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Ch. 14: The Dream of Duncan Parrenness

Like Mr. Bunyan of old, I, Duncan Parrenness, Writer to the Most
Honourable the East India Company, in this God-forgotten city of
Calcutta, have dreamed a dream, and never since that Kitty my mare fell
lame have I been so troubled. Therefore, lest I should forget my dream,
I have made shift to set it down here. Though Heaven knows how unhandy
the pen is to me who was always readier with sword than ink-horn when I
left London two long years since.

When the Governor-General's great dance (that he gives yearly at the
latter end of November) was finisht, I had gone to mine own room which
looks over that sullen, un-English stream, the Hoogly, scarce so sober
as I might have been. Now, roaring drunk in the West is but fuddled in
the East, and I was drunk Nor'-Nor' Easterly as Mr. Shakespeare might
have said. Yet, in spite of my liquor, the cool night winds (though I
have heard that they breed chills and fluxes innumerable) sobered me
somewhat; and I remembered that I had been but a little wrung and wasted
by all the sicknesses of the past four months, whereas those young
bloods that came eastward with me in the same ship had been all, a month
back, planted to Eternity in the foul soil north of Writers' Buildings.
So then, I thanked God mistily (though, to my shame, I never kneeled
down to do so) for license to live, at least till March should be upon
us again.

Indeed, we that were alive (and our number was less by far than those
who had gone to their last account in the hot weather late past) had
made very merry that evening, by the ramparts of the Fort, over this
kindness of Providence; though our jests were neither witty nor such as
I should have liked my Mother to hear.

When I had lain down (or rather thrown me on my bed) and the fumes of my
drink had a little cleared away, I found that I could get no sleep for
thinking of a thousand things that were better left alone. First, and it
was a long time since I had thought of her, the sweet face of Kitty
Somerset, drifted, as it might have been drawn in a picture, across the
foot of my bed, so plainly, that I almost thought she had been present
in the body. Then I remembered how she drove me to this accursed country
to get rich, that I might the more quickly marry her, our parents on
both sides giving their consent; and then how she thought better (or
worse may be) of her troth, and wed Tom Sanderson but a short three
months after I had sailed. From Kitty I fell a-musing on Mrs.
Vansuythen, a tall pale woman with violet eyes that had come to Calcutta
from the Dutch Factory at Chinsura, and had set all our young men, and
not a few of the factors, by the ears. Some of our ladies, it is true,
said that she had never a husband or marriage-lines at all; but women,
and specially those who have led only indifferent good lives themselves,
are cruel hard one on another. Besides, Mrs. Vansuythen was far prettier
than them all. She had been most gracious to me at the Governor-
General's rout, and indeed I was looked upon by all as her preux
chevalier--which is French for a much worse word. Now, whether I cared
so much as the scratch of a pin for this same Mrs. Vansuythen (albeit I
had vowed eternal love three days after we met) I knew not then nor did
till later on; but mine own pride, and a skill in the small sword that
no man in Calcutta could equal, kept me in her affections. So that I
believed I worshipt her.

When I had dismist her violet eyes from my thoughts, my reason reproacht
me for ever having followed her at all; and I saw how the one year that
I had lived in this land had so burnt and seared my mind with the flames
of a thousand bad passions and desires, that I had aged ten months for
each one in the Devil's school. Whereat I thought of my Mother for a
while, and was very penitent: making in my sinful tipsy mood a thousand
vows of reformation--all since broken, I fear me, again and again. To-
morrow, says I to myself, I will live cleanly for ever. And I smiled
dizzily (the liquor being still strong in me) to think of the dangers I
had escaped; and built all manner of fine Castles in Spain, whereof a
shadowy Kitty Somerset that had the violet eyes and the sweet slow
speech of Mrs. Vansuythen, was always Queen.

Lastly, a very fine and magnificent courage (that doubtless had its
birth in Mr. Hastings' Madeira) grew upon me, till it seemed that I
could become Governor-General, Nawab, Prince, ay, even the Great Mogul
himself, by the mere wishing of it. Wherefore, taking my first steps,
random and unstable enough, towards my new kingdom, I kickt my servants
sleeping without till they howled and ran from me, and called Heaven and
Earth to witness that I, Duncan Parrenness, was a Writer in the service
of the Company and afraid of no man. Then, seeing that neither the Moon
nor the Great Bear were minded to accept my challenge, I lay down again
and must have fallen asleep.

I was waked presently by my last words repeated two or three times, and
I saw that there had come into the room a drunken man, as I thought,
from Mr. Hastings' rout. He sate down at the foot of my bed in all the
world as it belonged to him, and I took note, as well as I could, that
his face was somewhat like mine own grown older, save when it changed to
the face of the Governor-General or my father, dead these six months.
But this seemed to me only natural, and the due result of too much wine;
and I was so angered at his entry all unannounced, that I told him, not
over civilly, to go. To all my words he made no answer whatever, only
saying slowly, as though it were some sweet morsel: 'Writer in the
Company's service and afraid of no man.' Then he stops short, and
turning round sharp upon me, says that one of my kidney need fear
neither man nor devil; that I was a brave young man, and like enough,
should I live so long, to be Governor-General. But for all these things
(and I suppose that he meant thereby the changes and chances of our
shifty life in these parts) I must pay my price. By this time I had
sobered somewhat, and being well waked out of my first sleep, was
disposed to look upon the matter as a tipsy man's jest. So, says I
merrily: 'And what price shall I pay for this palace of mine, which is
but twelve feet square, and my five poor pagodas a month? The Devil take
you and your jesting: I have paid my price twice over in sickness.' At
that moment my man turns full towards me: so that by the moonlight I
could see every line and wrinkle of his face. Then my drunken mirth died
out of me, as I have seen the waters of our great rivers die away in one
night; and I, Duncan Parrenness, who was afraid of no man, was taken
with a more deadly terror than I hold it has ever been the lot of mortal
man to know. For I saw that his face was my very own, but marked and
lined and scarred with the furrows of disease and much evil living--as I
once, when I was (Lord help me) very drunk indeed, have seen mine own
face, all white and drawn and grown old, in a mirror. I take it that any
man would have been even more greatly feared than I. For I am in no way
wanting in courage.

After I had lain still for a little, sweating in my agony and waiting
until I should awake from this terrible dream (for dream I knew it to
be) he says again, that I must pay my price, and a little after, as
though it were to be given in pagodas and sicca rupees: 'What price will
you pay?' Says I, very softly: 'For God's sake let me be, whoever you
are, and I will mend my ways from to-night.' Says he, laughing a little
at my words, but otherwise making no motion of having heard them: 'Nay,
I would only rid so brave a young ruffler as yourself of much that will
be a great hindrance to you on your way through life in the Indies; for
believe me,' and here he looks full on me once more, 'there is no
return.' At all this rigmarole, which I could not then understand, I was
a good deal put aback and waited for what should come next. Says he very
calmly, 'Give me your trust in man.' At that I saw how heavy would be my
price, for I never doubted but that he could take from me all that he
asked, and my head was, through terror and wakefulness, altogether
cleared of the wine I had drunk. So I takes him up very short, crying
that I was not so wholly bad as he would make believe, and that I
trusted my fellows to the full as much as they were worthy of it. 'It
was none of my fault,' says I, 'if one half of them were liars and the
other half deserved to be burnt in the hand, and I would once more ask
him to have done with his questions.' Then I stopped, a little afraid,
it is true, to have let my tongue so run away with me, but he took no
notice of this, and only laid his hand lightly on my left breast and I
felt very cold there for a while. Then he says, laughing more: 'Give me
your faith in women.' At that I started in my bed as though I had been
stung, for I thought of my sweet mother in England, and for a while
fancied that my faith in God's best creatures could neither be shaken
nor stolen from me. But later, Myself's hard eyes being upon me, I fell
to thinking, for the second time that night, of Kitty (she that jilted
me and married Tom Sanderson) and of Mistress Vansuythen, whom only my
devilish pride made me follow, and how she was even worse than Kitty,
and I worst of them all--seeing that with my life's work to be done, I
must needs go dancing down the Devil's swept and garnished causeway,
because, forsooth, there was a light woman's smile at the end of it. And
I thought that all women in the world were either like Kitty or Mistress
Vansuythen (as indeed they have ever since been to me) and this put me
to such an extremity of rage and sorrow, that I was beyond word glad
when Myself's hand fell again on my left breast, and I was no more
troubled by these follies.

After this he was silent for a little, and I made sure that he must go
or I awake ere long: but presently he speaks again (and very softly)
that I was a fool to care for such follies as those he had taken from
me, and that ere he went he would only ask me for a few other trifles
such as no man, or for matter of that boy either, would keep about him
in this country. And so it happened that he took from out of my very
heart as it were, looking all the time into my face with my own eyes, as
much as remained to me of my boy's soul and conscience. This was to me a
far more terrible loss than the two that I had suffered before. For
though, Lord help me, I had travelled far enough from all paths of
decent or godly living, yet there was in me, though I myself write it, a
certain goodness of heart which, when I was sober (or sick) made me very
sorry of all that I had done before the fit came on me. And this I lost
wholly: having in place thereof another deadly coldness at the heart. I
am not, as I have before said, ready with my pen, so I fear that what I
have just written may not be readily understood. Yet there be certain
times in a young man's life, when, through great sorrow or sin, all the
boy in him is burnt and seared away so that he passes at one step to the
more sorrowful state of manhood: as our staring Indian day changes into
night with never so much as the gray of twilight to temper the two
extremes. This shall perhaps make my state more clear, if it be
remembered that my torment was ten times as great as comes in the
natural course of nature to any man. At that time I dared not think of
the change that had come over me, and all in one night: though I have
often thought of it since. 'I have paid the price,' says I, my teeth
chattering, for I was deadly cold, 'and what is my return?' At this time
it was nearly dawn, and Myself had begun to grow pale and thin against
the white light in the east, as my mother used to tell me is the custom
of ghosts and devils and the like. He made as if he would go, but my
words stopt him and he laughed--as I remember that I laughed when I ran
Angus Macalister through the sword-arm last August, because he said that
Mrs. Vansuythen was no better than she should be. 'What return?'--says
he, catching up my last words--'Why, strength to live as long as God or
the Devil pleases, and so long as you live my young master, my gift.'
With that he puts something into my hand, though it was still too dark
to see what it was, and when next I lookt up he was gone.

When the light came I made shift to behold his gift, and saw that it was
a little piece of dry bread.

Rudyard Kipling