In the room next to the one in which we boys used to sleep, there hung a human skeleton. In the night it would rattle in the breeze which played about its bones. In the day these bones were rattled by us. We were taking lessons in osteology from a student in the Campbell Medical School, for our guardians were determined to make us masters of all the sciences. How far they succeeded we need not tell those who know us; and it is better hidden from those who do not.
Many years have passed since then. In the meantime the skeleton has vanished from the room, and the science of osteology from our brains, leaving no trace behind.
The other day, our house was crowded with guests, and I had to pass the night in the same old room. In these now unfamiliar surroundings, sleep refused to come, and, as I tossed from side to side, I heard all the hours of the night chimed, one after another, by the church clock near by. At length the lamp in the corner of the room, after some minutes of choking and spluttering, went out altogether. One or two bereavements had recently happened in the family, so the going out of the lamp naturally led me to thoughts of death. In the great arena of nature, I thought, the light of a lamp losing itself in eternal darkness, and the going out of the light of our little human lives, by day or by night, were much the same thing.
My train of thought recalled to my mind the skeleton. While I was trying to imagine what the body which had clothed it could have been like, it suddenly seemed to me that something was walking round and round my bed, groping along the walls of the room. I could hear its rapid breathing. It seemed as if it was searching for something which it could not find, and pacing round the room with ever-hastier steps. I felt quite sure that this was a mere fancy of my sleepless, excited brain; and that the throbbing of the veins in my temples was really the sound which seemed like running footsteps. Nevertheless, a cold shiver ran all over me. To help to get rid of this hallucination, I called out aloud: ‘Who is there?’ The footsteps seemed to stop at my bedside, and the reply came: ‘It is I. I have come to look for that skeleton of mine.’
It seemed absurd to show any fear before the creature of my own imagination; so, clutching my pillow a little more tightly, I said in a casual sort of way: ‘A nice business for this time of night! Of what use will that skeleton be to you now?’
The reply seemed to come almost from my mosquito-curtain itself. ‘What a question! In that skeleton were the bones that encircled my heart; the youthful charm of my six-and-twenty years bloomed about it. Should I not desire to see it once more?’
‘Of course,’ said I, ‘a perfectly reasonable desire. Well, go on with your search, while I try to get a little sleep.’
Said the voice: ‘But I fancy you are lonely. All right; I’ll sit down a while, and we will have a little chat. Years ago I used to sit by men and talk to them. But during the last thirty-five years I have only moaned in the wind in the burning-places of the dead. I would talk once more with a man as in the old times.’
I felt that some one sat down just near my curtain. Resigning myself to the situation, I replied with as much cordiality as I could summon: ‘That will be very nice indeed. Let us talk of something cheerful.’
‘The funniest thing I can think of is my own life-story. Let me tell you that.’
The church clock chimed the hour of two.
‘When I was in the land of the living, and young, I feared one thing like death itself, and that was my husband. My feelings can be likened only to those of a fish caught with a hook. For it was as if a stranger had snatched me away with the sharpest of hooks from the peaceful calm of my childhood’s home—and from him I had no means of escape. My husband died two months after my marriage, and my friends and relations moaned pathetically on my behalf. My husband’s father, after scrutinising my face with great care, said to my mother-in-law: “Do you not see, she has the evil eye?”—Well, are you listening? I hope you are enjoying the story?’
‘Very much indeed!’ said I. ‘The beginning is extremely humorous.’
‘Let me proceed then. I came back to my father’s house in great glee. People tried to conceal it from me, but I knew well that I was endowed with a rare and radiant beauty. What is your opinion?’
‘Very likely,’ I murmured. ‘But you must remember that I never saw you.’
‘What! Not seen me? What about that skeleton of mine? Ha! ha! ha! Never mind. I was only joking. How can I ever make you believe that those two cavernous hollows contained the brightest of dark, languishing eyes? And that the smile which was revealed by those ruby lips had no resemblance whatever to the grinning teeth which you used to see? The mere attempt to convey to you some idea of the grace, the charm, the soft, firm, dimpled curves, which in the fulness of youth were growing and blossoming over those dry old bones makes me smile; it also makes me angry. The most eminent doctors of my time could not have dreamed of the bones of that body of mine as materials for teaching osteology. Do you know, one young doctor that I knew of, actually compared me to a golden champak blossom. It meant that to him the rest of humankind was fit only to illustrate the science of physiology, that I was a flower of beauty. Does any one think of the skeleton of a champak flower?
‘When I walked, I felt that, like a diamond scattering splendour, my every movement set waves of beauty radiating on every side. I used to spend hours gazing on my hands—hands which could gracefully have reined the liveliest of male creatures.
‘But that stark and staring old skeleton of mine has borne false-witness to you against me, while I was unable to refute the shameless libel. That is why of all men I hate you most! I feel I would like once for all to banish sleep from your eyes with a vision of that warm rosy loveliness of mine, to sweep out with it all the wretched osteological stuff of which your brain is full.’
‘I could have sworn by your body,’ cried I, ‘if you had it still, that no vestige of osteology has remained in my head, and that the only thing that it is now full of is a radiant vision of perfect loveliness, glowing against the black background of night. I cannot say more than that.’
‘I had no girl-companions,’ went on the voice. ‘My only brother had made up his mind not to marry. In the zenana I was alone. Alone I used to sit in the garden under the shade of the trees, and dream that the whole world was in love with me; that the stars with sleepless gaze were drinking in my beauty; that the wind was languishing in sighs as on some pretext or other it brushed past me; and that the lawn on which my feet rested, had it been conscious, would have lost consciousness again at their touch. It seemed to me that all the young men in the world were as blades of grass at my feet; and my heart, I know not why, used to grow sad.
‘When my brother’s friend, Shekhar, had passed out of the Medical College, he became our family doctor. I had already often seen him from behind a curtain. My brother was a strange man, and did not care to look on the world with open eyes. It was not empty enough for his taste; so he gradually moved away from it, until he was quite lost in an obscure corner. Shekhar was his one friend, so he was the only young man I could ever get to see. And when I held my evening court in my garden, then the host of imaginary young men whom I had at my feet were each one a Shekhar.—Are you listening? What are you thinking of?’
I sighed as I replied: ‘I was wishing I was Shekhar!’
‘Wait a bit. Hear the whole story first. One day, in the rains, I was feverish. The doctor came to see me. That was our first meeting. I was reclining opposite the window, so that the blush of the evening sky might temper the pallor of my complexion. When the doctor, coming in, looked up into my face, I put myself into his place, and gazed at myself in imagination. I saw in the glorious evening light that delicate wan face laid like a drooping flower against the soft white pillow, with the unrestrained curls playing over the forehead, and the bashfully lowered eyelids casting a pathetic shade over the whole countenance.
‘The doctor, in a tone bashfully low, asked my brother: “Might I feel her pulse?”
‘I put out a tired, well-rounded wrist from beneath the coverlet. “Ah!” thought I, as I looked on it, “if only there had been a sapphire bracelet.” I have never before seen a doctor so awkward about feeling a patient’s pulse. His fingers trembled as they felt my wrist. He measured the heat of my fever, I gauged the pulse of his heart.—Don’t you believe me?’
‘Very easily,’ said I; ‘the human heart-beat tells its tale.’
‘After I had been taken ill and restored to health several times, I found that the number of the courtiers who attended my imaginary evening reception began to dwindle till they were reduced to only one! And at last in my little world there remained only one doctor and one patient.
‘In these evenings I used to dress myself secretly in a canary-coloured sari; twine about the braided knot into which I did my hair a garland of white jasmine blossoms; and with a little mirror in my hand betake myself to my usual seat under the trees.
‘Well! Are you perhaps thinking that the sight of one’s own beauty would soon grow wearisome? Ah no! for I did not see myself with my own eyes. I was then one and also two. I used to see myself as though I were the doctor; I gazed, I was charmed, I fell madly in love. But, in spite of all the caresses I lavished on myself, a sigh would wander about my heart, moaning like the evening breeze.
‘Anyhow, from that time I was never alone. When I walked I watched with downcast eyes the play of my dainty little toes on the earth, and wondered what the doctor would have felt had he been there to see. At mid-day the sky would be filled with the glare of the sun, without a sound, save now and then the distant cry of a passing kite. Outside our garden-walls the hawker would pass with his musical cry of “Bangles for sale, crystal bangles.” And I, spreading a snow-white sheet on the lawn, would lie on it with my head on my arm. With studied carelessness the other arm would rest lightly on the soft sheet, and I would imagine to myself that some one had caught sight of the wonderful pose of my hand, that some one had clasped it in both of his and imprinted a kiss on its rosy palm, and was slowly walking away.—What if I ended the story here? How would it do?’
‘Not half a bad ending,’ I replied thoughtfully. ‘It would no doubt remain a little incomplete, but I could easily spend the rest of the night putting in the finishing touches.’
‘But that would make the story too serious. Where would the laugh come in? Where would be the skeleton with its grinning teeth?
‘So let me go on. As soon as the doctor had got a little practice, he took a room on the ground-floor of our house for a consulting-chamber. I used then sometimes to ask him jokingly about medicines and poisons, and how much of this drug or that would kill a man. The subject was congenial and he would wax eloquent. These talks familiarised me with the idea of death; and so love and death were the only two things that filled my little world. My story is now nearly ended—there is not much left.’
‘Not much of the night is left either,’ I muttered.
‘After a time I noticed that the doctor had grown strangely absent-minded, and it seemed as if he were ashamed of something which he was trying to keep from me. One day he came in, somewhat smartly dressed, and borrowed my brother’s carriage for the evening.
‘My curiosity became too much for me, and I went up to my brother for information. After some talk beside the point, I at last asked him: “By the way, Dada, where is the doctor going this evening in your carriage?”
‘My brother briefly replied: “To his death.”
‘“Oh, do tell me,” I importuned. “Where is he really going?”
‘“To be married,” he said, a little more explicitly.
‘“Oh, indeed!” said I, as I laughed long and loudly.
‘I gradually learnt that the bride was an heiress, who would bring the doctor a large sum of money. But why did he insult me by hiding all this from me? Had I ever begged and prayed him not to marry, because it would break my heart? Men are not to be trusted. I have known only one man in all my life, and in a moment I made this discovery.
‘When the doctor came in after his work and was ready to start, I said to him, rippling with laughter the while: “Well, doctor, so you are to be married to-night?”
‘My gaiety not only made the doctor lose countenance; it thoroughly irritated him.
‘“How is it,” I went on, “that there is no illumination, no band of music?”
‘With a sigh he replied: “Is marriage then such a joyful occasion?”
‘I burst out into renewed laughter. “No, no,” said I, “this will never do. Who ever heard of a wedding without lights and music?”
‘I bothered my brother about it so much that he at once ordered all the trappings of a gay wedding.
‘All the time I kept on gaily talking of the bride, of what would happen, of what I would do when the bride came home. “And, doctor,” I asked, “will you still go on feeling pulses?” Ha! ha! ha! Though the inner workings of people’s, especially men’s, minds are not visible, still I can take my oath that these words were piercing the doctor’s bosom like deadly darts.
‘The marriage was to be celebrated late at night. Before starting, the doctor and my brother were having a glass of wine together on the terrace, as was their daily habit. The moon had just risen.
‘I went up smiling, and said: “Have you forgotten your wedding, doctor? It is time to start.”
‘I must here tell you one little thing. I had meanwhile gone down to the dispensary and got a little powder, which at a convenient opportunity I had dropped unobserved into the doctor’s glass.
‘The doctor, draining his glass at a gulp, in a voice thick with emotion, and with a look that pierced me to the heart, said: “Then I must go.”
‘The music struck up. I went into my room and dressed myself in my bridal-robes of silk and gold. I took out my jewellery and ornaments from the safe and put them all on; I put the red mark of wifehood on the parting in my hair. And then under the tree in the garden I prepared my bed.
‘It was a beautiful night. The gentle south wind was kissing away the weariness of the world. The scent of jasmine and bela filled the garden with rejoicing.
‘When the sound of the music began to grow fainter and fainter; the light of the moon to get dimmer and dimmer; the world with its lifelong associations of home and kin to fade away from my perceptions like some illusion;—then I closed my eyes, and smiled.
‘I fancied that when people came and found me they would see that smile of mine lingering on my lips like a trace of rose-coloured wine, that when I thus slowly entered my eternal bridal-chamber I should carry with me this smile, illuminating my face. But alas for the bridal-chamber! Alas for the bridal-robes of silk and gold! When I woke at the sound of a rattling within me, I found three urchins learning osteology from my skeleton. Where in my bosom my joys and griefs used to throb, and the petals of youth to open one by one, there the master with his pointer was busy naming my bones. And as to that last smile, which I had so carefully rehearsed, did you see any sign of that?
‘Well, well, how did you like the story?’
‘It has been delightful,’ said I.
At this point the first crow began to caw. ‘Are you there?’ I asked. There was no reply.
The morning light entered the room.