Saturday, 18 October 2014

Here He Lies Where He Longed to Be ~ Winifred Galbraith

Well, I did promise that I'd post the winning entry from the ghost story competition that M. R. James was asked to judge for The Spectator. And here it is. A note was attached saying, 'The Chinese gentleman who told me this tale and vouched for its truth held a diplomatic position in England for many years'. If you remember, James was a little concerned that the lady who sent it received it from a third party and did not invent it from her own imagination.

By Winifred Galbraith
Winner of the ghost story competition,
The Spectator ~ 27th of December 1930.

You won’t believe this story; you’ll say it is all moonshine.

I should say so myself, if I did not know it were true. But whenever I think it must have been a dream, I see again that look of deep peace on Lao Ming’s face, and then I feel glad that the old man sleeps with his fathers in the distant Shensi hills and not in the crowded rabbit-warrens of the Shanghai cemeteries.

I met Lao Ming in 1927 when I left the interior because of the communists. He told me he had been born and bred in Shensi and had held high official positions under the Manchus, but, since the Revolution, he had drifted to Shanghai and lived - goodness knows how - in one room in the native city. During that dreary winter some of my most pleasant hours were spent in that dirty little room. We both loved to talk about Shensi and I found that his dearest wish was to return there to die, although such a journey really seemed impossible for a man of his age. He was a classical scholar, deeply learned in the magics of (corrupt) Buddhism and, one day, he introduced me to a friend who, he said, was a wizard of great skill and repute. As I listened to their talk, I used to feel as if I had fallen out of the twentieth century into the company of two medieval magicians. This charm eaten at night would bring a much-desired son; rats’ ears ground to powder and applied on an enchanted paper would relieve a swelling tumour; and once they spoke of spells for the dead, but there I showed my scepticism too plainly and they stopped. Strange talk within sight of the Shanghai Bund!

When I was able to return inland and went to say “Goodbye” to Lao Ming, I found he was very ill. His magician friend was with him and followed me out.

“I’m afraid he’ll never see the Shensi hills now,” I said.

I caught a strange look on the man’s face and I did a silly thing.

“Look here,” I said, “If I give you fifty dollars, will you promise to bury Lao Ming in Shensi?”

The magician bowed.

“It shall be done,” he said. And I actually counted out fifty dollars and pushed them into his hand. I did feel wild with myself afterwards, I can tell you, as I was awfully short of money at the time and knew they would only waste it on good feast at the funeral.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

It was a fine, clear night. My coolies had consented to go an extra stage after dark, as we all wanted to get home before the festival. They trotted along with bent knees, crooning a little song, and I walked behind, not too tired to enjoy the beauty of the moon, as it lit up the rice fields in the valleys and the dark clumps of trees on the hill sides. Suddenly the foremost coolie gave a blood-curdling yell, dropped his burdens and fled, screaming over the fields. The others followed. I could see no cause for alarm. A little string of people advanced towards us on the narrow path. It was rather unusual to see men out so late, but I thought they were probably a band of villagers who had been delayed at the market. Then I saw the first man held a bowl before him in both hands, but the others carried nothing and walked rather stiffly, without moving their heads. I called out a greeting as I stepped off the path to let them pass, but no one replied. The second in line was a woman with a little baby tied on her back, the third was a man in a ragged soldier’s uniform with a great gaping wound all down one side of his bare leg. And then - I looked straight into the face of my friend Lao Ming. With a scream I could not suppress, I turned and ran like the coolies across the wet fields. The magician had kept his word and Lao Ming would rest in his beloved Shensi.

When we were safely round the fire that night, the coolies told me more about this curious procession. It was a death march. Some men have power to prevent the decomposition of the body and to make the dead move at their command. When a man dies far from his native land, his relatives find out such a wizard and pay him to lead the corpse home. He waits till he has collected a number of such commissions and then sets out on his long march. He walks by night, carrying a rice-bowl of water in his hands and followed step by step by his charges. At dawn he plans to reach an inn where he engages a room, puts the bowl down on the floor and the bodies at once fall over and lie there till nightfall, when their weary pilgrimage begins again. Over hills and rivers for hundreds of miles they walk till they reach their goal. Then the water must be spilt on the ground and the bowl broken to fragments. So can their bodies decay and their souls rest in peace.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

It is incredible, isn’t it? I did one more thing about it. I wrote to our agent at the place where Lao Ming’s family graves were said to be and asked him if there had been a recent burial. He made enquiries and found that there was a newly-dug grave but there seemed to be some mystery, for no one would tell him anything nor could he hear that anyone had recently died.

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