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ALBERT DORRINGTON

TWO THIEVES AND A THUNDERBOLT

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As published in Freeman's Journal, Sydney, Australia, 17 December 1914

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-19
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"WOULDN'T risk my boots inside a Hindu temple for a piece of common ironmongery," said Captain Vance Shalto. "Not me, sir."

"The nature of its composition has not yet been determined," the shipping master declared. "Our confidential agent who recently passed through the Gerah valley described it as containing thirty per cent of radium."

"Piece of sawed off gas-pipe more likely," growled Shalto. "Some of these baboo agents wouldn't know a pound of radium from a tin of beans."

"My dear Captain Shalto, I am merely suggesting the excursion as a means of filling in our time. What with the suspension of your ticket and your constant demands on our exchequer, we thought you might appreciate the, er—"

"The gift of a nice little thunderbolt," broke in the old seaman gruffly. "Give me a month to think it over, sir. I find the streets of Calcutta a hard place for a white man to live comfortably. All I ask," he paused and scratched his head doubtfully while his town-weary eyes fell upon the faded morocco upholsterng of the office furniture. "All I ask, sir," he went on, "is that my name be kept out of the papers. Scuttling ships and stealing thunderbolts is more than any man's reputation will stand."

The offices of Gardroy and Smith were the seediest that could be found between Howrah and Fuka bridge. Their reputation as a firm of shipping masters had suffered of late, owing to certain charges of bribery and corruption instigated against them by the Hoogli Port authorities in connection with the sinking of the Koo Loon.

Newly painted vessels flying their house flag had been discovered staggering out to sea under a bill of lading which showed rich cargoes of silk and opium, but which in reality consisted of nothing more valuable than dockyard lumber and pig- iron ballast. These rich cargoes were usually consigned to some far away port that was never by any chance reached. The insurance companies had complained and were striving with nerve and brain to obtain a conviction. The Port authorities in the meantime were displaying a feverish desire to curtail the firm's gamble in ships and human lives.

Captain Vance Shalto had come to them shivering, so to speak, from his last marine enquiry whereat the Port authorities had threatened dire penalties if his presence on the bridge of an outgoing ship were ever again suspected. They had proved him a scoundrel of the first degree, a past-master in the art of scuttling a 2000-ton tramp steamer without leaving a trace of vessel or crew on the face of the water.

In his day Shalto had plundered half a score of insurance companies, British Indian mostly, with a few high-handed lootings in the direction of certain Chinese banks. And all in the interest of Gardroy and Smith. Being much harassed by vindictive firms of Parsee underwriters Gardroy and Smith were naturally anxious to get rid of the genial Shalto whose presence in Calcutta was an eternal menace to their business prospects. The man who had scuttled ships at their bidding was likely to prove offensive while out of employment. Moreover, they could not guarantee him a ship while his name remained black-listed in every mercantile office east and west of the Hoogli.

A story had come through the telephone, from one of their forwarding clerks, stationed at the Terai Ghat, concerning the existence of radium within a dilapidated temple situated somewhere near the Gera valley on the Ganges. Within a ruined recess, the agent affirmed, stood a bronze image of Indra, the thunder god, holding in his uplifted hand a huge bolt weighing seventy or eighty pounds at least. It was the strange appearance of this bolt which had excited the clerk's curiosity. A hurried inspection of its parts had revealed the presence of gold and silver in large quantities with an admixture of a peculiarly radioactive metal which hinted at the presence of radium.

Gardroy and Smith were inclined to scoff at their clerk's report. The business of insuring unseaworthy ships was sufficiency precarious without courting fresh risks in the way of temple smashing—a feat likely to bring the Calcutta police buzzing around their office once it became known that they were pilfering strange metals from the sacred shrines of India.

Then came the Shalto marine enquiry, and the months of idleness which followed his suspension, leaving them a prey to his ceaseless demands for money. In making his demands for cash Captain Shalto was usually accompanied by his first mate, M'Coy, a full-blooded American negro, who had assisted them for eight years in their nefarious wrecking operations.

To have sent M'Coy and Shalto about their business would have meant further blackmailings together with the exposure of their recent crimp house operations at Howrah, whereby scores of white and brown men had been taken aboard their doomed ships in a drugged and helpless condition. So...

It was imperative that work be found for Shalto and M'Coy. Sailormen cannot long remain idle in Calcutta without falling foul of the police, and dragging their masters' names constantly in the mire. In an inspired moment Josiah Gardroy (he was a red obese man addicted to heat apoplexy and solar hysteria) grasped the live meaning of India's thunderbolt. It was a genuine signal from the gods to rid him, for a time at least, of the bellicose Shalto and M'Coy.

A hundred rupees each would start them on a temple raiding expedition, along the banks of the Ganges, where the native police would make short work of them the moment their sacrilegious designs became manifest. Two second-class steamer tickets would carry them from Calcutta to the Terai Ghat, where they would experience small difficulty in finding their way to the ancient temples of India that stood at the head of the Gera valley.


CAPTAIN Vance Shalto glanced over the steamer's rail at the low-lying bunds that flanked the western bank of the Ganges. A few spindly palms marked the hot desolation of the tide-scoured delta. Here and there a vulture preened its moulting ugliness on some adjacent mud-spit. Sometimes the red wall of a shrine leaned over the naked filth of ghat and stream. Everywhere there was smoke from the Hindu fires, smoke that drifted sunward in rancid columns above charnel house and temple roof.

Captain Shalto was a clean-shaved hawk-eyed man with a pair of fists that appeared many sizes too large for his spare figure. In his day he had navigated a dozen worthless hulks to their last resting-place within some reef-bound harbour or lagoon. The sight of a frenzied crew clamouring, at the last moment, for a place in the boat, had never disturbed his vagabond serenity. His first mate M'Coy towered head and shoulders above him on the deck of the little Ganges steamer. The negro had seen service with him for many years. Together they had often faced the pandemonium which always accompanied the unexpected foundering of a ship. The holding back of a score of half-maddened coolie firemen and sailors from swamping the boat was accomplished only by pistol fire and swift bludgeonings—this latter work usually fell to the big negro who appeared to enjoy the task of slogging his way with a broken bridge stanchion through a pack of screaming Lascars.

At the last moment Captain Shalto had decided to visit the temple within the Gera valley and judge for himself whether Indra, the thunder-god, was holding aloft a bolt of gold and radium or a worthless piece of iron or bronze. It appeared to him a much safer business than putting to sea without a certificate. He had taken passage in one of the Ganges river boats, accompanied by the negro M'Coy, together with a pocketful of rupees presented to him by the firm of Gardroy and Smith.

"We're going for this thunderbolt, Billy," Shalto informed his companion. "Looks a wild goat proposition to people who don't know India. But after a man's lifted his first thousand rupees worth of silver ornaments from a shrine, he begins to take the game seriously."

M'Coy was sprawling in a deck chair beside him, a half-smoked cheroot between his teeth. He had more than the average negro's intelligence. Fighting for life on doomed ships had invested him with a certain simian agility. A born pugilist, he had been known, at a crisis, to hurl himself into the midst of a mutinous crowd of crimp house desperadoes, maiming, killing in sheer lust of hate and sport. The prospect of finding hidden wealth within a deserted shrine kindled him instantly and touched with magic fires his childlike imagination.

"Dis is a gilt-edge game, cap'n," he agreed vivaciously. "A hundred dollars from Gardroy to help us along. Guess I'm gwine to work myself white at dis business!"

Captain Shalto's chest expanded as he glanced up and down the river steamer's deck.

"We're on velvet, Billy," he declared. "No more sea for me after this." He leaned over the negro's chair and lowered his voice confidentially. "You've heard of radium, the stuff that Europe and America is going silly over!"

The negro's upturned eyes sought his inquiringly.

"Why radium's de stuff dey mixes wif kalsomine, cap'n; kind of blue size you git for half a dollar a bucket."

"Rats! You can't buy it, not if you put a tankful of gold on the counter. Everybody wants it and nobody's got any. If you had enough radium to cover an ordinary bunion you could smoke Burmah cheroots till you were green in the face, my son."

M'Coy was impressed. Lacking Shalto's critical faculties he was content to dream through the hot noon, his mind in a ferment of childish wonder and expectancy.

The following morning saw the little steamer panting inshore towards the Company's wharf at the Terai Ghat. A procession of bullock carts and ticca gharries awaited the small crowd of passengers. For the sum of three rupees Captain Shalto obtained the services of a lean, unwashed Bengali who bargained to carry them in his light cart to the head of the Gera valley some twenty miles away in the north-east.

M'Coy curled himself peacefully on the cushions of the bullock cart and before the first mile was covered had fallen into a sound sleep. Captain Shalto, his nerves tingling at the prospect of the work in hand, walked beside the Bengali driver, seeking at times to draw from him something of the temple's history, and above all, the reason of the thunder god's immunity from the preying bands of temple looters who occasionally visited India. The driver offered little information to his questions beyond a few sullen rejoinders in the vernacular which had no bearing on the thunder-god or its bygone history.

Overhead the sun flared from a windless sky. The country through which they passed appeared to have been riven by some tremendous eruption. The road zig-zagged over stony ridges to a jungle-covered plateau in the extreme north. Flocks of carrion birds circled where the remains of a tiger-mauled elk still rotted in the sun-scorched grass.

It was almost dark when the cart halted at the head of a thorn-covered valley. To Captain Shalto it seemed as if they had entered some scourge-stricken province. From jungle-line to hill- crest there was no sign of human habitation. A mile to the north stretched a chain of treeless hills with the dead city of Gera visible on the western slope. A rain-scarred, squirrel-haunted temple peeped through the cactus jungle, its green columns and crumbling archways leaned drunkenly over the edge of the defile as though the fists of time had bruised and shaken it beyond repair.

Leaving the Bengali and his cart to await them at the valley entrance, Captain Shalto and M'Coy pushed forward hoping to gain the temple while the light held. Clambering over an old mud fort they approached the ruins from the western side, halting within the pillared arch of an outer shrine to gaze at the chattering, grey-faced monkeys that blinked at them from the grass-grown walls.

A turn across the chunam-paved courtyard brought them to the foot of a shot-pierced watch-tower which overlooked the surrounding plateau. Shalto paused suddenly and indicated a formless mass of shadow within the temple gateway.

Peering inside they beheld a colossal outline bulging from the darkness, a body of weather-encrusted metal. Gargantuan in size, a filament of bronze cloud wreaths carved about its Jovian head. High above the finely chiselled metal work was poised a huge bronze hand holding in its fingers a cylinder-shaped bolt of almost transparent brilliancy.

"The thunder-god!" Shalto whispered. "Great Jerusalem, look at the head and feet!"

The weather-enamelled torso of the god loomed Titanesque above. The bronze throat and head were drawn back from the elephantine body as though to invest with power and imagery the slim, scintillating bolt gripped in the uplifted hand.

For several moments Captain Shalto stared spellbound at the ponderous mass of metal towering in the dark of the temple gateway. The negro, unaffected by the awe-inspiring dimensions of the Hindu deity, whistled cheerfully as he prowled under the hip of the giant torso.

"By gar he looks to be throwin' de shiny 'plug down at us!" he exclaimed, his eyes drinking in the moving nimbus of light that seemed to glow from the cone of the cylinder-shaped bolt.

"Been going to throw it the last two thousand years I reckon." Captain Shalto placed his hand on the foot of the god and gazed upwards as though meditating an ascent.

"Give me your shoulder, Billy," he said at last. "I'll shin up to the neck of his holiness and inspect that proposition in radium. It might fetch a million sterling or it mightn't be worth a pound of beeswax."

The negro chuckled as he assisted the wiry Shalto to gain the deity's bulging hip. With ape-like celerity the nimble-handed seaman reached the left shoulder of the god and was soon in a position to inspect the uplifted thunderbolt. The cone of the missile seemed to radiate phosphorescent gleams of light, while, here and there, he caught a glitter as of gold where the fingers of the god entwined it.

"Bronze percolated with gold and radium," he muttered, reaching along the outstretched arm until his fingers touched the copper-belted wrist; his heart beat fiercely now at the thought of so much wealth lying within reach. It may have been that some superstitious fear had prevented others from looting the temple, or how came it that so magnificent a prize had remained undisturbed throughout the centuries? he asked.

His brow grew dark as he thought of the years of strife and hardship through which he had passed... bullying half-starved coolies and opium drugged sailor men, scuttling ships, fighting for his life when his black crews turned upon him at the last moment.

He lay stretched on the broad shoulder of Indra gazing half fearfully at the slim, cylinder-shaped bolt that would make him rich for life. There would be no more perilous voyages, no more starving in open boats. He paused in his deliberations, and his eye turned downward upon the expectant negro. It was evident that M'Coy had grown a little impatient of his movements. With both hands clasping the knee of the god, he was preparing to clamber up when the baying voice of Shalto stayed him.

"Stop where you are, Billy," he commanded. "And keep your boot nails off old Hallelujah's ribs. The pair of us won't fit up here."

M'Coy laughed good-naturedly and remained below.

Shalto was thinking swiftly. He had come far to wrest this priceless piece of metal from the grip of the long-forgotten Indra; and as he looked down at the negro's foreshortened figure, the ape-like head and brow, a wave of resentment swept over him which some men bear towards an undeserving partner who expects to share their hard-won spoil.

M'Coy was no fool and would demand his full share of the adventure, would fight for it if driven; and Captain Vance Shalto recalled, with a sense of his own inferiority, a few of the unholy scrimmages in which the negro had taken part.... the killing of five Malays in a narrow foc's'le stairhead once; the holding under water of two Chinese firemen, in the Straits of Sunda, who had tried to climb into the boat after the schooner Mary Ellis had gone down with all hands. Such a man was not likely to abandon his share without a struggle.

Turning again to the bolt in Indra's hand, Shalto surveyed it critically and discovered that it had been rivetted to the close shut fist of the god. The work of wrenching it free would prove a difficult task, equipped as he was with an ordinary screw wrench and pocket jemmy.

Planting his toes shrewdly in the hollow of Indra's back he searched the great bronze shoulders for some opening or spring that might assist him in detaching the uplifted arm from the body. A few taps from his wrench suggested a cavity within. Peering under the capacious armpits his fingers closed on a small knob that slid down, under pressure, drawing with it a concave plate of metal which revealed the dark interior.

Striking a match he glanced within and saw that the raised arm of the god was joined to the shoulder by means of a twelve-inch flange, which in turn was held by an enormous brass pin driven through a revolving socket.

Undisturbed by the clatter of metal plates above, the ebullient M'Coy began to execute a cake-walk across the courtyard passing and repassing beneath Indra's uplifted arm. As the dance progressed in its weird variations, Shalto, panting from his labours, cast a sharp glance at the negro's gyrating figure as it leaped and frog-walked from side to side.

"Blamed coon's got no business instincts or he'd stand from under," he muttered.

Thrusting his head once more into the cavity he tapped the brass pin cautiously and felt it move. A succession of taps eased the pin in its age-worn socket causing the flange to creak and whine as it revolved downward about the hundredth part of an inch.

Shalto wiped the blinding perspiration from his eyes and tasted the bitter dust of centuries that rose from the dark interior as the wrench struck at the half-seen pin above. And at each stroke it seemed to Shalto as though the god were speaking to him in the voice of India's long-vanished dead. Then his ear told him that the voice was only the lip of the flange grinding downward with a flesh-creeping note in its warning.

At that precise moment the negro was engaged in a buck-jumping fantasy below, his heels kicking outward in an ecstasy of mental and physical joy. Shalto crouched back suddenly as the grinding flange revolved slowly to the jointed cap of bronze at the socket end. Indra's uplifted arm trembled momentarily and then crashed to the floor of the courtyard below. The negro leaped aside with an oath as the mass of metal hurtled past. Shalto stifled a cry.

"Missed, by the Lord!"

And then his eyes caught a smoky flare of light that followed the impact, he heard a deafening roar as though a mountain had toppled from its base, saw the temple pillars shattered to fragments before the blade white flame hurled him from the shoulder of the thunder-god.


THE following statement was taken from the report of the district superintendent, at Terai Ghat, about a month after Captain Shalto and his negro companion had left there, in a bullock cart, bound for the temple of Indra within the Gera valley. The report was addressed to the chief of the Calcutta police at number 10 All bazaar.


Dear sir,

A singular tragedy has occurred here which may bring a certain grim satisfaction to Cawthorpe bahadur, who, as you know, enjoyed the honourable position of district headman until a few months ago. You will remember that the temple of Indra was visited by a party of American lady tourists who succeeded in carrying off the bronze thunderbolt originally attached to the god's right hand.

The affair created some discontent among the pilgrims who annually visit the temple. A great deal was made out of the incident by Cawthorpe's enemies at headquarters, whereat a vexatious enquiry was started at the behest of certain civil authorities who ought to have known better.

You will readily understand the bahudar's indignation at the report, circulated throughout the vernacular press of India, accusing him of aiding the accursed ferringhee in the theft of the aforementioned thunderbolt. Heckled to distraction by an interminable correspondence, relating to a missing thunderbolt, the bahadur very naturally resigned.

Before leaving the district, however, he contrived to substitute another bolt in the god's empty hand which afterwards proved to be a live howitzer shell borrowed from Colonel Tingraiz's mountain battery. Attached to the cone of this shell was a celluloid cover smeared with a quantity of phosphorous and gold leaf which, at night, gave a luminous impression to the bogus thunderbolt.

I have now to report the discovery of two men within the temple, a white man and a negro. They came ostensibly to carry off the sacred thunderbolt. A recent inquiry proves that during their nefarious operation the arm of Indra became detached and fell to the ground. The howitzer shell, I regret to state, attended to its business with illuminating promptitude.

Both men were interred at the expense of the Indian Government.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.