“As for them
— Ha Ha!” He folds his thin and lilac-gloved hands over the
handle of his stalking-crutch. Even several so-called experts have declared
the handle (observed by light far less dim than that in the shop of Bhumbo
Singh) to be ivory: they are wrong: it is bone, purely bone... Or perhaps
one would better say, impurely bone...
“Ha Ha!” echoes (Dr.) Bhumbo Singh. He has in fact no right at all to
this distinguished family name, which he has assumed in dishonor of a
certain benevolent Sikh horse-coper who in a rash and malignly
constellated hour took the notion to adopt him.
Now to business; “A spell, Underhand Sahib?” he next asks, rubbing his
chin. His chin bears a dull-blue tattoo which would strike terror to the
hearts and loosen the strings of the bowels of the vilest ruffians in
Rangoon, Lahore, Peshawar, Pernambuco, and Wei-hatta-hatta yet
unhanged, save, of course, that it is almost always by virtue of dust, the
inky goo of curried squid, and a hatred of water akin to hydrophobia,
totally invisible. “A spell, a spell? A nice spell? A severed head?”
“Fie upon your trumpery spells,” Mr. Eevelyn (two
easily. “They are fit only for witches, warlocks, and Boy Scouts or Girl. As
for your severed heads, shrunken or otherwise: Ho Ho.”
He puts the tip of his right index finger alongside of the right naris of
his nose. He winks.
Dr. Bhumbo Singh attempts a leer, but his heart is not in it. “They cost
uncommon high nowadays, even wholesale,” he whines. And then he drops
commercial mummery and simply waits.
“I have come for a smell, Doctor,” Underhand says, flicking away with
the tip of his stalking-crutch a cricket scaped from the supply kept to feed
the tree-shrews. Dr. Bh. Singh’s red little eyes gleam like those of a rogue
ferret in the rutting season.
Underhand gives his head a brisk, crisp nod, and smacks his pursed
lips. A smell, subtle, slow, pervasive. A vile smell. A puzzling smell. A smell
of seemingly ubiquitous provenaunce, and yet a smell which has no spoor.
An evil smell. One which will, eventually, and to infinite relief, diminish...
diminish... all but vanish... and then, rising like a phoenix from its bed of
fragrant ashes, stalk abroad like a pest — worse, far worse than before...
“A smell disgusting beyond disgust...”
A slight shiver passes through Dr. (he has neither right nor title to this
title, but who would dare deny it him? The AMA? The last platform which
they could have occupied together even in combat was also occupied by
Albertus Magnus.) passes through Dr. Bhumbo S.‘s filthy, maugre frame.
His tongue protrudes. (It
true that he can, when moved to do so, touch
with it the tip of his rather
nose; if it is also true that he can —
and does — catch flies with it like a toad or chameleon, Mr. Underhand
has not found the matter meet communicating to
withdraws. “In short, most-valued customer, what is now requisite is a
smell which will drive men mad.”
“‘Men,’ Dr. Bhumbo Singh?
I said nothing of men. The word
never issued from my mouth. The concept, in fact, never formed in my
mind.” Bhumbo shakes with what may be a malarial spasm, but is
probably silent laughter.
“I have just the thing,” he says. “I have the very thing. The price is
the price is minimal, the price is 1500 golden gold
pieces, of the coinage of Great Golconda. Per ounce.”
Underhand’s brows raise, descend, meet. ‘“Of the imprint of Great
Golconda’? Why, even the very schoolboys know that Golconda-gold was so
exceedingly pure that it might be eaten like jam, which is why so few of its
coins now remain. Damme, damme, Dr. Bhumbo Singh, if this is how you
treat and charge your most valued customers, it is no wonder that you
have so few.” A mass of filth, matted together with cobwebs, slowly floats
form the invisible ceiling to the unspeakable floor; is ignored.
The merchant shrugs. “Not even for my own brother, sir, am I willing to
prepare the smell for less.” Considering that Bhumbo’s own (and only)
brother, Bhimbo, has spent the last seven and one half years laden with
chains in the sixth sub-basement of the gaol privily kept by that ugly,
obese, and evil old woman, Fatima, Dowager Begum of Oont, without
Bhumbo offering so much as two rupees two pice in ransom, this is quite
probably the truth. “However, out of my great regard and respect for you
personally and my desire to maintain the connexion, I shall not require
you to purchase the full ounce. I shall sell it you by the drachm or scruple.”
“Done, Bhumbojee, done!” cries Mr. Underhand. He thumps the
stalking-crutch upon the filthy, filthy floor. The tree-shrew utter shrill
little yipples of annoyance, and Bhumbo gives them crickets: they subside,
aside from making nonverbal, crunching noises.
Nearby on the overpass a truck or lorry rumbles past; in its wake the
frail building tembles, causing at least one of the shrunken heads to roll
from side to side and grind its teeth. No one pays it mind. “Be pleased to
return hither, then, Underhand Effendi, on (or, it may be, a trifle after) the
Gules of December,” Bhumbo Singh says. Then grows just a trifle
uncertain. “‘December,’ the giaours call the next half-past-a-month
‘December,’ do they not?”
Eevelyn Underhand (two
rises to go. “They do indeed. They have a
high festival therein.”
“They do, they do?” cries Bhumbo Singh. “I had not known. — What a
thing it is to be wise!” He accompanies his customer to the dirty, dirty
door with many bows, obeisances, and genuflections. Customer, having
perfunctorily placed his foot once on Bhumbo’s nasty neck, is long gone by
the time the last of these is finished.
Gone, long gone, and the distant echo of the penny-whistle (on which he
is wont to play the grace-notes to the
Lament For Nana Sahib
as he walks
his spidery way through such dank ways and dark) long gone as well...
In the next sundry weeks, either Bhumbo Singh or his very simulacrum
is seen in a multitude of exceedingly diverse places. Abattoirs know him
for brief moments; wool-pulleries and tanneries as well. He is seen to cast
hands-full of the Semi-silent Sands of the Hazramawut (or Courts of
Death) at the windowpanes of Abdulahi al-Ambergrisi (who sells
asafoetida as well): and the Abdulahi (an Yezid of the Yezidi-folk) to open,
blench, withdraw, thrust out by means of a very long-handled net an
ampula of what-it-may-be. The Bhumbo — and if it be not he, who be it?
— is observed out of the corners of eyes to scramble under the wharf at the
Old Fish Market (condemned, since, by the Board of Health). He visits,
also, the hovels of one or two and never more than three foreign folk who
formerly fared at sea in tropic clime and who live now in tumbled sheds on
the farther sides of disused dumps and show their ravaged faces only to
the faces of the ravaged moons.
And on the nights when the moon is dark, he scambles through
ointment factories, in search of flies.
Now and then he whispers, and, did one dare come close and nigh, one
would hear him calculate in somewise as this: “Such-and-such a number
of golden gold-pieces! with some I shall buy me
baroque pink pearls
and with some I shall buy me
curried squid and some I shall lay
away to gloat upon and others — nay! one lone other! — shall I give to
Iggulden the Goldbeater to beat me gold-leaf so soft and wide and thin:
half of this I shall lay for a strangle-mask upon the face of a certain
real-estate ‘developer’ and tother moiety shall
She-Who-Makes-Sweetmeats roll round hot comfits and pasties and
pastries for me and when this has melted like yellow butter I shall eat of
them nor shall I invite even one other to join me and afterwards I shall lick
my twelve fingers till they be somewhat clean...”
Then he chuckles... a sound like the bubbling of thick hot grease in the
foetid try-pots of a cannibal feast.
Meanwhile, and what of Mr. Underhand?
Mr. Underhand meanwhile makes visits, too: but of a more sociable
nature: Mr. Underhand pays
“Oh. Undy. It’s
says a woman through the chink in the
well-chained door. “Whadda
“Gertrude, I have brought you, this being the first of the month, the
sum mulcted of me by the terms of our bill of divorcement,” says he. As
He passes money through the crack or slit between door-jamb and door.
Rapidly she riffles through it; asks, “Is this all I’m gonna get?” As always.
“No,” sighs he, “I fear me not. It is, however, all that you are going to
get in this or any other one month of the year; it being the extortionate
amount wrested from me by compound, I do not say ‘collusion,’ between
your attorneys and the judge upon the bench. Gertrude: good night.”
He turns and departs. She makes a sound between her palate and her
sinuses which experience has instructed she intends for scorn: then:
cluntch-cluntch... thuckle-thuckle... the night-bolts. Cloonk. The door.
Mr. Underhand, an hour later, bathes and bay-rum’d and clothed in his
best-of-best. Spats upon his glittering shoes. Hat and gloves and cane in
one hand. Flowers in the other.
“Eevelyn,” she says, hand to her gleaming, glittering throat. “What a
lovely surprise. What quite lovely flowers. Oh, how nice.”
“May I come in. My dear.”
“Why of course. Need you ask. Now I shan’t be lonely. For a while.
Eevelyn.” They kiss.
A wide glance he swiftly casts round. Then asks, “Do I interrupt your
looks about the apartment. Her expression is one of mild surprise.
“‘Dinner’? Oh. That. Just a simple bowl of lobster salad on a heart of
chilled iceberg lettuce. Chervil. Cress. A few spoons of caviare. Sweet
butter, just a dab. A hard-cooked egg, cut fine.
smallest bottle of Brut. All far too much. But you know how Anna spoils
one. You will join me.”
He looks round, again. Crystal. Tapestry. Petit-point. Watteau.
Chippendale. Asks: “You are not expecting—?”
“Oh, no. No. Not now. Shall we have some music. We shall have some
They do not.
“Heavens, the time. You must go now Eevelyn.”
“Then you are expecting—?”
How her fingers glitter as she raises them to indicate what words alone
cannot. “Eevelyn. I do not. Know. I never. Know. — Go, my sweetest
He picks up hat, gloves, cane. “How is it that I never—”
She places ring-crusted fingers across his livid lips. “Hush. Oh. Hush.
The noblest kindest most generous man I know will never grumble. He will
be understanding. Patient. A kiss before we part.”
The Andaman Islander peers a moment through gummy eye-slits.
Which now widen in recognition. “Underhand Sahib!”
“And whom else did you expect? Fat Fatima, perhaps?”
The islander shakes as with an ague. “Ah, Wisdom-wallah, do not
mention her even obliquely! Has she not laid my miserable and I fear by
now broken brother in a deep-dark dungeon, merely for having
adventitiously broken wind in her outermost courtyard? Malignant she!”
Underhand shrugs. “Well, so be it. Or: so be it
Singh, I have brought certain pieces of gold, contained, according to
custom, in — hem, hem,!” He coughs. “I need not name it.” And looks up
and around, expectantly.
At once the storekeeper begins to prowl and shuffle. “‘To afflict with
impotence the Viceroy of Sindh.’ No. ‘To impose the plague of emmerods
upon the anti-Pope of—’ No. ‘Lord Lovat’s head, with tam o’shanter,’ no.
no. Ah. Ah.” He lifts up a tiny container, begins simultaneously to read the
label (scribbled in a most debased Pracrit) and to open—
“Hold! Hold! For pity’s sake do not unstopple it!”
The dark man dumbly puts down the pottikin, no larger than a thumb
or (say) the smallest sized can of Spanish truffles; turns to the next item
on the cluttered, webby counter. “ ‘Will afflict with wens upon the
forehead of the favorite of the Grand Bastard of Burgundy,’ ah!”
Underhand is near-exasperated. “Bhumbo. Pause. Pause. Cease to
dither. Lay down that spell. Down, I say, sir; down — Now. Pick up the
previous item you had in hand. Yes...And for the sake of Kali,
shrews some crickets!”
The Andaman Islander still bumples around, so Underhand, with a click
of impatience, follows both his own instructions. Also gives the fellow a
keen glance of reproof, advises him henceforth to use either a better or a
worse brand of opium; and places in his hands that which holds the golds.
“You have weighed the preparation, I make no doubt; count therefore the
coins, in order that—”
But his supplier declines the need. “It is enough, enough, Underhand
Sahib. I feel the weight to be correct. Forgive my dithering: the
as you say.” The voice and manner are crisp enough now. “I would offer
you cups of tea, but my own brutish brews are not fine enough for your
exquisite palate, and the Lipton’s I cannot find.”
Underhand sweeps the filthy lair with a glance. (A broom would be
better.) “And fresh out of viper’s milk, too, I daresay. Pit-ty.” He looks
once, he looks twice around the darkly place, dirty almost beyond
endurance, cluttered certainly beyond description. “Ah, the immemorial
wisdom of the East... Bhumbo: a good Gules to you.”
The other bows. “Do I not live but to serve you with smells, Sahib?” he
enquires. And begins the requisite series of prostrations. Presently he
hears the sound of the penny-whistle.
Some time after that.
Anna’s nose is very red; her voice is very thick. “Always mine lady liked
nice things.” she says. “Diamonts, chee liked. Poils, chee liked. ‘Kebbiar, I
could only itt a morsel, but it moss be the bast,’ chee tal to me.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Underhand agrees.
“How true, how true. What a blow to you. To you
me.” He wishes
that Anna would twist her handerkerchief less and apply it more.
“Always mine lady was very particular,” Anna goes on. ‘“Anna, how you
minn, you couldn’t small it?’ chee ask. ‘Look maybe onder you choose.’ I lat
her see onder mine right chew: nothing. I lat her see onder mine laft chew:
nothing. ‘Nye, so, Mrs., how come soddenly mine kitchens not nice and
clinn; come luke.’ Chee come, chee luke, luke, luke. Nothing. Sneef, sneef,
sneef. ‘Eeyoo, God-my, waht dradful smal,’ chee say. And
“My, my. Yes, yes. Don’t distress yourself, they take very good care of
her where she is now—”
Anna (fiercely): “What? Take care mine lady gooder than me? I visit, I
bring mine spatial
Chee scrim, only. ‘Mrs., Mrs., you
don’t rackocknize Anna?
Mrs. Goitrude, Mors. Goitrude: is
But only chee scrim. And
and scrim.” Anna begins to demonstrate,
fists clenched, cords thrusting out from neck, voice a thin shrill grinding;
Underhand begs her to desist.
Afterwards, Underhand, with some relief, returns to his own home. Man
is, certainly, a social being: but there are times when, the Author of
Genesis (Underhand believes), notwithstanding, when it is good for man
to be alone. Underhand has his roses; he prunes them. Underhand has his
Newgate Calendars; he collates them. Underhand has his first editions
(Mather, de Sade, von Sacher-Masoch); he reads them. Now and then he
looks up. He finds, after a while, that he is looking up rather oftener than
he is looking down. Then he looks further down than usual. First he lifts
up his right foot and turns it sideways. He puts it down. Then he lifts up
his left foot and turns it sideways. He puts it down. Then, room by room
and closet by closet, he goes through the house, his nostrils dilating. “It is
not what I think,” he says, firmly. “It, is,
... what I
Some time after
Underhand is in another place, and one which he doesn’t much like.
Endlessly he casts horoscopes, no pencils are allowed and so he uses
crayons. The effects are certainly colorful but it is very hard to achieve fine
detail. By one and by two, people pass by, and, pretending not to look,
look. Underhand ignores them. Why he now, suddenly, does look up as
someone stops— Look he does. This one, now, frankly gazes without
Underhand stares. Starts. Speaks.
“Oh, my God. Oh. Oh. Bhumbo Singh. They told me he — told me
me. Stuffed in between my inner and outer walls.
was what drove me mad.
was what I —
what I had thought.
what I had bought. Mistake. Must tell them: Bhumbo Singh: alive.” He
starts to rise, is stopped by a dark and gentle hand.
“Oh, no, Underhand Sahib and/or Effendi. Bhumbo
Underhand utters a small squeal, starts to sidle away.
own and only brother and twin to the faithless aforesaid.
Who alas and regardless of the uterine ties between us let me languish in
the lowermost dungeon of H.H. The Beebee Fatima, Dowager Begum of
Oont, for seven years six months one week and several days, rather than
pay ransom for my offense —
unintentional, I assure you: never eat
legumes before transacting whatsoever even in the outermost courtyard of
a descendant of Timur the Terrible. — The sixth sub-basement of her
now-illegal gaol, whence I was released by the new and independent
government, may Kali bestow blessings upon them with every pair of
hands. Thence came I here. Wherefore I caused him, my natal brother
Bhumbo, to be bitten to the heart by hungry tree-shrews imprisoned
under an iron squid-pot which I held over his faithless heart;
He wags his head contentedly.
A moment Underhand ponders, ignoring whilst he does so the conduct
of a neighbor who was now, as often, reciting what he claimed were the
complete Songs of Ossian in the original Erse. From memory. Loudly. And
at length. “Well, then, I understand why you put your brother to the death.
Narurally. But why, oh, why, Bhimbo, did you stuff him in between my
innermost and outermost walls? — with such dreadful results to myself?
And, oh! the black whirlwind!”
A shrug. A look of gentle surprise. “Why? Well, Sahib, one had to stuff
him somewhere. —I had thought to return to my native Islands, there to
start an independence movement which might result, who knows and why
not? in my becoming President-for-Life. But in my brother Bhumbo’s
uncleanly shop I lingered too long, searching for his baroque pink pearls;
whilest I was thus engaged, thither came the men called Inspectors of
Buildings and of Healths. This one’s gorta be nuts,‘ one said. ’Lookit this
place!” He chuckles quietly.
Underhand gapes. Then thinks. Then says, “‘Escape,’ yes. Bhimbo, we
must put our wise heads together, cast cantrips, I cannot do it by myself
alone; secure our release from—”
Bhimbo’s rufous, jaundered eyes widen. “But, Sahib, I have already
released! To one, sir, who has spent seven and one half years, plus, in the
lowermost dungeon of the fearful fat Fatima, female tyrant (since
deposed), what is this place here but an hotel? Consider, Sahib: Clean
clothes. Clean beds. Thrice a day, clean food — dispensed by servitors.
How fond of
I am, Sahib! And also once a week one of
the gurus called
talks with me in his sacred office; what honor. To
be sure, there is no palm-toddy to be had, but a certain servitor (in return
for such simple spells: Women. Gambling.) brings a savory wine called
Ripple, concealed in bottles of the Dr. Pepper’s medication. Betel-pan,
there is not, but there is
Sahib; also the talking cinema in the
murders! —And also,
shower-baths! sports! thrice a week, Therapeutic Handicrafts!
He raises his voice, rather, so as to be heard not only over that of the
Ossianic bard, but over that of one who, crying the words
staccato bursts, would be good for at least a quarter of an hour. “I know
what your people call this place, Sahib. But, do you know what
call it Paradise.”
Mr. Underhand feels again and sees again the approach of the black
whirlwind; smells again the ineffable evil smell... the one he had bought?
The one he had not? What matter. Grasping the table for one moment’s
more contact with reality, he asks, “But does it in no way bother you to be
forever surrounded by madmen?”
Bhimbo looks at him. The reddish-yellowish glance is patient and kind.
“Ah, Sahib. Have you not learned the One Great Truth? All men are mad.”
The immemorial wisdom of the East is in his voice, and in his eyes.