I address these lines--written in India--to my relatives in England.
My object is to explain the motive which has induced me to refuse theright hand of friendship to my cousin, John Herncastle. The reservewhich I have hitherto maintained in this matter has been misinterpretedby members of my family whose good opinion I cannot consent to forfeit.I request them to suspend their decision until they have read mynarrative. And I declare, on my word of honour, that what I am now aboutto write is, strictly and literally, the truth.
The private difference between my cousin and me took its rise in agreat public event in which we were both concerned--the storming ofSeringapatam, under General Baird, on the 4th of May, 1799.
In order that the circumstances may be clearly understood, I mustrevert for a moment to the period before the assault, and to the storiescurrent in our camp of the treasure in jewels and gold stored up in thePalace of Seringapatam.
One of the wildest of these stories related to a Yellow Diamond--afamous gem in the native annals of India.
The earliest known traditions describe the stone as having been set inthe forehead of the four-handed Indian god who typifies the Moon. Partlyfrom its peculiar colour, partly from a superstition which representedit as feeling the influence of the deity whom it adorned, and growingand lessening in lustre with the waxing and waning of the moon, itfirst gained the name by which it continues to be known in India tothis day--the name of THE MOONSTONE. A similar superstition was onceprevalent, as I have heard, in ancient Greece and Rome; not applying,however (as in India), to a diamond devoted to the service of a god, butto a semi-transparent stone of the inferior order of gems, supposed tobe affected by the lunar influences--the moon, in this latter case also,giving the name by which the stone is still known to collectors in ourown time.
The adventures of the Yellow Diamond begin with the eleventh century ofthe Christian era.
At that date, the Mohammedan conqueror, Mahmoud of Ghizni, crossedIndia; seized on the holy city of Somnauth; and stripped of itstreasures the famous temple, which had stood for centuries--the shrineof Hindoo pilgrimage, and the wonder of the Eastern world.
Of all the deities worshipped in the temple, the moon-god alone escapedthe rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans. Preserved by three Brahmins,the inviolate deity, bearing the Yellow Diamond in its forehead, wasremoved by night, and was transported to the second of the sacred citiesof India--the city of Benares.
Here, in a new shrine--in a hall inlaid with precious stones, undera roof supported by pillars of gold--the moon-god was set up andworshipped. Here, on the night when the shrine was completed, Vishnu thePreserver appeared to the three Brahmins in a dream.
The deity breathed the breath of his divinity on the Diamond in theforehead of the god. And the Brahmins knelt and hid their faces in theirrobes. The deity commanded that the Moonstone should be watched, fromthat time forth, by three priests in turn, night and day, to the endof the generations of men. And the Brahmins heard, and bowed before hiswill. The deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortalwho laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and namewho received it after him. And the Brahmins caused the prophecy to bewritten over the gates of the shrine in letters of gold.
One age followed another--and still, generation after generation, thesuccessors of the three Brahmins watched their priceless Moonstone,night and day. One age followed another until the first years of theeighteenth Christian century saw the reign of Aurungzebe, Emperor of theMoguls. At his command havoc and rapine were let loose once more amongthe temples of the worship of Brahmah. The shrine of the four-handedgod was polluted by the slaughter of sacred animals; the images ofthe deities were broken in pieces; and the Moonstone was seized by anofficer of rank in the army of Aurungzebe.
Powerless to recover their lost treasure by open force, the threeguardian priests followed and watched it in disguise. The generationssucceeded each other; the warrior who had committed the sacrilegeperished miserably; the Moonstone passed (carrying its curse with it)from one lawless Mohammedan hand to another; and still, through allchances and changes, the successors of the three guardian priests kepttheir watch, waiting the day when the will of Vishnu the Preservershould restore to them their sacred gem. Time rolled on from the firstto the last years of the eighteenth Christian century. The Diamond fellinto the possession of Tippoo, Sultan of Seringapatam, who caused it tobe placed as an ornament in the handle of a dagger, and who commandedit to be kept among the choicest treasures of his armoury. Even then--inthe palace of the Sultan himself--the three guardian priests still kepttheir watch in secret. There were three officers of Tippoo's household,strangers to the rest, who had won their master's confidence byconforming, or appearing to conform, to the Mussulman faith; and tothose three men report pointed as the three priests in disguise.