MY BONES AND MY FLUTE
By Edgar Mittelholzer
“He who touches this parchment seals himself in a pact with me…to listen to my music, and, when I beckon, to join me in death. I shall never rest till the day that my bones and my flute are found and interred with Christian rites…”
Now that I look back at it, I realise that his statement did not instill into me half as much dread and dismay as it ought to have done. I think, too, that it is because I had always held him in such deep respect and had so much confidence in him that I did not exclaim or show incredulity. I simply continued to stare at him, puzzled and waiting on him to go on, not doubting for an instant that perfectly simple explanation was about to follow.
Even when he had come to the end of the astounding story he had narrated to me, I somehow did not feel an urge to ridicule him or smile with skepticism. Had I known hi as I did you would have agreed, I am sure, that he was the kind of man you would no more have attempted associate with the fantastic or the occult then you would have though of attending a play by Bernard Shaw with the expectation of witnessing a pretty little love drama featuring successful son-hits.
“Absurd as it may sound,” he said, “I couldn’t let you touch his manuscript, my boy, because there is every likelihood that what has happened to Jessie and me would happen to you. That’s why I drew back so hastily and swept it into my lap when you stretched across to light my cigarette.
That was how he began. Then he went on to tell me about the manuscript. He had seen it for the first time at Goed de Vries one Wednesday evening in January—exactly three weeks before. It belonged to an old Indian-Negro man. He had lived two miles higher up, at Horstenland, but ha died recently. His name was Patoir, and he was a very likeable fellow. He used to trade an occasional raft of greenheart with us. He told me of this thing nearly two years ago, but he said he couldn’t let me have it—or even see it—because there was a superstition attached to it. It was supposed to bring good fortune to its possessor, provided it was kept shut away from daylight and fire. But it must never be handled at any time. What would happen if it were handled Patoir himself didn’t seem to know. He was a fairly intelligent chap, I must admit, and he was quite frank with me. He said that so far as he could see, it had brought him no especial good luck, but, all the same, he wasn’t going to run the risk of being harmed, so he always kept it shut up in the canister in which it had been kept since the moment it had come into his possession. He said that even he himself had only peeped at it once.
“As it happens, I’d done him many a favour in the course of our transactions up here, and he took a liking to me. We were good friends, and he always promised that when he died he would leave the canister for me—though he warned me that it wouldn’t be safe to tamper with it. He said that while he didn’t believe in the stupid nonsense that most of the people up her believe in, he knew that there were certain things that men could not explain, and he preferred not ‘to trouble evil lest evil trouble me’. It was his favourite saying.
“I never pressed him to let me see this manuscript, though, naturally, I was very interested in it, especially as he once hinted that the writing on it was Dutch and that he believed that it came down from the early days of the colony. He said that an Indian gave it to him in the canister in which it was kept. It was a present to him for having cured the Indian of a bad attack of malaria. The Indian fellow, it appears, had never heard of quinine in the form we know it in, and Patoir dosed him regularly and got him better within a few days.
“To my surprise, when I arrived at Goed de Vries a few days later, the first thing Rayburn, the caretaker, was that Patoir had died of an attack of jaundice the week before, and, before dying he had asked that his ‘good luck canister’, as he called it, be given to me. He had no relatives. He wasn’t married. The woman he lived with was only a paramour. So there was evidently no fuss about the canister. Rayburn collected it the day after his death and bought it to my cottage at Goed de Vries. I found it on the dressing table. I found it on the dressing-table in my bedroom. It’s a mall ting, ten inches by seven., and three inches deep. Made of tin and quite rusty-looking.
:”Well, Milton, as you know yourself, I am the last person on earth who thinks twice about superstitions, and without hesitation I opened the canister. There was no lock on it. There was no lock on it. It was simply shut tight, and I just had to prise up the lid.
He paused here and opened the dictionary at the place where he had inserted the manuscript. From where I sat I saw what looked like two sheets of parchment folded over once. The writing on it was reddish-brown—evidently from age.
“This is what I found,” he said. “There was nothing else inside but this. And just as you yourself might have done, I lifted it out and glanced through it. I could only translate it roughly because I hadn’t thought of bringing up my dictionary, and my knowledge of Dutch is moderate.
“I should add that I found the house in a rather untidy condition when I arrived. Rayburn was down with some sort of diarrhea, and he said he hadn’t been able to do much cleaning up. He’s a hard-working and trustworthy fellow, and I excused him. But if there’s anything I can’t tolerate it’s an untidy house, so the following morning I took the return steamer and went back to town. Of course, between us, I could have remained and roughed things, but the truth was I was itching to translate this thing properly. I simply couldn’t remain a whole fortnight up there without my dictionary.
“before I go on I think the best thing would be to read you a translation of the first part of it. It’s divided into two parts.” He produced from between the leaves of the dictionary a slip of paper, which, I saw, bore his own handwriting. “I’m afraid the fellow was certainly demented when he wrote it-but we’ll discuss this aspect of the matter later on. It reads like this: ‘He who touches this parchment seals himself in a pact with me, Jan Pieter Voorman, to listen to my music, and, when I beckon, to join me in death. They have robbed me and massacred my wife and children who should have departed for St. Eustatius on the Standvastigheid. I shall never rest till the day that my bones and my flute are found and interred with Christian rites. I place a curse and plague upon the person or persons who may touch this parchment. My roaming presence shall pester him or them unto death unless my wishes are carried out. Gnashing my teth on this fourth day of march, I shall end my life on earth. I curse these black wretches, even as I curse the Blacker ones. To him who seeks release from this pact and would put my soul at peace, let him heed what follows and so be led to the discovery of my bones and my flute and my musket.’ ”
(to be continued)