It is very dangerous to go out unarmed, in the evening, into certain parts of the Blue Mountains, near the thick forests inhabited by the Kurumbas.
Near one of these forests, between Kotaguiri and Ooty, there lived a well-to-do Eurasian family; the mother, an elderly woman, her two sons and a little nephew, an orphan whom she had taken care of since his childhood, as his mother, a well-beloved sister of hers, had died. The child had been told never to go into the forest. However, he was very fond of birds. So one day, carried away by his passion, the little boy left the house and lost his way in the woods. A swallow hopped before him from branch to branch and be tried to catch it. He thus ran after the bird until the sun went down. At Ooty — a town completely surrounded by high mountains and rocks — the transition from day to night takes place almost instantaneously.
Finding himself alone in the woods, the child became frightened and hastened homeward. To his misfortune, he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his foot. He sat down on a stone and took off his shoe. While he was examining his wound and trying to withdraw a thorn which had entered his flesh, a wildcat jumped from a tree and landed beside him. The animal, not less startled than himself, began to attack him, and the terror-stricken child burst out into wild cries. At the same moment two arrows pierced the side of the animal which, mortally wounded, rolled into a crevice. Two dirty and half-naked Kurumbas appeared and took the animal, after which they spoke to the child, ridiculing his fear.
The little one could answer them, as he knew their language, like all Eurasians who inhabit the Blue Mountains.
Being afraid of returning home all alone he asked the Kurumbas to accompany him to his house, and promised to give them rice and brandy. The Mulu-Kurumbas agreed and all three started out. While they were striding along, the child told his companions his adventure with the swallow. The Kurumbas promised to catch for him all the birds he would like to have, for a very small remuneration. The Kurumbas are known for their skill in hunting; it is as easy for them to catch an elephant or a tiger as it is to catch a bird. They arranged to meet, all three of them, the next day, in the valley. They would go hunting birds. In short, the child and the Kurumbas became friends.
It is interesting to tell here how the Kurumbas catch birds. The dwarf takes a small perch, turns it in his hands as if polishing it, and he drives it into the ground, about two feet deep, in the middle of a bush. Then he lies down on his stomach, very close to the bush so that he can keep on looking at the bird while it is jumping around. Then the Kurumba waits patiently. Mr. Betlor, who more than once witnessed such a «hunt,» writes about it in the following way:
«At this moment the eyes of the Kurumba take on a very strange expression. I have observed a similar expression in a serpent when, lying in wait for its prey, it glances fixedly at its victim and fascinates it. The black toad of Mysore has also this same fixed, glassy look which seems illumined by a cold inner light and which attracts and repulses at the same time. For several rupees a Kurumba allowed me to watch him. The carefree, joyous and active bird flies about warbling; suddenly it stops and seems to listen. With its head tilted a little to one side, it remains motionless for several seconds. Then it shakes itself and attempts to fly away, but it rarely succeeds. It seems as if an irresistible power draws it towards the enchanted circle and it begins to fly sideways towards the perch. Its feathers bristle up and it utters some gentle, plaintive cries. However, with nervous little jumps, it approaches closer and closer to the ‘enchanted’ perch. Finally, with one leap, the bird finds itself on the perch and its fate is sealed. Now it cannot escape and remains caught on the perch. The Kurumba throws himself on the poor little animal with a rapidity that could make a serpent jealous . . . and if you give the dwarf more money be will swallow the bird alive, claws, wings and all.»
It was in this way that the two Kurumbas caught two yellow swallows and gave them to little Simpson. But that very same day they also cast their spell upon the child. One of the Kurumbas «bewitched» him as he bewitched the birds. He made himself master of his will-power and of his thoughts, made of him an unconscious machine — in other words, «hypnotized» him. The only difference between a doctor who hypnotizes and the Kurumba, consists in the method; the former applies strokes or the scientific method of magnetism; while the latter had only to look at the child during the hunting, and to touch him. A striking change took place in the conduct of the little boy. His health as well as his appetite remained the same; but he seemed to grow old within a few years, and his relatives and all people in the house noticed that he often walked as if in a trance. Soon all silver objects began to disappear from Mrs. Simpson’s house; spoons, sugar bowls, and even a silver crucifix. Then the gold objects had their turn. The whole household became very agitated. In spite of all efforts made to discover the thief, in spite of all precautions, the objects continued to disappear from within the well-locked sideboard whose key never left the mistress of the house. The police had tried to catch the culprit but had to declare themselves incapable of doing so. Finally all were suspected, but nobody could be caught. The servant of the house had been with the family for years, and Mrs. Simpson was as sure of this person as she was of herself.
One evening Mrs. Simpson received from Madras a package containing a heavy golden ring. She hid it in her iron safe, put the key under her pillow, and decided to remain awake all night. To be more sure of herself, she refused to drink her habitual glass of beer which made her fall asleep at once. She had noticed that for some time past her limbs — after she had drunk the beer — were benumbed and her slumber very heavy.
The child slept in a little room adjoining her bedroom. Towards two o’clock in the morning the door opened and in the light of the night-lamp Mrs. Simpson saw her nephew entering her room. She almost asked him what he wanted; but she recovered possession of herself and waited — her heart filled with anguish. The child advanced indeed like a somnambulist. His eyes were wide open, and his face had — as she later told in court — a severe, almost cruel expression. He went straight to the bed, gently withdrew the key from under the pillow, so quickly and so skillfully that she saw rather than felt the hand of the little boy glide under her head. Then he opened the safe, rummaged in it then closed it.
Such was Mrs. Simpson’s presence of mind that she never moved. Her beloved nephew, a child, was a thief! But where did he put the stolen objects? She decided to know the truth and to uncover the mystery. She dressed rapidly, without making any noise then looked into her nephew’s room. He was not there, but the door leading to the yard was open. She went out, following the traces which were still quite fresh, when she noticed the silhouette of the little one gliding along the bird-cage. The moon illumined the garden and she noticed the child bending down and putting something into the ground. She decided to wait until morning. «The little boy is a somnambulist,» she thought. «I shall certainly find the other objects there. It is useless to wake him up now and frighten him.»
Then she went into the house and waited until the child had gone to bed and slept profoundly. His eyes, however, remained as wide open as when she had seen him approaching her. She was surprised and even terrified. However, she was determined to wait until the next morning.
The following day she called her sons and told them what had happened during the night. They went to the bird-cage and saw that the ground had just been shaken up, but they found nothing. Evidently the child had accomplices.
When the little boy came home from school Mrs. S. received him as usual. She thought that she would not learn anything by questioning him, and would only render the solution of the problem more difficult. So she served him his meal and watched him incessantly. When lunch was finished she was going to leave the table in order to wash her hands and she took off her ring which she purposely left on the table. At the sight of this object of gold the eyes of the child began to sparkle. His aunt turned around slightly. Immediately he seized the ring and put it into his pocket. He rose carelessly and prepared to leave the house. But Mrs. Simpson stopped him.
«Where is my ring, Tom? Why have you taken it?» she asked.
«What ring?» he answered with indifference. I did not see your ring.»
«It is in your pocket, miserable wretch!» Mrs. Simpson exclaimed, and she slapped his face. She threw herself on the child, withdrew the ring from his pocket and showed it to him. Tom had remained quite calm and offered no resistance.
«What ring are you talking of?» he asked his aunt in an angry tone. «This is a grain of gold; I have taken it for my birds — why do you slap me?»
«And all the silver and gold objects that you have been stealing for two months — were they also grains, you little liar and thief? Where have you put them? Speak, otherwise I shall call the police,» Mrs. S. exclaimed, quite beside herself.
«I have stolen nothing from you. I have never taken anything without your permission, except a few grains and a little bread for the birds…..»
«Where did you take the grains?»
«From the sideboard. Did you not permit me to do so? These golden grains cannot be found in the market otherwise I would not have asked you for them.»
Mrs. S. realized that she was confronted by an incomprehensible enigma, by a terrible mystery which she could not penetrate. The child — by an attack of insanity or by chronic soninambulism — believed that he was telling the truth, or at least what he thought to be the truth.
She realized that she had made a mistake. She could not thus uncover the secret. The child had accomplices, and she was going to find them. So she pretended to admit that she had been mistaken. She suffered in her heart, but she was going through with this experiment to the very end.
«Tell me, Tom,» she asked tenderly, «do you remember the day when I gave you permission to open the safe in order to take the golden grains for your birds?»
«That day I could catch the yellow birds,» the child suddenly explained in a severe tone. «Why did you slap me? You yourself told me — ‘Take the key from under my pillow as often as you need it; also take the gold grains, they are better for your birds than the silver grains’; well, I took them. Besides, there is almost nothing left,» he added sadly, «and my birds will die!…»
«Who has told you so?»
«He — the one who caught the birds for me and helps me to feed them.»
«But who is he?»
«I don’t know,» answered the child with effort, passing his hand over his forehead. «I don’t know . . . you have seen him often….. He came only three days ago, at dinner-time, when I took a silver grain from uncle’s plate. . . . Uncle had put it there for me. He told me — ‘take it,’ and uncle nodded with his head. So I took it.»
Mrs. Simpson remembered that that day, indeed, ten silver rupees had disappeared mysteriously from the table; her son had just taken them from his pocket in order to pay a bill. This loss had remained the most inexplicable of all.
«But to whom did you give the grains? Birds are not fed in the evening.»
«I gave them to him, behind the door. He left before the dinner was over. But then it was broad daylight and not evening.»
«Day? — eight o’clock in the evening you call day?»
«I don’t know… but it was light…. there was no night…. besides the night disappeared a long time ago.»
«Lord!» Mrs. Simpson wept bitterly, raising her arms in terror. «The little one has lost his mind — he has become insane.»
But suddenly she had an idea.
«Well, take also this grain of gold,» she said, while handing her golden brooch to her nephew. «Take it and give it to the birds while I watch you.»
Tom grasped the brooch and ran joyously toward the bird-cage. Then something happened, which convinced Mrs. Simpson that the mental faculties of her nephew were deranged. He walked around the cage and threw imaginary grains into it; however, the cage was empty. He rubbed the brooch in his fingers, as if taking grains off it then he spoke to the birds who were not there, and whistled and laughed with joy.
«And now, auntie, I am going to take the remainder to him so that he may keep it…… He had first told me to hide it in the ground, there, under the window. But this morning he told me to bring it to him — over there. Only don’t follow me otherwise he will not come…..»
«Very well, my friend, you shall go alone,» she consented.
However, under various pretexts she detained her nephew for half an hour, while secretly having a policeman called for, whom she asked to follow the child wherever he went, promising a large reward.
«Arrest the person to whom he gives the brooch . . . he is the thief.» The policeman asked a fellow-policeman to go with him and both followed the child during the day. In the evening they saw him direct his steps toward the woods. Suddenly a very ugly dwarf jumped from the bushes and beckoned to Tom, who at once went towards him like an automaton. When the policemen saw the child «spreading» something into the hands of the Kouroumb they rushed forward and arrested him with the proof of delinquency in his hands — i.e., the golden brooch.
The Kurumba got away with a few days in prison. No convincing proof could be found against him; he had only the brooch, and the child asserted that he had given it to him of his own free will, but that «he did not know for what reason.» The tribunal decided that the statements of little Simpson were confused, that he was just raving, as far as the golden grains were concerned, and that he did not recognize the Kurumba; moreover, he was not of age. The doctor declared him to be an «incurable idiot.» His testimony and the confused statements of Mrs. Simpson, who was unable to compose a clear report out of her nephew’s story, were of no account. The policeman was unable to give evidence; his testimony would have had weight, as he knew the Kurumba to be the possessor of stolen objects. The very same day when the Kurumba was arrested the policeman fell ill, and died one week later, several days before the court proceedings. The matter was thus closed.
We have met the unfortunate boy, who — today — is twenty years old. We saw a big Eurasian with hanging cheeks, sitting on a bench near the house-door, and turning cage-bars in his hands. Birds are still his passion. His mind seems to be normal, but becomes clouded as soon as silver or gold, in money or in objects, is mentioned; be always calls them «grains.» Since that time, his relatives have sent him to Bombay where he remains under constant supervision, and the mania is beginning to disappear. Only one sentiment remains with him; the irresistible desire to fraternize with the Kurumbas.
Before closing, I would ask my readers to reread in the Philosophical Dictionary of Voltaire the passage where the philosopher mentions the five conditions necessary for any testimony to be judged valid. These very same conditions have been fulfilled throughout our story on the enchantments and the sorcery of the Mulu-Kurumbas.
Let us see whether our deposition, confirmed by the declarations of many impartial witnesses, will be accepted by the skeptics. Or, perhaps, the masses with a few exceptions, will prefer, in spite of Voltaire and his philosophy, to remain «plus catholique que le Pape.» *
* «More catholic than the Pope.»
We invite all incredulous people to visit India, especially the Blue Mountains, in the Presidency of Madras. If they stay there for several months they will learn to know the «Mysterious Tribes of the Nilgiri,» especially the Kurumbas. And let them then — when back in Europe — deny, if they can, the reality of the witchcraft of the Kurumbas.
But the Blue Mountains are not only a field of very interesting occult experiences. When the happy hour will strike — if it ever will — when our friends from the misty shores of Albion the perfidious, and consequently always suspicious, will cease to see a political spy in every innocent Russian tourist — then the Russians will begin to travel more in India. The naturalists of our country will then visit the mountainous «Thebaid» which we have described. And I am convinced that by the ethnologist, geographer and philologist, without forgetting the masters in psychology, our «Blue Mountains,» the Nilgiri, will be found to be an inexhaustible treasure for the scientific researches of all specialists.