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Ch. 24: The Return of Imray

The doors were wide, the story saith,
Out of the night came the patient wraith,
He might not speak, and he could not stir
A hair of the Baron's minniver---
Speechless and strengthless, a shadow thin,
He roved the castle to seek his kin.
And oh,'twas a piteous thing to see
The dumb ghost follow his enemy!
THE BARON.

Imray achieved the impossible. Without warning, for no conceivable
motive, in his youth, at the threshold of his career he chose to
disappear from the world---which is to say, the little Indian station
where he lived.

Upon a day he was alive, well, happy, and in great evidence among the
billiard-tables at his Club. Upon a morning, he was not, and no manner
of search could make sure where he might be. He had stepped out of his
place; he had not appeared at his office at the proper time, and his
dogcart was not upon the public roads. For these reasons, and because he
was hampering, in a microscopical degree, the administration of the
Indian Empire, that Empire paused for one microscopical moment to make
inquiry into the fate of Imray. Ponds were dragged, wells were plumbed,
telegrams were despatched down the lines of railways and to the nearest
seaport town-twelve hundred miles away; but Imray was not at the end of
the drag-ropes nor the telegraph wires. He was gone, and his place knew
him no more.

Then the work of the great Indian Empire swept forward, because it could
not be delayed, and Imray from being a man became a mystery--such a
thing as men talk over at their tables in the Club for a month, and then
forget utterly. His guns, horses, and carts were sold to the highest
bidder. His superior officer wrote an altogether absurd letter to his
mother, saying that Imray had unaccountably disappeared, and his
bungalow stood empty.

After three or four months of the scorching hot weather had gone by, my
friend Strickland, of the Police, saw fit to rent the bungalow from the
native landlord. This was before he was engaged to Miss Youghal--an
affair which has been described in another place--and while he was
pursuing his investigations into native life. His own life was
sufficiently peculiar, and men complained of his manners and customs.
There was always food in his house, but there were no regular times for
meals. He ate, standing up and walking about, whatever he might find at
the sideboard, and this is not good for human beings. His domestic
equipment was limited to six rifles, three shot-guns, five saddles, and
a collection of stiff-jointed mahseer-rods, bigger and stronger than the
largest salmon-rods. These occupied one-half of his bungalow, and the
other half was given up to Strickland and his dog Tietjens--an enormous
Rampur slut who devoured daily the rations of two men. She spoke to
Strickland in a language of her own; and whenever, walking abroad, she
saw things calculated to destroy the peace of Her Majesty the Queen-
Empress, she returned to her master and laid information. Strickland
would take steps at once, and the end of his labours was trouble and
fine and imprisonment for other people. The natives believed that
Tietjens was a familiar spirit, and treated her with the great reverence
that is born of hate and fear. One room in the bungalow was set apart
for her special use. She owned a bedstead, a blanket, and a drinking-
trough, and if any one came into Strickland's room at night her custom
was to knock down the invader and give tongue till some one came with a
light. Strickland owed his life to her, when he was on the Frontier, in
search of a local murderer, who came in the gray dawn to send Strickland
much farther than the Andaman Islands. Tietjens caught the man as he was
crawling into Strickland's tent with a dagger between his teeth; and
after his record of iniquity was established in the eyes of the law he
was hanged. From that date Tietjens wore a collar of rough silver, and
employed a monogram on her night-blanket; and the blanket was of double
woven Kashmir cloth, for she was a delicate dog.

Under no circumstances would she be separated from Strickland; and once,
when he was ill with fever, made great trouble for the doctors, because
she did not know how to help her master and would not allow another
creature to attempt aid. Macarnaght, of the Indian Medical Service, beat
her over her head with a gun-butt before she could understand that she
must give room for those who could give quinine.

A short time after Strickland had taken Imray's bungalow, my business
took me through that Station, and naturally, the Club quarters being
full, I quartered myself upon Strickland. It was a desirable bungalow,
eight-roomed and heavily thatched against any chance of leakage from
rain. Under the pitch of the roof ran a ceiling-cloth which looked just
as neat as a white-washed ceiling. The landlord had repainted it when
Strickland took the bungalow. Unless you knew how Indian bungalows were
built you would never have suspected that above the cloth lay the dark
three-cornered cavern of the roof, where the beams and the underside of
the thatch harboured all manner of rats, bats, ants, and foul things.

Tietjens met me in the verandah with a bay like the boom of the bell of
St. Paul's, putting her paws on my shoulder to show she was glad to see
me. Strickland had contrived to claw together a sort of meal which he
called lunch, and immediately after it was finished went out about his
business. I was left alone with Tietjens and my own affairs. The heat of
the summer had broken up and turned to the warm damp of the rains. There
was no motion in the heated air, but the rain fell like ramrods on the
earth, and flung up a blue mist when it splashed back. The bamboos, and
the custard-apples, the poinsettias, and the mango-trees in the garden
stood still while the warm water lashed through them, and the frogs
began to sing among the aloe hedges. A little before the light failed,
and when the rain was at its worst, I sat in the back verandah and heard
the water roar from the eaves, and scratched myself because I was
covered with the thing called prickly-heat. Tietjens came out with me
and put her head in my lap and was very sorrowful; so I gave her
biscuits when tea was ready, and I took tea in the back verandah on
account of the little coolness found there. The rooms of the house were
dark behind me. I could smell Strickland's saddlery and the oil on his
guns, and I had no desire to sit among these things. My own servant came
to me in the twilight, the muslin of his clothes clinging tightly to his
drenched body, and told me that a gentleman had called and wished to see
some one. Very much against my will, but only because of the darkness of
the rooms, I went into the naked drawing-room, telling my man to bring
the lights. There might or might not have been a caller waiting---it
seemed to me that I saw a figure by one of the windows---but when the
lights came there was nothing save the spikes of the rain without, and
the smell of the drinking earth in my nostrils. I explained to my
servant that he was no wiser than he ought to be, and went back to the
verandah to talk to Tietjens. She had gone out into the wet, and I could
hardly coax her back to me; even with biscuits with sugar tops.
Strickland came home, dripping wet, just before dinner, and the first
thing he said was.

'Has any one called?'

I explained, with apologies, that my servant had summoned me into the
drawing-room on a false alarm; or that some loafer had tried to call on
Strickland, and thinking better of it had fled after giving his name.
Strickiand ordered dinner, without comment, and since it was a real
dinner with a white tablecloth attached, we sat down.

At nine o'clock Strickland wanted to go to bed, and I was tired too.
Tietjens, who had been lying underneath the table, rose up, and swung
into the least exposed verandah as soon as her master moved to his own
room, which was next to the stately chamber set apart for Tietjens. If a
mere wife had wished to sleep out of doors in that pelting rain it would
not have mattered; but Tietjens was a dog, and therefore the better
animal. I looked at Strickland, expecting to see him flay her with a
whip. He smiled queerly, as a man would smile after telling some
unpleasant domestic tragedy. 'She has done this ever since I moved in
here,' said he. 'Let her go.'

The dog was Strickland's dog, so I said nothing, but I felt all that
Strickland felt In being thus made light of. Tietjens encamped outside
my bedroom window, and storm after storm came up, thundered on the
thatch, and died away. The lightning spattered the sky as a thrown egg
spatters a barn-door, but the light was pale blue, not yellow; and,
looking through my split bamboo blinds, I could see the great dog
standing, not sleeping, in the verandah, the hackles alift on her back
and her feet anchored as tensely as the drawn wire-rope of a suspension
bridge. In the very short pauses of the thunder I tried to sleep, but it
seemed that some one wanted me very urgently. He, whoever he was, was
trying to call me by name, but his voice was no more than a husky
whisper. The thunder ceased, and Tietjens went into the garden and
howled at the low moon. Somebody tried to open my door, walked about and
about through the house and stood breathing heavily in the verandahs,
and just when I was falling asleep I fancied that I heard a wild
hammering and clamouring above my head or on the door.

I ran into Strickland's room and asked him whether he was ill, and had
been calling for me. He was lying on his bed half dressed, a pipe in his
mouth. 'I thought you'd come,' he said. 'Have I been walking round the
house recently?'

I explained that he had been tramping in the dining-room and the
smoking-room and two or three other places, and he laughed and told me
to go back to bed. I went back to bed and slept till the morning, but
through all my mixed dreams I was sure I was doing some one an injustice
in not attending to his wants. What those wants were I could not tell;
but a fluttering, whispering, bolt-fumbling, lurking, loitering Someone
was reproaching me for my slackness, and, half awake, I heard the
howling of Tietjens in the garden and the threshing of the rain.

I lived in that house for two days. Strickland went to his office daily,
leaving me alone for eight or ten hours with Tietjens for my only
companion. As long as the full light lasted I was comfortable, and so
was Tietjens; but in the twilight she and I moved into the back verandah
and cuddled each other for company. We were alone in the house, but none
the less it was much too fully occupied by a tenant with whom I did not
wish to interfere. I never saw him, but I could see the curtains between
the rooms quivering where he had just passed through; I could hear the
chairs creaking as the bamboos sprung under a weight that had just
quitted them; and I could feel when I went to get a book from the
dining-room that somebody was waiting in the shadows of the front
verandah till I should have gone away. Tietjens made the twilight more
interesting by glaring into the darkened rooms with every hair erect,
and following the motions of something that I could not see. She never
entered the rooms, but her eyes moved interestedly: that was quite
sufficient. Only when my servant came to trim the lamps and make all
light and habitable she would come in with me and spend her time sitting
on her haunches, watching an invisible extra man as he moved about
behind my shoulder. Dogs are cheerful companions.

I explained to Strickland, gently as might be, that I would go over to
the Club and find for myself quarters there. I admired his hospitality,
was pleased with his guns and rods, but I did not much care for his
house and its atmosphere. He heard me out to the end, and then smiled
very wearily, but without contempt, for he is a man who understands
things. 'Stay on,' he said, 'and see what this thing means. All you have
talked about I have known since I took the bungalow. Stay on and wait.
Tietjens has left me. Are you going too?'

I had seen him through one little affair, connected with a heathen idol,
that had brought me to the doors of a lunatic asylum, and I had no
desire to help him through further experiences. He was a man to whom
unpleasantnesses arrived as do dinners to ordinary people.

Therefore I explained more clearly than ever that I liked him immensely,
and would be happy to see him in the daytime; but that I did not care to
sleep under his roof. This was after dinner, when Tietjens had gone out
to lie in the verandah.

''Pon my soul, I don't wonder,' said Strickland, with his eyes on the
ceiling-cloth. 'Look at that!'

The tails of two brown snakes were hanging between the cloth and the
cornice of the wall. They threw long shadows in the lamplight.

'If you are afraid of snakes of course--' said Strickland.

I hate and fear snakes, because if you look into the eyes of any snake
you will see that it knows all and more of the mystery of man's fall,
and that it feels all the contempt that the Devil felt when Adam was
evicted from Eden. Besides which its bite is generally fatal, and it
twists up trouser legs.

'You ought to get your thatch overhauled,' I said.

'Give me a mahseer-rod, and we'll poke 'em down.'

'They'll hide among the roof-beams,' said Strickland. 'I can't stand
snakes overhead. I'm going up into the roof. If I shake 'em down, stand
by with a cleaning-rod and break their backs.'

I was not anxious to assist Strickland in his work, but I took the
cleaning-rod and waited in the dining-room, while Strickland brought a
gardener's ladder from the verandah, and set it against the side of the
room.

The snake-tails drew themselves up and disappeared. We could hear the
dry rushing scuttle of long bodies running over the baggy ceiling-cloth.
Strickland took a lamp with him, while I tried to make clear to him the
danger of hunting roof-snakes between a ceiling-cloth and a thatch,
apart from the deterioration of property caused by ripping out ceiling-
cloths.

'Nonsense!' said Strickland. 'They're sure to hide near the walls by the
cloth. The bricks are too cold for 'em, and the heat of the room is just
what they like.' He put his hand to the corner of the stuff and ripped
it from the cornice. It gave with a great sound of tearing, and
Strickland put his head through the opening into the dark of the angle
of the roof-beams. I set my teeth and lifted the rod, for I had not the
least knowledge of what might descend.

'H'm!' said Strickland, and his voice rolled and rumbled in the roof.
'There's room for another set of rooms up here, and, by Jove, some one
is occupying 'em!'

'Snakes?' I said from below.

'No. It's a buffalo. Hand me up the two last joints of a mahseer-rod,
and I'll prod it. It's lying on the main roof-beam.'

I handed up the rod.

'What a nest for owls and serpents! No wonder the snakes live here,'
said Strickland, climbing farther into the roof. I could see his elbow
thrusting with the rod. 'Come out of that, whoever you are! Heads below
there! It's falling.'

I saw the ceiling-cloth nearly in the centre of the room bag with a
shape that was pressing it downwards and downwards towards the lighted
lamp on the table. I snatched the lamp out of danger and stood back.
Then the cloth ripped out from the walls, tore, split, swayed, and shot
down upon the table something that I dared not look at, till Strickland
had slid down the ladder and was standing by my side.

He did not say much, being a man of few words; but he picked up the
loose end of the tablecloth and threw it over the remnants on the table.

'It strikes me,' said he, putting down the lamp, 'our friend Imray has
come back. Oh! you would, would you?'

There was a movement under the cloth, and a little snake wriggled out,
to be back-broken by the butt of the mahseer-rod. I was sufficiently
sick to make no remarks worth recording.

Strickland meditated, and helped himself to drinks. The arrangement
under the cloth made no more signs of life.

'Is it Imray?' I said.

Strickland turned back the cloth for a moment, and looked.

'It is Imray,' he said; 'and his throat is cut from ear to ear.'

Then we spoke, both together and to ourselves: 'That's why he whispered
about the house.'

Tietjens, in the garden, began to bay furiously. A little later her
great nose heaved open the dining-room door.

She sniffed and was still. The tattered ceiling-cloth hung down almost
to the level of the table, and there was hardly room to move away from
the discovery.

Tietjens came in and sat down; her teeth bared under her lip and her
forepaws planted. She looked at Strickland.

'It's a bad business, old lady,' said he. 'Men don't climb up into the
roofs of their bungalows to die, and they don't fasten up the ceiling
cloth behind 'em. Let's think it out.'

'Let's think it out somewhere else,' I said.

'Excellent idea! Turn the lamps out. We'll get into my room.'

I did not turn the lamps out. I went into Strickland's room first, and
allowed him to make the darkness. Then he followed me, and we lit
tobacco and thought. Strickland thought. I smoked furiously, because I
was afraid.

'Imray is back,' said Strickland. 'The question is---who killed Imray?
Don't talk, I've a notion of my own. When I took this bungalow I took
over most of Imray's servants. Imray was guileless and inoffensive,
wasn't he?'

I agreed; though the heap under the cloth had looked neither one thing
nor the other.

'If I call in all the servants they will stand fast in a crowd and lie
like Aryans. What do you suggest?'

'Call 'em in one by one,' I said.

'They'll run away and give the news to all their fellows,' said
Strickland. 'We must segregate 'em. Do you suppose your servant knows
anything about it?'

'He may, for aught I know; but I don't think it's likely. He has only
been here two or three days,' I answered. 'What's your notion?'

'I can't quite tell. How the dickens did the man get the wrong side of
the ceiling-cloth?'

There was a heavy coughing outside Strickland's bedroom door. This
showed that Bahadur Khan, his body-servant, had waked from sleep and
wished to put Strickland to bed.

'Come in,' said Strickland. 'It's a very warm night, isn't it?'

Bahadur Khan, a great, green-turbaned, six-foot Mahomedan, said that it
was a very warm night; but that there was more rain pending, which, by
his Honour's favour, would bring relief to the country.

'It will be so, if God pleases,' said Strickland, tugging off his boots.
'It is in my mind, Bahadur Khan, that I have worked thee remorselessly
for many days---ever since that time when thou first earnest into my
service. What time was that?'

'Has the Heaven-born forgotten? It was when Imray Sahib went secretly to
Europe without warning given; and I-even I-came into the honoured
service of the protector of the poor.'

'And Imray Sahib went to Europe?'

'It is so said among those who were his servants.'

'And thou wilt take service with him when he returns?'

'Assuredly, Sahib. He was a good master, and cherished his dependants.'

'That is true. I am very tired, but I go buck-shooting to-morrow. Give
me the little sharp rifle that I use for black-buck; it is in the case
yonder.'

The man stooped over the case; handed barrels, stock, and fore-end to
Strickland, who fitted all together, yawning dolefully. Then he reached
down to the gun-case, took a solid-drawn cartridge, and slipped it into
the breech of the '360 Express.

'And Imray Sahib has gone to Europe secretly! That is very strange,
Bahadur Khan, is it not?'

'What do I know of the ways of the white man. Heaven-born?'

'Very little, truly. But thou shalt know more anon. It has reached me
that Imray Sahib has returned from his so long journeyings, and that
even now he lies in the next room, waiting his servant.'

'Sahib!'

The lamplight slid along the barrels of the rifle as they levelled
themselves at Bahadur Khan's broad breast.

'Go and look!'said Strickland. 'Take a lamp. Thy master is tired, and he
waits thee. Go!'

The man picked up a lamp, and went into the dining-room, Strickland
following, and almost pushing him with the muzzle of the rifle. He
looked for a moment at the black depths behind the ceiling-cloth; at the
writhing snake under foot; and last, a gray glaze settling on his face,
at the thing under the tablecloth.

'Hast thou seen?' said Strickland after a pause.

'I have seen. I am clay in the white man's hands. What does the Presence
do?'

'Hang thee within the month. What else?'

'For killing him? Nay, Sahib, consider. Walking among us, his servants,
he cast his eyes upon my child, who was four years old. Him he
bewitched, and in ten days he died of the fever--my child!'

'What said Imray Sahib?'

'He said he was a handsome child, and patted him on the head; wherefore
my child died. Wherefore I killed Imray Sahib in the twilight, when he
had come back from office, and was sleeping. Wherefore I dragged him up
into the roof-beams and made all fast behind him. The Heaven-born knows
all things. I am the servant of the Heaven-born.'

Strickland looked at me above the rifle, and said, in the vernacular,
'Thou art witness to this saying? He has killed.'

Bahadur Khan stood ashen gray in the light of the one lamp. The need for
justification came upon him very swiftly. 'I am trapped,' he said, 'but
the offence was that man's. He cast an evil eye upon my child, and I
killed and hid him. Only such as are served by devils,' he glared at
Tietjens, couched stolidly before him, 'only such could know what I
did.'

'It was clever. But thou shouldst have lashed him to the beam with a
rope. Now, thou thyself wilt hang by a rope. Orderly!'

A drowsy policeman answered Strickland's call. He was followed by
another, and Tietjens sat wondrous still.

'Take him to the police-station,' said Strickland. 'There is a case
toward.'

'Do I hang, then?' said Bahadur Khan, making no attempt to escape, and
keeping his eyes on the ground.

'If the sun shines or the water runs--yes!' said Strickland.

Bahadur Khan stepped back one long pace, quivered, and stood still. The
two policemen waited further orders.

'Go!'said Strickland.

'Nay; but I go very swiftly,' said Bahadur Khan. 'Look! I am even now a
dead man.'

He lifted his foot, and to the little toe there clung the head of the
half-killed snake, firm fixed in the agony of death.

'I come of land-holding stock,' said Bahadur Khan, rocking where he
stood. 'It were a disgrace to me to go to the public scaffold: therefore
I take this way. Be it remembered that the Sahib's shirts are correctly
enumerated, and that there is an extra piece of soap in his washbasin.
My child was bewitched, and I slew the wizard. Why should you seek to
slay me with the rope? My honour is saved, and--and--I die.'

At the end of an hour he died, as they die who are bitten by the little
brown karait, and the policemen bore him and the thing under the
tablecloth to their appointed places. All were needed to make clear the
disappearance of Imray.

'This,' said Strickland, very calmly, as he climbed into bed, 'is called
the nineteenth century. Did you hear what that man said?'

'I heard,' I answered. 'Imray made a mistake.'

'Simply and solely through not knowing the nature of the Oriental, and
the coincidence of a little seasonal fever. Bahadur Khan had been with
him for four years.'

I shuddered. My own servant had been with me for exactly that length of
time. When I went over to my own room I found my man waiting, impassive
as the copper head on a penny, to pull off my boots.

'What has befallen Bahadur Khan?' said I.

'He was bitten by a snake and died. The rest the Sahib knows,' was the
answer.

'And how much of this matter hast thou known?'

'As much as might be gathered from One coming in in the twilight to seek
satisfaction. Gently, Sahib. Let me pull off those boots.'

I had just settled to the sleep of exhaustion when I heard Strickland
shouting from his side of the house--

'Tietjens has come back to her place!'

And so she had. The great deerhound was couched statelily on her own
bedstead on her own blanket, while, in the next room, the idle, empty,
ceiling-cloth waggled as it trailed on the table.

Rudyard Kipling