Bubbling Well Road

Warning: waffle contains spoilers. If you don't know the story already click here to read it first.

Bubbling Well Road is a short story by Rudyard Kipling, first published in 1888. It is very short indeed, but it is a fine example of the disturbingly sinister tales that Kipling produced from time to time. For some weird reason it has become a set piece for an exam in English taken by people in India under the heading of "Humour" - while there is humour in the style, it is hardly the genre of the story, and it certainly has fuck all to do with the way it is presented in the exam - and there are numerous pages on the web giving the exam questions on it and the standard answers; this is probably one of the most comprehensive.

I remember this sort of crap from when I was at school. They used to call it "Comprehension". There would be a passage from some book or other, along the lines of "Jane goes to the shop to get some cakes", that went on for a page or two, followed by 10 pathetically shit questions that even a moron could answer without thought, like "What did Jane go to the shop to get?" Only you weren't allowed to just answer "cakes"; you had to write "Jane went to the shop to get cakes", and the requirement to pad out the stupidly trivial answer with redundant words to make a full sentence of it used to piss me off. This was "justified" on the grounds that the teacher wouldn't know what you meant if you just wrote "cakes" and you had to write the whole thing so he knew what you were on about. My rebuttal of this idiotic argument, ie. that the teacher knew bloody well what we were on about because he had set us the fucking questions, was of course ignored.

A second piece of scholastic idiocy made its appearance when we were set one of these things for homework. I used to do it on the train home so that I didn't have to waste my precious home time on tedious school shit. I would then be berated for doing this because apparently I "couldn't do it properly" if I did it on the train. What this was supposed to even fucking mean, let alone why it should be the case, was never explained. Nor did it ever make any difference that I invariably got ten out of ten for my answers whether I did it on the train or not.

Over all my time at school I must have done something like a couple of hundred of these pointless exercises, and learnt precisely fuck all from it. The only value to it was that sometimes the passage we were given would be sufficiently engaging to make me want to go to the library and find the book it originally came from and read the whole thing. This was, of course, an entirely unofficial extra-curricular activity. Not once in class did they ever encourage anyone to do it, or indeed do anything else that would help to get people interested in the book for its own sake instead of as nothing but the source of a piece of random text to be made to answer stupid questions on for the sake of marks. The more likely effect of their approach was the counterproductive one of causing the book to be regarded as "boring school shit" and therefore something to be avoided if you did happen to come across it outside lessons.

The Indian exam about "Bubbling Well Road" is exactly the same sort of shit, except that there are only 5 questions instead of 10 and if the standard answers are anything to go by it is acceptable to simply crib lines verbatim out of the book, rather than making them up in your own words as we had to do. This of course makes it even plainer that it is an entirely brain-off exercise. It does precisely fuck all to make you think about the story or appreciate what is actually going on; if anything it makes you understand it less well than just reading it would.

One of the questions is "what was the priest's reaction when he saw Kipling (or whoever you suppose the first person narrator to be) coming along the path?" The standard answer given is to quote the relevant lines from the story, which basically add up to "he shat himself". And if you stop there you miss the whole fucking point. Why did he shit himself? It was not just because the narrator was white in the face, you know. And why was the narrator so angry that he had difficulty stopping himself shooting the cunt a few paragraphs further on, and opens the story by saying that he ought to be hanged?

To which the answer is: the whole thing was a deliberate trap. The crappy path that the narrator first encounters had been made that way on purpose so that anyone blundering about in the grass who chanced upon it would be glad to take advantage of the easier passage that it offered and in the course of making their way along it would fall into the well. When the narrator by happy chance avoids this gruesome fate, and working his way round the edge of the well finds a good path which leads directly from the well to the priest's hut, he works out what the deal is - he realises that the evil old bastard visits the well regularly to do some kind of black magic with the corpses in it and has set things up to ensure that there is a steady supply of fresh corpses for whenever he wants them. The priest shits himself because he thinks the narrator, approaching from the well, is a ghost or zombie or whatever the Indian equivalent would be, one of the corpses come back to life and coming to get him. And when the narrator is forcing the old cunt at gunpoint to lead him out safely, and finds that they cross several more trap-paths leading to the well on the way, the further evidence of the scale of the operation makes him even more angry.

This is then confirmed when he does get out and the villagers tell him that the place is full of ghosts and demons which the priest uses to kill people who wander in so he can use them for his evil rituals. This is the sort of thing that would elicit the reaction "yur, bollocks" if heard in isolation, at least from a modern Western viewpoint, but after his experiences the narrator knows it is actually true, with the mundanity of the sly cunning of a pit trap replacing the supernatural ghosts and demons. He also knows that the villagers are never going to do anything more effectual than throwing stones at the old git, and indeed may well often be responsible, at the priest's instigation, for giving people the idea of going into the grass patch in the first place. He experiments with setting the grass on fire himself, but is disappointed to find that it is "too green"; better to come back when it is tinder-dry so it will go up like a fucking rocket...

It is a good story, well-written and packing a lot of impressions into its brief couple of pages, with elegantly economical descriptions that pack a powerful punch if you read them carefully enough to pick up on what is not said. It is disappointing to find that even the Kipling Society's page about it seems to miss what's going on - "at the bottom black things are slowly turning over, including a human hand and arm" - fucksake, the "black things" are human in their entirety - they are corpses, blackened by exposure (which is what happens if you leave corpses out), buoyant and bloated to drumhead tightness by the gases of putrefaction. And the fact that there are several of them which have bloated but have not yet burst and sunk implies that fresh additions to their numbers are of fairly frequent occurrence.

But if you only read it as the exam requires you to you'll miss all the subtlety. Schools need to get their heads round this. Making people read a book to answer questions about it is a waste of time. Fuck the questions and the exams and all that shit. Just give people a pile of the books the passages are taken from and let them choose to read the ones they think they'll like, with no pressure and no stupid questions or essays or exams afterwards. Allow them to come up with their own questions, if they are so inclined, and provide their own answers, like I have done on this page; provide them with help if they ask for it - hints to the subtleties and allusions, background information like (in this example) how corpses are affected by the processes of decay - but for fuck's sake do not kill the appeal of the story by demanding tediously written responses to it; allow them to respond in thought alone, with no requirement to set anything down unless they happen to actually want to. The stupid ones won't learn any less than they would anyway, the non-stupid ones stand a better chance of getting something positive out of it, and everyone has an easier time - including the teachers. Bleeding obvious when you think about it, but that is something schools all too rarely do.

Text of the story

Bubbling Well Road, by Rudyard Kipling

Look out on a large scale map the place where the Chenab river falls into the Indus fifteen miles or so above the hamlet of Chachuran. Five miles west of Chachuran lies Bubbling Well Road, and the house of the gosain or priest of Arti-goth. It was the priest who showed me the road, but it is no thanks to him that I am able to tell this story.

Five miles west of Chachuran is a patch of the plumed jungle-grass, that turns over in silver when the wind blows, from ten to twenty feet high and from three to four miles square. In the heart of the patch hides the gosain of Bubbling Well Road. The villagers stone him when he peers into the daylight, although he is a priest, and he runs back again as a strayed wolf turns into tall crops. He is a one-eyed man and carries, burnt between his brows, the impress of two copper coins. Some say that he was tortured by a native prince in the old days; for he is so old that he must have been capable of mischief in the days of Runjit Singh. His most pressing need at present is a halter, and the care of the British Government.

These things happened when the jungle-grass was tall; and the villagers of Chachuran told me that a sounder of pig had gone into the Arti-goth patch. To enter jungle-grass is always an unwise proceeding, but I went, partly because I knew nothing of pig-hunting, and partly because the villagers said that the big boar of the sounder owned foot long tushes. Therefore I wished to shoot him, in order to produce the tushes in after years, and say that I had ridden him down in fair chase. I took a gun and went into the hot, close patch, believing that it would be an easy thing to unearth one pig in ten square miles of jungle. Mr. Wardle, the terrier, went with me because he believed that I was incapable of existing for an hour without his advice and countenance. He managed to slip in and out between the grass clumps, but I had to force my way, and in twenty minutes was as completely lost as though I had been in the heart of Central Africa. I did not notice this at first till I had grown wearied of stumbling and pushing through the grass, and Mr. Wardle was beginning to sit down very often and hang out his tongue very far. There was nothing but grass everywhere, and it was impossible to see two yards in any direction. The grass-stems held the heat exactly as boiler-tubes do.

In half-an-hour, when I was devoutly wishing that I had left the big boar alone, I came to a narrow path which seemed to be a compromise between a native foot-path and a pig-run. It was barely six inches wide, but I could sidle along it in comfort. The grass was extremely thick here, and where the path was ill defined it was necessary to crush into the tussocks either with both hands before the face, or to back into it, leaving both hands free to manage the rifle. None the less it was a path, and valuable because it might lead to a place.

At the end of nearly fifty yards of fair way, just when I was preparing to back into an unusually stiff tussock, I missed Mr. Wardle, who for his girth is an unusually frivolous dog and never keeps to heel. I called him three times and said aloud, 'Where has the little beast gone to?' Then I stepped backwards several paces, for almost under my feet a deep voice repeated, 'Where has the little beast gone?' To appreciate an unseen voice thoroughly you should hear it when you are lost in stifling jungle-grass. I called Mr. Wardle again and the underground echo assisted me. At that I ceased calling and listened very attentively, because I thought I heard a man laughing in a peculiarly offensive manner. The heat made me sweat, but the laughter made me shake. There is no earthly need for laughter in high grass. It is indecent, as well as impolite. The chuckling stopped, and I took courage and continued to call till I thought that I had located the echo somewhere behind and below the tussock into which I was preparing to back just before I lost Mr. Wardle. I drove my rifle up to the triggers, between the grass-stems in a downward and forward direction. Then I waggled it to and fro, but it did not seem to touch ground on the far side of the tussock as it should have done. Every time that I grunted with the exertion of driving a heavy rifle through thick grass, the grunt was faithfully repeated from below, and when I stopped to wipe my face the sound of low laughter was distinct beyond doubting.

I went into the tussock, face first, an inch at a time, my mouth open and my eyes fine, full, and prominent. When I had overcome the resistance of the grass I found that I was looking straight across a black gap in the ground - that I was actually lying on my chest leaning over the mouth of a well so deep I could scarcely see the water in it.

There were things in the water, - black things, - and the water was as black as pitch with blue scum atop. The laughing sound came from the noise of a little spring, spouting half-way down one side of the well. Sometimes as the black things circled round, the trickle from the spring fell upon their tightly-stretched skins, and then the laughter changed into a sputter of mirth. One thing turned over on its back, as I watched, and drifted round and round the circle of the mossy brickwork with a hand and half an arm held clear of the water in a stiff and horrible flourish, as though it were a very wearied guide paid to exhibit the beauties of the place.

I did not spend more than half-an-hour in creeping round that well and finding the path on the other side. The remainder of the journey I accomplished by feeling every foot of ground in front of me, and crawling like a snail through every tussock. I carried Mr. Wardle in my arms and he licked my nose. He was not frightened in the least, nor was I, but we wished to reach open ground in order to enjoy the view. My knees were loose, and the apple in my throat refused to slide up and down. The path on the far side of the well was a very good one, though boxed in on all sides by grass, and it led me in time to a priest's hut in the centre of a little clearing. When that priest saw my very white face coming through the grass he howled with terror and embraced my boots; but when I reached the bedstead set outside his door I sat down quickly and Mr. Wardle mounted guard over me. I was not in a condition to take care of myself.

When I awoke I told the priest to lead me into the open, out of the Arti-goth patch, and to walk slowly in front of me. Mr. Wardle hates natives, and the priest was more afraid of Mr. Wardle than of me, though we were both angry. He walked very slowly down a narrow little path from his hut. That path crossed three paths, such as the one I had come by in the first instance, and every one of the three headed towards the Bubbling Well. Once when we stopped to draw breath, I heard the Well laughing to itself alone in the thick grass, and only my need for his services prevented my firing both barrels into the priest's back.

When we came to the open the priest crashed back into cover, and I went to the village of Arti-goth for a drink. It was pleasant to be able to see the horizon all round, as well as the ground underfoot.

The villagers told me that the patch of grass was full of devils and ghosts, all in the service of the priest, and that men and women and children had entered it and had never returned. They said the priest used their livers for purposes of witchcraft. When I asked why they had not told me of this at the outset, they said that they were afraid they would lose their reward for bringing news of the pig.

Before I left I did my best to set the patch alight, but the grass was too green. Some fine summer day, however, if the wind is favourable, a file of old newspapers and a box of matches will make clear the mystery of Bubbling Well Road.

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