TOLD IN THE EAST
By Talbot Mundy
[[Original Book edition
published by Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1920.
Source of the following edition
is the omnibus "Romances of India" which
was a reprint of three of Talbot Mundy's novels.]]
Romances of India
By Talbot Mundy - King of the Khyber Rifles
- Guns of the Gods
- Told in the East
Hookum Hai.............1 For The Salt Which He Had Eaten............129
TOLD IN THE EAST
A Blood-red sun rested its huge disk upon a low mud wall that crested
a rise to westward, and flattened at the bottom from its own weight
apparently. A dozen dried-out false-acacia-trees shivered as the
faintest puff in all the world of stifling wind moved through them; and
a hundred thousand tiny squirrels kept up their aimless
search of food that was not there.
A coppersmith was about the only living thing that seemed to care
whether the sun went down or not. He seemed in a hurry to get a job
done, and his reiterated "Bong-bong-bong!"--that had never ceased since
sunrise, and had driven
nearly mad the few humans who were there to hear
it--quickened and grew louder. At last Brown came out of a square mud
house, to see about the sunset.
He was nobody but plain Bill Brown--or Sergeant William Brown, to give
him his full name and entitlements--and the price of him was two rupees
He stared straight at the dull red disk of the sun, and spat with
eloquence. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and scratched a
place where the prickly heat was bothering him. Next, he buttoned up
his tunic, and brushed it down neatly and precisely. There was official
business to be done, and a man did that with due formality, heat or no
"Guard, turn out!" he ordered.
Twelve men filed out, one behind the other, from the hut that he had
left. They seemed to feel the heat more than Brown did, as they fell in
line before Brown's sword. There was no flag, and no flag-pole in that
nameless health-resort, so the sword, without its scabbard, was doing
duty, point downward
in the ground, as a totem-pole of Empire. Brown had
stuck it there, like Boanerges' boots, and there it stayed from sunrise
until sunset, to be displaced by whoever
dared to do it, at his peril.
They had no clock. They had nothing, except the uniforms and arms of
the Honorable East India Company, as issued in this year of Our
Lord, 1857--a cooking-pot or two, a kettle, a little money and a
butcher-knife. Their supper bleated miserably
some twenty yards away,
tied to a tree, and a lean. Punjabi squatted near it in readiness
the skin. It was a big goat, but it was mangy, so he held only two annas
in his hand. The other anna (in case that Brown should prove adamant)
was twisted in the folds of his pugree, but he was prepared to perjure
himself a dozen times, and take the names of all his female
vain, before he produced it.
The sun flattened a little more at the bottom, and began to move
quickly, as it does in India--anxious apparently
to get away from the
day's ill deeds.
"Shoulder umms!" commanded Brown. "General salute! Present-umms!"
The red sun slid below the sky-line, and the night was on them, as
though somebody had shut the lid. Brown stepped to the sword, jerked it
out of the ground and returned it to his scabbard in three motions.
"Shoulder-umms! Order-umms! Dismiss!" The men filed back into the hut
again, disconsolately, without swearing and without mirth. They had
put the sun to bed with proper military decency. They would have seen
humor--perhaps--or an excuse for blasphemy
in the omission
of such a
detail, but it was much too hot to swear at the execution
Besides, Brown was a strange individual who detested swearing, and it
was a very useful thing, and wise, to humor him. He had a way of his
own, and usually got it.
Brown posted a sentry
at the hut-door, and another at the crossroads
which he was to guard, then went round behind the but to bargain
the goatskin-merchant. But he stopped before he reached the tree.
"Boy!" he called, and a low-caste native servant came toward him at a
"Is that fakir there still?"
"Ha? Can't you learn to say 'yes,' like a human being?"
"All right. I'm going to have a talk with him. Kill the goat, and tell
the Punjabi to wait, if he wants to buy the skin."
Brown spun round on his heel, and the servant wilted.
"Yes, sahib!" he corrected.
Brown left him then, with a nod that conveyed remission of cardinal
and a warning
not to repeat the offence. As the native ran off to get
the butcher-knife and sharpen
it, it was noticeable
that he wore a
"Send Sidiki after me!" Brown shouted after him, and a minute later a
nearly naked Beluchi struck a match and emerged from the darkness, with
the light of a lantern
gleaming on his skin. He followed like a snake,
and only Brown's sharp, authority-conveying footfalls could be heard as
he trudged sturdily--straight-backed, eyes straight in front of him--to
where an age-old baobab loomed like a phantom
in the night. He marched
like a man in armor. Not even the terrific
heat of a Central-Indian
night could take the stiffening out of him.
The Beluchi ran ahead, just before they reached the tree. He stopped and
held the lantern
up to let its light fall on some object that was close
against the tree-trunk. At a good ten-pace distance from the object
Brown stopped and stared. The lamplight fell on two little dots that
gleamed. Brown stepped two paces nearer. Two deadly, malicious
eyes blinked once, and then stared back at him.
"Does he never sleep?" asked Brown.
The Beluchi said something or other in a language that was full of harsh
hard gutturals, and the owner of the eyes chuckled. His voice seemed
to be coming from the tree itself, and there was nothing of him visible
except the cruel keen eyes that had not blinked once since Brown drew
"Sahib, he does not answer."
"Tell him I'm tired of his not answering. Tell him that if he can't
learn to give a civil answer to a civilly put question I'll exercise my
authority on him!"
The Beluchi translated, or pretended to. Brown was not sure which, for
he was rewarded with nothing but another chuckle, which sounded like
water gurgling down a drain.
"Does he still say nothing?"
"Absolutely nothing, sahib."
Brown stepped up closer yet, and peered into the blackness, looking
straight into the eyes that glared at him, and from them down at the
body of the owner of them. The Beluchi shrank
"Have a care, sahib! It is dangerous! This very holy--most holy--most
"Bring that lantern
"He will curse you, sahib!"
"Do you hear me?"
The Beluchi came nearer again, trembling with fright. Brown snatched the
lamp away from him, and pushed it forward toward the fakir, moving it
up and down to get a view of the whole of him. There was nothing that
he saw that would reassure
or comfort or please a devil even. It was
ultradevilish; both by design and accident--conceived and calculated
to India. Brown shuddered as he looked, and it
took more than the merely horrible
to make him betray
"What god do you say he worships?"
"Sahib, I know not. I am a Mussulman. These Hindus worship
The fakir chuckled again, and Brown held the lantern
yet nearer to him
to get a better view. The fakir's skin was not oily, and for all the
blanket-heat it did not glisten, so his form was barely
that was all but tangible behind him.
Brown spat again, as he drew away a step. He could contrive
and more grim determination
in that one rudimentary act
than even a Stamboul Softa can.
"So he's holy, is he?"
"Very, very holy, sahib!"
Again the fakir chuckled, and again Brown held his breath
and pushed the
lantern closer to him.
"I believe the brute understands the Queen's English!"
"He understanding all things, sahib! He knowing
all things what will
happen! Mind, sahib! He may curse you!"
But Brown appeared indifferent
to the danger that he ran. To the fakir's
unconcealed discomfort, he proceeded to examine him minutely, going over
him with the aid of the lantern
inch by inch, from the toe-nails upward.
"Well," he commented aloud, "if the army's got an opposite, here's it!
I'd give a month's pay for the privilege
of washing this brute, just as
The man's toe-nails--for he really was a man!--were at least two inches
long. They were twisted spirally, and some of them were curled back on
themselves into disgusting-looking knots. What walking he had ever done
had been on his heels. His feet were bent upward, and fixed upward, by a
His legs, twisted one above the other in a squatting attitude, were lean
and hairy, and covered with open sores which were kept open by the swarm
of insects that infested him. His loin-cloth was rotting from him. His
emaciated body--powdered and smeared with ashes and dust and worse--was
perched bolt-up-right on a flat earth dais that had once on a time been
of a crossroads idol. One arm, his right one, hung by
his side in an almost normal
attitude, and his right fingers moved
incessantly like a man's who is kneading clay. But his other arm was
rigid--straight up in the air above his head; set, fixed, cramped,
paralyzed in that position, with the fist clenched. And through the back
of the closed fist the fakir's nails were growing.
But, worse than the horror
of the arm was the creature's face, with
the evidence of torture
on it, and fiendish delight in torture
torture's sake. His eyes were his only organs that really lived still,
and they expressed the steely hate and cruelty, the mad fanaticism,
self-love--self-immolating for the sake of self--that is the
thoroughgoing fakir's stock in trade. And his lips were like the
graven lips of a Hindu temple
god, self-satisfied, self-worshiping,
contemptuous and cruel. He chuckled again, as Brown finished his
"So that crittur's holy, is he? Well, tell him that I'm set here to
watch these crossroads. Tell him I'm supposed
to question every one who
comes, and find out what his business is, and arrest
him if he can't
give a proper account
of himself. Say he's been here three days now, and
that that's long enough for any one to find his tongue in. Tell him if I
don't get an answer from him here and now I'll put him in the clink!"
"You tell him what I say, d'you hear?"
The Beluchi made haste to translate, trembling as he spoke, and wilting
visibly when the baleful eyes of the fakir rested on him for a second.
The fakir answered something in a guttural undertone.
"What does he say?"
"That he will curse you, sahib!"
"Sentry!" shouted Brown.
"Sir!" came the ready answer, and the sling-swivels of a rifle clicked
as the man on guard at the crossroads shouldered it. There are some men
who are called "sir" without any title to it, just as there are some
sergeants who receive a colonel's share of deference when out on a
non-commissioned officer's command. Bill Brown was one of them.
"Come here, will you!"
There came the sound of heavy footfalls, and a thud as a rifle-butt
descended to the earth again. Brown moved the lamp, and its beams fell
on a rifleman who stood close beside him at attention--like a jinnee
formed suddenly from empty blackness.
"Arrest this fakir. Cram him in the clink."
"Very good, sir!"
took one step forward, with his fixed bayonet
"charge," and the fakir sat still and eyed him.
"Oh, have a care, sahib!" wailed the Beluchi. "This is very holy man!"
"Silence!" ordered Brown. "Here. Hold the lamp."
The bayonet-point pressed against the fakir's ribs, and he drew back an
inch or two to get away from it. He was evidently
able to feel pain when
it was inflicted by any other than himself.
"Come on," growled the sentry. "Forward. Quick march. If you don't want
two inches in you!"
"Don't use the point!" commanded Brown. "You might do him an injury.
Treat him to a sample
of the butt!"
swung his rifle round with an under-handed motion
riflemen used to practise
in the short-range-rifle days. The fakir
winced, and gabbled something in a hurry to the man who held the lamp.
"He says that he will speak, sahib!"
"Halt, then," commanded Brown. "Order arms. Tell him to hurry up!"
The Beluchi translated, and the fakir answered him, in a voice that
sounded hard and distant and emotionless.
"He says that he, too, is here to watch the crossroads, sahib! He says
that he will curse you if you touch him!"
"Tell him to curse away!"
"He says not unless you touch him, sahib."
"Prog him off his perch!" commanded Brown.
The rifle leaped up at the word, and its butt landed neatly on the
fakir's ribs, sending him reeling backward
off his balance, but not
upsetting him completely. He recovered his poise with quite astonishing
activity, and shuffled himself back again to the center of the dais. His
eyes blazed with hate and indignation, and his breath
came now in sharp
gasps that sounded like escaping steam. He needed no further invitation
his cursing. It burst out with a rush, and paused for better
effect, and burst out again in a torrent. The Beluchi hid his face
between his hands.
that!" commanded Brown, when the fakir stopped for lack
"Sahib, I dare not! Sahib--"
Brown took a threatening step toward him, and the Beluchi changed his
mind. Brown's disciplining methods were a too recently encountered fact
to be outdone by a fakir's promise of any kind of not-yet-met damnation.
"Sahib, he says that because your man has touched him, both you and
your man shall lie within a week helpless
upon an anthill, still living,
while the ants run in and out among your wounds. He says that the ants
shall eat your eyes, sahib, and that you shall cry for water, and there
shall be no water within reach--only the sound of water just beyond you.
He says that first you shall be beaten, both of you, until your backs