The quiet of a spooky guest house built by the British in southern wilderness
Nilgiri Mountain Railways' toy train crawled up the incline like a fat blue caterpillar. It was perhaps the slowest way to get from Mettupalayam to Ooty; from the foothills to the top of the plateau. At an average speed of less than ten kilometres per hour, the train—a part of the Mountain Railways of India, collectively deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site—took almost five hours to cover the forty-six kilometres that separated Mettupalayam and Ooty. In the first half of its journey, it ran even slower, inching at a little over eight kilometres per hour.
With time at his disposal, Athreya had decided to make a vacation of it by taking the much-acclaimed train, which was the only one of its kind in the country–a ‘rack railway’ that used a rack-and-pinion arrangement to climb the steep hills. How he managed to get a ticket at such short notice was a mystery. He had already sent up his suitcase to Greybrooke Manor the previous day from Coimbatore, so he could travel light on the toy train.
Sitting across from Athreya in his first-class compartment was an elderly man with a stiff, pointed moustache that would have done Hercule Poirot proud had it not been for its unmitigated whiteness. Swathed in a muffler and with a hat on his head, the jacketed man had a military bearing that hinted at a background in the armed forces. Next to him sat a snow-haired lady, who had her arm around a little girl. The train, with its steam engine, had left Mettupalayam behind and had begun its wheezing ascent when the elderly man, who had been watching Athreya with twinkling eyes, broke the ice.
‘On vacation, sir?’ he asked in a good-natured baritone, with a friendly smile that stretched the ends of his moustache farther apart. ‘Sort of,’ Athreya responded with a smile and a nod. ‘I have an invitation to spend a few days in the Blue Mountains.’ ‘This is a good time of the year to visit, Mr–?’ ‘Athreya. Harith Athreya.’ ‘How do you do?’ The man stretched out his hand for Athreya to shake. ‘I’m Wing Commander Sridhar.’ He gestured to the woman and girl sitting next to him. ‘My wife, Sarala. And my granddaughter–oh no! I’ve forgotten our little fairy’s name again!’ ‘My name is Mariebelle,’ the little girl chirped, her big brown eyes taking in Athreya’s smiling, avuncular visage, topped by a fine-haired mane that had a patch of silver in the front that matched the patch on his chin. ‘I am a fairy queen.’ ‘Hello, Queen Mariebelle.’ Athreya humoured her with a mock bow. ‘Have you hidden your wings? I can’t see them.’ ‘That’s because ordinary humans can’t see them unless they are princes.’
‘Oh, I’m no prince! But, your highness, where is your wand?’ ‘Wand?’ the little girl asked, perplexed. ‘Fairies have magic wands, don’t they?’ The girl cocked her head to one side, looking uncertain. ‘Would you like a wand, Queen Mariebelle?’ Athreya asked.
The girl nodded, her eyes sparkling in anticipation. Athreya reached into his duffel bag. Slowly and theatrically, he pulled out a pencil a foot-and-a-half long. The girl’s eyes lit up and her little hand reached for the enthralling object. ‘Say “thank you” to this nice gentleman, darling,’ her grandmother urged, but the little one’s attention was fully taken up by the unexpected gift. ‘As I was saying,’ Wing Commander Sridhar said, taking up the conversation again, ‘this is a nice time of the year to come here, if you don’t mind the mist and the rain. The summer rush is long gone, and the winter chill is not yet upon us.’ ‘A lot of mist, eh?’ Athreya asked dreamily, watching the fog shrouding the far-away hilltops and distant valleys. ‘It can get pretty tricky, especially if you are not watching where you are going. What with it being slippery underfoot and hazy all around, a misstep is never very far.’
‘First time to these hills, Mr Athreya?’ the snow-haired Sarala asked. ‘Oh, no,’ said Athreya with a laugh. ‘I’ve been to Ooty a few times, but usually on work. Even on the few occasions when it was not on work, I found the town a tad commercialized.’ ‘That it is! That it is!’ the wing commander agreed enthusiastically. ‘You need to stay away from the hustle and bustle of it all, Mr Athreya. Somewhere a few miles out where you can enjoy nature. Then it can be divine. You are going to Ooty, I presume?’ ‘I’m getting off at Coonoor. The last leg of my journey will be by road. My destination is somewhere north of Coonoor, I believe—towards the border with Karnataka.’ ‘Ah! That’s welcoming wilderness, all right. As close to nature as you can get. Where are you staying?’ ‘A place called Greybrooke Manor.’ Abruptly, the wing commander’s face seemed to freeze. His wife’s eyes widened a trifle, and the polite smile on her face faltered. But only for a moment. She recovered her poise and averted her eyes, busying herself with her granddaughter.
‘Ahem!’ The wing commander cleared his throat more loudly than necessary. The twinkle in his eye had faded. ‘Greybrooke indeed! Interesting place, interesting place! So, Bhaskar has invited you to his place?’ ‘You know Bhaskar Fernandez?’ Athreya asked, maintaining his smile, wondering why the mention of Greybrooke Manor had ruffled the couple. ‘Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I knew his father too, Thomas Fernandez. Tom, we called him. Bit of a shock when he died. He fell off a train, you know.’ His voice dropped. ‘Poor old Tom. Going to stay at Greybrooke, eh?’ ‘Yes. I’m quite looking forward to it.’ ‘Are you?’ the wing commander asked doubtfully. Sarala’s eyes had returned to Athreya’s face. They were guarded now. As she held his gaze, Athreya thought he sensed a trace of apprehension in her. ‘Bit of a chequered history, Greybrooke has,’ he heard the wing commander say. ‘Rather dark, unfortunately. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.’ Athreya brought his attention back to the elderly man. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about Greybrooke,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you can enlighten me?’ ‘It’s an old mansion. Quite old, quite old. Was built by the Brits at the cost of how many native Indian lives, I don’t know. An imposing structure, strong as a fortress. I wonder how they hauled all that stone to such a remote place. Why the English buggers chose such a location in the first instance beats me. Must have been the back of beyond when it was built.
‘Anyway, an English bugger built it, but he didn’t enjoy it for more than a year. Lost his footing one misty night and fell into a ravine. Broke his neck. The mansion passed on to another Brit. Every English blighter who owned it thereafter–there were three or four of them, I think–fell prey to something or the other, and the mansion began acquiring a reputation. Greybrooke Manor is no stranger to violent death, Mr Athreya.’ ‘Many locals don’t go near the mansion, you know,’ Sarala interposed. ‘They say that the man who built it was a devil worshipper. That’s why he built Greybrooke Manor in such an out-of-the-way place, far away from prying eyes. They believe that he even practised human sacrifice.’ ‘Nonsense, Sarala!’ the wing commander boomed. ‘Look at the way the chapel at Greybrooke Manor has been built,’ Sarala persisted. ‘The sun never enters it. It’s always dark, even in the day. Exactly how the devil–’ ‘Devil worship, my foot!’ the wing commander thundered. ‘Human sacrifice, my left eye! Nonsense and old wives’ tales, Sarala. Don’t you go about putting silly ideas into Mr Athreya’s head.’ ‘I was only–’ Sarala began to protest, but her husband cut her off.
‘I know, I know, my dear. But there’s no need for that.’ He returned his attention to Athreya. ‘Don’t you believe the baloney people tell you, Mr Athreya. Don’t let anyone spook you. Remember, there is no terror on God’s earth that a reliable six-shooter can’t handle.’
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