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A Strange Incident






When I was at college there happened what was a most inexplicable
incident.

The matter attracted some attention at that time, but has now been
forgotten as it was really not so very extraordinary. The police in
fact, when called in, explained the matter or at least thought they had
done so, to everybody's satisfaction. I was, however, not satisfied with
the explanation given by the police. This was what actually happened.



The college was a very big one with a large boarding-house attached to
it. The boarding-house was a building separate from the college situated
at a distance of about 100 yards from the college building. It was in
the form of a quadrangle with a lawn in the centre. The area of this
lawn must have been 2,500 square yards. Of course it was surrounded on
all sides by buildings, that is, by a row of single rooms on each side.

In the boarding-house there was a common room for the amusement of the
students. There were all sorts of indoor games including a miniature
billiard table in this common room. I was a regular visitor there. I did
not care for any other indoor game than chess. Of course chess meant
keeping out of bed, till late at night.

On this particular occasion, I think it was in November, a certain
gentleman, who was an ex-student of the college, was paying us a visit.
He was staying with us in the boarding-house. He had himself passed 4
years in that boarding-house and naturally had a love for it. In his
time he was very popular with the other boarders and with the
Superintendent. Dr. M.N., an English gentleman who was also an inmate of
the Boarding-House. With the permission of the learned Doctor, the
Superintendent, we decided to make a night of it, and so we all
assembled in the common room after dinner. I can picture to myself the
cheerful faces of all the students present on that occasion in the well
lighted Hall. So far as I know only one of that group is now dead. He
was the most jovial and the best beloved of all. May he rest in peace!

Now to return from this mournful digression. I could see old Mathura
sitting next to me with a Hookah with a very long stem, directing the
moves of the chessmen. There was old Birju at the miniature billiard
table poking at everybody with his cue who laughed when he missed an
easy shot.

Then came in the Superintendent, Dr. M.N. and in a hurry to conceal his
Hookah (Indians never smoke in the presence of their elders and
superiors) old Mathura nearly upset the table on which the chessmen
were; and the mirth went on with redoubled vigour as the Doctor was one
of the loudest and merriest of the whole lot on such occasions.

Thus we went on till nearly one in the morning when the Doctor ordered
everybody to go to bed. Of course we were glad to retire but we were
destined to be soon disturbed.

Earlier the same evening we had been playing a friendly Hockey match,
and one of the players, let us call him Ram Gholam, had been slightly
hurt. As a matter of fact he always got hurt whenever he played.

During the evening the hurt had been forgotten but as soon as he was in
bed it was found that he could not sleep. The matter was reported to the
Superintendent who finding that there was really nothing the matter with
him suggested that the affected parts should be washed with hot water
and finally wrapped in heated castor leaves and bandaged over with
flannel. (This is the best medicine for gouty pain--not for hurt caused
by a hockey stick).

There was a castor tree in the compound and a servant was despatched to
bring the leaves. In the meantime a few of us went to the kitchen, made
a fire and boiled some water. While thus engaged we heard a noise and a
cry for help. We rushed out and ran along the verandah (corridor) to the
place whence the cry came. It was coming from the room of Prayag, one of
the boarders. We pushed the door but found that it was bolted from
inside, we shouted to him to open but he would not. The door had four
glass panes on the top and we discovered that the upper bolt only had
been used; as a matter of fact the lower bolts had all been removed,
because on closing the door from outside, once it had been found that a
bolt at the bottom had dropped into its socket and the door had to be
broken before it could be opened.

Prayag's room was in darkness. There was a curtain inside and so we
could see nothing from outside. We could hear Prayag groaning. The
Superintendent came up. To break the glass pane nearest to the bolt was
the work of a minute. The door was opened and we all rushed in. It was a
room 14'x12'; many of us could not, therefore, come in. When we went in
we took a light with us. It was one of the hurricane lanterns--the one
we had taken to the kitchen. The lamp suddenly went out. At the same
time a brickbat came rattling down from the roof and fell near my feet,
thus I could feel it with my feet and tell what it was. And Prayag
groaned again. Dr. M.N. came in, and we helped Prayag out of his bed and
took him out on the verandah. Then we saw another brickbat come from the
roof of the verandah, and fell in front of Prayag a few inches from his
feet. We took him to the central lawn and stood in the middle of it.
This time a whole solid brick came from the sky. It fell a few inches
from my feet and remained standing on its edge. If it had toppled over
it would have fallen on my toes.

By this time all the boarders had come up. Prayag stood in the middle of
the group shivering and sweating. A few more brickbats came but not one
of us was hurt. Then the trouble ceased. We removed Prayag to the
Superintendent's room and put him in the Doctor's bed. There were a
reading lamp on a stool near the head of the bed and a Holy Bible on
it. The learned Doctor must have been reading it when he was disturbed.
Another bed was brought in and the Doctor passed the night in it.

In the morning came the police.

They found a goodly heap of brickbats and bones in Prayag's room and on
the lawn. There was an investigation, but nothing came out of it. The
police however explained the matter as follows:--

There were some people living in the two-storied houses in the
neighbourhood. The brickbats and the bones must have come from there. As
a matter of fact the police discovered that the Boarding House students
and the people who lived in these houses were not on good terms. Those
people had organized a music party and the students had objected to it.
The matter had been reported to the Magistrate and had ended in a
decision in favour of the students. Hence the strained relations. This
was the most natural explanation and the only explanation. But this
explanation did not satisfy me for several reasons.

The first reason was that the college compound contained another well
kept lawn that stood between the Hostel buildings and those two-storied
houses. There were no brickbats on this lawn. If brickbats had been
thrown from those houses some at least would have fallen upon the lawn.

Then as regarded the brickbats that were in the room, they had all
dropped from the ceiling; but in the morning we found the tiles of the
roof intact. Thirdly, in the middle of the central lawn there was at
least one whole brick. The nearest building from which a brick might
have been thrown was at a distance of 100 yards and to throw a whole
brick 9"x41/2"x3" such a distance would require a machine of some kind
or other and none was found in the house.

The last thing that created doubts in my mind was this that not one
brickbat had hit anybody. There were so many of us there and there was
such an abundance of brickbats still not one of us was hit, and it is
well known that brickbats hurled by Ghostly hands do not hit anybody. In
fact the whole brick that came and stood on edge within 3 inches of my
toe would have hurt me if it had only toppled over.



It is known to most of the readers that Sutteeism was the practice of
burning the widows on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. This
practice was prevalent in Bengal down to the year 1828 when a law
forbidding the aiding and abetting of Sutteeism was passed. Before the
Act, of course, many women were, in a way, forced to become Suttees. The
public opinion against a widow's surviving was so great that she
preferred to die rather than live after her husband's death.

The law has, however, changed the custom and the public opinion too.

Still, every now and then there are found cases of determined Sutteeism
among all classes in India who profess Hinduism. Frequent instances are
found in Bengal; and whenever a case comes to the notice of the public
the newspapers report it in a manner which shows that respect for the
Suttee is not yet dead.

Sometimes a verdict of "Suicide during temporary insanity" is returned,
but, of course, whoever reads the report understands how matters stand.

I know of a recent case in which a gentleman who was in Government
service died leaving a young widow.

When the husband's dead body was being removed the wife looked so jolly
that nobody suspected that anything was wrong with her.

But when all the male members of the family had gone away with the bier
the young widow quietly procured a tin of Kerosine oil and a few bed
sheets. She soaked the bed sheets well in the oil and then wrapped them
securely round her person and further secured them by means of a rope.
She then shut all the doors of her room and set the clothes on fire. By
the time the doors were forced open (there were only ladies in the house
at that time) she was dead.

Of course this was a case of suicide pure and simple and there was the
usual verdict of suicide during temporary insanity, but I personally
doubt the temporary insanity very much. This case, however, is too
painful.

The one that I am now going to relate is more interesting and more
mysterious, and probably more instructive.

Babu Bhagwan Prasad, now the late Babu Bhagwan Prasad, was a clerk in
the ---- office in the United Provinces. He was a grown-up man of 45
when the incident happened.

He had an attack of cold which subsequently developed into pneumonia
and after a lingering illness of 8 days he died at about 8 o'clock one
morning.

He had, of course, a wife and a number of children.

Babu Bhagwan Prasad was a well paid officer and maintained a large
family consisting of brothers--their wives and their children.

At the time of his death, in fact, when the doctor went away in the
morning giving his opinion that it was a question of minutes, his wife
seemed the least affected of all. While all the members of the family
were collected round the bed of their dying relative the lady withdrew
to her room saying that she was going to dress for the journey. Of
course nobody took any notice of her at the time. She retired to her
room and dressed herself in the most elaborate style, and marked her
forehead with a large quantity of "Sindur" for the last time.

["Sindur" is red oxide of mercury or lead used by orthodox Hindu women
in some parts of India whose husbands are alive; widows do not use it.]

After dressing she came back to the room where her dying husband was and
approached the bed. Those who were there made way for her in surprise.
She sat down on the bed and finally lay down by her dying husband's
side. This demonstration of sentimentalism could not be tolerated in a
family where the Purda is strictly observed and one or two elderly
ladies tried to remonstrate.

But on touching her they found that she was dead. The husband was dead
too. They had both died simultaneously. When the doctor arrived he found
the lady dead, but he could not ascertain the cause of her death.

Everybody thought she had taken poison but nothing could be discovered
by _post mortem_ examination.

There was not a trace of any kind of poison in the body.

The funeral of the husband and the wife took place that afternoon and
they were cremated on the same pyre.

The stomach and some portions of the intestines of the deceased lady
were sent to the chemical examiner and his report (which arrived a week
later) did not disclose anything.

The matter remains a mystery.

It will never be found out what force killed the lady at such a
critical moment. Probably it was the strong will of the Suttee that
would not allow her body to be separated from that of her husband even
in death.



Another very strange incident is reported from a place near Agra in the
United Provinces.

There were two respectable residents of the town who were close
neighbours. For the convenience of the readers we shall call them Smith
and Jones.

Smith and Jones, as has been said already, were close neighbours and the
best of friends. Each had his wife and children living with him.

Now Mr. Smith got fever, on a certain very hot day in June. The fever
would not leave him and on the tenth day it was discovered that it was
typhoid fever of the worst type.

Now typhoid fever is in itself very dangerous, but more so in the case
of a person who gets it in June. So poor Smith had no chance of
recovery. Of course Jones knew it. Mrs. Smith was a rather uneducated
elderly lady and the children were too young. So the medical treatment
as well as the general management of Mr. Smith's affairs was left
entirely in the hands of Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones did his best. He procured the best medical advice. He got the
best medicines prescribed by the doctors and engaged the best nurse
available. But his efforts were of no avail. On a certain Thursday
afternoon Smith began to sink fast and at about eight in the evening he
died.

Mr. Jones on his return from his office that day at about four in the
afternoon had been informed that Mr. Smith's condition was very bad, and
he had at once gone over to see what he could do.

He had sent for half a dozen doctors, but they on their arrival had
found that the case was hopeless. Three of the doctors had accordingly
gone away, but the other three had stayed behind.

When however Smith was dead, and these three doctors had satisfied
themselves that life was quite extinct, they too went away with Mr.
Jones leaving the dead body in charge of the mourning members of the
family of the deceased.

Mr. Jones at once set about making arrangements for the funeral early
the next morning; and it was well after eleven at night that he
returned to a very late dinner at his own house. It was a particularly
hot night and after smoking his last cigar for the day Mr. Jones went to
bed, but not to sleep, after midnight. The death of his old friend and
neighbour had made him very sad and thoughtful. The bed had been made on
the open roof on the top of the house which was a two storied building
and Mr. Jones lay watching the stars and thinking.

At about one in the morning there was a loud knock at the front door.
Mr. Jones who was wide awake thought it was one of the servants
returning home late and so he did not take any notice of it.

After a few moments the knock was repeated at the door which opened on
the stairs leading to the roof of the second storey on which Mr. Jones
was sleeping. [The visitor had evidently passed through the front door].
This time Mr. Jones knew it was no servant. His first impression was
that it was one of the mutual friends who had heard of Smith's death and
was coming to make enquiries. So he shouted out "Who is there?"

"It is I,--Smith" was the reply.

"Smith--Smith is dead" stammered Mr. Jones.

"I want to speak to you, Jones--open the door or I shall come and kill
you" said the voice of Smith from beyond the door. A cold sweat stood on
Mr. Jones's forehead. It was Smith speaking, there was no doubt of
that,--Smith, whom he had seen expire before his very eyes five hours
ago. Mr. Jones began to look for a weapon to defend himself.

There was nothing available except a rather heavy hammer which had been
brought up an hour earlier that very night to fix a nail in the wall for
hanging a lamp. Mr. Jones took this up and waited for the spirit of
Smith at the head of the stairs.

The spirit passed through this closed door also. Though the staircase
was in total darkness still Mr. Jones could see Smith coming up step by
step.

Up and up came Smith and breathlessly Jones waited with the hammer in
his hand. Now only three steps divided them.

"I shall kill you" hissed Smith. Mr. Jones aimed a blow with the hammer
and hit Smith between the eyes. With a groan Smith fell down. Mr. Jones
fainted.

A couple of hours later there was a great commotion at the house of Mr.
Smith. The dead body had mysteriously disappeared.

The first thing they could think of was to go and inform Mr. Jones.

So one of the young sons of Smith came to Mr. Jones's house. The servant
admitted him and told him where to find the master.

Young Smith knocked at the door leading to the staircase but got no
reply. "After his watchful nights he is sleeping soundly" thought young
Smith.

But then Jones must be awakened.

The whole household woke up but not Mr. Jones. One of the servants then
procured a ladder and got upon the roof. Mr. Jones was not upon his bed
nor under it either. The servant thought he would open the door leading
to the staircase and admit the people who were standing outside beyond
the door at the bottom of the stairs. There was a number of persons now
at the door including Mrs. Jones, her children, servants and young
Smith.

The servant stumbled upon something. It was dark but he knew it was the
body of his master. He passed on but then he stumbled again. There was
another human being in the way. "Who is this other?--probably a thief"
thought the servant.

He opened the door and admitted the people who were outside. They had
lights with them. As they came in it was found that the second body on
the stairs two or three steps below the landing was the dead body of
Smith while the body on the landing was the unconscious form of Mr.
Jones.

Restoratives were applied and Jones came to his senses and then related
the story that has been recorded above. A doctor was summoned and he
found the wound caused by Jones's hammer on Smith's head. There was a
deep cut but no blood had come out, therefore, it appeared that the
wound must have been caused at least two or three hours after death.

The doctors never investigated whether death could have been caused by
the blow given by the hammer. They thought there was no need of an
investigation either, because they had left Smith quite dead at eight in
the evening.

How Smith's dead body was spirited away and came to Jones's house has
been a mystery which will probably never be solved.



Thinking over the matter recorded above the writer has come to the
conclusion that probably a natural explanation might be given of the
affair.

Taking however all the facts of the case as given above to be true (and
there is no reason to suppose that they are not) the only explanation
that could be given and in fact that was given by some of the sceptical
minds of Agra at that time was as follows:--

"Smith was dead. Jones was a very old friend of his. He was rather
seriously affected. He must have, in an unconscious state of mind like a
somnambulist, carried the dead body of Smith to his own house without
being detected in the act. Then his own fevered imagination endowed
Smith with the faculty of speech, dead though the latter was; and in a
moment of--well--call it temporary insanity, if you please--he inflicted
the wound on the forehead of Smith's dead body."

This was the only plausible explanation that could be given of the
affair; but regard being had to the fact that Smith's dead body was
lying in an upper storey of the house and that there was a number of
servants between the death chamber and the main entrance to the house,
the act of removing the dead body without their knowing it was a
difficult task, nay utterly impracticable.

Over and above this it was not feasible to carry away even at night, the
dead body along the road, which is a well frequented thoroughfare,
without being observed by anybody.

Then there is the third fact that Jones was really not such a strong
person that he could carry alone Smith's body that distance with ease.

Smith's dead body as recovered in Jones' house had bare feet; whether
there was any dust on the feet, had not been observed by anybody;
otherwise some light might have been thrown on this apparently
miraculous incident.





Next: What The Professor Saw

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