Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, and rascals of all ages! Another weekend is here, and another story drop. We now return to the adventure of the White Cobra, which begins at the link. When we last saw the company of Reginald Grey, they were in the ruins of Delwar San, but the nearer they came to the gold, the more their danger increased, not only from the snakes but from each other.
As always, this is a work of fiction. Specifically, of my own fiction. You may link it and print it but you may neither copy it digitally nor sell it as your own. Freely you receive, freely give. And as always, enjoy!
Continued from Chapter Two:
My head pounded. Never had I known such a headache, but I was alive. The place on my neck where the chain had snapped was raw, and it hurt to move my neck, but it did not seem to be broken. My legs were unsteady and my arms would not at first cooperate, but I managed to stand, shakily, propping myself on a pillar of stone. A broken pillar—in the middle of a broken city. I could do nothing until my vision cleared and my legs came back to me. I saw swirling megaliths and tilting statues of indistinct form and figure dropping one by one into place—or places, at least, where they stopped moving. Greys and greens and browns and black and yellows and white and sky blue were smudged and splashed and ran together in a blitz of whirling chaos. I should have stayed home and become an artist, I thought as I flopped against the pillar and slid down to the ground like a discarded smock. The world stopped spinning and slowly it came into focus. I saw the spiraling megaliths and leaning statues of indecent form and vague, eroded figure about a great courtyard. Water pooled in depressions among the stones of a once-mighty city. I realized, vaguely, that I had been assaulted a little while ago, and that we were greedy. Almost directly across from where I sat was the only other human being in sight—my eyes told me he was a young boy no older than fifteen—lying facedown and motionless on a pile of broken rubble. Who was he? Who was I? Where were we? He was worse off than I, and needed assistance.
And slowly, as I picked myself up from the cold stone, shadows filled my mind. And as I stepped carefully forward, they began to take shape. And God separated the light from the darkness. And the darkness he called night. And my legs were getting steadier, now, and I was not stumbling so often—and it was all coming back to me. And God saw that the light was good. Evening and mourning… Death, serpents, ancient gold with an idol’s curse, treachery and despair, and an English gentleman from Hassock Row in shoes very like my own and a boy from Calcutta who needed his help at the moment—lost in the jungles of India. Lost in a lost city called Delwaar San.
But as I approached him, the boy’s thin muscles became the lean and shriveled sinews of an old man. I thought again—where was the boy? All I saw was the boy’s clothing on a man thrice his age, and lying as though fallen: facedown, but his long mustache was visible from the side I now approached. His face—what I could see of it—held a look of intense hatred and unexpected terror. I saw that the fingers of his right hand were broken, as though something had been there and stolen from his death-grip. Blood pooled at the corner of the pressed lips. There were deep fingerprints on his throat, coming from behind as his own hands had come at my throat this morning—yesterday? I did not know how long I had lain unconscious. But less than a week ago I had shared a fire and a meal with this man. With his murderer too, probably. The boy’s clothing fit him poorly, and I wondered again where their owner had gone. I had seen the young man fall, before I blacked out, on this very spot.
As I sat and wondered, hopelessly, the comforting click of European boots approached me. I looked up into the eyes of Captain Mulligan of the British East India Company with more relief and gratitude than I had ever known. Had the Yard just informed me that he’d stolen the crown jewels and doffed the king I would have shook his hand and thanked him for it, I was that glad to see him. “This boy dead?” he asked me. “Then it looks like you and me, Mr. Grey, against the Devil’s own jungle. Come with me!” he said with an oath. Dully I followed the man, grateful of company and a direction to go. We left the plaza and slid up a narrow passage between two buildings and then through a small doorway into a dim and dusty cell. I caught my coat on a rusty pin in the doorway and tore the sleeve, scratching my arm in the process. I flinched at the pain and blotted the blood with my ruined sleeve, but it was not the worst wound I would receive in that unholy place.
“And here’s where we bloody are, Mr. Grey,” said Mulligan as he sat down against the wall. “It comes of trusting too much in the native population.” He cursed the hired hunters as greedy mongrels and said to me “They’re just brutes, every cussed one of them. Get a little wind of what we’re here for, and they’ve turned against us to murder. Is this the king’s India or not? Damn them all, I say.” He spat in the corner. “Turned on us, they have. And they seem to think they’ve got the keys to the altar somehow. I fear they’ll try to take the last horses and leave us to rot here in the jungle ‘til the damn Kingdom Come, damn them.—I doubt they’d let us live in the jungle, if they think there’s any chance of us getting back to Calcutta. There’s a bloody fat chance of that, Mr. Grey, while they have the map: the only thing for Englishmen to do now is to get it back. Let them rot out in this unholy place. Cigar, Mr. Grey?” I declined, though it was tempting. As a matter of policy I don’t smoke cigars. “Another thing I don’t want is their pagan hands on all that gold. Do you have your rifle, Mr. Grey? It could prove to be very, very useful.”
“I dropped it at the gate when the snakes killed my horse,” I told him. “What about yours? But it would be the Sixth Commandment to shoot them in cold blood, Captain. There’s been murder enough…”
“Murder, hell, and you think it’s unchristian, don’t you? Is the king Christian? And I’m the king’s man. But it doesn’t matter a damn, as I left it in the natives’ wagon like a fool.” He cursed again. “They’ve already gone through the bags. If we can get back to where you left yours we might have a chance.”
So we pushed our way through the shattered city. All around us were the signs of a lost people—a race without hope, an entire nation devoid of both love and life. Is this what they saw at Pompeii? I wondered. Men and women both, dead before they died. A great limb fell, off in the jungle, and the monkeys did not scream. But for our own bootsteps and the dripping of water in dark places, the city was silent. Here a house was burned down long ago—the crumbling stones still show marks, behind the vines, of a searing fire. I trip on something buried in the creepers: it is the skull of a young child, the bronze axe of her murderer still planted in the bone. They, too, are charred from the fire. The next three houses bear its scars. On this side now is a raised dais and a stone ring, the marks of iron chains long rusted away that hung thereon. Under the dais is a noxious pit where flies and mosquitoes drone, and foul things breed—not a dungeon, but worse: a cage for the livestock class, the men and girls once sold upon this broken stage. We rounded another corner and stopped. It was a dead end, unless—there was a postern here. Three-quarters choked with rubble, but not completely, the small opening seemed to lead in the direction of the gates. But we were sure of nothing now. We forced our way through the gap.
Here we found ourselves in quite a different sort of room, where the mosquitoes hung in the air like armadas at sea. The floor I found to be unjointed, of natural rock, and fairly warm to the touch of our hands. It was cut by unnatural channels at intervals—like the drains of a street. Where they intersected, great basins were carved into the floor, many with steps leading down into them. It was a public bath, once, and some of its tubs still held stale water. Through the mosquito swarms I could make out the remnants on the walls of expansive mosaics the British Royal Society would kill for—how many already had?—too downright obscene for public display, but sure to find room in the Royal Society Museum if found at all. The far side of the roomwas obscured in a yellow haze, and we both smelled the sulphur in the air. We made toward it to escape the mosquitoes, breathing through our shirts and talking little. Mulligan hated the sulphur, but I detested the mosquitoes, so he followed me for a while. After a time the nose forgets the stench of sulphur, and ours did so as we came to the center of the fume. It rose from a boiling basin, once lined with copper from the stains on it, where the yellow water boiled up dead and hot through a drilled vent in the bottom. Nothing, in that dimming fog, could be seen but the bowl itself, and Mulligan coughing beside me. And on the bottom of the hot tub lay the remains of a man in British uniform with a dark brown stain on the remains of his once-white shirt. Here, too, was death. Mulligan grabbed my coat and dragged me out through the poisonous air to the far side of the baths. The mosquitoes were worse here than where we entered, if possible, but in at the lintel to the right of us flowed a stream of fresh and healthful air. We lay in the doorway, gasping it in, only a short while before night fell upon us.
Nights are different in India. A night in a fusty inn is never mistaken for a solid sleep in one’s own bed at home. And did you ever spend a night in the jungle? It falls like a judge’s hammer. Eyes come out at you. Shadows walk. All rather unpleasant. But there is nothing in God’s creation like sleeping in a ruined city forgotten by the human race, surrounded by the jungle and filled with death to overflowing. Mulligan and I slept that night sitting back to back in the door of the baths. Upon the one hand, a wide exposed area, full with treasonous pits and noxious fumes, mosquitoes in the air and often leeches in the water, and terrible things else we knew not what. On the other, a brief portico and a shadowed street. The imaginations of soft footfalls, not man, not quite beast. Not seen but seeing things walked that street. Neither of us wished to face either of them head-on—nor to turn our backs on either of them entirely—and nobody faced nothing at all. Each of us straddled the threshold, and we faced half right or left to the street and to the baths. Mulligan’s spine was knobbly through his clothing, and his shoulder blades were too wide for my comfort. I was asleep in half an hour.
I awoke in the night and did not know why. Mulligan was at my back, snoring soundly, his shoulder blades digging into mine. He was beginning to slump forward over his knees, though, and I no longer felt his hard spine. The moon overhead waned like a poisoned man.
The frogs were out. Huge, nightish jungle frogs croaked in the lower end of the enormous baths. My legs were stiff and my feet cold. Water drippedsteadily somewhere, and the smell of the brimstone floated on the night breeze. Flies the size of fieldmice buzzed past in the dark. Up the street a cool night wind whistled and whispered and skipped unlike—but yet, no, not unlike—a boy at play. The mosquitoes still droned, and I listened to the thumping of the feasting frogs. My neck was stiff, and Mulligan’s snoring grated on my ears. When I heard the other noise, though, I turned around.
The moon was higher, and the snakes were out. Dozens— hundreds of them had slid down into the baths from the upper end—and whence before that, they and their Maker only knew. It was their scales I had heard, sliding across the ston of the floor. Milk-white cobras were everywhere. At first I feared for my life, but then realized their real intent. They were feeding, feeding on the raucus chorus of frogs. A note would be cut off in mid-step as the singer was dispatched by that white death to sing his notes in a more pleasant swamp forever. Or perhaps he ceased to be. More immediately, he was dispatched to the serpent’s gullet for time and digestion to do their work. Two snakes quarreled over a single frog, not ten yards from my foot. Back and forth they pulled the corpse. One at last seemed to have the advantage, and as he pulled the frog, he drew into his maw the head and body of his neighbor. The scene was grimly fascinating, and I wondered at myself for thinking so; and I wondered, as I fought to stay awake, if Edgar had seen so marvelous a sight as this, this feast of frogs. I reveled in its awful splendour and savagery.
The victorious serpent now turned my way, his hood folded, his opponent’s tail dangling from his lips. He came to the doorway and passed beneath my knees, pausing a moment as he passed to raise his pale head and gaze at my face. I looked back into those beady red eyes with fascination, wanting to reach out and place my hand on his head, or stroke the chin, though my mind knew that either choice meant suicide: somehow I found my hand moving slowly and gingerly—as though to pet a stray dog—away from my knee and toward the enticing silvery scales. The snake saw my movement, and its hood snapped open like a new umbrella. In the sickly moonlight the hood markings looked more like a death’s-head than like anything else, and even as I recoiled from it in terror it was gone, into the street, into the night. The child-wind still played there, unconcerned with the gliding death, and the walkers of the street did not fear it. It passed between the pillars of the porch, where the vines had been torn away and the stone grave by an unseen hand—I could not read the marks—and it was gone.
I saw something moving across the bottom end of the lighthouse in the far shadows—a large creature, hugging the shadow under the wall, avoidingthe snakes and sulphur alike with a fear of death, skirting from one tub to the next broken tub. It seemed to react like a man might, intent on that by darkness which by day is forbidden—but its movements were animal, quadruped even. I knew that there were certain apes that lived in these jungles. As it passed near a patch of ragged moonlight I thought I caught a gleam of metal from the corner of my eye.
The next thing I knew, it was broad and glaring daylight. Mulligan was just starting to stir, and we were both cramped, and tired, and stiff, and sore. Mulligan grumped that my snoring had kept him awake all night and all morning, and that he hadn’t slept at all. Furthermore, it had rained all night and chilled him through—‘twas a wonder, (he professed) that he was not yet dead. I asked him why our clothes were only dew-damp, and he credited the archway we were under. We looked up, then, and there was no arch, merely God’s own sky, filling with clouds. I had not realized how near it was to the rain season. Mulligan scowled, and cursed the sky. “Well, it almost rained on me,” he said.
But we were not wet—we were drier than last night, in fact, after stumbling across the baths—and except for the bites of the flies, were none the worse for the night. The mosquitoes had found their way in through the tear on my coat, through holes in my pants, everywhere. I heard a buzzing as I stood up, and something brushed me inside my shirt. I swatted my back furiously to get at it.
“Mulligan, I seem to have something—a bug of some sort—in my shirt. Would you whack it, as a favor?” I asked, and so he did, crushing it against its own bite in that place on my back which I could never have reached. “Augh! Ow, that smarts! Thank you.”
We moved on from there, tired, hungry, and stiff. The mosquitoes had chewed on me all night long. I looked out across the soiled floor of the baths. A mustiness came up from the bottom end and mixed in my nostrils with the tendrils of sulphur. I heard the slosh of an old river, flowing to the Ganges, as it licked at its banks as restless as a tigress who hunts in her sleep. Then I looked my last upon the baths of Delwaar San, with their broken portico and toxic pools and their noisome air, forever.
Mulligan, as I’ve said, did not sleep well, and for the first part of the morning was thoroughly out of sorts, moaning and cursing his luck since hisfirst arrival in the subcontinent in eighty-seven.
“And it’s my second trip into the blasted jungle, too. I wanted away the first time, but no! That blasted lieutenant would, he would just leave me at Calcutta, and not even forwarding my request to transfer. I wanted no more of it, no more” he raved, on and on as we drifted along the streets of the forgotten city, “than to get out—go to Simla, some place in the Interior where the sand is sharp and the wind they call the ‘burning loo’ rips the skin from a dog when it blows. Anything, but no. That—“ with a desperate oath “—commissioner would not hear of it, he said! I could…” and here the officer fell to muttering through his teeth, then to silence. The silence of the dead city closed around us one more time. My head was hurting again: I had a nasty knot from my last fall. And we were never any nearer the road to the gate than before. We knew not even in which direction it lay. “Of all the blasted—“ said Mulligan. “Of all the damn bloomin’…” and he ran the gauntlet of curses, in English and in German; “of all the…” and he lapsed into silence. It was another hour before either of us spoke again.
“Look here,” I said at last. “all of these roads lead someplace. These wider lanes we keep crossing all appear to converge on a single point; so if we go to that one point, we ought to find easily enough the road to the gate and to my rifle.” I tried to sound more confident than I felt at the time. Dear Lord, please let this work!
We followed the next wide lane accordingly, and it was indeed as I had said. We came at once, it seemed, into the plaza of the idol where we had stood yesterday morning. I saw that we had come three-fifths of the way around the city, and now approached Kali’s statue face to face. The weathered statue leered permanently and hatefully at us as we approached. Mulligan picked up a stone the size of a grapefruit, and hurled it at the monster.
“Damned—cursed—be—all—your—gener-a-tions, monster!” shouted Mulligan. The rock struck the statue in her hand, wedging neatly between the fingers of the grotesque claw. As we stepped out together into the ruined square, the wind in the trees that lived in those houses was like the laughter in Bedlam—mad, maniac, thirsty and cruel. Vultures tore at the carcass of the man on the rock pile. Nothing else stirred. The serpent-Kali clasped the Irishman’s rock in her weathered granite fingers, almost ladylike, it seemed to me, but neither gentle nor kind: she was a Lilith, not an Eve.
A wide straight avenue lead out from the nearer end of the square, and from the plaza I could see the shop wherein I’d found poor what’s-his-name’s remains and the ring he’d swallowed. That was the road we needed. I could not get the idol off my mind, though, nor let her from my sight. I blurted out at once:
“In the name of Jesus Christ, what is the meaning of this?”
Death! ‘Tis death! the wind shrieked back at us. I heard it wail as a drubbed hag through the jungle treetops, and the shrieks of the birds and monkeys filled the air as the ground shook. A stone about as big as a grapefruit slung past my ear and whacked into the wall behind us. I looked at Mulligan—his face was pasty white—and we both looked at the statue. I tried to discover which of the eight hands of the abomination had caught the stone Mulligan threw: they were always so confusing that I could not quite see the stone. Then Mulligan pointed to it.
“Second right. See how she flings it forward? And the fingers are empty!” I saw then what he saw—the hand was empty. But if I had not seen the stone there with my own eyes just before, I would have thought it was always thus, that the artisan who cut the idol had purposed her second right hand to hang forward, flinging away, just like a cricket pitch. Or was it? Two other hands on either side held carven globes of just that size, and it could have been any one of them. I had never seen with my own eyes so strong an evil, and hope never again to do so. I prayed—how I prayed like I’d never prayed before. Even as I write this the horrible memories try to return. I must pray the Lord clear the horror, so that I may tell of what was and not what the goddess (feugh!) wished to be. But where sin aboundeth, grace!
“We—we need to be going…” said Mulligan. “Com—come along, Mister Grey. Look here, I found the way to the gate.” He gestured vaguely at the lane I’d seen already, but his back was to it. He was rattling like a jar half-full of nails when I grabbed his wrist and led him down to the right road. The stones had stopped falling. There was no evidence that this road was connected to the other streets of the city to either side of it. We walked past empty shops, and gaping doors like feeble mouths of Scylla and Charybdis in the walls. Ahead of us I saw the ravens feeding on a carcass just a little way ahead, out of sight. I knew that it was my dear departed horse they gorged upon.
Mulligan’s nerves were badly shaken, and he whimpered to himself as we went along down the that wide old avenue beneath the grey and looming sky. The air was heavy, and since the demon shied the rock at us, the wind had died. I reassured my companion that we would have the rifle again, and maybe the whole contents of the cab, and then could go home as we pleased. The poor man said nothing. Instead he whined again to me, and pointed.
“Now what?” I asked him. I didn’t have to.
A white-haired figure—a man, with a pale scar across one empty eye socket and a rifle in his hands leveled and sighted against the other eye—came slowly toward us. I recognized at once our one-eyed man, the great native hunter. There was no fear of God—or any god—before his eye.
“So,” said the man with my rifle, “Two sahibs. Two dirty sahibs standing between me and the treasure enough to make all of India rich. Enough to buy back all the land from Burma to the Suez from that old slut who sits in London.” He cackled under his breath.
“The Queen is dead,” I told him. “Do not slander the dead.” My collar was beginning to tighten. Beside me Captain Mulligan stopped shaking and for all his faults stiffened up like an Englishman in the face of our adversary.
“Yes,” he said slowly and defiantly. “The Queen is dead. Long live the King.” I loosened my collar to give myself air, and repeated those good words. “Long live the King,” I said, but my mind was not on England.
Our attacker smiled a gaping smile, leering at us down the barrel all the while. “Long live the king,” he said, mocking us. “Yes, long live the king. I am king now. And you are my kingdom of the blind! Do not call me a thinker. Did one of you not say last night that you needed this gun?” He did not throw it down, but advanced toward us all the while, backing us at gunpoint toward the square we had left. I heard the click as he pulled back the hammer.
To Be Continued…
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