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Ch. 10: Bubbling Well Road

Look out on a large scale map the place where the Chenab river falls
into the Indus fifteen miles or so above the hamlet of Chachuran. Five
miles west of Chachuran lies Bubbling Well Road, and the house of the
gosain or priest of Arti-goth. It was the priest who showed me the road,
but it is no thanks to him that I am able to tell this story.

Five miles west of Chachuran is a patch of the plumed jungle-grass, that
turns over in silver when the wind blows, from ten to twenty feet high
and from three to four miles square. In the heart of the patch hides the
gosain of Bubbling Well Road. The villagers stone him when he peers into
the daylight, although he is a priest, and he runs back again as a
strayed wolf turns into tall crops. He is a one-eyed man and carries,
burnt between his brows, the impress of two copper coins. Some say that
he was tortured by a native prince in the old days; for he is so old
that he must have been capable of mischief in the days of Runjit Singh.
His most pressing need at present is a halter, and the care of the
British Government.

These things happened when the jungle-grass was tall; and the villagers
of Chachuran told me that a sounder of pig had gone into the Arti-goth
patch. To enter jungle-grass is always an unwise proceeding, but I went,
partly because I knew nothing of pig-hunting, and partly because the
villagers said that the big boar of the sounder owned foot long tushes.
Therefore I wished to shoot him, in order to produce the tushes in after
years, and say that I had ridden him down in fair chase. I took a gun
and went into the hot, close patch, believing that it would be an easy
thing to unearth one pig in ten square miles of jungle. Mr. Wardle, the
terrier, went with me because he believed that I was incapable of
existing for an hour without his advice and countenance. He managed to
slip in and out between the grass clumps, but I had to force my way, and
in twenty minutes was as completely lost as though I had been in the
heart of Central Africa. I did not notice this at first till I had grown
wearied of stumbling and pushing through the grass, and Mr. Wardle was
beginning to sit down very often and hang out his tongue very far. There
was nothing but grass everywhere, and it was impossible to see two yards
in any direction. The grass-stems held the heat exactly as boiler-tubes
do.

In half-an-hour, when I was devoutly wishing that I had left the big
boar alone, I came to a narrow path which seemed to be a compromise
between a native foot-path and a pig-run. It was barely six inches wide,
but I could sidle along it in comfort. The grass was extremely thick
here, and where the path was ill defined it was necessary to crush into
the tussocks either with both hands before the face, or to back into it,
leaving both hands free to manage the rifle. None the less it was a
path, and valuable because it might lead to a place.

At the end of nearly fifty yards of fair way, just when I was preparing
to back into an unusually stiff tussock, I missed Mr. Wardle, who for
his girth is an unusually frivolous dog and never keeps to heel. I
called him three times and said aloud, 'Where has the little beast gone
to?' Then I stepped backwards several paces, for almost under my feet a
deep voice repeated, 'Where has the little beast gone?' To appreciate an
unseen voice thoroughly you should hear it when you are lost in stifling
jungle-grass. I called Mr. Wardle again and the underground echo
assisted me. At that I ceased calling and listened very attentively,
because I thought I heard a man laughing in a peculiarly offensive
manner. The heat made me sweat, but the laughter made me shake. There is
no earthly need for laughter in high grass. It is indecent, as well as
impolite. The chuckling stopped, and I took courage and continued to
call till I thought that I had located the echo somewhere behind and
below the tussock into which I was preparing to back just before I lost
Mr. Wardle. I drove my rifle up to the triggers, between the grass-stems
in a downward and forward direction. Then I waggled it to and fro, but
it did not seem to touch ground on the far side of the tussock as it
should have done. Every time that I grunted with the exertion of driving
a heavy rifle through thick grass, the grunt was faithfully repeated
from below, and when I stopped to wipe my face the sound of low laughter
was distinct beyond doubting.

I went into the tussock, face first, an inch at a time, my mouth open
and my eyes fine, full, and prominent. When I had overcome the
resistance of the grass I found that I was looking straight across a
black gap in the ground--that I was actually lying on my chest leaning
over the mouth of a well so deep I could scarcely see the water in it.

There were things in the water,--black things,--and the water was as
black as pitch with blue scum atop. The laughing sound came from the
noise of a little spring, spouting half-way down one side of the well.
Sometimes as the black things circled round, the trickle from the spring
fell upon their tightly-stretched skins, and then the laughter changed
into a sputter of mirth. One thing turned over on its back, as I
watched, and drifted round and round the circle of the mossy brickwork
with a hand and half an arm held clear of the water in a stiff and
horrible flourish, as though it were a very wearied guide paid to
exhibit the beauties of the place.

I did not spend more than half-an-hour in creeping round that well and
finding the path on the other side. The remainder of the journey I
accomplished by feeling every foot of ground in front of me, and
crawling like a snail through every tussock. I carried Mr. Wardle in my
arms and he licked my nose. He was not frightened in the least, nor was
I, but we wished to reach open ground in order to enjoy the view. My
knees were loose, and the apple in my throat refused to slide up and
down. The path on the far side of the well was a very good one, though
boxed in on all sides by grass, and it led me in time to a priest's hut
in the centre of a little clearing. When that priest saw my very white
face coming through the grass he howled with terror and embraced my
boots; but when I reached the bedstead set outside his door I sat down
quickly and Mr. Wardle mounted guard over me. I was not in a condition
to take care of myself.

When I awoke I told the priest to lead me into the open, out of the
Arti-goth patch, and to walk slowly in front of me. Mr. Wardle hates
natives, and the priest was more afraid of Mr. Wardle than of me, though
we were both angry. He walked very slowly down a narrow little path from
his hut. That path crossed three paths, such as the one I had come by in
the first instance, and every one of the three headed towards the
Bubbling Well. Once when we stopped to draw breath, I heard the Well
laughing to itself alone in the thick grass, and only my need for his
services prevented my firing both barrels into the priest's back.

When we came to the open the priest crashed back into cover, and I went
to the village of Arti-goth for a drink. It was pleasant to be able to
see the horizon all round, as well as the ground underfoot.

The villagers told me that the patch of grass was full of devils and
ghosts, all in the service of the priest, and that men and women and
children had entered it and had never returned. They said the priest
used their livers for purposes of witchcraft. When I asked why they had
not told me of this at the outset, they said that they were afraid they
would lose their reward for bringing news of the pig.

Before I left I did my best to set the patch alight, but the grass was
too green. Some fine summer day, however, if the wind is favourable, a
file of old newspapers and a box of matches will make clear the mystery
of Bubbling Well Road.

Rudyard Kipling