. They decided to steal it away and destroy it to earn forgiveness from their capricious patron.
One night the golden elephant vanished from the palace where an army of soldiers was guarding it! Nobody could explain how a massive statue of pure gold weighing thousands of pounds could be carried away without being seen. It was said the Golden elephant helped the Sunohati to shrink the statue so they could take it away and hide it in a dungeon somewhere. Finding this statue would bring incredible wealth to a man and bestow mystical gifts upon him: it was said to give great wisdom and the ability to discern truth from falsehood.
According to the legend the Sunohati drew a map that showed a way to the dungeon and tore it to pieces. Each of the members ate a piece of the map, and the cult leader swallowed the key to the door barring passage into the sacred chamber. Having done that, they travelled far and ended their lives to make sure the mystery of the Golden elephant died with them. Somehow my father procured the key, and the other members of his secret society completed the map revealing the location of the fabled dungeon.
Now I knew why my father travelled so much and often disappeared for months at a time. My mother probably knew about his vocation, but why didn't they tell me? I felt left out, not to say bitter. I remembered my father's death: the doctors said he had died from poison they could not identify. Was his tragic and sudden death somehow related to this secret society? At least now I knew why the key was so important and why everyone kept trying to steal it from me.
I also found an old photograph. It showed several people, and the only word on the back of the card read «Seekers». My father was among them, and the face of the man right next to him looked vaguely familiar. I spent a long time trying to jostle my memory, but eventually gave up, put the photograph back in the chest and left the room. That was enough delving into the past for one day.
The wedding day was the most beautiful day of my life. Oh, how beautiful was my sweet and gentle Sarah! Like a Renaissance fairy, she was flittering among the guests, throwing smiles. The smell of flowers made my head dizzy. We cut the cake, dance our first dance, we were so happy! The memories of this day are the strongest and happiest memento that I wouldn't trade for all jewels in the world.
Murugan planned to go home right after our wedding, but I didn't let him: I asked him to stay with us longer. I was afraid that the Indian room couldn't keep Kali inside, and I'll stay helpless with her. Murugan stayed and spent evenings telling my Sarah stories about India. My poor wife didn't know what danger was threatening the mansion, threatening us all. After we finished working on the Indian room, Kalli has left me in peace for some time. But as we saw it later it was just a lull before the storm.
Soon the nightmares started again on a new scale. The salt and other amulets brought by Murugan didn't help anymore. My neck was all one large purple bruise. Sara was frightened; she didn't leave my side. Murugan has no idea what to do. I still saw Kali and Lakshmi both in dreams and awake, and these nightmares never left me. I thought I was going crazy, and that my days were over.
It's so hard to write down the scariest and most terrible day of my life, the day that deprived me of my happiness and joy of existence. This day shadow of sadness has covered my face forever. I woke up aching of longing as if I felt the trouble that occurred... It was raining. I was alone in our bed. I thought Sara had woken up already and was in the kitchen making breakfast. I felt better, so I got up and came downstairs to look for my angel.
I found her in the kitchen under the open window. The rain was pouring through it in the room. She laid there like a limp doll, cold, quiet, dead... Blood was pouring from the deep cut on her slender neck. I don't remember what exactly I felt that moment, only that something very important was cut from me forever. Servants found me later holding Sarah in my arms and crying silently...
Sarah was murdered. Who did this, how and why? I didn't care. Next month I spent sitting near the window. Even Kali left me in peace, while I wanted her to succeed in her efforts. I wanted to die. Murugan didn't know what to do with me. He tried to make me better, to calm and comfort me... But his efforts were in vain. I was just a withered lifeless shell... Until I saw...
This event brought me back to life. I stayed in bed, listlessly staring at the window. Enjoying tea in my room became Murugan's morning ritual, and when he came, he tried to cheer me up. He wore a casually tucked-in robe that day, and when he leaned over to adjust my pillows, I noticed an inconspicuous tattoo on his chest. It was the sign I saw on Lakshmi's thigh! Murugan failed to notice anything, but he did exclaim: "You look so pale, sahib! Are you unwell?!"
I was too weak to rush at him and snap his traitorous neck, so I said nothing and pretended I hadn't seen his tattoo. Thoughts whirled in my fevered mind. When Murugan finally left the room, I scrambled to my feet. "I need a weapon!" - the thought struck me like a bolt of lightning. I kept my pistol in the room with my parent's possessions, so I dressed up and headed there on shaky feet.
Having turned over a pile of musty clothes, I finally found the chest with my weapons. Sickness made me weak and clumsy, so I dropped it onto a pile of things left lying about since the last time I came here. My father's diary dropped to my feet, I carefully picked it up and saw the photograph tucked in between the pages again. I remembered who the man standing next to my father was!
It was Grantham's father! He too must have been a member of treasure hunters' secret society! That's why Robert knew about the key. That's why he asked me to keep it hidden away. My friend had been on my side all this time! But I, a blind and stubborn fool, kept pushed him away time and again.
The very same day I wrote a letter to Robert and invited him to my house, keeping it secret from Murugan. He replied almost immediately and promised to come in the evening. I waited for him impatiently, doing my best to build up my strength and to tidy myself. Murugan suspected nothing. Grantham arrived at about eight o'clock. I met him in the living room, forcing myself to go there for the first time since Sarah's death. Robert looked at me with concern.
I confessed to my old friend that I hadn't read any of his letters and explained what I had found among my father's things. Robert patted me on the shoulder and smiled encouragingly. I finally realized I found my true friend - the real friend I could believe and trust.
"You have finally learned the truth. I did not dare to tell you about the secret society because I promised your father I would protect you without revealing the secret. Your father died because of this key. Greedy traitors sold the information about the discovery of Sunohati's dungeon. Your father was poisoned by people trying to get inside the vault. He didn't want you to die, so he told you nothing".
"But you can see what it has led to. I wish you knew about it's purpose from the very beginning! I was terrified when I realized what I was holding in my hand the day you almost fell off that elephant. Murugan saw the key in Meerut. He immediately decided to seize the key, no matter the cost".
"And then Lakshmi joined the chase. It wasn't easy, but eventually I learned the truth about these two. They both were members of the insurgency". I told Robert about the tattoos. "Indeed, it is the sign of the Truth of India. Lakshmi and Murugan were recent converts, ambitious and hungry for recognition."
"The rajah who lead the insurgency learned about the key from Murugan and tasked them both with retrieving it. Whoever brought the key would be showered with praise and favors - which is why they did their best to drive a wedge between us. Like snakes, they wrapped your heart in coils of treachery, seeking to drive us apart once and for all".
"Sahib, I found you at last!.." Our conversation was interrupted by Murugan. The mask of amiability cracked when he saw who was sitting next to me. I finally saw Murugan for what he was: a vile, covetous, deceitful viper. I stood up and proclaimed that I knew the truth. Then I demanded he told me who had killed Sarah, but he didn't have the time to reply: somebody assaulted me from behind. I heard Robert shout as I fell to the floor.
It was Lakshmi. I hadn't been hallucinating after all! She did follow me to England. While we were talking, she opened a window and sneaked into the living room! She brandished the very same knife she used to stab me in Calcutta. "I killed your wife. And now you're going to follow her"! She cut the cord holding the key from my neck and was about to slice my throat. Robert rushed to my aid, but Murugan tackled him to the ground... "Sarah! We'll be together soon!" - such were the final thoughts that flashed in my mind...
I gathered my strength, pushed the she-devil away and... plunged the knife in her breast... She quickly died in my arms. I wanted to help Robert, but Murugan gave a strangled yelp and let him go. An invisible force pulled him away and thrust the Hindu against the wall. Stunned, Robert watched the events unfurl as Murugan ineffectively tried to draw breath: he was suffocating, but I was the only one who knew what was going on.
My hands were trembling as I found an optickon on my pocket and brought it up to my eyes. I saw her. The four-armed goddess was strangling Murugan! I shuddered in fear and dropped the glass, but Robert grabbed it an used to look at the Hindu without flinching. After a while Murugan fell silent and his lifeless body slid to the floor. The living room was filled with unbearable stifling presence... I was too afraid to draw breath. Robert kept looking through the optickon.
At last Grantham broke that deadly silence by patting me on the shoulder and helping me to my feet. "She is gone", he said. We sat on the ottoman, still unable to process what had just happened. Two dead bodies and a living goddess prowling the corridors... I felt completely at sea. Eventually Robert interrupted my thoughts by saying, "So they did get to your after all..." I met his worried gaze and understood what he meant: he wasn't talking about Lakshmi or Murugan.
"Perhaps you remember how I went missing shortly before our departure back to England? I heard Murugan had tried to pay the thugs to assassinate you and steal the key. I arranged a meeting and offered a generous reward if they left you alone. They did their best to trick me and once even tried to take my life, but eventually agreed. I brought you to Kali's temple. Do you remember that strange old man? He was a thug. I showed him what you looked like so that he knew who they must avoid".
"It looks like they failed to keep their promise after they saw the key you are wearing around your neck. If Kali is stalking you they must have already promised your life to her. Did they attack you?" - asked Robert. I told him about the young woman who attempted to strangle me.
Robert admitted that thugs often used young girls to take advantage of their victims' credulousness but became terrified when I showed him the ribbon I brought with me. "This murder weapon draws the goddess ever closer to you!" I explained that Kali was torturing me and tried to choke me to death on many occasions as I brought him to the Indian room I furnished in accordance with Murugan's instructions.
"This room invited Kali to settle in your house. You wrote to him, told him of your woes, and he immediately realized the thugs were to blame. The knave was biding his time, waiting for the goddess to smother you so he could claim the key." I shuddered when I thought about the deceitful Hindu's inhuman composure: like a spider, he wrapped me in a web of lies and waited for me to perish.
We buried them in the garden. "I cannot help you to escape Kali's wrath. You were promised to her, and now the goddess won't go away until she takes your life. But there is a place to go for help. There is a hidden valley in India known only to the wise hermits who live there. Perhaps they will tell you what to do?"
Some time later we stood on the deck of a departing ship trying not to get seasick. The vessel inexorably carried us towards the Indian shores. I dreaded treading on that cursed ground once more, but I was left with no choice. I took the key with me - there was one more unfinished business waiting for us in India...
Remembering the late Sarah, I was drinking tea and brushing away the tears of sorrow when Robert rushed into my room. He looked so elated I half expected to see a pair of wings behind his back. He said he received a letter from our fathers' friend and the keeper of the map to Sunohati's dungeon who had managed to acquire the final piece of the chart! We would be able to reconcile the journey to the wise men and our quest for the ancient treasure.
In Calcutta we met Thomas Radcliffe and William Fox, also the members of the treasure hunters' society. Radcliffe introduced himself as the keeper of the map and Fox explained he was the one who recovered the final missing piece. They explained the door blocking the entrance to the dungeon was located not far from the Eastern Ghats, but it was obvious that our expedition was nowhere near as urgent as my quest to free myself from the goddess' malicious influence, so we went to see the wise men first.
We arrived to the valley of wise men. One of the gurus was sitting in front of a hut, building a fire. When Robert dismounted and respectfully addressed the sage, the old man glanced up, saw me and shouted. Other old men came out from their hovels and started pointing at me, screaming and waving their hands angrily.
In the end they drove me away. They were afraid my presence would invoke Kali's wrath, so I had to leave the village and wait for Robert's return a short distance away. When he came back, he told me there was no way appease the goddess: my life was promised to her and our bond could not be unmade.
I was forbidden from destroying the hug's ribbon. The silken band embodied my misfortune, it failed to take my life and was now bound to me - it drew the goddess closer and protected me at the same time. I could use it to imprison Kali in my house, binding the vengeful apparition once and for all. The people who would live in the mansion after me would be safe from Kali's attacks if they left the shrine undisturbed: even my death would not be enough to pay the gruesome debt I had incurred.
The wise men told Robert where we could procure a prayer that would consecrate the shrine containing the ribbon. We'd have to go to Durga's temple in Varanasi and make a sacrifice to receive her blessing. "The sages said the prayer has to be inscribed on the bark of an ancient nimtree to empower it", added Grantham.
We successfully got to Varanasi and did everything the old wise men had told us to do, purchased some additional items for the rituals and replenished our stock of optickons. Having done that, we returned to Calcutta and rejoined Fox and Radcliffe before departing for the treasure dungeon. The road to the mountains took only a few days.
Locating the entrance to the ancient cave was not easy. We spent several hours exploring the foothills, consulting the ancient map here and there. It was growing dark when Grantham suggested we make camp and continue in the morning, but good fortune came to our aid: Fox slipped and grabbed a bunch of vines to steady himself. Several of them broke to reveal decorating a massive stone slab in a side of the vine-covered hill, so we tore away the remaining vegetation.
The stone door in the grassed-over and mossy knoll was so badly damaged by sprouting vines and the passage of seasons that our pickaxes made short work of it. Our hearts trembled when we plunged in the cold darkness of the dungeon that reeked of stale air and intimidated us with foreboding silence. We spent several seconds to adjust and to prepare for the unknown waiting for us below, then armed ourselves with torches and moved through the eldritch underground passage.