March 10, 2023

#08-292: The Phantom 'Rickshaw

A four-man Indian rickshaw (Wikimedia)

Note: This terrifying story comes from the same benign pen that gave us Mowgli and the "Just So stories." Be warned!

Get Ready: Isi t possible for a person's guilty imagination to cause him or her to see things, to the point of a mental breakdown?

British Indian author Rudyard Kipling is best known for his children's stories, including The Jungle Book and the Just-So Stories. But among his many, many stories for adults are some that would be too horrific to be suitable for most children.

One of these is "The Phantom 'Rickshaw." (Just the title is scary!) After a long introduction that sets the scene and lulls the reader into a sense of normalcy, the narrator tells the story of one Theobald Jack Pansay, who is bedridden because, as the narrator theorizes, "there was a crack in Pansay's head and a little bit of the Dark World came through and pressed him to death. 'Pansay went off the handle...'" through overwork.

How he became that way is told to us in the rest of the story, supposed to be from the hand of Pansay himself.

Returning from England to India after a long leave from the British military, Pansay (he tells us) had a shipboard affair with a married woman named Mrs. Agnes Keith-Wessington, wife of an army officer. Her passion was the stronger, and after their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) and then Simla (now Shimla, capital of the northern India state of Himachal Pradesh) his passion cooled to the point where he was no longer interested in her, and he told her so.

But she refused to believe that it was over. "Jack, darling! she insisted repeatedly. "I'm sure it's all a mistake--a hideous mistake; and we'll be good friends again some day. Please forgive me, Jack, dear."

These words were to haunt him.

Meanwhile, Jack had begun to court "little Kitty Mannering," a vivacious young girl. But he couldn't avoid repeated encounters with Mrs. Wessington in her yellow-paneled rickshaw borne by four men in black and white uniforms. The more his love grew for Kitty, the more he hated Agnes. He told Agnes of his engagement, but she already knew, and continued to call it "a mistake."

In the end, Agnes Keith-Wessington died of a broken heart. But that is not the end of the story.

Pansay had burned her old letters and forgotten her completely. He declared himself "perfectly happy" with Kitty: but Agnes continued to appear to him, in her distinctive rickshaw with its unmistakably-dressed bearers, and calling out, "Jack! Jack, darling! It's some hideous mistake, I'm sure..."

Pansay pointed out the rickshaw and bearers to Kitty, assuming that someone else had hired them. But Kitty saw nothing. Then the whole rig passed right through Kitty and her mount! He subsequently learned that in addition to Agnes, the four bearers--all brothers--had died, of cholera, and the rickshaw had been broken up. This sealed his despair--it was a phantom!

Kitty began to doubt his mental stability--and quite rightly. After several attempts to patch things up, Jack was rejected by Kitty and her family. The engagement was off.

Meanwhile, as his mental and physical health deteriorated, he continued to "see" Agnes and her carriage; his condition was exacerbated by seeing Kitty with her new suitors. At last he ended up in the doctor's care, where the story began.

The story ends with Jack's words: "…as surely as ever a man was done to death by the Powers of Darkness I am that man… For as surely as ever woman was killed by man, I killed Mrs. Wessington. And the last portion of my punishment is ever now upon me."


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. bearers
  2. cholera
  3. deteriorated
  4. distinctive
  5. exacerbated
  6. lulls
  7. rickshaw
  8. rig
  9. stability
  10. vivacious

  1. a bacterial disease of the intestine caused by contaminated food or water
  2. people who carry things
  3. made worse
  4. lively
  5. a carriage or wagon
  6. firmness; steadiness
  7. a kind of carriage carried or pulled by one or more people, with no "horsepower" involved
  8. became worse
  9. easy to identify
  10. soothes; puts at ease

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 10, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. a; 3. h; 4. i; 5. c; 6. j; 7. g; 8. e; 9. f; 10. d