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 the
right hand of friendship to my cousin, John Herncastle. The reserve
which I have hitherto maintained in this matter has been misinterpreted
by members of my family whose good opinion I cannot consent to forfeit.
I request them to suspend their decision until they have read my
narrative. And I declare, on my word of honour, that what I am now about
to write is, strictly and literally, the truth.
The private difference between my cousin and me took its rise in a great
public event in which we were both concerned - the storming of
Seringapatam, under General Baird, on the 4th of May 1799.
In order that the circumstances may be clearly understood, I must revert
for a moment to the period before the assault, and to the stories
current in our camp of the treasure in Jewels and gold stored up in the
Palace of Seringapatam.
One of the wildest of these stories related to a Yellow Diamond - a famous
gem in the native annals of India.
The earliest known traditions describe the stone as having been set in
the forehead of the four-handed Indian god who typifies the Moon. Partly
from its peculiar colour, partly from a superstition which represented
it as feeling the influence of the deity whom it adorned, and growing
and lessening in lustre with the waxing and waning of the moon, it first
gained the name by which it continues to be known in India to this
day - the name of THE MOONSTONE. A similar superstition was once
prevalent, 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, but
to a semi-transparent stone of the inferior order of gems, supposed to
be 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 our
The adventures of the Yellow Diamond begin with the eleventh century of
the Christian era.
At that date, the Mohammedan conqueror, Mahmoud of Ghizni crossed India;
seized on the holy city of Somnauth; and stripped of its treasures the
famous temple, which had stood for centuries - the shrine of Hindoo
pilgrimage, and the wonder of the Eastern world.
Of all the deities worshipped in the temple, the moongod alone escaped
the rapacity of the conquering Mohammedans. Preserved by three Brahmins,
the inviolate deity, bearing the Yellow Diamond in its forehead, was
removed by night, and was transported to the second of the sacred cities
of India - the city of Benares.
Here, in a new shrine - in a hall inlaid with precious stones, under a
roof supported by pillars of gold-the moon-god was set up and
worshipped. Here, on the night when the shrine was completed, Vishnu the
Preserver appeared to the three Brahmins in a dream.
The deity breathed the breach of his divinity On the Diamond in the
forehead of tile god. And the Brahmins knelt and hid their faces ill
their robes. The deity cornmended that the Moonstone should be watched,
from that time forth, by three priests in turn, night and day, to the
end of the generations of men. And the Brahmins heard, and bowed before
his will. The deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous
mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and
name who received it after him. And the Brahmins caused the prophecy to
be written over the gates of the shrine in letters of gold.
One age followed another - and still, generation after generation, the
successors of the three Brahmins watched their priceless Moonstone,
night and day. One age followed another until the first years of the
eighteenth Christian century saw the reign of Aurungzebe, Emperor of the
Moguls. At his command havoc and rapine were let loose once more among
the temples of the worship of Brahmah. The shrine of the four-handed god
was polluted by the slaughter of sacred animals; the images of the
deities were broken in pieces; and the Moonstone was seized by an
officer of rank in the army of Aurungzebe.
Powerless to recover their lost treasure by open force, the three
guardian priests followed and watched it in disguise. The generations
succeeded each other; the warrior who had committed the sacrilege
perished miserably; the Moonstone passed (carrying its curse with it)
from one lawless Mohammedan hand to another; and still, through all
chances and changes, the successors of the three guardian priests kept
their watch, waiting the day when the will of Vishnu the Preserver
should restore to them their sacred gem. Time rolled on from the first
to the last years of the eighteenth Christian century. The Diamond fell
into the possession of Tippoo, Sultan of Seringapatam, who caused it to
be placed as an ornament in the handle of a dagger, and who commanded it
to be kept among the choicest treasures of his armoury. Even then - in the
palace of the Sultan himself - the three guardian priests still kept their
watch in secret. There were three officers of Tippoo's household,
strangers to the rest, who had won their master's confidence by
conforming, or appearing to conform, to the Mussulman faith; and to
those three men report pointed as the three priests in disguise.
So, as told in our camp, ran the fanciful story of the Moonstone. It
made no serious impression on any of us except my cousin - whose love of
the marvellous induced him to believe it. On the night before the
assault on Seringapatam, he was absurdly angry with me, and with others,
for treating the whole thing as a fable. A foolish wrangle followed; and
Herncastle's unlucky temper got the better of him. He declared, in his
boastful way, that we should see the Diamond on his finger, if the
English army took Seringapatam. The sally was saluted by a roar of
laughter, and there, as we all thought that night, the thing ended.
Let me now take you on to the day of the assault.
My cousin and I were separated at the outset. I never saw him when we
forded the river; when we planted the English flag in the first breach;
when we crossed the ditch beyond; and, fighting every inch of our way,
entered the town. It was only at dusk, when the place was ours, and
after General Baird himself had found the dead body of Tippoo under a
heap of the slain, that Herncastle and I met.
We were each attached to a party sent out by the general's orders to
prevent the plunder and confusion which followed our conquest. The
camp-followers committed deplorable excesses; and, worse still, the
soldiers found their way, by an unguarded door, into the treasury of the
Palace, and loaded themselves with gold and jewels. It was in the court
outside the treasury that my cousin and I met, to enforce the laws of
discipline on our own soldiers. Herncastle's fiery temper had been, as I
could plainly see, exasperated to a kind of frenzy by the terrible
slaughter through which we had passed. He was very unfit, in my
opinion, to perform the duty that had been entrusted to him.
There was riot and confusion enough in the treasury, but no violence
that I saw. The men (if I may use such an expression) disgraced
themselves good-humouredly. All sorts of rough jests and catchwords were
bandied about among them; and the story of the Diamond turned up again
unexpectedly, in the form of a mischievous joke. "Who's got the
Moonstone?" was the rallying cry which perpetually caused the
plundering, as soon as it was stopped in one place, to break out in
another. While I was still vainly trying to establish order, I heard a
frightful yelling on the other side of the courtyard, and at once ran
towards the cries, in dread of finding some new outbreak of the pillage
in that direction.
I got to an open door, and saw the bodies of two Indians (by their
dress, as I guessed, officers of the palace) lying across the entrance,
A cry inside hurried me into a room, which appeared to serve as an
armoury. A third Indian, mortally wounded, was sinking at the feet of a
man whose back was towards me. The man turned at the instant when I came
in, and I saw John Herncastle, with a torch in one hand, and a dagger
dripping with blood in the other. A stone, set like a pommel, in the end
of the dagger's handle, flashed in the torchlight, as he turned on me,
like a gleam of fire. The dying Indian sank to his knees, pointed to the
dagger in Herncastle's hand, and said, in his native language: "The
Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!" He spoke
those words, and fell dead on the floor.
Before I could stir in the matter, the men who had followed me across
the courtyard crowded in. My cousin rushed to meet them, like a madman.
"Clear the room !" he shouted to me, "and set a guard on the door!"
The men fell back as he threw himself on them with his torch and his
dagger. I put two sentinels of my own company, on whom I could rely, to
keep the door. Through the remainder of the night, I saw no more of my
Early in the morning, the plunder still going on, General Baird
announced publicly by beat of drum, that any thief detected in the act,
be he whom he might, should be hung. The provost-marshal was in
attendance, to prove that the General was in earnest; and in the throng
that followed the proclamation, Herncastle and I met again.
He held out his hand, as usual, and said, "Good morning."
I waited before I gave him my hand in return.
"Tell me first," I said, "how the Indian in the armoury met his death,
and what those last words meant, when he pointed to the dagger in your
"The Indian met his death, as I suppose, by a mortal wound," said
Herncastle. "What his last words meant I know no more than you do."
I looked at him narrowly. His frenzy of the previous day had all calmed
down. I determined to give him another chance.
"Is that all you have to tell me?" I asked.
He answered, "That is all." I turned my back on him; and we have not
I beg it to be understood that what I write here about my cousin (unless
some necessity should arise for making it public) is for the information
of the family only. Herncastle has said nothing that can justify me in
speaking to our commanding officer. He has been taunted more than once
about the Diamond, by those who recollect his angry outbreak before the
assault; but, as may easily be imagined, his own remembrance of the
circumstances under which I surprised him in the armoury has been enough
to keep him silent. It is reported that he means to exchange into
another regiment, avowedly for the purpose of separating himself from
Whether this be true or not, I cannot prevail upon myself to become his
accuser - and I think with good reason. If I made the matter public, I
have no evidence but moral evidence to bring forward. I have not only no
proof that he killed the two men at the door; I cannot even declare that
he killed the third man inside - for I cannot say that my own eyes saw the
deed committed. It is true that I heard the dying Indian's words; but if
those words were pronounced to be the ravings of delirium, how could I
contradict the assertion from my own knowledge? Let our relatives, on
either side, form their own opinion on what I have written, and decide
for themselves whether the aversion I now feel towards this man is well
Although I attach no sort of credit to the fantastic Indian legend of
the gem, I must acknowledge, before I conclude, that I am influenced by
a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or
my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality with
it. I am not only persuaded of Herncastle's guilt; I am even fanciful
enough to believe that he will live to regret it, if he keeps the
Diamond; and that others will live to regret taking it from him, if he
gives the Diamond away.
Wilkie Collins The Moonstone [first publ. 1868].
Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824, the eldest son of the landscape
painter, William Collins. He was named after his godfather, the painter David
Wilkie (1785-1841), a friend of his father. Collins' first book, a memoir of his
father was published in 1848, followed by a historical novel Antonina: or the
Fall of Rome (1850). He became acquainted with Charles Dickens, contributing
numerous articles and short stories to his mentor's periodicals: Household
Words and All the Year Round. By 1851 the two men became firm friends:
they travelled together through Europe, acted in plays, and collaborated in
Collins found success as an expert in the writing of crime, mystery, and
suspense. He wrote the first full length detective novels in English literature
and created a model for the genre which has endured for over a century.
At another level this plot device also provides a seminal connection between
Wilkie Collins and his godfather namesake, David Wilkie.
In 1839, David Wilkie painted a large work entitled 'Sir David Baird Discovering
The Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib' (oil on canvas 3.49 x 2.68 metres; now held by
the National images of Scotland, Edinburgh).
The painting attracted wide public attention and its continuing popularity in
Victorian Britain could not have been unknown to his godson, Wilkie Collins. It
included not only the significance of Tipu's death and a fascination with his
life and times, but also a clear emphasis upon Scottish iconography. At the
centre of the painting Sir David Baird stands above Tipu, a sword in one hand
and his other arm raised in victory; to the right, a Scottish soldier leans
forward, holding a lighted flare to illuminate Tipu's body. The interpretation of
the painting is unmistakeable. Baird was imprisoned by Tipu in 1780, but survived
to lead the attack on Seringapatam and see Tipu dead at his feet.
Wilkie was a Scotsman and the canvas he was commissioned to paint was designed to
glorify Baird the hero who had been outranked by Colonel Arthur Wellesley (the
future Duke of Wellington) as Commandant at Seringapatam. The painting was
subsequently engraved by John Burnet and published in 1843. A vignette engraving
(after Burnet's mezzotint) is included as a frontispiece to Volume 2 of The
History of India and of the British Empire in the East. London, Virtue & Co.,
It would have been impossible for Wilkie Collins to be unaware of his godfather's
success with his 'Seringapatam' painting, and in the fullness of time he
transformed this knowledge into the origins of his 'Moonstone' story.