Mr Oliver, an Anglo-Indian teacher, was returning to his school late one night, on the outskirts of the hill station of Shimla. From before Kipling’s time, the school had been run on English public school lines and the boys, most of them from wealthy Indian families, wore blazers, caps, and ties. Life magazine, in a feature on India, had once called this school the “Eton of the East”. Mr Oliver had been teaching in the school for several years.
The Shimla bazaar, with its cinemas and restaurants, was about three miles from the school; and Mr Oliver, a bachelor, usually strolled into the town in the evening, returning after dark, when he would take a shortcut through the pine forest. When there was a strong wind, the pine trees made sad, eerie sounds that kept most people to the main road.
But Mr Oliver was not a nervous or imaginative man. He carried a torch and its gleam – the batteries were running down – moved fitfully down the narrow forest path. When its flickering light fell on the figure of a boy who was sitting alone on a rock, Mr Oliver stopped. Boys were not supposed to be out after dark.
“What are you doing out here, boy?” asked Mr Oliver sharply, moving closer so that he could recognise the miscreant. But even as he approached the boy, Mr Oliver sensed that something was wrong. The boy appeared to be crying. His head hung down, he held his face in his hands, and his body shook convulsively. It was a strange, soundless weeping, and Mr Oliver felt distinctly uneasy.
“Well, what’s the matter?” he asked, his anger giving way to concern. “What are you crying for?” The boy would not answer or look up. His body continued to be racked with silent sobbing. “Come on, boy, you shouldn’t be out here at this hour. Tell me the trouble. Look up!” The boy looked up. He took his hands from his face and looked up at his teacher. The light from Mr Oliver’s torch fell on the boy’s face – if you could call it a face.
It had no eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. It was just a round smooth head – with a school cap on top of it! And that’s where the story should end. But for Mr Oliver it did not end there.
The torch fell from his trembling hand. He turned and scrambled down the path, running blindly through the trees and calling for help. He was still running towards the school buildings when he saw a lantern swinging in the middle of the path. Mr Oliver stumbled up to the watchman, gasping for breath. “What is it, sahib?” asked the watchman. “Has there been an accident? Why are you running?”
“I saw something – something horrible – a boy weeping in the forest – and he had no face!”
“No face, sahib?”
“No eyes, nose, mouth – nothing.”
“Do you mean it was like this, sahib?” asked the watchman and raised the lamp to his own face. The watchman had no eyes, no ears, no features at all – not even an eyebrow! And that’s when the wind blew the lamp out.
Excerpted with permission from The Gold Collection: The Master’s Greatest Stories, Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company.