Stories of the Magicians - Alfred J. Church

The Story of Kehama

The Curse

It was midnight in Kehama's city, and yet there was not a man, or woman, or child, that slept from one end of it to the other; it was midnight, and yet the streets were bright as at noonday. For Kehama, the great Rajah, made a splendid funeral for his dead son. First in the procession came the priests, the Brahmins, and after them the dead man, seated upright in his palankeen. There is a glow on his cheek, but it is only from the curtains of crimson silk; he nods his heads, but it is only from the motion of the bearers' steps. Close behind his son came the great Rajah himself, and next to him, each in her gilded palankeen, the dead man's wives, who are doomed to die with their lord; and after these again, closely guarded by a company of bowmen, a man and a girl. The man is Ladurlad; it was he who dealt Arvalan his death-blow; the girl is Kailyal, his daughter; it was in defending her that Ladurlad did the deed.

And now the funeral rites are finished; nothing but ashes remains of the dead man's body; and Kehama, approaching the great slab of stone on which it had been laid for the burning, spreads on it honey and rice, and calls on the spirit of his son. The spirit comes, though none but Kehama could perceive the thin unsubstantial form. "Is this all that you can do for me," said Arvalan, "this funeral pomp and show, you who are mightier than the gods?"

Kehama's grief was changed to anger at this reproach. "Fool," he cried, "fool that you were, when I had secured you against fire, and sword, and the common accidents of man, to perish by a stake in a peasant's hand! In a little time I could have made you safe against death itself."

"It is useless to reproach me," answered Arvalan; "it was my hour of folly, and my fate was too strong for me. But is there nothing that you can do for me? The elements, fire and air and water, torture my naked soul."

"They shall do so no more," said Kehama. "Is there anything else that you desire."

"Yes," cried the spirit, "vengeance!"

Then Kehama turned, and raising his hand to silence the crowd, said: "Bring forth the murderer."

Ladurlad stepped forward at the word, but Kailyal hung back, looking round for help, though indeed she knew that help there was none. Now it so chanced that on the brink of the river was a wooden image, roughly carved, of Marriataly, the goddess of the poor. When Kailyal saw it, she sprang to it, and clasped it tightly with her arms. The guards seized her, and would have dragged her away; but as they dragged she clung still closer and closer. And now, as the image rocks and bends with the strain, they fancy that the girl is slackening her hold, and drag with redoubled effort, when, of a sudden, the image yields to their force; and as it yields, the bank crumbles, and gives way under their feet, and all, the guards and the girl alike, are plunged headlong into the stream.

"She has escaped me," said the Rajah, "but the more guilty criminal is left." And he looked with a dreadful frown at Ladurlad.

"Mercy!" cried the wretched man, "mercy! It was only to save my child that I slew the Prince. Mercy!"

Kehama said not a word, but stood buried in meditation. He had no thought of mercy; he made no account of right and justice; he considered only how his vengeance might be most complete. At last he spoke.

"Ladurlad," he said, "I charm thy life from steel and stone and wood, from the bite of the serpent, from the tooth of the wild beast, from sickness, and from time. Earth is mine, and it shall deny thee its fruits; water is mine, and it shall fly from thy approach; the winds are mine, and they shall pass by thee. Thou shalt seek death, but shalt seek it in vain. Thou shalt live with an unquenched fire in thy heart and thy brain as long as my power shall last."

And he turned away to the crowd; and Ladurlad wandered away, overwhelmed with his misery. His feet took him, not knowing or caring whither he went, to the river bank; and there he spied something floating down the stream. It seemed like the trunk of a tree; but as he was turning away, he caught a glimpse of a woman's robe. "Ah!" he thought to himself, "the goddess has saved her," and he plunged into the river. The water knew the spell that Kehama had laid upon it, and shrunk before him, and almost in a moment he had caught his daughter in his arms, and drawn her to the shore. There he laid her on the sand, and chafed her heart and her feet, laying them bare to the warmth of the sun. Long he laboured with scarcely a hope; at last her eyelids began to tremble, and then her lips, and after her bosom to heave. She lived again.

When she opened her eyes, and saw her father, a thrill of hope shot through her. "He has spared us, then," she cried.

He shook his head. "He has laid a curse upon me, a curse which will cling to me for ever. No wind may breathe on me; no water touch me. Sleep may never light on me; and even death itself is denied to me."

The girl looked at him incredulously; but when she put her hand on his garments, and found them still dry, though he had brought her from the depths of the river, she knew that he had spoken the truth.