The Messenger of Death

We have often been told how some of us receive in an unlooked-for manner an intimation of death some time before that incident does actually occur.

The late Mr. W.T. Stead, for instance, before he sailed for America in the Titanic had made his will and given his friends clearly to understand that he would see England no more.

Others have also had such occult premonitions, so to say, a few days, and sometimes weeks, before their death.

We also know a number of cases in which people have received similar intimation of the approaching death of a near relation or a dear friend who, in most cases, lives at a distance.

There is a well-known family in England (one of the peers of the realm) in whose case previous intimation of death comes in a peculiar form. Generally when the family is at dinner a carriage is heard to drive up to the portico. Everybody thinks it is some absent guest who has arrived late and my lord or my lady gets up to see who it [Pg 178]is. Then when the hall door is opened it is seen that there is no carriage at all. This is a sure indication of an impending death in the family.

I know another very peculiar instance. A certain gentleman in Bengal died leaving four sons and a widow. The youngest was about 5 years old. These children used to live with their mother in the family residence under the guardianship of their uncle.

One night the widow had a peculiar dream. It seemed to her that her husband had returned from a long journey for an hour or so and was going away again. Of course, in her dream the lady forgot all about her widowhood.

Before his departure the husband proposed that she should allow him to take one of the sons with him and she might keep the rest.

The widow readily agreed and it was settled that the youngest but one should go with the husband. The boy was called, and he very willingly agreed to go with his father. The mother gave him a last hug and kiss and passed him on to the father who carried him away.

The next moment the widow woke. She remembered every particular of the dream. A [Pg 179]cold sweat stood on her forehead when she comprehended what she had done.

The boy died the next morning. When she told me the story she said that the only consolation that she had was that the child was safe with his father. A very poor consolation indeed!

Now this is a peculiar story told in a peculiar fashion; but I know one or two wonderful stories which are more peculiar still.

It is a custom in certain families in Bengal that in connection with the Durga pooja black-male goats are offered as a sacrifice.

In certain other families strictly vegetarian offerings are made.

The mode of sacrificing the goat is well known to some readers, and will not interest those who do not know the custom. The fact remains that millions of goats are sacrificed all over Bengal during the three days of the Durga pooja and on the Shyama pooja night, (i.e. Diwali or Dipavali).

There is however nothing ominous in all this, except when the "sacrificial sword" fails to sever the head of the goat from the trunk at one deadly stroke. As this bodes ill the householder [Pg 180]to appease the deity, to whose wrath such failure is imputed, sacrifices another goat then and there and further offers to do penance by sacrificing double the number of goats next year.

But what is more pertinent to the subject I am dealing with is the sacrificing of goats under peculiar circumstances. Thus when an epidemic (such as cholera, small pox and now probably plague) breaks out in a village in Bengal all the principal residents of the place in order to propitiate the deity to whose curse or ire the visitation is supposed to be due, raise a sufficient amount by subscription for worshipping the irate Goddess. The black he-goat that is offered as a sacrifice on such an occasion is not actually slain, but being besmeared with "Sindur" (red oxide of mercury) and generally having one of the ears cropped or bored is let loose, i.e. allowed to roam about until clandestinely passed on to some neighbouring village to which, the goat is credited with the virtue of transferring the epidemic from the village originally infected. The goats thus marked are not looked upon with particular favour in the villages. They are generally not ill-treated by the villagers, and when they eat up the cabbages, etc. all that the poor villagers can do is to curse [Pg 181]them and drive them away—but they return as soon as the poor owner of the garden has moved away. Such goats become, in consequence, very bold and give a lot of trouble.

When, therefore, such a billy-goat appears in a village what the villagers generally do is to hire a boat, carry the goat a long distance along the river, say 20 or 25 miles and leave him there. Now the villagers of the place where such a goat is left play the same trick, so it sometimes happens that the goat comes back after a week or so.

Once it so happened that a dedicated goat made his unwelcome appearance in a certain village in Bengal.

The villagers hired a boat and carried him about 20 miles up the river and left him there. The goat came back after a week. Then they left him at a place 20 miles down the river and he came back again. Afterwards they took the goat 50 miles up and down the river but each time the goat returned like the proverbial bad penny.

After trying all kinds of tricks in their attempt to get rid of the goat the villagers became desperate. So a few hot-headed young men of the village in an evil hour decided to kill the goat. Instead of killing the goat quietly (as [Pg 182]probably they should have done) and throwing the body into the river, they organised a grand feast and ate the flesh of the dedicated goat.

Within 24 hours of the dinner each one of them who had taken part in it was attacked with cholera of a most virulent type and within another 24 hours every one of them was dead. Medical and scientific experts were called in from Calcutta to explain the cause of the calamity, but no definite results were obtained from these investigations. One thing, however, was certain. There was no poison of any kind in the food.

The cause of the death of about 30 young men remains a mystery.

This was retribution with a vengeance and the writer does not see the justice of the divine providence in this particular case.

In another village the visit of the messenger of death was also marked in a peculiar fashion.

Two men one tall and the other short, the tall man carrying a lantern, are seen to enter the house of one of the villagers; and the next morning there is a death in the house which they entered.

When, for the first time, these two mysterious individuals were seen to enter a house an alarm [Pg 183]of thieves was raised. The house was searched but no trace of any stranger was found in the house. The poor villager who had given the alarm was publicly scolded for his folly after the fruitless search, for thinking that thieves would come with a lighted lantern. But that poor man had mentioned the lighted lantern before the search commenced and nobody had thought that fact "absurd" at that time.

Since that date a number of people has seen these messengers of death enter the houses of several persons, and whenever they enter a house a death takes place in that house within the next 24 hours.

Some of the witnesses who have seen these messengers of death are too cautious and too respectable to be disbelieved or doubted. Your humble servant on one occasion passed a long time in this village, but he, fortunately or unfortunately, call it what you please, never saw these fell messengers of death.

In another family in Bengal death of a member is foretold a couple of days before the event in a very peculiar manner.

[Pg 184]This is a very rich family having a large residential house with a private temple or chapel attached to it, but the members never pay a penny to the doctor or the chemist either.

In many rich families in Bengal there are private deities the worship of which is conducted by the heads of the families assisted by the family priests. There are generally private temples adjoining the houses or rooms set apart for such idols, and all the members of the family and especially the ladies say their prayers there.

Such a temple remains open during the day and is kept securely closed at night, because nobody should be allowed to disturb the deity at night and also because there is generally a lot of gold and silver articles in the temple which an unorthodox thief may carry away.

Now what I have just mentioned was the custom of the particular house-hold referred to above.

One night a peculiar groan was heard issuing from the temple. All the inmates of the house came to see what the matter was. The key of the temple was with the family priest who was not present. He had probably gone to some other person’s house to have a smoke and a chat, and [Pg 185]it was an hour before the key could be procured and the door of the temple opened.

Everything was just as it had been left 3 or 4 hours previously. The cause or origin of the groans was never traced or discovered.

The next morning one of the members of the family was suddenly taken ill and died before medical aid could be obtained from Calcutta.

This was about fifty years ago. Since then the members of this family have become rather accustomed to these groans.

If there is a case of real Asiatic cholera or a case of double pneumonia they don’t call in a doctor though there is a very capable and learned medical man within a mile.

But if once the groans are heard the person, who gets the smallest pin-prick the next morning, dies; and no medical science has ever done any good.

"The most terrible thing in this connection is the suspense" said one of the members of that family to me once. "As a rule you hear the groans at night and then you have to wait till the morning to ascertain whose turn it is. Generally however you find long before sunrise [Pg 186]that somebody has become very ill. If not, you have to wire to all the absent members of the family in the morning to enquire—what you can guess. And you have to await the replies to the telegrams. How the minutes pass between the hearing of the groans till it is actually ascertained who is going to die—need not be described."

"You must have been having an exciting time of it" I asked this young man.

"Generally not, because we find that somebody is ill from before and then we know what is going to happen" said my informant.

"But during your experience of 25 years you must have been very nervous about these groans yourself at times," I asked.

"On two occasions only we had to be nervous because nobody was ill beforehand; but in each case that person died who was the most afraid. I was not nervous on these occasions myself, for some reason or other."

These uncanny groans of the messenger of death have remained a mystery for the last fifty years.

[Pg 187]I know another family in which the death of the head of the family is predicted in a very peculiar manner.

There is a big picture of the Goddess Kali in the family. On the night of the Shyama pooja (Dewali) which occurs about the middle of November, this picture is brought out and worshipped.

The picture is a big oil painting of the old Indian School and has a massive solid gold frame. The picture is a beauty—a thing worth seeing.

All the year round it hangs on the eastern wall of the room occupied by the head of the family.

Now the peculiar thing with this family is that no male member of the family dies out of his turn. The eldest male member dies leaving behind everybody else. The next man then becomes the eldest and dies afterwards and so on.

But before the death of the head of the family the warning comes in a peculiar way.

The picture of the goddess is found hanging upside down. One morning when the head of the family comes out of his bed-room and the [Pg 188]youngsters go in to make the room tidy, as they call it, (though they generally make the room more untidy and finally leave it to the servants) they find the famous family picture hanging literally topsyturvy (that is with head downwards) and they at once sound the alarm. Then they all know that the head of the family is doomed and will die within a week.

But this fact does not disturb the normal quiet of the family. Because the pater familias is generally very old and infirm and more generally quite prepared to die.

But the fact remains that so long as the warning does not come in this peculiar fashion every member of the house-hold knows that there is no immediate danger.

For instance it is only when this warning comes that all the children who are out of the station are wired for.

Every reader must admit that this is rather weird.