Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Empty Sanctuary

It was damn near midnight when I experienced that sudden thrill that rushed from my stomach up to my spine and into my scalp. I was going over expenditures of the company, namely the costs burdened by transportation of raw materials from my province down to the ports in Bangladesh. A simple glass of port was by my left which I used to refresh my flagging spirits. The crimson hue of the liquid would continually parry my thoughts from the task at hand and thrust to the conversation I’d had previously in the day between a colleague and myself regarding rumors of gems in his province.

His province, located mostly in Rajputana, was located some 80 miles northwest of my post, but seeing as to how he had matters to attend to in the most southeastern portion, he had written me and asked if it would be agreeable to meet. I had readily agreed as I enjoyed his company, and it was tiresome to hear the native tongue from the rising sun until hot dusk. As we sat down to supper that consisted of niceties from Britannia, Reginald, who went by Reggie, made a passing reference to gems in his irrigation dam, and I implored him to continue on with his story.

“We began surveying a new outpost with the hopes that it might contain minerals or metals. Zinc and copper were found, but in such small amounts in the region that it would not be profitable to extract. Cotton or tobacco would be well suited for the place. I was called upon to finish my project in Jodhpur and to commence west for the building of a rather small irrigation dam. We began shortly I arrived, and the workers would do the damndest things imaginable with the soil. They would often take goodly sized rocks, set them aside, and strike them open with their shovels only to find more of the reddish stone inside. And often I would see them putting pebbles in their mouths to clean them, only to take them out and inspect them. I asked one of them why they were splitting the rocks open.

After a few pleas of ignorance in a simpering manner, the worker explained that the gold comes down from the mountains and that they were hoping to find some, of course with the expectation that they would be sharing part of it with the company and myself. I saw their grinning brown faces cracked wide from ear to ear when I‘d look at them, only to turn into a grimace of anger when I’d turn my head. I suspected that they were searching for something, yes, but not gold. But what then? The soil was a good mixture of dirt with clay leading down to a solid bedrock capable of supporting the irrigation dam. But the assayer and myself noted nothing extraordinary with the soil. Any precious metals would have been noted in the initial assay and extruded out.

Well, I was bemused by their behavior. I discussed the matter with my manservant during supper the second night who told me that it was sort of a local legend that centuries ago there existed a beautiful city of sandstone that was completely destroyed by the goddess Kali. Shiva upon seeing her destroying the city, unsuccessfully attempted to stop her total destruction, but in the process injured her. Her drops of blood hardened into rubies wherever they touched the sandstone as she fled into the mountains. Upon hearing that, I was ameliorated. My workers were simply believing just an old legend of some large deposit of rubies buried underneath the dirt. My mood did not last long. The next morning, the third day, the workers began digging up what I recognized as corundum and hessonite. In my line of work, you gain a knowledge of minerals…in case you discover a rich vein or pipe that had been missed by the assayer. The corundum was a dusty reddish color that they quickly tossed aside as soon as they pulled it up. The hessonite was far more valuable to the workers than the corundum, why I can’t possibly fathom.” Here I interjected, “Possibly for jewelry? If they could cut and polish it correctly…” “It would appear to be a ruby. Yes, I see what you mean. I haven’t heard of any man exporting hessonite, however. Perhaps the natives hold some value to these stones. Nevertheless, I took some of the corundum and hessonite to the mineral assayer and the surveyor. The assayer said that the corundum was practically useless, too many impurities, but he said the hessonite was of a good quality, albeit rather small. I was guaranteed a finder’s fee if the company ever decide to attempt mining in my region which I was told would be highly unlikely. They’d discovered a belt of garnets just the other year to the south east and seeing as to how it was still producing, it would be some time before they continued onto my present location. That curiously red granite’s the only thing worth being pulled out of the ground where I am anyhow.

But there it was: the end of the day, and a quite regular interval of hessonite and corundum every fifteen paces which extended the length of the dam. The workers had just finished and were running pell-mell from interval to interval running through the piles of stone and cracking them open with such a fury! A fight broke out over a large piece of a rather reddish hessonite. Something is afoot with that area around the irrigation dam and I sense there might be some truth to that lost sandstone city with its crimson rubies. At the very least, there‘s quite a substantial amount of hessonite and corundum with no geological evidence to support that it‘s a natural deposit.”

And with that the conversation quickly shifted over to the old staple of damning the heat and wondering how one could live in it. I bade Reggie farewell at a quarter past eight o’clock and rode back to my dwelling. All of the major well-kept roads passed through my station and checking in with my office was both a courtesy and a necessity. Often company men needed reimbursement for their initial traveling costs and financing for further transport of their goods. There were several ledgers I kept and if any one had found noteworthy gems or precious metals that had passed through my region, I would have annotated it. I knew a sufficient amount about minerals mostly through inspecting portaged goods and inquiring as to how one goes about finding such things. From this I knew that most corundum taken from the Rajputana region was already crushed and sifted, ready to go to work as an abrasive in some distant factory far from this country. And from this, I also knew that as of yet no one had found a pure enough piece of corundum to be deemed a gem. No, the company decided that it was best for this area to plow, harvest, and grow. Gem and precious metal mining were left to other areas that were far more conducive to placer mining. I suppose the garnet belt discovered was rich enough to be worth the company’s investment, but I had yet to see any of the garnets pass through my district.

When I reached the ledgers I was looking for, I thumbed through the entries taking note of the contents when the “from” location was Rajputana. However, most of the contents were red granite, cotton, tobacco, a few half-tons of crushed corundum and endless bushels of wheat and grain. Nothing could be gleaned to give a possible indication that immeasurable wealth was hidden anywhere near that irrigation dam. It is possible that had gems been found that they were smuggled past me, but the roads through my region were the quickest way to the ports. And besides, any gem in the rough would have been quickly driven down to one of the major cities on the coast and measured and cut and word often spread quickly to the company‘s ears about valuable gems. Several smugglers had been caught using these roads, but their contraband consisted of opium and hashish. Besides, holding on to large gems was foolhardy.

Violence had a tendency to follow them, and I as I took another sip of the ruby port I vaguely recalled hearing of a young prospector who began digging near one of the company’s sapphire claims. The claim had produced an extraordinary 22 carat purple sapphire, and a fortnight later, the young prospector was sifting through deposits right next to the company claim in the hopes of success. His labors were so successful that natives soon heard of it and butchered him like a hog in his pup tent and made off with the stones. The natives were caught and then hung in a just fashion, and the matter was taken to the court with the company declaring that the sapphires belonged to them as the young prospector had stepped over his claim’s boundaries to find the diamonds. The company was awarded the sapphires but the whole incident made bloods boil and soon it was common sight to see prospectors carrying their equipment with double rifles and carbines slung over their shoulders and often one would hear of claims disputes being settled outright by bold violence.

So no, if any gems existed in Reggie’s region, they had yet to be discovered.

I turned the matter over in my mind, thinking about the best way one could go about it, and decided the whole venture foolish and continued onto reviewing the latest transportation expenditures for the week. But every so often, a spasm would run through me at the thoughts of discovering a sandstone city with crimson rubies spilled and scattered about.

When I first came to this country, my post was quite literally in the jungle. It was originally described to me as sort of an outpost job where I would be responsible for compiling all manner of goods and arranging transportation down to the ports. I enquired as to the manner of goods and was told that procurement of precious metals and gems was preferred. However, when I arrived at the post and asked how much precious metals were pulled from the jungle, most thought I was making a jest with them. Rarely a man would come across a few small grains of gold or silver in the streams and certain parts of the rivers, but these findings were infrequent and so small that I suspect these grains were simply used in place of currency with the added reassurance that there would be no hesitation on the merchant’s behalf on accepting this form of currency at the bazaar.

The jungle was an unusual place. No law as far as I know existed in that isolation and it seemed to have a curious effect on most men that came there. No matter the color of their whiskers or the shape of their faces or the manner of their speech, there were always two types of men that existed in the jungle: those that accepted the jungle, and those that refused to accept it. The men who accepted the very fact that the jungle is hostile and forever restless developed a healthy respect for it and seemed to be the most successful. They and the jungle would continually circle each other, anticipating each others’ moves so that neither could deal a blow to the other. The men who refused to accept the jungle would either stumble fool-hardy into an early death, be blind to the fact the natives were composed of flesh and blood who would subsequently kill the white man for his prolonged unusual cruelty and arrogance, or after an extended stay would be whipped all hours of the day by demons no other man could see.

I took another sip of port and watched the blood-red drops slide from the rim of the glass down to the bottom. I sighed, breathing in the hot, dusty air.

I knew the dangers of empty idols. Men coming to my post were often told the same lie of searching for precious metals and were eager to start. I would offer to retain all their placer mining equipment in one of my storerooms while they searched for good deposits, and they would all laugh and shake their heads. But after a week of discovering nothing, some would come back to deposit their equipment and head back to the jungle and commence harvesting huge teak trees and rosewood with decent sized boles. The rest would come back and insist that I tell them were the nearest deposit was and would tower into a rage when I’d inform them that no such deposits exist in my region. They would always storm off into the jungle which gladly accepted them forever.

I changed into my pyjamas and went to bed.

A fortnight went by with no further though of lost sandstone cities with ruby spires, when I received another post from Reggie asking me to dine with him again. I readily agreed.

We met at the same bungalow and began discussing the summer monsoon season that had just started further south of us when the conversation soon turned back towards his dam and fabled lost sandstone city.

“And what of it?” Reggie asked, “The very fact that I’m still here in this country means that we haven’t uncovered priceless hundred-carat rubies in our dig.”

“But the regular intervals of hessonite and corundum? Surely that’s indicative of some sort of civilization or people living there in the past?”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But shortly after I left you, the workers became worse in completing their work for the day. I had to sack nearly a quarter of them because they refused to obey me after fighting over a bit of plain dusty red glass. They refused to believe that it was glass until I took the butt of my revolver and smashed it to shards. At that moment, most of the workers glanced at the shards and continued their work at a steady pace, very rarely picking through the dirt to pick up a slim beauty of hessonite. But the small remainder put up such a howl that I had to sack them, like I said. And I’d heard later from some of the local policemen that they got into a brawl over the same damned stones with one of them ending up crippled. There could very well be some precious stones hidden under that dirt and sand, but the only money I can see from where I stand is my commission being paid out once the dam is finished and starts irrigating the cotton fields.”

“It’s sadly reassuring that people don’t change,” I demurred, “Would you care for a glass of port?”

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