BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
FIRST APPEARANCES are often misleading, but not in this case. He was not the sort of man anyone in his right mind would invite to a Mess dinner, even one thrown open to the civilians in the cantonments outside the compound occupied at that time by our Regiment. That he was vouched for by the Brigade Major says more about that man’s judgement of character than it does for his common sense, as rare a commodity those days as it is now. One can only thank providence that this dinner invitation had not been extended to wives and other women.
He was a small man and as thin as a heron’s leg. Beneath a shock of thick, unkempt white hair a furrowed forehead sat atop bushy white eyebrows. His eyes, grey as campfire smoke in the light of the candelabra, never stopped moving as he gazed at each of us, one after another, as if memorizing each face at the long table. Beneath his hawk-like nose a luxuriant white walrus moustache, curving upward to join his sideburns in the fashion of the early days of the Queen’s reign, hid most of his upper lip.
I forget the man’s name. It meant nothing to me at the time and it has never returned to me The Brigade Major introduced this queer fellow as a journalist from the Punjab Times in Lahore, presently engaged on a trip upcountry for his paper. For all his wild appearance, however, his dinner clothes were as clean as could be hoped for in a man about his travels, though the dhobi could have done a better job with the starching of his shirt front. And his table manners, while not impeccable, were good enough not to raise questions about his upbringing and school. The tale he told over the port and stilton, however, did give rise to doubts about his stability.
When asked about his exploits in our outpost of the British Empire, north of Darjeeling (where the tea comes from), the man’s eyes narrowed, as if someone had pinched his head at the temples. He sucked in a great draught of cigar smoke and never once seemed to exhale.
“I was travelling across the subcontinent to Calcutta on the Grand Trunk Road and diverted my journey in Bihar State to go north to Motihari,” he said. “My intention was to visit Nepal, when a white man travelling with me at the time asked me my destination. I told him, whereupon he insisted that I journey a little further to the north of Kathmandu. Not many miles thence, he told me, I would come across a village with an interesting shrine and a Hindu God made from solid gold.”
“I have heard tell of the idol in Sankhu, I believe the village is called,” the Adjutant said, interrupting the tale, and several of my brother officers murmured their agreement.
The fellow seemed unconcerned by the interruption and continued as if it had not occurred. “I took this man’s suggestion, and after a few days and nights in Kathmandu I set off for this village. The country is rugged, as you may imagine, much like this, and the roads barely deserve the name, being more footpaths than thoroughfares.”
“Did you find the place?” demanded a Subaltern, more in his cups than might be considered appropriate before the Colonel had retired for the night. The Colonel scowled at him and the young man shrank back red-faced behind one of his fellow Subs. The strange little man shot the Subaltern a penetrating glare, which further reduced the young man to stony silence.
“On our way to Sankhu,” the man said once calm had settled around the mess table. “Just below the village, I came across an incongruous sight, a little marble cross by the roadside, unusual to say the least in a Hindu and Buddhist country, but I thought no more of it when we reached our destination. My guide and translator asked the village headman about the shrine and the idol. He was happy to accompany us the short distance up the hillside to the temple. Nothing unusual about the shrine, you understand, but seated in the middle, beneath a stone arch covered with garlands of orange flowers, was the idol.”
“How many arms did it have?” inquired a Captain, eliciting a round of tittering mostly from the junior officers.
“Two,” he answered. “In the usual place, sprouting from the shoulders and leading to its hands which were folded in its lap, as if in contemplation.” The sarcasm in the man’s voice did not fall on deaf ears. “The headman told me that this was the Bajrayogini Temple, named for the Tantric Goddess of the same name. In the lingo of the local Newar people she is called, ‘Mhasu Khwa Maju’, which I am told means ‘Yellow Faced Mother Goddess’ in English. It is an apt description, for she isn’t made of solid gold, but rather is covered in gold leaf. Like many Hindu Gods, this one possesses but one eye. The eye is silver, these days. Local legend has it that the silver eye replaced a single gigantic emerald worth a King’s ransom that used to be there before someone stole it.”
“Do they know who stole it?” the Brigade Major said.
The fellow paused briefly. “Yes,” he said. “And that is part of the legend.”
“Did they catch the dastardly thief?” the Colonel demanded, thumping the table top.
“That they did,” the fellow replied. “Much to his discomfort.”
“Tell us more,” I said.
“There was a Subaltern in a Regiment garrisoned nearby,” the man said.
“In Nepal?” the Brigade Major said.
“Yes,” replied the man testily.
“Must have been Gurkhas,” the Brigade Major said with an air of confident satisfaction. “Not our type of chaps at all. You can’t trust those little Johnnies with both hands on the table and any further than you can see them with both eyes. Or their officers.”
“Quite right,” said another, a Captain like myself. “Infantrymen. No gentleman marches into battle.”
“Here, here!” came a chorus of agreement from around the table.
The port continued to do its rounds as this exchange took place. The bearers cleared away the cheese and replaced the finger bowls before setting out the nuts and dried fruits. We leant forward the better to listen.
“It is said that one of their Subalterns, a man by the name of Carew, was smitten by the beauty of the Colonel’s daughter and, as luck would have it, he caught her eye in return. Whether the Colonel approved of his daughter not yet 21 years of age being linked romantically to the likes of a lowly 2nd Lieutenant remains a matter of conjecture. But if the Colonel was stern, he was also kindly disposed towards his daughter, and arranged for a Regimental ball to celebrate her coming of age. Naturally, all the officers were invited, along with their wives and sweethearts.
“Lieutenant Carew was a dashing and daring young man, so they say, a mad prankster by all accounts, but courageous, and loyal to his Regiment and his men who adored him in return. A few days before the ball young Carew wrote to the Colonel’s daughter and asked what she would like for a gift to mark her birthday.”
“Wrote?” said one incredulous Subaltern.
“With a pen, ink and paper,” the man said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “It was considered proper manners in those days. This all took place, you understand, several decades before the Sepoy Revolt of ’57, about which you no doubt heard in your history lessons at school.” He cleared his throat. “Returning to my tale, if I may be permitted, I can tell you that she regarded young Carew with a straight face and said that, from him, as a mark of his love and daring, nothing less than the emerald from the eye of the little Hindu God would do.
“For some nights while his brother offices horsed around in the mess after dinner, young Carew brooded alone in his quarters. On the night before the ball he disappeared into the dark, nodded to the sentries as he passed through the lines and headed up the hill to Sankhu.”
“Then what happened?” one of our Subs prompted when the fellow paused to collect his thoughts.
“He returned before daybreak,” he said, “with his shirt and tunic torn and a cut across his temple dripping with blood. Word reached the doctor who patched him up and stitched the gash. Carew passed out and slept through the day with the Colonel’s daughter by his bedside, though what her father must have thought of that I do not know.”
“Quite scandalous,” the Colonel said. “Just what one may expect in a Gurkha Regiment.”
“Quite,” said the fellow. “Be that as it may, when Carew regained consciousness he asked for his tunic. She went and fetched it. He bade her search through the pockets. She found the emerald from eye of the little yellow God and held it incredulously in the palm of her hand. ‘It is from me to you,’ he said. ‘Exactly as you asked. I offer it to you as a token of my undying love.’ But the Colonel’s daughter refused the green stone and returned it to Carew, though what her reasoning or excuse might have been, I cannot say. She left him in his bed, though not dry eyed by all accounts, and went to the ball.
“It was close to midnight with the ball at its height when she thought to go to Carew’s quarters and enquire after his health. With the strains of waltz music in her ears as she crossed the parade square she arrived at his door and pushed it open wide. She took a step inside and her foot slipped across the floor. By the light of the kerosene lamp by his bedside she saw the most ghastly sight; her dancing slipper in a pool of blood and the bloody corpse of Carew lying face up on his cot with a large dagger, buried to the hilt, sticking out of his chest and the blade deep through his heart.
“She let out a scream, of course,” I said.
“Loud enough to waken the guards and all but the dead. The Colonel halted the ball and they carried her away in a dead faint. Not once did she mention the emerald to anyone, nor did she ever find it, though she searched Carew’s quarters thoroughly. There was no note to explain the murder, but she did not need one. She knew in her heart that 2nd Lieutenant Carew’s death was the vengeance of the little yellow, one-eyed God, Bajrayogini, Mhasu Kwa Maju. She never fully recovered, so they say, and attended Carew’s grave every day to lay flowers on his last resting place. When the time came for the Colonel to return to England, she refused to leave. When she died of incurable madness, she was buried next to Carew where the marble cross is below the village, beneath the everlasting gaze of the one-eyed Goddess.”
The odd little fellow sat back in his chair, seemingly exhausted by the telling of his tale. He took a sip of his port and gazed around the Mess at his dinner companions. Then he lurched upright, clutched his left arm and fell face forward onto the table. We naturally assumed the fellow was drunk, but it turned out that he had succumbed to a heart stoppage and was probably dead before his head met the wood. This was as unexpected and unfortunate a turn of events as can be imagined. Not only did he leave us with questions unanswered, he left no instructions with respect to the disposal of his remains and chattels.
In 1910, some 30 years after this remarkable Mess dinner, and by now a Colonel on the Viceroy’s staff in Calcutta, a letter arrived from England informing me that my older brother had died without heirs, and that I had inherited the family estate in Shropshire. By this time I had passed my sixtieth birthday and, as a man of modest means (confidentially, my holdings in the Funds yielded a scant 1200 a year), little influence and no burning ambition, I could not expect to rise further in the ranks of the army. I looked back on my 40 years of service to her Majesty and the King and decided to take the memsahib back with me to Shropshire.
With little to do but get under the feet of my estate manager, one dreary February afternoon, in 1912, I believe it was, I decided to take the memsahib into Birmingham in the motor car to take in a music hall performance at the Apollo Theatre. We arrived in good time and, suitably refreshed we settled into our box seats to await the performance. Shortly after the intermission a man dressed properly in evening clothes came on to the stage from the wings and a backdrop of mountains fell behind him — any fool could tell it was the Matterhorn in Switzerland. I checked the program and saw that this performer was a fellow I had never heard of, one Bransby Williams. He stepped forward into the glare of the footlights and told us that he would recite a dramatic poem written by his good friend, Mr. J. Milton Hayes. Prepared to be bored, I sat back and closed my eyes. The man launched into his monologue, and I sat bolt upright as a shiver ran through me at his opening lines:
“There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There’s a little marble cross below the town;
There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.”