Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 23: The Mark of the Beast


Your Gods and my Gods-do you or I know which are the stronger? Native
Proverb.

EAST of Suez, some hold, the direct control of Providence ceases; Man
being there handed over to the power of the Gods and Devils of Asia, and
the Church of England Providence only exercising an occasional and
modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.

This theory accounts for some of the more unnecessary horrors of life in
India: it may be stretched to explain my story.

My friend Strickland of the Police, who knows as much of natives of
India as is good for any man, can bear witness to the facts of the case.
Dumoise, our doctor, also saw what Strickland and I saw. The inference
which he drew from the evidence was entirely incorrect. He is dead now;
he died, in a rather curious manner, which has been elsewhere described.

When Fleete came to India he owned a little money and some land in the
Himalayas, near a place called Dharmsala. Both properties had been left
him by an uncle, and he came out to finance them. He was a big, heavy,
genial, and inoffensive man. His knowledge of natives was, of course,
limited, and he complained of the difficulties of the language.

He rode in from his place in the hills to spend New Year in the station,
and he stayed with Strickland. On New Year's Eve there was a big dinner
at the club, and the night was excusably wet. When men foregather from
the uttermost ends of the Empire, they have a right to be riotous. The
Frontier had sent down a contingent o' Catch-'em-Alive-O's who had not
seen twenty white faces for a year, and were used to ride fifteen miles
to dinner at the next Fort at the risk of a Khyberee bullet where their
drinks should lie. They profited by their new security, for they tried
to play pool with a curled-up hedgehog found in the garden, and one of
them carried the marker round the room in his teeth. Half a dozen
planters had come in from the south and were talking 'horse' to the
Biggest Liar in Asia, who was trying to cap all their stories at once.
Everybody was there, and there was a general closing up of ranks and
taking stock of our losses in dead or disabled that had fallen during
the past year. It was a very wet night, and I remember that we sang
'Auld Lang Syne' with our feet in the Polo Championship Cup, and our
heads among the stars, and swore that we were all dear friends. Then
some of us went away and annexed Burma, and some tried to open up the
Soudan and were opened up by Fuzzies in that cruel scrub outside Suakim,
and some found stars and medals, and some were married, which was bad,
and some did other things which were worse, and the others of us stayed
in our chains and strove to make money on insufficient experiences.

Fleete began the night with sherry and bitters, drank champagne steadily
up to dessert, then raw, rasping Capri with all the strength of whisky,
took Benedictine with his coffee, four or five whiskies and sodas to
improve his pool strokes, beer and bones at half-past two, winding up
with old brandy. Consequently, when he came out, at half-past three in
the morning, into fourteen degrees of frost, he was very angry with his
horse for coughing, and tried to leapfrog into the saddle. The horse
broke away and went to his stables; so Strickland and I formed a Guard
of Dishonour to take Fleete home.

Our road lay through the bazaar, close to a little temple of Hanuman,
the Monkey-god, who is a leading divinity worthy of respect. All gods
have good points, just as have all priests. Personally, I attach much
importance to Hanuman, and am kind to his people--the great gray apes of
the hills. One never knows when one may want a friend.

There was a light in the temple, and as we passed, we could hear voices
of men chanting hymns. In a native temple, the priests rise at all hours
of the night to do honour to their god. Before we could stop him, Fleete
dashed up the steps, patted two priests on the back, and was gravely
grinding the ashes of his cigar-butt into the forehead of the red stone
image of Hanuman. Strickland tried to drag him out, but he sat down and
said solemnly:

'Shee that? 'Mark of the B-beasht! _I_ made it. Ishn't it fine?'

In half a minute the temple was alive and noisy, and Strickland, who
knew what came of polluting gods, said that things might occur. He, by
virtue of his official position, long residence in the country, and
weakness for going among the natives, was known to the priests and he
felt unhappy. Fleete sat on the ground and refused to move. He said that
'good old Hanuman' made a very soft pillow.

Then, without any warning, a Silver Man came out of a recess behind the
image of the god. He was perfectly naked in that bitter, bitter cold,
and his body shone like frosted silver, for he was what the Bible calls
'a leper as white as snow.' Also he had no face, because he was a leper
of some years' standing and his disease was heavy upon him. We two
stooped to haul Fleete up, and the temple was filling and filling with
folk who seemed to spring from the earth, when the Silver Man ran in
under our arms, making a noise exactly like the mewing of an otter,
caught Fleete round the body and dropped his head on Fleete's breast
before we could wrench him away. Then he retired to a corner and sat
mewing while the crowd blocked all the doors.

The priests were very angry until the Silver Man touched Fleete. That
nuzzling seemed to sober them.

At the end of a few minutes' silence one of the priests came to
Strickland and said, in perfect English, 'Take your friend away. He has
done with Hanuman, but Hanurnan has not done with him.' The crowd gave
room and we carried Fleete into the road.

Strickland was very angry. He said that we might all three have been
knifed, and that Fleete should thank his stars that he had escaped
without injury.

Fleete thanked no one. He said that he wanted to go to bed. He was
gorgeously drunk.

We moved on, Strickland silent and wrathful, until Fleete was taken with
violent shivering fits and sweating. He said that the smells of the
bazaar were overpowering, and he wondered why slaughter-houses were
permitted so near English residences. 'Can't you smell the blood?' said
Fleete.

We put him to bed at last, just as the dawn was breaking, and Strickland
invited me to have another whisky and soda. While we were drinking he
talked of the trouble in the temple, and admitted that it baffled him
completely. Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his
business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons. He has not
yet succeeded in doing this, but in fifteen or twenty years he will have
made some small progress.

'They should have mauled us,' he said, 'instead of mewing at us. I
wonder what they meant. I don't like it one little bit.'

I said that the Managing Committee of the temple would in all
probability bring a criminal action against us for insulting their
religion. There was a section of the Indian Penal Code which exactly met
Fleete's offence. Strickland said he only hoped and prayed that they
would do this. Before I left I looked into Fleete's room, and saw him
lying on his right side, scratching his left breast. Then. I went to bed
cold, depressed, and unhappy, at seven o'clock in the morning.

At one o'clock I rode over to Strickland's house to inquire after
Fleete's head. I imagined that it would be a sore one. Fleete was
breakfasting and seemed unwell. His temper was gone, for he was abusing
the cook for not supplying him with an underdone chop. A man who can eat
raw meat after a wet night is a curiosity. I told Fleete this and he
laughed.

'You breed queer mosquitoes in these parts,' he said. 'I've been bitten
to pieces, but only in one place.'

'Let's have a look at the bite,' said Strickland. 'It may have gone down
since this morning.'

While the chops were being cooked, Fleete opened his shirt and showed
us, just over his left breast, a mark, the perfect double of the black
rosettes--the five or six irregular blotches arranged in a circle--on
a leopard's hide. Strickland looked and said, 'It was only pink this
morning. It's grown black now.'

Fleete ran to a glass.

'By Jove!' he said,' this is nasty. What is it?'

We could not answer. Here the chops came in, all red and juicy, and
Fleete bolted three in a most offensive manner. He ate on his right
grinders only, and threw his head over his right shoulder as he snapped
the meat. When he had finished, it struck him that he had been behaving
strangely, for he said apologetically, 'I don't think I ever felt so
hungry in my life. I've bolted like an ostrich.'

After breakfast Strickland said to me, 'Don't go. Stay here, and stay
for the night.'

Seeing that my house was not three miles from Strickland's, this request
was absurd. But Strickland insisted, and was going to say something when
Fleete interrupted by declaring in a shamefaced way that he felt hungry
again. Strickland sent a man to my house to fetch over my bedding and a
horse, and we three went down to Strickland's stables to pass the hours
until it was time to go out for a ride. The man who has a weakness for
horses never wearies of inspecting them; and when two men are killing
time in this way they gather knowledge and lies the one from the other.

There were five horses in the stables, and I shall never forget the
scene as we tried to look them over. They seemed to have gone mad. They
reared and screamed and nearly tore up their pickets; they sweated and
shivered and lathered and were distraught with fear. Strickland's horses
used to know him as well as his dogs; which made the matter more
curious. We left the stable for fear of the brutes throwing themselves
in their panic. Then Strickland turned back and called me. The horses
were still frightened, but they let us 'gentle' and make much of them,
and put their heads in our bosoms.

'They aren't afraid of US,' said Strickland. 'D'you know, I'd give three
months' pay if OUTRAGE here could talk.'

But Outrage was dumb, and could only cuddle up to his master and blow
out his nostrils, as is the custom of horses when they wish to explain
things but can't. Fleete came up when we were in the stalls, and as soon
as the horses saw him, their fright broke out afresh. It was all that we
could do to escape from the place unkicked. Strickland said, 'They don't
seem to love you, Fleete.'

'Nonsense,' said Fleete;'my mare will follow me like a dog.' He went to
her; she was in a loose-box; but as he slipped the bars she plunged,
knocked him down, and broke away into the garden. I laughed, but
Strickland was not amused. He took his moustache in both fists and
pulled at it till it nearly came out. Fleete, instead of going off to
chase his property, yawned, saying that he felt sleepy. He went to the
house to lie down, which was a foolish way of spending New Year's Day.

Strickland sat with me in the stables and asked if I had noticed
anything peculiar in Fleete's manner. I said that he ate his food like a
beast; but that this might have been the result of living alone in the
hills out of the reach of society as refined and elevating as ours for
instance. Strickland was not amused. I do not think that he listened to
me, for his next sentence referred to the mark on Fleete's breast, and I
said that it might have been caused by blister-flies, or that it was
possibly a birth-mark newly born and now visible for the first time. We
both agreed that it was unpleasant to look at, and Strickland found
occasion to say that I was a fool.

'I can't tell you what I think now,' said he, 'because you would call me
a madman; but you must stay with me for the next few days, if you can. I
want you to watch Fleete, but don't tell me what you think till I have
made up my mind.'

'But I am dining out to-night,' I said. 'So am I,' said Strickland, 'and
so is Fleete. At least if he doesn't change his mind.'

We walked about the garden smoking, but saying nothing--because we were
friends, and talking spoils good tobacco--till our pipes were out. Then
we went to wake up Fleete. He was wide awake and fidgeting about his
room.

'I say, I want some more chops,' he said. 'Can I get them?'

We laughed and said, 'Go and change. The ponies will be round in a
minute.'

'All right,' said Fleete. I'll go when I get the chops--underdone ones,
mind.'

He seemed to be quite in earnest. It was four o'clock, and we had had
breakfast at one; still, for a long time, he demanded those underdone
chops. Then he changed into riding clothes and went out into the
verandah. His pony--the mare had not been caught--would not let him come
near. All three horses were unmanageable---mad with fear---and finally
Fleete said that he would stay at home and get something to eat.
Strickland and I rode out wondering. As we passed the temple of Hanuman,
the Silver Man came out and mewed at us.

'He is not one of the regular priests of the temple,' said Strickland.
'I think I should peculiarly like to lay my hands on him.'

There was no spring in our gallop on the racecourse that evening. The
horses were stale, and moved as though they had been ridden out.

'The fright after breakfast has been too much for them,' said
Strickland.

That was the only remark he made through the remainder of the ride. Once
or twice I think he swore to himself; but that did not count.

We came back in the dark at seven o'clock, and saw that there were no
lights in the bungalow. 'Careless ruffians my servants are!' said
Strickland.

My horse reared at something on the carriage drive, and Fleete stood up
under its nose.

'What are you doing, grovelling about the garden?' said Strickland.

But both horses bolted and nearly threw us. We dismounted by the stables
and returned to Fleete, who was on his hands and knees under the orange-
bushes.

'What the devil's wrong with you?' said Strickland.

'Nothing, nothing in the world,' said Fleete, speaking very quickly and
thickly. 'I've been gardening-botanising you know. The smell of the
earth is delightful. I think I'm going for a walk-a long walk-all
night.'

Then I saw that there was something excessively out of order somewhere,
and I said to Strickland, 'I am not dining out.'

'Bless you!' said Strickland. 'Here, Fleete, get up. You'll catch fever
there. Come in to dinner and let's have the lamps lit. We 'll all dine
at home.'

Fleete stood up unwillingly, and said, 'No lamps-no lamps. It's much
nicer here. Let's dine outside and have some more chops-lots of 'em and
underdone--bloody ones with gristle.'

Now a December evening in Northern India is bitterly cold, and Fleete's
suggestion was that of a maniac.

'Come in,' said Strickland sternly. 'Come in at once.'

Fleete came, and when the lamps were brought, we saw that he was
literally plastered with dirt from head to foot. He must have been
rolling in the garden. He shrank from the light and went to his room.
His eyes were horrible to look at. There was a green light behind them,
not in them, if you understand, and the man's lower lip hung down.

Strickland said, 'There is going to be trouble-big trouble-to-night.
Don't you change your riding-things.'

We waited and waited for Fleete's reappearance, and ordered dinner in
the meantime. We could hear him moving about his own room, but there was
no light there. Presently from the room came the long-drawn howl of a
wolf.

People write and talk lightly of blood running cold and hair standing up
and things of that kind. Both sensations are too horrible to be trifled
with. My heart stopped as though a knife had been driven through it, and
Strickland turned as white as the tablecloth.

The howl was repeated, and was answered by another howl far across the
fields.

That set the gilded roof on the horror. Strickland dashed into Fleete's
room. I followed, and we saw Fleete getting out of the window. He made
beast-noises in the back of his throat. He could not answer us when we
shouted at him. He spat.

I don't quite remember what followed, but I think that Strickland must
have stunned him with the long boot-jack or else I should never have
been able to sit on his chest. Fleete could not speak, he could only
snarl, and his snarls were those of a wolf, not of a man. The human
spirit must have been giving way all day and have died out with the
twilight. We were dealing with a beast that had once been Fleete.

The affair was beyond any human and rational experience. I tried to say
'Hydrophobia,' but the word wouldn't come, because I knew that I was
lying.

We bound this beast with leather thongs of the punkah-rope, and tied its
thumbs and big toes together, and gagged it with a shoe-horn, which
makes a very efficient gag if you know how to arrange it. Then we
carried it into the dining-room, and sent a man to Dumoise, the doctor,
telling him to come over at once. After we had despatched the messenger
and were drawing breath, Strickland said, 'It's no good. This isn't any
doctor's work.' I, also, knew that he spoke the truth.

The beast's head was free, and it threw it about from side to side. Any
one entering the room would have believed that we were curing a wolf's
pelt. That was the most loathsome accessory of all.

Strickland sat with his chin in the heel of his fist, watching the beast
as it wriggled on the ground, but saying nothing. The shirt had been
torn open in the scuffle and showed the black rosette mark on the left
breast. It stood out like a blister.

In the silence of the watching we heard something without mewing like a
she-otter. We both rose to our feet, and, I answer for myself, not
Strickland, felt sick--actually and physically sick. We told each other,
as did the men in Pinafore, that it was the cat.

Dumoise arrived, and I never saw a little man so unprofessionally
shocked. He said that it was a heart-rending case of hydrophobia, and
that nothing could be done. At least any palliative measures would only
prolong the agony. The beast was foaming at the mouth. Fleete, as we
told Dumoise, had been bitten by dogs once or twice. Any man who keeps
half a dozen terriers must expect a nip now and again. Dumoise could
offer no help. He could only certify that Fleete was dying of
hydrophobia. The beast was then howling, for it had managed to spit out
the shoe-horn. Dumoise said that he would be ready to certify to the
cause of death, and that the end was certain. He was a good little man,
and he offered to remain with us; but Strickland refused the kindness.
He did not wish to poison Dumoise's New Year. He would only ask him not
to give the real cause of Fleete's death to the public.

So Dumoise left, deeply agitated; and as soon as the noise of the cart-
wheels had died away, Strickland told me, in a whisper, his suspicions.
They were so wildly improbable that he dared not say them out aloud; and
I, who entertained all Strickland's beliefs, was so ashamed of owning to
them that I pretended to disbelieve.

'Even if the Silver Man had bewtiched Fleete for polluting the image of
Hanuman, the punishment could not have fallen so quickly.'

As I was whispering this the cry outside the house rose again, and the
beast fell into a fresh paroxysm of struggling till we were afraid that
the thongs that held it would give way.

'Watch!' said Strickland. 'If this happens six times I shall take the
law into my own hands. I order you to help me.'

He went into his room and came out in a few minutes with the barrels of
an old shot-gun, a piece of fishing-line, some thick cord, and his heavy
wooden bedstead. I reported that the convulsions had followed the cry by
two seconds in each case, and the beast seemed perceptibly weaker.

Strickland muttered, 'But he can't take away the life! He can't take
away the life!'

I said, though I knew that I was arguing against myself, 'It may be a
cat. It must be a cat. If the Silver Man is responsible, why does he
dare to come here?'

Strickland arranged the wood on the hearth, put the gun-barrels into the
glow of the fire, spread the twine on the table and broke a walking
stick in two. There was one yard of fishing line, gut, lapped with wire,
such as is used for mahseer-fishing, and he tied the two ends together
in a loop.

Then he said, 'How can we catch him? He must be taken alive and unhurt.'

I said that we must trust in Providence, and go out softly with polo-
sticks into the shrubbery at the front of the house. The man or animal
that made the cry was evidently moving round the house as regularly as a
night-watchman. We could wait in the bushes till he came by and
knock him over.

Strickland accepted this suggestion, and we slipped out from a bath-room
window into the front verandah and then across the carriage drive into
the bushes.

In the moonlight we could see the leper coming round the corner of the
house. He was perfectly naked, and from time to time he mewed and
stopped to dance with his shadow. It was an unattractive sight, and
thinking of poor Fleete, brought to such degradation by so foul a
creature, I put away all my doubts and resolved to help Strickland from
the heated gun-barrels to the loop of twine-from the loins to the head
and back again---with all tortures that might be needful.

The leper halted in the front porch for a moment and we jumped out on
him with the sticks. He was wonderfully strong, and we were afraid that
he might escape or be fatally injured before we caught him. We had an
idea that lepers were frail creatures, but this proved to be incorrect.
Strickland knocked his legs from under him and I put my foot on his
neck. He mewed hideously, and even through my riding-boots I could feel
that his flesh was not the flesh of a clean man.

He struck at us with his hand and feet-stumps. We looped the lash of a
dog-whip round him, under the armpits, and dragged him backwards into
the hall and so into the dining-room where the beast lay. There we tied
him with trunk-straps. He made no attempt to escape, but mewed.

When we confronted him with the beast the scene was beyond description.
The beast doubled backwards into a bow as though he had been poisoned
with strychnine, and moaned in the most pitiable fashion. Several other
things happened also, but they cannot be put down here.

'I think I was right,' said Strickland. 'Now we will ask him to cure
this case.'

But the leper only mewed. Strickland wrapped a towel round his hand and
took the gun-barrels out of the fire. I put the half of the broken
walking stick through the loop of fishing-line and buckled the leper
comfortably to Strickland's bedstead. I understood then how men and
women and little children can endure to see a witch burnt alive; for the
beast was moaning on the floor, and though the Silver Man had no face,
you could see horrible feelings passing through the slab that took its
place, exactly as waves of heat play across red-hot iron--gun-barrels
for instance.

Strickland shaded his eyes with his hands for a moment and we got to
work. This part is not to be printed.

The dawn was beginning to break when the leper spoke. His mewings had
not been satisfactory up to that point. The beast had fainted from
exhaustion and the house was very still. We unstrapped the leper and
told him to take away the evil spirit. He crawled to the beast and laid
his hand upon the left breast. That was all. Then he fell face down and
whined, drawing in his breath as he did so.

We watched the face of the beast, and saw the soul of Fleete coming back
into the eyes. Then a sweat broke out on the forehead and the eyes-they
were human eyes---closed. We waited for an hour but Fleete still slept.
We carried him to his room and bade the leper go, giving him the
bedstead, and the sheet on the bedstead to cover his nakedness, the
gloves and the towels with which we had touched him, and the whip that
had been hooked round his body. He put the sheet about him and went out
into the early morning without speaking or mewing.

Strickland wiped his face and sat down. A night-gong, far away in the
city, made seven o'clock.

'Exactly four-and-twenty hours!' said Strickland. 'And I've done enough
to ensure my dismissal from the service, besides permanent quarters in a
lunatic asylum. Do you believe that we are awake?'

The red-hot gun-barrel had fallen on the floor and was singeing the
carpet. The smell was entirely real.

That morning at eleven we two together went to wake up Fleete. We looked
and saw that the black leopard-rosette on his chest had disappeared. He
was very drowsy and tired, but as soon as he saw us, he said, 'Oh!
Confound you fellows. Happy New Year to you. Never mix your liquors. I'm
nearly dead.'

'Thanks for your kindness, but you're over time,' said Strickland. 'To-
day is the morning of the second. You've slept the clock round with a
vengeance.'

The door opened, and little Dumoise put his head in. He had come on
foot, and fancied that we were laving out Fleete.

'I've brought a nurse,' said Dumoise. 'I suppose that she can come in
for... what is necessary.'

'By all means,' said Fleete cheerily, sitting up in bed. 'Bring on your
nurses.'

Dumoise was dumb. Strickland led him out and explained that there must
have been a mistake in the diagnosis. Dumoise remained dumb and left the
house hastily. He considered that his professional reputation had been
injured, and was inclined to make a personal matter of the recovery.
Strickland went out too. When he came back, he said that he had been to
call on the Temple of Hanuman to offer redress for the pollution of the
god, and had been solemnly assured that no white man had ever touched
the idol and that he was an incarnation of all the virtues labouring
under a delusion.

'What do you think?' said Strickland.

I said, '"There are more things . . ."'

But Strickland hates that quotation. He says that I have worn it
threadbare.

One other curious thing happened which frightened me as much as anything
in all the night's work. When Fleete was dressed he came into the
dining-room and sniffed. He had a quaint trick of moving his nose when
he sniffed. 'Horrid doggy smell, here,' said he. 'You should really keep
those terriers of yours in better order. Try sulphur, Strick.'

But Strickland did not answer. He caught hold of the back of a chair,
and, without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics. It is
terrible to see a strong man overtaken with hysteria. Then it struck me
that we had fought for Fleete's soul with the Silver Man in that room,
and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and
gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as Strickland, while Fleete
thought that we had both gone mad. We never told him what we had done.

Some years later, when Strickland had married and was a church-going
member of society for his wife's sake, we reviewed the incident
dispassionately, and Strickland suggested that I should put it before
the public.

I cannot myself see that this step is likely to clear up the mystery;
because, in the first place, no one will believe a rather unpleasant
story, and, in the second, it is well known to every right-minded man
that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to
deal with them otherwise is justly condemned.

Rudyard Kipling