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The Begging-Bowl

It has long been my misfortune to number Captain Uriah Cathcart among my acquaintance. Not among my friendship, no, never that; but we were boys together, we passed out from Sandhurst in the same year and shared a berth to Calcutta aboard the troopship Euphrenia. I will not cheapen the reputation of either an ancient scholarly foundation or an honourable regiment by naming them here. Suffice to say that both school and college kept him against their better judgement, and were glad to see him leave; the regiment endured him as best it could for as long as it could, for we were short of men then as now, but at last he was required to resign his commission. The particular circumstances, I am not at liberty to divulge; let it be enough to say that it touched upon a matter of honour.

Cathcart was then and is still a bully, a braggart and a coward. The leopard cannot change his spots, neither the Ethiopian his skin; as we are made, by nature or by training, so we remain. At the time of his disgrace I was still stationed at Peshawar. He had ingratiated himself with the Colonel, who preferred the comforts of the regimental HQ, so I heard the details only at a distance, as rumours in the mess. None of the gossip surprised me. I remember feeling simple gratitude that I need have no more to do with the man, in a military capacity or otherwise.

He lingered in India for some years; I heard his name occasionally on the social circuit, or read it in the newspapers as he involved himself in affairs of an increasingly disreputable nature. Eventually I saw the announcement of his marriage, and pitied the girl. They must have been equally desperate: an adventurer and an heiress, the one in need of money and the other of - what? A husband, presumably, and nothing more. Respectability did not lie within his gift.

There must have been money enough to buy an end to his adventuring. I heard his name no more, and assumed that having hooked her man, his wife had taken him back to England.

After some years I made that same journey myself, under curious circumstances which deserve a tale of their own. My experiences in India had led me out of the army; I thought for a while I was destined for the Church, but discovered in myself a most unexpected and unlikely scholar. When I came home, it was to Academe, where my inexperience as an usher was kindly overlooked in favour of what little I could offer. India had seized the popular imagination, even the interest of the Queen Empress herself; the universities could not answer the clamour at their doors, and any man with a knowledge of native languages and customs could find a welcome within.

Even so, the restrictions of college life hung heavily on my shoulders after the freedoms I had known in the Kush and the Karakorum. Every vacation, then, I would shrug off my gown and strike into the deeps of England, the home of which I knew so little: sometimes accompanied, often alone, always on foot. How else can one learn a country, but by walking it? How else could I clear my head of chalk-dust and the lilt of Hindustani, but by breathing English air and listening to the burr of English voices wherever I chose to bed down for the night? Sometimes that bed was moss and bracken, I had trees and stars for a ceiling and the only voice to hear was my own, if I chose to speak back to the wind or the water or the creatures of the woods. Usually there would be a village, though, with an inn and a room, a hot meal and a pint of ale, the promise of breakfast in the morning; or else there would be a farmhouse happy to offer the same hospitality for the same handful of coins.

One summer's day in the year of the Queen's Jubilee, I was exploring in the Cotswolds when my path brought me into one of those many pretty villages they keep tucked away between the hills there. Every house was built of that honeyed local stone and seemed to gleam golden in the low light. It was past time for tea and not yet time for supper, and I had half a mind to press on; I was walking without a map, but the Cotswolds are civilised country and I could be confident of finding a dinner and a roof before nightfall. That village had a particularity to it, though, from the rill beside the lane to the green with the little church beyond, every detail declaring itself the pure thing, the living heart of England, the original from which our land, our people sprang. Having come upon it by chance, it would have been the act of a brute to have ignored that lucky chance in hopes of ever, ever finding somewhere better.

Do I wish now that I had been brutal? Perhaps I do; but it is a coward's choice to wish a lesson unlearned or a road not taken, and no one has ever charged me with that particular vice. So I lingered. There was an inn on the green, The Hare's Hound, where I arranged for bed and board, and left my bag. I went out into the late sunshine, meaning to stroll the weariness out of my legs and shoulders, to lean on a gate perhaps, to whistle back at a blackbird, simply to feel the gentle tug of time passing me by.

First, though, there was the church. I am of that breed of Englishman who cannot pass a lychgate. If by some mischance the church is locked, I am happy simply to read the gravestones, but ordinarily I will doff my hat, tread softly amid the faded flowers and the polished brasses and feel myself briefly a man at peace, entirely come home. It was this same instinct that had led me first into the temples and shrines along the dusty roads of India, then to seek out the monasteries high in the hills; it was that insatiable questing habit that had brought me back ultimately to England. I could not be a student of Indian ethnology, it seemed, without the endorsement of an English university. There must be an irony there, that the search to understand what is immediate should take one far and far away, but I am too stupid or simply too near to draw any value from the lesson.

This day I found the church door standing wide. There was no sound of voices or music within. I went inside, therefore, as I would not have done otherwise; my travels in the lesser byways of belief may have spoiled me for Heaven, but they have not harmed my manners, nor my sense of what is right.

I went inside, and found the interior of the church to be of a likeness with its exterior, and with all this village; simple and honest and beyond harm, beyond mortal judgement. It seemed to me like the source of the Nile, the spring wherein rose all that was good in England.

Perhaps I was fanciful; perhaps - if you would judge by what came later, what I have yet to tell - perhaps I was feverish, or delirious. I cannot say: only that this was how I felt as I stood there, gazing about me, apse and aisle. There was no great sense of wonder, nothing magisterial, no touch of God; just that feeling of being a wanderer returned, back in the place where I best belonged, come to rest at the centre.

So strong that feeling was, it took me some time to realise that I was not alone within the body of the church.

The other fellow had been sitting in one of the aisle pews, in shadow and half-hidden by a pillar. Even so, he must have been hunched low to have avoided my first look around, before the rapture seized me.

Now he rose abruptly, pulling my eyes to himself, an attention unwelcome I think to both of us. Now he started towards the door, blunderingly; something in his movement spoke to me of a man on a battlefield, blinded by smoke, confused and disorientated, frightened beyond bearing. For a moment, for the shortest time imaginable I felt an unutterable sympathy for the creature. Whatever his trouble was, it seemed clear that it was too much for his strength, and that he knew it. That is a cruel thing, always.

Then another step brought him closer, into a beam of light where it struck down through the clerestory windows. In that moment, I knew him. I saw the same recognition in his own face, the touch of astonishment followed by an instant calculation. The Lord only knows what he saw in my reaction, but in him it seemed as though I came as an answer to prayer.

"Drummond, by all that's wonderful! Drummond, man, how good this is, you have no idea how glad I am to see you..."

It is the first duty of a gentleman to hide his inner feelings; I did my very best. Oh Rose, thou art sick - I had found the perfect English village, and here was Cathcart come to nest within it like a worm, like a canker. I would have forsaken my room and my bespoke dinner, I would have pleaded paper-thin excuses and fled as incontinently as needs be, but that my bag rested at the inn and could not be abandoned along with money and honour and such frippery things as those.

If I had changed little despite my altered circumstances, and I truly believed that to be true, Cathcart had changed less, except in his appearance. It was the whole man that I had recognised, the body and the movement in it, the face and the spirit, all together they could have been no one else; but now that I could see him closely, every separate element seemed reduced, worn down, hard done by. He had always been a big man, but his clothes hung on his frame now as his skin hung off the bones of his face, making shadows where there had been a smooth self-content. He had always been purposeful, but now there was a hesitancy in him, a nervous cast to his face and a hunch to his shoulders, as though there was no longer weight enough in him to support the weight of the world he had to bear. Even so, I would be swift to learn that he was still the man, still indeed the boy that he always had been, the bully and the braggart and the coward.

"I won't ask why you're here, that doesn't matter now. You'll stay, of course. What - the Hound? Nonsense, won't hear of it. Your bag? We'll fetch it, then, and put old Wilton off. No, better, we'll dine there, the two of us, as you're engaged to do it. He can throw another chicken in the pot. That'll ease your bad conscience. But you'll sleep under my roof tonight, Drummond. You will. I'll brook no argument."

Once he used to fix his gaze directly on what he wanted, and pursue it like a bull in a rage. Now his eyes were shifting constantly, rarely meeting mine. If shadows and corners made him anxious, as they seemed to do, I thought he should probably not spend his time in churches. It is all too easy to see something meaningful in the shift of light and dust, in a setting devoted to the numinous. I myself, unwittingly following his gaze, thought for a moment that I saw a hooded figure standing beyond the altar-rail. So convincing was it, for a moment I wondered if the village priest had come out from the vestry all unnoticed by either one of us. But then I blinked and of course there was no one there, and the only strangeness was that Cathcart was staring at the exact same spot, and his skin was pale and sheened with sweat.

He said nothing, though, and neither of course did I. We walked back to the inn together, the sunlight lost behind a rise of clouds, and all my earlier good feelings similarly clouded. I had been held in the heart of contentment, and now I dreaded the evening to come and the morning after. There was simply no help for it, though; he would have me as his guest, and he would not be gainsaid.

The price for this, of course, the first price was that he must be my guest at supper. He ate like a man famished, which I thought in the simply physical sense he was, but his eyes I thought were hungrier, and less easy to feed.

He drank too, recklessly, furiously; and talked throughout, as though he had been famished for company also. To judge by the way the publican had greeted him, the way the other customers had eyed him as we passed through the public bar, I thought it very likely that he was. He'd been a good man for picking up cronies, but never one for making friends. We were alone in the parlour for our supper, but the girl who waited on us brought all the dishes to my side of the table and didn't linger, so that he was obliged to ring the bell every time he wanted another jug of ale, which was frequently.

At the meal's end he called for my bag and a bottle of whisky, which he also graciously allowed that I should pay for; and so we set out to his billet, as he said, to make a night of it, he said that also. I determined to make for my bed, as soon as ever I could. Even setting my profession aside, I can play the old India hand with the best of them, I can talk till dawn in congenial company; but I had endured two hours already of Cathcart's raw and ignorant bluster, and I felt that I could bear no more. The odd thing was that he had seemed little interested himself, in what he was saying. To be talking was perhaps the only point, to have a listener at last; but he had lost his thread frequently, changed his subject as often as he had refilled his tankard, spoken at length but with no great passion about things a man should be passionate about, his country and its standing in the world, its government, its wars. He had not mentioned wife or family, property, anything of a personal nature. I had noticed a pale ring of skin around his wedding-finger, to match one on his other hand where once I thought he had worn a signet-ring, an heirloom. Of course I had not asked. Sometimes a question is cruelty in a sheer disguise.

He was talking yet as we left the inn, something about the brilliant career that he might have had, if events had played out differently at school or in the army or since. I confess, I was paying small attention. What interested me more was the way his voice faltered as the lanes closed in about us, the way he peered into the hedgerows, the way he turned and turned again to look behind. He had demanded a hurricane-lamp to help us find our road, but that only served to make the darkness deeper beyond its little fall of light. Any old soldier knows or ought to know that the wise course is to walk in the dark and let your eyes learn to use starlight, moonlight, whatever light they can. I kept my head averted from the lamp, the better to see further. His habit of looking back was infectious, I found, but the shadows were as deceptive as shadows always are. More than once I thought that someone followed us, a woman in a long gown, perhaps, or else a man in a robe, a priest as it might be; more than once I thought it was a boy, perhaps an urchin or a stable-lad out late, lingering later in hopes to avoid a beating. Just once I thought I saw the two together. It was all deceit, I told myself, the infection of the night; my hearing is sharper than my sight, and I was willing to swear that there was no sound of footfalls in that lane, beyond the crunch of our own boots on broken stone. Nor were there any buildings that we passed, manse or stable-block or farm, until we came to Cathcart's own house, a handsome structure made or perhaps remade in the last century, as I should judge it, standing in its own acres. It must have come to him with his marriage; certainly if there had been such a property in the family I would have heard about it, at school or at college or on that interminable voyage to Calcutta. He could not have forborn to boast of it to me, the scholarship pupil, the rector's son. Equally certainly, he had never made money enough to buy it. He must have married into it; which made me all the more curious about the state of that marriage, and all the more determined not to ask.

As I have suggested, the house was quite isolated, and it was clear that Cathcart lived alone. Even so, there seemed to be an excessive number of bolts to be thrown once we were inside, and the majority of those gleamed with newness more than polish.

Still, he seemed more settled once we were securely withindoors. The house struck me as cold and uninviting, but he seemed to find comfort in the strength of it, stone and oak and age. He lit an oil-lamp and ushered me through a bare hallway into what must have been meant as a drawing-room, but again it was bare, almost void: no carpet to the floor and no pictures to the walls, no furniture at all bar a table and two upright chairs. On the table, a candlestick and an empty brass bowl, a little wider than the span of a big man's hands.

Cathcart set the lamp down on the table and bustled over to the windows while I gazed about me, wondering if he were moving in or moving out, and more than ever regretting the warmth and welcome of the Hare's Hound.

"Well! Here we are, then, and thank God for shutters, eh? Close out the night..."

He was doing that as he spoke, scurrying almost from one casement to the next. When he came to the last shutter, in that moment of its movement where it cast its own shadow across the reflections on the glass, I thought I saw a face that pressed itself against the window. The face of a boy, I thought it was, pale and hungry.

"I say, Cathcart..."

"Yes, what?"

"Never mind." The shutter was slammed and barred; if there had been a boy outside, he must have seen. It wasn't my place to interfere in his dealings with neighbours or servants, with tramps or gypsies or any kind of person.

"Well, sit, sit..."

I did that; and finding nothing else to comment on within the circle of lamplight, I gazed into the bowl before me and said, "Your maid has been skimping her work. There's a stain on the brass here."

I must have seen hundreds, thousands of similar bowls; India is full of them. They turn them out in Benares, in uncountable numbers. Every beggar has his bowl. It may be the only industry working for a customer who cannot himself afford its product. But the beggars at least keep them scrupulously clean, if they have no polish. This was not only stained, it was crusted around the base where some thick liquid must have been spilled and left to desiccate.

I would have dismissed any servant who left a thing of mine in such a state, but I meant the comment facetiously, no more. It meant something more to Cathcart. He shuddered visibly in the dim light, and said, "I have no maid. There's a cleaning-woman who comes out from the village a couple of times a week, that's all I need; but I've told her not to touch the bowl. No one should touch the bowl, don't you touch it. No reason for it to ruin anyone's life but mine."

I must have been staring, I suppose. He sighed, and said, "Oh, I'll tell you, Drummond. You must be swallowing questions like a fish swallows water, swimming in them. Just wait, while I find glasses for the whisky. I'll have to take the lamp. I suppose I could light the candle for you, though there's barely a stub of it left..."

"No need for that," I said brusquely. "Take the light, by all means. I'm not afraid of the dark."

"No? You should be. Perhaps you'll learn to be. Stay here, then; I shan't be long. Don't touch the bowl."

He took the lamp, and the darkness closed in around me. The doorway held all the light there was, a grey that faded as Cathcart moved further off. I listened to his progress, suspecting that like many men alone in a big house, he lived his life in some small part of it, small and distant. It might have seemed more sensible to take me there, where the glasses were, and perhaps some semblance of homeliness. He might have been ashamed to show it me, if he lived in the kitchen, perhaps, for convenience' sake; or else ashamed of its condition, mud on the floor and dirty crocks heaped up, waiting for his cleaning-woman's casual attention. My guess, though, was that he had brought me here because the bowl was here, because there was a story in the bowl and he had a need to tell it. I was an India hand, as was he; the bowl too was from India, no question of that in my mind, though I'd not had the chance to examine it closely; I thought his simple mind had joined these simple facts, and so seen in me the opportunity to shed or at least to share some burden that he had long carried alone.

I did not want to be Cathcart's confessor, but I saw no chance to escape it. From that moment of our meeting in the church, I had felt locked in to an ineluctable process, gripped by a fate that was not in fact my own. India can be the death of faith, and the mother of superstition; the back of my neck crawled with portent. If I was here for a purpose, though, I thought it was only to observe, to bear witness. It seemed to make sense. I knew much of Cathcart's story already; here surely must be its ending, or at least the beginning of its end. Whatever it was that hounded him, I thought he could take little more.

He came back with two tumblers that bore signs of hasty washing, wet and smeared. I'd drunk less welcome draughts from less salubrious vessels; I watched him pour a generous three fingers of whisky into each, and raised never a murmur. I raised a glass instead, murmured "Your health," and took a sip. He drained his in one long and needy swallow. If ever a man could choose to drink himself to death, I thought that perhaps Cathcart was that man, and had made the choice already.

He stood over the table, scowling down at the bowl with a terrible expression, fear and defiance unnaturally mixed. Then he grunted, "Here, look," and fumbled a handful of small change from his pocket. He tossed it into the bowl, and I felt the weight of his gaze shift to me.

Briefly, I heard the clatter of copper on brass; the silence afterwards seemed to follow almost too swiftly. I leaned forward to see how the coins had fallen - and found myself staring into the empty hollow of the bowl, gleam and stain and crust and nothing more.

"You see?" There was almost a gloating satisfaction in his voice, and I was sorry to have so satisfied him in my surprise.

"I see, yes. It's a conjuring trick. I've seen fakirs do the same a hundred times. Tell me, how is it performed?"

"It's no trick, Drummond. God, I wish it were. That... that thing has eaten my substance; now it wants my soul." He sank into the chair opposite mine and dropped his head into his hands. By the tremble in his fingers, I believed him.

"You'd best tell me, then."

I've seen some strange things in my time, and heard some stranger stories sworn to by men whose word I would never dream to question. The story Cathcart told me that night was perhaps stranger than any. He was a liar by nature, being a bully and a braggart and a coward all three; and yet I believed every word of it, I had to. He would never willingly have exposed himself so, except under the whip of truth.

"They were my last days in India," he told me, "and I was pretty much at a loose end. I had sold short on my business interests, and I'd shipped my wife off home the month before, so I had little enough to do with my time. I'd resigned from my clubs," by which I gathered that he'd been asked to resign, after one scandal too many, "and I was reduced to wandering the streets, just to pass the hours between breakfast and the first chota peg. Oh, I know what you're thinking, not too many hours; and you're right. But I wasn't desperate in those days, only celebratory. Remember, I was newly married then, and my wife had brought a competence with her, more than a competence. I was quite content with my lot, only a little bored for lack of company.

"Anyway, one day I was nosing around the old city when I found this little temple up an alley. It was dark in there, and the air stank of that stuff they burn all day, and I'm still not sure why I went inside, except that it seemed to be empty and you know how crowded the streets are, and how a white man is like a magnet in those quarters. I hate being jostled, and I had no stick to fend the beggars off with, so it was quite a relief to duck in somewhere they wouldn't follow me. At least they respect those bloody gods of theirs. Well, perhaps they have reason.

"In time, my eyes adjusted to the dark and the smoke. It was the usual lay-out, barely more than a hut with an open floor for the natives to kowtow on, an idol on some kind of altar at the far end. A leering, hideous thing, that idol was. But the sun was slanting in through a hole in the roof, and it glinted off something in its costume, so naturally I went to take a closer look. It hooked my eye, do you see?"

Oh, I saw. I saw Cathcart in a street shrine, spotting the chance for some petty burglary. By his own admission, I was wrong in one detail only; there was nothing petty about it.

"It was a ruby," he went on. "I don't pretend to know much, but by God I know my stones, and that was as fine a ruby as I've seen outside a royal palace. And now that I was there, I could see more: emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, all of them sewn into the half-rotted rags that idol wore. Well, it would have been madness to leave them. Savages and heathens, it was an act of Christian charity to strip that wicked idol. I started to cut the jewels out, but my fingers were shaking, and if I dropped a stone I knew I'd never find it in the filth on the floor there.

"Just then, a figure rose up from the darkest corner of the temple. I'd have sworn it was empty, but there he was, this monk, striding towards me, cursing me, calling down blood and thunder and God knows what, I couldn't make out his lingo.

"But he had this begging-bowl in his hands, the way all those bonzes do, and it struck me suddenly, that would be the perfect thing. I could stuff all those rags into the bowl and go through them carefully, back at my hotel.

"I tried to buy it from him. I swear, I tried to buy it. I took the bowl in my one hand and shoved money at him with the other, all the change I had, far more than the thing was worth. He wouldn't stop shouting, though, long enough to understand me. So in the end I just took it, I thrust the money into his hands and snatched the bowl away from him.

"And then he gave over shouting, and started screaming instead. You know the noise those devils can make, when they put their minds to it. And he was scrabbling at me as he cursed me, trying to grab the bowl back; I held it up out of his reach, he was a puny little thing, but then he went for my eyes instead, fingers like claws. So I was only defending myself, Drummond, do you see...?"

"What did you do?" I asked quietly, though I was already sure of the answer.

"Well, I struck him. Just the once. With the bowl, though. I was holding it high, do you see, and it just felt natural, like a stroke at tennis... And he was such a weakly creature, badly made, the way so many of them are. Perhaps he had a bone disease, do you think? ... Well, anyway, it stove his skull in, you see, and he died. There on the floor, in front of that damned idol..."

"What did you do?" The same question again, and the answer again foreseen, apparent, inevitable.

"I did what I'd meant to do. Of course I did, nothing I could do for the bonze now, and no point delaying my own plans for the sake of a dead native. No doubt you think I should have gone to the police? In law, perhaps I should; but I'd have missed my boat to no purpose. I hope a white man can still defend himself against some heathen beggar-priest. And I'd paid him for the bowl, more than it was worth..."

And he hadn't wanted to sell, and so had died; but I saw no virtue in pointing out what was obvious. Instead I said, "There would still have been the matter of the jewels."

"Oh, those damned jewels... Yes, I took them. Still on their silks, I bundled them all into the bowl and wrapped it around with another piece of cloth, a plain piece that was still sound. I hurried back to my hotel, and thrust the whole bundle into my baggage and left it there, didn't look again till I was home.

"And when I did look, here in this house, on this table - well, the bowl was as you see it. Empty.

"I thought I'd been robbed on the voyage, of course. I was furious. I was sure I knew who'd done it, too. I'd seen him a dozen times, just in the corner of my eye, a native skulking up on the boat deck where no native ought to be. I thought I'd seen him in my cabin, even, though I never could lay my hands on the blighter. I'd complained to the purser more than once, but the hands could never find him. They were looking at me quite oddly before we docked. Damn cheek, I thought it was.

"Then I found the jewels gone, and I was sure. I wrote a stiff letter to the shipping line, demanding compensation, but I never had a satisfactory response. In the end - well, I gave that up. Things had changed. I was beginning to understand, though even then I never thought, I never dreamed... Well, what man would, what decent Englishman? It's different for you, old man, you've been in country stranger than any of us, and thought about it more deeply, too. Here they just laugh and talk about heathen superstition, but you and I, we know what mysteries can mean.

"It's the bowl, you see. You'll have guessed that, I expect. I had it in my dressing-room for a while, I used to throw my cuff-links in, my dress-studs, the loose change from my pockets - you know, I expect you do the same, leave them for your man to sort out in the morning. We still had servants here, then. But I started to find things missing, anything I'd left in the bowl overnight. My valet swore blind he'd taken nothing, he'd never found anything in the bowl. I couldn't keep him, of course; but the next man I hired, the same thing happened, exactly the same. So I thought it must be my wife's maid, or the tweenie. We had rows, floods of tears, a terrible fuss, and nothing was sorted out.

"Until one night, when I tossed a pair of cufflinks in as usual - but they were a pair I valued, I didn't want to lose them, so I went to fish them out again, and they were gone. Just gone. Well, you've seen. Anything I put in, it vanishes. It doesn't work for anyone else, you try. Go on, try."

So I did, I tossed some pennies into the bowl. They clattered and came to rest, and nothing more. I took them out one by one, handed them silently to Cathcart; one by one he dropped them into the bowl, and one by one we watched them disappear.

"It's the blood price, you see," he said softly, and for a moment I almost pitied him again. "I don't know how much it wants, I've given it everything, and it's never satisfied. It just takes and takes, and never says enough. It can't have any more, there's nothing more to give; I don't know what it wants."

I thought that was a lie, and I said so; and then I said, "Cathcart, where's your wife?"

He stared at me, and barked a queer kind of laugh. "Good God, man, what kind of monster do you take me for? She's gone, that's all. The ring, the ring went in there," with a nod towards the bowl, "but she, she just left me. Her brother came and there was a row, and then he took her away."

"And that stain?" I prompted him gently. It couldn't be the priest's blood, that must have been on the outside of the bowl and would have been wiped off long since. I could understand Cathcart's not wanting to reach into the bowl to polish it, but I still needed to know what had caused that crusted stain.

"Oh, you're right," he confessed, "of course you're right. It's a blood-price it wants, it's not content with all my substance. Not Mary, though, never that. A boy, that's all, a stray boy come begging to the back door, I thought a life for a life might satisfy the thing. So I slit his throat," he made the confession baldly, and only his fingers shook, "and I bled him into the bowl. There was more blood than it could swallow, seemingly, it pooled in the bottom and I thought it might be satisfied at last; but come the morning, there was nothing left but that stain, and it still wants more, and I don't know what it wants."

"Yes, you do. You're just afraid to pay the price." If he could be blunt, then so would I. But, "Why don't you get rid of it, man? Why keep it here, why feed it when you know it'll never be content with what you offer?"

For answer, his eyes shifted to the shuttered windows. "They're out there," he whispered. "The old bonze, and the boy. It was him I kept seeing on the boat, I worked that out in the end. I see him here, too. And the boy, now, the boy's joined him. They don't come in here, they don't need to, so long as that's around," with a baleful glare at the dull gleam of the bowl, "but if I threw it out, if I chucked it in the sea or sold it, there'd be nothing to keep them at bay. I'd rather face this thing - God, don't touch it, man!"

"You're the one it wants," I said mildly, picking it up and feeling the weight of it in my hands, heavier it seemed than thin brass ought to be but not heavy enough, not by a distance, not to contain a man's fortune and a boy's life drunk away.

There were characters cut into the brass, all around the rim. I glanced at them, swallowed an oath and looked more closely, holding it up by the light to make the shallow lines glitter and spark.

"What is it, what have you seen?"

I gave him no answer; there was no sure answer I could give. The characters were worn and ancient, and would have been hard to discern, harder to understand with all my colleagues and all the facilities of my college at hand; in that house that night, it was impossible to say anything with any clarity. All I could be sure of was that this was no ordinary brass Benares begging-bowl, and that it was no common itinerant bonze that had possessed it. Cathcart had stumbled on something older and darker even than he'd guessed; it was the theft of the bowl that was his great offence, not the theft of any jewels. Even the deaths he'd brought about would weigh scant in the scales of judgement, I fancied, compared to that heavy bowl.

When he came to judgement, when finally he came to it. He should not have waited this long; he knew it, but he was ever the coward. He slept every night with a light burning, he told me that. I thought it was a mistake. Where there is utter darkness, there can be no shadows. A little light is a dangerous thing; it is the shift and swell of the half-dark that is deadly to the soul.

I took the candle and went to bed, leaving him crouched above the remnants of the bottle, huddled in his little pool of light. The shards of writing around the bowl's rim glinted at me like fire as I left; all night I dreamed of them, letters of flame running round and around, while the bowl filled from below like a pool of night in which no stars could shine.

I left early in the morning, just after dawn and long before Cathcart would be stirring; he'd finished the bottle, I found, before he took the lamp to bed.

I did the best I could for him, the only thing that I could think to do. The bowl was a temptation, but I would not touch it; not for fear of unleashing his ghosts on him, but rather fear of what might follow me, what trouble I might bring upon my college.

Instead, I gave him the clearest encouragement I could, leaving my cut-throat razor in the bowl for him to find when he should rise at last. He knew what was owing, what was waited for. I have not heard yet, whether his long debt is paid.

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© Chaz Brenchley, 2004.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.