In the House of
Suddhoo by Rudyard Kipling
A stone's throw out on either hand
From that well-ordered road we tread,
And all the world is wild and strange;
Churel and ghoul and Djinn and sprite
Shall bear us company to-night,
For we have reached the Oldest Land
Wherein the Powers of Darkness range.
From the Dusk to the Dawn.
The house of Suddhoo, near the Taksali Gate, is two-storied, with
four carved windows of old brown wood, and a flat roof. You may
recognize it by five red hand-prints arranged like the Five of
Diamonds on the whitewash between the upper windows. Bhagwan Dass,
the bunnia, and a man who says he gets his living by seal-cutting,
live in the lower story with a troop of wives, servants, friends,
and retainers. The two upper rooms used to be occupied by Janoo
and Azizun and a little black-and-tan terrier that was stolen from
an Englishman's house and given to Janoo by a soldier. To-day,
only Janoo lives in the upper rooms. Suddhoo sleeps on the roof
generally, except when he sleeps in the street. He used to go to
Peshawar in the cold weather to visit his son, who sells
curiosities near the Edwardes' Gate, and then he slept under a real
mud roof. Suddhoo is a great friend of mine, because his cousin had
a son who secured, thanks to my recommendation, the post of head-
messenger to a big firm in the Station. Suddhoo says that God will
make me a Lieutenant-Governor one of these days. I daresay his
prophecy will come true. He is very, very old, with white hair and
no teeth worth showing, and he has outlived his witsoutlived
nearly everything except his fondness for his son at Peshawar.
Janoo and Azizun are Kashmiris, Ladies of the City, and theirs was
an ancient and more or less honorable profession; but Azizun has
since married a medical student from the North-West and has settled
down to a most respectable life somewhere near Bareilly. Bhagwan
Dass is an extortionate and an adulterator. He is very rich. The
man who is supposed to get his living by seal-cutting pretends to
be very poor. This lets you know as much as is necessary of the
four principal tenants in the house of Suddhoo. Then there is Me,
of course; but I am only the chorus that comes in at the end to
explain things. So I do not count.
Suddhoo was not clever. The man who pretended to cut seals was the
cleverest of them allBhagwan Dass only knew how to lieexcept
Janoo. She was also beautiful, but that was her own affair.
Suddhoo's son at Peshawar was attacked by pleurisy, and old Suddhoo
was troubled. The seal-cutter man heard of Suddhoo's anxiety and
made capital out of it. He was abreast of the times. He got a
friend in Peshawar to telegraph daily accounts of the son's health.
And here the story begins.
Suddhoo's cousin's son told me, one evening, that Suddhoo wanted to
see me; that he was too old and feeble to come personally, and that
I should be conferring an everlasting honor on the House of Suddhoo
if I went to him. I went; but I think, seeing how well-off Suddhoo
was then, that he might have sent something better than an ekka,
which jolted fearfully, to haul out a future Lieutenant-Governor to
the City on a muggy April evening. The ekka did not run quickly.
It was full dark when we pulled up opposite the door of Ranjit
Singh's Tomb near the main gate of the Fort. Here was Suddhoo and
he said that, by reason of my condescension, it was absolutely
certain that I should become a Lieutenant-Governor while my hair
was yet black. Then we talked about the weather and the state of
my health, and the wheat crops, for fifteen minutes, in the Huzuri
Bagh, under the stars.
Suddhoo came to the point at last. He said that Janoo had told him
that there was an order of the Sirkar against magic, because it was
feared that magic might one day kill the Empress of India. I
didn't know anything about the state of the law; but I fancied that
something interesting was going to happen. I said that so far from
magic being discouraged by the Government it was highly commended.
The greatest officials of the State practiced it themselves. (If
the Financial Statement isn't magic, I don't know what is.) Then,
to encourage him further, I said that, if there was any jadoo
afoot, I had not the least objection to giving it my countenance
and sanction, and to seeing that it was clean jadoowhite magic,
as distinguished from the unclean jadoo which kills folk. It took
a long time before Suddhoo admitted that this was just what he had
asked me to come for. Then he told me, in jerks and quavers, that
the man who said he cut seals was a sorcerer of the cleanest kind;
that every day he gave Suddhoo news of the sick son in Peshawar
more quickly than the lightning could fly, and that this news was
always corroborated by the letters. Further, that he had told
Suddhoo how a great danger was threatening his son, which could be
removed by clean jadoo; and, of course, heavy payment. I began to
see how the land lay, and told Suddhoo that I also understood a
little jadoo in the Western line, and would go to his house to see
that everything was done decently and in order. We set off
together; and on the way Suddhoo told me he had paid the seal-
cutter between one hundred and two hundred rupees already; and the
jadoo of that night would cost two hundred more. Which was cheap,
he said, considering the greatness of his son's danger; but I do
not think he meant it.
The lights were all cloaked in the front of the house when we
arrived. I could hear awful noises from behind the seal-cutter's
shop-front, as if some one were groaning his soul out. Suddhoo
shook all over, and while we groped our way upstairs told me that
the jadoo had begun. Janoo and Azizun met us at the stair-head,
and told us that the jadoo-work was coming off in their rooms,
because there was more space there. Janoo is a lady of a
freethinking turn of mind. She whispered that the jadoo was an
invention to get money out of Suddhoo, and that the seal-cutter
would go to a hot place when he died. Suddhoo was nearly crying
with fear and old age. He kept walking up and down the room in the
half light, repeating his son's name over and over again, and
asking Azizun if the seal-cutter ought not to make a reduction in
the case of his own landlord. Janoo pulled me over to the shadow in
the recess of the carved bow- windows. The boards were up, and the
rooms were only lit by one tiny lamp. There was no chance of my
being seen if I stayed still.
Presently, the groans below ceased, and we heard steps on the
staircase. That was the seal-cutter. He stopped outside the door
as the terrier barked and Azizun fumbled at the chain, and he told
Suddhoo to blow out the lamp. This left the place in jet darkness,
except for the red glow from the two huqas that belonged to Janoo
and Azizun. The seal-cutter came in, and I heard Suddhoo throw
himself down on the floor and groan. Azizun caught her breath, and
Janoo backed to one of the beds with a shudder. There was a clink
of something metallic, and then shot up a pale blue-green flame
near the ground. The light was just enough to show Azizun, pressed
against one corner of the room with the terrier between her knees;
Janoo, with her hands clasped, leaning forward as she sat on the
bed; Suddhoo, face down, quivering, and the seal-cutter.
I hope I may never see another man like that seal-cutter. He was
stripped to the waist, with a wreath of white jasmine as thick as
my wrist round his forehead, a salmon-colored loin-cloth round his
middle, and a steel bangle on each ankle. This was not awe-
inspiring. It was the face of the man that turned me cold. It was
blue-gray in the first place. In the second, the eyes were rolled
back till you could only see the whites of them; and, in the third,
the face was the face of a demona ghoulanything you please
except of the sleek, oily old ruffian who sat in the day-time over
his turning-lathe downstairs. He was lying on his stomach, with
his arms turned and crossed behind him, as if he had been thrown
down pinioned. His head and neck were the only parts of him off
the floor. They were nearly at right angles to the body, like the
head of a cobra at spring. It was ghastly. In the centre of the
room, on the bare earth floor, stood a big, deep, brass basin, with
a pale blue-green light floating in the centre like a night-light.
Round that basin the man on the floor wriggled himself three times.
How he did it I do not know. I could see the muscles ripple along
his spine and fall smooth again; but I could not see any other
motion. The head seemed the only thing alive about him, except that
slow curl and uncurl of the laboring back-muscles. Janoo from the
bed was breathing seventy to the minute; Azizun held her hands
before her eyes; and old Suddhoo, fingering at the dirt that had
got into his white beard, was crying to himself. The horror of it
was that the creeping, crawly thing made no soundonly crawled!
And, remember, this lasted for ten minutes, while the terrier
whined, and Azizun shuddered, and Janoo gasped, and Suddhoo cried.
I felt the hair lift at the back of my head, and my heart thump
like a thermantidote paddle. Luckily, the seal-cutter betrayed
himself by his most impressive trick and made me calm again. After
he had finished that unspeakable triple crawl, he stretched his
head away from the floor as high as he could, and sent out a jet of
fire from his nostrils. Now, I knew how fire-spouting is doneI
can do it myselfso I felt at ease. The business was a fraud. If
he had only kept to that crawl without trying to raise the effect,
goodness knows what I might not have thought. Both the girls
shrieked at the jet of fire and the head dropped, chin down, on the
floor with a thud; the whole body lying then like a corpse with its
arms trussed. There was a pause of five full minutes after this,
and the blue- green flame died down. Janoo stooped to settle one
of her anklets, while Azizun turned her face to the wall and took
the terrier in her arms. Suddhoo put out an arm mechanically to
Janoo's huqa, and she slid it across the floor with her foot.
Directly above the body and on the wall, were a couple of flaming
portraits, in stamped paper frames, of the Queen and the Prince of
Wales. They looked down on the performance, and, to my thinking,
seemed to heighten the grotesqueness of it all.
Just when the silence was getting unendurable, the body turned over
and rolled away from the basin to the side of the room, where it
lay stomach up. There was a faint "plop" from the basinexactly
like the noise a fish makes when it takes a flyand the green
light in the centre revived.
I looked at the basin, and saw, bobbing in the water, the dried,
shrivelled, black head of a native babyopen eyes, open mouth and
shaved scalp. It was worse, being so very sudden, than the
crawling exhibition. We had no time to say anything before it
began to speak.
Read Poe's account of the voice that came from the mesmerized dying
man, and you will realize less than one-half of the horror of that
There was an interval of a second or two between each word, and a
sort of "ring, ring, ring," in the note of the voice, like the
timbre of a bell. It pealed slowly, as if talking to itself, for
several minutes before I got rid of my cold sweat. Then the
blessed solution struck me. I looked at the body lying near the
doorway, and saw, just where the hollow of the throat joins on the
shoulders, a muscle that had nothing to do with any man's regular
breathing, twitching away steadily. The whole thing was a careful
reproduction of the Egyptian teraphin that one read about sometimes
and the voice was as clever and as appalling a piece of
ventriloquism as one could wish to hear. All this time the head
was "lip-lip-lapping" against the side of the basin, and speaking.
It told Suddhoo, on his face again whining, of his son's illness
and of the state of the illness up to the evening of that very
night. I always shall respect the seal-cutter for keeping so
faithfully to the time of the Peshawar telegrams. It went on to
say that skilled doctors were night and day watching over the man's
life; and that he would eventually recover if the fee to the potent
sorcerer, whose servant was the head in the basin, were doubled.
Here the mistake from the artistic point of view came in. To ask
for twice your stipulated fee in a voice that Lazarus might have
used when he rose from the dead, is absurd. Janoo, who is really a
woman of masculine intellect, saw this as quickly as I did. I
heard her say "Asli nahin! Fareib!" scornfully under her breath;
and just as she said so, the light in the basin died out, the head
stopped talking, and we heard the room door creak on its hinges.
Then Janoo struck a match, lit the lamp, and we saw that head,
basin, and seal- cutter were gone. Suddhoo was wringing his hands
and explaining to any one who cared to listen, that, if his chances
of eternal salvation depended on it, he could not raise another two
hundred rupees. Azizun was nearly in hysterics in the corner;
while Janoo sat down composedly on one of the beds to discuss the
probabilities of the whole thing being a bunao, or "make-up."
I explained as much as I knew of the seal-cutter's way of jadoo;
but her argument was much more simple:"The magic that is always
demanding gifts is no true magic," said she. "My mother told me
that the only potent love-spells are those which are told you for
love. This seal-cutter man is a liar and a devil. I dare not
tell, do anything, or get anything done, because I am in debt to
Bhagwan Dass the bunnia for two gold rings and a heavy anklet. I
must get my food from his shop. The seal-cutter is the friend of
Bhagwan Dass, and he would poison my food. A fool's jadoo has been
going on for ten days, and has cost Suddhoo many rupees each night.
The seal-cutter used black hens and lemons and mantras before. He
never showed us anything like this till to-night. Azizun is a
fool, and will be a pur dahnashin soon. Suddhoo has lost his
strength and his wits. See now! I had hoped to get from Suddhoo
many rupees while he lived, and many more after his death; and
behold, he is spending everything on that offspring of a devil and
a she-ass, the seal- cutter!"
Here I said:"But what induced Suddhoo to drag me into the
business? Of course I can speak to the seal-cutter, and he shall
refund. The whole thing is child's talkshameand senseless."
"Suddhoo IS an old child," said Janoo. "He has lived on the roofs
these seventy years and is as senseless as a milch-goat. He
brought you here to assure himself that he was not breaking any law
of the Sirkar, whose salt he ate many years ago. He worships the
dust off the feet of the seal-cutter, and that cow-devourer has
forbidden him to go and see his son. What does Suddhoo know of
your laws or the lightning-post? I have to watch his money going
day by day to that lying beast below."
Janoo stamped her foot on the floor and nearly cried with vexation;
while Suddhoo was whimpering under a blanket in the corner, and
Azizun was trying to guide the pipe-stem to his foolish old mouth.
. . . . . . . . .
Now the case stands thus. Unthinkingly, I have laid myself open to
the charge of aiding and abetting the seal-cutter in obtaining
money under false pretences, which is forbidden by Section 420 of
the Indian Penal Code. I am helpless in the matter for these
reasons, I cannot inform the Police. What witnesses would support
my statements? Janoo refuses flatly, Azizun is a veiled woman
somewhere near Bareillylost in this big India of ours. I cannot
again take the law into my own hands, and speak to the seal-cutter;
for certain am I that, not only would Suddhoo disbelieve me, but
this step would end in the poisoning of Janoo, who is bound hand
and foot by her debt to the bunnia. Suddhoo is an old dotard; and
whenever we meet mumbles my idiotic joke that the Sirkar rather
patronizes the Black Art than otherwise. His son is well now; but
Suddhoo is completely under the influence of the seal-cutter, by
whose advice he regulates the affairs of his life. Janoo watches
daily the money that she hoped to wheedle out of Suddhoo taken by
the seal-cutter, and becomes daily more furious and sullen.
She will never tell, because she dare not; but, unless something
happens to prevent her, I am afraid that the seal-cutter will die
of cholerathe white arsenic kindabout the middle of May. And
thus I shall have to be privy to a murder in the House of Suddhoo.