Flora Annie Steel ~ The Footstep of Death

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Godliness is great riches if a man be content with what he hath.

These words invariably carry me back in the spirit to a certain avenue of shesham trees I knew in India; an avenue six miles long, leading through barren sandy levels to the river which divided civilisation from the frontier wilds; an avenue like the aisle of a great cathedral with tall straight trunks for columns, and ribbed branches sweeping up into a vaulted roof set with starry glints of sunshine among the green fret-work of the leaves. Many a time as I walked my horse over its chequered pavement of shade and shine I have looked out sideways on the yellow glare of noon beyond in grateful remembrance of the man who,–Heaven knows when!–planted this refuge for unborn generations of travellers. Not a bad monument to leave behind one among forgetful humanity.

The avenue itself, for all its contenting shade, had nothing to do with the text which brings it to memory–that co-ordination being due to an old fakeer who sat at the river end, where, without even a warning brake, the aisle ended in a dazzling glare of sand-bank. This sudden change no doubt accounted for the fact that on emerging from the shade I always seemed to see a faint, half-hearted mirage of the still unseen river beyond. An elusive mirage, distinct in the first surprise of its discovery, vanishing when the attention sought for it. Altogether a disturbing phenomenon, refusing to be verified; for the only man who could have spoken positively on the subject was the old fakeer, and he was stone-blind. His face gave evidence of the cause in the curious puffiness and want of expression which confluent small-pox often leaves behind it. In this case it had played a sorrier jest with the human face divine than usual, by placing a fat bloated mask wearing a perpetual smirk of content on the top of a mere anatomy of a body. The result was odd. For the rest a very ordinary fakeer, cleaner than most by reason of the reed broom at his side, which proclaimed him a member of the sweeper, or lowest, caste; in other words, one of those who at least gain from their degradation the possibility of living cleanly without the aid of others. There are many striking points about our Indian Empire; none perhaps more so, and yet less considered, than the disabilities which caste brings in its train–the impossibility, for instance, of having your floor swept unless Providence provides a man made on purpose. My fakeer, however, was of those to whom cleanliness and not godliness is the reason of existence.

That was why his appeal for alms, while it took a religious turn as was necessary, displayed also a truly catholic toleration. It consisted of a single monotonous cry: “In the name of your own Saint,”–or, as it might be translated, “In the name of your own God.” It thrilled me oddly every time I heard it by its contented acquiescence in the fact that the scavenger’s god was not a name wherewith to conjure charity. What then? The passer-by could give in the name of his particular deity and let the minor prophets go.

The plan seemed successful, for the wooden bowl, placed within the clean-swept ring bordered by its edging of dust or mud, wherein he sat winter and summer, was never empty, and his cry, if monotonous, was cheerful. Not ten yards from his station beneath the last tree, the road ended in a deep cutting, through which a low-level bed of water flowed to irrigate a basin of alluvial land to the south; but a track, made passable for carts by tiger-grass laid athwart the yielding sand, skirted the cut to reach a ford higher up. A stiff bit for the straining bullocks, so all save the drivers took the short cut by the plank serving as a footbridge. It served also as a warning to the blind fakeer, without which many a possible contributor to the bowl might have passed unheard and unsolicited over the soft sand. As it was, the first creak of the plank provoked his cry.

It was not, however, till I had passed the old man many times in my frequent journeyings across the river that I noticed two peculiarities in his method. He never begged of me or any other European who chanced that way, nor of those coming from the city to the river. The latter might be partly set down to the fact that from his position he could not hear their footsteps on the bridge till after they had passed; but the former seemed unaccountable; and one day when the red-funnelled steam ferry-boat, which set its surroundings so utterly at defiance, was late, I questioned him on the subject.

“You lose custom, surely, by seeking the shade?” I began. “If you were at the other side of the cut you would catch those who come from the city. They are the richest.”

As he turned his closed eyes towards me with a grave obeisance which did not match the jaunty content of his mask, he looked–sitting in the centre of his swept circle–ludicrously like one of those penwipers young ladies make for charity bazaars.

“The Presence mistakes,” he replied. “Those who come from the town have empty wallets. ‘Tis those who come from the wilderness who give.”

“But you never beg of me, whether I go or come. Why is that?”

“I take no money, Huzoor; it is of no use to me. The sahibs carry no food with them; not even tobacco, only cheroots.”

The evident regret in the latter half of his sentence amused me. “‘Tis you who mistake, fakeer-ji,” I replied, taking out my pouch. “I am of those who smoke pipes. And now tell me why you refuse money; most of your kind are not so self-denying.”

“That is easy to explain. Some cannot eat what is given; with me it is the other way. As my lord knows, we dust-like ones eat most things your God has made. But we cannot eat money, perhaps because He did not make it–so the padres say.”

“Ah! you are learned; but you can always buy.”

“Begging is easier. See! my bowl is full, and the munificent offering of the Presence is enough for two pipes. What more do I want?”

Viewed from his standpoint the question was a hard one to answer. The sun warmed him, the leaves sheltered him, the passers-by nourished him, all apparently to his utmost satisfaction. I felt instinctively that the state of his mind was the only refuge for the upholders of civilisation and a high standard of comfort. So I asked him what he thought about all day long. His reply brought total eclipse to all my lights.

Huzoor!” he said gravely, “I meditate on the Beauty of Holiness.”

It was then that the text already quoted became indissolubly mixed up with the spreading shesham branches, the glare beyond, and that life-sized penwiper in the foreground. I whistled the refrain of a music-hall song and pretended to light my pipe. “How long have you been here?” I asked, after a time, during which he sat still as a graven image with his closed eyes towards the uncertain mirage of the river.

“‘Tis nigh on thirty years, my lord, since I have been waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“For the Footstep of Death–hark!” he paused suddenly, and a tremor came to his closed eyelids as he gave the cry: “In the name of your God!”

The next instant a faint creak told me that the first passenger from the newly-arrived ferry-boat had set foot on the bridge. “You have quick ears, fakeer-ji,” I remarked.

“I live on footsteps, my lord.”

“And when the Footstep of Death comes, you will die of one, I presume!”

He turned his face towards me quickly; it gave me quite a shock to find a pair of clear, light-brown eyes looking at, or rather beyond, me. From his constantly closed lids I had imagined that–as is so often the case in small-pox–the organs of sight were hopelessly diseased or altogether destroyed; indeed I had been grateful for the concealment of a defect out of which many beggars would have made capital. But these eyes were apparently as perfect as my own, and extraordinarily clear and bright–so clear that it seemed to me as if they did not even hold a shadow of the world around them. The surprise made me forget my first question in another.

Huzoor!” he replied, “I am quite blind. The Light came from the sky one day and removed the Light I had before. It was a bad thunder-storm, Huzoor; at least, being the last this slave saw, he deems it bad. But it is time the Great Judge took his exalted presence to yonder snorting demon of a boat, for it is ill-mannered, waiting for none. God knows wherefore it should hurry so. The river remains always, and sooner or later the screeching thing sticks on a sand-bank.”

“True enough,” I replied, laughing. “Well, salaam, fakeer-ji.”

Salaam, Shelter of the World. May the God of gods elevate your honour to the post of Lieutenant-Governor without delay.”

After this I often stopped to say a few words to the old man and give him a pipeful of tobacco. For the ferry-boat fulfilled his prophecy of its future to a nicety, by acquiring intimate acquaintance with every shallow in the river–a habit fatal to punctuality. It was an odd sight lying out, so trim and smart, in the wastes of sand and water. Red funnels standing up from among Beloochees and their camels, bullocks scarred by the plough, zenana-women huddled in helpless white heaps, wild frontiersmen squatted on the saddle-bags with which a sham orientalism has filled our London drawing-rooms. Here and there a dejected half-caste or a specimen of young India brimful of The Spectator. Over all, on the bridge, Captain Ram Baksh struggling with a double nature, represented on the one side by his nautical pea-coat, on the other by his baggy native trousers. “Ease her! stop her! hard astern! full speed ahead!” All the shibboleths, even to the monotonous “ba-la-mar-do” (by the mark two) of the leadsman forr’ards. Then, suddenly, overboard goes science and with it a score of lascars and passengers, who, knee-deep in the ruddy stream, set their backs lazily against the side, and the steam ferry-boat Pioneer, built at Barrow-in-Furness with all the latest improvements, sidles off her sand-bank in the good old legitimate way sanctioned by centuries of river usage. To return, however, to fakeer-ji. I found him as full of trite piety as a copy-book, and yet, for all that, the fragments of his history, with which he interlarded these common-places, seemed to me well worth consideration. Imagine a man born of a long line of those who have swept the way for princes–who have, as it were, prepared God’s earth for over-refined footsteps. That, briefly, had been fakeer-ji’s inheritance before he began to wait for the Footstep of Death. Whatever it may do to the imagination of others, the position appealed to mine strongly, the more so because, while speaking freely enough about the family of decayed kings to whom he and his forebears had belonged, and of the ruined palace they still possessed in the oldest part of the city, he was singularly reticent as to the cause which had turned him into a religious beggar. For the rest he waited in godliness and contentment (or so he assured me) for the Footstep of Death.

The phrase grew to be quite a catch-word between us. “Not come yet, fakeer-ji?” I would call as I trotted past after a few days’ absence.

Huzoor! I am still waiting. It will come some time.”

One night in the rains word came from a contractor over the water that a new canal-dam of mine showed signs of giving, and, anxious to be on the spot, I set off at once to catch the midnight ferryboat. I shall not soon forget that ride through the shesham aisle. The floods were out, and for the best part of the way a level sheet of water gleaming in the moonlight lay close up to the embankment of the avenue, which seemed more than ever like a dim colonnade leading to an unseen Holy of Holies. Not a breath of wind, not a sound save the rustle of birds in the branches overhead, and suddenly, causelessly, a snatch of song hushed in its first notes, as if the singer found it too light for sleep, too dark for song. The beat of my horse’s feet seemed to keep time with the stars twinkling through the leaves.

I was met at the road’s end by the unwelcome news that at least two hours must elapse ere the Pioneer could be got off a newly-invented mudbank which the river had maliciously, placed in a totally unexpected place. Still more unwelcome was the discovery that, in my hurry, I had left my tobacco-pouch behind me. Nothing could be done save to send my groom back with the pony and instructions for immediate return with the forgotten luxury. After which I strolled over towards my friend the fakeer, who sat ghostlike in the moonlight with his bowl full to the brim in front of him. “That snorting devil behaves worse every day,” he said fervently; “but if the Shelter of the Poor will tarry a twinkling I will sweep him a spot suitable for his exalted presence.”

Blind as he was, his dexterous broom had traced another circle of cleanliness in a trice, a new reed-mat, no bigger than a handkerchief, was placed in the centre, and I was being invited to ornament just such another penwiper as the fakeer occupied himself. “Mercy,” he continued, as I took my seat, shifting the mat so as to be able to lean my back against the tree, “blesses both him who gives, and those who take,” (even Shakespeare, it will be observed, yields at times to platitude). “For see,” he added solemnly, producing something from a hollow in the root, “the Presence’s own tobacco returns to the Presence’s pipe.”

Sure enough it was genuine Golden Cloud, and the relief overpowered me. There I was after a space, half-lying, half-sitting in the clean warm sand, my hands clasped at the back of my head as I looked up into the shimmering light and shade of the leaves.

“Upon my soul I envy you, fakeer-ji. We who go to bed at set times and seasons don’t know the world we live in.”

“Religion is its own reward,” remarked the graven image beside me, for he had gone back to his penwiper by this time. But I was talking more to myself than to him, in the half-drowsy excitement of physical pleasure, so I went on unheeding.

“Was there ever such a night since the one Jessica looked upon! and what a scent there is in the air,–orange blossoms or something!”

“It is a tree farther up the water-cut, Huzoor, a hill tree. The river may have brought the seed; it happens so sometimes. Or the birds may have brought it from the city. There was a tree of the kind in a garden there. A big tree with large white flowers; so large that you can hear them fall.”

The graven image sat so still with its face to the river, that it seemed to me as if the voice I heard could not belong to it. A dreamy sense of unreality added to my drowsy enjoyment of the surroundings.

“Magnolia,” I murmured sleepily; “a flower to dream about–hullo! what’s that?”

A faint footfall, as of some one passing down an echoing passage, loud, louder, loudest, making me start up, wide awake, as the fakeer’s cry rose on the still air: “In the name of your God!”

Some one was passing the bridge from the river, and after adding his mite to the bowl, went on his way.

“It is the echo, Huzoor” explained the old man, answering my start of surprise. “The tree behind us is hollow and the cut is deep. Besides, to-night the water runs deep and dark as Death because of the flood. The step is always louder then.”

“No wonder you hear so quickly,” I replied, sinking back again to my comfort. “I thought it must be the Footstep of Death at least.”

He had turned towards me, and in the moonlight I could see those clear eyes of his shining as if the light had come into them again.

“Not yet, Huzoor! But it may be the next one for all we know.”

What a gruesome idea! Hark! There it was again; loud, louder, loudest, and then silence.

“That came from the city, Huzoor. It comes and goes often, for the law-courts have it in grip. Perhaps that is worse than Death.”

“Then you recognise footsteps?”

“Surely. No two men walk the same; a footstep is as a face. Sometimes after long years it comes back, and then you know it has passed before.”

“Do they generally come back?”

“Those from the city go back sooner or later unless Death takes them. Those from the wilderness do not always return. The city holds them fast, in the palace or in the gutter.”

Again the voice seemed to me not to belong to the still figure beside me. “It makes a devilish noise, I admit,” I said, half to myself; “but–“

“Perhaps if the Huzoor listened for Death as I do he might keep awake. Or perhaps if my lord pleases I might tell him a story of footsteps to drive the idle dreams from his brain till the hour of that snorting demon comes in due time?”

“Go ahead,” said I briefly, as I looked up at the stars.

So he began. “It’s a small story, Huzoor. A tale of footsteps from beginning to end, for I am blind. Yet life was not always listening. They used to say that Cheytu had the longest sight, the longest legs, and the longest wind of any boy of his age. I was Cheytu.” He paused, and I watched a dancing shadow of a leaf till he went on. “The little princess said Cheytu had the longest tongue too, for I used to sit in the far corner by the pillar beyond her carpet and tell her stories. She used to call for Cheytu all day long. ‘Cheytu, smooth the ground for Aimna’s feet’–‘Cheytu, sweep the dead flowers from Aimna’s path’-‘Cheytu, fan the flies from Aimna’s doll,–for naturally, Huzoor, Cheytu the sweeper did not fan the flies from the little princess herself; that was not his work. I belonged to her footsteps. I was up before dawn sweeping the arcades of the old house ready for them, and late at night it was my work to gather the dust of them and the dead flowers she had played with, and bury them away in the garden out of sight.”

A dim perception that this was strange talk for a sweeper made me murmur sleepily, “That was very romantic of you, Cheytu.” On the other hand, it fitted my environment so admirably that the surprise passed almost as it came.

“She was a real princess, the daughter of kings who had been–God knows when! It is written doubtless somewhere. Yes! a real princess, though she could barely walk, and the track of her little feet was often broken by handmarks in the dust. For naturally, Huzoor, the dust might help her, but not I, Cheytu, who swept it for her steps. That was my task till the day of the thunderstorm. The house seemed dead of the heat. Not a breath of life anywhere, so at sundown they set her to sleep on the topmost roof under the open sky. Her nurse, full of frailty as women are, crept down while the child slept, to work evil to mankind as women will. Huzoor, it was a bad storm. The red clouds had hung over us all day long, joining the red dust from below so that it came unawares at last, splitting the air and sending a great ladder of light down the roof.

“‘Aimna! Aimna!’ cried some one. I was up first and had her in my arms; for see you, Huzoor, it was life or death, and the dead belong to us whether they be kings or slaves. It was out on the bare steps, and she sleeping sound as children sleep, that the light came. The light of a thousand days in my eyes and on her face. It was the last thing I saw, Huzoor–the very last thing Cheytu the sweeper ever saw.

“But I could hear. I could hear her calling, and I knew how her face must be changing by the change in her voice. And then one day I found myself sweeping the house against her wedding-feast; heard her crying amongst her girl friends in the inner room. What then? Girls always cry at their weddings. I went with her, of course, to the new life, because I had swept the way for her ever since she could walk, and she needed me more than ever in a strange house. It was a fine rich house, with marble floors and a marble summer-house on the roof above her rooms. People said she had made a good bargain with her beauty; perhaps, but that child’s face that I saw in the light was worth more than money, Huzoor. She had ceased crying by this time, for she had plenty to amuse her. Singers and players, and better story-tellers than Cheytu the sweeper. It was but fair, for look you, her man had many more wives to amuse him. I used to hear the rustle of her long silk garments, the tinkle of her ornaments, and the cadence of her laughter. Girls ought to laugh, Huzoor, and it was spring time; what we natives call spring, when the rain turns dry sand to grass and the roses race the jasmin for the first blossom. The tree your honour called magnolia grew in the women’s court, and some of the branches spread over the marble summerhouse almost hiding it from below. Others again formed a screen against the blank white wall of the next house. The flowers smelt so strong that I wondered how she could bear to sleep amongst them in the summer-house. Even in my place below on the stones of the courtyard they kept me awake. People said I had fever, but it was not that–only the scent of the flowers. I lay awake one dark, starless night, and then I first heard the footstep, if it was a footstep,–loud, louder, loudest; then a silence save for the patter of the falling flowers. I heard it often after that, and always when it had passed the flowers fell. They fell about the summer-house too, and in the morning I used to sweep them into a heap and fling them over the parapet. But one day, Huzoor, they fell close at hand, and my groping fingers seeking the cause found a plank placed bridge-wise amongst the branches. Huzoor! was there any wonder the flowers fell all crushed and broken? That night I listened again, and again the footsteps came amid a shower of blossoms. What was to be done? Her women were as women are, and the others were jealous already. Next day when I went to sweep I strewed the fallen flowers thick, thick as a carpet round her bed; for she had quick wits I knew.

“‘Cheytu! Cheytu!’

“The old call came as I knew it would, and thinking of that little child’s face in the light I went up to her boldly.

“‘My princess,’ I said in reply to her question as I bent over the flowers, ”tis the footstep makes them fall so thick. If it is your pleasure I will bid it cease. They may hurt your feet.’

“I knew from her silence she understood. Suddenly she laughed; such a girl’s laugh.

“‘Flowers are soft to tread upon, Cheytu. Go! you need sweep for me no more.’

“I laughed too as I went. Not sweep for her when she only knew God’s earth after I had made it ready for her feet! It was a woman’s idle word, but, woman-like, she would think and see wisdom for herself.

“That night I listened once more. The footstep must come once I knew–just once, and after that wisdom and safety. Huzoor! it came, and the flowers fell softly. But wisdom was too late. I tried to get at her to save her from their pitiless justice. I heard her cries, for mercy; I heard her cry even for Cheytu the sweeper before they flung me from the steps where the twinkling lights went up and down as if the very stars from the sky had come to spy on her. What did they do to her? What did they do to her while I lay crushed among the crushed flowers? Who knows? It is often done, my lord, behind the walls. She died; that is all I know, that is all I cared for. When I came back to life she was dead, and the footstep had fled from revenge. It had friends over the border where it could pause in safety till the tale was forgotten. Such things are forgotten quickly, my lord, because the revenge must be secret as the wrong; else it is shame, and shame must not come nigh good families. But the blind do not forget easily; perhaps they have less to remember. Could I forget the child’s face in the light? As I told the Presence, those who go from the city come back to it sooner or later unless Death takes them first. So I wait for the Footstep–hark!”

Loud–louder–loudest: “In the name of your own God.”

* * * * *

Did I wake with the cry? Or did I only open my eyes to see a glimmer of dawn paling the sky, the birds shifting in the branches, the old man seated bolt upright in his penwiper?

“That was the first passenger, Huzoor,” he said quietly. “The boat has come. It is time your honour conferred dignity on ill manners by joining it.”

“But the footstep! the princess! you were telling me just now–“

“What does a sweeper know of princesses, my lord? The Presence slept, and doubtless he dreamed dreams. The tobacco–“

He paused. “Well,” said I, curiously.

Huzoor! this slave steeps his tobacco in the sleep-compeller. It gives great contentment.”

I looked down at my pipe. It was but half smoked through. Was this really the explanation?

“But the echo?” I protested. “I heard it but now.”

“Of a truth there is an echo. That is not a dream. For the rest it is well. The time has passed swiftly, the Huzoor is rested, his servant has returned, the boat has come–all in contentment. The Shelter of the World can proceed on his journey in peace, and return in peace.”

“Unless the Footstep of Death overtakes me meanwhile,” said I, but half satisfied.

Huzoor! It never overtakes the just. Death and the righteous look at each other in the face as friends. When the Footstep comes I will go to meet it, and so will you. Hark! the demon screeches. Peace go with you, my lord.”

About a year after this the daily police reports brought me the news that my friend the old fakeer had been found dead in the water-cut. An unusually heavy flood had undermined the banks and loosened the bridge; it must have fallen while the old man was on it, for his body was jammed against the plank which had stuck across the channel a little way down the stream. He had kept his word and gone to meet the Footstep. A certain unsatisfied curiosity, which had never quite left me since that night in the rains, made me accompany the doctor when, as in duty bound, he went to the dead-house to examine the body. The smiling mask was unchanged, but the eyes were open, and looked somehow less empty dead than in the almost terrible clearness of life. The right hand was fast clenched over something.

“Only a crushed magnolia blossom,” said the doctor, gently unclasping the dead fingers. “Poor beggar! it must have been floating in the water–there’s a tree up the cut; I’ve often smelt it from the road. Drowning men–you know the rest.”

Did I? The coincidence was, to say the least of it, curious. It became more curious still when, three weeks afterwards, the unrecognisable body of a man was found half buried in the silt left in the alluvial basin by the subsiding floods–a man of more than middle age, whose right hand was clenched tight, over nothing.

So the question remains. Did I dream that night, or did the Footstep of Death bring revenge when it came over the bridge at last? I have never been able to decide; and the only thing which remains sure is the figure of the old fakeer with blind eyes, looking out on the uncertain mirage of the river and waiting in godliness and contentment,–for what?

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