My Own True Ghost Story





As I came through the Desert thus it was--

As I came through the Desert.

The City of Dreadful Night.





Somewhere in the Other World, where there are books and pictures and plays

and shop windows to look at, and thousands of men who spend their lives in

building up all four, lives a gentleman who writes real stories about the

real insides of people; and his name is Mr. Walter Besant. But he will

insist upon treating his ghosts--he has published half a workshopful of

them--with levity. He makes his ghost-seers talk familiarly, and, in some

cases, flirt outrageously, with the phantoms. You may treat anything, from

a Viceroy to a Vernacular Paper, with levity; but you must behave

reverently toward a ghost, and particularly an Indian one.



There are, in this land, ghosts who take the form of fat, cold, pobby

corpses, and hide in trees near the roadside till a traveler passes. Then

they drop upon his neck and remain. There are also terrible ghosts of

women who have died in child-bed. These wander along the pathways at dusk,

or hide in the crops near a village, and call seductively. But to answer

their call is death in this world and the next. Their feet are turned

backward that all sober men may recognize them. There are ghosts of little

children who have been thrown into wells. These haunt well curbs and the

fringes of jungles, and wail under the stars, or catch women by the wrist

and beg to be taken up and carried. These and the corpse ghosts, however,

are only vernacular articles and do not attack Sahibs. No native ghost has

yet been authentically reported to have frightened an Englishman; but

many English ghosts have scared the life out of both white and black.



Nearly every other Station owns a ghost. There are said to be two at

Simla, not counting the woman who blows the bellows at Syree dak-bungalow

on the Old Road; Mussoorie has a house haunted of a very lively Thing; a

White Lady is supposed to do night-watchman round a house in Lahore;

Dalhousie says that one of her houses "repeats" on autumn evenings all the

incidents of a horrible horse-and-precipice accident; Murree has a merry

ghost, and, now that she has been swept by cholera, will have room for a

sorrowful one; there are Officers' Quarters in Mian Mir whose doors open

without reason, and whose furniture is guaranteed to creak, not with the

heat of June but with the weight of Invisibles who come to lounge in the

chairs; Peshawur possesses houses that none will willingly rent; and there

is something--not fever--wrong with a big bungalow in Allahabad. The older

Provinces simply bristle with haunted houses, and march phantom armies

along their main thoroughfares.



Some of the dak-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road have handy little

cemeteries in their compound--witnesses to the "changes and chances of

this mortal life" in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the

Northwest. These bungalows are objectionable places to put up in. They are

generally very old, always dirty, while the khansamah is as ancient as

the bungalow. He either chatters senilely, or falls into the long trances

of age. In both moods he is useless. If you get angry with him, he refers

to some Sahib dead and buried these thirty years, and says that when he

was in that Sahib's service not a khansamah in the Province could touch

him. Then he jabbers and mows and trembles and fidgets among the dishes,

and you repent of your irritation.



In these dak-bungalows, ghosts are most likely to be found, and when

found, they should be made a note of. Not long ago it was my business to

live in dak-bungalows. I never inhabited the same house for three nights

running, and grew to be learned in the breed. I lived in Government-built

ones with red brick walls and rail ceilings, an inventory of the furniture

posted in every room, and an excited snake at the threshold to give

welcome. I lived in "converted" ones--old houses officiating as

dak-bungalows--where nothing was in its proper place and there wasn't even

a fowl for dinner. I lived in second-hand palaces where the wind blew

through open-work marble tracery just as uncomfortably as through a broken

pane. I lived in dak-bungalows where the last entry in the visitors' book

was fifteen months old, and where they slashed off the curry-kid's head

with a sword. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober

traveling missionaries and deserters flying from British Regiments, to

drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed; and my still

greater good fortune just to escape a maternity case. Seeing that a fair

proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here acted itself in

dak-bungalows, I wondered that I had met no ghosts. A ghost that would

voluntarily hang about a dak-bungalow would be mad of course; but so many

men have died mad in dak-bungalows that there must be a fair percentage of

lunatic ghosts.



In due time I found my ghost, or ghosts rather, for there were two of

them. Up till that hour I had sympathized with Mr. Besant's method of

handling them, as shown in "The Strange Case of Mr. Lucraft and Other

Stories." I am now in the Opposition.



We will call the bungalow Katmal dak-bungalow. But that was the smallest

part of the horror. A man with a sensitive hide has no right to sleep in

dak-bungalows. He should marry. Katmal dak-bungalow was old and rotten and

unrepaired. The floor was of worn brick, the walls were filthy, and the

windows were nearly black with grime. It stood on a bypath largely used by

native Sub-Deputy Assistants of all kinds, from Finance to Forests; but

real Sahibs were rare. The khansamah, who was nearly bent double with

old age, said so.



When I arrived, there was a fitful, undecided rain on the face of the

land, accompanied by a restless wind, and every gust made a noise like the

rattling of dry bones in the stiff toddy palms outside. The khansamah

completely lost his head on my arrival. He had served a Sahib once. Did I

know that Sahib? He gave me the name of a well-known man who has been

buried for more than a quarter of a century, and showed me an ancient

daguerreotype of that man in his prehistoric youth. I had seen a steel

engraving of him at the head of a double volume of Memoirs a month before,

and I felt ancient beyond telling.



The day shut in and the khansamah went to get me food. He did not go

through the, pretense of calling it "khana"--man's victuals. He said

"ratub," and that means, among other things, "grub"--dog's rations.

There was no insult in his choice of the term. He had forgotten the other

word, I suppose.



While he was cutting up the dead bodies of animals, I settled myself down,

after exploring the dak-bungalow. There were three rooms, beside my own,

which was a corner kennel, each giving into the other through dingy white

doors fastened with long iron bars. The bungalow was a very solid one, but

the partition walls of the rooms were almost jerry-built in their

flimsiness. Every step or bang of a trunk echoed from my room down the

other three, and every footfall came back tremulously from the far walls.

For this reason I shut the door. There were no lamps--only candles in long

glass shades. An oil wick was set in the bathroom.



For bleak, unadulterated misery that dak-bungalow was the worst of the

many that I had ever set foot in. There was no fireplace, and the windows

would not open; so a brazier of charcoal would have been useless. The rain

and the wind splashed and gurgled and moaned round the house, and the

toddy palms rattled and roared. Half a dozen jackals went through the

compound singing, and a hyena stood afar off and mocked them. A hyena

would convince a Sadducee of the Resurrection of the Dead--the worst sort

of Dead. Then came the ratub--a curious meal, half native and half

English in composition--with the old khansamah babbling behind my chair

about dead and gone English people, and the wind-blown candles playing

shadow-bo-peep with the bed and the mosquito-curtains. It was just the

sort of dinner and evening to make a man think of every single one of his

past sins, and of all the others that he intended to commit if he lived.



Sleep, for several hundred reasons, was not easy. The lamp in the bathroom

threw the most absurd shadows into the room, and the wind was beginning to

talk nonsense.



Just when the reasons were drowsy with blood-sucking I heard the

regular--"Let-us-take-and-heave-him-over" grunt of doolie-bearers in the

compound. First one doolie came in, then a second, and then a third. I

heard the doolies dumped on the ground, and the shutter in front of my

door shook. "That's some one trying to come in," I said. But no one spoke,

and I persuaded myself that it was the gusty wind. The shutter of the room

next to mine was attacked, flung back, and the inner door opened. "That's

some Sub-Deputy Assistant," I said, "and he has brought his friends with

him. Now they'll talk and spit and smoke for an hour."



But there were no voices and no footsteps. No one was putting his luggage

into the next room. The door shut, and I thanked Providence that I was to

be left in peace. But I was curious to know where the doolies had gone. I

got out of bed and looked into the darkness. There was never a sign of a

doolie. Just as I was getting into bed again, I heard, in the next room,

the sound that no man in his senses can possibly mistake--the whir of a

billiard ball down the length of the slates when the striker is stringing

for break. No other sound is like it. A minute afterwards there was

another whir, and I got into bed. I was not frightened--indeed I was not.

I was very curious to know what had become of the doolies. I jumped into

bed for that reason.



Next minute I heard the double click of a cannon and my hair sat up. It is

a mistake to say that hair stands up. The skin of the head tightens and

you can feel a faint, prickly, bristling all over the scalp. That is the

hair sitting up.



There was a whir and a click, and both sounds could only have been made by

one thing--a billiard ball. I argued the matter out at great length with

myself; and the more I argued the less probable it seemed that one bed,

one table, and two chairs--all the furniture of the room next to

mine--could so exactly duplicate the sounds of a game of billiards. After

another cannon, a three-cushion one to judge by the whir, I argued no

more. I had found my ghost and would have given worlds to have escaped

from that dak-bungalow. I listened, and with each listen the game grew

clearer. There was whir on whir and click on click. Sometimes there was a

double click and a whir and another click. Beyond any sort of doubt,

people were playing billiards in the next room. And the next room was not

big enough to hold a billiard table!



Between the pauses of the wind I heard the game go forward--stroke after

stroke. I tried to believe that I could not hear voices; but that attempt

was a failure.



Do you know what fear is? Not ordinary fear of insult, injury or death,

but abject, quivering dread of something that you cannot see--fear that

dries the inside of the mouth and half of the throat--fear that makes you

sweat on the palms of the hands, and gulp in order to keep the uvula at

work? This is a fine Fear--a great cowardice, and must be felt to be

appreciated. The very improbability of billiards in a dak-bungalow proved

the reality of the thing. No man--drunk or sober--could imagine a game at

billiards, or invent the spitting crack of a "screw-cannon."



A severe course of dak-bungalows has this disadvantage--it breeds infinite

credulity. If a man said to a confirmed dak-bungalow-haunter:--"There is a

corpse in the next room, and there's a mad girl in the next but one, and

the woman and man on that camel have just eloped from a place sixty miles

away," the hearer would not disbelieve because he would know that nothing

is too wild, grotesque, or horrible to happen in a dak-bungalow.



This credulity, unfortunately, extends to ghosts. A rational person fresh

from his own house would have turned on his side and slept. I did not. So

surely as I was given up as a bad carcass by the scores of things in the

bed because the bulk of my blood was in my heart, so surely did I hear

every stroke of a long game at billiards played in the echoing room behind

the iron-barred door. My dominant fear was that the players might want a

marker. It was an absurd fear; because creatures who could play in the

dark would be above such superfluities. I only know that that was my

terror; and it was real.



After a long, long while the game stopped, and the door banged. I slept

because I was dead tired. Otherwise I should have preferred to have kept

awake. Not for everything in Asia would I have dropped the door-bar and

peered into the dark of the next room.



When the morning came, I considered that I had done well and wisely, and

inquired for the means of departure.



"By the way, khansamah," I said, "what were those three doolies doing in

my compound in the night?"



"There were no doolies," said the khansamah.



I went into the next room and the daylight streamed through the open door.

I was immensely brave. I would, at that hour, have played Black Pool with

the owner of the big Black Pool down below.



"Has this place always been a dak-bungalow?" I asked.



"No," said the khansamah. "Ten or twenty years ago, I have forgotten how

long, it was a billiard room."



"A how much?"



"A billiard room for the Sahibs who built the Railway. I was khansamah

then in the big house where all the Railway-Sahibs lived, and I used to

come across with brandy-shrab. These three rooms were all one, and they

held a big table on which the Sahibs played every evening. But the Sahibs

are all dead now, and the Railway runs, you say, nearly to Kabul."



"Do you remember anything about the Sahibs?"



"It is long ago, but I remember that one Sahib, a fat man and always

angry, was playing here one night, and he said to me:--'Mangal Khan,

brandy-pani do,' and I filled the glass, and he bent over the table to

strike, and his head fell lower and lower till it hit the table, and his

spectacles came off, and when we--the Sahibs and I myself--ran to lift him

he was dead. I helped to carry him out. Aha, he was a strong Sahib! But he

is dead and I, old Mangal Khan, am still living, by your favor."



That was more than enough! I had my ghost--a first-hand, authenticated

article. I would write to the Society for Psychical Research--I would

paralyze the Empire with the news! But I would, first of all, put eighty

miles of assessed crop land between myself and that dak-bungalow before

nightfall. The Society might send their regular agent to investigate later

on.



I went into my own room and prepared to pack after noting down the facts

of the case. As I smoked I heard the game begin again,--with a miss in

balk this time, for the whir was a short one.



The door was open and I could see into the room. Click--click! That was

a cannon. I entered the room without fear, for there was sunlight within

and a fresh breeze without. The unseen game was going on at a tremendous

rate. And well it might, when a restless little rat was running to and fro

inside the dingy ceiling-cloth, and a piece of loose window-sash was

making fifty breaks off the window-bolt as it shook in the breeze!



Impossible to mistake the sound of billiard balls! Impossible to mistake

the whir of a ball over the slate! But I was to be excused. Even when I

shut my enlightened eyes the sound was marvelously like that of a fast

game.



Entered angrily the faithful partner of my sorrows, Kadir Baksh.



"This bungalow is very bad and low-caste! No wonder the Presence was

disturbed and is speckled. Three sets of doolie-bearers came to the

bungalow late last night when I was sleeping outside, and said that it was

their custom to rest in the rooms set apart for the English people! What

honor has the khansamah? They tried to enter, but I told them to go. No

wonder, if these Oorias have been here, that the Presence is sorely

spotted. It is shame, and the work of a dirty man!"



Kadir Baksh did not say that he had taken from each gang two annas for

rent in advance, and then, beyond my earshot, had beaten them with the big

green umbrella whose use I could never before divine. But Kadir Baksh has

no notions of morality.



There was an interview with the khansamah, but as he promptly lost his

head, wrath gave place to pity, and pity led to a long conversation, in

the course of which he put the fat Engineer-Sahib's tragic death in three

separate stations--two of them fifty miles away. The third shift was to

Calcutta, and there the Sahib died while driving a dog-cart.



If I had encouraged him the khansamah would have wandered all through

Bengal with his corpse.



I did not go away as soon as I intended. I stayed for the night, while the

wind and the rat and the sash and the window-bolt played a ding-dong

"hundred and fifty up." Then the wind ran out and the billiards stopped,

and I felt that I had ruined my one genuine, hall-marked ghost story.



Had I only stopped at the proper time, I could have made anything out of

it.



That was the bitterest thought of all!





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