Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ramesh and the Landlord’s Secret (Part ll)

Part II: The Secret Tunnel

The school Principal announces in his history class that the school may close down since the landlord won’t extend the lease. A very unflattering poem about the Principal is left in a history exercise book by mistake, and sent along to the Principal’s office inside the book. Ramesh plans a daring rescue, but while he’s in the Principal’s study the Principal returns. Ramesh simply disappears! He doesn’t return to class for the whole day. His friend gets very worried, but then receives a telephone call at home from Ramesh, asking him to come to a certain abandoned house. When his friend asks why, the call is cut off!

The abandoned house belonged to the same landlord who owned our school building – the one who’d refuse to renew the school’s lease. These two buildings and the house in which the landlord now lived had all been built many years ago by the present landlord’s late father. The last landlord had died only a few months back leaving everything to his son. A couple of year’s ago, the roof of this house had collapsed during a big storm, and the house had remained unoccupied ever since.

An hour after my telephone conversation with Ramesh, I reached the broken-down gateway leading to the roofless house. Seeing no sign of Ramesh, I started up the driveway that led to the house. Just as I was a few feet away from the building, one of the ground-floor windows suddenly swung open and Ramesh’s head popped out.

“Hi, yaar!” he cried cheerfully. “What’s the matter with you? Got asthma?”

A sharp grasp had escaped my lips. But I felt perfectly justified in gasping. A weaker boy would have screamed and fainted.

“What do you mean,” I declared hotly, “By behaving like a jack-in-the-box? For a moment, I thought you were the local ghost!”

“I’m sorry, I frightened you,” said Ramesh, looking far from sorry. “I was just checking to see whether things were just as I had left them an hour ago.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of anger.

“Come and see,” invited Ramesh, looking as pleased as a baby with his first rattle.

I climbed through the open window and followed Ramesh as he led me through the dark interior of the house. We reached a staircase but instead of going up Ramesh led e down. The steps ended in front of a stout door which, I presumed, led to the cellars. Ramesh tugged at the door. It opened, squeaking and grating like something in a radio horror programme.

Ramesh put his hand in his pocket and took out a small torch. He switched it on. “Did you bring your torch, like I asked you to?” he asked me.

“Er…no,” I admitted. “I forgot.”

Ramesh made a noise like a buffalo taking its foot out of a swamp. I guessed he meant it to be an expression of disgust.

The light from Ramesh’s torch revealed that we were in a small room cluttered with trunks, crates and large bundles of papers. There was an open doorway in the far wall. Ramesh waved his hand at the contents of the room. “I checked up some of these crates,” he said. “All this is the result of the general cleaning up that took place in the landlord’s residence after his father died and left everything to him. There’s more in the next room.” He started towards the second doorway and I followed.

Just as we reached the doorway, Ramesh’s torch went out. “Oh, heck!” exclaimed Ramesh. “This is the second time it’s happened in fifteen minutes! Some spring must be loose inside!” He started shaking the torch violently.

I took a few steps forward.

“Don’t --,” began Ramesh but that was all I heard. The next instant, I stepped into thin air!

The ground seemed to vanish beneath my very feet! All of a sudden, I found myself falling. My mouth opened to scream but even before I could utter a sound my feet landed on something hard sending a jolt through my body and I crashed forward onto my face!

The fall, though it was all over in a split-second, left me in a world that jumped and swam before my eyes. My chest felt as though somebody had extracted my heart and replaced it with some kind of lively firework. For a few seconds, I lay there, flat on my face, stunned more by the shock than the impact of the fall, trying to get my breath back. Then: “Are-are you all right?” a hesitant voice asked from above.

I slowly turned over and stared up at Ramesh’s head which I saw outlined against a square opening a little above where I lay. “No,” I replied with conviction. “I am not!”

“I-I’m sorry, yaar!” pleaded Ramesh. “For a moment I forgot that you didn’t know!”

“Know what?” I asked testily, for I was very angry. “Isn’t it time you told me what’s going on?”

“Yes,” agreed Ramesh. He jumped down through the opening and helped me to my feet. Once standing, I saw that the opening was only a foot or so above my head. Ramesh pointed to the opening with his thumb. “You fell through the mouth of a trapdoor.”

“A trapdoor?”

“Yes. I-I left it open when I went to fetch you from upstairs. The lid’s rather heavy.”

“Hm! But how did you find it?”

“Let’s start walking, yaar! I’ll tell you as we go along!”

We began walking down the passage, Ramesh’s torch lighting the way. “A little later,” began Ramesh, “this passage will branch into two more passages one leading to the left and the other to the right, each at right angles to this one. In fact, you can even say that this passage opens out into another passage running perpendicular to it. The passage on the left leads to the cupboard I was hiding in!”

My mouth fell open. “The cupboard you were hiding in!”

“Yes. In the Principal’s study.”

“In the Principal’s study!”

Ramesh frowned irritably. “Don’t repeat everything like an echo in the Himalayan mountains!” he exclaimed, returning to his old self. “It’s like this: I found the pile of exercise books which Guptaji had taken from our class, and I’d just picked up yours when I heard you talking loudly to our Princi himself! I quickly took out the sheet on which you’d written your poem and nipped into the cupboard!”

I am always ready to give credit where credit is due. “That was quick thinking! I’d have probably fainted!”

“No doubt,” conceded Ramesh. “But you nearly gave the game away when I peered out of the cupboard and you goggled at me like a startled snail! I thought that Guptaji was about to open the cupboard door so I stepped back, tripped over something and fell against the back of the cupboard. I heard a small click and a portion of the wall slid open behind me!”

I stopped in my tracks. “Wow!”

“I felt like wowing myself then,” continued Ramesh. “Naturally, I just had to find out where the opening led to! I climbed down some steps which I found leading from the opening and then saw that I was in a passage. A little later, I came to another passage branching off to the right which I followed. This is that passage!”

I frowned thoughtfully. “So now you know of two entrances to this underground passageway.”

“That’s right!” agreed Ramesh. “One in the Princi’s study and the other in the cellar of the abandoned house.”

“That means that there must be, at least, a third opening! I said, making a brilliant deduction.

Ramesh seemed to blossom like new-born lotus. “Ah!” he exclaimed delightedly. “Now you’ve put your finger on the spot, hit the nail on the head, gone to the heart of the matter! It also struck me that there should be at least a third opening and I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about it. You know, of course, that the school building, the abandoned house and the landlord’s present residence were all built together by his late father years ago?”

I nodded. “And so what?”

“Well, the father probably decided to join all the three buildings by a secret passageway!”

I began to see light. “Then the third entrance must be in the landlord’s house!”

“Exactly!” Ramesh suddenly motioned me to a halt. I saw that we had reached the T-junction of our passage and one running perpendicular to it. Ramesh jerked his thumb to the left. “That’s the way to the Princi’s study!” he announced.

I pointed to the right. “And that leads to the landlord’s house?”

Ramesh shone his torch into the passage on the right. “That’s what we’re going to find out!”

I stared at my unpredictable friend. “What – what do you mean?”

“We’ve only guessed where that passage leads to. We don’t know for sure,” Ramesh pointed out. Besides, there may be other branches leading elsewhere! We were lucky to stumble on to this passage. It’ll be a crime to leave it unexplored!”

I began to protest. “But-but --” But Ramesh, I saw, had already started to walk down the right-hand passage. On his face was a keen, tense hunter’s look.

I quickly debated with myself. Could I let Ramesh go on alone? Of course I couldn’t! Ramesh had, after all, risked his life and limb to make sure that my poem did not fall into Mr. Gupta’s hands. It was my duty to stand at his side now, in anything he did. Besides, I was rather curious. A secret passage is, after all, a secret passage. I followed Ramesh.

We walked in silence for quite some time. Then, suddenly, Ramesh’s torch shone on a heap of rubble. Ramesh came to an abrupt halt and I was forced to do likewise.

At first, I thought that the passage had fallen in. But, on closer inspection, I discovered that the pile consisted of broken bricks, though painted the color of rock, whereas the passage actually was solid rock.

Ramesh inspected the pile. “Somebody had walled up the passage here!” he announced, and he continued unnecessarily: “The wall has now collapsed.” He began to carefully pick his way over the rubble. Sighing to myself, I prepared to climb over behind him.

Once safely over the pile of rubble, we continued to walk in silence with Ramesh leading the way. Then, all of a sudden, Ramesh switched off his torch and braked to a halt, making me collide with him.

“What the --,” I began.

“Shh!” whispered Ramesh, grabbing my arm. “Look!”

I looked. In the distance I could see a gleam of light!

Still holding my arm and without switching on his torch again, Ramesh started walking forward. Terrified at the thought of being left alone in the dark, I let Ramesh drag me along with him.

As we approached the gleam of light, it grew larger and larger and soon assumed a square shape. It became clear that we were seeing the light through the mouth of the passage.

Ramesh halted again. “The light’s too strong to be coming from a torch,” he whispered to me. “It must be coming from an electric light bulb.”

For some time, I had been feverishly considering the possibility that the source of light might be a ghost.

“Listen, Ramesh,” I whispered back. “Let’s not go any further. We may be trespassing.”

Ramesh seemed genuinely shocked. “After coming all this way, we can’t go back without seeing what’s going on!” he exclaimed in a tense whisper, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “Don’t be funny, yaar!” And so saying, he set off again. The light seemed to attract him like steel to a magnet.

Muttering dark things under my breath, I followed my friend.

As we approached the mouth of the passage, we began to hear some curious sounds. Together with a murmur of voices, we heard a strange gurgling. There were other sounds, too – fizzing, popping and clinking. And yes, there were fumes. The fumes, which had begun to tickle our noses, by now were rather pungent and sweet-smelling -- a bit like the fumes given off by the acids which we heated in the chemistry laboratory at school.

When we were only a few feet away from the mouth of the passage, Ramesh halted and signalled me to do the same. Then, he pressed himself against one wall and began to edge quietly towards the mouth. I pressed myself against the other wall and also begn to edge ahead.

We reached the mouth of the passage together and peered out.

A startling sight met our eyes.

The passage opened out into a huge wall hewn out of the rock. On the far wall of the hall was another opening through which the passage continued. Immediately in front of us was a single row of drums stretching away on either side of us and arranged a few feet away from the wall. Beyond the drums were stacked, against both the right and left wall, crates and crates of bottles filled with a yellow-coloured liquid.

In the middle of the hall were five big cauldrons, beneath each of which was a small pit filled with glowing coals. On the ground beside each cauldron were a large number of big glass jars containing a clear, colourless liquid. Around each cauldron stood three or four men. Some of the men were holding jars in their hands and pouring out the colourless liquid into the cauldrons. The others were stirring the mixture in the cauldrons with big wooden spoons. Near the opening in the far wall, there was what looked like a small, make-shift laboratory. The whole hall was brilliantly lit by four or five powerful bulbs suspended from the ceiling.

As we looked, three men entered the hall from the other opening. The first of these, a short, thick-set, muscular individual wearing a kurta and trousers, seemed to carry an air of authority with him. As he approached the cauldrons, the men around them stepped back respectfully. The man in the kurta peered at the contents of all the cauldrons and then nodded his head in a satisfied manner. As I recognized him, my eyes widened. The man in the kurta was none other than the school’s landlord!

Next time: The boys have stumbled upon a dangerous secret. What is the landlord upto?