Here is one of the earliest pieces in my dust collection: I wrote it in high school for the same Creative Writing class that Gnat Bunker came out of. I have given it three sequels to date, and the first two (this and the next chapter) were posted on the “Elfwood” site around 2002 or so, while I was still in college. The text has not been significantly altered since the first versions.
The same copyright rules apply: this is my own work and not to be republished without my permission or for monetary gain. Link back to this blog–don’t copy-paste to repost.
And please, enjoy!
The pen is, at times, the passport for the mind. It often seems to be so for my own; as I set down the stories of my life, the trails of ink will take me back again. Even now, a flood of memories pours upon me, of lands; and of dear friends in bondage far away and many years ago. You say I am dreaming; nay, but I have seen the freest men in bondage worse than death, to ominous, cruel, and silent gods of stone. And the wealth I have beheld in distant shores! The mighty river Thames would not contain it! But inquire not of that. The ancient priests had curses there, and I alone by grace of God survived to tell of it—I and one other. Yes, there is evil there, but also great potential for good. The men of that place are gone now, and the monkey’s cries now fill the roofless temples. Tigers walk here, where Maharajahs rode, with jackals as their grooms and serving men. There lies the ancient, ruined city. There lies Delwaar San.
It was a furious October night when I first heard of the city—if only that night had never come! I sat at home that night, reading in the papers of the bitter turmoils of the Boer Wars, and the equal turmoils of the opinionated British public, and was settling back on the divan thinking, as the rain pattered against the windows, just how glad I was to be seated at home in Her Majesty’s own England, when a telegram arrived by the evening post. It seemed that one Sir Edgar Davies had returned from India on the steamer just this morning, and urgently wished to see me at once on important business. I put down the newspapers excitedly, upsetting my latest cup of tea, and, I fear, dipping it into the jelly on one of the two remaining scones. I scooped one up as I arose, wolfing it down as I clattered up the stairs for my overshoes, returning just as fast when I remembered that I had left them by the door. I pulled them on, stuffed my arms into my coat, and taking my hat and umbrella, and with the last of the scones in my mouth, I stepped out into that wild London night.
I headed for the specified street on foot, as I had too little money for a cab, and soon found myself in it. It was a plain, ordinary-looking street, with tall houses and quaint shops interrupted occasionally by damp or cheery boarding-houses, with “Rooms to Let” on clapboard signs out in front, and a cosy little pub on the corner. Three or five boys ran from an alley up the road, having in their possession a cap belonging to another, who was chasing madly after them to steal it back. I watched this diversion for several minutes, as first one boy, and then another, had the cap. Then the church bells began to chime for eight o’clock, and I remembered my errand. A mad dash up the pavement soon brought me to the house before the eighth chime had sounded.
The boys had left, now, and the wind had picked up. The driving rain fell in sheets as I frantically pounded the knocker. Edgar’s butler, one Herr Schmidt, conducted me into a room in the back of the house, where the professor awaited me.
“Why, if it isn’t Reginald Grey! How good to see you again! You do remember me, don’t you?”
I remembered him. Edgar was the annoying, bookish type one knows in college; the type one heartily disliked but thoroughly envied who come back to haunt one in the flesh, and whom, after their funeral, one cannot imagine an England without them to hold it together. Surely the entire British Empire would go all to pieces if they were to be done away with. Fumbling quickly between manners and honesty, I blurted out: “I remember you, yes. Congratulations on your knighthood.”
“Yes, thank you. I earned it in India, you see.” Then, in a lower voice, “Does Delwaar San mean anything to you?” He saw on my face that it did not. “Delwaar San is the greatest wonder of the ancient world, my man; the greatest hoard of jewels and gold since the days of Solomon, contained neatly within one of the best-kept secrets of our time! And the danger! It’s enough to last a lifetime!” I could see that he thrived on danger, and looked at him askance. This was not the gangly, timid Edgar Davies whom I had known, and so I wondered if more than one screw had worked its way loose in there in the years since I had known him.
“I see you’ve collected a few biological specimens while in India as well,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“Ah, yes! My specimens! Some of the rarest in the world. The jungles of Delwaar San are a veritable Eden of new biology. But my favourite,” he said with a flourish, “is This!”
He drew back the sheet which covered it, and I beheld a pure-white cobra, in perfect condition. It was the most unusual specimen I had ever seen. “A subspecie of the Asiatic Cobra, found only in the ruins of Delwaar San,” he was telling me, but my eyes were on the snake.
It was, as I said, all white, and was posed as though it were about to strike, with its wide hood flared, and its large body raised a full two feet above the level of the table. The evil face glared so hatefully that I was obliged to lay my hand on its cold visage to assure myself that it was truly dead. The reflection in its eyes of an Indian ruby on Davies’ finger reddened them, making it even more menacing than before. In my fascination I had forgotten even the storm.
Suddenly, with a report like a gunshot, a bolt of lightening struck quite close in fact, almost too close. A large plate-glass window burst inward, and the mounted serpent toppled from its perch, the lifeless fangs penetrating Davies’ hand. He cried out in pain, and fell to the floor, moaning. Blood spurted from a deep gash on his leg, from which a large splinter of glass still protruded. I picked it out, and, tearing the sheet which had covered the snake, I bound and tourniquetted the limb. I inspected the swollen arm as well, placing another tourniquet on the swollen shoulder, but it was too late, and the venom was racing toward the heart. There was little I could do.
“Reginald, man,” the dying man said, “for my sake, and for England’s, you must fetch back that treasure. But beware the pale serpent! It claims many a life. I was the last of seven who went in with me—six are there still, and never more come out. And after death, it still kills yet again.” Then, sighting the mounted death upon the floor, he cried out, “Destroy it, Reginald, before the poison spreads! I was a fool, a greedy, selfish fool. Forgive me, oh Creator, before I—die.” And he slumped to the floor, his hand going to his breast coat pocket. Shaken, I sent Herr Schmidt for a doctor, and for the police, then, seeing that thing of evil on the floor, I took up the largest Bible in the room, and brought it down upon the head of that abominable serpent, watching amazed as the priceless specimen crumbled to dust before my eyes. I then picked up the Bible, blew the dust off of it, and set it back on the shelf. By this time the constable had arrived with the doctor but, the latter seeing that he was no longer needed, he made an exit, giving his condolences, and went to make the funeral arrangements. The worthy constable, meanwhile, made a cold interrogation of everyone and everything and, during his Holmes-like inspection, discovered where a man had recently knelt on the lawn, a still-warm bullet in a picture frame, and a roll of steamer tickets in the dead man’s pocket, along with some small change.
“This steamer sails for India!” he exclaimed.
I explained to him Edgar’s last request, and he snorted through his moustache: “Well, then you’d best be off, my boy. That ship of yours sails in half an hour.” And, forcing upon me the tickets and loose change, he hurried me out the door. I was still too shaken to do otherwise, so before I knew it, I was already at the wharf boarding a steamer bound for Asia.
Upon arrival in Calcutta, I hired a cab driven by a young native boy of fifteen—or he looked fifteen. Mostly, however, he looked undernourished, the standard condition of Calcuttans. The wheels of his cab were wobbly and bent, and the nag, a knock-kneed, inbred old skeleton on hooves, would have looked half dead at the best of times, but the lad was, apparently, rather well off by local standards, and was proud as a jungle cock of the ugly old thing. The boy was Ram, and thankfully, knew a bit of English. I don’t thing the nag ever had a name.
I instructed Ram to take me to a certain house, the address of which, with my business there, were written upon a letter I had found with the tickets, and he plotted his course accordingly. We soon found ourselves on the far side of town, in a squatter settlement that made even the horse look good. Sewage ran in the ditches by the road, and filthy, starving, half-dressed children scampered and played in the muddy road, or scuttled like beetles at our approach. Small, dim, cold, and precarious huts crowded each other, leaving no room for the wind but between their boards. They leaned in every direction at once, threatening to topple in the next gust, standing perhaps by the sheer collective will of the lepers and beggars who huddled in scores beneath and about each one. Mangy, skeletal dogs wandered about, searching for a meal. And everywhere, the reek of filth, opium, and gin.
We finally stopped at a small house on what may have been a corner, though it was difficult to recognize any real streets. I noted that this ancient structure had a wood floor but, amazingly enough, seemed at first to be uninhabited and bare. Ram, the driver, told me that the reason for this was that the last resident had died there, and the locals thought it haunted. I passed this off as nonsense, especially when I saw a septet of half-naked children flock from the doorway into the road, and upon stepping inside, found an insensate woman stretched upon a cot beside a spilled hookah in the corner. Above her on the wall a sign read: “–Op–ty o- E. D-vie-, E-q-“, telling me that I had come to the right place. The name of one of Britain’s Finest seemed singularly out of place in this beastly squalour. But the sign noting the landlord’s name made it all seem more refined, and at once more mundane there. But my business was not with the woman under the sign, but on behalf of the deceased landlord, so I crossed the room carefully, ducking my head at a point where the low ceiling hung lower, and ascended the rotted, broken stairs to a cramped, musty attic, dark but for the rays from an unnatural, unglazed skylight—by which I mean, of course, a rotting hole—in the roof.
In the center of the room, where the ceiling below sagged worst, there was a large, ancient oak chest, closed with an old iron hasp. This I attempted to undo, but it was rusted over. I then put my shoulder to it and attempted to pry the lid with my fingers, but to no avail. Instead, the rotted-out floor gave way to gravity at last, and I fell with the box to the floor below.
The commotion awakened the woman, who called incoherently through the clouds of settling dust, but attracted no undo attention from the neighbours. Ceilings fell all the time. I picked myself up from the rubble and looked around. I was not badly hurt—a few bruises, maybe—but at the sight of me the woman fainted.
At my feet lay a pile of old iron nails, contents spilled from the chest when it struck through the lower floor to the ground and burst. I kicked at them with my toe, revealing a parcel wrapped in sealskin. This was what I had come for. But as I stooped to pick it up, a shot rang out close overhead, and a bullet ricocheted off the nails, bursting the hookah. Outside, a muffled crash sounded, followed by the patter of feet hurrying away. I took the package and returned to the cab, glad to be leaving this slum at last. The children I saw earlier were throwing rocks at Ram and abusing him in the local dialect, but I was able to drive them away and depart without further incident.
As we plodded along the streets of Calcutta proper, I kept an eye out for decent lodging for the night. After several hours I decided on a small inn on a dead-end road cluttered as usual by the omnipresent tide of indigents, but in Calcutta it couldn’t be helped. Paying Ram for his services, I instructed him to return for me in the morning. I was down among them now, an Englishman abroad who thought himself “comfortably up” at home, but saw now that he was indeed that thing despised—the Luxurious Foreign Snob, the Rich Young Ruler who disdained the needle’s eye as a gate for camels. And in India to become even more rich. I scratched my neck and loosedned my collar. The night is hot, I reflected, and I pocketed my cravat and unbuttoned my coat. It was with nervous relief that I found myself, once inside the lodging-house, to have the cramped and dirty lobby to myself. Checking in, I ascended to my room for the night, and to inspect Davies’ package at my leisure.
It was a plain bundle, but unusually bulky. Upon opening it, I discovered a plain wooden box, and a small key on a leather thong. The box was locked, but the key turned easily in the lock, and I threw back the lid. Inside lay a large, ornately carved and jewelled seal of pure silver, which I lifted out and found to be amazingly light; and a good shake or two confirmed its hollow nature. I smacked it a couple times at either end, then, by compressing both ends at once, contrived to release the hidden spring. A cunning little panel flew back, and an ancient roll of parchment tumbled out of the opening. A soft footfall was heard on the landing, and I arose and went to the door. But no one was there, and I heard only the quiet patter that a shadow’s feet make as it hurries downstairs, fleeing from the light which reveals all things. A woman of the establishment came up to ask if I needed anything, but I was then a happily confirmed bachelor with much else on my mind, so I politely declined and returned to the room, the only Christian thing to do anyway. All was as I had left it, so I locked the door and, having latched the shutters, turned my attention to the parchment.
It was, I discovered, a map, showing the ruins of an ancient city. Notes in ink, a good three hundred years more recent, translated it into the Queen’s English, and I recognized our late friend Edgar’s familiar scrawl. This, then, was Delwaar San. After studying it thoroughly for several minutes, I replaced it in the seal, closed the panel, and discreetly returned it to its box, which in turn was slid beneath the bed. I then checked the door and the window shutters, and, with a sense of security, blew out the lamp and retired to bed. I fell asleep at once, and in my dreams I saw Edgar’s butler, Herr Schmidt but decked in the brilliant native rags, groping about in darkness, frantically looking for something he could not find. When at last I awoke, the daylight shone through a window in ruins, and revealed a room ransacked and pillaged. The box was gone.
Dressing hurriedly, I descended the stairs to the lobby and reported the burglary, making no mention of the box. Instead, I stepped out for breakfast at the fruit vendors’ market, then returned to the inn to find Ram in his cab out in front, waiting for me.
I instructed him, this time, to take me to the offices of the British East India Company, where Edgar’s letter recommended me to an old friend of his, an officer by the good old Irish name of Mulligan. We found the place soon enough, and, seated behind the first desk just opposite the door, was Mulligan in the flesh. At the mention of Davies, his eyes lit up noticeably, and he greeted me warmly and with vigour. The first thing on his mind was Delwaar San.
“Edgar’s map; have you got it?!” he asked excitedly. “The one in the seal?!”
“I saw it, but “
”But what? What?” he interrupted me.
“It was stolen,” I said bluntly, and his spirits fell immediately. “But not,” I added, “before I could make a copy of it.”
I lay the paper before him. On it was a painstakingly reproduced copy of the original parchment. Mulligan eyed it with wonder and amazement.
“This is the map, to be sure,” he said. Then, in a lower voice, he said, “I have leave coming up. How soon can we set out?”
Three days later, we left Calcutta, a party of six. Officer Mulligan and I rode ahead, with three native hunters, of great fame locally (having killed a tiger or two each), who followed with rifles and muskets. We were all mounted, except for the last of our party, Ram, who drove his cab, now loaded to the gunwales with equipment and provisions for six long weeks in the jungle, and the old cab creaked and protested as the faithful and sturdy old horse (though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him), pulled it trudgingly onward more slowly than ever. By the hunters’ insistence he brought up the rear, for they did not associate with such low-castes as Ram.
Thus we embarked, the six of us, on the long trek into the forest. Behind us lay the sprawling city of Calcutta. Before us were danger and adventure, treasure and peril, and after this, at the end of the journey…what? The question breathed our very air, and stifled our very thoughts.
So what did change in the story since high school? Basically “Ram” used to be “Ali”, “Calcutta” started as “Bombay”, and I didn’t reference caste at all in the first version. That, and the opening lines were originally much lamer, springing from a gushy writing-prompt that even at fourteen I knew was stupid. Hopefully, THAT has been fixed!
Feedback is welcome and much encouraged.