The Nine Unknown The Red Flame of Erinpura - Talbot Mundy - ebook

The Nine Unknown The Red Flame of Erinpura ebook

Talbot Mundy



This is the first story in which Chulunder Gon takes a leading position, and previously acted only in the company of other Mundi heroes. The story is about a corrupt Indian ruler who is looking for hidden wealth on his land and has formed a background for the curtains of the gods of Manda. „The buried treasures” are in fact oil deposits. The inspirational author had his own interest in oil in Mexico and the presence of oil in Assam, one of the Indian provinces, which Talbot visited in his youth. Mundi describes the acquisition of wealth in the context of an adventure, about which he simultaneously wrote and tried to live in it.

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CHAPTER I “I cut throats with an outward thrust!”

CHAPTER II “Produce but the gold, thou Portuguese!”

CHAPTER III “Light and longer weapons.”

CHAPTER IV “Here’s your Portuguese!”

CHAPTER V “The nine’s spies are everywhere.”

CHAPTER VI “They fled before me!”

CHAPTER VII “Shakespearean homeopathic remedy!”

CHAPTER VIII “He is very dead!”

CHAPTER IX “Silence is silent.”

CHAPTER X “Can’t hatch a chicken from a glass egg.”

CHAPTER XI “Allah! Do I live, and see such sons?”

CHAPTER XII “I am dead, but the silver cord is not yet cut.”

CHAPTER XIII “I felt the tingle of the magic and fell unresisting.”

CHAPTER XIV “We’ve got your chief!”

CHAPTER XV “Abandon can’t and cant all ye who enter here!”

CHAPTER XVI “Sahibs, that is a true speech!”

CHAPTER XVII “There will be no witnesses—say that and stick to it!”

CHAPTER XVIII “He has whatever she had!”

CHAPTER XIX “Once, when they who keep the secrets—”

CHAPTER XX “Nevertheless, I will take my sword with me!”

CHAPTER XXI “My house is clean again!”

CHAPTER I. “I cut throats with an outward thrust!”

I HAD this story from a dozen people, or thirteen if you count Chullunder Ghose, whose accuracy is frequently perverted. One grain of salt is never enough to add to the fat babu’s misstatements, although anyone who for that reason elected to disbelieve him altogether would be just as wide of the mark as the credulous who take what he says at face value. Chullunder Ghose should he accepted warily. But the others are above suspicion, as for instance King, Grim, Ramsden, the Reverend Father Cyprian, and Jeremy Ross, all of whom regard the truth from various points of view as economical.

Chullunder Ghose considers all truth merely relative at best–likes to be thought a liar, since under that cloak he can tell diluted truth unblushing. Consequently he is the only one whose real motive for taking part in this magnificent adventure is not discoverable; he scratches his stomach and gives a different reason every time he is asked, of which the likeliest is this:

“You see, sahib, bad luck being habitual is bad enough, but better than absolutely no luck. Consequently I took chances, trembling much, stirring innate sluggishness of disposition with galvanic batteries of optimism, including desire to keep wolf from door of underfed family and dependents.”

He certainly took chances, and he appears to have survived them, for I had a letter from him only a week ago begging the favor of a character reference and offering in return to betray trade secrets in the event of his securing the desired employment.

Then there is Leonardo da Gama the Portuguese, who is dead and tells no tales; but his death corroborates some part of what he said to me, for one, and to others as will presently appear. His motive seems to have been mercenary, with the added zest of the scientist in search of a key to secrets, whose existence he can prove but whose solution has baffled men for generations.

The Reverend Father Cyprian, past eighty and custodian of a library not open to the public, aimed and still aims only at Hindu occultism. He regards it as the machinery of Satan, to be destroyed accordingly, and it was for that reason he gave King, Grim, Ramsden and some others access to books no human eye should otherwise have seen. For Father Cyprian collects books to be burned, not piecemeal but in one eventual holocaust.

Some lay brother peculiarly conscious of a sin appointed Father Cyprian by will, sole trustee of a purchasing fund, hoping thus to rid the world of the key to such evil as the Witch of Endor practised. For half a century Father Cyprian has been acquiring volumes supposed long ago to be extinct, and it was possibly the last phase of his beleaguered pride that he hoped instead of burning them piecemeal to make one bonfire of the lot and go to his Maker directly afterward.

In that case even pride may serve appropriate ends; for if he had burned the books as fast as acquired, King could never have studied them and drawn conclusions. He took King, Grim, Ramsden and certain others into confidence subject to a stipulation; there were and are still said to be nine super-books whose contents total tip the almost absolute of evil. King and his friends might use what Cyprian already had, and might count on his counsel and assistance; but if they should come on any of the nine books, those were to be Cyprian’s to be burned along with all the others.

They were not to study the nine books, if obtained, and above all they were not to reveal their contents to any outsider; for Cyprian’s purpose was, and is, to abolish the very memory of those books’ existence and the deviltry they teach, or are supposed to teach. (For some say they teach wisdom.) But they might make what use they cared to of information picked up on the side, and they were free to deal with individuals as circumstances and their own discretion might dictate. Father Cyprian, in fact, cared and cares not much for consequences. He believes in cutting off the cause, and he is sure those nine books are the key which, if thrown away, Will leave the cause of necromancy impossible to rediscover. So much for him.

Jeremy Ross came laughing on the scene, laughed with gay irreverence all through the piece, and still laughs, no more inclined to take life seriously than when he faced the Turks in the three-day fight at Gaza, sharing one torn blanket with a wounded Turk and destroying his chance of promotion by calling a British colonel “Algy” to his face. On the other hand, he is as unconquerably opportunist as when he tramped Arabia, lost, and survived by means of a reputation for performing miracles.

Jeremy’s admitted motive was desire to learn more tricks and their underlying principles. He is convinced that even the “rope trick, so often told of and so invariably unconfirmed, in which a Hindu is supposed to climb a rope into the air and disappear, is simply the result of well-trained ingenuity.

“A chap who knows how can do anything,” says Jeremy, and he proposed to learn how all the Indian tricks are done.

The motives he did not confess, but which were just as obvious as the laugh on his lips and the sunburn on his handsome face, were loyalty to Athelstan King and Grim and Ramsden, a kind of irresponsibility that makes him plunge for amusement into every game he sees, and a bedrock willingness to fight every combination of men and circumstances for the right to be his own master. He has no use whatever for orders from “higher up,” for swank, eyewash, stilts, inherited nobility, or what is known as statecraft.

“A diplomat’s like me,” says Jeremy, “only I call mine tricks and he calls his statesmanship.”

It was enough that King and Grim had winded the stronghold of secret tyranny. Instantly Jeremy was game to make a pitched fight and a picnic of the business of destroying it; and he was quicker than either of them at penetrating the outer screen of commonplace deception. He got along remarkably well with Father Cyprian, in fact, astonishingly well, all things considered.

James Schuyler Grim is the protagonist of peace where there is no peace. His passion is to introduce two pauses in the strife of men where only one was formerly, and so little by little to give some sort of new millennium a chance. Arch-pragmatist is Grim. He holds men’s lives, his own included, as worthless unless at work, and his highest expression of friendship is to pile task on task almost to the breaking point. He, too, resists interference from “higher up,” but without Jeremy’s turbulence and with much more wisdom–nearly satanic at times; which is one reason why Jeremy does not always mock him to his face.

Jeremy does mock Athelstan King, because King is of the seventh generation in the British army and respects accordingly the little odds and ends of precedent and custom that to the Australian resemble idol-worship. Jeremy was a trooper. King was a colonel but is now employed by the same multi-millionaire who furnishes supplies for Grim and Ramsden; in fact, he took Jeremy’s place, for Jeremy cannot abide the power of purse-strings and would rather juggle by the roadside for his daily bread than yield to any man on the ground of surplus cash.

Jeff Ramsden is another independent, who rather prides himself on being slow of wit and heavy on his feet, whereas he is really a solid thinker, building argument on argument until he is convinced, and setting one foot down before he prospects with the other. He is stronger physically than almost any two normally developed athletes, but it would probably break Jeff Ramsden’s heart to lose his comfortable savings, whereas Jeremy loses his last cent as cheerfully as he would win the other man’s.

Then there are Narayan Singh, and Ali ben Ali of Siktinderam, soldiers of fortune both, the one a Sikh with pantheistic tendencies and the other a Pathan with seven sons. At any rate, Ali ben Ali is pleased to admit they are his sons, and none denies that he fought and slew the indignant legal owners of the mothers, although there are cynics in the crag-top villages who vow that Ali flatters himself. The mothers’ statements (there were seven) made for the most part under duress shortly before death were not considered trustworthy evidence in the land that Ali comes from.

Ali has enemies, but is a man, whatever else; and perhaps the highest compliment ever paid Narayan Singh is that Ali ben Ali of Sikunderam respects him and would think three times before challenging the Sikh to fight, even if a mutual regard for Grim and King did not put quarreling out of the question. They are awfully disrespectful of each other’s gods, but came to an early understanding on the basis propounded by Narayan Singh after a night-long argument:

“If your ridiculous Allah objects to my opinions why doesn’t he smite me? I challenge him! As for thyself, Ali ben Ali of Sikunderam, thou art worth a dozen Allahs, being less cowardly, more generous, and not afraid to stand up and be seen!”

“It is a pity about you, Narayan Singh,” Ali ben Ali answered nodding tolerantly. “I shall make a friend of you in this world only to see you torn by devils in the next. However, that is Allah’s business, who is Lord of Mercies.”

“Who is a big joke!” Narayan Singh corrected. “He will turn thee into worms!” warned he of Sikunderam.

“Then I will gnaw the big thing’s belly!” said the Sikh.

They agreed to postpone the debate until the next world and to be stout allies in this–a plan which if followed universally would abolish a deal of waste of time.

“For if I slew you, or you slew me,” said Ali ben Ali, “there would only be half our manhood left!”

And that was a point on which they could agree at once, for neither of them had a poor opinion of himself, any more than either cared a rap for Grin’s and King’s idealism. What they chose to follow were the men, they being men, and like attracting if not like at least its tribute.

Burt they were also attracted as much as Chullunder Ghose was by the glamour of the unknown quantity and the lure of fabled treasure; the babu being all acute imagination and alarm, they all adventurous.

Surely ancient sciences meant nothing to them; yet it was pursuit of ancient science and of nothing else that brought the twelve together, and that might have added the thirteenth if the number thirteen had not justified its reputation by proving fatal to da Gama the Portuguese. And that was no pity, but for scientific reasons.

He drank too frequently and inexpensively, and washed too sparingly to be good company. His appetite in all ways was a glutton’s, drink included, and he took his erudition as he did champagne or beer or curried anchovies, in gulps.

Nor was he nice to look at–saffron, under shiny black hair, with a pair of coal-black eyes whose whites were yellow and red with long debauch–short–stout–asthmatic–dressed always in rusty black broadcloth and occasionally white drill pants, with black boots tied with broken laces. His face was seamed and lined with tales untenable and knowledge unfit to be known. His finger-ends were swollen and his nails close-bitten. His shirt, which might have been a petticoat for stripe and color, bulged through the gap between his pants and vest, increasingly untidy as the day progressed, and he hitched his pants at intervals. He had a little, black imperial beard that only half-concealed a chin cloven not by nature but by some man’s weapon. The cleft had the effect of making him look good-humored for a second when he smiled. The smile began with a sneer malignantly, passed with a peculiar melting moment through an actually pathetic phase, and ended cynically, showing yellow eye-teeth. He had no idea whatever of making himself pleasant–would have scorned himself, in fact, for the attempt if he had ever tried it–and yet he blamed the world and did the world all the injury he could for refusing to love him. He always wore a round black hat like an English clergyman’s, and never took it off, even indoors, until he was seated, when he held it rolled up as if he kept his thoughts in it and was afraid of spilling them.

It was Chullunder Ghose who decoyed him into the office in the side- street off the Chandni Chowk, which is the famous Street of the Silversmiths in Delhi, and a good street if you know what goodness in a street consists of. Men–all manner of men–go by.

They had an office in a side-street, one flight up over a Maharatta drug-store, with the name “Grim, Ramsden and Ross” on a brass plate on the door. The next-door building was a warehouse for hides, hair, tallow, gum, turmeric and vicious politics, through the midst of which they had access to a back stairs by arrangement. But the front stairway by which you reached their office was a narrow, steep affair between two buildings, littered with fruit-peel and cigarette ends, and always crowded with folk who used it as a sort of covered grandstand from which to watch the street or merely to sit and think, supposing that anybody could think in all that noise.

You had to pick your way up-stairs gingerly, but going down was easier, because if you placed your foot flat against the back of a man’s head, and shoved suddenly, he would topple forward and carry a whole row down with him, due to the fact that they sat cross-legged and not with their feet on the step below as Europeans would.

Existence there would have been precarious, but for Narayan Singh, Ali ben Ali and Chullunder Ghose–the first two truculent and the third a diplomat. It is fashionable nowadays to show contempt for Westerners by pushing them off the sidewalk and making remarks in babu English that challenge reprisals; so that, even though King, Grim and Ramsden can disguise themselves and pass for natives of the East, and Jeremy in plain clothes can make an Arab think he is an Aras in disguise, the firm’s name on the brass plate would have been enough to start trouble, if it had not been so obvious that trouble would include a Sikh dagger, an Afghan tulwar, and the adder’s tongue of the least compunctious babu in all India.

It was the babu’s tongue that drew da Gama past the door. He was afraid of it, in the same way that some politicians are afraid of newspapers, and it may be that he hoped to murder the babu as the simplest road to silence. All are agreed he was surprised and angry when Narayan Singh; swaggering down the narrow passage, bunted into him as he stood hesitating and, picking a quarrel on the instant, shoved him backward through the office door. Inside he found himself confronted by the whole party, for Narayan Singh followed him through and locked the door at his back.

He stood at bay, in silence, for a minute, showing his yellow teeth, his hands making the beginnings of a move toward his pockets and repeatedly refraining. So Ali ben Ali strode up to him and, taking him in one prodigious left arm, searched him for weapons. He pulled out a long knife and a black-jack, exposed them, grinning hugely, in the palm of his right hand and returned them to their owner. There was no pistol. Then he pushed the Portuguese toward the office stool, which was the only seat unoccupied. Da Gama sat on it, putting his heels on the rungs, with his toes turned outward, whereafter he removed his round, black hat and rolled it.

The others sat around the wall on bentwood chairs, or otherwise as temperament dictated, all except Father Cyprian, who had been accorded the desk and revolving chair in deference to age. Cyprian held the desk-lid raised, but lowered it suddenly, and at the noise da Gama started, stared a second, and then swore in Portuguese between his teeth. None in the room understood Portuguese, unless possibly the priest.

“You recognize me, I believe?” piped Cyprian, almost falsetto, his little bright eyes gleaming through the wrinkles and his mobile lips spreading and spreading away into a smile that advertised amusement and was certainly a mask.

He has a face like a friendly gargoyle, full of human understanding and a sort of merry disdain that goes with it.

“Keep to your trade of mumbling Mass! What do these others want?” the Portuguese demanded rudely. “I have nothing to do with priests!”

His low-pitched asthmatic voice was an absolute contrast to the other’s. So was his surliness. There was no connecting link between them but that one, swift, momentary cloven lapse from hardness as the Portuguese’s face changed from one scowl to the next. But Cyprian recognized that and was swift, before the human feeling faded:

“My friend,” he said, “it was you who tried to steal my library, and I have never sought to have you punished, for I know the strength of the temptation–”

“You are a miser with your books–a dog in a manger!” the Portuguese retorted. “You break your own law, which says you shall not hide light under a bushel!”

“It is darkness that hides!” the priest answered with another of his expansive smiles. “It was you, my friend, who tried to murder me–a sin from which I only saved you by being one inch to the eastward of your bullet’s course.”

“You lie like any other priest!” da Gama growled.

“No, no. Not all of us are rash. In fact, we–we all of us are–are occasionally careful. Is this not the pistol that you tried to shoot me with?”

He raised the lid of the desk again and drew out a surprising thing born of the law against carrying firearms. It was a pistol built of springs and teak-wood, nearly as clumsy as the old museum holster pieces but as able as a cobra to do murder at close range. Da Gama was silent.

“My friend, I have not even blamed you,” the priest went on, his thin voice squeaking with the rust of years. “I have pitied you, and as for me you are forgiven. But there are consequences.”

“What?” the Portuguese demanded, betraying, between scorn and anger, once again that moment of human feeling.

“Something is required of him to whom so much has been forgiven,” the priest answered firmly.

“What?” the Portuguese repeated.

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