This tale was first published in The Week’s News on 25 February 1888, and then included the same year in Volume 5 of the Indian Railway Library – The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. It was collected in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories in 1895, and in numerous later editions of that collection.
The narrator stays the night in a rather sinister old dâk-bungalow. During the night he hears the ‘unmistakable’ sound of a game of billiards being played in the non-existent room next door. In the morning the ancient servant tells him that in old times there had been a billiard-room there, and that one night one of the sahibs had fallen dead across the table. The narrator is excited to have found what seems to be an authentic ghost story. But then he hears the sound again; it was a little rat running to and fro inside the ceiling cloth, and his imagination had done the rest.
Kipling and the supernatural
Like “The Sending of Dana Da“ in Soldiers Three, there turns out to be a rational explanation for the ghostly intimations the author had had, but the experience gives him a chance to revel in assorted horrors as he constructs, from very slight materials, an amusing story which has not been much noticed by the commentators. [See British Life in India ed. R.V. Vernède (O.U.P. Delhi, 1995) p. 254 for a humorous but true verse and an illustration.] Cornell (page 187) suggests that this story was conceived during or shortly after Kipling’s railway journeys of 1887.
As Kipling stresses in Something of Myself (page 215) he was not in favour of ‘diving after psychical experiences’ (see his poem “En-Dor”), although from time to time he experienced, and wrote about, strange and uncanny events, and was very much aware of the irrational beliefs and feelings of others.
His formative professional years were spent in a country where there was wide belief in ghosts and the supernatural, and at a time when there was a good deal of speculations among Europeans about matters ‘psychic’. [See Carrington, p. 67 for a brief account of the fraudulent medium Madame Blavatsky, whose books are to be found to this day in the library of the Society for Psychical Research.] But, whether by conviction or apprehension, he saw himself as a sceptic, and – if there is one – that is perhaps the moral of this tale.
His many other stories of the supernatural include “By Word of Mouth” and “The Bisara of Pooree” in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), “At the End of the Passage”, “The Mark of the Beast” and “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness” in Life’s Handicap (1891), “The Lost Legion” in Many Inventions (1893), “The House Surgeon” in Actions and Reactions (1909), “In the Same Boat” in A Diversity of Creatures (1917), “The Wish House” and “A Madonna of the Trenches” in Debits and Credits (1926), and “Unprofessional” in Limits and Renewals (1932).