There was a village at the foot of the mountains. It comprised a few shanties
built of rough-hewn logs of wood notched together to keep them in place.
The structure of shanties at once told every stranger that a forest was
very close and, in fact, it was so. A stream flowed at a short distance
from this habitation. The stream was neither so turbulent as to deserve
the somewhat awe-inspiring name of a mountain torrent, nor so tame as to
suffer being used for navigation. When the new snows melted in early summer
after a pummeling from incessant rain in April, the stream was usually
in spate and hundreds of logs and wooden sleepers floated down to centres
of value for marketing timber. During this season there was considerable
activity up and down the rivulet of people concerned with the lumbering
business. They were engaged in felling, clearing away and floating down
any logs that got stranded, and sometimes made a little fortune by disposing
of a log to needy buyers for practically no more than a song.
When, on the
other hand, the stream flowed placid, it was made use of as a means of
transport. There were no roads linking the village with the rest of the
world except the beaten track along the bank of the stream. Other villages
were quite far away and not easily accessible.
all these circumstances the habitation deserved to be known as a tiny hamlet
rather than by the more imposing name of a village, and yet the lastmentioned
description suited it better. The people lived in a corporate organized
manner. They had a house of prayer built with voluntary effort: they could
boast of a shrine dedicated to a local saint who answered prayers sincerely
offered; there was a physician who also did honour to the office of shopkeeper
who could sell you anything from medicinal herbs to snuff and dried fish;
and there was a priest who described himself as a humble interpreter of
religious law and the will of God.
who actually lived in the next village down the river had many ecclesiastical
and secular functions to perform. The dying could not give up the ghost
safely till aided by him and the dead souls or spirits could with impunity
come back to harass their survivors unless laid low by him. With his amulets
and incantations he complemented and supplemented the efforts of the physician
to heal the mortal bodies of the villagers. He also maintained some sort
of a liaison with the petty officials in and around the village and was
feared and respected on this account also. He was also the registrar and
censor of marriages which were regarded valid and confirmed only after
he gave his blessings. No one dared to hazard upon a matrimonial alliance
without the prior approval of the local priest.
At the time
to which this story pertains, the priest was a handsome young man in his
early forties. He had succeeded to his office on the demise of his father.
Not only had he maintained the privileges of his office without suffering
any curtailment but had in fact extended them with vigour, sometimes outpacing
the dignity usually associated with his status. He loved a good meal and
good dress. He was fond of cheerful company, humorous anecdote and sharp
repartee. He could exact respect and obedience if not voluntarily forthcoming,
and was most jealous of his prestige.
Not long after
he assumed the responsibilities of his office, a young man had the temerity
to commit an act directly antagonizing the priest. This young man's business
frequently carried him to neighbouring villages. By profession he was an
itinerant pedlar and was responsible for creating a market in these remote
areas for such modern novelties as hair oil, looking glasses, glass bangles,
cheap trinkets and toys. His business attracted first the children and
ultimately their mothers. Fragrance, even though spurious, is one of the
handmaids of Cupid. Is it not often unavoidable for a vendor to fit a glass
bangle on the arms of his fair customer? In short, the pedlar fell in love
with a maid. He won the approval of her parents who considered him gentle
and enterprising as people in remote villages may be. The maid was willing
enough to link her life with that of the young man and so were the respective
parents. One day the young pedlar returned to his village with a bride.
It is glorious
for any young man to be wedded to the maid he loves. In the case of the
young pedlar it was heavenly bliss, for his bride was most beautiful by
standards old and new. Every one admired her beauty and most young men
envied the lot of the young pedlar. Tall and slim, and bright as the moon
she was, and who could describe her almond-shaped eyes, or her fine nose'?
Whoever saw this rustic beauty admired her. Everyone was therefore happy.
But the pedlar
and his parents had committed one serious blunder. Having a bright prospect
for happiness they forgot to get the approval of the village priest. The
marriage formalities were actually gone through in the village where the
bride's parents lived, and this was outside the jurisdiction of the priest.
There was little pomp and blare accompanying the ceremony and in fact,
the pedlar's father did not take the trouble to invite many guests to accompany
the groom all the distance to the bride's village. But when the bride came
home he thought of making amends for his omission. He invited the priest
to his home to grace the wedding feast with his presence and to bless the
bride and bridegroom.
The news of
the wedding had reached the priest even before the pedlar's father set
out from his home. The priest read in it a challenge to his authority which
he and his ancestors had exercised for generations. "This might well constitute
a precedent for other misguided people to undermine my prestige and to
flout my authority" he thought. "A thief can rob my house but once and
at night, but if they continue to transgress thus, nobody can check this
mid-day robbery. I must act and act at once," he said to his wife.
"And what will
the people think of us? Our prestige and our authority will vanish; I shall
be dragged down to the level of common rustic women who follow in the wake
of herds of cattle and gather cowdung," rejoined his wife.
the priest still further and he made his plan.
When the groom's
father reached his house, he was already prepared for his reception. In
response to the invitation the priest made no complaint. He made, in passing,
an ironical reference to his exclusion. The invitation was accepted with
apparent cordiality and the two started for the house where the festivities
were going on.
bridegroom nor anyone else had the shade of a doubt that the priest would
readily give his approval to the bride and thus confirm the marriage in
the eyes of the village community. On his arrival the priest was accorded
a welcome but it lacked the usual ardour and he at once felt that he did
not have the same respect that day as he otherwise had. Anyway, he was
the chief guest at the feast and he said the grace.
In due course,
the bride was brought to the presence of the holy father and the others
withdrew in accordance with the time-honoured village custom. She sat before
him with downcast eyes. He had a fair and full view of her face, her long
eyelashes, her ruby lips and the dimple on her cheek with the complexion
of peach flowers, and a man with a little experience could read from his
face complex emotions passing through his mind. In a moment, however, he
stiffened his expression and asked them to lead the bride out of the room.
She did not receive the usual benediction from the holy father.
and the father waited for his comments. But he simply said, "I cannot congratulate
you on this wedding. The bride is most inauspicious for this family. I
am not able to invoke God to bless her."
came like a thunderbolt to the bridegroom. The earth seemed to fall from
under his feet. His father too felt rr.uch alarmed. He rued his negligence
in not having sought the prior approval of the priest. But what had happened
could not be undone and it was best to find a means to "domesticate" the
bride and to ward off all evil influence. He submitted the case apologetically
to the priest.
was nothing if not thorough, and quite bluntly said that nothing in his
opinion could attenuate the malicious portents for the whole family as
long as the bride stayed under the roof. "You must take immediate steps
to resolve this tangle," said he, "otherwise great evil is going to befall
this family of honest and God-fearing people." The old man thought it possible
still that the priest could devise a talisman or an amulet to afford protection
to the family against any evil influence. He humbly submitted his viewpoint
for the consideration of the priest. The latter was positive. "Look here,
good man! I have all along looked upon my parish as my friends and well-wishers,
and I shall be the veriest villain if I am anything else towards them.
I have studied her physiognomy and considered it in the light of what little
knowledge of the stars I have. The presence of the bride in your house
is inauspicious for your wife and yourself, and much more so for your son,
the worthy groom who should have been considered the most fortunate young
man but for this."
who was growing fonder and fonder of the bride every minute would perhaps
not mind a little sacrifice in her advanced age if it made her son happy.
The old man loved life well enough but thought that he had anyhow to make
his exit from the stage, and would not be unwilling to risk putting the
knowledge of the priest to test. But both of them were stunned when the
priest listed their son as the main target of the malicious stars. Neither
of them was prepared to take any chances where it concerned the bridegroom.
Inevitably they were forced to concur in his opinion that the baneful influences
working against their son must be neutralized at whatever cost.
The poor groom
was wringing his hands. It was so hard for him. But his mother quoted convincing
instances of people who suffered for not having followed the instructions
of the priest. `'My dear son, I would readily give my life for your happiness
only if it could ward off the evil influence," his mother said pitifully
with much feeling.
In short, the
unfortunate young man had to resign himself to the demand made upon him
in the interest of his parents and of his own. But the problem was how
to get rid of the bride. They consulted the priest. "It is your affair
to get rid of this enchantress," he said with apparent unconcern But the
family felt much concerned and nobody could make any suggestion worth the
while. After everybody seemed to be on the verge of defeat and the whole
plan was in danger of being wrecked on this account, the priest said, "I
can think of one simple solution. Shut her up in a wooden box and let it
float on the surface of the river at dead of night. Let her meet her own
The plan was
agreed upon and the priest took his leave after getting his dues. That
night they gagged her mouth, put her in a wooden box and floated it on
the river. "It is done and there is an end of the whole affair," said the
old man. "Son," he continued, "selfwilled children are bound to suffer
in the way you have. But don't worry, before the month is out you will
have really a good bride wedded to you." The latter only shed tears silently
to give vent to his grief.
The poor victim
of this melodrama found a most unenviable nuptial chamber for her first
night. At first she thought they would kill or smother her. But obviously
she escaped that fate. Her mouth was shut but her eyes and ears were open.
She floated down the river quietly, helplessly and expected to meet death,
cold and hungry. She felt dizzy for a while but a heaving or a whirling
motion would prick her back to consciousness. After some time, how long
she did not know, she heard the hooting of an owl and then the current
threw the box towards the land and it ceased to float. How this was going
to affect her life she did not know. "It might prolong my life and miseries,
or throw me into the hands of robbers. People gentle by appearance have
used me thus. What can I expect of professed villains and cut-throats?"
she thought. She again became unconscious.
When she came
to herself she heard some voices outside:
"What is this
box for? Perhaps kept there by some punter," said one voice.
be, let us examine it; may be it contains some treasure," rejoined another.
By this time
the total darkness of the night was dispelled and a thin arc of the moon
struggled up the sky, where myriads of stars were keeping watch over human
actions, blurred here and there by light masses of clouds. A faint ray
seemed to filter through a crevice in the lid into the box and the bride
felt that the world was not totally dark. With that the two men having
waded a few yards tried to lift the box which was neither very heavy nor
quite light. They brought it to the river bank and raising the lid they
were surprised to see a female form, gagged and bound. "What crime has
this frail woman committed?" said one somewhat perplexed. "She has committed
no crime but is surely the victim of one," retorted the other while they
cut the rope that bound her tightly and pulled out the cloth that filled
her mouth almost to the throat. They found her pretty and delicate.
"Have no fears
from us. What hard stroke of fate is it that has brought you to this end?"
said the first.
"We are willing
to help you if any human being is so barbarous as to treat you thus," added
At first she
was dumb and mute. These reassuring words released somewhere in her mind
a fountain and she burst into profuse tears. When she stopped she narrated
her tale of woe that brought her to the desolate spot instead of the nuptial
chamber. The two were touched deeply. They belonged to the village next
to that where she lived and knew her father. They even knew her pedlar
husband who, they said, was gentle and affectionate. She heaved a long
drawn out sigh. They attributed the whole mischief to the priest who they
said, looked harmless but was really callous. They said he was a downright
The two men
earned their living with the help of a bear. They had along with them a
bear tamed in the usual way. The bear was required to display his tricks
every now and then for a few coppers or corn. In particular the bear was
much taxed after the harvesting season. The two men felt there was some
promise in their trade and that their income would double if they had two
such brutes, one for each. They had come to this place, on the outskirts
of a forest in search of the cub of a bear who was reported to have his
lair somewhere in the vicinity. The tamed bear was to act as a sort of "gobetween" or bait.
the pitiful story they decided to teach the priest a lesson. They knew
that he lived in a village on the river bank a couple of miles below and
by some sort of intuition expected him to be waiting for this boxed beauty.
"The rascally priest is highly lascivious and if you don't find him waiting
for the box, shave off my moustache," said one with an assurance which
the other was in no need of as he also knew the priest well enough.
the plan and implemented it swiftly. They put the bear into the box, put
the lid on and closed it as had been done in entombing the bride. The box
was then floated again.
At the other
end the priest was indeed waiting hungrily. When he saw the bride he coveted
her for his own harem. His advice that the bride should be left to drift
on the stream in a box had, therefore, a double motivation: to deter people
from such weddings in future and secondly to get her for himself. He, therefore,
kept a vigil on the river bank along with a couple of trusted confidants.
He had even thrown a hint to his household that he had been commanded to
take another wife to fulfill some higher purpose for which God had created
He felt somewhat
anxious when the box did not come to him in time and he began to think
what steps he might take if his first plan really failed to materialize.
While he was brooding thus he felt a thrill of delight to see the box.
"There is my little bride," he said. "May I enjoy the bliss of her company!"
He alerted his men, the box was stopped, pulled ashore and lifted. They
carried it quietly to the house of the priest and deposited it in his room.
It was still
night. The moon hid her face behind a gigantic screen of clouds. With a
feeling, perhaps, that it is never too late the priest dismissed the men,
lit a lamp and bolted the door. And then with something like a feeling
of gratitude to his creator who had let him see this blissful hour he approached
the box, undid the chain and raised the lid, ready to take to his bosom
the fair inmate. Out sprang the bear with its hideous feature and took
the initiative in wooing the priest. The priest had no time to think. The
bear played havoc with him. No
doubt, it was
a tamed bear, but they say that "if a monkey falls from a height of eighty
yards, he is still a monkey by breed." The priest shrieked and cried for
help. The bear' on the other hand, had a little free play after years of
bondage, and all his suppressed instinct of vengeance upon human kind was
having its expression at the moment. He no doubt derived immense enjoyment
from his dalliance with the priest which lasted quite a long time till
the neighbourhood was alerted and a host of people came along rubbing their
eyes to help the priest in fighting the "devil in the guise of a bear"
who had come on a visitation in this form to have his revenge for winning
people to the ways of God!
Not long after,
the bear reached back to his masters who restored the "inauspicious" bride
to her parents and then to her husband. They would tell the tale as far
as they knew it and gave the cue to the bear to pantomime his part which
he did with some vigour. Wherever the bear went after harvesting, people
asked them to enact this piece and amply rewarded a good piece of acting.