The Gunga Sahib - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Gunga Sahib ebook

Talbot Mundy

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Opis

Ben Cuern is a serious businessman from Philadelphia, who finds himself in a strange story and fails to rush through the elephants named Asok on the streets of the Meeting, the capital of a small Indian province. He sees hundreds of people and sees him reintroduced by Gunga Sahib, a famous character in Hindu mythology, who has to return from day to day to bring the beautiful princess to her legitimate throne.

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Liczba stron: 427

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Contents

Chapter I. The Wheel of Destiny

Chapter II. "First Soft Job In Five-and-twenty Years, I Wish To Tell You."

Chapter III. Asoka

Chapter IV. "This May Be Wonderful. But Is It Wise?"

Chapter V. "You're A Damned Strange Coincidence!"

Chapter VI. "Soft Snap Now Is Staring At You, But You Can't See."

Chapter VII. "When Was A Throne Less Valuable Than A Naughty Daughter?"

Chapter VIII. "At Your Own Risk!"

Chapter IX. "Am Using TNT-manship."

Chapter X. "I Can Act As Crazy As A March Hare Too, I Reckon."

Chapter XI. "They Will Say Now That Asoka Is Not Blesséd."

Chapter XII. "I Fear No Foe In Funny Underwear."

Chapter XIII. "I Will Tell Her You Funked It!"

Chapter XIV. "Here Goes Anyhow. I Got To Trust Him. Ain't No Other Way Out."

Chapter XV. "Are You Afraid Of Death, Babu-Ji?"

Chapter XVI. "But A Legend Must Be Legendary."

Chapter XVII. "B. Q."

Chapter XVIII. "Two In One Skin!"

Chapter XIX. "So You Ventured Too Near Gunpat Rao?"

Chapter XX. "Oh Krishna, Why Was I Born Timid?"

Chapter XXI. "Are Rats As Important As Tigers?"

Chapter XXII. "Why Am I A Nobody?"

Chapter XXIII. "The Worst Plan Is The Best One, If The Best Is Argued To A Frazzle And The Worst One Isn't."

Chapter XXIV. "It Is Impossible To Keep A Secret."

Chapter XXV. "But I Believe My Heart Is Broken."

Chapter XXVI. "Give Her The Works And God Will Bless You!"

Chapter XXVII. "Soak Him, Soaker!"

Chapter XXVIII. "A Bit Too Late To Present Credentials."

Chapter XXIX. "Rupees A Thousand! Pay Me!"

Chapter I. The Wheel of Destiny

“JUSTICE, destiny and love, these three are blind,” says one of the lesser known commentators on the laws of Manu. But what the devil that had to do with Ben Quorn was a question that did not even occur to him. It did not even bore him. He ignored it. His job of digging graves in Philadelphia left him lots of time for reading. Nowadays, at five or ten cents a volume, a grave-digger can accumulate as good a library as anybody needs. Quorn was an omnivorous reader, on all sorts of subjects; and well-read books that can be carried in the pocket make their readers skeptical of writers–of philosophers for instance, and especially of journalists who quote philosophy. Just now, having finished a grave for a notorious millionaire whom he pitied for having to leave all that money behind him, Quorn was on a barrel in the tool-shed, studying the Morticians’ Monitor–an aggressively cheerful publication that flaunts a fighting motto on the title page: “They’re dying one a minute. Are you getting your share of the funerals?”

“One funeral’s enough for any man!” said Quorn to himself. He had seen too many of them. He was restless.

That reference to the Laws of Manu was on the second page, which is always reserved for intellectual trifles and embalmed jokes of the “smile that leaves no sting” persuasion. Quorn turned to the Want Ads–one and a half columns on the inside back page. The top half-column on the left-hand side contained in heavy black type the advertisement: “Your face is your fortune. Improve it with Calverley’s Soap.” Beneath that was an electrotype of a movie hero with a he-man chin, whose face could have been improved by almost anything. Quorn thought about his own face for the ten thousandth time; it had become a habit. His face puzzled him, as it did other people. He stroked it, to remember what it looked like.

It was an ordinary sort of face at first glance. But people who looked twice, usually looked a third time. It made him look much older than he actually was. It was the only reason why he dug graves for a living instead of being some one’s butler, or perhaps a bishop. Nobody trusted him much, and that was a strange thing, because he had discovered he could trust himself. His eyes held all the amber unbelief in ethics of a he-goat’s; their imponderable purpose made most people suspect him of being a satyr or an anarchist. As a matter of fact he was a rather conservative fellow, who saved his money and preferred Shakespeare to Mencken, although he harbored a suspicion that poetry and music are a bit immodest.

So far Quorn is comprehensible, and he could even understand himself. Having read three and a half dollars’ worth of five-cent books on psychology, behaviorism and kindred subjects, he felt he knew as much as the experts–maybe more. But why did he like elephants? There was nothing in Freud or Jung or Adler about elephants. And why did elephants like him? There was nothing in natural history to explain that. He could not stay away from the elephants when a circus came to town; they fascinated him. It seemed he fascinated them, too, although he never fed them, merely watched them. He had sometimes bribed elephant keepers to let him sit up all night with their charges. He liked their smell. He liked everything about them. But when questioned about it he usually only scratched the birth-mark on his forehead, just over the pineal gland. The question puzzled Quorn more than any one else. He seemed intuitively to know all about elephants; and because their home was India he had read a lot of books about the country and had a curious longing to go there. Last night he had dreamed he was in India. Coincidence? Here, at the foot of the right-hand column of the inside back page of the paper he was reading, was a Want Ad that made him almost bristle with curiosity. Work was over for the day. He shoved the folded paper in his pocket, washed himself and set forth to find the advertiser, at a good respectable address in an old-fashioned part of the city. He was shown into a private library and not kept waiting.

“Are you a reliable single man?” a ministerial, middle-aged person asked him; he resembled nothing so much as a heron in spectacles. Quorn gave references, answered questions and agreed to be examined by a doctor. He got along astonishingly well with his inquisitor, who was almost the first person who had ever stared at him without becoming suspicious. He was almost suspiciously unsuspicious.

“How many fellers have had this job?” Quorn asked him. “Is it one of these short-lived propositions?”

“Two men have had it. One died. The other complained of being lonely,” his informant answered. “I myself was in Narada once, for three days. It is a very romantic, mysterious, beautiful place, and I enjoyed it immensely. But the circumstances are peculiar. There is usually a British official Resident, sometimes with his family; but no other Occidental is allowed in Narada for more than three days at a time, excepting our one caretaker. If you are seriously interested, I will tell you all about it.”

It appeared that Narada, a tiny but extremely ancient Indian State, is almost independent, being subject only to the terms of a treaty with the British-Indian Government that dates from Clive’s time. The State contains one large city that is principally palaces and temples. Nobody knows why, and nobody cares, but when its ruler pays his biennial official visit to the British Viceroy, he rides all the way to Delhi–a journey of three weeks–on the back of an elephant, whose howdah is heavy with gold and silver. He returns to Narada on a different elephant, and is afterwards very expensively disinfected by Hindu priests, although he is not a Hindu by religion, but an Animist as far as anybody can discover. The Hindu priests can make him do incredibly severe and costly penances whenever he breaks the least of their ceremonial laws. His tyranny is consequently tempered by discretion.

There is an army, limited by the treaty to one hundred and twenty officers, whose only serious duty is to guard the palace. It is commanded by the equivalent of a colonel, and looks fierce because the men all dye their whiskers and eat lots of pepper. The palace contains what guide-books would undoubtedly describe as priceless treasures; but the guide-books don’t mention Narada, because of that ancient treaty, which permits no visitors, no explorers, no investigation of antiquities, and no Christian missionaries.

The latter clause of the treaty was long evaded, however, by a missionary sect, whose persuasion is so peaceful and numbers so insignificant, that even Narada’s sensitive nerves were hardly conscious of the quiet intrusion. The sect was heavily endowed at some old lady’s death, and for fifty years or so the mission flourished. The Reverend John Brown, adopting something of Narada’s method, which includes subtlety and breaking laws while seeming to obey them, bought an ancient palace from a dissolute heir to the throne and converted that to begin with. Behind its greenish limestone garden walls he modernized the buildings. He imported plumbing, books, and school desks. He started an elementary school of medicine, that would have caused an immediate riot if he had not possessed more than normal tact; but he called it a revival of ancient Hindu magic. He even offered to supply the local priests with free drugs in any quantity; so that numbers of babies began to be born with unafflicted eyes, which led to tolerance.

There was even gratitude. A junior priest of an obscure temple, after being suitably protected by incantation, was actually sent to hang a garland around the Reverend John Brown’s neck. That created a scandal, of course, but the Hindu hierarchy lived it down. The Reverend John Brown converted all Narada finally to the use of quinine. Then he died. He was promptly cremated, Hindu style, to lay his ghost before anyone could interfere, and his ashes were sent home to Philadelphia.

Death has a way of inspiring much diplomacy. It occurred to several people that there might be trouble about that cremation, because one of the principal heathen practices against which the Reverend John Brown preached was the burning of dead men’s bodies. It was a very important detail of his doctrine. Quorn’s informant even interrupted the flow of his narrative to emphasize that:

“It is because you so evidently believe in burying the dead, Mr. Quorn, that I shall support your application before the board of trustees. You are the only gravedigger who has applied for the post. How can the dead ever rise again if thoughtless people burn their bodies?”

Realizing the importance of the injury done to the late John Brown, the priests of Narada decided to set a diplomatic backfire before trouble should ensue. So they sent a deputation to Delhi, with a band of music, and painted elephants, to demand that the illegal Christian mission should be withdrawn. Meanwhile, half of the Maharajah’s army guarded the empty mission, or pretended to, while the mails went to and fro across several oceans and the files of the British Embassy in Washington grew fat with memoranda, minutes, references and such similar documents with which delay is diplomatically fortified until dilemma dies a natural death.

“The truth is, Mr. Quorn, that we have not been very diplomatic. Mahatma Gandhi, of whom you have perhaps heard, has made things very difficult for us. We made the serious mistake, some years ago, of asking him to espouse our cause. He did so, with the best of intentions. But the result was that the Indian Government opposed us more firmly than ever. And there was a man named Bamjee, a telegraphist, who mixed himself up in everything. He read our telegrams, and he was a shrewd little bat of a man. He was the nigger in the wood-pile, if you will excuse my language. It was he who suggested a compromise, to which we were finally forced to agree after he had helped himself to almost everything removable. He did exceedingly well for himself; he became the Maharajah’s purchasing agent, an office that he himself invented and applied for. The compromise provided that there should be no more mission work, but that the buildings and what remains of their contents should be allowed to continue as the Reverend John Brown left them, until we can find a purchaser for the property. We are permitted to maintain one caretaker on the spot, who must be a citizen of the United States, unmarried and of good personal character. The caretaker has no duty, and no privileges other than to see that the mission property is undisturbed until we sell it. However, we are under no compulsion to find a purchaser. Our caretaker is particularly not to interfere with native women.”

“Sounds like a cinch of a job,” said Quorn, whose eyes, he knew, made many women shudder. He had read all about women in five-cent books, in order to discover how to get along without them. “Women don’t mean much in my life,” he admitted.

His informant nodded. That was Quorn’s only unpleasant moment during the entire interview. He would have preferred that this stranger should not understand so readily why women were not a serious problem, as concerned himself.

“There is only one other important point,” his informant continued. “This Bamjee person, of whom I spoke, died recently. Unfortunately, his successor as purchasing agent for the Maharajah is an unspeakable Machiavellian monster named Chullunder Ghose, who appears to have fallen heir to all of Bamjee’s secrets. He is an intriguer of the most objectionable type. It would be unwise to offend him–equally unwise to become at all intimate with him. Do you think you possess tact enough to govern yourself in such a situation?”

“Men who look like me have tact ground into ‘em,” Quorn answered simply.

Two days later Quorn was summoned before a board of trustees, questioned narrowly about his morals, certified as sane and physically fit by a physician, sworn before a notary public, given a two-page contract along with an order for suitable clothing, a phrase-book and a dictionary, and supplied with a ticket to India, second-class.

“You are off to a land,” said the chairman, “where people believe in the Wheel of Destiny.”

“Destiny?” said Quorn, scratching the birth-mark on his forehead. “I’ve read books about it. Seems to me it’s ju st another word for horse-feathers.”

Chapter II. “First Soft Job In Five-and-twenty Years, I Wish To Tell You.”

BEN QUORN traveled seventy miles from rail-head in a two-horse tonga and installed himself in the comfortable gate-house of the Narada mission, along with a one-eyed Eurasian servant named Moses who did the cooking and helped him to learn the language. Each in his own way they were men of strong opinions, Quorn especially. There being little to do, they would sit for hours on tilted chairs, blue-shirted against the whitewashed gate-house wall and argue about Noah’s Deluge, or the curious statement in the Book of Genesis that light was created before the sun. Quorn considered all his neighbors, from the unapproachable Maharajah down to the untouchables who swept the street, as heathen. That was the only word he had for them, but it was no worse than the word they had for him, so there was no spite wasted. He became a well-known figure, cleanly dressed and shaven, wandering without much curiosity through sun-baked, crowded streets. Before long, people took no more notice of him than they did of the sacred neem trees; or of the sacred monkeys catching fleas on one another; or of the sacred bulls, thrusting their way through alleys packed with humans to steal grain from the bags in the open shop-fronts; or of the sacred peacocks strutting and screaming on walls that guarded sacred mystery from public gaze.

So many things in Narada are sacred that it is simplest to take the Apostle Paul’s advice and hold that there is nothing common or unclean, not even the temple dirt.

When men had nearly ceased to notice Quorn, they grew almost friendly. They ceased to become darkly silent when he drew near. Moses was not a bad language teacher, so that after a while Quorn was able to chat with strangers in the street. It puzzled him that they should be so courteous to him. He spoke to Moses about it, but Moses only stared into his eyes and smiled. It was several weeks before it gradually dawned on Quorn that what had been a handicap at home was here an asset. It appeared that men understood, or thought they did, that strangeness in his eyes, which he himself did not understand.

But the East guards understanding carefully and hides it with all sorts of subterfuge. When Quorn strolled in the great roofed market-place, at least a thousand pairs of eyes would glance furtively toward the wall at the far end, but no one spoke to him about it. Even when he and Moses once went marketing together he missed the explanation. Half Oriental, half inclined in consequence to keep all secrets hidden, but equally half inclined to lay them bare, Moses led him to that end wall, where broken sunlight played on partly ruined carving. The wall was almost unguessably ancient, and there was not enough left of the carving to tell a connected story, even to an antiquarian; but there was an obvious elephant, the lower half of a woman who had jewels on her feet and ankles, and the head and shoulders of a man in a turban. Farther along the wall appeared the same man riding on the elephant, with the lady up behind him in a funny little howdah; but most of the rest of the carving was too fragmentary to present a picture.

“Some say you look like that man,” Moses volunteered. Then he looked away, pretending to be interested in a woman.

Quorn stared, unaware that he was being watched through the corners of hundreds of eyes. The market had almost ceased its chaffering.

“Some heathen god?” he asked at last.

“No, not a god,” said Moses. “Onlee some old sacred personage of veree ancient time.”

Then the Western half of Moses–the part that could not keep secrets–stole a moment’s freedom from the Oriental half that could.

“Once,” he said, “there was a man named Gunga, toward whom the gods were veree friendly. He is said to have been veree brave and pious, although not absolutelee obedient. Because of his braveree the gods selected him to rescue a princess who was living her life in durance vile. So he came for her on an eleephant, which eleephant was also chosen for the purpose by the gods. But because this personage named Gunga was veree brave and veree willing, and yet onlee partlee obedient, he did not fineesh what he had to do. He got down from the eleephant to see about something or other; so the eleephant is supposed to have believed the Gunga personage had grown faint hearted. Therefore the eleephant slew him, or so it is said, because an eleephant is not an animal conspicuous for temperate emotions. Consequentlee the princess was recaptured by her proud and veree angree father; and she lived all the rest of her life in the durance vile from which had been hoping to escape. For this the gods were sorree, so the storee is. Therefore the gods said someday Gunga must return to fineesh what he had begun. Then that carving was made on this wall. Some say the gods commanded that also. That is the legend. And now these people say you look like Gunga.”

“Bunk,” Quorn answered. “Heathen priests ‘ud lie about nothin’ at all, and pious idolaters ‘ud believe ‘em. Horse-feathers!” He turned away with his hands in his pockets.

“Oh yes, certainlee,” said Moses, and withdrew, tortoise- fashion, into the Oriental half of him that was ashamed and afraid of the half that told secrets.

Quorn sent Moses home to prepare dinner and to chase pariah dogs and sacred monkeys out of the mission compound. He had pretended not to be interested, but as a matter of actual fact he was puzzled by that ancient carving. He recognized it did look like himself. As usual when puzzled, he grew discontented. When discontented he always went to see the Maharajah’s elephants. There was something about the big brutes that made him feel less homesick. So it was discontent, not destiny that introduced him to the Maharajah’s purchasing agent.

Babu Chullunder Ghose was an enormous person, probably nearly fifty years old; but he looked younger because of a genial disposition and a pair of remarkable brown eyes. He possessed a prodigious stomach, wore a very brightly colored turban and the graceful Bengali costume which displayed one huge thigh. He had a small, black cotton sunshade and a silver-mounted cane with which he terrified the chief mahout; he was accusing that miserable grafter of having stolen and resold a quantity of the elephants’ rations. The moment Quorn entered the compound the babu spotted him. He squandered a cascade of brilliant insults on the head of the chief mahout, struck him with the silver-mounted cane and almost ran to greet Quorn. He was as suddenly bland as he had been angry.

“Cheerio, top o’ the morning to you, how d’ye do and look who’s here, by Jiminy! Mister Quorn, I take it? Caretaker at the mission. Soft job. Lots of time for meditation. Meditation leads us into mischief. Mischief is the devil, and the devil is still at the old stand. I am His Highness’ purchasing agent–soft job also–first soft job in five··and- twenty years, I wish to tell you–first time in the history of this inelegantly scandalous babu that people praise me to my fat face. Let us sit down. Let me tell you what you wish to know. I know it all. Compendium of cyclopaedic, up-to-date and useless information–this babu, yours truly.”

He took Quorn by the arm. He led him to a shed, where there were canvas chairs beneath a lean-to roof. He snapped his fingers and commanded liquor. In almost a moment there were whisky pegs in two long glasses, brought by a servant who knew how to excite thirst by making the ice tinkle musically.

“Self am hedonist, like Mencken, save and except I know too much to write for magazines. I drink to your distrust of me. I like it,” said the babu.

Facing the shed in a wide ellipse within a high stone wall the elephants stood picketed beneath enormous trees. They tossed up the dust with their trunks and created a haze like a golden veil. They swayed to elephantine music utterly inaudible to man; perhaps it was the music of the spheres.

Quorn drank, then spoke as he reached for his pipe and filled it, knowing that tobacco made him tactful:

“I’ve been warned o’ you. As one man to another, I’ve been cautioned you’re a hot snipe. It was told me straight, in Philadelphia, that trustin’ rattlesnakes is common sense compared to lettin’ you get chummy.”

“Quite true,” said the babu, sighing. But his eyes laughed. “Never having had a decent reputation, self am public benefactor. There was not enough humility or virtue for us all. A half-share would be mortifying. So I contributed my portion to the public. Having got along without it I am like a charter member of a colony of German nudists. Such uncomfortable clothing as morality would annoy me. How do you like our Maharajah?”

“Never saw him,” said Quorn.

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